Sunday, February 7, 2016

Forest Mage - Robin Hobb

I'm running low on recent publications again so I reached for a backlist title from the huge stack of books I mean to review one day. Forest Mage (2006) is the second volume in Robin Hobb's Soldier Son trilogy. The series takes us away from Hobb's successful Realm of the Elderlings setting to a technologically more advanced society. These novels are not Hobb's most popular works and I can see why. Although I recognized the skillful writing, we see the story through a frustratingly static main character. That is not to say the books are not worth reading. I may not like Nevare much, but Hobb's worldbuilding is nothing short of exceptional.

Nevare is recovering from the Speck plague he himself has unleashed on the capital. He nearly died but with the help of his cousin Epiny, he manages to defeat the tree woman and become one of the few cadets to survive. The academy has changed forever. With the loss of so many cadets to the plague, there is no way the separation between old and new nobles can stay in place. There are just too few left. Nevare appears to recover well from the plague. He lost a lot of weight but puts it back on quickly. The doctor has his doubts about his fitness however. When Nevare leaves for home to attend his elder brother's wedding, he is still gaining weight and by the time he gets home, he is so large his father almost has an apoplexy. It is the beginning of a number of dramatic changes in Nevare's life.

Even more than Shaman's Crossing (2005), this novel is about discrimination. It shows up in many guises, and while Nevare doesn't always recognize it, it is painfully clear to the reader. In his final days at the academy we see the difficult transition from rigid separation between old and new nobles to more mixed companies. Soon Nevare has other worries though. He quickly realizes being big is more than enough reason for people to dislike you. He is a target of bullying by complete strangers but also by his fiancée, his father and his sister. Hobb describes the changes and Nevare's problems adapting to his new size in excruciating detail. Early on in the novel, he still has hope to work off the excess fat but no matter how much effort he puts into it, he can't seem to lose weight. It's pretty much the only area in which Nevare changes. He admits to himself his weight gain is not natural.

His ambitions in life have not changed however. When he receives medical discharge from the academy, loses his fiancée and is disowned by his father, he is still determined to fulfil the good god's plan for his life and become a soldier. If not as an officer, then as a ranker. Given what he has experienced up to that point in the story, it is an astounding bit of stupidity. Cut loose from every bit of security he has ever known in his  life, he clings to the last scraps of the Gernian social structure still within reach. He is, in other words, still unable to see the world beyond what he was told it should be like.

To realize his ambition to become a soldier he has to accept the lowliest post imaginable. He ends up at the end of the King's Road, where desperate attempts are made to push it through Speck territory. It is here, in a place of despair and failure, that the dark side of humanity is even more obviously exposed. The Specks are considered to be savages, an obstacle to be overcome by technological progress. If they should perish in the process, well, that is the price of progress. Nevare, who is much more aware of what would happen to the Specks if Gernia succeeds, seems to think this inevitable and at one point even patiently explains to one of them why this would be so. The best the Specks can expect from the Gernians is a mild regret that their culture will have to go.

The metaphoric felling of the Speck ancestor trees clearly shows us the future in store for the Specks. Their cultural roots cut away, they'll be cast adrift in a society not their own. It's a story you'll find over and over again in the history of the United States (and many other places in the world). Nevare's attitude in this respect is painful to read, exactly because he is so aware of what is going on. His attitudes frustrates the Specks too. I have to admit that Hobb portrays the cultural gap and the misunderstandings that arise very well. The tension between the two sides keeps rising until Nevare is forced to make a choice. It gives this second book in the trilogy a very clear climax. So middle books syndrome for Hobb.

There is another form of discrimination that runs through the whole trilogy, and that is sexism. Again, Nevare is not exactly innocent here. Gernian society is patriarchal and in the upper classes at least, gender roles are sharply defined. Nevare has been taught a kind of behaviour towards women that is rife with double standards. Women to him, are either delicate creatures to marry, protect and have children with or prostitutes. When he meets one that doesn't seem to fit in either category, and he does on several occasions in the novel, he gets terribly unsure of himself. Nevare's casual sexism shows up in a lot of places in the novel. Sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly obvious. It adds another aspect to Nevare's personality that makes him into a thoroughly unpleasant main character in my eyes.

Hobb's portrayal of Gernian society and it's many flaws is utterly believable, instantly recognizable and very detailed. By the end of the book, Nevare as been exposed to, or party in just about every one of them. The author is known to be very hard on her main characters but few sink to the level of Nevare in this novel. And yet he keeps trying. His father desperately tried to give the boy Nevare a spine and he has succeeded in ways he clearly didn't envision. I don't like him much, but in Nevare Hobb has created another main character with a depth that rivals her most famous creation Fitz. I just wish he was a little less eager to accept Gernial moral standards and social mores as an absolute truth.

Book Details
Title: Forest Mage
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Eos
Pages: 718
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-06-075763-2
First published: 2006

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Planetfall - Emma Newman

Planetfall by Emma Newman is a book I have read a lot of good things about. Newman has published four other novels in the past few years, none of which I have read. The positive reviews I've read about her most recent novel made me want to read it a bit closer to the publication date. That didn't happen unfortunately but I am very glad I got around to reading this book now. It is one of those novels that would not look out of place on the short list of this year's science fiction awards. It is however, a very strongly character driven story. As such, it is probably not everybody's cup of tea.

Twenty years ago a group of colonists arrives at a strange planet in search of the City of God. Their landing doesn't quite go as planned. Part of the crew is lost after their landing pods malfunction. The survivors set up a colony that aims to have as little impact on the planet as possible. Ren is in charge of the colony's 3D-printers. She knows more of what happened during planetfall than the other members of the colony have been told. With the arrival of a young man, claiming to be a child of the lost colonists and the last survivor of their group, all the carefully hidden secrets come bubbling to the surface. The pressure on Ren is rising but telling what she knows might sweep away the foundations of their community.

