Book Review: The Replacement

The Replacement: Book Review by Ien Nivens

Brenna Yovanoff performs a rare and eerie brand of magic in her debut novel, The Replacement, drawing a translucent veil of paranormalcy so gently over the mind of the reader that—though she works in plain view, without subterfuge or distracting tricks–we do not blink, we do not look away, we do not speak up to refute a world that cannot be, because it is.  We know it is, not because Yovanoff convinces us, but because we recognize it.  The town of Gentry, with its willful blindnesses and cruelties, its churches, its cemeteries and its slag heap, is embedded, one way or another, in every town, just as surely as the living dead are embedded in every social clique and club and blood drive in America.

Yovanoff substitutes one world for another, surely, but in doing so she restores an original and ancient mystery to our dealings with life and death and the daily transactions we make with both, until the layered world she shows us becomes, once again–as it always was–the real one, living side by side or just a sidelong glance across the surface of the one we’ve been collectively pretending–all of us, all along–to be whole and plausible and independent of our dark imaginings.

Mackie Doyle is allergic.  While he cannot, for the life of him, tell the trugh, he is the most honest and reliable of narrators.  He doesn’t lie; it’s just that he has been conditioned, like most of us, not to admit certain, shall we say, rustic truths–about himself, about his kind, about the way things are, the way things…operate.

The tension between Mackie and Tate, who cannot abide his evasions, is wholly original and true.  They provide the electromagnetic current, the polar orientation, of Yovanoff’s tale.  The other members of the cast, while often serving various emblematic functions, are never less than convincingly and strikingly themselves–except for the ones who are (like Mackie) someone else.  I am thinking of Roswell and the uncomplicated loyalty between friends who’ve grown up together and do not require of one another a great deal of explanation.  And I’m thinking of Emma, whose devotion to Mackie is total, vulnerable and powerful.

Yovanoff demonstrates that the nether world of Faerie is as relevant to post-industrial America as it once must have been to the Celtic world that first brought it into common view.  That region of the imagination (if you insist) still shimmers, and it stinks.  It is vibrant, alluring, fetid and also, in its bruised, addictive way, fashionable.

Mackie Doyle’s momentary and decidedly small-time fame as bassist with the band Rasputin is reminiscent of the vampire Lestat’s open air disguise as a  rock star, and we can see traces of the Weasley twins in Danny and Drew, if we try hard, but in both cases, the references are down-sized and genuine, dressed in the unassuming charm of the local.  We’ve known these kids since they were little.

We’ve also known, since forever, the likes of the Morrigan and her sister.  Petulant, competitive child-goddesses who play at adult games if and when it suits them.  Once every seven years, anyway.

So far this year, The Replacement is the best reading I can recommend.  Yovanoff’s voice is better than original; it’s true.  It’s a voice I hope we’ll hear again and again.

~Ien Nivens

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Cinders

Book Review: Cinders, by Michelle Davidson Argyle

For those of you who read this blog on a regular basis, you know that usually Ien does the book reviews. After reading the teaser excerpt for this one, I had to email her. The novella doesn’t release for another few weeks, so I count myself honored to have been given the opportunity to read it early for review.

I didn’t intend on reading this novella in one sitting. However, like good stories are apt to do, this one quietly pulled me in and by the time I realized it—I was past the point of no return.

I’ve read quite a few Cinderella sequels: some playful, some humorous, some full of talking animals and other familiar fairy-tale elements. Argyle’s Cinderella while playful in some areas, humorous in others, is haunting in its elegance and simplicity. The prose itself is pitch perfect for the narrative, to the point where as a reader you forget that you’re reading. It’s presented like the glass slipper that it is: beautiful, translucent, and full of unexpected magic.

The characters are solid, memorable, sturdy and some of them ephemeral (I’ll leave that for you to figure out…I don’t do spoilers). The plot is deftly paced. But what struck me above everything else is Argyle’s use of imagery. So many passages echo after they’ve been read…not because of how they were written, but because of what they said.

