Wednesday, 17 December 2008

FaceBook - Vanguard Book Club - new Planet of the Owls review

the title of this post just about says it all. Here's the (rather glowing) review copy, you can click on the link to join the debate.

I.E. Lester reviews Mike Philbin's Planet Of The Owls on the Vanguard Book Club

It's the end of the world. Mankind is going to the birds - literally. Marcus is a dropout, a wasted life. He spends his days running a falafel kiosk in Oxford, surrounded by students, constant reminders of people making more of their lives than he has. Su-Ki Chin is a 14-year-old schoolgirl from a village near to Beijing. Both of them are living typical (humdrum) lives, waking up in the morning, showering, getting dressed and setting off to work/school.

One day everything changes. Su-Ki's school bus doesn't appear. Returning home she finds her family massacred by what seem to be giant chickens, just before Chinese jet fighters start bombing the village. Marcus awakes to see a giant bird on his windowsill, but tries to reason it away as the remnants of a dream. It isn't. They are very real, very hungry and, as you would expect, we are on the menu. Marcus's and Su-Ki's cosy comfortable world has ended, replaced with a bizarre surrealist's hell.

Ok, Philbin's surprised me. I've read a number of his books now, and without exception found he operates continuously on the edge of fiction. His stuff is out there, beyond what just about everyone else is doing. Virtually every single word pushes it further. His imagery is grossly, slimily indecent. Nihilistic anger flows throughout his books, and his worlds are fractured with gore and filth pouring forth from each crack.

This is a little different. On first glance (and armed with a knowledge of the author's earlier books) you could almost feel the author is trying to expand his readership. You almost get the feeling this is sugar-free, low-tar, Diet-Philbin. It seems as though he's making a play for the mainstream. Rest assured he isn't. Marcus's first close encounter of the feathered kind soon dispels that notion.

The anger and twisted imagery are still there, just not as in your face. He still rails against the organised forces in the world (this time religion and spirituality are his targets), but here the language is, in the main, less vitriolic and less coated in bodily fluids.

Here the violence and the sex are almost the contrast, rather than the norm they are in other Philbin books. It makes the whole a little easier to read although does have the effect of making the extreme content more wrenching, even with the toned down language.

This book's form is also more traditional than you'd expect from Philbin. The story takes the form of a science fiction End of the World tale, albeit a little surreal. Just replace the giant birds with alien beings and this has many similarities with Earth-invasion stories - then mix in liberal doses of Salvador Dali's more out-there art and psychotropic drugs and you'll be getting to the place this novel inhabits. It may have a framework straight out of the Victorian fantastic, but it's covered in all the cynicism and auto-destructive malaise of the modern age.

It's not a perfect book. Stripped of the author's normal expletive-laden, stochastic prose you get to focus on Philbin's locations and characters and in many ways they are lacking.

Marcus is a little one-dimensional, the stereotypical wasted-life - Su-Ki feels too familiar to be a Chinese country girl. There is a lack of the cultural differentiation I would have expected. She could as easily been from an early twentieth century English farming village as China.

And this world is only vaguely painted. Not a particular problem when the action is taking place in Oxford, but a different issue when we move to a rural community in China. These are not major criticisms though. Philbin's unique vision is certainly more than enough to compensate for any such shortcomings.

Reading to this end of this book leaves you with one conundrum. Should you be congratulating the author on producing one of the truly original books 2008 will have seen? Or should you be reaching for the telephone to report the author as a complete nutter? It's a tough call. But it's an interesting read. Just don't leave it anyplace where granny might pick it up.

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