December 05, 2019
(++++) DECISIONS, DECISIONS
The Grand Dark. By Richard Kadrey. Harper Voyager. $26.99.
A Talent for Trouble. By Natasha Farrant. Clarion. $16.99.
There is an old saying that “bad decisions make good stories,” and on that basis, Richard Kadrey’s stories are very good indeed. They are chock-full of people making bad decisions. Again and again. Even knowing they are bad. Even knowing they will have bad consequences. And in this way, if no other, Kadrey’s tales are very, very much like everyday adult life, so much of which seems to revolve around deciding which available bad decision is slightly less bad than all the other bad ones available. In his best-known novels, featuring Sandman Slim, Kadrey buries the badness of decision-making beneath a consummately noir style and the convenience of people being able to come back to life after death – although that too, come to think of it, is frequently a bad decision. In his standalone books, such as The Grand Dark, Kadrey dispenses with some of the Sandman Slim conveniences and in so doing opens the door to a whole ocean of potential mistakes against which his protagonists can take up weapons (along the lines of Hamlet’s “take arms against a sea of troubles”). In addition, a book such as The Grand Dark gives Kadrey a chance to exercise his talent for world building and descriptive excellence – something always present in his books, but often getting short shrift in the relentless action. Not that action is lacking in The Grand Dark – this would scarcely be a Kadrey book without plenty of it. But Kadrey here steps back from mayhem just a bit, spending a significant amount of time creating and embellishing the world in which his characters live – and that makes The Grand Dark feel very different from the Sandman Slim series and other Kadrey novels. The difference is there from the start, which features not a monstrous emergence or giant explosion but a quiet bike ride by the central character, a drug-addicted courier named Largo Moorden. Kadrey is at pains to show that Largo lives in a world both recognizable and deeply bizarre. It is Weimar Germany, after the Great War, with many place names and people’s names in or approximating German – but with a few robots here and there to indicate it is not quite the doomed Weimar Republic. Bit by bit, Kadrey builds up the weirdness – not hitting readers over the head with it, as in his other books, but allowing it to emerge at a deliberate pace that will remind Brecht/Weill fanciers not only of The Threepenny Opera but more specifically of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny and even, from time to time, of Der Silbersee. The accumulating peculiarities of Largo’s city, which is called Lower Proszawa (its twin, High Proszawa, having been essentially leveled during the Great War, that being the recently ended conflict’s name here as well as what people used to call World War I in our world), come over the course of the book to be centered on the Theater of the Grand Darkness. This is where Largo’s lover, Remy, works, under the auspices of Una Herzog, whose specialty is twice-nightly stagings of the most gruesome murders imaginable (which Kadrey, of course, imagines in detail). The pervasive decadence of Lower Proszawa seems to be increasing as the threat of another war looms imprecisely but with increasing certainty; this, of course, is another parallel with Weimar days. But for all the Weimaresque sex, drugs and bizarrerie in The Grand Dark, all of which give Largo plenty of opportunities to make bad decisions, there are elements that spring directly from Kadrey’s uniquely skewed imaginative sensibilities. Among them are “city silver,” a strange dust that coats the city and may be connected with a fast-rising plague and/or with a mysterious illness appropriately called “the Drops” because it causes people simply to drop dead. The increasing strangeness of The Grand Dark makes the book more fascinating as it progresses, a phenomenon thanks in part to a wonderful narrative technique that Kadrey has not used before but here employs virtuosically: there are bits of supposed histories, manifestos, diaries, even a travel brochure sprinkled throughout the book, giving the world of Lower Proszawa considerable depth – and a fascination that goes even beyond Kadrey’s inclusion in it of an art movement called Xuxu (clearly derived from Dada); a group of radicals using eugenics to create exceedingly strange creatures; sentient robots called automata; and a shadowy secret-police group called the Nachtvogel, both singular and plural (it would be Nachtvögel, plural, in our world’s German) that it is tremendously tempting to identify with the Sturmabteilung (S.A.) of the rising Nazis of the Weimar world. Kadrey also does his usual expert job of making his characters come alive – not only Largo and Remy, whose complex relationship rings as true as does Largo’s drug addiction, but also Herr Branca (Largo’s mysterious and sinister boss), the aforementioned Una Herzog (sufficiently sinister in a different way), Baron Hellswarth (a customer who may have the ultimate power over Largo’s life), and many others. The Grand Dark is stylistically recognizable as a Kadrey novel, filled as it is with cinematic sensibilities of the Blade Runner type and packed with Kadrey’s trademark expertise in creating weirdnesses and piling them atop each other. And although it is a standalone book, with a satisfying conclusion, it leaves some important questions unanswered. Indeed, it contains so many elements that are worthy of further exploration that if Kadrey wishes, he can certainly return to the world of Lower Proszawa. Kadrey’s fans will wish for him to bring them back to this place of darkness, depravity and devious, demented decision-making.
