NIGHT by ALAN CAMPBELL,
urban-set fantasy novel is the starter for a trilogy called The
Deepgate Codex. It is the author's debut work. I have
elected to not continue with Iron Angel and God
The immediate setting engenders the biggest question
mark: why would anyone be loony enough to build a city over
a yawning abyss suspended on massive chains now rust-bitten
by three thousand years of creaking, groaning, and swinging?
Well, suspend your disbelief for awhile ‘cause you'll get a
satisfactory answer. But, regarding the eminently binding theology
of this very restrictive and dogmatic civilization, well .
Church doctrine starts out simple enough. Goddess Ayen
rules in heaven and god Iril oversees the Maze of hell. But
they're both bad gods because Ayen spitefully decides
to close off heaven to us mortals—we're wicked, you see--and
Iril, well, he's bad ‘cause he's a frickin' demon, for crissake.
But Ayen's son Ulcis challenges her decision and, with 99 buddy
angels or archons, he manages to lose the battle and gets banished
hisself into the abyss. Ulcis figures his only chance is to
get more fodder—us
mortals—so he promises us he'll re-open heaven if we'll give
him our soul-blessed dead for a future, conquering army. Thus,
he gets his herald Callis to build a temple over his exile hole
balancing on huge iron shackles so it's easier to just toss bodies
over the edge. Thus, the city of Deepgate is born.
The populace doesn't have a problem swallowing this
hooey because there are two quite real archons living among
them right now. One is the last descendant to remain above
ground of the famed 99. Dill is sixteen and has been cloistered
in the church and raised by Temple ruler Presbyter
Sypes. He's unschooled—“where
was the merit in [education] when Ulcis waited beneath their
feet, when Ulcis was everything”(Tor UK, ISBN 1405090359, c.2006,
p.153)—has no social, political,
or combat skills. He spends his time collecting snails in his
cold, dark monkcell and finding homes for them. He's hauled out
during a Sending—the ceremony where the city's dead are blessed
then packed into a draft-drawn soulcage and dumped into the abyss—so
the populace can see his reasonably useless wings and feathers
and feel safe in their direct connection to the gods. And—gee,
who'd figure? —he wants to be a powerful warrior and do something
The other angel is as dynamic as Dull—oops, I mean Dill—is
anemic. Carnival is just that—the wildest, scariest death-skull
of a vomit-comet ride you'll see this side of the Big Dipper.
No one's real sure of her pedigree, but every month on the
waning moon she vampires a victim dry, leaving a “husk” usually
swinging upside down in the chains. For, you see, blood is
a sacred fluid, as it contains your soul. This soulsucking
invigorates Carnival, has kept her alive and hunting for hundreds
of generations, and relegates her now-bloodless pigeon to hell
and therefore deprived of Ulcis' salute. She's a terrorizing
monster, yet guilt-filled eyes of the shame-stricken peer from
under the scarred skin she self-mutilates “to
keep some deeper part [inside her] intact” (p.375). She's
the baddest of the bad/good/whatever, and she's up and away the
most impressive character in the book.
The other female, Rachael Hael, is the sister of Deepgate's
young Commander-In-Chief. She's also a fringe member of the Church's
Swiss Guard called Spine. Currently, her fellow holy assassin
ninjas are using her as bait to stop Carnival's razefests, cantingly
known as Scar Night. But, more importantly, she's been assigned
to Dill as his “overseer, tutor, personal guard” (p.46).
Then there's Mr. Nettle. He's built like The Hulk and
even stupider. A Scrounger, he makes his way through the wastes
of Deepgate's alleys, dumps, and chain-nets, collecting detritus
for re-sale. He's gruff and pissed-off like TV Foxx's Fred
Sanford, but without the wisecracking. Lately, he's rampaging ‘cause
his daughter's been murdered and is on a befuddling quest to
re-gain her soul and put her back together again.
