Overdue book review of Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. I have had to sit with my thoughts over this one for a few days to decide whether or not I liked it. I did. But I also… didn’t?
Theo Ellsworth’s woodcut of Mord
Concept-wise, it’s brilliant and strange… a toxic city is ravaged by bio-engineered creatures, including a three-stories-tall flying bear. At the heart of it a couple lives holed up in an abandoned apartment complex… the dude making psychedelic drugs from beetles… the gal out scavenging for edible “products” to keep them alive. Our scavenger then finds Borne, a strange glowing blob which she takes home… and raises, as it morphs through continuous forms and eventually starts talking.
sketch of Borne
Borne is a delightful, fun creature – eager to explore and learn and play word games with his human companion. But Borne is also terrifying and unknown… scarier, in a way, than all the other horrific things you come across in this book.
Unfortunately, the pacing is slow. It’s not as depressing as Margaret Atwood’s maddaddam trilogy – but it has the same structure… in that it’s slow, even for a relatively short book, and you’re interested in the characters but you don’t really like them… so it seems even slower. Eh.
Borne by rhunevild
I hear they’ve optioned it for a film. Which I look forward to. The visuals left a permanent impression in my brain – and I will never be able to shake Mord, the flying bear, his fur matted with blood and biomatter…. or Borne, the grotesque yet fascinating shape-shifting creature that hops around exclaiming things with the delight of a toddler.
Illustration by Keith Negley
If you’ve seen Annihilation, that’s also Jeff’s work. It’s based on a novel from his Southern Reach Trilogy (which is a solid 5/5 for me – every book – loved that series). Disturbing, non-conclusive, and haunting – the film was an excellent adaptation even though it changed quite a bit.
What can I say? Wait for Borne the movie? Read it? Don’t read it?
I don’t know. I do know I have enjoyed looking at the fan art just as much as I reading the book… so… maybe that helps.
This drama started strong, but then it stumbled under its own weight. The first episode, in particular, was thrilling! That opening scene? The mystery of it all? Super powers, action, intrigue, kooky cults and mad science? What’s not to love? I was hooked and sure the show was going to be one of my all time favorites. And for a while… it was.
The first few episodes were amazing. The action sequences were long but interesting, following characters as they chased people through apartment complexes and busy streets, up and down stairs, into train tunnels, hospitals, elevators, and more. You really felt the scope of the city and got to know the characters by how they responded in these intense situations. The camera work was also incredible and insanely cinematic.
Within the first few episodes, I had been given an epic Korean drama that was surely bound to build up on its rock solid foundation. The cornerstones were set:
Mild spoilers for first few episodes.
Corner 1: The Cops and Our Female Heroine: Juan Police Station.
Truly an unusual female lead, who was given the personality generally reserved for male characters. She was distrustful, antisocial, self-centered, and obsessive about her own private agenda. People seemed to like her despite this, but she remained distant – only slowly drawing closer to the male lead who basically had to stalk her, woo her, and fight her to keep her attention. She was not instantly falling for this hot suspect cause she had shit to do, ya hear me? Her personal life was booked up at the moment and she wasn’t too keen on penciling in some new guy. See what I mean… sounds the like the traits of a lot of male leads in dramas, not the female leads. Naturally, this confused a bunch of people and I noticed a lot of hate mail flying her way via the interwebs. But I thought she was great. At first (like everyone else, she suffered under the writing and direction of plot archs). The other cops are great – all the cliches we love, like the cranky head of the department, the funny guy, the super loyal guy, just… all the guys you like to see in a cop ensemble.
Corner 2: The Male Hero: The Mystery Man.
What’s not to like? A handsome guy who has crazy powers, who seems more confused by them than we are. People are after him and he’s just running away on a survival instinct, because they’re chasing him and so running away seems like the appropriate response. He has no idea who he is or what he’s done. He knows he’s not normal, but other than that… he’s got a blank slate where his memory book should be. He’s drawn to the female lead because she seems familiar, or rather, he seems familiar to her… and that’s a lead he’s willing to follow. Like an adorable puppy with alarming super powers.
Corner 3: The Mad Scientists: Human Tech.
I sincerely appreciate that this show was willing to go Full Tilt Boogie Old School Mad Science. We’ve got secret laboratories hidden in basements. We’ve got mysterious jars filled with mysterious items, back lit with neon lights for effect. We’ve got huge syringes of glowing green liquids and subjects restrained on the operating tables with bulky leather straps. We’ve got a lead scientist with a white lab coat and wild hair. The laboratories are all dark with unrealistic colored lights everywhere and I adore it. Embrace the science-fiction glamor! Mad science is a statement and there’s a certain dress code we expect – it’s visual short hand that tells us whatever they’re up to it’s surely not legal… and probably not ethical… and definitely exciting.