The story is told in a first person perspective from Ren's point of view. It quickly becomes apparent that she carries a huge burden of guilt. One member of the community shares her knowledge and between them they keep the lid on what has happened twenty years ago. All this secrecy has taken its toll on Ren however. She is a loner, never letting anyone into her house. From the very start of the book she is busy pushing people away from her and minimizing her social interactions. Ren is taking this very far, to the point where she is clearly hiding things from herself as well as from the community. It's these repressed memories that form the core of the mystery the novel presents.

Newman uses Ren's mental issues to gradually reveal what went on twenty years ago. It makes Ren a classic example of the unreliable narrator. What she reveals to us is a selective truth, often only sharing what she is forced to admit to herself by the rapidly changing dynamic in the colony, rather than volunteering any information. The young outsider acts as a catalyst, forcing Ren to review her life constructed of secrets and lies. She soon feels that events are slipping away from her and becomes even more desperate to protect her secrets.

Planetfall is in effect a detailed portrayal of mental illness. Newman uses the circumstances to pile up the pressure on Ren. What happened twenty years ago is much less interesting than what caused Ren to behave the way she does. Her gradual slide towards confronting her fears and facing up to her guilt is described in detail and takes up the bulk of the novel. It is, in other words, not a novel about exploring the mysteries of an alien word. A little bit of light is shed on the reason for making the journey in the first place but it is not the focus of the novel.  It  may disappoint readers looking for a story of planetary exploration.

Personally, I found Ren a fascinating character. There is so much tension in her that you know from very early on in the novel something must give soon, but what it is exactly, takes a bit of time to figure out. The pacing of the novel is directly linked to the personal crisis Ren is facing and it works very well. Her problems make her thoroughly unpleasant at several points in the novel. Her behaviour is erratic, unreasonable and supported by increasingly unlikely rationalizations. Admiration, sympathy, frustration and pity war with each other when reading her tale. She is a well rounded character. With the science fictional and religious elements pushed so far into the background, whether the characterization works for you will make or break the novel.

There is more than a bit of science fiction in the story though. The way the colonists go about minimizing their ecological footprint was of particular interest to me. With the resources of a whole planet available to them, they nevertheless stick to a strict system of recycling, reusing every scrap of material for the printers. Recycling as a religion, maybe Newman is on to something here. Other science fiction elements include advances in information technology, biotechnology and of course space travel. Most of it is pretty low key, although information technology used in the novel allows the characters to pass on events almost instantaneously. It's another element Newman uses to put pressure on Ren.

As a character study, this novel is one of the most interesting ones I have read in quite a while. Mental illness isn't a topic that science fiction usually successfully deals with. Many a character brushes off life changing events that would almost certainly result in a sever case of post traumatic stress syndrome in the real world. I am not really qualified to judge how realistic Newman's portrayal of Ren's mental issues is. In fact, I would be very interested in hearing the opinion of a professional in that field about this book. It feels quire realistic to me though, and the way Newman uses it to shape and pace her story shows she is a very capable writer. Planetfall is another 2015 novel you really ought to read.


Title: Planetfall
Author: Emma Newman
Publisher: Roc
Pages: 320
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-425-28239-7
First published: 2015

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Only the Stones Survive - Morgan Llywelyn

Only the Stones Survive is the latest  historical fantasy by Irish-American author Morgan Llywelyn. I received a review copy from the people at Tor. This book is the first I have read by Llywelyn. She's had a long backlist of historical, mythological and fantastical novels, most dealing on some level with Celtic Ireland. This novel is no exception. It is a pretty straightforward retelling of a set myths dealing with the arrival of the Gaels in Ireland. Unless I am very much mistaken, it is mostly inspired by The Book of Invasions (Lebor Gabála Érenn in Irish), which collects a number of pseudo-historical poems and stories about the early history of Ireland. The first written records of these stories date from the eleventh century but one can safely assume the tales themselves are older. A lot of what you will find in this book has in some shape or form been included in numerous fantasy novels as well as historical works. It makes Llywelyn's rendition instantly recognizable for a lot of readers.

Driven by hardship in their native Galicia, the sons of Milesios take their tribe to sea in search of a new homeland. They invade Ireland and meet the Tuatha Dé Danann, themselves invaders of an earlier age. The Tuatha Dé Danann are long-lived and careful to live in harmony with the island. Their magic is strong but they are reluctant to use it. They see the Gael as loud and barbaric but their magic and bronze arms are no match for the cold iron of the Gaels. A new era in the history of the island is dawning.

The story is told in two main strands. The first is narrated in the first person by Joss, a young boy of the Tuatha Dé Danann. He is on the verge of adulthood when the Gael arrive and makes the transition in a time of war and hardship. While he watches his people being slaughtered, he is looking for a way to save a remnant of what they were. The second strand is a multiple point of view third person narrative. We see this part of the story through the eyes of the invaders. Besides being terrified of the magic of the island, the invaders are also being torn by internal conflicts. Theirs is a race of warriors, and they turn on themselves just as easily as on the natives.

The author draws a sharp contrast between the two parties. One a people living in such close harmony with the island, that their disappearance causes environmental changes. The other a people looking to exploit its resources to gain wealth. It's interesting to consider that the Celtic Druidic culture that would rise on the island is usually thought to be tied to the land in ways similar to what Llywelyn uses for the Tuatha Dé Danann in this novel. It must be said that she gives a hint of how this comes to be in the final chapters of the novel though.

Like its source material, most of the novel is mythical, a number of existing locations are used. Most of them are located in the Boyne valley. Llywelyn mentions the origins of the hill of Tara as the seat of the Irish High Kings. The megalithic monuments of  Newgrange, Dowth and Knowth, already ancient by the time the Tuatha Dé Danann arrive on the island, play an important part in the story. These locations are quite real and described in vivid detail. I also suspect the cave system mentioned in the book is an existing one but I haven't been able to identify it. Suffice to say Llywelyn knows a thing or two about the island and uses it to ground the story in the real world.

