We are Wormwood by Autumn Christian

We are Wormwood doesn’t deal in certainty or easy answers, and it doesn’t offer the reader a clean, straightforward resolution. What it does do is take the reader on a journey through a surreal world where the prevalence of madness, drug abuse, and supernatural events makes it impossible to have a tidy perception of what reality actually is. Tying it all together is Lily, a troubled young woman fighting for self-realization. It’s a dark story, but one that has a genuinely uplifting ending. More importantly, the writing is absolutely phenomenal. I mean it in the best way possible when I say this book knocked me on my ass.

There are only two problems with the book that bear mentioning. The first is its scope. Although it focuses on Lily, so much of questionable reality happens frequently enough that it’s difficult, as a reader to properly orient yourself. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing because it really helps put the reader in the same position as the characters and thus makes it much easier to empathize.

The downside is that you can never quite tell what the ultimate goal is. Lily is always aiming at a moving target, and for a good portion of the book she’s driven more by the need to escape her past and deny what’s happening to and around her than she is to take action. Again, I don’t want to say this is a bad thing so much as it requires a reader to be comfortable with disorientation, and once Lily takes control and figures out what it is she’s fighting for, her previous uncertainty makes it that much more satisfying.

Second, this book isn’t for everyone. The writing is fantastic, but it doesn’t yield its secrets easily. If you want a narrative that’s neatly laid out and lets you gallop along on a straightforward adventure, this book just isn’t for you. If, however, you want to read something that’ll draw you in, play with your head, and leave your brooding every time you set it down, it’s up your alley. Throughout the book, what’s actually happening is always open to question. There’s no correct answer, just the one that you supply which seems best to you.

Now, on to the good stuff. The writing itself is fantastic. Ms. Christian has a great deal of talent, and each scene, independent of the rest of the book, is a pleasure to read. In a way, reading through the book is like walking through an art gallery that’s been well planned, each painting seamlessly setting the next one up. I enjoyed the story, and I loved the way I never quite had a firm grasp on what was happening, but had there been no plot the word candy alone would have been a pleasure to read.

Although I loved the writing, what really made the book was how well Ms. Christian presented her characters. They’re all strange, intriguing people that could, in the hands of the wrong author, have been too bizarre for the reader to relate to. Fortunately, Ms. Christian presents them as people. Bafflingly strange people at times, but for the most part people the reader can empathize with.

Also, there’s genuine warmth to the way she writes her characters. I wanted to see Lily succeed because I cared about her, not because I hated the villain or because I wanted to see how the story turned out. Honestly, it didn’t matter to me how it ended, as long as Lily was happy. It’s difficult to make a reader truly care about a character and what happens to them, but Ms. Christian repeatedly managed to make me do so.

The book also has an uplifting slant. It’s a frantic, grim novel that earnestly deals with drug abuse, madness, abandonment, suicide, and things dreamed up in nightmares. Despite that, once Lily finds what it is she wants and needs, she does everything she can to keep it. Despite all that’s happened to her, she still dares to hope. There are a lot of books that try to be dark and end up grinding reader down, but this book is genuinely grim while at the same time maintaining enough hope to keep you going. It’s a difficult balance to strike, but Ms. Christian manages it well.

The superb writing, the warmth the author writes her characters with, the way she plays around with the reader’s perception of reality, and the fact that what’s real and what isn’t may not even matter at the end of the day, all work together to make for a fascinating novel. Lily is a genuinely enjoyable character, and the world Ms. Christian weaves is bizarre and intriguing.

To properly enjoy the book, don’t read through it as if everything’s a metaphor, and don’t struggle to connect all of the pieces. Instead, treat it like a good surreal painting. There are themes, and there’s a message, but there are also a lot of things there that are unexplainable. If you try to focus on each one, you’ll miss the bigger picture. This is the sort of book that you read once, sleep on it, and let the pieces start falling into place in the back of your mind until you form your own interpretation of what happened. And be sure, you’ll need to form your own. The author presents a world of intriguing possibilities and leaves it for the reader to work out what’s what.

