Sunday, March 1, 2015


I've been busy this week and I haven't finished any of the books I'm reading at the moment. As much as I hate to do this, I'm going to have to skip a week. Not entirely sure what next week will look like but I'm almost though with The Galaxy Game by Karen Lord that one will probably be next. So instead of reviewing I wanted to show you a bit of another project I'm involved in.

The Dutch blogshpere and online communities when it comes to fantasy, science fiction and horror has always been a bit scattered, often very divided. Blogs and communities pop up and go down frequently but none of them had much outreach beyond the small circle of regulars that visited them. The only magazine that published fantastic short fiction stopped a couple of years back, leaving only and number of short fiction contests as a platform to reach an audience.

All of this is quite strange when you considered that fantasy in particular, is quite popular over here. a number of publishers are active in the field, releasing quite a few, mostly translated works. On top of that it is not unusual to read in a second language over here. The Netherlands has several bookshops that are almost entirely specialized in English language books for instance. There is, in other words, quite an audience but they are not being very well served.

The book portal Hebban (the name is derived from one of the earliest bits of writing in the Dutch language) has jumped into this vacuum. It is quite an ambitious project, aiming to become a kind of Dutch language Goodreads. The company behind it set up a professional website with a number of community features, a blog function and cover just about the entire literary spectrum. There are giveaways, articles by authors, interviews, short fiction and of course reviews. And that, as you will probably have guessed, is where I come in.

Although individual uses have the opportunity to add reviews, Hebban also maintains a group of reviewers and writers to create content for them. I've been writing for the Fantasy portal since July, aiming to produce a review or article every month. Quite a lot of it have been reworkings of things I've done for Random Comments but I've also done an interview with WFA nominated blogger Mieneke van der Salm (A Fantastical Librarian) and written an article about two upcoming publications that promote a more diverse SF&F genre.

It's been quite an interesting experience writing in Dutch. I have done a number of reviews in both languages and they tend to come out slightly different. I don't translate. Translating is an art I haven't really mastered, so it is simply faster to just write it again. Mostly I do the English version first but in one case, Kaleidoscope, it was the other way around. Besides taking into account the different audience, my vocabulary in Dutch still very much exceeds my active vocabulary in English so the texts do have a different feel to them. My next project will be a series of articles, probably nine in total, but I'm not quite ready to discuss it until I'm a bit further along in writing them. It might appear in some form on Random Comments too.

So if you read Dutch, head on over to Hebban and check them out. This site has the potential to grow into the place to be in the Dutch language area when it comes to books. There's a list of what I've written for them here but there are plenty of other articles by people who are much better at it than I am as well.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Breath of War - Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard has been producing a steady stream of outstanding short fiction in recent years. Her stories have won her several awards and have been nominated for for a whole bunch more. It should be no surprise that as the nominations for the upcoming awards season are trickling in, her name appears on the ballots again. This year, her story The Breath of War is on the shortlist for the Nebula Award in the short story category. The story first appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #142 in March 2014, in a special Science-Fantasy edition. It can be read on their website for free. The author mentions it is 'sortof' set in her Xuya alternate history but it works as a standalone. In fact, it stands out a bit in the company of other Xuya stories.

In the aftermath of a war, a woman is making a difficult journey into the mountains. Her baby could be born any day now and before that happens, she needs to reach her destination. The journey is not going well though. Well short of reaching their goal, their aircar breaks down. What follows is a dangerous race against the clock. Along the way, the reason for the hazardous journey becomes clear.

I can see why De Bodard set is was 'sortof' part of the Xuya setting. It's the only story in the series where a supernatural element is included in the the plot. On the other hand it does include the Rong space faring civilization and references to the war I suspect we've seen form other corners of the universe in various stories as well. I guess The Breath of War is the odd one out but in a way it does fit in.

As far as I know it is the first time De Bodard mixes fantasy elements into what could be considered a science fiction story. It works very well on an emotional level but I do think that it leaves so much of the worldbuilding vague and uncertain that for the fantasy reader it can be a bit unsatisfying. The vague background of the is a problem I have with a lot of fantastical short fiction though. The reader is often asked to accept a lot of things as a given because the story simply isn't long enough to waste words on details. Sometimes it suffers because of it.  The Breath of War mostly escape this problem. It allows the reader to ignore that background of the planet's culture and the cause of the war by focusing on the character.

The main character Rechan is a woman who is facing the consequence of a choice she made during the planet's unique rite of passage. Rechan is something of a puzzle for the reader. There is a constant tension between choice and conviction and fate and inevitability. The choice she made more than a decade ago was influenced by the war taking away opportunities she feels she should have had. On the surface she is a rebellious teenager finding out the world is not always fair, doing something rash without thinking it through.

That being said, there is also the sense that her choice is not completely her own. The supernatural aspect of her rite of passage leaves the reader with the feeling that what happens is not entirely a conscious decision. Later on in her life, Rechan develops into a woman willing to go against tradition and social conventions and choose her own path, despite (or maybe because of?) longing for some parts of a traditional family life. Her unorthodox ways might have surfaced under other circumstances but you could also see this as inevitable given her past. The choice she makes as a teenager sets her apart, maybe even forces her to consider alternatives she might otherwise not have needed. The reader gets to make up their own mind about how to view Rechan.

De Bodard packs quite a lot of characterization into a 7000 word story. There is regret and loneliness in Rechan, but also resignation and hope. There is the feeling of a permanent goodbye and the start of something new. The Breath of War is an emotionally powerful story and an example that you don't need a novel to create a memorable character. Rechan is one of those characters that will stay with you for quire a while after finishing the story. It is another example of the excellent short fiction De Bodard is capable of creating. I've said it before and I will say it again, it is past time someone put a bunch of them together in a collection.

Book Details
Title: The Breath of War
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Pages: 13, approximately 7000 words
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 2014

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Caliban's War - James S.A. Corey

In the summer of 2011, I read Leviathan Wakes the first book in this series. James S.A. Corey is a pseudonym of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, both form associates of George R.R. Martin. I have read quite a bit by Abraham and some of his books are very good indeed. Leviathan Wakes was quite a fun book to read which I thought did more than just be a the space opera it was supposed to be according to the publisher. The second volume appeared in 2012 and I decided to order it. It then lingered on the to read stack for almost three years. What pulled me back to it was the fact that the shooting for a television series based on this series (the fifth book of which, Nemesis Games, will appear in June) is under way. Having read Caliban's War I must admit it might make of a decent television series. That does not necessarily make it a good book though. I feel it is a step back from the first book in the series.

