Book Review: Pocket Apocalypse, by Seanan McGuire

20417843I’m a long time fan of Seanan McGuire, who writes urban fantasy as McGuire and horror as Mira Grant.  I thought the first two books in the Incryptid series sere a ton of fun, and even though the third book didn’t thrill me I thought maybe that was an anomaly and that the fourth book would be better.  But Pocket Apocalypse is so bad that it makes me actually angry.

The Incryptid Series is a light urban fantasy series about a family who studies, and in some cases manages, legendary and mythological creatures.  The series is relatively light in tone, a nice change of pace from the common angst urban fantasy (McGuire’s October Daye series is an excellent example of darker, edgier urban fantasy).  The first two books involve Verity Price.  While the books had problems, I found them to be engaging.  The third book focuses on Verity’s brother, Alex, and I took a bit of a dislike to him – I found him to be smug.  But I told myself that this was just  personal preference and that the quality of the writing was just fine.  I’ve reviewed the other books at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.  Here’s my review of Discount Armegeddon, here’s one of Midnight Blue-Light Special, and here’s one of the first book featuring Alex, Half Off Ragnarok.

The latest book, Pocket Apocalypse, is set in Australia and features Alex and his girlfriend, Shelby.  It has many things I love.  First of all, I love anything set in Australia.  There’s tons of detail about all the crazy critters, just like in the previous books, and I eat that up with a spoon. The Aeslin Mice hitch a ride to Australia in Alex’s carry-on bag, and I love the mice, who make a festival out of EVERYTHING.  McGuire’s sense of imagination and wit are fully functioning.  So what went so horribly wrong with this book?

Let’s start with the subjective.  I can’t stand Alex.  I wasn’t wild about him in the last book and in this book I hate him with a fiery passion.  He’s smug, he’s superior, he’s condescending, he makes speeches that in no way sound realistic.  Shelby, who had a sidekick role in the last book, should have come into her own in this book, but nope, she still needs rescuing.  We know from the Price family that families in this line of work need to be vigilant, but Shelby’s family goes beyond any kind of reasonable caution and is a bunch of blustering, incompetent, trigger happy sociopaths.  I’m left rooting for the side character of Helen the Wadjet, and the mice.

But I’m willing to admit that that’s very subjective.  Maybe some people might like the family – might see them as admirable outlaw types fighting the good fight whose actions are justified because of the dangerous conditions in which they live.  Maybe some people think Shelby is spunky and Alex is reasonable and intelligent.  Even given all that, there’s a writing quirk that just drives me mad.  With almost every single sentence, McGuire stops to have Alex patiently explain what’s happening to the reader.  This is a trick she’s used before as a way to get a lot of exposition across, and in other books it’s been fairly effective.  It’s not effective in this book because it’s so horribly overused.  Yes, I need to be told (or better yet, shown) that bunyips are a real thing.  No, I do not need the action to screech to a halt so that Alex can explain to me, patiently, as though I am a small child, the difference between domestic and international flights and the terrors of thrombosis.  When Alex takes a nap, he explains that in a war you have to sleep whenever you can.  I KNOW THAT.  When a bunch of people say (I’m paraphrasing), “We were told it by way of rumor,” I don’t need Alex to respond by saying, “I could tell that we were dealing with a whisper campaign” (again, paraphrasing – the point being, yes, Alex, I can tell too, because someone ALREADY TOLD ME).  Every thing any character says or does is immediately explained to the reader.  McGuire writes perfectly good characters.  I can infer their motives from their histories, their actions, and their statements – I don’t need Alex to explain everything to me.  When he’s not explaining things to the reader, he’s explaining things to the other characters, and usually, they are obvious things.

I have to admit that I did not finish this book.  I let Alex mansplain for 85 pages (out of 340) and then I gave up.  I did some skimming and read the end.  The end was not so very compelling or convincing as to make me change my mind, although it did remind me that Helen the Wadjet is freaking AWESOME and that nothing will ever diminish my love for the mice.

Every author has stylistic quirks.  Seanan McGuire has a very distinctive way of inserting exposition.  Usually it works just fine.  This book was so frustrating specifically because I know from her past writing that she’s capable of being so very, very good.  I will even read the next book in the series, which is about Verity again and not Alex the explainer.  This particular book was just too much of the same quirk again and again.  It was tedious and honestly it was insulting to both my capabilities as a reader and McGuire’s as an author.  She’s perfectly good at showing and there’s no need to accompany every single show with a tell.

Guest Post! No Need for Subtext: Queer Characters in Science Fiction and Fantasy

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Today’s guest post is from Holland, who asked to have only her first name used.  Thank you, Holland, for this great post which has added many titles to my to-be-read list!

