#REVIEW: SLEEPING BEAUTIES, by Stephen King & Owen King

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I am a big enough Stephen King fan that the majority of the time I know about his books way in advance and they get preordered.  I have read damn near everything he ever wrote, excepting only his book about the Kennedy assassination (which I refuse to read, because Wrong) and for no clear reason the third book in his Bill Hodges trilogy, which I’ll get to eventually.  So the fact that I hadn’t heard about Sleeping Beauties until finding it on a shelf in Target, of all places, was more than a bit unusual.

Here’s the inside jacket text:

In a future so real and near it might be now, something happens when women go to sleep: they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If they are awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed or violated, the women become feral and spectacularly violent. And while they sleep they go to another place, a better place, where harmony prevails and conflict is rare.

One woman, the mysterious “Eve Black,” is immune to the blessing or curse of the sleeping disease. Is Eve a medical anomaly to be studied? Or is she a demon who must be slain? Abandoned, left to their increasingly primal urges, the men divide into warring factions, some wanting to kill Eve, some to save her. Others exploit the chaos to wreak their own vengeance on new enemies. All turn to violence in a suddenly all-male world.

Set in a small Appalachian town whose primary employer is a women’s prison, Sleeping Beauties is a wildly provocative, gloriously dramatic father-son collaboration that feels particularly urgent and relevant today.

I read that mess, laughed, and handed the book over to my wife, saying that she had to buy it.  Now, again, usually new King is an insta-buy.  And I can’t recall any other King books that were bought so explicitly for a hate-read as this one was.  But… I’m not wrong, right?  That description sounds absolutely terrible.  From the weird “future so near and real” (the book is not set in the future, at all) to the deeply odd “urgent and relevant” (how?) bit at the end, it’s a cavalcade of bad.  It makes the book sound awful.

Having read all 700 pages in the last… week?  or so, and having stayed up way late last night to finish it, I can confirm: it’s not nearly that bad.  It’s one of those books that’s better while you’re reading it and not so much the day afterward when you’re thinking about it, though.  And I’m pretty sure, despite what Stephen and Owen have said in interviews, that Owen wrote most of the book.  The plotting is pure Stephen King, but on a sentence-to-sentence, page-by-page basis, most of the prose doesn’t sound like him to me.  Part of me wants to feed the book into a computer and go all Documentary Hypothesis on it, to be honest; I think it’d be fun.

So, yeah, the book: that description’s not far off in a literal sense, it’s just way crappier.  All the women in the world suddenly start spinning cocoons around themselves when they fall asleep, because Reasons, and there’s this woman named Evie (not “Eve,” which would have been way less subtle) who doesn’t web up and seems to be psychic because Reasons, and they get really violent if you remove the webbing because Reasons, and eventually (spoiler!!) the women all come back because Reasons.

A careful reader will have discerned my issue with the book already.  Unlike, say, The Stand, which is my favorite King book, what happens to the world’s women in this story is presented as purely supernatural, with no scientific explanation of any kind at all.  And while most of King’s work does have at least supernatural underpinnings to it, even Under the Dome did a better job of providing reasons why the Bad Shit was happening and not a bunch of handwaving.  This book is composed of 100% dura-grade premium Handwavium, and nothing in the basic premise happens for a reason. Once the scenario is up and running, okay, characters tend to respond in reasonable and understandable ways.  But the setup itself?

Why do the women all fall asleep?  Why is Eve so tremendously violent when we first meet her?  Why the cocoons?  Why can’t I spell “cocoon” without putting a double-C in there?  Why do the women go to what they call the Other Place, and why aren’t there any women from outside Dooling there?  Are only the women from Dooling sent to the Other Place?  Why?  Why does Evie seem to be trying to get herself killed for part of the last third of the book?

(The Other Place, in general, is narratively unnecessary, and every page set there could have been cut without harming the book.)

I’m generally okay with a book not tying up every loose thread and leaving some questions unanswered, but holy shit, this book is nothing but unanswered questions.  My lack of reading comprehension can probably be blamed for a couple of them, but there’s basic worldbuilding shit here that’s left undone in favor of handwavium and it bugs.  And the ending is weak as hell.  Spoiler, but you know this already anyway: the women come back.  They literally just decide to not be sleepers anymore and then they aren’t.  Or maybe Dooling’s women decide for the whole world?  Why do they specifically get to decide?  Who knows!  But they all have to decide to come back for any of them to come back, which is not as much of an obstacle as it might seem.  Why do they all have to agree?  Reasons!

(Apropos of nothing, in case you’re wondering, the book doesn’t know trans women exist.)

