Saturday, February 26, 2011

Tongues of Serpents - Naomi Novik

Tongue of Serpents is the sixth book in Naomi Novik's successful Temeraire series. I understand Novik means to write three more, ending the series with the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Novik's mix of dragons and history proved addictive for many readers but I must admit that I felt the series was running out of steam after reading the fifth book, Victory of Eagles. Given my reaction to the last book in the series I wasn't sure if I wanted to read the next novel as well. I did so anyway last week, my to read stack currently consists of a lot of pretty heavy reading and once in a while I am in the mood for something lighter. Unfortunately, this book turned out to be the weakest in the series so far.

After Laurence's antics during the French invasion of England, he manages to escape the death penalty for high-treason, more in particular, for delivering the cure to the mysterious disease that struck the British dragons to France thereby prevent more dragons dying of the illness. Instead being hanged, Laurence and Temeraire, carrying three dragon eggs, are sent to the recently founded colony in Australia to start a new covert. Laurence is less than pleased to be so far away from the war against Napoleon and to make matters worse, the colony is not in a particularly good shape.

Rebellion wrecked the colony recently and the governor appointed by the Crown, William Bligh, has been deposed. He refused to return to England however, biding his time on Van Diemen's Land. With the arrival of Laurence and Temeraire, accompanied by a good number of marines, he sees a chance to return to power. Something that will make Laurence's stay in Australia thoroughly unpleasant. Matters become even worse when one of the dragon eggs disappears during a scouting expedition in the Blue Mountains.

Novik did not make things easy on herself, sending her heroes of to the one part of the planet that is furthest away from the action at the time. The colony at Botany Bay was founded in 1788 and some two decades later it is still not much to look at. It is still mostly a penal colony. Novik uses the Rum Rebellion of 1808 as a background for the story. It takes place some time before Laurence arrives in 1809 but because of the long lines of communication word has not reached England yet. I read an account of this event some years back in The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes. It's an interesting piece of Australian history but it is mostly background for Novik's story and from what I remember of that book, Novik doesn't stay all that close to actual history. The rather superficial treatment the Australian continent and some of the more notable historical characters receive in this novel surprised me a bit. Other parts of the series use much more accurate historical detail.

Most of the novel is actually taken up by Laurence and Temeraire chasing after the stolen dragon egg through the interior of Australia. We pass by Lake Eyre and Ayers Rock, before heading north in the direction of where today the city of Darwin is located. This trip seals Laurence off from events in the wider world even more. One would expect Novik to pay a little more attention to the Aboriginal cultures that Laurence must have undoubtedly passed on this trip but they are mostly absent in the book. To provide some tension in the story Novik introduces a Chinese attempt to set up a trading post in Australia. The geopolitical significance of this move is not lost on Laurence but being the adopted son of the emperor, it does put him in a difficult position.

The whole plot feels very forced, Novik has to introduce some unlikely developments into the story to keep the story arc somewhat interesting. While she succeeds in this to some extend, the overall plot of the series doesn't seem to move forward one bit. When Laurence returns from this inland trip, he is no closer to returning to the struggle with the French than he is at the beginning of the novel. Since Napoleon is unlikely to invade Australia in the next book, Novik still has to come up with something plausible to get Laurence and Temeraire out of there. I wouldn't be surprised if they ended up somewhere in the New World from the hints the author drops but I guess we'll have to read and find out.

Tongue of Serpents is not a long novel but even if we take that into account, Novik achieves very little in that space except expose the reader to yet another hard and long journey. I'm not easily bored when reading, even if the book is not 'fast-paced' by today's standards but I do feel I have just read a whole lot of filler and very little substance. Novik does not even come close to the standard she set in the first novel in this series, His Majesty's Dragon. Given the problems with previous novels I had not really expected a book as good as that but Novik disappointed me nonetheless. It's a lacklustre effort by an author who has shown she can do much better. Hopefully she can recover from this low in the next volume.

