Worst Books I Read in 2010 – Book List

I read fewer than 10 1-star books in 2010. Perhaps I was more discriminating in my reading, or perhaps I've simply had a better year for books. Nevertheless, building this list was very difficult, since I had to choose two books from among my many 2-star ratings. And then I had to rank all those 1-star books, and that was not easy. As with determining greatness, determining how terrible a book is has so many criteria. Some books are on this list because they bore me. Others because they offend. Yet more because they are, by any standard I cared to throw at them, simply bad.

This is the first year a non-fiction book has made my worst list. It managed just to squeak in at #10 by dint of its dubious ability to enlighten me just how the Irish saved civilization. Sorry, Ireland! And I vacillated a lot over which was worse, Time's Arrow or The Fionavar Tapestry. One is excruciating but short; the other is annoying but long. Ultimately, however, the answer is simple: the latter is an omnibus, so I couldn't edge it past Time's Arrow just because it's a doorstopper.

Finally, I unwisely chose to re-read Dan Brown's novels this year, and I had to put those on the list! But I didn't want to take up three valuable spots when, after all, the books are nearly identical. So you're getting 12 bad books for the price of 10. Enjoy!

Reviews

10. Erich's Plea

by Tracey Alley

Erich's Plea cover image
ISBN:
9781453600979
Format:
Paperback, 315 pages
Published:
Tracey L. Ali, 2010

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Disclaimer: I won this in a Goodreads First Reads Giveaway. Loves me the free books.

In her biography, Tracey Alley confesses her love of Dungeons & Dragons—and it shows. From beginning to end, Erich's Plea reads like a D&D adventure. And that's not a good thing.

I'm going to start by nitpicking the editing here. This book could have benefited from an editor (or if it had one, a better editor), both a copy-editor and a story editor. I am sure there is an adequate story somewhere inside this book, but it is buried beneath awkward, ungrammatical constructions and exposition-heavy dialogue.

Alley has trouble with both commas and semi-colons: not enough of the former, and oddly enough, she seems to use the latter correctly sometimes and randomly at other times. There are plenty of comma splices; then suddenly I will rejoice to see a semi-colon correctly joining together two independent clauses. It's like the clouds have parted and a beam of light is shining down from the heavens! Nevertheless, it's that first issue, the dearth of commas, that really hurts Erich's Plea. In fact, as someone who has historically tended to go the other way and overuse our tiny curly friends, reading this book has reminded me of their importance in joining phrases and subordinate clauses.

I don't talk about it very much in reviews, because it kind of goes without saying: punctuations is serious business. If I have to translate a book from English to English in order to read it, that will definitely detract from my enjoyment, even if the story beyond that grammatical obstacle is brilliant. Unfortunately, this is where Erich's Plea needs that second type of editor. As much as it needs a good line-by-line dissection by a trained wielder of the red pen, this book also needs a serious big-picture editor who knows how to tweak for success.

For example, at one point the main characters are trapped in a series of tunnels, and one of them unleashes a fireball that causes everything to catch on fire. Including several of his party trapped at ground zero. After they have been pulled from the flames, the narrator describes the situation thusly: "Despite the fact that the flames had lasted merely minutes Wulfstan, Trunk and Nikolai had all been severely burned." There's some questionable physics going on here. I myself have never been set on fire, but I have a feeling that if I were on fire for "merely minutes," there would be no "despite" about it.

And I don't want to be pedantic about this. It is obvious what Alley meant with that passage, but it just takes some editing to realize that the line should be changed to make more sense. These things tend to get away from a writer during the actual writing, and even during subsequent drafts. That is understandable, and that's what editors are for.

I get the feeling that Alley has the general narrative worked out, but she gets lost in conveying the mechanics and details of that narrative (don't we all?). This results in some sloppy and otherwise unappealing habits. Earlier in the book, as the characters are skulking around a level of the terrify Zeaburg Prison, they encounter some orcs. Alley feels the need to describe, in detail, the glacial thought processes of these thick prison guards, and throughout the battle, remind us that the orcs are slow-witted indeed. The icing on this cake of repetition occurs when the annoying halfing Lara decides to take on the guards single-handedly:

Thinking far more quickly than the slow-witted orc guards, Lara knew that the doorway would admit only one of them at a time. Orcs were not known for their slender physiques, that fact and the corridor itself presented her with plenty of opportunities to take out the guards.

I will acknowledge the welcome and proper use of a comma to offset that initial subordinate clause. This does not happen often enough. Note, however, the unfortunate comma splice in the second sentence. So on net balance, grammar points here are zero. But I digress. What I want to point out is the way in which this passage is written from Lara's perspective. Lara is "thinking," Lara "knows" that orcs are slow-witted. This is a classic case of telling when one should be showing—wait, on the next page, Alley does:

Two guards reached the doorway at the same time, their broad shoulders connecting as they each tried to get through the door first. The two orcs pushed and shoved at each other trying to get through the door, while grunting at each other in their native tongue.

So that first passage is completely unnecessary, because Alley conveys the same thing half a page later. And because here she is showing us, not telling us, what is happening, it makes for much better reading.

Incidentally, most of this book is centred around the escape from Zeaburg Prison. Apparently the governor of the prison had set up the escape so these prisoners could be assassinated; their deaths would just look like they had been killed trying to escape. That is actually rather clever. Unfortunately, this literal dungeon part of the Dungeons & Dragons motif is a drag. The characters spend the entire book escaping from the prison, travelling through an escape tunnel, and then they end up in the middle of the city controlled by the Big Bad (more on him in a moment). None of this is very interesting. Beyond the initial escape and that confrontation with the slow-witted orcs, these characters get into very little danger. There are some icky spiders, some ill-advised fire magic, and the problem of what to wear to the dark festival, of course. But these problems are smoke and mirrors that distract from a critical flaw, which is that this main plotline has no real plot.

Most of what happens in Erich's Plea is exposition. There are essentially three plots happening here: Slade et al escaping from Zeaburg, Michael's visits with Lord Nexus and Ulrich, and Ursula's escape from Ulrich's clutches. In the first part, as I mentioned, there are no real conflicts relevant to the overarching story and villain. It's all just prison escape and bickering between characters with stock attributes and relationships. Michael's story can be divided into two sets of dialogue: his conversation with Lord Nexus, which is just a history of Kaynos and some explanation of Alley's magical systems; and his confrontation with Ulrich and subsequent exile. Again, not much going on that really changes the status quo. Finally, we briefly meet Ursula. And again, her sole purpose is to tell us how Ulrich came to power and became such a naughty king. From golden ages to war and witchcraft, most of Erich's Plea is backstory.

