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Closing up shop

Genre Lasagna was born out of boredom as much as it was out of a desire to write critically about books. Josh and I were both English majors and we’ve remained book people in the years since graduation. The first reviews on Genre Lasagna went up in October of 2011. Since then, Josh and I have reviewed over 50 books. In that time, there have been several highlights. We were the first outlet to review Salvatore Pane’s Last Call in the City of Bridges. Josh worked his way through the entire Harry Potter series again. Joe Hill retweeted a link to Josh’s review of Horns. I convinced Josh that A Dance with Dragons was still pretty good. Both of us read and wrote about a whole lot of books. Even though the site is going away, that’s not going to change. However, Josh and I have decided that, while this blog project was indeed a lot of fun, it has begun to feel like an obligation. Maybe that has shown in our last few reviews, but nonetheless the fact is that for the last few months, my heart hasn’t been in it. That’s not the fault of this site, and it’s not the fault of the act of criticism. I know that I will still be thinking a lot about the books I read, even if I don’t necessary work out those thoughts in writing. That’s part of what led me to become a book person anyway–the impulse to better understand and more deeply engage with books. But, at least for now, I’m okay with the idea of not doing that in writing in a formal (well, as formal as this really ever got) venue.

So, long story short, Genre Lasagna is going away. The site will remain here for as long as WordPress allows us to host for free, but there will not be any new content. All of our reviews are easily accesible from the REVIEW ARCHIVE page. For everyone who read, thanks for reading. This was a lot of fun.

-Ben.

 

I just want to echo much of what Ben has said (though not the part about him convincing me about ADwD; I hate that book). We started GL because we like books, we like talking about books, and we both gravitate toward writing in one way or another. It’s been a lot of fun, and even when we didn’t get any comments on our posts, I still always felt like I had learned something, either from Ben’s smart analysis of some text or my own working through of a book’s ideas. Much of the time, this site felt like a book journal for me, where every once in awhile a friend (or sometimes a frenemy who can’t see how ridiculously terrible the Dresden Files are) would take a peek inside, and that was pretty neat. And for awhile it was kind of cool to read within limits, forcing myself to look for new books that would be the kind of thing I could see reviewing for the site, but recently that has felt more like a drag than a creative limitation, and reading shouldn’t be that. So, for the time being at least, I think it’s the right move for us, since Ben has been feeling much the same, to close up our little book review site. I’m proud of what we’ve done, and more than that I’m happy with the experience of having done it. Thanks to those of you who read and thanks to those of you who commented.

-Josh.

 

 

2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 4,500 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 8 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

Josh’s Review: “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” by Ned Vizzini

ImageNed Vizzini’s 2006 YA novel tells the story of Craig Gilner and his depression. The plot covers something like a week or so, but we get ample flashbacks right away to fill things out. Craig, a teenager, worked his butt off to get into Manhattan’s premier high school (Executive Pre-Professional High School) and has not been doing especially well since getting in. At the opening of the story, which is a little hard to sort out because Vizzini is doing this weird present/past mirroring thing right away, Craig is miserable with his place in school, unhappy with his friends, and very seriously depressed. After a night of contemplating suicide, Craig checks himself into a mental hospital, and it’s here that we spend the best parts of the book (even though Craig is only there for 5 days-ish). In Six North, Craig meets a cast of characters, one of them a pretty girl named Noelle, and you can probably imagine how the rest of the story goes from there.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story has a lot of potential, and there were moments where I thought Vizzini was able to capitalize on that, but the book didn’t really work for me overall. As I’ve suggested, the best part of this book (and the part Vizzini is clearly working toward) is Craig’s time in Six North, but it takes us almost 200 pages to get there, and almost everything we get before this is pretty static, treading-water kind of stuff. Craig explains his situation, which is necessary but not especially compelling; Craig tells us about his interiority, which is necessary and interesting, but it also gets pretty repetitive after a little bit (and like a lot of descriptions of mental sickness, doesn’t really benefit from a whole lot of narrative rationalization); Craig hangs out with his friends and smokes pot, which is almost as interesting as when someone tells you about the dream he or she had the night before (which is to say not at all). The build-up and setting are absolutely necessary, but I’m not totally sure that they are 180 pages of necessary.

