Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Box of Godiva Chocolate - You Never Know...

This is where things get awkward.

In my previous posts we talked about Cobb and Tom, two of the normies swept up into the world of the outsiders.  We talked about poor James, raised by a malicious monster of pure thought, and we talked about that malicious monster.  This time we’re talking about the love interest, Godiva.
Even the name should be corny, a nymph named Godiva.  Come on!  But with four little words, Burnett clams the reader down.  “Yeah, sure, why not.”  Normally, the sly winking asides set off my “Incoming” radar.  Most authors use them as a screen to hide behind.  You get the sense that many authors are embarrassed to admit to the things they like and throw up an ink cloud of irony to assure the reader that they are including something as a bit of campy silliness and that even they don’t take it all that seriously.  Speaking as a reader – screw that – if you can’t admit to enjoying your work, why should I enjoy it?
Burnett throws out that, “Yeah, sure, why not,” as more of a challenge.  It’s a way of telling the reader, you’ve already accepted a young man powered by a supernatural entity shackled to him by a tattoo on his back that can be stopped with a few ancient letters on an index card, you really going to take exception to a name that clearly labels the bearer?  I might have, but that question wasn’t just rhetorical – why not? Indeed.
Of course then it turns out Godiva has a penis and suddenly a name that’s a little “on the nose” doesn’t seem like that big of a leap any more.

What?  Being square doesn't automatically make me mature!
So.  Here’s the thing.  I’m a pretty square guy.  I love my Mom and apple pie and try to watch my language.  I wear a MAGA hat unironically.  I’ve never been to a topless bar.  I teach Sunday school.  (Actually, CCD, Catholics, represent!)  I pretty much married and still love my high school sweetheart.  I mean, I’m so square carpenters have been known to borrow me to make sure their joints are a perfect 90-degree angle.

Normally, when a book drops that kind of missile on me ,* I’m out.

Except that normally, when a book pulls a stunt like that, it feels cheap or preachy.  Having already established that the world of Catskinner includes the aforementioned monsters of thought, hive minds, men with the density of a neutron star, and a host of other strangenesses…Godiva’s reveal just feels like another signpost that Catskinner’s world is nothing like ours.  It’s a natural expression of that weirdness, and it’s really just one more curveball for James (and by extension the reader) to have to learn to accept if they are going to live in this strange new world.

By the time we get Godiva’s really big reveal – that she’s a brain surgeon – we’ve already learned that she’s a half-plant symbiont whose body brews magic potions, has green eyes, and a mouth full of tentacles.  That last bit makes her first interaction with James, when she offered him oral sex in exchange for food, take on a whole new dimension.  Yeee-yikes!
And really, that’s the most interesting thing about Godiva.  It's not the unfortunately placed ovipositor.  It's not the tentacle mouth.  The brain surgeon.  She looks like a bimbo.  She’s clearly a being designed for raw sexuality.  And yet, she’s whip-smart.  James is no slouch, but whenever real brains are called for in the story, Godiva is there to pick up his slack.  She leads the investigation from the first scene they meet.  She usually figures things out well before he does.  She’s also a very vulnerable person, both physically and emotionally, and needs James as much as he needs her.  Those contrasts help to make her a truly well-rounded character.
It’s another case of an author who can write the sort of thing that you don’t like, and make you like it anyway.  Not sure there’s any higher praise I can offer than that.

* Hey, I’m square, but come on.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Catskinner's Book: Chapters 9-12

Alice, Godiva, and James talk inside a bowling alley. Alice recognizes James as Adam Chase, the son of cult leader Michael Chase. Michael tried to work around the damage to the human brain caused by exposure to Macrobes by binding one to an infant. James admits his new identity and goes to leave, but Godiva convinces him to stay. Alice then fills James in on the war between the Macrobes, humanity's role as pawns, and Morgan's role in Victor's death. Catskinner makes an agreement with Alice to listen to her, and later makes another agreement, this time with Godiva, allowing her to get close to James.

Godiva and James talk in his room about Alice, Macrobes, and Catskinner. Godiva convinces Catskinner that James might have needs beyond those of survival, and that it is best for James and Catskinner if the Macrobe does not interfere. The couple fall asleep in each other's arms.

The next day, Catskinner asks if Alice wants Morgan killed. An agreement between the four beings is made. To draw Morgan out, they will attack the Manchester nest. In preparation, they go shopping. James can't help but peek on Godiva while she changes, only to discover that Godiva has male parts. James shrugs off the shock and kisses Godiva.