Backstory is all well and good, and it is nice to see that Alley has put considerable thought into her fictional universe. The only missing component is that crucial binding element: the story to which the backstory is backstory. How can I tell? It is very simple: none of the antagonists actually do anything in this story. We hear about them. We hear what terrible things they have done and what terrible things they intend to do. Not so much on the doing.

The Big Bad of Erich's Plea, by the way, is called the Dark One.

No, I am not making that up. Yes, "the Dark One." At first I thought this was merely laughable. Seriously, what self-respecting storyteller names his or her villain "the Dark One"?

Turns out Robert Jordan does. Not being a Wheel of Time reader, this escaped my notice at first (thank you, TVTropes). Smugly, of course, this discovery is a good demonstration of why I eschew Wheel of Time, but that is neither here nor there. My point is that calling one's villain "the Dark One" does no one favours.

Nor does Alley's portrayal of this Dark One ameliorate his melodramatic title. Instead of remaining an enigma whom the protagonist only confronts during the climax, we meet the Dark One and learn that he is only human To be fair, we learned quite early that the Dark One is a human, or rumoured to be human. But when we meet him, it seems like he is just human. He's not even that smart; at least, he doesn't notice that his right-hand man has betrayed him. And he has allied himself with a witch who seeks to rival the gods in her powers. I shall take one guess about the fate of that alliance.…

Unfortunately, we only meet the Dark One once, and not for long. So we know almost nothing about him, and after destroying his precious evil mystique and supervillain street cred, Alley frustratingly keeps him an abstraction as a character. So "the Dark One" is the "bad guy" because he hates non-humans. So it goes.

Speaking of abstractions, I couldn't help but notice that some of the characters aren't … always … there. By which I mean, sometimes it seems like Alley has forgotten that certain characters are with Slade's party; they just fade away and then rematerialize when they have a line to contribute. This happens in particular to Darzan and Trunk, who often drop away for tens of pages even when there is some action happening to which both could contribute (why does the halfling have to slay all the orcs?!). Yet another sign here that Erich's Plea needs an editor. In the case of someone like Darzan, it makes me wonder if she is all that necessary to the story; her role is mostly extraneous, so she could probably be cut. Considering Trunk's relation to a reveal at the end of the book, not to mention his role in Slade's vision, his lack of participation is a little more problematic but no less noticeable.

So I conclude by reiterating what is, perhaps, the most serious offense of Erich's Plea, which is its frustrating lack of story. The egregious grammar and poor editing wound me to my core, and they certainly do nothing to predispose me to the book. Nevertheless, they are meta-narrative problems, technical problems, and thus all the more easily corrected. Lacking a story is a huge problem. I know Alley has a story to tell, because her meticulous explanation of the political climate of Kaynos, the way its kingdoms and states and magic are set up, reveals to me the direction she wants to pursue with this series. I just wish she had gone much further along that path than she does, because as far as I am concerned, Erich's Plea is not Book One of the Withcraft Wars; it is Book Zero.

9. Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, and The Lost Symbol

by Dan Brown

Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code, and The Lost Symbol cover image
ISBN:
Format:
Hardcover, None pages
Published:
,

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I would rank these books separately, but collectively they are even more abysmal, and they are pretty much the same book. I have a separate list with reviews of all three books.

8. The Knights of the Cornerstone

by James P. Blaylock

The Knights of the Cornerstone cover image
ISBN:
9780441016532
Format:
Hardcover, 294 pages
Published:
Ace, 2008

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I'm so over Templar fiction.

I was never into Templar fiction per se, but somehow my love for historical fiction and my love for Arthurian fantasy had an incestuous relationship that resulted in an irrational urge to inflict Templar fiction upon myself. I blame Jack Whyte, who writes both Arthurian fantasy and Templar fiction.

That being said, I chose to read The Knights of the Cornerstone. There's even a blurb from Neil Gaiman, one of my all-time favourite authors, on the cover! And on the back cover are a number of blurbs from an all-star cast of blurb-writers. That just goes to show how blurbs are inaccurate indicators of whether one will enjoy a book.

Of course, all of the blurbs without exception are talking about James P. Blaylock, not about The Knights of the Cornerstone. This is the first Blaylock book I've read; owing to the ringing endorsements from all these authors, I'll probably give him a second chance with one of his better-recommended books.

The main character might be Calvin Bryson, or it might be a roll of unused paper towel. The two have equivalent amounts of personality, so it's very hard to tell. Calvin lacks any sort of ambition in life; his fiancée has left him for reasons we never get to learn, so he's living off his inheritance by feeding a passion for New Age Californiana books. But then his uncle asks him to visit New Cyprus, a New Age hotspot that's actually a cover town for some modern-era Knights Templar wannabes. Calvin brings down a veil (or a decoy veil?) that has miraculous holy relic healing powers, but this gets the attention of the Big Bad Bob Postum, who wants the veil. Or silver. Or maybe he just wants to stand around waving his pistol and employ colloquialisms all day.

The whole pattern of dialogue in this book annoys me. I'm sheltered; I live in Canada, have never been to California, and never intend to go to California, so maybe people in that area of California actually talk like that. I don't care. While not exactly "metaphor poisoning" of the severe variety seen on Smallville, the locals speak with enough "local colour" for two New Cypruses. I wouldn't mind it so much except that, once you strip all the slang away, there's nothing left.

This is a short enough book as it is, but these few pages conceal an embarrassing secret: there isn't enough plot to fill them. Calvin spends an inordinate amount of time vacillating about an inordinate amount of things. I have nothing against protagonists undergoing mid-life crises and trying to figure out who they are, but there never seems to be anything redeeming about Calvin except perhaps his complete obedience to his aunt and uncle. He plays no pivotal role in the plot, contributes nothing of unique worth—in short, he's just there, and we're just there with him. I wish I could say Calvin is the exception, but this analysis applies to every character in The Knights of the Cornerstone. I'm not sure why I need to care about any of them, because most of them exist only to provide dialogue.

The appeal of the Templars lies in their rich history and mythology, and Blaylock does nothing with that. Instead, the eponymous Knights have almost nothing to do with the real Templars. In fact, the Knights themselves don't have much of a sinister secret—everyone in New Cyprus is a Knight, it seems, and they aren't up to any master plan, good or bad. The entire plot revolves around stopping Bob Postum from stealing the veil (or the silver), because that would be bad, and because the citizens of New Cyprus would rather take care of such problems themselves rather than involving law enforcement. If the stakes were high enough, if the Knights of New Cyprus were actually involved in something secret or illicit, I could understand this attitude. But the conflict is lame! A healing veil? Hidden silver, acquired from a mine, that everyone in the town decides to share?

It's possible there's a decent story buried somewhere in The Knights of the Cornerstone. Done differently, I can see an epic quest to protect the miracle veil from harm. Indifferent Calvin must step up, make a stand, even at the cost of the woman with whom he finds himself falling in love. Unfortunately, that's not the story we have here. The Knights of the Cornerstone isn't so much Templar fiction as it is Templar name-dropping; even if you are a fan of Templar fiction, this book isn't for you.

