Michael Burgin

“Eleanor has been ripped out of time . . .”

Without that one little sentence on the cover, it would be easy, initially at least, to lose one’s genre bearings in the opening 70 pages or so of Jason Gurley’s Eleanor. The prologue and subsequent sections each present the reader with an efficient, though not rushed, snapshot of consecutive tragedies in one family. Connected by more than just the bloodline, each of these episodes is the sort of material from which weepy, sweeping family sagas are made. That Eleanor is, ultimately, exactly that—a sweeping family saga—should not detract from the fact it is also much, much more. These opening blows grant an intimate knowledge of the damage done by the past to the title character in the present, even as it primes the reader to desperately hope the events that follow will allow, somehow, mortal wounds to be redressed.

These opening sequences are worth lingering on for a few reasons. Beyond the need to establish reader trust, they also capture the often hard-to-grasp dilemmas of depression and motherly ambivalence with an ease and economy that pretty much “pay the toll” a reader demands from a writer to keep turning the page, no matter the genre. One could stop at the end of these alone—granted, that would be a pretty depressing place to halt—and deem this a novel worth the time.

Fortunately, there remains the whole “Eleanor being ripped out of time” thing. With past literally as prologue, Gurley turns the reader’s attention to his protagonist, a mostly isolated teenager and, in ways she cannot fully comprehend just yet, a devastated vestige of past parental mishaps and mistakes. Eleanor makes do, serving as caretaker for a mother whose anger has long since chased her father away, until one stressful day she walks through a door and . . . is somewhere else.

Eleanor (and the reader) will spend the rest of the book trying to figure out exactly what is happening, and who might be involved in causing it, but this story is not a Calgon-take-me-away escape to Narnia, the Land or Wonderland. If Eleanor wants a new world, she may have to make it herself. As for the reader, Gurley has crafted an appealing little puzzle. Whether that solution is metaphysical, spiritual, magical or scientific in nature, I’m not saying. Read it for yourself.

“Eleanor has been ripped out of time . . .” Without that one little sentence on the cover, it would be easy, initially at least, to lose one’s genre bearings in the opening 70 pages or so of Jason Gurley’s Eleanor.

Given the title of C.A. Higgins’ debut novel, Lightless, it’s fitting that so much of the tale’s enjoyment stems from how well and how long it keeps the reader in the dark.

Like any good author, Higgins has rigged the game from the beginning. There’s something about the very setup—three crew members traveling through space in a large spaceship—that might cause a claustrophobic, or monophobic, twitch in some readers. The mission of this “miracle of engineering” called Ananke and of her crew? Unknown. A mere three pages in, Althea, the ship’s engineer and novel’s protagonist, sets this particular tale in motion with two ominous words: “Someone’s boarded.”

From there, and for much of the novel, Lightless relies more on its bona fides as a suspense thriller than any overtly sci-fi-flavored action, large spaceship locale or no. Higgins never lets the ship’s population rise above five or so, and even as the population grows, she rarely presents the reader with more than three characters together at a time. The novel is mostly divided between time spent in the mind of a character and watching a particularly prolonged and thorough interrogation unspool. (As much as some might wish to connect Lightless with Alien or, even better, The Martian, “The Closer in space” is probably the truer pitch.)

It’s for these reasons, and despite a gradually unveiled, sprawling backdrop filled with off-world colonies and an oppressive, ever-watching and oft-suppressing System, that Lightless remains relentlessly intimate throughout. For her part, Higgins sustains the suspense so effectively, that the novel’s rather shocking conclusion doesn’t feel forced or contrived. Instead, it feels like a fitting, explosive release of a plot drawn tight and kept taut before the reader even opened the book.

Granted, Lightless pulls off a few tricks that will only work once. With a sequel, Supernova, scheduled for 2016, it will be interesting to see just how well Higgins handles the transition from claustrophobic thriller with a cast of, well, not many, to the chaotic, actor-filled stage the ending of Lightless at least implies awaits us.

Michael Burgin is the Movies Editor for Paste Magazine. He lives in Nashville.

 

Given the title of C.A. Higgins’ debut novel, Lightless, it’s fitting that so much of the tale’s enjoyment stems from how well and how long it keeps the reader in the dark.