The other thing is, once we get to the mental hospital, things feel sort of cliché. And this doesn’t have to be a bad thing, because we have standard narrative forms, even standard forms for specific kinds of characters/locations/etc, so I have no problem with the kind of narrative involving a mental hospital (narrator enters the place, thinks everyone is TOTALLY CRAZY but learns, after some strange encounters, that they’re all, like, actual people with feelings and a sense of morality.) I was expecting that going in, and I wasn’t disappointed. The problem occurs when you pair this standard narrative form with flat, stock characters, which Vizzini definitely does here. I don’t say any of this to imply that this is a bad book or anything like that; the whole thing is just very safe, walking over well-traveled paths predictably. And in a book that is theoretically about a kid finding his individuality and belief in his own uniqueness, that’s not a very good thing.

Finally, and this is something that a reader will be able to ignore after the first 70 or 80 pages, this book really reads like an adult trying to talk like a kid. You know how there are things that sound normal when said but look absolutely awful when written out? And you know how a lot of those things tend to be words/phrases used by teenagers? Such as:
‘“Pass it son,’ my other friend is like.”

“‘No, yo, that’s true,’ my other friend is like.”

Vizzini fills his book with stuff like this, and it made getting into this narrative and narrator really difficult.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story has a few moments of genuinely deep and powerful expression, and there are even several funny lines/moments, but all of this is hindered greatly by Vizzini’s adherence to a standard form with relatively shallow characters. I wanted to like this book a lot; it seems to take the emotions and beliefs of teenagers seriously, and that’s important. But I just couldn’t get past all of the structural/narrative problems, and that’s why It’s Kind of a Funny Story gets 2 slices of lasagna from me.

Josh’s Review: “Eon” by Alison Goodman

I picked up Eon on a whim; I had just finished a slew of John Green novels and was hungry for more good YA literature. So, I grabbed Goodman’s novel via the recommendation of Barnes and Noble’s “Top Picks” cataloguing system, and then I promptly forgot about it for awhile. However, I uncovered it beneath a pile of papers in the back of my car a few weeks ago, and, since I’m in-between reading projects right now and in desperate need of something easy to read, I gave it a shot. And I’m really glad I did.

Eon tells the story of a young girl (actually named Eona) who has taken on the guise of a boy in order to have the possibility of becoming a Dragoneye. Eona, since being pulled from her terrible life in the salt mines, has been training and living as Eon, the apprentice of the old Tiger Dragon Dragoneye. Goodman’s novel takes place in a land that seems to sort of exist as an amalgam of Chinese and Japanese myths and legends and cultures. In this land, the Empire of the Celestial Dragons, there are twelve dragons and twelve Dragoneyes. Dragoneyes function as protectors of the land, able to wield the mighty powers of their dragons to influence natural disasters and steer them away from towns and cities. The path to becoming a Dragoneye is dependent on being chosen first as an apprentice by one of the dragons (one new apprentice is chosen each year by the ascendant dragon of that year), and in the Empire of the Celestial Dragons, only men are eligible to train and present themselves as candidates to be chosen by the dragons. The system is a whole lot more complex than that, but this at least gives you a general picture of how things work in Goodman’s world.

Perhaps my favorite part of this book (and I had several) was the delicacy and cleverness with which Goodman deals with the larger social issues at work here. The Empire of the Celestial Dragons is a place of deep misogyny, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, and, in addition to our main character, we are shown several characters who have to navigate these socially treacherous waters. Initially I was really worried about a YA fantasy that was trying to deal with all of that stuff while also situating a story in such a complex, rule-driven culture, but Goodman is able to juggle these various demands beautifully, and the resulting story is so much more powerful and poignant because of it. I wish I’d had a book like this during my teen years when I was ravenously devouring any piece of fantasy literature I could get my hands on. It becomes very obvious early on that the reader is in good hands on this trip, and I was able to sit back and enjoy the ride. And though there are certain long-term suggestions or ramifications with which I would probably want to take issue were I lucky enough to talk with the author, I think she presents such difficult issues in an open and neutral enough way that I never felt like I was reading an ideological argument.