7. Time's Arrow

by Martin Amis

Time's Arrow cover image
ISBN:
9780517585153
Format:
Hardcover, 168 pages
Published:
Harmony, 1991

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

The character of time is an open question in physics and philosophy. Entropy and the laws of thermodynamics seem to indicate that there is an "arrow of time," that time goes only in one "direction." Despite our best efforts, however, we still just don't know. It is, however, a well-known fact that humans, or at least most of us, experience time in an aggressively linear fashion. Whatever the objective nature of time, for humanity time moves in one direction common to everyone. There's no going back, and there is no reliving the past.

In Time's Arrow, Martin Amis creates a consciousness that experiences the life of Tod T. Friendly in reverse. Time literally flows backward, but at the same pace as we experience it in our lives, so this consciousness watches Tod grow younger. Although equipped with "general knowledge" this consciousness has no sense of what "normal" life is like—it is, for all intents and purposes, tabula rasa. The process of eating involves regurgitating food onto a plate and sculpting it into a meal (presumably one would then uncook the food, bag it, and return it to a supermarket). Similarly, the toilet becomes the source of sustenance—yeah, I'm not going to explain that any further.

So through the eyes of this hitchhiker, Amis shows us how funny our lives would be if experienced in reverse. Relationships start with break ups and end with shy meet-cutes. Babies are implanted into a mother's womb, in which they shrink for nine months and then are "killed" by a father's sexual act. And Tod Friendly is a doctor, a profession feared by the public because its practitioners are responsible for inflicting injuries on healthy people and sending them back out on the streets, where car accidents, rapists, etc., will heal them.

The punchline of this novel-length joke is, of course, not a spoiler, because it's on the dust jacket: Tod Friendly is an ex-Nazi doctor from Auschwitz. For those of us who experience time "forward," he is a monster complicit in the Holocaust; for Amis' hitchhiker, he is a Frankenstein-like hero, a scientist who pieces together Jews from the grave or materializes them from the gas chamber and restores them to life, sometimes hundreds or thousands a day! Auschwitz is a miracle centre. It's a twisted premise, and that should make it promising.

Except Time's Arrow fails at conveying any meaning. I can't see the point Amis is trying to make through this chronological reversal. It can't just be that life looks silly in rewind. Stumped in a way I seldom am, let us examine the dust jacket of my edition for some clues:

This spectral observer's ignorance of the doctor's past combines with the reader's awful knowledge to reverse the numbing effects of time and gives history the impact of direct experience.

Oh, OK, now I get it. This is all about dramatic irony. Amis is trying to juxtapose the moral innocence of his narrator with our knowledge of what Tod is going to do in his past (the narrator's future). And that is pretty much the only source of entertainment in this entire book.

How exactly does this "reverse the numbing effects of time" though? Now my dust jacket is equivocating! Obviously one doesn't have to tell a story in reverse to make a reader empathize with events from the past. And for reasons I'll explore later, I am actually convinced of the opposite of this claim: Amis' choice in narrative style ruins the hope for empathy or enjoyment.

And "gives history the impact of direct experience?" I don't want to fault Amis for this, since he did not hire the person who wrote the jacket copy. But in the paraphrased words of Inigo Montoya, I do no think that phrase means what you think it means, gentle dust jacket writer. At least not in a literal sense. Obviously it's meant to be a metaphor, but in that function it has the same flaw as the previous phrase: exactly how does this differentiate Time's Arrow from any other work of historical fiction? It doesn't.

The jacket goes on to claim that "Time's Arrow is a stunning, virtuosic [sic:] exploration of guilt and repression, America and Germany, history, time, and morality." Now I'm starting to wonder if the dust jacket writer read the same book as me. Who is supposed to feel guilt? Tod Friendly? I took the liberty of reading the conversations between Tod and others in reverse (so that they would make sense in my perspective) and even that did not shed more light on his character. I can't tell if he feels guilty for what happened in Auschwitz (I get the sense that he doesn't, but maybe I just wasn't paying enough attention). Or is the narrator supposed to feel guilty for Tod's actions? I doubt that somehow, because after watching Tod "give life" to Jews, the narrator thinks this guy is the bee's knees (or whatever the German equivalent of that expression is).

All right, so I've digressed somewhat. I've started bashing the book jacket instead of the book, and I should reiterate that Amis had little if any control over what the dust jacket promises the reader. I have read many books which are, in retrospect, nothing like their jacket copy promises but were still good judged on their own merits. So I'll put aside the discussion of the themes of Time's Arrow, confusing as they are. Where does this book stand as, you know, a book?

Here I can praise Time's Arrow in one respect: it is a paradigm case of a "literary experiment." Amis had an interesting idea and ran with it. I can grok that. But an interesting idea does not a novel make, and in this case, I think the idea actually works counter to the experience of reading a novel. There is nothing wrong with chronological reversal itself, but the way in which Amis has chosen to use it cripples the story.

Simply put, Amis' narrator is a spectator. It cannot interact with the world in any way other than through Tod's experiences, which it cannot affect. This consciousness, whatever it may be, is locked in Tod's body with no volition of its own, able only to think and feel for itself. What a miserable existence!

This poses a problem for the reader too. Not only is the narrator unable to change events, but the characters are similarly impotent. Amis' chronological reversal has removed the ability for any character to make a choice or change in any way. Time's Arrow is essentially MST3K where you are stuck watching Tod's life in reverse with a smart-ass companion who doesn't know about World War II. The story is narrative and only narrative.

The genius of fiction is its ability to create cognitive dissonance within a reader. At an intellectual level, the reader knows that a non-interactive plot will always have the same outcome, no matter how many times one reads it. Unlike Schrödinger's cat, that outcome will also remain the same whether or not one reads the book. Nevertheless, during the actual experience of reading, every aspect of the story is bent toward convincing the reader that the characters make choices which affect the plot. We don't want to believe that Juliet kills herself because Shakespeare willed it so; we believe that she kills herself out of grief for the loss of Romeo.

The style in which Amis' employs his narrative conceit collapses this cognitive dissonance. The narrator certainly never has a crisis of any kind. In fact, it is extremely mellow considering it has experienced sixty years without any ability to affect the external world. That would drive me crazy. And Tod's life does not interest me, because when played in reverse, Tod just becomes a robot. Any significance of his role in the Holocaust is lost. Sure, it's ironic because we know it is coming and the narrator does not. However, unlike a conventional work of historical fiction, we never have access to Tod's feelings and motivations for becoming a Nazi doctor; we never see his fall and his redemption (or lack thereof). We see it twisted and in reverse, but that is not the same thing.

