Book Review: Boneshaker

September 22, 2010


By Cherie Priest

Published September 29, 2009

Tor Books

416 pp.

ISBN 0-765-31841-5

Reviewed September 22, 2010

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I was a heavy fantasy gamer for many years, proudly bearing the mantle of Dungeon Master in college and hosting countless tabletop strategy games in my basement rather than attending most high school events. One of the most frequently played was a Games Workshop turn-based strategy game called “Mordheim,” where players controlled warbands scouring through a medieval city devastated by a massive meteor. Inhabited by mercenaries, mutants and the undead, it was a setting that contained countless stories, with ruined Gothic buildings full of ten fatal missteps for every piece of treasure.

I mention this chiefly to give some context as to why I enjoyed Cherie Priest’s “Boneshaker” so much, as the world it paints was comfortably close to my best gaming memories. Behind the walls of a corroded city, refugees and mad scientists scavenge enough to make a living, conflicting daily with gangrenous zombies in a manner that hits the high notes of a nuanced roleplaying gameworld. And the fact that this setting complements well fleshed-out characters and cinematic action certainly didn’t hurt, all combining to make “Boneshaker” one of the most enjoyable and energetic titles in recent memory.

The walled-off metropolis in question is Seattle, Washington of 1880, a city literally eaten away from the inside. Trying to invent a machine that could be used for mining gold in the frozen north, Leviticus Blue created the Boneshaker, a massive drilling contraption capable of tunneling with great force – as Seattle’s residents discovered when its trial run cut a devastating swath under the streets. It not only collapsed buildings and killed dozens but unleashed a mysterious deadly gas known as the Blight, turning its victims into “rotters” who rose from their graves and devoured the flesh of the living. Unable to do more than contain the Blight, residents walled Seattle’s downtown off, creating a ghost town choked with rotters and poisonous yellow gas.

Now sixteen years later, Blue’s widow Briar Wilkes has been trying to make a living for herself and her son Ezekiel (“Zeke”) outside the walls, doing her best to keep the past buried. Zeke however has reached the age where he’s seeking real answers, and in typical teenager fashion decides to seek them out himself. When he makes the decision to venture into the city and learn the truth about his father, it falls to Briar to bring him home from the mix of rotters, raiders and long-dormant secrets that are locked behind Seattle’s wall.

That description only touches on what’s going on in “Boneshaker,” which is nothing if not ambitious in its content. The book has its footing firmly in the steampunk world – clean air is pumped into the city by massive tubes, airships farm the Blight gas for raw drug materials – but it’s also aiming to sweep several other genres in. Alternate history comes in with the fact that the Civil War spans two decades and counting thanks to foreign involvement and technical advancements, and several of its characters have been driven west by dark pasts tied to that conflict. And with packs of decayed rotters coming in every few chapters, moaning and swarming in packs, the book is also striving for zombie atmosphere in the traditional Romero fashion.

All of these influences working together could easily make a book unwieldy (see “Android Karenina” for a key example) but “Boneshaker” manages to make its disparate elements work surprisingly well together. Priest never sacrifices the narrative’s flow for the sake of showing off, and even when the introduction of new elements seems abrupt – such as airships or a cybernetic hand – they quickly give way to explaining the history and motivations of the characters who possess them. Even when characters are covered in full suits of armor, using sonic cannons to blast away swarming rotters, it’s not possible to lose sight of who’s inside the armor and how they wound up in that position.

A large part of this has to do with the book’s unswerving focus on the relationship between Briar and Zeke, and fantastical elements aside this is an incredibly solid depiction of a single mother raising a stubborn son. The relationship is defined early in a tense debate over Zeke’s heritage, and for the majority of the book the chapters alternate between Briar and Zeke’s journeys through the city, a technique “Boneshaker” expertly uses to expand their traits. Briar is reminiscent of Frances McDormand in “North Country,” a woman who bears the pressures and prejudices of a tough world – but with the spine to take out anything that gets between her and her son. Zeke is perfectly characterized as a petulant teenager, the sort who thinks he knows everything but whose bravado comes up short against the real world.