The story itself will not surprise many readers. Once I became aware of the mythological sources of the novel I more or less approached the novel as I would an Arthurian tale. The conclusion is inevitable, it's how you get there that counts. Llywelyn more or less forces the reader to take this approach to the novel by opening with a scene of the battle in which the Tuatha Dé Danann are thoroughly destroyed. It is clear from the outset, even for the reader not familiar with the source material, that this book is going to be a tragedy.

I must admit I didn't think Only the Stones Survive was the most inspired bit of writing I've ever come across. Llywelyn dutifully follows the myths and delivers a tragic tale of the rise of one culture and the fading away of another. The characters never evolved beyond archetypes though. For this book to be a truly enjoyable read for me, the author should have succeeded in making me forget the various roles the characters play in this tragedy and make me care for them as individuals rather than a representation of their respective peoples. In that aspect the novel fails. In a few places it is a dry read.

I enjoyed reading Only the Stones Survive at some level. Llywelyn delivers a clear story of a bit of pseudo-history that is the foundation of a lot of modern fantasy. She also manages to firmly anchor it in the real world, with the many references to existing locations. That being said, the author's firm grasp of the source material doesn't really make up for the lack of characterization. With the shape of the story largely known and the outcome inevitable, the novel would have been a lot better if Llywelyn had managed to evolve her characters beyond the archetype. As it is, the novel is interesting for fans of the author and people with an interest in Celtic mythology. It is not the book Llywelyn will be remembered for though.

Book Details
Title: Only the Stones Survive
Author: Morgan Llywelyn
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 232
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-4668-3654-9
First published: 2016

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Het Rad van Fortuin - Steph Swainston

I don't often read works translated from English to Dutch anymore. Generally I prefer to read the original. In this case however, I had to make an exception. Het Rad van Fortuin is an expansion of Steph Swainston's short story The Wheel of Fortune, that appeared in the anthology The Best British Fantasy 2013. As far as I can tell, the expanded version has not been published in English (yet). The translation was done by Eisso Post. The text reads smoothly, I didn't find any obvious lines in the text where he struggled with the translation. Without having read the original, the translation strikes me as a job well done.

Jant works for an apothecary in the city of Hacilith. As a little business on the side, he produces a highly addictive substance made out of a species of fern. It brings him in contact with the leader of a local gang, who besides being hopelessly addicted to Jant's product, also fancies him. When he inevitably gets into serious trouble with the gang he decides to give the wheel of fortune a spin. Together with the down on her luck actress Serin, he tries to leave the city.

Het Rad van Fortuin is a prequel to Swainston's Castle novels, in which Jant is the main character. I haven't read these novels so this story was my introduction to this world. Swainston is often associated with the new weird genre. The reason for this gradually becomes clear over the course of the story. The setting is an early industrial one, with references to many of the environmental and social problems of the era. Magical elements and non-human races are mentioned in the story as well though. It is a mix of elements that is pretty much impossible to classify and that is one of the things that makes this story intriguing.

Swainston is not afraid to show the dark side of society. Her depiction of drug use, crime, poverty and violence are graphic. Jant's world is raw, dirty and dangerous. It is the type of secondary world narrative that borrows a page from the grimdark authors that have gained popularity in the past decade. The main character is a reflection of his environment in a way. He is a deeply flawed man. The story hints at a difficult past. He is not above dealing drugs to improve his situation, without the knowledge of his employer. On the other hand he does take in Serin and helps her back on her feet. He has ambitions beyond his current job and is ruthless when it comes to getting where he wants to be. A dark character for sure, possibly a conflicted one,  but not an entirely unlikeable man. You can already tell that this combination of traits will get him in even more trouble in the novels.

Dutch publisher Quasis has released Het Rad van Fortuin as a paperback booklet as part of their Splinters series. Quasis is a small, young publisher. According to a statement on their website they are looking for speculative fiction that crosses boundaries in form, theme or genre. It looks to me like a reaction to the somewhat conservative larger publishers of fantasy (sf is virtually non-existent in translation) in the Netherlands. They play it safe and as a result a lot of not very challenging and fairly standard fantasy is being published. The reader who wants more challenging or experimental material is almost required to read in English.

As an introduction to her Castle setting, this story works very well. There is enough plot and worldbuilding to make it a story that can stand on its own. Between the lines it is obvious that the story is part of a larger whole. There are references to events that, if I'm not mistaken, drive the plot of the novel. It's a story that made me very curious about the larger world and how Jant is going to realize his goals. It also succeeds in a goal the publisher sets itself. Swainston's story is a unique mix of subgenres. The story hints at a larger and very imaginative setting that shows you can push the fantastic in different directions than the post-Tolkien material that dominates the Dutch market. Het Rad van Fortuin is a success on two levels. It has convinced me to try one of Swainston's novels and to keep an eye out for what  Quasis decides to publish next.

Book Details
Title: Het Rad van Fortuin
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Quasis
Pages: 48
Year: 2015
Language: Dutch
Translation: Eisso Post
Format: E-arc
ISBN: 978-94-92099-05-1
First published: 2013, 2015

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Zima Blue and Other Stories - Alastair Reynolds

A new year on Random Comments traditionally opens with a review of one of Allastair Reynolds' books. This year I picked his short story collection Zima Blue and Other Stories. The first edition of this collection was published in 2006 by Night Shade Books. In 2009 an expanded British edition appeared from Gollancz. I have read the Gollancz version of the collection which includes four additional stories. The stories in this collection are all set outside his Revelation Space universe. Most of the short fiction in that universe can be found in the collections Galactic North (2006) and Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days (2003). Several of the stories are linked though. The collection contains the three Merlin stories for instance, as well as two stories featuring the character Carrie Clay and two stories set in a many worlds interpretation of Cardiff.

The collection opens strong with The Real Story (2002), the first Carrie Clay story. She is a journalist chasing the crew of the first manned mission to Mars. One that went horribly wrong but turned into a heroic tale of survival. The crew disappeared shortly after but is rumoured to still be alive. It's a story about survival mechanisms, about the creation of legends and about the burden they put on the people that are the source of legends. It's heroic and tragic at the same time. Emotionally very powerful.

