Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Ascension Factor - Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom

The Ascension Factor (1988) is the third book Herbert wrote in collaboration with Bill Ransom and the fourth in the setting introduced in his novel Destination: Void (1966). It's a series plagued with problems and tragedy. The first novel, The Jesus Incident (1979), had to be extensively rewritten at the last moment after a copyright issue threatened to block its publication. The second novel, The Lazarus Effect (1983), was written during a time of rapidly declining health of Herbert's second wife Beverly. She died less than a year after its publication. Herbert himself did not live to see the publication of the third novel. He died in February 1986, with much of the actual writing of the novel still to be done. Although Herbert and Ransom had agreed on the plot and character development, much of the novel is his work rather than Herbert's. It is clear however, that thematically at least, Herbert had a large influence on this novel.

Twenty-five years after the events described in The Lazarus Effect, Chaplain-Psychiatrist Raja Flattery, to the Pandorans known as the Director, rules the planet with an iron fist. Ecological and geological upheaval continue to wrack the planet and Flattery sees no other course to save humanity than to flee this planet and its dangerous alien intelligence. To do this he has geared the entire planet's economy towards outfitting and supplying a new Voidship. Famine is rampant and Flattery uses it to control the population. The increasing brutality of his rule has made him enemies however. A mysterious organization called Shadowbox is a menace and the kelp, always on the brink of once again becoming sentient, is an ever present threat. It is only a matter of time before he faces a full scale revolt.

This novel is one large attempt at dynamic equilibrium, a concept Herbert uses in many novels. It is most clearly expressed in the ecology of Pandora which plays a very large role in this n novel. Again the connection between the kelp, the ocean, weather and currents are explored. Flattery is aware of the kelp's importance to the planet. He sees it as a treat, trained as he is to act on signs of non-human intelligence. He doesn't dare to kill it off again though. He will not repeat the mistake Jesus Lewis made in The Jesus Incident and cause another ecological catastrophe. As a result he is forced to try and maintain a balance between regulating the kelp and stunting its growth to a level short of gaining self awareness. The margin for error is minimal but Flattery only has to hang on for so long, his escape vehicle is nearing completion after all.

Population pressure is a second example of a dynamic equilibrium. Pandora could comfortably feed its human population and Flattery knows it. To do so, would mean taking away resources from the huge project of building the Voidship however. The construction would become a multi-generational project and given the planet's instability, he feels he cannot afford to spend that much time on it. So hunger is used to keep the population in line and the workforce eager for the privileges their jobs provide. There is even a reference to Mathus in the book. Quite a lot of old earth's history, religion and science has survived it seems. Although the book doesn't really stress the point, it is the connection between economy and ecology that I really liked about it. The Director sees them as one problem to be managed rather than ignoring the ecological impact of economical activity. It's something a lot of science fiction fails to do unfortunately.

Flattery's approach is coldly brutal and relies on absolute control of the economy and communications. And that last bit is what gets him in trouble eventually. Keeping people ignorant is part of his strategy. He controls the media and transport and doesn't allow anyone else to set up their own networks. Keeping people ignorant of what is going on elsewhere keeps rebellions small and manageable. It is here that Flattery makes his mistake. Isolation cannot be maintained. Everything is connected after all, and the kelp is the connected factor.

The novel contains many themes found throughout Herbert's entire oeuvre. In that sense the novel doesn't stand out. The writing is noticeably different however. It took me a while to pin down the difference but I think it comes down to Ransom explaining too much. Herbert always relied on the reader to make the connections. In fact, some people felt he relied on them too much. Some of his leaps were hard to follow since Herbert liked to juggle multiple, often abstract notions in a single novel. This novel is not nearly as ambiguous as some of Herbert's best ones. It doesn't make the reader work as hard.

For me, that took a lot away from this book. Characterization has never been the strength of this series and to be honest, most of the main characters in this book are either two dimensional, uninteresting or plain don't make sense. Avata's new human form Crista Galli is particularly problematic. For someone who all parties in the conflict consider of key importance, she is remarkably passive in the novel. Or maybe it's the unconvincing and somewhat rambling conclusion of the novel that doesn't do her any favours. Bad guy Flattery is probably the most interesting of the lot since we've seen a totally different version of him in the earlier books.

Given the obstacles life threw in Herbert's direction during the writing of the series, it shouldn't come as a surprise that it is not his a highlight in his oeuvre. They are perfectly readable in a way but The Jesus Incident is unpolished, The Lazarus Effect uninspired and The Ascension Factor unconvincing. In a way, I can still enjoy the ideas Herbert and Ransom put in this novel. They are genuine Herbert in most places and I can see how they fit in the larger body of his work, but the story itself is just weak and not very well executed. It's not the kind of novel one would wish for when closing a successful careerer in science fiction.

Book Details
Title: The Ascension Factor
Author: Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom
Publisher: Putnam
Pages: 381
Year: 1988
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-399-13224-4
First published: 1988

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Ammonite - Nicola Griffith

Ammonite (1992) is Nicola Griffith's début novel. She has produced a only a handful of novels since then but they have been generally very well received. I recently read her latest novel Hild, a historical novel based on what little is known about the life of the seventh century saint Hilda of Whitby. Hild is a fascinating book, one of the best I've read last year, so naturally I was curious about the rest of Griffith's oeuvre. Ammonite must have made quite an impression as well. It was nominated for the BSFA and Clarke awards and won the Tiptree and Lambda Literary Award. Not bad at all for a début novel.

Centuries ago, on the planet Jeep a virus has destroyed the human colony. It is inevitably fatal to men but the mortality rate among women is only about 20 percent. Slowly a society made up entirely of women has evolved but now the company that sent the colonists in the first place, is trying to regain a foothold. The sent anthropologist Marghe Taishan to test a new vaccine and to uncover the secrets of Jeep society. One question in particular is of interest of Marghe. How do these women procreate? As Marghe learns more about Jeep and its people it becomes clear that leaving is not an option. Marghe will have to find a way to protect Jeep from the company's attention in order to save her new home.

I recently read another novel featuring an all female planet: A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski. It was published a few years earlier than Ammonite but takes a different approach in the way that biology and ecology are at the heart of the novel instead of anthropology. If I compare the two, the difference couldn't be greater. Where Slonczewski makes the contrast between male and female absolute, eventually dragging the entire story down to a good versus evil tale, Griffith's story is more subtle. The planet is populated by people who happen to be women, not an utopian caricatures in sight.