Part of the way Goodman gets around directly dealing with some of these social problems is by situating them nicely within the incredibly rule-oriented, hierarchical culture of her world. Now, I usually get kind of bored by this sort of thing, and it’s because it tends to be something the author leans on really unsuccessfully. So, we will get a cultural hierarchy in which social transgressions are the worst thing ever and then, SHOCK!, our main character will break certain social rules during an especially intense moment!! Can you believe it!? Yes. That’s the problem. I almost always totally can believe it, which makes those moments lose any real potency. But Goodman does such a great job of portraying real anxieties about these hierarchical social rules, and the moments when characters break them actually made me feel anxious and tense as a result. There was one moment in particular, near the end of the book, where a major social/cultural faux pas occurred, and I actually put the book down in disbelief, and it was completely due to Goodman’s brilliant portrayal of this culture’s rules and the consequences for breaking them.

My only complaint regarding this novel is that there are certain plot points or character moments that feel a little rushed, and part of this is due to the fact that Goodman seems to really be working on keeping the pacing of the novel going at a steady clip. There were a few points where I had to stop and reread certain passages or scenes because there had been little to no set-up or warning. While this can be a good thing at times, there are a few moments in Eon where it actually seems a little rough, as though this or that plot point had to happen regardless of the happenings before and after it. And while these moments are quickly forgotten in the general awesomeness of the novel, they did still hold me up every once in awhile.

As a YA fantasy novel, Eon is pretty holistically predictable, but that absolutely doesn’t really detract from how completely enjoyable this book is. The fantasy elements in place are really neat and often very unique, our main character is compelling and believable, and the pace pushes along steadily throughout. Despite the book (at least my copy) being a 531-page brick, I read through Eon in about a day and a half. I just loved hanging out in that world; the characters are interesting, and the worldbuilding is really great. And thankfully for all of us, the sequel, Eona, is out. I’ll definitely be picking that one up soon.

Eon gets five out of five slices of lasagna. That fifth piece might be just a tad smaller than the others, but it all tastes delicious and will leave you feeling happily filled.

Josh’s Harry Potter (Re)reading Adventure: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”

I’ve been thinking about this review for about a week and a half now, and despite really loving this book and loving to talk about Harry Potter, I don’t really have a whole lot to say. I’ll try to cover the major talking points that anyone discussing Deathly Hallows, but I’m mostly alright to just sit back, love on this book, and enjoy the ending of the greatest narrative of my generation. (And I know how I broke the cover picture pattern, but how could I not go with this one?)

I love the beginning of this book, from the seven-way split of the dedication to the Snape opening, it perfectly captures how epic this story has been/is. Rowling has so much narrative momentum going into this book, and the opening capitalizes on that majorly. We’re immediately forced to consider our feelings on Snape (side tangent: did anyone else get one of those “Trust Snape” or “Don’t Trust Snape” stickers before the seventh book came out? My sticker is probably my second or third most prized position ever. That includes my health.), and the Seven Potters is such an incredible way to manifest the danger/tension of Voldemort’s newfound presence (brought about by Dumbledore’s death). Even the oddly touching goodbye scene between Harry and Dudley cashes in on six books of narrative capital.

One of the things I really like about this book is the relative absence of a Harry/Ginny relationship. If you read my last review, you’d know that I’m totally a Harry/Ginny fan, but I like that Rowling doesn’t place the focus on that relationship; instead, so much of this book (including the tenting session that everyone likes to complain about despite its relative brevity) is focused on the relationship between our three heroes. I like that the (kind of) recent romantic relationship between Harry and Ginny doesn’t supplant the friendship between Harry/Ron/Hermione. It feels right.

I alluded to it in my last review, but one of the frustrating things about this book (really, the only frustrating thing) is the sense in which Dumbledore is still pretty in control of the game. The death of Dumbledore, our safety blanket, in the last book gives us the sense of despair and fear that so many of our characters are feeling, but it turns out that whole thing was an illusion, that Dumbledore was playing the long long game. I don’t think it ruins the book or destroys any of the emotional resonance (of which there is a ton), but it is a bit disappointing, like finding out that things couldn’t ever be any other way.

Of course, without Dumbledore’s long game, we don’t have the Snape narrative or the reveal, and this book would be so much less without The Prince’s Tale. I have a friend who says that Severus Snape is the very definition of a tragic character, and I absolutely agree. The story of unrequited love certainly didn’t originate here, but Rowling takes a traditional narrative and personalizes it with her characters and her world.