Let’s start this off by establishing that I am a huge nerd. A good 90% of my book collection is science fiction and fantasy, and has been since I was old enough to pick my own books from the library.  I love the exciting stories where the only limitation is the author’s imagination. But there is one glaring problem that I see when I look at science fiction and fantasy: where are the queer people?

 

It’s getting better, but few and far-between are the books that pass what I consider the queer equivalent of the Bechdel test: one LGBTQA character, who has a name, at least a minor role in the story, and a character trait beyond ‘isn’t straight’ or ‘isn’t cis’.  Part of that is due to censorship – until relatively recently, putting queer characters in a book was seen as unmarketable, or risking being classified as erotica, as if those are the only stories we are allowed to have a part in.  Things are changing for the better, however, and so I’ve chosen today to talk about a few authors whose works do pass the aforementioned test, and do so with flying colors.

 

As a young queer teen from a conservative family in the semi-rural Midwest, an environment where queer people just weren’t talked about, the local library didn’t exactly have a LGBT section.  They had a smattering of teen books – the ever-classic Annie on My Mind and a few forgettable books that read more like Lifetime Original Movies than anything I was interested in. I was nerdy, female, non gender-conforming, and desperately alone, and it was hard enough finding books with female protagonists. I needed science fiction and fantasy for the escapism and inspiration they provided – I just wondered where people like me fit into it.

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One of the major changes came in 2005, when Tamora Pierce’s The Will of the Empress came out and Daja Kisubo, a character who we’d been with for 8 books already, came out as queer, though her own identity was still in flux, aside from knowing she liked women. For fifteen-year-old me, that was a bombshell. Here was one of my favorite authors, writing a character – an established character, especially – as something other than straight! It felt validating in a way I can hardly describe – I was surrounded by messages that told me what I was was wrong, that I should just try harder to be straight. Daja’s “coming out” made me feel that much more bolstered, especially since Daja had been my favorite ever since starting the series. The series also includes two women who are in a devoted relationship to each other, and who act as sort of co-mothers to the quartet of young adults we follow through the series. We also see queer characters in her other books – the Provost’s Dog series has a gay cop dating a genderqueer artist, both of whom are major characters in the second book and are integral to helping the heroine survive, and are free of problematic stereotypes.

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John Scalzi has never had a queer character as the main protagonist of a book, but he gives them a good share of POV time.  The first time I encountered this was in The Android’s Dream, which is still my gateway book for people who swear they don’t like science fiction. It’s a fast-paced book that’s at times a mystery, a military drama, and a deep yet hilarious reflection on the nature of life – in other words, it’s a book by John Scalzi.  In it are two characters, Archie and Sam.  Each of them is a fully-fleshed out character with motivations and traits in their own right, but they’re also a couple. And while we don’t even find out they’re a couple until ¾ through the book, since each of them have been pursuing their own related missions for most of the story, it makes so much sense and the strength of their relationship gives the characters added motive as to why they are so dedicated to their cause.  In the Old Man’s War series, the protagonist, John Perry, finds an unexpected best friend in theoretical physicist-turned-soldier Alan Rosenthal, who is also gay. It’s a defining characteristic of him, but it’s not his only defining characteristic, and that’s what I look for in books: representation without it feeling like tokenism.

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And speaking of representation without tokenism, we come to my favorite author on this list, Seanan McGuire.  Everything she has written has queer characters! I repeat, everything she has written has queer characters.  I know of no other author who has done this.  While I could probably write an entire article on her genius, now is neither the time nor the place. Still, I want to make clear that she is lightyears ahead of where most other authors are in terms of representation. When I asked about this at her most recent signing, she said that she felt it was part of being a decent human being, and her queer characters are some of the most fleshed-out I’ve  ever seen.  The Hugo-Nominated short story In Sea-Salt Tears, set in her urban fantasy Toby Daye series, centers on the relationship between two bisexual women and the cultural and personal forces that both bring them together and tear them apart.  She has canonically stated that most of the fae in the Tobyverse are bi, and it’s not just an informed trait, either – we see onscreen queer relationships.

 

In her novel Indexing, we also see one of the best-written trans characters I’ve seen in fiction. There is not a problematic trope to be found – Gerry is who he is, and no amount of memetic incursions by cisnormative fairy tales are going to tell him otherwise.  Her Velveteen vs books also include a transgender superheroine, The Princess, who is the physical embodiment of the fairytale princess archetype, as well as a lesbian couple whose relationship is poignant and brilliantly-executed. Her works under her open pseudonym Mira Grant are just as awesome, with queer characters in every book.  She’s also going to be editing the forthcoming anthology Queers Destroy Science Fiction, an anthology of short stories by queer authors.

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I have every hope that things will continue to get better.  While researching this article, I was introduced to the works of Tanya Huff, who has been bumped up on my reading list. Malinda Lo’s Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, is literally next on my reading list, thanks to a chance find at Half-Price Books.  Diane Duane, one of my favorite authors, has announced that her next book, Games Wizards Play, will feature queer characters: some we’d already met, who were getting things sorted out and hadn’t come out yet, and some new ones, and I am super stoked for that.

