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Friday, October 17, 2014


Author:  Devon Monk
Plot Type:  Dystopian Urban Fantasy
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor—2 
Publisher and Titles: 
          "Stitchery" (Fairwood Press, introductory short story in A Cup of Normal, 9/2010) 
          House Immortal (ROC, 9/2014)
          Infinity Bell (ROC, 3/2015) 
          Crucible Zero (ROC, 9/2015) (FINAL) 

This ongoing post was revised and updated on 9/14/15 to include a review of Crucible Zero, the third and FINAL novel in the trilogy. That review appears first, followed by an overview of the world-building and reviews of the first two novels. 

  FAIR WARNING: This review of Crucible Zero      
      contains spoilers for House Immortal and Infinity Bell.      
                NOVEL 3:  Crucible Zero               
A WORD TO THE WISE: Please don't read this novel unless you have read the first two books in the trilogy because you will be completely lost. Even though I did read both House Immortal and Infinity Bell, I have to admit that the early chapters of Crucible Zero were tough to get through, primarily because of all of the weird fallout from the major time-travel incident that climaxed Infinity Bell. The author gradually fills in the details of past events in the early chapters and eventually provides some big chunks of information that will help you remember just what happened at the farm house at the end of Infinity Bell. But readers who have not read the first two books will never be able to grasp the significance of the huge changes between the world of the first two books and the totally different world of this final book.


     The truce between the ruling Houses has shattered and chaos now reigns. Only one woman has the power to save the world—but she could also destroy it. Matilda Case never thought of herself as a hero. But because she is galvanized—and nearly immortal in her stitched, endlessly healing body—she doesn’t have much of a choice. Even if she doesn’t want to save the world, she’s the only one capable of traveling in time to do so.

     But her rescue attempt hasn’t gone as planned. She’s stuck in an alternate universe, and her world is in danger of disappearing. Worst of all, an unfathomably powerful man who can also travel through history doesn’t want her to put things to rights. He’s willing to wage bloody war to stop Matilda, unless she surrenders control of time to him.

     Now, with the minutes ticking, Matilda must make impossible decisions, knowing that one wrong choice will destroy her—and any chance of saving everything she loves. 

     In the second novel, the characters traveled from one place in the world to another, but in this book, all of them but the heroine stay in one general area. When Matilda went back in time (at the end of the second book) to save the world by changing the Wings of Mercury experiment, the effects of her actions caused huge changes in the world as she knew it. 

As this book opens, Matilda realizes that she is in a different time line (aka timeway). "In this world…Evelyn had been the one who had woken up when my brother had tried to transfer my mind into her body. She'd lived until today, just a few minutes ago when I'd found myself standing in the kitchen…My going back in time was supposed to save the world. And it had. But it had also changed it in massive, chaotic ways." Matilda soon learns that the entire structure of society has changed completely, as have the lives, and even the names, of many of her friends from the earlier books. If you think you are confused, so is Matilda: "I'm not going to lie. Coming back to a world that was not quite the same world I'd lived in all my life was spooky on so many levels, it was overwhelming. If I thought about it for too long, if I lingered on the consequences of having both gained and lost everything I loved, I was going to be asking for a panic attack." This whole time-shift element is definitely a bit confusing at first, but just keep reading and trust that Devon Monk will provide you with enough details to get you back on track. 

     As a result of Matilda's time-travel experience, the "Matilda" we have come to know and love never existed. Instead the soul/spirit/memory of "Evelyn," the child whose body Quinten used to "build" Matilda, was in charge of her body. So, when the Evelyn persona fades away and the Matilda persona suddenly reappears, no one realizes that Evelyn is gone and that Matilda has appeared in that body—not even her brother. The world in which Matilda awakens has been nearly destroyed by wars, a meteor barrage, and several mysterious plagues that have killed much of the population. The latest plague turns people into ferals (i.e., vicious, mindless zombies) who roam the countryside at night in huge herds.

     The twelve houses no longer exist. Instead, there are three houses and a crime kingdom: House Fire, House Water, House Earth, and Coal and Ice. In this new world, the galvanized are social outcasts and wanted criminals—dreaded mercenaries who hire out their strength and skills to the crime lord who runs Coal and Ice. (And wait until you learn the identity of that crime lord!) As in the first two books, mysterious messages from an anonymous writer (this time with the initials W.Y.) precede each chapter, with each note being a message to Matilda. You should be able to figure out that person's identity before it is revealed in at the narrative.

