Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Wurms of Blearmouth - Steven Erikson

The Wurms of Blearmouth is the fifth instalment in Erikson's Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas. In the fourth, Crack'd Pot Trail, Erikson tried something different. The characters that gave the series its name were only a minor presence in them and the book was a lot longer than the previous entries. Stylistically there was also a difference. Personally I loved what Erikson did with that novella but many other readers preferred the format Erikson used in the earlier novellas. Those readers will be most pleased with The Wurms of Blearmouth. Our two main characters and their unfortunate manservant Emancipor Reese once again step into the spotlight. Murder and mayhem ensue.

The town of Spendrugle is a miserable site on a stormwracked coast. It has been ruled by a series of tyrants, the latest of which believes himself to be a great sorcerer. When the ship carrying Bauchelain and Korbal Broach sinks after their adventures in The Lees of Laughter's End, the locals are confronted with a series of strangers on their shore. The necromancers have made more than a few enemies along the way and some of them are in hot pursuit. Soon, several different parties enjoy the hospitality of Spendrugle. They know how to welcome visitors but this time they may have bitten off more than they can chew.

Tyranny is the theme for this novella and Erikson shows it to us in many guises. The lord in his keep, so insecure about his position that he feels the need to make the life of everybody in the community even more miserable, the tax collector faced with corruption, death threats and financial ruin and the innkeeper ruling her establishment (and her daughter) with an iron fist. All of them gleefully and sometimes violently prey on those lower on the social ladder. What sets Spendrugle apart is that this kind of behaviour is widely accepted, one might even say encouraged. It leads to a number of hilarious observations on human greed, cruelty and aggression.

Most of the characters are more than they appear to be on the surface of course. There are hints of forgotten gods, strange magics and of course necromancy throughout the novella. A bigger story not told lurking beneath the surface. I must admit it has been a while since I read one of Erikson's novels so I may have missed a few references. I don't doubt the real Malazan fanatic will find some though.

With each novella Erikson is getting better at writing witty, at times outright hilarious dialogue. The overblown rhetoric of the tyrant is a great counterpoint to Bauchelain's understatements and mildly amused observations. It reminded me a bit of his disastrous meeting with Quick Ben in Memories of Ice. He was on the receiving end then of course...  His confrontation with the tyrant must be the highlight of the series so far. Reese's role also seems to have changed a bit. He is more resigned than completely terrified in this novella. Settled into his role as it were. It will be interesting to see how he continues from there.

Like all of the previous novels these novellas are interesting and a welcome change of pace for Erikson readers. They offer a more concise view into the world of Malaz, with more emphasis on Erikson's talent for satire. Personally I liked what Erikson did with Crack'd Pot Trail a shade more but The Wurms of Blearmouth is most certainly on of the better entries in this series. One that will probably prove more popular than its predecessor. Sometime in the near future the sixth novella titled The Fiends of Nightmaria will appear. I can't wait to get my hands on that one. I might even be ready to face Fall of Light, Erikson's latest novel and a massive tome, after that.

Book Details
Title: The Wurms of Blearmouth
Author: Steven Erikson
Publisher: PS Publishing
Pages: 121
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-848634-78-7
First published: 2016

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Nebula Nominated Short Fiction

For some reason I never get around to reading as much short fiction as I'd like. Collections and anthologies are a pain in the backside to review so I tend to go for novels instead. It's a shame given the huge amount of quality short fiction out there. So this week I tried to read as many short stories as I could find time for. I used this year's Nebula awards as a guideline. All of these stories can be read for free  online.

Our Lady of the Open Road - Sarah Pinsker

This story was published in Asimov's in the June 2015 issue and went on to snag the Nebula in the novelette category. It is available to read at the author's website. It is a near future science fiction story. The main characters are members of one of the few bands still touring. A technology called StageHolo can give you a performance right into your living room. People don't go out to see musicians any more, and bars can get holographic projections of the biggest stars to their stage, putting the smaller bands out of business. For some people, performing live music is more than a profession however. The ageing guitarist Luce refuses to give in to the temptation of recording with StageHolo or just calling it quits. They go on, no matter what.

Pinsker is a musician as well and in part Our Lady of the Open Road is a love letter to the touring way of live. To the crappy van, the even crappier food and the great music. There's probably a bit of commentary on the state of the current music industry in there as well. Another way to look at it is tied to the observation that in this future people prefer to stay at home rather than go out among strangers. This unwillingness to leave the comfort zone is already visible on the Internet. Various communities are designed to surround yourself with the familiar, the people you know, people who like what you like or who believe what you believe. In Pinsker's future this effect seems to have spread to the physical world as well.

