Thursday, September 26, 2013

Medical science gone too far

Science has a way of taking something that seems completely commonplace and making it into the next leap forward. Medicine especially can take the strangest things, like white willow bark, turn the extracted acetylsalicylic acid into salicylic acid, and market it as Asprin. Russia took a different route to fight bacterial infections than the West, and now uses a variation of a microbe found in the sewers called bacteriophages to attack the specific infection found in the patient without damaging surrounding tissues. Ideas that not too long ago were the stuff of science fiction have been appearing in the real world.

In Parasite, by Mira Grant, the scientists and SymboGen Corporation have taken that idea a step further. They've genetically engineered the tapeworm parasite into a whole healthcare system. It can secrete hormones such as insulin, making most maintenance medications obsolete. It has just enough markers similar to human DNA to avoid an immune system response, and it's unable to reproduce, so it can't escape into the wild.

Her symbiote is the only reason anyone can figure that Sally Mitchell survived her car accident. After being in a coma, with a diagnosis of "clinical brain death," her family made the painful decision to take her off of life support, so her organs could be used for other patients. As they were saying their final goodbyes, however, Sal's eyes snapped open. 

The only lasting effect from her accident seemed to be a profound amnesia, which left her a complete blank slate. The last few years have been spent learning to walk and talk, feed herself and interact properly with others. Now, Sal's able to work part-time at an animal shelter, and even has a boyfriend. She's also turned into SymboGen's pet guinea pig, since no one else has ever come back from such massive trauma, symbiote or no.

That's not the only thing that SymboGen has on its plate. People have been acting oddly. Sal's seen it herself. People will be perfectly fine one minute, and then turn into something like sleepwalkers. They'll simply stop what they're doing and wander off, eventually falling into comas. And as both SymboGen and her parents become more and more controlling, Sal will have to start finding answers on her own.

Parasite give a lot of information to the reader very quickly, starting most chapters with 'excerpts' from news articles and biographies involving SymboGen and its founders. Grant excels at this type of info-dump, never making the reader feel talked down to or bored. While a few of the characters, especially Sal, occasionally react in ways that make the reader want to shake them by the shoulders until they see what's right in front of their faces, Parasite is an inventive rollercoaster of a novel, that slowly turns from a near-future science-fiction novel to eerily creepy horror.

Highs: Tansy, with a very Harley Quinn style personality, is one of my favorite characters in a long while

Lows: As smart as many of the characters are, it's as if they were being purposefully dense about one particular plot point

Verdict: Mira Grant is back in fine form, with a new universe to explore

Further Reading: Feed, Machine Man

Monday, September 23, 2013

Manga Monday: Eren's hardest trial yet

Eren, Misaka and Armin face a new enemy - their fellow soldiers - in Attack on Titan Volume 3

Attack on Titan Volume 3 is, of course, part of an ongoing series. Check out the review for Volume 1 here, and Volume 2 here.  Otherwise, read on!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

A blend of the modern and the traditional

The lines between the modern, the traditional and the magical blur in Nnedi Okorafor's short story collection Kabu Kabu.

In the titular story, all Ngozi wants is to get to the airport. Her sister, while born in America like her, is getting married in Nigeria, and she needs to support her through the unfamiliar ceremonies. But after a late start, she only has half an hour to make it to O'Hare. Maybe that's why she takes the kabu-kabu that stops for her. A Chicago cop, she knows better than to get into an unregistered cab., but the ride that she takes goes much farther than a simple pickpocketing.

'The Ghastly Bird' is a homage to one of humanity's atrocities against the natural world. A renowned ornithologist, Zev chooses to make Mauritius his base of operations. Once home to the flightless, trusting dodo, Zev is convinced that the bird was too smart to go extinct so easily. Rather, the dodo must be hiding somewhere on the island, biding its time until ti is safe to reappear. He creates a wonderful sanctuary around his home, including fruit trees that are favorites of the island's indigenous birds. And one morning, he hears that distinctive call.

'The Carpet' is the nearest that this collection comes to a haunted house story. Sisters Zuma and Mukoso have traveled to their father's home village in Nigeria to visit their family, as well as to check out the house that their parents had built their for themselves. After a strange run-in at the market, the sisters arrive at the house to find it completely empty. Not only have all the furnishings for the house disappeared, there is no plumbing or wiring either. It has all been taken by the people of the village, their own family members. Rather than stay in the home of these people, the sisters choose to stay in the empty house by themselves. But the nights are awfully dark out in the village, and the sounds outside their bedroom door aren't what they're used to.

