Sunday, August 31, 2014

Yesterday's Kin - Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress is one of those writers who, in my opinion, does better at writing short fiction than novels. Her best length appears to be the novella, of which she has produced a number of memorable ones. The best known is probably Beggars in Spain, which formed the basis for the novel of the same name. A few years back I also read Act One, which garnered her a number of award nominations. I was quite pleased that I was able to get an advance copy of her new project Yesterday's Kin through NetGalley. Like After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall it is either a short novel or a novella. I don't have an exact wordcount but I think it falls short of most definitions of a novel. Novel or novella, it doesn't really matter.  Yesterday's Kin is a very interesting read.

Aliens have made contact with Earth and parked a spaceship in New York City. Talks between the United Nations and the aliens have been going on for a while but what they actually want remains unclear. Geneticist Marianne Jenner has paid little attention to these events, absorbed as she is in her work. With the publication of her latest article, announcing the discovery of a thirtyfirst haplogroup in humans, she is suddenly contacted by the aliens. Slowly, the reason for their visit becomes apparent, Earth is about to pass through a cloud of alien spores that could drive humanity to extinction. A race against the clock to find a treatment for the virus begins.

The Jenner family, Marianne and her three children, represent the full range of responses to the arrival of the aliens. They are seen as an invasive species, a threat to public security, a source of information on how to deal with the oncoming crisis or a new culture to be embraced completely. In short, Earth is hopelessly divided on how to deal with the situation. Kress keeps a strong focus on the impact events have on the family. It's one of the things that set her writing apart. Where many writers would be tempted to zoom out, look at the political drama in the background or include more action scenes. Kress keeps things closer to her characters, making the tale more intimate and also more focused. It's not a style suitable for sprawling novels but for the novella length it works very well.

Kress again drew inspiration from genetics in this novella. The genetic research the main character is involved in does not only shed light on the development of humanity but also has a link to the aliens. There is quite a bit of population genetics in the story. Concepts such as haplogroups, mitochondrial Eve and the population bottleneck of 70,000 years ago show up in the story. When you read this story it really hits home how much genetics have been able to contribute to our knowledge of the development of the species, supplementing branches of science such as archaeology and paleontology.

The author doesn't limit the science to genetics though. A fair bit of ecology sneaks in between the lines as well. I do think that Kress didn't quite manage to integrate the view of the aliens as an invasive species (in the ecological sense). With transport of people and goods around the globe at an all time high, accidental introductions of species that can upset an entire ecosystem is becoming a huge problem. That is on top of the trouble already caused by the species that have been purposefully introduced. A single species not involved in a particular ecosystem can alter it radically, usually leading to great losses in biodiversity. The idea that an alien species might cause something like that is plausible but we don't get to see any of that. Social disruption yes, but no ecological havoc. In fact, considering what Kress tells us of the origin of this alien race and the speed at which evolution takes place in complex organisms, it may not be all that big a risk. When Kress eventually reveals why she included that particular idea, it made sense but didn't come across as particularly convincing.

That being said, I did enjoy the science Kress put into this story an awful lot. The use of genetics in science fiction is widespread but I can't think of any other author in the field who takes her inspiration from recent scientific research in the field like Kress does. The life sciences are a very important part of her story but she consistently manages to keep her stories quite close to the everyday life of the characters. It is not the sense of wonder Kress is looking for, but the impact on everyday life. They are a combination of fascinating science and well drawn characters. Stories that are both emotionally powerful and thought provoking. In many ways Yesterday's Kin is a signature Kress novella. If you liked her other work, you can't really go wrong with this one.  I have read Kress stories where the elements of the story fall into place more convincingly but it is still a high quality read. I wouldn't be surprised if it ended up on a few award shortlists next year.

Book Details
Title: Yesterday's Kin
Editor: Nancy Kress
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Pages: 192
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-61686-176-3
First published: 2014

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lana Reviews: The War of the Worlds - H.G. Wells

First published in 1898, H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds is a work of science fiction that I, as a reader in 2014, feel must have been way ahead of its time back when it was first released. Although some of the scientific ideas brought up in this novel are a bit out of date today, they were actually the theories that were thought to make sense back then, and Wells himself did a pretty good job explaining such scientific and technological ideas in his works so that the average person could understand them better.