And both characters are readily tested in the unforgiving ruins of Seattle, which give rise to a series of wonderful scenes that play out for the reader as smoothly as if they were on screen. Both Briar and Zeke seem to find themselves in a life-or-death situation every chapter, and in each case the writing is tight enough to pull the reader from scene to scene with just the right amount of detail. The scenes where Briar is confronting the rotters have all the oppressive tension of the best zombie movies, particularly when she realizes one of her traveling companions might have taken one breath of Blight too many. And on Zeke’s side of the action, an airship that might take him home ends up taking him back down in the most dramatic fashion, and every bump and knock comes through.

But the best sign of “Boneshaker’s” success isn’t just the scenes it depicts – it’s drawing the reader into its characters and world so well that they want to hear more stories told. Priest is already planning to oblige by expand this world into its own universe dubbed “The Clockwork Century” – the second volume “Dreadnought” is in fact set for release next week – and the promise of following this first volume even tangentially is enough to keep going. “Boneshaker” is an ambitious, detailed and utterly rewarding novel, and it burrows into the reader’s interest every bit as deep as the titular machine.


Upcoming Release News: Ah Pook Is (Finally) Here

September 11, 2010

“Now I, William Seward, will unlock my word hoard… Gentle Reader, the Word will leap on you with leopard man iron claws, it will cut off fingers and toes like an opportunistic land crab, it will hang you and catch your jissom like a scrutable dog, it will coil round your thighs like a bushmaster and inject a shot glass of rancid ectoplasm…” – Naked Lunch

The word hoard has unlocked again, as Wired announced this week that a long-unpublished graphic novel by William S. Burroughs, “Ah Pook Is Here,” will be published in the summer of 2011 by Fantagraphics. The graphic novel, a collaboration between Burroughs and artist Malcolm McNeill, was originally created in the 1970s as a comic strip for the now defunct English magazine Cyclops and developed as a full book off and on over the decade. Battered around between publishers before being abandoned in 1979, Fanta Graphics will be releasing it in a “spectacularly packaged two-volume, hinged set, along with ‘Observed While Falling,’ McNeill’s memoir documenting his collaboration with one of America’s most iconic authors.

Per the press release:

“Ah Pook Is Here” is a consideration of time with respect to the differing perceptions of the ancient Maya and that of the current Western mindset. It was Burroughs’ contention that both of these views result in systems of control in which the elite perpetuate its agendas at the expense of the people. They make time for themselves and through increasing measures of Control attempt to prolong the process indefinitely.

John Stanley Hart is the “Ugly American” or “Instrument of Control” – a billionaire newspaper tycoon obsessed with discovering the means for achieving immortality. Based on the formulae contained in rediscovered Mayan books he attempts to create a Media Control Machine using the images of Fear and Death. By increasing Control, however, he devalues time and invokes an implacable enemy: Ah Pook, the Mayan Death God. Young mutant heroes using the same Mayan formulae travel through time bringing biologic plagues from the remote past to destroy Hart and his Judeo/Christian temporal reality.

While this is the first time the work is presented in anything approximating its original conception, “Ah Pook” has been on the radar of Burroughs fans for years. It was published in 1979 in text-only format – now out of print – and chapters were read by Burroughs at his famous live readings, excerpts peppered with wisdom such as “Nobody does more harm than people who feel bad about doing it.” The art itself was resurrected by McNeill only last year – more than 30 years after its original conception – and received showings in Santa Monica and New York City with bits and pieces of Burroughs text.

But the fact that it’s not completely unreleased doesn’t dim my pleasure at the thought of a new William S. Burroughs work seeing the light – and ever since the publication of his Jack Kerouac collaboration “And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks,” this is one of the last bits of his archive to be released. Based on the snippets and imagery, the book will likely be in the same vein as the “Cities of the Red Night” trilogy – indeed, Ah Pook himself is invoked in the dedication alongside Hassan-i-Sabbah and John Stanley Hart factors into the trilogy. But it seems the new release will really be what propels him to Benway-level depravity, if this line from an old reading is any indication:

“He found himself somewhat stonily received, and turning from the bar with his mug of beer to face the room he maladroitly snagged an old peasant in the scrotum with his fishing plug. He whipped out a switchblade with a poorly timed attempt at easy joviality, ‘Well, I guess we’ll just have to cut the whole thing off, eheh?’ Turning away, he made an ineffectual gesture at a New Yorker cartoon with his knife, inadvertently blinding the proprietor’s infant son. Seeing that all his friendly overtures had fallen admittedly flat, he saw fit to withdraw as unobtrusively and expeditiously as possible.”