This book is going to take you down the rabbit hole deeper than you anticipate, and when it spits you out the other side you may not know what the devil just happened. But you will know you had a damned good time getting there. I give this a 5/5.

Treat yourself and pick up a copy from Amazon here!

Creepier than a Whorehouse Kiss by Fred Zackel

This is a short story done right. It’s gory, terrifying, and cleverly subverts Asimov’s laws of robotics in a way that makes my skin crawl. I wouldn’t recommend Creepier than a Whorehouse Kiss for everyone, but if a mix of Blade Runner and horror appeals to you, pick up a copy and read it.

That’s not to say there aren’t issues with the story. Some of the phrasing is awkward, and the line it ends on should have been stronger. Despite that, this work gets top marks from me for several reasons. First, the author understands the key to writing a good short story is to pick one thing and focus on it. Second, he doesn’t waste words and writes in a tense, quick style that damn near made me squirm out of my chair. Third, it stuck with me.

I’ll start with what I didn’t like. Some of Mr. Zackel’s phrasing is awkward. It’s not terribly frequent, but there is an occasional sentence that stands out as having a particularly roundabout structure, or at least a phrase that doesn’t quite fit in to the right place. Fortunately, the pace of the story is quick enough to drive through these sentences without getting caught on them. There were also a few errors here and there, or words that didn’t quite fit. Unfortunately, the story ends on one of these awkward lines, which takes away from the final gut punch. That’s one of the tricky parts about any short story: each sentence matters much more than it would in a novel, and especially the last one in a clipped, vicious story like this one.

Now, on to the good parts. The entire story sticks to the same trajectory. The main character hunts down rogue robots who range from bank robbers, druggies, rickety hobos, to horrific serial killers. It’s a focused exploration of what would happen if a bunch of corporations flooded the market with knock off robots lacking the required morality or ethics programming, and there’s one obsession of theirs in particular that the author focuses on and builds the story around. I won’t spoil it for you, but it was horrifying.

The entire thing is told in the first person, and the author uses it quite well to flesh out the world and the character’s thoughts in quick snippets that never interrupt the flow of the narrative or action. Normally I’m not a fan of knowing what a character is thinking, but in the first person it works much better, and here the author hits the right film noir tone to really make it work. What’s better, the main character isn’t particularly likeable. Although you can understand why he is the way he is, with a great deal of justification, he’s still a bitter man a bad day away from breaking.

The writing style itself helps to ratchet up the tension. The author uses quick, clipped sentences in sparse paragraphs to flesh things out, and then when the action hits he sticks with the same sort of sentences but uses more of them. It has the effect of turning things into a chaotic, tense jumble. I found myself reading the story faster the further I got into it in a manic sort of way, which fits quite well with the subject matter. I normally don’t talk too much about technical writing in my reviews, but he had a few particularly clever uses of parallel structure as well. I felt like I learned a trick or two reading this story and observing how Mr. Zackel put it together.

On the writing alone, I wouldn’t give the story top marks since there were a few issues, but the way the author explores the subject matter is fascinating. The broken robots aren’t an allegory or analogy. They’re something entirely different, their own thing, and that really makes the story work. There’s one section in particular discussing how the robots want, need, and use money just as much as people that flies in the face of how robots are usually presented in science fiction, especially those modeled after Isaac Asimov’s. Again, it reminded me a bit of Blade Runner, but Mr. Zackel’s take on the entire thing is unique, well presented, and something that’s been rolling around in my head since I read the story.

All of that being said, this is first and foremost a gritty horror story that’s disturbing and gory. The author knew what he wanted it to be, executed it well, and kept it rolling around in my head once I finished reading it. It’s a nuanced take on robot-human relations that makes for a great read.

If you’ve got a buck to spare and the inclination to read this sort of story, get a copy from Amazon here and enjoy yourself. It’s quick, brutal, and thought provoking.

