Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Apex Book of World SF 3 - Lavie Tidhar

A lot has changed in genre fiction since the appearance of the first volume of The Apex Book of World SF in 2009. A discussion about a more inclusive genre in terms of culture, gender and sexual orientation has been raging for quite a while now and progress on this front is clearly being made. Where Tidhar probably had to work very hard to get access to enough material to fill the first volume, nowadays more and more material is being published by writers form outside the English speaking world and western culture. It's a development that can't be completely laid at the feet of this series of anthologies of course, but it does offer a platform for such works and shows that there is a market for it. In other words, there is more than enough reason to keep the momentum going and release a third volume.

This third volume again is a mix of stories originally written in English and translated works. Almost all works were previously published in magazines or other collections, only one is original to this anthology. It has stories from all continents, with maybe a slight emphasis on Asia, and it stretches science fiction to include fantasy and horror. Two things are a bit different compared to the previous two editions. The women far outnumber the men in this collection, and it contains fewer stories than the first and second volume did. I don't know if the the abundance of female authors is intentional but Tidhar clearly did opt to include a few longer pieces in this anthology.

As with any collection, I didn't connect with all of the stories the same way. The overall quality is quite high but the variation in style and themes will almost inevitably cause the reader to have a few clear favorites. I'll mention a few of mine but I encourage you to find your own. These anthologies have been an eye-opener for me.

The Anthology opens with Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. She is from Thailand and has been making her presence felt in the short fiction market in the past couple of years. I've read one other story by her that was contained in the anthology We See a Different Frontier (2013). This story is one of the first she published and if I had to classify it, I'd say it is a form of military science fiction. It is not easy on the reader. Where much science fiction prefers plot over form, in this story neither wants to give ground to the other. It is beautifully written and has quite an emotional impact. Some readers will be left with questions about what just happened though. From a literary point of view this may be the strongest story in the collection.

The City of Silence is another of my favorites. It was written by Chinese author Ma Boyong and is one of the two stories that have been translated by Ken Liu. The story is set in a future where the state exercises extreme levels of control over its citizens. They go so far as to create a list of 'healthy words' that are permissible to be used in conversation and on the heavily censored internet. As people find more and more creative ways to get their opinion across, the list grows ever shorter. Language itself is under threat from the state.

The story is clearly inspired by George Orwell's 1984 but takes the control of the state to even more extreme levels. It underlines the interesting relationship between the state, politics and language in a way. I can't help but wonder how much of this story is criticism of the Chinese government. On the other hand, for the western reader there is a clear parallel to such things as privacy on the Internet and net neutrality. The City of Silence offers a lot of food for thought.

Jungle Fever by Zulaikha Nurain Mudzor (Malaysia) is one of the uncut horror pieces in the collection. It deals with a woman who scratches herself on a jungle plant. A wound that starts to change her immediately. The story is told from first person perspective and the main character knows exactly what is going on but doesn't care. It makes the story a bit understated and somehow that adds to the horror of the transformation. 

Two stories in this collection deal with ghosts. Waiting with Mortals by Philippine author Crystal Koo is the one that had the most impact on me. Like many ghost stories it revolves around unfinished business and the deceased not being able to fully experience mortal life. In this story the dead have the means to influence the living however. It is invasive and profoundly unethical but obsession drives some ghosts to do it anyway. The psychological pressure on the  main character builds to the point where he has to face his situation and his own motivations head on. The tension in the story is very well built up although some readers may find the resolution a bit predictable.

Another horrific story, although it leans towards fantasy a bit too, is Three Little Children by the French writers couple Ange. It was translated by Tom Clegg and is based on a children's song. This version is a lot darker than what you'd normally tell children. In the story we change from the point of view of a child to that of an adult and back, giving it alternately the feel of a fairy tale and a murder mystery. In that sense, it is a very clever piece of writing. I liked the fact that the translator retained the French lyrics of the song too.

The anthology ends with Dancing on the Red Planet by the Korean-Norwegian author Berit Ellingsen. It's a frivolous piece about the first manned mission to Mars and how to celebrate this momentous occasion. It almost makes you wish the Americans had pulled something like this in 1969. It leaves a smile on your face when you turn the last page of this anthology. It's an excellent choice for a final story.

Once again Tidhar managed to find a number of high quality and very diverse stories to fill the third volume of The Apex Book of World SF. Readers who have enjoyed the first two volumes will not want to miss it. In terms of quality it may well be the best one of the three. Tidhar admits in his Introduction that he has access to a larger number of stories now than when he started work on the first volume. Let's hope this trend continues because these anthologies have made it abundantly clear that it pays to look beyond the English speaking world. Genre fiction is a world-wide phenomenon, it's past time to start treating it as such.

Book Details
Title: The Apex Book of World SF 3
Editor: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Apex Publications
Pages: 266
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-937009-24-3
First published: 2014

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Bound in Darkness - Kim ten Tusscher

Last month I reviewed Kim ten Tusscher's debut novel Hydrhaga, which has recently appeared in English translation. The package the author sent me also contained a copy of her second novel Bound in Darkness. It is the first novel of the Lilith trilogy and a much more ambitious work than Hydrhaga. The Dutch edition first appeared in 2010. As of this year, it is available in English too. I'm not entirely sure if and when the other two volumes will follow. In my review of Hydrhaga I pointed out quite a few things I had problems with. Bound in Darkness shares some flaws with Hydrhaga but overall it is a step up in craftsmanship. Ten Tusscher has developed a much better grip on the plot and the pacing of the story.

