23 Oct

Reading Challenge: October 2019

Seems like I had more time to read this month than last but read less because I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to the books I chose, though neither was bad enough to DNF and move on to something I might be more enthused about.

Cover of The Book of M by Peng ShepherdTHE BOOK OF M by Peng Shepherd: Content warning for late-in-book deployment of the magically disabled trope.

A strange malady afflicts a young man in India: he loses his shadow. The story goes viral, and the condition spreads. It’s viewed as a curiosity until several days later, when the shadowless begin to lose their memories. Shortly after that, what they forget or misremember begins to manifest in the real world (i.e., someone forgets what money looks like and then everybody’s wallets contain plain green paper or, more catastrophically, forgets a place exists and it vanishes along with everyone there). Whatever the shadowless have is broadly dangerous, and the condition continues to spread around the world.

Max and Ory have been holed up in an abandoned hotel since the apocalypse hit its stride (maybe two years ago—I had some trouble with the timeline). Max recently lost her shadow and has begun to forget little things. When Ory returns from a supply raid, Max is gone, having left before she forgets something that kills him. Horrified by the thought of the woman he loves alone in a dangerous world and likely a danger to herself, he goes in search of her—in the wrong direction. While he’s headed toward their former home in D.C., she’s trying to make it to New Orleans, where rumors claim a mysterious figure is working on a cure.

Max and Ory are the stars of the show, but several characters get POV chapters. One of those POV characters, though she played an important role both in the survival of one group and as the budding love interest to a man grieving and going on with life without his missing and almost certainly dead wife, didn’t need to be given POV time. In her introductory chapters, I thought she was great and would end up being the one who saved the day. That is not what happened. She was purely a supportive role. There were plenty of other supporting characters whose fighting skills and lost loved ones didn’t have to be explained at length to give them identity and purpose. Nothing in the story would have changed if her POV chapters had been cut. I liked her! That’s why it was such a letdown that she didn’t fulfill her potential.

There was a conspicuous (to me) and welcome absence of rape, the default consequence for being vulnerable in an appalling amount of media, and this is a perfect example of how completely unnecessary it is. There is plenty of loss and pain to go around without casually throwing sexual violence on top of it.

I became afraid there would be a pull-a-rabbit-out-of-a-hat solution (when the resolution is inadequately set up or not set up at all, but TA-DA! problem solved) to the shadowless issue. While there was sort of a rabbit and sort of a hat (the word “magic” was mentioned several times in a different context, so it wasn’t a complete impossibility that it would suddenly occur elsewhere, but it was still pretty iffy), it didn’t really SOLVE the problem, so it skirted the edge of that complaint. It helped that this mild disappointment immediately preceded a twist I did not see coming, the glee of which offset some of the disappointment for a while (though it did recur before the end).

As vague as possible, but this will still spoil the twist

There was a recurring theme that even when someone lost all of their memories, even if they transformed into a literal monster, they were still in some way themselves due to other people’s memories of them.

If you take a select few, mostly recent memories from Person A and stick them in Person B, person B doesn’t become Person A, not only because it’s an incomplete record of Person A but also because the people in Person A’s memories at best have no memory of Person B and at worst have memories that put Person A and Person B in opposition—you can’t “become” Person A when someone who knew both of you remembers you as Person B and knows you are absolutely not person A.

Which is to say, there’s memory transference in this story. Person B, who was a blank slate until given Person A’s select few, mostly recent memories, fully believes she’s Person A because those are the only memories she has. When that’s contradicted by someone who rejects her as Person A because she’s known to be Person B, she goes with “oh, he only loved me for my body,” which might very well be consistent with the immaturity of someone who has only a few dozen hours of CONFERRED life experience, but there was no wise counterpoint provided. There’s no scene from the POV of the loved one showing any internal struggle, so maybe he didn’t have one and really did just instantly bail at the sight of her! But the point could have easily been offered by the guy who said he would rather his daughter survive and have the ability to make new memories, even if they don’t include him, because that’s preferable to watching the child he loves die horribly. Yes, the teachable moment is a lot of burden to put on a guy who’s dealing with his own shit, but it kinda needed to be done and he had both personal experience with similar pain and a philosophy rooted in both pragmatism and love, so he could have done a really good job of it.

I wish somebody who loved Person B had been there so that while she was feeling entitled to Person A’s loved one’s affection, she was rejecting the love of someone who remembered her as Person B. Full-blown postapocalyptic soap opera. Maybe the author and editor wanted to avoid melodrama, but everything after the twist felt dull and shallow from unaddressed possibilities.

Cover of Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey CranorWELCOME TO NIGHT VALE by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor: A forgettable man in a tan jacket with a deerskin suitcase gives eternally 19-year-old pawn shop owner Jackie Fierro a piece of paper that says “KING CITY,” which returns to her hand every time she tries to dispose of it.  This is an unwelcome disruption of her routine, and she sets out to find the guy (and probably kick his ass until he takes his stupid paper back). Single mom Diane Crayton recognizes the man in the tan jacket as her former coworker Evan, although no one else at the office remembers he ever existed. She’s mildly curious about why that is, but she’s distracted by the sudden reappearance of her teenage shapeshifting son’s father, who apparently works for every business in Night Vale but flees before she can talk to him. Jackie and Diane’s respective investigations intersect. They don’t get along well but have to work together to find the answers they seek.

I was initially hooked because the writing has the weirdness and authorial winks of Terry Pratchett in a modern setting.

The only pawnshop in the town of Night Vale is run by the very young Jackie Fierro. It has no name, but if you need it, you will know where it is. This knowledge will come suddenly, often while you are in the shower. You will collapse, surrounded by a bright glowing blackness, and you will find yourself on your hands and knees, the warm water running over you, and you will know where the pawnshop is. You will smell must and soap, and feel a stab of panic about how alone you are. It will be like most showers you’ve taken.

I read that in Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone voice. I was feeling it.

“The search for truth takes us to dangerous places,” said Old Woman Josie. “Often it takes us to that most dangerous place: the library. You know who said that? No? George Washington did. Minutes before librarians ate him.”

C’mon, we all know he deserved it.

Unfortunately, the frequency of highlightable passages took a dive after the beginning, and I got bogged down in the middle of the story because it kept “revealing” the same information from multiple points of view without anything being added by the different perspectives, so it was merely repetitive without advancing the story. Some scenes seemed to serve no function other than color (Diane’s interactions with her son, in particular, could have been halved without losing any valuable information). (Oddly, I found the interludes of Night Vale talk radio less intrusive and unnecessary than some of the scenes ostensibly devoted to plot.) Fans of the podcast might find more color charming, but I have strong opinions about books being able to stand on their own for people who grab them in the bookstore without preexisting attachment via another medium. Fans are already on board—make the story work for people who could become fans through the book.

Because of the boggy middle, it took forever to reach their goal (“KING CITY”), and then the conflict there was mild and easily resolved. (A sacrifice is offered but not actually made. No risk, no cost, no loss, no stakes. No reason to care.) This didn’t work for me as a novel, nor did it inspire me to check out the podcast.

I’m aware there’s another week left in October, but I’m posting now anyway since I won’t be doing any more leisure reading during it.

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