Abigail's killer is the second most interesting character
of this work. Devon the Poisoner runs the Poison Kitchens,
creating diseases and venomous malignancies as weapons against
the Temple's enemies. Unlike Carnival, he has no redeeming
elements whatsoever. Completely nihilistic, hedonistic, sadistic,
of his grin belonged to his face: it was a grin wholly owned
by the skull inside” (p.287)—he's discovered how to make angelwine,
which is essentially the ichor for super-strength, super-stamina,
super-longevity, and super-regeneration. He's given some of the
best dialogue in the novel, only because as the action becomes
more and more cartoonish, his virulent quips act as refreshing
counterpoints. But in the end, even Devon's villainy is demeaned
to the outrageous comebacks of Wiley Coyote.
Scar Night is no Gormenghast, and Campbell's
characters are only Dickensian in outline. Predicatively,
the plot drops into Ulcis' realm of the abyss, which ignites some
phenomenal action scenes—especially getting
out as Deepgate smashes down on top of Dill, Rachael, and Carnival—but
the characters passed their depth chapters ago, leaving the remains
better suited for comic panels or a gamer's last save point.
that's where I'd like to leave this series: eyes wide and
filled with techni-colors, hands steaming against the plastic,
and adrenaline still itchy from a very intense pixel invasion
of my rods and cones.
OF FEALTY by LARRY NIVEN & JERRY POURNELLE,
Name the last novel
you read where corporate executives are heroes, I mean action heroes, who shitkick a ratty-looking mugger—named Vinnie,
of course—by breaking his jaw with “a polished gold ring on
a huge fist” (Timescape, ISBN 0671226959, c.1981, p.271)?
Or, any science fiction novel where these selfsame captains
of industry talk about murdering their adversaries—all justified,
of course—then celebrate their sacrosanct positions by getting
snarked on Jamesons and screwing like stoats. Well, if you
want to engorge yourself with a mug of Libertarian bitters,
this is your book.
Todos Santos Independency is an arcology, owned by
the Romulus Corporation and run not like a government to
manage services and people, but as a business for profit.
It is built on two square miles of burnt-out—I should say rioted-out—blocks of
Watts in Los Angeles, and is 1000 feet tall, housing around
1/4 of a million “Saints”. Ringed by “shabby houses and decaying
apartments . . . filled with families without hope living on
welfare and the leavings from Todos Santos” (p.22), it boasts
all the amenities for self-contained living, most notably a
giant shopping mall weaving its way through the complex. Even
though security guards and surveillance cameras are absolute
24 hours a day, everybody's happy. When asked about trading
off privacy for protection, one young resident replies, “maybe
we don't have a lot to hide” (p.114).
The “stockholders” seem to also love their corporate
bosses who boast and ball on forty-foot yachts in Marina
Del Rey “bought . . . for the company” (p.215). When an older “termite” (p.24)
is asked if he's jealous of the General Manager's position,
he says, “Great Chu, no! I only have one boss. [He] works for everybody” (p.171).
But apparently human nature outside of this “glittering
block of whites” (p.21) requires animosity toward anyone
living in better luxury or comfort, especially when they're
so imperious about it. Every character outside of “The Box” is
either bitter, jealous, or wants to move there, including
LAPD detectives, high-ups in city government, and the ex-wife
of Todos Santos' chief engineer and designer. At the extreme
are FROMATES (Friends of Man and The Earth Society), so-named
eco-terrorists committed to the arcology's destruction. When
questioned why TS is such a threat to the environment, the “eco-simps” answer
uses too many resources to support too few people.” And, furthermore, “using
technology to fix problems created by technology only puts
you in an endless chain. That the more success you have, the
more you make people believe that ‘Progress' is possible, and
Progress just leads to more technology and more waste and more
Trouble comes when some college-age kids, armed with
boxes filled with sand labeled “dynamite” and “bombs”, break
into TS as a prank. But nobody's laughing when they are killed,
especially influential city councilman “Big Jim” Plancet, who
is father to one of the deceased. A murder warrant is issued
for Preston Sanders, the Saint who ordered lethal force to
stop what he perceived as a hostile attack. Forcing the reader
to make a hard right turn at the stacked deck, the authors
leave no doubt this action was justified. But Preston, being
a responsible and upstanding black man--meaning he can have
nothing but a Steppen Fetchit position and attitude to Whitey
overwhelmed with guilt and remorse, and so he does the stupidest
thing he could do: turn himself in to the hatemongering, misguided,
and incompetent bureaucrats of Los Angeles.
