The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

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“I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger. I saw the world from above and below. I saw that there were patterns and gates beyond the real. I saw all of these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the waters of the ocean filled me.”

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is acclaimed author Neil Gaiman’s most recent release. Famed for his brilliant, effortless creativity and unclassifiable novels, The Ocean is gentle, for him. Yes, it includes witches and earth-devouring monsters, but at its roots it is really a tale about childhood, and what it means to be young.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the tale of a young, seven-year-old boy, whose name we never actually learn. The eponymous ocean is that of the Hempstocks, the strange family that lives down the road from his family, at the end of the lane. When a South African opal miner kills himself on their street, he awakens forces better left untouched. Because our narrator is down at the Hempstocks at precisely the wrong time, the youngest Hempstock (she claims she’s eleven, but how long she’s been eleven for remains unknown) takes him with her to go and get rid of a “flea” from the land behind their farmhouse. She hides in our narrator’s foot so he brings her back to the real world, where she proceeds to make his life as miserable as she can. When the boy tries to go to the Hempstocks for help, things escalate to a level beyond the imaginings of even the books our protagonist loves so much.

Gaiman’s understanding of childhood is lovely; the fact that it is (very) loosely based off of events of his own childhood (the back cover is actually a picture of him) certainly helps in this instance. Once again, he proves that the fluidity and creativity of his prose is nearly unmatched, the effortless uniqueness of his writing can be awe-inspiring at its peak. Gaiman easily shows what it means to be a child, all the while telling a story of ancient magic and power.

Our narrator is a perfect character, completely realistic and surprisingly childlike. I never once doubted that he could exist, and I suspect that Mr. Gaiman used himself as a model when writing him. The Hempstocks are 100% Gaiman, plain, unassuming people who just happen to wield more power than anyone in the world. They are proud, a bit stubborn, and very human. Brilliant. And Ursula Monkton (the villain, as if you couldn’t tell from her name) is horribly creepy, leaping out of the pages of the book through Gaiman’s vibrant description. A really well-assembled villain, she evokes many different emotions as the book moves on, anywhere from hatred to pity.

The plot, despite the fact that Earth is very nearly destroyed, is really quite small. The book is not a long one, and everything moves along rather quickly and simply. There is no elaborate problem solving, as in many of Gaiman’s other works; instead this book is character-driven through and through. It was all very simple, ultimately. There were lovely characters, and the interactions were spot on, but the plot was very… bare.

And that is my one complaint. I wish more time had been taken to flesh out the plot, and the setting. Who are the Hempstocks, really? Where did they come from? I wanted to more about fleas and varmints, to know why they are what they are. I wanted a more detailed, expansive description of the world, and I wanted a more detailed, expansive plot. I know this book originally started out as a short story, and maybe that was the problem. Mr. Gaiman was trying to make it short and sweet, but all that ended up happening was that we lost a little something.

In conclusion, this book is not Gaiman’s finest work, but still well worth a read, especially if you already know that you like him. It has his beautiful prose and realistic characters, but it lacks the intrigue and development that his better books have. A solidly good book.

Final Rating: 7.5/10

Horns by Joe Hill

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“He wore a red suit of flame, became a living torch. He screamed but couldn’t hear his own voice, because that was when the interior of the car ignited, with a low, deep whump that seemed to suck all the oxygen out of the air.”

Horns is a dark, twisted, and demented tale. Taking no prisoners, the book details one man’s supernatural plan for revenge, and the horrifying circumstances leading up to it. It is gruesome, it is disturbing, and it is occasionally painful to read. But for all that, it is also sublime.

