The Only Harmless Great Thing

May 4, 2018 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

The Only Harmless Great Thing RD3The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander


I’m a bit of a sucker for a novella. For a while there, I was trying to read all of them, but they’ve released so many of them over the past few years that it’s hard to keep up with them all. I hold out for the ones that get the most buzz, and The Only Harmless Great Thing is one of those novellas.

It’s an odd book, because it takes two historical events — the Radium Girls and the electrocution of Topsy the elephant — and mashes them together. It works remarkably well, but in order to put the two events together, it means that Bolander has the elephants replace the Radium Girls in the factories. It struck me as very odd, and I had a hard time accepting that elephants, of all creatures, would do this kind of work. Bolander makes the elephants intelligent enough for sentience and communication (they communicate with humans through a rudimentary sign language), but still, it was a little too strange for me to accept.

Beyond that, though, the story is excellent. Bolander has a lyrical style that makes the words leap off the page, and she brings amazing life to her characters (human and otherwise), and she makes the reader feel for all of them. It helps that she brings together two tragic stories, predisposing us to be sympathetic to them, but her language makes everything more vivid. Bolander juggles three different stories, in three different timelines, and while one of them felt a little out of place, it served a purpose to the other two.

The buzz this novella is getting is deserved. It’s a well-written story, with realistic characters, and real emotion. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes speculative fiction, or even historical fiction. It’s just going to require a leap of faith with how the author uses the elephants here.

Started: March 3, 2018
Finished: March 3, 2018


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River of Teeth

September 13, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

teethRiver of Teeth by Sarah Gailey


This much is true:

In 1910, Robert Broussard, a US Senator from Louisiana, introduced a bill to import hippopotamuses from Africa so they could eliminate the water hyacinth that was invading the state’s waterways, and also to solve the meat shortage in the US. It didn’t pass, but only because of one vote.

I know, right? Not only do you want to read more about the American Hippo Bill, but you also wonder what the US would be like had it passed. I get it. Sarah Gailey gets it, too, and wrote River of Teeth based on that piece of American history.

I’ll admit it: I bought this novella just because of the premise. Gailey’s alternative history is entertaining and has a clean, precise style, but it fails in other ways that makes it hard for me to recommend it. One thing is that she starts her story earlier, setting the American Hippo Bill in 1857 instead of 1910.

I think I understand why she did this — for the type of story she wrote, the US in 1910 didn’t fit what she wanted to do. She had to back it up a bit, make the US a bit more of a Wild West setting so her characters and plot wouldn’t be out of place. I just don’t understand why she didn’t tell that story in a different setting instead of rewriting the history that much. That brings me to the other thing that I didn’t understand about this novella, which is: Why isn’t this story about the American Hippo Act?

Gailey tells us a story of a ragtag group of adventurers on a caper (sorry, operation) to rid the hippos from the Mississippi River and flush them into the Gulf of Mexico. We have a diverse group of characters, including a bisexual male, a large French woman, a pregnant woman, and Hero, a character who is referred to as “they” through the course of the story. It was somewhat puzzling, because Gailey never addressed why that was the case. My guess is that Hero is intended to be genderless, and “they” is the closest non-gendered pronoun she can use, but it was distracting, and caused me a lot of confusion when they were introduced.

The group also includes a straight white male, who was presented as the most boorish, racist, sexist character ever seen. He was more loathsome than the antagonist, and he was — thankfully — killed off before the caper really got started. I couldn’t help but wonder why he was included, since he didn’t contribute anything to the narrative, save to show that the main characters were the opposite of him. Gailey adds a bit about how he had a history with the organizer of the operation, suggesting that he was there for him to get revenge, but it never happens, and I just couldn’t see the point.

River of Teeth is about these characters and their operation, which was fine in and of itself, but dammit, I came to this story for the hippos, and I didn’t get enough hippos. They serve as a backdrop, but that’s about it. At the end of the book, Gailey provides a timeline of how the hippos came to be in the river, and I wondered why the book wasn’t about that, instead of what I had just read.

In addition, key scenes in the story didn’t seem developed. Gailey takes time to introduce the characters, giving each of them traits necessary to pull off the caper, but when it comes time for them to use them, we don’t always see it happen. One character uses her skills to collect explosives, and another character manages to retrieve their weapons after they’ve been collected, but it all happens off screen. Why take the time to create these characters with their skills if we never get to see them in action? Was this originally a longer work that Gailey condensed to make it fit the novella format?

One of the characters is French, and Gailey chooses to write part of her dialogue in her accent, but it’s inconsistent. She’s not writing it out in phonetics (thank the stars), but she does have her drop her lead Hs, so she would say “‘e” instead of “he”. The thing is, sometimes she does say “he”. It’s a minor thing, but when you go that route in a story, it’s important to stick with it.

Gailey is a good writer, and she tells an entertaining yarn, but River of Teeth isn’t the story I expected. It’s not that I don’t want a story to surprise me, but when a story is promoted to death over its connection to the American Hippos Act, I expect that to be the core of the story. I wouldn’t discount Gailey all together over this book, but I’m not sure I’ll be on board for the rest of this series.