So how do women get on without men then? Just fine really. Sure, Jeep has had to take a few steps back technologically after contact with the rest of humanity had been lost, but for the most part, life goes on as usual. There is agriculture, trade, a rich cultural life based on story telling traditions and of course war. I must admit that looking back on it, this was not quite what I had expected. Ammonite is often mentioned as being a feminist work. I suppose it is in a way but it doesn't really concern itself with male/female relationships or how the absence of one gender would impact the other. Even the main character doesn't really study the planet in that light. She is mostly interested in the puzzle of procreation.

That doesn't mean Marghe doesn't make a lot of observations about other elements of society however. As a trained anthropologist she immediately notices something odd about the language that is used for instance. While the spoken language on Jeep is a form of English, the various tribes and people use vocabulary form languages that were extinct even before their ancestors left Earth. Gaelic she is most exposed to but others show up too in the story. It's a riddle tied into the spiritual life of the people on Jeep, and one that is ultimately tied to the riddle of procreation.

Although, as a scientist, Marghe is supposed to keep a bit of distance between the object she is studying and herself, she quickly discovers this is impossible. The planet has swallowed her whole and even though she suffers terribly at times, the realization that she will never leave it, is something of a liberation. The culture of the peoples of Jeep relies for a large part on oral traditions. News is spread by traveling wise women, who also settle disputes, entertain and, if they are talented in that area, heal. It's a life that appeals to Marghe, who sees both the spiritual side as well as the structure of storytelling from a scientific point of view. Quite a bit of the novel is taken up by her struggle to reconcile her desires with het mission.

Griffith use the vaccine Marghe has been given to test as a way to ramp up the pressure. She has a six month supply, after that she will inevitably contact the virus and, if she survives at all, be stuck on the planet. Early on in the novel, Marghe struggles against the planet, she works to get the job done as fast as possible and get out again. There is a clear breaking point in the novel were this becomes impossible. I thought the process of struggle, acceptance and embracing her new life was very well done. It does make it a very introspective novel however, not all readers will like that.

Tiptree and Russ are usually considered influences on Griffith's writing, I haven't read anything by either of them but from what I've read about them it seems quite obvious. With all the anthropology in this novel, there may well be a bit of Ursula K. Le Guin in it too. What surprised me was finding a passage in the story that reminded me of the control the Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood from Frank Herbert's Dune universe, have over their bodies. The ability to look inside at the molecular level seems fitting however. Looking inside and examining both the most intimate desires as wel as the most basic levels of how the body works are another expression of the introvert nature of this novel. For Marghe who is very aware of sensory input and  feelings throughout the novel, they are almost the same thing.

Ammonite didn't quite make the same impression on me as Hild. It is a very good novel in its own right but Griffith's writing obviously developed over the course of two decades. Jeep is not brought to life in the way seventh century England is. That being said, it is a very solid science fiction novel. It can be seen read as a response to the feminist science fiction that has come before but is works fine as a social science fiction story as well. I'll be moving on to her Nebula Award winning novel Slow River as soon as I can get my hands on it.

Book Details
Title: Ammonite
Author: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 400
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-11823-2
First published: 1992

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fifty Degrees Below - Kim Stanley Robinson

Fifty Degrees Below is the second book in Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capital trilogy. It's a near future science fiction novel tackling rapid climate change, a topic that has always greatly interested me. I read it for the first time in 2006, when my classes in things like atmospheric chemistry, environmental systems analysis and ecology were still more or less fresh in my mind. Back then, I thought it a bit better than Forty Signs of Rain, which was a bit of a disappointment to me. After this reread I still feel it's an improvement but for slightly different reasons. I guess my expectations played an important role in my initial read.

The National Science Foundation is starting to put its plans to become the global coordinator of the human response to rapid climate change in action. Scientist Frank Vanderwal has agreed to stay on a year longer and help with the project. He has had to move out of his apartment however and with the flood wrecking many homes in the DC area, fining an affordable living space proves to be difficult. While the NSF projects grind on, defying a hostile White House, Frank tries out life as an urban nomad. With the harshest winter in living memory about to descend on North America, things are going to get very challenging both personally and professionally for Frank.

In my previous review I wrote that I had some reason to believe that the novel was set in the 2040s but that it didn't really seem to match with other elements in the novel. In Fifty Degrees Below, more and more hits showed up that would make it more likely that the novel is set right about now. Phil Chase for instance, is mention as having been a reporter in Saigon. Even if he started his career early and got there late in the Vietnam war, it would still mean he is pushing a hundred in the 2040s. A group of Vietnam veterans show up in the novel as well, one mentioning being involved in the Tet-offensive. I'm going to have to look into the Antarctic treaty some time to see where I went wrong. Of course setting it 2014  doesn't match with the presidential campaign described in this book.

In Forty Sings of Rain the novel focused on three major characters, Frank Vanderwall and Anna and Charlie Quibler. Fifty Degrees Below is almost entirely Frank's territory. If you don't like this character, and I have seen plenty of comments out on the web from people who don't, then this novel is going to be dreadful. Personally, I like Frank just fine. He is intelligent, resourceful, impulsive and still obsessed with the prisoner's dilemma and sociobiology. He's also very lonely and throughout the novel shows increasing signs of paranoia, a development that will carry over to Sixty Days and Counting.

In this novel Frank is trying out some of his scientific theories. Although he makes a token attempt to find another place, he convinces himself rather quickly that he can do without a permanent home. It's a fairly common theme in Robinson's work. A lot of his characters are constantly on the move. Frank finds his live with a minimum of material possessions liberating. Although he has a semi-permanent shelter in one of city's parks, closed after the flood, his activities are spread out over the city. This roving lifestyle is perhaps not as extreme as Nirgal's run with the ferals in Blue Mars but the hunter-gatherer Frank so often thinks about is very present in this book. It makes me wonder what Frank, or Robinson himself for that matter, would make of Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines.

His explorations in the park and his experiences as a homeless man often lead Frank to think about how hopelessly ill prepared most people are to live without modern conveniences. He tries to convince people to stop wearing cotton during the coldest parts of winter for instance, and does a lot to help a group of homeless people he's been in contact with. On the other hand, he also feels that if you know how, survival even in this cold winter is quite possible. He thinks about how his basic survival gear, Frank is an experienced mountaineer, has not survived since the time of Ötzi the Iceman. Robinson's interest in Ötzi is one of the things that would eventually inspire him to write Shaman. Frank's new lifestyle will get him in trouble eventually and in a way contributes to his loneliness but he displays a kind of happiness in parts of the novel that clearly wasn't there when he at the end of his first term as NSF.

Frank is full of contradictions in this novel, primitive living conditions if a highly developed urban environment, lonely but surrounded by millions, some of whom he could consider his friends, cynical of politics yet involved in a project to get science some political leverage, a self confessed rationalist deeply moved by Buddhist principles. When you think about it, it's no wonder he looses his mind. But even that is not straightforward, Frank suffers a trauma to the head that clearly influences his behaviour too. Some readers may not like him much, I think he is a fascinating character.

