Tag Archives: Thrillers – General

Gnomon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Gnomon [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Nick Harkaway.

Harkaway Gnomon

Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon is a 666-page magical operation thinly disguised as a science-fiction police procedural. Its settings range from late antiquity to the far transhuman future, with a cluster in London, Greece, and Ethiopia in the 20th and 21st centuries. I found it compulsive reading, and worked through the whole thing in about four days. This was the first Harkaway title I’ve read, initially sighted in a public library display and long considered as something worth my attention. In an appended author’s note, the book is characterized as containing “layers of puzzles and references the author has largely forgotten as he moves on to the next and the next,” but the web of the story is so tight that it’s easy to imagine it being written in any direction: trajectories of plot and character intersect and reinforce each other everywhere, especially since “nothing means just one thing.”

The peak of textual recursion in Gnomon is perhaps Inspector Neith’s interview with Chase Pakhet, an interdisciplinary scholar who discusses the Frankfurt School and French postmodern theory after confessing a love of pulp fiction “for its cheap trashiness, its wicked women and its unrepentantly vivid sex … the violence, the moral turpitude, and the absoluteness of right and wrong in a universe that pretends to be shaded with grey” (286). But fractal self-similarity is a key ingredient throughout this book that exhibits the fabric of all being woven on Its invisible design.

Full-on metaphysics and plot spoiler: . . . . (hover over for spoiler) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

As I read this book, I was reminded of many other works I have enjoyed, including Philip Dick’s Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell, China Mieville’s The City & the City, Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, Grant Morrison’s The Filth, and the Wachowskis’ Sens8. None of these comparisons should be taken to impugn the originality or independence of Harkaway’s work here.

“I raised the sleeper, and sealed the sleeper in luminous water with five seals, that death might not prevail from that moment on.” (Apocryphon of John, logion 16)

What the Hell Did I Just Read

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews What the Hell Did I Just Read [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by David Wong (now revealed as a pseudonym of Jason Pargin), book 3 of the John Dies at the End series.

Wong Pargin What the Hell Did I Just Read

The third “John and Dave” cosmic horror-comedy novel is a little closer in spirit to the first than the second, I think. The central cast of Dave, John, and Amy is unchanged. The setting in the small Midwestern US city of “[Undisclosed]” this time features riparian flooding as a difficulty (unremarkable climate change and infrastructural neglect) incidental and basically unrelated to the main threat of invasion by mind-controlling entities from another dimension.

This volume’s slightly lower overall count of dick jokes is more than compensated by a correspondingly higher number of ass jokes. It reads at a hectic pace. Readers who enjoyed the previous books should appreciate this one too, and while This Book Is Full of Spiders is certainly worth reading, it would be possible to read this third book directly after John Dies at the End with no greater sense of disorientation than the books deliberately offer in their published sequence.

In an afterword in his own voice, writer Jason Pargin sets aside his David Wong character to remark that he doesn’t view the three books as a completed trilogy, and to offer some earnest words about mental health, lest anyone take the wrong lesson from his stories of flawed reality-testing–as he seems to think that certain of his correspondents have done.

The Eight

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Eight [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Katherine Neville, book 1 of The Eight series.

Neville The Eight

In its early printings, The Eight was compared to Umberto Eco’s puzzle-novels, but it doesn’t really have their literary integrity. It’s probably more deserving of comparison to Dan Brown’s film-treatment-cum-novel conspiracy thrillers, which may have been influenced by (or even modeled on) this book. 

Pluses: Enigmatic ages-spanning conspiracy constructed around chess. Efficiently told fast-paced adventure story. North African setting rendered with experienced detail and rich imagination. Surfeit of ass-kicking redhead heroines. Little bits of comedy. Cameos by William Blake, Giacomo Casanova, and practically anyone of note in the last decade of the 18th century. 

Minuses: Use of third-person narrative in 18th-century plotline which is eventually revealed to be contained in a journal. Use of first-person narrative in 20th-century plotline, including chronological inclusion of events unknown at the time to the character describing them. 1970s protagonist of author Katherine Neville is named “Catherine Velis.” Really? It’s hard to care for Velis, who seems to have everything fall into her lap, and to have no real personal attachments: no reference to any prior lover (is she a 24-year-old virgin?) or close peers or blood relations, just an abundance of mentors and benefactors, who are nearly all eventually implicated in the conspiracy. She was a music major at an unnamed college, but never plays, sings, or actively listens to music during the nine months of her story in the book. Out of three or four major plot twists at the novel’s end, I saw a couple of them coming at least 150 pages in advance. I groaned out loud at this passage from page 108, spoken to the French Abbess of Montglane by Catherine the Great in 1791:

“I know the secret is older than the Moors, older than the Basques. Older, indeed, than the Druids. I must ask you, my friend, have you ever heard of a society of men who sometimes call themselves the Freemasons?”

On the whole, it’s a reasonably fun read for those of us who like this sort of thing. The historical parts audaciously conscript an enormous range of famous figures, usually with some level of believability, and the modern parts churn out a bewildering array of heterogeneous clues before the solutions start to cohere. I’m not signing up for the sequel, though.