Okorafor is a master of the short form. In just a few pages, she can transport the reader a thousand miles away, seamlessly blending reality and fantasy in a way that leaves the reader almost questioning where the line between real and unreal lies.

The only flaw with the collection, and it's a big one, is in the first story. 'The Magical Negro' is a response to the stereotypical "exotic shaman survives just long enough to give the hero that vital piece of information before he's killed off" trope that appears all too often in poorly written fiction. While it's well-written, not only is it not representative of the rest of the collection, out-of-context it's quite hostile to the reader. If I had flipped through the book at a store and stopped to read the first story, I'd have put it back on the shelf and missed out on the rest of this wonderful book. Instead, I might have put this as a closing story for the collection.

Beyond that, though, Kabu Kabu is magical realism at its finest, showing the world a mythology sorely overlooked by most authors.

Highs: The imagery of teaching a security and repair android to appreciate music is absolutely beautiful

Lows: It was hard at times to tell if the stories had interconnected storylines, or if they were each different takes on the same folk story

Verdict: A hauntingly beautiful collection of stories

Further Reading: Moscow but Dreaming, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, The Midnight Palace

Monday, September 16, 2013

Manga Monday: Like mother, like daughter

Osamu Tezuka revisits the realm of Silverland from his beloved shojo classic in The Twin Knights.

The Twin Knights is the sequel to Princess Knight. Although it takes places years later, there are a few spoilers from the first series. The review of Princess Knight Volume 1 is here. Otherwise, read on!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Attending the Season in London has rarely been so dangerous

With an uncle like Sherlock Holmes, it only follows that Evelina Cooper would end up in the middle of a murder mystery in Emma Jane Holloway's debut novel, A Study in Silks.

Evelina hasn't had the easiest upbringing. Her mother left her easy life when she married into a gypsy family, and after she died, Evelina was lucky that the circus kept her on. Of course, she worked for her keep, as a tumbler and acrobat, but it's hard for a young girl to bring enough of a draw to justify the extra mouth to feed. But as long as she was there, Niccolo was also around to keep an eye on her, either as a big brother figure, or perhaps something more. From her father's side, she's also inherited a knack for the magical. Able to talk with small spirits around her, she and Niccolo have an affinity with each other than neither can quite control.

But later, as she got older, her mother's family took an interest in her. Eventually, she's taken away from the circus by her Grandmother Holmes, and installed in a proper boarding school. It took quite awhile to adapt to the much different society she found herself in, but in the end she learned that she has a real knack for her schoolwork, and enjoys learning more than anything else. She also developed something of a knack for clockwork devices, much to the chagrin of anyone who would want her to be a proper young lady. Her new dream, though, is to attend one of the Women's Colleges.

While at school, she befriended a rather sickly girl named Imogen Bancroft. Much more the proper young lady than Miss Cooper, Imogen helped Evelina catch up with the ways of the gentry, and they developed a fast friendship. Now that Imogen is ready for her first Season in London, she's invited Evelina to stay with her at her family's house and partake of the balls with her. And perhaps they can both find husbands out of it, as well.

All these plans are thrown into question, however, when one of the maids is found murdered. Any sort of attention to the Bancroft family about something so unsavory could ruin poor Imogen's chances at making a good match, so Evelina takes it upon herself to solve the mystery before it gets too well-known. As the mystery deepens, Evelina finds herself facing down enemies, both steam-powered and magical, that she would never have believed. From a man that Lord Bancroft wishes would stay in his past, to Tobias Bancroft's idle mischief involving eight-legged mechanical chaos, the Bancroft house spirals out of control, and it'll take a mind like the great Holmes himself to set it all right again.

Reading this as an ebook, the reader doesn't quite realize what a weighty tome it is. With the paperback edition coming in at a hefty 560 pages, this is not a Steampunk novella to be ripped through in an evening. Rather, the reader enjoys the points of view of not only Evelina, but Tobias and Niccolo as well, along with the intertwining mysteries that each is involved with. While there is a bit of the love triangle between the three of them, it's not the bodice-ripper that the genre has, unfortunately, become known for. Instead, we get a proper Victorian will-she-won't-she as Miss Cooper must finally decide whether to be a part of the circus she grew up in, or the gentry that affords her the opportunity of college. Either way, there will be hurt feelings and regrets. A Study in Silks, the first novel of The Baskerville Affair, leaves the reader eagerly anticipating the next installment.