The book bounces along with a fleshing out of corporate
personalities, technological atmosphere, gimmicks, gizmos,
and more social and political slip-‘n-slides, while the mainspring
plot turns from ridiculous to unbelievable to downright insulting.
There is a real eco-terrorist assault on Todos Santos using
real bombs and a real shootout where real eco-insano badguys
die, really. Then Preston is broken out of jail with the
use of a Total
digging vehicle/machine by Executive Action, which is about
as believable as Arnold's eyes popping out at the end of the
before-mentioned film. The final bang is achieved when the
eco-simps retaliate, kidnapping and dyke-mauling TS's sexy
Director of Economic Development, then are subsequently taken
down by TS's Blackwater-like SWAT team. The world is shown
that Corporate ways and means are RIGHT, as if we didn't already
know that from the novel's gross didactic slant. Oh yeah, as
a post-thump—as in we're so sure we're RIGHT, we'll murder
to prove it—Councilman Plancet continues externalizing blame
by shotguning to death a UCLA professor for his affiliations
with leftist, eco-stupido cells that led his son astray.
I don't know why I bothered reading this work, let
alone writing a review of it. But at least now I remember
why I never read Heinlein after Starship Troopers.
The only other Negro character is Preston's stereotypical
opposite: "Reverend Ebenezer Clay, an old-time civil
rights activist and leader" (p.116), a Jessie
Jackson wannabe, but ranting far less believably and demanding
unrealistic solutions within the context of this biased diatribe.
And where does the corporation wanna send Preston once
they free him? Africa!
DENNIS LEHANE, c.2003.
never would have come onto Dennis Lehane if I hadn't seen
Affleck's earnest cinematic rendition of Gone, Baby, Gone from
2007. That made me re-watch Mystic River of 2003
and realize how constipated Eastwood had become as a director.
I missed a big-screen viewing of Scorsese's version of this
story, so decided I'd read it instead.
Man, am I glad I did.
First of all, this guy can write. His metaphors, similes,
and allusions—not to mention the terse brilliance of his ironies—flow
as smooth as water down an un-pebbled stream. Open the book
anywhere and you'll bump into things like, when our hero is
studying a photo of the insane escapee, that “the eyes themselves
were too wide, as if something hot were prodding them from
inside her head. Whatever she saw beyond the camera lens, beyond
. . . anything in the known world probably—wasn't fit to be
seen. . . Those eyes. Even frozen in time, they howled” (Morrow,
ISBN 0688163173, c.2003, p.39).
His bounce from exposition to dialogue in this
limited omniscient narrative is
in perfect cadence to the information he's leaking out to you,
keeping mystery, suspense, excitement, and growing intensity
right out in front where you like it. Structurally, the story
unfolds like stepping stones, with hardly a sidebar or backstory
trickle and only the occasional revelatory nightmare to interrupt
what's ongoing and forthcoming. But the stones get mossier
and slicker as you proceed, and your gumshoeing begins to lose
purchase. Pretty soon your feet are wet and the current is
pulling you further and further away from safety.
And what's real and what's make believe and by whom and whose
At first look—and last look, too, for that matter—U.S.
Marshal Teddy Daniels is top contender for the Jim Thompson
Posterboy of the Post-Pulp Fiction, Neo-Noir, Me-Me-Me
Era. He's carrying a grudge and wants revenge. He's on a
covert mission sent by shadowy hi-ups, maybe. He has no friends
but the one he's currently made. His past is filled with
loss, killings, cold-bloodedness, and fuck-ups. He's glib,
confrontive, and very likely delusional. In lotsa ways, I
see Charles Bigger out of Savage Night of 1953.