One day, something unexpected happens over south-eastern England. A falling star is observed, few noticing the greenish streak it is leaving behind as it rushes across the sky. Incidentally, it turns out that the 'meteorite' lands somewhere in Surrey, not far from Woking where the narrator of the story lives. Only the next morning, however, when someone ventures out to find it, is it discovered that it is not a meteorite at all, but a cylinder, its top unscrewing slowly indicating that someone or something must be inside, trying to get out.

What comes out of the cylinder is clearly not a creature of our world, and before long, it becomes clear that it has no intention of making friends. After witnessing the violence and chaos unleashed upon the curious but innocent masses gathered around the cylinder, the narrator hurries home. He decides to get his wife and servant out of Woking to somewhere safe, a journey they manage without much trouble. But as he returns home with the horse and cart he loaned for the trip, it turns out that what happened earlier near the cylinder was only the beginning of the destruction that Woking and the rest of the area would see. The rest of his story tells of how he tries to make it back to his wife, while at the same time trying to stay safe as the Martians have started moving around.

The book is told in first person view by a nameless narrator mostly telling us the story of what happened to him when the Martians invaded. Through a few chapters however, he also shares his brother's experiences with us, something I think Wells chose to do to give his readers a second point of view from a different, and perhaps more well-known, location. Not every reader would recognize Woking and the surrounding country-side, but most would have heard of London. Since the whole story is supposed to be a factual account of the invasion from Mars, we get to know very little of the characters - few of the principal ones are even named.

The story itself starts out with a chapter that, among others, does two things. First, it links something that actually happened in real life a few years before, to the events of the story. In 1894, a French astronomer observed a strange light on Mars. This became the starting point of Wells' story. He makes this into one of the times the Martians launched one of their many cylinders: destination Earth.

Second, it explains how come the inhabitants of Mars are so far ahead of humans intellectually and technologically, and since it was the prevailing theory of planetary formation at the time, this is explained as a result of Mars being an older world than ours because it is further away from the sun than Earth, the theory being that the outer planets formed first, and also cooled and aged faster than the ones closer to the sun. Since they didn't know what we do today about Mars being cold and barren, one cannot blame them for thinking that if life was possible on earth, it would only make sense that life would be possible on Mars too. Believing Mars to be an older world, it would then not be far-fetched to think that the Martians would have come along further in their development than the people of earth, having had more time to evolve.

Talking about evolving, Wells' background as a science teacher in training and a believer in Darwinism shines through as he, somewhere along the way, describes the evolution of the Martians. He had already aired a lot of the ideas he brought up in The War of the Worlds in an essay he had published in 1896, named Intelligence on Mars. Here, he speculated about the evolution of Martian species compared to those on earth, thinking they would have to be different since the conditions would undoubtedly be different. He also played with the idea that perhaps, if Mars had changed enough that the Martians could not live there anymore, they would be looking for a new place to settle. His genius was that, where contemporary authors stuck to the usual plot of the then popular invasion novels, letting humans fight humans, Wells raised the stakes so much higher by introducing a formidable and near unbeatable enemy from another world.

The only book I had read by Wells before picking up this one, was The Time Machine, which I read in my late teens and really enjoyed. Still, I was a bit skeptical about The War of the Worlds as I really disliked the 2005 Steven Spielberg movie of almost the same name, which is the only filmed version I have seen. Fortunately, the book is so much better. I especially like that it is set in a time when horses and carts are still in use (where the movie was set it in our day and age), and yet you have these Martians moving around in metal vehicles with three long legs, brandishing laser-like weapons! How Wells came up with these things I will never know, the man sort of invented the future. As for this book, it served to remind me of an author I had enjoyed in the past, and now I cannot wait to pick up more of his works.