The translation of this novel was done by Rianne Stolwijk. I read the Dutch sample provided on the author's website to get a feel for the translation. It looks like a more direct translation to me. The tekst of Hydrhaga deviated a bit more from the literal Ducth original. It's hard to compare the two as Bound in Darkness is better written, but from reading the original Dutch I got the impression Stolwijk is more used to translating technical texts rather than fiction. There is a fine line between literal meaning of the word and the author's intent. I think taking a bit more liberties with the text would have improved it. It's a matter of taste though. Stolwijk clearly has a good grasp of the English language and translating fiction always involves elements that can't be captured in the grammar and vocabulary of a language.

Lilith is on the run. She is desperately trying to escape her master Kasimirh, a magician forcing her into a life of servitude and violence to realize his religious ideals. While trying to steal food, Lilith is caught and in the fight that follows she nearly kills a man. The brother of this man brings her before the king of the nation of Merzia to face his judgment. To pay for her crime she receives a flogging and has to work off her debt to the king after he compensates the brothers for their loss and trouble. Placed in the care of the magician Ferhdessar and the head of the palace household Ghalatea, Lilith is safe from her former master for the moment but once again a prisoner. Kasimirh is not going to let his subject escape though. War is about to engulf Merzia. Another confrontation with her former master seems inevitable.

Once again Ten Tusscher picks a young woman as main character. Where Lumea appears to have had a reasonably happy childhood, Lilith's has been one of abuse. It makes the book a lot darker than Hydrhaga. The title of the novel is clearly fitting in that respect. Despair, guilt and paranoia are always close to the surface. Lilith's behavior follows a pattern seen in many victims of domestic abuse. On the one hand she fears Kasimirh and wants to be free of him, on the other he gives her the attention nobody else seems to be willing to give her. It results in a strange kind of dependance on him, one she spends the entire novel trying to shake.

There is a decidedly violent side to Lilith's personality too. She is a shapeshifter and can change into a powerful dragon. As such, she was very valuable to Kasimirh, whose dreams of world domination in part rely on her strength. She has been forced to wreak havoc on many a village in the past, killing countless innocent people in the process. The guilt of this weights heavily on her. It's one of the aspects of the story I had a problem with. Throughout the novel Lilith is being manipulated, tricked and forced to do certain things which results in the death of many people. At one level it is obvious that she would feel responsible for that but on the other hand the author is careful always to make sure the real blame lies with someone else. Lilith has quite a volatile character, it wouldn't seem that unlikely that she would make a genuine mistake at one point. The tragedy of many people who are forced to fight in a war is that they are both victim and perpetrator. I think Ten Tusscher didn't quite get the most out of her character here. The real tragedy is somehow always one step removed from her.

That being said, she is a much better developed character than Lumea. Ten Tusscher clearly put more thought into this character. More planning is something that is obvious in all aspects of the novel. I'm not sure there are people who can write a trilogy organically but Ten Tusscher clearly didn't intend to. She has a plan, the story has a clear direction and she completes the novel in what is both a natural break in the story and a hook for the next novel.

The worldbuilding takes a bit of a backseat in the novel. Ten Tusscher describes the religious roots of the conflict briefly and shows us how the political structure of Merzia works, but everything else remains in the background. There is an intense focus on the characters and the relationship between Lilith and the two manipulative magicians in her life that doesn't allow Ten Tusscher to get too descriptive. At times it makes the conflict seem a bit simplistic but especially in the scenes seen from the point of view of Ferhdessar hint at much more depth. Ten Tusscher leaves herself a lot of avenues to explore in the next two volumes.

After reading Hydrhaga I had adjusted my expectations for this novel a bit. Bound in Darkness is such a step up in quality however, that the novel turned out to be a pleasant surprise. So much so in fact, that I wonder if Ten Tusscher didn't do herself a disservice by having Hydrhaga translated. She might have been better off by starting with Bound in Darkness. Ten Tusscher seems to have found her stride in this novel. It is a solid start to the trilogy. Pick this one up and you'll be hooked for the entire series.

Book Details
Title: Bound in Darkness
Author: Kim ten Tusscher
Publisher: Alter Ego Press
Pages: 279
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperbacl
ISBN: 978-94-907-6747-1
First published: 2010

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Necessary Evil - Ian Tregillis

Necessary Evil is the concluding volume in Ian Tregillis' Milkweed trilogy. The series seems to have lost some momentum with readers after Tor failed to get the second book, The Coldest War, out in a reasonable amount of time. Now that all three volumes are available however, it would be a shame to not dive back into this series. In the first two volumes, the author laid out a substantially different history of the second world war. In this third, he intends to take events full circle. I'm usually a bit skeptical when it comes to time travel stories but this one is very convincing in a way.

