Sunday, October 25, 2015

Drakenvuur - An Janssens

I only read a couple of Dutch language novels every year. While I do like to stay in touch with what goes on in the small but vibrant fantasy community in the Dutch-speaking part of the world, these novels are almost always a few steps behind in craft and professionalism compared to the bulk of my reading. My reviews of Dutch language works tend to focus more on the technical side of writing, (structure, pacing, plotting) than on language, themes or interpretation of the novel. While there are some very talented people out there, a lot of what is being published is substandard. There are reasons for that. Nobody can make a living writing fantasy in the Netherlands. There are no magazines and very few other places to publish short works, the number of professional editors in he field is limited and the few publishers with resources tend to be more interested in translated works. Being a fantasy writer in the Netherlands with aspirations of writing a novel that can compete in international company is hard indeed.

An Janssens is one of the few authors being backed by a large publisher, a privilege she won in a writing contest a couple of years ago. Drakenvuur (literally: Dragon's Fire) is the concluding volume of the trilogy that started with Drakenkoningin in 2013. I picked up the first two volumes at the local bookstore but the third book I received directly from the author. This may seem surprising. The reviews of Drakenkoningin and Drakentovenaar were not exactly  jubilant. There is a story behind this of course and maybe I'll tell you about it some other time. Right now we are going to focus on the book.

For seven centuries a magical barrier has divided the north and the south. Slowly the north has cooled and the south warmed to the point where both of them are becoming uninhabitable. The leaders on both sides of the barrier understand something needs to be done to prevent the extinction of their peoples but neither has the skill and power to undo the magical damage wrought on the world by the powerful wizards of the past. Tentative contact has been made and now the time for bolder action has arrived. Var, Wizard-King of the south sets out to meet the Dragon Queen of the north. Together with their companions they set out to save the world, or break it forever.

With the first and second volume in the trilogy set primarily in the north and south respectively, this book is the first opportunity to see the two sides interact fully. Groups of characters from both novels make an appearance in the book and most of them get a point of view. I counted five major point of view characters and two minor ones. To accommodate the crowd, Janssens writes even shorter chapters in this novel. Drakenkoningin has 19 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue. Drakentovenaar, which is approximately the same length, has 32 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue. Drakenvuur has 47 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue. It must be noted that the page count of the final book is a bit higher than the other two though. It's no surprise then, that the novel moves at the same breakneck speed as the previous two books. In fact, the rapid changes in point of view, especially towards the end of the novel, give it the appearance of even more speed.

Janssens has grown more adept at saying more with fewer words but some readers will feel that being forced to look at the story from a different angle every few pages is a bit too much of a good thing. It also doesn't do the characters any favours in terms of development. Nevsemir for instance, is struggling with what can best be described as post-traumatic stress syndrome. Something she conveniently shrugs off when it really matters. Var, who like in the previous novel, is manipulated at every turn, easily forgives Thala for yet another piece of misdirection. Thala herself struggles with the secret she is keeping from Var but the whole thing is quickly brushed aside when it comes out. None of them seem to have a moment to spare to consider the rather large number of casualties among the population of both the north and the south their campaign to save the world demands. Like in the previous two volumes, many things that could have made the story more challenging, and in my opinion a more satisfactory read, are sacrificed to the demands of a fast paced plot.

Drakenvuur is a book built on shaky foundations. It has inherited the problems of the first two volumes and these issues show in the final instalment as well. That being said, there are elements in the novel that show Janssens growth as a writer. When she  wrote the first novel, it was by no means certain there would be a second volume. There clearly was a bit of improving involved in the creation of this trilogy. Where the first and second book are more or less separate stories, only slightly related to each other, in this novel she must find a way to unify the two halves of her tale. A lack of foreshadowing in the previous volumes sometimes crops up in some elements of the tale. The magic employed by the characters is one area where she succeeds into creating a coherent fusion of the previous two volumes. The abilities and limitations of each of the forms of magic are well thought out. Probably the best element of worldbuilding in this novel.

Janssens' trilogy is a good example of why I don't read many works in Dutch. On the one hand it is brimming with potential, enthusiasm and love for the genre. On the other you can feel the heavy hand of the editor speeding things up and removing the peculiarities of the author's style from the text. What remains is a trilogy that is marketable but not surprising. A fantasy that is both limited by the author's inexperience and the publisher's ambition. Had it been among the English language books on the bookshelves I would have passed it without looking twice. Looking on the bright side, Janssens was presented with an opportunity and she took it. A rare chance to be published as professionally as is possible in this part of the world. While there is still plenty of room for improvement, her writing has gotten better over the course of the trilogy. I hope she can take that experience with her and go on to create something that is a bit more challenging and a bit less traditional. I think she has the talent to do it. It will be interesting to see where she will go from here. Despite not being blown away by Janssens' Song of Ice and Fire, I will be keeping an eye out for the next one with her name on it.