Book Details
Title: Tongues of Serpents
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 274
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-345-49689-8
First published: 2010

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Pink Noise: A Post-Human Tale - Leonid Korogodski

A couple of weeks ago I came across a link to the site of Leonid Korogodski, where he offered his novellas Pink Noise: A Post-Human Tale for free download. It looked like an interesting text and I have to say, it turned out to be quite a challenging read. The novella was published in August 2010 but Silverberry Press, a company I haven't come across before. A quick Google search shows the top hit on that name to be Korogodski's own site (some very cool web design there by the way) but a publisher website doesn't show up in the top twenty. In fact, Pink Noise may well be the only book published by this company. Which made me wonder about the fate of this publisher and if it has anything to do with Leonid Korogodski offering the digital version for free.

The story is set in the far future. Mankind has long ago learnt to transfer their consciousness into a digital format, offering potential immortality to those who can afford it. Nathi is a post-human, one of those people who have left their body behind. At the opening of the story he is centuries old. Nathi is a very gifted ... I suppose you could call him a brain surgeon. He's working on the brain of a thirteen year old girl who suffered such a severe trauma than she is in deep coma. Nathi is unable to upload her consciousness because of the extensive damage to the thalamus. When trying to restore the girl's thalamus Nathi finds something entirely unexpected buried in her brain. Something that forces him to consider the universe beyond this most challenging project.

The actual story is only about a hundred pages long but Korogodski has stuffed an impressive amount of cultural and scientific themes into it. It feels like a piece that has been rewritten to perfection by the author. I guess you could say it is hard science fiction, not entirely surprising from a man with a Ph.D in mathematics. There's quite a lot of science in the text but it is not the sort one frequently finds in science fiction novels. In fact, I didn't really appreciated how much until I'd read the appendix, which delves into the scientific concepts behind the novella. The appendix and glossary is about half as long as the actual story and I must admit it is fascinating reading.

Korogodski writes about a universe where plasma cosmology is the paradigm and technology includes ways of transportation based on it's predictions. It is not favoured by many cosmologists but I have to say Korogodski makes an intuitively good case for it. His challenge to relying on dark matter to explain certain cosmological phenomena using Occam's razor is very interesting. Of course, Occam's razor has been applied to a number of scientific debates in ways that were actually counter productive, favouring the theory that turned out to be incorrect in the end. If I actually understood more of the science behind Korogodski's reasoning, I probably wouldn't it conclusive evidence. Still, it makes for a very interesting premise of the story. I like the way he's developed it into fantastic space ships and methods of power generation he describes in his novella.

A second part of the glossary is devoted to the workings of the brain and parallels with certain evolutionary principles. Right at the opening of the story Nathi points out the vast difference between the brain and man-made digital systems. Comparing the brain to a computer is only very superficially useful to Nathi and he is aware of a loss when a consciousness is transferred to digital formats. The theory of why this might be so is again fascinating reading. There is no way in hell I would have caught up on all of that without reading the appendix.

Besides exploring that workings of our own brain, a universe in it's own right, Korogodski tells a story that is set on the scale of the solar system. Quite a lot of the story is set on Mars, where the body of the girl is being treated. Mars was colonized by peoples from what we'd consider developing nations at the moment. Nathi himself is of Zulu descent and this features quite prominently in the novella. Part of the glossary is dedicated to explaining some of the Zulu vocabulary in the book. The whole text has a bit of a futuristic, dreamlike atmosphere to it, which provides a nice contrast with the hard science. When Nathi is not busy exploring the girl's brain and his attention is focussed outward, he sees the world almost as a fairy tale. This is reinforced by the imagery used to describe Nathi's discovery in the girl's brain and his decision to go on a rescue mission.

The author puts quite a lot of material in a relatively short text. Pink Noise: A Post-Human Tale is deceptively densely written and I ended up rereading certain passages after completing the appendix. Although Korogodski sets a brisk pace, parts of the story could be called action-packed, it is definitely a work that requires some time to read and digest. It is quite an impressive début, one of the most interesting science fiction stories I've read in a while. It is prime food for thought, a novella that'll stay with you for quite a while after you're done reading it.