It would be fair to say that all Kadrey’s protagonists, and most of his less-central characters, have a talent for getting into trouble, but the actual book title A Talent for Trouble belongs not to anything by Kadrey but to a (+++) novel for preteens by Natasha Farrant. Yet even in this much-milder world, there are instances aplenty in which bad decisions are available, and are made, and lead to good stories. There is, in fact, a bit too much piling-on in this tale of a Scottish boarding school where three young students – led by 11-year-old Alice Mistlethwaite, the book’s protagonist – go on a series of increasingly improbable adventures that they get through with a mixture of pluck and camaraderie. The story does not actually begin at Stormy Loch Academy but at Alice’s home, Cherry Grange, where a spectacularly bad decision launches the novel. This is not a decision by Alice but one by her Aunt Patience: to sell the house, which has been in Alice’s family for a century, in order to give Alice a fresh start after her mother’s death. This is also a rather bad decision by Farrant, because her initial description of Cherry Grange makes the house seem so interesting that readers will likely want to spend more time there, or at least revisit it occasionally – but no, it is off to Scotland with Alice. And that is where she meets Jesse Okuyo, a multiracial boy who is careful to follow the rules even when doing so may itself be a bad decision; and Fergus Mackenzie, a prototypically rule-breaking and mercurial redhead. Fergus and Jesse do not get along at all, and Jesse initially does not hit it off with Alice either, so inevitably, in a book of this sort for an audience of this age range, the three turn out to need and lean on each other as they embark on their decidedly off-campus roamings. These revolve around Alice’s unreliable and frequently absent father, Barney, who sends her a message that leads her to think she needs to meet him at a castle on the isolated island of Nish. This in turn leads Alice to team up with Jesse and Fergus for adventures involving everything from international jewel thieves to a bout of food poisoning (not to mention some gunplay and an island chase). Some of the tropes of British “children’s adventure” literature are here: Stormy Loch Academy’s very name, for example, and the fact that it is a castle containing forbidden towers. And Farrant’s narrative itself seeks a kind of old-fashioned portentousness: the boarding school requires capitalized Challenges as students discover their capitalized Talents while learning that actions have capitalized Consequences. The book’s third-person narrative style is also capital-letter heavy, an approach that wears rather thin rather quickly. So does Farrant’s habit of tossing about dashes and ellipses: “We are nearly at the moment now when everything comes together—the runaways on their quest, the people chasing them, Barney, the police, the major. That troublesome parcel in Alice’s rucksack. . .You can see just by looking at your book that we are nearly there—wherever there may be. But that’s all for tomorrow.” As a whole, A Talent for Trouble is more quirky than genuinely engaging, and its three central characters are more typecast than fully fleshed out. But for preteen readers, this will matter less than it likely would for adults such as those for whom Kadrey writes. Whether getting into trouble is or is not actually a talent, it is certainly a basis for building stories in which protagonists of any age have the opportunity to make a good number of decisions. Authors like to ensure they make enough bad ones to keep the plot bubbling and bring readers along on a journey in which their decision to read a story turns out not to be a bad one.