 

The future is getting brighter, and with it, I hope we’ll be seeing more and more queer characters in science fiction and fantasy.  In the meanwhile, all the authors mentioned in this article are enthusiastically recommended, and I look forward to seeing what this new year has in store.


Holland is a PhD student by day, CrossingsCon treasurer by night and can be found at geekhyena.tumblr.com.  She lives in the Bay Area of California, where she lives in an apartment that is slowly being taken over by books, Gundam models, and supplies for making pumpkin bread.  Check out the fundraiser for CrossingsCon at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/crossingscon-2016

When Magic and Myth Meet Main Street – Notes from San Diego Comic-Con

San Diego Comic Con logoOne of my favorite panels at San Diego Comic-Con this year was the panel, “When Myth and Magic Meet Main Street”.

This panel featured Jim Butcher (Dresden Files), Seanan McGuire (October Daye series, InCrytpid series), Richard Kadrey (Sandman Slim series), Amber Benson (Death’s Daughter series), Greg van Eekhout (California Bones) and Anton Strout (Incarnate).

I owe a lavish apology to Greg and Anton.  I was sitting so far in the back of the room that I couldn’t see their end of the table, so when they talked not only could I not hear very well but I also couldn’t see which one of them was talking.  Although I don’t quote them much here, please take it from me that they are intelligent, well-spoken people with thoughtful and funny things to say.  This year was quite the learning experience in terms of how to cover and event like San Diego Comic-Con and I hope to be better prepared next year.

Here’s some highlights:

  • Jim Butcher was asked why he sets his books in Chicago.  His answer:  “Because my writing teacher wouldn’t let me set them in Missouri”.
  • Seanan McGuire said this about her decision to write urban fantasy:  “Fairy Tales are the urban fantasy of their time.  I moved my fairy tales from dark forests to dark alleys”.
  • Seanan, who reports having put herself through college by writing Harlequin romances, said that she dislikes writing sex scenes.  Accordingly, one of her favorite scenes to write was the one in Discount Armegeddon in which Verity must get the mice who worship her to give her and her lover privacy by brining them with friend chicken.
  • Amber Benson, on the other hand, rather enjoys writing sex scenes.  She said that she only blushes because she likes to write in public (places like Starbucks).
  • Jim Butcher said, “Sometimes there are places in the world that need to be destroyed, and I might as well do it in as spectacular a fashion as possible.  I shall eviscerate them in fiction!”
  • Richard Kadrey’s advice to writers was “Write!  Carry a notebook, write stuff down, and finish what you start”.  I wrote those words immediately in the notebook I was carrying around and I still feel smug about it.
  • Seanan and Amber both cautioned against comparing you output to that of other authors.  Their advice was “Write, read, write, and don’t measure yourself against other people”.

This was the first panel that I covered (or attempted to cover and I learned a lot about writing and a lot about what to do and not to do in order to cover a panel!  The big thing I took away from this was the message to write and write and read and then write some more.  What a fun, inspiring group of people!

Mini Review: Parasite, by Mira Grant

Grant_Parasite-HCJust for the record, no one could possibly convince me to read a futuristic horror novel about the tapeworm zombie apocalypse except for the Mira Grant, author of the Newsflesh Trilogy.  NO ONE.  Second of all, this book ends on a major cliffhanger.  I just…I can’t take the stress.  Now I have to wait MONTHS to find out if we are all going to die because of tapeworm zombies!  Aaaargh!

In case the caps lock wasn’t enough to tip you off, I loved Parasite and it scared the bejeebers out of me.  Here’s the basic plot:  In the year 2027, a company named SymboGen has virtually eliminated all diseases and allergies by means of a simple treatment.  People who become hosts for the bioengineered “Intestinal Bodyguard” live medically charmed lives.  But the parasites begin to take over their hosts, causing them to behave in a zombie-like state.

This book was exciting and horrifying and thought-provoking.  I cared about Sally, the protagonist, even when I was annoyed by her.  By setting the story in the very near future, and by never forgetting the mundane, Mira Grant makes the danger feel like an immediate threat.  I admired the fact that her characters have to do things like eat and sleep and deal with Bay Area traffic.  The book was firmly grounded and that increased the level of dread.  The level of science seems good overall.  Mira Grant did a ton of research to write the book, and it shows.  And I deeply appreciated a general absence of gore.  Grant seems aware that we, the readers, are grossed out by the mere concept of the story, so she doesn’t have to gross us out more with gore or with explicit tapeworm disgusting-ness.  When there is gore, it’s effective, because of the overall level of restraint.

You can find my full-length review at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.