Review: Lex Talionis, by R.S.A. Garcia

21806455>>Published: May 2014

>>Finally got around to it: September 2014

“You’ve remembered everything then?”

The laugh that escaped her was both soft and bitter and hesaw a muscle tic in her jaw. “Everything, yes. And you know what they say. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.” Her breath caught for a moment, as if in the wake of a sharp pain. When she spoke again, for the first time, she sounded her age. “I had just turned eighteen when they took me. My birthday was three nights earlier. I was still a virgin when they raped me.”

Shocked, Colin could only look at her. Oh, God. How could they do that? What kind of beasts could do that? He wanted to go to her, hold her and tell her that she was safe now, but something stopped him. Something in the way she held herself.

“God. I’m so sorry.”

“I know you mean well, Colin, but it’s my fault. I shouldn’t have trusted anyone. People like me can’t afford that. But I was stupid. I forgot. I wanted to forget.” She paused. “You won’t understand. You don’t know who I am. What I am.”

He said softly, “So tell me.”

The expression on her face when she turned to him grabbed at his chest like a fist. Her calmness was terrible to look at, difficult to comprehend.

“My name,” she said, in a voice that never wavered, “is Shalon Conway. I am the daughter of Jason and Falon Conway and heir to Conway Enterprises. Gilene Conway is my aunt—and the woman who murdered my parents.”

 ***

The debut novel from author R.S.A. Garcia tells the story of a young woman who is happened upon in an alley after having been brutally raped and left for dead. She is taken to a PortCity hospital on Serron, where thanks to the skill of physician Colin Mayfeld and an unexpected alien ally called Oux, she survives. However, she remembers little of who she was or how and why she was attacked—the answers to which form the crux of Lex Talionis’s narrative.

Lex, as she is dubbed (until such time as her memory returns), is an enigma: despite suffering multiple broken bones and lacerated organs—not to mention the revelation that it was not one man who raped her but five—it isn’t long before she summons the strength to get out of bed on her own. She also shows a warrior’s aptitude for combat and can speak a number of different languages; it soon becomes clear to Colin, and to those others helping and/or suspicious of Lex, that she is not entirely human.

Lex is an interesting character, though her DNA has definite shades of River Tam from Firefly. That being said, she’s a strong protagonist, and my interest in her fate is what kept me reading long after the story had lost its initial appeal—the mystery and investigation into what happened to her and why.

While I remained entertained throughout, Lex Talionis is not without its share of problems—some small, some glaring. I noted a number of minor grammatical hitches throughout—problems with hyphenation more than anything. The larger problems, however, have to do with character, tone, and structure.

I mentioned Lex was an intriguing character, but she’s also the only intriguing character. The rest? They’re cut-outs—two dimensional characters who exist to either propel the plot (Chris), to fall inexplicably and creepily in love with the just recently horribly raped and abused girl who looks only a little past eighteen (Colin), or to be moustache twirling caricatures of villainy (the troopers). A few of the characters seem interesting, but feel underutilized in the story—for example, I found myself wanting far more of Anton and his potentially troubled relationship with Troi. Most underutilized, though, is the villain, Gilene Conway, who we’re told is “the worst of a bad lot,” yet remains off the page and in the shadows and thus feels intangible and never that much of a threat—it’s all tell and no show.

With regards to tone, the book feels a bit at odds with its own identity. For example, it imagines a far-reaching set of worlds, some of which feel quite authentic (the detail of the Desolation in particular was excellent), but then resorts to boilerplate sci-fi language and nomenclature, with lots of vaguely named places like the Assembly, the Facility, the Program, the Outsiders, and phrases such as “Then I’ll be up the spacelanes without a hyperdrive.” None of it is offensive or anything like that, but the creativity that’s gone into the creation of the worlds is not matched in the book’s overall language or texture.

But none of these issues were as problematic for me as its structure—namely that there’s a rather large time jump in the middle of the book’s third part. It offers some fairly dramatic character changes and tosses a few unexpected wrinkles into the mix, but everything that’s been skipped feels like stuff I really want to see. It’s possible I will see that material at some point, in a sequel perhaps, but for this novel it felt more confusing than anything. I was left, in the end, feeling as if all the various story threads were merely set-ups for pay-offs still to come; the lack of any sort of closure was frustrating.

As I said above, I enjoyed Lex Talionis for what it was—an initially intriguing popcorn mystery with some excellent action scenes throughout (the author does have a feel for rhythm and motion when it comes to fight scenes). However, I don’t feel I can recommend it on its own, as it simply leaves too much what I feel is essential content for future stories.