I dunno.  I four-starred this on Goodreads originally, but I’ve dropped it to three while I’ve been writing this.  The book wasn’t bad while I was reading it, but the lack of any real resolution at the end dooms the entire enterprise.

#REVIEW: STILLHOUSE LAKE, by Rachel Caine

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Rachel Caine is– and I hope somebody out there understands what I’m talking about here, because I feel like I might be talking out of my ass– an author that I’m a stealth fan of.  She’s one of the most prolific authors I’m aware of, up there with Seanan McGuire and Stephen King, and I have eighteen of her books.  That is a lot of books!  There are probably not many authors who I have that many books by; in fact, King is the only writer I can think of who I’m certain I have more books by than I do by Rachel Caine.

And yet I’m pretty sure I’ve not listed her previously on any list of my favorite authors, despite that, and I think Stillhouse Lake is the first of her books that I’ve been moved to review here.(*)  Her books, to me, are like candy.  This isn’t an insult!  Everybody loves eating M&Ms!  Sometimes you find yourself really craving them!  But you don’t really talk about your love of M&Ms with other people, right?  They’re just there, and they’re delicious, and there are always new M&Ms available whenever you’re ready for a new M&M.  Yummy.

(I swear.  That’s supposed to be a compliment.  I’m not very good at this.)

Here’s the thing about Stillhouse Lake, though: I feel like Rachel Caine was writing outside of her comfort zone for this book.  Her series tend (not all, but mostly) to fit squarely into the Urban Fantasy genre: first-person stories about impossibly attractive women with some sort of supernatural abilities who fight against some sort of shadowy world-dominating evil cabal of some sort.  Sometimes there are genies.  Sometimes there are zombies.  But there’s a theme.

This is the only Rachel Caine book I own that fits squarely into the modern world.  There’s nothing supernatural about it at all.  It’s also the only book of hers I’ve read that is undeniably a horror story.  (She has a series, called the Morganville Vampires, which I haven’t read and could conceivably be a horror series?  But vampires are rarely scary anymore and I suspect it’s more urban fantasy.)

So it’s quite different from her previous work that I’ve read.  And I’m about to say something about this book that I’m fairly certain I’ve rarely if ever said about a book before: it scared the hell out of me.  The premise is pretty simple: the main character was once married to, and in fact had two children with, a man who turned out to be a serial killer.  She had no idea about what kind of person she was married to until he was caught.  He was convicted and is on death row, and she was tried as an accessory to his crimes but acquitted.  Since then, she and her kids have been on the run, both from her husband’s inevitable cadre of fans and hordes of Gamergate-style internet assholes who think she got away with being a serial murderer and want to see her destroyed.  Over the years, she and the kids have gotten good about dropping everything, burning their identities and fleeing town whenever anyone seems to figure out where they are before the hate mail and the rape fantasies and the death threats can start up again.

The book starts off making the internet the enemy, and letting us inside Gwen’s head as she tries to protect her kids both from external threats and from finding out about the external threats– understandably, she wants to keep the worst of the harassment and the details of their dad’s murders from them, but without understanding just how dangerous the world around them is, the kids aren’t especially happy about constantly having to uproot themselves.  Her relationship with the kids, especially her teenage daughter Lanny, is my favorite thing about the book.

And then they find a couple of bodies in the lake they live by, bodies of young women killed in much the same way that her ex-husband killed his victims, and all fucking hell breaks loose.  And the strength of the book– Gwen’s relationship with her kids– started really working against me, as what were theoretical threats against her family and her children become terrifyingly real.  I read the last half of the book in one giant gulp last night, wanting nothing more than to go to bed but knowing for goddamn sure that I wasn’t going to put the book down until I knew everybody was safe.  The book tapped directly into my daddy-brain, and it scared the shit out of me, and when you combine that with pure expertise in page-turnery, you have a book I’m proud to recommend.  Go give it a look.

(*) EDIT: Not true, as I reviewed the last book I read by her, Ink and Bone, back in November.  And a lot of the praise I had for that book reads similarly to what I have said here– hell, the first few paragraphs of the reviews are interchangeable, basically– but Ink and Bone retains the supernatural elements of her previous work and Stillhouse Lake jettisons it entirely.  I&B is still a damn good read, mind you, but I think Stillhouse is a cut above.

