Sunday, November 22, 2015

Luna: New Moon - Ian McDonald

In the past few years Ian McDonald has produced three young adult novels that make up the Everness series. They're the kind of book that I wish had been around when I was in my early teens. It was quite a drastic change in direction for McDonald. His most recent adult novels are all densely plotted, beautifully written works set in near future developing economies. In his new adult novel he once again takes us in a different direction: the Moon. Luna: New Moon is the first in a duology on the colonization and industrialization of the Moon. It's a book fans of McDonald will love but also one that might frustrate readers because of the abrupt ending.

The Moon has a thousand ways to kill you but that hasn't stopped humanity from colonizing the place. Early in the 22nd century, our satellite is covered with cities, infrastructure and industrial complexes. The Moon is in effect run by five families know as the five dragons. The youngest of these, the Costas, make their money mining the helium-3 on which the earth depends to run its fusion power plants. The head of the family and founder of the company Adriana Costa is nearing her eightieth birthday and feels her time is almost up. It will be up to her children to protect family interests and keep the other four dragons at bay. The Mckenzies in particular, seem be a threat.

Luna: New Moon is a book of sharp contrasts. Society as described by McDonald is a libertarian's wet dream. There is no such thing as criminal or civil law for instance. There are only contracts and terms. Anything can be agreed upon and any breach of contract can be compensated. It creates a society with an unprecedented freedom. Sexually, pretty much everything is acceptable. Marriages are contracts like any other and can be negotiated in just about any imaginable composition. Designer drugs are freely available and just about anything else can be had for a price. It is the ultimate free market, a society with a thorough aversion to laws and limitations. It is almost as if McDoanld wanted to take a step beyond Robert A. Heinlein's classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Limited the people are though. The Moon is a harsh environment, hostile to terrestrial life in the extreme. Everybody has to purchase the four basics of life on the Moon: air, water, space and data. No money inevitably means death and with the constant consumption of these four things, the counter relentlessly moves to zero. Escape to Earth is only an option for the recently arrived. Muscles atrophy in the minimal gravity and bone mass decreases. Soon there is no way back. There is money to be made on the Moon but the personal price one pays for it is high. McDonald is constantly showing the readers the contrast between the anything goes society and the environment that demands constant attention to safety and rigorous discipline in maintaining the infrastructure to support life. Anything goes but mistakes are fatal. The most liberated society in human history is in effect a prison.

McDonald takes his interest in non-western cultures with him to this book. Of the five dragons only the Australian Mackenzies are from an English-speaking nation. Their rivals originate in Brazil, Russia, China and Ghana, making the Moon a very multicultural place. One of the ways in which the author expresses this is the use of language. His writing has always had a poetic feel to it and in this novel he enriches his English with words and phrases from Arab, Portuguese, Spanish, Yoruba, Akan and Chinese. He uses a Hawaiian system for a calendar and corporate titles are borrowed from Korean. It helps define the Moon as a place rooted in cultures from all over the world. Not everybody will appreciate the frequency with which McDonald reaches for words from other languages than English but for me it did add to the experience. At times the novel feels like McDonald is already on the path of creating a Lunar creole language.

Although McDonald is mainly interested in the struggle between the five dragons, there is a fair bit of hard science in this novel. McDonald has clearly done his research on the consequences of being exposed to vacuum or sunlight unfiltered by an ozone layer or magnetic field. Throughout the novel details on the technology that keeps people alive are worked in and the author doesn't fail to point out the consequences should this machinery break down. Transport systems and mining operations are also shown in the novel and to a lesser extent, food production and recycling systems. The Moon cannot afford to waste useful raw materials when importing them from Earth is prohibitively expensive. There's enough technical detail to make Lunar society well fleshed out but without overwhelming the story.

It is clear that Luna: New Moon is only half a story and that is probably the book's greatest weakness. McDonald needs some time to introduce his large cast and make the reader familiar with his creation. Once he has done that, the story picks up speed dramatically and moves towards a violent climax that at the same time resolves the story arc in this novel but also leaves the reader hanging to an extent. It is probably unfair to comment on it without having read the second volume but the way the first book unfolded made me wonder if it wouldn't have been better to have made it one (admittedly rather long) novel instead.

I have pretty much enjoyed everything I have read by McDonald and this novel is no exception. His exuberant writing style from his earlier novels has been tempered a bit, making his more recent books a bit more accessible. Luna: New Moon is a book that walks the fine line between exuberance and discipline both in the plot and linguistically. It is a book of sharp contrasts. Life and death are so close together that there is almost nothing between them. The moon can kill you in seconds and this razor sharp division between perishing and surviving creates a huge amount of tension in the novel. Once you are past the introductions the novel will have hooked you. McDonald shaped my vision of the moon in the way reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy did for the red planet. I don't think I can look up at it and see it quite the same way ever again.

Book Details
Title: Luna: New Moon
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 398
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7551-3
First published: 2015

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Making Wolf - Tade Thompson

Tade Thompson  is one the authors whose work I first encountered in The Apex Book of World SF 2, one in a series of anthologies trying to showcase genre fiction from outside the US and the UK. Thompson is from Nigeria although he currently lives in the UK. He says his Yoruba roots influence his writing heavily and that is certainly the case of Making Wolf. It is his first novel and it turns out to be something of a thriller. It is a very violent novel, includes noir elements but also comments on the political situation in West Africa at the moment. It doesn't fail to point out the sad legacy of colonialism either. Thompson manages to turn this mixture into a novel well worth reading.

Weston Kogi was sent to the UK during one of the more violent spells in the history of his country of birth. The aunt that oversaw his move stayed behind and has recently passed away. For the first time since boyhood does he return to his home country. He makes the fatal mistake of bragging about his career in the UK, telling his family that he is a homicide detective in London. He soon gets singled out for the rather delicate job of investigating the murder of Papa Busi, a local hero and one of the few people in the country to be respected by just about everybody. The political minefield Kogi is forced to walk into is way beyond what a supermarket security guard normally faces. Any misstep could be his last. And he missteps frequently.