     So…Matilda has to introduce herself, first to her brother, who initially believes that she is hallucinating. She muses, "I'd become a stranger in their midst, an intruder in my own life." Then, she begins to have brief periods in which she is suddenly transported to a different "timeway" (a wrinkle in time), sometimes back to that terrible farmhouse scene in which all her friends and family were killed, sometimes to a place where she and Abraham are happy together, but usually to a place where her dreaded enemy, Slater Orange, is screaming at her and threatening her life. It is Slater who explains what is going on: "Time is a very delicate and contrary thing. Any slight adjustment, and worlds collide. Man was not meant to play with the toys of the gods, dear Matilda…You and I are locked in this struggle. Until only one of us remains. And I shall rule. No matter who I have to kill. No matter which timeway I decide will become the set reality." Unlike the previous books, Slater Orange doesn't have his own chapters. Until the final scene, he appears only in Matilda's timeway-travel scenes.

     The Matilda-Slater standoff sets up the main storyline of the plot: Matilda's pledge to find and kill Slater once and for all. As she gathers allies—Quinten, Abraham, Foster, and the Neds—Matilda is forced to develop new relationships with friends and family who are now totally different people from the ones she remembers. Quinten treats her like a fragile girl—because that is how he treated Evelyn—and Abraham doesn't know her at all. Except that he a way. During Matilda's major time travel adventure in the previous book, she was a little girl who saved Abraham from being shot by Slater. In that scene, Matilda told Abraham to find her, and he has been searching for her ever since. But she is not the same little girl who rescued him, and he is not the man who became her lover in her previous life. I know…this all sounds complicated, and to some extent it is. But really, don't give up on the book. If you just keep reading, everything will become clear, and the suspense and the action will grab you and never let go. Unfortunately for me, I read library copies of the first two books, so I couldn't just pick up book two from my reading shelf and reread the ending. That would have been helpful. 

     In any case, Matilda, Abraham, and Foster eventually go in search of Slater,  who is now the head of House Fire. Their journey through the desolate countryside is filled with danger from the ferals and from Slater's armed forces. Not to mention that all three are galvanized, which means that everyone in the country hates and fears them and wants them dead. At this point, Slater is a complete psychopath who is determined to rule the world—just as soon as he kills Matilda and her allies and anyone else who gets in his way. Matilda, though, is just as adamant about taking him down…permanently. 

     The best thing about this book is the development of Matilda's new relationships with Quinten and Abraham, as well as her reconnections with friends from her past who now have different positions in society and who don't know that they ever knew her in a different timeway. The evolution of Matilda's layered perception of her old and new worlds is fascinating to watch.

     This has been a terrific series, filled with nail-biting suspense, great characters, and an extremely inventive mythology. I hate to see it end. Click HERE to read an excerpt from Crucible Zero on the book's page. Just can click on the cover art. 

FULL DISCLOSURE: My review of Crucible Zero is based on an electronic advance reading copy (ARC) of the book that I received from the publisher through Netgalley. I received no promotional or monetary rewards, and the opinions in this review are strictly my own. 

     Set several hundred years in the future, this world is ruled by eleven powerful Houses that have controlled all of the world's resources and authority for the past 100 years. Each House is named for a color. Here is a list of the House leaders and their areas of speciality as the series begins.
    > Kiana, House White: Medical 
    > Aranda, House Red: Power
    > Slater, House Orange: Minerals 
    > Oscar, House Gray: Human Resources (including management of people) (Oscar's brother Hollis becomes House Gray leader in book 2.) 
    > Feye, House Green: Agriculture 
    > Welton, House Yellow: Technology 
    > Gideon, House Violet: Faith and Religion 
    > Reeves, House Silver: Vice (including entertainment, drugs, and sex) 
    > Troi, House Blue: Water 
    > House Gold: Money 
    > John, House Black: Defense (including weapons and security) 

     There is one more house—House Brown—but it has no power and no formal leader. Its members are rebels, misfits, and cast-offs who live off the grid and have no input on decisions made by the other Houses. Humans can indenture (i.e., enslave) themselves to one of the eleven ruling Houses, or they can choose to join House Brown. If they join one of the eleven Houses, they automatically gain a life of security, servitude, and hard work. If they choose House Brown, they opt for an independent, hardscrabble existence with no modern conveniences—no electricity, technology, or other resources. Most members of House Brown are farmers who must move off their lands if one of the Houses claims ownership. Although life in House Brown is tough, many people have joined because they value personal freedom over personal comfort.

