Song of Susannah – Reading The Dark Tower, Part VI

Here are Part IPart IIPart IIIPart IV, and Part V of my journey through Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.

The Story

Song of Susannah is a cool 400 pages or so — quite a relief from the 850+ pages of the two previous volumes in the series. Strictly on a physical level, it’s a lot less book to heft around. However, the condensed nature of the book does not negate the value of its storytelling. Song of Susannah is tight in its action and character development, which makes the story all the stronger. 

At the end of Wolves of the Calla, the battle was won but the katet was divided — Susannah, pregnant with a demon’s child and being overtaken by Mia (a new personality), has stollen the Black 13 (a powerful and dangerous stone) and absconded to another world and time. Song of Susannah opens in the midst of this loss, with Roland, Eddie, Jake, and Callahan nursing their wounds and working to come up with a plan to both save Susannah (in one time and place) and obtain the empty lot with the rose from an obsessive bookseller named Tower (who exists in a completely different time and place).

All their planning doesn’t help much, however, because ka has its own designs, immediately setting everything awry — Roland and Eddie find themselves fighting thugs while chasing after the bookseller, while Jake, Callahan, and Oy find themselves going after Susannah.

Unlike the previous book (with it’s slow build to battle), the action in Song of Susannah comes quick and bloody. Roland and Eddie are immediately attacked when they land in the past, and Susannah’s struggles are constant, if internal. The intensity is ever present, since the characters (and the readers) know they are facing virtual ticking bombs — time is desperately short. Failure to achieve either of their goals will result in death of Susannah and/or the destruction of all the universes. 

Structurally, Song of Susannah is different from any other book in the series — each chapter is titled as a verse, making the book itself the overall “song.” Each chapter also concludes with a two stanzas of a commala, which is a kind of call and response song. The structure and inclusion of verse lends the story a folky vibe, like a legendary tale shared over a campfire. This feels fitting considering the revelations that come later in the book, with the writing down of tales being vitally important to the characters survival. 

Commala-ka-kate
You’re in the hands of fate.
No matter if it’s real or not,
The hour groweth late.

Commala-come-eight!
The hour groweth late!
No matter what shade ya cast
You’re in the hands of fate.

Continue reading “Song of Susannah – Reading The Dark Tower, Part VI”

Book Love: The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste

The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste

Description: “It’s the summer of 1980 in Cleveland, Ohio, and Phoebe Shaw and her best friend Jacqueline have just graduated high school, only to confront an ugly, uncertain future. Across the city, abandoned factories populate the skyline; meanwhile at the shore, one strong spark, and the Cuyahoga River might catch fire. But none of that compares to what’s happening in their own west side neighborhood. The girls Phoebe and Jacqueline have grown up with are changing. It starts with footprints of dark water on the sidewalk. Then, one by one, the girls’ bodies wither away, their fingernails turning to broken glass, and their bones exposed like corroded metal beneath their flesh.

As rumors spread about the grotesque transformations, soon everyone from nosy tourists to clinic doctors and government men start arriving on Denton Street, eager to catch sight of “the Rust Maidens” in metamorphosis. But even with all the onlookers, nobody can explain what’s happening or why—except perhaps the Rust Maidens themselves. Whispering in secret, they know more than they’re telling, and Phoebe realizes her former friends are quietly preparing for something that will tear their neighborhood apart.

Alternating between past and present, Phoebe struggles to unravel the mystery of the Rust Maidens—and her own unwitting role in the transformations—before she loses everything she’s held dear: her home, her best friend, and even perhaps her own body.”

My Thoughts: I’ve been hearing about The Rust Maidens for a while now, the book continually recommended by others in my social media feed as a stunning work of horror. Having now read it myself, I can whole heartedly agree with each and every one of these observations.