For his story Thompson creates a fictional nation of Alcacia, wedged in between Nigeria and Cameroon. It is clearly inspired by Nigeria but with enough differences that Thompson is probably still allowed to enter the country. Alcacia is a bit of a mess. Corruption is rampant and the government has had to leave control of large parts of the country to two opposing rebel forces. The fighting appears to have reached a stalemate but an end to the conflict is not in sight. All parties in the conflict would have the murder of Papa Busi remain a mystery, something that makes Kogi's task significantly more difficult.

One of the main themes in the book is how Kogi is not at home in the nation of his birth any more. Life in the UK has changed him and while he still has a firm understanding of the customs of his people, the country has changed in his absence. It causes him to make several serious mistakes. He is not quite as naive as a western but in the eyes of the Alcacians the difference is hardly noticeable. They mercilessly use his ignorance. The main character spends most of the novel trying to figure out who he can trust, what he wants out of life and whether he wants it in Alcacia or the UK. I was very impressed with the character development in this novel.

The conflict Kogi is dragged into is a brutal one. Thompson doesn't shy away from graphic descriptions of violence. He meets some people with very little regard for human life, which in a country where the police can be bought easily (if you have the cash) is very dangerous indeed. Especially early on in the novel you can feel Kogi is out of his depth. He doesn't see the violence coming, doesn't understand the consequences of his mistakes and doesn't really want to be part of it either. Along the way he becomes desensitised. A development that disturbs him greatly but one that he seems powerless to do anything about. At the beginning of the novel the reader perceives Kogi as a decent guy, at the end of it he is completely transformed.

Violence is everywhere in this novel and Thompson doesn't spare the reader any of it. The westernised Kogi has some bitter observations about the legacy of colonisation, but also about the failure of the Alcacians to tear down the colonial power structures. Violence is the predictable outcome and nobody can rise above it. Corruption sticks to everybody. From the western diplomat, eager to be fooled into thinking he is saving black children, to the area boys who 'protect' their territory, all are complicit in the violence. There is very little space between predator and prey. In its treatment of violence,  Making Wolf reads like Joe Abercrombie set in the real world.

There is the violence, the malaria, the veneral diseases, the appalling heat and staggering poverty but things are not all bad in Alcacia. For Kogi opportunities present themselves that he would never get in the UK. He is held back there, stuck in a job he doesn't particularly want with little prospect of advancement. Although it doesn't usually manifest itself as naked racism, he feels the white population excludes him. He is allowed to get only so far. In Alcacia however, almost anything is possible if you bring enough money. He may not be able to join the police force, but setting himself up as a private investigator is no problem. So, one foot in a superficially just UK society, battling systemic racism, or bribing your way to a dream unachievable by other means. It is not such an easy choice despite the risk the second option carries.

With all its graphic descriptions of violence and other forms of human misery, Making Wolf is not a particularly easy book to read. It made me uncomfortable in several places, which is probably what the author aimed for. You need to be able to stomach quite a lot to handle this book. That being said, it is a lot more than just violence. Thompson has his reasons to tell the story the way he does. He wants the book to be more than a simple fast-paced thriller and succeeds gloriously. It's a book that hides a lot of food for thought under the surface. I've been spoiled with a great many good books this year. Making Wolf is another book I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Book Details
Title: Making Wolf
Author: Tade Thompson
Publisher: Rosarium Publishing
Pages: 307
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-4956-0747-9
First published: 2015

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Pandora's Gun - James Van Pelt

James Van Pelt's output mainly consists of short fiction. Since the early 1990's his short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. To date, Van Pelt has released four collections of short fiction, which I suspect do not contain all his stories. I reviewed the third of these collections, The Radio Magician and Other Stories a couple of years ago. I do own the others but as with so much good short fiction, I can't seem to get around to reading them. He released Summer of the Apocalypse, a post apocalyptic story with one main character and two narrative strands set about sixty years apart, in 2006. Pandora's Gun, published almost a decade later, is the second.

While looking around the local dump, high school student Peter Van Meer finds a bag with a mysterious gun inside. It looks high-tech but he can't figure out the symbols indicating the different settings. Using the trial and error method, Peter soon realizes his find is dangerous. He can't help telling his best friend about it however and together they begin to figure out the gun's different settings. Given its capabilities, it is clearly valuable and it soon becomes apparent that the owner of the gun wants it back. Besides the owner, other parties appear to be interested in the gun as well. It draws Peter into a dangerous game of hide and seek. The gun is even more powerful than Peter suspects and having it fall into the wrong hands could endanger everything Peter holds dear.

Like Summer of the Apocalypse, Pandora's Gun is a relatively short novel. It just falls short of 200 pages and is probably right on the edge of the divide between novella and novel. Van Pelt resists making the plot too convoluted and keeps the story moving. He seems to have a clear idea of how long it should be and doesn't attempt to stretch it beyond that. The novel is not specifically marketed for teens but it will clearly appeal to that age group. It has teen protagonists and weaves the thoughts and interests of high school students into the tale deftly.

Pandora's Gun is one of those science fiction pieces that shows a lot more respect for literary fiction than it is likely to receive. Perhaps that is not entirely surprising.  Until last school year Van Pelt taught English at a high school in Colorado and this experience clearly shows up in the novel. The novel is full of references to literature. John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, one of the few English classics that I have actually read even if it was some twenty years ago, is particularly important to the story, as is the poetry of Robert Burns. Burns is apparently one of Steinbeck's inspirations, something I don't remember coming up when we discussed it in English literature class. Despite being retired, Van Pelt still managed to educate me. He also draws on Greek mythology, the title is a dead giveaway. Less obvious is Dante, which Van Pelt chose as the name of Peter's best friend. I'm not convinced it is intentional but there is a scene in the book that shows us a place every bit as terrible as anything in Dante's Inferno.

