Friday, April 30, 2010

Ziel van de Duivel - Adrian Stone

Time for another Dutch title, I really don't read enough of them. Ziel van de Duivel (literally The Devil's Soul) is the final part in a trilogy by Adrian Stone. The first part, Profeet van de Duivel, was published via on demand publishing in 2006 and caught the attention of Luitingh Fantasy, one of the two major publishers in the Netherlands in the field of speculative fiction. Even without the benefit of professional editing it was a surprisingly good book. In fact, it is the main reason why I haven't given up on self published material completely. This third volume shows Stone has learnt a few things about writing since then. It's a worthy conclusion to the trilogy.

Since the events depicted in Zoon van de Duivel religious tensions have flared all across the kingdom of Carolia. The two major temples in the realm are arming themselves and a third fraction, the priests of the dark god Cataris are rapidly increasing their following. To keep the order in his kingdom and the king has increased the number of soldiers in his royal guard but even with this show of force he only just seems to be able to keep a handle on the situation. This changes when the Catarists manage to conquer the island of Furka, home to a religious order that produces the magically powerful Furka wood. With the druids slain and this powerful resource at their disposal the Catarists now feel the time to dispose of the king has come.

Marak has picked up his regular job as a monk of Ava, the God providing balance, again but he finds it increasingly difficult to live by his God's rules. Balancing two major religious views is hard enough, with a third added in the mix it becomes almost impossible. When news of Furka's fall reaches him it becomes clear that Carolia is on the brink of a religious war. A war that will challenge Marak's convictions like nothing he's experienced before. A final confrontation with his ancestor the Cataris and his current embodiment and Marak's nephew Valdis is waiting.

Stone changes his approach somewhat in this book. Where in the previous books a lot of the action was pretty focussed on the characters and what was happening to them personally, Ziel van de Duivel delves into the politics of Carolia more deeply. I've seen several comments on the spiritual nature of the previous two parts, in this book the theological differences take a back seat in favour of some pretty brutal power politics. In fact, not even the gods seem to be above this. I must admit the way Stone handles this didn't feel quite right to me. Marak's service to Ava chafes at times as it has throughout the series. Marak is human after all and not immune to temptations and when the strain of the war and the duty he most perform become too much he clearly oversteps the boundaries set by Ava. I feel he gets away with his transgressions against some of the most fundamental principles of his religion a little too easily. When you get right down to to, Ava turns out to be s a pragmatic god.

This is a minor quibble with what is otherwise a good book though. One part I think Stone captured particularly well is the enormous pressure mounted upon Valdis to keep his campaign moving and strike a bow at those Cataris deems a threat. Valdis' sense of urgency drives the story and forces the hand of most of the other characters. He swings back and forth between being a spoilt brat and a classic villain. His unpredictable and violent behaviour keep the story from becoming too predictable. Valdis' methods are far from subtle but they certainly keep everybody on their toes.

Ziel van de Duivel is a very compact book. I suspect Stone and his editor prefer a quite ruthless style of editing. He does not waste any words on exploring the environment, discussing the world beyond Carolia, developing secondary characters or delving very deeply into the theological differences between the various religions featured in the book. It does not indulge in huge battle scenes more than strictly necessary to get the point across. For a fantasy novel it is wonderfully concise, quite a quick read. I appreciate the directness in Stone's writing but I also suspect that many fans of the sprawling multi-volume epic fantasy series would not have minded if Stone branched out a little more. For the most part, this direct approach to story telling works very well for this book. The only area where I think a little more detail would have added to the story is the region of Kijk Uit were the finale of the book is set. It appears to have a history that diverges quite bit from the rest of Carolia.

I've been keeping an eye out for authors of good speculative fiction in Dutch for several years now and Stone is one of the few authors who have managed to convince me this is a worthwhile effort. His first trilogy has a bit of epic, a dash of politics and a lot of spirituality, combined with a straightforward use of language and a focussed plot these books would be a good starting point for anyone to get into the fantasy genre. I can only hope that Stone will continue to pursue a career as a fantasy author. Despite the evident success of this trilogy it must still be mostly a labour of love. It will interesting to hear what Stone intends to do next.