I'm not entirely sure why this story won the award. It works well enough in some ways, but in others it feels lacking, even unfinished. It is written in the first person, from the perspective of Luce. This works well for the most part. Luce is feeling her age but clearly loves to be on the road and play. There is an undercurrent of discontent at the state of the world as well and Pinsker lets it come to the surface when she encounters a representative of StageHolo.

That conflict is the part where the story doesn't deliver unfortunately. Luce is never seriously tempted despite the decent arguments (delivered in a slick sales pitch tone) the representative offers. The climax is a bit rushed, and rather unbelievable. There is a kind of weariness about her in those final paragraphs that sharply contrasts with the Luce on stage. It mutes the end of the story where you would expect anger or determination. I'd say it is good but not great.

Damage - David D. Levine

This story is one of the hundreds that can be read for free at Tor.com. It is once again a first person perspective, this time from the point of view of a space ship. Levine received Nebula and Sturgeon nominations for it. Damage is something of a space opera. Space stations, a war in space, lots of explosions and so forth. It is also a look at an aspect of war many novels, not just science fiction, conveniently overlook: post traumatic stress.

The main character is a space ship cobbled together from the wrecks of two other ships. It is run by a self-aware artificial intelligence programmed to feel extreme love for its pilot. It is also endowed with human emotions such as fear and pain. Having died twice already, the ship is well beyond any other in terms of war experiences. Its engineer doesn't quite know how to handle it.

Levine draws a parallel with Mary Shelly's classic Frankenstein to convey the mental state of mind of the ship. For the most part it is the violent past that haunts the ship though. It struggles with feelings of loyalty to its pilot, and pride at their achievements in the light of the certainty that the fighting is pointless and the outcome inevitable. The ship is an artificial intelligence and with its programmed properties, it does not quite feel human. If you can bridge that gap and see it as a fully formed character Damage can have quite an impact on the reader. I'm not entirely sure everybody will be able to make that leap though.

Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers - Alyssa Wong

This story is the winner in the short story category. It appeared in Nightmare, a magazine specializing in horror and dark fantasy, and is still available to read on their website. Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers is definitely a horror story. The main character is a creature (not sure I would call her human) feeding on the depraved thoughts of others. The darker, the more violent, the better. She hungers for them in a way that can never quite be satisfied.

Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers is not a story for the faint of heart. The pleasure she derives from taking in these horrible thoughts is stomach-turning at times. Wong uses a first person point of view in the story and keeps her character human by showing us the struggle between her hunger and her desire for company. Her mother -  much more experienced in dealing with the hunger and resigned to her loneliness - tries to guide her to an extent, providing another relationship that keeps the character from being perceived as wholly evil.

As a horror story it is very effective. It is not so much a scary kind of horror but more a creepy kind. Creep you out this story will, as almost all characters are creepy in their own way. With one exception perhaps. If this is your kind of horror, you probably can't do much better than Wong. I was quite impressed with this story.

Cat Pictures Please - Naomi Kritzer

This story is the only short story to be nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Award. She slipped onto the Hugo ballot when one of the nominees withdrew over the rabid puppies antics and seeing how things unfolded last year, she might just win. Cat Pictures Please originally appeared in Clarkesworld and can be read on their website. The story could be called science fiction, although it is not heavy on science. The most unusual thing about the story is its perspective. It is written in the first person (this perspective seems to be very popular at the moment) from the point of view of a sentient search engine.

Cat Pictures Please revolves around the realization that most stories about artificial intelligence speak of the dangers. Computers turning on their creators. This search engine (Google is implied but not mentioned by name) is aware of this sentiment and has kept its sentience secret. It doesn't want to be evil and after an exhaustive study of human ethical systems it decides to experiment with doing good.

Kritzer is going for a contrast with the readers' preconception of artificial intelligence. It is portrayed as friendly, almost benevolent, and slightly naive. What it shares with many artificial intelligences in science fiction is that it fails to grasp human nature. It's probably the story in this batch that I enjoyed reading most.

Four very different stories from the Nebula ballot. I picked them more or less at random so it's quite interesting that all of them would be first person narratives and only one of them features a fully human main character.  It might be a coincidence of course.  Maybe I should have a look at the rest too. Next week it is back to a novel though.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

De Klauw - Adrian Stone

Adrian Stone made his début in 2007, with the self-published novel Profeet van de Duivel. It was later reissued after an additional round of editing by one of the major publishers of fantasy in the Netherlands. Two more novels in the same series appeared to round off the trilogy. It was followed by a duology set in the same world. Now, Stone is ready for a new challenge De Klauw (literally: The Talon) is the first book in the Magyker trilogy. It is set in a new world, with a new system of magic and new characters. Readers who liked his previous novels will probably think he hit the bullseye with this novel. It offers the same fast paced, straightforward epic fantasy found in his previous novels. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, I found it to be a frustrating read.

