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Underground Reading: Plunder of the Sun by David Dodge

Review Round-Up: Three More Novels of Note

Another round-up: Chris Marnewick's The Soldier Who Said No, Gail Carriger's Etiquette and Espionage and Robert Jackson Bennett's American Elsewhere. Three more unequivocal "yes" reviews.

The Soldier Who Said NowIt is hard to believe that Chris Marnewick's The Soldier Who Said No (2010) is only 310 pages. So very, very much happens, but it never seems rushed. Pierre De Villiers is a South African expatriate, living in New Zealand. As the book opens, he's suspended from his job as a policeman for a fit of temper. At exactly the same time, someone makes an attempt is made on the life of the Prime Minister. The assassin uses a Bushman weapon, and, as the coincidences stack up, De Villiers becomes the prime suspect. 

Shockingly, Pierre has even worse things to worry about. His health is rapidly declining and the doctors confirm the worst: cancer. It is hard to find a man with more going wrong in his life.

Yet even this isn't even the low point for Pierre. That came years before, when he was a soldier assigned to do some of the military's more secretive mission. Upon refusing to complete one particularly unpleasant assignment, Pierre became "the solider who said no" - a man hunted down by his own countrymen. 

The Soldier Who Said No cycles between Pierre's past and his present as he works to solve a mystery that spans two continents and time periods. Pierre's a man falsely accused. In the present day, he's hunted by the (hilariously bumbling) New Zealand authorities. In the past, he's pursued by more predatory figures. In both times, he's debilitated - by cancer, starvation or inury. Yet even with all this happening, Mr. Marnewick writes at a surprisingly languorous pace. There's never sense of rush, everything unfolds smoothly and at a natural pace. Despite the action, this isn't a Bourne-style thriller. Pierre's life is certainly packed with drama, but Mr. Marnewick expresses it subtly, and often through the little things: examining street signs, discussions at meals, casual discussions with his radiotherapist...

Mr. Marnewick leaves the reader with the sense that the entire assassination plot was simply a device to explore a fascinating character, and not the other way around.

[I've decided that I could make a killing by turning South African crime novels into gritty epic fantasies. The Soldier Who Said No could easily be reworked to be the latest Scott Lynch or Daniel Polansky. Coming in 2014: The Assassin Who Politely Declined. A hooded man believes his life as a trained killer is behind him, but when someone tries to murder the king with a rare poison, he becomes the central suspect...]

Etiquette-and-espionageEtiquette and Espionage (2013) is the first in a new series from Gail Carriger. Set in the same world as Soulless, the "Finishing School" series follows Sophronia, a young woman sent off to Mademoiselle Geraldine's Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality. Sophronia quickly learns that "Finishing School" is a terrible pun. Certainly, she's learning the fine art of decorum, but the young ladies of Miss Geraldine's are also required to master deadlier lessons as well...

Etiquette is just straight-up wonderful. It is shamelessly goofy, hilariously whimsical and ultimately, the book is incredibly good fun. Sophronia is a terrific heroine; she's not 'born special', she succeeds because she's hard-working and courageous, with a good heart and a cool head. Harry Potter comparisons are inevitable, and, indeed, Etiquette shares that same sense of unbounded joy that the early Rowlings had, which is no bad thing.

If you've not read any of Ms. Carriger's work, Etiquette and Espionage is an excellent starting point. As well as being suitable for readers of any age, the author quietly sets up all the rules and tricks of her particular alternate history. In a lot of ways, Etiquette is simply a brilliant exercise in how to write fantasy: world-building without ever info-dumping or being intrusive, heroism without 'chosen one' silliness and entertainment without ever playing to the lowest common denominator.  

Also, Picklemen. AND THE GREAT CHUTNEY. If I were ever awesome enough to cosplay, I'd definitely be a Pickleman. 

American ElsewhereRobert Jackson Bennett's American Elsewhere (2013) is a big one in both form and theme. This short review won't do it justice. But here goes... In short: Mr. Bennett author I admire very, very much and American Elsewhere is his best book yet. Probably by a country mile. That's not to knock the others, but I think American Elsewhere is Mr. Bennett's most complete work to date - combining the tension of Mr. Shivers and the grandeur of The Troupe. To quote my grandma, "this book is a corker". 

Mona is living her life on the road. It isn't so much fun. When her father passes away, she's not... too upset - he's been absent for most of her life. But when his enormous stash of stuff reveals hints about her missing mother, her world is turned upside-down. 

Mona follows the trail to Wink, a tiny town in New Mexico that's, quite literally, off the map. Despite its remote location - or perhaps, because of it - Wink is idyllic. White picket fences, green lawns, smiling children, awe-inspiring natural beauty... the works. It is like the town never left the 1950s. Or, more accurately, it is like Wink never left the idea of the 1950s. 

As pretty as it is, Mona slowly figures out that she's in the wrong place at the wrong time. While she investigates her mother's background (she was a physicist!? She threw wild cocktail parties?!), other factions are making their moves as well. Big cosmic forces have chosen now to get with the colliding, and Mona's about to be squashed in the middle.

From start to finish, everything about this book is right, but just to flag up three things of particular note:

  • Uncaring is fundamentally scarier than evil. Lovecraft got this. At least Satan's paying attention to you, right? That's predicated on humanity being somehow important or valuable. But when the great elder beasties don't even notice you, that's petrifying. Mr. Bennett nails this - American Elsewhere comes bottled up with a sense of pure terror, one that stems from the sheer insignificance of humanity. It is terrifically horrible.
  • Chapter Thirty-Six. Pure genius. The awful, satirical, alienness of it. It isn't only about the Other, but about how weird 1950s Utopian America was as well. I love a good "something is weird in the suburbs" thriller, and this nails it.
  • Mona is awesome.

This book deserves much more insight than I'm giving it. Fortunately, you can find it in the more substantial reviews by Bookworm Blues and Jeff VanderMeer [Updated: And Justin Landon]. American Elsewhere is a modern horror masterpiece.