Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Reamer, Primary Fault (2012)

Sharon Kae Reamer, Primary Fault. Terrae Motus Books, 2012. Pp. 366. ISBN 9781475123098. $14.95.

Reviewed by Martha Hubbard

This is an remarkable first novel by a woman writer with impressive scientific credentials. Raised in Texas, Sharon Kae Reamer studied Geophysics at the University of Texas then, Ph.D in hand, moved to Germany to start a family and a career as a seismologist; after several years running her own consulting firm she returned to teaching at the University of Köln. The depth of her seismological and geographical knowledge shines through every page and adds credibility to the story details of this very readable, contemporary fantasy thriller.

Caitlin Schwarsbach is an intelligent young woman with a number of—maybe too many—issues on her plate. Separated from her adored brother at an early age, when her father insisted on taking the boy back to Germany, Caitie grew up with her mother and a shadowy step-father she never felt comfortable with. A car crash in Germany shortly after her mother’s death leaves her with devastating injuries and a long painful recovery period. Once she has finally healed she pursues her dream of moving to Germany to be with her brother Augustus (Gus).

As soon as she lands in Bonn/Köln Airport, things start to get weird. When what seems to be an earthquake makes her dizzy and nauseous, she hallucinates a strange blond woman and a man who seems to be her brother trying to pull her through a glass wall. Their kidnap attempt is unsuccessful. She wakes up a few seconds later and is found by Antonio (Tony) Delling, her brother’s assistant who has come to collect her. Things get stranger from there on.

At the time of her arrival there is a lot of legitimate seismic activity and her brother Gus, as director of B.E.A.R. must be on call to give expert advice to many of the local media. Already, on her first night in Köln, jet-lagged or not, she must go with him to an institute function. There she meets Hagen Von der Lahn, a devastatingly handsome young aristocrat and the sinister Joachim Lohmann, whom she dislikes on first sight. Right from the start, the author keeps the action roiling along. Important characters are introduced and carefully placed within the framework of the plot. As well as Hagen and Dr. Lohmann, these include her brother’s neighbour, Samantha (Sam), who quickly becomes a friend and Sebastian, Hagen’s mentor and advisor.

A few days after Caitie’s arrival, real disaster strikes. Not only has Gus disappeared, but he is wanted by the police on suspicion of sexually assaulting a number of women. Caitie herself is attacked and winds up in hospital several times. It quickly becomes clear that dark forces are determined to prevent Gus from carrying out his work. Caitie, Hagen, Sam, Tony and a clever, resourceful news reporter, Anna Sturm find themselves in a race to discover what is really behind the attacks on Gus and his reputation, and to find him and prove his innocence.

As complications and bodies start to pile up in real world Köln, we are also introduced to a shadowy Otherworld—Das Shattenreich. The denizens of this realm and an even older more mysterious one, the Anderwelt, or Ande-dubnos, a common Gallo-Brittonic word that literally means "underworld" have conflicting agendas of their own. The elements in the Ande-dubnos are drawn from Celtic-Rhenish mythology. We meet Ankou—Death, Cernunnos—the Horned One and Cathubodua, a Breton-Gallic war Goddess. Some remain in the Anderwelt, influencing events through human surrogates, while Ankou floats through the upper world looking for souls to collect, influencing events by his choices of whom to take—and not take.

One of the elements of this book that I most liked was the way Ms Reamer effects the movement of characters between the real and Otherworlds.

Here, Hagen has decided to visit the God Cernunnos in the Ande-dubnos,
He reached a finger heavenward and called down a shaft of moonlight with a twist of his hand. His moon. He surrounded himself with a nimbus of its pale radiance. It provided just enough glow to offset the greedy blackness sucking away light on all sides of him.
The entrance he sought appeared as an even darker hole in all the gloom, barely discernible, but Hagen knew it was there.
Ms Reamer’s love of words results in many vivid or apt descriptions. Here Caitlin, on her first night in Köln, knowing no one except her brother, is wandering alone through the University of Köln, GeoMuseum: ‘I stopped to study an impressive Permian amphibian skeleton from Texas, a Labyrinthodont. It had been a squat carnivore with a big head and loads of teeth, a typical Texan.’ Or Caitlin’s first meeting with Sebastian: ‘He looked at me once, said ‘Guten Abend, Madame,’ in a voice as dry as a Methodist wedding, nodded to Hagen and left.’

On the other hand, aspects of the book read like something out of Barbara Cartland. Caitlin’s immediate attraction to the compelling aristocratic Hagen with his fairy-tale castle, her jealousy of his other women and the ultimate resolution of the fledgling romance is the stuff of Harlequin Publications. But… At the same time she sends up this trope with snarky observations:
”Welcome to Burg Lahn,” Hagen said as he closed the door behind me. While he hung up his jacket in a massive armoire on the left-hand side of the hallway, I examined an antique oversized wooden chair, complete with wide armrests and backed by an ornate mirror…
“At least it’s not moldy,” I said.
“No castle is complete without peculiar furniture” he said.
After enjoying the novel so much, it feels kind of churlish to interject small criticisms—but… I am an English teacher and a text editor, so I can’t help myself. There is an increasingly common grammatical error, more often perpetrated by Americans, that makes me totally crazy. Look at these sentences:
‘Late Tuesday evening found me at a kitchen table spread with documents.’
‘Late Tuesday evening found Gus and I at a kitchen table spread with documents.’
Are they both correct. If you said yes, go to the back of the class. What about this one?
‘Late Tuesday evening found I at a kitchen table spread with documents.’
‘I’ is a nominative pronoun. It is used when the person speaking is the subject of the sentence. ‘I sat at the table…’ When the person is the object of an action: found me at the table—we use an object pronoun. Simple—OK?