Book Details
Title: Ziel van de Duivel
Author: Adrian Stone
Publisher: Luitingh Fantasy
Pages: 335
Year: 2010
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-3119-6
First published: 2010

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bitter Seeds - Ian Tregillis

One thing I sincerely disliked about the classes in Dutch literature I had to take in school was the fact that half the books that were eligible to be read for those classes appeared to be about the second world war. I do realize that for the people who lived through it probably was the single most important historical event in their lifetime but once you know the general shape of history these books do get repetitive in a way. No matter how the author chooses to approach the subject. And yet Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis is the second book this year dealing with this subject, after Blackout by Connie Willis. Surprisingly, I liked both of them although I think Willis wrote a better book. Perhaps I should revise this policy somewhat and have another look at my own cultural heritage.

Bitter Seeds is an alternative history set in the years 1939 to 1941. Intelligence officer Raybould March is sent to Spain to witness the last phase of the Spanish civil war. It has been known for a while that the Germans have received permission from Franco test new weapons on the Republican faction. Now, a German defector is ready to turn some of those secrets over to the British. Before he can reveal much more than his terrible fear of the German experiments the informant is killed however. March is forced to flee with a half burned suitcase containing what remains of the documents the informant meant to turn over to the British.

What little remains is pieced together back in London. Together with Raybould's personal experiences it is enough to raise suspicions of the terrible nature of the German experiments. The creation of the Übermensch seems to be at hand. A task force is set up to counter the unnatural German experiments, headed by a man who will stop at nothing to defeat Germany. Under the name Milkweed a group of British warlocks is assembled to counter the German attempts to invade Britain. The influence these warlocks can exert are a valuable contribution to the war effort but there is a price to be paid in blood.

This novel is Tregillis' first but I am not entirely unfamiliar with his writing. The author has contributed to George R.R. Martin's Wild Card series of which I have recently read Inside Straight and Busted Flush. Tregillis contributed to both these volumes. I wonder if Tregillis has taken something of that comic heroes format with him to his solo work.

Tregillis changes the history of the second world war significantly in this book. With characters capable of seeing the future, walking through walls and making people and objects combustion spontaneously Germany has a powerful weapon to force the increasingly isolated British to their knees. It results in a very different outcome of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk for instance. By the end of the book the shape of the war has changed almost beyond recognition. For readers interested in the history of the second world war Bitter Seeds may not be the best choice. There are two more books planned in this setting and the ending of Bitter Seeds seems to hint at books where history has diverged so far from our own world that very few parallels remain.

The Nazi experiments on people have been an inspiration for many writers, Tregillis is certainly not the first to write about what some of these experiments could have resulted in. The author takes these experiments way beyond what would be realistically possible, planting his tale firmly in the realm of speculative fiction. I always feel that this is quite a risk to take with a world war two story. The reason for this is twofold. First, as a reader, I don't want to end up in Castle Wolfenstein. It would be very easy for the scientist conducting the experiments in Bitter Seeds to turn into Joseph Mengele squared. The embodiment of all evil, completely insensitive to human suffering and perfectly capable of turning any human being into a lab rat. Unfortunately Tregillis' Doctor von Westarp doesn't entirely escape that cliché.

The second reason is that a lot of books on the second world war overdo the vilification of Nazis in general. I am well aware that they did a lot of terrible things but these atrocities were perpetrated by human beings, not anonymous devils in German uniform. Here Tregillis does a lot better. By creating a point of view character close to von Westarp he manages to inject a measure of humanity into Raybould's enemies that prevent to book from turning into a black and white caricature of history. In fact, unethical actions seem to be spread around equally with both British point of view characters committing some very distasteful acts of murder and sabotage over the course of the book.

And there we hit on something that will probably divide the readers of this book. Tregillis offers us three main characters and each is as unlikeable as the next. One lies to his wife, one flees in alcohol and drugs, a third is capable and quite willing to slay enemy soldiers in way that will make your blood run cold and all of them are willing to sacrifice the people they are supposed to protect in large numbers. It's a very dark tale the author is telling but I suppose that fits the period. Personally I don't mind flawed or downright evil main characters but if you are looking for a heroic victory over the evils of Nazism this is not your book.

So what does Tregillis offer us? Bitter Seeds is a dark tale set in one of the darkest periods in European history. Readers will find little comfort in the ending of the book, knowing the price that must be paid is almost as bad as defeat. The author leaves a number of broken characters behind to pick up the pieces in the second volume. I quite liked the way Tregillis turns history upside down and completely redraws the battlefield as the book progresses. He certainly sets up an interesting situation for the second book. In the early stages of the story I had my doubts as to whether Tregills would be able to make this a convincing story and maybe there is a touch of Wolfenstein in the book but not to the point were it is distracting. I'm on board for the second one.