#REVIEW: MJ-12: SHADOWS, by Michael J. Martinez

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Let us begin with the obligatory disclaimer: I’ve read all of Mike Martinez’ books, and reviewed all but the first one in this space.  Mike apparently noticed my review of THE ENCELADUS CRISISand he actually thanked me by name in the Afterword of THE VENUSIAN GAMBIT.  I’ve gotten both of his last two books early as ARCs, with the request that I review them honestly.  And Mike was also kind enough to do a cover blurb for TALES FROM THE BENEVOLENCE ARCHIVES, which is going to be out super soon.  (Stand by for an announcement in the next couple of days, actually…)

So anyway.  I read MJ-12: SHADOWS on my trip last week.  And it’s interesting; I didn’t actually review the first Michael Martinez book I read, THE DAEDALUS INCIDENT, because I like my narratives straightforward and TDA is anything but and it kind of bounced off of me a bit.  But I loved the sequel, which is still my favorite of his books.  Now that I’ve read his second MJ-12 book, though, I’m starting to wonder if Martinez is just really good at hitting the ball out of the park when he writes a sequel.  The premise to the series is thus: the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II led to certain individuals around the globe randomly acquiring superpowers.  Of course, this being the beginning of the Cold War, both Russia and the United States have a distinct interest in acquiring those individuals and using them to advance their own national security.  The series, effectively, is a historical fiction Cold War spy thriller with superheroes, only there’s no crazy costumes and no saving cats from trees.  SHADOWS, cut loose from having to set up all that background, gets to focus solely on superpowered individuals (“Variants”) being badass spies, and it’s both a more densely plotted and more historically interesting book than INCEPTION was as a result.  This book must have been hell to write; it snakes in and around a bunch of actual historical events and pulls them into its orbit and its narrative (and the characters are spies, right, so the Actual Historical Narrative we know about is just the cover story!) and I think it’s one of those cases where the more you know about the actual history of the early Cold War, the more you’re going to like the book.  I mean, I know a little bit about James Forrestal, right?  And I hit a Certain Moment with him in the book and then spent an hour in a Wikipedia spiral.

Again: this book had to be a bastard to write, but at the end of it we’ve got a great spy novel involving dueling world powers with superpowers against the specific setting of the CIA interfering with early independence movements in Syria and Lebanon, with a little stop in Kazakhstan in October of 1949 along the way, and I’m not going to tell you what happened there because it counts as a spoiler if you don’t know the history.  I find it kind of fascinating, too, that the two most interesting characters are a deeply Christian African-American former day laborer whose powers cause him to age or grow younger when he uses them– hurting people makes him younger and healing them makes him older– and Harry Truman.  Toss in a former Nazi scientist and a couple of coups and, oh, something that may very well be a parallel dimension inhabited by the dead, because this is a Michael J. Martinez book and it just wouldn’t do to not have something completely bananapants insane in it and you have a book that I very much enjoyed reading, a book that neatly avoids feeling like the second book in a trilogy precisely because it’s tied in so closely to actual historical events and history doesn’t work in a three-act structure and you have what probably isn’t my favorite of his books (that’s still ENCELADUS) but may well rank as his best work nonetheless.  Yes, he gave it to me for free.  Yes, I’m buying it anyway, once it comes out on September 5, because I can’t not have this in print.  And you should too.

(“Completely bananapants insane” is your pull quote, Mike.  Just FYI.)

#Review: SOVEREIGN, by April Daniels

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You may, perhaps, recall my exuberant review of April Daniels’ Dreadnought  from back in February.  I bought that book early and was kind of taken by surprise by it when it showed up in my mailbox, and then I was taken by surprise a second time when I enjoyed it as much as I did.  And it’s not only still on my shortlist for the best books of 2017, right now it’s still easily the best book I’ve read all year.

The sequel, Sovereign, showed up in my mailbox on Wednesday.  I preordered this motherfucker the second I found out it was available.  Thursday night, despite having slept all day and being generally exhausted, I made the terrible mistake of starting the book before bed, and as a result did not get nearly as much sleep as I wanted to.  Friday I woke up, took the boy to day care, came home, made myself breakfast, sat down in my recliner, and didn’t move again until I’d finished the book.  Partway through all that, I sent the following Tweet:

And I was telling the truth!  I did, indeed, have shit I wanted to do yesterday!  Shit involving my own books!  And I did absolutely none of it, because once I picked up Sovereign there was absolutely nothing else in my life that I needed to do other than finish that gatdamb book as quickly as I could.  April Daniels is the real deal, Goddammit, and now she’s written both of my two favorite books of the year.  I love this world, I love Danielle Tozer, I love the way this book does everything Book 2 in a series needs to do while setting up the third book quite nicely, and every single damn one of you needs to go pick up both of these books and read them right now because they are fantastic.  I wish I was half as good as Daniels is at this stuff.  Half.  I don’t know when the third book is coming out, but I plan to literally be the first person to preorder it when it does.

Why are you still here?  Go buy books, dammit.