One drawback of this almost entirely single point of view approach is that it gives a very one sided view of events. Frank rationalizes his choice to become homeless by ignoring the drawbacks of his new lifestyle for instance. All this primate on the plain stuff works very nicely when you are strong and healthy and experienced. Mistakes can be very costly. For all his talk of happiness, there must have been a reason why the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was ultimately abandoned. Another obvious issue is Frank's growing paranoia. How much of the spy stuff is actually real? The reader has no way to judge. One has to constantly keep in mind Frank is unreliable and for some readers that gets tiring.

Fifty Degrees Below is frighteningly relevant in two aspects. The fist is obviously the harsh winter it describes. The title of the book refers to a particularly cold night when the temperature in Washington DC drops to -50 °F (or about -46 °C for those of us used to a more sensible temperature scale). It was cold in parts of the US this winter but fortunately for the people living there, DC didn't get that cold. The mechanism appears to be a little different, as far as I know the termohaline circulation hasn't stalled (yet), but the link with the disappearance of the polar ice cap is certainly there. Unfortunately, this winter in the Eastern US doesn't seem to have inspired the sense of urgency when dealing with the problem of climate change Robinson describes in the novel. I guess we need a few more signs to get us moving.

In the novel the NSF does get things going however. It focuses extensively on the political side of getting things done. Frank is quite cynical about the whole process. The mudslinging and corruption of pure science to fit a political ideology disgusts him. Fortunately his boss Diane better at politics. Like the previous novel, there is not much actual science in this novel. Where Forty Signs of Rain focused on the process of science, here we get to see the political side of things. One thing that does get described is an attempt to restart the sinking of saline water in the northern Atlantic and thus restart the thermohaline circulation. Between the lines, Robinson does explain the science of this and notes that there are tipping points in all sorts of physical and biological processes that offer opportunities for mitigation strategies. When dealing with climate, relationships are rarely linear.

I must admit I have my doubts about the feasibility of the technological fix Robinson describes but it does make for a very dramatic scene in the final part of the novel. It is a very visible attempt to do something, and therefore from a political point of view useful, but much more structural changes need to be considered to really bring the situation under control. Climatic terrorism, as the incumbent republican president keeps referring to the situation, cannot be dealt a finishing blow that easily. The simplicity of political reasoning is dominant in this novel but Robinson makes sure the reader understands the problems with it. In a way, the Chase campaign reminded me of the Obama campaign in 2008. There's a huge sense of optimism but in the background also the nagging question whether or not he can actually deliver.

The second aspect I found strangely relevant is the surveillance theme in the novel. In Forty Sings of Rain Frank met a woman working for a nebulous secret service. As their relationship evolves, he gets to know more about her work and the inner workings of the organisation she is working for. Frank is amazed that he would be interesting enough to keep an eye on and that it would be so easy. After Edward Snowden's recent leaks, we know that what Robinson describes is positively tame to what is going on in reality. Where the science Robinson describes, still works pretty well, I'm afraid reality has overtaken him on this point. One particular weakness is the low-key role of information technology (and the possibilities to monitor the communication it enables) seems odd. It's one area where technological development almost seems to outpace the capacity of society to adapt to it.

The trilogy is often being described as eco-thrillers and quite a few very dramatic events take place in this novel. Whole islands disappear into the sea, blizzards rage, elections are being manipulated. There is plenty of material for a real thriller here. Robinson didn't write a thriller though. He uses these event to make a point but they are not what the novel focuses on. As such, I think the thriller label is a bit misleading. If you go into these books expecting some Michael Crichton or Robin Cook you're in for a disappointment. Treat is as a near future science fiction novel works a lot better.

I think Fifty Degrees Below is a better novel than Forty Signs of Rain. It's his most political novel up to that point and probably also the one that is most likely to polarize readers. The tighter focus on a single character will not be appreciated by all readers but does give us the most detailed look into the mind of a type character that Robinson portrays in a number of his novels: the scientist engaged with society, working not just to expand the sum of human knowledge but to put this knowledge in practice too. Through Frank's eyes we see science reaching out to society and politics in a way that clashes with the traditional view of science as the pursuit knowledge only. Will science be able to overcome the shortcomings of the current political process? Will science help us deal with the current crisis better than the current policy of denial?

Fifty Degrees Below poses some very fundamental questions about the way we run the world at the moment. Not everybody will agree with Robinson's views but it makes for fascinating reading. At it's core, this novel is not a thriller but a political statement and the message is 'we need to do something now!' Read it as such and there is plenty of material to think about. It hits a lot closer to home than the Mars trilogy or other novels set in various places in the solar system. Earth is old, full and complicated and changing the direction we're headed is hard. The details of a story tackling such a complex subject and the details of science underpinning will always be debatable  but Robinson captures that sense of complexity and inertia in society very well. All things considered I think I got a lot more out of this novel than during my first read.

Book Details
Title: Fifty Degrees Below
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Pages: 405
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-553-80312-3
First published: 2005

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Talus and the Frozen King - Graham Edwards

I've been reading quite a bit of prehistoric fiction recently  (The Shelters of Stone, Shaman, The Reindeer People),  so when I was offered a review copy of Graham Edwards' Talus and the Frozen King I figured this one would fit right in. Edwards has published a number of fantasy novels under his own name, and more recently, two crime novels as Nick Curtis. I haven't read any of them but it would appear that in this novel he tries to bring these genres together. In this book Edwards introduces 'the worlds first detective.'

On their long track north, in search of the place where the northern light touches the sky, the bard Talus and his traveling companion Bran arrive at the island of Creyak. They arrive at an unfortunate time, the king of the island has just been found dead and strangers are not welcome on the island at the best of times. What is worse, it is immediately apparent to Talus that the kind did not die a natural death. Despite the hostility of some of the islanders, he sets himself the task of unravelling the mystery of the king's death.

Edwards has clearly done quite a bit of research on this book but it is also blatantly obvious he doesn't let his research get in the way of a good story. From what he describes it is almost impossible to date the story or pin down where it is set. The settlement Edwards describes is inspired by the neolithic site of Skara Brae on Mainland, the largest of the Orkney isles. I get the feeling the rest of the description of the island doesn't match however. That particular site was occupied from about 3200 BC, but Edwards states on his site that the story is set a bit earlier. That clashes with the reference to 'the stepped tombs in a distant desert land.' Which, if they are referring to ancient Egyptian monuments, seems to imply that the story is set in the 28th or 27th century BC. Then there is a reference to 'the cairns of the jungle realms that lie far to the west, over the sea', which can't really be placed in this time period at all. In short, Edwards does not strive for historical accuracy as much as tries to evoke a certain atmosphere in his novels.

