Friday, 26 November 2010

'Soulless' by Gail Carriger - Humorous Supernatural Victorian Steampunk Erotica Romance... etc...

[CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS]

Soulless by Gail Carriger fearlessly spans many genres. The book doesn't take itself too seriously, and because of this it is quite a fun read. There are many dark and solemn supernatural or steampunk tales out there. The humour in Soulless is quite refreshing in comparison. However, I fear that it's array of genres ultimately dilutes this book.

Blurb from Amazon.co.uk:

Alexia Tarabotti is labouring under a great many social tribulations. First, she has no soul. Second, she's a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette. Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire - and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate. With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London's high society? Or will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart? SOULLESS is a comedy of manners set in Victorian London: full of werewolves, vampires, dirigibles, and tea-drinking.

At first, I found the main character, Alexia, slightly annoying. Unused to reading humour, it took me a while to relax into the tone of the book. Alexia first appeared as prissy, but as I began to see the world she lived in, and as I began to uncover more about her character, I started to warm to her. By the end of the novel, though, she had began to irk me a little again.

The book deals with Victorian high society. And to be honest, it's this kind of corset-wearing, tea-drinking, party-going superficial pointlessness that I find least appealing about this era in history. I'm really not bothered about the colour and trim of a dress, or how many parasols or hats one person can own... This isn't a criticism of the writing, but I think it all adds to the slightly irritating prudishness of the book. One reviewer on Amazon said they found the writing 'smug', and I think some people might well read it that way, mostly because of the high society that the book deals with, blended with the richly sarcastic tone. Some may view this as a flaw, but others I'm sure will view it as a strength. This aspect of the novel, I feel, is very much down to personal preference.

This aside, my favourite characters by far were the werewolves. In Carriger's world, supernaturals are integrated into society, and are even part of the government. Lord Maccon (alpha werewolf and head of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry) is gruff and rude; his beta Professor Lyall is intelligent, loyal and well respected. I thought both their characters were very well painted.

Lord Maccon quickly becomes the story's main love interest, and Carriger has perfected the art of teasing us with this sub-plot, and doesn't give us what we want until the very end - as it should be with all good love stories. By the end of the novel, however, the story did start to boarder on Mills and Boons. The slightly more graphic Epilogue cheapened the eroticism and romance that was so well executed throughout the rest of the book.

The steampunk elements of this book seemed fairly tacked-on. In one of the early chapters, Alexia and her even more annoying friend Ivy are taking a walk. They come across some airships tethered in Hyde Park. Alexia makes some fleeting comments about how amazing they are, and then they never crop up again.

Steampunk comes more into play at the end of the novel, when were are faced with revolutionary and horrific cog-filled torture machines. These were fascinating, yet their darkness contrasted almost unnaturally with the light-hearted tone of the rest of the book.

An automaton also becomes integral to the plot. Carriger describes this mechanical man with appropriate horror (the unyielding strength, the dead skin, the carved forehead...). The mystery around this character really drives the novel forward, but once we find out what it is, so much suspense is lost, and from that point, the automaton loses much of its original character and falls very much into the background. The revelation about the carving in its forehead was a disappointment to me, too. The word was 'VIXI' and I thought it would represent Roman numerals, perhaps suggesting there are many more of these monsters, but instead it turns out it is part of some magic spell, and all that is needed to defeat the automaton is essentially a face wash.

In all, the book is well structured and the characters are rich. Though the main themes have been done many times before, Carriger brings a freshness to them with some original thought. The amalgamation of genres makes this a difficult book to place in the market, and I feel the light tone and the supernatural romance elements are the strongest. The steampunk elements are mostly aesthetic, and I feel that Carriger is more enchanted by high society Victorian England mixed with supernatural creatures than anything more technological.

Rating: **1/2 (Two and a half stars out of five)

Thursday, 25 November 2010

'Boneshaker' by Cherie Priest - All Steam and No Punk

Boneshaker seeks to combine the steampunk genre with zombie horror. Published by Tor in 2009, it was nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2010, though public reviews are mixed and varied.

Blurb from Amazon.co.uk:

At the start of the Civil War, a Russian mining company commissions a great machine to pave the way from Seattle to Alaska and speed up the gold rush that is beating a path to the frozen north. Inventor Leviticus Blue creates the machine, but on its first test run it malfunctions, decimating Seattle s banking district and uncovering a vein of Blight Gas that turns everyone who breathes it into the living dead. Sixteen years later Briar, Blue's widow, lives in the poor neighbourhood outside the wall that s been built around the uninhabitable city. Life is tough with a ruined reputation, but she and her teenage son Ezekiel are surviving until Zeke impetuously decides that he must reclaim his father s name from the clutches of history.


And surprisingly, I'm not giving away too much of the plot, as much of that background info is crammed into the first couple of pages. It is presented as an extract from a historical novel, which one of the characters is writing.

This character, Hale Quarter, is one of the first people we come across in chapter one. We see the world from a mixture of his and Briar's point-of-view. Then, Quarter disappears, and doesn't reappear again in the novel. Not a particularly smooth introduction to the story.

The novel is structured with two dominant view points: Briar and Zeke. Each have their own chapters. Briar's chapters are illustrated with a pair of goggles at the beginning, and Zeke's chapters with a gas lamp. A nice touch.

I felt Priest painted Briar's character quite well. Her history, her flaws, made her more human. However, she boarded on the stereotypical 'mother who will stop at nothing' to save her child.

