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Review Round-up: A Queue, Two Devils, Some Magicians and an Empty City

9781612195162_custom-9dcd78cb1494554fe2ead2adb48ab8c65e917d12-s400-c85I'm way behind on writing reviews - a combination of life, SPFBO reading, sekrit projects and watching Ariana Grande and Chris Martin sing "Don't Look Back In Anger" on continuous loop. But whilst we all wait for me to get my act together, here's a quick catch-up on recent reading:

The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (2016, first 2012). In an unnamed country, the people are ruled by a faceless bureaucracy. All paperwork challenging the state must be notarised by officials at the 'Gate', the accepted nomenclature of the 'powers that be' that work at entrance of the government building, but the Gate never opens...

Over time, a huge queue forms, and with it, a new society. People come and go, trade gossip, form a new, grey economy. The Gate seems to know everything and be everywhere, but its actions are nonsensical and baffling. Set against this... a mystery, of sorts. A man, shot in an uprising that never happened by soldiers that weren't there using guns that don't exist, is standing, wounded, in the queue. The maze of paperwork around him, if he exists, captures a handful of others, as they make extremely difficult choices in the face of overwhelming indifference. 

The Queue isn't quite as abstract as I'm making it sound. It is a good Orwellian thriller, with compelling, heart-breaking characters. Although inspired by Egypt, The Queue is one of the great fictional dystopias, with horrifying relevance to, well, everywhere. If you read one book on this list, make it this one.

Berit Ellingsen's The Empty City (2011). If Murakami wrote The Burglar's Guide to the City, I think. A disaffected office worker - with, I believe, PTSD - explores his ... Ballardian nameless city. It never gets as grim as Ballard or as weird as Murakami, but I'm floundering on finding better comparisons. Nor should this book be belittled by comparisons: Ellingsen's got an icily poetic style all her own, and it works exceptional well in this haunting book. Not much 'happens' in the conventional sense, but The Empty City is atmospheric and occasionally breath-taking, as our protagonist searches to find his place in his life, his city and... the universe. There's also discussion of science fiction within the book, which provides a charming metaphor within a metaphor, as we all seek belonging in our own ways.  

KJ Parker's The Devil You Know (2016). As always, Parker is fun and clever and stylishly written. I've still yet to find the Parker I don't adore. I - annoyingly - jumped on the wrong first act gun. I had the entire thing figured out, so I thought, but Parker, again, defeated me. (shakes fist) A couple things to note for HARDCORE PARKERIANS (we need a name - "Pens"):

1) This book confirms, in canon, that all the previous books are in the same world. As well as the usual scattering of enigmatic throwaway references, there's a moment with a 'world tour' that name-checks the locations of Fencer, Engineer, Sharps, and more. FIRE THE CANON CANNON. *boom*

2) It adds cosmology to that same universe. Which is an amazing evolution, if you think about how the books have evolved. We started with a sort of hand-wavey, wild  magic (Fencer), went distinctly unmagical (Engineer, et al), and added systematised magic with the short stories... Religion has followed a slightly different path; Scavenger certainly addressed the role of gods, but as symbols (or were they?)  and "The Sun and I" was equally... agnostic, I suppose. But with The Devil You Know, as well as being one of the most overtly arcane books we also have a (in the D&D sense) divine system as well, with canonised, in-world devils and a literal Infernal bureaucracy. I suppose the next step is showing how that means the Parkerverse connects with the Holtiverse...

Lauren Weisberger's The Devil Wears Prada (2003). Speaking of devils. We watched the movie, then, on Twitter's advice, I read the book as well. They're both very good, but different. Weisberger's book, for example, really dislikes fashion. This scene, for example, I see as the emotional pivot of the movie:

...but it isn't in the book. In fact, there's never a moment in the book where Andrea thinks about the significance of fashion - it is always a hostile, alien, frivolous world to her. This means, in a Mazlovian way, there's never the sense of self-actualisation: the job in the book is just the job, a route to a better job, rather than something that's meaningful in its out right.

Also in the book, unlike the movie, Andrea's friends have (very) real problems (her roommate, especially) and her boyfriend isn't a self-absorbed, slightly gas-lighty, tool. In the movie, the work/life balance is very different, as her work has meaning, and her so-called 'friends' are unsupportive and leechy.

As a result, the book is significantly more biased in favour of 'quit'. The movie is two competing visions of what Andrea's life could be - the granola-y journo path vs the stressful/tempting fashion path. The book is Andrea vs Her Ambition: can she stick out her internship long enough to reap the awards and move on to a bigger, better role? There are fewer perks to the job, less meaning to the job, and far more reasons for her to get out of it.