The gun is the obvious science fictional aspect of the novel. Van Pelt links it to parallel universes and allows Peter access to all kinds of nifty technologies that haven't been invented yet in our world. He uses it only on a few occasions though. The gun drives part of the plot but while it looms over the characters during the entire book, its capabilities or how it works are not what's important in the book. The threat it represents and the problem Peter has saddled himself with is what Van Pelt is interested in. It's is one of the instances where Van Pelt shows restraint. He could easily have written in a few more big explosions or add lots of background on the origin of the gun and how it ended up in the dump, instead the author sticks to what is vital to the plot. It's a very no nonsense way of storytelling.

Although the story is quite fast paced, there is still some space left to explore the theme of friendship. Peter is starting to realize that his friendship with Dante is changing and that they are drifting apart. At the same time he feels attracted to Christy, the girl next door whom he used to play with as a child. While dodging all the friendly folk who want to have a chat with him about the gun, Peter tries to figure out where these friendships are heading. Peter makes some very mature decisions in this book. He recognizes that he can't follow where Dante is leading and that he needs a friend more than a girlfriend. It is here where I think one of the few weaknesses in the book surfaces. Peter is not allowed to drive yet so that would make him 15? Maybe 16? The choices he makes are awfully mature. He may be a clever boy but you still expect him to screw up once in a while.

Van Pelt may still be more comfortable with shorter lengths but Pandora's Gun clearly shows that he can handle a full novel as well. It is one of those books that grab you from the beginning and that can be read in a single session. The author carefully balances characterisation and plot to create a story that is a satisfying read on several levels. Van Pelt wraps up the main story nicely but does leave a few questions unanswered. Should he be inclined to write one, a sequel is possible although not necessary. Once again Van Pelt has shown that I leave his books on the to read stack for way too long. Pandora's Gun is a very good read. Maybe it will even remind me to pick up one of those unread collections some time soon.

Book Details
Title: Pandora's Gun
Author: James Van Pelt
Publisher: Fairwood Press
Pages: 194
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-933846-53-8
First published: 2015

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Philosopher Kings - Jo Walton

In January Tor released The Just City by Jo Walton. It is one of the most difficult books to categorize I've ever come across. Who would think to combine time travel and robots with Plato's philosophy and Greek mythology and hope to end up with a decent story? Walton pulled it off though. The Just City is one of the most interesting books I've read this year. It is also the first in a trilogy. The Philosopher Kings is the second. It appeared in June, less than half a year after the first volume. The third book, Necessity, is scheduled for June 2016. I will be keeping an eye out for that one. The Philosopher Kings is just as strong as the first volume and takes the story in interesting new directions.

Twenty years have passed since the Last Debate and Athene's abandonment of the Just City. The population has split up in five factions, founding four new cities, each with their own views on Plato's utopia. One group even decides to leave the island completely. The five city-states have various disagreements, most notably about the distribution of art taken from various times and places in history. Most of it remains in the original city but other cities constantly raid them to get their hands on some of it. In one of these raids Simmea, one of the main characters of The Just City, is killed. She leaves behind a grieving lover, a daughter and several sons, all struggling in their own way with their grief and the impossible position the city finds itself in.

Of all the characters in the first book, Simmea probably gets closest to Plato's ideal of the Philosopher King. Her life is dedicated to striving for excellence and even in death she has things to teach her loved ones. Her lover Phyteas is Apollo reincarnated in a mortal body. By killing himself he could have regained his powers, after which healing her would have been easy. She stops him from doing so however, leaving him behind to deal with grief and the inevitability of losing loved ones. It replaces his quest to understand consent in the first novel if you will. Simmea's death is a very powerful scene even if Walton writes it in a very understated way. It's an event that echoes through the entire book, relentlessly driving the characters to correct the issue that caused her death in the first place.

Like the previous volume, Walton offers us three points of view. Apollo and Maia, both of whom we met in the first novel, and Arete, daughter of Apollo and Simmea, who takes over from her mother. Through their eyes we see how the cities risk  sliding further and further away from Plato's ideal. It takes a trip off the island to see where it could lead though. On the various islands in the Aegean, the main characters get to see how easy it is to slide down the ladder of Plato's five regimes and what the consequences would be. Arete's point of view is especially clear on this. Used as she is to a city where striving for excellence drives everyday life, she is very sensitive to matters that will lead away from this ideal.

Walton uses the trip around the Aegean to add some more history to the novel as well. We know that the Just City was founded some time before the Thera volcanic eruption, at the tail end of the Minoan era in Greek history. What Walton doesn't tell us is when exactly this is. Possibly because the actual date of the Thera eruption is still uncertain. The characters speculate they were taken to a time shortly before the Trojan War. The novel mentions Laomedon as king of Troy. In Greek mythology he was the father of Priam who would be king during the war. The timeline strikes me as a bit strange. The most widely accepted dates for the historical events that may be the inspiration for Homer's Iliad are several centuries after the Thera eruption. It makes for a good story though. The characters are constantly wondering if some mythological figure might not be alive and walking one of the islands they are about to visit.

The trip, starting with the question of whether or not to make it in the first place, is subject to much debate. Without the guidance of Athene, who has not been seen in the city since the Last Debate, it is unclear if and how their trip will affect history. Athene's reason for placing the city on Thera is that the evidence would at some point be wiped out by the volcano. Why would the philosophers accept that they or their children will fall victim to this disaster in the name of an experiment of the gods? One Athene childishly abandoned after losing a debate, leaving her guinea pigs to their fate. The answer to that question is the climax of the novel and, I suppose, the foundation for the next one.

Both on their trip and at home the characters are confronted by the influence of Christianity. In the previous novel it was kept out as much as possible but both on their trip to other islands and at home, this religion is making inroads. It's a strange experience to see Christian theology show up more than a millennium before the birth of Jesus. On Thera, the work of Thomas Aquinas drives this development. I have the feeling that quite a bit of what Walton wanted to say with this part of the story went right over my head. This is probably a result of my minimal religious education and lack of interest in such matters. Other readers may do better with this part of the story.

