Seven books from February that all got tagged for later consideration. Or, barring actual consideration, at least some sort of hastily-assembled round-up.
Read on for Wolf Winter, Day Four, Easy Death, and Don't Even Think About It!
Plus: The Trouble with Bubbles, The Tunnel Under the World, and Steampunk Salmagundi.
Wolf Winter (2015) by Cecilia Ekbäck - Anne handed this one to me, saying, "this is one of those books that you call fantasy but no one else does. You'll love it.". And, she was right. (It also says something about me. Of all the windmills to tilt at, this may be the silliest.)
Wolf Winter is a historical murder mystery set in 18th century Sweden. It is shockingly intense: there's a palpable sense of abandonment that heightens the stakes.. The predators (human and otherwise) feel overwhelmingly, pervasively, inescapably evil. This is also the coldest book I've ever read - even more than, say Dan Simmons' Terror or other novels of Arctic misery. In Wolf Winter, the reader feels every icy droplet of shivering despair - the freezing temperature is exacerbated by the loneliness and isolation. It is less about life feeling cheap than death feeling inevitable, with every new dawn a triumph of survival.
The fantastic elements, a bit like Jenni Fagan's Panopticon, are - uh, well, are they even there? I'd argue (of course) that they are. Whether or not the reader, from our (cozy, cynical) modern position sees the supernatural - the characters certainly do. Witchcraft, visions, shades, these all exist for Maija and her daughter. Whether or not they exist 'objectively' (that is, within the confines of a work of fiction) is beside the point. It helps that Wolf Winter is, in no small way, a discussion about the very role of belief: be that the church, the government or witchcraft - all these systems built on faith come under scrutiny, if not outright attack. It isn't just that humanity (as little bags of quivering meat) has a fragile existence, but our structures do as well. A brilliantly dark, and oddly triumphant, book, and highly recommended.
Easy Death (2014) by Daniel Boyd - a new Hard Case Crime, and a very good one. The story begins with the 'facts' of a 1951 robbery, and then proceeds to explain the real story behind what happened. Unsurprisingly, nothing is quite as it is set up to be. The robbery of an armed car, a psychotic forest ranger, the heroics of a patrolman and the schemes of a small town gangster all converge on one blustery, wintery night. Easy Death also culminates in one of the odder armed standoffs I've ever read. Despite all the twists and twists and twists and turns, Easy Death still maintains a strong grip on its characters - no matter how implausible each reveal, the reader stays hooked.
Day Four (2015) by Sarah Lotz - I genuinely can't wait to talk about this. The 'sequel' to (or 'prequel' or 'stand-alone' or 'partner of') The Three, Day Four has a very different feel. More claustrophobic, more intimate, more conventionally 'trapped in a bad place with bad things' sort of horrific. The Three was a deeply unsettling vision of an entire world: a conspiracy theory that made me a bit twitchy every time I turned on the news.
Day Four is different, but no less successful - it proves, if anything, that the classic modes of horror are alive and well when in the right hands. This has things that go bump in the night, terrifying creatures both human and - perhaps - not, and, of course, deeply disconcerting twists.
The book is also filthily, disgustingly tangible. The horror here comes from being able to feel and smell what happens; a squirmy, shuddering vileness that permeates every aspect of the book's plot. The subtle reprogramming of The Three is almost kind by comparison: Day Four gives nightmares of a much more visceral sort. That is to say: this book is terrific. Also, horrible.
Don't Even Think About It (2014) by Sarah Mlynowski - A group of high schoolers get flu shots that - surprise! - turn them telepathic. Although they're clever enough to keep their secret from the outside world, it creates mayhem amongst them. Now they know who cheated on whom, who's got a crush, who has some troubling insecurities and who, well, doesn't. This is a very light-hearted book (don't expect, say, Touch for teens), but still a nice, contemporary, reinterpretation of classic one-hook SF. A thing happens, then we explore its repercussions for a few hundred pages. The class is mostly filled with improbable, but harmless, teen archetypes, but that doesn't make it any less fun to see them bounce around in one another's brains.
Don't Even occasionally veers into YA slapstick (e.g. everyone over 30 is an idiot), but the core messages - 'we're all the same underneath', 'honesty', 'we all make mistakes', etc. - are Disney-sweet, and the whole lark is charmingly presented from start to finish. All in all, a much better (and more enjoyable) exploration of telepathy than the many dozens of 'adult' books that have tried to do the same.
The Trouble with Bubbles (1953) by Philip K. Dick - What a silly little story. In the future, people build worlds. A bit like SimEarth (I'm showing my age) - with the most talented world-builders guiding their tiny universes all the way up the geological and evolutionary ladder. And, given, this is a Dick story, we explore a) wtf does it mean y r we bildn these things and b) zomg bubbles w/in bubbles. I'm not sure why PKD speaks in quasi-LOLCAT, but, there you go. If any author were a surreal four-panel gif set, it'd be PKD. A fun little story in its own right, it actually does feel like PKD-lite, and I'm keeping it in my back pocket as a recommendation for those who want to know where to start with his work.
The Tunnel Under the World (1954) by Frederik Pohl - Reading this is what prompted thinking about portrayals of business in SF/F (and then I promptly forgot about it, so thanks to Paul McAuley (!) for reminding me). This is a bonkers little tale that just goes from Point A to Point B to Point C to... and winds up somewhere around Point V. I can't tell if it is genuinely madcap and surprising or just some sort of post-Golden Age stream of consciousness experiment. Fun though.
Steampunk Salmagundi (2013) by John Reppion - A short collection, containing all of Reppion's fiction and non-fiction from Steampunk magazine (circa 2007). Salmagundi is brief but dense - Reppion packs in a lot of heft and detail into his stories and articles alike. "Uhrwerk" is a faux fictional recounting of an early (and explosive) steam-powered metal band. "Doppler and the Madness Engine" is a meatier tale: the classic omniscient Victorian detective and urchin-y sidekick combination, complete with spiritualism, mysterious technology and a bit of gender-bending.
The two stories hint towards the two sides of steampunk. "Uhrwerk" is the quirky alt-history with 'steam' as the quasi mystical go-juice that makes anything possible. "Doppler" is more thematically incisive, with a disruptive look at Victorian society, including the class and gender structures. It is still couched as period-dressed entertainment, but engages more in conversation with the era. The non-fiction articles were fascinating as well - great thought-starters and adventure hooks. This is another book (like the PKD) that I'll keep handy as a starting place, and dish out a lot as a reference.