Book Details
Title: Pink Noise: A Post-Human Tale
Author: Leonid Korogodski
Publisher: Silverberry Press
Pages: 161
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-0-9843608-0-2
First published: 2010

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Sir Dominic Flandry - Poul Anderson

Sir Dominic Flandry: The Last Knight of Terra is the sixth part in Baen's project to publish all of Poul Anderson's works in the Technic Civilization universe in chronological order. We're nearing the end of Anderson's future history. The seventh and final volume, Flandry's Legacy, is expected in April. This edition is again marred by some truly horrific cover art. I have a hard time deciding which of the volumes with Flandry in the title has the worst cover. I guess Baen is trying to emphasize the James Bond is space image of Flandry but it could have been done a bit more tastefully. Can you see yourself reading this one the train getting home from work? I'm going to have to keep this cover carefully hidden from visitors. Lets get back to the actual content. This volume contains three full length novels as well as well as a short story. The most interesting piece was the last novel in the collection, A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows.

The collection opens with A Plague of Masters, which fist appeared in Fantastic in 1960 and 1961. On the way back from a successfully completed assignment Flandry notices the isolated planet of Unan Besar that, depending on how you interpret the border, may or may not be part of the Empire. This kind of isolation strikes Flandry as odd. He decides to investigate and uncovers a society in which a small group of people hold the entire population hostage. Flandry himself also seems to have made himself dependent on their hospitality.

The concept of this story is quite intriguing, a component of the planet's ecology being toxic to humans and killing them in a matter of weeks if they do not take a medicine produced by the ruling class. Lest they forget, withholding the treatment is occasionally used as a way to publicly execute criminals. Anderson shows how the ruling class benefits from isolation and how a static society evolves on Unan Besar. Flandry's actions still follow the same mold that Anderson uses in most fo the other Flandry stories though. Flandry spots a problem, gets himself in a terrible mess, figures out a way to defeat impossible odds and rides off into the sunset with the girl. Still, I enjoyed this one more than some other Flandry stories.

The second full novel in Sir Dominic Flandry is Hunters of the Sky Cave (1959), in which our hero is once again pitted against his arch-nemesis Archaraych. On the fringes of the empire, out in the wild, uncontrolled galaxy, countless planets harbouring warlike sophonts have gained access to faster than light technology and massively destructive weapons. One such people is laying siege to the Terran colony of Vixen, only this time, they seem to come from within the empire's borders. Which raises the question who supplied them with the necessary technology? The gas giant dwelling Ymirites are the prime suspect but after a meeting with Mersiean spy Archaraych, Flandry suspects a deeper game.

It's another well-plotted but not terribly surprising novel. It builds one one of the elements that shows up frequently in Anderson's works, namely that conflict between sapient species only arises if they are after the same "real estate", planets with conditions suitable for colonization. It is this string that Flandry yanks to unravel the whole tangle of misdirection, deceit and lies. Once again Flandry saves the Empire from a costly defeat.

The Warriors from Nowhere is the only short story in the collection. It was originally published in 1954 but the revised 1980 version was used for Sir Dominic Flandry. During a raid on one of the Terran colonies at the fringe of the empire, the favourite grand-daughter of the emperor is taken to be sold as a slave. Flandry is sent after the raiders to recover her. The 1980 version isn't all that good, I suspect the original version was quite pulpish indeed. Flandry does live up to his reputation in this one.

The final novel of this volume is A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows, which first appeared serialized form in 1974. It was written much later than most of the Flandry novels and stories and it shows in the writing. Although Flandry doesn't shake his James Bond aura entirely, he's not quite the same in this novel either. The empire is in a dreadful state after the death of emperor Josip. After years of civil war it becomes apparent that Hans will take over. He still has much work to do before the empire is stable again however. One such task lies on Dennitza, where the seeds of rebellion are about the sprout in a full blown civil war. A semi-retired Flandry is coaxed back into active duty to meet the threat. He leaves in the company of a slave girl, condemned to slavery for treason on Dennitza.