Compared to the first novel  I guess The Philosopher Kings has a bit more plot and a bit less debate. That doesn't make it any less enjoyable though. The mixture of time travel and Greek mythology again works very well. Despite taking on some very difficult ideas the book is not a hard read. Its greatest strength is probably that Walton manages to make philosophy very accessible in this book. It doesn't end on such a dramatic cliffhanger as the previous novel but it is quite clear that the story is not quite finished. It will be very interesting to see what our Philosopher Kings can achieve in the final instalment.

Book Details
Title: The Philosopher Kings
Author: Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 348
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3267-7
First published: 2015

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Drakenvuur - An Janssens

I only read a couple of Dutch language novels every year. While I do like to stay in touch with what goes on in the small but vibrant fantasy community in the Dutch-speaking part of the world, these novels are almost always a few steps behind in craft and professionalism compared to the bulk of my reading. My reviews of Dutch language works tend to focus more on the technical side of writing, (structure, pacing, plotting) than on language, themes or interpretation of the novel. While there are some very talented people out there, a lot of what is being published is substandard. There are reasons for that. Nobody can make a living writing fantasy in the Netherlands. There are no magazines and very few other places to publish short works, the number of professional editors in he field is limited and the few publishers with resources tend to be more interested in translated works. Being a fantasy writer in the Netherlands with aspirations of writing a novel that can compete in international company is hard indeed.

An Janssens is one of the few authors being backed by a large publisher, a privilege she won in a writing contest a couple of years ago. Drakenvuur (literally: Dragon's Fire) is the concluding volume of the trilogy that started with Drakenkoningin in 2013. I picked up the first two volumes at the local bookstore but the third book I received directly from the author. This may seem surprising. The reviews of Drakenkoningin and Drakentovenaar were not exactly  jubilant. There is a story behind this of course and maybe I'll tell you about it some other time. Right now we are going to focus on the book.

For seven centuries a magical barrier has divided the north and the south. Slowly the north has cooled and the south warmed to the point where both of them are becoming uninhabitable. The leaders on both sides of the barrier understand something needs to be done to prevent the extinction of their peoples but neither has the skill and power to undo the magical damage wrought on the world by the powerful wizards of the past. Tentative contact has been made and now the time for bolder action has arrived. Var, Wizard-King of the south sets out to meet the Dragon Queen of the north. Together with their companions they set out to save the world, or break it forever.

With the first and second volume in the trilogy set primarily in the north and south respectively, this book is the first opportunity to see the two sides interact fully. Groups of characters from both novels make an appearance in the book and most of them get a point of view. I counted five major point of view characters and two minor ones. To accommodate the crowd, Janssens writes even shorter chapters in this novel. Drakenkoningin has 19 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue. Drakentovenaar, which is approximately the same length, has 32 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue. Drakenvuur has 47 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue. It must be noted that the page count of the final book is a bit higher than the other two though. It's no surprise then, that the novel moves at the same breakneck speed as the previous two books. In fact, the rapid changes in point of view, especially towards the end of the novel, give it the appearance of even more speed.

Janssens has grown more adept at saying more with fewer words but some readers will feel that being forced to look at the story from a different angle every few pages is a bit too much of a good thing. It also doesn't do the characters any favours in terms of development. Nevsemir for instance, is struggling with what can best be described as post-traumatic stress syndrome. Something she conveniently shrugs off when it really matters. Var, who like in the previous novel, is manipulated at every turn, easily forgives Thala for yet another piece of misdirection. Thala herself struggles with the secret she is keeping from Var but the whole thing is quickly brushed aside when it comes out. None of them seem to have a moment to spare to consider the rather large number of casualties among the population of both the north and the south their campaign to save the world demands. Like in the previous two volumes, many things that could have made the story more challenging, and in my opinion a more satisfactory read, are sacrificed to the demands of a fast paced plot.

Drakenvuur is a book built on shaky foundations. It has inherited the problems of the first two volumes and these issues show in the final instalment as well. That being said, there are elements in the novel that show Janssens growth as a writer. When she  wrote the first novel, it was by no means certain there would be a second volume. There clearly was a bit of improving involved in the creation of this trilogy. Where the first and second book are more or less separate stories, only slightly related to each other, in this novel she must find a way to unify the two halves of her tale. A lack of foreshadowing in the previous volumes sometimes crops up in some elements of the tale. The magic employed by the characters is one area where she succeeds into creating a coherent fusion of the previous two volumes. The abilities and limitations of each of the forms of magic are well thought out. Probably the best element of worldbuilding in this novel.

Janssens' trilogy is a good example of why I don't read many works in Dutch. On the one hand it is brimming with potential, enthusiasm and love for the genre. On the other you can feel the heavy hand of the editor speeding things up and removing the peculiarities of the author's style from the text. What remains is a trilogy that is marketable but not surprising. A fantasy that is both limited by the author's inexperience and the publisher's ambition. Had it been among the English language books on the bookshelves I would have passed it without looking twice. Looking on the bright side, Janssens was presented with an opportunity and she took it. A rare chance to be published as professionally as is possible in this part of the world. While there is still plenty of room for improvement, her writing has gotten better over the course of the trilogy. I hope she can take that experience with her and go on to create something that is a bit more challenging and a bit less traditional. I think she has the talent to do it. It will be interesting to see where she will go from here. Despite not being blown away by Janssens' Song of Ice and Fire, I will be keeping an eye out for the next one with her name on it.

Book Details
Title: Drakenvuur
Author: An Janssens
Publisher: Luitingh Fantasy
Pages: 316
Year: 2015
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-6776-8
First published: 2015

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Rendezvous with Rama - Arthur C. Clarke

Last week I read Cixin Liu's The Dark Forest and in that novel the influence of Arthur C. Clarke is unmistakable. Since I am waiting for some review copies to arrive at the moment, I thought I'd reread something by  Clarke this week. Rendezvous with Rama was first published in 1973 and won him the BSFA, Nebula, Campbell, Hugo and Locus Awards. It is regarded as one of his masterworks, perhaps only surpassed in popularity by 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Childhood's End (1953). The novel spawned three sequels written in collaboration with Gentry Lee. Which is to say Lee did the writing and Clarke limited himself to reading and editing. I never read any of the sequels, from what I have heard they don't reach the level of the original, but Rendezvous with Rama is something of a favourite of mine.