Occasionally, Jim Butcher likes to write about things other than wizard PIs in a noir-tinged Windy City. His first departure from the 15-book (and counting) Dresden Files series was 2004’s Furies of Calderon, the first of six books in the Codex Alera series. Now comes The Aeronaut’s Windlass, the first entry in a new, steampunk-steeped, Napoleonic naval battle-flavored series called The Cinder Spires. True to the steampunk genre mandate, The Aeronaut’s Windlass has plenty of goggles (worn out of necessity, not mere fashion, natch), airships and Old World, aristocratic political structures, known as Spires.

The author wastes no time establishing and gathering his ensemble. By the end of Chapter 8, The Aeronaut’s Windlass has introduced us to Bridget, scion of a once-prominent noble house now on its last legs; her cat, Rowl; highborn Gwendolyn Lancaster and her fighter (“warriorborn”) cousin, Benedict; the grizzled Captain Grimm; and master etherealist Ferus and his assistant, Folly. Not long after that, this particular fellowship has been bound together and sent off to stop the mysterious force behind a very coordinated and deadly series of attacks on Spire Albion by its rival, Spire Aurora.

If much of the initial setup of the book seems rushed (and some of those names, cartoonish), well, they are. If anything, the opening chapters are a reminder of how tough seamless world building can be, especially when you don’t have a fully realized environment premade by, well, reality, as is the case with the modern-day Chicago of the Dresden Files. The initial presentation of Spire Albion relies heavily on a mashup of steampunk clichés and England-versus-France naval intrigue circa the Napoleonic Era, but thanks to the swiftly moving plot, these shortcomings aren’t anywhere near fatal.

With each page turned, the distractions lessen as the characters are fleshed out by actions and interactions. Butcher’s skill in presenting and resolving extended action scenes on multiple fronts also does its part in keeping the reader’s attention. By the end of The Aeronaut’s Windlass, the only question a reader is likely to have is the most important one for any series debut: What is going to happen next?

Michael Burgin writes about movies for Paste magazine. He lives in Nashville.

 

Jim Butcher's exciting new series is a steampunk-steeped, Napoleonic naval battle-flavored series called The Cinder Spires. True to the steampunk genre mandate, The Aeronaut’s Windlass has plenty of goggles (worn out of necessity, not mere fashion, natch), airships and Old World, aristocratic political structures.

One of the great pleasures of science fiction is watching the mundane be transformed by a vigorous application of cutting-edge (to the general audience, at least) scientific theory. By such a standard, David Walton’s first book, Superposition, was a true joyride. Though the book was by no means the first quantum theory-infused piece of sci-fi, Walton’s bear-hug embrace of this particular field transformed the murder-mystery genre it otherwise inhabited. Whereas most authors are content to use some aspect of quantum theory as a jumping-off point for their stories—a spice giving a tale that sci-fi taste—Walton made the field and its implications the main ingredient. It worked. The energetic unspooling of quantum consequences made Superposition a page-turner in spite of its one-dimensional characters and occasionally implausible “real-world” sequences.

In Supersymmetry, Walton returns to the near-future world of Jacob Kelley and his family, this time focusing on his now-adult daughters, Alex and Sandra. Alex and Sandra are more than twins: They are actually two versions of the same person, an as-yet uncollapsed wave-form of two quantum potentialities left over by the events of the first book.

When it becomes clear that the varcolac, the other-dimensional intelligence that brought them about in the first place, is once again threatening their world, Alex and Sandra are forced to confront both it and their own fears. (Having two “yous” that could return to one at any moment brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “identity crisis.”)

With Supersymmetry, Walton shows that he has a firm grasp on what exactly made Superposition so enjoyable for readers. His latest is filled with multiple dimensions, Higgs singlets and a host of other quantum characteristics and applications. The stakes, as one expects, are higher, even as some of what made the varcolac so compelling—its immense otherness—is diminished a bit by some on-the-nose explanations of purpose and goal. Nonetheless, most readers will find that Supersymmetry’s pages turn just as fast as those of its predecessor.

In Supersymmetry, Walton returns to the near-future world of Jacob Kelley and his family, this time focusing on his now-adult daughters, Alex and Sandra. Alex and Sandra are more than twins: They are actually two versions of the same person, an as-yet uncollapsed wave-form of two quantum potentialities left over by the events of the first book.

