Genre: Science-Fiction/Speculative Fiction
Publisher: Angry Robot
REVIEW Sometimes it is difficult to classify a work of fiction. One my enter into it with a genre in mind, but once the reading begins it becomes confusing because it does not follow the rules. Through the years there have always been those who claim that breaking the norms of classification is bad and that has always been the battle between the old guard and the young lions when it comes to culture. Brett Savory’s new book is a perfect example of how one might break the norm.
A Perfect Machine opens up in an unknown city in an unknown era, in an unknown universe. To be perfectly honest there are quite a few details in this tale that are unknown and that is one of the strengths. Henry Kyllo is a runner, part of a ritual that has been played for a long time in the city. A sort of hunt that usually leaves him laid out riddled with bullets, but that doesn’t really matter since he always bounces back. That is just one of the strange abilities afforded runners, that and the fact that they cloak the entire affair to those who happen to experience it, very much like a memory that fades away. The healing comes with a price and every time new bullets penetrate him Kyllo’s body is altered. One night Kyllo goes overboard and gets his final dose of lead, while his best friend Milo is decapitated, the only way to kill runners apparently.
Kyllo, thought to be dead by his nurse girlfriend Faye, begins to change instead and turn into a monstrous machine and Milo turns into a ghost, following his pal around.
At the same time the head of the runners, a man by the name of Palermo, has his own issues. A young man named Krebosche is looking to expose the gang and traditions of the run and exact revenge on those involved in the death of his sister and girlfriend. A girlfriend who happened to be Palermo’s daughter. The stories cross as everyone ends up at Faye’s apartment where Kyllo is turning into something completely new.
There is a lot going on in Savory’s tale and yet the reader is often times left feeling that they do not know what is happening. The plot is easy enough to follow, as are the various characters that come in and out, but it is all those things that surround the story, the setting and background that may leave you wanting more. A Perfect Machine is billed as a science-fiction, but lacks several of the qualities that belong to the genre, or at least it would appear so. We are never, initially at least, informed of what the runners and their counter parts the hunters are; the next step in human evolution, robots or aliens, there is no mention of year or parallel universe and the setting seems to be quite similar to our own. Question is if this is necessary or if it would remove focus from what is important or if it is a conscious measure to make the book lighter on technical jargon and speculative motifs that might alienate most readers.
There is something slightly absurd about A Perfect Machine, despite the language being strong in its simplicity, and the suspension of disbelief is difficult to set aside. There are so many things that happen; men turning into machine, ghosts in the vein Patrick Swayze, vengeance as found in the works of Mickey Spillane and humans hunting each other like Surviving the Game, at times it feels like you’re reading a Golden Age comic with better writing. Savory does make it work on some level, but one might ask if sticking to just a couple of speculative aspects wouldn’t have been better.
Genre: Fantasy/Gothic Fantasy
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Familiarity in a story can be a double edged sword. It may be comforting to the reader like in romance novels purchased at the grocery store, to others it may be annoying and trite; to always know what is coming next, to not be surprised and maybe even at length be talked down to or taken for a simpleton. Naturally this might be dictated by what you read. An experienced fantasy reader with books by Stephen Donaldson, Ursula K. Leguin or Peter Beagle on their shelf might find Rowling’s Harry Potter books repetitive and borderline plagiarism. That isn’t to say that the end goal for most writers is to not turn out something new, it may be more about if the end result matches that very goal.
Eric Scott Fishcl’s Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show begins in a familiar setting, that of a traveling carnival at the end of the 19th century. To most readers a setting we know well, or at least have an idea of. It comes complete with a barker selling snake oil, a strong man, a singer and freaks. That is where the normalcy, if that can be an accurate description for a carnival, ends. The barker is Dr. Potter himself and the medicine he is trying to push is the Chock-a-saw Sagwa, a tonic that supposedly cures most ailments. He has not concocted it himself, instead there is another doctor, a Dr. Morrison Hedwith of Portland, behind the miracle drink. The Sagwa is the centerpiece of this tale of personal misery and broken figures trying to fight their obvious obstacles. As with most tonics of the age the Sagwa that Dr. Potter sells is useless, but there is a formulae that has other, more sinister effects, ones that he, the strongman Oliver, the Chinaman Fan and the proprietor of the show Lyman Rhoades desperately need. All of them are beholden to Dr. Hedwith due to dark events in their pasts and are therefore forced to help him in his twisted experiments rooted in alchemy. The very fragile balance in the medicine show is constantly threatened as the members regret their decisions, but Lyman exacts vengeance upon them regardless of their usefulness to the mission.
Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show is an excellent example of how to use tropes that have worked well in the past, and by disregarding those that have not successfully creating something fresh. The setting is reminiscent of TV shows like Deadwood or Ripper Street, a general melancholy with a sense of not being able to get out of ones current situation. The descriptions and language are used in a masterful way. The reader becomes instantly immersed in the sadness and sorrow of the characters and the world they inhabit, but there is a beauty and serenity in it, very much like the poems by Baudelaire who is oft quoted by singer turned prostitute in the book. The tempo is fast paced without ever feeling rushed, composed like a thriller the story moves along with ease without ever simplifying words or uncomplicating the plot. It speaks to Fischl’s ability to trust the reader and speaking to the reader’s intelligence. He makes no excuses and the characters suffer and go through hell without mercy and it is refreshing.
Fischl is great at using a variety of tropes belonging to just as varied a genre of literature; The western, the Gothic romance, the urban fantasy, the thriller and classic horror and he uses their various strengths like a master craftsman carrying a toolbox filled with the best tools for a job. The characters are easily recognizable as being plucked from Gothic Horror of Victorian style. The crazed and unethical aristocrat, the young innocent damsel, the idealistic young hero, a horrible assistant and a slew of other figures that make up a rich gallery.
There is a lot that Fischl does right with this book. It is a story about broken people, seemingly feeling like they have no hope and a man preying on them for his own sick and twisted reasons. One could easily see the story being picked up by FX or HBO, it’s that kind of story. That is one of the truly interesting aspects, it has a contemporary feel, the way the tale is told. Fischl has his finger on the pulse of what is going culturally be it TV or genre fiction, but in a late 19th century setting. It melds the credibility of human interest with a fantastical element written well enough to suspend ones disbelief. In the end it makes for a great and wonderful read that won’t disappoint those used to fantasy, horror or suspense.
Familiarity is a double edged sword, a trap that an author might fall into if they are not careful. The waters are tricky to navigate when using tropes from genre fiction, but the ship that Fischl commandeers keeps the reader dry and he does not wreck on the reefs of repetitiveness and triteness. Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show takes what is familiar and makes it original and engaging.