Catskinner walks into the middle of the Manchester nest, ready to fight. However, the Macrobe possessing the nest instead accedes to Godiva's demand that it stop working with Morgan.  After a bit more pressure, the alien gives up a warehouse where Morgan keeps his money.

*****

Let's deal with the elephant in the room first. Godiva is...complicated. A human-Macrobe binding with alien facial features, female frame and secondary sexual characteristics, and male sexual organs. And, since Jon spilled the beans with our very first post on Catskinner's Book, Godiva is part vegetable matter as well. I'll continue to use the feminine pronouns to remain consistent with James's perception of Godiva. We know that she sought out Dr. Klein to help her, but the services Dr. Klein actually provided came with a price that Godiva was not expecting. I suspect that the human Godiva was possibly a male-to-female transsexual prior to her alien conversion, but the case for that is as flimsy as any crack-shipper's. And speaking of relationships, James is happy for once and Catskinner approves, so I'm not going to provoke the alien Tasmanian Devil. Catskinner's Book takes the approach that you fall in love with the person you love, an approach familiar to me from watching way too much gender bending anime.

That said, it is Godiva's plant-animal duality that interests me more. She likely could not maintain the strange hormonal mix in her body without the plant symbiotes inside of her. Her vegetable side allows synthesis of some chemically complex compounds and provides other benefits that will soon to be useful. Her vegetable side is also important symbolically as well. In certain schools of esoterica, it is thought that the current animal self of man emerged from a vegetable self. And, when we do meet more of Godiva's kin, we do see that she is unique, keeping her higher brain functions where her kin lose them. Additionally, the vegetable self is also tied to restoration. Not only does Godiva heal quickly, her presence is also restoring James to something more closely resembling humanity. Or at least as close to normal as two vessels to matter-rewriting aliens can get. The plant-animal mix is also relatively unique in science fiction. Certainly the inclusion of chlorophyll into animal life is a moldy oldie of the genre, but the mixing of plant and animal symbiotes so thoroughly is something I haven't seen outside of the Orks of Warhammer 40k. (Thankfully, there's no such thing as an Ork female, not that Godiva would ever resemble one of those hypothetical beings.) However, her relatively unchecked sexual drive is characteristic in esoterica of the animal self being unbalanced. As strange as Godiva is, she is just the first in a string of subverted exceptions, for, with her revelation, Catskinner's Book starts to get alien, with even stranger surprises to come.

As Misha Burnett commented in an earlier post, C. S. Lewis is a significant influence on the cosmology of Catskinner's Book. Whether called by Macrobe, eldil, or a specific Hebraic name befitting their position in the choir of aliens, the extraterrestrial entities echo those seen in Lewis's Space Trilogy. But while the populace of the world of Catskinner's Book bear Lewis's stamp, they are arranged in a more Lovecraftian cosmology. Gone is the Scala Natura, or the well-ordered hierarchies of nature that work together for order and good. While ecologies of Macrobes are referenced, it is clear that humanity has no place in it except as disposable pawns of little more value than plastic green army men toys. The universe is uncaring, and there is no safety or purpose in  hierarchy. The choirs of the Macrobes might as well be Old Ones.

Next time: "Federal Agent! Keep your hands where I can see them."

Sunday, March 19, 2017

catskinner's book 1: My Analysis

You know it's bad to judge a book by its cover, although we do it all the time. So here's an experiment: Quick, look the cover art on the right and tell me (well, you know what I mean) your first thoughts. Be as prejudiced and superficial as you want.

If you had to guess its genre, style, or typology, what would it be? Emo poetry? A gothic novel pastiche? The autobiography of a gardener gone mad? Well, whatever it was, I'm sure it wasn't "a thriller starring a paranormal symbiote -a human with a predatorial daemon inside his head- and parasitic alien entities, with spirit-driven genetic engineering and X-files levels of cover-ups."

I don't know why Misha Burnett chose that cover style or what hidden symbolism lies behind them or their titles, but if he ever wants to change the vibe, he could try to imitate one of those Shudder Pulp covers, with an almost naked damsel chained to an operation table, ready to be dissected by a demented doctor while the hero struggles with the mad doctor's mutated underlings. And it would be somewhat close to a real scene from the book.

I mention this in case a random person with no knowledge of the book is reading this. Sure, the short Amazon synopsis for this book will dispell any possible genre confusion or mislabel, but you'd be surprised how many people don't even read that. Having said all that, let's jump into the meat of our business.