In the year 2131 astronomers spot a large object entering the solar system. At first they dismiss it as another comet or asteroid but when someone takes a closer look it becomes apparent that the structure is not natural. It is travelling at such a speed that only one ship in the solar system is close enough to intercept the object now christened Rama. The space ship Endeavour, captained by Commander Bill Norton is sent to rendezvous with the strange object and to explore its interior.

When you think about it, the popularity of this novel at the time is a bit peculiar. The New Wave had already washed over the genre but Clarke's writing was still firmly founded in the golden age. His grasp of physics and mathematics is impressive but his attention to characterisation is minimal, his prose straightforward and interest in anything other than the natural sciences limited. Clarke's early work may have had some spiritual undertone, by the time he wrote this novel, his work is mostly rational. You could even say that there is not much of a  plot to  Rendezvous with Rama. Clarke pretty much tells us what the expedition sees on Rama, how they overcome several technical problems and adds a bit of speculation on the builders of the object. It is all very simple in a way. Maybe even deceptively simple.

Rendezvous with Rama is a quintessential Big Dumb Object novel. What it excels at is achieving a sense of wonder in the reader. Although opinions on what this phrase actually means differ, it is something of a holy grail for golden age science fiction. In this novel, written many years after the end of this period in the history of science fiction, Clarke manages to make it tangible. The descriptions of Rama, aided by the clarity of the prose, will have the reader in awe. The sheer scale of the object is described in a way to make the reader feel insignificant In fact, Rendezvous with Rama is probably the only novel I've ever read that manages to make the reader experience vertigo.

The novel humbles the reader in another way as well. Although Rama clearly has a purpose in the solar system, it is entirely uninterested in humanity. It doesn't attempt to communicate or to investigate. It just does what it planned to do and moves on. After being the centre of the universe for all of history, humanity is relegated to a footnote. They can stand and watch in awe, they can speculate and investigate, but they can't match Rama's feats. Clarke goes to far as to make humanity look petty when the Mercurians authorities take it upon themselves to attempt to destroy what they don't understand. In this way, it expresses an idea that couldn't be further removed from the one that is the crux of The Dark Forest. Liu at the same time admires him and portrays his vision on extraterrestrial life as naive.

One surprising aspect of the novel is the humour Clarke has put into it. When the true nature of Rama becomes apparent, a council is set up to guide the expedition to the object. He uses it to mock scientists and politicians alike. In the council the process of science takes a back seat and petty politics take over. Clarke observes these proceedings with a kind of wry amusement. However much human society will change in the future, he doesn't have high hopes in this area it would seem.

The spectacular views Clarke offers, combined with today's technology could make this story into a visually spectacular movie. It has been optioned in the past and Morgan Freeman has expressed interest in making Rendezvous with Rama into a movie. It hasn't happened yet and as far as I can tell it is firmly stuck in development hell. Apparently there isn't even a script yet. Probably, someday, there will be a movie but it might be a bit of a wait.

I'm unreasonably fond of this novel. It is something of a throwback to an earlier age of science fiction, published in a time when the genre had already moved on to other, and in my opinion more interesting, things. The portrayal of future society seems simplistic, the characterisation practically non-existent, and the story arc lacks a clear climax. The list of flaws in this novel is long. And yet, it does one thing so supremely well that all these flaws recede into the background when reading it. Ill-defined as the much looked for sense of wonder may be, Clarke nailed it in this novel. Rendezvous with Rama is not Clarke's best novel, nor his most interesting but, it will remain a favourite of mine.

Book Details
Title: Rendezvous with Rama
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Publisher: Gpllancz
Pages: 252
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07733-1
First published: 1973

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Dark Forest - Cixin Liu

Last year the first part of this trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, was published by Tor. American publishers see translated works as a risk because of the cost of translations so works like this are unfortunately something of a rarity still. Tor cleverly made use of the reputation of the translator of the first volume, Chinese-American author Ken Liu, to draw attention to it and that worked very well indeed. It won the Hugo Award this summer and has certainly been one of the most discussed novels in science fiction this year.The Hugo vote this year is highly controversial because of the Puppies' attempt to manipulate the shortlist. In fact, it was only added to the shortlist because one of the other candidates withdrew. Personally I feel that in a year with normal voting practices it would have had a shot at the award as well. It is definitely Chinese but also firmly rooted in western science fiction, making it very accessible to western readers. While I doubt that The Dark Forest can repeat its predecessor's feat, I do think it is a worthy sequel. If you liked the The Three-Body Problem, you will want to read this book.

The Trisolarans are coming and their mission is to exterminate humanity. The human race has four centuries to prepare but with the help of the sophons, sub-atomic particles, they can listen in on any kind of human communication. Humanity is completely exposed to the Trisolarans except for one place: the privacy of the human mind. To exploit this one advantage, the Wallfacer project is started. Four people overseen by a UN committee  are granted the freedom to work on a plan to defeat the Trisolarans without having to outline it to anyone. They are granted access to enormous resources and are expected to defeat the enemy through deceit and misdirection. A dangerous and desperate plan but it seems like the only chance at survival.

The translation of this second volume is in the hands of Joel Martinsen of whom, other than what it says on the back flap, I know absolutely nothing. A quick search doesn't turn up any other translations by his hand. He follows Ken Liu's lead closely though. There is no noticeable difference in tone of voice and Martinsen is equally reluctant to add footnotes, only doing so in cases where the English-language reader is very unlikely to understand a reference to Chinese history or literature. The switch in translator will not bother the reader. I understand Liu is translating the final novel in the trilogy so continuity in the translation should not be a problem.

