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Folding Beijing

Author: Hao Jingfang/Translator: Ken Liuuncanny-issue-2

Published in Uncanny Magazine, Issue 2 (January/February 2015)

My rating: 3.5 of 5

Lao Dao has spent his entire life in the “Third Space” of the folding city of Beijing, a monument to human ingenuity in combating overcrowding that his father helped to create. Being of the lowest of the three social classes, Lao Dao works hard in waste processing for low wages, so when he is offered a small fortune to run a rather illegal errand smuggling a message to “First Space” during the Change when the city folds in on itself, he can hardly refuse the offer. He needs the money to get his adopted daughter into a good kindergarten, after all.

Folding Beijing is an intriguing little novelette that I first heard of through Fiction Fan’s post on it. The whole concept is quite fascinating and rather jarring–a whole city that folds into the ground in a regular cycle, allowing different social classes time in the sun while letting the others safely hibernate until it’s their turn again. Certainly a novel way to deal with overpopulation. The way in which this operates in this particular tale, however, is perhaps most notable for the way in which it brings to light the shocking differences between the upper and lower classes in the city . . . perhaps a commentary on present-day conditions? For me, I think the best thing about this story was the way in which the author unfolded the concepts gradually, showing the reader just a bit more of what’s really going on with each paragraph, like a flower slowly blooming. It’s actually really beautiful, although a bit perplexing while in the midst of reading it. I also have to note that Folding Beijing is rather more literary in tone than what I usually read–not that that’s particularly good or bad, just something to be aware of. It was nice to get to read something by a Chinese author; I feel like that is a culture and literary group that I have largely missed. So if you know any good suggestions, please feel free to leave them in the comments. I would be grateful!

Folding Beijing is available to read online at http://uncannymagazine.com/article/folding-beijing-2/.

 

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The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains

Author: Neil Gaiman

Illustrator: Eddie Campbell

Long ago in Scotland, a man of child-like stature hires Calum MacInnes to lead him to a secret cave on the Misty Isle. It is said that this cave is filled with more gold than you can carry, but that gold’s protected by an ancient curse. Calum MacInnes should know, for he went to that cave himself once when he was much younger–went and came back with enough gold to buy himself a good life . . . and with an emptiness inside that could never be filled. As the two journey to the island together, their thoughts are both filled with secrets, darkness, regrets, and schemes they can never reveal to the other–at least not as long as the other is alive.

If you’ve read this blog for long at all, you know I’m a huge fan of Neil Gaiman’s writing. Having said that, while I was reading The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, I was honestly wondering if this particular book was just a miss–I really wan’t feeling it at all. But by the time I’d pushed through the first third of the story, things began changing quite a bit as the underlying motivations and interlacing background stories were laid bare. Because these aren’t simply two men who are randomly using each other; they have a dark, tragic connection in their past, one that is closely tied to the revenge one seeks on the other without his ken. This is a dark, psychologically involved, emotionally taxing story–but one that is rewarding in a brutal sort of way to those who push through to the end. Particularly notable about this book is Eddie Campbell’s art–it’s truly a hodgepodge of paintings, photographs, and even comics. It’s unusual, unsettling, but highly effective in this context. I certainly don’t think The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is for everyone–maybe not even for all Neil Gaiman fans–but if you enjoy unusual, dark short novels and have some patience for a slower start, you might want to check this novelette out.

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The Windup Girl

Author: Paolo Bacigalupi

Anderson Lake, foreign company man seeking the secrets of Thailand’s genetic wealth. Emiko, genetically modified not-quite-human, abandoned by her Japanese patron to struggle to survive illegally in a country that scorns and fears her people. Tan Hock Seng, Malaysian evacuee striving against the odds to not only survive in an unwelcoming land but to rebuild the wealth and influence he once held in his homeland. Jaidee Rojjanasukchai, captain in the Environment Ministry and folk hero, protecting the nation from the ravages of genetic mutations, plagues, and foreign influence. As these individuals and the powers they represent are thrown together in the city of Krung Thep, Thailand, loyalties are tested, boundaries are tried, and revolution stirs on the horizon.

The Windup Girl was not at all what I expected, but it was a fascinating read. The futuristic setting is unique, dealing more with genetic manipulation and diversity than with weapons and such, but handling the genetic factor in a way I’ve never seen before. It’s thought provoking in itself. The way in which Bacigalupi intertwines various characters and perspectives is integral to the story and adds great depth–and though I can’t say I actually like any of the characters, they are all well written and full of interesting complexities. I think the author’s choice to set this is Thailand is intriguing; it brings quite a clash of various cultures and ideals into the mix and is well executed. Speaking from a literary standpoint, one of the most interesting features of The Windup Girl was Bacigalupi’s use of present tense. Usually, this is extremely awkward to read; I have set aside several otherwise-excellent books in the past simply because I could not bear the awkwardness of the tense. However, in this book, the use of present tense seems completely natural and flows almost unnoticeably. I will note that in terms of sexual content, language, and wanton violence, this book is definitely adult audience only–I would say 21+. Still, in terms of creative, original, and thought-provoking science fiction, The Windup Girl is quite excellent.

