Review: The Clockwork Dynasty – Daniel H. Wilson

3 of 5 stars
Published 2017

“Avtomats” are a race of clockwork beings. They have “lived” side by side with humans for millenia but they are warring with each other and their numbers are dwindling. The Avtomats can be very sophisticated, with technology that gives them the appearance of breathing, even crying in order that they fit in.

In the Russian court of 1725, two “avtomats”, a male and female, were restored and became favourites of the Tsar but when the Tsar died, they had to flee St. Petersburg. They declined to seek out more of their kind, and we then follow them through the next 250 years, having to live in secret,  avoiding some of their kind that would destroy them.  Ultimately, they get pulled into a war within their race of beings.

In present day, June, an anthropology student who specializes in antique mechanical antiquities, finds an antique robotic female doll. She extracts an artifact from the heart area and manages to restart the robot. She herself has an old artifact that her grandfather gave her. He came into possession of it during a WWII battle where he encountered what he believed to be a robotic soldier. Her artifact,  which is the “soul” of the avtomat, turns out to be something that’s wanted by a lot of people. Or Avtomats as it turns out. She is rescued by one of them and begins a journey that will take her around the world and land her in danger.

I found this new world and the avtomats in it fascinating. While sometimes inconsistencies niggled and confused me (how can a robot smell if it can’t breathe? how could it know what is a good smell or a bad one? It seemed like these beings shouldn’t have emotions and yet they do at times. ) overall the detail and the adventure was pretty good.

Another inconsistency was that it seemed to be implied that the avtomats could be found among modern day society, there were even “safe” places where they could go for repairs yet at the end, we are told there are only dozens of them left in the whole world after killing each other off to gain their “anima”, which is that artifact in their “heart” that provides them with their power source and “soul”.  There were some plot points that weren’t explained or that were inconsistent but  I did enjoy the story, alternating in current day and through Peter and Elena’s timeline.  I do think Peter and Elena were far more interesting as characters than June, who was the catalyst for the storyline but didn’t have much character development at all.

The book had it’s strong points and overall, a good read.


Science Fiction and Fantasy week

While perusing Goodreads, I noticed they have a blog post calling this week the Science Fiction and Fantasy week where they’re focusing on books of those genres, also called “Speculative Fiction”. Oh, why not! I like Scifi and Fantasy though, probably, I’d lean more towards Fantasy. It’s not my genre of choice but I do like it now and then. These types of stories might be traced back to the great Jules Verne. There were probably speculative fiction books before him but he made it popular.

Science Fiction tends to be more focused on science and technology, what’s possible now and what may be possible in the future where Fantasy focuses on even more imaginative characters and plots. Dystopian fiction generally tells tales of the world after a major catastrophe,a pandemic, a political takeover, an Apocalypse, “the end of the world as we know it” and describes the survivors’ stories. Margaret Atwood generally considers her books to be speculative fiction, saying “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen.”

Very often, writers of all of these genres tend to tell their stories over a series of books…3, 5, 10, 20 books all about the same world or same set of characters. That’s becoming popular in other genres now, as well, particularly in series about crime fighters or generational epics. One author in particular that comes to mind is Sir Terry Pratchett and his Discworld series. There are over 40, the last one published after he passed away in 2015.

Canadian authors aren’t the first ones you’d think of when you consider Science Fiction/Fantasy but there are a few. Guy Gavriel Kay, William Gibson, Emily St. John Mandell (her dystopian novel, Station Eleven, did very well, with nominations and wins for a number of awards), Cory Doctorow, Madeline Ashby (born in L.A. but living in Toronto),  and Robert J. Sawyer.

The big name in Canadian Literature, of course, is Margaret Atwood who has written several speculative (dystopian) fiction novels, best known for The Handmaid’s Tale. But she’s also got a trilogy called MaddAddam (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam) which is very much worth reading. The disaster in that set is a pandemic virus. There’s a list of Canadian authors here on Wikipedia and there’s SF for lots of information on Canadian writers in these and similar genres (horror, paranormal, etc.)

Although it’s not my primary “go to” genre, I do like it. It’s a hugely popular genre but there are far too many authors to list them all here.  I’ll mention a few I’ve enjoyed over the years in addition to Atwood.