James Holden is now in the employ of the outer planets. In his liberated Martian spaceship he patrols the outer reaches of the solar system with his crew. It is a decent living but tensions are rising within the crew and the relationship beween Holden and his girlfriend Naomi is strained. Their situation changes radically when on Ganymede, the breadbasket of the outer solar system and a moon coveted by Earth, Mars and the outer planets, a firefight appears to break out between Martian and UN forces. The truth is more complicated than that though. The alien intelligence that almost killed Holden on Eros station. Once again he is sucked into events that could plummet the solar system into war, or worse, wipe out the human race completely.

Leviathan Wakes was a space opera with noir elements mixed in. In this book a mystery is included too, the disappearance of a young girl is a key part of the plot, but the space opera clearly has the upper hand. Corey shifts from two main points of view to four. Besides Holden, we get to see the story from the point of view of the Martian marine Bobbie, the only survivor of the incident on Ganymede, the scientist Prax from that same moon and father of the missing gril, and  UN official Avasarala who tries to prevent a war from engulfing the system despite her superior's stupid actions. These two men and two women shape the events described in the book. Unlike in Leviathan Wakes, the UN official in particular, can pull strings all over the system, making it much more a political story.

The novel is dedicated to Arthur C. Clarke and Alfred Bester, two greats of science fiction. I haven't read Bester but I can see traces of Clarke in this novel. I suspect that Heinlein was probably a greater influence on the novel though. There are quite a few political statements in the text. Bobbie in particular seems to hold strong views on Earth's social security system. The novel does take us all over the solar system however, and that is something Clarke would have appreciated. It is a story on a grand scale, with characters who, despite making it their home, are still in awe of the vastness of space. Corey might not be able to pull it off for the more experienced science fiction reader but the characters themselves, clearly exhibit a sense of wonder when they have a moment to reflect on their situation.

As I said in the introduction, this book lends itself well to television. It has four clearly defined main characters with clear wants you can easily sympathize with. Holden wants his girlfriend back, Bobbie wants to kill the bastard who wiped out her squad, Prax wants to find his daughter, and Avasarala wants to stay in the game. That is what they work for, it is what drives them and there is very little left over for any other concerns. It makes all of them fairly shallow characters. Holden is the only one who escapes this to an extend because he has a book worth of backstory. I found Avasarala's chapters the worst in this respect as she has the annoying tendency to see every little action in the perspective of her political games and is willing to use anyone to get what she wants. She is refreshingly outspoken about it though, I have to give her that. Still, she struck me as a character who plays the political game for its own sake, regardless of who many people get ground up in her machinations. Corey tries to put things in perspective by anchoring her to her family. Her husband in particular is important to her to keep things in perspective. I can't say I found him very convincing in that role.

Bobbie on sees things more of less from the other end. As a marine too much thinking is not encouraged and she reflects that almost to the point of stereotype. Bobbie is the common sense in this book. Where Avasarala's thinking is convoluted, Bobbie's way of thinking is simplicity itself. Which doesn't mean she doesn't show surprising insights at times. What I didn't think was convincing about her story is that she very easily lets go of her loyalties to Mars to serve the other side in the conflict. She does feel bad about it to an extent but she caries on anyway without, especially early on, a clear idea on how it would help her achieve her revenge or help improve the situation in general. On the one hand she is portrayed as a smart woman, on the other, she can't seem to think further ahead than the next five minutes. The early stages in the novel pay attention to post traumatic stress, something more novels dealing with war situation should take into account. That is definitely one of the stronger elements of her story line.

Prax is the third character with only one thing on his mind. His search for his daughter consumes him to the point that it could easily have cost him his life. He sees his world falling apart and is one of the few people on the station with the knowledge to slow the process enough for help to arrive. He doesn't do it though. His daughter is much more important to him. You can see the insights into what is going on on Ganymede bounce of him. They make no impact whatsoever. It is not until the very end of the book that he reconsiders his verdict on Ganymede as a lost cause. Prax is potentially a very interesting character but like the others, his is completely consumed by the immediate desire to find his little girl. It is a touching story but not one that allows Prax to develop any real depth.

Corey keeps the pace up in this novel. The chapters are not too long, to very the point and alternate between the four characters. The often end on cliffhangers, making the reader want to read just one more chapter. In that sense it is almost a compulsive read. The ending of the novel also contains a clear hook for the third book in the series. Structurally, you can almost see the episodes of a television series in it. It is a plot that is constructed in advance and then filled in as each of the authors making up Corey delivers their chapters.

The sense that is constructed rather than written is much more present in this second book and that is probably the main reason why I think it is a step back from the first novel Abraham and Franck seem to have settled in a routine and delivered a routine book. Caliban's War is not a bad read mind you, it did keep me entertained and I never considered putting it down, but this time it really is what it says on the package, a soap opera in space. I think these gentlemen are more talented than that. Still, it might make for a good television series. I think I am going to give that a go when the first episodes are aired. I'm not sure about reading Abaddon's Gate, the third book in the series though. I'll have to think about that.

Title: Caliban's War
Author: James S.A. Corey
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 595
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-84149-990-1
First published: 2012

Sunday, February 8, 2015

An Autumn War - Daniel Abraham

I'm running low on recent books to review so this week I decided it was time to fill a gap in my reviews of Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet. An Autumn War, the third novel in the series, is the only one I haven't reviewed yet. The Long Price Quartet is, in my opinion, one of the most original Fantasy series to appear since the turn of the century. Much more so than Abraham's current Fantasy series The Dagger and the Coin. It is hard to not see this series as one long story but if I had to choose a favourite, it'd probably be this book. The problematic nature of the Andat really comes to a head in this book. In a way, it is the climax of the series.

