The Twelve by Justin Cronin

The Twelve by Justin CroninI recall not thinking too highly of the first book in this series. Why did I read the sequel? Because I’m a completionist? Because my memory of the first had faded? Because I’m willing to go through a bad book sometimes just for the fun of writing a bad review? (Mostly this one probably.)

It might be all of the above.

This book was terrible.

Let me get that out in the open, just so it’s clear. The first book was sort of a zombie/vampire book shoved into the plot of Watership Down with varying degrees of success. It was also full of weird spiritualistic mumbo mixed with religious symbolism and pseudo science jumbo (with an emphasis on the pseudo).

This book turns everything up to eleven except the excitement, plot, character development, interest, and general readability. Oh and the prose is so purple in places it’s hard to see the words. In other places it’s just bad, there isn’t even an attempt to not sound awkward. Much of the book feels completely unedited, or even written coherently. It sounds like Cronin took a nap while typing and when he woke decided not to go back and read what he had written. Do you ever read a scientific journal and come across an article that is talking about something that you don’t have the background to understand and you know what each word means on its own but the sentence has no context or meaning and your brain just can’t parse it? That is exactly what it’s like read Justin Cronin only without the advanced ideas. Sometimes the individual words make sense but the configuration of them is completely baffling. Not unlike listening to a two year old babble. You know there’s a story in there but you just can’t see it through the obfuscation.

I frequently found myself saying “what just happened?” Eventually I learned that I’m not supposed to understand, because nothing happened.

All the old characters are back. Correction, none of the old characters are back but there are a bunch of analogues that happen to have the same names. There’s Peter Jaxon (much cooler name than that movie director guy) who wanders around getting angry because he can’t figure out why there’s an ‘x’ in his name. He occasionally decides to argue with people or maybe finally do something but Cronin is careful to make sure that doesn’t happen. He cuts away to talk about people nobody remembers for a couple hundred pages until our illustrious Jaxon with an ‘x’ forgets about his resolve to accomplish something.

We also get to see Amy, who inexplicably has decided to grow up (after a hundred years) and turns form a little girl to a woman over night. This means that suddenly she is a love interest for the hero — if we can figure out who that is, despite the fact that for all of the time he has known her she is a little girl. It doesn’t matter, Cronin tells us, it’s Amy, nothing really makes sense about her. He has a point.

Did I mention there are a lot of things in this book that are just plain creepy — and not in a good way?

Nerdy engineer types suddenly turn into body builder jocks, vampires are harvestable and drinking their blood provides immortality and Cronin seems to have an unhealthy obsession with the mentally handicapped — i.e. they are always bad guys. A pregnant woman who miscarries is doomed to succumb to madness and hallucinations but because she’s so beautiful all the vampires will worship her and be calm whenever she is near?

In fact the vampires are almost completely defanged. They get hunted for sport, thrown in arenas for gladiatorial combat, and harvested for their blood. I wouldn’t be surprised to see sparkling skin but I may have zoned out in self defense through some of the lengthier passages so I can neither confirm nor deny.

The only major character who is not a white person develops some kind of magical foresight powers and starts talking riddles — this must be because the magical black person in the first book was killed.

Some of the dead characters from the first book show up with no explanation and nobody is surprised in any way. Did any of the people involved in this book’s production actually read the first one? Maybe it’s not really a sequel. Maybe it’s just a similar world with characters that have the same names? I don’t know, but dead people are now alive. Living people are suddenly dead. Some vampires are nice, some are mentally handicapped so they wander around and don’t hurt people?

Cronin is incapable to telling any scene in linear order. As soon as the action starts we have to jump past it, be assured that everybody lived, then tell the action in flashback, every time. It kind of felt like the Grandpa in the Princess Bride stopping the story to say “She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time, you know.” Just in case these action scenes are too intense for you let me tell you that afterward people would wonder how he survived. Now we will take about two pages to repeat that a few times using different wording combinations just to make sure that you understand he survived. Then maybe we’ll flashback to the action — or maybe not — Cronin might decide to jump to another century, or world, entirely.