I think my first exposure to Sci. Fi. was Robert A. Heinlen. I read a few of his early novels though I don’t really remember much of the stories now. I also picked up a couple of classics by Issac Asimov back in the day, mainly the Robot ones.

I think I would have to point to Anne McCaffrey for my all time favourite fantasy author because I’ve read quite a few of her books, both her science fiction ones and her fantasy ones, especially the Pern planet series that have dragons. Dragons! They are all “good” dragons, too. I haven’t read many of the recent ones co-written with her son in the few years before she died. (Here’s a great list of the reading order of the Pern series, an excellent and quite handy website that puts book series in order)

Neil Stephenson is another author that I’ve liked. His huge, chunky books tend to be more of a variety of types but he has written some science fiction which I’ve liked including, recently, Seveneves. In other fantasy novels, I’ve enjoyed a few by Neil Gaiman and some of Stephen King’s novels probably fall under the “fantasy” moniker though his books tend more to the horror than not. I never got on well with Tolkein, I will admit. I have read the Game of Thrones books by George R. R. Martin and while I liked the stories, I do find him a bit long winded for my taste. I do have good intentions of reading Guy Gavriel Kay. The descriptions of his books sound very good.

My husband really enjoys Terry Pratchett’s books. I’ve read the Hogfather but that’s as far as I got. I’ve read a couple by Naomi Novik and quite liked those as well. She does a series of what is a mash up of historical fiction and fantasy, the “Temeraire” books. They have dragons, too!

YA (Young Adult) books in these genres are a bit hit and miss for me. I joined the crowd and read the Hunger Games and the Divergent trilogies and liked them quite a bit and  once I finally decided to read the Harry Potter novels, I discovered that I really enjoyed them a lot.

Then there’s Steampunk. I’m not sure where that fits in but I like to think it leans closer to the Fantasy realm. I like some of that as well.

I must also put in a plug for a book by a good friend of mine,  Gatekeeper by John Beresford, a UK author. I really enjoyed this book which has elements of both science fiction and fantasy,  and I believe it’s still available on Kindle.

Are you a fan of Science Fiction, Fantasy or Dystopian novels? Have you got any recommendations?


American Gods – Book to Television

Ian McShane as Mr. Wednesday – American Gods

Starz, a pay-for cable station in the U.S., has been making some really good series over the past few years. They’ve spent a lot of money on them and it shows in the casting and production. Several have been based on popular books including:

Pillars of the Earth based on Ken Follett’s novel (World Without End was the sequel to Pillars but was not produced by Starz)
Outlander, based on Diana Gabaldon’s series, heading into season 3 (I can’t wait! I must blog about this one, too!)
The White Princess – Phillippa Gregory
American Gods based on Neil Gaiman’s novel

American Gods has recently just finished it’s first season on Starz. I read the book several years ago and though I don’t remember a great deal of detail, I do remember that I liked it but it was also one of those books where you feel like it’s doing your head in, as well. It’s filled with a lot of characters and there’s a lot of references to gods and mythology. The series is very good though there are quite a few differences from the book. A lot of it is extra detail added and more focus put on some characters that were only minor ones in the book. The first season is going to cover about a third of the book and, from what I’ve read, the second season will take a lot of material from the Lakeside storyline in the book. There’s also a sequel, called the Anansi Boys and there may be plans to work that in. If so, it’s likely the series go run for a few years. Gaiman is also writing a sequel but that won’t be out for a few years yet.

American Gods cast

The casting is superb with Ian McShane as the central character Wednesday aka Odin and the (rather lovely) Ricky Whittle as Shadow Moon. The real standouts for me have been Emily Browning as the undead Laura Moon (and also as Essie McGowan) and Pablo Schreiber as Mad Sweeny, the leprechaun. The rest of the cast is excellent as well and there are some very well known names.