Book Details
Title: The War of the Worlds
Editor: H.G. Wells
Publisher: Penguin Books
Pages: 199
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-14-144103-0
First published: 1898

Saturday, August 23, 2014

City of Stairs - Robert Jackson Bennett

Broadway Books is giving this one a big push, I've been sitting on a review copy of this novel for months now. I've seen a few reviews pop up over the past few weeks already, it would appear they've been liberal with review copies. It won't be out until September so I didn't put it at the top of the reading list. City of Stairs is Robert Jackson Bennett's fifth novel and the fist one I've read. From what I can tell, Bennett writes novels that aren't firmly planted in one genre. This novel could be considered a fantasy, but there are elements of other genre's mixed in. His novel American Elsewhere (2013) won him a Shirley Jackson award, which leans towards dark fantasy and horror. Bennett may have convinced me to try that one. I very much liked City of Stairs and it would fit into one of the reading challenges I'm taking part in this year.

The city of Bulikov was once the center of the world. A place where the gods came together and miracles were an everyday occurrence. Then, a man from Saypur, one of the conquered nations of the world, chafing under the rule of the gods, rose up and in a swift and brutal rebellion killed the gods. The city collapsed in on itself and almost a century later, is still mostly a ruin. Efforts to regain some of the former glory are blocked by the new rulers, and knowledge of the history of the city and religions that once thrived there is extremely restricted. The old gods are not that easily defeated though. Under the surface, a rebellion is simmering. When a historian from Saypur is murdered, intelligence officer Shara stumbles across evidence that the status quo Saypur has so carefully tried to maintain is about to be disrupted.

What follows is a bit spoilerish, you have been warned.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Random Comments is Five Years Old Today

Five years old and unlike last year I didn't even forget. Still have no other ambitions that keeping it going. Let's see if we can reach double digits ;)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Val & Lana Review: Artemis Awakening - Jane Lindskold

For the four hundredth reviewed work on Random Comments I thought we ought to try something different. I got Lana to agree to do a joint review for the occasion. In the poll I ran a while ago you selected Jane Lindskold's latest novel Artemis Awakening, the first of a new trilogy, and so we set to work. As was the expectation, we don't quite agree on this novel. Maybe it is something worth repeating for a few other titles we have opposing opinions on.

Created from bare rock by a human empire so technologically advanced  that moving planets was a simple task, Artemis was to serve as a  pleasure planet to the few who'd be allowed access to it. But when the empire fell, the knowledge of the whereabouts of the planet was also  lost, and Artemis survived only as a fable told to children, to remind them of the great achievements that their ancestors had once been  capable of.

To Griffin Dane however, Artemis is more than a fable. To him, it is  his path to recognition and fame among his peers. Believing that he might have found the till now lost coordinates of Artemis, he sets out alone on a journey through the stars, afraid that if he accepts the help or company of any others, including his family, he will have to share the glory to come, or even have it taken away from him completely. And  so it is that when he arrives on Artemis, crash-landing his ship in the process, he is alone with no conceivable way to get back home.

Lucky for him, he soon meets Adara and her psych-linked companion, Sand Shadow the puma. They are both ascendants of the bio-engineered humans and animals who were once created to populate Artemis in order to  make the stay more pleasant for its visitors. Convinced that Griffin must be an ascendant of the creators of Artemis, she and her companion  decides to help him find his way on their planet in his search for a way home. Before long, they are joined by Adara's friend Terrell, whose abilities as a factotum will prove invalulable to their cause, as their journey leads them to strange places and unexpected happenings.

Lana's view:

Artemis Awakening is my first book by Jane Lindskold. I have heard of some of her other works, but looking at her bibliography, I cannot say that I have read any of them. As such, I had no idea what to expect when I started on this novel, and it was all quite exciting!

Artemis Awakening is set in a post-apocalyptic world, about 500 years after the events that broke it apart. Humans have managed to regain some of the technology that was lost to them (after a fashion anyway; they did not only lose technology, but special abilities were lost as well), but compared to the legends of their ancestors, it looks as if they may still have som way to go in order to catch up. This seems to be one of the things driving Griffin Dane onwards; perhaps if he finds Artemis, he'll rediscover some lost technology of the past - something that will help humanity take another step towards the greatness they once had. Most of the time, Griffin comes off as the kind of character that is fair, highly intellectual and sympathetic towards others; he is even brave when the situation calls for it. Once he becomes focused on something, however, it is as if all his attention and energy go towards that one thing, and nothing else seems to be of importance anymore. For a long time, one does not get to see that latter part of his personality, so through a lot of the book, I found it hard to imagine this character as someone setting off alone to make a discovery because he did not want to share it with anyone else; he just didn't seem the type.