So kudos to Martin Amis for this literary experiment. After all, by definition, if it is an experiment its outcome is uncertain. So does Time's Arrow succeed or fail as a literary experiment? I don't want to be harsh, but the answer is failure. By no stretch of the word did I hate this book, but it was a disappointment. And as a story, backwards or forwards, it's no good at all.

6. And Another Thing…

by Eoin Colfer

And Another Thing… cover image
ISBN:
9780670063901
Format:
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published:
Viking, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

There are some great moments in this book, moments worthy of quotation. There is tea; there are gods; there is Vogon bureaucracy and Vogon poetry. And Another Thing… sublimely embraces the h2g2 universe by grabbing hold of it by the scruff of its neck and shaking it vigorously until more characters and random plot events fall out.

And I didn't like it.

See, h2g2's humorous nexus of improbable events with zany characters is the icing on an already delicious cake. My attraction to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels revolves entirely around Arthur Dent and his plight as one of the last two surviving humans in the universe. The book is successful because Douglas Adams juxtaposes his profound, dry, British wit with the tragedy of Arthur's situation, both the loss of Earth and his doomed love story with Trillian, then Fenchurch. It makes you laugh, because if you do not, then you will cry.

And Another Thing… is not an anomaly among the other books in this regard. Though it has been years since I've read it, Mostly Harmless also has a problem balancing story with humour, which is why I like my omnibus of the first four books just the way it is. And Another Thing…, picking up as it does just after Mostly Harmless, emulates its immediate predecessor too much for my liking. It is, sadly, a shell of an h2g2 novel.

The personalities of most of the characters were grating. I did not like the appearance of Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, nor did I particularly enjoy the animosity between Trillian and Random. Even Arthur, poor, lovable Arthur, can't manage to put much enthusiasm into being upset about the state of affairs. He is much too jaded now; no longer the uninitiated last man from Earth, Arthur has reached the same point I have in this series. We both just want it to stop, even though we know it won't.

As I mentioned above, there are some great moments. Some of them are funny, such as when Zaphod's second head—which now controls the Heart of Gold's computer in lieu of Eddie—chides Arthur's drinking habits:

"I don't suppose this computer has learned to make tea?"

A red light flashed on Left Brain's dome. "Stop talking now, Earthman. The word 'tea' has been flagged. The last time you asked for 'tea', you backed up the entire system during an alert."

This is a hilarious reference to the last time Arthur asked for a cup of tea from Eddie the computer and froze all of Eddie's logic circuits. Unfortunately, references to the halcyon days of h2g2 are about all this book can muster. And Another Thing… just tries too hard, something demonstrated aptly by the excerpts from the Guide.

I'm not about to accuse any part of this book of being particularly inspired, but the excerpts from the Guide are even more forced than the rest of the book. They attempt to replicate that atmosphere of randomness, that sense of tangents and digressions, that is characteristic of earlier h2g2 books. And they fail at that attempt, because the entries are often too unrelated to what's going on. They seem present only because they are an expected part of the h2g2 novel form, not because they actually work at that juncture. The beauty of h2g2 books is that, despite their disparate elements and interruptions, I always want to keep on reading. I had no such impetus here.

Hopefully you will have noticed that, until now, I have refrained from comparing Colfer to Adams. I have my reasons for this; while I'm ambivalent about this series being continued by another author, I'm not opposed to it in principle. Furthermore, h2g2 has always had a tradition of transformation. So I am willing to keep an open mind. Colfer's style is quite different from that of Adams, and I think that is part of the reason this book does not resonate as an "h2g2 book" like the others do. Nevertheless, I cannot blame solely Colfer for And Another Thing…'s problems. The series was in decline with Mostly Harmless, if not before that.

And Another Thing… is probably described best by its title: this is a postscript, a footnote to the rest of the series, and something I will probably leave forgotten. When I need my h2g2 fix, I'll grab my omnibus from the shelf and read one of the first four books. For all you hoopy froods out there, my recommendation is to read this one—for you should form your own opinion—but do not expect greatness, or even adequacy. For the rest of you, don't bother with this book (at least not yet). Besides, you probably don't know where your towel is, do you? That's what I thought.

5. The Fionavar Tapestry

by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Fionavar Tapestry cover image
ISBN:
9780006479505
Format:
Paperback, 774 pages
Published:
HarperCollins, 1995

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

This is one of those times where borrowing the omnibus edition from the library because it's easier to get all three books that way is a bad idea. I felt compelled to read the entire trilogy as a result, when I knew I should just stop after the first book. The Summer Tree was painful; The Wandering Fire was brutal; I blacked out sometime near the beginning of The Darkest Road, so I can only assume that it was slightly better than the first two but not enough to redeem the trilogy.

In case you haven't figured it out, I did not like The Fionavar Tapestry. Fate dictates that I now compare it unfavourably to The Lord of the Rings, call it clichéd, and consign it to the dustheap of subjectivity. There are two problems with this tactic. Firstly, I have only read The Lord of the Rings once, almost nine years ago. My memory of the actual book, and not the mythical status it inhabits, is hazy, and I was very impressionable in grade six. Secondly, even if I had just finished an exhaustive degree in LOTRology and re-read that trilogy prior to reading this one, I would be in no better position. As fans of The Fionavar Tapestry rightly point out, clichéd fantasy is not necessarily bad fantasy. It's difficult, and not always desirable, to be original in fantasy no less than in any genre. And there are many heavily clichéd fantasy series that I do like, so to take this tactic would be hypocritical. No, I must do something infinitely harsher.

I shall compare The Fionavar Tapestry unfavourably with The Briar King, a book which I called, "formulaic fantasy at its most derivative." Nevertheless, there were tiny, inscrutable angels-on-the-heads-of-pins moments in The Briar King where I thought the book might improve.

Not so with The Summer Tree. The characters here are flat. They change, but not in any realistic sense of the word—instead, the book takes them and forces them into new moulds as the plot requires. Upon arriving in Fionavar, the five protagonists from our world quickly assimilate into the bizarre medieval fantasy land that is somehow the "true world" of which all other worlds are a reflection. Kim just decides that, yeah, she's going to be a Seer. Kevin hangs out with the Prince and his boys. Paul is depressed and so naturally goes to hang himself on a tree but then gets resurrected and becomes a moody not-quite-powerful person. Dave's mad basketball skillz automatically translate into mad axe-wielding skillz. Jennifer gets raped by the Dark Lord and his Dwarf minion because the Dark Lord is horny after spending 1000 years beneath a mountain, even though he knows that if he has a son it will be his undoing (apparently the "true world" has no contraceptives). But it's OK, because Jennifer is actually Guinevere and will spend the next two books randomly having flashes of insight that tell her exactly what to do to get out of trouble. Oh wait, that happens to all the characters.

