Sunday, May 22, 2016

Not Dark Yet - Berit Ellingsen

Berit Ellingsen is a name that has been cropping up in various magazines and anthologies over the past few years. She is a Korean Norwegian author writing in English who prefers to spend as much time as possible on Svalbard. I first encountered her writing in The Apex Book of World SF 3 (2014), which includes her story Dancing on the Red Planet. It is a humorous vision of the arrival of the first humans on Mars. It's one of the better stories in a strong anthology. In November last year Not Dark Yet, her second novel was published by Two Dollar Radio. I completely missed it of course, but under the motto better late than never I got a copy recently. It's a near future science fiction novel with a strong environmental theme but also one with a lot of attention for character development. I liked it a lot but it is one of those novels that are not likely to get the attention they deserve.

Brandon Minamoto is a man with a military past. He has left service however and now makes a living as a photographer. The world around him is feeling the impact of irreversible climate change and Brandon is ill at ease with all these changes. Meeting the scientist Kaye, who hires him to take photographs for his research project, ends in a violent drama that brings back his past. Bandon leaves the city and moves into a cabin in the mountains. He applies to the space agency for a position on a proposed manned mission to Mars. But ties to family and lovers are not that easily severed. They keep drawing him back in.

One of the first things many readers will notice is that Ellingsen is very careful to hide where the story is taking place. Names of cities are abbreviated or not mentioned at all, continents are mentioned as northern, southern and so on, the local language is never named. The story could take place in just about any place on earth. Bergen in Norway seems like a reasonable fit, but so does San Francisco. Or any number of other cities around the world. Where many authors would use the setting to create a specific atmosphere, or to confirm or challenge people's preconceptions, Ellingsen keeps it as vague as possible. Maybe to make the story as universal as possible? The theme of climate change is a global development after all.

In the background climate change is always making itself felt. Reports of natural disasters on other continents, the ever rising food prices, the unusual weather and lack of snowfall and eventually a hurricane that will hit Brandon's home town. Part of the world is trying to pretend it is business as usual, but here and there people are trying to adapt as well. Brandon is drawn into a project that attempts to grow crops at an altitude where it would have been impossible in the past. It is a risky venture but he is soon caught up in the optimism of the initiators. There are other currents working their way into his thoughts too. From the temptation to leave it all behind and try again somewhere else, to forcibly changing the world's economic system. The world is not a simple place and Brandon has trouble making sense of it.

The main character is exposed to various moral dilemmas over the course of the novel. They range from very personal, obligations to friends, lovers and family, to larger social issues like how to treat his newly acquired land and the earth in general. He is constantly distancing himself from certain people and then being drawn back in. Brandon, in other words, is not a man at ease with the world. Ellingsen examines this through a series of decisions Brandon has to make. Pull the trigger of his sniper rifle or not? Kill the research owl attacking Kaye or not? Allow the agricultural project to use his land or not? They are decisions with far-reaching consequences for Brandon and the people around him. He spends quite a lot of time unsure of whether or not he got it right.

The author pushes the character to consider extreme and often mutually exclusive options with these choices and the character's indecision. There is the impulse to leave it all behind sign up for the Mars mission (a long shot, the selection criteria are tough) but also the temptation to (literally) put down roots and try to adapt to climate change. He could let himself be drawn back into his familiar circle of lover, friends and family or join Kaye's radical movement and go underground. It is not an easy choice.

Not Dark Yet is a novel that emphasizes character over development of the plot. Various events in the novel are not so much part of one story arc but rather examined in the light of how they influence the main character. As such, this novel is probably not a good choice for very plot oriented readers. Personally I found Brandon to be a highly interesting character though. Every time you think you have a handle on him, Ellingsen explores a new facet of his personality. What the outcome of Brandon's soul searching will be remains uncertain until the very end of the novel. All things considered I think it is a very successful novel. I'll definitely keep an eye out for the next one.

Book Details
Title: Not Dark Yet
Author: Berit Ellingsen
Publisher: Two Dollar Radio
Pages: 209
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-937512-35-4
First published: 2015

Monday, May 16, 2016

Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

Some time ago I read Neil Gaiman's American Gods (2001) and it is, in my opinion a masterwork. Anansi Boys is set in the same world and appeared four years after its hugely successful predecessor. I hesitate to call Anansi Boys a sequel though, both books have very little to do with each other. In fact, you need not have read American Gods to enjoy this novel. It is more of a spin off really, following the son of one of the minor characters in American Gods. Most people seem to feel this novel is the lesser of the two. I'm not sure I agree with that. They are very different works so for readers looking for more of the same, Anansi Boys will be a disappointment. Judged on its own merits however, it is a very good novel.

Fat Charlie is not actually fat. It is a nickname he got from his father of all people. His father is, to put it mildly, a constant source of embarrassment. It is no wonder Charlie has put an ocean between them and went to the UK to live and work. Now he is engaged to Rosie who, not fully understanding Charlie's predicament, insists on inviting his father to the wedding. When Charlie relents and phones one of his father's neighbours to make inquiries, she tells him he has just passed away. At the funeral he learns that his father died in a karaoke bar in a most embarrassing fashion and that he was in fact the spider-god Anansi. To make matters even more confusing, Charlie finds out he has a brother named Spider. When the two meet, it quickly becomes apparent his bother is everything Charlie is not.

