Kindlefluff: Mixing Up History and Slicing Up Dicks

by Arthur B

A review of Phil Rickman's The Bones of Avalon and Aric Davis' A Good and Useful Hurt - or at least as much of them as this reviewer could take.
Say what you like about Amazon's Kindle store prices; granted, a lot of books on there don't cost much less than their print versions, but equally there are heaps of books on there which are given away for free (either on a permanent basis or within a small window of opportunity intended to boost an item's sales ranking), or very inexpensive. I'd expected such books would be almost entirely self-published stuff but I'm pleased to see at least some publishers seeing the value of getting people hooked on cheap or free ebooks. I'm addicted to checking the Daily Deal each day, for instance, because if I'm even vaguely interested in a book 99p and a tiny fraction of the storage space on my Kindle is an expenditure so small I don't even keep track of it.

The good side to this is that there's a really low barrier to exploring the sorts of books which otherwise might not be your cup of tea. The downside to it is that because I've invested less in acquiring a book, I find I am less interested in persisting with it if it doesn't grab me within the first hour or so of reading. Obviously if a book is actually good and grabs my interest I'll plough on to the end, but I suspect the vast majority of the books in my Kindle unread pile (most of which were free or on special offer) are things I will read about fifty or so pages of before shrugging and deleting them from my e-reader.

That isn't to say I could only ever have a transient relationship with the books on my e-reader or that free/cheap books are necessarily bad ones; books which you acquire on a whim and unexpectedly love are fantastic. But there's a lot of e-books out there which I'll end up picking up on a whim and discarding on a whim, making them disposable guests blowing through my e-reader on the breeze and leaving little trace behind them. In a fit of whimsy I've decided to call them "Kindlefluff". Here's a couple of pieces I deleted recently.

The Bones of Avalon

Phil Rickman's The Bones of Avalon (acquired for 99p on the Daily Deal) is a murder mystery starring Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan mathematician-wizard who gets cited whenever purveyors of occult-themed fiction (whether or not it is sold as fiction) want to discuss that period in history. Wisely, Rickman sets the story before that point in Dee's career where he was conversing with angels on a regular basis, thus saving the story from degenerating into Angel Summoner and the BMX Bandit; it's the early days of Queen Elizabeth's reign, Dee hasn't yet settled into a secure position as court astrologer and navigation expert, and indeed he still worries that any day now he might get burned at the stake on general principles.

Having been assessed by Sir William Cecil as being a good sort who can be trusted to look after the Queen's interests, Dee is given a mission: go up to Glastonbury, and try and track down the bones of King Arthur, which had supposedly resided in the Abbey there until it was shut down in the Dissolution. Dee isn't sure he's the right man for the job, but is happy enough to go on the off chance that someone might have saved some fancy books as well as the bones from Thomas Cromwell's grubby mitts.

Travelling the company of Robert Dudley, who does nothing to dispell the rumours that he is boning the Queen, Dee soon finds himself embroiled in the local intrigues. The local Justice of the Peace, Sir Edmund, happens to be a former monk from the Abbey converted to hardline Protestantism, and he has gathered about him a number of other ex-monks with the intent on establishing a college of learning there. On top of that, Dee discovers that in Glastonbury there is a tight-knit and thriving community of dowsers, scryers, and other practitioners of the esoteric - a community which may include Eleanor Borrow, a doctor who Dee finds himself falling for. Sir Edmund is keen to paint these innocent New Agers practitioners of the old ways as dangerous heretics and would like nothing better than to burn the lot of them, so when Martin Lythgoe, Dudley's manservant, is discovered murdered in the ruins of the Abbey in a ritualistic fashion Sir Edmund is more than happy to pin it on Eleanor, prompting Dee on an urgent quest for the answers on which both Eleanor's life and his mission from the Queen depend.

In general I quite liked the characterisation in the book - particularly Dee, as a proto-scientist, carrying around in his head a mixture of actually innovative ideas and incredible tripe. The latter point is, perhaps, part of the reason why I lost interest in the book; I thought it was going to play with the idea that as well as being a nutty wizard who thought he could talk to angels (and might well have been being shamelessly scammed by the medium who did the angel-speech for him), he was also a skilled mathematician who provided training to the Royal Navy's navigators and also a political theorist who enunciated the idea that England could build an empire through projection of its naval power and the establishment of overseas colonies.

Early on, however, it became apparent that historical accuracy wasn't going to be the order of the day, and that I would be presented with a range of cartoonish characters occupying a loose approximation of the Elizabethan era. Still, I could live with that; the idea of a parody of John Dee sallying forth to solve crimes with a mixture of rational detection and occult mummery sounds like a lot of fun (particularly if it's the rational detection which really gets the results and the occult mummery is just to confuse and bewilder the suspects). However, I didn't get deep enough into the murder-sleuthing part to really get a handle on how it would pan out.