We get to see a side of Flandry Anderson didn't expose until now. At this point in the overall story is he is a middle-aged man and lost his drive for more adventure on behalf of the empire a bit. This new mission he is sent on certainly revives some of that. I guess it is in part Flandry's On Her Majesty's Secret Service. He finally meets a woman he would want to spend the rest of his life with. This part of the plot ends in predictable tragedy of course. The novel also features the final showdown between Archaraych and Flandry, a part of the novel I was more interested in. One other interesting plot line is provided by Flandry's illegitimate son. You'd think birth control would be a simple matter in the thirty-first century but apparently Flandry has quite a few children. Using these elements Anderson provides us with a plot that is more multi-layered than other Flandry novels. It adds to his up to this point rather one dimensional character. Definitely the best part of this volume.

I must admit that reading Captain Flandry, I had begun to tire of this character. Anderson does use the same basic plot for many of these stories and indeed, this volume contains mostly more of the same. The last novel contained in Sir Dominic Flandry has given me hope that the last volume may contain some more interesting work though. There are two more Flandry novels to go in the next volume, both of them written later in Anderson's career. I seem to like the ones Anderson wrote later in life a lot more than the early stuff. Let see how Anderson takes us into the Long Night and beyond in Flandry's Legacy.

Book Details
Title: Sir Dominic Flandry: The Last Knight of Terra
Author: Poul Anderson
Publisher: Baen
Pages: 432
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-4391-3401-6
First published: 2010

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Stories of Your Life and Others - Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang is an author who clearly puts quality over quantity. Since the publication of his first story, Tower of Babylon, in 1990 only eleven more of his stories have been published, none exceeding novella length. Stories of Your Life and Others contains all of his output between 1990 and 2002, when the original version of the collection was published by Tor. Chiang was not happy with the way Tor treated his work however. He felt he was rushed on the final story in the collection, a previously unpublished piece called Liking What You See: A Documentary and didn't like the cover art. I don't particularly dislike the original cover but I must admit the cover of the Small Beer Press edition, which Chiang commissioned himself, is a fine piece of art. The collection is packed with award-winning material. The eight stories won an incredible three Nebula's, a Hugo, a Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, a Sidewise Award and Locus Award. The collection itself won a Locus as well. People must really like his work and I happen to agree with them.

Warning: I am not holding back on spoilers of this one.

The collection opens with Towers of Babylon (1990) is a retelling of the biblical tale included in the Book of Genesis. For generations people have been trying to get literally closer to God by building a tower that will reach heaven. Chiang examines this story from the point of view of the men who are hired to break through the vault of heaven. Chiang describes the final stages in constructing this miracle of engineering. It's a tale that could be as easily called fantastic as science fiction and one of a number of stories that have a religious theme to them. It reminded me most of the Exhalation (2007), a story not included in this collection, for it's mechanical world view. The end is not entirely unexpected, the reason why I think it is one of the lesser stories in the collection, but it is still a well-written and interesting tale.

Understand (1991) is the second story of the collection (it can be read online here). The main character is undergoing experimental treatment for severe brain trauma. The new drug restores his brain but it doesn't stop at just repairing damage. A noticeable increase in his intelligence is the result. So what if he took another dose? Chang sets himself a real challenge here. The main character's intelligence reaches frightening heights as the story progresses. He does a marvellous job of keeping it understandable to for the reader anyway. What struck me most about this story is the tragic ending. The way the eventual confrontation between two hyper-intelligent people plays out and their ultimate conclusion that their goals are not compatible are certainly food for thought. Each of them so confident in their abilities and the unshakable foundations of their insight that neither is willing to give way. Meeting someone who truly understands their insights is not a humbling or inspiring experience but a challenge and a threat. Did their experiences hiding from the authorities induce this mistrust? Would leaving them a choice besides running have lead to a different outcome?

The collection moves on to Division by Zero (1991), a story about mathematics and suicide (among other things). This story is also available online. What if you worked all your life as a mathematician, only to find out that it is possible to prove that any number is equal to any other number, or to put it in other words that arithmetic itself is inconsistent. Shit! Chiang describes the psychological effect the discovery has on mathematician Renee. He partly shows it to us form the perspective of her husband Carl. Someone to keep an eye on in this story. It is not as obvious as with Renee but there is a profound change taking place in his character. One of the things I particularly like about this story is the way Chiang switches between often quite emotionally charged scenes with Renee and Carl and short bit of text that show us how much trouble division by zero can be in mathematics and what it takes to find a proof of something as intuitively obvious as 1+1=2.