Gretel's manipulations of the timeline has sent a fifty-something year old Raybould Marsh back into the early stages of the second world war. He has seen his world end but in this one, he can still save his daughter, his marriage and possibly his son's soul. A prize for which he can put up with Gretel for a little bit longer. He does have a condition for saving the world however. He would rather see it destroyed than suffer a Nazi victory in the war. Thus, a new round in the struggle between Raybould and Gretel starts, and the stakes have never been higher.

Tregillis takes us back to the early days of Milkweed, at a point in time already visited a bit into the first novel Bitter Seeds. The outcome of the war still hangs in the balance and Dr. von Westarp's creations are still a huge threat to the security of the United Kingdom. Raybould knows the price of defending themselves with magic but convincing his past self and the other people involved in Milkweed is not going to be easy. His claims to have been transported from another timeline will sound ludicrous even to people used to dealing with magic. Raybould will have to take a more roundabout approach. One that involves a great many despicable acts. Necessary evil, as he thinks of it.

The second volume was not kind on Raybould. He sees his life pretty much turn into a nightmare after the war ends. His marriage is a farce, his daughter has been killed and his son needs round-the-clock care. To be transported back to the time that could be considered his finest hour, is possibly even more of a torment. He comes into contact with his younger, stronger and more healthy self, sees his wife as a young woman who still loved him, gets to travel around London before it was transformed into a city he despises, and meets with his friend Will who has not yet turned into an addict and a traitor. And all of it is out of reach for him. It all belongs to the younger version of himself. Tregillis once again manages to create a thoroughly miserable character. The loneliness and jealousy drip from the pages.

The other main character doesn't fare much better. Her ability to see the future has always put her in control. Her manipulations have guided her through time, always certain of the outcome of her actions. She has had only one fear, the threat posed by the Eidolons, and she seems to have outsmarted even them. Slowly, doubt is starting to enter her mind however. A fog descends on the future and Marsh, whom she desires, keeps vexing her. Gretel  has always been a scary character, the way Tregillis makes her crack only reinforces that feeling. In a way it makes her more human. Raybould can't feel sorry for her, but the reader might come away with a different impression.

Historically, Tregillis stays a lot closer to the timeline in our history books. There is no easy victory for either side and the conflict quickly envelopes the entire world. The cold war doesn't start early in this timeline and the United Kingdom has to defend itself with more conventional means. The events in the war are much more background to the story than in the previous novels. The reader doesn't have to pay attention to the difference from history as we know it in this book. The actions of the characters more or less ensure that the outcome will be what we know it to be. In effect, Gretel  and Raybould wrench history back on its tracks. Tregillis is much more interested in his characters in this novel than what effect they have on history.

It's probably the focus on the characters that makes this book work for me. Time travel stories tend to tie themselves in knots, always running into paradoxes that makes my suspension of disbelief come crashing down. Let's face it, having two versions of the same character in one story is usually trouble. It turns the whole Star Trek reboot into something slightly absurd for instance. Tregillis uses it to great effect in this novel though. Marsh is constantly tempted to take the place of his younger self. It takes a supreme effort for him not to do so. Tregillis takes a plot element that usually ruins a story and turns it into something very engaging.

If I had to name something I didn't like about the book it's the way Tregillis switches between past and present tense. It's a break with the style of the previous two volumes, and the parts written in the present tense breaks the flow of the story. I understand why Tregillis reached for this technique, in a way it helps the reader to keep the two versions of Raybould apart, but I felt it didn't quite work as intended.

Necessary Evil is a very satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. The way the story unfolded in the previous two volumes, it can't help but deliver a bitter-sweet ending. It's a book that almost forces you to keep reading. Tregillis managed to pretty much constantly make me wonder how he would twist events from the frist novel to fit this new timeline. When you look at the entire trilogy, it is a remarkable bit of plotting. In hindsight, I may have underappreciated the quality of Bitter Seeds a bit. The trilogy as a whole, is one I would recommend to people who enjoy a good alternative history.

Book Details
Title: Necessary Evil
Author: Ian Tregillis
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 384
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2152-7
First published: 2013

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Reviewed work number 400 poll result

The results are of the poll are in. Thank you all for voting.

Carrie by Stephen King - 1 vote
The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman - 3 votes
Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon - 3 votes
Antarctica by Kim Stanley Robinson - 4 votes
Artemis Awakening by Jane Lindskold - 5 votes.

So our winner is:

Of course you all picked a book I don't already own. It is currently on its way here and we'll get reading as soon as it gets here. Look for the review some time in August.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Conservation of Shadows - Yoon Ha Lee

The poll to vote for reviewed work number 400 is open a view more days. Don't forget to put in you vote!
 I've seen a lot of positive comments about this collection floating around the blogsphere so when I realized I hadn't reviewed a collection for a while Conservation of Shadows by the Korean-American author Yoon Ha Lee seemed like an obvious choice. When I picked it up I thought I hadn't read any of Lee's work before. That didn't turn out to be correct. I had in fact read Swanwatch before as part of the John Joseph Adams anthology Federations. The stories in this collection are a selection from what she's published between 2001 and 2013. The collection contains 16 pieces of short fiction and an introduction by Aliette de Bodard. Lee is not hugely productive and hasn't published any novels to date but her short fiction has definitely been noticed. It has appeared in some in magazines like Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld and Lightspeed magazine.