Corner 4: The Cult, The Killers, and The Politicians: Project L.U.C.A.
There’s nothing like a nefarious religious leader to add a little extra drama to your show. We know little about this cult other than it’s got an awful lot of young ladies in it and a fabulous dress code. We also know it helps fund the mad science. The politician is the “outside” man, or the dude who represents the outside involvement on this mysterious side project. This is played by the ever-so-funny and talented Park Hyuk-Kwon (my favorite character in Six Flying Dragons). Does anyone play a shady, loveable villain better? The answer is no. No one. Just cast Park Hyuk-Kwon every single time, please. And of course, you can’t have a secret organization without enforcement, and our villains have super powers too. What is their end game? We are dying to know…
A quick side note about the villain enforcers. They kick ass.
The casting was exceptional all around, but in particular the choice of Kim Sung-Oh as the lead henchman in the black gloves. He plays the complicated, stubborn, tragic super-villain to perfection. Unlike our leading male, who walks around with the blank face of someone who can’t remember what they ate for breakfast and it’s slightly irritating him, the lead henchman seems to be carrying the weight every single mistake and tragedy of his life on his shoulders. He looks absolutely tortured, and resigned to being tortured.
With those rock solid elements as the foundation to a show, you’d think it would be a sure shot to be the most epic, talked-about, fan-favorite show of 2020. It had no where to go but up. It could have built us a mysterious pyramid, a spectacularly futuristic skyscraper, a creepy castle of gothic romance and intrigue, or a secure fortress in the super hero pantheon. But… it just kinda made a box and then asked us to imagine what was inside. I’m sorry, but if J.J. Abrams has taught us anything its that the Mystery Box approach to film making only works as a good hook, not a good plot vehicle. You use it lure bait into the boat… you’re not supposed to use it as the boat itself.
Though the title hints this is only the first chapter in what could be a continued series, I’m not sure it has enough strength in its legs to walk. I mean… I’ll definitely watch it, don’t get me wrong. But if it does get made, I’ll resent that it was it was broken into two parts instead of offering me a more complicated, if not longer, unified story.
Have you seen Gu Family Book – also called Kangchi, The Beginning? In a lot of ways, these two dramas have a similar feeling to them. Gu Family Book has its origin story, leading to the main protagonist, and then loops back around to pick up the dropped threads of the origin story again before reaching its dramatic ending. I think L.U.C.A. would have been better served to follow this format, expanding into a longer series but also weaving its plot lines together to improve viewer satisfaction.
So… where does that leave us with L.U.C.A.?
If you like science fiction or camp, you’re going to enjoy this show. You may not love it, but you’ll have fun with it.
If you like action and adventure, then this show is also a safe bet. The fight sequences are great and the choreography, stunt work, and direction – as well as the camera work – are top game.
If you like mystery… you might like. There’s a bunch of mysteries, don’t get me wrong… but it’s a bit wishy-washy on whether or not those questions marks paid off with answers worth the effort.
If you like romance… you might like it. The romance is a side plot, in my opinion. It didn’t have to be, but that’s how it turned out. It’s arguably the weakest link in the show, feeling oddly paced and somewhat confusing most of the time. We will discuss this more in the deep spoiler section below.
Do I recommend this show? Yup. It was a mess, but I had fun with it (clearly I am a science fiction fan).
Overall Rating – 8/10. The Korean Peninsula of Doctor Moreau.
Awaken was one of those rare dramas that tagged all of my favorite tropes. Compelling, badass male lead with swagger and a secret past? Check. Courageous, self-reliant badass female lead? How about two? Check, check. Is there a complicated “murder wall” with a bunch of photos and papers tacked up that someone obsesses over? Oh, we’ve got two of those too. It’s gonna blow your mind. Check, check. How about ominous overtones of dark forces, corruption, and shocking evildoing lurking just below the sunny surface of Seoul? Check, check, check. Really cool synth music that sets a tone and doesn’t overpower? Check, baby. What do you think this is, Prisoner with its overly bombastic soundtrack that makes every episode feel like a cartoonish Scooby Do cartoon? Heck no, this is the cool Namkoong Min show. We’re all synth and slink here.
I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning to finish this series, hooked from the opening shot and not content to leave the couch until I had all the answers to the mystery.
Namkoong Min once again proves he’s A-List All the Way with this stellar performance as a chief detective with a secret agenda. Does anyone swagger more than Namkoong Min? Maybe Kim Na Gil, back in the day… but otherwise, no. No one. Namkoong swaggers into every scene, sucker stuck in his mouth, zero tension in his body but you can sense all the action churning around in their minds. His eyes are alert and constantly assessing while he leans comfortably into walls. You know he’s aware of everything, that he hasn’t missed a clue, but you also know he’s not about to clue you in on that fact unless it serves his purpose.