Another character that kind of tricks you in the beginning, is Terrell. When he first entered the story, I thought he would simply take on the role as someone annoying and arrogant, a pain in the backside and just there to make life difficult for Griffin - and perhaps for Adara as well. Before long, I had to admit that perhaps he was the most likable of the bunch, which is saying a lot as, with two notable exceptions, the people of Artemis generally comes off as pretty likable at all times. I was left with a feeling that he was introduced to the core group (Griffin, Adara and Sand shadow) to make things a bit more interesting - suddenly we have two males interested in one female, and drama can ensue. Except that nothing really ever happens, other than some comments and a few confused thoughts. Perhaps Lindskold is planning on adding more tension and awkwardness to this situation in the sequel since she did not do much with it in the first book.

While the whole idea of bioengineering humans and animals just to bring pleasure to those few who would have access to it sits horribly with me, the link between Adara and her puma was one of my favorite elements of the story, and wouldn't have been possible in this setting, I think, without what was done to their ancestors. Through Adara we get to find out what Sand Shadow thinks about the things that are happening, and their communication is often a bit funny, since the big cat tends to find the actions of her human companions on the amusing side.

Artemis Awakening is not a very complicated story, at least not so far. I felt that it was very fast-paced, and the type of book one can easily read in one go. Since I haven't read anything else by Lindskold, I have no idea whether this is typical for her or not, although, I think my co-author of this review, who has read other books by her, said something one day about it not being her most complicated work ever, so it might be an exception to her usual style. Whatever the case, I did enjoy it, and I would definitely pick up the next book in the series, just to find out what happens next.

Val's view:

I've read seven of Lindskold's novels before starting this one. All six Firekeeper books and one of her early novels Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls. Compared to these books Artemis Awakening is a very light read. The Firekeeper books is a fairly complex story in the sense that the reader has to keep up with a large cast and the relationship between lots of noble houses, as well as a detailed history of the part of the world the books are set in. Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls is much more a character study, where we see the entire story though the eyes of an unreliable narrator, essentially forcing the reader to evaluate each bit of information carefully to figure out what is going on. Artemis Awakening is neither of these things. The premise of this novel is simple, the execution straightforward. In fact, if it hadn't been for the references to rape and sexual abuse, none of which is explicitly depicted in the novel, it could have been a book for young readers. As Lana has already noted, It is not a very challenging book.

I didn't think it was a hugely original book either. Lindskold sets her story in a universe where a huge galactic empire reached levels of technology that Arthur C. Clarke would equate with magic before tearing itself apart. Now, humanity is slowly beginning to rediscover their past. A concept like this made Asimov famous in the 1940s. It is quite obvious that Artemis Awakening leans quite heavily on tried and trusted science fiction tropes.

On top of that, Lindskold sets the novel up like a romance early on in the book. Handsome hero is rescued by capable and beautiful heroine and together they trek trough the unspoilt wilderness of Artemis. Mutual attraction is obvious in those first pages of the book. I wonder how many readers of science fiction will be put off by this. It's not a crowd that is very tolerant to this sort of thing. I must admit I had my doubts as well when Lindskold introduces a rival, setting things up for a classic love triangle. For some reason the author doesn't follow though on this however. Not yet anyway. Further along in the novel a measure of respect develops between the three characters.

I can't say I thought the story itself was that interesting but the concept of the planet Artemis is. It is essentially a world that is tailored to fit the ideal of a wild, unspoilt world. It is designed to keep an ecological balance between the population and their environment that keeps the place empty, wild and unspoilt. A planetary wildlife preserve almost. To achieve this, all sorts of comforts - surely the decadent rulers of a galactic empire can't be expected to rough it - have been hidden away, just waiting for rediscovery by someone who knows what to look for. Someone who is used to a higher standard of technology than the local population. Someone from outside.

Ecosystems are dynamic. There is no such thing as a system that is entirely in balance. It might hover around a kind of dynamic equilibrium for some time but in the long run they tend to evolve. Artemis is of course a designed system, but since it does not appear to be actively managed anymore and several hundred years have passed since it has, one would expect it to drift away from the ideal state the designers had in mind. It would certainly have made things interesting but so far no evidence of that happening has shown up in the story. Lindskold mostly keeps it limited to the adaptations of a small part of the population of Artemis.

