Song of Kali

October 27, 2008

Song of Kali by Dan Simmons was a fitting book to follow Fangland in that they both dealt with destructive, ancient evil awakening and seeking to take over the world.  In Song of Kali, Simmons explores whether an entire city can be evil and rotten. 

Writer and editor Bobby Luczak, his wife and baby daughter travel to Calcutta to obtain a new manuscript reputedly written by a famous Indian poet long thought dead.  Though warned by several people not to go, Bobby blithely heads out.  The Calcutta he encounters is nasty, dirty, backwards and full of misery.  Everyone seems to have an agenda, and what Bobby naively envisioned as a simple acquisition of Das’ manuscript is anything but that. Somehow Bobby becomes entangled with a murderous group of Kali (fun fact: one of our servers at work is named Kali, which amuses me) worshipers who do not hesitate to sacrifice humans for their goal of bringing the goddess of death to life.   Soon everything begins to go horribly, horribly wrong for Bobby and his family. 

Song of Kali was Simmons’ first novel and as he demonstrated in The Terror, he is a master at evoking atmostphere.  If nothing else, Simmons succeeded at making you feel and smell the stink and heat of Calcutta, see the misery.  You almost want to take a bath after reading the book.  He also succeeded at creating a palpable sense of terror.  You know something bad is going to happen.  As I’ve said about other books, you know it will end up badly.  And you pretty much know what is going to wrong from the beginning.

The book was a quick read, and overall, an ok one.  There were a few fantastical elements that seemed a little out of place for a book so grounded in reality otherwise (the whole Kali issue); I had a similar impression about the end of The Terror. Some have called this book racist, but I don’t know about that.  It doesn’t paint a great picture of Calcutta or its residents, but it was set in 1977 and written around 1985, and attitudes were different then.  Bobby’s character was a little too naive. For an effort by a first-time author, it wasn’t bad at all.

Also recommended: The Terror

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The Terror: Terrifyingly Long

March 4, 2008

I adore snow but living in the South, I don’t see a lot of it.  However, if I ever get a wild hair and decide to go to the Arctic, smack me back into reality please!

The Terror by Dan Simmons combines history and horror into an intriguing novel.  The book recounts the doomed Franklin Northwest Passage Expedition of 1845, a British expedition led by Sir John Franklin to find the Northwest Passage in the Arctic.  Both ships and their crews become fatally icebound for years.  As if the reality of being icebound with limited provisions wasn’t horrific enough, Simmons adds a supernatural element, a huge creature that is stalking the crew and picking them off one by one.

The novel was good, but oh my was it LONG!  It was 784 pages.  Some parts went by more quickly than others, but it still took me a full week to read. I really liked how Simmons mixed the historical facts with his own interpretation of what may have happened to the crew.  I’m not sure whether the book needed the supernatural creature; life in the Arctic was pretty damn scary as it was.  The creature is an interesting touch, though.  I think it fits well with the 19th century mindset (the book takes place pre-Darwin and Origin of the Species) as well as symbolizing possibly the Arctic itself or at least how isolated and unexplored the Arctic was/is since you don’t know exactly what the creature is and whether it is some new species.   

Simmons does an amazing job of making the history come alive.  His narrative is well-thought-out, and the plot points and dialogue fit seamlessly into the known facts.  I liked how the story is told from various characters’ perspectives.  And the Arctic itself with its constant snow and ice is possibly the true main character.  I felt almost claustrophobic as I read the book because of the constant whiteness and neverending ice.  I could feel the crews’ desperation and hopelessness.

Simmons has amazing attention to detail, but sometimes I thought he gave too much detail.  I wasn’t sure how necessary it was to know the backstory of most of the characters, and Crozier’s lists of the surviving crewmembers often went on for pages and seemed unnecessary and repetative.  Truthfully, the book could have been a few hundred pages shorter without losing any impact.  The book begins around November 1847, and I knew that things would happen in April 1848, but it took many, many pages to get there.  I don’t think that recounting each minor event or every few days helped the novel’s pacing or advanced the plot.  The pace made me feel frustrated and weighed down, which may have been Simmons’ point since I’m sure that’s how the crew felt. 

I’m also unsure of how I feel about the end of the book.  Simmons does explain the origin of the creature, and it’s mythic.  I’m not sure if the mythic twist to the story makes sense or contributes to the overall plot.  It also contained a hint of environmentalism which seems anachronistic to a story set in the middle of the 19th century.  Simmons’ authorial voice comes through strongly in the last part, which isn’t exactly a good thing.

Overall, though, it was a really good book.