Guards, Guards!

I was going to say that Guards! Guards! was my first Pratchett read, but then I realised that this wasn’t quite right. My first Pratchett read was actually Good Omens, by Pratchett and Gaiman. I wasn’t as much of a fan of Good Omens, finding that co-written books are difficult to pull off in general (though exceptions, I’m sure, exist).

Guards! Guards!, then, was my first Discworld read. It wasn’t a long or a hard read (thankfully, I picked it up to escape the literary pretensions of Use of Weapons, by Banks). It was a funny read, for the most part. It’s a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, peopled by characters who generally also have the sense not to take themselves too seriously (well, except for the villains, who are villains for a reason). It manages to poke fun at a wide variety of things (like, for example, guards). And of course, it is an intensely British book – it takes about three pages for this to become obvious – presumably because Pratchett himself is an intensely British person.

I can’t decide whether my favourite comic character in the book is the ape (or monkey, if you’re feeling brave) Librarian or Carrot the dwarf. Both have their merits, the Librarian being smarter (while having the most limited vocabulary) than all the other characters save Vetinari, and Carrot being more heroic and righteous (while having the least imagination) than probably the entire rest of Ankh-Morpork. Or if you frown on comic characters and prefer the straightforwardly evil ones (perhaps because you hate the world and all that is good in it), there’s always the dragon, the book’s secret hero, who was indeed delightfully evil, if somewhat redeemed by the twist at the end.

Verdict: Pleasant reading, if you want to while away a few evenings smirking at witticisms or just smirking in general.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 flying dragons

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Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick

Who doesn’t know Philip K. Dick? He is one of the canonical writers of American science fiction. His influence is seen everywhere in the genre. His short stories have spawned a bevy of Hollywood adaptations. He is the endlessly creative spinner of idea-driven fiction that are among the most inventive in sf. He draws inspiration from a thousand variegate sources of human spiritual and material endeavor. He uses as his backdrop the star-spanning absurdities of human existence, from the personal to the political. No one science fiction writer has managed to capture the zeitgeist of the 20th Century has Philip K. Dick has.

Or so people tell me.

I admit, I hadn’t read much of Philip K. Dick. My acquaintance with Dick’s work was hitherto largely through the medium of literature in secondary school, then through the experience of films like Minority Report, Blade Runner and the Adjustment Bureau. Dick was, to my younger self, altogether too literary to truly enjoy, an impression undoubtedly reinforced through setting his short stories as homework. Later on, in college, I read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep as a mandatory starter novel for freshman year. I remember being one of the three students in that class who spoke.

Perhaps Dick was to me that over-subscribed legend, an unassailable literary figure, too feted to be truly enjoyed from my little fiefdom in the weird wilderness of genre literature.

Now, having read this carefully selected compendium of Dick’s most notable short fiction, the nagging sense of importance remains. But these short stories are like gems dug out of the morass of memory, of way back when, when they were little more than tedious assignments to conquer, not to grok. Dick built many of his best stories out the building blocks of ideas, influences, and a dash of the infinite. They were ideas-driven masterpieces, less concerned with the minutiae of plot, character or dialogue as they were preoccupied with the grand themes that Dick often found himself grappling – of death, life, space and time, God, memory, fantasy, mind, and destiny, money, autocracy, war, absurdity. Many of these stories were not stories as much as vignettes, sketches that serve to articulate Dick’s musings, but, as narrative arcs, cannot stand on their own two feet.

Some of these stories later became the basis of Hollywood science fiction films. However, the films differ greatly from their source material. Part of this is due to the fact that the source material, on its own, could not be adapted into a workable screenplay. Only the core of the ideas remain, while the story is shifted to pander to the sensibilities of a modern audience. To me, that shift illustrates the essence of Dick’s short fiction – that focus on ideation, of thematic sensibility, and a cheerful disregard to the staid requirements of story.

Here are my highlights of this collection:

Paycheck – A great story about a man who leaves clues for his future self, knowing that his memory will be wiped. This is one of the stronger narrative stories in the collection.