The fourth story in the collection is the one that gave it its name. Story of Your Life (1998) is probably the strongest piece in the collection. Chiang does so many interesting things with this 50 page text that I don't even know where to begin. At first glance it appears to be a first contact story. An alien race referred to as Heptapods land in various locations on earth. While the earth is holding its breath, The aliens seem happy just to wait and observe. That is not in humanity's nature however. Quickly scientists are summoned to try and communicate with them. One of them is linguist Louise Banks. Together with physicist Gary Donnely she tries to figure out a way to communicate with the Heptapods.

Linguistics is at the heart of the story. If it was the spoken language she was trying to learn, I'd say that what happens to Louise is an extreme version of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, the idea that language affects the way people think. The Heptapods' language takes a more holistic approach than we're used to. Instead of cause and effect they perceive an action as a whole and as a consequence know both the initial condition and outcome before it is initiated. Chiang slowly develops this idea over the course of the story until the full impact of what Louise has learnt hits the reader. When it does, a second layer of the story, the sections written to her daughter in the future tense, fall into place. She knows and yet is willing to initiate the action. Would you be willing to go through with it, knowing so much heartache lay ahead? This story is a marvel of pacing. One of the best pieces of short fiction I have ever read.

Seventy-Two Letters, the fifth story (it can be read here) in the collection is quite a different piece. It has an steampunkish atmosphere to it. The story is set in Victorian London where kabbalism and strange science are practised and where the true name of objects can animate them to an extent. I didn't think it was the most exciting story in the collection but I loved the way Chiang works in some of the prejudice of those days into the story as well as the references to the Luddites and to the belief that a sperm contained a fully formed human. The author picked some strange elements to build this particular tale.

Chaing, to date, has published two of his short stories in Nature. This collection contains one of them: The Evolution of Human Science. The premise of this story is somewhat disturbing. He imagines a future in which humanity has been intellectually outpaced by meta-humans. It has been decades since a human has been able to contribute any original research. It's a very short work, four pages, and I am not quite sure what to make of it. Perhaps a comment on the development that it takes a lifetime of dedicated study to be able to keep up with even a small sub field in one of the sciences?

Like the opening story, Hell is the Absence of God has a distinct religious theme. Angels visit the earth regularly performing miracles but also killing people in the process. People who can then be seen to either descend to hell or rise to heaven. Hell is not the inferno Dante described but rather a place where the influence of God is completely absent. This not a deterrent for everyone and there are quite a few people are not overly religious. Neil Fisk is one of them but after his wife Sarah is killed in a visitation and ascends to heaven, the only way to be reunited with her is by getting into God's good graces. It's a tragedy really, God doesn't turn out to be a nice guy. But then, Neil is not a model believer either. There are some interesting ideas on God and what hell might be in this story, ideas that could probably provoke a strong reaction in the truly religious. I'm not one of those people however. Although it is a well written story it didn't have quite the impact on me other pieces in this collection have.

The final story is Liking What You See: A Documentary. It is the only one original to this collection and the one Chiang felt he was being rushed on. He even turned down a Hugo nomination for it because it didn't turn out the way he wanted. I have no idea what Chiang would have liked to change about the story but I think it is one of the strongest pieces in this collection. It deals with beauty and people's reaction to it. It has long been known that beautiful people are better liked, more successful, earn higher salaries etc. What if there was a procedure that would shut down this response to a pretty face in brain? What would children growing up being able to see beauty but without the instant reaction to it grow up like?

Liking What You See: A Documentary explores this question in a series of interviews with people who are in some way involved in a vote on a university to make this treatment called calliagnosia mandatory for all students. The thoughts of first year student Tamera Lyons, a girl grown up with calliagnosia, are the backbone of the story. She's curious to find out what the world looks like without part of her brain disconnected but clearly a lot of people see the benefits. The statements of various people involved, are brief and to the point, sketching in a few lines the basic position of the speaker. The statements are political, theological, philosophical or just very personal and the entire story carries an undercurrent of economic interests. The procedure is almost without side-effects, something that seems a bit unlikely to me. It does not suppress sexual attraction between people for instance, or make the patient completely unaware of beauty. I guess it is the author's way of keeping us focussed on the dilemma the treatment causes. Everybody intellectually knows we respond to beauty and that the choices we make because of it are not always wise or fair and that is is responsible for some deep wounds in the psyche of people who don't come close the the ideal. On the other hand, would you really want to go without that? And would you accept someone deciding for you in this matter?

