Sunday, July 24, 2016

The wheel turns, the temple restored, the invisible hand

Well, I'm home from a weekend of camping, which lead to an evening of sitting on the deck of a rented camper finishing R. S. Belcher's latest novel, The Brotherhood of the Wheel.

Now, earlier on this week, I had posted that this one was a bit like a cross between Seanan McGuire and Simon R. Green. After finishing it, I think we can add Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Clive Barker's Books of the Art to that list. This is not to say it's not an original and exhilarating read, but more to say it's one of those that left me hungry to read other books I felt echoing through the prose while waiting for Mr. Belcher to release a new one eventually. (On the bright side, a quick perusal of goodreads shows he's got a third Golgotha coming, and a follow up to Nightwise in the works. Hopefully Jimmie also gets a sequel.)

So, here we go. Jesse James Aussapile is a long distance trucker with his own rig. He also operates as a Knight in the Brotherhood of the Wheel. Which is... well... shorthand for being part of one of the three branches left of the Knights Templar after the dissolution a few millennia ago. (The others, The Benefactors and The  Builders have their own foci. We'll come back here in a sec.) The Brethren are kind of a loose alliance of folks who patrol the roads trying to keep people safe from BAD things. The Builders are the knowledge gatherers, and The Benefactors the influence peddlers. We meet Jimmie outside St. Louis as he helps stop a highway serial killer who thinks of himself as the Marquis. (He read 120 Days of Sodom, skipping the philosophical bits.)

Jimmie has a 14 year old daughter and a pregnant wife who know very little of his side job that doesn't pay much of anything.

We meet Heck, who rides with the Blue Jocks, a Motorcycle club his mom and adoptive dad work with. Heck's stepfather has died when we meet him, leaving his mother to tell him to seek out Uncle Jimmie and become his squire.

We have Lovina, an investigator out of New Orleans, investigating a series of missing children. Who gets confronted by Black Eyed Kids. Who are pretty much what they sound like, children and teens with black eyes staring out from under hoodies, who knock on doors and tell people to join them. No one knows what happens to thos who take them up on their offer.

Eventually, we also get Max, a Builder, who comes out to help figure out what's up with all the mysteries.

Also, in the mix, although a separate story line until about 2/3 of the way through, we have the town of Four Houses, somewhere in Kansas near the geographical center of the US. Except no one knows where the heck it actually is. We enter Four Houses with 4 teenagers on their way to a party, who get run off the road by a guy on a motorcycle who's helmet is like that of a Japanese Oni. The Scode brothers tow them to town, wherein one girl dies by Black Eyed Children, two get captured, and one Ava, finds shelter with the town crone, a former M15 operative taking care of her dementia ridden husband.

Lest I forget, another subplot in here revolves around two missing adults, one of whom is on good terms with George Norse, who runs a late night AM radio show exploring the supernatural as well as a TV show.

There's a heck of a lot of metaphysical theory in here. Some of it, the idea of the US highway and interstate system being physical representations of Ley Lines (or long xian, dragon lines), I'm familiar with. While I won't comment on the validity of the theory, I think anyone who's live anywhere along I70 can confirm the thing is a weather line. Others, like the idea of the 3 feminine principle embodied in Maiden, Mother, and Crone and the male principle embodied in The Horned Lord are also represented by the Tetragramaton, I wasn't. His timeline is a bit off on some stuff, since he mentions reports of Shadow People not showing up until the 90's.....

Like his other three published books, this one delights in peeling back a layer of objective reality and giving us a peek at some alternate realities that exist behind the curtain. And, like the other three, the conclusion leaves me, the reader, wanting more.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Here I thought Butcher was writing himself into a corner...

Somewhere during the great library remodel, I managed to miss Benedict Jacka's new Alex Verus novel, Burned. Thankfully, that has now been remedied.

We start this installment off with Alex, independent Divination Mage, finding out that one of his enemies of the Light Council, has managed to get a quorum together of the Senior Council long enough to pass a death sentence on Alex. However, as the vote is 3-1, with 3 votes out of town for the Christmas holiday, Alex gets a week reprieve before the edict goes into effect. During that week, he's free to get at least 2 other votes against the edict, which would cancel out the edict. However, as the order states he and his dependents would be fair game, this means it also affects Luna, Variam, and Anne.

As such, large amounts of the book are spent trying to free the three from death by association, with arrangements trying to be made to get Anne and Varium under a different mentor and getting Luna Journeyman status (rare, since she's an Adept, technically.)

