Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book Review: Bleak History by John Shirley

Bleak History by John Shirley
370 pages
Simon and Shuster

Anyone who has read my blog knows that John Shirley (Co- Screenwriter of the crow) is one of my all time favorite authors. An underrated trailblazer in both science fiction and horror, Shirley's cyperpunk pre-dates William Gibson and his psycho-sexual splat punk horror pre-dates Clive Barker. While Shirley doesn’t have the sales they do he has the respect and blurbs of his peers. I suspect in this culture where TV and movies carry more weight than cult novels, one great adapatation is all it will take for Shirley to get discovered out of the genre ghetto.

The project that is most likely to do just that is Bleak History. Shirley’s most mainstream novel BH is more easily tagged in the popular highly marketable genre of Urban Fantasy. In the first 100 pages I was worried this would be my first negative review of a John Shirley novel. The idea seemed simple and almost designed to be marketed in the urban fantasy thing.

The plot sounds simple on the surface. The thin line between the world of the living and the dead is breaking down. Certain people like Gabriel Bleak the main character have powers over the supernatural. There is agency that is monitoring the magic outbreak and recruiting people. I’ve heard reactions to the plot as it sounds kinda like X-men, no not really but I admit I was yawning a bit in the early pages. It is the extremely weird and original plots of Shirley's novels (check out City come a walking or Three Ring Pychus for out their plots) that set his work apart from standard Science Fiction or horror.

I should have trusted Shirley to rise above and make a very original piece. Once the details of the story start to unfold amazing things happen. I dog eared page 159 as the page where my imagination started cooking with the novel. It's not that exciting stuff didn't happen before that, it's just that's when the story really took flight. The hard part for me as a reviewer is that a reader deserves to discover these details as the book unfolds. As the thin line between the natural and supernatural falls apart the thin line between our rights and tyranny also falls.

In many ways Bleak History is about how we as a society or a country deal with threats. What if the threat was not terrorists, but magic? Would the same country that has two political parties supporting the patriot act and one defending it's use of torture do to protect it's self from a world where the power of the supernatural was really in the hands of the people.

Shirley is the master of the horror novel as political allegory. These are not beat you over the head - in your face allegory, and despite the obvious statements on rendition and torture there is deeper message. His novel Demons may be his more biting socio-political satire, but I am hoping that Bleak history will be a bridge that will bring new readers to his long chain of brilliant novels. Read it!

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