The basic premise is the Old Gods of mythology have lost their power as people forget them and turn to new ones (technology, media etc). The Old Gods have come to America with various groups of people who brought their beliefs with them and we see a lot of the stories of those Gods’ arrival. Wednesday has decided to bring all the old Gods together to start a war with the new Gods in order to defeat them and bring back the power of the Old Ones and he enlists the help of Shadow Moon, a recently released convict whose wife has just died. Shadow is mainly his bodyguard and goes through much of the first season confused about what’s going on around him and having some very bizarre visions and dreams as well. Then there’s his wife. She comes back to life thanks to a magic coin from a leprechaun. She’s a walking dead sort of gal, though, with flies buzzing around her and later, maggots as she slowly starts to rot. The makeup here is fantastic, as she gets paler and grayer looking, with eyes slowly clouding over and dark circles under her eyes.

Gillian Anderson as the New God, Media – American Gods

There is a lot of violence and there is sexuality. It’s a series for grown ups and it’s smart and edgy. You aren’t spoon fed or hand held in this one. You’ve got to pay attention. Everything means something even if it isn’t always obvious. The differences to the book seem to be more enhancements. The book was written in 2001 and there have been a lot of changes in the world since then. Obviously, the Gods of Technology and Media are going to be updated, for example.

There’s a very good interview with Neil Gaiman here. I like what he has to say about his original vision for his work vs how it ends up translated to screen. “You try to push it towards the thing that you have in your head, but you know that not only do you never get there, you also know that the joy and the magic comes from seeing what other people have in their heads.” He also says that while the casting for some characters is vastly different than how he wrote them, they are doing such a superb job that if he were to write a sequel, those characters would sound a lot more like the versions that the actors brought to life.

Cloris Leachman in American Gods

Books to screen can be a very precarious tightrope. I think that a series is the better way to do it rather than a 2 or 3 hour movie. You have so much more scope for keeping in a lot more detail and it lends itself to enhancement as well (as long as it keeps within the spirit of the book). There are some things that just don’t translate from page to screen but if they do it well, the choices that they make will work just as well. I think, after watching this series, I might have to reread it before the second season comes out next year. American Gods is proving to be very popular and well received and we certainly give it thumbs up from our house.

Laura Moon and Mad Sweeny the leprechaun – American Gods

Review: Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis

2017: 14
2 of 5 stars
Published March 2015

This book won the Scotiabank Giller prize and is one of the contenders for this year’s Canada Reads competition and I can’t for the life of me see why. I thought to read as many of the Canada Reads finalists as I thought might possibly appeal to me which is the only reason I read this. This is not the style of book that would normally appeal to me and though I thought, maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised, I wasn’t. It’s not without its merits, it’s well written and some of the story did appeal to me for the story’s sake but it’s a book of symbolism, metaphors and the like and I never get much out of that kind of thing. I prefer a straight out story, without hidden meaning and stuffed with philosophy.

Here’s the premise: There are 15 dogs in a veterinarian clinic. Two Greek Gods, Hermes and Apollo, decide they will give the dogs the ability to reason and think, human consciousness as it were, and see how it changes their lives. They do it for a bet, then free the dogs into the streets of Toronto. The animals are still dogs with the pack society and rules but now there’s thought and reasoning behind the social echelons of their pack. They can communicate with more clarity among themselves and several even learn to communicate with humans. Other dogs are always attacking because they sense these dogs are different.

Some of the dogs acclimatize to the new changes but others don’t. The leaders decide it’s better to be traditionally dog-like but they can’t really go back again, not successfully. The dogs turn on each other, and do what they have to do in order to follow the leader of the pack’s rules or just for the survival of the fittest philosophy. It’s all meant to represent the worst of humanity. But they’re dogs. And they’re not really coming to terms with this new way of thinking or language for the most part.

Over time, the pack shrinks and we end up following the last few dogs of the original 15, with the occaisional intervention from one of the two Gods or from Zeus himself. It’s all about the ups and downs of human consciousness but from the point of view of the dogs. Nope. Just didn’t work for me. I get that it’s a creative way of telling a story and sometimes the stories of the dogs did draw me in, particularly Majnoun’s relationship with a human couple that take him in. For that reason, it gets 2 stars.

It will be interesting to hear the debates in Canada Reads, though, and it will also fill a Bingo Challenge square for me, the one for a book outside my comfort zone.