In the meantime, Alex, trying to secure the votes, winds up joining the Keepers on a mission in Syria to prevent his former mentor from retrieving an artifact from a bubble dimension that only opens during specific astrological events.

Metaplot wise, we find out more about why Chalice (the Dark Mage training Luna) is in England, the political divides in the Light council, and bits and pieces of what the Dark Mages are trying to accomplish.

While, as always, a fun read, the ending sets up what promises to be a very angsty continuation eventually. I'll be waiting with bells on.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

I knew retail was hell, but this is ridiculous

I wasn't expecting Grady Hendrix's Horrorstör to be quite as fast of a read as it was, but here I am posting about it a few days after starting it.

We start with Amy, who works in the Home Office section of the Cuyahoga County (That's Cleveland for all you non-Ohio folks) Orsk store. What is Orsk? I'm so glad you asked! It's basically IKEA, only American owned, and therefore even cheaper! (Seriously, there's much in the way of discussion on the psychology of the setup of the store, it's basically IKEA without the horse meat meatballs.) Amy had transferred over from the Youngstown Orsk prior to the start of this, and wants to transfer back, given how unhappy she is at at Cuyahoga County Orsk. Much of this is due to her dislike of Basil, the Deputy Manager. Basil is the one who's swallowed the Kool Aid, quoting from the founder's book, following the policies to the letter of the law, and generally being what amounts to a Paladin in the service of Orsk.

Amy is also drowning in student loan debt, having been forced to drop out due to her mother's remarriage screwing up her benefit package. She's behind on rent, and scared of moving back in with her mother.

When we first meet Basil, he indeed chews out Amy for having her phone out on the floor. That it had gone off with one of the mysterious texts that employees keep getting while in the store (Unknown number, and the text reads "help".) And then Amy gets summoned for a closed door meeting with Basil, which she assumes is to fire her. She's greeted by Ruth Ann, the cashier whom everyone in the store loves for her friendly demeanor. Both think they're getting fired, but it turns out Basil wants them both to join him for a special project. It seems that some of the stranger occurrences around the store (poop stained couches, damaged merchandise, etc.) are suspected to be vandalism happening after close. Since Orsk doesn't employ an overnight staff, Basil wants Amy and Ruth Ann to join him that evening for a double overtime, paid in cash shift to see if they can't figure out what's going on, prior to a visit from corporate. During the meeting, we find out that Amy failed her assessment for promotion, which Basil, who as much as he may not like Amy, wants her to retake the test, since he feels she's management material. He also bribes her with approving her transfer back to Youngstown.

Fast forward, and the three are locked in to Orsk overnight, although Amy keeps visiting the bathroom out of nerves and a desire to get away from Basil. She notices some new graffiti on the walls when she's in there. Graffiti that seems to expand upon each visit. When Basil goes off on his own to patrol, Ruth Ann and Amy decide to go together rather than be alone in the creepy store. They run into employees Trinity and Matt, who gummed up the Employee entrance to do a ghost hunt in the store. The entire proposal they have is comedy gold and lends some levity into later events. Basil, who's having a conniption fit about the two extras, gets even more annoyed when they find Carl, a homeless guy, has been living in the store at night. Carl claims he hasn't been behind the vandalism, since he's much more interested in having a happy sort of home. Mind you, they also find out the graffiti is now covering the entire women's bathroom in notes about years served and talking about the Beehive.

Somewhere in here, we find out Cuyahoga County Orsk is built on a swamp that used to be The Cuyahoga Panopticon run by Warden Josiah Worth, who basically ran it like an asylum. When Basil goes off to wait for the cops that Amy called that Basil wants to cancel, Trinity decides holding a seance is EXACTLY the kind of footage her new Ghost Hunting show needs. To add to the really poor decision making, Matt convinces everyone to handcuff themselves together in the circle. And well, given the nature of the narrative, let's just say the seance works better than expected.

The rest of the book is basically standard haunted house boilerplate, what with fake doors in the shop opening onto new/old worlds, everyone getting split up and tortured at various points, teh sales display floor randomly rearranging itself.....

While the ending leaves a bit to be desired, the book, despite its decided lack of originality, is a fun and amusing read. The actual physical book is presented as an Orsk catalog, with each chapter named after a variety of furniture available in Orsk. Or sort of. Post seance, the pictures and descriptions change a bit, as we learn Norwegian terms for torture devices. It's a bit like the original Silent Hill game on PlayStation, when you cross from the abandoned town into...someplace else.