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Review: Wolf in White Van, by John Darnielle

20575425>>Published: September 2014

>>Finally got around to it: October 2014

The way you play Trace Italian seems almost unbearably quaint from a modern perspective, and people usually don’t believe me when I tell them it’s how I supplement my monthly insurance checks, but people underestimate just how starved everybody is for some magic pathway back into childhood. Trace Italian is a mail-based game. A person sees a small ad for it in the back pages of Analog or The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction—maybe he sees the ad month after month for ages—and then one day he gets bored and sends a self-addressed stamped envelope to Focus Games, and I send him back an explanatory brochure. The brochure gives a brief but vivid sketch of the game’s imagined environment—no pictures, just words—and explains the basic mechanics of play: a trial subscription buys you four moves through the first dungeons, and five dollars a month plus four first-class postage stamps keep a subscription current. I boil down handwritten, sometimes lengthy paragraphs that players send me to simple choices—does this mean go through the door, or continue down the road?—and then I select the corresponding three-page scenario from a file, scribble a few personalized lines at the bottom, and stuff it into an envelope. They respond with more paragraphs, sometimes pages, describing how they move in reaction to where they’ve landed. Eventually they recognize the turns they’ve taken as segments of a path that can belong only to them.

***

Like the game its story pivots around, Wolf in White Van, the first novel from The Mountain Goats frontman (singer, songwriter, guitarist) John Darnielle, is a labyrinthine construct of allusions and psychological states of being, detailing to some extent the tragic, isolated life of its narrator.

When Sean Phillips was seventeen, living with his family in Montclair, CA, he shot himself in the face with a Marlin 39A rifle. In the years since, following much disquiet within his family, and alongside agonizing physical rehabilitation, Sean has (to some degree) turned his life around. He created Focus Games—a company specializing in the role-playing games of old, where moves are done through the mail via subscription. It’s an archaic style of gaming, but one that engenders a more personal touch and feel, as devoted players become, for the game’s designer, a sort of extended family. The first game Sean developed, the one that serves as the backdrop for Wolf in White Van’s narrative, is called Trace Italian.

Sean first learned of the trace italienne in history class: “the trace italienne involved defensive barricades branching out around all sides of a fort: stars within stars within stars, visible from space, one layer of protection in front of another for miles.” Transposed to the post-apocalyptic landscape of Sean’s own design, the Trace Italian is humanity’s last bastion—a safe place for those clever and determined enough to not only discover it amongst the charred remains of the world that was, but to also successfully navigate its hundreds of sub-dungeons. Technically, the narrator states, it’s possible to get to the near-mythical safe haven at the centre of the Trace Italian and win the game, though he designed it in such a way that no one would ever live long enough to accomplish such a task.

While Sean has managed to eke out an independent living through Focus Games, his players are few; however, they are a dedicated bunch—some dangerously so. And this is where much of the external conflict arises in Wolf in White Van: a pre-trial hearing in which Sean is being accused of endangering minors. He faces charges of manslaughter and attempted manslaughter in the case of two of his players, Lance and Carrie, who took Trace Italian a little too seriously, becoming trapped in the Kansas wilderness. Carrie died in the harsh environment, while Lance lost a foot and remains in critical condition from frostbite.

Sean’s internal conflict, however, threads every individual facet of the narrative. Darnielle’s novel is like a hedgemaze with its climax ensconced somewhere in the middle, revealed only in the novel’s final pages. The narrative circles Sean’s suicide attempt from both sides, his life before and after the event, never fully laying bare his reasons or even detailing the incident itself. In this way, the novel is somewhat reminiscent of the Christopher Nolan film Memento, which ends in the literal middle of its narrative, but which also serves as the moment that glues the two seemingly disparate halves into a cohesive whole.

At its core, Wolf in White Van is a story of vicarious living—escapism, and creating/fuelling escapist entertainment for others. Its themes are largely of consequence—of accepting it, avoiding it, and learning to deal with the ramifications. Through consequence, Darnielle addresses Sean’s demons: the titular wolf in white van, the characterization of the villainous voices one might hear. But through his disfigurement, he is also externally demonized by those closest to Carrie and Lance, not to mention his own family who’ve struggled for years to understand the whys and wherefores of Sean’s actions. In this sense, Sean is largely sympathetic, though clearly psychologically compromised; he admires iconic characters such as Conan the Barbarian for their outward strength yet feels he exhibits none such resilience, despite his very post-rifle blast existence proving otherwise as he is forced, every day, to bear the scars of his actions to those few friends and family still in his life.

Not surprisingly, there are parallels to some of Darnielle’s music within Wolf in White Van’s DNA—specifically in Sean’s teenage relationship with Kimmy, with whom Sean’s parents suspect he had a suicide pact. While reading, I couldn’t help but see shreds of Cathy and the nameless protagonist from the song “This Year”—Darnielle’s twin high maintenance machines—in the back-and-forth that once existed between Kimmy and Sean, in their youth.

By keeping from the reader the gory details of the aftermath of Sean putting the rifle to his chin, not to mention whatever concrete reasons existed behind this act in the first place, Darnielle has created in his narrator—mirrored by the Trace Italian—a puzzle that can never be solved, only vaguely understood. By the novel’s end, I felt as if I’d come within several inches of the truth, but never fully arrived at a conclusion. In this way Wolf in White Van exhibits a wonderful sense of restraint, placing its priorities with ideas instead of direct answers that only would’ve robbed the narrative of its subtlety. This is one of the best, most engaging books I’ve read all year, and a very self-assured debut.