Fittingly for a book concerned with a South American god of death, the novel appears to be taking the format of the Aztec and Mayan codices, conceived not as a straightforward narrative but “120 continuous pages that would ‘fold out’… a single painting in which text and images were combined in whatever form seemed appropriate to the narrative.” The existing artwork certainly gives the feeling of vastness such codices need to have (check out the “Codex Espangliensis” for a contemporary example) and the apocalyptic images are grimly surreal and evocative in a way that will pair well with the tone of Burroughs’ later writings.

I’ve talked before about how excited I get when some lost work by a well-known author is published, and that excitement is amplified tenfold when it’s by an author who sits at the top of my favored writers pantheon. “Ah Pook Is Here” has easily become one of the most anticipated releases of 2011.

Extra Credit:

Column: Summer Reading List 2010: The Fall

September 9, 2010

Once again, with the passing of Labor Day summer has drawn to its inevitable and mournful close. Children are heading back to school, work loads are heating up as vacations end and Portland has seen fit to send rain pouring on its residents’ heads with an almost Midwest-level intensity. I doubt we’ll see anything of that velocity, given that I’ve lived here two years and have yet to hear a single clap of thunder, but it’s entirely possible that my next spout of radio silence will be due to my apartment building being knocked down by a tornado and the ensuing waves of hipsters it scoops up.

Okay, that intro got a little off course, and I’ve got a lot to cover so we’ll move on. In any case, with the end of the summer also comes the end of my summer reading list, the ten titles I scooped up at the end of May to read through for a variety of reasons. Some of them were selected to clean the shelves off of titles that have gone unread for too long, some catch up on some new releases that my schedule rarely allows for, and one or two so I can revisit old classics to see what I’ve missed or forgotten since the last time around. And once again, I’m going to take some space to see how I did to evaluate my progress and some brief reviews on the titles I chose.

As I mentioned last year, these thoughts will vary in length due to the disparate amount of time spent reading particular titles, how much I enjoyed them or whether or not I plan to review in greater detail later on. Feel free to skim if you must, since honestly there was a bit of that here and there this summer as well.

1.  The Wordy Mammoth: “Infinite Jest,” David Foster Wallace

To answer the question in advance: no, I did not manage to read the entirety of “Infinite Jest” this summer as I challenged myself to do back in the start of June. Yet more than ever, I’m convinced that this delay has nothing to do with the book’s quality, as this was one of the more rewarding attempts to plow through. I got at least 100 pages further than I ever have – hitting the 250 mark – and even learned to appreciate the convention of the footnotes. And I also found myself being more drawn into the characters and the chapters than has ever happened in previous readings – Hal Incandenza is rapidly turning into a great tragic figure, and the chapter on what you learn by hanging around a rehab halfway house is nothing short of brilliant.

But despite my raised esteem for the title and genuinely enjoyable reading sessions, I still couldn’t get further than 250 pages in, and I think I’ve finally figured out why: after those 250 pages of reading, I couldn’t tell you anything that had happened in the book. The cast and setting had been fleshed out a great deal, with scores of interesting characters and locations, but other than a drug deal here and there nothing had moved forward in a way that could be considered plot.

I’ve got nothing against a book taking its time getting to the action, nor will I begrudge an author setting the scene if that staging is done as well as some of “Infinite Jest’s” sections. The problem I have is that I could read two different novels in the time it took me to get to the quarter-mark in this one, and as well-written as it is the action just isn’t compelling enough to justify further investment of time at once. I’ll certainly finish it at some point – it’s too well done not to – but it’ll be in pieces over the weeks and months rather than one long stretch.