Highs: Holloway perfectly conveys the longing for a former life that Evelina is going through, especially during the scene at the circus

Lows: People who are attached to the original Sherlock Holmes stories, in which the answer is never magic, might object to the addition of magic to this story

Verdict: A wonderful book that will enthrall the reader from beginning to end

Further Reading: A Study in Darkness, 'Clockwork Chickadee', 'Tanglefoot'

Monday, September 9, 2013

Manga Monday: No time to mourn

Our new graduates are called on to defend humanity from an invasion lead by the Colossus Titan in Attack On Titan Volume 2

Attack on Titan Volume 2 is, of course, the sequel to Attack on Titan Volume 1. Check out the review for Volume 1 here.  Otherwise, read on!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

An early Steampunk romp through Victorian London

After his father's death, a young man's world begins to crumble around him in K W Jeter's Infernal Devices: A Mad Victorian Fantasy.

When George Dower inherited a watch shop from his absent father, he knew it wouldn't be the best fit for him. A basic understanding of such devices is hardly enough to make sense of the amazing inventions found in his shop, and a disaster involving a clockwork choir in a nearby church was almost enough to ruin him once and for all. But for the time being, Dower's been getting by with the simple repairs he's able to do, along with selling off some of the more complex items he's found in the workshop.

His bubble of genteel poverty bursts the day a strange man enters the shop hoping for a repair. Described as 'a murderous savage Ethiope' by his loyal, if somewhat dramatic, assistant Creff, he's brought a small chest with a device the likes of which Dower has never seen and certainly cannot repair. Nevertheless, the Brown Leather Man isn't willing to take no for an answer, and leaves the device, along with prepayment, behind.

After a break-in by perhaps the strangest pair of confidence men ever to grace Victorian England's streets, Mr. Dower's life simply derails. From The Church of Saint Monkfish, to a violinist with an ego problem, to a nobleman's delusional plan to destroy the Earth, it's a wonder that poor George doesn't simply give up and go mad. It would certainly be the easier course of action, especially after the Ladies Union for the Suppression of Carnal Vice starts chasing after him.

KW Jeter may be best known for coining the term 'Steampunk' as a tongue-in-cheek reference to an earlier work in the late 1980s, but his stories deserve more credit than this. Constant action, curious characters and a splendid streak of dark humor makes Infernal Devices a modern steampunk classic.

Highs: So many scientific ideas, viewed through the quasi-scientific lens of the Victorian age, come together beautifully at the end

Lows: The Angry Robot ebook edition is full of spelling and formatting errors, so a paper copy would be the way to go here

Verdict: One of the earliest modern works of steampunk fiction, with a story that holds up well, this is a quick read that fans of the genre should definitely check out

Further Reading: Fiendish Schemes, 'Tanglefoot', Chasing the Moon

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Undead army VS mysterious ninja

Magic, martial arts and an undead army all come together in Jon F. Merz's The Undead Hordes of Kan-Gul.

All Ran really wants is to travel to the west, to the kingdom of Valrus. After rescuing Princess Cassandra, Ran had to report back to his clan, but now that he's out on a wandering quest, he fully intends to wander his way west.

His choice of boat is rather unfortunate, however, and he quickly finds himself shipwrecked on an island rumored to be the home of an evil sorcerer. Ran isn't the type to believe fantastical rumors of armies of dead soldiers risen once more, but there's something odd about this island. Besides the swarms of mosquitoes, there doesn't seem to be anything else alive on it. No birds, no mice, nothing. And when one of the castaways disappears seemingly without a trace, it becomes apparent that they need to get off this island, however they can.

His fellow castaways are something of a mixed bag. The rich merchant that Ran first encounters at the pub seems like he'll be completely useless in a situation where money doesn't help. The ship's captain seems pragmatic enough, but that shark bite to the leg is going to slow him down a bit. The beautiful sorceress-to-be and her bodyguard are surprisingly able, and the old warrior whose background is as fuzzy as Ran's is a strong ally.

As they cross the island, one thing is made perfectly clear: the rumors of Kan-Gul are absolutely true.

Merz creates an alternate Asia for this novel, and gives the reader glimpses into what seems to be a very fully developed world. The characters gain depth and personalities during the course of the novel, and the reader ends up rooting for the good guys simply because they're likable. It's a classic, clean-cut good-guys-versus-bad-guys tale that leaves the reader wishing the next book was already out.

Highs: Watching Jysal develop from a young damsel in distress to a very powerful, if uncontrolled sorceress in her own right, is fun to watch

Lows: I caught a few of the 'twists' pretty early on, but that might be because I've been reading a lot of 'twist-y' books lately

Verdict: A very fun, traditional adventure novel, with dark magic, ninjas and zombies tossed in for fun

Further Reading: Under a Graveyard Sky, The Legend of Eli Monpress, Moribito