Beyond the Aquila Rift (2005) features an abandoned alien transport system that enables travel faster than the speed of light. Nobody really understands how the system works. It is highly reliable but every once in a while something goes wrong and a ship ends up in an unexpected place. The Blue Goose is such a ship and its captain has a hard time dealing with it. This story reminds me of Frederik Pohl's Gateway (1977). Beyond the Aquila Rift is a bit of a mindfuck, constantly pulling the rug from under the main character. He deals with issues of guilt but also has problems accepting his situation. It makes clever use of a first person perspective to keep the reader guessing.

The next story is the oldest in the collection and one of the very first stories Reynolds managed to sell. Enola (1991) deals with artificial intelligence. It features a warmachine that manages to evolve beyond its original programming and function after it becomes apparent there is no reason to fight on. Going beyond design and/or physical capabilities using extensive modifications is an idea that Reynolds would use later on. In the afterword he professes to be fond of this story but compared to the other material in this collection it is not a particularly strong piece.

Signal to Noise (2006) and Cardiff Afterlife (2008) are two linked stories, bases on the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, an idea that Reynolds uses in other stories as well. In these stories it is possible to briefly make contact with alternate realities that have just branched off from the timeline of the observer. The further these futures drift apart, the harder it gets to maintain contact.  In Signal to Noise the main character's wife is killed in an accident. He gets to spend a week with her in a different reality before that door closes forever. It's a very sad tale, with a bitter sweet ending. Cardiff Afterlife is a much shorter piece. It gives us a brief look at a Cardiff destroyed by a terrorist attack. A very relevant theme these days. It is so brief it doesn't achieve the depth of the first story in this setting however. Reynolds' short fiction tends to work better if it's long.

The next three stories, Hideaway (2000), Minla's Flowers (2007) and Merlin's Gun (2000) are linked as well. They are the kind of signature space opera that most readers associate Reynolds with. Stories set on the vast canvas of space, in far futures, usually featuring technology that Arthur C. Clarke would think of as magic. They are presented by internal chronology in the collection. Of the three, Minla's Flowers is by far the strongest. It's a tragedy in which the main character Merlin arrives on a planet that has just reached the stage where aircraft have begun to appear. He knows that in a few decades the planet will be destroyed. To save the people on the planet, technology will have to develop to the space ages fast.

Early in the story Merlin meets the young girl Minla, whom he presents with an exotic flower every time they meet. As the story progresses and Minla ages, she develops into a leader who will sacrifice millions to help a handful of people escape the approaching catastrophe. Characterisation is usually the weaker element in Reynolds' novels but in this collection he manages to hit the bull's eye a few times. The relationship between Minla and Merlin is very well done. This story may well be the strongest in the collection.

At this point I felt the collection was running out of steam a bit. The next two stories didn't do much for me. Angels of Ashes (1999) is a story that mixes religion and quantum mechanics. The religious part turns out to not quite be what one of its priests expects. A cynical view on prophets I guess. Not really my cup of tea. Spirey and the Queen (1996) is the only story in this collection I had read before. It was included in John Joseph Adams' anthology Federations (2009). It's full blown space opera in which we encounter artificial intelligence based on social insects. It's a fairly fast-paced pieces, with plenty of interesting ideas on space exploration, war in space and robotics. An entertaining read but not the strongest in the collection.

Understanding Space and Time (2005) is one of the longer pieces in the collection and in my opinion one of the highlights. It a story about a man stranded on Mars. He is forced the watch as the population on earth is wiped out. When his last companion on the station dies, he realizes he may well be the last human left alive.Just when it looks he has gotten himself killed in a pointless trip outside the station, aliens arrive to rescue him. It's a story about madness, loneliness and isolation but also one about seeking understanding. Structurally, I liked this story best. Reynolds end the story where he started, albeit millions of years later. The process of expanding his mind to probe the mysteries of space-time ever deeper and then going back to his origins runs parallel to a theory in cosmology that predicts than the universe will fall back in on itself again. I wonder if Reynolds had than in mind when he wrote it.

The final three stories in the collection didn't really grab me. Digital to Analogue (1992) is one of his earlier pieces. It mixes music with a new disease that spreads though certain sounds. Seen though the drugged and increasingly desperate main character, I found it to be a confusing read. Everlasting (2004) is the only story in the collection that isn't strictly speaking science fiction. It uses the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, but only to illustrate the unstable state of mind of one of the main characters. It leaves the reader with the question what if he was right? In Zima Blue (2005) we end where we started the collection, with journalist Carrie Clay. This time she meets with one of the galaxy's most famous artists who is not quite what he appears to be. It's a story about art and artificial intelligence and the question of they will be able to learn to be creative. I didn't time the artist was as interesting a character as the astronaut in The Real Story.

Zima Blue and Other Stories offers a good overview of what Reynolds has produced in the 1990s and 2000s outside the Revelation Space universe. There is some of his signature big canvas space opera but also a few pieces that show he can write more varied material than that. As with most collections, I didn't like all stories it contained equally. On the whole it is a solid collection though. One that fans of Reynolds' novels will appreciate. Most of his short fiction from after 2009 remains uncollected. Maybe it is time for a new collection. I would certainly be interested in reading it.

Book Details
Title: Zima Blue and Other Stories
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 455
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-08455-1
First published: 2006, 2009

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015 in Review - A Year of Uninterrupted Reviewing

No moves, no personal emergencies and (unfortunately) no trips abroad this year. Which means I managed to write at least one review every week in 2015, a total of 64 entries (this one included). I am very pleased with that. One other thing that is unique about this year is that I reviewed everything I have read this year. It's something I always aim for but for some reason I always manage to miss one or two in a year. This year was a prolific one for Hebban as well. My agreement with them is for one article a month but I ended up writing 19 in total. Among them a 25.000 word, ten part series on George R.R. Matin's Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective, which appeared in abridged form on Random Comments. Not sure if I am ready for something like that again any time soon.