Lee's writing is something you won't come across often. Her prose is very poetic and thematically a lot of Asian influences are included. Lee has a bachelor in Mathematics and she has used this as an influence on her stories as well. It makes for an interesting mixture of mathematical concepts and magical plot elements. The stories range form fantasy to science fiction, but in each of them you get the feeling that there is a real scientific concept at the base of the plot. Lee can make a magical system seem rational like no one else I've read.

The collection opens with one of the strongest stories. Ghostweight is a space opera in which the main character carries with her the souls of the dead. It is a very dark tale of revenge with an absolutely devastating climax. Not a very upbeat way to open the collection but it is one of the stories that had the greatest impact on me. Lee mentions in the story notes that it is set in the same universe as The Shadow Postulates, only in a far future. I don't think I would have seen that without her mentioning it.

The Shadow Postulates is the next story in the collection and one in which you can clearly see the mix of influences I mentioned above. It mixes magic and mathematics in very interesting ways. The story follows a student on the verge of graduating and struggling with a mathematical problem that generations of students have tried to crack. It builds towards a conceptual breakthrough in a way that shows Lee understands how to handle the pace of a story. I wasn't surprised to learn that it's partly inspired by Fermat's Last Theorem that nobody has been able to find for centuries. In fact, many now believe Fermat came up with a wrong proof. If I had to pick a favourite, this one may well be it.

It is hard to pick a favourite though, I greatly enjoyed the story Iseul's Lexicon as well. It's quite a complex tale that shows how language and culture are interwoven and how banning languages, over time, can be very effective in suppressing a culture. Lee used the Korean Hangeul, an alphabet that replaced the more complicated Chinese characters from the 15th century on, as an inspiration. The story also shows echoes of the complex and often violent history between Korea and Japan. There are a lot of layers to this story, on the surface there is a military campaign, spying and an interesting magical system, deeper down there are the references to our own world and the parallels with Korean history. Even if it is one of the longer pieces in the collection, I still couldn't shake the feeling that a novel is hiding in there somewhere.

In the story notes Lee mentions several pieces are related to unpublished novels. Iseul's Lexicon isn't mentioned as being one of those but The Battle of Candle Arc is. It is one of several that have a space opera setting and deals with interstellar warfare. War and the price to be paid for it, is one of the themes that pop up in a lot of stories. This one is a story inspired by another bit of Korean history, the 1597 battle of Myeongnyang, part of the Imjin war (1592-1598), in which the Korean fleet achieved a decisive victory of the the vastly numerically superior Japanese invasion fleet. The general in this story reminded me a bit of some of Frank Herbert's characters. The depth of his insight appears to be almost superhuman.

The Unstrung Zither is the last story in this collection I want to mention. It includes a mix of traditional music (it strikes me as Chinese inspired but I don't know enough about this subject to say for sure), elemental magic and a far future setting. The main character is a composer. She doesn't seem to feel she is brilliant at it, merely competent. Nevertheless she is entrusted with a very important mission. Music in this story, is more than a cultural expression. It appears to create structure in society. War and politics are discussed in terms we don't often associate with them. In finding the right structure for her composition, she finds the solution to the problem posed to her. I liked this piece very much although I wouldn't have minded knowing a bit more about the war at the heart of these events.

As usual, I've had a lot of trouble writing this review. It took me well over a week, where I usually do a draft in one day and clean it up the second. Short story collections are a pain to review but Conservation of Shadows was even more difficult than usual. Lee writes very complex stories. She packs a lot into a few pages and often steps outside the western cultural framework. She makes me work pretty hard and I'm sure I missed quite a bit. In fact, without the story notes I might very well have been lost completely.

I'm somewhat frustrated by my own inability to properly express why I enjoyed this collection so much. I guess it is a combination of things. I liked Lee's prose a lot for instance. I'm not one for audio books but from reading these stories I get the impression that it would sound beautiful if narrated skilfully. Then there are the themes Lee addresses that, despite the nagging feeling that I'm missing some of the context, still strike a chord with me. I guess you are just going to have to take my word for it, if you enjoy reading short fiction, Lee is an author you'll not want to miss.

Book Details
Title: Conservation of Shadows
Author: Yooh Ha Lee
Publisher: Prime Books
Pages: 336
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-60701-387-7
First published: 2013

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Review Number 400 Poll

It took a bit longer than expected but Random Comments is approaching its 400th reviewed work. Right now the count is 392, at this pace number 400 should be ready more or less around the blog's 5th anniversary. As usual you get to decide what number 400 will be. Since Lana has been contributing reviews recently, we've decided to make this one a joint review, so you get two opinions for the price of one. We've selected a number of books on which we are likely to disagree to make things interesting.