James Ozwryck (pronounce Awesig -not his real surname, by the way-) is a young introvert who works at a run-down hardware store and occasionally dreams of living a more fulfilling life someday. That would be common stuff for a tale about the woes and anxieties of a blue-collar worker, if it weren't for the fact that the store is a front, James is a professional hitman with abnormal strength, and, oddly enough, he has never killed anybody. At least he likes to think so. 

It's actually the demonic-like entity living inside and alongside him, called catskinner (lower case, it's important) who takes control of his (their?) body when someone needs to die or some unnatural feat of speed and strength is required. Also, his boss, Victor, who provides him with the targets, doesn't sleep, is ugly as hell, lives in a giant fridge which doubles as an office, and is probably undead. 

I must note that that weirdness isn't the plot or the events that trigger the story. That's the introduction, -his normal life- which theoretically could have gone on like that forever if it had not been for Victor's (and almost his own too) murder. This story is therefore not your average "normal man's life is upturned and thrown into disarray by unknown forces;" it already starts weird, and then it gets even weirder. The fantastic elements in his life, which James had taken for granted as personal idiosyncrasies, are revealed as being part of a bigger whole (although it is quickly stated that very little of its true nature is really known.) In other words, he is not the only freak in town.

You could say that the story is also about James changing and maturing, and leaving his mind-numbing apathy behind, something that is triggered by two events: Victor's murder (who had been his guardian as well as his exploiter,) and meeting Godiva. The first incident forces him to go beyond the brutal (but predictable and comfortable) realities of his life as someone else's tool, and the second gives him someone beyond himself to care about.

Godiva, who is also not entirely human, many not be your standard romantic partner, and it's probably not what James would have chosen (even though it superficially *looks* like your typical male fantasy,) but from a storytelling point of view, it works like one. She humanizes James, gives him someone to care about and a reason to live beyond simple survival (that's catskinner existential imperative/function, anyway.) They may be a pair of freak weirdos, but they make a lovely couple nonetheless. I'm not sure I want to see them naked, though.

"Disappointed" would be too big a word, but it was a bit of a letdown that the story didn't follow some threads it had hinted at the beginning, not necessarily because the new direction it took was the wrong one, but because I think the other would have been superior. The story started a bit like a mystery drama, with a few touches of hardboiled urban survival thrown in the mix. There were three specific mysteries to solve: (1) Victor's murder, (2) whatever was stolen from Victor's safe, and (3) how was James/catskinner incapacitated with an apparently magical sigil. That final one may not be very important since it is probably just a plot device to avoid a fight so soon, but it still has important worldbuilding implications concerning what powers some people (and entities) seem to possess there. The description of the consequences of that sigil is also one of the best scenes of the book, so there's that too.

The third one can be dismissed then, but I find it odd that the first seems to disappear so quickly from James' mind (or so it seemed to me) and that the second becomes almost a footnote, especially since the contents of the safe are mentioned (The Book of Thoth), and they seemed important enough. After that point, James loses a bit of its agency as the main character/investigator, and he is carried along by what happens (and crashes) around him and the people he finds along the way, usually after a fight, when allies, new or old, appear or disappear. And since he is not the only main character (there's also catskinner there,) this downplays him even more. That is, by the way, something James hints at the end of the book:

"What's been happening to me lately has not been conversations. What's been happening is that people make bizarre enigmatic little comments in my general direction, and weird crap comes out of nowhere and tries to kill me. And then when I say, hey, how come weird crap keeps coming out of nowhere and trying to kill me? everybody tells me I don't understand what's going on."
Even the emotionally-stunted psychopath inside his head seems to know much more about what is going on (and, oddly enough, it apparently chooses not to disclose it,) than him.

After that, an explanation is given, although I think it would have worked better if it happened earlier (there is no big revelation anyway,) especially since the end is somewhat abrupt (although not unfulfilling) and a few pages more to build a good hook for the next book (e.g. hints of a future problem) would have helped.

It is in the sense of investigation and discovery, and in the dialogues that shine a light on the nature of this supernatural world, where I believe the book excels. In fact, my favorite moments were the dialogues with those at the edge of that supernatural world (e.g. with Russwind, about his past.)

In any event, the crux of the story is the James/catskinner duo, and not surprisingly the series is named after the second since it is the mystery surrounding that strange entity what moves the whole plot and, to a considerable degree, the reader's interest. The interactions between the two of them are also some of the most amusing moments, especially because they are embedded as part of the narration itself. This book is written from a first-person narrative, but the trick is that there are actually two entities watching, and they both share the same point of view (James' eyes.) catskinner's comments and thought processes (although not all of them, probably) are part of the narration itself and they are written in italics*. This means that sometimes the narrator himself speaks directly to another character (catskinner,) engaging in a conversation that appears as part of the narration and only they (and us) see.