I levelled this charge against The Briar King, and it resurfaces in The Fionavar Tapestry to much more debilitating an effect:

Whenever one of the protagonists gets in a tight enough spot that they might not make it, something inexplicable happens to save them.… None of the conflicts faced by the main characters feel compelling because none feel dangerous.

Few things annoy me more than when a book puts its protagonists in mortal danger only for a god to suddenly come along and save them, or for one of the protagonists to realize how to use his or her untapped power, or for one of them to simply stand up and say, "Dude, no. I'm, like, Lord of the Summer Tree, so you, like, can't do that to me." Once or twice is fine, because this is fantasy after all. But these deus ex machina rescues are routine in Fionavar, even though the gods aren't supposed to interfere and love to say, "Oh, I'm going to pay the price for this."

Related to this problem is the mutability of the main characters' powers/responsibilities/identities. I picked on Paul, Lord of the DanceSummer Tree, above for a reason: he is the paradigm case. Out of all of them, his powers are the least well-defined and hence the most subject to authorial abuse (or "licence" if we want to be generous here). It's not that I oppose to taking the reader on a journey with the character as he comes into his power; I just oppose introducing a serious threat only to have a new power appear to beat it back. That doesn't even count the random threats the manifest from time to time, such as Fordaetha of Rük, "Ice Queen of the Barrens," who shows up in a tavern for one scene so that Paul can banish her. There are so many extraneous mythological elements to Fionavar that it makes my head spin.

The trouble is, I don't know who any of these people are. I never do find that out. Even as some of them, like Jennifer, discover past identities or, like Kevin, destinies involving sacrifice, the only sense of difference they manifest is that they suddenly "know" what to do and tend to speak in highly stilted, formal language. Jennifer in particular tends to inhabit the Guinevere persona infrequently, and when she does, her diction suddenly switches gears. Yet it's the former phenomenon, this sense of "knowing" that Paul has when he sees Fordaetha or Kim when she decides to help Aileron, that undermines the entire story. If the characters just "know" what to do, because it's part of their destiny or because they're fighting their destiny, the book becomes boring. Crystal dragon? Psshaw! Kim "knows" what to do about it. Spawn of the Dark Lord might go over to his father? No problem! Jennifer knows what to do. Kevin feeling out of place because he's not getting horny on Maidalan, the orgiastic festival of the Priestesses of Dana? Don't worry, Kevin "knows" how to find a sacred grove and "knows" he must sacrifice himself to the goddess there. It's a good thing he did, because I didn't "know" this. Foreshadowing should be used sparingly, but it should be used.

Speaking of Maidalan, the women in this book are Promiscuous with a capital P. I'm not a prude (lowercase P) nor a Puritan (uppercase this time). I just noticed that a large percentage of the unmarried female characters in this book sleep around, and that in general the various societies of Fionavar seem to condone this. After a hunt in the camp of a band of the Dalrei, Dave willingly entertains the many women who visit him over the night! And, of course, the religion over which female priests of Dana preside requires an orgy festival called Maidalan, where men get irresistibly aroused and some of the priestesses emerge from the temple. That is more than clichéd; that is just stereotypical.

It doesn't help, either, that Kay insists on referring to such acts as "making love" and "lovemaking." Though a handy euphemism, it also connotes feelings that aren't really present on the part of most of the parties involved in these acts in The Fionavar Tapestry. This is a symptom of the stilted language that pervades all three books. Remaining ever so true to the high fantasy form, Kay ensures that his language, both in description and dialogue, is formal and poetic in diction and tone. This can, and did, get annoying after a while, but I suppose it's a valid stylistic choice. However, all of the characters, even the main characters, who began the story living in Toronto, talk like this. And that is a problem, because it means that the individual characters lack their own voices, further hindering my futile attempts to connect and empathize to any of them. The Fionavar Tapestry is 774 pages of the same person talking, albeit through different mouthpieces.

When there are flaws in a tapestry, do you blame the thread or the loom? Neither, of course: you blame the weaver. It matters not which clichés one uses but how one weaves them. Despair not, gentle reader! I do have one compliment to pay The Fionavar Tapestry: it would make a very good 774-page public service announcement about why you shouldn't take up a mage on his offer to transport you and four of your friends to another world simply so you can be "guests" at a festival. This will inevitably (a) not be the whole truth of the matter, and in fact pitch you into the middle of the resurgence of a millennium-old struggle between good and evil, and (b) void the warranty on your smartphone.

4. Last Call

by Tim Powers

Last Call cover image
ISBN:
9781596061873
Format:
Paperback, 500 pages
Published:
Subterranean Press, 1992

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I was avoiding this book, and then I decided to read it during my busiest weeks of the term, which in retrospect was a mistake, since it took me two weeks to read! In Ben's reading world, that is an eternity.

This book comes to me courtesy of an ARC of the Subterranean Express edition, which I received when they shipped me The God Engines. I was pleasantly surprised, and I shelved this book to read it when I could get to it. Every time I took it off the shelf and glanced at the back cover, however, I ended up giving it a pass.

Last Call is set in Las Vegas and deals with Tarot, Grail symbolism, ritualistic magic, and manipulation of statistics. None of this stuff really interests me. I lack the ability to get excited about the myths and legends that have arisen out of the culture of mid-twentieth-century America. So I started reading this book with the attitude that I didn't want to like it, probably wouldn't like it, but I should get it over with and read it anyway.

At first, this attitude was mostly vindicated. But then Powers began tossing out little tidbits that piqued my mathematician's curiosity. He presented the poker powers in terms of probability, statistics, and of course, Mandelbrot. That was kind of cool. And for a bit, it was almost enough to make me forget why this book is difficult for me—almost.

But let me say some good things about Last Call now. The dialogue is often good, and many of the characters—random though they seem—are fascinating in their own way. Despite his understandable use of archetypes, Powers never quite succumbs to stock characters and one-dimensional villains. Deep down inside, this is a father-son conflict, and all of the myriad plots and players dance around this central idea.

Most of the characters I liked happen to be on the side of the good guys. I liked Scott, most of the time, and Archie and Ozzie and, of course, Diana, who is kind of badass toward the end there. I didn't like Georges Leon (or Ricky, or whomever you care to call him), nor did Trumbull do much for me. And Al Funo annoyed me in a way that few characters in fewer books have managed to do.

In addition to the characters and the dialogue, I can also praise Powers' writing in general. He knows how to keep the action going, how to advance the story, and how to whet your appetite for more exposition. I can sort of see what other people admire and appreciate about Last Call, even if it does not enchant me in the same way. Owing to my disinterest in the subject matter, reading this book was more of a chore than an enjoyable diversion. I had to tell myself to turn the page, and the story just seemed to keep on going for hundreds of pages more than it needed.