That atmosphere is certainly there. The landscape he describes is cold and misty. A rocky icebound island, hiding the signs of centuries of habitation. It feels already old in the early stages of what we consider civilization. A place ruled by fear and distrust, illuminated by the eerie aurora that attracts the main characters. It's an almost otherworldly setting. I also got the feeling that is was set a little further north than the Orkney's but again, Edwards is not very precise in this respect.

At the core, the story is a mystery. Talus must find the killer without the aid of forensics or any sort of judicial system. He needs to tie the evidence together with what he learns from the people on the island. It is as much a matter of gaining insight into what drives the people he talks to as much as looking at the physical evidence. Not that Talus discards this altogether. He quickly figures out the killer is left-handed for instance. Despite his modest means, Talus is quite a skilled investigator.

I guess you could say is molded after the classic great detectives. He is a very observant man, good at spotting detail and fitting it into a bigger picture. He is also, how shall I put is, not an easy man to be around. He doesn't always have patience with those unable to follow the leaps in his thinking and often can't be bothered to explain. A trait that gets him in dangerous situations more than once. Fortunately, his gift for words is such that he can usually talk himself out of it. For the people around him, and to an extent for the reader, Talus is a bit of a trail. More than once, his motivations do not become clear until he explains them later on in the story.

The mystery Talus is trying to unravels starts small but quickly spreads. The murder of the king is the pinnacle of a much larger conflict within the community and even involving another local settlement. As strangers, Bran and Talus peel back layer after layer of conflict, strife, discontent and jealousy in order to find the truth. The inner workings of an essentially isolated community where one man with a strong arm and a forceful personality can make his subjects do his biding are slowly revealed to the reader. The pacing is well handled but one thing that did bother me about the plot was that there seemed to be very little in the way of laws and customs regarding crime and punishment within the community. Somehow that strikes me as unlikely.

As a mystery I don't think it is the best I've ever read. Talus needs to do a bit too much explaining for the whole thing to make sense. That being said, the novel is a quick and entertaining read. Not heavy on history or bogged down by archaeologic detail, Edwards keeps the story going at a brisk pace. The mystery set before the reader in the opening chapters is fully resolved by the end of it but Talus and Bran clearly have a past and from what we get to see of it, I would be surprised if Edwards meant to keep it to a single volume. Talus and the Frozen King is an entertaining read that offers plenty of opportunities for further adventures. I for one, wouldn't mind seeing another one of these come my way.

Book Details
Title: Talus and the Frozen King
Author: Graham Edwards
Publisher: Solaris
Pages: 336
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-84997-664-0
First published: 2014

Friday, March 28, 2014

Drakenkoningin - An Janssens

When you look around on in a the genre fiction section of your average Dutch bookshop, you'll notice that not much in the way of fantasy and science fiction on the shelves is local produce. Science fiction is nearly impossible to find in Dutch and fantasy is almost always translated, with the English language world being the biggest supplier. One of the reasons I started reading in English is that the selection offered is very limited in some ways. I do try to keep an eye out for fantasy originally written in Dutch however. It doesn't happen often that I find something worth reading but once in a while I come across a title that makes me curious. Drakenkoningin (literally translated: Dragon Queen), is one such book.

There are two publishers in the Netherlands that publish the bulk of fantasy available in Dutch and one of them, Luitingh Fantasy,  must have noticed the shortage of homegrown talent. In 2012 the set up a contest, challenging writers to submit their manuscripts. The winner would, if the manuscript was of sufficient quality, be published. From the conditions of the contest it is clear that Luithingh wasn't going to take too much chances besides publishing a new name. The novel they were looking for should be firmly rooted in fantasy and should appeal to a wide audience. If you read between the lines of the conditions, they were essentially looking for a novel much like the translated works they are publishing and in a way, that is exactly what they got.

Drakenkoningin by Flemish author An Janssens is the winning book of the contest. It was published in October 2013 by Luitingh Fantasy after a round of edits of the original manuscript. It's a fairly short novel that nevertheless seems to check all the boxes of bestselling Fantasy in the Netherlands. It's a not too challenging read, is set in a secondary world in which a magical disaster too place in a distant past and it has dragons. In short, it is the kind of Tolkienesque fantasy that has been doing well here in recent years.

Seven hundred years ago, a magical experiment has gone awry. The wizards responsible for the disaster retreated behind a magical barrier, leaving humanity behind to fend for itself in a cooling world. Their influence isn't entirely gone however. The wizard Venor set up a contest to be held once every century. The winner and his or her descendants would rule of humanity until the next contest was held.The contest is rigged however. For seven centuries, one queen has ruled practically unopposed and with an iron fist. Soon a new contest will be held, and this time the queen has serious competition.

If I'd had to capture this novel in one word I'd probably say it is hasty. The concept behind the story offers lots of possibilities but almost all of them are sacrificed to keeping the plot going at the fastest pace possible. The novel's prologue illustrates this perfectly. We catch a glimpse of a world in turmoil, the last moments of a civilization. It's a chaotic scene and tosses the reader a few riddles to explore further on in the novels. Or at least, that is what one would expect of a prologue. An awful lot of the things mentioned in the prologue are not followed up on. There is the suggestion that wizards are actually a different species instead of humans with magical powers, there is the riddle of what they were doing that so hopelessly screwed up the world and why they thought it was a good idea to try, there is motivation of Venor to create the barrier that remains completely unclear. The contest itelf is one of the few things that Janssens does follow up on. The prologue a nice action-packed sequence but if not for the contest and appearance of one of the main characters in the novel, there would have been a total disconnect with the rest of the story.

Fast-forward seven hundred years and we end up in the main body of the story. To further introduce the reader to her creation Janssens uses a main character Thala, who wakes up a captive in the single city humanity is confined to. Most of her memories are gone and she is severely weakened. This memory loss offers Janssesn another opportunity to slip in some tidbits about the world the reader needs to know. She uses it very sparingly however, Thala is soon caught up in a whirlwind of events that sees her take part in the next contest. For most of the story, Thala's actions are driven by an acute need to survive. She is weakened from injuries, dependent on others to keep her safe and on the move and rarely able to make her own decisions. We see what she does, share her most basic responses and feelings but never truly get into her head and that is a huge missed opportunity when you consider the magic that surrounds her.