2.  The Classical Education: “The Master and Margarita,” Mikhail Bulgakov

My sophomore effort into reading Russian authors (freshman being the exceptional “Novel with Cocaine”) proved to be one of the most rewarding reading experiences of the summer. I’ve always had a fondness for depictions of the Devil and his minions in literature, and this one earned a lot of favor very quickly with its rogues’ gallery of Professor Woland, Koroviev, Behemoth and Azazello. For no other purpose than their own amusement, they toy with the intellectual elite of Moscow, granting them an audience and seeming enlightenment before sending them to the sanitarium one by one. The Devil has always been the most interesting when he lets men damn themselves rather than go against them with force, and this book was loaded with interesting examples.

Beyond the Devil and his minions, the titular Master and Margarita offer a great deal to the story, though their time together never really seems to carry the intensity it should. The Master’s book on the crucifixion of Jesus Christ paints a wonderful picture of both ancient Judea and its tormented ruler Pontius Pilate, a novel-within-a-novel that pairs very well with the overarching story. And Margarita, called to serve at Woland’s great ball, showcases the free acceptance of  powers and depravity Satan can provide, hosting a dark carnival full of truly stirring visuals.

This may even turn out to be the gift that keeps on giving. I’ve never paid much attention to who’s doing the translations of non-English works (as I’m sure I’ve said before, something’s always lost when you’re not reading in an author’s native tongue) but in the case of “The Master” it might matter as I’ve learned the translation I read (Mirra Ginsberg’s translation for Grove Press) is an incomplete one based on Soviet edits. So, when it comes time to reread, it might be in my best interests to seek out another other translations considered superior both by scholars and native Russian readers – and then revisit the original for comparison.

3.  The It’s-Been-A-While/Argumentative Support: “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald

I said in my original list that the reason I picked this one was partially because it had been a couple of years since the last read-through, and partially because I’d had a few friends lambaste it for various reasons and I wanted to be in a position to defend it. Having read through it again, I will be willing to grant that I understand the points I’ve heard made over the years. Several of the characters are one-dimensional and occasionally border on stock, it spends a great deal of time on minutiae and might be a bit too heavy-handed in its symbolism.

But while I agree to understand those points, I have to reject each of them based on my counterargument: that the writing style is nothing short of pure art, and criticism is equivocal to picking on a Monet for being in an ugly frame. Fitzgerald toiled over “Gatsby” for years to get every word right, and it shows – the phrases and descriptions are note perfect, the garden parties depicted with an almost mystical energy. It’s long been said that Hunter S. Thompson typed out the entire book in his younger years and during periods of writer’s block, and after reading it yet again I’m starting to think that doing so would be a better assignment for English students instead of writing generic analysis.

So to those of you who attack “The Great Gatsby” or consider it a bad book, I make one of my rare declarative statements: you are wrong. Every one of them words rang true and glowed like burning coal.

4.  The Essay Collection/Later Years Offering: “A Man Without A Country,” Kurt Vonnegut

The first book I finished this summer, “A Man Without A Country” turned out to be vintage Vonnegut – my last Vonnegut reading was his novel/memoir “Timequake,” and this continued the vein of shorter pieces that boiled down his observations on life, love and America in a few very choice phrases. He spoke of being a child of the Great Lakes rather than the oceans (lakes I miss very deeply, being marooned out in Oregon), the creation of an axis to map the action in creative writing and his devotion to humanism as the rare faith that makes sense. This led to one of my favorite Vonnegut quotes, which I managed to work into his obituary I wrote in college: “Should I ever die, I hope you will say ‘Kurt is up in Heaven right now.’ That’s my favorite joke.”

However, while reading the pieces I found it hard to shake that this book somehow felt more cynical, more negative than other Vonnegut works, even though much of it was still infused with the typical black comedy. There was a sense of resignation bordering on the fatalistic, that in sharing the twilight of his life with the George W. Bush administration and the rampant capitalism and pollution was about the last straw.  “I know of very few people who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren,” he says at one point, and after a while the viewpoint sinks in a bit too heavily for some.

