Thursday, February 12, 2009


Rosemary’s Baby is a 1967 horror novel by Ira Levin. Rosemary, a young woman, moves into a New York City apartment with her husband, an actor. Immediately, they are befriended by a stiflingly attentive older couple. Rosemary becomes pregnant. Mysterious things begin to happen, and Rosemary starts to suspect that her neighbors are Satanists, and that they want her baby.

Rosemary’s Baby is a horror novel in name only. The way Levin writes it, the entire concept feels thoroughly silly. And the novel’s climactic scene, with a bunch of senior citizens standing around muttering “Hail Satan,” is inadvertently comical. Levin throws in a “twist” ending here that is neither particularly shocking nor interesting, and it doesn’t improve the story one way or another. In any event, the reader is more likely to get upset about the way Rosemary gets pushed around than about any demonic conspiracy.

For this and other reasons, Rosemary’s Baby is surprisingly unsuspenseful. Levin bludgeons the reader with such a smorgasbord of clues that anyone paying attention knows exactly where things are going (except perhaps for Levin’s “twist” ending). And Rosemary herself is so slow or dull or oblivious or something that she doesn’t pick up on any of these clues for the majority of the novel. So for differing reasons, neither the reader nor the main character is in any kind of state of suspense for most of the book (with 30 pages remaining, the novel does pick up a tad). Readers have every right to expect better from Levin – some of his later works were considerably more suspenseful (his play Deathtrap being a good example).

One of the reasons this novel fails is because Levin does nothing to set the mood. Horror, as much as or perhaps more than any other genre, requires a great deal of atmosphere. It takes an immersive world to help the reader past the inherit ludicrousness of the horror premise. If your elderly neighbors strolled out in broad daylight, smiled, waved, and said “Hail Satan,” you would have a hard time taking them seriously.

Rosemary’s Baby is also tedious. The first half of it is rather slow, which is all right if the author is building atmosphere or foreshadowing events (there’s a big difference between ominous foreshadowing and X-marks-the-spot, neon-sign clues), but Rosemary mostly spends this time decorating the apartment, cooking dinner, and socializing. And ultimately, the reader may well wonder whether the book would have been considerably more interesting if Rosemary were paranoid, and the cult of Satanists only the product of her imagination.
Levin’s writing style is fine – it doesn’t stand out as particularly good or bad – but he has the annoying tendency to pluralize nonstandard words ending with “y” (like “Bloody Mary” and “by”) with apostrophes.

On the whole, Rosemary’s Baby is a clunking, clumsy novel filled with annoying characters. Don’t waste your time.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

NATION by Terry Pratchett

Nation is a 2008 young adult novel by Terry Pratchett, his first non-Discworld novel in over ten years. In a 19th century parallel universe, a tsunami devastates a chain of tropical islands in the equivalent of the Pacific Ocean. Mau, a boy who has just completed his coming-of-age ritual, returns home and finds he may be the only survivor of his tribe. Meanwhile, England has been ravaged by plague, and an expedition is sent to recover the new king. But his daughter Daphne, the heir to the throne, has been shipwrecked on Mau’s island. Together, they must care for the refugees and fend off invaders.

Pratchett has dialed the silliness back quite a bit in his writing for Nation, although it comes out every now and again, and in those cases the reader feels that he simply couldn’t help himself. His humor is present almost constantly, though, and it gives the novel a lightness that helps keep it from being dragged down by Mau’s dark moods and the story’s serious subject matter.

Nation is billed and marketed as a young adult novel, primarily because Pratchett’s main characters are young adults. It also has, from time to time, some overly simple storytelling (the ending is satisfying but pretty unrealistic in a too-good-to-be-true sort of way). Even so, Nation hardly ever feels like a kids’ book.

Nation deals quite seriously with themes of life and death and faith and tradition. Also noteworthy is the double-barreled shotgun blast Pratchett gives to white imperialism and the white-centered mindset. This feels like the axe Pratchett originally set out to grind. While that message was well handled, other opportunities were missed. The first half or so of the book explores this age-old question: If God exists, why does he allow bad things to happen? Mau is given afflictions of Job-like severity, and because of them, suffers an un-Job-like crisis of faith and is ready to embrace atheism. This is a storyline pregnant with possibility. Unfortunately, Pratchett allows it to go by the wayside in the latter parts of the novel, and the novel’s conclusions on the matter are very unsatisfactory.

By and large, Pratchett’s writing is solid and entertaining. Nation does occasionally suffer from flow problems, though, and typically Pratchett’s solution for this is to have new characters arrive on the scene each time the old characters run out of things to do. Pratchett also has particular difficulty juggling the languages. Daphne speaks English. Mau speaks his native language, rendered here in English. This creates problems when Pratchett describes them teaching their languages to one another. It also creates moments where it feels like everyone conveniently speaks both.

While not Pratchett’s best work, Nation is a solid and thought-provoking novel for adults and young adults.