*And with an uncommon punctuation. It never uses upper-case letters, not even when using the pronoun I. i once met a person who wrote like that on-line, and he was edgy in extreme, quite unhinged and seemed possessed, so I guess bad grammar and a bizarre punctuation sometimes may be a sign of daemonic influence! It may explain a few things about Twitter, at the very least.
[*extra: I just realized the whole cover of the book is written using catskinner's style]

I thought that was a neat literary experiment, and I would not have minded (in fact, I would have enjoyed it,) if Burnett had decided to be even more experimental while playing with the limits of traditional narratives. And speaking of which, I was pleased that the story avoided the usual pitfalls of many postmodern stories: the temptation of self-referentialism and going excessively meta all the way down. Since this is a story that could have gone from zero to Philip K. Dick in 2.5 seconds, I was pleased to see that there was little of that nonsense. Although the "entities" that are behind the whole mess clearly dance and play with the limits of madness and reality, those nonetheless exist. James may be confused because he doesn't understand what is going on, but he knows perfectly well that what is going on is real and that there is something to understand.

And even if the mystery isn't yet explained, and the names (if they have any) and goals of the hidden forces are not yet revealed, the intrigue is strong enough to compel me to read the next books.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Catskinner

If James is the hero of Catskinner's Book, Catskinner is the anti-hero.

He starts out a monster, and by the end...he's still a blood-thirsty monster.  The only real change is that James has increased his mastery and control over Catskinner.  In the initial explanation of the strange relationship between man and monster, James tells us that Catskinner called all the shots during his childhood. 

It's worth mentioning that I'm not sure if Catskinner's early days pinned to in James' back by a magic tattoo count as a childhood, given the implication that Catskinner is old as we reckon things, and a creature for whom time his meaningless as he reckons things.  His early behavior, unchecked and impulsive, is a childhood of a sort.  It's not until James becomes old enough to threaten Catskinner with punishment that Catskinner reins in his murderous ways.

The 'character building' that Catskinner goes through in Catskinner's Book amounts to little more than surrendering control to James on a more regular basis, and doing a much better job of keeping James as healthy from a mental standpoint as from a physical one.  Does surrendering control to somebody who exercises more and more control over your behavior counts as growth?

Perhaps, if you're talking about a manchild who settles down and sacrifices more and more for his family.  If you're talking about a selfish Scrooge who learns to use his wealth and power to care for others.  And maybe it even counts for demonic beings of pure thought and malice from another universe who learn to kill only those who deserve death, and who learn to allow their host critter to experience a little hanky-panky once in a while.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

April's Puppy: Souldancer, by Brian Niemeier


When we last left Mithgar back in September, at the end of the roller coaster ride through hell that is Nethereal, a goddess had been reborn and fire fell from the skies, scorching Mithgar and the rest of the known universe. Ending on this cliffhanger left us wondering what would happen next to the dying universe of the Soul Cycle.

Let's find out.
Twenty years after the old world ended in fire, Xander Sykes travels the deserts of a drastically changed Mithgar. His fascination with the world he never knew—along with his strange abilities—divides him from his clan. But otherworldly forces interrupt his exile. 
Pursued by enemies from above and beneath the world, Xander bands together with an ambassador from hell, his heavenly bodyguard, and a reformed guildsman seeking to right his order’s wrongs. 
The search for answers leads to a vast, decaying city haunted by a presence as tormented as it is deadly. Xander finds a survivor who may give purpose to his nameless longing—if he can help her escape the terror that stalks them both.
April's Puppy of the Month is Souldancer, by Brian Niemeier. Winner of the Dragon Award for Best Horror Novel, it is the sequel to September 2016's Puppy of the Month Nethereal.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Catskinner's Book: Chapters 5-8

James and Catskinner scare the living hell out of Doctor Klein, who rattles on about blue metal boys, nova crew nests, and her contact Keith Morgan at The Good Earth store. She says that she killed Victor for the Book of Thoth, but before James and Catskinner can extract every bit of information from her, the police arrive. James escapes out the back and hides. Doctor Klein reassures the police until they leave, not to help James, but to keep the police from finding the backyard pool filled with algae and bodies.

James sneaks away from Doctor Klein's house, jumping into Godiva's van while it's still moving. As they head towards The Good Earth, James wants Godiva, but tries to do the noble thing and distance himself from her. She wants none of that, insisting on staying close.