Stories of Your Life and Others contains a number of amazing stories. Chiang has filled this collection with intelligent, multi-layered and thought-provoking stories. The truckload of awards these stories gathered should have been some indication, they can't all be wrong, but it still impressed me mightily. It's a collection any fan of science fiction or short fiction in general ought to read. The stories are polished to perfection by the author. Chiang produces stories to be cherished. I'd be tempted to say I wish he'd write more, but if I look at the gems he produces writing one story every other year or so, I would not care to rush him.

Book Details
Title: Stories of Your Life and Others
Author: Ted Chiang
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Pages: 281
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-193152072-0
First published: 2002

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

In the Mail

Another surprise package in the mail today from the kind folks at Angry Robot. A review copy of City of Hope and Despair by Ian Whates.

From the publisher:
THEY CALL IT THE CITY OF A HUNDRED ROWS. The ancient city of Thaiburley is a vast, multi-tiered metropolis, where the poor live in the City Below, and demons are said to dwell in the Upper Heights. Forced to flee the city, Tom and Kat find themselves pursued through a merciless land… but also find friends and allies in the most unusual places. More fabulous storytelling in a rich fantasy world of adventure, alchemy and magic.
You may have noticed this blog lacking a review of City of Dreams & Nightmare, book 1 in The City of a Hundred Rows. I will remedy that real soon.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Book of Tongues - Gemma Files

Last December publisher ChiZine Publications offered a free e-book for a very limited period of time to everyone who mailed them a new year's wish. Since I needed something to try the new E-reader I got for my birthday, I took them up on it and more or less at random picked A Book of Tongues, book one in the Hexslingers series by Gemma Files. With opportunities such as these, I usually pick something I wouldn't ordinarily select and this horrific western certainly seemed a bit out of my comfort zone. It didn't turn out to be quite as strange as I expected it to be but it was certainly a challenging read for me.

After three tries I still haven't written a decent synopsis and since I am a little short on time this week I caved and used the publisher's:
Two years after the Civil War, Pinkerton agent Ed Morrow has gone undercover with one of the weird West's most dangerous outlaw gangs-the troop led by "Reverend" Asher Rook, ex-Confederate chaplain turned "hexslinger," and his notorious lieutenant (and lover) Chess Pargeter. Morrow's task: get close enough to map the extent of Rook's power, then bring that knowledge back to help Professor Joachim Asbury unlock the secrets of magic itself.

Magicians, cursed by their gift to a solitary and painful existence, have never been more than a footnote in history. But Rook, driven by desperation, has a plan to shatter the natural law that prevents hexes from cooperation, and change the face of the world-a plan sealed by an unholy marriage-oath with the goddess Ixchel, mother of all hanged men. To accomplish this, he must raise her bloodthirsty pantheon from its collective grave through sacrifice, destruction, and apotheosis.

Caught between a passel of dead gods and monsters, hexes galore, Rook's witchery, and the ruthless calculations of his own masters, Morrow's only real hope of survival lies with the man without whom Rook cannot succeed: Chess Pargeter himself. But Morrow and Chess will have to literally ride through Hell before the truth of Chess's fate comes clear-the doom written for him, and the entire world.
Although the novel is set in the American west, during and just after the Civil War, Files adds a lot of elements one wouldn't normally encounter in a Western. Files mixes in a good dose of Maya and Aztec mythology. Some of the darker elements of their pantheon offer great material for a horror novel. The goddess Ixchel drives many of Rook's actions. Theirs is an uncomfortable relationship. Ixchel may be more than a mere magician but when it comes to cooperation, she is just as mistrustful. Force, intimidation and threats are what keeps Rook in line even if it does not erase his own agenda.