Fourteen years after the events in A Betrayal in Winter, Otah is still on his uncomfortably throne in Machi. His rule has not been made easier by his stubborn refusal to give into the pressure of having multiple wives and father a bunch of sons. He doesn't want the cycle of brothers killing each other for the throne to start again. While the Khaiem are mostly concerned with internal affairs, secure in the knowledge that the Andat provide the ultimate defense against invasion, the more technologically advanced Galt are stirring again. They have gotten their hands on a rogue poet, a man wit ideas on how to neutralize the Andat. Led by the general Balasar Gice, they prepare another assault on the Khaiem's unassailable position.

Our heroes Maati and Otah are now middle-aged men, with a life settled in routine. They do still have ambitions though. Otah is looking for a way to pass on the throne without bloodshed and to prevent that custom from bouncing back again after he is gone. Maati is doing research in the hopes of getting back into the good graces of the Dai-kvo, the head of his order. He thinks he has found a revolutionary way of preventing a poet from paying the ultimate price when making a mistake in binding a new Andat. It is typical for men from this culture to be so self absorbed. Since the fall of the empire, many generations ago, the Khaiem have been trying to regain what is lost. It permeates their whole culture, their customs, the way they run their cities and the way they trade. It has become a stagnant culture, with only the ambition to regain powers long gone. In a sense, the end of the Khaiem seems inevitable.

This sense of inevitability is present in other aspects of the book too. The Galts are superior in a technological and military sense. It is only the Andat holding them back. Otah is one of the few who realizes this and wants to start raising a militia. Something the other rulers of the Khaiem, conservative as they are, don't like at all. It's a sign of Otah and Maati, once best friends in A Shadow in Summer, are drifting apart even further. Their shared lover and the the son that one of them can't acknowledged and the other wishes was his are part of it as well of course but the difference between looking forward and looking back is what will cause the real conflict in the final book of the novel. The gap is already widening significantly here.

Abraham includes a major Galtic point of view character in the novel, the first in the series. Balasar Gice is a man with a military mind. He thinks that because the Khaiem posses the Andat, the balance of power tips towards the Khaiem in an unacceptable way. He firmly believes that because the Khaiem poses the Andat, it is only a matter of time before they use them against the Galt. Something of a self-fulfilling prophecy given all the plotting and showing off their military muscle they've been doing. The Andat are a nuclear bomb held by only one side. To prevent disaster they must be neutralized. What is most interesting about Gice is that were most generals and politicians would want the power of the Andat for himself, Gice works to get rid of them once and for all and is even willing to go against the orders of his political masters to do so. Abraham could have made him into a stereotypical hawk but manages to avoid this by adding a bit of personal trauma to the character.

His treatment of Gice is one of the many ways in which Abraham succeeds in creating complex characters. Not of the major players in the story are flawless. They all have their bind spots, their annoying habits and they all make mistakes. Sometimes mistakes with far-reaching consequences. They are also all people you can identify with at some level and that makes this book into a real tragedy. They can't all succeed. One of them seems likely to prevail over the others and will change the world for ever in doing so. It is in the climax of the story that the sense of inevitability finally disappears. The twist at the end of the book makes that really drove it home for me. Abraham's world is not black and white, it is not either/or.It is much more complex like that an things can go wrong in ways even the most prudent leader cannot foresee.

There is one part of the story that I did find somewhat problematic and that is how Abraham handles personal relationships in this novel. The drama that ensues when Liat, the woman both Maati and Otah loved at one point, shows up in Machi feels like a bit too much. The whole mess carries over to the younger generation and that is one aspect of the plot that does become predictable, sometimes to the point of being cliché. They are not the teenagers we met in the first book anymore but Abraham can't quite pull off a more mature kind of drama. I think more interesting things could have been done with Nayiit's story line in particular.

After this reread I still think this book is my favourite in the series. The novel combines the dynamic between Otah and Maati with a view of the world outside the Khaiem cities. The problematic nature of the Andat is also addressed and the whole story reaches a point from which there clearly is no going back. While The Price of Spring is a very good novel in its own right, it feels almost like cleaning up after the big climax of An Autumn War. I've read a whole stack of Abraham's other solo novels and collaborations but I'm not sure he has managed to surpass this novel yet. The combination of the unusual setting and culture with the deeply flawed characters make this a very good read for me.

Title: An Autumn War
Author: Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 366
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1342-3
First published: 2008

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Kaleidoscope - Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios

The anthology Kaleidoscope is the first book I've received a review copy of though the Dutch language book portal Hebban. I've been reviewing for them for a while now but I usually review books I already own. They have graciously agreed to let me do and English version as wel. A much longer version of this review will appear in three installments on Hebban, so if you read Dutch head that way.

Kaleidoscope is an anthology of diverse Science Fiction and Fantasy stories. The basis for this anthology was a panel discussion on how few QUILTBAG characters can be found in Yong Adult dystopian novels. The stories in this anthology do not just focus on gender and sexual identity however. The editors want as much diversity in the anthology as they manage, they want to see themselves represented, but also stories of people "who aren't like us." The stories cover a wide range of protagonist, people with handicaps, people with mental health problems, people who belong to ethnic minorities, and of course a bunch of stories of people who are not cis and heterosexual. Sometimes the being different part can even be bound in the ability to do magic when nobody else can. It is, in other words, very diverse and that is both the strength and greatest weakness of this anthology.

Given the somewhat controversial nature of the theme for this anthology - let's face it, in many parts of the world it is still not OK to be different in some or all of the aspects I mentioned earlier - it is perhaps not entirely surprising that the anthology is crowdfunded. Personally, I suspect that many a highschool will put it on the black list based on the pink cover alone. With most of the backers presumably adults, it makes me wonder how many copies will reach the intended audience. The fact that there is a need for such an anthology and the fact that it has to be crowdfunded shows we have a long way to go when it comes to diverse characters in genre fiction.

As usual with anthologies I didn't like all stories equally. There are a few that I simply didn't like or that made me wonder how much they contributed to the overall theme of the anthology. How much did the editors want the writers to engage with the theme? Is merely making a character gay, foreign or disabled enough? Somehow it doesn't feel like it is sufficient if the reader can just mentally ignore that one different fact about them and still read and appreciate the story just fine. Sexuality, gender, ethnicity and so on, shape a person's outlook on life. Not every story has to be a struggle of dealing with rejection, discrimination or accepting differences but I am looking for characters that truly incorporate what they are in there personalities. That, for me, was one of the key elements why some stories worked and others didn't.