Although the novel is very dark at times, Anansi was a trickster god and not a very pleasant one at that, it is a comedy at heart. Poor Charlie is at the receiving end quite often. He is a bit of an anti hero. I'm not too fond of that type of characters. Dutch literature is overflowing with losers of all kinds and in the few years my teachers tried to instil some appreciation for this type of writing in me. I'm afraid they achieved the opposite. Keeping that in mind, it is perhaps not surprising I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction. I'm a bit more tolerant of Charlie because of the way Gaiman uses him in the novel. The contrast with his brother enables Gaiman to move the narrative from Monty Python-esque absurdity to deeply tragic moments and back again. 

Spider is the one that got all the god stuff, as one of the characters puts it. He is a trickster, a player of confidence games. He is also completely hedonistic and not one to take other people's feelings into account. He feels no remorse at taking over Charlie's life including his fiancée. Having a fiancée is new to him however, women were never more than temporary entertainment. Rosie makes him think Charlie might be on to something. Charlie on the other hand, is finding out that standing up for himself, makes him appear more like his brother. The drifting from complete opposites to men who could in fact be related is one of the things I liked most about it. Gaiman builds it up very well.

There are a number of secondary characters in the novel that contribute to it being hilariously funny at times. Charlie's future mother-in-law Mrs. Noah, the embodiment of everything negative people say about their mother-in-law, and Mrs. Maeve Livingstone, a very British vengeful ghost, are the two I enjoyed most. Gaiman doesn't stop there though, the cast is very colourful as a whole and he makes excellent use of them. They include Charlie's sociopathic boss, four voodoo practising old ladies and a disappointed police woman who refuses to give up on a murder case. Their characteristics are a bit exaggerated for the comical effect of course, but Gaiman is careful not to overdo it.

Gaiman's work is often infused with fairytales and mythology and this novel is no exception. In American Gods he borrows liberally from a number of different mythologies. In this novel it is more contained to Anansi stories. Anansi is a Caribbean deity of West-African origin. Other than that he is a trickster, not unlike Loki in American Gods, I don't know that much about the mythological figure, but he is so widely known that there are probably many variations for Gaiman to borrow from. I'd be interested in hearing what someone more familiar with the material makes of Gaiman's treatment of the myth.

Anansi Boys is a fast and very entertaining read. I wasn't sure if this book would work for me but despite the lighter tone of the novel, it is a complex piece of writing. Gaiman juggles the characters and their individual stories expertly and finds a good balance between the comical and darker parts of the stories. The tone of the novel makes it easy to read, without making the story seem simple. Gaiman delivers his tale as confidently as Spider must be feeling when he bends the world to his will. It is perhaps not quite the book readers who loved American Gods were hoping for. He simply takes his writing in an entirely different direction. It is a very well written novel though, one that certainly encourages me to read more of his work.

Book Details
Title: Anansi Boys
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Review Books
Pages: 348
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-7553-0507-8
First published: 2005

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Spider's War - Daniel Abraham

The Spider's War is the fifth and final installment of Daniel Abraham's Dagger and Coin series. It is Abraham's take on traditional epic fantasy. It has all the ingredients: dynastic struggles, an ancient wrong to be set right, unlikely heroes and heroines, war on a large scale and the fate of the world itself hanging in the balance. He didn't aim to be startlingly original with this series - although he can't help but subvert a few fantasy tropes here and there - but rather do epic fantasy exceptionally well. In the previous volumes I always had the feeling it was indeed well done but not exceptional. Time to find out how he handles the climax of the series.

The armies of the Antean Lord Regent Geder Palliako have overextended themselves. Exhausted, poorly supplied and only kept from mutiny by the power of the Spider Goddess, they face almost certain annihilation when the fighting resumes in spring. The desperate state the empire is in hasn't penetrated the court in Camnipol yet, but it  is only a question of time. In the city of Carse in the mean time, Marcus Wester, Cithrin bel Sarcour and Clara Kaliam have gathered to find a way to bring the war to an end. Preferably without razing Antea to the ground. It is a formidable challenge that requires innovative financing, military excellence and intimate knowledge of Antean politics. And a dragon of course. Can't save the day without one.

Once again it is obvious that Abraham knows exactly where he is taking the story. Where series like these sometimes get away from the author and move in unexpected directions, Abraham keeps it nicely on track. Apart from a number of brief interludes, he resists the temptation of adding more point of view characters, drawing more parties into the conflict or exploring other parts of his world. It is focussed on the four point of view characters who have been with us from the beginning. As epic fantasies go, it is tightly plotted. Abraham leaves himself the option of more stories in this setting but the main conflict is resolved. Given how busy The Expanse is keeping him, the television series based on these novels is going into the second season, I very much doubt we'll see more on this world any time soon.

The one thing that Abraham does that seems to go directly against the current in epic fantasy at the moment is the relative lack of violence, blood and gore. There is fighting for sure, people die in horrible ways. They starve, freeze to death, get stabbed, are thrown off cliffs and fried by dragon fire but none of it is described in unnecessary detail. Sexual violence is almost completely absent. One or two references that it might have occurred during the war is all this book contains. It feels like a deliberate choice by Abraham, a comment on the direction Fantasy has taken in the last decade or so. One well worth thinking about.

Economics is again the most innovative part of the novel. Abraham describes the transition from using gold as currency to paper money only partially backed by gold in the national treasury. Nobody in the novel fully understands the consequences and risks of this move but in the short run (even fantasy bankers seem to be short-sighted) it works surprisingly well. Cithrin also seems to think that monetary compensation can slake the thirst for blood of Antea's enemies. Somehow I don't think that is going to work out very well. It strikes me as a bit of a fantasy version of the treaty of Versaille, but the story doesn't take us that far. None of the characters feel their plans can prevent all future military conflict though. They are wise enough to realize that.