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Coraline

coralineAuthor: Neil Gaiman

Illustrator: Dave McKean

My rating: 5 of 5

When Coraline and her absent-minded parents move to a new flat in a big old house, nothing much changes. Her parents are still busy with work, her dad still cooks recipes which she detests, there’s still nothing to do. Until one day, a door which usually just has a bricked-off wall behind it opens, and Coraline finds that it leads, not to a blank wall, but to another world. A world quite like her own, but flashier, more exciting. A world with parents just like her real ones, but with black button eyes. And from there, it just gets creepier. . . .

Coraline is brilliantly chilling. It takes the concept of a horror story and looks at it from a child’s perspective. The result is a story that’s beautifully creepy, even for adults. Gaiman has a clear grasp of how to use our fear of the unknown to great advantage. On top of the excellent use of horror, Coraline has a vivid cast, particularly the spunky main character (and the cat!). The story also concludes well; there’s a sense of finality that I think is important in children’s books. However, on a deeper level, there is a lingering sensation of uneasiness which is also appealing. This is a highly recommended story.

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Zombies vs. Unicorns

zombies vs unicornsTeam Zombie Editor: Justine Larbalestier/Team Unicorn Editor: Holly Black

My rating: 3.5 of 5

One of the great, longstanding arguments of this century is which is better: zombies or unicorns? Okay, maybe not, but it’s a longstanding debate between authors Justine Larbalestier and Holly Black. To help their readers decide once and for all, they’ve assembled an outstanding group of young adult fantasy/science fiction writers to tell the stories of these creatures.

This is quite a broad collection–the stories range from killer unicorns that eat people to zombie romances, and everything in between. It’s fascinating to see how many different ideas people have for what is, supposedly, the same creature. Overall, Zombies vs. Unicorns is an intriguing and enjoyable collection of stories, although it’s definitely geared to a modern young-adult audience and, as such, contains more sex, drugs, etc. that I really care for personally. Still, if you’re interested in knowing for sure which fantastic creature is better, Zombies vs. Unicorns would certainly be the recommended way to decide.

Team Zombie Authors: Libba Bray, Alayda Dawn Johnson, Cassandra Clare, Maureen Johnson, Scott Westerfeld, Carrie Ryan/Team Unicorn Authors: Kathleen Duey, Meg Cabot, Garth Nix, Margo Lanagan, Naomi Novik, Diana Peterfreund

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The Graveyard Book

the graveyard bookAuthor: Neil Gaiman

Illustrator: Dave McKean

My rating: 5 of 5

Nobody Owens (Bod for short) has a life that is not quite ordinary. After the murder of his family and his own near miss with death, Bod moves in . . . to the graveyard. Mr. and Mrs. Owens have been dead for years, yet they take Bod in to raise as their own child, with the help of his new guardian, the dark and mysterious Silas.

This book is an unexpected treasure. Neil Gaiman is an amazing author, but most of his works are distinctly adult. The Graveyard Book is deep and complex enough to be enjoyed by grown-ups, yet is innocent enough to be appropriate for children. It is a heartwarming story, artfully enhanced by delicious touches of spine-tingling otherness.

In particular, I appreciate Gaiman’s use of words. He has an art of choosing the precise phrasing that not only expresses his technical intent, but that also evokes the flavor of that intent. In addition, he has a great ability to say things without ever actually saying them–for instance, I don’t believe he ever states that Silas is a vampire, yet the impression is there from the beginning and is only reinforced over time. This book is a treat to read, combining elements of mystery, history, suspense, and fantasy into a unique story that I highly recommend.

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

harry potter and the prisoner of azkabanAuthor: J. K. Rowling

My rating: 5 of 5

Harry Potter, vol. 3

The third of the incredible Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is one of my favorite books. It was actually the first of Rowling’s books that I read, although I would really recommend reading them in order, starting with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry and his friends have reached their third year of wizarding school. I am particularly fond of the cast presented in this volume, especially as Sirius and Professor Lupin are introduced here. Rowling presents a wide variety of characters who are quite well-realized–and who are human enough to be easy to relate to, even when they aren’t human. Rowling’s world is also rich in detail and consistent in its conception, down to the candies and currency. Another aspect of this story that is enjoyable is that Rowling provides all of the details needed to know what’s going on throughout the story, but in such a way that their ultimate conclusion is likely to come as a surprise. A final characteristic of Rowling’s writing that I find impressive is the consistency between the volumes of this series; each is its own separate story, yet there is a consistent, flowing plot–supported by consistent, but growing, characters–that joins all of the volumes together into one large story as well. I would recommend this book, and the series as a whole, to essentially anyone, and particularly to those who enjoy a good fantasy.

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