Finally, the epilogue. I know all of you epilogue haters probably won’t be convinced, but I really like the way Rowling chose to end her series. We don’t get anything (seriously, nothing) in the epilogue that we couldn’t easily figure out from the rest of the narrative. The purpose of the epilogue, for me, is a sense of emotional closure for these characters with whom we’ve journeyed for so long, and there’s no way that’s a bad thing. I love seeing Harry be a dad, I love seeing Snape’s namesake and knowing that the Prince’s tale didn’t go unappreciated, and I love knowing that all was well.

Josh’s Harry Potter (Re)reading Adventure: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Fair warning before I get into this review: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is my favorite book in the series. The earlier books spent so much time setting up a complex narrative, compelling characters, and (mostly thanks to book 5) a deep emotional reserve from which to draw, and Half-Blood Prince capitalizes on all of that. Further, while I’m all for thick books and long narratives, this book feels pointed and focused in a way that those around it tend not to. Order of the Phoenix gets a little too long for me, and even though I love almost all of Deathly Hallows, that too seems kind of overly stuffed. Anyway, you’ve been warned: I love this book a whole lot.

I’m really a sucker for love stories, so maybe I’m a little predisposed to dig Half-Blood Prince based on the Harry/Ginny stuff, but the blossoming relationship between our protagonist and the youngest Weasley actually really nicely shows the development of both Harry and this series. Previously, we’ve seen Harry with Cho Chang, but that relationship was very clearly the middle school type we’ve all experienced: worrying about holding hands or what the other person is thinking or feeling completely awkward around one another. I’m definitely not saying that awkwardness goes away or that it’s the only marker for the maturity range of Harry/Cho, but there is definitely a marked difference in the Harry/Ginny situation. Whereas Cho was a one-dimensional character to Harry (and, therefore, the reader), there’s a way in which Rowling is careful to show Harry recognizing Ginny’s complexity and personality as he grows to understand his feelings for her. This is not only neat to see because Ginny has been a majorly bad-ass, cool character for some time without really getting any recognition, but it also shows a progression in our main character, which makes sense since he’s actually getting older and becoming an adult.

Speaking of growing up and becoming more complex, Rowling does a really nice job in both capitalizing on the intricacies of Snape’s character (and loyalties) and setting up Malfoy to be a similarly enigmatic character. Up to this point, he’s been the cookie-cutter bad guy–mean and evil based on standard reasons (family upbringing, ignorant, friends, just plain bad, whatever) that give him the depth of a kiddie pool. However, Malfoy doesn’t feature as prominently in this book, and when he does appear, it’s almost like he has a range of emotions and the possibility to feel fear and remorse. That scene on the tower at the end of the novel, when Malfoy is struggling with the decision to kill (or not) Dumbledore is the kind of thing that is always so appealing and powerful–the heart in conflict with itself (I think Faulkner said that, but I can’t remember for sure and don’t have the will or internet speed to look it up without taking the next hour and a half). We get to see Draco as a person with a complex and humanistic interiority, and that’s really nice. Pair that with the bitter sweet questions we are left with concerning the loyalties of Severus Snape, and we have a few characters who are suddenly much more compelling than we’ve previously seen.

On a similar note, we also get a good dose of Tom Riddle backstory in this book which, for me, adds a layer of complexity to the narrative more than it does Voldemort’s character. Sure, we get to see Voldemort’s origins and relatives, but Rowling (and I might be wrong on this–correct me if so) never really tries to make the Dark Lord out to be anything but a bad, evil dude. Even as a kid, he’s despicable without too much light. He’s described as handsome in a cold way, smart in a dangerous way, and independent in a scary way. Maybe it’s the teleological effects of seeing where he ends up that colors this reading of young Tom, but it just really doesn’t seem like he’s ever portrayed as anything other than evil. There are moments when it seems like Rowling is trying to fight this impulse–things like eliding Tom and Harry’s fetishization with Hogwarts, but even then she is careful to put some distance between the two characters’ feelings/desires. That said, I think the backstory stuff works really well in this book; Rowling is able to give us some major informational dumps without it ever feeling that way. The pensieve as a narrative device is brilliant because we can get those history lessons in a narrative format without it feeling to forced or contrived. In a weird way, I think I enjoy the backstory we get through the pensieve more than any of the actual narrative arcs in the present of this book.