Can I just say now that I am deeply annoyed GIFs are no longer supported through my website software? Cause I saved about a dozen gifs of Namkoong Min just slinking about in this show, grinning and causing trouble and looking cool as hell.
The man was born for this role. He’s just such a cool shark, gliding through the waters.
The female leads were also outstanding.
We get our cool as a cucumber FBI agent from America – incredibly intelligent, gorgeous, and blunt. She’s level headed and practical and detail oriented…
She’s also socially awkward and suffering from ever-increasing OCD behavioral ticks…
the exact opposite of our second female lead, who is impulsive, outspoken, and a bit insecure of herself around our male lead and the new FBI lady.
But the girl can kick ass and run for miles without slowing down. She’s so feisty and headstrong, I loved her!
To balance out our enigmatic male lead we got two competent and unique female characters, each with their own agendas and stakes in the plot.
And oh what a plot!
As it’s a mystery-thriller, so I will not dive into spoilers or a long analysis of the series. Instead, I’ll give you a basic outline.
26 years ago, something horrible went down at hospital/research facility. This is the opening scene of the drama – and quite a shock! People are randomly attacking each other and/or committing suicide – all with pleasant smiles on their faces as the facility goes up in flames around them. Here in the fiery inferno of madness, we find three children, seemingly unaffected by whatever is happening to the adults. One of them gives us a creepy speech:
I am standing on an empty road all by myself. The sun is shining brightly, and the clock that’s never wrong says it’s 12. Then, I wonder to myself, “Is it noon or midnight?”
What does that mean?! It was cryptic and enigmatic and had me totally hooked. I don’t know about you… but I was ready to settle in for the long haul after that scene. What in the world just happened? Who are those kids? What sorta freaky facility is this and what were they up to?
Welcome to the White Knight Village!
This is the foundational mystery of the series – and you will have a very good time finding out the answers.
This drama is “Sci Fi Light,” as I like to call it. There’s some science fiction elements… with mad scientists and nefarious human experimentation projects… but it does not lean too heavily into this aspect. Awaken is not the Avengers, after all, oh no no. None of that bash you in the face with it, spell it out for you in block letters, overt American-style super hero nonsense here, oh no no. Awaken is gonna sneak it in subtly, little hints here and there. You might even forget you’re watching a science fiction show for a while, distracted by the police procedural elements or the human relationship drama… but then it reminds you. It gives you chilling backflashes, suspicious “something ain’t right about that” scenes, creepy lingering stares filled with subtext, layer by layer as you get closer to the dark heart of the mystery behind the White Knight Village and the massacre you witnessed in the first episode.
I absolutely LOVE the slew of mad scientist storylines coming out of South Korea in the past year or so. That’s a trope that never gets old, in my opinion. With all the miracles of modern technology and medical sciences, it’s frankly shocking we don’t have more of these dramas globally.
On a more random note, perhaps, I’m pleased that South Korean mad science shows don’t try to convince us of the realism of their experiments, either. There is nothing more annoying than pandering to the small percentage of fans who are gonna pull out their dry erase markers and draw us a diagram of how and why some mad scientists’ project is unrealistic and thus deserving of scorn. I don’t care in the least if genetically altering humans isn’t plausible. No one stopped enjoying Spider Man or the Hulk because they thought the science behind their transformations was faulty.
The more outlandish and overdramatic the science project the better, in my opinion. I want secret laboratories and mad scientists with wild hair and white coats who make grand speeches about why they’re destined to control nature and bend it to their wills. I want unrealistically dark corridors and medical wings with no overhead lighting. Give me brains floating jars and syringes full of neon green liquid! (speaking of – we’ll get into this more with my review ofL.U.C.A.: The Beginning… which I am L.O.V.I.N.G.: Every Minute of It).
This series had deliciously devious villains. Each of which were as enthralling and complicated as the protagonists. Let’s face it, we’re all suspect of rich people… so it’s not a stretch of our imaginations to believe they’d be up to no good.
Though I’ve seen this listed as a romance… I’d be reluctant to call it that. It’s got romantic elements, for sure… with some serious simmering stares and pining from afar, but you’re not gonna have any piggy back rides or hangover soup scenes with this show. They’re all too busy trying to stop people from spontaneously committing suicide and keeping secret organizations from taking over the world to have time to go on dates or make out in an alley way. Which is honestly a little unfortunate, cause they could have squeezed it in. There was room. They made it work in other dark mystery dramas like Hello Monster, so I know it can be done. But c’est la vie. It’s my only gripe and really more of a side note.