Teddy's come to the Ashecliffe Bug Farm for the Criminally
Insane on Shutter Island to investigate the disappearance of
an inmate. But, instead of solving what appears to be an island-sized
variation of the Agatha Christie Locked Room Mystery, everyone
ends up playing “Who's On First?” Teddy's second baseman is
a virgin partner assigned to him who he comes to trust and
rely on. Teddy also has an instinctive dislike of psychology,
which is contrary to the whole premise for this island's existence.
It's the fifties, where everybody smokes and prattles on about
all the new ideas and technologies that'll solve all our problems
and make life much easier to boot. Like transorbital lobotomies,
neuroleptic sessions, hallucinogenic drug experimentation,
hypno-therapy, regression therapy, role-playing therapy. Like
brain surgery verses pharmalogical solutions verses psychoanalysis
all rolled into one, big psychotic swallow.
Lehane's emphasis is not really on what fixes us and
barely on how we got there. He's about the pain, the confusion,
the loss of identity that makes “less a person who had lived
and more the dream of one.” (p.176). It's about stripping
away the denial and feeling it. Getting around that sprung
defense mechanism like a poacher's rusted trap and freefalling
into the shame of self-loathing and poor-choices guilt. There
are no answers, no condemnations. Just suffering, pain, delusions.
Yes, this is a fun house with false doors, traps,
leads, but it ends up a merry-go-round taking you back ‘round
again, and again. We all live our lives on painted ponies
like this sometime. That's what breakthroughs in psychology
have gotten us: more information, more supposed data, but
few definitive answers, just more impressive spin.
But what's real is the anguish and despair. And the
fear that “once
you're here, you're not getting out. No one leaves Ward C” (p.236).
What condition, under any circumstances, could you
never, ever live with? The world thinkin' you're loony, or
you, yourself, realizing you are markedly insane? Or, that
whatever it is trapped inside you, “you can't get to it and
you don't really control it. But it controls you, doesn't
Island may only answer this question paradoxically,
but it'll give you a pretty fair taste of livin' it.
GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO by
STIEG LARSSON, c.2005.
I just happened to read 2 Locked-Room Mysteries
back-to-back where the inescapable confinement is an island.
It is difficult not to compare this book to Lehane's Shutter
Island of 2003, because they are so antipodal. They are
both ingenious solutions, so plot sketching is unadvised. So
what else is there to talk about?
I have already praised the evocative style of Dennis
Lehane, so I must say that comparatively, Larsson's writing
is unadorned and methodical due, I suspect, to his lifetime
of penning non-fiction, magazine feature stories. Lots of people
like this kind of approach because it makes the material seem
more authentic. “Just the
facts, ma'am,” as Sgt. Joe Friday of 50s TV Dragnet useta
say. Personally, I demand it from a talking head on a news byte,
but, when it comes to something from the imagination like prose,
I prefer a little poetry. Did I mention that Mr. Larsson's straightforward
style has driven over 27 million book sales, so what do I know,
Another difference is scope. Although most of Dragon
action is confined to everyday quests and machinations—the gearworks,
so to speak—the larger engine it serves is the macrocosm of national
politics and commerce. This is the playground of the rich-an'-famous
bestsellers, and it takes a certain cultivated flair to bring
these larger-than-your-life people to bear believable actions,
situations, and settings. Larsson bookends his
main plot with his financial reporter Mikael Blomkvist's tribulations
against a ruthless and unscrupulous billionaire businessman,
but it seems too perfectly laid-out, too contrived. It stands
apart from the main meat of the story like parsley on a plate.
I know why it's there—Blomkvist's reputation is propped back
up with the righteous, the steadfast, the ethical crusaders who
protect us from the greed-driven infidels and show us that good
guys business-wise turn to moral lighthouses like his Socialist
watchdog magazine Millennium—I
just think this device injected into the author's documentarian
style emphasizes an unnecessary order that needs unhinging, not
The novel is also consumed with investigation and reporting,
leaving the hard action smoldering in the background until it's
time to burn the book down in climax. The disappearance/murder/whatever
occurred 40 years ago; the torture chamber is seen, not really
used; even Blomkvist's real-time bankster nemesis is never met.