Gabriela Lee 's story End of Service for instance, is about a Filipina character who loses her mother who is hardly ever there because she works abroad. It is a very moving story of dealing with loss but the main character is a Filipina in the Philippines and doesn't feel she is different in any way than the majority in her society. She misses her mother and that doesn't make her half so different as she thinks it does. The theme for this story is so universal that if the main character had been Irish or Senegalese is would have worked fine too. Maybe I could read this as diverse people facing the same challenges in life, that while they may look, act or feel differently, there is still much more we have in common? Other stories that touch on the theme very lightly are The Legend Trap by Sean Williams, Double Time by John Chu and Welcome by William Alexander. It doesn't make these stories bad mind you, but they do not contribute as much to the theme of the anthology as they might have.

Then there are a few stories, that for me at least, hit the bull's eye. One I particularly liked is Ken Liu The Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon. It's a story about two Chinese girls in a relationship and how to carry on after one of them leaves to study abroad. Liu combines it with a Chinese legend related to the Quxi festival (you get to Google this one, I'm not doing anthropology lessons today). It's very moving and very beautifully written. Liu's first novel will be out later this year. I'm very much looking forward to reading it.

One can look at differences from the outside as well of course, and that is what Sofia Samatar does in her story Walkdog. She writes it in the form of a paper from, probably a high school student. I couldn't really tell the exact age of the main character from the story. While on the surface it is a paper, complete with footnotes and the formal structure expected in such a work, in reality it is one long rant. As the story progresses the subject of the paper is more and more abandoned and a story of the bullying the boy who helps the main character write the paper rises to the surface. This should be required reading on schools everywhere. Despite the formal structure of the story it packs a serious emotional punch. A wonderful piece of writing.

A third story I want to mention here is Amal El-Mothar's The Truth About Owls. The story is about a girl who ends up in Scotland, fleeing the violence in her native Lebanon. Estranged from her parents who want her to leave Lebanon behind and faced with prejudice and presumptions of her classmates and teachers she has trouble setting in. The thing I liked about this story is how it mirrors the anthology as a whole in a way. What the main character does to find her balance again and break through the negative spiral she is caught in, is collect her desires, wants, wishes, longing and anthologize them, or as the story puts is makes them into a florilegium. I understand that is a term that isn't used anymore in English but the Dutch word for anthology, bloemlezing, is still derived from it. The story shows us a breakthrough for the character, an acceptance of her wants and desires without judging them by other people's standards that align so well with Kaleidoscope as a whole that I wonder if maybe this should have been the final story in the anthology.

The art of editing a good anthology is to select the stories and present them in such a way that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Krasnostein and Rios would probably have been able to achieve that effect if they had chosen to narrow the theme down just a little bit. Kaleidoscope is so diverse, that apart from showing what is possible in Young Adult fiction, it does not quite achieve that synergy. What I do very much appreciate in this anthology is the fact that the authors do not shy away from difficult themes and accept the reader's ability to handle them. There is no underestimation of the audience anywhere in the selection the editors made. Looking at the stories individually, it contains a number of excellent stories, material even that would not look out of place on the awards ballots. That alone makes Kaleidoscope more than worth reading. It also, as should be apparent from my comments, raises a lot of interesting questions on diversity and the lack of in genre fiction. Looking over all of my comments, the English as well as the Dutch ones, I come to the conclusion that I have much more reading to do before I really have a firm grasp on the subject. If, like me, you are interested in such questions, Kaleidoscope is definitely a good place to start.

Book Details
Title: Kaleidoscope
Editors: Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios
Publisher: Twelfth Planet Press
Pages: 437
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-9221011-1-2
First published: 2014

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Bone Flower Throne - TL Morganfield

The Bone Flower Throne is TL Morganfield's first published novel. According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database there is an edition published by Panverse (wich at the moment appears to be inactive) released in 2013. The edition I own was published by Feathered Serpent Books which, given the name, I strongly suspect is a self-publishing vehicle owned by the author. I tend to avoid self-published books, but even if this counts as one, I was attracted to it anyway. First of all because of the subject, but I must admit Aliette de Bodard's endorsement and the fact that Morganfield participated in the Clarion West writers workshop also played a part in it. And indeed, the novel doesn't suffer from poor editing, bad cover art or bad formatting that plague so many non-traditionally published works these days. That being said, I do think the novel is not all it could have been.

Tenth century Mexico Valley is a place of continuous warfare. The Toltec city states are in a struggle with outside enemies as well as warring with each other. To keep the peace in is city the her father marries the seven-year-old princess Quetzalpetlatl to her cousin. It is the start of a chain of events that will see her driven from her home, losing her parents in the process. With the help of the god Quetzalcoatl she escapes the city with her mother and seeks sanctuary in the temple of Quetzalcoatl  in a neighboring city. There her mother dies giving birth to her baby brother. Quetzalpetlatl and her brother Topiltzin grow up becoming pawns in a game of the gods that pits the compassion on Quetzalcoatl  against the dark power of Smoking Mirror, who's influence is on the rise among the Toltec cities.

The Bone Flower Throne is the first volume in a trilogy and it is a book that is bases on an impressive amount of research. The Toltec civilization lasted from the end of the fifth century till the early 12th century and covered much of what is today Mexico as well as other parts of Mesoamerica. The archaeological remains for this civilization is extensive but written records (the Toltecs are presumed to have developed a writing system) is scarce. Most of what is known of them has come from Aztec sources. The Aztec civilization saw the Toltecs as their spiritual and cultural ancestors and many of their stories and legends were popular among the Aztecs. They did have the tendency to mix historical accounts with legend, making our understanding of the history of the Toltecs hazy at best.