The plot is convoluted and confusing, and I never really get a chance to care about it all that much. This is a story about the fight for survival, but so much of it is spent not knowing what the hell Scott is fighting. I had to force myself to pay attention and try to figure out what was happening; even then, I found myself skimming through some chapters, just sort of hoping it would all work out in the end.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that my reading of this book was far less involved than most books I read, to the point where I did consider putting it aside more than once. I didn't, and maybe that was the wrong decision, or the right decision—I don't very much know. But I doubt this review was very helpful to you, as ambivalent and vacillating as it sounds to me. Last Call registers on my radar as static, just random background noise with very little in the way of intelligible signal.

3. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

by Ben H. Winters

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters cover image
ISBN:
9781594744426
Format:
Paperback, 320 pages
Published:
Quirk Books, 2009

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Jane Austen and I have had a rocky relationship. I respect her as a writer and believe she deserves a place in the canon of great English authors, but I sometimes wonder if she is overhyped. When it comes to Sense and Sensibility, it has a lot of Austen's trademark wit, but as a first novel it also has the immaturity and inexperience of a writer learning the craft. So with Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Ben H. Winters has an opportunity to take a promising tale of two sisters and ameliorate it with his marine menaces. Indeed, this is probably the intention, but as I'm going to emphasize over and over again, it did not work out that way.

Before I launch into my main criticism, I want to note two errors that jumped out at me while I read. The first is excusable, or at least explainable. The second, not so much. Both are good examples of the carelessness that plagues this book.

The first error is in the first paragraph of Chapter 9. The Dashwoods have arrived at Pestilence Isle and are settling into their new home. As part of these activities, "they had strung the encircling fence with garlands of dried kelp and lamb's blood, which Sir John Middleton had proscribed as the surest method to ward off" sea monsters. Rather than proscribed, which means forbidden, I think the word Winters intends is prescribed. The two words are antonyms in meaning but only one letter apart. Hence, this is probably just a rather unfortunate typo. Copy editors are human too. (Well, most of them.)

I cannot quite as easily dismiss the second error. Later in the book (Chapter 46), Marianne is planning her new life without Willoughby: "I shall learn engineering; I shall study hydrology and biology and aeronautics; I shall endeavour to understand Mendel's principles and comparative zoology." Managing that last resolution would be quite an accomplishment, because Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk known for his experiments with heredity and generally credited for discovering genetics, won't be born until five years after Austen dies. So the Marianne of Sense and Sensibility wouldn't know about Mendel. To be fair, Winters never specifies when this book takes place. Maybe it takes place in a later part of the nineteenth century, after Mendel starts his experiments. Yet this explanation is unsatisfactory for two reasons: firstly, Mendel's work didn't garner much attention until the early twentieth century; secondly, even if the Alteration changed that and led to an earlier realization of genetics, moving the time period forward even by fifty years would place Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters into the Victorian era. And I think that would make for a different tone of book. No, the easiest explanation seems to be that Mendel's mention is an anachronism. It only took me a few seconds to check Mendel's birth date on Wikipedia. What is Winters' excuse?

That question, while pertinent, probably will not bear much fruit. Instead, let's consider two complementary questions. Does the sea monsters story need Sense and Sensibility or could it have worked on its own? Conversely, is Sense and Sensibility helped or improved in any way by the addition of sea monsters? Spoiler alert: the answer to both questions is "no."

Prior to reading this book, I was under the impression that the eponymous sea monsters were anomalies. They are actually much more than that. Some time prior to the story's start, the Earth's oceans experienced an "Alteration," and all marine life became hostile toward humankind. Ocean voyages now hold great peril; even living near a lake is dangerous. Forget Sense and Sensibility for a moment: the Alteration is a great starting point for an alternate history novel set in Regency England! Considering Britain's status as a naval power, a far-flung empire, and an island, there would be plenty of interesting developments as a result of the Alteration. So many questions to explore, characters to create …

… and it's all wasted on Jane Austen. No offense meant to Austen, of course. But in trying—and I do emphasize that word, trying—to graft the plot and characters of Sense and Sensibility onto his Altered England, Winters misses the mark. Instead of creating a story truly worthy of such a fantastic setting, he tries to stretch a story that wasn't made to fit this canvas—and oh, how it shows.

Take, for example, the cause of the Alteration. Winters throws out some half-hearted speculation. Henry Dashwood dies pursuing the source of a poison stream he believes the cause. Sir John Middleton believes the Alteration is a curse upon England by one of the victims of British imperialism; he has devoted his life to finding the primitive tribe responsible, with no success. Edward Ferrars favours a theory that blames Henry VIII's split with Catholicism. All these sound interesting, but under scrutiny they all fall apart. The Alteration's name (indeed, the very fact that it has a Name) suggests that the oceans were not always like this. So there should be a simple way to test, say, Edward's theory about Henry VIII: what do written records say about ocean voyages prior to Henry's reign? Surely a calamity as great as the Alteration would be recorded: "June 7, waters calm. June 8, the dolphins killed my first mate. God help us all!" I find it very difficult to believe no one knows when the Alteration began. The poison stream and tribal curse theories are also rather silly, but slightly less so, and I suppose the latter works well as a background for Sir John. It just galls me that Winters takes such an off-handed approach to what may be the most important question in his universe.

There's also something suspect about the number of people who spend their time near or on the ocean, considering its dangers. Let's start with Pestilence Isle. Sir John lives on an archipelago off of Devonshire, specifically on Deadwind Island, and he lets a cottage on Pestilence Isle to the Dashwood women. It makes sense that Sir John would live on a tiny island. He's an adventurer, and he likes danger. But why would he put women needlessly in danger by giving them a cottage on a smaller island where he doesn't live? Why would the Dashwoods ever agree to live there? As the frequent sea monster attacks show, the decision is practically suicidal. And don't get me started—yet—about what happens to Margaret.

Moving on: Sub-Marine Station Beta. Actually, I kind of see how this one makes sense. It may be—nay, it is—stupid to build a gigantic dome habitation at the bottom of the ocean off the British coast and then invite all the upper class people to spend the winter there. If this were a James Bond movie, Sub-Marine Station Beta would be part of a trap by the villain. (It would also feature an awesome underwater fight scene, in which Bond dispatches several baddies and a couple of sharks. But I digress.) However, Sub-Marine Station Beta is consistent with the British attitude of stalwart arrogance in the face of adversity. In a time of war, which this is, the British keep those upper lips stiff and like to show that they remain steadfast. How better to show that you do not fear the enemy than building a stronghold in the middle of his or her territory? Sub-Marine Station Beta is an exercise in nationalism and a display of bravado. It's also rather stupid.