The novel covers about two centuries. Liu introduces a new calendar in the novel, counting the years from the start of the crisis. In a way, a lot of things stay the same during this long timespan. The Trisolarans use the sophons to limit humanity's progress in physics, essentially allowing only improvements in already existing technology. Quantum computers for instance, cannot be developed so after a certain point there is no increase in the computing power of processors any more. The technological explosion, as Liu calls it, stalls. It leaves the author free to speculate on what such a threat will do to human society and economy.

In his Big Idea piece on John Scalzi's blog Liu said he was writing a worst case scenario. No benevolent aliens or a prospect of a harmonious federation of planets of the people in this story. One of the major themes Liu examines is what the prospect of near certain extinction would do to the human psyche. It shows up in several forms but despair seems to take over every time. Liu describes the severe economic effects of creating a war economy when there isn't an enemy to fight yet. Something that will eventually lead to a collapse some time in the twenty-first century followed by a renaissance some decades later. Personally I'm wondering if something that is four centuries in the future will affect the human psyche to that degree -  we can't even be made to pay attention to a number of environmental problems that most of us most definitely will live to see after all -  but it is an interesting scenario.

Like the previous novel the author, and many of his characters, think about large groups of people. He pays attention to the thoughts and feelings of the main characters to illustrate a larger point. In themselves they are not all that interesting. Something that is probably more of an issue than in the previous book. I thought Ye Wenjie was a more interesting character than Luo Ji, the central character in this book. Luo keeps his cards close to his chest, which I suppose makes sense for a Wallfacer, but it doesn't do much for our insight into his motivations.

The Dark Forest contains a number of massive scenes in space. For the hard science fiction fan this is probably the highlight of the novel. Not all readers will like them but, as he has shown in The Three-Body Problem,  Liu is good at writing such scenes. In this novel he is absolutely ruthless in them. He so thoroughly quashes humanity's previously held beliefs  that it has made me wonder what he can come up with for the third installment of the trilogy.

Liu's story is again firmly grounded in western science fiction. He formulates an answer to the Fermi paradox for instance, and refers to some of the genre's great works (Foundation, A Clockwork Orange) and he doesn't hide his admiration of Arthur C. Clarke. As we move into the future and Liu is able to use less of China's actual history and as the story takes on more of a global perspective, it becomes even more accessible for the western reader. The Dark Forest delivers everything that The Three-Body Problem does and a bit more. If I had to choose my favourite it would still be the first book because of the historical background used in much of that story but I suspect many readers will find the second book a step up. It is a very dark story though, it will be interesting to see if the final volume, Death's End, will show us a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. It is scheduled for April next year. I for one can't wait to get my hands on it.

Book Details
Title: The Dark Forest
Author: Cixin Liu
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 512
Year: 2015
Language: English
Translation: Joel Martinsen
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7708-1
First published: 2008

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Cold Iron - Stina Leicht

A few years ago I read Stina Leicht's début Of Blood and Honey (2011) and I liked it very much. The book, which is an urban fantasy set in Northern Ireland in the 1970s,  did get a bit of criticism for not getting all the details right. It didn't bother me, probably because I am not familiar with the region in that much detail. For some reason I never got around to reading the sequel, And Blue Skies from Pain (2012), even though I do own a copy. I should remedy that sometime. In Cold Iron, Leicht strikes out in another direction. The novel is a flintlock fantasy, set in a secondary world and the first part of a series. It will definitely have an appeal for the epic fantasy reader but not necessarily for people who liked Of Blood and Honey.

For centuries the ruling class of the kingdom of Eledore has relied on their magic to defeat their enemies. Their magic is what raises them above humans and what determines their status in society. Humans may not have magic, their technology is more advanced and firearms appear to be a match for magic. The king of Eledore, heavily influenced by his younger brother, sticks to the traditional way of running his army. His children however, realize that without embracing new technology the kingdom is lost. A long and dangerous struggle to save the kingdom begins.

The world Leicht has created seems to be mostly inspired by Scandinavia. Most of the Eledoreans have Finnish sounding names. There are more than a few characters with Swedish sounding names as well. The story is an interesting reversal of history. Where in our 18th century, the Swedes ruled Finland (until a wave of Finnish nationalism dislodged the Swedes in the early 19th century only to be replaced by the Russians as rulers), the characters with the Finnish sounding names seem to be in control in the early stages of the novel. I'm not entirely sure if there is a particular work or event that inspired Leicht to create this setting. If there is, I didn't recognize it.

Leicht tells her story from three different points of view. The disgraced royal son Nels, who failed to develop any appreciable magical talents and got his hands bloodied in a skirmish. He is forced into a career in the military, where more than a few officers would see him die for king and country sooner rather than later. His twin sister Suvi, now heir-apparent, is the second point of view character. She has a better head for politics and tries to limit her uncle's influence on the court. The third point of view is that of Ilta. She is a talented healer, destined to take over as one of the most important advisors to the crown. She struggles with the weight of responsibility however.

The Kingdom of Eledore feels like a lot of mighty states in epic fantasy do. It's old, rich and decadent, led by a king who is not particularly interested in affairs of state and unreasonably certain that magic will overcome any obstacle. Leicht shows us the limitations of that magic early in the novel and keeps doing it throughout the story. It is terrible, could be wielded very effectively, but it also has drawbacks. The technology this magic is going up against is fairly rudimentary. The firearms are single shot rifles, using gunpowder and balls instead of cartridges. The same goes for the unwieldiy cannon. They are not all that reliable, nor very accurate and leave the user defenceless in the time it takes to reload. And yet they are the future and the younger characters in the book see it clearly.

Personally I would have liked to see a point of view of someone who was a bit more invested in the old ways. The three point of view characters have a very clear view of where things are going and show us the story more or less from the same side of the conflict. The main antagonist in the story, the king's brother Sakari, makes for a shallow character because we don't get to see much beyond his thirst for power. The king himself is similarly shallow. A bit more conflict between the main characters might do the next novel in the series good.

