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Saturday, October 16, 2010

"Festival of Skeletons" by RJ Astruc (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official RJ Astruc Website
Order "Festival of Skeletons" HERE
Read Chapters 1-3 from "Festival of Skeletons" HERE

INTRODUCTION: When recently we have got a review inquiry here at FBC with the blurb below, I was tempted but not sure; fortunately three chapters of "A Festival of Skeletons" were easily available online to check out and I liked what I read there, so I knew I wanted to read the book.

"A Festival of Skeletons
by New Zealand author RJ Astruc is a remarkable novel of zombies, necromancers, merkind, serial killers and cross-dressing. "

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION:"A Festival of Skeletons" stands at 175 pages divided into 15 named chapters, some with quite funny names like "The Chicken Epiphany" or "Money Talks and Joshua Walks" as it befits the tone of the novel. Each chapter starts with its corresponding step from the "15 Step Program" of the special rehabilitation society headed by handsome and cool assistant mortician Joshua Finkle - the hatchet man (!) on the cover. His boss Ebenzer (Benny) Sink - colorfully portrayed in the center of the cover - has a problem too; not cross-dressing though, since that is his way to alleviate it.

The other main characters and POV's are:

Arifia Fawles a young 22 year old novice policewoman and neighbor of Fink who has big disagreements about musical tastes with the mortician and would love to throw him and his crew in jail. Then Benny's second assistant, green-blue, sharp-barbed mermaid Vona Urgarth who is perennially complaining of species discrimination since Sink has her wash carefully the floors daily rather than doing the main jobs as Joshua does - another factoid of great importance as it happens.

Sink's main rival Damien Torvault has a very complex past with Benny and Joshua and a fetish for guns, while kitchen-boy and overweight unkempt teen Percival (Percy) Holliday has an astounding success with women which his cover image would seem to belie. Enjoy the cover with the six!

"A Festival of Skeletons" is a funny dark fantasy with a lot of weirdness and explicitness that may not be on everyone's menu so to speak...

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "That morning the mortician ate oranges in his kitchen and eavesdropped on the local revolutionaries. The morgue backed onto an apartment complex, and shared its balcony with the residents of the second floor. These were student types for the most part, rattily dressed young alcoholics who attended the university seven blocks south of the slums. From the comfort of their lounge room they plotted to usurp Kamphor’s reigning Emperor, effect complete tax reform, and install a welfare system for the poor. Snatches of their conversations drifted through the hot summer air to the mortician’s ears – words like ‘socio-economic’ and ‘humanitarianism’ and ‘altruism’. The drunker they were, the more -isms they used."

Beyond the snippets of plot above and the fact that "A Festival of Skeletons" resolves around a plague of zombies in Kamphor that may have been prophesied a long time ago, may involve Sink and may mean the "end of the world as they knew it", I will not talk more about the story here since one of the big pleasures of the novel is to discover the ways of Kamphor, the whys of the characters and fit the puzzle together.

"A Festival of Skeletons" is a novel that takes a bit of time to get into the flow since the first lines above show how we are thrown into the "deep end" in the beginning. It may seem confusing for a while, but be reassured that things will fit and make sense - insofar as the whole set-up makes sense of course - so progress with the novel and do not worry about being made a little dizzy by all that's going on.

The characters are developed very well and again pay attention to little details as they may loom large in what comes next. I gave some hints but there is much more subtlety than you would expect from the short blurb above. The novel made me laugh out loud a lot and I never felt the suspension of disbelief breaking, zombies and all; as explicitness goes, yes it's not for kids and it may be too strong for some, but I never found the book distasteful, unnecessarily provocative or annoying.

The author shows she can write extremely well and the novel does not read as an inexperienced debut except maybe in the ending which was my biggest niggle. I have recently criticized a novel for breaking the emotional tone with its ending; well here we have sort of the opposite problem:
a wrap-up all finale, too cute for what came before and which read a bit solipsistic, like the whole universe of the book consisted of the cover characters with no outside world.

"A Festival of Skeletons" (A) is a very entertaining and clever novel, fully living to its billing as a dark but funny fantasy, while the author's obvious writing skill made me a big fan and I hope she will soon publish more novels since I would be very interested.


Bets Davies said...

Wow! This book sounds so up my alley! I am so glad I semi-randomly clicked on this review. I love a dark fantasy, but more I adore and respect the way we are thrown right in. I love books that toss us into the deep end with the guts to give the reader respect that we will be able to swim (and, damn, that was a convoluted sentence, but you get it). I have to stop hanging out here or I'll spend a fortune (okay. More of a fortune) on books!


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