One of the stories that survived is the legend of Topiltzin Cē Ācatl Quetzalcōatl, who may or may not have been an historical figure as well. The story is known in many variations and forms the basis for the trilogy. One of the variations apparently also includes the princess Quetzalpetlatl and Morganfield has chosen her as the point of view character. The mixture of history and legend that infuses the story gives Morganfield a lot of space to work with. She is not constrained by a detailed timeline and uses that to her advantage. Quetzalpetlatl adds a female perspective to what is a very male-oriented legend. The novel mixes the historical and supernatural to create a story that will appeal to readers of fantasy as well as those interested in Mesoamerican mythology.

Quetzalpetlatl grows up to be a priestess of Quetzalcoatl and as his champion she comes into direct contact with him. His aid comes at a price though. Like the later Aztec culture, sacrifice, including human sacrifice, is a part of worship. Quetzalpetlatl soon finds out that the price for the help of a god is always keenly felt. The treatment of human sacrifice is something that is always difficult in works dealing with cultures that practiced them. It's something that clashes so violently with the cultural and religious sensibilities of just about any modern culture that no amount of cultural relativism will overcome the reader's distaste. What is interesting about this legend, is that Topiltzin ended human sacrifice during his reign, which must have been a very bold thing to do in a culture that believed sacrifices were necessary to appease the gods and waged almost permanent wars to find enough captives to sacrifice. In the novel, Quetzalcoatl himself is presented as the instigator of this drastic change in customs, claiming a willing sacrifice is much more powerful than the blood of a slain captive.

Morganfield's mix of history and legend does get her in trouble at times. Quetzalcoatl and his rival Smoking Mirror have a very heavy hand in events, forcing the characters in directions that they would ordinarily not have considered. Quetzalpetlatl is an intelligent woman but throughout the novel, she does things that are simply not in line with her character. This is particularly apparent in her sexual desires, which express themselves in a way that will have many readers roll their eyes. It may have been me not paying close enough attention (or not being familiar enough with the source material) but the realization that Quetzalpetlatl's free will is very limited came pretty late in the novel for me. I found the way the gods sometimes simply take over a bit jarring at times.

That being said, the novel does delivers a story arc with a good climax. It is a story full of love, loss and sacrifice, not short on action, and rich with historical detail. I felt that here and there the author was pulling the characters' strings a bit too obviously but that doesn't take away from the fact that The Bone Flower Throne is a fascinating mix of history and legend, exploring a culture that most readers won't come across too often. It's a book that deserves a larger audience than it is likely to get. The second volume, The Bone Flower Queen, has been added to the to read list.

Title: The Bone Flower Throne
Author: TL Morganfield
Publisher: Feathered Serpent Books
Pages: 360
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-9909207-0-0
First published: 2013

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Blue Place - Nicola Griffith

I've been working my way through Nicola Griffith's backlist ever since reading her debut novel Ammonite in 2013. To date, six of her novels have been published and each of them has been wildly different. Griffith has written science fiction, historical fiction and crime novels. The Blue Place is one of the three crime novels focused on main character Aud Torvingen. It was first published in 1998 and was followed by Stay in 2002 and Always in 2007. I don't read a whole lot of crime novels, in fact  I never got much beyond Sjöwall and Wahlöö, so I might be very well equipped to review this novel. Even without looking at the conventions of the genre however, there is plenty in this novel to write about. I thought it was a fascinating piece of writing.

Former police lieutenant Auld Torvingen quite literally runs into a beautiful woman on one of her late night walks thorough the city of Atlanta. The woman disappears again quickly, just as behind them a house explodes. It belongs to a renowned and somewhat reclusive art historian. When drugs are found on the premises, the police assumes some kind of drug deal gone bad. Aud doesn't believe that for a second but it is not her problem until the woman she ran into that night contacts her. Against her better judgment she takes on the assignment of digging deeper into the case and is pulled into a world of art, drug trade, money laundering and murder.

Aud is a pretty dark character. She is clearly traumatized by and event in her past and it takes most of the novel for her to bring herself to the point of talking about it. She is also a very competent woman. Very observant and able to read people very well, she's cut out for police work. Her upbringing and education have made her comfortable in many layers of society and she is quite capable of defending herself if needed. In fact, violence has an attraction to her. It takes her to that cold place where everything is clear and there is no doubt about what she needs to do. It is a place where her rational mind wants to stay away from. All these talents make Aud a bit quick to judge and overconfident at times, traits that leads her to make mistakes. Sometimes very costly ones. It also saves Aud from being too perfect, although there might be readers who feel she is anyway.

The plot itself is quite elegant. It is something of a mystery of course, and every time Aud thinks she has it figured out, there is this one fact that doesn't fit the big picture. This one odd find that keeps bothering her and that leads her to probe ever deeper into the web of criminal activity that lies at the heart of the events in the novel. On the personal level there is also quite a bit going on. Aud, like a true crime novel protagonist, is not really happy. She has a complicated relationship with her mother and her love life appears to be limited to occasionally picking up a woman (like many of Griffith's characters Aud is a lesbian) at a bar. It is clear Aud is paying a price for the independent life she has created for herself.

It would seem Griffith likes to write about things she personally experienced (which, mind you, is not the same as writing autobiographical material) and I'm beginning to see more and more links between the various books as well as between the books and Griffith's life. I know she spent some time in the Netherlands (how you could possibly know about obscure larger like Lindeboom for instance, is hard to explain any other way) and, like Aud, she did teach self-defense at one point.  She also spent time in Whitby in the late 1980s, a place also mentioned in the novel and the site of the monastery of Saint Hilda of Whitby, the main character in Griffith's latest novel Hild. I was half expecting an ammonite to show up in the text too. What I'm not aware of is a connection between Griffith and Norway but this novel has made me wonder if there is one.

In her previous novel, Slow River (1995), the main character is a Dutch woman, although she has a very cosmopolitan lifestyle. In The Blue Place the main character is half Norwegian, half American. This might not mean much to most readers but I am Dutch and my girlfriend is Norwegian, which makes me look at these novels with from different perspective. Where is Slow River, Lore's nationality is not that important to the story, in this novel, it plays an important part. A large section of the final part of the novel is set in and around Oslo. Norwegian food is especially prominent. I've been introduced to such things as lapskaus, lutefisk and raspeballer and most recently krumkake but this novel lists a whole lot I'm not familiar with.