The problem with The Bones of Avalon is that it's not just written to depict John Dee having detective adventures in History; there's an agenda being served here and it's not one I can really get on board with. Essentially, Rickman uses the book to put forth the theory that the New Age community in Glastonbury is not merely a modern phenomenon that only really flowered in the late 20th Century, but an ancient deal which stretches back at least to Elizabethan times. Rickman's theory suggests that Glastonbury Abbey was the repository of an enormous amount of spiritual wisdom of a heterodox variety, and when it was dissolved the monks all made away with the books and set themselves up in quiet, unassuming lives in the local town, sparking off a wave of interest in hitherto suppressed spiritual practices.

Set against this is Sir Edmund and those monks who remain loyal to him, who intend to set up a university in the town and who it is heavily implied is out to squash this outbreak of overt heresy; it's kind of appropriate that Rickman sets up a wannabe professor as the antagonist in the book since any level of rigorous historical research at all would make it clear that the whole scenario is ludicrously anachronistic. First off, there's the issue that back in the day you just didn't have that sort of melange of folk healing practices, dowsing, and very academic and theoretical metaphysics coming together in syncretic occult systems the way it's depicted in the book. An educated monk studying occultism from dodgy books would end up getting into very different practices from a peasant perpetuating traditional local practices, and the former would almost certainly look down on the latter. It's also notable that all the heterodox books from the Abbey seem to tie into New Age and occult practices and traditions which people would readily recognise today as opposed to, say, Waldensianism or Monophystite beliefs, or any of the numerous other Christian heresies which a medieval monastery could conceivably hoard books about.

Rickman's sloppy research doesn't end there, mind - there's one point where he has John Dee begin an occult ritual by performing a simple variant of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram, which is a very common ritual amongst modern-day occultist and is beloved of authors of occult thrillers because it's short, brief and to the point, so you can throw it in to show off how erudite you are without ruining the flow too much. Only, there's a problem with its inclusion here, and that problem is that it was invented by the Golden Dawn hundreds of years after Dee died. But it's the pushing of Rickman's Glastonbury agenda which bugs me. Given that he provides a fairly extensive set of notes on what he took from history and what was conjecture at the end which misses out this aspect entirely forces me to include that either Rickman believes this stuff himself or wants other people to believe it. Either way, it's the sort of yarn that is clearly intended to flatter people who do believe in all that sort of thing and to intrigue people who are curious about it, but since I'm neither it does little to nothing for me. And to be honest, if I was the sort of person who visited Glastonbury for the odd bit of tarot reading or Goddess worship or whatever, I'd find the attempt to push this theory kind of insulting and disrespectful to the people who were actually responsible for fostering and growing the New Age community in Glastonbury in the 20th century.

I mean, it's nowhere near as badly written as Dan Brown so if you just want pseudohistorical tosh that you can't take too seriously I suppose it's good for that. But like I always say about this stuff, I usually find actual history more interesting than the stuff people invent about history.

A Good and Useful Hurt

A Good and Useful Hurt by Aric Davis (£1.99 on a special offer) centres around Mike, the owner and operator of a small tattoo parlour. Depressed and somewhat withdrawn after the suicide of his former lover, Mike perks up when the irrepressible Deb convinces him to hire to provide piercing services and other body modification procedures; soon enough, they're finding themselves falling for each other. Meanwhile, a bereaved customer decides to come to the parlour to get a tattoo done with the ashes of their dead loved one dissolved in the ink; it's an odd but perfectly understandable request, and Mike is more than happy to oblige. What he doesn't know is that, after the tattoo is done, the customer has vivid dreams of being reunited with their dead son. Soon, more and more people are coming into the parlour to get this very particular procedure performed.

Meanwhile, out in the mean streets of the city the depraved serial killer Phil is stalking and killing women. When Phil's actions impact the small world of Mike's tattoo parlour, Mike and Deb aren't about to take it lying down - especially not when there's strange powers they can call on to help them get the job done.

Rather than having one fairly major factor which was a dealbreaker for me but probably wouldn't be a dealbreaker for other people, A Good and Useful Hurt came with a whole bunch of issues which collectively made me very annoyed with the book. I'd talk about straws and camels' backs except these aren't all straws, sometimes they are honking great logs. One of the more minor things which bugged me is the way the novel goes out of its way to point out how diverse the main cast is. How far out of its way? Well, when Deb gets hired (and guesses that Lamar, the other tattoo artist at the parlour, is black based solely on hearing his name) she says this:
"This is quite the multicultural operation you have going here, Mike. Two chicks and a black guy! That's a hell of a thing. All we need is a gay Hispanic and an Asian."

