Final Girls

Jul. 2nd, 2017 10:45 am
sawyl: (Default)
Another modest sized piece of dark fiction from Seanan McGuire, this time writing as her alter-ego Mira Grant. Final Girls follows science journalist Esther Hoffman as she takes a close look at Dr Jennifer Webb's clinic which claims to be able to cure all types of trauma. Hoffman has a reputation as a sceptic and debunker of pseudo-science, but this is precisely why Dr Webb is so interested in converting her: if she can publicly convert someone as critical as Esther, she can convince the rest of the world.

The opening section of the story makes light work of the scene setting. After being treated to a classic horror scenario, a pair of siblings fleeing from a halloween monster, we drop back into reality and make our first acquaintance with both Hoffman and Webb. Dr Webb is polished and convincing, although Hoffman is wise enough to recognise that she's clearly been coached. Meeting the sisters who underwent the horror story simulation and recognising that their relationship has changed fundamentally, Hoffman agrees to try out the therapy system for herself.

Suddenly Esther finds herself 13 years old again and attending a new school after her father moved them from California to Massachusetts following her mother's death. Esther is worried that she doesn't know anyone, but she immediately meets one of her neighbours, a girl called Jennifer, and two strike up an immediate and friendship. Time jumps along and the pair are 16 and inseparable friends, making their own way through life, standing together against the bullies of the school's in-crowd. So far, so in keeping with the scenario that Dr Jennifer Webb has devised to help generate a bond between herself and Esther Hoffman.

But this being Mira Grant, the story twists and events suddenly rush out of control, careering off into something much darker than the original scenario. Given that the VR system is intended to tap into the users' subconscious, drawing on their dream states in a way that can be guided by the technicians and therapists monitoring the session, and given that Webb's core idea is that patients benefit most from horror story survival narratives, it's pretty obvious that things aren't exactly going to go well for the duo currently caught up in a shared nightmare.

Despite its relative brevity, Final Girls is an extremely successful, focused piece of horror fiction which features a couple of nice turns which put events on a new path. The lead characters are extremely well done and although Jennifer Webb has more than a touch of mad scientist about her, it's implied that it is more a consequence of her extreme drive than any active desire to cause harm, and maybe the shared therapy session is exactly what she needs. Esther, though damaged by what happened to her father, is clear-sighted enough to understand how it affects her and to use it to drive her highly successful career, despite seeing herself as the only layperson on her publication.

The minor characters are very much sketches but this is something that Grant is clearly aware of, given that Esther notices — but is encouraged by the drugs to disregard — much the same thing during her VR session, with none of her other classmates seeming to burn as brightly as Jennifer and herself. Even the motivations of the ultimate antagonist remain hazy, but this actually feels like a strength: the story isn't about them and allowing them to remain hidden allows the reader to ascribe their own motivations, making them as villainous or venal as they choose to believe.

Also intriguing is the way the story juxtaposes the notion of recovered memory with Dr Webb's more scientific method of reprogramming. In Esther's early encounter with the Nappe sisters, she identifies what she thinks are deep-seated flashes of doubt in the sister's expressions; because, however much they've chosen to change themselves, there's no denying they are no longer, post-therapy, the people they were before, regardless of whether the change has been for better or worse. And the fact that the sisters have gone through such a radical chance underscores Esther's concern that the system could be used for full-on brainwashing; something underscored by Dr Webb's extremely ethically dubious decision to use her treatment system to make Esther like her — a decision that is somewhat tempered by the doctor's own presence in the VR system, her acknowledgement that the influence is only going to be slight, and the fact that it will be mutual, with both participants being changed by it.

In summary, then, Final Girls is a dark delight: a clever central conceit, a pair of excellent lead characters, and a strong setting underpinned by some intriguing ideas. Excellent stuff.
sawyl: (Default)
I was always going to love Seanan McGuire's Down Among the Sticks and Bones; what I didn't realise was quite how spectacularly good it was going and quite how much I was going to love it. Sharing a continuity with Every Heart a Doorway, which really ought to be read first, McGuire's latest has a very, very different tone, channelling the spirit of every horror movie and gothic novel into a pitch-perfect but deeply subversive take on the genre.