The story takes on body horror with young women at the center. This seems a natural progression, since, as the book illustrates, young women’s bodies are already not their own. One of the aspects of this book is how the mother’s rule the block, meeting out rules, structures, and punishments for their girls. When one of the girls gets pregnant, it’s the mother’s who decide what to do with her and her baby, regardless of what the girl wants (the boy is also irrelevant in this). So, when the young women’s bodies begin to change, taking on the oily, glass-strewn decay of the city, it goes from seeming to be a strange disease at first to seeming like an act of defiance. All the wrongs quickly become cast onto the shoulders of these girls, who dare to be anything other than the kinds of girls people expect them to be.

Maybe that’s why Phoebe remains untouched by this metamorphosis — she’s already something other than the kind of girl she’s expected to be. We see the story from her point of view — both during the events and long after. All at once, she is both horrified by the changes she sees in her cousin and the other girls, and awed by them, finding a strange beauty in their transformations. She holds so many levels of loss and guilt, feeling she’s made all the wrong choices along the way. I love her as a character, not because she’s perfect — she’s far from that — but because she comes off as so human, housing anger, sorrow, and compassion for the people and community around her.

This story is so touchingly beautiful on so many levels, providing a blend of deep, unsettling horror with human love and hope. I particularly love the way the relationships between these girls changes and evolves over the course of this story. It’s just so, so good. As soon as I read the last page, I clutched the book to my chest and just held it. I’ll be looking for all the things by Kiste in the future.

If you want to get some more insight into Kiste’s process writing The Rust Maidens and her love of horror, the Darkness Dwells podcast has a great interview.


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Book Love: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and Other by Ted Chiang

The 2016 movie Arrival  — in which aliens come to Earth and a linguist works with a team of scientists in order to communicate with them — is one of my all-time favorite science fiction flicks of all time. The skillful way in which writer and director were able to weave together events from multiple times in the Louise’s life in order to build a beautiful emotional arch is stunning to watch.

Since seeing the movie, I’ve listened to a couple of podcast interviews with screenwriter Eric Heisserer, in which is describes falling in love with Ted Chiang’s novella “Story of Your Life” and his long journey of adapting the complex story into a screenplay and then spending years seeking someone to make it into a film. Hearing his passion for this story and his descriptions of what had to change and what did not in order to make the film possible, I knew I needed to read the original novella.

Just as with the movie, “Story of Your Life” involves first contact with aliens and humanities attempts to work together in order to be able to communicate with and understand them. It’s also centered around Louise, who is relating the story of her daughter’s life. It’s also about linguistics and science and love and the functioning of time. It’s a beautiful story — one that is both intimately similar and vastly different from the movie adaptation of it, both story and movie being beautiful in their own right, allowing me to love them independently of each other.

Reading the rest of Stories of Your Life and Others, I continued to be impressed by Chiang’s skill as a writer. Science is at the core of his work — not in the flash bang of laser guns or space ships or explosions, but in the contemplation and study of our world through linguistics, mathematics, architecture, and beauty.

Many of these stories are driven by humanities pursuit of knowledge. In “Tower of Babylon,” a builder is brought to work on an enormous tower, which is being constructed in an attempt to reach heaven. It’s massive undertaking of generations. To reach the top takes months, some people are born, live, and die on the tower without knowing any other life. As it grows ever taller, the tower reveals the secret of the world in a beautifully surprising way.

While in “Understand” this pursuit of knowledge is driven in a different direction. Rather than building an external tower, a man who wakes from coma begins to developed dramatically increased intelligence, reaching a point of even understanding his own mind and being able to manipulate its function to improve his mental operations. It’s fascinating to see him reach a point beyond human understanding and then to see how our perspective of him shifts toward the end.

“Seventy-Two Letters” dives deep into exploring the power of language by imagining a world in which many of the scientific principles of the world are determined by nomenclature. This is not only the writing of names upon machinery in order to create automatons, but also the biological principles of life. I was surprised to realize that this was a story I had read before (in an anthology, I think). I was fascinated by it was the time because it was such an odd concept and it has stuck with me over the years. Rereading it, I was struck all over again by the strength of this story.