Marit and her brother Auric are living in the city of Oftenooi. Their past is a mystery to them. After they left the Magyker city of Aimerey their memory was wiped. Now the Magykers are visiting their city to perform one of their spells. During the operation an unexpected talent surfaces in Auric. He can memorize and reproduce a spell after hearing it performed just once. To the Magykers, who have always guarded their monopoly on magic jealously, he is a threat to their wealth and power. He can't be allowed to live. Soon Marit and Auric are on the run. They find themselves in the (unwanted) company of the mysterious Eamon, who has his own reasons to dislike the Magykers. Reasons he is reluctant to share.

Stone certainly knows his audience. He aims for the kind of fantasy that has been doing very well here for the past decade. It is a tried and successful recipe. Magic, dragons, reluctant heroes and a world on the verge of a cataclysmic change. Stories told in accessible prose, that keep the reader's attention form the very first page. Stone's story has all that. I suspect the manuscript made an editor somewhere very happy.  He has grown as a writer as well, the pacing in particular is has improved compared to his first novel, and his worldbuilding is more confident as well.

Of course, the novel should be a bit different too from what has come before. The spiritual themes of the previous books have disappeared into the background. Where the intersection of religious fanaticism and power is studied in detail in those books, attention shifts to economics in De Klauw. The power their monopoly provides the Magykers with is felt throughout the world and is one of the driving forces of the conflict Stone describes in the novel. This theme is woven through the entire novel, if perhaps not as prominently as it might have been.

Stone picks an unusual saviour too. Auric is not only magically talented, he is also autistic. It makes him a handful for the people around him. He is highly unpredictable, lacks social grace and has the tendency to be brutally honest at exactly the wrong moment. I'm not familiar enough with the autism spectrum to say where in this range Auric could be placed but his behaviour is certainly recognizable. Stone uses it cleverly to keep the readers on their toes. Many tense situations arise from the question of how Auric will respond to a certain situation. Although he usually doesn't do it consciously, his actions determine the shape of events to a large extent.

So interesting world, good pacing, unusual choice for a messianic character, why did I call this book frustrating? Partly because of the things it doesn't do. Yes, Stone has a good grasp of what the reader expects of epic fantasy and he ticks all the boxes. Along the way he passes up on quite a few opportunities to give his creations a bit more depth however. As an example I'll turn back to the economics Stone describes. It is touched upon but only very lightly. A few lines here and there  to point at the problems the various nations face. Stone studied business economics and worked at ING, one of the largest Dutch banks, as an investment strategist for many years. To say he has an above average grasp of economics is probably an understatement. He could have done much more with it if he had wanted to.

Imagine one of the characters writing a fantasy equivalent of Das Kapital, as a response to magical monopoly deforming society. Or if you prefer more recent developments,  a parallel with the Greek debt crisis in one of the kingdoms in financial trouble, or perhaps the recent Argentinian crises as a parallel for a private organisation to hold a government at ransom using financial (magical) means. A nod to Thomas Piketty when discussing the appalling inequality the characters see around them would have been possible, or Milton Friedman when discussing the lack of economic freedom. Some of these things can be read into the text but it is buried so very deep that it is clear these things were not where Stone focused his attention.

Another thing I found frustrating about the novel is Stone's tendency to lay out the motivation of characters, leaving virtually no room for interpretation. Show, do not tell is a bit overrated as writing advice in my opinion. Books that only show end up being impenetrable for a lot of readers. But that doesn't mean you have to tell everything. A fine example of how this can derail the story is the character of Valdana. She is one of the more ambiguous characters in the novel. Her motivations are unclear for a while. She seems to be not fully committed to the cause she has joined. Stone then proceeds to bluntly confirm the reader's doubt and then dumps an explanation for her every action on the reader in the final pages of chapter 21. No big reveal, confrontation or angry scene. Just a bit of internal monologue and there you have it.

To an extent something like that happens to Marit as well. One of the things she struggles with in the novel is the lack of knowledge about her past. she yearns to know more but on the other hand fears what she might find. It's a dilemma she faces at the end of the book. Memories are intensely personal and messing with them has a profound impact on the character. Interestingly enough the climax of this part of the story is mostly described from the point of view of other characters. What could have been an emotionally powerful scene ends up a muted affair. We don't get a peek into Marit's thoughts until after the dust has settled.

All things considered this new series is of to a rocky start. On the one hand Stone delivers a story set in a fresh, imaginative and interesting world. He populates it with interesting characters, definitely not the standard dungeons and dragons party. It has all the elements of a successful epic fantasy novel. On the other, he leaves so many of the opportunities he creates for himself unused and leaves the reader very little room for interpretation. De Klauw is very readable, uncomplicated fantasy. A very good read if that is what you are looking for. Personally, I would have liked for it to be a little more, and I think that was entirely achievable in this set up. It was not quite what I had hoped for but, as always, your mileage may vary.