Book Details
Title: Bitter Seeds
Author: Ian Tregillis
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 352
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2150-3
First published: 2010

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Man Plus - Frederik Pohl

Although Frederik Pohl already head quite a career in science fiction writing and publishing, his first published piece appeared in 1937, he did not turn to full time writing until 1969. It turned out to be a good move, in the 1970s he produced a number of highly regarded science fiction novels. I read Gateway a while ago, a novel that won just about every major award in the field. The year before that novel was published Man Plus had already earned him a Nebula. Gollancz picked a number of his titles for their SF Masterworks collection so thankfully these books remain in print. I guess Man Plus shows it age just a bit but I still found it very much worth reading.

In the near future, as seen from the 1970s, we may well be there now, the world is in a pretty bad shape. The sheer size of the human population the earth has to support has put a strain on the resources available. Hunger is a serious problem, as are dictatorial regimes. The US finds itself increasingly alone as a bastion of democracy and capitalism. When a conflict with the Chinese threatens to get out of control and result in thermo-nuclear warfare the US president is desperate to direct the attention of the public elsewhere. Thus NASA's program to create a man capable of surviving on the surface of Mars is born.

To make surviving the harsh conditions on Mars possible, the human body needs quite a few adaptations and improvements. In fact, by the time the surgeons and scientists are done, Roger Torraway, the man unfortunate enough to be bumped up to undergo the procedure after the unfortunate death of the first candidate, is barely recognizable as a human being. Torraway may look like a monster, he's still a human being put under enormous strain as the importance of the mission becomes clear. It is up to the people around him to make sure he arrives on Mars a sane man.

So what is this book about? Appearances I guess. What's most striking about the novel is how people start treating Roger once he has begun the process of changing into man plus. Intellectually they know he's human but nobody can help seeing the monster. Interestingly enough Roger shares this response on some level, both when looking at his predecessor and when coming to terms with his own changed body (if it can be called such) and the way his altered senses perceive the world. Just about everybody feels somewhat uneasy about the creation of man plus and can't quite put a finger on why.

The narrative structure of this novel is quite peculiar. We see all the characters from the third person, with passages narrated by the mysterious 'we'. Like in Gateway Pohl ends the book with a punch. I won't spoil it for you but take some time to consider who 'we' might be along the way. It's an interesting puzzle. A lot of what I want to say about this novel is linked to the final part of it and even with a book that's thirty years old I don't really want to spoil the ending. Let's just say that a number of very big themes in science fiction are present but very downplayed in this book. That surprised me more than a little. To give you an example, very little of the novel actually takes place on Mars, the process of getting there is much more important to the story.

Man Plus includes the dark sense of humour is included in everything I have read of Pohl so far. His portrayal of the US president in particular borders on the satirical at times. The satirical tone of some parts of the novel combined with the grotesque changes to Torraway's physique keep the reader right on the edge of how serious all this should be taken. Over the course of the novel he asks the readers to examine some quite difficult questions and keeps on asking them right up to the end of the novel. I suppose one could take this to be a fairly light read. I didn't find it so. In fact it took me quite a while after I finished it to formulate some coherent opinions on this book. The last few chapters in particular leave the reader with something to think about. They also leave the door wide open for a sequel, which I understand was written in the 1990s.

I'm not sure if I want to read the sequel yet. I liked the ending as it is, no need to go into what happens next really. Man Plus is a puzzling book and a very enjoyable read. I must admit I have my doubts about some of the books Gollancz included in their Masterworks series but this book certainly earned a place on the list. I guess I am going to trust their judgement and pick up a copy of a third book by Pohl they included, the 1980 novel Jem, sometime soon.

Book Details
Title: Man Plus
Author: Frederik Pohl
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 215
Year: 2000
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-85798-946-5
First published: 1976

Monday, April 19, 2010

Night of Knives - Ian C. Esslemont

One of the most complex and, in my opinion, fascinating epic fantasy series around at the moment is Steven Erikson's Tales of the Malazan Book of the Fallen. It is nearing completion with the tenth and final book in this sequence, The Crippled God, expected later this year. Erikson did not create the Malazan world alone however, his co-creator Ian C. Esslemont has published two books in his own series of novels of the Malazan Empire. Observant readers of Erikson's work will notice he leaves some events largely uncovered, scenes that Esslemont is expected to fill in with is six book series. Night of Knives, which appeared in a 2004 limited edition from PS publishing, is the first of these. Esslemont's third book, Stonewielder is (tentatively) expected in November.