The story of Horns is that of Ignatius Perrish, second son of a reasonably wealthy family, whose beloved, Merrin Williams, was raped and murdered approximately one year before the start of the book. As the only real suspect in the crime, Iggy was spared persecution only because his rich and connected parents pulled strings to kill the investigation. When he wakes up one morning with horns growing out of his head and no memory of the night before, he knows something big is up. When people suddenly start spouting their deepest sins and innermost thoughts to him, he sets out on a quest to find the person who ruined his life by ending Merrin’s. In addition to this story, we also, through a series of long flashbacks, learn about the love between Merrin and Iggy, and the circumstances surrounding Merrin’s death, as well as her death itself.

The line between too dark and too light is a fine one for a story like this, and Hill treads it beautifully, with all the confidence of a ten-book veteran of the genre. Though grim, the book is often surprisingly humorous, or lightened by touching moments, which serve to briefly alleviate the grittiness of the book. Hill’s prose is quietly beautiful; without stealing the show, it quietly sweeps you along, fully engrossing you in the plot and investing you in the characters. It is noteworthy more for its storytelling than its beauty.

The characters are beautifully crafted, each magical in their own way. Iggy is a fantastic protagonist, and feels real and fleshed out from page one. Watching his character grow (backwards, as most of it is told through flashbacks) from naïve child to jaded cynic is fascinating, and though difficult to pull off, Hill does it with aplomb. Though Iggy does some terrible things, we still found ourselves drawn to him in what I have termed “The Jorg Effect” (After the character Jorg in Mark Lawrence’s phenomenal The Broken Empire Trilogy).

The supporting cast of characters is also brilliant. Merrin Williams is far from the ditzy, giggly love interest one would expect from a horror novel, quite the opposite. She is independent, strong, and smart. Hill makes it clear that she is beautiful, gorgeous, but again she is not beautiful in the clichéd way. As in many other things, she has her beauty her own way. Lee Tourneau is one of the best villains I have ever read. Sympathetic and realistic, it is conceivable that one could even root for him for large swathes of the book. He is not evil for the sake of being evil, he is not even evil. He is just Lee Tourneau, and as a result, does some pretty terrible things that he does not understand, simply because of who he is. Iggy’s brother Terry is the least fleshed-out of all the major characters, but as he is far less important to the plot than the other three, it really doesn’t matter.

But the place where the book truly shines is in the interaction between the characters. The dialogue is possibly the best I have ever read, smooth and utterly flawless; it makes the characters leap out of the page in a way so rarely found. It feels completely like a real life conversation, an art that so few authors have mastered, let alone a relative newbie writing his only his second full-length novel.

The book does have a few flaws. Hill makes his views on humanity very clear in this book, and they do not exactly line up with my own. Everyone Ig talks to with the horns has some awful, terrible secret to share with him, and while this is initially shocking but interesting (the exchange with Sturtz and Posada was also quite entertaining), it eventually grows tiresome. I would think that someone Ig talked to would have no such secrets or desires to confess, or at least some of a magnitude less than wanting to push their sick, elderly wife down a flight of stairs.

The ending also leaves something to be desired. Though I expected that the ending would be less than satisfactory before I reached the final third of the book – I just didn’t see any way for Hill to wrap things up well – it actually exceeded my admittedly limited expectations. Despite my pleasant surprise at this, I still feel like a number of questions went unanswered about Iggy’s “condition”, likewise the events directly after the climax. Still, all in all, it could have been a lot worse.

Overall, this book was excellent. I will eagerly await any of Joe Hill’s future novels, and certainly look into getting his two already published books. He has impressed me with his excellent grasp of character growth and development, and uniquely creative plots. A word of warning, though: This book is not for the faint of heart. It is messed up and perverted, dark and twisted. If you are easily offended, or do not take kindly to horrors, do not read this book. No matter how well prepared you are, it will shock you. But it is still brilliant, and if you like that sort of thing, there are few books out there better.

