July 10, 2014
(++++) FROM WIDE-RANGING TO CLAUSTROPHOBIC
The Long Earth 3: The Long Mars. By Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. Harper. $25.99.
Never Coming Back. By Tim Weaver. Viking. $27.95.
Someone Else’s Skin. By Sarah Hilary. Penguin. $16.
The underlying absurdity remains, but the character explorations are much improved and the threads of multiple stories are finally becoming engaging in The Long Mars, the third book in The Long Earth sequence and the best so far. The foundational concept is just plain silly: a multiplicity of Earths, apparently an infinite number, reachable in either “direction” (“East” or “West”) through use of a simple potato-powered device called a stepper – and reachable by some people without any device at all. Why and how the Earths exist has never seemed of much interest to any characters in the books or, for that matter, to authors Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. But there are finally glimmers of intellectual curiosity in The Long Mars, which helps matters immensely. There are also disparate stories whose apparent lack of connectedness is apparent rather than real, as this book starts to make clear. One involves the “distributed intelligence” Lobsang, a sort-of-godlike artificial creation who nevertheless has been unable to prevent a series of catastrophes on the Datum (the original or central Earth), and who gently manipulates a variety of human pawns for partially disclosed reasons of his own – the most prominent of those being Joshua Valienté, a natural stepper and important explorer of the multitude of Earths. Another plot line involves U.S. Navy Commander Maggie Kauffman – the U.S., a country rapidly fading after a huge natural catastrophe at the Yellowstone caldera, nevertheless claims jurisdiction over all comparable land masses everywhere, and Kauffman is “showing the flag” (what there is of one) while exploring farther along the West axis of the Long Earth than anyone has before. The third plot has to do with Sally Linsay, another natural stepper and a strong advocate of such unpopular causes as the full integration into humanity of alternative sort-of-human beings such as the trolls (so named by humans but scarcely troll-like). In this book, Sally’s father, Willis Linsay, inventor of the stepper box, suddenly turns up after being missing for years, quickly persuading Sally to go with him on a rocket-and-stepper-powered journey to the Long Mars of the book’s title – with Willis having his own secret reasons for the journey. Overhanging everything else, although connected most directly with the Lobsang-Joshua story thread, is the possible emergence somewhere in the Long Earth of a post-human race of super-bright people (or post-people) whose powers are creating a climate of fear and potential violence among “normal” humans. Pratchett’s hand is seen most clearly in the characterizations of Lobsang and Willis Linsay; Baxter seems to be handling the sprawling plot lines and, at last, keeping them straight and interesting. The series does continue, though, to have irritating flaws. There is still the matter of entirely arbitrary numbers that the authors feel obliged to present as if they mean something, such as Kauffman’s team’s fascinating discovery of a wholly unexpected sort of civilization on Earth 17,297,031 (in a series of scenes with more humor than this series has so far evidenced). The authors also continue to make cultural references that are barely up to date in 2014, behaving as if these will be common knowledge decades in the future and among denizens of the Long Earth – for example, having characters remark about former CBS newscaster Walter Cronkite, Dr. Who, Hannibal Lecter, and the town of Stepford (as in the not-quite-human, too-perfect Stepford Wives). It is safe to say that these references would be quite arcane in the world(s) posited by Pratchett and Baxter, given that they are arcane already in ours; but the authors blithely toss them and similar matters about as if everyone in the novel immediately understands them. Despite issues like this one, The Long Mars is more interesting and holds together better than the prior books, The Long Earth and The Long War. Perhaps this series, which gives every hint of being a, err, long one, is beginning at last to come together.
