Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Reading Notes: Blackout

This post is part of my commitment to read and review as many nominated works in the Hugo Awards (Science Fiction Awards) as possible before the prize announcements in early September.   Today I am looking at the third of the five nominated novels: Mira Grant's trilogy closer, Blackout.

If it were not for the Hugo novella category, and the bijou chills of early Newsflesh prequel San Diego 2014, I would have came to Blackout knowing nothing whatsoever about it. The third book in the Newsflesh trilogy, Blackout is the kind of book that would, without an award-list prompt, have entirely passed me by (as had its prequels, Feed and Deadline).

Why? Because I am a prejudiced reader, and I can admit it.

I would never have picked up the Newsflesh books because they are marketed as being horror / thriller, or horror / suspense, and because they are about zombies. I have, in the past, not enjoyed horror books - the notable exception being Stephen King's early works, which I do like a lot - and I have an allergy to books about re-imagining supernatural monsters, especially ones with lots of feels (lookin' at you, all-vampire-stories-but-especially-Twilight...)

And see, this is where prejudice takes you, whether it's with books or in any other area of life. You make a decision that something won't be good and you won't like it, because other things that are labelled the same have not appealed to you in the past, and then you miss out on some really good things.

Because Blackout is a very good - not flawless, but good - book. I quickly skimmed Feed and Deadline, in order to be fair in my reading of Blackout, but I read Blackout itself closely and I really enjoyed it. I found Grant's style witty, engaging and readable, her plot brisk and not any less plausible than most speculative fiction, and her characters surprisingly highly developed.

I say "surprisingly" because I think that, although the zombie element certainly adds horrific aspects to the story, I strongly believe that Blackout in particular is a suspense / thriller, rather than a traditional horror book. Perhaps it's the future-science / political conspiracy elements which are critical to the plot and absorb much of the characters' attention (I'm trying to avoid plot spoilers, so forgive the vagueness). Perhaps it's that, because Grant has combined her interest in virology with her horror focus to create a medical / immunological explanation of zombie-ism, the zombies seem less - I don't know, spooky? Still scary and weird and tragic, but not supernatural in the ghosties and forces-beyond-nature way.

So the characters being actual characters rather than puppets to move the plot along came as a pleasant surprise to me. I have read my share of thrillers, and don't mind them, but I'll go out on a limb and say one thing the genre is not renowned for is its deep and realistic character development. Grant does substantially better with her people than most, and this certainly adds depth and punch to the story.

I also really liked Grant's vision of the future media - the fragmentation of voices, the rise of the bloggers, the shifting gaze. As in her treatment of pop culture in San Diego 2014, it's apparent that Grant knows and embraces both nerd and blogger culture, in a way I haven't seen much of in other mainstream authors. I think her landscape is not only plausible, it's possible, and I liked watching how she teased out the ramifications of that.

Three quibbles with this book (and by extension, the series): Firstly, the conspiracy denouement was a bit overheated and melodramatic, and felt out of kilter with the self-consciously restrained and deprecating style of the books as a whole. Secondly, the "secret" that Georgia reveals to persuade Shaun of her identity was telegraphed so loudly and luridly that it was the flattest balloon  ever in turns of plot twists. And finally, I thought there were times when Grant lost her way a bit with the points she was trying to make; some of the meta messages, particularly those about science and government, were quite muddy in Blackout, and this got confusing.

Nonetheless, it's a good book, rounding out a good series. And you don't even need to be a horror person to appreciate its virtues.

I wonder if this means I should give romance fiction, my other main genre-based EWWWWW, another chance now...?

Novellas are done. One and a half novel reviews to go, plus all the novelettes! Next up will be the novelettes as a set - all 5 if I can get hold of the last one, or the 4 I have found if the elusive "Rat-Catcher" remains unobtainable.

I've finished Captain Vortpatril's Alliance, and will review it soon. I'm not going to do a review of Throne of the Crescent Moon, because I really don't like it and didn't finish it, but will add a few notes into the Vorpatril review indicating what I didn't love about it.

Other Hugo reviews can be found here:
Short stories (all)
On a Red Station, Drifting (novella)
After the Fall, During the Fall, Before the Fall (novella)
The Emperor's New Soul (novella)
Redshirts: A Novel and Three Codas (novel)  

San Diego 2014: The Last Stand of the California Browncoats (novella) 
The Stars Do Not Lie (novella)  

2312 (novel)

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