When Chester and Serena Wolcott decide to have children, they know in advance exactly how their offspring are going to turn out: practically perfect in every way. So determined are they that the force their poor little twins, Jacqueline and Jillian — never to be referred to as Jack and Jill — into neat little straightjackets: Jacqueline is put in over-the-top dresses and admonished to keep herself clean, the better to impress Serena's friends; while Jillian is converted into a tomboy, all short hair and soccer practice, to help Chester win kudos with colleagues in his law firm.

Events take a turn when the girls discover stairs in a case of dressing-up things left behind by Chester's mother — the woman who babysat the two girls for the first years of their lives before being unceremoniously booted out by Chester, and who has now become a mere ghost of a memory of happiness to the twins. After talking each other into an adventure, the pair descend the stairs, finally finding themselves facing a door with an inscription carved above it: Be Sure. Despite being anything but sure, the two open the door and step through, only for it to vanish behind them.

Finding themselves in the brooding, menacing world of the Moors, they find a walled village where the local lord takes them in. After mentioning something about giving them sanctuary for three days — Jacqueline is astute enough to spot the tactic premise — the Master invites the twins to dinner where Jillian makes an apparently fateful choice of main course. Of such terrible, casual choices are the trajectories of lives forever altered in the world of the gothic and the girls find themselves parted: Jacqueline choosing to go and work with Dr Bleak, with Jillian remaining at the right hand of the Master.

The rest of the story follows the two twins as they grow up, one in a vampire's castle and the other in a mad scientist's laboratory, switching their outward roles, with Jack putting her dresses aside for men's clothes and heavy gloves and resurrections while Jill becomes a creature of swirly dresses and chokers and blood lettings.

The tone is, as already mentioned, absolutely spot-on — not all that surprising given Seanan McGuire's seemly boundless talents and vast knowledge of faery stories and gothic horror — combining a pinch of The Nightmare Before Christmas with a smidgen of The Corpse Bride and a whole host of imagination to produce something truly wonderful. The story is self-aware enough that Dr Bleak knows that he is only the hero because, as second villain to the Master, he is not a ravening monster.

Jack and Jill — and Jacqueline and Jillian — are beautifully drawn characters, damaged by their early life experiences at the hands of their appalling, emotionally abusive parents, who, when given the chance at freedom, seize it with both hands, even when their notions of freedom involve entail doing unspeakable things to corpses or joining the undead. It's also fascinating to the see the way the two, when freed from the expectations of their parents, more or less completely switch their gender presentation, but in way that never loses the true core elements of each of their personalities.

I've rather raved about Down Among the Sticks and Bones, but it really is that good. It's every bit as good as Every Heart a Doorway and that just won the 2017 Locus Award for best novella.

Although I'd imagine it'd work as a standalone story, it's probably best to read Every Heart first for an introduction to the characters — and to get familiar with the territory and to enjoy every slight slip the twins make in the first book when talking about their time in the Moors — and then wolf down the very different second story immediately after.
sawyl: (A self portrait)
I'd pre-ordered the latest in Seanan McGuire's InCrypted series such a long time ago, that I was slightly startled when Magic for Nothing dropped through my letterbox on Monday. The series, set in a world full of mythical creatures, follows the youngest members of the Price-Healy family as they protect the more unusual members of the ecosystem from both each other and the Covenant of St George, a para-military organisation dedicated to wiping out every creature that wasn't on Noah's Ark. Where previous books have focused on Verity and Alexander, the two older Price siblings, Magic for Nothing follows the youngest, Antimony Timpani Price, as she shoulders the burden placed on her by her family.