Despite Cithrin's innovations, in previous books I felt Geder was the more interesting character. The dark streak in his personality, the doubt and rejection that are always gnawing at him, is seemingly at odds with his desire to do what he believes is right. In all the time he is regent it never occurred to him to get rid of the heir to the throne for instance, but he is ruthless with his enemies. There is a contradiction in his actions that keeps building and eventually has to lead to a crisis. In this novel his behaviour reaches new extremes. He strikes me as a full blown manic depressive in The Spider's War. The spiders can only do so much to keep him going it seems.

The other character that is clearly headed for a crisis is Clara. After all she has been through there is simply no going back to her old, comfortable life among the Antean nobles. Too much has changed. Of course facing up to the fact that her old life is a closed book takes courage. This is something Clara doesn't lack but for the final step she needs a push.  Geder and Clara are the most dynamic characters in the book. By contrast, Cithrin and Marcus more or less keep doing what they've been doing for most of the series. She keeps banking, he keeps campaigning even past the climax of the book. It is as if they don't quite know what to do with themselves after the end of the conflict.

Their response to the events in this final volume of the series is not unlike my own. Abraham wraps up his story neatly, if a little predictably here and there. It is well executed for sure but it does leave me with the feeling that it didn't quite achieve what it set out to do. Abraham tried to do something different with his Long Price novels and, commercially at least, they were not as successful as his publisher hoped they'd be. He bounced back with this series, among other projects, and delivered a well written, entertaining, traditional epic fantasy. It does not, however, have that one ingredient that lifts it above the mass of epic fantasy published today.

The drama of Khaiem, their unique culture and language supported by poses, added something to the story that the Dagger and Coin books lack. They were more risky in the sense that these books contained elements that made as many readers bounce right off these books but for readers looking for something a little different, they worked very well indeed. Taking this risk made them stand out for me in a way that the Dagger and Coin series does not. While I enjoyed reading these books, I wouldn't mind seeing Abraham try something a little less traditional for his next project.

Book Details
Title: The Spider's War
Author: Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 489
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-316-20405-7
First published: 2016

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Year of Our War - Steph Swainston

Earlier this year I read Steph Swainston's short story The Wheel of Fortune, which has recently appeared in Dutch translation. It was my introduction to the world of Castle. While a short story can't possibly convey all the nuances of Swainston's creation, it was more than enough to convince me to try a full novel. The individual titles in the Castle trilogy are a bit hard to come by at the moment, but an omnibus edition is readily available. Besides the trilogy there is a fourth book called Above the Snowline (2010) available. A fifth novel, Fair Rebel,  is expected later this year. In an interview I did with her earlier this year, Swainston confirmed that she is working on a sixth Castle novel.

Jant is a member of the Circle, a group of immortals lead by the emperor, tasked with watching over the world until the creator returns. His role is that of the Messenger. Being the only immortal capable of flight, he uses his wings to get around the world quickly, delivering messages and reporting on what he sees. The world has come under increasing pressure from an insect invasion. Where previously they seemed content behind their wall, recently they have been pushing deeper into lands held by humanoid species. Their advance seems unstoppable and soon it becomes clear the insects won't stop until they've colonised the entire world. On top of that threat, Castle has to deal with internal conflicts as well. As the insects advance, Jant becomes ever more desperate to find a way to defeat them and restore some semblance of order in the world.

Although the author doesn't particularly care for this label, Swainston's novels have often been characterized as New Weird. Whatever you may think of that, her books  are definitely not run-of-the-mill fantasy. The world is populated by several humanoid species and interbreeding is possible. The technology level in the novel is mostly fairly modern but such things as internal combustion engines and gunpowder (or other heavy explosives) are missing. Wars therefore, are still fought with swords, pikes and crossbows and transport depends on horses and sailing ships. I had to adjust my mental image of what this world looked like several times because of this curious mix of older and modern technology.

The book is written in the first person. We see the entire story through the eyes of Jant. He is something of an anti-hero. Where in The Wheel of Fortune, set chronologically some two centuries before the bulk of The Year of Our War, Jant  is just dealing drugs, by the time we meet him again, he is heavily addicted. The only thing that has saved him from an overdose is the fact that he is immortal. At times, his constant craving for his next shot makes him intensely annoying and rather pathetic. On the other hand he is well aware of what is going on in the world and, while not always completely voluntary, he does put his life on the line during the insect onslaught in more ways than most of his compatriots are aware of. He has, in other words, quite a complicated personality. Some readers might be put off by the whiny side of him and his constant worries about where his next shot will come from. I thought it was a very good bit of characterization though.

Deeply flawed yet heroic is a pattern we see with other immortals as well. Swainston portrays them as larger than life. They assume a kind of Olympic quality if you will. There is a definite parallel between Jant and Hermes in fact. The immortals' internal bickering sends shock waves through the world and ends up killing a great many people. The members of Castle are very human in some respects. Pettiness, power struggles and jealousy are part of every day life at the court of the emperor.The various currents at court adds to the complexity of the tale and gives the world more depth. Throughout the novel there are hints of the politics in the various nations as well, leaving quite a bit to be explored in further novels.

While I liked the worldbuilding and what Swainston does with the main character, structurally it is not a particularly strong novel. Not to put too fine a point on it, it rambles along here and there. Swainston uses flashbacks to give us an impression of Jant's past in some places that do more to disrupt the flow of the story set in the present than enlighten us. Throughout the story you can also feel the strain of having only one point of view character. Jant is constantly lost in the fog of war. Events in some places in the world simply outpace Jant and he frequently  has to adjust to developments he neither foresaw or was present to witness. It's reasonable when looked at from Jant's point of view but for the reader it is not always a satisfying experience. I also felt that the ending of the novel was fairly abrupt and left an awful lot of story lines open for the next volume.