Adjustment Team – A cabal of time travelers alters the course of history to set on the right path. A classic mishmash of paranoia, conspiracy, and the question of whether these hidden guides are guardian angels, tyrants, or simply meddling voyeurs. Adapted into a rather more action-packed movie.

Foster, You’re Dead – Possibly one of my favorites. A satirical look at a world driven into consumerist frenzy with fear of the Soviet atomic menace. Fallout shelters become the ultimate status symbol and a thing that all the kids hanker their parents to purchase for Christmas. What happens when you choose to stay out of this fashionable paranoia? You get ostracized.

The Minority Report – Perhaps Dick’s most cinematic story, with a strong premise and and equally strong narrative resolution. I have memories of reading, and not comprehending, this story during lit class.

Faith of Our Fathers – Another favorite. The worldbuilding – of a world conquered by communist China – is superb and satirically on-point. The drudge of life as a Party bureaucrat is abruptly brought to its conclusion when the protagonist – SPOILER – finds out that Dear Leader is more – and less – than what he seems. There is also an element of existential horror, which was truly horrifying.

The Exit Door Leads In – A precursor to Battle School of Ender fame, except that it ends abruptly and in failure.

I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon – A fitting capstone to the collection, a bit melancholy, and the premise is that a man, woken up during cold sleep on a colony vessel, must relive his memories again and again until he comes to believe that nothing is real, and that he is still in his own dream. The ship computer that likes to swear is another plus point.

The other stories are mostly brilliant, but these are the ones I enjoyed more.

I give this collection: 4.5 out of 5 fallout shelters

Birdman (or, the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

birdman

It’s a little hard to talk about a film as loaded with expectation as the eight-Oscars-nominated film Birdman. It is so universally adulated, so discussed, so talked about in the most rarefied circles of criticism that any attempt to get a word in edgewise is either seen as the derivative ramblings of sycophants or contrarians. So how should one go about it?

The way I shall try to do it is to consider two questions. First, crucial to a film’s objective worth: does the film have something worthwhile to say and does it say it well? Second, and more important to the film’s subjective experience: did I enjoy the film?

Neither question is independent of the other, of course: a meaningful film can contribute to the sense of enjoyment (even if it often doesn’t), and an enjoyable film doesn’t have to be particularly meaningful (your average well-choreographed action flick). But it’s possible to consider both questions separately, and perhaps come up with a unified conclusion at the end.

So, how does Birdman fare on this binary scale? To answer the second question first: yes, I enjoyed it very much. Birdman is a film of many layers, and one of these layers is black comedy. At the surface, Birdman can be enjoyed as a kind of satire of acting culture. Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-out former superhero actor who tries his hand at theater. There’s an element of cringe comedy watching his production encounter various issues, and him humiliate himself over social media. He’s surrounded by a cast of misfits: a desperate and insecure actress (Naomi Watts), a self-important but tactless attorney (Zach Galifianakis), an obnoxious and inappropriate method actor (Edward Norton, in a largely hilarious but also affecting performance). The film gets darker and starts getting more ‘important’ in the second half, but the first half is actually awfully good comedy.

The film is also shot in quite a unique fashion – it’s essentially almost entirely edited to seem like it’s one long continuous shot. The camera follows the character around, employing clever tricks to connote the passage of time and space, but always returning to the grounded humanity of its characters. It’s a technically magnificent achievement and one that is just viscerally fun to experience.

So to sum, the film was enjoyable on one level – it was funny and fun to watch. What of the second question – did the film manage to say what it ostensibly wanted to say?

Spoiler alert: The Oscars typically don’t nominate films that they feel have little thematic depth. At its heart Birdman is a dense psychological study of Riggan’s desire to be free – but what that freedom means is unclear to him. As the star of a series of stunningly successful superhero flicks, Riggan could have continued to make buck and retire rich; instead, he wants to return to pursue his dream of being a successful actor and director of the stage. He wants to be acknowledged not as a washed-out relic of past success, but a serious auteur in his own right. That single-minded focus leads him down a path to ruin – the previews of his play suffer some catastrophic mishaps, a snobbish critic promises to destroy his play without having even watched it, he pushes away his girlfriend and daughter, and he descends into a state of mental fugue where he hallucinates having telekinetic powers and flying around the city, and where his alter-ego Birdman, the superhero character he used to play, taunts him about his failings.

