It’s probably odd that I’m sticking these two books in the same post, because they aren’t much alike, except that they are both wonderfully written, and that they’re the type of books that stick in your ribs and in your head, and there’s a hell of a lot to love about both.
First, Soul Song — I love Marjorie Liu‘s writing, it’s smooth and gorgeous and has wonderful depth, lyrical prose … yeah, okay, I’m a fangirl. I think I remember reading that this book was originally going to be a novella, the novella in Dark Dreamers, and I’m glad it’s not for two reasons: I love love love “A Dream of Stone and Shadow” from that anthology, and its dark-fairy-tale flavor, and Soul Song has that same flavor, but is longer, which makes me a very, very, very happy reader. It’s not quite like the other books in her Dirk & Steele series (although characters from those novels do make appearances) in that it’s not so much about the agency and the different conspiracies and groups that they are fighting, but it does open up a little more the darkness underlying the world they all inhabit. It’s not different in that there’s magic and superpowers and and violence and fantastic characters and bad guys and witches and romance and not everything is as it seems.
And this is one of those books that, when I close, I think: goddammit, I wish I had written that, because it’s flippin’ fantastic. But then I think, okay, not really, because that’s a lot of work, and I couldn’t do it like she does anyway, and it’d come out completely different, so I’m just as happy letting Marjorie do all of it and I’ll just read it. But it’s also one of those books that when I’m done, I read again to pull it apart. Like, “how does that phrase come off so beautifully?” “how does she manage to capture a character with one image that doesn’t mean the character is one dimensional, and there’s certainly more that we find out later, but gives us enough that we partially know him right away?”
Then there’s Threshold by Caitlin R. Kiernan (it looks like a placeholder site for now). Here’s the book description from Publisher’s Weekly, because it describes the plot better than I could: “Set in present-day Birmingham, Ala., the novel centers on Chance Matthews, a promising young paleontologist left bereft by the recent deaths of friends and family. Chance and ex-boyfriend Deke Silvey, a loser with latent psychic powers, wallow in self-destructive angst until they’re sought out by Dancy Flammarion, a strange teenage girl who claims to be pursued by monsters. Details of Dancy’s wild story inexplicably jibe with an anomaly Chance finds in the fossil record, and a pattern gradually emerges that points to an inconceivably ancient entity surviving from Earth’s prehistory that is consciously shaping their lives and miseries to suit its inscrutable purposes.”
I don’t know what to say about this book. There are passages that I want to read over and over and over, but I can’t, because I’ve got to get to the next part. The writing is like Faulkner and Lovecraft twisted all together, where she cements words together in ways that are exactly right (although at the same time, calls attention to itself, which maybe isn’t so great … but the effect in the novel is amazing, efficient and poetic at the same time. I’ve read something that tells me she doesn’t do it in later books (which kind of makes me sad, but if she can pull off the same feel without using that trick … wow)). And she sets a mood that is creepy and weird and dark and rotting, and the setting is tangible and oppressive despite the sense of unreality that permeates everything, and her characters aren’t always likable but always fascinating, and the language adds to the sense that it’s all a dream/nightmare, slipping and half-seen from the corner of your eye, and not remembered all that clearly when you wake up. But it sticks with you.
This wouldn’t be a book that everyone would enjoy. There’s a lot of ambiguity, time slips, dream sequences, and — like I said — nothing to put your finger on at the end, particularly about the monsters. I’ll be reading the next one, definitely (although she’s only got about five novels out right now, so I’ll wait, and savor each one, and hope they are all as good as this one). Also, I think the writing will either turn people off, or really capture them. The excerpt at Amazon looks like it’s a bad photocopy, so this is from the page that introduces Dancy, the albino girl who shows up and who much of the mystery centers around, to give you an idea of what I mean (she’s in the library reading National Geographic):
Dancy Flammarion turns another page, and there’s a big photograph of some place very, very far away, brooding, bruisedark clouds and foamwhite waves crashing down on a rocky beach, jagged rocks farther out to sea, and a few gray gulls wheeling against the stormy sky — Ireland, Oregon, Wales — someplace she’s never been and will likely never go, so it’s all the same. At least she has the pictures. At least someone bothers to take pictures of faraway places so she can know that this isn’t the entire world, the summerparched streets of Birmingham, Alabama, the swamps and pine thickets of Okaloosa County, Florida, the wild and worn-out places in between — what she’s been given of the world. And she might have been given less, she knows that, might have spent her life like her grandmother, like her mother, never going far enough from home to know there were places without alligators and Spanish bayonets.
And then the sudden certainty that someone’s watching her, that someone is very close, and she looks up, and it’s one of the gay boys, blond hair and a sprinkle of freckles across the bridge of his nose, nervous hands playing with themselves. Nervous boy standing at her table so she has to look away from the stormshadowcool beach on the magazine page, squints up at him even though the fluorescents make her eyes hurt, make her wish she hadn’t lost her sunglasses. The nervous gay boy looks like he wants to say something, but he’s just standing there, staring at her.
“Is there something you wanted to say?” Dancy asks him, voice low so no one can shush her for talking in the library. And he looks over his shoulder, guiltyquick peek back towards the stingy corral of desks, and Dancy figures he’s afraid he’ll get in trouble for whatever it is he’s about to do, maybe just for talking to her, and for the moment that’s more interesting that the magazine.