The story is told in short, snappy chapters. Cold Iron weighs in at 657 pages in hardcover but it feels like a much shorter book. It is one of those novels where you can easily read 200 pages in a sitting, or read it over the weekend. She keeps the pace up and doesn't bother the reader with too much background material on her world. This does have the drawback that some elements in the world are not as clear to the reader as one might wish for. I have no idea what caused the war between Eledore and its neighbour for instance. It might have made the intrigue at the Eledorean court more interesting if that had been a factor. Not everybody can be as closed to the outside world as the king.

The title of the series is The Malorum Gates and this refers to another layer in the story. The characters are mostly distracted by the immediate demands of the war but there is an ancient evil in the world that needs attention too. Ilta in particular is aware of it. We do not learn much about it, other than that magic is the key to containing the horrible creatures hiding behind the gates. Magic therefore, cannot be replaced by technology without putting the world at risk. This part is clearly the overarching story for the series. Instead of one replacing the other, as you'd find in  many fantasy novels, in this series the two are condemned to each other and not all the characters realize it yet.

Cold Iron is a fun, fast read but as the opening novel of a new series it is perhaps not as convincing as it might have been. There are a lot of interesting elements to the story but, in this first book at least, they don't link up yet. A little bit of detail in some places would have made it a bit more coherent. Leicht has a lot of work to do to bring this story together. That being said, I am curious about what will happen next and that is always a good sign for a first book in a series. Even if there is some room for improvement, Leicht has convinced me to try the second volume.

Book Details
Title: Cold Iron
Author: Stina Leicht
Publisher: Saga Press
Pages: 657
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-4814-4255-8
First published: 2015

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Fool's Quest - Robin Hobb

Fool's Quest is the second book in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy, in which Robin Hobb returns to her most successful character. The previous two trilogies were entirely written from Fitz' point of view though. In the first volume of this trilogy, Fool's Assassin, she adds the point of view of Fitz' daughter. This second volume is mostly focussed on Fitz again, although the Bee chapters do drive the story to a large extent. With 7 books on Fitz under her belt already, Hobb knows where she is going with this character. Fool's Quest is a strong book with a strongly character driven plot. Readers who like Fitz will love this book. It is a middle book in a trilogy though, so don't expect any resolutions just yet.

Fitz has returned to Buckkeep and this time, his role in keeping the Kingdom together during the last years of the reign of King Shrewd is fully acknowledged. Fitz is no longer Tom Badgerlock, he is a Farseer prince with all the power and obligations that come with the position.He doesn't get to enjoy his new status for long though. Word of the raid on Withywoods and the taking of Bee and Shun reaches the court. Fitz wants to go after his daughter right away but practicalities keep holding him back.

Fool's Assassin was a pretty hefty tome at 630 pages. This second volume is even longer. Hobb has never written fast-paced stories and she doesn't start now. Life at Buckkeep and the changes since Fitz' youth are described in detail. The changes in the relationships between the characters and their status also takes up quite a bit of Fitz' thoughts. Kettricken is still her queenly self. Dutiful has grown into his role as king, Chade enjoys his new freedom as member of the court but can't stop playing his games. Lady Rosemary is entirely absent, as befits her status as royal assassin, but between the lines you can feel the tension between her and Chade and the changing view on the usefulness of quiet work. Nettle is still her prickly self but these days, she is backed by impressive knowledge in the Skill as well as a number of coteries. I have rarely read a book in which the secondary characters and their relationships are as detailed as in Robin Hobb's work. The complexities of the court are a joy to read.

Most of the book centres on Fitz and the Fool however. The Fool is slowly recovering from his injuries. The first, reckless attempt by Fitz to heal him did not have the desired effect but after another attempt he appears to be making progress. Both Fitz and the Fool are impatient to be on their way. As Fitz coaxes the horrible tale of his stay with the Servants out of the Fool, it becomes apparent that Bee is in mortal danger and the Servants cannot be allowed to exist much longer. Fitz is not planning on taking the Fool anywhere though. He is simply too weak. The Fool will have none of it and it becomes the ground for another one of their famous spats.

The Fool's tale as well as what Fitz finds at his raided estate, make this book a very violent one. Hobb doesn't show that much of it but at Withywoods especially, the trauma of the raid is described in great detail. Where most fantasy authors would focus on the deed itself, Hobb pays attention to the mess left behind and that makes the book one of the darkest she has written. Where in other books Fitz suffers for what is done to him, in this novel, in part at least, he suffers for what is done to those he loves and cares for. His brief moments of triumph and tiny amounts of hope keep him going though.

Bee's storyline is less prominent in this book. Withywoods is deep within the Six Duchies and her kidnappers have a long way to go to safety. During the gruelling journey Bee begins to realize the full extent of her powers. They don't give her the means to escape though. Unlike Fitz when he was that age, Bee appears to be wise beyond her years. She is still naive in some ways but her magic, or perhaps I should say, her acceptance of it, gives her an edge. Where magic is a struggle for Fitz and has been his entire life, it comes naturally to Bee. You can already tell Fitz and Bee will have some issues to work through if they do get together again.

In terms of the world development there are two things that stand out in this book. The first is the new information we get on the Servants. In the previous seven books Hobb has given us hints but for the most part they remained mysterious. The Fool is giving us a more detailed look at how their settlement works and how much he was made to suffer at the hands of the Servants. Bee's storyline shows us the Servants at work. Although she doesn't understand their motivations, the reader does get to see what can only be described as religious fanatics through her eyes.

The second thing the reader will notice is that Hobb is weaving storylines of her Rainwilds books into these novels. The reappearance of dragons, to which both of these sets of novels have contributed, is obviously going to be important to the resolution of this story. We get to see a bit what has happened after the ending of Blood of Dragons. Events in Buckkeep point at tension between the Rain Wilds and the Six Duchies over the dragons. It will be interesting to see if this is just background or if Fitz will have to come to some sort of arrangement with them. Hobb also leaves herself an opening here to return to Kensingra for more stories.

What can I say about Fool's Quest that I haven't said of other Hobb books already? I'm a great fan of Hobb's novels (and Lindholm's for that matter) and this book delivers what I have come to love about the series. In terms of characterization Hobb is just way ahead of the pack in epic fantasy. It will likely be another year before it appears but the final volume in this trilogy is already on my to read list. With Hobb in this form, it promises to be a dramatic ending to the story of Ftiz and the Fool.