Here’s the real spoiler alert: He wants to be free, to be authentic and admired. And at the end of the film, it is suggested that he succeeds in attaining his goal. On opening night, he is struck with a sense of strange clarity. He is re-energized, and delivers the performance of a lifetime. But in the penultimate scene of his play, where he is supposed to act out killing himself with a prop gun, he uses a real gun instead. He shoots himself, but only succeeds in blowing his nose off. This act of theatrical authenticity earns his play rave reviews. He wakes up in a hospital room, head wrapped in bandages, and he sees his ex-wife and daughter, who are nice to him again, and he finally silences the Birdman alter-ego.

And yet, the film’s final moments are mystifying, ambiguous and frustrating – for he appears to leap off the window of his hospital bed, presumably finishing what he started on stage by trying to blow his head off. His daughter sees her father missing and rushes to the window and looks down, but instead of the horror we expect, she raises her head and smiles.

What the hell happened there?

An ambiguous film is often frustrating until you figure it out, but a good film provides enough contextual clues for the determined viewer to make their own meaning. Birdman has that essence – that thing that it wants to say, but not so directly that apprehending it is a trivial exercise, nor so intertextually opaque that it becomes an intractable enigma only understandable to a film PhD. Birdman is content in leaving its message a wrapped present for the viewer, to unpack slowly of its own accord, and its style of magic realism, its clues and scenes, have a robust enough internal logic to make sense, in a fashion.

So what about that ending?

Here’s my personal opinion for posterity and future self-reference:

I personally prefer a happy ending. There are analyses that argue that the whole ending sequence, or even the whole movie itself, is just one long fever dream that Riggan experiences shortly before he dies from committing suicide. Many of these analyses base this on the supposition that the long uninterrupted shot is meant to portray Riggan’s subjective experience, that the camera is merely an extension of Riggan’s perceptual reality. As the shot finally breaks between his onstage suicide attempt and him waking up (by an eerily beautiful montage of evocative shots of nature, particularly one of a meteor that streaks through the sky), that suggests that shooting himself is a break in that perceptual reality, viz. that he is now in an alternate mode of consciousness preceding death. This is especially so given that the “good ending” portrayed is too perfect – Riggan gets literally everything he wanted, and is both free from Birdman and famous in his own creative capacity. Is this ending scene a wish-fulfillment fantasy of a dying man?

I disagree. I’m not convinced that the long shot represents Riggan’s subjective experience, because the shot also departs from that perceptual reality to dwell on other characters, of whose experiences Riggan would have no way of knowing. Furthermore, the camera shows Riggan’s hallucinations as well as the reality behind those hallucinations; for example, he imagines himself flying through New York, but is revealed to have actually just taken a cab. Thus, the camera gives us an uninterrupted feed into the film’s (and not just Riggan’s) reality. In fact, like in the Shining, the long shot suggests an active and deliberate agency behind the camera, as though an unseen but not omniscient hand is bringing the viewer along for the ride, showing the viewer what they want the viewer to see. This hand is a silent narrator, whose presence brings an added and crucial texture to the film: the film is not showing Riggan’s subjective experience, but the unseen narrator’s subjective experience.

Why is this important? Because if the narrator’s experience is subjective, the narrator is the one who dreams up the reality of the film. This lends the film an air of magical realism – where the magic comes from the dreamlike quality of this unseen narrator’s subjective experience. Who is the unseen narrator? I see it as a kind of demiurge of the film’s world, the storyteller, the veritable Aesop of this particular fable. Who the narrator is is not important, only that the narrator has a story to tell – that is what is important.