The novel is set during one seemingly endless, blood-soaked night in Malaz City. Once every few decades a Shadow Moon rises over the city. A time when the boundaries between realms fade and danger lurks around every street corner. The locals know better than to be caught outside during this night but for some it is a rare opportunity. The girl Kiska, too young to have witnessed the previous Shadow Moon feels great things are about to happen. Kiska's business is information and she is determined to find out what is going on. It may be her much desired ticked of Malaz island, a place that has turned into something of a backwater since the capital of the empire was moved to Unta.

Not everybody is eager to observe what is going on. Temper, once a respected soldier in the service of Dassem Ultor, sword of the empire and one of the greatest warriors of his age, has settled in Malaz City playing the role of an old soldier who never made rank. He is not eager for people to find out about his past and is determined to hide in the bottle during this dangerous night. That however, is not quite what's in store for him. Over the heads of people like Kiska and Temper, the greats of the empire fight for control of thrones. Not just that of the empire, but control over an entire warren as well.

In some ways Night of Knives is quite a change for readers who are used to Erikson's sprawling tales. One night, less than three hundred pages but, and this is typical for all Malazan books, lots of things happening all at once. I read this book for the first time three years ago, after reading the first six of Erikson's books. At the time I was not all that impressed. Chronologically it is set between the prologue and the main body of Gardens of the Moon and it describes events that are important enough to Erikson's (part of the) story that he has more or less given away what has happened by the time Night of Knives was published. It is not a good introduction to the main series however. The Malazan books are notorious for throwing the reader right into the action without much in the way of explanations and back story. Night of Knives pretty much does the same thing.

We see the events through the eyes of two small players in the drama. Without some of the background provided in Erikson's books, the larger battle will mostly be lost to the reader. The significance of the actions of Kellanved and Surly to the overall series goes far beyond what can be gleaned from this novel. People who have read this series more exhaustively than I have, feel that it should be read between Midnight Tides and The Bonehunters, in particular because of the flashbacks to Dassem's final campaign and the events at Y'Ghatan which are important to the plot of book six. I think you should not read it until you've at the very least read Gardens of the Moon and it would certainly not be a bad thing if you have read a few more of Erikson's books.

I guess that on this reread I am still not terribly impressed. Kiska's point of view is downright annoying at times. She is quite ignorant of what is happening outside Malaz City, which in itself is not a bad thing but at no point in the novel does she truly realize that what is happening is way out of her league. Her stubborn attempts to get in on the action give her character all the maturity of a seven year old. Temper's parts are a little more enjoyable, Esslemont carefully reveals his past over the course of the novel, in the process revealing a bit of Malazan history Erikson didn't touch upon. Both Erikson and Esslemont seem to have a thing for ageing soldiers. It was one of the stronger aspects in my opinion.

The author is obviously intimately familiar with the world of Malaz. His rendering of Malaz City fits the larger series wonderfully even if Esslemont's prose is not yet as confident as Erikson's. In his second novel, Return of the Crimson Guard, we'll see Esslemont attempt a more epic approach and get much better results. In the end I guess this novel suffers from the things it's not. It's not a good introduction to the series, nor does it deliver the revelations a more seasoned Malazan fan might be hoping for. It fills in an interesting piece of Malazan history but adds only detail to the reader's knowledge. For the real Malazan fan this book in no punishment to read, I think I liked it a bit better on the second read, but the world of Malaz, whether it be written by Erikson or Esslemont, has much better books to offer than Night of Knives.

Book Details
Title: Night of Knives
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 284
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-593-05781-0
First published: 2004

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Owl Killers - Karen Maitland

The medieval period in Europe serves as an inspiration to many a fantasy novel. Apparently there is something very appealing to imagining oneself living in such an environment, so much so that our perception of the period has become more than a bit romanticized. In sharp contrast, history books tell us just how miserable and brutal life could be for a large part of the population. Historical fiction does not entirely escape the romanticizing of this period but quite a few novels attempt to paint a more realistic picture. Like Maitland's previous book Company of Liars, The Owl Killers does not shy away form the harshness of life. Hunger, disease, natural disasters, oppressive taxation and unbridled religious madness, very little is spared the 14th century village the book depicts. It makes The Owl Killers in a very dark book. Fear is a main ingredient an the author makes sure the reader knows it.