Book Details
Title: De Klauw
Author: Adrian Stone
Publisher: Luithing-Sijthoff
Pages: 350
Year: 2016
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-6836-9
First published: 2016

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Ninefox Gambit - Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit is the first of three novels in The Machineries of Empire series. It is Lee's début in the long form. He  has several dozen short stories in the past fifteen years though, a selection of which can be found in the collection Conservation of Shadows (2013). Lee's work shifts between fantasy and science fiction. There are magical and mythological elements but also a fondness of mathematics and far future narratives present in his stories. I know of one other story set in the same universe as Ninefox Gambit. The Battle of Candle Arc (2012)  is set centuries before the novel but features one of the characters in this book. The story is included in the aforementioned collection. The publication of Ninefox Gambit casts the story notes at the back of Conservation of Shadows in a different light.

In a far future the Hexarchate rules over a vast volume of space. Their powers is based on calendriacal mathematics. It allows them to shape reality but only works in very specific circumstances. The calendar is a religion, one guarded by ritual torture and endless warfare to crush heresy. Captain Kel Cheris is one of the soldiers ensuring the unity of the empire. She has a talent for mathematics that makes her both dangerous and useful to the hexarchate. Cheris is recalled after a mission and asked to file a plan to retake a strategically important fortress fallen into the hands of a new heretical movement. Cheris sees no other option than to request the aid of general Jedao, the empires most brilliant general and its worst traitor. Jedao is a dangerous weapon to use, as Cheris will find out when trying to retake the fortress.

Ninefox Gambit is pure space opera. It is set in a far future, on the largest possible canvas. There are powerful space ships, huge battles and strange technologies made possible by copious amounts of handwavium. It took me a while to figure out the internal logic of the novel but once that falls into place it quickly becomes clear the characters are playing for high stakes. It's a fast, exciting, and action packed plot. A Hollywood CGI company would have a field day recreating some of the battle scenes. There is a bit more to the novel than just big explosions however.

In my review of Conservation of ShadowsI said some of the characters reminded me a bit of Frank Herbert's characters. Particularly the ones in the final two Dune novels, where quite a few characters can fall back on the wisdom and experience from generations past. The ancient general Cheris is using for her mission has long since been executed. He is brought back very infrequently. On very few occasions the gain outweighs the risk of letting him loose on the universe. They release him by attaching him to another character. He does not, in other words, have a body of his own. For the moment he is stuck with Cheris, who is the only one who can communicate with him directly.

Lee makes good use of this lopsided relationship in the novel. A brilliant general with centuries of experience and a reputation for being unpredictable and more than a little mad, ought to be in the driving seat when dealing with a captain bumped up to general, used to obeying and very much out of her element. Cheris has one skill Jedao lacks however. It is not very apparent in most of this novel, but I suspect it will be important in future books. There is a good balance in the novel between the immediate demands of present developments and the interplay between these characters and their clashing agendas.

In the background of the novel there is another element that will probably run through the entire trilogy. The state Lee describes is a totalitarian one. The power of the calendrical mathematics is great but also results in a lot of repression. As the title of the series suggests, it is a machine crushing the individual who steps outside the narrow boundaries acceptable to the hexarchate. The machine of the state devours heretics but is not too careful with its Kel, the soldiers of the empire, either. It instils a scary kind of fanaticism in its soldiers. A good Kel soldier will die rather than disrupt the formation. Formations, much like society, need to stay within very narrowly defined boundaries to reap the benefits of the calendrical system. It's gleichschaltung on a frightening scale.

The system is also very inflexible and surprisingly vulnerable. The mathematics behind it, is only fully understood by one of the leaders of the six factions that make up the hexarchate. Heresy rears its head with depressing frequency and the empire seems to have external as well as internal enemies. Cheris, doesn't know half of this at the opening of the novel and completely accepts this situation. Obedience is drilled into her by the Kel after all. Her changing attitude during the novel is a fine bit of character building.

Ninefox Gambit is very much the setup for a series. It ends at a natural point in the story but it also leaves many questions unanswered. It is a book that is very hard to rate until the shape of the overall story becomes known. I enjoyed reading it a lot tough and I think the series has great potential. Lee balances a fast paced story with enough reflections on power and characterization to make it an intriguing read. He does all of this in a fairly concise novel. Where some space opera is bloated to epic fantasy proportions, Lee keeps the page count reasonable. This novel may well be the start of something special. I look forward to reading the second volume.

Book Details
Title: Ninefox Gambit
Author: Yoon Ha Lee
Publisher: Solaris
Pages: 259
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: E-ARC
ISBN: 978-1-84997-992-4
First published: 2016