Accounting

I reviewed 56 works in 2015.  44  novels, 4 novellas, 2 short stories, 2 anthologies, 3 collections and one is a work of non-fiction. According to Goodreads these works are good for just over 21.000 pages, which is a lot more than last year. In last year's entry I said I would aim for 60. That has proven to be a bit to ambitious. Next year I will aim for 52. One review a weeks appears to be a pace I can handle.

I've read more books by women this year than by men. That is a first as well. Of the 56 works 30 were written by women, 23 by men and 3 contained work by both men and women. I have been keeping an eye on the gender balance for the past couple of years but I hadn't really noticed I had read more by women than by men. An interesting development. Most of the books I read this year were in English. I read 5 books in Dutch. Of these 2 were translations from French, the other 3 were originally written in Dutch. Of the 51 English language books 3 were translations, 2 from Chinese and one from Russian. Only eight books not originally written in English. Maybe I should keep an eye out for more translated work.

Lana contributed one review this year. Julia by Peter Straub.

Best of 2015

As always it is very difficult to pick the best reads of a year. This year however, it is even harder than usual. I read a great many wonderful books this year so I couldn't possibly limit myself to five like last year. I managed to come up with a list of seven. As usual these are books I read in 2015, not necessarily books published in 2015. They are listed in no particular order.
  • Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. Possibly the most controversial science fiction novel of the year. Robinson takes aim at one of the staples of science fiction and explains in vivid detail why we won't leave the solar system and colonize other star systems.

  • The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard. I haven't exactly  made a secret of my admiration for her writing. This new novel is one of the most interesting books to be published in Fantasy this year. Gorgeous prose and wonderful worldbuilding.

  • Segu by Maryse Condé. A reread of a wonderful historical novel. In two volumes she covers the history of the Bambara state of Segu in present day Mali. Condé follows one family starting at the height of the empire in 1796 up to the arrival of the French colonial forces in 1890. A bit of history not many western readers would otherwise be exposed to. 

  • The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. The first translated novel to win a Hugo Award. I'm not sure it would have happened without the intervention of the puppies but I am glad a translated novel did receive this bit of recognition. The lack of translations is hurting science fiction. Liu shows us that there are many worthy novels out there that deserve a larger audience. 

  • Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald. A new adult novel by McDonald, set on the moon. This is another book I could read for the beautiful prose alone but McDonald puts in a vision of a colonized near future moon that is absolutely fascinating as well. 

  • The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith. The first in a series of three on the character of Aud Torvingen. These books are crime novels, not a genre I read often. This book had a special attraction to be because of the Norwegian background of the main character. I am still trying to get Lana to read it. Aud is a very interesting main character.  It's a hard-hitting novel though, the end felt like a punch in the gut.

  • The Just City by Jo Walton. Greek mythology, Plato, robots and time travel. How could you possibly make that into a novel. Walton shows us how it is done in this book. This must be one of the most inventive and surprising novels of the year.
There are a number of works that almost made the list. Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor, Falling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson, The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman, Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear, Dragon Heart by Cecelia Holland, Rook Song by Naomi Foyle  and Fool's Quest by Robin Hobb are all very good reads.

Traffic

Traffic is still somewhere between pathetic and none. No really big hits this year. Like last year the articles that get most traffic are quite old. The most viewed articles are:

The Valley of the Horses - Jean M. Auel
Sarum - Edward Rutherfurd
The Lucky Strike -  Kim Stanley Robinson
The Lazarus Effect - Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom
Blood of Dragons - Robin Hobb
Soul Catcher - Frank Herbert
The Three-Body Problem - Cixin Liu
The Clan of the Cave Bear - Jean M. Auel
The Wind's Twelve Quarters - Ursula K. Le Guin
The House of Shattered Wings - Alliette de Bodard

Only two 2015 articles on the list. A bit disappointing. Most of the others were articles that did well in other years as well. Soul Catcher got a lot of publicity this year because it is being made into a movie. Apparently they are going to change the rather controversial ending of the book. The one that baffles me is Blood of Dragons by Robin Hobb. It is not exactly her most popular novel. The more recent third Fitz trilogy ought to get more attention.

Plans

None other than keep going really. I have a lot of half finished series that I would like to wrap up next year. Other than that the plan is the same as always, review everything I read. I will be opening 2016 with an Alastair Reynolds review. This year I will look at his collection Zima Blue. I'm considering trying to read some more works written in other languages than English. Right now, I have two on the to read stack. An Astrid Lindgren book Lana gave me for my birthday and We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which I have already promised to review for Hebban. It would be nice if I could get into double digits in 2016, that should be achievable.

That's it for this year at Random Comments. I wish you all the best for 2016 and hope to see you all around again on the blog.

Rob

Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Fantasy Medley 3 - Yanni Kuznia

A Fantasy Medley 3, edited by Yanni Kuznia, is a short anthology published in the last day of 2015 by Subterranean Press. They were kind enough to provide me with an e-arc. While I haven't seen the finished product, I don't doubt it will be as gorgeous as the rest of their publications. Subterranean tends to pay at least as much attention to the design of their books as it does to the content. This anthology contains four original pieces of short fiction. They are all probably at the low end of the novella range in wordcount. Authors Kevin Hearne, Laura Bickle and Aliette de Bodard each contribute works tied to their novels. Jacqueline Carey's story is unrelated to anything she published before. As with all anthologies, I liked some stories more than others but on the whole A Fantasy Medley 3 is a good read.

Kevin Hearne opens the anthology with his story Goddess at the Crossroads. The title is a reference to Hecate, the Greek goddess associated with, among other things, witchcraft and crossroads. It is part of his Iron Druid Chronicles, which consists of seven novels and various pieces of short fiction. An eighth novel will be released in January 2016. The story is set between the fourth novel Tricked (2012) and the novella Two Ravens and One Crow (2012). It is essentially a camp fire tale in which the druid Atticus tells his apprentice the tale of how he met Shakespeare and how that encounter led to the inclusion of witches in Macbeth.

