Sunday, April 21, 2013

Review: The Listeners, by Harrison Demchick

The ListenersThe Listeners by Harrison Demchick
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Harrison Demchick's The Listeners is a novel which, in this reviewer's opinion, could have been great, breaking all borders of genre. Alas, it falls short, due I believe to lack of good developmental editing. Certainly Demchick demonstrates he is a literary adept, with several passages that are breath-taking in their impact, and his concept is a new perspective on the much-overdone zombie apocalypse trope, enough so it kept this somewhat jaded reviewer reading. That says a great deal.

The story revolves, for the most part, around a young boy, Daniel Raymond, who finds himself adrift in a locked-down American city borough. There is the impression, through the boy's actions, he might be autistic, but that is never realized, so the reader is left to assume the boy is instead suffering from extreme shock. Simply put, the plot sees Daniel adopted by a quasi-religious male cult in which all followers, but for the leader, are relieved of their right ears so they might better hear the truth, or lies, we're not sure which because the lines become very blurred after awhile.

While the plague that destroys the city revolves around a zombie-creating virus, the real story is one of brutal survival and the bestiality of humankind, and ultimately becomes a vignette of gun-culture, jingoistic America. All very gritty and powerful stuff.

The actualisation, however, of the story is a confused and conflicting timeline that jumps so rapidly between past and present, without any linear landmarks in either period, that the story falters, stutters and several times comes very close to termination. Demichick's attempt to echo the protagonist's confusion and isolation through this timeline device is laudable, and with even a little guidance from Bancroft Press' editors would have been brilliant.

And while I'm greatly attracted to ambiguous endings because they often reflect life, Demchick's ending defies understanding and seems to completely contradict his protagonist's motivation. It's almost as though having gone on for too long (the story does tend to drag on after awhile), Demchick threw up his metaphorical hands and said, the hell with it, plucked an ending out of the air and tacked it on to his manuscript.

Having said all that, Demchick demonstrates clear promise as a writer, and I hope, with better editorial guidance, he will realize his full potential.

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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Review: The Mapmaker's War

The Mapmaker's War: A LegendThe Mapmaker's War: A Legend by Ronlyn Domingue
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ronlyn Domingue's latest novel, The Mapmaker's War: A Legend is an ambitious literary novel that more easily slides into the canon of magic realism than it does commercial fantasy. Generally an epic tale of a woman who defies convention and national obligation, the story explores issues of equality not only of the sexes, but of cultures, of governments founded on imperialism at the expense of all integrity, versus the cost of pacifism.

Brilliantly told from second person, present tense, Domingue's handling of this difficult voice is immediate, brilliant and compelling. At no point is dialogue written, rather it's told, and again demonstrates the author's skill in being able to take what could have been an extremely narrator-intrusive, action-stopping technique, and instead has rendered a story of imperatives.

The story itself is, as all timeless stories, driven by relationships and the characters behind those relationships, and in this case both are three dimensional and believable.

In tone I was very much minded of some of Ursula K. LeGuin and Candas Jane Dorsey's works, in particular Always Coming Home and Black Wine respectively.

Both an emotional and contemplative read, I highly recommend The Mapmaker's War to any lover of novels with depth and insight.

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Saturday, April 6, 2013

Review: The Age of Ice

The Age of Ice: A NovelThe Age of Ice: A Novel by J. M. Sidorova
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

How to assess J.M. Sidorova's debut novel, The Age of Ice? Not an easy task.

The premise of the tale is an epic journey of a Russian nobleman over 200 years of his unnaturally extended life, from 18th century Czarist Russia, through countless wars, political upheaval both national and international. Throughout that journey we are witness to protagonist, Prince Alexander M. Velitzyn's, struggle with his strange physiology: he generates cold. Any extreme emotion will cause discomfort, even harm, to anyone he touches, a sort of cold version of Midas' Touch.

In essence the story explores an age-old concept: what does it mean to be human? And with that premise of course comes exploration of love in all its permutations and perversions.

The narrative voice is first person, past tense, but told in an impersonal, distant tone. While that choice of voice very much reflects Velitzyn's struggle with his inability to embrace or express any intimacy because of the cold he will generate, it also, at times, tends to alienate the reader so that development of pathos for Velitzyn and his plight becomes strained. I'm not sure how else Sidorova might have related this story as effectively. Perhaps that's in fact one of the strengths of the story, rather than a weakness, that the author has so skilfully embodied Velitzyn's ability (or disability, depending on perspective)that the entire narrative is cold, just as the protagonist is cold both physically and socially.

There is little by way of actual dialogue in the story. Instead, Sidorova has chosen to relate dialogue rather than write dialogue, which again reinforces the theme of emotional and physical cold.

Along with Velitzyn's strange ability to generate epic proportions of cold, is his longevity. While his physical appearance arrests at about the age of 50, he goes on to witness over two centuries, chasing love, chasing an answer to his physical aberrations, exploring business enterprises, artistic development of his cold ability by way of ice sculpture, and in the end abandons all enterprise simply to increase his amassed wealth by brokering deals.

Even then, thwarted still by love and the lack of any answers to what, exactly, he is, he disappears into the Arctic sunset, as it were, with the hope of regenerating the ice cap in order to arrest global warming. It's this final act which, in my opinion, is the undoing of what could have been a great literary novel. It seems almost a throw-away ending to a novel that ended up too long, too repetitive, almost as though Sidorova was searching for an ending and in the end gave up.

Still, some fascinating study of the effects of cold on humans in Siberia in the 19th century, some moments of beautiful writing, and some incisive insight into human nature. I would definitely watch for more from Sidorova.

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