In some ways The Year of Our War is a rocky start to the trilogy, but also one that shows a lot of potential. The setting is absolutely unique and after reading this book you can't possibly not want to learn more. The story is a dark one, but it doesn't overly rely on shock tactics to keep the reader's attention. Swainston is clearly interested in the darker side of human nature and her main character is a big part of that. His addiction and personality make him a character that is guaranteed to provoke a reaction in the reader. Probably not a positive one in all readers but if you can stomach a main character you can't always sympathise with, he is bound to take you for quite a ride. I'll be reading the second volume in the not too distant future to see where he will lead us and of course to find out if he can get the monkey off his back.

Book Details
Title: The Year of Our War, part one of the Castle Omnibus
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 267 of 867
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-09125-2
First published: 2004

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Central Station - Lavie Tidhar

Between 2011 and 2014 a series of short stories by Lavie Tidar appeared in such magazines as Interzone, Clarkesworld and Analog, as well as a couple of anthologies. All stories centred on Central Station, a space port facility located in the vicinity of Tel Aviv that has grown to become a city in itself. Tachyon Publications is now publishing a book containing rewritten versions of these stories with a few original pieces thrown in. The result is not quite a collection and not quite a novel. Publisher's Weekly calls it a mosaic novel in their review. Perhaps that is the  best description of this work. It is not a book that easily falls into a category whichever way you look at it and all the more fascinating for that.

Gathered around the foot of Central Station are a quarter of a million people from all corners of the globe. They have created a society with a huge number of cultural influences, a place where human and robot form a gliding scale, where genetically engineered beings are commonplace and where the boundary between the physical and virtual world is thin. In this melting pot of cultures, religions and advanced technology, Boris Chong returns after a long absence. He will have to deal with an old lover, a father in poor health, a child he's helped create and someone who has followed him down from space among other challenges.

I name Boris Chong the central figure in the book but that is probably not entirely accurate. Many of the story lines are connected to him but the real centre is Central Station itself. Tidhar is in search of the genius loci as much as the motivation of his characters. Throughout the book you get the feeling that the place is on the verge of awakening, of achieving self-awareness. It's a looming presence, always watching over the shoulder of the characters. It reminded me a lot of China Miéville's Perdido Street Station in that respect. Central Station is a book with many influences and that novel is probably one of them.

The text refers heavily to the greats of speculative fiction. From Bram Stoker's vampires to Frank Herbert's Sandworms, just about every creature or technology you can imagine seems to have found a place in the chapters. There are so many of them that I probably missed half during this first read. There's a dash of New Wave, a helping of Cyberpunk and a pinch of Philip K. Dick. All these ideas are mixed into an almost surreal world, one that pays homage to almost every subgenre in science fiction since the Golden Age. It's a book that has got a lot to offer for the experienced science fiction reader.

The plot meanders quite a bit. Through the eyes of several characters we explore the various aspects of Central Station. Some characters are very old and give us an insight into the past of the place. Others see it for the first time and experience the bewildering environment with fresh eyes. There are lots of tragedies worked into the stories. Characters struggle with imminent death and the possibility of immortality, drowning in perfectly stored memories, complicated old and new love affairs and how to deal with intelligence that is not quite human. Despite meeting most of them only briefly, the reader is made intensely aware of their state of mind.

With so many cultural influences on the society that has formed around Central Station, it is no surprise that the language is influenced as well. Most characters speak several languages, and Tidhar introduces a pidgin language early on in the book as well. There is a bit of English in it but a lot seems to come out of other languages. There's bit of Yiddish in the novel too. Throughout the book Tidhar pays a lot of attention to the surroundings. The descriptions of the city and its institution are colourful,  rich and tantalizing. There is constantly the feeling that you really want to explore one of the elements of Central Station further. Tidhar keeps us on track however. Many of the fascinating things that can be found in Central Station are only mentioned in the passing.

All in all Central Station is one of the most peculiar books I've read in a while. Tidhar could have made it into a collection but chose to rewrite the stories to make them fit into one narrative. It would probably have worked as a more traditional collection, but I must admit the rewrites add something to the book. The meandering plot will not please everybody. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that Tidhar refers to so many classics in science fiction, yet chooses a structure for his work that not many of those writers would have considered. It's a work in conversation with the genre but not afraid to go off the beaten track. As such it is not a book for everybody, but if you like a book that is a bit different, Central Station might be your thing. Personally,  I thoroughly enjoyed it. I wouldn't be surprised to see this one on the Nebula shortlist next year.

Book Details
Title: Central Station
Author: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Pages: 290
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: E-ARC
ISBN: 978-1-61696-215-9
First published: 2016

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Dancer's Lament - Ian C. Esslemont

In 2014 Ian C. Esslemont delivered Assail, the sixth and final novel of the Malazan Empire, a series that intertwines with Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. Like Erikson, he has now chosen to delve into the rich past of their shared fantasy world. Dancer's Lament is the first novel in a series describing the rise of the Malazan Empire. It's a period Erikson has not published any material on, leaving Esslemont a bit more free to find his own path. It seems to have done him a lot of good. The story works well for veteran readers but it might also be a good entry point. Let's face it, there are significantly less unknown terms, unexplained histories and strange magics dropped on the reader than in Erikson's first books.