Your choices are:

Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

In the near future, disease will be a condition of the past. Most genetic defects will be removed at birth; the remaining during infancy. Unfortunately, there will be a generation left behind. For members of that missed generation, small advances will be made. Through various programs, they will be taught to get along in the world despite their differences. They will be made active and contributing members of society. But they will never be normal.

Antarctica by Kim Stanley Robinson

A stark and inhospitable place, its landscape poses a challenge to survival; yet its strange, silent beauty has long fascinated scientists and adventurers. Now Antarctica faces an uncertain future. The international treaty that protects the continent is about to dissolve, clearing the way for Antarctica's resources and eerie beauty to be plundered. As politicians and corporations move to determine its fate from half a world away, radical environmentalists carry out a covert campaign of sabotage to reclaim the land. The winner of this critical battle will determine the future for this last great wilderness....

Carrie by Stephen King

Stephen King's legendary debut novel about a teenage outcast and the revenge she enacts on her classmates.

Carrie White may have been unfashionable and unpopular, but she had a gift. Carrie could make things move by concentrating on them. A candle would fall. A door would lock. This was her power and her sin. Then, an act of kindness, as spontaneous as the vicious taunts of her classmates, offered Carrie a chance to be normal and go to her senior prom. But another act--of ferocious cruelty--turned her gift into a weapon of horror and destruction that her classmates would never forget

Artemis Awakening by Jane Lindskold

Artemis Awakening is the start of a new series by New York Times bestseller Jane Lindskold. The distant world Artemis is a pleasure planet created out of bare rock by a technologically advanced human empire that provided its richest citizens with a veritable Eden to play in. All tech was concealed and the animals (and the humans brought to live there) were bioengineered to help the guests enjoy their stay…but there was always the possibility of danger so that visitors could brag that they had “bested” the environment.

The Empire was shattered in a horrific war; centuries later humanity has lost much of the advanced technology and Artemis is a fable told to children. Until young archeologist Griffin Dane finds intriguing hints that send him on a quest to find the lost world. Stranded on Artemis after crashing his ship, he encounters the Huntress Adara and her psych-linked companion, the puma Sand Shadow. Their journey with her will lead Dane to discover the planet’s secrets…and perhaps provide a key to give unimagined power back to mankind.

The Golden Compass - Philip Pullman

Lyra Belacqua is content to run wild among the scholars of Jodan college, with her daemon familiar always by her side. But the arrival of her fearsome uncle, Lord Asriel, draws her to the heart of a terrible struggle-a struggle born of Gobblers and stolen children, witch clans and armored bears. And as she hurtles toward danger in the cold far North, Lyra never suspects the shocking truth: she alone is destined to win, or to lose, this more-than-mortal battle. Philip Pullman's award-winning The Golden Compass is a masterwork of storytelling and suspense, critically acclaimed and hailed as a modern fantasy classic.

The poll is located in the bar on the right side of the screen. Since it will take a bit of time for both of us to read the novel, I'll let it run for 10 days. Take your pick!

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass - Alaya Dawn Johnson

I haven't done enough reading recently to finish the collection I wanted to review last weekend. It will have to wait until next Sunday I'm afraid. The blog needs content however, so I decided to read some more short fiction that made the Nebula ballot this year. They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass by Alaya Dawn Johnson was nominated in the novelette category. The Nebula went to Aliette de Bodard's The Waiting Stars. They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass was first published in the January 2013 edition of Asimov's. Johnson has published five novels to date, with a sixth, Love is the Drug, expected later this year. I haven't read any of her work though. Judging from this story, maybe I should.

They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass takes us to a post-apocalyptic US. It is unclear what happened but a race of technologically superior aliens set about changing the face of the Earth. The remaining population lives in poverty, often lacking food and medical supplies. When Libby's sister Triss finds herself with child, she is desperate. The community is on the brink of starvation and there is no doctor or midwife who can help with the birth. Triss feels her only option is to find someone who can safely do an abortion, something the aliens refuse to allow. A dangerous trip for Libby and Triss is about to start.

This story is one of those pieces that doesn't really fit into a novelette. You constantly wish the author would explore the setting further. The way the apocalypse comes about remains unclear, the motivation of the aliens is completely unknown, the description of the way these people survive on the remains of a former civilization just scratches the surface of their ordeal. In short, there is more than enough material here for a longer work and that may frustrate some readers.

Johnson chooses to focus on the story of the two sisters. She aims for an emotionally powerful piece and in that respect the story definitely succeeds. Desperation is tangible and fear of the aliens influences every decision. On top of the extraordinary situation they are in, Triss and Libby also have to deal with the regular disapproval and rejection women opting for an abortion have to face. Johnson doesn't stress this point too much but it is clearly present throughout the story.

Triss has chosen not to attach herself to one particular man and with her decision not to keep the baby, she is forced to tiptoe around her own community to avoid offending anyone. A community that would support her if she has a baby they can't feed, would drop her like a hot potato if she decides not to have it. Johnson puts it in a science fiction setting but it is a problem many women face in places where abortion is illegal or controversial. She does add a twist to this story to make the sisters' position less clear cut. The aliens essentially use the carrot and the stick tactics. They are not above using retaliatory strikes if someone ignores their rules. If Triss is caught, her community will suffer. On the other hand they do offer help to the expecting mother. Johnson does raise a bit of doubt about whether or not Triss' options are limited to an abortion or see her child die young. Just a little bit mind you. With their motivations so carefully hidden but the destruction they cause plainly visible, it is not a very tempting alternative.