The Owl Killers is set in the year 1321 in the fictious village of Ulewic, located somewhere near Norwich. The church and a minor noble rule the village but below the surface old superstitions linger. Besides being caught between these two pillars of medieval life, the mysterious Owl Masters terrorize the village with their harsh brand of justice. Their presence appears to be a remnant from pre-Christian times, going back to pagan gods like Anu and Cernunnos. The cult has been slowly fading away since a last outburst a century ago. Their Aodh is not content to let this happen, he means to force the village to return to the old ways.

A recent development plays right into his hand. A group of Flemish Beguines, a recently established lay-religious order has acquired land near the village and built a beguinage. Their community appears to be thriving despite the difficult times. Hunger and disease seem to pass them by, raising suspicious of witchcraft. The actions of their stern, rather stubborn and sharp-tongued leader, a woman known as Servant Martha, doesn't do much to increase their popularity in the village. When she takes in a villager cast out of the community because he developed leprosy, a head-on collision with the local community seems inevitable.

Part of the inspiration for this novel comes from the author's interest in the Beguine movement, a lay-order that was mostly active in the Low Countries, Germany and France from the thirteenth century on. They never seem to have established themselves in England, although the author mentions in her historical note that there are hints that they did try. It reminded me of one of the major landmarks in the city of Amsterdam, het Begijnenhof. Although I was born in that city I've never actually been there. Considering the events that took place in the low countries during the reformation it is a miracle a community of Beguines survived into the 20th century. A more of less independent community of women, taking care of their own affairs in a time when women generally had little say over their lives. I can see the appeal of such a community.

Life in the Beguine community revolves around religion but the author also stresses the importance of the Catholic church in other parts of the novel. The chapters are named after the day they depict and these are referred to by the name day of a particular saint or martyr or a catholic feast. The reckoning of time and the habits, traditions and customs associated with that day are some of the many historical details of everyday life the author uses to draw the reader into the medieval setting. This focus on the life of ordinary people is also one of the major strength of Company of Liars. Little and not so little acts of faith and superstition drive the story.

Although the church is a dominating force in the community the real fear that permeates the book is caused by the Owlman. A demon summoned by the Owl Masters that has not been seen for over a century. This supernatural force plays an important part in the eventual conclusion to the novel and is also the reason why I didn't particularly like the ending. As one of the characters says in the final chapters, people create their own gods and demons. Given the minor presence of the demon early on in the book, and the horrific acts the people themselves are clearly capable of, the story doesn't need this symbol of fear and superstition to take a physical form. The author makes it quite clear what the power of faith can do to people and it is more than enough to drive the story.

As with Maitland's previous book I loved the historical component of the story, the well researched look into everyday life, the details on taxation by the church and landowners and the speculation about what might have happened to an attempt by the Beguine movement to gain a foothold in England in particular. The supernatural element is the book is used in a bit too literal a fashion I suppose. Do we really need a flesh and blood monster to create a sense of dread in a time that gave rise to some of the strangest cults and where the most absurd acts of faith (I really don't have another word for starving yourself to death to get closer to god) were accepted as truly pious? The Owl Killers could have been a great examination to one of the darker sides of the human psyche but in the final chapters the balance tips to the unbelievable. It was a very interesting read but also something of a missed opportunity.

Book Details
Title: The Owl Killers
Author: Karen Maitland
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 563
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-141-03189-7
First published: 2009

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Second Fantasy Realm Review

A while ago the Dutch-language website Fantasy Realm asked me to review a book for them by author Dick Marco Stedehouder. I wasn't all that impressed with the book but I must have done something right reviewing it because last week a review copy of Mando Vidé en het Robotbevrijdingsfront by Django Mathijsen landed on the doormat. As you will have guessed from the title, Mathijsen is another local talent. His book is published by Books of Fantasy, a small publisher seeking out original Dutch-language Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror. Not too long ago I reviewed another of their books: Vuurproef by Bianca Mastenbroek (this review is in English).