The wizards may have withdrawn, that doesn't mean magic is gone from the world. The Queen for instance, employs a kind of magic that lets her influence the thoughts of others. Sometimes it is quite crude but she is also capable of very subtle manipulations. Her victims are not always aware that she is manipulating them. The talent is not widespread but a number of other characters are also able to do it. This makes the queen very suspicious, in fact, she is bordering on paranoid for most of the novel. Oddly enough, the knowledge that whatever you are thinking at a specific time might not be your own though, doesn't seem to affect the other characters as much. Thala realizes quickly that the queen and a number of other characters can get into her head. There is a great possibility for a psychological game here but it never really materializes. The more mundane, physical challenge of the contest takes precedence.

Thala has essentially lost her entire identity when she wakes up. She needs to find herself, her past and her place in the world and is surrounded by people she can't trust, tried to hurt or imprison her or plant thoughts into her head designed to keep her form winning the throne. Doubt, paranoia and confusion could have been used to much greater effect. If this novel had explored the psychological aspect of the situation a bit further I think it would have been a much more interesting read.

Thala's nemesis the Queen falls victim to minimal characterization as well. She is essentially cut off from the truly advanced magic of the wizards, ostracised from a society that may have looked down on her but offered possibilities to expand her knowledge and power. What we find seven centuries on is a woman obsessed by staying in power but apparently blind to the fact that the pitiful remnant of human society she is ruling over is effectively dying. Nowhere in the novel is there any trace that she means to reach beyond what she already rules to try and stop this decline. Or perhaps beat the contest once and for all and take revenge, that would have been another good motivation for this character. As it is her ambition is to stay in power, period. Had she had more ambition, the reader would have had to ask the question whether the Queen's goals justify her means, injecting a bit more grey into a character that, right now, is just plain evil.

Drakenkoningin is a novel for really plot oriented readers. Janssens made is a very fast paced tale, where the reader (or the characters for that matter) barely get time to catch their breath. To achieve all this speed and action, worldbuilding and characterization are, sometimes quite brutally, sacrificed. That is a choice some readers may appreciated. Personally, I look for a little more in a fantasy novel. Janssens has the basics for an interesting story here but I feel she is not making the most of it. There is too much shaky worldbuilding and too little attention to the motivations of her characters for me to really appreciated it. In the end I felt that this book needed a bit more Philip K. Dick and a little less Raymond E. Feist to make it rise above the fantasy that crowds the shelves in Dutch book stores. That being said, I understand that it is to be the first book of a trilogy. Some of what I am missing in this story may be addressed in later volumes.

Book Details
Title: Drakenkoningin
Author: An Janssens
Publisher: Luitingh Fantasy
Pages: 271
Year: 2013
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-6254-1
First published: 2013

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Door into Ocean - Joan Slonczewski

A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski was first published in 1986 and won her a John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1987. I've never read anything by Slonczewski before but her name pops up in science fiction regularly. She is not very prolific, combining a career as microbiologist with writing science fiction, but from what I've seen of it, what she has written is very well received. This novel might well be the one that is most critically acclaimed. Without having read any of the others I can't say if this is justified but I did think it was a very rich and remarkably complex science fiction novel in terms of worldbuilding. So much so in fact, that I doubt I can do it justice in this review. In the end I was less impressed with the treatment of gender in this novel. It divides the genders along sharp lines in ways that I wasn't really expecting from a book that is considered a highlight of feminist science fiction.

On the ocean world of Shora, a nation of women have created a pacifist society, combining highly developed biological sciences with a deep understanding of the world's ecology. After being left alone for ages, they come into conflict with a neighbouring civilization from the planet Valedon that wants to develop the ocean's resources. Their societies are so different that neither of the parties is completely sure that the other meets their definition of human. This gap in understanding needs to be bridged for Shora to survive. Doing so  poses to be a formidable challenge for all those involved.

The novel has been hailed as an example of eco-feminism. I'm not entirely sure that was what Slonczewski set out to write but the male/female is one of the many dichotomies that can be found in the novel. The population of Shora is entirely female, while Valedon has two genders but is essentially a patriarchal society. This difference is striking but the gap between Shora and Valedon runs much deeper. There is a difference in the development of different branches of science, a difference in the structure of their language, a dichotomy between organic and inorganic and one between pacifist and violent. All of these play an important part in the conflict and add to the challenge of the parties to understand each other. Unfortunately these contradictions all seem to run along gender lines and the story makes it quite clear who the author sympathizes with.

Slonczewski has stated that A Door into Ocean is influenced by Frank Herbert's Dune (1965) and Ursula K. Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest (1976), both of which I've read. The influence of Dune in this novel is very clear. Shora is, in just about every respect an opposite of Arakis. An ocean instead of a desert, a pacifist people instead of a highly violent one, a people maintaining the web of life instead of a people trying to force the planet's ecology into a different mold. Dune must have been a dissatisfying read for Slonczewski. Herbert was one of the first authors who used ecology as an essential part of his stories but that doesn't mean that the ecology of Dune makes sense. For a trained biologist, some of it must have been grating.

The ecology of Shora is more diverse than the one Herbert describes. The dominant species on the planet are based on earth's cephalopods (squids, nautiluses, octopuses and the like), with this difference that the haemocyanin, a copper bases oxygen carrier in their blood, is exchanged for iron bases haemoglobin. Haemoglobin is more efficient, enabling a higher rate of metabolism. They provide an important source of food for the people of Shora and also make sure the surface of the ocean doesn't get clogged up with plant matter. Where Herbert's Fremen, despite their skill at living in the desert, still seem to survive despite their harsh environment, the Shora are truly part of the web of life. They understand their position in it, regulate their numbers accordingly and accept losses to the the enormous, migrating seaswallowers in exchange for the service they provide. The Sharers are the most environmentally aware people I've come across in science fiction.

The role of violence is an other clear element where Slonczewski takes the opposite direction from Herbert. The language of the Sharers doesn't distinguish between subject and object, something that contributes to the problems of the Valans and the Sharers have understanding each other. Early in the novel Slonczewski draws a parallel between Sharer language and Newton's third law of motion which has very interesting implications. When 'I hurt you' in essence is the same as 'we hurt each other' violence makes very little sense. It is, at best, an expression of immaturity but at various stages in the novel it is also described as a disease or even proof than the Valans are not human. It's a twist to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis I haven't come across before.

The treatment of violence is what ties the novel to Le Guin's The Word for World is Forest, which also includes a seemingly pacifist people not considered quite human by invading humans. That story eventually erupts in quite brutal violence however. Slonczewski takes the Shora idea of passive resistance all the way to the climax of the novel. That is not to say that blood doesn't flow but the war the Valan general wants, never materializes. I must admit that, in the face of the large numbers of casualties, I had my doubts about whether or not a human being, or a society as a whole, could face up to the consequences of this position. It seems a tad unlikely to me but then again, I'm from a society where violence is present in every day life. It must be said that, politically speaking, the effect of the Sharer strategies are just as devastating as a victory on the battlefield.