The icing on the implausibility cake, however, are the pirates. Are we supposed to believe that there are outlaws who subsist by taking some of the few ships that survive sea monster attacks? And that these ships themselves somehow avoid succumbing to those same attacks? I love reading about pirates, but they are the most obvious example of something included in this book because it's cool instead of its potential contributions to the plot.

No, when I look at it this way, it is a shame that Winters had even to try to follow an outline of Sense and Sensibility in writing this book. It is a waste of a world that could have been so much more. And all of these flaws read like they are the result of carelessness, of unintentional neglect caused by starting with the idea of "it's Sense and Sensibility, but with sea monsters" and then throwing everything at the book to see what sticks. I kind of feel sorry for the setting.

Having determined that the sea monsters suffer at the hands of Sense and Sensibility, can we say the same in reverse? Yes, indubitably. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters does not merely besmirch its source material's good name; it follows Sense and Sensibility down a dark alleyway, beats it senseless, and then slinks away to commit more crimes against Austen's oeuvre.

Harsh much? I thought so too, at first. I wanted to find this book amusing. I wanted to chuckle at how Winters cleverly transposes the class humour and familial squabbles of Austen's characters into this Altered England. The more I read, however, the more I realized that Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters does not just fail to live up to its source. I could handle that. But no, it's much worse. This book actively dismantles everything that makes Sense and Sensibility great English literature.

Nineteenth-century English society holds our interest in part because its class system is very different from the way contemporary society is stratified. But it's not enough merely to mock or to belittle this difference. To successfully satirize Regency England, one must deconstruct its customs and culture and examine why our contemporary society finds it humorous. Otherwise, all you're doing is pointing and laughing; on a scale of sophistication, that is barely above toilet humour.

As its title specifies, Sense and Sensibility is about the balance between reason and emotionalism. Elinor, with her calculating and practical ways, embodies sense; Marianne, the emotional and impulsive one, sensibility. Winters pays lip service to these differences as he develops the plot along the same lines as the original novel. While the developments in relations between characters, sea monster attacks aside, are the same, the emotional and thematic significance of these relationships are mangled in translation. For instance, I never feel the angst of Elinor's realization that Edward, whatever their feelings for one another, is unavailable. Winters develops this, cashes in on the irony, and even makes Lucy Steele a sea-witch. But all the window dressing gets in the way of the nuances at play among Elinor, Edward, and Lucy. Similarly, Marianne's obsession with Colonel Brandon's face adds nothing to the character's obsession in the original novel with his age.

The revelation of Lucy's identity as a sea-witch also bothered me. Specifically, Sir John explains why sea-witches must take human form:

… the only certain way for a sea witch to prolong its foul existence is by consuming human bone marrow, which is therefore, to them, the most precious of elixirs. Hence their occasional appearance, in the guise of attractive human women, among the terrestrial world—where they make love to an unknowing man, marry him unawares, and then, when the opportunity presents itself, kill him and suck out his marrow.

It is the last sentence that presents a problem: why bother marrying the man before feeding upon him? Surely it would be more effective to jump his bones (literally) and skip the tiresome courtship. In fact, why bother with a man at all? Why not just subdue some children and feed off of them? It might seem like I'm nitpicking, but I think these are reasonable questions about something that involves the motivations and actions of an important character.

At about the point where the situation at Sub-Marine Station Beta becomes dire, it dawned on me that the scope of Winters' narrative is entirely unsuited to Austen's original story. Sense and Sensibility is, like all of Austen's work, an intimate novel that uses a few families to portray all of English society in microcosm. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is about a couple of girls crying about guys, kicking sea monster ass, escaping a doomed underwater city, and then witnessing the rise of an apocalyptic Leviathan. The plot has suddenly become much bigger than the original story, dwarfing the characters and their problems, which are supposed to be centre stage.

And … Margaret. What the hell? I have no idea what Winters was trying to do with Margaret's—I can only call it a "seduction" by the island. The whole subplot of Margaret discovering an entire species of subhumans who have existed "since the dawn of time" and worship the Leviathan is unnecessary and, frankly, uninteresting. Once again, like Lucy the sea-witch and the cause of the Alteration, Winters has included something that probably seemed like a good idea but, taken together with the entire work, just adds clutter and confusion.

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters promises that it "blends Jane Austen's biting social commentary with ultraviolent depictions of sea monsters biting." An examination of this very blend belies this claim. I do not doubt the sincerity of the claim; it's clear that Winters and Quirks Classics have tried very hard to do justice to Austen's novel. In some ways, it would be better for everyone if this were some pernicious attempt to mock the source material—as it is, I feel a little pity for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Its mistakes are made in a labour of love, but they are born from carelessness that could easily have been avoided.

2. How the Irish Saved Civilization

by Thomas Cahill

How the Irish Saved Civilization cover image
ISBN:
9780385418485
Format:
Hardcover, 246 pages
Published:
Nan A. Talese, 1995

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

This book bored me. There, I said it. Perhaps the most damning phrase a reader may utter of any book. That I persevered is more due to the book's length and my own obstinacy than any particular virtue of How the Irish Saved Civilization. My interest began to wane well before I was halfway through. The first half consists of several anecdotes that set the stage for the history: the fall of Rome, the lives of Saints Augustine and Patrick. I was anxious for the book to get to the "good part"—you know, the part where the Irish save civilization.

In retrospect, ironically, the first half of the book is the better half. Thomas Cahill provides an interesting look at the external pressures on Rome during the fifth century, as well as a brief biography on Augustine and one on Saint Patrick. These episodes bored me not because they lacked quality but because Cahill didn't bother to tell me why they were germane to his thesis. So for the first hundred or so pages, I took it on faith that he would eventually get to the point.

Unfortunately, he does, and it's underwhelming. I knew going into this book that its title was hyperbole; I did not expect a literal argument that the Irish singlehandedly lead us out of the Dark Ages. But it quickly becomes clear that Cahill has very little to argue, which is probably why more of the book is devoted to anecdotes and an exploration of Ireland's literary history. Cahill spends a lot of time quoting from various works, most of them Irish poetry or folklore. And that's all well and good; I don't mind a look at history from a literary perspective. Yet he never manages to convince me that somehow the unique combination of Ireland's geographical isolation, the oral traditions and religious practices of the Irish, and the mission of St. Patrick moulded the Irish into the perfect template for monastic life.