How much the reader will enjoy this story depends on whether or not you can deal with the number of questions the author leaves you with. They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass  is, in a way, very open-ended and the setting is only minimally developed. Personally, I can't shake the feeling that there is a much longer piece hiding in this story, that would potentially be more rewarding. That being said, it is a beautifully crafted story. Johnson seems to have chosen very consciously what to reveal to the reader to keep us focused on the main characters' story. It's an approach she has executed very well. On the whole, I think I would have preferred a bit more detail though.

Book Details
Title: They Shall Salt the Earth with Seeds of Glass
Author: Alaya Dawn Johnso
Pages: 17
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 2013

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Lana Reviews: Remnant Population - Elizabeth Moon

Having read the Paksenarrion trilogy and the four first books in Paladin's Legacy, I was already somewhat acquainted with Elizabeth Moon's writing, and as far as her works of Fantasy go, I really enjoy her books. So when I picked up Remnant Population for my reading challenge, I was quite excited to finally try something of hers in a different genre. Released in 1996, this book was nominated for the Hugo Award for best novel the year after, which eventually went to Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Ofelia Falfurrias was one of the original colonists of Colony 3245.12, arriving with her family to settle on the planet that would be their home for the next 40 years. During those years, her husband and all but one child died as did many of the other colonists, their death rate forever matching or exceeding their birth rate. When we enter the story, the authorities have revoked the Sims Bancorp's franchise to run the colony as it is considered a failure, and they have no choice but to disband it. As for the colonists themselves, they are to be forcibly shipped off in cryo-sleep to wherever the company feels like sending them. When Ofelia finds out that her family will be deducted for the cost of moving her from one place to another as she is considered too old to be of any further use for the Company, she decides to stay behind. There is a good chance her age will cause her to die while in cryo-sleep anyway, so why not spend what is left of her life where she buried her children and her husband?

On the day of departure, she hides away in the forest until she considers it to be safe to return to the village knowing that with their deadlines, the Company will not waste much time looking for one elderly colonist. At this point, she starts a fairly different existence to the one she has been forced into for so many years. Finally, she is free to play and to do what she herself wants to without fear of censure from the rest of the community, a freedom she hasn't had since she was a little girl. In spite of the work she has to do to stay alive, she is quite happy with her situation, when one day, a second group of colonists arrives, intending to settle somewhere to the north. As she listens to them, she unexpectedly becomes a witness to them being slaughtered by what cannot be anything other than sentient beings. For the first time since she herself arrived on this planet 40 years earlier, she realizes that the colonists were never alone.

It never ceases to amaze me how, no matter what kind of technology we as humans acquire or what kind of amazing things we can do, in most science fiction novels I have read describing all these wonderful things, the genders keep behaving as if they were still stuck in the Victorian era of our world, or worse. One would think that after having figured out how to move people across the universe, and how to colonize on worlds with ecologies not suited to support human beings and so on, there would be some improvement in the social spheres of life too, but no such luck. Among the colonists of Colony 3245.12, while men and women are taught to do the same jobs, it is considered the right way of things that the men should control the women, and the adults should control the children. Using violence to achieve either of these two, seems to be commonly accepted. When they are offered another way to look at things, they also respond with violence. Of course, it should be noted that the Company chose for their colonists to be uneducated people, set in certain ways and traditions, yet easy to form into what they needed and without too many ideas of their own. That, along with the placement of the colony itself, was most likely a factor that helped doom it to fail from the start.

I do like, however, how Moon hits right on the head how we as a society tend to treat our old people, in this novel illustrated in part by how an old woman is thought of no further value once she is past her child-bearing years. Where we should perhaps have cherished and honored them for their knowledge and their years of experience, we tend to write old people off as useless, someone who only takes up time and space; a bother. As the story unfolds, Moon shows us how things could have been had we considered their value differently, and appreciated them for what they were, and made use of their experience. And then she reminds us again, quite firmly, that this is just not the way of most human beings.

What I liked best about Remnant Population is how most of the story is told from the point of view of an old woman. She is often thinking about her aches, she is often grumpy, and she is completely aware of the fact that she does not know everything - although sometimes her general life experience makes her more knowledgeable than she gives herself credit for. She is an unlikely heroine, I think; I know I was surprised when I found out that the story would revolve around her, and not someone younger, or of a different gender - or both! Considering that that is what I have been served in most of the science fiction I've read till now, this was actually a nice surprise.

As a linguist, I guess I should also mention that once first contact is made between Ofelia and the unknown beings inhabiting the planet, it is fascinating to see how they go about trying to communicate with each other. Especially with their starting points being so completely different from each other and, at first glance, with no apparent common ground from which to get started.