Honestly, I went into this expecting something along the lines of Ramsey Campbell's The Overnight. What I got was a derivative hodgepodge that works almost in spite of itself. Well worth checking out.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The adventures of SPACE JESUS in the alternate future!

So, as a few folks probably know, I finished the last book reviewed on here a few days prior to my reserves showing up at the library, which forced me to dig around my shelves to find something I hadn't read before. Which ended up being Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, which I must have picked up at a book sale at some point. (I thought maybe it was Dad's copy, but the printing date of this edition was 1981, so I'm doubting it.)

Anyway, I know people who love this book, and I know several people who's reviews are unprintable here in what I maintain as PG-space.

I'm kind of coming down between the two factions and giving it a "Meh".

For those who haven't read it, it basically follows the life of one Michael Valentine Smith, born of an affair between two people on a mission to Mars. The crew all died (and it's hinted the wife of the father had something do with that, since she wasn't the mother), except for the baby, who was raised by Martians.

Mike comes back with the second journey to Mars, who arrive 25 years after the voyage Mike was born on. Something about WWIII causing a real dent in space exploration. There's a whole bunch of political rambling about how Mike is the sole owner of Mars under the laws of the World government, which leads to Mike being locked up in a hospital. Thankfully, Nurse Jill and her sort of beau Ben (who's a journalist), manage to break him out after becoming a Water Brother with Michael. (Sharing water becomes a major theme throughout the book. Given the scarcity of water on Mars, it takes on a mythological significance to share the water of life.) Jill manages to sneak Mike out of the hospital after Ben gets vanished, and gets him to an old lawyer's house. Jubal, an attorney and curmudgeon, takes Mike in, and more or less raises him while negotiating with the Secretary General of the world government to keep Mike safe.

Mike eventually goes out to learn to be human while applying Martian principles to the experience. He takes Jill with him. The do the Carnival circuit. They meet Patty, who's a Fosterite, a sect that's basically televangelists who don't care about sin, as long as you sin using church approved materials to do so. She recognizes Mike as a Holy Man.

Skip ahead a bit, and Mike starts a church with him at the head. (I'm sure people who've read the book will quibble with that statement, but for the sake of writing this, it's true as far as it goes.) Everyone we've met through the course of the book winds up in the Nest, the 9th circle of water brothers. Those that Grok.

And in the end, because this is space Jesus, he gets his own version of the Passion, and in what I assume was supposed to shock readers in 1961 (or see who actually groked the meaning), Jubal and Duke eat part of his remains to complete the groking.

Now, as I mentioned above, this was written in 1961, so it predates the Sexual Revolution  by a few years, so I imagine people were downright SHOCKED and APPALLED by Mike's rather libertine lifestyle. Whereas people who grew up after the Sexual Revolution are SHOCKED and APPALLED by the rather large amount of sexism that drips off the page. (Jill makes a comment I see quoted in most of the negative reviews about how 9 times out of 10, a woman who gets raped did something to encourage it. There's also quite a bit about a woman's role at various points.) However, even within the confines they're placed in, the women are actually better written as characters than I had expected. They're liberated enough to do as the please, even if most of the time, that involves finding their pleasure with a man.

Also, unlike say, Dan Simmons, Heinlein has no qualms with Islam. (Had he lived longer, that might have changed... by all accounts, he started off quite liberal and drifted quite right over time. While much of his philosophy here leans libertarian, he did advocate military service as a social duty to gain rights.) This gets amusing to keep in mind, since the Nest is mostly a communal society, even if Mike does recognize in the end that human nature will destroy such arrangements on a global scale.

Oddly enough, though, the book reminded me the most of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, up until Mike's grokking of the human condition at the end. Well, that, and Mike dying, instead of using his virility to break free of the chains of leeches on his right to copulate with Dagmar.... While the end results of both philosophies differ, both share a libertine approach to relationships. However, unlike Rand, Mike goes Eastern with saying that we are all God. Not a separate entity, but a spark we all share. And, of course, Mike can grok and express where his philosophy fails in the end. Heaven forbid John Galt do similar.

I will also admit that I found myself laughing early on as Madame Vesant, astrologer, counseled the Secretary General's wife based on star charts, realizing that Heinlein predicted Nancy Regan's relationship with Joan Quigleyabout 20 years before it happened. Then again, he predicted hippies about 7 years early.

In the end, I'm reminded of a line from one of my favorite musicals: "Nothing you have said is Revelation." I've run across much of this under different auspices and from earlier sources. However, its influence on modern Science Fiction can't be denied. And it's not hard to see how it has influenced my friends who read it earlier in life than I did. So, "Meh".