Thursday, April 2, 2015

Queen Mab Courtesy by Dr. Bruce Davis.

o continue my almost tradition of full disclosure (I'm told you have to do something 3 times before it's actually tradition), I do know Dr. Davis and have been lucky enough to be the close friend of his eldest son. In fact his eldest son gave me my copy of his book. His family have been very gracious and kind to me over the years and I remain continually grateful. That said I promise that everything I say about this book is because it's what I actually think, whether y'all believe that or not is up to you.

This is not Dr. Davis' first go around at writing, he has been in fact writing for some time which is impressive when you consider he is also a respected trauma surgeon for one of Arizona's many hospitals. A profession not known for having a lot of free time. Despite this Dr. Davis has over the years built up a good amount of written work. This is his first fiction work that I've read however.

Queen Mab Courtesy is his most recent fiction work, a near future science fiction that embraces a lot of the same themes and ideas of cyberpunk... Without the cyberpunk baggage (sooo much 80s... SOOO MUCH). Don't get me wrong, I love me some Cyberpunk although I tend to prefer the edge cases. For example, I love me some Shadowrun! Hoping to restart that game soon! That said Cyberpunk does tend to demand the use of certain tropes and themes some of whom I think are rather obsolete. It also tends to have writers thinking they can do nothing but style over substance or go way down in the depths of cynical posturing without anything of any real weight to say. Frankly if I wanted that I could go watch the news. I'm not saying you can't have dark stories. I'm not saying that the bad guys can't win. But do something with that darkness don't just wave it around like a flag! Seriously, this kind of waste is just criminal.


Right, book review, sorry. Moving on. Queen Mab Courtesy takes place in the near future in the year 20something. How story focuses on a young man named Horacio 'Tito' Guzman. Tito is in many ways an unfortunate young man, although through no fault of his own. Tito is a Denver Dwarf, or to explain, he is someone who is born with massive birth defects due to a vaccine that wasn't properly tested. Now I'm sure you ask, why would we use an improperly tested vaccine on people? Simple. The vaccine was to contain a genetically engineered plague released in the worse terrorist attack in over a century. The terrorist group that committed this attack is frankly unimportant, what's more important are the effects that attack had on Tito and the society he has to live in. For example Tito is a dwarf and has eyes that are placed in a way that gives him a blind spot right in front of him. It makes reading somewhat difficult for him but he manages.

Let me talk about Tito for a second. Tito is a intelligent, determined young man who not only has to live with being treated like a circus freak by the average person but also a mental 5 year old. His gifts and talents are constantly denied and constrained. Anything good he finds in his life will inevitability be taken away. The best he can hope for in the system is a life of menial labor constantly supervised by people he could outsmart while high and drunk. Add in that his father disappeared when he was 3, pretty much abandoning him and his mother to the tender mercies of that system. His father was the man who invented the vaccine which makes Tito's own troubles somewhat ironic in a sense. As one can imagine all this has made him a tad angry and bitter. He is also deeply mistrusting of people and the society he must navigate. Let's talk about that society shall we?

The society is one that has become obsessed with safety and normalcy. Enormous powers have been ceded to the state in exchange for comfort and security. The police for the most part have been replaced with robot crawlers (although there are human supervisors you can demand to speak to). Citizenship has become more strictly defined, and means becoming part of a system that tracks everything about you. For example one of the robot police crawlers remembers a character that his water bill is due that day. Dr. Davis doesn't actually tell you any of this. You're left to infer this from Tito's commentary and the actions and statements of other characters. This is actually one of the things I like best about the book. The good Doctor resists the temptation to drop massive amounts of exposition on his readers and insists that if you want to know about the society that the story is taking place in, that you pay attention to that story and the characters within it. When done well and it is done well here, it's another thing that pulls you in because you frankly want to know more. It also prevents the flow of the story from being broken up with paragraphs of explanations a lot of people would rather skip (I'm looking at you Weber!). Another trap avoided here is politicizing this society. There are elements that could be considered right wing (omnipresent security state, surveillance and powers deferred to a corporation) and left wing (massive welfare state, incredible focus on comfort and avoiding offense etc). One thing that drags down a lot of dystopian fiction in general is the authors standing up on a soap box to assure that if his political opponents win, THIS IS YOUR FUTURE! My usual reaction to that is to roll my eyes so hard that I'm left with a headache. This makes continued reading difficult honestly. Here we don't get that. The society here feels like something built in a bi partisan moment. Usually those are good things, but I'll remind you that bi partisan moments also created the Patriot Act. This society is a distopia but a comfortable one that could be cobbled together by Senators from both parties working together under popular demand after the deaths of way to many people.

There are people who have refused to become part of the machine and they aren't citizens. They're called blanks. They have no rights and live very dangerous lives on the edge of society. Tito isn't one of them but damn if he isn't trying. When the book opens Tito is fleeing from a police crawler for the grand crime of welfare evasion. See as a Denver Dwarf (the majority of the group suffering from mental disabilities that haven't effected Tito thankfully) Tito isn't a citizen but a ward of the state. He hates that and is determined to escape that fate. Unfortunately the robots know neither pity nor fear and as such are unmoved by Tito's determination to simply live his own life. Lucky for him this time he is aided in his escape by another character in this story, Charlemagne Sleazer, aka Charlie, who pretends to sell chestnuts for a living. In reality he makes his living by trading favors or what he calls “Courtesies.”

Charlie is a really fun character to read. He's flamboyant and eloquent and quotes literature in a fun way. He also doesn't do it so often that you get tired of it. We also never have to suffer from Charlie telling us what he can do. He just shows us. I'd like to note that to other writers, showing me instead of telling me things will get you many bonus points. Charlie does favors great and small, for people of all sorts of social stations from his land lady (who he gets smokes for, which he has to because tobacco is banned), a local grocery store owner, a computer programmer and more. Charlie is also interested in Tito, for reasons that will remain unstated in this review as they would be spoilers. After rescuing Tito, Charlie takes him as sorta of an apprentice in the fine art of favor trading. Tito and Charlie shadowrunners for hire in and of itself would have been an awesome book, but Dr. Davis ups the ante. Maybe a little to quickly but there are limitations of space to consider after all.

With the discovery of a dead man who doesn't exist, Charlie and Tito find themselves embarking on a investigation that will force both of them to confront their pasts. In Tito's case he'll find himself learning things about himself and his family that will both comfort and disturb him deeply. We'll also through flashbacks get a look at the major events of Tito's life, helping us learn why he's so angry. Frankly, you'll see he has good reason. I really enjoyed this book and frankly I think you will to. I've already given a copy of this book out as a gift. That said it wasn't perfect. There are parts of the book that drag a bit (I didn't care for the section of the book going over Tito's school days honestly, I felt the book could have done without that) and the book is maybe slightly over focused. It's good that it stays devoted to it's characters instead drowning the story in a desire to explain everything... But... This was a larger picture I really would like to have more of a look at. Additionally the violence (of which there is shockingly little of for a Cyberpunkish novel) is rather lackluster. That may be because I have rather demanding standards for violence. Other then that it's a great story about a young man coming to grips with his past while trying to avoid capture by the police and solve a murder.

Queen Mab Courtesy gets a A-.
So good news for space battles! Next is the Bone Doll's Twin (recommended by my little brother, yes family recommendations come first.) but after that, A Bridge of Birds, with more recommendations to come!

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