Monday, April 28, 2014

My review of GHOSTS OF PUNKTOWN by Jeffrey Thomas. An absolutely amazing collection of stories...

I've been reading some really great stories lately, and the trend definitely continues with Ghosts of Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas. I've been aware of this long-running series, but for some reason never got around to reading it. Needless to say, I'm now kicking myself, and will be catching up with what I've missed, post-haste. Once I started reading Ghosts, I really didn't want to put it down. Unfortunately, I have to sleep, and work, so I didn't finish it in one sitting like I wanted to. The stories are all powerful, and beautifully crafted, and the characters engaging. A really excellent collection, with both newly published stories, and some that have been reworked for this release. One note, before I start the review. I love the intro by Jeffrey, and highly recommend you read it. It gives insight into Punktown and the characters roaming the city. That said, I skipped past it, and came back to it after I had finished the rest of the collection. The reason for this as that I wanted to have a cold reading of the stories, and then see if my thoughts and feelings about the stories matched what the author was going for. That's just me though... as I said, I really enjoyed the intro, so read through it however you like. Well, on with the review. I'll be focusing on my three favorite stories from the collection, and touch more briefly on the others towards the end of my review.

Welcome to Punktown, a sprawling megalopolis built upon the alien planet of Oasis. It's both famous for the large amount of alien and inter-dimensional beings that live side by side, and infamous for the extreme amount of crime that goes on within its boundaries. Newcomers are definitely in for a wild ride, one that might end up being their last. First off, we have 'In His Sights', which features Jeremy Stake, who should be familiar to returning readers of the Punktown series. He is the protagonist of both Deadstock and Blue War, and this story is set ten years before those tales. Stack's a mutant, with a power to replicate another being's appearance; this serves him well during the inter-dimensional conflict known as the Blue War. He's basically used as an advanced scout and infiltration specialist, as he can mimic the appearance of the enemy Ha Jiin. The story starts as he is in the process of demobbing, and being worked back into normal routine. There's a monkey wrench in the proceedings, however; Stake's features have frozen in the likeness of the last person he killed, an unnamed Ha Jiin warrior, so fitting in with society is going to be a bit of a challenge (read as almost nonexistent). Enter Cal Williams, another recent returnee from the far regions where the Blue War took place. Cal's even more damaged than Stake, and can't seem to leave the war behind... he's turning into quite the serial killer, and hates the Ha Jiin. Unfortunately for Stake, this places him in Cal's sights, which Stake is blithely unaware of through most of the proceedings, being caught up with his own tragedies. The pay off between these two haunted vets is decidedly action packed, and also poignant, in the last moments. Both of these men have been damaged by their experiences in a very realistic, human way, that is rendered beautifully by the author, and the ghosts they carry inside drive them down very different paths. Despite being a short story, this has joined three of my favorite novels that deal with the horrors of war, both the immediate effects on the men who suffer through them, and the long term consequences; Armor by John Steakley, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, and Sympathy for the Devil by Kent Anderson. I mean this to be, and hope the author takes it, as the highest compliment. A taut opening story, sharp as a razor, with genuine realism and true feeling throughout. An excellent start. 

The second of my favorites (and also the second story presented in Ghosts) is 'Relics'. We are introduced to Cynth, an 8 year old girl living in one tower of the Triplex installation in Punktown. As her parents are usually caught up with their own affairs, she is largely raised by her best friend, Mr. Moon. Mr. Moon is the Triplex's central computer, who handles all of his tenants wants and needs. Through the repeated interactions between the two, Mr. Moon starts to develop more sentient tendencies, showing signs of becoming a true AI... Of course, all of this is lost on young Cynth. Fast forward 20 years, and adult Cynth has built a life for herself, and is standing on her own two feet. She still thinks about her friend, on occasion, but has her own affairs to occupy her time. Having broke off her engagement with her fiancee, she is back in Punktown on business (her family had left Punktown for the city of Miniosis when she was 10). Working as a service representative for an auction company, she relishes the chance to get away from Miniosis, which reminds her utterly of her failed relationship. While engaged in the latest auction, odd things begin happening, culminating in the prize piece up for bid being stolen. Further investigation leads her back to the heart of the Triplex, where possibly an old friend is waiting... I'll say this, each of the author's stories presented here have a soul, and are emotionally powerful. With 'Relics' the sense of loss and sadness come through palpably. Mr. Moon is a ghost in the machine, but Cynthia has haunted the ghost... and vice versa. The first two stories presented were worth picking up this collection, all on their own. I wasn't sure how Jeffrey would top them, until I got to...

