Saturday, March 19, 2011

Book Reviews-Alien Invasions, Black Heroes and Dangerous Women

Infected by Scott Sigler.
The typical alien invasion book features squirmy octopus looking beings that arrive on Earth and start shooting everyone with plasma beams.  There’s also normally a dastardly effete scientist or politician who either wants to learn from these invaders or worse, sell out humanity to the aliens. In the end the good guys win.  They are led to victory by a team that includes a tall square jawed hero, his take-no-nonsense girl Friday, a plucky sidekick and maybe a dog.
Infected, by Scott Sigler is not that book.
The immediate difference is the scale of Sigler’s invasion. What if the alien invasion is not on the macro level but on the micro level? The human body is home to a multitude of viruses, bacteria and parasites. There are over 1000 different sorts of parasites that can live in humans. Some of these are relatively benign but many are quite disgusting and dangerous. Most are invisible to the human eye.                                   
Infected examines what happens when an alien bioengineered parasite infects humans, turning some of them into lunatic killing machines while making others behave in even more disturbing ways. The parasites have a greater purpose besides just killing other people.  This was a really disturbing book and I mean that as the highest of compliments to the author. I liked it a lot!!! I liked that the author is a Michigan native and sets most of the story in my college town, Ann Arbor and its bedroom communities. 

Most of the story is told thru the POV of one Perry Dawsey-a former U-M linebacker who now works in a dead-end IT job. Formerly known as “Scary Perry” because of his unrestrained brutality on the field, Dawsey blew out his knee and lost any chance at an NFL career.  One day before work he notices a few discolorations on his body. He thinks nothing of it until a few days later he realizes the spots not only aren’t going away but they’re also growing and changing in texture.  These growths are immune to such things as calamine lotion, alcohol, fungicides or skin creams.  A little later Dawsey thinks he’s going crazy because these things seem to be talking to him.  Unknown to him, Perry is also being frantically sought after by both a CIA agent (Dew Phillips) assigned to a new federal agency which officially doesn’t exist and by a CDC epidemiologist  (Margaret Montoya), who has made some discoveries she doesn’t want to accept.  Perry has the sort of nature that will not allow him to lay down to anyone without a fight-no matter the cost. Battle is joined.
This is great biological sci-fi horror.  It captures the anger and fear we have about disease.  This is based in hard science. There is nothing supernatural in the story.  I can’t over emphasize how unnerving this book is. A great deal of it takes place in Dawsey’s apartment.  We get the POV of the parasites. Through the book we learn more about what they want and what they are. Sigler has modeled this on some real-life entities. This is Stephen King’s “I am the Doorway” on steroids.  If you don’t like gleefully detailed descriptions of exactly how the human body and parasites work and to what extremes Scary Perry will go to in an attempt to save himself, let this pass you by. This is first in a trilogy.

Standing at the Scratch Line by Guy Johnson.
This is the debut novel by Guy Johnson, who is the son of Maya Angelou.  This novel shows that the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree when it comes to talent. It’s hard to describe this book because it touches on so many different topics. The short description is that it tells the story of one LeRoi “King” Tremain , a black man with a quick temper and an even quicker mind who leaves early 20th century Louisiana after disputes with a rival Black-Creole criminally minded family lead Tremain to murder two white deputies.
Fleeing North, Tremain winds up in the segregated Army during WWI in which he finds himself in combat with racist white soldiers as much as he is with the Germans.  He joins the all Black 369th Battalion. Many of King’s army exploits are based on the very real Henry Lincoln Johnson
In the army he makes connections and allies that will serve him for the rest of his life.  Upon his return to the states King embarks upon several adventures which add to his reputation as that crazy Bad N**** that doesn’t take any stuff off of anyone and especially not racist whites. This includes run-ins with the Klan, various political leaders and the Mob in Chicago and New York.  King is often a brutal character and is something of an antihero. But he is always an engaging one and has what might be considered a fairly strict code of honor. He has a very strong appreciation for his own self-interest but he doesn’t lie or cheat. Deal with him honestly and he will do the same. Do otherwise and run the risk of coming up missing.  It’s said in his home bayous that supposedly every 30-40 years the Tremain family produces a child that will terrorize those around him; King is that man.
This entire story is not quite as anachronistic as one might think. Amoral and occasionally criminally minded though he may be, King represents a paragon of Black resistance to white racism that was always there in American life, though it was obviously not celebrated. Whether it be the mythical Stagolee , the very real African Blood Brotherhood  or David Walker  people like King existed and still exist. In the book’s afterword, Johnson says that some of the story is based on things he heard about his own grandfather as well as the fact that there were black people who had no choice but to defend themselves with violence or otherwise own nothing within the Deep South. Johnson says that a strong Black male character like King may be an anomaly within fiction but not in real life. 
I also want to make two things clear. 1) King is not a superman. He pays a price for some of the wrong he does. Occasionally he is overmatched. 2) This is most definitely not “thug lit”. In both skill and style I would compare this to Dickens. There are far too many characters to describe here but they are all well drawn and have complex motivations. The women in King's life have interests of their own.
The title of the book refers to the practice common in bare knuckle fights.  Before a fight began, a line was drawn in the dirt between the two fighters. The fight would begin and the line would be crossed. If a man was knocked down, his opponent had to return to his side of the scratch line. The other man had to get up and walk to the line if he wanted to continue. Otherwise the man standing at the line was the winner. By hook or by crook, King is the one standing at the scratch line more often than not.