Becky said, "I'm a quarter Korean." She flipped at her hair. "Bottle-blonde."

Deb laughed and high-fived the now-grinning counter girl while Mike stared, incredulous.

"Mike, we need that gay Mexican. Or Puerto Rican. Or really any variety so long as he's queer."
Throw in the fact that one of the tattoo parlour's best customers is a gay man who gives Mike some sage advice and one of the people who comes in to get an ash tattoo is a Hispanic woman (whose career progression went from abused housewife to hospital cleaning lady to boss of a cleaning agency, because Hispanic women who don't stay at home and get beaten up exist to clean up after the rest of us), and the cast had in fact ticked all of Deb's boxes ticked by the time I gave up reading.

Perhaps it's wrong of me to find this irritating. Perhaps I should be glad Davis has clearly made an effort to provide a diverse cast. On the other hand, I do think that once you ostentatiously draw attention to how diverse your cast is - as opposed to letting them just exist like that - you kind of put yourself in an awkward spot. If you haven't been indulging in a tokenistic box-ticking exercise, you've just made it your casting decisions look like one anyway. And if that is, in fact, what you've been doing then that's kind of awful - you shouldn't be treating developing a diverse cast as a process of going through the motions in order to cover your ass. (And as I'll outline a bit later, the diverse cast also involves a whole lot of fail on Davis' part.)

However, I was personally prepared to live with this since on this front Davis clearly has his heart in the right place. It took a number of other factors to make me get off the bus, one of which was the way Davis tried so very, very hard to convince me that Deb is way cool and awesome and rad.

It's evident from the portrayal of their relationship that Mike is, in fact, an incredibly square guy. He has never eaten sushi and was apparently completely unaware that arthouse movies and foreign cuisine even existed before he met Deb. Now, part of me thinks that Deb introducing Mike to these things is actually a nice depiction of how when you're in a relationship with someone whose tastes don't 100% overlap with yours you often find yourself trying out new things as a result and how that's actually a really cool part of being in a new relationship. And, admittedly, it is a two-way street to a certain extent in that Mike does introduce Deb to the delights of non-crap beer.

However, perhaps because the narration in those segments is so rooted in Mike's perspective, a lot of the time it feels as though Davis expects the reader's mind to be blown to the extent that Mike's mind is blown. And let me tell you, Mike's tiny mind is blown by all this new stuff Deb is showing him. We're talking "Los Alamos would struggle to cook up a larger explosion" blown. Blown to such an extent that you can sort of see Davis raising his eyebrows at the woefully square reader whose mundane worldview has been rocked to the core by this stuff and saying "Yeah, bet you didn't know this was in the big world outside your stupid desk job for boring people, you Mundane!"

The impression I had that Deb was a tool for Davis to use to challenge square readers' sensibilities is only heightened by her being the Mary Sue of the body modification world. So, Mike has never heard of her before she swans in and convinces him to hire her - despite her being quite ridiculously rude for the first half of the interview - and it turns out she's so good at the whole piercing thing that she has a massive selection of clients who follow her to Mike's shop, going so far as buying plane tickets to fly out and get her to do their body mods rather than finding someone capable in their own state. Now, Mike may be square, but at this point I can only assume he's intended to both be square and also completely oblivious about his own career, because I'd have thought that there wouldn't be that many piercing artists in the US who are so transcendently good at what they do that people - even people who know them - buy round-trip airline tickets just to get a bit of work done.

You'd think that level of talent would attract an appropriate level of fame, at least within the body mod community, particularly if you're dealing with someone who is not only meant to be super-awesome at sticking holes in your bits but also offers such rare delights as penis bisection and other extreme modifications. (There Davis goes again with using Deb as a means to shock us out of our mediocre mundane square little world). But no! Deb lives in this curious state where she is simultaneously incredibly popular and massively in demand and yet, at the same time, has a background of complete obscurity; Mike hasn't heard of her at all, doesn't even hear any gossip about her past, and she refuses to tell him anything at first. I didn't read far enough to work out what her deal is; hopefully it isn't some sort of horrible rapey or abusey thing that authors feel compelled to give to "strong" female characters but let's face it, given the track record of genre fiction in general it's almost certainly a rape/abuse thing.