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The Man in the High Castle

November 5, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick


I first read this book twenty years ago, when I first discovered the author. I don’t remember thinking much of it at the time, but that was also the time when I had been reading horror almost exclusively, and I’m not sure I was in the right place to appreciate a book like this at that time. I went on to read more of his stuff, but this novel was where I started. The show’s upcoming release on Amazon prompted me to revisit the novel, since I figured I would be better able to appreciate the story now.

What I remember most about reading Dick’s work is how he played around with the idea of reality and how we define it. The Man in the High Castle is an ambitious look at the same theme, though it’s not obvious at the start. The story begins by telling us that the United States lost WWII, and that the country is now jointly occupied by the German and Japanese governments, on the eastern and westerns halves respectively, with a neutral, ungoverned zone between the two. Given the other well-known works by Dick (Total RecallBlade Runner, and The Minority Report were all based on his work), it would be sensible to assume that this story would involve questionable reality, or possibly even time travel, but no, the story is a quiet look at two disparate governments at work in one country, and what that would mean for the residents of that country.

The Japanese rule their part of the country as fairly as possible, allowing the culture of their occupied territory to continue, despite the fact that they still must govern under German law. The Japanese rule affects the culture in turn, creating an odd hybrid of both cultures existing together. To show this, Dick adopts an odd narrative style when it is in the PSA (the region occupied by the Japanese). The sentence structure is clipped, making it reminiscent of how the Japanese tend to speak English as a second language. It’s not just in the dialogue of the Japanese characters; the narrative itself when the story is set in the western region follows that style, even when the point-of-view is not a Japanese character.

About half of the story is about an antiques dealer in the PSA, and how he deals with this new society. He attempts to be a part of it, assuming the new social graces and statuses, and he’s very focused on how he is supposed to present himself to others based on their station. A simple trip to a businessman to deliver a piece intended as a gift takes on several levels of importance, not just for himself, but for the people he encounters on the way. The scene is lengthy, and illustrates the new rule better than if Dick had taken a few pages to summarize it all.

The meaning of the book seems pretty clear — humanity will persevere, even through the darkest moments of its history — but I struggle to understand the point of it all. The plot and characters are very thin, reducing the story to being about a book that gives an alternate history within this alternate history, where the US wins the war. The book is forbidden in the German-occupied region of the country, but allowed in the PSA and the neutral zone, and gives a different perspective on what happens at the end of the war. To further obscure the meaning of it all, the alternate history within this book is different from the reality of our own history. And one of the main characters is obsessed with understanding why and how the book was written.

As for what the book has in common with the television show, I think the answer is “Not much.” The premise has been borrowed, but much of what happens in the first two episodes of the show don’t even exist in the book. The book that drives the story is a movie in the show, which is understandable, but the rest of it has been changed significantly. At first I thought that the show was backing up and showing details that took place before the events in the book, but that proved not to be true. I don’t see how reading the book will spoil anything regarding the show, though.

My rating of this book won’t change with this re-read, but I can take more from it this time around. It’s just not the sort of book I usually read, and it’s not the sort of book I would expect from Dick. This book seems to stand alone from the rest of his body of work.

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September 18, 2015 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

DreadnoughtDreadnought by Cherie Priest


This series is getting better. Part of it could be that Priest doesn’t make this a sequel to Boneshaker so much as it’s another story set in the same world. The main character is the daughter to one of the secondary characters in the first book, but otherwise this is a story about her, and about war, and about her journey across a divided country.

The other reason the series is getting better is because Priest took the time to develop her main characters this time around. In Boneshaker, Briar and Zeke were important, but so crudely drawn that they came across as caricatures that characters. With Mercy Lynch, Priest created a more realized character, someone you could relate to much more easily than those in Boneshaker. Given that Clementine also showed an improvement in character development, I wasn’t surprised (though it does raise the bar for the next four books in the series).

Priest’s other talent is in telling a good, rip-roaring tale. Lots of stuff happens in this novel, from start to finish, and the pacing was just right. Nothing was resolved too quickly or too easily, but neither did it take too long for those scenes. For the Sad Puppies who bemoan the lack of adventure tales in science fiction, they would serve themselves well to read this series.

My one complaint was that there was a disconnect between Mercy’s narrative and her dialogue. She’s portrayed as being uneducated, but smart, and in the narrative (nearly all of which is told from her point of view), it’s clear that she’s very intelligent. Most of her dialogue portrays that, as well, but there are times when she starts talking like a country bumpkin, which was a bit jarring. Her voice didn’t fit her in those moments, and whenever I would stumble across them (which I’m guessing was to further portray her as a Southerner), I would think that someone else was talking.

It’s possible to read this book without having read Boneshaker and still get all you need to know about the story and the world in which it exists, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Boneshaker still reads quickly, and sets the stage well for this one. I’m eager to see what the next book in the series will bring.

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