Books of Fantasy seems to have spotted another talented author, I quite liked Mathijsen's first novel. I think he could have shown off his knowledge of robotics a bit more but despite that he delivered a very exciting, fast paced techno-thriller. A full review of Mando Vidé en het Robotbevrijdingsfront can be found here. The review is in Dutch I'm afraid but should you be interested, Google translate doesn't entirely butcher it beyond recognition ;)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Shine - Jetse de Vries

Shine is a collection of near-future, optimistic SF stories, of which there are too few according to the editor. And indeed, as de Vries suggests in his introduction, I would be hard pressed to come up with a list of positive near-future works. I guess one of the few science fiction authors who seems to have a consistently positive view on the future is Kim Stanley Robinson. Personally, I am not all that optimistic and that basically has to do with my education. I studied environmental science for eight years and while it is a fascinating field, it also has the side effect of showing you in just how many ways we are sending this world to hell in a handbasket. It teaches you to see the signs in your own local environment, it teaches you how easy it is to not really solve an environmental problem but shift is somewhere else and it teaches you how our current economic system suffers from the delusion that a habitable environment is for free. One only needs to look at the rather pathetic attempt to reach an agreement on saving what is left of the Blue Fin Tuna stock in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic last month to see what rapid strides we are making to a more sustainable world.

No, I am by no means optimistic about the (near) future but that doesn't mean people aren't trying or that there is no way we are going to avoid one of those apocalypses the genre is so fond of. De Vries has taken on quite a challenge to find stories that meet his criteria on content and quality. He describes his efforts as editor as evil in several places in the collection and if he indeed shares the directness the Dutch seem to prefer it would be a miracle if not at least some of the authors in this collection agreed with that. It has resulted in a good and pretty diverse collection of stories though, I guess de Vries should be evil some more.

Shine contains sixteen pieces of short fiction, I am going to mention a couple that made the biggest impact. The opening story, The Earth of Yunhe by Eric Gregory is a strong one. It's one of the stories with an environmental theme. Not all of them do, the introduction is about my particular bias, not that of the authors or editors. Gregory weaves a very interesting tale of a displaced people, conflict within a family and nanotechnology. What I particularly liked about this story is the way the author manges to capture such a complex theme as the conflicts arising within a community of displaced people in one family. Do you resign yourself to finding your place in your new environment or try to reclaim what was lost? And what if technology allows you to reclaim but politics won't?

A second story I want to mention is Twittering the Stars by Mari Ness. De Vries is apparently a big fan Twitter. He mentions the medium a number of times in the introductions to the various stories. I'm not a great fan my self, I will sacrifice knowing things now to knowing them in a bit more detail at a time of my own choosing but you can't deny it's popularity. Ness wrote a story that is completely conveyed in the form of Tweets and starts with the newest message at the top. The story is that of a space ship returning to earth after visiting the asteroid belt. Clearly something has going wrong en route and we gradually work our way back to the point where we find out what. This story can be read in the reverse order as well and that makes it pretty unusual. It's a very interesting and quite succesfull experiment in using such a new medium for literary purposes.

We get more information technology in Scheherazade Cast in Starlight by Jason Andrew. A brief account of how blogging leads to a political change in Iran. It's clearly based on events that took place in that country right after the last elections, where the Internet was instrumental in getting the news about the protests out to the world. This story is more peaceful but only because the main character manages to keep the spotlight on herself. Locking people up or killing them is still a fairly effective way of silencing a dissident. It made me wonder if authoritarian regimes are rethinking their methods of suppressing opposition. Is the Internet really going to help spread democracy?

In Russian Roulette 2020 by Eva Maria Chapman we get to see the downside of all that instant access. People are consumed by the present, constantly in touch and responding to what is happening elsewhere. A group of American technology addicts encounters a Russian school where they live and teach according to a different philosophy. The group does not shun technology but clearly thinks a connection with the land and your community is equally important. It's one of the more spiritual stories in the collection. What I particularly liked about it, is that the contrast the author is trying to create between the two groups does not result in one of them completely ignoring the possibilities of technology. It's about balance. Technology has it's uses as both groups will find out in the story.

The last story I want to mention is Kay Kenyon's Castoff World. The story is about Child and her Grappa floating around on a barge originally intended to clean up the Ocean of pollutants like plastics. The barge has long since lost contact with the people who designed and ran it and it is now floating freely on a dangerous ocean, collecting ever more rubbish. We see the story from Child's perspective. It's a very touching story, I particularly liked the subtle presence of artificial intelligence. Beautifully written. This one is probably my favourite in the entire collection.

I wonder if de Vries knew what he was getting into with this project. It's not as if others hadn't tried before and it is certainly a lot easier to let a negative view of the future get the best of you. The stories in this anthology don't always depict shiny, bright futures but to do all posses a sense of profound positive change, ranging from a very personal level to things that will shift the balance in a nation or even worldwide. The diversity of the stories and the consistently high quality of this collection is testament to his passion for this project. Where some themed anthologies struggle to collect enough stories that fit the scope of the anthology well enough, Shine manages to make one statement out this diversity. It does not propose solutions to the world's problems but it does offer hope that we'll be able to climb out on that handbasket after all. A shining example of what positive thinking can achieve.