 

Children of Athena: The New Pantheons by W.B. Wemyss

Humanity is scattered throughout the moons of the solar system living in clouds of nanotechnology called the ‘fog.’ The secrets of the human body have been unraveled. The mind can be stored and transported like an mp3 file. Zee Prime, an AI created by humanity that has become our mother, lives in giant rings orbiting the sun.

There’s no privacy, and the actions of each man, woman, and child are judged by the race as a whole. Imagine if likes and dislikes on Facebook were the currency you lived by. Every decision made is done through the Anonymous network. Everyone votes, everyone knows. It’s the internet made into a physical utopia. And the Cthulu-like forces of entropy, fascism, racism, and sexism want nothing more than the spread despair and accelerate the heat death of the universe. This is the world W.B. Wemyss presents in Children of Athena.

The biggest strengths and weaknesses of this book stem from the fact that it presents an idea more than it tells a story. True, there is a narrative and there are characters, but they’re vehicles that allow certain ideas to interact with each other and make their points rather than engaging elements in and of themselves.

Also, at times it’s hard to follow the author’s train of thought, and there are several threads that don’t seem to fully develop by the end of the novel, but the idea itself being presented, a utopia created by limitless technology and the internet made physical reality, is absolutely fascinating. More, it’s a world that despite all of its whimsy is utterly believable, and it’s a world that I found myself wanting to live in.

The tense the author uses, present third person, might throw you at first, but Wemyss exercises enough restraint to keep it from overwhelming you. It’s unusual, but it’s well executed and worth the read.

As for the driving message of the book, the following lines sum it up best: “They use the word “Utopia” like it’s a lump of verbal excrement they have to taste every time they say it. Jordan always tells them that the Utopia is just the beginning of the journey. That the Utopia is Humanity pulling its collective pants on and being grown-up for the first time.” (quoting p. 487)

The two novels that provide the best comparisons are Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson. These comparisons aren’t based on the content of the novels so much as their presentation.

Atlas Shrugged is first and foremost a novel about an idea, and everything else is secondary. Characters are different aspects of that idea or its antithesis, and at times they give speeches that directly state what it is they believe and what you as the reader should be thinking about. It’s similar to how Christopher Nolan presented a lot of the dilemmas in his Batman movies. Wemyss does the same thing.

The story has more movement, and a lot of the big ideas whiz by without being belabored, but at times you’ll find yourself being bopped on the nose by them and struggling to empathize with characters you never have enough time with to truly form a connection. As I said, the characters are more moving parts than they are individuals, but even so there are moments were certain ones are almost as big as the ideas Wemyss explores.

The Diamond Age explores a world in which widespread nanotechnology changes the world. Again, it’s more about showing the ins and outs of the world, and the characters are just expressions of that rather than people you can really empathize with. The book is still fantastic, and I strongly recommend reading it, but the characters generally don’t induce the warm cuddle-shivers in you.

Children of Athena does the same thing, but I personally found the world more engaging. It doesn’t just show you how the world changes, it explicitly and believably demonstrates how our society could reach that point and what it would be like when it did. As strange as all that I’ve said may sound, if you’re the least bit immersed in internet culture and read this book, you will be able to imagine yourself in this world. You’ll start imaging who’d you’d be, what you’d do in the Utopia, how you’d treat other people. Wemyss goes beyond a technical world and creates one that lives and breathes in a way you rarely encounter.

Children of Athena is a happy nexus between a focus on strong ideas you know the author spits fire about and world building of the sort that speaks of an exceptionally creative, and perhaps a bit demented, mind.

The shorthand: if you enjoy the weird aspects of internet culture, memeing, mining through obscure webpages to find rare gems, or participation in the strange, frightening, and to some people liberating aspects of the online community (MMORPGs included), read this book. If you want a unique vision of the human race’s destiny, read this book. And if you want to read about a seven hundred year old mobster LARPing as Zeus and beating the crap out of Bacchus with a baseball bat, read this book. I give it a 5/5.

Get it here.