The post-apocalypse of our future is littered with popular classical literature with not a single work of popular fiction to be found. There are frequent references to characters finding old books to look at and read or reminisce about but they’re all classics of literature as if Cronin feels a need to show off which books he is familiar with. (Since romance books outsell everything by an order of magnitude, one hundred years after the collapse of society the most easily found books will probably be romance novels…)

There are so many things to complain about in this book. It’s portrayal of people is almost alway inherently racist (I don’t think this is on purpose), sexist (I’m not sure about this one) and intolerant of handicap (I’m almost convinced this is on purpose). Any time a female character starts to get a little bit confident Cronin throws her into the tired trope of getting raped to bring her down a notch. Not only is this uncomfortable to read but it’s disturbing as well. At the same time men who are child abusers and sex offender are described in a sympathetic light — they hate themselves for what they do but they can’t help it (I understand these kinds of behaviors are addictive but there is no excuse for these people).

This book is long. Much too long.

I have read and enjoyed much longer books and expect to continue to do so. What makes this book so long is not the page count but the interminable crawl of words that are saying nothing. Or if they are they are too mystical for me to make sense of. There are long passages that are written like Cronin is imagining himself a scriptural chronologer of the future where he even slips into Biblical language. The problem is that these Biblical passages lack all of the lyrical language of the actual Bible while amplifying all of it’s opacity. Cronin’s prose doesn’t so much flow as rise up suddenly and kick you in the shins with sharp boots. (The Bible is a wonderful book with language that is beautiful in it’s flow and feel. It can be hard for modern readers to understand. Cronin is impossible to understand because he just string together words that he thinks he might have heard in Bible school somewhere without any thought to actual meaning.)

There’s supposed to be a third and final book.

Will I read it?

I honestly don’t know. After The Twelve (which isn’t about the Twelve at all, by the way) I don’t know if my mind can handle that much stumbling over rocky prose and numbing pain at blatant disregard for humanity in general.

Star Wars: The Last Command by Timothy Zahn

Last Command

It’s possible that I’ve said everything I need to say about Star Wars in talking about the two previous books of this trilogy. I’m going to attempt to say more.

The Last Command is a culmination of several plot points that have been running through the trilogy since the beginning. The plots are resolved satisfactorily in an ending that is gripping and intense in ways that only the best books can manage and was much shorter than I remembered it. At one point I noticed there were only a few pages left and there was a lot left to happen. Zahn is not one of the wordy, epic tome type writers. His language is concise and harks back to much of the writing of the late sixties and early seventies when paper was at a premium and novels were printed in bite-size chunks.

I’ve already said that Zahn makes Star Wars better. This book is the end of the trilogy and the most powerful Star Wars story told so far.

One of the reasons for its power is the portrayal of compassion and the use of women as characters rather than props. Star Wars is problematic in its portrayal of women. In the original trilogy there’s really only one (I know Mon Mothma is a woman and in a position of leadership but she has how many lines again?). Let’s not even mention the later prequels — seriously, this is a can of worms that cannot be unopened — and they’re sand worms — and they’re hungry and you’re walking on their sand, near their spice… oh… wrong universe.

Zahn portrays Leia acting in the roll of mother — tending to her children — and being an important political figure and central part of the government. She faces down imperial commandos, uncovers an Imperial spy network, single-handedly turns a planet full of Imperial assassins to her side and has time to show up and rescue Luke, Han et al at the end. All of this while patching up relations between disparate faction of the New Republic and taking care of her children.

This is something that all the later books missed. They have Leia send her children away to be raised by strangers in barren caves because it will be easier for her to charge around and be an action hero if she isn’t saddled with small people to take care of. What lesser authors failed to grasp was that Leia is a mother and a hero — as any mother knows those two things are not mutually exclusive, frequently they are synonymous.

All right so Zahn did justice to Leia and made her a real character with an arc that did not consist of deciding which man she wanted to be with (by taking the decision away from her, I might add when it turned out one of them was her brother). He also added several new characters to the Star Wars cannon that persist to this day. Mara Jade is probably the foremost and with good reason. As a character she has more of a past and more dimension than any of the original cast — in fact the same can be said for nearly all of Zahn’s characters. The only reason they don’t overshadow the original movie characters is because Zahn keeps them in minor rolls. Jade, however is not in a minor roll. In fact it could be argued that she is the hero of this trilogy. Sure the books are about Luke and Han and Leia with Lando and Chewbacca thrown in but Mara is the heart, the core.

In fact the books are named after the arc that Mara goes through in each one.

Books can have a broad range of characters. Sometimes they stick with you. Some characters I know so well that I feel like I would recognize them in a crowded room. What surprised me was how little information these books actually gave us about Mara. Very little is explained, compared to how well I feel I know her. She’s like an old friend.