Slonczewski manages to incorporate a lot of very interesting material in the novel. The ecological part of the story in particular had me captivated. When you sit back and think about he various contrasts in the novel however, it does become apparent that the division of positive and negative traits assigned to each culture results in a picture devoid of grey. The feminine Sharers are associated with peace, life and heath, while the masculine Valans represent death, violence and sickness. Had it been just a clash between a pacifist society and one where a certain level of violence is accepted and power is based on the capacity to inflict damage, it would have worked for me. Putting the divide along gender lines feels like pushing it too far. Especially since the novel suggests that neither party is really capable of understanding the other, limited to what their gender allows them. Ultimately the conflict is not resolved with an understanding, or sharing as the Sharers would put it, and that was a bit of a let down for me.

All things considered, I feel that A Door into Ocean would have been a better book if it had been a bit less political. I love the worldbuilding, emphasis on ecology and the way Slonczewski handles language for instance. In some respects it is a very strong novel so I can see why it was awarded the Campbell. I can't help but detect a bit of irony there, Campbell himself would, given the content and his views on women and science fiction, most likely have detested the novel. Ultimately it's the simplicity of the way genders are portrayed that is the novels undoing however. While I enjoyed parts of it greatly, I found the novel as a whole a bit of a disappointing read.

Book Details
Title: A Door into Ocean
Author: Joan Slonczewski
Publisher: Orb Books
Pages: 403
Year: 2000
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-312-87652-4
First published: 1986

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Empress of the Sun - Ian McDonald

Empress of the Sun is the third book in Ian McDonald's young adult series Everness. The books are a mixture of steampunk, adventure, strange vocabulary and quantum mechanics that is pretty hard to resist for the real science fiction geek. When starting out on this project McDonald set himself the goal of writing books that would keep boys reading beyond the age of twelve, when a lot of them give it up in favour of other activities. I'm a little too old to speak for today's twelve-year-olds and I certainly wouldn't go so far as to say they are not appealing to girls but I suspect he may well have succeeded. Although McDonald set up his world to be only limited by his own imagination and plenty of more stories are possible, it would appear that this book is the last one for the moment. I haven't seen anything that points in the direction of more Everness books in the immediate future.

Everett Singh may be a talented mathematician, even he can't keep track of all variables. A failure to imagine a world that's not spherical, has made the airship Everness crash on an unknown alternate Earth where dinosaurs did not go extinct and had 65 million years to evolve into something beyond the giant reptiles whose bones grace musea on Earth 10. The ship is badly damaged and they need to find a way to get it moving again before their enemies find them. The world they landed is far from safe either. Just about everything in this environment seems to have a ravenous appetite and fierce interspecies competition is the norm. With enemies approaching on all sides, Everett and his company are in serious trouble.

The structure described in Empress of the Sun is known as an Alderson disc. It's a hypothetical structure akin to what Larry Niven describes in Ringworld. Everett thinks of it as Discworld however. There are a number of references to Terry Pratchett's work in the book. It's probably the version of Earth that has diverged furthest from the world we know and illustrates clearly how much room to come up with alternative Earths McDonald leaves himself. The location the Everness crew finds itself in, is a jungle where the struggle for survival is both fast and violent. An intelligent species has arisen and created the disc but it has since been locked in a perpetual war for control, making them both ruthless and violent. Their preoccupation with each other might well be the only thing that keeps the rest of the multiverse safe from them. The arrival of the Everness has ruined the equilibrium and consequences of unleashing these creatures could be dire.

The relationship between Everett and Sen continues to develop. Despite the frantic repairs, dealing with the natives of this alternative Earth and having to fend off their pursuers,find time for romance. McDonald has made sure not to underestimate his target audience in these books but I was still surprised at the directness of the novel on such matters as procreation and warfare. Especially since he sold it to an American publisher. The inquiries of  Kax, one of the natives of the Earth the Everness crashes on, into the nature of the relationship between Sen and Everett will probably see it banned from more than one school library.

The novel follows two other story lines as well. The first is that of Everett's alternate Everett M - apparently a nod the Iain (M.) Banks -  who has taken his place on Earth 10 and is trying to keep it from being overrun by the intelligence that has taken over Earth 1. He is a very tragic figure, trying to save the world but unable to tell anyone. The temptation to do so is overwhelming at times and so he decides to push people away from him, adding to his loneliness. Where he appeared to be Everett's enemy in the previous book, their goals seem to align more in this volume. He appeared very cold-blooded to me in Be My Enemy. McDonald is clearly trying to show us a different side of this character in this book.

The second story line besides Everett's is that of Charlotte Villiers, the villainess in this series. We get to see more of her political manoeuvres and gain more insight in her motivation. Unlike Everett M, this doesn't make her more sympathetic however. She uses people and has a very low opinion of anyone who allow themselves to be used by her. People are pawns to her, useful at times but completely disposable. She does however, immediately see the danger the journey of the Everness poses to the panoply of worlds and her response to this threat is characteristically brutal. What I like about this story line is not so much the character but the fact that it shows the reader just how little Everett knows about the multiverse and how shaky the information on which he bases his decisions is. He doesn't see so himself but this is one aspect in which the very competent Everett is truly a teenager.

Although it is clear from the ending of the novel McDonald doesn't intend to stop here, the novel does provide a proper climax for the trilogy. Several story arcs are completed with one very obvious omission. Everett has made a new life for himself in a universe that is larger than he ever imagined. The Everness books are a wonderful ride among the parallel worlds. McDonald, who isn't lacking imagination in his adult fiction either, clearly went all out in this set of books. The result is a fast and fun read that should appeal to science fiction veterans as well as the target audience. The quality of these books has only increased since Planesrunner. I for one, wouldn't mind seeing an announcement that McDonald has sold a few more of these.

Book Details
Title: Empress of the Sun
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Pyr
Pages: 283
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-61614-865-2
First published: 2014

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Reindeer People - Megan Lindholm

The Reindeer People by Megan Lindholm is the first novel in her duology about Tillu and Kerlew. I read these books years ago in Dutch translation but I've since decided to get rid of the translations and get them in English instead. I'm considering doing this for the Robin Hobb novels I own in Dutch as well. Lindholm has been fortunate with her translators, but good as they may be, I prefer to read the original English versions. There are the last two of Lindholm's I've been able to get my hands on. I would very much like to read the one remaining novel, Cloven Hooves (1991) I haven't review yet, but unfortunately it appears to be long out of print (except of course, in Dutch translation.) If anybody happens to know where I can find a copy that doesn't cost me an arm and a leg for please let me know. But let's get back to the issue at hand.