But for all of that, it still maintained that streak of ironic philosophy he was so well known for – and which the book managed to crystallize with its art, each chapter peppered with full-page hand-lettered statements produced by Origami Express. These are statements of Vonnegut’s inestimable wisdom that could have been scribbled in his notepad and that belong on desks and frames, to be said to yourself when you feel a bit adrift or lost in thought. And in those occasions where everything is going right, heed his advice and say out loud: “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

5.  The Modern Classic: “Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West” Cormac McCarthy

This one was last on the list due to a regular excuse – it wound up buried on a pile on the nightstand until mid-August – and at the time of writing, I’m only about 100 pages into it. That’s a shame, because it’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite McCarthy books and one of the best ones on this list. Following the adventures of the simply named “kid” as he heads west and crosses paths with the most brutal cast of pioneers since “Deadwood,” the book paints the frontier in McCarthy’s signature style: absolutely gorgeous in its undeveloped openness, but unforgiving for any of its characters who don’t take the time to prepare for environment and residents.

And the title is so appropriate: the book has more blood than a keg party for lazy storytelling, and battle scenes that are without punctuation (even moreso than other McCarthy works) are an unflinching and ceaseless display of what happens outside of civilization’s aegis. This is a violent book, but even in its most violent moments there’s nothing gratuitous about it – this is simply how it is, and you either adapt or you die.

Every so often, my interest in a particular genre or era will be kindled by one book alone, and this case “Blood Meridian” has catapulted me into the Wild West. I have about two-thirds of the book left, and I can’t wait to read more.

6.  The Posthumous Blockbuster Read: “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Stieg Larsson

2010 was a good summer for Swedish authors in the Chappell household, with both Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and John Ajvide Lindqvist’s “Let the Right One In” finding their way off my shelves in the past month. I’ve already touched on “Tattoo’s” public presence in my recent Text-to-Screen (and “Let the Right One In” will get its attention next month) but independent of all that this book deserves the buzz and the praise it’s generated in the mainstream media. It’s a genuinely gripping and intricate mystery, with language that managed to be tense and exciting without ever becoming florid, and two sharply defined characters in Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist (though to be fair, I award bonus points for any novel where the heroes are a journalist and a social introvert).

I could go into a more intricate analysis of the book – what was lost in translation, its visceral scenes of sex and violence, whether or not changing the title from “Men who Hate Women” was a smart idea – but there’s only one thing I feel I need to say. After a few shifts of reading I was near the the halfway point before putting it down, and after resuming it at a coffee shop I sat there for three hours straight until it was done, without once moving and tuning out all baristas and customers after ordering. And for a suspense novel, I don’t think there’s any more of a recommendation I can grant.

7.  The Book Club Attractant: “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study,” Stephen Dobyns

This book inspired a lot of spirited debate when it went through The Onion A.V. Club‘s Wrapped Up In Books discussion process, and having finished it I can say that the debate was well-deserved. This is one hell of a complex book, meshing Christian mythology and Nietzschean philosophy with the bustling world of New York city and the glitzy world of professional wrestling. It’s frequently over-the-top, written in a poetic style that directly speaks to the reader constantly, and is juggling so many threads that the main character’s frustration can carry over along with the narration. Duality is a constant theme in the book, so it’s not surprising that it’s sure to be one that polarizes readers.

But in that polarization, I’m on the end that enjoyed this one a great deal. It reminded me quite a bit of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” (and to a lesser extent Gilbert Sorrentino’s “Crystal Vision”), creating a cast of well-defined oddballs who are turned loose in a well-known American city and whose paths keep overlapping, often without their knowledge. Dobyns’ background as a poet means the language is occasionally misleading but never dull, and none of the philosophy specifics are exactly essential to the plot. It’s the big picture, the debate on duality and image that matters, and the story’s cast manage to illustrate that in at least a dozen different examples.

I enjoyed this one – and the attendant debate – so much that I’m actually preparing a longer Back Shelf Review on this one, so I won’t go too much further. Stay tuned!