The continent of Quon Tali was once unified, but in recent decades various regional powers have vied for control. Most of this has passed the city of Li Heng by, however. Ruled by a powerful sorceress, the city has known generations of stability. This is about to come to an end when the armies of the Itko Kan arrive. Their ambitious young king is aiming to conquer the city. He is not the only arrival however. Two young men with ambitions that stretch far beyond controlling one city, slip into Li Heng just before the besiegers arrive. The game of power is played on several levels and as usual in the world of Malaz, the use of power attracts the powerful. What starts out as a simple siege ripples though the Malazan pantheon.

As I understand it, Esslemont is under contract for three books in this series. This first book doesn't quite feel as the setup for a traditional trilogy, however. I would not be surprised to see the author take it beyond three books. The Malazan timeline is notoriously (and intentionally) vague so it is hard to pinpoint when exactly this story takes place in relation to other books in this universe. My best guess is that this story is set at least a century before the events in Gardens of the Moon but I could be a few decades off.

Although the history of this universe goes back a lot further, Erikson is currently writing books that are set many thousands of years before the events Esslemont describes here, Dancer's Lament is something of an origins story. We meet a number of young characters who will go on to become big players. The title is giving one of them away. Dassem Ulthor makes an appearance, Kellanved shows up and the Crimson Guard, before undergoing the ritual, pays Li Heng a visit. There is, in other words plenty for the reader familiar with the Malazan books to recognize.

All these familiar characters in the story could have the drawback that the observant reader will guess the shape of the story early on. Between them, Erikson and Esslemont have given quite a few hints on the past of some of the key players in the story. I have a nagging suspicion that later books might become more predictable. It will be interesting to see how Esslemont handles that. In Dancer's Lament, predictability is not (yet) a problem. We are a long way from Malaz, the empire is a distant dream. It will take the reader the better part of the book to figure out who is who, and more importantly, what they are capable of. Names are fluid in this series. They are often earned rather than given, and quite a few characters still have to earn theirs.

As usual the conflict in the novel plays out on several levels. The worldly politics of Quon Tali is intermingled with the struggles of gods and ascendants. This last conflict is reflected in changes in the Deck of Dragons, where as of yet unaligned cards start to appear. The origin of the house that is forming is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel for me. For characters who are, in later books, seen to be playing the long game, meticulously plotting their moves, their actions in this novel appear rash. In fact, they cause the nearest thing to panic among the  ascendants I've seen in this series.

Despite the multilayered conflict, the novel is fairly concise as Malazan books go. It is just over 400 pages in hardback. Some of the bigger novels in the overall series are easily twice as long. Esslemont starts his new series in a relatively contained setting and with, for Malazan standards, a fairly limited cast. Where in some of his previous novels I had the feeling he had trouble juggling the characters, writing his novels in between Erikson's parts and pulling all strands together for a good convergence, he doesn't have any such problems in this book. It is a tightly written novel with a satisfying climax. Sure, there are lots of open ends, it is the first book in a series after all, but structurally, this novel may be the best Esslemont has produced to date.

All in all, I am quite taken with this novel. Dancer's Lament is a fresh start for the series, and that seems to be just what Esslemont needed. It is one of the more accessible books in the universe of Malaz, but still contains enough links to the other works in the series to make it interesting for readers who have read the other books. This novel shows that, whatever we think we know about this most complex of fantasy worlds, Erikson and Esslemont will keep surprising us with their stories. Even if Esslemont's earlier novels didn't convince you, this one is well worth the read.

Book Details
Title: Dancer's Lament
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 401
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-593-07434-3
First published: 2016

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Always - Nicola Griffith

Always is the third and final novel featuring the American-Norwegian ex-police officer Aud Torvingen. These novels are usually considered crime novels, which I don't read very often. Putting them in that genre might be a bit of a stretch though. There is a crime being investigated in the novel but large parts of it deal with other subjects entirely. Whatever you want to call them, the first two were very good reading so a copy of the third volume was under way before I finished the second book. Griffith takes a slightly different approach in this book (I don't think I've seen her do the same thing twice in  a novel) and I suspect it will divide readers. Personally I liked it a lot but some readers will probably feel it is a bit too long.

Aud is back on her feet again after the events in Stay. Right in time to face a new set of challenges. Her mother, whom she has a complicated relationship with, is coming to the US, Seattle to be exact, and she is bringing along her new husband. Aud could have done without that but she can't very well refuse. Since the inheritance of her father includes property in Seattle which appears to be mismanaged, she sets out for the west coast to sort things out while she is there. For moral support she brings along her friend Doran who, as usual turns out to be a blessing and a curse.

The novel is divided into two narrative strands. The first covers a class in self defence for women Aud is teaching and is set in Atlanta. The second takes place in Seattle. Griffith alternates the chapters but chronologically the self defence class takes place some time before the events in Seattle. They are loosely connected, Griffith only refers to the classes a few times in the Seattle chapters. She does so very cleverly though. With every class you feel the tension mounting, partly because of the hints in the Seattle strand of the story.

That being said, the Atlanta chapters are stuffed to overflowing with details on self defence, the statistics of violence against women (depressingly relevant despite being decades old in some cases) and detailed descriptions of techniques and exercises. There's a lot of discussion on the subject too. The plotline in these chapters is not too complicated. The observant reader will see early on where it is heading. It's a huge contrast with the more complex mystery, and intense pressure Aud faces in the Seattle chapters. Maybe that contrast is intentional and what Aud has to tell about violence against women certainly needs to be heard but I did feel the Atlanta chapters slowed down the book a bit beyond what was necessary.