All in all I really enjoyed this book, despite my general annoyance with sexism in science fiction. I guess it is not a overly exciting story as such, as a lot of the descriptions are of the daily toils of the main character; mundane tasks such as weeding the kitchen garden, fixing the houses, knitting, painting and cooking, and so on. Still, I kept wanting to go on to see what would happen next, especially once the unknown beings were introduced to the storyline, and I was never bored. It does not seem to matter that much to me whether Moon writes fantasy or science fiction, I seem to enjoy the results regardless.

Book Details
Title: Remnant Population
Author: Elizabeth Moon
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Pages: 325
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-345-46219-0
First published: 1996

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Hydrhaga - Kim ten Tusscher

Like in the English language world, Fantasy is a bit of a niche market in the Netherlands. The Dutch language market, with some 23 million first language speakers, is nowhere near large enough to support full time Fantasy writers. As a result, very few works of Fantasy originally written in Dutch are published in what would be considered a professional fashion in the English language world. The obvious answer for authors with ambitions of making a living as a writer is to get their works translated, with the English language as the big prize. Unfortunately that market isn't very open to translations. With so many native speakers clamouring for attention, shouldering the additional cost of a translation simply isn't worth the effort for a book that is not certain to sell. So what do you do to get a foot in the door? Have the translation done yourself. Thomas Olde Heuvelt has recently tried this approach and it has gotten him two spots on the Hugo Award shortlist. For some, it may be worth trying.

Getting a Fantasy novel in Dutch published is not impossible however. In the area between self publishing and traditional publishing quite a lot is happening in the Netherlands. One of the publishers operating in this area is Uitgeverij Zilverspoor. They have an editorial process, art direction and a nice website but with print runs more likely to be in the hundreds than thousands and a persistent lack of their books showing up in the brick and mortar book stores, it is unlikely any of the people involved are actually making a living this way. That doesn't seem to dampen their ambition though. Recently they launched a new imprint, Alter Ego Press, which publishes English language books. So far the number of titles is limited but I think it is an initiative worth watching.

One of the authors who had her books translated is Kim ten Tusscher. Her Dutch bibliography currently contains five novels, two of which have been translated into English. The author kindly provided me with review copies of the English language editions. The first one is Hydrhaga, a standalone Fantasy first published in Dutch in 2008. The translation was done by Judit Coppens, a name I haven't come across before. To get a feel for the translation I also read the fourteen page sample of the Dutch edition of Hydrhaga provided on the author's website. It looks like this new English edition also included a bit of rewriting. It is not a one on one translation of the text on Ten Tusscher's website. From what I can tell the translation has been done by someone with a knowledge of the English language that far exceeds mine. The prose is not stunning but it does do justice to Ten Tusscher's writing.

The story's main character is a young woman by the name of Lumea (moon symbolism is a motif in this novel) on a journey towards the mysterious city of Hydrhaga. Drawn by the promise of a carefree life, freed of the traditional role her society is trying to force her into, Lumea arrives in the city of Omnesia (which indeed seems to have forgotten part of its history). Nobody is willing to help her get to her final destination however, until she meets the mysterious Elion. Together they manage to find her destination, but things turn out to be quite different from what Lumea imagined. The city hides a secret that will quickly turn Lumea's hopes and dreams sour.

In this novel, Ten Tusscher is looking for the strong female lead that seems to defy so many authors in epic fantasy. In a way she finds her too. Lumea grows throughout the novel. She is barely mature and somewhat naive early on in the novel, but gains confidence and maturity as the story progresses. She is, all things considered, an interesting character. What I did have issues with, is the fact that her motivations mostly revealed to the reader long after her actions. The reason why Lumea left home for instance, doesn't come up until the halfway point of the novel and even then it is only partly explained. How she managed to convince her parents to let their barely adult daughter go on a journey to a far away city that doesn't appear on any map on her own, is almost entirely glossed over.

What bothered me most about Lumea is the apparent contradiction between her adherence to the traditional religious beliefs of her people, her sadness at the disappearance of traditional cultural values,  and resistance to being placed in the traditional role of women in her culture. What her culture deems to be her place in society may not stem from its religion but usually these things are interlinked. On the one hand she is one of the few of her generation who sticks to the bond with the land and the connection to nature, on the other, she is something of a revolutionary. Not that these two things are mutually exclusive but Ten Tusscher doesn't manage to unify them in Lumea. Too often she swings from conservative to liberal views or from a pacifist attitude to determined to swing a sword. At times it made me feel that Lumea's character development was driven by the needs of the plot, rather than an attempt by the author to create a complex character.

The worldbuilding is in Hydrhaga is curious as well. It presents the reader with a strange mix of technological development. On the one hand there are airships and submarines, but riding on horseback is still the way to get around on land. Force fields and robotics have been developed but gunpowder or any other form of explosives are absent and fighting is done with swords. It is as if the novel can't quite decide whether it wants to be pseudo-medieval fantasy, steampunk or something else entirely. A clear sense of what is technically possible or an explanation for some strange omissions is lacking. In terms of worldbuilding, the novel is messy.