Tillu is struggling to bring up her socially awkward son Kerlew among a people strange to her. While most people she encounters see Kerlew as an odd boy, one better avoided, the shaman of the people she is staying with, a man named Carp, thinks he might make a good apprentice. He also thinks Tillu would make a good wife. She feels he is too creepy and arrogant to be allowed to teach the boy, let alone touch her. Her position is weak however. Among this tribe, women do as they are told. There is only one option open for Tillu: move on. It is the start of a trek though a subarctic winter. Their environment poses a formidable challenge and worst of all, Carp is not about to let them escape.

The Reindeer People and its sequel Wolf's Brother were written before Lindholm switched to the pen name of Robin Hobb. One of the things I like about her Megan Linholm books is that under that name, she was a lot less constrained, resulting in novels that include epic fantasy, urban fantasy, science fiction, and in this case, prehistoric fiction. While I enjoy the Robin Hobb novels immensely, I do get the feeling that as a writer she is more bound to the Realm of the Elderlings than she would like. The many negative reaction to her Soldier Son trilogy, her only departure from the Realm of the Elderings as Robin Hobb, do not, I feel, do justice to the thematic leap she tried to make there. Maybe I should reread those books some time soon as well.

Some people classify The Reindeer People as fantasy although, apart from some shamanic rituals, there is very little in the way of fantasy elements in the novel. Lindholm doesn't specify where or when the story is set but it is strongly reminiscent of Sami reindeer herding culture. Some of the vocabulary she uses seems to point in that direction too, although she slips once and refers to reindeer as caribou.  The level of technology is bronze age, although bronze implements are scarce so far up north. I guess it could have been set further east, or a completely imaginary world but my money is on Scandinavia. It has the feel of a very well researched book but Lindholm was probably wise to not name the place and period to specifically.

I've been thinking about Kerlew a lot after finishing this book. He is a very difficult child. Anti-social, very self absorbed in a way. He often comes across as downright rude and doesn't seem to be interested in helping provide for their basic needs. Carp's influence over him only worsen this attitude as he feels a lot of chores are beneath his dignity as a shaman. Without his mother, he wouldn't survive a week in this unforgiving environment. He reminds me a bit of Gotheris, one of the characters in her Ki and Vandien novel Luck of the Wheels. Kerlew's attitude points more towards a disorder in the autistic spectrum though. It made me wonder if Lindholm had and specific disorder in mind what she created this character.

The people who Tillu encounters after fleeing Carp's tribe are semi-nomadic reindeer herders. Their way of life is being described in detail in this novel. Form the food and the preparation of it, to the trade with more southern people and the implements they use in everyday life. The Reindeer People and Wolf's Brother were originally intended to be one volume. The book was eventually split in two (not the last time in her career that would happen) but nowhere in the novel did I get the feeling she gets bogged down in unnecessary detail. I did feel that, while Lindholm found a natural point in the story to split the book, the end of this first novel is rather abrupt. It's one of those books where you absolutely have to have the sequel on hand, otherwise it might prove an unsatisfying read.

Although the story is centers around Tillu, one of the major characters, a man names Heckram, is of the reindeer people. Through his eyes we get to see a people with a rich culture, where status is an important aspect of one's position in society. Lindholm draws a sharp contrast between the people Tillu is coming from and the one she encounters on her fight. The position of women in particular is completely different. His people have strongly ingrained traditions but recently they have been suffering from misfortune and indecisive leadership. It leaves them wide open to those who don't mind putting their own interests or ego's over the common good. As strangers, Kerlew, Tillu and eventually Carp put additional stress on the situation. Something Lindholm means to build on in the next novel.

I remember liking these books a lot when I first read them in Dutch and reading the English original hasn't changed my opinion that much. What I don't remember noticing is the abrupt ending of this novel. I might very well have read them back to back the first time around. When Lindholm wrote these books she already had a few books under her belt and they are much more confident than the first Ki and Vandien stories. Apart from the slightly awkward split, these two novels are among the better ones she wrote as Megan Lindholm. It is of course not the Robin Hobb style, epic fantasy many readers are used to but if you care to step outside that genre, Lindholm has a few very interesting titles to offer. My personal favourite remains Wizard of the Pigeons but these two are not that far behind.

Book Details
Title: The Reindeer People
Author: Megan Lindholm
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 348
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-00-742544-0
First published: 1988

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Redemption in Indigo - Karen Lord

I picked up Karen Lord' second novel The Best of All Possible Worlds (2013)  last year as part of a reading challenge. It was one of the more interesting books I've read for the challenged so Lord ended up on the list of authors I want to read more of. Earlier this year I decided to get a copy of her debut novel Redemption in Indigo. It's one of those books that have gotten quite a bit of attention recently but I hadn't gotten around to reading. Redemption in Indigo was first published in 2010 by Small Beer Press. I have a newer UK edition however, published by Jo Fletcher Books in 2012. Redemption in Indigo won a number of awards, including the Mythopoeic award in 2011. It's quite different from The Best of All Possible Worlds, these two novels show a versatility that that many writers would be jealous of.

The novel tells the story of Paama, a woman who, fed up with her husband's gluttony, has fled back to her family and refuses to return to him. Her husband is not about to let that happen however. He sets out after her and succeeds in making a complete fool of himself. Paama is obviously not going to change her mind but then something happens that will make her see the world in a different light. The undying  ones, or djombi, present her with a gift. A dangerous gift as Paama soon finds out.

I understand that Redemption in Indigo is partly based on a folk tale from Senegal known as Ansige Karamba the Glutton. I had of course never heard of it so I did a few searches to see if there happened to be an English version online. Such stories tend to exist in many variations but it would have been interesting to find one. I came up with nothing however. Maybe I would have had better luck finding a French. Unfortunately I can only count to ten and order coffee in French so it would have been as useless to me as one in say Wolof or Pular. It's quite possibly that there simply is no version out there. It sounds like the kind of story that needs to be listened to rather than read. If anybody does knows where I could find a version please let me know.

Like Asingne's story, Redemption in Indigo is presented as a tale that needs to be listened to. The reader gets told the story by a skilled storyteller, one is not afraid to move back and forth on the time line and cast doubt on the truthfulness of what he is telling the audience. In fact, he struck me as being quite opinionated. He means to entertain. There are all sorts of hints of other tales in the story that he then abandons in favour of Paama's tale. They serve to raise curiosity in his audience. It must have been pretty hard to keep this style going for the entire novel but in some chapters you really feel as if you're around some fire with a group of people completely immersed in the storyteller's tale. The narrator's voice is not that strongly present in the entire novel, some sections read more like a regular third person perspective.