The action is entirely earthbound in Tim Weaver’s Never Coming Back, but this mystery novel nevertheless has a broad orientation – more so than Weaver’s first three and his fifth, none of which has been published in the United States. The decision to make Weaver’s fourth novel his entry point in the U.S. is no doubt connected with the large role that Las Vegas plays in this book; and it is indeed the journeys “across the pond” that lend Never Coming Back its sense of wide scope. However, the novel, like Weaver’s others, is otherwise a missing-persons story, featuring former journalist and dogged (of course, dogged, and with the to-be-expected troubled past) investigator David Raker. Raker is a typically dedicated, driven protagonist, who at one point recalls how accurate his ex was in describing him: “You’re trying to plug holes in the world because you know what it’s like to lose someone, and you think it’s your job to stop anyone else suffering the same way.” Yes, just so – but the suffering occurs anyway, no matter where Raker looks. The book opens with a sinister scene in Las Vegas that draws readers’ attention immediately to someone’s hand – and when the story proper begins, a different hand figures in it at once, in a more grisly way. Weaver is good at this: building suspense, making connections, implying rather than saying that disparate and geographically distant events are in fact intimately related. The search in Never Coming Back has a “mystery of the Mary Celeste” feeling about it: a family has gone missing – parents and two daughters – from a house in which dinner is cooking, the table is set for a meal, and the television is on. It is as if the family simply vanished; but this is detective fiction of a sort, certainly not science fiction, so “they vanished” is not an explanation but the start of Raker’s quest to find them, or at least find out what happened to them. It is this that leads him to Las Vegas, where he finds himself on the trail of a dangerous cover-up involving some very dangerous people. The plot has plenty of twists and turns, which Weaver manages adroitly, although its complexities become somewhat convoluted as the story progresses and the question of motive becomes more central to the narrative. Inevitably, Weaver sketches in Raker’s back story and those of other characters as the search continues, allowing readers to understand what in Raker’s own past makes him so determined to get to the bottom of missing-persons cases. Most of the characters do not have much depth – the bad guys, in particular, tend to be more types than fully formed human beings, with one particularly evil one having a lineage traceable directly to Ian Fleming’s Oddjob. However, that form of surface-level characterization is scarcely unusual in this genre. Raker himself, though, does have solidity and does take actions consistent with his character, and several of those around him are also well-formed and logically presented. It will be interesting to see whether Never Coming Back, which has not one or two but three major plot twists in its final pages, makes a large enough splash so that Weaver’s other Raker novels will also be brought to the United States. A decision to bring them across the Atlantic, even though their focus is narrower than the author’s in Never Coming Back, could be a good one: Raker is an interesting enough character so that readers who meet him through this book will likely want to know more about his background and his other adventures.
Like Weaver, Sarah Hilary is British; unlike him, she is appearing in the United States on the basis of her first novel, Someone Else’s Skin. And a gritty, hardcore police procedural it is, ratcheting up tension and going down multiple well-conceived blind alleys from start until almost finish – with only the very end of the book having unsatisfactory elements that betray this as a debut offering. Getting to that conclusion, though, is a matter of probing more and more deeply into smaller and smaller matters, including one key location that is definitely not for the claustrophobic. The central character here is Detective Inspector Marnie Rome, referred to as DI Rome – there are British acronyms aplenty here, even more than in Weaver’s book, which has its share of them; U.S. readers seeking clarity had best be prepared to look them up. Rome’s case at the start of Someone Else’s Skin involves an “honor killing” that turns into an “honor maiming” and lands the victim in a women’s shelter – but when Rome and her partner, DS (Detective Sergeant) Noah Jake, arrive at the building, they find themselves in the middle of what looks like a domestic-violence eruption in which a hulking brute of a husband is stabbed by his petite, terrified wife. The man’s life is saved by DS Jake, who finds himself working unexpectedly with the maiming victim whom he and DI Rome came to the shelter to find in the first place. And so begins an intricate dance of a novel in which domestic abuse is at the heart of multiple stories and the phrase, “A marriage is private,” has chilling overtones. Hilary has real style, the ability to encapsulate a scene in a few words while creating implications that go beyond the scene-setting itself: “In Finchley, the clouds had beaten the sun into submission.” “Severe strip-lighting, the visual equivalent of nails across a blackboard, cross-hatched the ceiling.” “[T]he colour scheme was white, off-white and guano.” “The walls were papered in orange. Limp curtains at the window let in lymph-coloured light.” “In his shiny white tracksuit on the red sofa, he resembled a maggot in an open wound.” There are maggoty characters aplenty here, and not by any means the ones readers will expect – the story twists in Hilary’s book turn on character to an extent that is unusual in this genre. Rome’s character itself is somewhat overdone: every investigator in books like this has a deeply troubled past, but her response to hers – and the parallels between what happened to her family and what happens in her investigations here – are a bit much, especially since the truth of what happened to Rome’s murdered parents is never revealed (although it will surely come up again in later novels, Someone Else’s Skin being the start of a series). The book’s title comes from the thoughts of one of the distinctly unpleasant characters, a man overwhelmed by domestic life: “He wanted to hide from the three of them, [his wife] Freya and the twins, inside someone else’s skin.” Hilary’s point, though, is that there is nowhere to hide from one’s own needs, demons and personality, although the central evil character in the book does a mighty good job of trying. The ending disappoints because it is at once too neat, too melodramatic (in terms of what the maiming victim does instead of calling emergency services), and too distanced from legitimate police procedures to be fully believable: Rome uses presumably successful threats to get the information she wants, but it seems unlikely that the promised testimony will be forthcoming in calmer circumstances. Perhaps this issue too will be explored in later books. Whether it is or not, Hilary’s debut Marnie Rome novel is an impressive debut, especially insofar as it effectively conveys to readers the sense of powerlessness and helplessness exploited by the perpetrators of domestic abuse.