I must admit that his story did very little for me. I guess it could have worked as a comedy, since Atticus got a lot more than he was bargaining for in this story and the poet himself insists on getting them even deeper in trouble. I didn't think the humorous part of the tale worked all that well though. Most of the plot revolves around Atticus being a badass druid, something the witches find out to their regret. There is a lot of interesting source material in this novella. Shakespeare's play and Celtic and Greek mythology for instance. Hearne doesn't really manage to use those to give the story a bit more depth. It is entertaining but little beyond that. This novella didn't inspire me to seek out the novels it is tied to.

Laura Bickle submitted Ashes,  a novella tied to her Anya Kalinczyk series. There are two novels in this series, both published in 2010. I have no idea where this story fits into the series but it is set in contemporary Detroit where fire-fighter/demon hunter Anya Kalinczyk has a run in with the mythical creature Nain Rouge. Where Hearne doesn't manage to make the story more than a collection of references to history and mythology, Bickle is much more successful. There is a good balance in this tale between the need to catch this menace  before he slips away again for another year and the necessity to provide the reader with a bit of background on the characters and the creature they are hunting. Bickle slips in just enough information about the main character to interest the reader in trying to find out more. It still strikes me as a fairly standard urban fantasy story, but a well written one for sure.

The third story, The Death of Aiguillon, is written  by Aliette de Bodard. It is part of her Dominion of the Fallen setting. One novel has been published in this setting this year, with a second one in the works. The House of Shattered Wings was definitely one of the best releases in fantasy in 2015 and in this shorter piece De Bodard manages to capture that same sense of magic and tragedy that makes the novel so beautiful.

The story is set some sixty years before the novel and deals with the fallout of the destruction of the House of Aiguillon. A kitchen maid of Vietnamese origin loses the protection of the House and has to make her own way in a city at war. On her way out, she helps one of the fallen angels tied to the house to escape a certain death at the hands of scavengers. His body parts would have sold for high sums at the the black market because of the magic they contain. He is grateful for her help and promises to be back for her once he has recovered. As time goes by, the kitchen maid begins to realize it may have been an empty promise. Or a dangerous one.

De Bodard packs a lot into this story. Loss is a very obvious theme in a city that is about to hit rock bottom at the end of the magical war. The main character is faced with a decision in the novel. She has lost her place in the world and has to find a new one. The temptation of taking the easy way out is present throughout the story. It is always tugging on the main character. But there is an alternative. One that may be less certain but more rewarding. The dilemma of the main character is laid out in beautiful prose in The Death of Aiguillon. It is a very good introduction to the Dominion of the Fallen setting. Carey gives De Bodard a run for her money but in the end, this one is my favourite of the collection.

The final story in the anthology is One Hundred Ablutions by Jacqueline Carey. We see the story through the eyes of a young girl of the Keren people. Their valley was overrun by the Shaladan some three centuries ago and they have been serving their masters ever since. The main character is the daughter of a fruit picker, not generally worth the attention of the Shaladan. When the flux takes away a lot of higher class girls in her year, she is selected to serve them anyway. Everything she once hoped to get out of life is taken away from her in exchange for a life of service and celibacy. Life is unfair, she lashes out at it.

There is a fine bit of character development in this story. The main character is angry, disappointed and resentful at the beginning of the story. As it progresses, the emptiness of her life weighs on her and when the opportunity comes to strike at her oppressors she seizes it. There is a price to be paid though. What I liked most about this story is that it very vividly shows how her choices affect her emotional state. Not being tied to any other work, this story is by necessity the most self-contained. Carey manages a good balance between characterisation and showing us enough background of this fantasy world to fully appreciate what the main character is going through. No mean feat in such a relatively short text.

A Fantasy Medley 3 is an anthology with a weak start but a strong finish. On the whole, I think it is well worth reading. I enjoyed the stories by De Bodard and Carey in particular.  This third volume in the series is the only one I have read but I like the format a lot. Fantasy and short fiction are not always a successful combination for me but Kuznia's selection is an interesting one. Unfortunately the first two volumes are all sold out and as far as I am aware there is no digital edition. If a fourth volume should appear I will definitely read it though. Recommended for people who feel good fantasy doesn't necessarily need a ten book series.

Book Details
Title: A Fantasy Medley 3
Editor: Yanni Kuznia
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 152
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: E-arc
ISBN: 978-1-59606-767-7
First published: 2015

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Dark Orbit - Carolyn Ives Gilman

Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman is a novel set in her Twenty Worlds setting. There are several shorter pieces and one other novel in this setting. Of these I have only read the novella The Ice Owl (2011), which earned Gilman a Nebula and Hugo Award nomination a few years back. That novella was an interesting read, although not the best that year had to offer. I always meant to follow up on it so when Dark Orbit was released I decided it was a book I had to read. It was published in July so I'm still a bit on the late side. Like the novella, this novel turned out to be a very interesting read. I would not be surprised if Gilman reels in a few more award nominations for this one.

Sara Callicot is a researcher sent on a mission to one of the strangest planets science has ever encountered. The crystalline world does not show any signs associated with an advanced culture on the surface but physically it offers plenty of material for research. Sara is there with a double agenda. She has been attached to the team to keep an eye on the scientists rather than do research herself. She has barely arrived at the ship when the decapitated body of one of the security guards is found. It's the beginning of a string of events that will set the crew against each other. When the strangeness of the planet becomes ever more apparent and more threatening, the struggle between the various factions in the crew heat up. The very survival of the expedition soon becomes doubtful.

In a way this novel reminded me of a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin. In Direction of the Road (1973) she shows us the world from the perspective of an ancient oak. Where we perceive it to be stationary, the oak has decidedly different views on the matter. It forces the reader to wrap their mind around a truly alien perspective and think about the meaning of relativity. That is in effect what Gilman does in this novel. Events on the planet the expedition is exploring unfolds in more than four dimensions and that has very interesting consequences for the story.