I like the movie's take on fashion more; I think having that perspective, between types of career, is important. But book-Andrea is much more interesting, as it is that much darker. Her job much more Faustian, and the book's Miranda Priestley is, accordingly, more Devil-ish. Which is to say, read it, watch it, let's chat.

We-all-looked-up-9781481418782_hrTommy Wallach's We All Looked Up (2015). This book is genius. It is YA pre-apocalyptic, and goddamn, that is a great idea. A meteor is heading towards Earth, there's a 2 in 3 chance that life is kerput in a few months. What do you do? For teens that have spent their entire (short) lives being told that "everything is ahead of them", "prepare for the future", "keep your options open" - this is, well, the end of the world. In every sense?

The premise is much more interesting than the 'a meteor hit earth a generation ago and we're rebuilding society without adults and with only beautiful people' theme, which I've now read (and watched) 16,000 times. The execution of the book isn't flawless; the emo bits are infinitely more enjoyable than the plottiness, but as far as non-grimdark apocalyptic tales, this saga of everyone finding themselves is really lovely. The setup allows people to be angsty and self-reflective without it being unnaturally twee. 

Charlie Holmberg's The Paper Magician (2014). As with We All Looked Up, it is easy to respect the sheer, marketable, elevator pitch shtick of The Paper Magician. But whilst Looked is a new perspective on an old trope, Magician is an attempt to fuse several old ones together. Here we have a Brandon Sanderson magic system with a Harry Potter plot in a Steampunk world.

Magician should work - in a commercially overt 'scripted by the studio' kind of way. But after an appealing start, it doesn't stick the middle - much less the landing. There's a promising, if cliche, setup, and an intriguing, materials-based magic system (paper magic!). But as soon as the actual plot (dark mages, practicing bad magic, with a dark lord!) begins, all the fun goes out the window. The actual crux of the book is a sidequest gone mad: our feisty female hero spends the entire novel trapped inside the memories of the male character. Meaning however interesting she is, what we're really doing is spending hundreds of pages learning about him in all his floppy-haired, self-effacing, secretly-generous, totally unappreciated, super-appealing ways. Imagine a Kvothian level Mary Sue type character, examined, at length, from the point of view of the female love interest. That's actually ... really boring, and, sadly, no amount of paper magic can fold it into something fun to read.

A Lady's Captivity Amongst Chinese Pirates by Fanny Loviot (1858). A true (?) story, the memoir of a young Frenchwoman who (spoiler!) gets captured by Chinese pirates. It is... silly. The sense of menace doesn't seem to translate well through the years, and Loviot's experience, although harrowing, never feels palpably dire. What does, however, succeed - timelessly - are her descriptions of the cities that she travels through, with the early days of San Francisco especially coming to life on the page. 

Sorcery ClubThe Sorcery Club by Elliott O'Donnell (1912). O'Donnell was an Irish writer of supernatural short stories and novels. The Sorcery Club is a hoot, but also has its ups and down. Three down-and-out men take to THE DARK ARTS OF ATLANTIS out of desperation. They swear off all good and pledge their hearts to EVIL. Their increasingly sinister scheming takes them from New York to London, where they encounter a stage magician and his beautiful daughter. Hijinks ensue.

At its heart, there's an interesting plot here, with lots of schemes, and classic tropes of Good People Forbearing whilst Bad People Descending Into Corruption. Sometimes They Are Even Redeemed. But... there's also a lot of dumb stuff. Perhaps most glaring: the love interest is annoying. She's the most unlikeable character in the book, which is impressive, given she's surrounded by literal kitten-killing necromancers. She's more self-absorbed than selfless, and the attempts to paint her as charmingly guileless and naive backfire - she comes across as petty and gormless. The three villains, with their Biblical Flaws, are much more fun - their attempts to be EVIL BADASSES are so goofily adolescent that it is hard not to chuckle at their antics.

Oh, also, rampant anti-Semitism, because.

O'Donnell infodumps his occult knowledge at an astounding rate, and there are whole pages of obscure detail - recipes of THE DARK ARTS. It is clearly an attempt to make this parable seem more realistic, but, in practice, it is immensely dull. No one likes their character drama interrupted by six pages of titrating spider juice. The Sorcery Club has an interesting ending though -  a resolution so abrupt that I double-checked online to see if my copy was missing a chapter. In hindsight, it is a brave move, and ends things appropriately, if unconventionally. There's also an oddly nihilistic worldview through, a proto-Lovecraftian take on cosmic evil, and some amazing illustrations. Certainly interesting, if not particularly good.