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie.
I loved Abercrombie's First Law Trilogy (FLT). It was a corrective to the more insipid high fantasy which infests bookstores.  Abercrombie writes in an unabashedly adult and quite profane style. So I had high expectations for his novel Best Served Cold (BSC).

BSC is quite similar to FLT. It’s set in the same world. Many minor characters from FLT show up in BSC. BSC shares themes with FLT; what does revenge really profit someone, how can you be good in an evil world, are men and women really all that different, and does what anyone does in life really matter in the long term. After all good or bad, we all end up "back in the mud" as one warrior reasons.

It is a stand-alone book. You can read it and enjoy it without having read FLT. Reading BSC will not spoil FLT.
The story opens with the mercenary leader Monza Murcatto and her brother Benna being invited to an honorary event by her employer, the Grand Duke Orso. It is no spoiler to reveal that Orso has decided that he can't trust either of the Murcattos any longer and has them both murdered. Or so he thinks. Monza, who is also known as “The Butcher of Caprile” and “The Snake of Tallins” for her brutal style of warfare, improbably survives and swears to kill Orso, Orso's sons and everyone else who was in the room when her brother was murdered and she was scarred for life.

We have a revenge obsessed woman, her motley crew of quirky psychopaths and money hungry killers who will either assist her or betray her, old lovers or would-be lovers showing up and of course an ice cold murderer who is dispatched to eliminate her. In short, although the ride is exciting, it's not exactly a new story. There are more than a few shout outs to "Kill Bill" and "The Princess Bride".

Abercrombie gets a little lazier about national stereotypes. Styria, where all of the action takes place, is so much of a stand-in for Renaissance Italy that one wonders why Abercrombie didn't just set his tale in 15th century Italy. It would have read exactly the same. Murcatto is somewhat based on the real life terror Caterina Sforza. Many of the names Abercrombie uses are either real life Italian names or sound as if they could have been- Vinari, Nicomo Cosmo, Grand Duke Orso, etc.

Women have several key roles in the book, besides the lead. This is not done in any sort of self-consciously feminist style but realistically. Abercrombie's female characters are just as self-centered, morally vacuous, flawed and dangerous as his male ones. Abercrombie maintains a sharp ear for dialogue.  No one stops in the middle of a fight to say something snarky.  Survival is not guaranteed.  People actually get tired and make mistakes. Lovers quarrel and cheat, etc. Murcatto's quest for revenge leads her to some places she'd rather not visit.
I would like to see what Abercrombie could do with characters who are not 100% selfish, twisted, sadistic and cynical. Cynicism is his defining motif.
There is not much of a positive character arc for anyone.  Those who are openly evil remain so. Some people that appear to be decent are revealed to be evil. And even those few people that try to be good eventually decide that being good doesn't work and become as evil as anyone. As one person says repeatedly "Mercy and cowardice are the same thing". Just to make this point crystal clear the author opens chapters with quotes from Machiavelli and various Borgias.
There is one depressed, socially maladroit, and verbose poisoner-very reminiscent of the Tom Hanks' role in The Ladykillers who was in some respects the closest thing the book had to a voice of reason. The book is otherwise EXTREMELY nihilistic. Consider it "fantasy noir".

Don't get me wrong. I did enjoy it -just not as much as FLT. FLT actually did have a few people try (and usually fail) to do the heroic thing. FLT had better misdirection and slower reveals. There is a twist at the end of BSC which was pretty good. There are more than a few moments of humor in this book-mostly centered around the aforementioned gabby poisoner.
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