One theme that does come back in a lot of Lindskold's work is the connection between people and animals. In the Firekeeper books it was the one between wolves and the main character. Here, the Huntress Adara is accompanied by a puma of unnatural intelligence. To make matters worse, the puma as opposable thumbs. Think about how scary a cat with opposable thumbs would be. They are quite enough trouble without them. And the ones we keep around are not the size of a puma either. It's a fun bit of wish-fulfillment I suppose. One that Lindskold uses to get past all sorts of obstacles the puma would not be able to negotiate otherwise. As always, she has managed to convincingly capture the spirit of the animal. It is anthropomorphizing to a high degree of course, but cat owners will recognize a lot in the Sand Shadow's behaviour.

All things considered, Artemis Awakening is not an unpleasant read. Just a very straightforward one. The plot is well put together but somewhat predictable. The observant reader will see the hook for book two coming quite some time before the climax of the book. It is the kind of cozy science fiction that will not really challenge the more experienced read and as such, I thought it was only mildly entertaining. I might be convinced to read the second volume but I doubt it will leap to the top of the to read stack when it appears.

So there you have it, two opinions of Artemis Awakening. We'll leave it up to you to figure out who is right ;)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Entire Gollancz SF Masterworks Series Reviewed

Peter Young, editor of the Big Sky, has dedicated the entire third and forth issue his fanzine to the Gollancz SF Masterworks series. He has scoured the internet collecting the most interesting reviews of each title in the series and released the result to coincide with WorldCon, held in London this year. The scope of the project is huge. Some of these books are very well known, there must be thousands of reviews out there. I don't want to think about how many reviews Peter must have looked at to make his selection. It's an impressive feat to put something like this together.

The reviews have been written by a host of well known critics, writers, blogger and editors, from a wide variety of blogs and websites. The list of contributors is impressive and I feel honoured to be among them. Please take the time to check out Peter's work, he has made the fanzine available for free download here. Enjoy!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Hex - Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Thomas Olde Heuvelt has been making quite a name for himself in the Dutch speculative fiction market. Hex is the third novel I've read by him and in terms of craftsmanship, he is well ahead of most other authors in the field. He's been trying to get into the inroads in the English language market too. Several of his shorter pieces have been translated and last year, The Boy Who Cast No Shadow even made it to the Hugo shortlist. This year he's on there again with The Ink Readers of Doi Saket. He's made attempts to get his previous novel, Harten Sara (2011) translated but so far they have not resulted in a book on the shelves. The prospects for Hex are looking even better, the translation right and television rights have been sold. Provided it survives development hell, Hex might even make it to the small screen.

The village of Beek, near Nijmegen close to the Dutch-German border, hides a terrible secret. To outsiders it looks like an idyllic place but once you are unfortunate enough to move there, you're stuck. A woman burnt there as a witch in the seventeenth century is holding the village hostage. Her eyes and mouth are sown shut and the villagers are under strict orders not to attempt to communicate with the witch. Doing so almost always results in death. A strict regime to keep the village safe and the witch a secret to the outside world has been put in place. It has worked reasonably well but such restriction chafe, especially for the younger generation for whom the world, thanks to modern communication devices, does not stop at the edge of the village. Their attempt to gain a little more freedom sets in motion a series of events that will change the village forever.

Beek does indeed exist. I've lived in that part of the country for almost three years but I've never visited it. Olde Heuvelt has used quite a few locations that actually exist but the characters and events are of course fictious. He gives the place quite a rough treatment in his book. Lots of small minded people, plenty of paranoia, racist tendencies and mob mentality. That's on top of the havoc wreaked by the witch of course. It makes me wonder what someone born and raised in Beek would make of it.

The witch herself, a woman named Katharina van Wyler, is not the most original element in the story. Her history is not very well known but she was accused of bringing her son who died of the plague back to life. The superstitious locals then tortured her to death. She now haunts them as a vengeful reminder of the crimes the villagers committed in the past. On several occasions she has gotten into the head of villagers and made them commit suicide. The last time this happened was in the 1960s, well before the the younger generation in the village was born. Never having experienced the horror she can unleash firsthand, they are not so certain that all the restrictions imposed on their lives are necessary.