The paucity of Cahill's argument becomes clear toward the end of the book. Far from the claim on the inside of the jacket, that "Greek and Roman classics to Jewish and Christian works" would have been lost without the intervention of the Irish—which, let's be fair, might be the work of an earnest editor or marketing person—Cahill admits:

The Hebrew Bible would have been saved without them, transmitted to our time by scattered communities of Jews. The Greek Bible, the Greek commentaries, and much of the literature of ancient Greece were well enough preserved at Byzantium.… But Latin literature would almost surely have been lost without the Irish…

Now, the loss of Latin literature would be a big deal, granted. Nevertheless, this passage highlights the essential flaw in the book, one all too common in works of popular history. In analyzing only the Irish contribution to this complex swathe of history, Cahill risks over-representing the significance of that contribution. I don't doubt that the establishment of monasteries in medieval Europe was crucial to the preservation of literary works, but that's not the only factor.

Worse still, Cahill switches gears mid-sentence, moving from a caveat to an even wider, more general claim:

…and illiterate Europe would hardly have developed its great national literatures without the example of Irish, the first vernacular literature to be written down. Beyond that, there would have perished in the west not only literacy but all the habits of mind that encourage thought. And when Islam began its medieval expansion, it would have encountered scant resistance to its plans—just scattered tribes of animists, ready for a new identity.

Cahill fails to provide any evidence for such a disingenuous picture of Europe after the fall of Rome. How exactly does illiteracy cause Christian kingdoms to revert to animism? Indeed, earlier in the book Cahill has nothing but praise for preliterate Ireland's spirit and culture transmitted through oral history.

He repeats this sort of behaviour all too often, making statements that seem in obvious need of more explanation and, importantly, some sort of proof. Earlier on while mentioning Augustine's youthful flirtation with Manicheism, Cahill remarks, "Like Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormonism, it was full of assertions, but could yield no intellectual system to nourish a great intellect." The irony of that sentence is almost worth reading the entire book, for it alone is full of assertions.

It's clear that Cahill has both a good grasp on and a clear appreciation for Irish literature and history. That's great. Someone with more interest in that subject than I have would probably find it more rewarding. Were this a book devoted to Irish literary criticism, it would get high marks. But it's not. It's about history. Yet Cahill paints his history with broad strokes, and he doesn't always pause to provide, say, sources. Consider the preface to the bibliography:

…rather than list every book I consulted, I'd prefer to tell you about the ones I found especially valuable. Of course, some of the more deeply held things are sourceless—or rather, one can no longer remember where one first learned them.

I can agree with Cahill on one thing here: some sources aren't memorable. How the Irish Saved Civilization is one such source. Although it has some interesting history to it, Cahill's focus is too narrow to sustain interest. This is a book caught between the hyperbolic claims of its popular history title and the more realistic claims demanded by scholarship. Rather than erring on one side or the other, and sticking to it, Cahill vacillates between the two extremes, making it a poor example of either.

1. Illegal Alien

by Robert J. Sawyer

Illegal Alien cover image
ISBN:
9780441004768
Format:
Hardcover, 292 pages
Published:
Ace, 1997

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

In Illegal Alien, Robert J. Sawyer manages to convince me that aliens from Alpha Centauri have come to Earth and need our help repairing their spaceship. He fails to convince me that the California District Attorney could try one of those aliens for first degree murder.

Sawyer recognizes the improbability of such an event, because he doesn't even try to justify it. The president mumbles something about the federal government not being able to interfere with the case because the state has jurisdiction and it's an election year. Yeah, because staying ahead in those polls is way more important than diplomatic relations with an alien species. And no one else so much as lifts a finger to try to stop this insanity. Speaking of which, Sawyer briefly digresses into the amorality of the Tosok, who believe in a female God who predestines all events, proving that Hask is insane by human legal standards. Not that it matters: Sawyer is determined to wring a trial from this Tosok, because that is where the story lies.

OK, so let's set aside the fact that trying an alien in a human court of law is silly. It's the story Sawyer has given us, and we have to work with that. To be fair, once one gets past this premise, the whole concept is intriguing. How exactly does one go about arguing the guilt or defending the innocence of an alien being? It's more than that though. Although Illegal Alien is, at times, very pedestrian in its tone, Sawyer manages to use his contrived courtroom drama to explore more than just the legal issues. He disguises his exposition as testimony, just as parents hide vegetables in the mashed potatoes, and suddenly readers find themselves learning about alien biology, technology, and philosophy even as they wonder if Hask will be acquitted—and whether he wants to go free.

Let me be clear: the writing in this book is bad. The characters are flat, even stereotypical at times, and prone to that mode of generalization that passes for narration in a Sawyer novel. By this I mean, every thought that passes through a character's mind happens to be fundamental reflection on something integral to the plot. For example, take a thought running through the mind of Dale Rice, Hask's lawyer:

Still, there weren't many times when it was an actual advantage to be African-American. He was used to the screwups in restaurants. Waitresses bringing him the wrong meal—mixing up his order with that of the only other black person in the entire place. White people constantly confused him with other black men, men who, except for their skin color, looked nothing like him, and were often decades younger.

But the one time it perhaps was to his advantage to be big and black was when he wanted to go for late-night walks.

Now, I'm not black, so I'm not going to pretend to know whether this characterization is accurate. I suspect, as with all anecdotes, it's true for some and false for many others. Regardless, my point is that Sawyer handles the whole issue of race about as deftly as clog dancers dance in cement shoes. Still not convinced? The detective in charge of the murder investigation is Jesus Perez—and that's pronounced Hay-soos, he is quick to remind us every single time he appears.

When it comes to enthusiasm for cutting-edge developments in science, Sawyer is among the best writers out there. His near-future science fiction is thought-provoking, when it comes to the science parts, but his characters consistently fail to impress me. And his dialogue does not fare much better. Unfortunately, Illegal Alien is mostly dialogue, because the middle of the book consists of little more than dialogue-laden courtroom scenes broken up by interstitial moments of tension during recess. Maybe those more amenable to legal thrillers might tolerate such a high degree of dialogue; it certainly works for movies. But the sheer amount of time spent exchanging words in that courtroom, witnessing every single instance that Dale says, "Objection!" … rather than make me turn the page because of tension and interest, I turned it so I could finish the book faster.

OK, so let's set aside the incredible premise and the bad writing. What have we left … oh yes, the aliens. Sawyer uses the courtroom as a theatre to tell us all about the Tosoks. Despite their taboos about discussing internal biology (comparable to our taboos on having sex in front of other people), we learn about the Tosoks' internal organs. We learn how they shed their skin, how they reproduce, how they count their familial relations. There are myriad ways Sawyer could have chosen to expound on these subjects; he chose the courtroom, and that decision works well. Although the legal question alone is intriguing, combined with Sawyer's sneaky world-building, it almost makes Illegal Alien downright compelling. (Almost.)

It is hard to believe that the same author who wrote this also wrote WWW:Wake. I guess now that I've read this, that, and the Neanderthal Parallax series, I've seen examples of Sawyer at his best, worst, and middling. Unless there is something about this book's description that makes you salivate and throb in all the right places, this isn't the Sawyer novel I'd pimp to you.