Inside The Good Earth, James and Catskinner meet Keith Morgan, who boasts of his knowledge and influence. Keith clues James into the nature of outsiders like Catskinner, who he calls Macrobes. There is an ecology of Macrobe information beings on Earth, with several of the species in conflict. Keith is a middleman between factions, and tries to recruit Catskinner, "the child of the morning star.". The deal sounds good to James, but Catskinner refuses. Keith unleashes a water monster on James and Catskinner.

Catskinner tries to fight the water construct, but cannot cut away enough mass to kill it. As Catskinner runs away from a mass of watery tendrils that cut like monofilament wires, Godiva burst in and dispels the construct with dish soap. They escape, only to run into the leasing agent that led him to The Land of Tan. She reintroduces herself as Alice Mann, part of the anti-Macrobe resistance.

*****

A more benign information being
than the Macrobes
I'm enjoying the ambiguity of what the Macrobes are. They are described as information beings by Keith Morgan, yet Catskinner himself describes the conflict between Macrobe factions in terms of Christian angelic choirs and alchemical sacred geometry. Their "coin" for payment is information, as befitting their scientific explanation, yet the Seal of Solomon is enough to kill most  Macrobe-possessed humans. Catskinner's Book offers physical and demonic explanations for the Macrobes' nature. Either explanation could be true, or both, or none, as not only are Macrobes known liars, most of them can communicate to humans in abstract symbols. Misunderstandings are common, and potentially convenient to the Macrobes. Catskinner, however, appears to be more direct and truthful...

I missed the significance of "Debbie Sawyer" when she first appeared. Having read further, she is part of a whole set of Chekov's Guns peppered throughout Catskinner's Book. Of all the authors covered so far by the Puppy of the Month Club, Misha Burnett hides his clues and foreshadowing with the most subtlety, as mundane details often are later revealed to be significant. He avoids the current fashion of repeating foreshadowing and Chekovs three times, yet makes the revelation grounded and logical. Not once have I wondered where a particular twist or revelation came from.

Normally, I space out my Puppy reading throughout the month. When sitting down for this post, not only did I have to continue reading past the planned stop point, I had to finish Catskinner's Book in one setting. This is high praise for a book that is admittedly not my usual fare. The beginning third might start with a slow and determined pace, but strap in as the pace and the strangeness are about to pick up speed.

Next time: "She is telling as much of the truth as she understands."

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Truth, Justice, and the Lovecraftian Way

Let’s be honest.  James is a superhero.

Okay, so he’s powered by an alien sentience.  It’s not like Marvel isn’t littered with those.
Okay, so he starts out as a murderous weapon for hire.  It’s not like Marvel isn’t littered with those.

Think about it.  He meets all the criteria.  Lightning fast reflexes?  Check.  Super-strength?  Check.  Alter-go?  Check.  Gal pal?  Check.  He even has his own sort of Commissioner Gordon in the form of the Cobb and Tom show.  Orphan?  Check and check.  The only thing he’s missing is brightly colored tights and a cape, and I have high hopes those will show up in the sequel.
Where James departs from the mold is that his story arc mirrors that of the typical Stan Lee/Jack Kirby character.  Instead of a goony loner given superpowers and learning to use them responsibly in a world where he can act like a god, you have a goony loner with god-like superpowers thrust into a world where he’s just another player and learning to use his powers responsibly.

All right, so it’s not a total inversion, but you get the idea.
Misha Burnett’s timing with James was note perfect.  He doesn’t come off well in the earliest parts of the story, and it’s only the sudden threat posed by Dr. Madeline Klein combined with Madeline’s actions that lend him any sympathy.  Victor was obviously the evil brains of the outfit, and Klein suffering James to live while snuffing out Victor provides enough uncertainty and hope in the reader to follow along with James for another chapter at least.  Then he turns down Godiva’s first advance – and oh thank God for that, had this book gone the tentacle mouth porn route I’d’ve aborted faster than NASA on a cloudy day – and we are reminded of his humanity.

Each passing revelation, even those that lead to further mysteries, reassures the reader that James really is the good guy here.  He neutralizes Tom and Cobb without killing them, for instance.  He grew up on the streets with only Catskinner to guide him.  All of this, combined with his tentative steps to achieve a greater intimacy, work to draw the reader into his world, and to root for him to make it through the book better, stronger, and somehow more human than when the book began.
He may not be the hero you’re used to, but that doesn’t make him any less super.