Part of the plot revolves around a number of well known observations involving quantum mechanics and relativity. The story contains a device that makes it possible to communicate in real time with people many light years away by making use of entangled pairs of quantum systems. My understanding of such theories is not very deep but as I understand it, it seems unlikely that information can actually be transferred this way. A second element in the plot rooted in physics is the effect that observation influences the outcome, or in quantum terms that a particle can in effect be in two states until an observation causes a probability wave collapse and forces the particle to be in one state or the other. This effect is the subject of the famous Schrödinger's cat thought experiment. There are references to other theories as well. String theory and references to branes also pop up at one point for instance.

Gilman applies many of these theories on the macro level, allowing people to travel between dimensions, or witness events many light years way. There are many references to physics in the book but most of the characters don't view these occurrences in a strictly rational way. For many, a more spiritual explanation makes more sense, or at least enables them to wrap their mind around the strange things they are seeing. Gilman constantly challenges perceptions, and whether or not we can trust our own senses. She consistently does so for all the viewpoints presented in the novel, leaving the reader to sort it all into their own framework.

Perception and views on the universe are of course linked to the way our brain works. The way it is wired in the absence of light for instance is one of the many examples of how perspectives differ from one person to another. A village designed by people used to relying on hearing and feel to get around looks radically different to one designed for people relying primarily on sight.  Both make sense to the people involved in developing that particular structure but when seen through the others' eyes it makes little sense. Our brain selects, edits and distorts the bombardment of sensory information it receives. Gilman gives a number of very interesting examples of how this works and how it shapes our view on our surrounding.

At just over 300 pages, Dark Orbit is a relatively short novel. Structurally it is probably closer to a novella than a novel. It is efficient to the point where I wouldn't actually have minded a bit more detail on the universe the story is set in. There are plenty of references to the Twenty Planets but after reading this novel the reader only has a very sketchy idea of how this future history came to be. Gilman is equally brief with the back story of her characters. In a way this is fitting as the scientists that are part of the mission have travelled fifty-eight light years, leaving all they knew behind and knowing it will all be ancient history by the time they come back. Information can be transmitted fast but people cannot. I guess there is no point in dwelling on the past for these people. The novel is very focussed on the now. I suspect it will leave more than a few readers with the feeling that they would have liked it to be a little longer.

The year 2015 is a good one for science fiction. Despite the fact that a handful of angry fans almost succeed in wrecking the genre's best known award, the number of books that challenge the genre's boundaries, that push the reader to think, and that allow them to experience cultures, frameworks of thought and lifestyles unfamiliar to them has never been greater. Gilman's novel does not take this development to extremes, one could say this approach to science fiction is fairly traditional. What it does do is make the reader think about where their own viewpoints fit in a whole larger than we could possibly perceive. In a world where debates become increasingly polarized and many parties seem to feel theirs is an absolute truth, that is a very necessary thing indeed.

Book Details
Title: Dark Orbit
Author: Carolyn Ives Gilman
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 303
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3629-3
First published: 2015

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Reigers vlucht - Sophie Lucas

Despite all my resolve to pick up a Dutch language fantasy or science fiction novel every now and then, Reigers vlucht (literally: Heron's flight) is only the third this year. The other two were both written by An Janssens. Reigers vlucht was published in 2012 and I got it fairly soon after publication. It then lingered on the to read list for three years until I finally picked it up last week. It is a début novel and as far as I can tell, no other novels have been published since by Lucas. I do hope Lucas gets back into writing. Reigers vlucht is not a masterwork but it does show potential. It would be a waste to stop after just one novel.

A war with Yamatan has drained the Yuan empire to the point where the old emperor feels he has to reach a lasting peace agreement. A delegation of Yamatan nobles arrives at court to seal the peace with a wedding. The unfortunate bride is the emperor's daughter Mei Lin. She doesn't fancy the Yamatan prince she is supposed to wed and seeks her brother's aid. When one of her brother's servants, a boy named Cang Lu, informs her of a conspiracy that threatens to destabilize the empire, her life changes radically. Where once she was radically opposed to the marriage, now Yamatan might be her only chance at survival.

Reigers vlucht is a secondary world fantasy clearly inspired by various eastern cultures. The Yuan by imperial China, the Yamatan by Japan, probably before the Edo period. Throughout the novel there are references to other cultures in that part of the world but they are mostly background. I haven't been able to tie any of the events in the novel to a historical conflict. Technologically speaking, it would have to be sometime in the sixteenth century, since one of the plot developments revolves around the effect of the introduction of gunpowder on warfare. Interestingly enough it is the Yamatan military that employs these new weapons first in the novel. In Yuan the stuff appears to be unknown. A strange reversal of history.

It may not be a full-blown historical fantasy but Lucas borrows extensively from customs of both Japanese and Chinese culture. Clothing, court life, weapons, drinks, rituals and social structures are all in some  way or another taken from Chinese and Japanese culture. The endless drinking of tea (which the author refers to as Cha) and rice wine (mijiu or sake), the ritual suicide for disgraced warriors seppuku, fireworks, kimonos, the list is endless. Lucas obviously has a strong interest in eastern cultures but after finishing the book I did get the feeling the way she presented them Reigers vlucht was a bit selective. Where many of the elements are clearly recognizable even to the western reader, there were some strange omissions as well. The importance of poetry for instance, or the convoluted politics at the Chinese imperial court. From someone who has lived there her entire life, and someone who is obviously well educated, Mei Lin seems very naive about such things. Somehow the two cultures at the centre of the narrative never really coalesce into a coherent social structure.

The story is told in fairly short chapters that keep the story moving at a reasonably fast pace. Lucas presents the bulk of the story from the point of view of Mei Lin. She is a feisty seventeen-year-old who, especially early on in the novel seems to think the world revolves around her. It is a trait she doesn't entirely shed over the course of the novel. Being away from court does teach her a few things though. Sacrifice in particular is a theme in this novel. To compensate for Mei Lin's limited understanding of the world Lucas employs a number of secondary points of view. The most important of these is Cang Lu (a nickname meaning heron). It must have been a surprise for many readers that the character who gave the novel its name gets so little screen time.