'Life Work', and the intertwined stories of Hanako and Huck. This entry is a bit longer, being novella length, and closes out the collection. Hanako is a rogue artificial being, created for pleasure, who has escaped, and up-graded herself. Living a fairly ordinary life that is centered on her own comfort and security, by chance she meets an older woman named Sabina, who has a true rapport with plants, and a genuine humanity... An act of kindness Hanako closer to Sabina, and starts to break her out of her never-ending search for personal comfort and security. Hanako begins to change, to take that next step towards... something different, and familiar. She is already different from her kind, for who else would have escaped from her situation, gone rogue, and learned to hide herself in the general population? Who knows where this will lead lovely Hanako... The second protagonist on this shared journey is Huck (also known as Mad-Dog Huck). Star triggerman for the Neptune Teeb crime syndicate. A dyed-in-the-wool killer, when we come across Huck, he is in the middle of staking out the Paxton Center Casino. For what reason, you might ask? To take out one of his bosses main rivals, of course. Things are soon completed, but not in his usual manner. Although the gusto is there, the precision is lacking, and he comes away from the job having also killed someone that was off limits. Not being stupid enough to try to gun down their best hitter, the Teeb syndicate (both politely, and a bit nervously) asks Huck to retire. At loose ends, and bereft of the one job he was a master at, Huck is cast adrift. A chance meeting with Hanako, who he seems to recognize (at least by type), signals the beginning of the end. The two are now linked, and the rest of the story is equally linked. Who is better, one might ask? An automaton, supposedly without a soul, who is slowly becoming a complete being, after years of serving only herself? Or, a mad-dog killer, dehumanized to the point that he has no soul, only taking satisfaction in his mastery of death? Could they possibly join together to do something that rises above what they are separately, and accomplishes something that absolutely needs to be done (in my opinion at least)? They can, and will, with a little help from the good old ultra-violence. The set up and follow through of this novella is mighty, and I read through it in one sitting. The end game had me on edge. I knew what I wanted to happen, feared what might happen, and was rewarded with a bit of both. As I said, mighty! Both characters are haunted in their own way. Hanako by what she was, what she is, and what she is becoming... Huck by the fear that he's losing his edge, and that he no longer has a purpose, no matter how dark. Are these likable, feel-good characters? No, but they are mesmerizing, believable, and well written. This is an excellent ending, to an amazing release. Personally, I will be visiting Punktown many times in the future, thanks to this release. I recommend that you should make the journey as well...

In closing, I'd like to state that while these are my personal favorites, you really can't go wrong with any of the stories contained within Ghosts of Punktown. I would have loved to break each story down, piece by piece, but I was also working to post this review before its release date ( and zounds, I barely made it). There's a bit of everything in here, and I'm sure you can find something that latches on to your psyche. For me, it was everything involved. From 'The Room', which tells of a love carried on through the years, and across dimensions, and of an ever-waning hope, that the protagonist will never give up; to 'Imp' which is so disturbing in its victim's plight, and of the lack of anything that can be done to save her, since she is (as much as you can be in this technological setting) a true GHOST, and we are all relegated to the role of witness. Jeffrey's writing defies genre, in that you could sweep away the science fiction (and other) trappings, and with minor (and sometimes no) alterations, still have the same tale staring back at you. The bedrock that these tales are built upon are not only familiar, but timeless. Highly recommended, and with that, I'm signing off. A most enthusiastic happy reading to you all!

Here's Dark Regions website. Here's Jeffrey's author page on Amazon. Get investigating!

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