Book Details
Title: Drakenvuur
Author: An Janssens
Publisher: Luitingh Fantasy
Pages: 316
Year: 2015
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-6776-8
First published: 2015

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Rendezvous with Rama - Arthur C. Clarke

Last week I read Cixin Liu's The Dark Forest and in that novel the influence of Arthur C. Clarke is unmistakable. Since I am waiting for some review copies to arrive at the moment, I thought I'd reread something by  Clarke this week. Rendezvous with Rama was first published in 1973 and won him the BSFA, Nebula, Campbell, Hugo and Locus Awards. It is regarded as one of his masterworks, perhaps only surpassed in popularity by 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Childhood's End (1953). The novel spawned three sequels written in collaboration with Gentry Lee. Which is to say Lee did the writing and Clarke limited himself to reading and editing. I never read any of the sequels, from what I have heard they don't reach the level of the original, but Rendezvous with Rama is something of a favourite of mine.

In the year 2131 astronomers spot a large object entering the solar system. At first they dismiss it as another comet or asteroid but when someone takes a closer look it becomes apparent that the structure is not natural. It is travelling at such a speed that only one ship in the solar system is close enough to intercept the object now christened Rama. The space ship Endeavour, captained by Commander Bill Norton is sent to rendezvous with the strange object and to explore its interior.

When you think about it, the popularity of this novel at the time is a bit peculiar. The New Wave had already washed over the genre but Clarke's writing was still firmly founded in the golden age. His grasp of physics and mathematics is impressive but his attention to characterisation is minimal, his prose straightforward and interest in anything other than the natural sciences limited. Clarke's early work may have had some spiritual undertone, by the time he wrote this novel, his work is mostly rational. You could even say that there is not much of a  plot to  Rendezvous with Rama. Clarke pretty much tells us what the expedition sees on Rama, how they overcome several technical problems and adds a bit of speculation on the builders of the object. It is all very simple in a way. Maybe even deceptively simple.

Rendezvous with Rama is a quintessential Big Dumb Object novel. What it excels at is achieving a sense of wonder in the reader. Although opinions on what this phrase actually means differ, it is something of a holy grail for golden age science fiction. In this novel, written many years after the end of this period in the history of science fiction, Clarke manages to make it tangible. The descriptions of Rama, aided by the clarity of the prose, will have the reader in awe. The sheer scale of the object is described in a way to make the reader feel insignificant In fact, Rendezvous with Rama is probably the only novel I've ever read that manages to make the reader experience vertigo.

The novel humbles the reader in another way as well. Although Rama clearly has a purpose in the solar system, it is entirely uninterested in humanity. It doesn't attempt to communicate or to investigate. It just does what it planned to do and moves on. After being the centre of the universe for all of history, humanity is relegated to a footnote. They can stand and watch in awe, they can speculate and investigate, but they can't match Rama's feats. Clarke goes to far as to make humanity look petty when the Mercurians authorities take it upon themselves to attempt to destroy what they don't understand. In this way, it expresses an idea that couldn't be further removed from the one that is the crux of The Dark Forest. Liu at the same time admires him and portrays his vision on extraterrestrial life as naive.

One surprising aspect of the novel is the humour Clarke has put into it. When the true nature of Rama becomes apparent, a council is set up to guide the expedition to the object. He uses it to mock scientists and politicians alike. In the council the process of science takes a back seat and petty politics take over. Clarke observes these proceedings with a kind of wry amusement. However much human society will change in the future, he doesn't have high hopes in this area it would seem.

The spectacular views Clarke offers, combined with today's technology could make this story into a visually spectacular movie. It has been optioned in the past and Morgan Freeman has expressed interest in making Rendezvous with Rama into a movie. It hasn't happened yet and as far as I can tell it is firmly stuck in development hell. Apparently there isn't even a script yet. Probably, someday, there will be a movie but it might be a bit of a wait.

I'm unreasonably fond of this novel. It is something of a throwback to an earlier age of science fiction, published in a time when the genre had already moved on to other, and in my opinion more interesting, things. The portrayal of future society seems simplistic, the characterisation practically non-existent, and the story arc lacks a clear climax. The list of flaws in this novel is long. And yet, it does one thing so supremely well that all these flaws recede into the background when reading it. Ill-defined as the much looked for sense of wonder may be, Clarke nailed it in this novel. Rendezvous with Rama is not Clarke's best novel, nor his most interesting but, it will remain a favourite of mine.