The power of personal perception and how it influences prejudice is explored in “Liking What You See: A Documentary,” a story in which a university group presents that idea of requiring all students to implement Calli, a non-invasive brain modification that prevents the user from “seeing” or understanding beauty (or lack thereof) in another person. By presenting a series of personal accounts of people from variety of backgrounds, the story is able to provide a nuanced examination of the power of beauty and associated issues surrounding media manipulation.

This collection of stories is beautiful — one I would highly recommend for anyone interested in science fiction of a more contemplative nature.

Book Love: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

DESCRIPTION: “Follow a motley crew on an exciting journey through space—and one adventurous young explorer who discovers the meaning of family in the far reaches of the universe—in this light-hearted debut space opera from a rising sci-fi star.”

I did not read the description or any reviews before picking up this book. Enough people told me this was a necessary read and so I read it. As a result, I was expecting quite a different book than the one I got. What I expected was a gritty space thriller (not sure why I came to that assumption). What I actually got was the aforementioned light-hearted space romp — and I’m thrilled, because this is a delightful book.

The story begins with Rosemary Harper who joins the crew of the Wayfarer in order to flee the misfortunes of her past. On the ship, she’s presented with a (mostly) lovable bunch of goofballs and odd characters — Ashby, the pacifist captain, Sissix, the reptilian pilot, chatty engineers Kizzy and Jenks, Lovey, the ship’s AI system, among several others — who go around tearing holes in the universe (creating wormholes for ships to pass through). It’s dangerous work, but their new assignment is even more dangerous still, as they are tasked with traveling to a war torn galaxy in order to make their jump.

The way these crew find friendship and family through each other is just, oh, so wonderful. It’s funny and charming and so heartwarming. Conflicts naturally arise within any group working in a confined space, especially when that crew contains a diversity of not only cultural but species differences. It’s the ways these characters address these conflicts, always with compassion and a desire to understand another person’s perspective at their heart.

Each chapter feels like a semi-contained story within the overarching storyline of the novel, revealing some piece of personal history or new connection between the characters, with everything coming together in the end.

I love each of these characters so much, and love seeing the way they care for each other. One scene in particular moved me so much that after finishing the book, I read it all over again — something like three or four times. And I’m sure that I’ll return to moments in this book in the future, whenever I want a little comfort in my life, a moment of believing that people can be good to each other after all.


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Book Love: Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand

Beware of the woods and the dark, dank deep.
He’ll follow you home, and he won’t let you sleep.

The island of Sawkill Rock is a idyllic place, where the the ocean crashes against rocky shores, prize horses graze in green pastures, and where the people are lithe and prosperous and unconcerned. Yet the Rock carries a dark secret — girls have been disappearing there for decades and urban legends abound about a monster in the woods. No on has braved out the truth about the missing girls, not until three girls come together to peer into the secrets hidden on the island.

The story is split between each of the three girls — Marion who is weighed down by loss and is the steady mountain her mother and sister lean upon, Zoey who bares her outcast status with pride and longs to gain justice for the friend she is sure is not just missing but gone, and Val who rules as Sawkill royalty, gorgeous, privileged, and ruthless.

I love novels that center female relationships at their core, and this is the thread that holds this story together. As narration shifts between their perspectives, we get to see and understand  each of them from different angles and insight — the weight each of them carries and their individual sense of isolation and loneliness. It’s as they begin to understand what links them together — friendship, love, or enmity — that they are able to find away to face the monsters of their world.

Structurally, the novel is tight, each scene feeling essential, with nothing wasted — not one felt like filler, just something put there to take up space. And yet, the story also felt multilayered and complex enough to keep me fascinated and surprised the whole way through. This is combined with beautiful, clear language that brings Sawkill Rock and its girls vividly to life.

I also appreciated how Legrand doesn’t pull punches. The novel walks the borderline between dark fantasy and horror, with the monsters being truly monstrous. There’s also enough suggestions of bloodshed and dark moments to make this book quite unsettling at points, which I loved.

It also made me cry, which I also loved. So much to love about this book.


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