Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Microreview [book]: Discovering Aberration by S.C. Barrus

Lovecraftian in the Best Possible Way
Buy it from the author here.

Self-published author and friend of the blog S.C. Barrus is currently releasing a steampunk serial set in the world of his debut novel Discovering Aberration. I wanted to read the serial, so I figured I should read the novel it drew upon first. What I got wasn't what I was expecting, exactly, but in the end was a very solid first novel.

Franklin "Freddy" Fitzgerald is having trouble settling into his new, respectable role as a professor, following a youth spent in street gangs and then a brief career as a sort of professional adventurer, which he parlayed into a successful book. His only friend on the faculty, Dr. Lumpen, teaches archaeology, which in this world is a disreputable, cutthroat field regarded as essentially grave-robbing. But Lumpen has discovered a map to a previously uncharted island, stolen it from the most feared name in the criminal underworld, and wants Freddy to help him reach the island and bring back what Lumpen supposes are riches and strange wonders. Freddy agrees, they get a ship and a crew, and set off, with the big complication that a number of other crews have also gotten their hands on copies of the stolen map, and suddenly it's a race out to sea. 

That's the first half of the book, and it's where I felt the story struggled a little. There is some fantastic world-building here, rounded-out with wonderful linguistic inventions (or appropriations, either way) my favorite of which is "he laid down his knife and fork" as a euphemism for dying. But it's a slow first half. There are a lot of characters to set up, a lot of backstory, and quite a bit of internal "should I or shouldn't I" back and forth on Freddy's part. This all felt like prologue to the real story, and despite Barrus' skill at rendering the world and characters, I found myself wanting the book to get to it, already.

But once Freddy, Lumpen, and company reach the island, everything changes. Things go sideways immediately, and get very dark. Not grimdark — there is a lot of violence, but it's not what I would consider excessive or sadistic — but the juxtaposition of a steampunk alt-Victorian society and a savage, almost alien island that literally distorts its visitors' sanity and quickly runs red with blood is striking. From the halfway point forward, I found myself increasingly reluctant to put the book down, and loved being immersed in a truly Lovecraftian world that continually surprised me. I don't want to spoil any of those surprises, though, so grab the book. You can get it free, for Pete's sake (though you should really throw the writer a few bones, or clams, or whatever you call them).

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for consistently well-rendered characters, both male and female; +1 for being evocative of Lovecraft without feeling like an imitation

Penalties: -1 for feeling like the proportions were a little off.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10, well worth your time and attention

Posted by — Vance K, resident cult film nerd who occasionally wades into the book-reviewing waters.

Barrus, S.C. Discovering Aberration [Away and Away Publishing, 2013].