Thus, what is more important is not the hardnosed reality of what actually happened in the hospital room, but what the events that transpired meant, thematically, metaphorically, spiritually. I choose to believe that by leaping from the window, Riggan is expressing his freedom in the most authentic way he can – for now he can fly like Birdman, but on his own two wings, and not as Birdman. Riggan didn’t literally jump, the unseen narrator figuratively experiences his jumping as a metaphor for his self-actualization. By the same token, Riggan may not have literally shot his nose off on stage – he just mastered his own insecurities and gave the performance of a lifetime, and the shot is a metaphor that suggests that he made the ultimate symbolic sacrifice for his art, and in the process shot of that part of his anatomy that fettered him to his persona as Birdman.

His daughter’s smile – that genuine, rapturous smile – cannot be explained away as a fevered delusion. It must denote a happy and authentic ending for Riggan.

What does this mean for the film’s message? Is the film celebrating Riggan’s material sacrifice for artistic accomplishment, even at the expense of his human relationships? What does it mean when Riggan calls himself “nothing” and claims that he “doesn’t exist”, something that his daughter also angrily tells him? Is that a nullification of his own avaricious ego to achieve artistic absolution? The casting off of petty concerns of fame and fortune to pursue that zen-like submission into the pure essence of performance? What do the meteor and jellyfish symbolize? Perhaps this: there is the recurring theme of man’s smallness in the grand scheme of things, which applies to Riggan – his ideal of authentic freedom is impure until the end, where he realizes that to be authentic is to surrender himself to the void of ego-nullifying nothingness, and the shots of nature, interspersed with the seedy humanity of New York, serve to highlight that distinction. (Also, the meteor could be a pun on the fact that he is a falling – and shooting – star). Riggan describes himself as attempting suicide by drowning, but being stung so hard by jellyfish that he has to give up. Are the jellyfish that painful reminder that the desire to kill oneself is ultimately selfish pandering to one’s ego? Finally, what does the film’s subtitle, “the unexpected virtue of ignorance” mean?

There are so many layers and textures to the film that I can’t help but run off at the mouth speculating. But I guess that’s my long and rather too involved answer to the question: Does Birdman have something to say, and does it say it well? Hell yes, and in so many different ways. And I’m still trying to find answers.

I give this movie: 4.5 out of 5 wigs

Wasteland 2

Another new-renaissance CRPG down.

Wasteland 2 is a modern take on the classic CRPG. Its aesthetic and game design are steadfastly old-school – the dense lore, the reams of unvoiced dialogue, the top-down perspective, the endless fanservice to the 25 year old original. As a largely conventional take on a classic model, Wasteland 2 is not meant to be an innovator. It is a game that scratches a nostalgic itch for those who may have grown up playing similar games. However, by hewing so close to that classic model, it also inherits some of its shortcomings.

The setting is a world recovering from nuclear war. The Desert Rangers are a peacekeeping militia that patrol the Arizona wastes. For decades their power and influence has been waning, but they receive a mysterious signal that forces them to act. It’s a conventional narrative – and somewhat derivative, too, because the big bad is essentially a rehash of the one in the original Wasteland. The writing is competent but unremarkable, which is possibly an outcome of having the freedom to write almost limitless lines of dialogue without having to budget in voice acting. In terms of narrative structure, the quests are also standard RPG fare – many consist of tedious footwork interspersed with combat. There are few puzzles in the way of Divinity: Original Sin – the core gameplay is a constant loop of walking (exploring), talking, killing and looting.

So far, so conventional. So what sets Wasteland 2 apart, if anything?

I’d say that the one element that keeps Wasteland 2 engaging is not the linear plot or gameplay, but its worldbuilding. I’ve always considered worldbuilding to be essential in games – after all, why make a whole digital world to be just a bland backdrop for performing the same Skinner-box actions over and over? When playing a game, I want to be immersed – to feel like I’m really there, that my actions matter, even if only in a small way.