In Seattle Aud has to deal with an attempt to drive her out of business, with putting a strain on her relationship with Doran by meeting a new woman, and with finding a new balance in her relationship with her mother. Over the space of a few weeks she pretty much needs to come to terms with every emotional scar she has gathered over the course of her life. Where in the Atlanta chapters we see a self-assured Aud, she is constantly confused, distressed or angry in the Seattle chapters, heading from one crisis to the next. In terms of character development there is a lot of interesting stuff going on in these chapters.

The most interesting part in my opinion is Aud's confrontation with her mother. She has appeared briefly in the first novel but most information we get about her is contained in what Aud thinks about her. Which, it turns out, is not always reliable. Aud is surprised by her mother in many ways. Although Aud doesn't appear to be particularly happy with her mother's marriage she has to admit to herself that her mother seems to be genuinely happy. The woman we meet appears milder than the image formed in the previous two books. Milder is clearly not the same as soft though. Like Aud, her mother knows how to get things done and she demonstrates it at several points in the novel. While she lets Aud sort out her own problems for the most part, she is not shy about letting her opinion on a few matters be known.

I'm not sure they would agree with me, but Aud and her mother are alike in many ways. They like being in control and they both have a keen insight into the human mind and use that knowledge to get things done. Aud's approach is often more physical, she relies on body language an awful lot, but the principle is the same. What her mother might be better at is judging at when to speak and when to act though. Aud has the tendency to notice something needs doing and then to take care of it without regard to anybody else's opinion on the matter. Even if you are right, and it has to be said she usually is, this is bound to piss people off. She doesn't discuss things and doesn't doubt her own judgement until later. Her reliance on her own judgement is a trap she falls into every once in a while.

The woman Aud meets in Seattle is the first potential long term relationship since the drama in The Blue Place. As usual it is complicated. First by Doran being interested in her as well and then by a series of misunderstandings and communication breakdowns. It takes Aud most of the book to become comfortable with the idea of being in a relationship again. To start taking someone's needs into account and be aware of their feelings is complicated for her. The risk of adding another scar to an already large collection looms over their romance. Aud, in other words, has some things to work through to make this relationship work. In the final pages her mother throws in a bit of painful relationship advice that makes me glad Aud retained her scepticism towards her mother in this respect at least.

After all that one would almost forget there was a crime to be solved in the novel as well. This time Aud gets to deal with a money crime and some modest local government corruption. In Atlanta she would probably have buried the responsible parties in under five minutes but Seattle is a strange city. Figuring out who to talk to and who can take care of what problem takes a bit of time. Although solving the matter is not without danger, the experience gives Aud a clear goal for the future too. Which makes this book a fitting end to the series.

With Always Griffith once again delivers a fascinating novel. It is an impressive bit of character development. The author pulls no punches when it comes to making her main character suffer. The crime element in the novel is not quite as present as in the first two volumes. If you approach this as a whodunit, the novel will probably not satisfy you. Personally I was much more interested in seeing if Aud would manage to find some stability in her life and heal some of the scars that are so prominently present in her story, and in that respect the novel absolutely delivers. If you enjoyed Griffith's science fiction and are not afraid to try a different genre don't hesitate to pick these up.

Book Details
Title: Always
Author: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Pages: 516
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-59448-294-6
First published: 2007

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Xuya Universe Short Fiction by Aliette de Bodard (Part 3)

Aliette de Bodard's Xuya alternative history is a fascinating project. One that I have returned to regularly on the blog. It's been three and a half years since I did one of these posts however, and since I did mention I might do a third, I guess it is past time. Especially since I got hold of a few of the harder to find pieces recently. I once again picked a pair of contrasting stories. Should there be a part four (you never know) this is going to be a bit harder to keep up. I have exhausted the stories set in the recent past in the Mexica Empire.

Fleeing Tezcatlipoca

This story originally appeared in Space and Time Magazine #111, the Summer 2010 issue. Until De Bodard made it available in Ships in Exile, a collection put together as a reward for a fund-raiser, it hadn't been published anywhere else. The story may be hard to track down. It is a novelette, with a word count of approximately 10,000. As the title suggests, this story is set in the Mexica Empire. According to De Bodard's timeline the events take place in 1990.

The Mexica Empire is in turmoil as the weak Revered Speaker tries to consolidate power by crushing any opposition. In a Tenochtitlan with checkpoints and barricades at every turn and priests and Jaguar Knights enforcing loyalty to the regime, life is slowly becoming unbearable for the main character Necahal. When Palli,  a member of her extended family, asks for her help to cross the border into Xuya, she agrees to come with him. It will be a dangerous journey but before she can ask herself how well she actually knows this man, she is in way over her head.

The story is set some years after The Jaguar House, in Shadow, and shows us a glimpse of how the conflict has developed in the mean time. Stylistically The Jaguar House, in Shadow is a bit more refined. Fleeing Tezcatlipoca, is told in a more straightforward fashion. If not for the alternative timeline you could almost see it as a thriller. There are certainly possibilities for one in this setting. I don't feel this story is the best De Bodard has produced. It lacks something of the grace of her other stories. I do like Necahal though. She does something drastic and clearly hasn't thought it through properly, but she does face the consequences of her actions. I don't doubt she landed on her feet.

Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight

De Bodard recently won the BSFA award for this story. It was published in Clarkesworld 100, January 2015 and can still be read for free on their site. This story takes us into the future a century or two. The story is set on a different planet in a corner of the universe where a space faring Chinese/Vietnamese culture has established itself. It touches upon the concept of Minds, AIs with a biological core brain capable of piloting spacecraft, found in several other Xuya stories as well.  That sounds like space opera but the story is actually very intimate. Grief is a clear theme but in a way, so is identity. And tea, there is lots of tea.