With most of the plot revolving around court intrigue and warfare, the novel is quite light on magic. Cang Lu is at the centre of what little magic the book contains however. I'm not quite sure what to call it but in effect he sees the future. Or possible futures at least. It is a talent he doesn't master in the early stages of the story. As the novel progresses, he gains more control and starts basing his decisions on what he sees. His actions turn out to be critical to the eventual climax of the novel, something the observant reader will see coming for a while. Cang Lu is, in most ways, a more interesting character than Mei Lin. He is damaged, fragile in a way and hopelessly in love. He has a much more interesting backstory than the pampered Mei Lin. With so little attention being paid to a character that turns out to be very important to the  plot I can't help but feel the novel is a bit unbalanced.

All things considered Reigers vlucht is a flawed début. It's a pleasant read in some respects. The pacing is good, the story flows well and Lucas times her big reveals and climax of the story well enough to make it a satisfying read in that respect. The characters and her use of the different points of view are not as well balanced though and I also felt that the cultures she depicts  are a bit too much a collection of interesting customs and folklore rather than a reflection of a culture as a whole. It is not a début that sends shock waves through the genre or even the Dutch language corner of it, but it is a solid novel. One that I enjoyed reading. Lucas missed a few opportunities to make it a more memorable read, but with a little more experience she could well produce a truly memorable book in the future. It is not a perfect novel but certainly a promising one.

Book Details
Title: Reigers Vlucht
Author: Sophie Lucas
Publisher: De Boekerij
Pages: 480
Year: 2012
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-225-6022-8
First published: 2012

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Uprooted - Naomi Novik

From what I read online, Uprooted by Naomi Novik is one of the surprises of 2015. She is best known for her historical fantasy series Temeraire. I've read the first six of these and while I enjoyed the earlier volumes, the series lost steam and the sixth was so poor that I didn't bother with the seventh. An eightth volume appeared in 2013. Apparently Novik took a break from the series to write Uprooted. The ninth and concluding book is expected some time next year. A break might have been what Novik needed. Uprooted feels fresh and surprisingly different from her other novels. I can see why so many reviewers are enthusiastic about it.

The valley is governed by a wizard. As rulers go he is a good overlord. He doesn't tax to excess, doesn't require men for his army and helps keep the community safe from the malicious forest that constantly threatens the local populations. There is a price however. Every ten years, he takes a young girl to serve him in his tower. When they are released from service, the girls all say they have been treated well but they have changed in ways that make it impossible to sink back into the valley's community. This year, there will be another choosing and Agnieszka is of the right age. She is not worried, everybody knows the lovely and skilled Kasia will be chosen, but then the wizard surprises them all and selects Agnieszka anyway.

Uprooted is essentially a fairytale. Novik was born in the US and is of Polish and Lithuanian descent. She clearly used the stories of her childhood in this novel. It will take someone more familiar with Slavic folklore to pinpoint the exact stories but the influence is unmistakable. The forest, as in many fairytales, is a dark, dangerous place full of secrets. Stray too far from cultivated land and you are likely to meet a gruesome end. Novik captures the maliciousness of the forest and the evil at its heart very well in the novel. It hangs like a dark cloud over the entire story. A stern warning about the dangers of the wilds.

Novik also made it a coming of age story. Agnieszka is seventeen when we meet her. She is clumsy, not particularly high on self-esteem and very naive about what is going on outside the valley she grew up in. Suddenly cast into a role she isn't prepared for, her early experiences with the wizard are terrifying to say the least. He thinks she is a blithering idiot, she feels he is rude, insensitive and cold. The situation doesn't improve when he finds out she has magical abilities. Used as he is to a rigorously structured form of magic, he seems incapable of helping her control her natural and faintly chaotic talent. It takes them a while to get a constructive relationship going.

Agnieszka is even more challenged when she leaves the valley however. Life in the capital is quite different from what she is used to and in her efforts to find her way around she looses track of what she was sent to do there in the first place. The descriptions of her being fooled, patronized and mocked are painful to read at times, and more than once I wondered why she didn't strangle anyone in her time there. It's a painful way of growing up but she does learn a lot from it. Her development into a woman who can distinguish truth from nonsense, knows right from wrong and has a good feeling for how the valley and the people living in it are linked.

A third part of Agnieszka's development is her relationship with the girl destined to go serve the wizard. Kasia has been more or less raised for the part, and not getting it upsets her life completely. She should resent this but manages to overcome it and maintain a deep friendship with Agnieszka. Novik describes this in a way that starts out understated but works to a dramatic climax towards the end of the novel. We see the entire story through Agnieszka's eyes, it is a first person narrative, but Kasia's character development is not diminished by that in the least.

Where at court the novel moves in the direction of epic fantasy, in the forest it is a full blown fairy tale. The presence inhabiting it is old. It has been there longer than the people and so nobody knows for sure how it came to be or what exactly it is. All they know is that it is evil and manipulative, always pushing to drive the population of the valley out. The forest is the perfect counterpoint to Agnieszka. Where she is sympathetic, down to earth and kind, the forest is horrific, mysterious and malevolent. For most of the novel, Novik manages to suffuse the story with its ever present evil. We get to know it in more detail during the final showdown of course but for most of the story the mystery keeps a certain tension in the story that could otherwise have easily sunk to the level of popcorn fantasy.

Where the Temeraire series mostly gets its inspiration from history, Novik has switched to other sources for Uprooted. The result is a novel that is quite different from her previous work. There is a darkness in this book that is not found in the Temeraire series. Novik's reimagining of Poland from its fairy tales is a great deal more successful than the novels she has produced in the past few years. Like many other reviewers I was pleasantly surprised by it. A fresh start did her a world of good. This novel has made me curious about what Novik will take on after the completion of the Temeraire series. She clearly demonstrates she is capable of different kinds of stories. Uprooted has convinced me to keep an eye out for that future project.

Book Details
Title: Uprooted
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 438
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-8041-7903-4
First published: 2015