Zeke, on the other hand, was an incredibly annoying character. He is meant to be an older teenager, but acts more like a ten or eleven year old. He lacks a sense of maturity, and his thoughts are simple. Often, he comes across as rather dumb, and I felt almost completely unsympathetic towards him.

Whereas Briar has a much more active stance in moving the plot forward, Zeke is lead around by others, making him passive and quite boring.

All four-hundred pages of the book take place within a few days. And this slow pace often takes its toll. The action scenes are well executed and exciting, but the spaces between them are often bogged down with unnecessary description, bantering, and time-fillers. It seems to me that there is no real control over the contours of action and suspense.

I commend Priest's original zombie ideas. The term 'rotter' is both apt and phonetically pleasing, and I liked the idea that these zombies were created by a poisonous gas. However, there is no attempt to explain why this 'blight' created the undead, or why or how it was being formed beneath the city. The characters don't even wonder about this, which I found strange. The role of the zombies in the plot is quite unoriginal. They are just there to loom, chase and destroy.

The steampunk elements are largely aesthetic. There are copious amounts of goggles, airships, weird weapons and strange devices. Nothing seems superficial in the sense that all the steampunk objects are important to the narrative. However, there is no real sense of rebellion in this text, no real sense of the 'punk'. This book doesn't really try to hold up a mirror to anything, to reveal any ugly truth.

The book itself bears a sepia text (as opposed to traditional black) which I personally found a little hard on the eyes. However, I adore the cover art and design.

Overall, I did enjoy reading Boneshaker, despite its flaws. Priest's imagined world is rich and dark. Perhaps with a little more editing and fine tuning, this book could have been even better.

Rating: *** (3/5 stars)

Friday, 19 November 2010

Belief

In my last post, I talked about creative doubt. Last night, I went to see Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story which was showing at my local cinema. The most interesting part of the documentary, to me, was about Izzard's beginnings. His sheer determination. To try new things. To keep going even when everyone told him he was terrible. His belief in himself.

"You've got to believe you can be a stand-up before you can be a stand-up. You have to believe you can act before you can act. You have to believe you can be an astronaut before you can be an astronaut. You've got to believe."


And it's true. Because if you don't believe in yourself, then you're setting yourself up for a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. As Izzard says in the documentary, it's a mind game. It's psychological.

And yet, you still have to question yourself, otherwise you 'could be lying in a ditch, at the end of your career' when you thought you were on top of the world. You have to believe in yourself, but not to the point of self-delusion. It's a careful balancing act.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Doubt

Am I a writer? Do I want to be a writer? I’ve invested all of my worldly savings into my Masters course. A brave move? Or a stupid one? Am I buying the time to write? Or am I using it to justify myself as a writer? In which case, surely I’m not really one.

The thought of having to sit down and write isn’t pleasant to me. It seems like a chore. I’m crippled with self-doubt before I even start. It’s only once I’ve written something, I feel good. It’s only once I have a chunk of text down, and edited it, I’m sometimes quite pleased with what I’ve written. I feel like a writer.

And then if I don’t write, I feel guilty. I feel terrible.

Last night I had a strange experience. I was getting ready to have my bath. I usually read in the bath, and I was looking round my bedroom for a book to take with me. I had an urge to read a certain story, to find out what happens, and then I realised after a few seconds that the story I was thinking of was my work-in-progress. I guess that’s quite a good sign (for my writing – a bad sign for my sanity).

I’ve written nearly 10,000 words of my novel. My most sustained project yet. But it’s taken me over two months to write it. About an average of 150 words a day. Terrible, since I’ve quit my full time job to do this.

Why do I write? I don’t know. I yearn to see my writing in print, to hold my novel in my hands, printed by a respectable publisher. But that thought also fills me with fear. I have thin skin. I see premonitions of my novel being rated ‘one out of five stars’ on Amazon. Of scathing reviews. Worst, of being accused of ripping off others’ ideas. That my work is horribly unoriginal.

And if I find writing so hard, and it takes me so long, how on earth could I write more than one book? How awfully un-author-like that is. I should be biting at the bit to get to my keyboard, to furiously exorcise the stories in my head. And yet I’m not. I’m lounging around in my dressing gown, watching day-time telly, refreshing Facebook.

Would I be damning myself if I publish this post? Would I be admitting something terrible? Or am I just going through a phase? A phase that’s hard to shake. I’m hoping things will get easier.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Weird Writing


I came across this great article today over at Uncanny Valley. 'Workshopping the Weird Kid' talks about the difficulties of giving group feedback to those writers who produce strange and unsettling work.

"It's simply inappropriate to suggest to someone who's written a story with a unicorn that the unicorn be taken out because it's weird. Because it's not relevant, because it's not effective, because it's not putting tension on any part of the story, sure. But its weirdness is conditional to its existence. If it wasn't weird, it would be a horse."

"It can be really difficult... to examine the weirdness present in a story for its utility instead of for the effects it was intended to produce--confusion, disgust, shock, alienation. These are valid effects for fiction, but like any other writing decision, they must be made to do work on the level of story and not just the level of reader reaction. Saying 'I wanted the reader to feel confused', ... does not in itself justify confusion."


Tracy Bowling really gets to the heart of this issue in her article. And it's something I come across when reading submissions for Inkspill Magazine. I want to publish highly creative work, including things that are considered 'weird'. But just submitting a weird story won't cut it. As Bowling points out in the quotes above, the weirdness needs to be intrinsic to the work.
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