A son, a daughter/Mind and a colleague are faced with the loss of eminent scientist Professor Duy Uyen. Because of the value of her work, the Empress goes against tradition and decides to give her memory implant to the colleague instead of her son, to make sure her unique knowledge won't be lost. Each of the three will now have to deal with their loss in a way none of them expected.

Three characters. One wants the implants but doesn't get them, one gets them but doesn't want them and the third comes to realize she doesn't need them. Family and honouring your ancestors is important in the culture De Bodard portrays, which makes the decision of the Empress controversial. One of the characters explores what it is to lose a mother and have what he thought was left of her taken away as well. Another deals with having a supervisor look over her shoulder from the grave. The third has to face up to the fact that she will never experience loss the way her family does.

The role of technology in the story is also very well done. The implants have been completely incorporated in the culture of the main characters. It offers possibilities they wouldn't have had otherwise but also raises new dilemmas. Readers agreeing with Theodore Sturgeon's definition of science fiction will approve of this story.

Two very different stories. I think they are about as far apart as you can find them in the Xuya universe. I still haven't read them all though. I guess I should get on with that. The more of these stories I read, the more this alternative history fascinates me.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Fevre Dream - George R.R. Martin

Fevre Dream (1982) is Martin's third novel. It follows his début Dying of the Light (1977) and his fixup collaboration with Lisa Tuttle Windhaven (1981). All three are decidedly different beasts. Dying of the Light is a science fiction set in Martin's never officially named Thousand Worlds setting. Windhaven is nominally science fiction as well but much more to the fantasy side of the genre. Fevre Dream is a historical horror novel. For his fourth novel, The Armageddon Rag (1983), he would shoot off in another direction again. A choice that ended up almost wrecking his career as a novelist. Fevre Dream however, was a commercial and critical success. Written in a time when horror was on a high, it earned Martin Locus and World Fantasy Award nominations in 1983.

The Mississippi river system: 1857. Abner Marsh is a riverboat captain down on his luck. Where he once owned a profitable business, owning several steamboats, disaster has struck and he is down to one, severely outdated boat. His luck seems to be changing when he is approached by the peculiar but obviously wealthy Joshua York. Together they build the finest steamboat on the river, and Abner is dead set on proving it is the fastest as well. His partner has some strange conditions for bankrolling the new boat however. Conditions that seem to make little sense to Abner and get in the way of him running his company. Soon York's nocturnal habits and unexplained trips arouse suspicion. Joshua York is clearly not what he pretends to be.

There are a few things that usually don't attract me in fantasy and science fiction, and Martin has written all of them at some point in his career. Time travel (Under Siege, Unsound Variations), comic book style narratives (Wild Cards) and vampire stories tend to make me hesitate to pick up a book. Fevre Dream is a vampire novel. This type of novel has undergone quite a change in the years since Martin wrote this book. Martin wrote vampires in the tradition of Bram Stoker. Dangerous, powerful, charismatic, evil and very hard to kill. Powerful individuals they may be, the modern world is catching up to them. Their aversion to sunlight makes them vulnerable, and places to hide and feed on the population unnoticed are harder to find. The American frontier is still a wild place however, and a group of vampires is making use of that. What they do is horrific and Martin doesn't spare us the horrific details.

There is a bit of a contradiction in Martin's treatment of the vampire mythos. The human characters in the book seem to be aware of Stoker's ideas on what vampires are some forty years before Dracula was published. Joshua even mentions Vlad Țepeș to Abner and some of the characteristics and weaknesses of his race as described by Stoker  in one of their conversations. It's a peculiar lapse in what otherwise appears to be a well researched novel.

Most of the novel is set on the Mississippi river in 1857. Martin has done his research on the history of transport on the river and describes the atmosphere in the towns along the Mississippi very well. It is a highly dynamic place, still wild enough to be considered the frontier, but a place where the impact of modern technology and industrialization are beginning to be felt. Along the river the conflict that will explode into the American civil war is already brewing. Martin doesn't shy away from showing the appalling racism that was part of every day life along the river and still echoes through American society. Slavery and the practice of hunting escaped slaves feature in the novel and it contains a lot of language nobody in their right mind would consider using today. Martin uses this part of history as more than a backdrop. Historical developments shape the story and the main character. Martin has a knack for researching a period and then using it to create a great story. Which makes it all the more of a shame he never finished Black and White and Red All Over.

Martin's preference for morally ambiguous characters is well known and it shows up in this novel as well. Particularly over the issue of slavery. Although Abner, being from a northern state, doesn't own slaves himself, he doesn't really object to the practice either. He hires a mate who can keep 'the darkies' in line and doesn't seem to think they are good for anything but the hardest, lowest paid jobs. Not until his clash with the group of vampires, who see humans as cattle, sometimes useful but mostly food, does he begin to appreciate the injustice of their position. His attitude towards Native Americans, only very briefly discussed in the novel, is similarly racist and ignorant. Martin uses it to develop his character to an extent but you have to be able to stomach a whole lot of racism to appreciate this story.

The dynamic between two other main characters, Joshua and his nemesis Damon is another expression of Martin's preference for complex characters. Damon is what you'd expect of a vampire. Joshua on the other hand isn't. In his struggle with Damon he develops into a tragic character. Perhaps his pointless battering against Damon's power is a bit too dramatic for some but it does suit the southern gothic atmosphere of the book very well. He is pulled between two ways of life and even though we see the effect of that exclusively through Abner's eyes, it comes across very well.