     At the beginning of most of the chapters, Monk has inserted brief quotations from an unidentified diary. These quotations are arranged chronologically and provide key historical details about the formation of this world. Three hundred years ago, a scientist named Alveré Case triggered a disastrous comet-related experiment called the Wings of Mercury that killed hundreds of people, leaving only twelve known survivors (six men and six women), who are called the galvanized"The event was an experiment to control time, the theory goes that it is the reason galvanized brains have survived all these years. Only galvanized brains resist every strain of disease on earth; feel no pain; and are inhumanly strong, adaptive, and infinitely repairable. Only galvanized brains show no sign of aging or decline, Only galvanized are immortalcheaters of time." (House Immortal, p. 259) The galvanized are not considered to be humans. Each one is regarded as an object that is owned by the its House.

     The survivors—the galvanized (also called the stitched)—were at first treated like lab experiments by the various Houses. After having limbs amputated, being cut open, and generally being tortured, the twelve were stitched back together and shocked into life: "rebuilt, piece by piece, until they were stronger than any human." (House Immortal, p. 103) (Obviously, there is a Frankenstein connection here.) Naturally, because the galvanized were strong and immortal, everyone wanted possession of them, resulting in a war among the Houses that killed thousands of people and nearly destroyed the country and all of its resources. "The history books called the dark years the Restructure. But those who lived through it knew death, famine, war, and disease." (House Immortal, p. 161). In 2099, the twelve galvanized finally united and declared war upon the Houses. "Millions of people joined their fight. and for fifty bloody years the galvanized tirelessly led that war, that uprising of House Brown." (House Immortal, p. 213) Then in 2160, under the leadership of House Gray, "a new human-rights bill…ensured just treatment and fair process to all the people of the world. Except for the galvanized. The twelve bargained for human freedom for House Brown and became slaves once again." (House Immortal, p. 242) Essentially, the galvanized gave up their own freedom for the greater good—to ensure that humanity survived. 

     Ever since the treaty went into effect, there have been two opposing opinions about it: One side believes that the galvanized "bargained for have rights. The right to food, shelter, work, and dignity...a way to leave other Houses and become House Brown, if they desire. A way out of indentured servitude to the other Houses." The opposition views the galvanized as traitors, believing that "they bargained for House Brown to have no voice in the world, no resources. Left us alone to fend for ourselves." (House Immortal, 72)

     The series heroine is 26-year-old Matilda (Tilly) Case, a direct descendant of Alveré Case. Tilly's mother and father, both scientists, were murdered by House Black when Tilly was a child, but Tilly hid herself in the barn and was never seen by the killers. She and her brother, Quinten, continue to maintain all of their father's scientific equipment and technology and stay entirely off the grid, getting their electric power from a water-driven generator. As the series opens, Quinten is the informal leader of House Brown, but he has been missing for three years. In the meantime, Tilly runs House Brown's only North American communications hub, farms her family's land, and takes care of her grandmother and her father's fantastical menagerie of stitched animals, assisted by Ned Harris (aka the Neds), a two-headed man who defected from a traveling circus. 

     Tilly is not a normal human. When she was a child, she became terminally ill, but before she died, Quinten transferred her soul and her memories into a galvanized girl-child stitched together by his father years before—one of the original group of survivors. When Tilly's normal human body died, she awakened in the stitched body as the 13th galvanized—one that no one knows about. But that situation is about to change!

            NOVEL 1:  House Immortal             
     As the story opens, Quinten is still missing, and Tilly and the Neds are tending to the farm and dealing with the problems of House Brown. The farm is far off the grid, out in the country far away from any settlements. Then one day, a visitorone of the galvanizedcomes knocking on the door, bleeding heavily from a stomach wound and dropping unconscious to the floor as soon as he arrives. Against the advice of the Neds, Tilly takes him in and heals him with some of her father's nano-based gel. 