Of course, the crowning moment of the book is Dumbledore’s death, and on the one hand, I think it’s a really brilliant, brave move by Rowling. Dumbledore’s absence is felt by Harry and everyone else as being akin to the loss of a rudder or guiding force, and that’s absolutely true. Dumbledore’s character has been described since the beginning as the only one Voldemort feared, but we’re also always given the sense that Dumbledore is the guiding hand in all of this, that he’s playing the long game and is definitely going to win. His death, therefore, has to feel like a major blow, one that brings with it despair and terror. On the other hand, as we’ll see in the next book, Rowling’s move here isn’t the brave and adventurous one that it’s made out to be.

Josh’s Harry Potter (Re)reading Adventure: “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix often seems to crop up as the book many people dislike (or like the least) out of the seven. The reason usually cited for this is the moodiness of the main character, the way in which Harry seems to complain about everything and be a generally terrible person. And the thing is, I don’t really disagree with any of that. Harry is kind of awful in this book, but Rowling gives us a way to understand it. Voldemort’s link with Harry is a major part of both the emotional and narrative scope of the book, so it’s easy (and understandable) to make sense of Harry’s dickishness in the book. That doesn’t mean that the reader has to enjoy it of course, but I’m not totally sure Rowling wants us to like Harry in this book or enjoy his dramatic swings. In a lot of ways, I think Order of the Phoenix draws the reader’s attention to the luscious world and dynamic characters around Harry. We get a shot of Neville that just briefly lets us glimpse how tragic and deep of a character he is. We see the Weasley twins being totally awesome in a their-own-narrative-climax kind of way. Harry is the irritating, kind-of-absent center of this book, and I think we’re supposed to spend our time looking everywhere but at our scar-laden hero.

The one thing that irks me a bit about Order of the Phoenix is the way in which Harry gets idolized so fully by everyone around him. I get the idea that Harry is becoming a shadow of Voldemort in this book, and his own sense of self-aggrandizing is explainable (though, again, not especially appealing) through that. But it gets a bit frustrating when everyone around Harry tends to idolize him–not for the stuff that he’d been through necessarily but for his heroic actions therein. Harry does try, at first, to explain away his experiences over the past few years through luck and help, but he too quickly falls into the hero narrative being spun by his friends/the DA. And I get that Harry has been through some stuff, but the thing is…he really did just get pretty lucky most of the time.

-First year? He let Quirrel touch him. Nice work, Harry; you killed it there with your awesome wizarding skills.

-Second year? Fawkes blinded the serpent, the Sorting Hat gave you a sword, and you managed to stab the basilisk as it bit you (keep in mind, you it was still blind at this point). Then, Fawkes saved the day again by healing your wounds. Again, you’re a star.

-Third year? Hermione’s logic, just like the first year and just about every minor issue you have, set you up to succeed. But you did learn the Patronus charm, which is major magic for your age, so we can give you this one. Nice work. One for three.

-Fourth year? Your wand happened to share some characteristics with Voldemort’s. Otherwise, you and I both know you’d have had no chance. Like, none. Not any. One for four, super solid work.

So, yeah, the idolization of Harry Potter is a bit frustrating, especially because the DA and the Order (not to mention Dumbledore) totally save his butt at the Ministry.

Also, just a quick note to say that the fight between Dumbledore and Voldemort is easily one of the coolest parts of this series. Dumbledore has been hinted at as the unending well of power and wisdom, and seeing him come together with Voldemort is a moment Rowling has been setting up for a long time. Dumbledore’s confidence and certainty throughout most of the fight are awesome to see, and it’s even pretty neat to see his confidence break slightly when he knows Harry is in trouble. Plus, it’s just plain awesome to see the two greatest wizards currently alive let loose against one another.

At the end of the day, Order of the Phoenix isn’t my favorite book in the series, but I do think it complicates the narrative in some really important ways. We get our first emotionally significant death (not that Cedric’s death wasn’t emotionally important, but it’s not even in the same league as Sirius’s), we get an incredibly despicable character in Umbridge, and we get a glimpse of the dangerous, violent world that we will be living in while Voldemort is at full power.