Final Rating: 8.5/10

Nightside the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe

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“Overhead the skylands sailed serenely among broad bars of sterile cloud, displaying countless now-sunlit cities in which nobody at all knew or cared that one Patera Silk, an augur of faraway Viron, was frightened almost to death and might soon die”

Gene Wolfe is one of the most divisive authors in the genre of speculative fiction (I use that generic tag because he fits neither the category of Science Fiction nor Fantasy—rather, he exists in his own world, the world of “Science Fantasy”.) Wildly popular among critics, and with several awards to his name, he is also an enormous influence on other respected writers, most notably the excellent Neil Gaiman. However, his popularity among the masses is far less effusive. Though his relatively few fans are fierce in their love, they are, well, few. For various reasons, people simply do not like him, the most common complaint being that he is boring, though I have heard many others. Having grown up in a household home to one of his fans, I was always expected to try one of his books. And yet I was always put off by the distinctly mixed reviews I was getting, especially from sources I trusted. Finally I decided to pick one up. This would not be the easiest book of his to start with, nor would it be the first published, but I was advised that it was his best. So, with no little trepidation, I began.

The main character of the book is Patera Silk, augur (essentially a minister) of a poor manteion (holy building). Unknown to him, the building which he regards as sacred, not to mention holding great personal significance, is to be sold to a crooked businessman – named Blood – due to unpaid taxes. He attempts, unsuccessfully, to convince Blood to allow him to keep the manteion. This involves breaking into his house, which earns him Blood’s respect, if not his goodwill. He is offered a deal, one that will get him back his manteion. Unfortunately, the terms of this new deal are practically impossible for Silk to perform…

First off, Wolfe’s characters are exceptional. Patera Silk is amazingly well-developed, fully three-dimensional, and with a whole host of flaws to match his virtues. Let us not forget that, being a priest, he decided it would be a good idea to try to break into someone’s mansion. If this does not make a character interesting, I don’t know what does. Blood, as the primary villain, is also relatable and sympathetic. He’s not your typical bad guy, he’s not even really “bad”. Everything he did, every action he took, was perfectly appropriate, reasonable, and justified. And that makes him all the more interesting to read about. There are four other supporting characters who I expect to become more important as the series goes on; two good and two bad. Hyacinth, the courtesan, and Crane, the doctor who may be much more, would be the first category. Musk, Blood’s second, and Mucor, Blood’s demon daughter (seriously) would be the second group. All are well-crafted, intriguing, and three-dimensional.

Wolfe’s world, known as “The Whorl” is also well-crafted. The Whorl hides a secret, but instead of being explicitly told, readers are left to discover this on their own, figuring it out piece by piece. Religion plays a major factor also, as one would expect when the main character is a priest. The pantheon of gods appear to their followers through a device known as a “Sacred Glass”. I am not quite sure what these are, nor what the gods will turn out to be, for they certainly exist.

Now, though everything that I’ve mentioned in his review so far has been overwhelmingly positive (glowing, in fact), I did not love this book. And this is because it suffers from a serious problem with pacing. The first 100 pages of the book are among the dullest I have ever read. No sort of development occurs; plot, character, or otherwise. After that the book improves, and I felt myself drawn in. Unfortunately, due to the fact that the entire first third of the book is terribly slow, I was unable to fully immerse myself in the story. I was constantly afraid the book would slip back into those doldrums, and my initial perception of the book, though it did not apply in the later portions, was difficult to fully ignore.

Also, the book never really concludes. The problem isn’t solved. Ultimately, very little really happens in the book. I feel like if the first hundred pages were cut, that would give the author 100 pages more at the end to actually do something with the story, rather than make this book feel like one big set up. Which I’m sure it is, and that the second book is far better. However, it seems arrogant to assume that readers will pick up the next book in the series, no matter how enjoyable the pervious one was.

Overall, this was a good book. I don’t believe it approached the stratospheric levels where many critics have placed it, nor do I think it was as terrible as many readers seem to think it is. A great world and great characterization are all well and good, but when the pacing is off I struggle. Still, all in all, a fine novel, and a good introduction to Mr. Wolfe.

Final Rating: 6.5/10