Book Details
Title: Rendezvous with Rama
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Publisher: Gpllancz
Pages: 252
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07733-1
First published: 1973

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Dark Forest - Cixin Liu

Last year the first part of this trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, was published by Tor. American publishers see translated works as a risk because of the cost of translations so works like this are unfortunately something of a rarity still. Tor cleverly made use of the reputation of the translator of the first volume, Chinese-American author Ken Liu, to draw attention to it and that worked very well indeed. It won the Hugo Award this summer and has certainly been one of the most discussed novels in science fiction this year.The Hugo vote this year is highly controversial because of the Puppies' attempt to manipulate the shortlist. In fact, it was only added to the shortlist because one of the other candidates withdrew. Personally I feel that in a year with normal voting practices it would have had a shot at the award as well. It is definitely Chinese but also firmly rooted in western science fiction, making it very accessible to western readers. While I doubt that The Dark Forest can repeat its predecessor's feat, I do think it is a worthy sequel. If you liked the The Three-Body Problem, you will want to read this book.

The Trisolarans are coming and their mission is to exterminate humanity. The human race has four centuries to prepare but with the help of the sophons, sub-atomic particles, they can listen in on any kind of human communication. Humanity is completely exposed to the Trisolarans except for one place: the privacy of the human mind. To exploit this one advantage, the Wallfacer project is started. Four people overseen by a UN committee  are granted the freedom to work on a plan to defeat the Trisolarans without having to outline it to anyone. They are granted access to enormous resources and are expected to defeat the enemy through deceit and misdirection. A dangerous and desperate plan but it seems like the only chance at survival.

The translation of this second volume is in the hands of Joel Martinsen of whom, other than what it says on the back flap, I know absolutely nothing. A quick search doesn't turn up any other translations by his hand. He follows Ken Liu's lead closely though. There is no noticeable difference in tone of voice and Martinsen is equally reluctant to add footnotes, only doing so in cases where the English-language reader is very unlikely to understand a reference to Chinese history or literature. The switch in translator will not bother the reader. I understand Liu is translating the final novel in the trilogy so continuity in the translation should not be a problem.

The novel covers about two centuries. Liu introduces a new calendar in the novel, counting the years from the start of the crisis. In a way, a lot of things stay the same during this long timespan. The Trisolarans use the sophons to limit humanity's progress in physics, essentially allowing only improvements in already existing technology. Quantum computers for instance, cannot be developed so after a certain point there is no increase in the computing power of processors any more. The technological explosion, as Liu calls it, stalls. It leaves the author free to speculate on what such a threat will do to human society and economy.

In his Big Idea piece on John Scalzi's blog Liu said he was writing a worst case scenario. No benevolent aliens or a prospect of a harmonious federation of planets of the people in this story. One of the major themes Liu examines is what the prospect of near certain extinction would do to the human psyche. It shows up in several forms but despair seems to take over every time. Liu describes the severe economic effects of creating a war economy when there isn't an enemy to fight yet. Something that will eventually lead to a collapse some time in the twenty-first century followed by a renaissance some decades later. Personally I'm wondering if something that is four centuries in the future will affect the human psyche to that degree -  we can't even be made to pay attention to a number of environmental problems that most of us most definitely will live to see after all -  but it is an interesting scenario.

Like the previous novel the author, and many of his characters, think about large groups of people. He pays attention to the thoughts and feelings of the main characters to illustrate a larger point. In themselves they are not all that interesting. Something that is probably more of an issue than in the previous book. I thought Ye Wenjie was a more interesting character than Luo Ji, the central character in this book. Luo keeps his cards close to his chest, which I suppose makes sense for a Wallfacer, but it doesn't do much for our insight into his motivations.

The Dark Forest contains a number of massive scenes in space. For the hard science fiction fan this is probably the highlight of the novel. Not all readers will like them but, as he has shown in The Three-Body Problem,  Liu is good at writing such scenes. In this novel he is absolutely ruthless in them. He so thoroughly quashes humanity's previously held beliefs  that it has made me wonder what he can come up with for the third installment of the trilogy.

Liu's story is again firmly grounded in western science fiction. He formulates an answer to the Fermi paradox for instance, and refers to some of the genre's great works (Foundation, A Clockwork Orange) and he doesn't hide his admiration of Arthur C. Clarke. As we move into the future and Liu is able to use less of China's actual history and as the story takes on more of a global perspective, it becomes even more accessible for the western reader. The Dark Forest delivers everything that The Three-Body Problem does and a bit more. If I had to choose my favourite it would still be the first book because of the historical background used in much of that story but I suspect many readers will find the second book a step up. It is a very dark story though, it will be interesting to see if the final volume, Death's End, will show us a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. It is scheduled for April next year. I for one can't wait to get my hands on it.