Book Details
Title: Fool's Quest
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 739
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-744421-2
First published: 2015

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Skin - Ilka Tampke

It's been a while since I read some historical fiction so when the good folks at Hebban offered me a review copy of Ilka Tampke's début novel Skin I jumped at the opportunity. The slightly different Dutch language version of this review can be found here. Other than that she is from Australia I don't know anything about the author and since it is a début I had no idea what to expect. Skin turns out to be a novel set right before the Claudian invasion of Britain, including some very peculiar speculations  on Celtic society in the first century AD. It's probably a book that is going to divide readers.

Ailia is dropped at the doorstep of the Queen's kitchen. She is raised by the cook and as a person of unknown parentage, or skinless person, she is one of the lowest ranked members of her tribe and considered unfit to learn just about anything to improve her position. Ailia wants to learn though, and as she grows up, it becomes apparent that she has a talent for the spiritual teachings of her people. The nation is desperately searching for guidance under the threat of a Roman invasion but do they dare put their fate in the hand of a skinless woman?

Skin is centered on the Druidic culture that existed in Britain before the Roman invasion. Since the Celts didn't write any of it down, at least not in those days, we actually know very little of their teachings. There are Roman sources of course but they are not considered too reliable. Roman historians had the tendency to portray Rome's enemies as more barbaric than they really were. When it comes to the customs of the Celts at that time, a lot of stuff has been written that the archaeological records doesn't support. It gives a historical novelist quite a bit of space to work with and Tampke uses that space extensively in the novel. Sometimes a bit too extensively. One of the major plot twists hangs on a dubious depiction of human sacrifice, a custom that may well have been a figment of a Roman historian's imagination.

That isn't to say the author hasn't done her homework. Most of the story is set in Cad (modern day Cadbury Castle in Sommerset), one of the large hillforts in the south of England. Tampke hints at the events and social developments (the move away from hillforts to towns in particular) that are apparent in the archaeological and historical record. She admits to slightly adapting the timeline to better suit the story but the main sequence of events is historical.She also borrows a bit from early Welsh and Irish written sources. For readers familiar with this bit of history, the  story is clearly recognizable but there is also something very alien about it.

The central concept of the novel is skin. Skin determines all sorts of things in a person's life. Which animal their totem is, whom they can marry, whom they consider kin. It creates bonds beyond blood relationships but is also the source of taboos. Without a skin, a person's place in society is undetermined and it limits them in all sorts of ways. It will come as no surprise to the reader that Ailia is desperate to find out what her skin is. It is one of her motivations throughout the novel.

I've read a number of novels in this timeframe as well as some non-fiction and I haven't come across this concept before. It wasn't until I came across a clear reference to the songlines, an Australian Aboriginal concept, that the penny dropped for me.
‘What is it we stare upon?’ he asked.
I looked at him. Did he trick me? ‘It is Central Durotriga…?’
‘But what do you see in it?’ He bit into his fish.
I frowned. ‘Fields, rivers, many stones…’
‘When you train you will see it in a different way’ The sun turned his eyes to amber. ‘You will see the stories.’

Chapter 19 - Trees
Besides their view on the landscape, it would seem Tampke also let herself be inspired by an Aboriginal kinship system. I know very little about the details of how it works in Aboriginal society but Tampke doesn't seem to have transplanted one on one to her story. It's nevertheless a strange combination. I must admit I had a bit of trouble reconciling elements from two such vastly different cultures. To an extent even, that it derailed the story for me.

Another thing that bothered me in the novel was the language Tampke employs. You'd expect a few Celtic words or concepts to be added to the text to add a bit of authenticity. Tampke doesn't really do that in her novel but, especially in the dialogue, she uses old fashioned English. It makes the dialogue feel forced.
'Why do you cease?' asked Tara. 'Are you troubled?'
'No.' I shook my head. ' I am thinking of a knave I have met near here'
'A knave?' She sounded surprised.
'Yes - of some height with dark hair.' I looked at her. ' Have you seen him? Do you know of whom I speak?'
Her strong brow furrowed. 'No,' she said. ' He has not come here. And it would not be well for him if he did. This is a woman's place. Men are not permitted here. men will not survive.'

Chapter 14 - Ceremony
Why use 'knave', a word with a Germanic origin, instead of lad or boy? Why refrain from using contractions? Remember that this is a girl with no education whatsoever. Would she speak in such a formal style? It strikes me as a very unnatural dialogue.

The fusion culture created for this novel and use of language are personal quibbles of mine. If they don't happen to be your quibbles the book might still still hook you. It is a very fast paced story with a likeable main character. Ailia is a curious girl, stubbornly working towards her goal of obtaining training in the spiritual teachings of her people. I thought there was a bit of a contradiction in her character in that she is trying very hard to save a way of life that essentially dooms her to being a second rate member of the tribe. She does defend it with a fire that makes what history teach us will happen even more tragic.

To let the tragedy that is about to envelop her people even closer, the author presents Ailia with two interesting men in her life. They have radically different views on the future however. Her love life runs parallel to the military conflict that is brewing. At the end of the story, Ailia makes her choice but it is clear that the battle for control of the island is not done yet. Tampke leaves herself more than enough space for a sequel. My advance copy doesn't mention if there will be one but it seems likely to me.

Skin is not quite what I am looking for in a historical novel.For me. it was a decent read but I do feel Tampke sacrifices a bit too much historical accuracy to the needs of her story. I sometimes wondered if, with the fusion culture Tampke uses, it wouldn't have worked better in a completely fictional setting. The story leans on the supernatural for a large extent. The step into fantasy seems a minor one. Still, if that sort of thing doesn't bother you Skin can be a very entertaining read. All things considered, it is a début with room for improvement.

Book Details
Title: Skin
Author: Ilka Tampke
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 356
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Galley paperback, uncorrected proof
ISBN: 978-1-473-61642-4
First published: 2015