Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Troop, by Nick Cutter

The Troop by Nick Cutter is a horror book that mixes a Lord of the Flies scenario with a contagion scenario.  It starts off interestingly enough with a boy scout troop heading for a camping excursion to an isolated island off the coast of Canada.  Disaster is unknowingly headed their way in the form of a dangerously infected man.

The first hundred pages or so is spent largely getting to know the boys in the troop and waiting for disaster to literally wash up on the shore of their island.  It’s largely successful in getting to know the boys and developing a certain amount of suspense and dread.  Unfortunately, the character development pretty much stops there and the rest of the novel descends into gross outs and cruelty rather than suspense or horror.  The boys settle into sort of cookie-cut out characters.  A Breakfast Club for horror.  The nerd, the athlete, the angry kid, the pyschopath, etc.

The infection or contagion brought to the island is at first interesting, but becomes less frightening and more disgusting as the book goes on.  A similar sort of fright was recently done much better by Seanan McGuire (as Mira Grant) in Parasite.  Cutter goes over the top here and creates revulsion rather than fear.  

Flash forwards that cover the investigation after the fact and show both how the contagion (for lack of a better term to avoid spoilers) was created and how life in the hometown of the boys changes after the incident are well done.  They are in fact, far more interesting than the events on the island.  Unfortunately, they are confined to a few pages in between chapters.  If the story were reversed, with the events on the island told briefly through flashbacks, I believe the book would have been far more interesting and more frightening.  

The Troop aims for terror but settles for disgusting.  I would not have bothered finishing if I hadn’t agreed to review it.  I’ll give it credit for an interesting beginning, but it’s all downhill from there. There are far better reads out there than this one.  Not recommended.

I received an advance copy of this book.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Science fiction is about ideas, and Ann Leckie has a lot of them in Ancillary Justice.  It’s an exciting debut novel and earning a lot of praise.  It’s ambitious in its scale and in challenging the way you think.

I’d read a lot about Ancillary Justice before I picked it up.  Most notably the exclusive use of the female pronoun.  I found it distracting, especially at first, to find everyone referred to as “she”.  It did, however, make me think.  What were my expectations of how someone should speak or act or think or feel based on their gender?  How does separating those thoughts or action from gender motivations affect the story?  It did make me look at the story in a fresh way.

Ancillary Justice is also the story of a fractured consciousness, once living in thousands of bodies and ships simultaneously, now residing in a single body.  The book explores from several angles the dependence and integration of biology and artificial intelligence as well as what it means when a mind is divided against itself.  It looks at how a world dependent on conformity looks at those who are different.

This book is also an examination of the sort of atrocities that get overlooked, both by individuals and by social institutions because they have existed for a long time and because people are uncomfortable with the changes that would come about with a change to the status quo.

Ancillary Justice throws you into the deep end and only gradually explains itself as the book progresses.  I found it slow in the beginning but it gradually picked up the pace.  None of the characters are particularly likable and their motivations are not always fully explained, at least not in this first book of an intended series.

I wish the book had been a little more exciting or had more engaging characters.  That being said, I can’t remember the last book that’s made me think this much or been as rich in ideas and concepts.  You could fill at least another book with theories and exploration of what this book means.  Ann Leckie has been richly and rightfully praised for this debut novel, and with a Hugo nomination, more acclaim may be in her future.  If you enjoy “the big idea” and novels that make you think, Ancillary Justice is a must.  It’s an excellent choice for book club or other discussion.  Highly recommended.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.