So go watch Awaken! It was great.
Overall Rating: 9/10. Secret Science Projects of the Wealthy Elite and Why to Fear Them.
More Happy Than Not is the book that tried to kill me.
It was exceptional – incredible! And it just walks you right off the edge and leaves you a devastated puddle at the end. 100% worth it, though.
It’s the story of a young guy growing up in the Bronx, in poverty, all the games he and his friends play, their favorite comic shop, their quest for tail and a free beer and even a flicker of hope in their lives. I don’t even know how to talk about this book… it’s so good! It’s completely unexpected and emotionally gut wrenching and romantic and raw and remarkable for a first novel (well done Adam Silvera). It’s written with the authenticity of someone who grew up the same way… so I can’t help but suspect there are many mirrors of Adam’s own story in the text.
Anyways, nothing you think is going to happens. I think anyone who reads a lot or even watches a lot of television gets used to following certain plotlines – and this book destroyed them all. Repeatedly. Gah. I cried. And then I kind of gaped in horror as the narration drew to a close because… gah. For the brave readers, I highly recommend jumping off this cliff.
Sky Without Stars (System Divine Book 1) – an amazing science fiction reimaging of the famous class struggle epic Les Miserables, cowritten by Jessica Brody and Joanne Rendell. Who would have thought, eh? But it works.
This is book one in what I hope will be at least a three book series. Humans have populated a new star system with twelve habitable planets. All of the action of book one takes place on Laterre, a rain-soaked planet where the ruling class keeps the vast majority of the people in dire poverty. The three main characters are modeled after Cosette (Aloutte, raised protected in a secret library), Marius (Marcellous, grandson of the highest ranking military officer), and Eponine (Chatine/Theo, a street rat who understands the system better than anyone – and has lost all hope). The planet is on the verge of revolution as the tension between the classes rise. There are secret societies and spies and prisons on the moon. And bringing it all together, outstanding prose… “The rich traded goods and extravagances. While the poor traded dreams and ideas.”
It’s vastly different from the origin story – but the basic plot points are woven in with clever sci fi twists and if you’re a fan of the original story, you’ll find yourself smiling when you run into them, thinking, “Oh, nice touch! Bravo, mademoiselle authors!”
Just… wow. Definitely a solid four star book – though I would recommend maybe waiting until the sequel comes out to read it, cause the end leaves you dangling and tense.
I finished Michel Faber’s novel about a British pastor who leaves his wife behind to spread the gospel on a distant planet, Oasis. Though it is a book about aliens and their reception of The Book of Strange New Things (what they call The Bible), it is ultimately a story about human relationships. About the complexities of human nature, our beliefs and drives, and our delicate bonds with each other. The pastor’s wife Beatrice writes him letters of support – which quickly turn in tone as the world around her drastically changes in his absence.
Though the plot revolves around this deeply religious couple, it is not slanted towards endorsement of Christian doctrine nor against it… it simply was a part of how these two people experienced the world, deeply wound around their faith, as much a part of their experience in life as their race and culture. It’s a strange, infectious story that defies your expectations of what should happen with the premise of a foreign missionary – using the tension of our expectations to build the action in the plot. It’s hard to explain, honestly, without spoilers – and so I will just leave you to muse on this idea.
Highly recommended for readers looking for an usual story. The actual book was four stars. But the lingering impressions and explorations it invites you to take on your own are five stars.
Rating: 5 stars.
Now… if you’ve read it… or you don’t mind spoilers… follow me…
Finished RECURSION last night, by Blake Crouch – which was very good and kept me filled with anxiety as the mystery unfolded. It’s about mysterious individuals who have FMS (False Memory Syndrome) – a new plague that affects people randomly, causing them to have an entirely different set of memories (as well as their current memories). This affliction is so startling, so confusing and upsetting to most people, that the majority commit suicide.
You follow two plotlines. The first one is set in 2018, following a cop tracking down leads on the latest FMS suicide, trying to get to the heart of the mystery. The second plotline is about ten years earlier and follows a young scientist who is desperately trying to discover a way to map and imprint memories in order to help her mother with Alzheimer’s regain her past. As you can guess, this scientist has something to do with the memory plague…
A well written, fast-paced book – I thoroughly enjoyed all the mind bending psychics (thankfully explained in a way that even a layman like me understood, for the most part, what was happening). The concepts of this novel were exceedingly fun to explore. Who are we? How much of our identity is tied to our past?
I don’t want to say more – as the mystery is key to enjoyment. And it’s an enjoyable book. And such a fabulous cover, too… love some holographic print!