8.  The Book I’ll Be Rereading: “Chronicles: Volume One,” Bob Dylan

For most people the summer reruns are something that you flip to when there’s nothing on and it’s not nice enough to go on an adventure, but for two years in a row now my summer reruns have deeply contributed to my appreciation of something I read in college. The first (and hopefully not last) volume of Dylan’s autobiography, the book paints a fascinating picture of Dylan’s time growing up in Minnesota and 1950s-60s New York City, deep in the small town and folk singer lifestyle. Dylan’s gift for language is on display here almost as much as his albums, and his voice describes the scenes with that indefinable voice that sounds more and more like America’s spirit the older he gets.

The book has also managed to kindle my interest in Dylan albums I wouldn’t normally seek out – chapters on the creation and production of New Morning and Oh Mercy takes up much more of the book’s narrative than I remembered in my last reading. I genuinely enjoyed the details he gave on generating songs like “Political World” and “Everything is Broken,” and it’s made me even more hopeful that the rumors that the next installment of “Chronicles” will have a similar chapter on Dylan’s legendary Blood on the Tracks.

Postscript: The Stragglers

Eagle-eyed readers will probably note that this list is incomplete. While this year turned out much better than the last one for finishing books, with my busy scholarly lifestyle there had to be some excisions – and this year’s happened to be Cherie Priest’s “Boneshaker” and Tom Rachman’s “The Imperfectionists.” This didn’t have anything to do with their quality, but more to do with how heavily both were in demand. To save some money I put holds on both through my local library, but was so far down the queue on each that I wasn’t able to get them until it started getting cold out – so sadly, there was no Genre Fiction Immersion or Recently Critically Acclaimed on the above list.

However, to give this story a happy ending, at the time of writing this my holds have finally come through and copies of both “Boneshaker” and “The Imperfectionists” are now sitting on the table in front of me. This is good news for all concerned, as to make up for not giving the the deserved attention this summer, I’m moving them into the reviewing queue. Loyal readers can expect to see reviews of both titles up by the time I have to take them back, and see in greater detail just what I think about internal journalistic drama or Pacific Northwest steampunk zombies.

So, six out of ten finished, one abandoned, one in progress and two to come. Not bad. How’d yours go?

Text-to-Screen Ratio: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

September 3, 2010

The literary world always loves it when an author’s story is as interesting as their books, and there have been few more compelling cases in recent years than that of Stieg Larsson. An influential activist and journalist in Sweden known for his leftist views, Larsson died of a heart attack at the age of 50, and since his death he has inspired a “journalistic subindustry” debating a range of topics from whether or not his death was part of a fascist conspiracy to the brutal divisions that have formed between his romantic partner and his father and brother.

The center of that debate falls on three novels that have come to be known as the Millennium Trilogy, which he wrote in his spare hours and which were published posthumously. Following a journalist and hacker as they dig into government corruption and individual depravity, the titles shot to the top of the charts in Sweden and gradually spread to the rest of the world, making Larsson the first author to sell more than one million books on Amazon – he’s been more successful dead than 99 percent of writers are while alive.

All three of these books have made it over to Western shores in recent years (the third installment released in May of this year) and have been followed by a series of film adaptations filmed in the author’s home of Sweden. The first of those films, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (“Män som hatar kvinnor” or “Men who Hate Women” in Larsson’s native tongue) premiered in March to acclaim that matched its source material – which is fitting, since it does a very respectable job converting that source material to film. It’s a film that loses a few too many of the of the intricacies Larsson put into the book, but when it comes to atmosphere and characters it’s every bit as compelling and unnerving.

The film’s narrative is essentially unchanged from the book’s setup. Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), a journalist disgraced by an investigation gone wrong, is enticed by an offer from former captain of industry Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube) to investigate the “cold case” of his niece Harriet, missing 40 years and presumed dead. Digging through boxes of evidence and skeletons in the Vanger family closet, he enlists the aid of Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), an antisocial yet frighteningly brilliant hacker whose previous job was digging into his life for Vanger.