     This stranger is Abraham Seventh, the seventh of the original survivors to be stitched together and resurrected. His human name was Abraham Vail, and he was born more than 300 years ago, but looks like he's 30. When Abraham regains consciousness, he claims to have been led to the farm by a message from Tilly's long-dead mother, and he warns Tilly that all of the Houses are now after her because they are just learning of her existence. The fact that Tilly is a newly discovered galvanized makes her an object of great value to all the Houses.

     Tilly doesn't know anything about the galvanized or their history so she reacts with shock and disbelief to what Abraham tells her. For his part, Abraham is stunned to learn that Tilly is different from the other galvanized because she can feel pain, and when she touches him, he also feels pain—for the first time since he was human. Abraham wants Tilly to come back to the city with him and join House Gray so that she will be protected from the other Houses. The galvanized are considered property, not people, so they have no civil rights, and the Houses have an ambiguous, politically-driven set of rules for determining which House possesses each of the galvanized.

     Again, against the advice of the Neds, Tilly decides to go along with Abraham, partly because she believes she has no real choice and partly because she is mightily attracted to him. The Neds refuse to let her go alone, so the group heads off together leaving Grandma, the farm, and the stitched animals in the care of a neighbor. 

     The rest of the book follows Tilly's adventures in the city as she mouths off to the heads of the Houses, fights a few battles (with both galvanized and human opponents), deals with betrayal and political intrigue, and makes some really bad decisions—lots of TSTL moments. Monk inserts details of the basic mythology throughout the book, so you shouldn't have too much trouble understanding it by the time you get halfway into the story. At first, though, the world-building can be confusing. When I realized that the quotations at the chapter beginnings comprised a chronological retelling of the past events that drive the mythology, I stopped reading the story, and instead read all of those quotations first. Then, I went back to the story. That was helpful for me and might be for you as well.

     This series obviously has a fresh and inventive mythology, but if you lift that away and look at what's left, you'll find some familiar tropes: the highly politicized and corrupt council formed by the heads of the Houses; the power-mad leaders seeking youth and immortality; an attractive, feisty, independent, rebellious, reckless heroine; and a handsome, introspective, man-of-few-words warrior hero. At one point, the Houses hold a Gathering of all of the Houses, an exuberant scene that put me in mind of some of the crowd scenes in Hunger Games—with the same types of gaudy costumes, posturing warriors, wildly enthusiastic audience, huge telescreens, and pompous leaders. 

     Even with these minor quibbles, I have to say that House Immortal gets this series off to a strong and solid start. After a slow beginning (while I figured out the world-building), the pace picked up and pulled me right along. Tilly is an interesting character, although for a 26-year-old, she is a bit naive and impetuous. That could be attributed to her isolated life on the farm, but still, she does put herself into a lot of very bad situations solely because she doesn't think things through. Let's hope that her learning curve isn't too steep. 

     Monk demonstrates particular cleverness in developing the character of Slater Orange, the principle villain of the book. Slater, head of House Orange, is an extremely powerful man, but he is near death from a terminal disease and thus is desperate to achieve immortality through any means necessary. Although most of the chapters are written in Tilly's first-person voice, Monk includes four "House Orange" chapters written from Slater's viewpoint. By reading just the first few words of each of those chapters, you can make some accurate judgments about his character: "Slater Orange preferred to walk…" (chapter 3); "He preferred to keep his hands clean." (chapter 11), "He preferred to wait until his captive looked up." (chapter 13); "He preferred to be obeyed." (chapter 19). I admire Monk's finesse as she clearly and concisely lets her character show us exactly what kind of a person he is.

     The next novel is due in March, and I'm looking forward to it, particularly since the end of this book is a bit of a cliff-hanger, leaving Tilly, Abraham, Quinten, and the Neds on the brink of some new and dangerous adventures. Click HERE to read chapter 1 of House Immortal.

    FAIR WARNING: This review of Infinity Bell      
      contains spoilers for House Immortal.      
                NOVEL 2:  Infinity Bell               
     I recommend that you read House Immortal before you read Infinity Bell because you will need that background to understand the significance of many of the events that are referenced in the second novel. If you have read House Immortal, but need a quick review of the world-building, take a look at the World-Building section of this post, along with my review of House Immortal.