Josh’s Review: “Advent” by James Treadwell

James Treadwell’s 2012 novel, the first in a trilogy, sets up the magical, dark narrative of Gavin Stokes, a boy of 15 whose birth coincides with the re-emergence of magic in a world that has long been without it.  Gavin’s story opens on our young protagonist as he heads to visit his crazy Aunt Gwen, the only one to ever believe Gavin’s stories about his imaginary friend, Miss Grey.  Gwen lives next to a large estate called Pendurra, and she serves as the housekeeper there.  However, when Gavin arrives at Gwen’s house (after a strange and discomfiting trip on the train in which he meets an odd woman named Hester), he finds the quaint abode empty, and so is forced to go to Pendurra to look for her.  There, he meets a peculiar bunch of characters and finds himself in a situation that quickly moves from odd to supernatural.

But Treadwell doesn’t stop with Gavin’s story; the author carefully weaves in another narrative, that of the historic and literary figure of Johannes Faust, that is meant to have a direct bearing on the primary narrative.  And this is actually the point where my first criticism of Advent comes in.  The way the two narratives are set up is based on a system of reader knowledge or lack thereof.  We’re plunged right in at the end of the Faust narrative and each subsequent chapter moves back one space, so that by about 2/3rds of the way through the novel, we have pretty much the whole story.  It functions on the reader seeing this enigmatic event in the first chapter and thinking, “Hey, but…wait, what?  I don’t get it.  More, please.”  Gavin’s story, on the other hand, is supposed to function as the opposite of this; his life and why he’s heading to his aunt’s house are pretty straightforwardly delineated, and, at least right away, the weird balance between these narratives seems to work.  Unfortunately, it becomes apparent throughout the course of the book that Gavin’s narrative is actually based almost entirely on those enigmatic moments (Strange references that we’re supposed to trust will be revealed later, Actions or events that we take on faith to mean something, Characters introduced who drop cryptic lines and disappear–you get my drift.), and because there ultimately isn’t really a strong plot to tide us over until we get some of those answers, the whole novel feels like it’s constructed entirely out of foreshadowing.  And because the entire Faust plot is primarily set up as a supplement/generator of the main plot, it, too, tends to feel incomplete in a bad way.  For me, the Faust plot was the coolest part; Treadwell does a neat job moving through the layers of history and literature in order to pick out the stuff he wants to use for his novel.  I wanted much more of that.  In fact, I wanted much more of that in place of the Gavin narrative.

To take the critique a step further, there seems to be a weird lack of clarity with Gavin’s age/maturity level.  There are, in my mind, two options here:

1. Gavin is 15 and has the maturity level of a 15-year old.  I’m cool with this option because, hey, the book seems like it would be tons of fun to read as a 15-year old.  However, it becomes a little problematic in that Treadwell tends to fall into the standard us vs. them cliché where the kids are the us and the parents are the them, the people who just don’t understand and can’t be trusted.  Yeah, it’s cliché, and that’s never awesome, but it really becomes problematic when Treadwell doesn’t really give us a whole lot of adults who won’t understand.  Sure, we get evil adults who are doing evil things with their evil magics and evil intents, but they definitely understand the supernatural stuff Gavin is going through because, hey, evil magics.  Also, Gavin being a through-and-through 15-year old doesn’t really square with the strange romantic relationship with the 13 year old (yeah, 13.  Ummm, that’s weird, right?) that is pretty much explicitly stated and set up.  And, finally, if Gavin is in some part a 15-year old in order to appeal to that young readership, which solves some of the emotional/maturity problems I’ll bring up in the next paragraph, I have a hard time buying that those kids are going to be cool reading a book that drops words like “vertiginous” and “susurrus” like candy at a parade.

2. Gavin is a 15-year old with the maturity of a much, much older human.  I’m cool with this option, too, because it explains some of the earlier problems I mentioned and works well with certain…reincarnative aspects of the novel (that’s as spoilery as I’ll be, promise), but it doesn’t really square when you get to the multiple points throughout the novel where Gavin has to be a kid, a still-emotionally-developing kid who is immature and young, for things to work and make sense.  One major issue I had with the book is that Gavin does the sort of annoying thing where every other page he seems to have a revelatory moment.  You know the kind I mean–something like, “And Gavin suddenty realized X” or “All at once it became clear to Gavin that he’d been thinking about her wrong this whole time.”  This gets old after a bit, but it can really only make sense (although, I’ll hate it; I’ll just understand why it’s happening) if Gavin is that little kid.  I remember as a kid feeling like I had the world totally pegged down one moment and then completely changing my mind the next moment when I discovered something totally inane like, “Oh, hey, people sometimes smile when they’re happy.”  These moments (none of them as ridiculous as my example) are everywhere in the novel, but they can only be logic-ed away by Gavin being that young kid in a young kid’s body.