Aud is taking the trip to Norway with her American client, which gives Griffith an excuse to explain some of the Norwegian attitudes. I recognize quite a bit of it. The attitude towards money, the landscape, the reference to tourists getting themselves killed in stupid ways, the position of the church, May 17th and a few more. One of the things I missed was the Norwegian tendency to stick to their local dialect. Aud, who according to the book has lived in both Oslo and Bergen would be very aware of that. I'm trying to get my girlfriend to read it as I suspect we're getting a bit too much of an outsider view on the country despite seeing it through Aud's eyes. You probably have to be Norwegian to see it though.

The Blue Place is quite a dark novel with a very dramatic ending. The novel wraps up the mystery part of the story nicely but it is clear that on a personal level we're not done with Aud. She, it would seem, has a few challenges remaining and if will be interesting to see how she goes on after the events in this book. The novel is quite different from the novels by Griffith I have read so far. It shows her versatility as a writer, something I greatly appreciate in her work. For readers who start out with her science fiction it may be a bit of leap but if you don't confine yourself to reading one genre, you could do worse than give this book a try. I greatly enjoyed it and Griffith has piqued my curiosity about the next volume. Perhaps I'll come back to this series later in the year.

lj-cut text="Book Details
Title: The Blue Place
Author: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Pages: 308
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-380-79088-3
First published: 1998

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Doubt Factory - Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi is an author whose work I've been keeping an eye out for ever since I read his debut collection Pump Six and Other Stories (2008). He is probably best known of his first novel, The Windup Girl, which won a shelf-full of awards in 2010. Since then, he has mostly produced work for younger readers. The Doubt Factory (2014) is the third novel that is marketed as Young Adult. He wrote a fourth for an even younger market. Bacigalupi will be retuning to adult fiction later this year however, with the release of his novel The Water Knife. I very much look forward to reading that one. The Doubt Factory is a novel unrelated to any of his other works and clearly aimed at teenagers. It is fast-paced, written in clear language and with an equally clear message. I might have liked it more as a teen but reading it now, I think Bacigalupi is on his soapbox a bit too much.

Alix Banks has a bright future ahead of her. Her father runs his own public relations firm and has made a lot of money doing so. Their family moves in the circles of the powerful and her father's money has bought Alix an excellent education. She is headed for an Ivy League university and a bright career. Until, that is, a group of activists called 2.0 upsets her comfortable life. In a series of bizarre actions, they manage to open Alix' eyes to what her father's company is really doing. It disturbs Alix deeply and she is faced with a choice that could radically alter the path of her life.

The Doubt Factory is essentially about corporate greed. What Bacigalupi describes in his novel is a method to cast doubt on scientific findings that can delay regulation or bans on the use of certain substances found to have serious health or environmental effects and allow the company involved to squeeze a few more years of profit out of their product. There is no question about whether or not companies use these kinds of strategies. It is the only reason why tobacco is still widely available in most parts of the world, decades after the conclusive scientific evidence surfaced that it is both addictive and linked to a huge list of life-threatening medical conditions. The same thing is happening in the climate change debate, where an oil money funded tiny group of researchers have managed to convince enough politicians there is doubt about climate change to keep any real action from being taken. These are just the most eye catching cases, the  list of examples is huge, as Alix finds out in the novel.

Bacigalupi provides a playbook in this novel about how the process works:

Chapter 25
You can see this strategy in just about any discussion where science, economics and politics overlap. In fact, when I was in college studying environmental science, tactics like these were repeatedly pointed out to the students to make them aware of the danger. One strategy to deal with this is to follow the money. Asking yourself the question who pays for what research and what are their motives. Bacigalupi even points out ways to obscure the money trail in the novel. It is pretty scary to think that apparently making more money than you'll ever need is so important to some people that they'd be willing to engage in such profoundly unethical and at time outright criminal types of behaviour. Just reading about it makes one feel dirty. It also makes one wonder if we, as a species, are actually capable of facing up to the challenge of keeping the planet inhabitable.

In our ever more complex world we are using literally hundreds of thousands chemical substances of which, beyond the chemical structure, virtually nothing is known. Even if we wanted to, we could not research the impacts on human health or the environment of all of them. New substances are subject to testing of course but we will keep running into situations were the use of a chemical will have unforeseen consequences even if a company follows all the regulations and procedures perfectly. The whole culture of suppressing the knowledge that might result in a product having to be withdrawn or companies having to compensate victims is disturbing.

While I approve of Bacigalupi's message, I'm not sure that he has turned it into a good novel. Bacigalupi lays out his ideas in a very direct manner in the novel, with long monologues of 2.0 mastermind Moses in particular. He lays it out in detail and, not surprisingly, Alix refuses to swallow it whole. She is a bit naive in some ways but even so, Moses makes it sound like a conspiracy theory. Which is, I suspect, how many readers not familiar with the topic will see it. Moses tries too hard to sell it.

Despite his lecturing, Moses does manage to plant the seeds of doubt in Alix mind (no pun intended) and that is one of the aspects I do like. Alix has trouble slipping back into her old life and ignoring the signs that Moses may have a point. Bacigalupi very convincingly portrays a young woman being torn by doubt, feeling the very foundations of her comfortable life starting to crumble. The part of the novel where Alix tries to pretend nothing is wrong is the strongest part of the story in my opinion.

The entire novel is something of a thriller and the novel ends in an action packed sequence that would do very well on the big screen. Alix' decision as to which side she should choose will not come as a surprise to the reader. The way the argument is presented in this novel only allows for one conclusion. It is here that we can really see what this novel lacks to make it into a great work of fiction. The novel polarizes. It clearly defines two sides of the argument and pictures one as being absolute evil that must be fought by bringing their true motives to the light. It's the kind of polarization that currently grips American politics and simply blocks any kind of progress on issues such as business ethics, distribution of wealth, environmental protection and climate change mitigation. It is a complete deadlock, and while Moses has a pretty good handle on the problem, he does not have a solution. He changes one person's mind, or rather makes her think about something she has taken for granted and by doing so, removes her from a position where she might actually be able to influence matters. He moves her from one camp and puts her in the other. It is a sign of personal growth for Alix but doesn't change the big picture. If Moses had had an answer on how to change that, it would have been revolutionary.