In his novels, Peter Clines likes to dwell in the overlap of genre niches. With his Ex-Heroes series, Clines has created a world where super heroes are a thing, but so is the zombie apocalypse. In 14, he keeps things apocalyptic in flavor, but adds a healthy dose of building-based horror. With his latest, Clines seems to have shifted course a few degrees once more.

The Fold begins and spends much of its time as a pretty straightforward sci-fi-flavored mystery. Mike Erikson has that Holy Grail of a trait for any protagonist in a mystery—an eidetic memory, or the ability to retain a complete, fresh-as-if-it-just-happened record of anything he sees. He also has an I.Q. to match his gift, which is useful, since remembering all the dots doesn’t mean much if one cannot actually connect them. As The Fold begins, we see what Erikson has decided to do with his gift—basically nothing. He’s teaching high school English in a small town and striving to lead a low-key existence. That all ends when an old friend persuades Erikson to help him vet the progress of a particularly interesting, government-funded project.

Once he arrives at the San Diego facility where a group of scientists are conducting research that’s potentially world-changing, both Erikson and the reader assume a familiar and fun position—trying to figure out exactly what is going on. (The clues are there, and whether the reader will guess the truth before Erikson is just a matter of how well he or she connects the dots.)

When the initial mystery is solved, though, it’s as if Clines has just been waiting for it as a cue to make a much sharper genre turn than the reader will expect. Revealing exactly which genre that may be would risk unnecessarily spoiling the denouement for which Clines has spent so much time preparing. Suffice to say that for some, it will be jarring and perhaps even off-putting. For others, well, it’ll still be a bit jarring, but also very satisfying.

 

In his novels, Peter Clines likes to dwell in the overlap of genre niches. With his Ex-Heroes series, Clines has created a world where super heroes are a thing, but so is the zombie apocalypse. In 14, he keeps things apocalyptic in flavor, but adds a healthy dose of building-based horror. With his latest, Clines seems to have shifted course a few degrees once more.

Little more than a year after the U.S. publication of his award-winning Dark Eden, Chris Beckett returns readers to the alien, hostile planet of Eden and the humans stranded there. In Mother of Eden, 150 years have passed since the events of the previous novel. The human descendants of John, Jeff, Tina, David and the rest—themselves born of the original castaways—have, for the most part, splintered into thriving communities spread across Eden (as opposed to the small, huddled group featured in Beckett’s debut).

Much as with Dark Eden, Mother of Eden features a central, story-driving protagonist even as plenty of pages are given to the first-person perspectives of the supporting cast. Taken out of context, the plot is the stuff Lifetime dramas are made of: Starlight Brooking is a headstrong inhabitant of a small fishing village who decides to leave her people behind to be with a man from a far-off land. But this is Eden, and Beckett has got much more on his mind than happily ever afters. Humanity’s foothold as a species may have grown more secure, but at the same time, the more traditional, intraspecies dangers have multiplied. Starlight and new husband, Greenstone Johnson, find themselves engulfed in what any Earthling will recognize as more traditional—and treacherous—politics. No one can accuse Beckett of Utopian leanings: Starlight’s new home is replete with all the worst behaviors quasi-religion, ego and gender dynamics have to offer.

As plot developments go, it all makes for a compelling read. Yet just as humans and their drama have spread across Eden, the planet itself, with its gloriously alien array of flora and fauna, feels as if it has receded. In part, this is just an illusion. The creatures and ecology of the planet are expanded upon and given plenty of page time—they just don’t represent near the threat to Starlight that other humans do.

To an extent, Mother of Eden seems to continue a thought experiment derived from a simple “classic sci-fi” premise—how would a small group of humans survive marooned long term on an alien world. Dark Eden focused on the politics, psychology and power struggles that exist between individuals in a group, while Mother looks at those same dynamics as they exist between groups in society as a whole. I can’t say I’m very heartened by Beckett’s conclusions thus far. Nor I am surprised—it’s one way he’s made this particular alien world all too human

Little more than a year after the U.S. publication of his award-winning Dark Eden, Chris Beckett returns readers to the alien, hostile planet of Eden and the humans stranded there. In Mother of Eden, 150 years have passed since the events of the previous novel. The human descendants of John, Jeff, Tina, David and the rest—themselves born of the original castaways—have, for the most part, splintered into thriving communities spread across Eden (as opposed to the small, huddled group featured in Beckett’s debut).

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