The story starts just as Chaos Choreography ends, with Verity fighting a giant snake on live television before issuing an ultimatum to the Covenant of St George: stay out of the US or face the wrath of the Price family. Faced with a need for drastic measures, the older members of the family decide to trade on Antimony's lack of resemblance to her sister — Annie is tall and dark where Verity and most of the others are short and blonde — by sending her to infiltrate the Covenant and to learn their plans for North America. After cautiously making her way to England, Annie, now calling herself Timpani Brown, appears on the doorstep of a Covenant safe house and sells them a sob story: she's the only surviving daughter of a carnival troupe killed by a swarm of telepathic wasps.

Luckily the Covenant's current Minister, Reginald Cunningham, buys what Antimony is selling and accepts her into the fold. But as his bookish grandson Leo explains, the Covenant has been drawing on the same family lines for generations and needs new blood, especially if it comes from the New World. Thanks to her upbringing, Annie flourishes in the Covenant's training program — currently under the care of her distant cousin Margaret Price — although she suffers rather from having to share a room with Leo's sister Chloe, who snores like a thunderstorm. After a mere couple of months, Minister Cunningham decides to send his new trainee on an uncover mission: to infiltrate a carnival that has been associated with a series of disappearances. Returning to the US, Annie travels to Wisconsin where Margaret, now her handler, and Robert Bullard, head of security at the training school, are on hand to keep a watchful eye on her.

Despite a rocky start when she hits things off the wrong way with the boss's grandson, Annie soon settles into live as a carnival girl, drawing on skill acquired when she lived with the Campbell Family Carnival to prove her worth. Once the initial mystery of the disappearances is resolved, Annie is able to settle her differences with Sam, the afore-mentioned grandson, sufficiently for the two of them to start running a trapeze act. Everything from this point on ought to be idyllic, but for the constant threat of the Covenant and their plans to purge the carnival by murdering everyone involved with it.

Magic for Nothing marks the first real appearance of Antimony Price, previously only seen through the eyes of her older siblings, and the character we see from our close third person view is very different to the one we might expect. Where Verity has only ever see a hyper-violent brat, Annie has actually been forced to behave as she has to survive as the youngest in a family where training starts at birth, where her older brother and sister have already formed a close bond, and where the risk of being discovered and destroyed by the Covenant of St George always looms large. Antimony also has a sharply contrasting view of Verity, seeing her as shallow and vain, willing to risk the entire family's safety just so that she can dance on a reality TV show — something that is almost as jaundiced as Verity's view of her. As she says herself, Antimony is actually the good daughter pretending to be the bad one; something that really snaps into focus at the end of the book where she has to make a series of painful sacrifices for the greater good of her mission.

The pacing of the story is more sonata form than three act, with a shortish opening that introduces Annie and the Covenant. Here Leo does much of the heavy lifting, explaining the organisation's backstory, bantering with Antimony in a way that makes him feel human and well rounded. The fact that he and Chloe are then largely absent from the narrative suggests to me that we're likely to see them both reappear in a more significant role. The second act set in the carnival is far more leisurely, with McGuire characteristically good on little details that really sell a setting. That I preferred the carnival to Verity's world of ballroom dance and reality TV probably says more about me than anything else.

Inevitably the finale changes everything irrevocably; something that McGuire signals by having Antimony anticipate the easy delights of an evening at a roller derby. And while the ending is bleak, it is true to Annie's character: a willingness to sacrifice everything for her family and her friends, even though she suspects they may not appreciate it.

We're also left with a few intriguing clues about the future: where will Antimony's magical abilities and pyrokinesis take her? Will her Healy blood draw back to the Covenant as some have predicted or will nurture will out over breeding? I think this is probably the key takeaway difference between the Healy-Price family and the organisation they rejected: the family have adopted members from everywhere including the likes of Sarah Zellaby, who may not be human but who is just as much a member of the family as anyone else; whereas the Covenant is all about breeding bloodlines — they differentiate between arranged marriages and love matches — to such a degree that they constantly treat Margaret Healy as a potential traitor because her grandparents decided to leave the organisation.