Olde Heuvelt doesn't really explore the motivations of Katharina in the novel. Instead he creates something of a generational conflict. Having to spend your entire life in the village of Beek, which has no economy to speak of, is inconceivable. The constant need of having to keep secrets from their fellow students and friends from outside Beek weighs on them. It is only natural that they start pushing against the restrictions to find out what they can get away with. In fact, in today's world, being cut off from the the rest of the country simply isn't an option. It's an expression of the small-mindedness of the village council that they do not see the need to adapt. Rebellious youngsters and conservative village Elders are an explosive mix and Olde Heuvelt strikes the spark in a very convincing way.

One of the most interesting things in this novel is the use of language. Modern Dutch is very much influenced by English. To the extent even, that for many recent inventions, no Dutch word exists. Computer, laptop and smartphone are part of the everyday vocabulary of the Dutch. On top of that a whole set of Anglicisms has entered the language, literal translations of English expressions. It makes me cringe every time I hear someone say 'soort van', 'daar heb je een punt', 'seks hebben' (or if you really want to make a purist cringe 'sex hebben') or 'fokking'. Obviously I don't have a problem with the English language, but I don't think the fact that it is the lingua franca of our time is an excuse not to speak your own language properly. The most recent development the use of English words to replace words that do have a translation in Dutch. Recently I heard someone use the word flabbergasted (verbijsterd) in what was otherwise a Dutch sentence. If you pay attention to it, you'll hear plenty of examples.

Whether I like it or not, it's the way a lot of people talk these days and Olde Heuvelt makes his characters do it. Especially the younger ones use a lot of Anglicisms and English words. In fact, the title of the novel is probably the most clear expression of this fusion of languages. The Dutch word for witch is 'heks', while hex (pronunciation is almost identical) has a meaning in English as well. Olde Heuvelt himself has a fine command of the Dutch language. His prose is often quite creative and likely to give a translator a few headaches. It results in a pretty sharp contrast between dialogue and exposition in the book. It makes me wonder how much of this will survive translation.

In terms of style the novel is quite different from his previous novel as well. Harten Sara is almost entirely told from a first person perspective. In Hex, the entire community is the main character and to accurately describe what is going on, Olde Heuvelt switches a lot between characters. Especially towards the end of the novel, when things really start to heat up, you have to have a firm grasp of who is who in the village to follow the story. Given the number of characters employed, it could easily have been a much longer novel. Olde Heuvelt's writing is pretty concise considering the story he is trying to tell. It does go at the expense of the depth of some of the characters. There is one suicide towards the end of the novel for instance, that shocks the village but doesn't do much for the reader because we haven't seen much of this character except his self-righteous behaviour at a council meeting. Overall, I think this is the kind of tale that is more suited to speed and a more general overview of what is happening though. Olde Heuvelt is trying to show the impact on the larger community after all.

Where Harten Sara was much more of a character study and tended towards magical realism, in Hex Olde Heuvelt returns to the dark fantasy he showed in Leerling Tovenaar Vader & Zoon (2008).  It's fast paced, horrific and absolutely thrilling. I had to force myself to put it down a couple of times to go do other things. If you have the time for a reading binge, this is the kind of book you could read in one go. Personally I enjoyed the more challenging Harten Sara a bit more, but it is a fine novel. It will be interesting to see if it manages to conquer the English language market as well.

Book Details
Title: Hex
Editor: Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Publisher: Luitingh-Sijthoff
Pages: 351
Year: 2013
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-6025-7
First published: 2013

Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Betrayal in Winter - Daniel Abraham

When I first read A Betrayal in Winter, the second installment of Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet, I didn't quite like it as much as the first volume. The youthful and often rash characters in A Shadow in Summer spoke to me more than the same ones fifteen years on. That was six years ago however, and in those years I have read a great deal. My taste has developed somewhat and since I still don't have the complete set reviewed for Random Comments I decided to see how it would hold up during a reread. As it turns out, my opinion of this novel has changed a bit but all things considered I think I still prefer the first volume.