Wasteland 2 constructs a brilliantly realized world. It’s post-apocalyptic, radiation-blasted and largely hostile, but this is a place that has adapted to the new paradigm – a world that has been rebuilding for a while, rather than a few wretched bands hiding in a hole in the desert. The game is set up so that you feel that, as a Desert Ranger, you have a duty to do the best you can to set things right for the sake of the brave new world. The world feels believable. People depend on water and agriculture to survive. They need protection from the multitude of horrors that roam the wastes. They trade in scrap and salvage what they can to survive. They are not pathless savages, but people with agendas and purpose. As a Desert Ranger, you feel the strong urge to protect that flame, made real by the verisimilitude conferred by the visual presentation of the game space and the colorful characters that inhabit it.

The game is divided into two areas, Arizona and Los Angeles. Arizona is the fiefdom of the Desert Rangers and features many locations from the first game. Of the two areas, LA is by far the most interesting. Left to their own devices, the denizens of the LA wasteland have evolved into a variety of fascinating subcultures rich with potential for satire. There are the Mannerites, a cult that prizes good manners above all while indulging in ritual cannibalism. There is God’s Militia, a hyper-violent neo-Christian organization inspired by the messages promulgated by an extremist evangelist preacher’s video recording, that enslave and murder everyone who goes against them with an army of minigun-wielding nuns (from whom the player can loot dildos). The pathologies of these human ideologies run amok as a result of their privation in the post-apocalyptic world is not a new idea, but it is executed well and with much comic aplomb here in Wasteland 2. Exploring the LA area and coming into contact with these loons was one of the highlights of the game – especially because unlike what you might expect – these factions aren’t just fodder for your assault rifles – they are portrayed as complex and conflicted societies in their own right.

Apart from that, what sets Wasteland 2 apart is its odd mix of seriousness and humor. Unlike the Fallout series, which is distinguished by the incongruity of its post-apocalyptic setting with the echoes of its optimistic 1950s aesthetic, Wasteland 2’s apocalypse is mostly played straight. Its humor stems more from dialogue, flavor text, and the absurd items you come across on your travels, which are not integral to the game’s sense of place the way vintage 1940s tunes were for Fallout. This is a game where you can repair broken toasters hidden around the map to obtain special items, where you can tame goats to get them to follow you around and attack your enemies, and where there is an achievement for having one player character complete the game in a gorilla suit. Then there is Hollywood, where everyone – and I do mean everyone – wears pink tutus. Surprisingly, the game handles these comic absurdities well, and they do little to detract from the verisimilitude of the world.

The worldbuilding and humor, alas, cannot mask the game’s flaws, which stem to some extent from its adherence to old-school mechanics. Some skills are much more relevant than others – a fact that isn’t immediately apparent until you’ve played for a few hours and realized that your melee swordsman keeps getting killed by snipers. The game has some tedious unskippable cutscenes at some places. Some quests have illogical narrative paths. Combat is visceral and fun, but also disappointingly one-note – after a while, there are only so many ways to position your party, after which it becomes a clickfest where you relentlessly take potshots at the enemy until they’re all dead. There is no way to exit combat, which means that going against a foe against whom you’re outmatched is grounds for a reload. The NPC combat AI is mindbogglingly stupid: they never take cover and rush blindly to the nearest enemy. Every. Damn. Loot. Crate. Is. Wired. With. Explosives. I don’t much like the random skillcheck system that determines if you manage to execute a skill-based action or not – it makes it tempting to just keep reloading until you get the result you want, which should not be an incentive for you to upgrade your skills. The utter lack of a stealth system means that every encounter is a straight-up firefight. The same 10 character avatars are recycled for nearly every NPC in the game. The endgame fight is a chore.

But these aren’t game-breaking flaws, just ones of legacy. Wasteland 2 isn’t interested in holding your hand. It can be brutal at times – especially some early narrative choices that leave players between a rock and a hard place. Your party members can die – permanently, and replacements are limited. Some of these flaws may not be flaws – but the artifacts of a game in which the experience is deliberately hard core. After all, there are two types of satisfaction that can be gleaned from the completion of a game. One is a skills payoff – where the player triumphs through overcoming the game through skill, whether by strategizing or min-maxing. The other is experiential – where the player derives satisfaction through the payoff of narrative closure and immersion.