     This is a "road trip" novel in the sense that the main characters are on the move throughout the entire novel, stopping only at the very end for the obligatory showdown scene. They travel by plane, on foot, through tunnels, in speed tubes, by train, and in motor vehiclesfrom Hong Kong all the way back to the Case family farm in the countryside of the Eastern U.S. The group comprises the siblings Matilda and Quinten Case, Neds Harris (their two-headed ally), Abraham Vail (Matilda's boyfriend), and Gloria (Quinten's lover). The action picks up just hours after the end of House Immortal. Pursuing the group is an assassin who has instructions to bring Quinten back alive, but to kill the rest of the group. That assassin isn't the only enemy the group faces as they hightail it across the globe.

     Just before the group went on the run, a galvanized from one House murdered the head of House Gray, breaking the peace treaty between the Houses and the galvanized. Additionally, Abraham was framed for the murder of the evil Slater Orange, but in reality, Slater is still alive. Slater forced Quinten to place his (Slater's) spirit, skills, and memories into the body of Robert Twelfth, one of the galvanized, a process that essentially killed Robert and gave Slater his body, along with super-strength and near immortality. Also in pursuit of the refuges are John Black and Reese Silver, who have their own reasons for wanting to capture and/or kill Matilda and her allies.

     Like the mythology of this world, this plot is somewhat complicated, particularly when it comes to the reason why Quinten desperately needs to get back to his laboratory at the farm. Ever since Quinten's ancestor, Alveré Case, interrupted the space-time continuum 300 years ago with his Wings of Mercury experiment, time has been trying to get back in sync. Here, Quinten explains the situation to Matilda: "The Wings of Mercury experiment fell like a hammer and shattered a moment in time…Time broke. A piece of it flew off like a ball on a rubber string, and now that piece is winging back to its rightful place in the flow of time. When that happens in three days, all these extra years the galvanized have been living…will come due like a bill that hasn't been paid, the galvanized will die." What Quinten needs is his grandmother's journal, which contains all of the formulas and figures for the Wings of Mercury experiment. Once he finds the journal and analyzes the data, Quinten plans to travel back in time and try to convince Alveré Case to modify his experiment. But when you start messing with time, all kinds of things can go wrongand that's just what happens here, leaving us with a cliff-hanger ending and a very different world. Once again each chapter begins with a diary entry written by an unidentified woman whose identity is revealed during the exciting climax.

     Matilda shows signs of maturity in this bookno more TSTL moments this time around. She is determined to protect her brother and her friends, even at the risk of her own life, as are Quinten and Abraham. In the first book, Matilda didn't really know the facts about the Wings of Mercury experiment or the galvanized, even though she is actually one of them. Unlike Matilda, the other twelve galvanized were created at the time of the Wings of Mercury explosion, so although they may appear to be relatively young, they are actually hundreds of years old. Matilda is different. She is just 26 years old and was created by Quinten after her physical body died. Because Matilda is so much more knowledgable about this world now, she handles difficult situations in a much more sensible manner than she did in House Immortal. It's nice to see her character develop so nicely into a self-assured and courageous heroine. She may have fears about the future, but she doesn't let that stop her from stepping up to protect her group.

     As this book begins, Matilda has known Abraham for only about a week, but the two are already in love. Their romantic relationship is limited mostly to yearning glances and anguished thoughts, but they do finally get to have a consummation scene in the second half of this book. Abraham is a strong, silent presence in this book, partly because he spends the first few chapters healing from horrific wounds suffered during the climax of House Immortal. It would be nice to have Abraham come into the foreground so that we can see exactly what makes him tick.

     Just as in the first novel, Matilda tells the story in her first-person voice, with a sprinkling of chapters narrated by Slater Orange. Slater's chapters keep us up to date on what is happening in the Houses. Now that Slater is in the body of a galvanized, he has to be very careful about what he reveals and how he operates within these new straints. 

     This is a fast-paced, suspenseful story that will hold your attention right through to its unexpected ending. I am enjoying this series for its inventive mythology, its exciting story lines, and its well-drawn characters. Click HERE to go to this book's page where you can click on the cover art to read an excerpt.

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