There's descriptions, there's lotsa discussions; nothing is
exclaimed, everything is pretty droll, even. Settings and atmospherics
are, well, wintery, as if it snowed everywhere, leaving things
formulated but undefined.
When first met, the voices of the book come off like
chess pieces instead of characters, but that's okay. They identify
their detached squares, objectify into stereotypes to establish
cover then move through the cubbyholes to advance the plot.
The Crusader, The Robber-Baron CEO, The Astute, Supportive
Female Business Partner & Lover,
The Misanthropic Bat-Caver Hacker, The Gracious Old Financial
Wizard, The Faceless Killer. Of course, Mysteries welcome the
withholding of characters like Cecilia Vanger for adding necessary
suspense—if not the housewarming gift of red herring—and Sweden's
national mood seems one of reservation anyway. As such, the sheen
of the novel starts off quite leaden. But when backstory reveals
that society's institutions consider our punky, very relunctant
heroine Lisbeth Salander to be “seriously
retarded . . . [with] psychopathic and asocial behaviour” (Knopf,
ISBN 9780307269751, c.2005
it signals that buried, more complex resonances are sure to come.
Salander is the idiosyncratic sorceress of the book.
Her magic slays the monsters, and these IT abilities of hers
are as much an urban legend as the mythological beast she's
tattooed on her backside. Her ink professes power and defiance
to a shallow society that plots her as an outsider and troublemaker.
The irony is that dragons are traditionally slain to maintain
the status quo, whereas Salander burns down captains of industry
and other miscreants with hack spells to protect the very organizations
that deride her independent declaration. She's also leading
the thematic demonstration against misogyny by having the only
sexual abuse scene in the novel. Her thuggy, Goth-Girl exterior
with tattoos, piercings, and that “anorexic spook” (p.348)
look parades her insecurities and self-esteem issues like a
Pasadena float for jejune-inspired dysfunction. But behind
the detached and defiant posturings is the photographic memory
and Asperger intelligence for discipline and determination;
and deeper still, a moral command post for truth, trust, and
love. Appropriately, the book's title alludes to this enigmatic
personality, as she is up and away the biggest cipher—and largest
Oh yeah, back to the comparison: if you slide toward
the emotional and untidy instead of an analytical approach
with explanation-to-follow, put your money down for Lehane.
Especially if, like me, you're fixated more to the noir view
RICHARD PRICE, c.1992
Lee's movie in 1995 plus the fundamental setup on HBO's The
Wire(1) from 2002 has given this story lots of exposure,
and, even though the source material is almost two decades
old, there's still a tremendous resonance left to shake you
right down to your mortal coil. The characters are rasty and
real enough so that any reader's sympathy is challenged by
their moral choices, and the atmosphere from the Projects to
the prisons, from the mangled streets to the gaudy boulevards,
seeps into your innards and festers like Strike's perforated
ulcer with enough pain, fear, and loss to make even finishing
this 600-page assault a challenge.
But finish it you will, because Price's command of this
journey keeps you tottering between longing and desperation,
false hope and vacuous pleasures. This is a novel beyond the
bounds of hero and villain, action and consequence, and certainly
past ethical sermonizing. Everyone appears, well, caught in
a neverending spin of situational survival, trapped in a ZipLoc
full of transparent justifications labeled Preserve Me. The
very real sub-culture of addictive and deadly drug commerce
becomes a consumptive ouroboros created by yet mirroring Mainstream's
fixations with celebratory recognition, success through cutthroat
competition, revenue over relationships, and, most insidiously,
denial via self-induced delusion. Within this trap, author
Price mounts the ultimate, behavioral question managing this “irretrievable
world” (Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0395537614, c.1992,
him or me?