In the early stages of the novel, it is something of a comedy. Asingne's antics are hilarious at times and even the trouble he puts Paama in, is not enough to make me stop grinning. Despite leaving him, she does try to protect him from too much embarrassment. There's more than a bit of tragedy here as well. Her husband seems to think he is entitled to the attention Paama pays to him and the lengths she goes to to provide him with the comforts he desires. His ways will eventually get him what he deserves in a way but Paama's attention is also more than he deserves.

Later on in the novel the tone gets much more serious. Paama is drawn into a conflict between djombi and their power is such, that their games are very dangerous to mere mortals. One of the djombi wants Paama to hand over her gift to him, a gift he feels was his power to begin with. In his attempt to get Paama to hand it over he shows her things about the world that change her outlook on life. But she is not without her influence either. His view of humanity is, which he held in very low regard until meeting Paama, changes profoundly. As Asingne should already have figured out, she is quite a special woman.

Redemption in Indigo is an unusual book in many respects. There is the way the story is told, with a very present narrator and a myriad of side plots that seem to go nowhere but are somehow essential to the novel. There is the elusive strong female main character that the fantasy genre is trying so hard to find. There is African inspired setting and mythological influences that you only rarely find in English language literature. All of this and more Lord manages to put into a relatively short novel. The book is so many things that don't usually come up when people think fantasy that is should really open the reader's eyes about what is possible in fantastical literature. It is quite simply a great read. For anybody who wants more out of the genre than your typical Tolkienesque epic fantasy, this novel is a must read.

Book Details
Title: Redemption in Indigo
Author: Karen Lord
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Pages: 280
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-78087-308-4
First published: 2010

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Forge of Darkness - Steven Erikson

After finishing the monumental job of writing the ten volumes of the Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson must have wondered how to continue. The series is one of the most complex and demanding works of Fantasy I've come across. The scope and depth of the history of the world of Malaz is simply way beyond anything encountered in other fantasy series. It leaves plenty of options to tell other stories of course but the temptation to start something fresh must also have been present. In a way Forge of Darkness, the first novel in the Kharkanas trilogy is a bit of both. The story is set so far back in history that it might as well be a different world despite the familiar characters that show up.

Forge of Darkness takes us to the realm of Kurald Galain, back to the time when the Tiste were one people. In recent years the cult of Mother Dark has gained prominence in Tiste society and this is not to everybody's liking. As her darkness spread through the Tiste lands resistance against her and her chosen consort Lord Draconus is growing. Most of the major players are aware that civil war is about to erupt and precautions are being taken. Outside the borders of the realm things are stirring too. Especially along the shores of the mysterious Vitr sea things are happening that will change the world.

In a way, Erikson takes a bit of a gamble here. Despite the vast gulf of time that separates this story form the ten book series he wrote before, the fate of the Tiste people is known. We've even seen some of it in one of the flashbacks in the later Malazan Book of the Fallen novels. To keep things interesting Erikson uses a technique not often encountered in Fantasy. Where most series strive for internal consistency and time lines that sometimes are know from day to day, Erikson leaves things fuzzy on purpose. He often employs unreliable narrators, people who were present at events in the distant past, people who have stakes in these events or have reason to want them to be remembered a certain way. In short, what Erikson chooses to show us our knowledge of history is flawed, sometimes corrupted and often unreliable. Nothing that can be gleaned from the Malazan Book of the Fallen novels can be taken for granted. To stress this point, the novel is essentially a frame story. In the prologue Erikson introduces us to the narrator of the book, who readily admits his own bias in telling it.

The shape of the story is what we've come to expect from Erikson. He uses a great number of point of view characters to show events in a lot of different locations, patiently working his way to the climax of the novel. Where many of his books have a military campaign at the heart of at least one major story line, this novel has a slightly different focus. There are armies on the move and a few battle scenes are included but civil war is much messier than an outright military conflict. Nobody appears in control. While everybody can feel the momentum building and an eruption of violence approaching, the immediate goals of the characters seem limited. There is no Kellanved with dreams of an empire, no Crippled God aiming to shake up the pantheon. It is epic fantasy but somehow a shade more manageable than the sprawling series that made Erikson's name.

Another very interesting touch is that while the religious tensions appear to tear Tiste society apart, they are fast approaching an ecological crash too. There are lots of references to deforestation and the extinction of animals. Beyond the loss of good hunting game, nobody seems overly concerned about it. Erikson is clearly exploring more than one way in which a culture can doom itself. In that respect, the Tiste are certainly being thorough.

Besides the Tiste, Erikson shows us a number of other elder races in this book. The Jaghut show up as they were before a war of genocide was unleashed on them and before Hood's ascension. The Jheck make an appearance, there are references to the Forulkan and their eternal pursuit of justice and the Eilent crash the party. For the established reader the opening chapters of this book is a feast of recognition. Before Erikson pulls the carpet from under you and lays out a very different history from what we thought we knew anyway. The Azathanai, which I assume are linked to the Azath houses of a later age, are perhaps the most interesting. They already seem to have a very long history and struck me as gods living among their own creations. They seem to have already distanced themselves from their creations though. Their whole stance made me wonder where Erikson is going to take that particular part of the story.

As you will probably have realized by now, there is plenty that ties this book the to the Malazan Book of the Fallen. For an established reader it will be a treat. Erikson also wanted to make it an entry point into the series. One that didn't need the reader to commit to ten large volumes. Having read all ten Malazan books, as well as five novellas and five novels by Ian C. Esslemont set in the same world, it is hard for met to answer the question if it is successful in that respect as well. The story itself should be no problem but I do feel you get an awful lot more out of this book if you've read the series. Of course Gardens of the Moon (1999), the other obvious entry point into the world of Malaz is not without it's flaws. The series is notoriously difficult to get into. With so much more experience, Erikson has delivered a better written book and a much smoother read. There is something to be said for starting here.

Carrying on after completing such a huge series as the Malazan Book of the Fallen is quite a challenge and Erikson proves up to it with Forge of Darkness. He manages to create a new chapter in the story that is both fresh and different from what has gone before but retains the kind of messy complexity and immense tragedy that characterize his previous novels. I was quite impressed with the opening novel of the Kharkanas trilogy. Erikson is clearly not finished with the universe he and Ian C. Esslemont created. I for one, look forward to seeing where he will take this trilogy. I may have to wait a while to find out though. It looks as if Fall of the Light won't appear until next year.

Book Details
Title: Forge of Darkness
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 662
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-593-06217-3
First published: 2012