If it's not clear by this point, I loved Magic for Nothing: it was just the book I needed at this point in time. It features a cracking setting, effortless world-building, and an engaging and involving lead character. The slightly less frenetic pacing in the middle section really worked for me — I feel it gives the finale more punch — and I particularly like the dark ending that left me worried about someone I've really come to like. And no, it certainly didn't hurt that it featured a slightly misanthropic but ultimately rather charming character called Sam...
sawyl: (A self portrait)
Despite it's brevity, Seanan McGuire's Every Heart a Doorway is well worth every penny. Indeed, I think it might be McGuire's very best work to date — and given the quality of her prolific output, that's saying something. Set in Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, the book takes the idea of portal adventures seriously and sets about examining the sort of trauma children might suffer after being pushed back into the mundane world after being spending time in a fantasy land.

Nancy Whitman has been enrolled in the Home for Wayward Children by her worried parents; convince that their daughter is suffering the after effects of being held hostage for six months, they hope that Eleanor West's school might be able to fix their daughter. But Eleanor knows better: Nancy's problems stem not from a kidnapping but from the years she spent in the Halls of the Dead, a slow, formal, logical place where she learnt the knack of becoming a living statue.

Like many of the children, Nancy is convinced that her exile is temporary and that she will eventually be allowed back through her doorway. But her new roommate, who grew up in a Nonsense world and who has been at the school for a while, soon sets her straight:

"...hope is a knife that can cut through the foundations of the world," said Sumi. Her voice was suddenly crystalline and clear, with none of her prior whimsy. She looked at Nancy with calm, steady eyes. "Hope hurts. That's what you need to learn, and fast, if you don't want it to cut you open from the inside out. Hope is bad. Hope means you keep on holding to things that won't ever be so again, and so you bleed an inch at a time until there's nothing left."

But this is not surprising. Unlike other schools, which encourage their charges to forget, Eleanor West has specifically selected a set of pupils who want to remember their experiences, however painful and regardless of whether they want to go back. Kade, in particular, expresses this conflict clearly: he loved his world which allowed him to be a prince and not a princess, but they expelled him when they discovered his nature, as did his parents when they realised that he was Kade rather than Katie. Nancy, who is considered eerie by the majority of the children who spent their away time in happy fantasy worlds, quickly finds friends among the schools outsiders.

But in the world at large, all the children are outsiders in their own ways, and that's why they went away. Because there's something unique about each of the pupils, regardless of where they went, that attracted their particular portal and drew them to a world that suited them, whether that was a world of rainbows or the gothic horror world of the Moors where twins Jack and Jill — full names Jacqueline and Gillian — found themselves.

"That's the thing people forget when they start talking about things in terms of good and evil," said Jack, turning to look at Lundy. She adjusted her glasses as she continued, "For us, the places we went were home. We didn't care if they were good or evil or neutral or what. We cared about the fact that fore the first time, we didn't have to pretend to be something we weren't. We just got to be. That made all the difference in the world.

The quiet, odd charm of the school is broken when a pupil is found dead, their body mutilated perimortem. Naturally gossip centres on the macabre group of outsiders, especially when they offer their special knowledge — Jack's scientific skills, Christopher's expertise with skeletons, and Nancy's knowledge of the rites of the death — to help Eleanor. But it isn't until the second murder that things the gossip really starts to spill over into full-on suspicion.

Every Heart a Doorway is a complete delight from start to finish. The world McGuire conjures up is completely authentic, from the school's scientific classification of different portal worlds — along the axes of Logic and Nonsense, and Wickness and Virtue — to Eleanor's pupil selection process which involves duping the parents for the greater good of their children. The characters are beautifully drawn and wonderfully precise. Nancy, still and cool, is a fixed centre point at the heart of the narrative. Kade, wise beyond his years, is the heart and Jack, a dapper, kinder Victor Frankenstein, is the keen mind who always knows what has to be done, even and especially when it is painful.

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