As a mystery story, the two biggest strengths of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” were its sprawling yet closed-off setting and its meticulous attention to detail. When it comes to the first, the film has done an excellent job of depicting the cold expanses of the island of Hedeby, which was sealed off on the day of the alleged murder and which still houses many of the suspects. Wealthier members have sprawling older estates, while Blomkvist spends his time in cabins heated by stoves and with pipes freezing on a regular basis, and Salander mostly moves through enclosed streets and filthy hackers’ dens. The locations and camerawork keep the story feeling both vast and yet claustrophobic, like a place concealing a secret and with a lot of places to hide said secret.

While the setting neatly approximates ones mental picture from the book, the plot is not translated as well. The fact-finding that leads Blomkvist and Salander to the truth is intact, and presented in a series of compelling research montages that help reinforce the Vangers’ depravity, but the storytelling feels in some places like it’s been simplified rather than neatly distilled. The Vanger family tree – decades of infighting, fascism and abuse – has been pruned down considerably, and only Henrik and his nephew Martin get measurable screen time. Some annoying stylistic changes are also made to simplify the story and undercut the efficacy of the montages, including repeated cuts to Harriet’s picture and Blomkvist’s flashbacks of her babysitting him as a child (whereas in the book he didn’t remember it).

The flashbacks are an annoying addition to Blomkvist, but more annoying are the subtractions. He is simply not as compelling of a character in the film as he is in the book – not the fault of Michael Nyqvist’s performance, but rather that the adaptation has shaved his character traits to nothing. His involvement with the magazine Millennium consists only of scenes in the beginning and end of the film, he’s not researching a Vanger biography as his cover for digging into the past, and most of his personal relationships are unspoken or excised. In the narrowed cast there’s no ex-wife and daughter, no friends-with-benefits relationship with his editor Erika and no affair with Vanger’s niece Cecilia. The only points where the character genuinely clicks come when he is at work, as he pours over documents and negatives and simply stares at them as if willing the pieces to come together.

Nyqvist is an enjoyable actor to watch think, but his partner is even more so. Per my Capturing the Voice piece, I consider it the highest form of praise to say that an actor/actress “is” the character they’re portraying – superseding whatever mental image you have while reading – and in that regard, Noomi Rapace is Lisbeth Salander. Aesthetically she’s a match with an anorexic frame and constant punk/goth outfit, but the selling point is in her face. Her features are narrow, closed off and completely neutral, but her eyes betray the eidetic brilliance she is ashamed of (a detail the film portrays well in her working relationship and subsequent coupling with Blomkvist). When she scans over innumerable screens on her Macbook through cigarette smoke and dyed bangs, her appearance seems almost like a blind – someone who has found it easier to let the world think what it wants so it lets her work. She comes across as a bit more callous than the book’s version, but since the film borrows elements of the sequel “The Girl Who Played with Fire” these additions might be appropriate.

The only cracks in Salander’s armor come out in times of real distress – and the film doesn’t shy away from bringing those times to life. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” book has some incredibly hard to read scenes depicting torture, rape and revenge – which I won’t describe as it would dilute their intensity – and to the film’s considerable credit all are kept in hauntingly graphic detail. They aren’t presented as shock value or for their own sake, but with a stark clarity that reflects Larsson’s straightforward prose. When characters talk about the horrible things they are going to do, they don’t scream or make elaborate analogies – they simply state the facts and let the conviction in their words and eyes cow their victims into submission. It’s a drama as cold and stark as the island’s winter, treated with a respect that earned particular praise from Roger Ebert:

This is not a deep psychological study. But it’s a sober, grown-up film. It has action, but not the hyperkinetic activity that passes for action in too many American movies. It has sex, but not eroticism. Its male lead is brave and capable, but not macho. Its female lead is sexy in the abstract, perhaps, but not seductive or alluring. This is a movie about characters who have more important things to do than be characters in an action thriller.

And it’s this maturity that makes “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” work as a translation of its source material, despite its stripping away the journalistic/romantic sideplots and details that made the original so compelling. This film understands its titular character and its atmosphere, and by playing these two angles it’s able to overcome a lot of its weaknesses – even an ending that does come straight from the book but is edited in a way that feels like the ending to a caper movie. It’s a dark, compelling film that will interest even casual readers of the Millennium Trilogy, and with two other films on the horizon it appears that the series is worth following to the end in both formats.