Book Details
Title: Shine
Editor: Jetse de Vries
Publisher: Solaris
Pages: 453
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-906735-66-1
First published: 2010

Monday, April 5, 2010

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days - Alastair Reynolds

I read Revelation Space, the first novel in what has become known as the Revelation Space universe in June 2008 and have been steadily working my way through Reynold's work since. The author had me hooked. Last week I read the last two novellas in this setting that were still on the to read list. These multi-volume projects take me a while but I get there eventually. This is most likely not the end of the journey. There is one more story in this setting I haven't read, it has not been included in one of Reynolds' collections yet, and there are plans for more Revelation Space stories. For now it looks like his current project, a trilogy that will cover humanity's development over the next eleven thousand years, will keep him busy for a while yet. Time to check out some of Reynolds' other works.

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days contains two novella length pieces of which you will have guessed the titles by now. The two are set in the same universe but otherwise not connected. There is one minor reference to Diamond Dogs in Turquoise Days but they can be read independently and without any knowledge of the novels. Diamond Dogs, the first of the two was originally published in 2001, the year Reynold's second Revelation Space novel Chasm City was released. Turquoise days was first published a year later.

I thought Diamond Dogs the stronger of the two novellas. It had me captivated from the opening line.
I met Childe in the monument to the Eighty.
At first glance not a remarkable bit of prose. It does contain two clues to the rest of the story though. Childe is a reference to the epic poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came by Robert Browning, one of the few pieces of English Romantic poetry I have read and only because it was published in the back of the last book of Stephen King's Dark Tower series. The second is a reference to one of the experiments in digitalizing human consciousness that has gone horribly wrong. So do we get a gunslinger in space then? No, not exactly. We do get a tower and a fair bit of obsessive behaviour though.

Richard Swift is contacted by a former friend he thought long dead. Childe has recently reappeared in the system and is quietly rounding up a group of people with very specific talents to study an alien artefact on a remote planet. The tower is clearly artificial, perhaps even alive and it offers access to the higher levels only if the person entering it first solves a riddle. These puzzles get progressively harder and the punishment for failure gets progressively more severe. The surroundings of the tower are strewn whit the bodies of those who failed. Yet the challenge is undeniable. Childe will get to the top, whatever it takes.

So how far will you go to reach the top of the tower? Technology in the 25th century offers plenty in the way of useful expansions of the human mind and body and it seems Childe's desire to reach the top knows no boundaries. Diamond Dogs is a pretty dark story, science fiction/horror hybrid. I very much enjoyed to way the author deals with the theme of obsession in this story. It's one of the best pieces of short fiction by Reynolds I have read.

Turquoise Days is quite a different story. It is set on Turquoise, a Pattern Juggler world. The planet is mostly covered by a vast ocean containing an alien marine micro-organism that stores and rearranges data. It can record a whole mind of people who swim in the ocean but whether or not they actually are self-conscious or intelligent is a matter of fierce scientific debate. One evening in 2541 a young scientific by the name of Naqi finds out that a Lighthugger is approaching their normally isolated system. She does not know if the two events are related but the Pattern Jugglers seem to respond to this imminent arrival. It's the opportunity of a life-time. Her sister and colleague insists they take a swim and find out what is going on, even if they are not qualified to do so. Naqi's sister drowns, an event proving to be a turning point in her scientific career.

The Pattern Jugglers are mentioned a number of times in the series but in the novels there is rarely reason to look at them as closely as Reynolds does in Turquoise Days. There are a number of other instances where Reynolds uses his short fiction to explore events of factions referenced in the novels. I must admit that it took a while for this novella to grow on me but once the Ultras arrive the story gets going. Although it has a very exciting finale, this novella did not quite touch me as much as Diamond Dogs did. Maybe the relatively long description of the final days of Naqi's sister unbalanced the story just a bit. It is still a very good story but it suffers slightly from being compared to the excellent Diamond Dogs I guess.

Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days offers two great novellas that can be read as a fine example of short form science fiction or as pieces that deepen the reader's understanding of the Revelation Space universe. However you choose to look that them, these novellas are very much worth reading. I think I liked this volume even better than Galactic North, which collects most of the remaining Revelation Space short fiction. If I haven't convinced you to try Reynolds by now you're hopeless. Go read some!