Mon Mothma gets to have real feelings and consistent character flaws and virtues. Winter is Leia’s friend and a master spy for the New Republic.

The other part of these books that makes them so great is the use of compassion. One of the main tenets of the Force is supposed to be compassion for others. Most writers forget that in an effort to tell a story with lots of cool battles. In The Last Command it is Leia’s willingness to show compassion on Mara — who has repeatedly threatened to kill Luke — that prompts Mara to save her form the Imperial commandos sent to kidnap her babies. It is that same kindness that turned the hearts of the Noghri. It is also what brought Karrde over to the side of the New Republic, from trying to stay neutral and what led Luke to go to C’baoth.

It’s all brilliant and well-played. The story ties up nicely with perhaps the best ending of any Star Wars book.

Yendi by Steven Brust

Yendi by Steven Brust

I find that my days of not taking Brust seriously are definitely coming to a middle. That is to say, the only thing I can do after reading this book is fall back on witty quips that were written by somebody much more clever than I.

This second book in the Vlad Taltos series actually takes place before the first one. While the first book was a fresh take on fantasy that brought some incredible newness into the genre in the nineties, the second one feels like it’s stuck in the same pattern. It loses all of it’s tension because we know how things turn out and the sometimes clever banter and sometimes painful puns have gotten old.

All of those things could be forgiven if this book was not so boring.

There is very little going on at any one time except a lot of talking heads. I still know almost nothing about what these characters look like, what their surroundings are, even their ages. There is a lot of talking, though. Vlad talks his way into a gang war, then talks until his enemy can’t help but hire assassins just to shut him up. Then there’s some kind of weird bit about who is the heir to the throne and it’s a good three chapters of talking before the reader is thoroughly confused enough for us to pretend that the characters must know what’s going on, at any rate. Then there’s some fighting with really vague descriptions and some goofy discussions about how powerful people are and how scary they are — without ever actually showing us the scary.

That’s pretty much it. Good dialogue can be very entertaining to read. Good dialogue has tension. This book has none.

I get the feeling this is kind of the MO for Brust’s work. The first book I kind of gave it a pass because his style was occasionally funny and kept me interested. With this second book I found it dull and unaffecting — which according to the spell-checker is not a word.

There are some people that just love Brust’s style and I understand that. It’s not for me. I acquired these books as an omnibus of three novels so he’s got one more chance to make me love his characters. As it is right now, I’m must not feeling it.

Purple

PurpleNature provides an infinite variety of fascinating biology. There are more strange and unknown things in this world than dreams of men, or something. One fascinating but not all that strange things is nature’s flowers that will bloom and grow wild while the trees around them are becoming yellow and dying with frost.

There is also the cursed puncturevine from which goatheads sprout that is apparently capable of disguising itself as a multitude of different plants and never dies. Cockroaches and goatheads will rule the world.

Sly Mongoose by Tobias Buckell

Sly-Mongoose

Tobias Buckell doesn’t like to keep readers waiting. Instead he shoves us into the heads of larger-than-life characters and hurls us into a zombie apocalypse in space.

The story starts with Pepper, some kind of centuries old super soldier (who is already familiar from the two previous books in the series) who is deorbiting onto a planet using a makeshift heat shield and a spacesuit, because that’s how he rolls. From there we are thrown into a world of floating cities, airships, acid clouds, hidden aliens, Aztec descendants and the ultimate democracy.

Pepper is a fascinating person, he is a force all to himself but he is not without feeling and we get little hints here and there why he roams across the galaxy throwing himself into every brutal fight and war he can find. That’s when he starts to feel a little bit human, he becomes less of a force and more of a person.

Tobias Buckell writes in a quick and sparse style. It almost feels too fast, at times like things are happening too quickly to keep up with. His prose is short, the sentences minimal and the paragraphs small enough to be taken in at a glance.

This book is short and packed with action that let’s up just enough to show characters going through real change and fighting for what they believe in. It’s one of those stories where amazing people triumph against terrible odds and I can’t recommend it highly enough. You probably don’t have to read the first two books in this series to understand this one but I can’t see why you wouldn’t want to.

Sly Mongoose is another powerful story by Tobias Buckell written with a fascinating background and a great premise in a fully imagined future that realistically combines the use of billhooks and swords with weapons that communicate directly with the brain through the nerve endings in your fingers.

Tobias Buckell will keep you turning pages.

Books I read, Pictures I take.

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