But either way, I'm asked to accept that Deb can be staggeringly rude during her job interview and yet get by anyway simply on the strength of her portfolio of holes she has punched in people, and that either she has gathered this devoted following without any word of mouth being generated in the wider body modification community whatsoever or Mike is so oblivious to the scene his shop ostensibly caters to that he's never heard of her celebrity. She's got all these way cool and totally out there hobbies like independent movies (seriously, Ghost Dog is not that obscure dude), foreign food, and urban exploration! And she happily parachutes into Mike's life and they shack up and they're perfect for each other and they're the ideal solution to each other's hang-ups and can we write her off as a fantasy figure yet?

Well, maybe we can and maybe we can't. Apparently this novel snowballed out of a ghost story Davis wrote for his tattoo parlour colleagues. Perhaps the characters are based on Davis's friends and he really does know a woman like Deb. I guess you could make an argument for overlooking the fact that token black guy Lamar is a street-hardened dude who's done jail time if it turns out he's based on a real person as opposed to a haphazardly assembled conglomeration of 70% obvious stereotypes, 30% character traits which seem to have been chosen deliberately to be the deliberate opposite of the stereotype so people can't accuse Davis of using a stereotype. Maybe Davis really does just know a guy like that!

But there's a problem there: real people are not comic relief in the same way Lamar clearly is. Oh, he's not obnoxiously over the top comic relief, but his reactions to things (like the cock chop-up) are very much played for laughs, as is his behaviour (particularly relating to his romantic exploits). Likewise, Deb is both a walking tough-girl stereotype and fits perfectly into the "love interest" dramatic niche. Real people do not slot quite so neatly into established stock character niches; if you catch yourself thinking of yourself or others as the comic relief or the supporting character or the protagonist in life, you need to go sit alone in a dark room until you get some perspective. If these characters are not based on people Davis knows in real life, then they are groan-worthy stereotypes; if they are real people, then they are real people that Davis has reduced to groan-worthy stereotypes for the purposes of his book, which is kind of worse.

The serial killer angle managed to let me down too. The first chapter we get from the point of view of Phil is brilliant; it tracks him sneaking his way into his intended victim's house not to do any killing, but to simply sit in her kitchen and take in the surroundings for the sake of getting an idea of who she is and what she is like, so when the time comes for a bit of fun he can get the best out of her. It's great because whilst he isn't doing anything violent or gory, at the same time the sheer invasiveness of it makes it feel like a total violation. As such, it's a great low key way to convince us that Phil is completely terrifyingly dangerous without him lifting a finger. However, subtlety went out the window soon enough, with subsequent Phil chapters alternating between him doing nauseating shit and talking to women whilst thinking about doing nauseating shit.

In addition to Phil being a significantly less novel and interesting serial killer than the opening movements of his story suggested, I also lost interest in his plot when I suddenly had a premonition of how it would turn out. I guessed that he would kill Becky, Mike's receptionist, and out for revenge Mike would tattoo either himself or Deb with Becky's ashes so they could find out who Phil is and take him down. I also guessed that the cops would prove to be nigh-useless so Mike and Deb would take revenge on Phil using their body mod skills, quite possibly in a manner involving Mike tattooing Phil with the ashes of Phil's victims so they could torment him in his dreams. Deb might even cut his willy in two for good measure.

The impression I had that this was where all the foreshadowing and character development was going was so intense that between that, the gross stereotypes, and Davis being unabashedly in love with his characters, I ceased reading. I haven't checked what the actual ending is but if it's different from my guess it'll feel disappointing (because what I had read gave me little faith in Davis' ability to craft a better ending) and if it's the same it'll feel predictable and too obviously foreshadowed.

Possibly I'm just the wrong audience for this thing. I hung out with enough goths in my student days that most of this shit just isn't shocking to me, and I'm not personally interested in body modification in the first place. (You can't improve on perfection, after all.) I imagine that if you are really into the body mod scene and want to read something celebrating how awesome you are, or if you're the sort of person that thinks getting a tattoo or a piercing inherently makes someone more special and interesting, or if you find the whole tattoos/piercings/bifurcated ding-dongs deal to be titillatingly naughty and transgressive, then you might find this book more thrilling than I did.

bookmark this with - facebook - delicious - digg - stumbleupon - reddit

Comments (go to latest)
Ashimbabbar at 21:08 on 2014-11-12
re Bones of Avalon: what annoyed me the most in this highly annoying book was the portrayal of the catholic villains as utterly cold-hearted plotters devoid of the slightest human affections; carbon copies of Communist moles in the worst Cold War literature.
In order to post comments, you need to log in to Ferretbrain or authenticate with OpenID. Don't have an account? See the About Us page for more details.

Show / Hide Comments -- More in April 2012