Book Details
Title: Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 231
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07516-0
First published: 2003

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Company of Liars - Karen Maitland

Again it doesn't look like I will manage a second review this week. I'm about halfway through Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days by Alastair Reynolds at the moment. I may even finish tonight but even if I do, I won't have time to write the review until Monday. So I dug up an older review again. I intend to read The Owl Killers, mentioned in this review sometime in April. Mind you, the two books are not a series of any kind. I edited this version slightly to weed out the most annoying errors in the original.

It’s been a while since I read any historical fiction. I don’t usually read a lot of it but once in a while the mood grabs me as it did last week. So I picked up a copy of Company of Liars: A Novel of the Plague, a historical mystery by Karen Maitland. As the title suggests it is set during the time of the Great Plague that swept across Europe between 1347 and 1351. I was a bit hesitant to pick it up, there are scores of books on this topic and I have read a number of them already. Despite the subtitle the plague is not one of the main ingredients of the book. Most of it is focussed on the group dynamic in the company. The book has been compared to The Canterbury Tales. Personally it reminded me more of And Then There Were None.

On Midsummer’s day 1348 in a town in the south of England we meet the narrator of the story. He is a Camelot, a man in the business of selling news and articles of dubious origin. Our Camelot mostly sells amulets and relics. He sees it as selling hope himself but nothing of what he sells is genuine of course. Rumours of the plague that has swept across Europe have reached England. Now it seems this punishment of God is headed in their direction too. After witnessing one of the first victims fall to the plague he decides it is time to be on the road again.

He is not the only one, through various meetings and coincidences a company forms around the Camelot. A musician and his apprentice, a conjurer, a midwife, a story-teller, a young couple on the run expecting their first child and a mysterious, rune-casting girl join him. Steadily making their way north and east the company tries to outrun the plague until winter’s chill will end it. Each of the company carries their own secrets and none seem willing to share. However, shared hardships form bonds in this unlikely company and bit by bit the stories of the various characters become clear. So it goes until the company reaches a number of nine and the rune-casting girl pronounces the company complete. Around Christmas the young couple’s child is born and adds tenth member to the company. This is when the deaths start.

As I mentioned in the introduction the plague sets the stage but other than that it is not that important in the books. The author does not feel the need to go into great detail on the horror of the plague. She mentions the effects of course, we get to see bits and pieces as the company travels, but mostly they try to avoid it, and they are reasonably successful in that. The company's main concern is how to survive on their meagre resources in a country where crops are failing and people are not selling what little they do have. Tensions within the company flare often but striking out on their own may be death sentence to any who try.

In the mean time the reader is mostly occupied with trying to puzzle out who is hiding what. As the title suggests all the company's members are liars. They are hiding things from the others and from themselves sometimes. Most of them have done things they are not proud of in the past. One by one their secrets are revealed, usually with painful consequences. It could have made an interesting puzzle but the author makes sure to drop hints well in advance of revealing the secrets. Not all of them are equally subtle so in some cases the reader gets plenty of warning.

The author adds quite a bit of historical detail to the story. Not in the way of who rules what or which major historical development is taking places, but things you’d come across in the every day life of the characters. Everything from customs in the villages they pass though to the religious details that governed society. One thing that struck me in particular are the descriptions of the road fare the company lives on. Medieval cuisine for ordinary people was not known for it’s finesse. A lot of it consists of sticking everything they can gather or kill into a pot and boiling it until they are reasonably sure it is dead. Quite palatable when you are on the brink of starvation no doubt. These details of medieval cooking are used very effectively by the author. The Camelot’s way of recounting it as nothing out of the ordinary makes the reader feel immersed in medieval times.

My feelings on Company of Liars are mixed. I thought the historical component of the book was very well done. The focus of the lives of characters you won’t find in the history books works very well for me. The mystery part of the book falls flat though, especially near the end. I don’t want to give away the ending of the book in this review but the author seems to have no such inhibition. For me the shape of the story was quite clear well before reaching the climax of the book. It didn’t help that the end is quite bitter either. It does leave us with the interesting question of how much of the story is true. The narrator after all, is a liar. So not a complete success but the writing is good, the book intriguing, I would not be at all surprised if Maitland goes on to write some very good historical mysteries. Despite it’s flaws I will most likely be temped to pick up her next book The Owl Killers, scheduled for US release in September 2009.

Book Details
Title: Company of Liars
Author: Karen Maitland
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 559
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-141-03833-9
First published: 2008