What we are left with is a suspenseful novel with occasionally very good characterization. It's a novel with an important message, one that, despite the mechanism being clear for anyone willing to connect the dots, doesn't get nearly enough attention. I enjoyed reading it but after finishing The Doubt Factory it still left me with the feeling that the novel made it too easy to dismiss it as a conspiracy theory. It's unfair to expect a work of fiction to come up with the answer to one of the major challenges facing American democracy but I would have liked to see it reach out a bit more, rather than just condemning shameful corporate behaviour. If simply exposing it would be the answer, we'd have solved a lot of problems by now. Still, it is a message that needs to be spread, and as such the novel is very much worth reading. Just be aware that you will never see a political statement or an article in the news quite the same way after you finish this book. The pattern Bacigalupi describes is everywhere.

Book Details
Title: The Doubt Factory
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Pages: 484
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-316-22075-0
First published: 2014

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Ségou I: De aarden wallen - Maryse Condé

If you read the history of a random country in sub-Saharan Africa, it either begins at the first contact with Europeans or briefly mentions the state of the region right before the colonial powers show up. Before that, Africa appears not to have had a history. At least not one that anybody in the west is particularly interested in exploring. In the west, Africa might have been an unknown continent until the end of the nineteenth century, but that doesn't make it the start of history of course. The thing that attracted me to this book many years ago is that Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé explores the history of city of Ségou (or Segu if you prefer the English spelling), located in present-day Mali, before it became part of the French colonial empire. I read it in Dutch translation, the original French title is Ségou : Les murailles de terre. It has been translated into English as well under the rather unimaginative title Segu. It is the first part of a duology, I hope to have a look at the second volume later in the year.

The novel opens in October 1796 when the Bambara state ruled from Ségou is at the height of its power. Its soldiers have subjugated all its neighbours and is growing rich from the trade in slaves. The river Joliba (Niger) keeps its fields fertile and productive and the ruler Mansa Mozon is  strong and feared throughout the region. The Bambara are a proud and confident people, but change is about to arrive in Ségou. A white man by the name of Mungo Park presents himself at the gate of the city and from the north the call of Islam is heard ever louder. As the decline of the empire sets in, we follow the members of the Traoré family. Four of its sons will be scattered across the globe, showing us the developments that, unknown to much of the Bambara population of the city, contribute to the downward spiral they find themselves in.

Interestingly, Condé starts where many of the history books would start, with the first white man to show up in the area. She chooses to use him as a herald of change but the change that most directly affects the city in the book doesn't come from the western powers. Ségou would not be taken by the French until 1890. Tiékoro hears the call of Islam early on in the novel. His curiosity about the religion shocks his family. The morals of his new religion clashes with the traditional Bambara views on sexuality, family and religion. He gets sent to Tombouctou to study however, accompanied by his brother Siga. Where Tiékoro's conversion is complete, Siga's is only skin deep. He adopts an Arab name out of necessity and while he is interested in learning to write, he doesn't particularly care for a ban on alcohol or extramarital sex. The conflict in the family between Siga's practicality and Tiékoro's fanaticism is one that will play out throughout the Bambara empire. It's a conflict that rips the city apart in the end, and if you look at current events in Mali, it is a conflict that continues to be relevant to the region.

A third son, Naba, is pulled in another direction. He is taken prisoner and suffers the fate so many Africans taken in raids and wars have had to endure. He is sold as a slave and ends up on the island of Gorée, the departure point of many transports to the new world. He is bought by one of the rich inhabitants of the island but when he falls in love with a slave girl about to depart for Brazil, he sneaks on board and goes with her. From Naba's point of view we get to see the slave trade and its importance to the economy of many of the African empires, but also the cost in human suffering and effects of a loss of their roots and culture. The novel is set in a period in which slavery is challenged from several sides. The ban on the trade  in 1807 by Great Britain is a historically important moment, although in practice the slave trade would go on for decades after.

The fourth member of the Traoré family Condé uses to explore the external pressures on the Bambara empire is Malobali. He makes a run for it after being sent to Djenné to study the Islam and ends up serving in the army of the Ashanti Empire, in what is today part of Ghana. Through his eyes we explore the expanding influence of the British, the introduction of Christianity and the effect the (descendants of) returning slaves have on west-African society. While the Ashanti would not be completely defeated and colonized by the British entirely until after the fourth Anglo-Ashanti War starting in 1895, their influence is still felt throughout the region.

The brilliance of this book is probably in the way Condé manages to describe so many diverse cultures the characters encounter. She manages to step into the Bambara worldview but describes places like Brazil, the Ashanti empire, Morocco, London, Djenné and Tombouctou vividly as well. The author doesn't overwhelm the reader with it, but in most of these places, hints to the history are included. The Bambara Empire for instance, is not the only one to flourish in the region. Ségou was once part of the Songhai Empire, and before that the Mali Empire. It is very interesting to see how the Traoré sons often represent the outsider view to a particular culture, religion or nation, while in the generation of their children it shifts dramatically. There is also a big gap between the characters who stay in Ségou and those who have seen parts of the world. In the entire novel you can feel the hammer coming down on the city that despite all these omens remains proud and selfassured to the point of arrogance.

With the frequent changes in point of view and the large timespan the novel covers, the character development is not very in depth. Characters are chosen to represent a development and Condé spends quite a lot of time telling us exactly what makes them tick. What she is interested in is what they witness and how it will shape the city that is the real main character of the novel. It's a style of writing that is not that unusual in historical novels but not everybody can appreciate it. Personally I like the variety in characters and locales Condé employs just fine.

One other thing that might turn the reader of is the way gender relations are portrayed in the novel. Although there are plenty of female characters in the book, almost the entire novel is written from male points of view. They have opinions on women and sexuality that fit the society and religion they adhere to and usually those ideas are quite sexist. Condé doesn't steer away from it. Forced marriages, abuse of slaves and rape are very much part of the story and we are not spared the consequences of it. Several of the characters struggle with the restrictions their new religion puts on sexual activity in ways that often quite brutally expose the hypocrisy of the characters and their society. Bambara customs are not spared in that department. Their views on sex, while not as restrictive to the men, are not exactly free of sexism and other problems.