Another small problem for me was that I could not find a proper title for the acronym B.E.A.R. Although, it’s possible that I was so engrossed in the story, which is a real page-turner, I might have missed it.

It should be clear from the above, caveats aside, that I really enjoyed Primary Fault. This book could stand as a primer for how to go about self-publishing a first novel: First, know your subject. If you are going to write science fiction, get the science right. Google these days is omnipresent. Anyone with fingers can do basic fact checking, so the author is not going to get away with shoddy science or history. Second, get as much professional or interested bystander assistance as you can arrange. Ms Reamer put her book through Crit Casting Hell from her critique group SFFEditors (which I note included the late Colin Harvey). This shows up in the surprising lack of ick moments that mar so many self-published first novels.

So, what about the PC Scorecard? Primary Fault definitely passes the Bechdel Test. Starting with the intelligent heroine herself, who is not given to wandering off and deliberately putting herself in danger so she can be rescued by her masculine counterparts. Caitlin interacts positively on many levels with several of the female characters. Do they talk about anything besides men? You judge. Caitlin’s first encounter with neighbour Sam involves putting up a fence for a flock of long-necked ducks.

Two peripheral characters are mixed race. Both Police Inspector Frau Richter and the hospital nurse are half Turkish. This accords with the situation in Germany today, where access to better job categories for non-Germans is severely limited. There are no identifiable POC or LGBT characters. Should this be criticised? I don’t know. Is it better or worse to practice a kind of literary tokenism in our writing? Should we write in an Asian or Lesbian character just so we can say we’ve done it, regardless of whether the character’s colour or gender preferences are relevant to the plot? Maybe this is a topic that could be discussed in a TFF Forum?

I’m really happy that I had the chance to read and review Primary Fault. Sharon Kae Reamer looks set to become an addition to the posse of wonderful, inventive women SFF writers coming out of or based in Texas. What is it with women writers and Texas? Is it something they put in the water there? Buy the book; read it; you won’t be sorry.

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Djibril said...

I'd like to add a comment about your proposed discussion topic (which we can hold here, if people like), of inclusion of minority/marginalized characters as a form of literary tokenism.

I don't think the inclusion of a POC or queer minor character, whose sex, race or orientation is incidental to the plot, is either PC or tokenism. We don't include such characters (minor or major) in a story because we have any political duty to do so or in order to make a statement or do anyone favours; we include such characters because such people exist in real life. I don't go through a day without interacting with at least one queer person. (Probably many more, but I have terrible gaydar.) Maybe some of the characters in Reamer's novel are queer or POC but it just isn't remarked upon?

But the idea that this even might be "literary tokenism" (or that there might be something wrong with that), is I think shown up as flawed if you consider someone writing the following sentence in a review: "There are no women characters in this book. Should this be criticised? Is it better to practice a kind of literary tokenism?"

Would the inclusion of a few stray women characters in a story ever be considered tokenism?

Anonymous said...

Hi Djibril,

I don't think this is a question with a single or simple answer.

For example, I've just finished a story, based on actual historical events, about the Brothers of the Sword, celibate, warrior-priests that invaded and Christianized the North Baltic. There were no women in their world - other than perhaps those they killed in their battles to conquer the peoples they were invading. Presumably, in accordance with their vows, there was no raping during the pillaging. They were under oath to have nothing to do with women - or the local heathen. As the story is told from the perspective of a young knight who had signed on to the Crusade for lack of any other career opportunity, I don't know how to introduce a creditable female character without writing a completely different and historically inaccurate story.

I agree that possibly some of the characters in Ms Reamer's book are queer or gay, but that issue is not relevant to the story being told, so should she have mentioned it?

Djibril said...

Sure, but that's a massive, distracting edge case--even if it is historically impossible to put a woman in that story (and I'm not sure with a bit of imagination one couldn't do so), the vast majority of stories are not so blatantly constrained. People often say this same sort of thing in defence of Tolkein or even contemporary fantasy writers, for example, whereas the idea that there *couldn't* be an intereting female character in a pseudo-mediaeval fantasy setting is absurd.

And it's certainly not the case in the instance we were talking about--plenty of non-white, queer, and other minority/marginalized folk in contemporary Germany (not to mention the possibilties of the fantasy parallel world it's linked up to). I don't want to get into what the author should or shouldn't have done--especially not having read the novel--but words like "PC" and "tokenism" are kind of red rags to me, I'm afraid. :-)

Anonymous said...

Just home from a liquid project meeting with wonderful people from Shropshire & Warwickshire. Too befuddled to write anything useful tonight. Will try to make a reasoned response on Saturday when our visitors have gone home and I have sobered up.
BUT, I do have a few points that I want to make.

Unknown said...

I just wanted to thank Martha Hubbard for her very fair and comprehensive review. I apologize if there still remain a few grammatical slip-ups and will endeavor to correct them in the next version.

As to the sexual preferences discussion...these characters exist (although not overtly identified in the first novel) and their presence has relevance to the meta novel that the series constitutes...starting with the next book, Shaky Ground (due out in late November/early December).

Beside the Turkish minority (20% of Cologne residents are Turkish!) POC characters do show up in the later books in the series.

Again, thank you!

Sharon Reamer