After finishing the novel I didn't feel like I had read a book that is going to storm the bestsellers lists. Hydrhaga feels like a very organically written piece. The need to find out what comes next and to get to the end of the story overshadow the structure of the tale and the consistency of the world and its characters. Especially later on in the book there is a sense of urgency in the writing that will make the reader want to keep going until the final page is turned. Readers looking for this kind of tale could do worse than pick up this novel. For the more reflective reader, Hydrhaga is less successful. The more reflective reader will see the cracks in this novel however. There is no doubt about the enthusiasm Ten Tusscher shows for writing and the Fantasy genre in particular, but there is some room for improvement in terms of structure, plotting and characterization. I'll be looking at her second novel, Bound in Darkness, in a few weeks time. It'll be interesting to see how she develops.

Book Details
Title: Hydrhaga
Author: Kim ten Tusscher
Publisher: Alter Ego Press
Pages: 206
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-94-907-6737-2
First published: 2008

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Wolves - Simon Ings

I received a copy of this novel through Worlds Without Ends some time ago. It must have taken quite an interesting route because it took no less than two and a half months to get here. I had already given up on it when it arrived in the mailbox. When it did, it had to wait another month for me to get around to reading it so we're quite a bit past the publication date (January 2014) by now. Wolves is the first novel by Ings I've read. I must admit that, until being offered this copy, I'd never heard of the man. He is not exactly unknown in British science fiction though. Wolves is his eighth novel and there are quite a few pieces of short fiction out there as well.

Wolves is a near future science fiction in which Augmented Reality plays an important part. Think glasses or contacts that make you see more than your eyes would. The real world overlaid by whatever the programmer chooses to show you. The main character, Conrad, is working for a company trying to develop the technique. His friend Michel looks at the world differently. Convinced that the economy is going to collapse in his lifetime he prepares for the end. He even makes a lucrative career out of it by writing post-apocalyptic novels. When a financial backer appears that wants to combine the two into a new form of entertainment, their professional lives as well as their personal ones become intertwined. Things get even more interesting when his job leads Conrad to a clue about his mother's death many years ago.

During the first half of the novel I was frequently tempted to put the book down. Augmented reality plays an important part in this book and Ings has created a main character completely immersed in this life. It is as if he's always one step removed from reality. We get to see the entire story through his eyes so it comes across as if looking at things from a distance. It becomes impersonal, filtered. Even the girlfriend he has at the opening of the book can't really touch him since her hands were lost in an accident and replaced by artificial ones. His life is dreary in the extreme. In later stages of the novel it gets so bad Conrad longs for unaugmented reality. To be able to look into someones eyes and not see a contact hiding the depths of their souls.

It doesn't help that Conrad is not really a nice fellow. He has the annoying tendency to think of people as selfish, vain and desperate, always managing to ascribe the most negative motivations to people around him. It often makes him behave like an asshole. Quite frankly, I don't understand why he didn't jump off a bridge long before we reach the final part of the novel. Especially in the early chapters of the novel, he is utterly pathetic. The picture painted of Conrad is that of a boy from a dysfunctional family, growing up to be a man who can't seem to find happiness in life. The one thing that probably saves him is the fact that he accepts the dreadful things that happen to him with a scary kind of fatalism. He is not a character the reader will easily connect with.

The final part of the novel is quite a different creature from the opening pages however. For some reason Ings doesn't introduce the mysterious death of Conrad's mother until quite late in the novel, making the first part appear a bit aimless. His mother suffers from manic depression and it is no surprise to him that she dies when Conrad is still a teenager. It's one of the parts of the book the reader feels the resignation that plagues Conrad most clearly. He is upset over a lot of things that happen back then, but not the actual death of his mother. While augmented reality plays a part in this novel as well, his father experiments with it to provide sight for blinded servicemen, these memories are the most clear look we get into his mind. I still felt removed from Conrad though, like even in his memories, he is the spectator in someone else's script. He employs this effect in the sections about Conrad's work and achievements in later life but this bit left me wondering how much of it is actually Conrad's outlook on life rather than technology messing with his perceptions.

I felt the early part of the novel was a bit aimless, but it has to be said that Ings pulls the strands of the story together nicely in the final few chapters. With the floodwaters rushing in (given what happened in the UK this winter Ings' timing is impeccable) and the economy collapsing, we return to the physical reality of the world and the characters deepest motivations. Strip away all the technology and you'll still find basic human emotions underneath. It's an odd sort of collapse. Suddenly it is upon the reader without much in the way of reflections on what went wrong. The characters saw it coming a long while before it actually happened so there is no sense of surprise or desperation. In a sense, Conrad is once again living out a script someone else wrote. That of his friend Michel.

Wolves is a bit of an odd novel. It contains elements of a techno-thriller, murder mystery and apocalyptic tale without actually being any of those three. Even several days after finishing it I'm not quite sure what to make of it. The last part of the novel, where I started to get a sense of where things were going, was quite a good reading but if I hadn't promised someone I'd review it, I'm not sure I'd have made it that far. I guess it is a novel that requires a bit of patience and some reflection because after mulling over it for a couple of days, I do think it is a decent read. Maybe not giving into the urge to put a novel down is not such a bad thing once in a while.

Book Details
Title: Wolves
Author: Simon Ings
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 295
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-11973-4
First published: 2014