At the end of the day, I was interested by the structure of Treadwell’s novel and especially interested in this idea of combating the escapism of standard (urban) fantasy with the idea that things might be really, really terrifying if magic actually existed.  But I was frustrated by the lack of precision with which Gavin’s character was dealt, and I was honestly kind of bored by most of the novel while I waited to figure out what the heck those cryptic statements I read on page 14 meant.

Advent gets two slices of lasagna from me.

Josh’s Review: “The Dirty Streets of Heaven” by Tad Williams

Tad Williams’s newest book, an urban fantasy following the exploits of angelic being Doloriel–who normally goes by the name Bobby Dollar–features all of the brilliant worldbuilding characteristic of Williams’s epic high fantasy, but instead of faraway, vaguely Arthurian landscapes, The Dirty Streets of Heaven takes place in San Judas and features all of the grit and action of a good detective story. The novel is in first person, and because of that we get not only Bobby Dollar’s view of his heavenly work here on earth (Bobby is an advocate angel, which is basically like being a defense lawyer for souls at the point of their judgment–more on that in a bit) as well as glimpses of what Heaven, or the House as it’s sometimes called in the novel, is like. The simple premise of the plot, were I to boil it down, goes something like this: Bobby Dollar is an angel who fights for the souls of humans during their judgment. But one day, on a seemingly routine job, the soul of Edward Walker goes missing, and it sparks a macro investigation by the mightiest powers of Heaven and Hell and a micro investigation by Bobby himself. Sounds pretty alright, yeah?

One of the greatest things about this book is the way in which Williams so cleverly uses his skills as a writer of Big Fantasy Books, the myth/worldbuilding stuff that allows him to pull out a plot through a spectrum of characters, settings, and histories. Urban fantasy is still so often stuck, I think, on trying to not be epic fantasy that it gets lost in the here-and-now details of this or that small scale plot (as opposed to the huge, sweeping plots found in the books of people like Martin, Williams, or Jordan). But Tad Williams is still able to give us some of that neat mythology working behind the scenes of this novel. Sure, the whole thing stays pretty securely in San Judas, and Bobby Dollar spends more time swearing and drinking vodka than he does going after some legendary artifact or leading an army of the Celestial host against the hordes of Hell on the steps of Pandaemonium, but there are definitely hints that there’s an epic story lurking just behind the scenes, and, to be really honest, I think that’s brilliant. Because here’s the thing–you can’t take an entire religion’s mythology and turn it into a gumshoe story without having those sweeping narratives peek through. Instead of trying to cover that intrinsic epic narrative up, Williams is just really smart about where he lets it shine through. The whole novel feels this way, but this issue in particular–the meting out of epic vs. urban narrative–is just masterfully orchestrated.

Williams also has a pretty neat, fresh take on the whole Heaven vs. Hell thing. As I said, Bobby Dollar is an advocate (essentially a defense lawyer) who fights for the souls of humanity to go to Heaven. But here’s how that works: Every time a person dies, an advocate angel is called (like, on a phone) by a sort of angelic operator, and that advocate drives to the place where that person died. At the site of the death, the angel opens up a Zipper to the Outside, which is sort of like when characters in Gaiman’s American Gods go “behind the curtain;” essentially the angels step out of time for a little bit to go through the trial. In the Outside, a prosecutor from Hell shows up, and the judge, one of the majorly powerful angels called a Principality, comes down, hears the arguments from both sides, and delivers judgment to the soul, who just stands quietly (well, some stand quietly) throughout the proceedings. It’s a pretty neat system, and it utilizes so well one of the things I think urban fantasy so often focuses on, which is systems of categorization. You definitely get this in epic fantasy and pastoral fantasy, but there appears to be a much larger emphasis in urban fantasy on having things like rank, level, category, etc. for the different elements (whether they be character-based, magical, whatever) at play in the story. In The Dirty Streets of Heaven, Williams pushes this generic proclivity to its fullest, and we get huge ranges of rank/category in both the denizens of Hell and the winged folks of Heaven. This continues throughout the whole book, which seems like it would get annoying, because once you establish a hierarchy of creatures based on power, you have to know that most readers are just waiting to get to whatever is on the top, so it becomes your job as the writer to hold that information back as long as possible. It’s the same idea with horror; as soon as you show us what’s behind the door (or at the top of the ladder), it loses all its shine and interest. However, Williams is so good at making even the middle ranks on the ladder seem cool that I found myself not really caring when I would get another angel who was more powerful than these guys but still answered to someone else. Whether or not this can continue into the next books in the series (and it will be interesting to see how that happens given where this one ends up) is way uncertain, but as far as The Dirty Streets of Heaven is concerned, Williams navigates the treacherous land of reader expectations and genre conventions like the seasoned pro that he is.