…After a moment Cinderella realized she was touching her crown, thinking of the grease on Marion’s chin as she ate her food and told Rowland things weren’t fair…

…Neither of these images represented what Cinderella saw now: a skeleton of a woman so thin and aged she looked as if she belonged to the worn stone walls. Her skin was gray, her eyes dull and lifeless. Her hair had fallen out in clumps, leaving only strings to cover her baldness…

I am actually leaving my favorite passages out because I want them to have the same effect on you as they did on me. They aren’t mere descriptions. They tell the rest of the story.

Cinders takes unexpected turns, ironic turns, turns that some readers won’t appreciate. Those aren’t the readers to whom the story was intended. Few writers have the skill and foresight to craft a fairytale that is applicable to real life, while maintaining the elemental integrity of the story. Argyle does this seamlessly and while you think for a time that you’re simply hearing another classic tale, slowly, you begin to see another layer—the bones beneath the flesh—and it is this layer, that adds the most brilliant aspect to Argyle’s prose. With this layer, she breathes life into characters that we’ve become all too familiar with and gives them new purpose. This layer presents to us another fairytale, a slightly darker, more visceral one…read carefully and you’ll see exactly what I mean. There is no question that each and every line was arranged with clear purpose and if you look closely, you’ll see the reason for the novella’s title.

Keep your eye on this girl. I don’t say that often. This brief journey into Argyle’s imagination left me wanting to see more of what she’ll create in the coming years and there are few things more exciting for a reader than discovering, not just a book that holds promise, but an author with whom we know we’ll share many adventures in the future.

You can find out more about Michelle at her website here.  Or you can find her fan page on Facebook here.

Guest Blogger: Ien Nivens

“You don’t mind putting in long hours, and you like punching people, so let’s combine the two. I’m going to teach you ‘chanting’. It takes a lot of time, and a lot of precision, and doing a whole lot of steps exactly right, but when it works, you can make some pretty awesome stuff.”

Bone Shop

“Awesome would be a nice change,” Marla said.

–from Bone Shop, by T. A. Pratt

Available at http://www.marlamason.net/boneshop/

Foul Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart
By Ien Nivens

Tim Pratt’s Bone Shop is the foul-rag-to-dubious-riches story of a street urchin’s rise through the ranks of sorcerers in the East Coast city of Felsport.  A prequel to Pratt’s Marla Mason series, the hectic urban eclecticism of this introductory novella is wound in prose as frank as baling wire—tarnished here and burnished there—and bound by the spittle of broken promises, dire prophecies and talking jawbones.  I’m going to say this once, maybe twice:  Download it.  Read it.  It’s as free as a dirty needle, and the odds are better than even that it will infect you, leaving you jittery, addicted, and wondering if you’re sick. It’ll be OK.  There’s more where this came from at http://www.marlamason.net

Pratt has peopled Felsport with a cast as intriguing as the magical artifacts they find, finagle and fiddle with in this tale of jiggered hopes and cracked dreams. Jenny Click deserves a novella of her own (but don’t give her a copy; she’d only set fire to it) while Artie Mann’s ideas about sorcery deserve at least a spread in a dirty magazine.  In the end Bone Shop is, oddly enough, a morality tale.  At least, I think so.  I can’t tell you what the moral is exactly, because that part of my memory has been wiped clean by a tincture of lethe water.  But I’m pretty sure that it has something to do with cobbling one’s ambitions together around a vacant heart.

There are problems with the hodge-podge of narrative fabrics and other magics that Pratt has grabbed off the racks at the thrift shops of myth and imagination. Nothing so threadbare that it can’t be mended, but a little backstitching here and there would keep this dream from always threatening to unravel.  In a few places, where the seams are turned needlessly inside-out, a little clipping is all that’s needed.  Let me show you what I mean.

Bone Shop begins with Marla Mason as a sixteen-year-old dropout.  Literate and homeless, she spends a lot of time at the public library, reading to keep warm.  We never learn why she’s on the streets and not in school, but we do come to understand that it’s a matter of preference.  She is mentally tough and determined to improve her circumstances but certainly not by way of a traditional education.  She is not a stickler for rules.  Except, apparently, grammatical ones.