Fifteen years after the event that brought about the demise of Sarayketh, Otah's father, the Khai Machi is dying. To determine who will succeed him, by tradition his sons will have to murder each other until one is left. Since Otah never formally renounced his claim to the throne by joining the poets, he is still in the line of succession. Although he has kept his identity secret for almost two decades now, as long as he remains alive, he is a threat to his brothers. The Dai-kvo, head of the order of poets, has taken an interest in the affairs of Machi too. He sends Maati, who has thus far had a very disappointing career as a poet, to look for Otah.

Some people have described this novel as a murder mystery in a fantasy setting. I don't agree with that description. There is very little mystery about who perpetrated the murders for the reader at least. The plot is one about court intrigue and it is quite convoluted. In fact, it is probably the weaker aspect of the novel. Like in the previous book the Galts have a hand in affairs. They try to manipulate the succession to suit their own interests by essentially buying support for the house they want to see ascend the throne. The influential families of Machi then do the murdering for them in quite an ineffectual way, making all sorts of stupid mistakes along the way. This is definitely something I didn't notice on my first read.

Two other aspects of the novel are very enjoyable however. The worldbuilding for instance, is superb again. We move from the warm climate of the summer cities to the cold north. The mountainous setting, a local economy mostly based on mining and the harsh winters Machi gets to endure, all work their way into the details of the story. A Betrayal in Winter is not a large book, weighing in at just over three-hundred pages. Abraham manages the right balance between the level of detail necessary to allow the reader to immerse themselves in his creation and the necessity to keep the plot moving forward at a reasonable pace. It's a balance he took with him to his later Dagger and Coin novels.

The second aspect of the novel I really liked is the characterization. Maati and Otah return from the previous novel and they have unfinished business with each other. In the opening stages of the novel, Otah is still traveling the Cities of the Khaiem, never quite able to settle down anywhere. His true identity prevents him from doing so. In fact, I always had the feeling that while is he's not prepared to murder for it, Otah does want to rule at some level.

Maati on the other hand has been sinking back into poets' society, taking care of the unglamorous day to day business. He is considered a failure. Despite the disrespect the poets show him, he finds himself unable to let go of that life. To make matters worse, he meets a young poet Cehmai in Machi who is everything he could have been and seems to insist on making the same mistakes he made. Like Otah, Maati is stuck between his desires and what society expects of him. Both of them, if their life would not be severely shaken up in this novel, would be heading for a serious midlife crisis.

A third important character is one we haven't met before. Idaan is the daughter of the Khai, growing up in a society where women, at least in the upper class, are mere commodities, used to cement trade agreements, and sent off to the man considered the most advantageous ally. She strongly resents this. So strongly in fact that she is plotting her own way to power. The Conservative Utkhaiem will not accept a female ruler, but with the right husband, both influential and suitable malleable, she might get there still. It sets in motion a chain of events from which she will not be able to extract herself. Idaan resists the patriarchal society she is part of but uses the instruments that are another flaw of Khaiem culture. Somewhat predictable perhaps, it results in a mess.

Abraham took part of his inspiration for these books from Shakespeare. In fact, Macbeth is mentioned on the inside flap of the cover. It shows in the way these characters interact. There is drama everywhere you look. The characters are passionate and flawed and headed for tragedy. It's a type of story that some readers will experience as over the top. And in a way it is just that. The author twists his plot to create all this drama and he doesn't always to it in the most believable way. Abraham does create characters with real emotional depth though. They all want something, they all strive for it and they all make mistakes that leave real scars. If you can stand a bit of drama, they are a joy to read.

A Betrayal in Winter is not quite as action-packed as the third volume, An Autumn War, nor does it contain the youthful passion of A Shadow in Summer. The main characters have matured, they are more aware of consequences of their actions, but the stakes are not so high yet that their actions influence events beyond the city they are in. Abraham is working towards the climax of his quartet in this book. It is a satisfying read in itself, but I can't shake the impression it still falls a little short of the books that flank it. It lacks the excitement of reading something new as well as the tension of playing for stakes so high that they impact the entire world. I guess I'm going to have to reread the third book sometime soon to see how that one holds up as the climax of the series.

Book Details
Title: A Betrayal in Winter
Editor: Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 317
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1341-6
First published: 2007

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 favourites. 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