I think this was the fourth time I've read this book and I still think it is an amazing read. It is one of the few novels I'm aware of that shows us an African society from the inside and succeeds in making it believable. Condé has obviously put in a lot of research into the history, culture and customs of Ségou and the result is a very good historical novel. It's a book that will make the reader a lot more aware of the fact that slave trade, religious fanaticism and colonialism left their scars on many local cultures and have sown the seeds of many of the post-colonial conflicts that still plague the continent. On the other hand it also shows this part of the world as vibrant, culturally rich and in some ways very resilient. I must admit that I knew very little of Mali before I read this book for the first time many years ago and that may have been the type or reader Condé was aiming for. It is a great introduction to a piece of Africa that does not show up in the history curriculum of the average western highschool student. Since that is not likely to change anytime soon, you should probably just go out and read this book.

Book Details
Title: Ségou. I: De aarden wallen
Author: Maryse Condé
Publisher: Rainbow Pocket
Pages: 609
Year: 1993
Language: Dutch
Translation: Stefaan van den Bremt
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7706-7
First published: 1984

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Lana reviews: Julia - Peter Straub

First time I came across Peter Straub - that I knew of - was during a Stephen King spree I had some years back, which eventually led me to read The Talisman and Black House, two The Dark Tower-related novels that he and King wrote together. Only in November last year, did I realize that a horror movie I had watched at the tender age of 11-ish was in fact based on another of his books, Julia. What exactly made me look the movie up that random evening in November, I do not remember anymore, but I know I had exactly two clues to go on; Mia Farrow was in it, and it was about a creepy evil ghost girl. When I subsequently discovered that the movie was based on one of Straub's earlier novels, I knew I'd rather want to read that, than look at the movie again. So I hinted at this before Christmas, and soon after, it was to be one of the presents resting under the Christmas tree.

After the death of her young daughter during a tracheotomy gone wrong, Julia Lofting - trying hard to break out of her old life and the memories it holds - leaves her husband and old home behind, and starts looking for a new place to live. The first house she is shown, seems to beckon to her, and what's more, she glimpses a young girl about her daughter's age, and with the same color hair, roaming about in the neighborhood. After that first visit at Twenty-five Ilchester Place she never goes to look at any of the other places for rent or for sale, - she knows that this large, old-fashioned house in Kensington, London was meant for her, and impulsively makes the purchase.

What seemingly starts out as a positive change and a new clean start for Julia, however, soon turns bitter, as she realizes that the past will not stay in the past. Not only will her husband not leave her be, but something in the house wants her there, needs her to be there, but also hates her, half egging her on to figure out its secrets, half discouraging her from finding out anything by threatening her with death. But Julia won't stop her search into the past. And as she struggles to figure out exactly what happened at Twenty-five Ilchester Place and its near surroundings 24 years earlier, Julia herself falls apart, slowly descending into the darkness of her damaged psyche.

Julia is a haunted house story. Or is it, really? Straub has put it together in such a clever way that one frequently wonders what exactly is going on. From the first page of the story, it is obvious that something isn't quite right with Julia. And throughout the novel, the reader can never be sure if what Julia experiences is real, or whether it's just whatever is wrong with her making her perceive things in a way a person without her mental baggage wouldn't, making her one of the most unreliable narrators I've ever come across. Several times, it is hinted at that some of the things she thinks the ghost did, were in fact done by the people in her life: her husband, his sister, and their adoptive brother. Then again, a few bits of the story is told from these other peoples' points of view, and some of the things they see and experience do indeed match the things Julia herself has seen and felt, making it even harder to figure out what exactly is happening in this novel.

Threatening ghost or not, Julia works hard at solving the riddle of Twenty-five Ilchester Place, and whether or not it was just chance leading her to this old house in Kensington, it turns out that there is a connection of sorts between her and the house. Her hunt for clues, and her slow unearthing of events in the past, lends the novel an air of mystery - and it's a pretty good one at that. But Julia soon looses herself in a really bad way during her search, and doesn't seem to realize or care that what she is doing is slowly destroying her. While she claims several times that she doesn't want to die, all her actions point toward a wish for self-destruction, whether the character herself is aware of it or not. Had she really wanted to break with her old life, for example, she could have moved back to her country of birth and started anew over there, - she certainly had the means to do so. Instead she chose to live in a place where her 'family' could continue to use, abuse and manipulate her.

In a way, Julia is very much a product of the life she chose for herself and the people she chose to have in her life, all poor choices in my opinion. Her husband, Magnus, does not come off as a very sympathetic man. He needs to be in control of every aspect of his life, it seems, including the people in it. As such, he does not take it well when Julia decides to leave and live alone. Apparently, his personality and habits match those of Julia's father, down to how they both had plenty of mistresses and thought this to be only fair. (If Julia had taken a lover, however, there might have been murder.) Magnus' sister Lily comes off as more sympathetic than her brother, but she is manipulative in her own way, and has her own agenda when it comes to Julia. I'm not entirely sure what was going on with Mark, their adopted brother, but he seemed to be having mental issues of his own, making his bits of the story as unreliable as Julia's. Continuing to allow these people to be a part of her life (or be close enough to force their way into it, in her husband's case) is as self-destructive as the hunt Julia cannot abandon.

Julia is not a very complicated book to read, not at first sight, but as it turns out once you sit down and think about it, it has layers and layers of things happening where nothing is what it seems, and where everything can be questioned or looked at from at least two sides. Which in turn makes me wonder whether I've ignored some big things I should have talked about here, in favor of driveling on about the things I thought were interesting, or strange, or worthy of notice and so on. Basically though, it is a chilling story, and if you want laughs and giggles, this is not the right book for you. I have read better ghost stories, and I have read worse, but if you like novels where you have to figure out for yourself what is happening, and don't mind still not being quite sure as you turn the last page, I really do recommend this book as it's pretty clever like that.

Book Details
Title: Julia
Author: Peter Straub
Publisher: Anchor Books
Pages: 291
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-8041-7283-7
First published: 1975