Marla finds Artie—the man who has taken her in, made her his apprentice, given her a semblance of a home and a family—disemboweled.  She must go in search of his murderer.  Whatever sense of loyalty she may (or may not) feel toward the sorcerer has been augmented in advance by a magically binding oath of vengeance called a geas, which takes the form of Artie’s voice screaming in her head until his killer is dead.  Stalking the killer, Marla “[pushes] open a door marked ‘Employee’s Only’ – that stupid apostrophe [makes] her grit her teeth…”

Mind you, apostrophe abuse annoys me, too.  But an author poking his fingers through the fabric of a story with his pet grammatical peeve, while his protagonist is breathing down the neck of a serial killer is enough to make me wince.   (But I wax as pricklish, surely, as Pratt’s sanctimonious angels, who stumble about in bum’s clothing, accusing everyone of…well, of something not quite proper.)  I reluctantly absolve Pratt of the little crimes he commits and move on to Bone Shop’s bigger sins—of omission.

First is the baffling failure to introduce Somerset—a sorcerer of great historical significance in Felsport, apparently, but who knew?—until Marla needs a new nemesis.  Somerset is brought back from the dead, before we know that he ever lived, to fill in a plot hole in the next to last chapter.  We learn that the democratic structure of the sitting “sorcerer’s council” is a reaction to Somerset’s “reign of terror” while he was alive.  Since this is information that a teacher/sorcerer like Artie Mann might have imparted to his apprentices in memorable detail, its absence from Marla’s early curriculum is regrettable.  It leaves the final levels of the fictional structure top-heavy and out of joint.

While Somerset’s tardy appearance damages Bone Shop’s rickety structure, a lack of sufficient character development with regard to Marla’s one and only love interest, Daniel, saps vitality from the novella’s soul.  The peripheral and superficial treatment of Daniel’s personality prevents two important events from achieving sufficient credibility, or even comprehensibility.  The first of these is what Jenny Click, believing that Daniel must be dead, decides that she must do about it.  (I won’t tell you what that is, because she is one of the most intriguing minor characters I’ve met in recent fiction, and you really should get to know her for yourself.)   Jenny’s action stretches the cables of my suspension-of-disbelief bridge to the snapping point, not because it isn’t possible or likely, but because Daniel has so far been presented as little more than a cute butt with a vague Southernness that we never quite hear, see or feel, and the rare ability to nourish himself on the energies of other people, places and things.  Marla has fallen in love with Daniel, apparently, but how hard and what for?  We just don’t see what she sees in him.  We aren’t given the opportunity.

Pratt is not a prudish writer, but he glides over the intimacies of Marla’s and Daniel’s relationship with an almost juvenile coyness.  Maybe he assumes that telling us about all the wild sex these two teenagers are having is enough to convince us that they mean something to one another.  It’s not.  A little tenderness in these early scenes, an emotional resonance that the reader can tune into, would go a long way toward making the finale as unendurably poignant as it’s meant to be.

Hearts are ripped out of their chests in this story; guts get wrenched, mangled and left steaming.  But not the reader’s heart.  Not the reader’s guts.  And that’s a crying shame.  This improbable structure of bone and magical gewgaw that Pratt has somehow rigged together is surely sturdy enough, complex enough, lifelike enough to support the organ of poignancy he tries, too late, to animate.  We end up surprised by an ending that might have shocked his story to life—and shocked us numb with its bitter beauty.  But owing to a simple lack of preparation early on, that doesn’t happen.  Pratt fumbles for the heartstrings of a strong plot and plucks them hard, only to find that they haven’t been properly tuned.  They could be.  They ought to be.  The independent publishing platform that Pratt employs would allow for it.  Bone Shop has all the claws it needs to rip, wrench and mangle its way to an awesome conclusion. All that’s missing is the tender vitals.

Ien Nivens’ reviews of independently published fiction also appear at http://www.berkshirefinearts.com/

Painting by Cindy Kaplan

Thank you Ien! As always, your presence in and support of The Asylum is always appreciated.  ~J.S.

*If you’d like to write as a guest blogger for Welcome to the Asylum, feel free to email me at batman0762@gmail.com.