Book Details
Title: The Dark Forest
Author: Cixin Liu
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 512
Year: 2015
Language: English
Translation: Joel Martinsen
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7708-1
First published: 2008

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Cold Iron - Stina Leicht

A few years ago I read Stina Leicht's d├ębut Of Blood and Honey (2011) and I liked it very much. The book, which is an urban fantasy set in Northern Ireland in the 1970s,  did get a bit of criticism for not getting all the details right. It didn't bother me, probably because I am not familiar with the region in that much detail. For some reason I never got around to reading the sequel, And Blue Skies from Pain (2012), even though I do own a copy. I should remedy that sometime. In Cold Iron, Leicht strikes out in another direction. The novel is a flintlock fantasy, set in a secondary world and the first part of a series. It will definitely have an appeal for the epic fantasy reader but not necessarily for people who liked Of Blood and Honey.

For centuries the ruling class of the kingdom of Eledore has relied on their magic to defeat their enemies. Their magic is what raises them above humans and what determines their status in society. Humans may not have magic, their technology is more advanced and firearms appear to be a match for magic. The king of Eledore, heavily influenced by his younger brother, sticks to the traditional way of running his army. His children however, realize that without embracing new technology the kingdom is lost. A long and dangerous struggle to save the kingdom begins.

The world Leicht has created seems to be mostly inspired by Scandinavia. Most of the Eledoreans have Finnish sounding names. There are more than a few characters with Swedish sounding names as well. The story is an interesting reversal of history. Where in our 18th century, the Swedes ruled Finland (until a wave of Finnish nationalism dislodged the Swedes in the early 19th century only to be replaced by the Russians as rulers), the characters with the Finnish sounding names seem to be in control in the early stages of the novel. I'm not entirely sure if there is a particular work or event that inspired Leicht to create this setting. If there is, I didn't recognize it.

Leicht tells her story from three different points of view. The disgraced royal son Nels, who failed to develop any appreciable magical talents and got his hands bloodied in a skirmish. He is forced into a career in the military, where more than a few officers would see him die for king and country sooner rather than later. His twin sister Suvi, now heir-apparent, is the second point of view character. She has a better head for politics and tries to limit her uncle's influence on the court. The third point of view is that of Ilta. She is a talented healer, destined to take over as one of the most important advisors to the crown. She struggles with the weight of responsibility however.

The Kingdom of Eledore feels like a lot of mighty states in epic fantasy do. It's old, rich and decadent, led by a king who is not particularly interested in affairs of state and unreasonably certain that magic will overcome any obstacle. Leicht shows us the limitations of that magic early in the novel and keeps doing it throughout the story. It is terrible, could be wielded very effectively, but it also has drawbacks. The technology this magic is going up against is fairly rudimentary. The firearms are single shot rifles, using gunpowder and balls instead of cartridges. The same goes for the unwieldiy cannon. They are not all that reliable, nor very accurate and leave the user defenceless in the time it takes to reload. And yet they are the future and the younger characters in the book see it clearly.

Personally I would have liked to see a point of view of someone who was a bit more invested in the old ways. The three point of view characters have a very clear view of where things are going and show us the story more or less from the same side of the conflict. The main antagonist in the story, the king's brother Sakari, makes for a shallow character because we don't get to see much beyond his thirst for power. The king himself is similarly shallow. A bit more conflict between the main characters might do the next novel in the series good.

The story is told in short, snappy chapters. Cold Iron weighs in at 657 pages in hardcover but it feels like a much shorter book. It is one of those novels where you can easily read 200 pages in a sitting, or read it over the weekend. She keeps the pace up and doesn't bother the reader with too much background material on her world. This does have the drawback that some elements in the world are not as clear to the reader as one might wish for. I have no idea what caused the war between Eledore and its neighbour for instance. It might have made the intrigue at the Eledorean court more interesting if that had been a factor. Not everybody can be as closed to the outside world as the king.

The title of the series is The Malorum Gates and this refers to another layer in the story. The characters are mostly distracted by the immediate demands of the war but there is an ancient evil in the world that needs attention too. Ilta in particular is aware of it. We do not learn much about it, other than that magic is the key to containing the horrible creatures hiding behind the gates. Magic therefore, cannot be replaced by technology without putting the world at risk. This part is clearly the overarching story for the series. Instead of one replacing the other, as you'd find in  many fantasy novels, in this series the two are condemned to each other and not all the characters realize it yet.

Cold Iron is a fun, fast read but as the opening novel of a new series it is perhaps not as convincing as it might have been. There are a lot of interesting elements to the story but, in this first book at least, they don't link up yet. A little bit of detail in some places would have made it a bit more coherent. Leicht has a lot of work to do to bring this story together. That being said, I am curious about what will happen next and that is always a good sign for a first book in a series. Even if there is some room for improvement, Leicht has convinced me to try the second volume.

Book Details
Title: Cold Iron
Author: Stina Leicht
Publisher: Saga Press
Pages: 657
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-4814-4255-8
First published: 2015