Friday, November 27, 2009

DFW Sketch 331: The Ancient Blood Feud

Mainspring by Jay Lake (2007)

I recently finished reading Mainspring by Jay Lake. It is a definite steampunk novel with a very interesting premise. Nearly all steampunk is set in an alternate history setting, but this one is set in a completely alternate world: The Earth literally orbits the Sun on gears, the Moon orbits the Earth in the same way, and a giant gear at the equator (it extends 100 miles from the surface) makes the northern and southern hemispheres almost entirely isolated from one another. It's orrery-as-reality. The major conflict is introduced in the first chapter, when Gabriel appears to the protagonist to inform him the world's mainspring is running down, and tasks him with traveling halfway across the world to wind the mainspring. You find out early on that this is one of the things Jesus is believed to have done (although the evidence is apocryphal).

At its core, the book is merely an exercise in worldbuilding. Most speculative fiction has at least some element of worldbuilding, but in this particular book, the world is so compelling that I would be willing to follow just about any journey into it. In other words, the characters and plot are of secondary importance. Which is not to say they're not worthwhile. Most of the characters are flat, and there are groups of them which are mostly undifferentiated, but they are all believable, acting in consistent ways. The plot does have some moments which could be accused of being Deus ex machina (excuse the pun), but they all make sense in context (in any case, I think there was just a tiny bit less foreshadowing than I would have liked).

My biggest complaint is, as with my last book review, the love story. Here it's not because it's unbelievable, or not compelling, or that it fails to advance the story. It's just weird. I mean, really freaking weird. It turns out to be necessary to the plot, but there are at least a few ways Lake could have written around it. Some of them would have required making the book longer, but anything would have been an improvement. Even with this very weird element, the rest of the book is so compelling that I could easily get past it.

Now, I feel I have to address some of the characterizations of the book as blasphemy, as some reviewers have done. I think it's better understood as taking the speculation in the speculative fiction to its logical extreme. Here, that means asking the question, "What kind of God would make a world like this?" or "If we change the world in this way, how would God treat the world differently?" It's not all that different from C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, where he asked, "What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia . . . ?" Which is not to say Lake was asking that question. Indeed, he does not wholeheartedly embrace any single alternate theology. As in the real world, the characters are not given plain answers to those questions.

In sum, the world is extremely compelling and absolutely unique, the characters are believable, and the plot is intriguing. In all, I give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

DFW Sketch 323: Wolf

Lo-Ruhamah: The Glory of God (2007) Review

Let's see if you can answer a basic SAT analogy-type question: Opeth is to death metal as ______________ is to black metal.

Give up? The answer is Lo-Ruhamah, out of Kansas City, Missouri. Their sophomore effort, The Glory of God was released in 2007, and though it's on a rather small independent label, the release could be at home on any number of major metal labels.

The style is innovative, combining elements of progressive, death, and post-metal with a solid core of black metal in the Norwegian tradition. There is some melodic singing in here, and a few melodic passages, but as with Opeth this merely serves to make the scary parts that much scarier. Mostly, however, the vocals are in a pure black metal rasp, with a peppering of death growls.

Not only is it written and performed well, but the production is also impressive. It's definitely clear, with a solid mixing job--You can actually hear the bass through the whole album. But the recording is not so flawless that it loses the black metal aesthetic; I think they hit the sweet spot as far as that goes.

This band is definitely one to watch out for, although I don't think they'll ever be getting much mainstream or even secular attention, given their Christian world-view. But if you don't believe my assessment, read this review.

In all, I give it 5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

DFW Sketch 315: Squirrel

Chimney Rock

Chimney Rock
I've decided to start posting my photos on this blog again, as the format of Full Metal Photographer is too much work to update and I just don't have enough time for photography to justify a whole blog set aside to it anymore. I hope you'll enjoy seeing my shots here, when I can get them.

By the way, you can buy this picture over at ArtistRising.

Happy Veterans' Day!

Thanks to all who have served.

Friday, November 06, 2009

DFW Sketch 310: Mouse

Book Review: Waking the Moon

Oddly enough, I have never done a book review on this site. I'll make an effort to do them whenever I read them from now on. This time, it's Waking the Moon by Elizabeth Hand. I discovered it by looking at one of the top 100 lists over at The Internet Speculative Fiction Database.

First, the good points. The primary conflict is an interesting story of a power struggle by an Illuminati-inspired group against a sort of pagan Christ figure or avatar, told mostly through the eyes of parties who are seemingly incidental to the whole thing. The narrative is split into two parts which represent (1) the origin and (2) the ministry of this avatar; whether a similarity to the canonical Gospels was intended is a matter of speculation. Hand can really draw you in with her narrative, with her descriptions often as good as Clive Barker's. The vision of angels she provides is quite possibly the best I have ever read, and some of the more dramatic scenes are very powerful.

However, there are many problems with the book. Sometimes her descriptions seem to be a way to show off her personal taste in things rather than to add any value to the scene, and other times she seems to want to impress you with how much research she has done into the topic of goddess worship. There are about seven or eight characters I can keep straight in my head, but all of the characters are flat. Near the middle of the book, Hand introduces some characters solely for the purpose of killing one of them off in an interesting way without advancing the story; others are introduced seemingly for no purpose at all. There is also a lot of needlessly-inserted drug use and deviant sexuality.

But my biggest quibble with the book is the love story intertwined with the greater narrative, to the extent the love story is the primary vehicle for advancing the story. Had I known this was how the story was told, I never would have picked it up. In any case, the love story seems to make sense and serve a purpose in the first major story arc. However, in the second story arc, Hand seems to try to repeat the pattern, but it neither makes sense nor serves a purpose. And the resolution to the story which finally comes is unsatisfying: Though it was foreshadowed a little bit, it still feels like Deus ex machina. In fact, the whole thing seems plot driven, which is usually a very bad thing.

I suspect female readers of fantasy will enjoy it a great deal. I tried to enjoy it, I thought I was going to enjoy it, and Hand kept luring me along through the story with promises of really cool things that could happen. In fact, the first story arc was exceptionally well-written and compelling, despite its flaws. It's the second story arc that ruins the whole thing. Like I said, she did a great job of drawing you in--but there is no payoff. All in all, I give it 1 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

DFW Sketch 309: Fox

Heavy Metal Family Tree

Here is a family tree of heavy metal and its most significant sub-genres, showing the interrelationships and influences of various styles upon one another. I didn't go as specific as technical death metal (my favorite style) or anything else you might call a sub-sub-genre, but otherwise it's all here.
Click for larger.