Well – Wasteland 2 tries, and largely succeeds – in catering to both types – even if the excess of the former might dampen the enjoyment of the latter at times.

I give this game: 4 out of 5 tactical nukes

The Crimson Campaign (Powder Mage #2)

The adventures of Tamas and friends continue to be a source of high-octane entertainment, but the book does have its issues.

In the words of that old chestnut, Confucius – the stakes are higher in this installment, in the classic tradition of Star Wars (and its inspirations). Tamas finds himself beset with enemies on more sides. It seems like the many disparate kingdoms that encircle his are out for his blood. Fair enough – he did threaten the very essence of their power, by deposing a moribund monarchy and installing (or trying to install) a fledgling democracy.

There’s battles galore, and deeds of derring-do, and treachery never lurks very far from the surface. This is, I think, a very cinematic novel. There is always something happening. The plot propels itself forward with impressive consistency. There is rarely a slow moment.

That said, however, I do think the book has its flaws, which are much more pronounced in this book than in the previous one. It has some substantial pacing issues – we fly through many setpieces with reckless abandon, and the writing sometimes suffers for it. There is almost something slapdash about the prose that McClellan employs – it is functional and tells the story, but they seem strung together without much thought, almost as if he were dictating his novel into a recorder and then transcribing everything verbatim. There is little sense of place to the settings he describes, which is a shame, because the broad sketches he has made of Adopest and other environs hint at an interesting and novel world. Some dramatic moments seem…hammy, almost as though McClellan can’t wait for the reader to finish the scene, and connects the narrative dots in the most direct way that he can. The frenetic pacing is the root of all these problems.

As a piece of entertainment, however, it can’t be faulted for its value in that regard. In that sense it’s a very cinematic novel, and I think it might do quite well on screen.

I do also want to flag that the book does have its share of “manifest destiny” type character tropes. All the characters are superhuman by birth or have had powers thrust upon them as befits the narrative. It’s a little sloppy in terms of plot, but it’s still well within my threshold of suspension of disbelief.

And what’s with nobody in the book having last names?

I give this book: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Promise of Blood (Powder Mage #1)

Hold up now, we got ourselves a good one.

Promise of Blood is probably the most straight-up entertaining sff book I’ve read in the past few months. It’s the first novel of author Brian McClellan, and while there are some minor issues, especially in the start of the book, it’s remarkably polished for a first book. It’s also a reasonably fresh take on the genre, a straight-up fantasy world that is in the throes of an old fashioned industrial revolution, complete with guns and steam engines.

The practice of reflecting on books continues to lead me to a conclusion that appears increasingly inexorable: characters matter. Perhaps more than anything else. Take away the characters and a fantasy novel, no matter how innovative or epic, becomes little more than a D&D rulebook. Promise of Blood’s characters are fleshed out with a panache that I’ve seen lacking in more experienced authors, and yet not in such a drawn-out fashion as to be ponderous. And these characters act in believable ways, with internal logics that enable them to act within the confines of their knowledge in a way that inspires confidence in their intelligence. Friendship is a prominent theme in character interactions – almost every POV character has a sidekick, or sparring partner, with whom they develop bonds of comradeship. That provides an added layer of depth to the character interactions in the book and provides for some entertaining banter.

Promise of Blood is also impressive because it tells the tale from a relatively unconventional perspective – that of someone in power: Field Marshal Tamas, leader of the bloody coup that ousts an incompetent king in the beginning of the novel. Tamas is a tough, often brutal man, a leader with no qualms about killing his opponents and those who pose him problems – but he has remarkable depth. He has vulnerabilities, uncertainties and weaknesses, friends and loved ones who aid and hinder him. He is not an infallible black box or brooding enigma, in the way many such characters are portrayed.