Q & As are presented between the two, contrary protagonists:
Strike, aka Ronald Dunham, the “clocker” or street-level crack
dealer, and Rocco Klein, the vexed vet homicide detective, with
an alienated marriage and the longing for a “Mission, in order
to anchor himself in his job before he drowned in his own banal
terrors” (p.584). A known ounce-level dealer has been murdered
and Victor Dunham, Strike's older straight and proper brother,
has confessed to the crime. Rocco is determined to prove he's
covering for Strike, and Strike—knowing his brother incapable,
therefore had to be extorted—is without a clue. Throughout, the
unrelenting beating “like a bloody-knuckled fist” (p.246) of
inner-city squalor and sensibility controls the destiny of its
inhabitants from drug lord to police chief.
Strike simply rationalizes away his role in poisoning
the community: “'Cause
if I don't,
somebody else will. Me not selling it ain't gonna stop
nothing out there but my money flow” (p.414). And Rocco, so frustrated
that the system is ineffectual in stopping the mental and physical
carnage he sees daily, blindly pounds ahead with the wrong conclusions
unmindful of collateral damage just as long as he solves the
crime and ends the situation. This is chillingly illustrated
when his wife goes into hysterics at their young daughter's momentary
disappearance and he thinks, “so, we'll have another kid” (p.557).
In a shell shocked-like trance, his denial has cost him his humanity.
Strike, who does no drugs himself except Mylanta and
Yoo-Hoo for his bleeding stomach, is nonetheless hooked on
the money and status. When his world caves in between prison
time and a baseball bat beating from his drug boss, he embraces
the gift from Rocco to a free ride out of town. Conclusions
for change can only be appeased on a personal scale—you either
remove yourself from the slaughter, or, if like Rocco you can't
leave, you make things go fair and easier for the people within
But the bargains keep rolling in—crushing the people
it attracts as well as those who keep it rolling. Clockers is
that Nolan Ryan fastball blazing past America's glamorizing
of crime and addictive escape. The batting stance can only
be one of attitudinal adjustment. Few novels of American Crime
Fiction close out the last Century as, well, strikingly.
(1) The Wire 's run of 4 seasons should be considered
the prime, artistic achievement in Crime Drama on TV, as the
scepter has not been raised this high within the genre since Hill
Street Blues of 1981. If it wasn't for that pesky 2nd season, The
Wire could have vaulted into the rarefied air of Perfection.
And, ironically, even with the other accomplished writers like
George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane backing creator David Simon's
play, the series garnered not a single stinkin' Emmy.
+ TAKE by
STONA FITCH, C.2010
is unfortunate timing reading this after Clockers.
The seeker protagonists are similar, in that they are searching
for meaning in life while making money. Strike feels forced into
dealing by social and peer pressures; Ross Clifton of G +
T is resigned to play piano for “huddled lovers and clusters
of bankers anxious to be entertained” (St. Martin's Press,
ISBN 9780312599874, c.2010, p.1) in lizard lounges
because of a dysfunctional self-image congruous with the
over-bloated view of his less-appreciated talent. Both suffer
from repressing the shame brought by their under-weight, public
accomplishments. Strike's is seen in his ulcer; Ross acts out
as a pussy burglar, stealing diamonds and BMWs from rich, bored,
then giving the fenced money to charity. Strike's problems
go nuclear when his brother cold-bloodedly murders a drug dealer.
Ross's start when he's forced to babysit his arrogant and obnoxious
16-year old nephew whose ambition at the moment is to write
a porn novel, which is probably exactly what Ross was like
as a teener. After all, even now women are objects and relationships
mere tools. Vying his prospects for the evening, Ross rejects
one because “she's ringless and her earrings are crap” (p.71).
Strike's world is as serious as a dum-dum bullet; his
survival is based on decisions weighted a little more than
which cufflinks to wear, or what song to follow in encore.
Ross Clifton comes off as so suave he's foolish; so self-blundering
he's misplaced his heart with his asshole; so laughingly egotistical
he's a bore.
I'm sure he'll straighten out by book's end and be just like
the rest of us. I didn't hear him finish the set to find out.
Dead at page 72 out of 244.
05/05/2010 by Larry Crawford