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14 May 2010

#19 Hunter's Run by George R.R. Martin, Daniel Abraham, and Gardner R. Dozois

George R.R. Martin is quite possibly one of the greatest fantasy/science fiction writers of our time, and his name is what prompted me to read this book. I found it while investigating a different title by co-author Daniel Abraham.

Ramón Espejo is on the run, having killed an important foreign delegate in a drunken brawl. As a prospector on the new human colony at Sao Paulo, he's used to spending his days alone in the wilderness, and finds himself more comfortable away from the concerns of society.
Then, his small mining explosive reveals the hiding place of an alien species unknown to man who take Ramón captive. Forced to hunt a man who escaped their grasp, Ramón quickly realizes that all is not what it seems. The man he is hunting is himself, and he is a clone created by the aliens for the purpose of hunting himself. Yet, the cloning is perfect; he retains his memory, his personality and sense of self; even the scars earned from a rough-and-tumble life appear on his body. Slipping the bonds with which the aliens held him, Ramón guardedly joins forces with his double, hiding the truth of his identity as long as he can.

To popular culture, this book doesn't have much going for it. It's science fiction, the premise is hokey, and the characters aren't sympathetic. Did I mention it's science fiction? Give it some credit, though. Where other than scifi can a badass face off against himself? Ramón Espejo is quite a character. He's mean, violent, sneaky, foulmouthed, and more than a little sociopathic, and the entire book is about him. The character development is slow, kicking in maybe halfway through the book, and it's not exactly subtle. What's interesting is the way that you can see the clone developing alongside the human who is unchanging.

The writing in the book is really good. There isn't unnecessary development or description; everything is to the point, moving the plot at a good pace. The writing is not artistic, but allows you to sink into the reality of Sao Paulo. The plot, while somewhat hard to swallow from outside, is really well handled. There's a small amount of set-up at the beginning of the novel, but just enough to get you into the plot and introduce the players. The only real "complaint" I might make is that the scifi elements are rather weak. There's no deep discussions of fancy technology, no battles through the depths of space, and the world is really quite like our own. However, all of this just allows the reader to focus more on the concepts being presented. Weighty matters like self and identity come up for a rare appearance in a scifi novel. The hokey elements are handled delicately enough that you don't even realize they're hokey while you're reading. By the end of the book, I found myself cheering for the unlikeable Ramón. The book is a well-contained novel that doesn't leave you hanging or really even wanting much more from the story.

07 May 2010

#18 The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry

I read a half-dozen or so webcomics regularly (by regularly I mean obsessively) and one of my favorites is Jeph Jacques' Questionable Content. Some weeks back, he plugged this title, calling it a "really cool China Mieville meets Raymond Chandler with a dash of Jasper Fforde fantasy detective story." That was good enough for me!
This book comes with it's own website (and cheesy music, mute button top right).

Charles Unwin is a clerk, a rather predictable man in a very predictable life. He excels at his rather boring position in the exciting world of the Agency, a city-enveloping semiofficial detective firm. As a clerk, he re-writes the reports of star Detective Sivart, dotting I's and crossing T's and cleaning out all of the personal commentary that the gregarious Detective Sivart puts in his reports. Unwin's pride is his work, and he excels at it, right until Detective Sivart disappears from the city. Under strange circumstances, Unwin is promoted from clerk to detective, with a private office and a personal assistant and a watcher ready to give Unwin his first case. Unfortunately, the watcher is murdered before the details of the case can be given. Unwin decides that his best option is to find the missing Detective Sivart and give the case over to him. His clues are the case files that he so carefully edited, and he is helped by a cast of shady characters and suspects through a very fun and tongue-in-cheek story.

This is Mr. Berry's first book, but the writing is crafted much better than that of other debut novels I've read. He uses small details to create a surrealistic setting and give a very meta feel to the book; I'm not going to define that any further because it's fun to discover. With a little imagination, the writing allows you to immerse yourself in his world. I suspect that someone well-versed in the noir genre would find the setting a little over the top and hokey, but to me it was stylistically charming. With the exception of Unwin, the characters were rather flat and undeveloped, but this again came off as stylistic. Unwin goes through a little self-development and I think discovery, though that discovery could simply be the reveal of the solution.

With a small exception at the end of the story, I quite enjoyed the plot. Berry took slightly too long with the reveal; there was too much chasing of loose ends and stage setting when we should've simply been finding out what happened. Throughout the rest of the book, the plot advances at a good pace, with an appropriate balance of puzzles and solutions. The book is full of unobtrusive but clever (okay, perhaps groan-worthy) details. These lift the noir atmosphere into something a little lighter without turning cliche. I think this is a great new book, and look forward to future novels from Mr. Berry.