Promise of Blood is the first in a trilogy, in which the nation of Adro, newly absent its king, must fend off enemies and survive. This takes place within a broader thematic backdrop of progress against tradition, which is supported by the distinctive magic system. There are the titular powder mages of the industrializing Adro, who derive their powers from gunpowder, symbolizing progress – innovation in the use and study of sorcery, as it were, against the cabals of Privileged sorcerers of their enemies, who stand for the old ways and use more conventional magics. There is little love lost between the two strains, but the world of magic is wider than just those two. In devising the powder mages, McClellan has devised an intriguing magic system with compelling internal logic, but with a wide scope for further elaboration in future books.

Despite the general bloodiness, the book leaves some room for humor. There are some genuinely amusing vignettes that have an aura of absurd humor about them. The mysterious chef Mihali is one such fount, as are the wry observations of Tamas’ bodyguard Olem. Unmitigated grimdark gets tiring, guys.

There are some minor issues with excessive world-building exposition in the beginning and a somewhat rushed ending, but all in all, highly recommended for fans of fantasy.

I give this book: 4.5 out of 5 voodoo dolls

The Casual Vacancy

This is a book about the Dursleys. And then some.

I think it must have been quite a shock for some young readers, grown-up and fresh out of Harry Potter, to pick up this book with that inevitable expectation that it would somehow hew to the Rowling tradition. This book is the antithesis of Harry Potter; a book featuring small-minded, insecure, mercurial characters, a book so bleak in its outlook it almost verges on the misanthropic.

Many of the reviews I read, despite disavowing comparisons to her children’s books, called out Rowling for writing something so mordant and scathing. They were looking for something that they expected of a writer of beloved children’s fantasy. Instead, they found themselves shocked by the fact that the same author who had come up with Harry Potter could, in the same vein, produce a work of such pessimism regarding human nature.

Something that comes out of Rowling’s writing is a preoccupation with themes of class and social status. It’s a recurrent motif in all her work, including Harry Potter, but it comes out strongly in The Casual Vacancy , which is at its heart a meditation on class and racial difference and the invidious effects that such difference exerts on people. Rowling’s prognosis here, is that there is little hope to be had. Her characters are beautifully crafted depictions of the ugliness towards which human nature can descend. They are at turns neurotic, jealous, small-minded, violent, grasping, truculent, snobbish, racist, sociopathic, hypocritical, power-hungry. The book reads like an encyclopedia of small-town dysfunction. Sordid affairs, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide, drug abuse, rape, bullying – the litany of these is endless. No character, save a precious few, is left untarred by her writer’s brush. But what really disturbs is the finesse by which she explores their interior worlds, to such a degree that the reader come away feeling vaguely soiled by the experience.

Is this a kind of black comedy of errors? Perhaps. There is a strand of dark amusement that runs through the narrative. Rowling is having fun at the expense of her characters. Their ruinous inadequacies do them in. We sometimes are even invited to indulge in a little schadenfreude at their expense. But the general tone is almost angry. The savage acuity with which Rowling marries their foibles with their fates is almost personal in its metallic aftertaste.

Rowling tries to end things off, after the gut-wrenching climax, with a somewhat brighter note, as if the tragedies that abound catalyze a round of rejuvenation. But it comes off as too little, too late. After a journey through that emotional butchery, the reader is left wondering how the characters can possibly be redeemed.

Despite the unrelenting pessimism, Rowling’s writerly gifts shine. She has a knack for tight plotting and manages her large cast of characters with aplomb. Her writing is vibrant and expressive, and not as full of adverbs as her Harry Potter books, but instead infused with vivid metaphors, always with a tone of sardonic mockery at the moral failures of her characters.

While I finished this book feeling vaguely dirty and somewhat depressed, it was the kind of cathartic depression gained from having read what I think is a well-crafted work, no matter how psyche-bruising it was. Consider it, perhaps, Rowling’s phoenix-like, cauterizing rebirth as a writer, searing away the expectations that saddled her after Harry Potter. This book may well have been the brand, heated by the hot fires of misanthropy, used to seal the heart-wound that was the Harry Potter-shaped void in the world.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 stolen computers