A while back I reread Martin's career spanning collection Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective. In the 1970s Martin produced a couple of stories that were inspired by poems. And Seven Times Never Kill Man (1975) takes the title from a poem by Kipling, in A Song for Lya (1974) a poem by Matthew Arnold is referenced. Joshua York, it would seem, is a fan of British  poetry as well. He references Percy Bysshe Shelley (in particular Ozymandias) and in more detail Lord Byron. Abner is not impressed by York's 'gimp Britisher' but later on in the book it grows on him. Martin must have had an inspirational English teacher to let it influence his work to such an extent. I don't think I've seen any traces of it in his post-Hollywood material though.

Martin may be a fine writer but he didn't convince me to try more vampire novels with Fevre Dream. In the end it is his handling of the characters and the historical backdrop that carry the novel for me. The vampire story itself is rather predictable for a novel published before the Urban Fantasy boom and the introduction of glittering vampires. It's entertaining but of the novels Martin produced in his pre-Hollywood period, this is not the one that stands out. Ironically perhaps, I vastly prefer The Armageddon Rag, the novel that almost wrecked Martin's career. Not everybody will agree with me though. If you like your vampires without glitter, in the hands of an author who can tell a good story, Fevre Dream is worth a try.

Book Details
Title: Fevre Dream
Author: G.R.R. Martin
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 350
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 1-85798-331-9
First published: 1982

Friday, March 25, 2016

The City & The City - China Miéville

Some years ago I read Miéville's Bas-Lag novels. They are challenging reads, especially to a second language reader. Miéville's vocabulary is impressive and he uses it all in those novels. The books centre on the fictional city of New Corbuzon, a place that is as much a character in the book as the people that live in it. Cities, especially strange ones, seem to attract Miéville. He displays a whole range of different genres in his novels but wether it is New Corbuson, Un-Lun-Dun or Besźel/Ul Qoma or Embassytown, strange urban environments seem to connect his work. The City and the City does strange very well. It was nominated for an unbelievable number of awards. After having read it, I'm not surprised it won as many of them as it did.

Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Besźel police, is handed what will turn out to be the most complicated case of his career. The body of a young woman is found dumped in a shady part of town. Soon, the trail leads to the city of Ul Qoma, where Borlú has no jurisdiction. The cities have a long and complicated history together, both geographically and politically. To guard the status quo between them, an organisation called Breach can be invoked for crimes during which the border between the two has been illegally crossed. To Borlú's surprise, no such illegal crossing has taken place. Breach cannot be called upon. Instead, Borlú is sent to Ul Qoma to help the local authorities solve the case.

It took me a while to wrap my mind around the city Miéville is describing. They are two states, essentially sharing the same physical space, where by convention and law, the inhabitants of both cities choose not to see, or as Miéville puts it, to 'unsee' each other. Some streets are fully Besźel, some fully Ul Qoma, others shared or 'crosshatched' as Miéville puts it. It's a situation that constantly influences the inhabitants, and demands that they carefully choose what to see and what not. Miéville's point here is clearly that we all choose to see or unsee certain parts of our environment. That how we perceive our surroundings is partially a choice, to a point dictated by custom or what is specifically targeted at us. Miéville puts a lot of examples in the text of how this situation influences daily life and how it has shaped the cities. The first time you go out after finishing the book you'll probably look around and ask yourself what you  normally aren't seeing.

For some reason the situation in Miéville's fictional city - it is suggested that it is located somewhere in Eastern Europe, perhaps on the Black Sea coast - reminded me a bit of Jerusalem taken a different turn some time in the past. A city that is so layered in history, where several peoples and religions have a claim on the place, and where sharing the place is both unthinkable and the only way to a lasting peace, you can almost see something like what Miéville describes happening. Then again, and Miéville works this dark side of human nature into his novel as well, there are always those who want it all and do not mind shedding blood to get it.

The novel has a definite fantastical aspect to it, but for a large part it is a police procedural. The unique politics of the place gives Miéville plenty of opportunities to develop a good conspiracy. It may start out with a single murder but that proves to be only the tip of the iceberg. The plot itself is very convoluted. In the end it falls into place but I must admit that the final revelation was not quite as interesting to me as the way Miéville uses the plot to show the various ways of seeing the city. The author uses characters from both sides of the border as well as foreigners, and then has Borlú try to make sense of their perspective. It's very cleverly done but I'm not entirely sure it will convince fans of more conventional murder mysteries. You need to be able to enjoy the synthesis of the two genres to really appreciate  it.

I had a lot less difficulty with Miéville's English in this novel than with the language in Perdido Street Station for some reason. It's not that Miéville suddenly abandons his preference for long, complex sentences and matching vocabulary but it's not as extravagant as I remember from his earlier books. Or maybe my English has improved in the past few years. The first explanation is more likely, a darker, less extravagant style seems more fitting.

The City and the City is one of those novels that takes fantasy to a different level. It clearly fantastic yet impossible to categorize, it experiments with fusing genres, with language and with perspective. It nods to  some of the great writers in mystery, fantasy and science fiction, as well as a main stream literature. You could probably do a thesis on everything that went into this novel. In the end I guess it is the way in which Miéville balances the influences, themes and plot that makes this novel stand out. He is ambitious in what he attempts and he pulls it off. That is a rare feat indeed. If you are up for something different and something challenging, The City and the City is a good place to start.

Book Details
Title: The City & The City
Author: China Miéville
Publisher: PAN
Pages: 373
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-330-53419-2
First published: 2009