I give The Dirty Streets of Heaven five slices of lasagna.

Ben’s Review: “Saga” (1-6) by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

The first six-issue arc of Saga, Brian K. Vaughan’s new creator-owned comic book series, concluded last month. It’s not fair to judge a comic as a whole on its first six issues, but, nonetheless, this first story of Saga left me cold.

Saga is set in the midst of an galactic-spanning conflict between the planet Landfall and its moon, Wreath. Two races, each with distinctive non-human features (wings and horns respectively) have been battling each other for generations. But because the planet and the moon are dependent on each other to maintain a stable orbit, the armies outsource the conflict to other planets, turning them into enormous, hellish battlefields and leaving Landfall and Wreath planets relatively unscathed. The entire galaxy, it seems, is affected by this conflict, and there is no end it sight.

The story centers on Alana and Marko, two deserters from either side of the conflict, who, in the first issue, are on the run. In the first pages, Alana gives birth to the couple’s first child, who is an uncommon hybrid of the two warring races. People in high places on both sides of the war view the child as a threat and want the parents murdered and the child taken in custody.

The story is occasionally narrated in first-person by Hazel, Alana and Marko’s daughter (whose birth we witness is the first issue), from an indeterminate point in the narrative’s future. In frequent in-panel asides, Hazel will comment on events that are happening in an oblique, sage-like way. These asides underscore my biggest concern about Saga: tone.

I have no idea what the tone of this story is. Hazel’s narration is dramatic, with a lot of emotional introspection about the nature of family and insights about the other characters. However, the actual world of the story and the characters who inhabit it don’t cohere with this emotional tone. Moments that could be dramatic are undercut by strange attempts at humor and levity, and truly violent and dark moments occur abruptly with little narrative follow-through. The story is unfolding, and I anticipate that we will learn more about the strange behavior of these characters in later stories, but for now I’m left with a large cast of characters that I care almost nothing about.

The reason I don’t care about these characters is because I don’t know who they are. Much of the characterization feels very surface-level, in a frustrating way. Everyone, from Hazel’s mother Alana, to the crazy freelance murder The Stalk, talks like a teenager (in addition to the actual teenager in the story, who is also apparently a ghost). Each character speaks with an affected, cavalier, pseudo-witty comical tone that undercuts almost every moment of genuine drama. The dialogue and character attitudes recall the snarky, referential speech patterns of Joss Whedon, but the story does not yet have the strength of character and emotional core to support it. Again, there have only been six issues, and there are certainly pages and pages of story left to tell, but, to be frank, I just really don’t care about anything that happens in these first six issues.

One highlights of Saga is the art by newcomer Fiona Staples. Her line work is heavy, almost sketchy, and she is able to evoke the scale of this universe, the gleeful weirdness of the character design, and satisfying facial emotion with her pencils. The art is colored in a deceptively simple, almost pastel style. Saga is a beautifully book too look at. I was continually impressed with Staple’s art, even when the story fell flat.

The first issues of Saga do all of the things we would expect from the first part of an epic–it introduces us to the principal characters, the world they inhabit, the conflicts they’re likely to face going forward–but in a fairly bland, uninteresting way that left me with a book that I’m even sure I want to continue reading.

Saga 1-6 gets two pieces of lasagna.