Reviews – NOS4A2, Crap Kingdom, You, The Famous And The Dead

NOS4A2 makes a bit more sense after reading this interview published by the AV Club. The main characters in Joe Hill’s latest novel travel via totems to inscapes, real and otherworldly locations influenced by their own imaginations. Every inscape is like a different attraction at a dark fantasy theme park. There’s a serial killer’s basement, a magic library, and a desecrated church. The protagonist can summon a bridge that goes where she needs it go, and her journey ends at an actual haunted amusement park that’s like Disneyland at Christmastime overrun by It’s A Small World vampires.

Hill’s purpose is to take the reader on a tour of the landscape of American horror, and along the way he provides a map of his own inscape. NOS4A2 is rarely subtle (the title itself is explained twice for the benefit of a slow-witted sidekick, and Chekov’s gun makes a literal appearance) and Hill creates explicit ties between his own work and his father Stephen King’s massive fictional multiverse. No stranger to including himself in his own novels, King makes a cameo appearance at the end of book, and a significant ally is named after Hill’s mother. Which makes NOS4A2 an ambitious attempt by Hill to address his legacy head-on, but with a predictable plot, no scares, and unjustified page count, it’s more of an opening statement than a definitive thesis on the macabre.

Substantially less ambitious, Crap Kingdom barely has enough energy to feint in the direction of satirizing fantasy fiction. In this lazy YA novel, DC Pierson approaches the tropes of visitation/chosen one fantasies as if no one’s ever skewered them before. The fantasy world his protagonist nicknames “Crap Kingdom” is shockingly undeveloped, and owes less to children’s literature than to Idiocracy. But perhaps I shouldn’t have expected much from a book published under this title, with a picture of a kid sitting on a toilet on the cover.

Where Crap Kingdom is a typical example of YA authors’ tendency to do little more than come up with a two-sentence elevator pitch and wrap 300 pages around it, Austin Grossman continues to take a literary fiction approach to geek-friendly topics. Like his previous novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, You jumps between two different storylines. In the present, game designer Russell Marsh joins his old friends at Black Arts and is tasked with debugging their latest title before publication. This leads him to reflect on their experiences growing up, as one game-breaking bug has persisted through various incarnations of the code their dead friend created years ago. These flashbacks are punctuated by hallucinatory dream sequences in which Russell gets advice from Black Arts’ flagship characters, as well as chronological play-by-plays of all the titles in the company’s catalog.

After other recent entries in the geek-lit field, it’s a relief that the videogames depicted in You don’t harbor a decades-old secret for immortality.Unfortunately, the lesson that Russell learns is equally self-aggrandizing. Russell comes to see videogames as a metaphor for life, which struck me as an unearned and little desperate. Comics, games, film, music– whatever culture you geek out on, they all that prove their own worth in their native medium. I can’t help but feel embarrassed, and even a little offended, when I see authors preaching for their own validation in more pretentious forms.

And not asking for any validation at all, but continuing to do whatever he feels like, T. Jefferson Parker recently closed out his six-book Charlie Hood series with The Famous and the Dead. As in previous installments, the story begins with Hood on loan to the ATF and Bradley Jones trying to win back his pregnant girlfriend while balancing his job as a police officer with his lucrative ties to a Mexican cartel. Meanwhile, the (literal) devil Mike Finnegan continues to court Jones and thwart Hood. Parker’s initial insertion of the supernatural into this series left me perplexed, but the pair’s interactions with Mike and his compatriots are the most interesting parts of the book. The scene where Mike drags Bradley out into the desert to meet the angel he’s kept in a dark cave for a century is easily creepier than anything I’ve read in a a traditional urban fantasy this year.

Hood’s a dull white knight, and the attempts to paint Jones as sympathetic still make me angry, but this series turned out to be unassumingly ambitious. While the books haven’t grabbed me individually, as a whole they form a crime novel narcocorrido for Bradley Jones. Son of a beautiful, modern-day Robin Hood, ancestor of a notorious criminal, working for both sides of the law– Bradley Jones makes a deal with the devil because he’s reckless  enough to think he can win. It’s certainly not what anyone signed up for back when LA Outlaws was published six years ago, but it’s fun to see Parker experiment with world-building, and his tense set-pieces are masterful. If The Famous and the Dead serves as his departure point into doing more cross-genre work, I’ll be a happy Constant Reader.

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