The novel is very graphic, both in terms of violence and sex. Chess is someone who radiates sexuality, the reason for which will become apparent towards the end of the book. This intense sexuality results in quite a few descriptions of homosexual acts. I must admit I thought it a bit over the top early on in the book but after finishing the novel I realized it does serve a clear purpose in the story. It is clearly linked to what I consider the strongest point of this novel: the development of the characters.

By nature the relationship between two magicians is always one of one being subjected to the other. There can be on equality, no cooperation and no lasting alliance between two magicians. In the end, the stronger will prevail. We start out with Rook intentionally keeping Chess ignorant of the reason he keeps him around. He, in turn, is subjected to the goddess-magician Ixchel, plotting to return her forgotten religion into a new, sixth, world. As the novel progresses the relationship and power balance between the three shifts dramatically. I very much liked the dynamic of the relationship between these characters.

I initially had some trouble with the style of the novel. The prose and imagery Files employs didn't always appeal to me, which made the early stages of the novel tough going. Once she starts filling in the history of the characters though a number of flashbacks and things start falling into place it became a smoother read though, and I must admit the scenes set in the underworld was a good piece of writing.

All in all I guess I could have done a lot worse with a book picked more or less at random. I don't read a whole lot of horror (or is this fantasy, the line seems to be very blurred these days) so I don't know how this would go down with more the more dedicated readers of the genre. I like it well enough to keep an eye out for the second part.

Book Details
Title: A Book of Tongues
Author: Gemma Files
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Pages: 259
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-0981297866 (trade paperback)
First published: 2010

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Fires of Heaven - Robert Jordan

My next review is turning out to be a real pain in the backside and I can't seem to find the energy to give fixing it a serious go. It will have to wait until Saturday. In the mean time an older review. This one was originally written in April 2009. Did some rewriting on some sections.

I almost never bother with getting all books in a series in the same print so while a lot of my Wheel of Time books are Tor mass market paperbacks, I own a (rather battered) Orbit copy of The Fires of Heaven. One of the older prints that still has the artwork by Darrell K. Sweet on it. Later Orbit shifted to the design I used for this review. It is pretty hard to find the Orbit/Sweet covers online for some reason. Given my opinion of Sweet’s artwork (The Fires of Heaven is not the worst in the batch but still) I must admit that there is something to be said for this design. Even if it is not very eye-catching.

Before I continue, let me warn you I will assume you have read up to The Shadow Rising. There will be spoilers for the first four books in series in this review.

The Fires of Heaven is the fifth book in the series and after branching out in The Shadow Rising we find the main characters in a number of locations. Min, Siuan, Leane and Logain have escaped Tar Valon where Elaida has now been installed as Amyrlin. Siuan and Leane are expected to curl up and die after having been stilled but neither woman is going to settle for that fate. If Siuan can’t be Amyrlin at least she will see Elaida pulled down. Her plans to achieve this go awry when they reach Kore Springs in Andor and make the acquaintance of Gareth Bryne.

Rand, Egwene and Mat are still in the Aiel waste. Egwene is busy studying with the Wise Ones to become a Dreamwalker. She quickly finds out that their teaching methods are even harder than what she is used to in the White Tower. Something that causes problems for Egwene when her duties to the Tower and the restrictions imposed by the Wise Ones clash. Moiraine’s presence do not make things easier.

Meanwhile, Rand is looking for a way to unite the Aiel. Several clans have joined him but a number are still hesitating. Things become over more complicated when the Shaido Aiel, quite obviously opposing Rand, head for the pass across the Spine of the World that will take them into Cairhien. Rand gathers up his spears and sets out in pursuit of the Shaido. There is going to be a bit battle if Rand wants to stop the Shaido from razing Cairhien to the ground but can Rand really commit himself to battle with a number of undecided clans at his tail?

Battles seem to have become very familiar to Mat after his visit to the Aelfinn in Rhuidean. Not that he wants anything to do with them mind you, and most certainly not the one Rand seems to be getting himself into, it just seems this military knowledge pops up in his mind at the most inopportune moments. People have noticed. No matter how hard Mat tries to resits, a general he will be.

On the other side of the continent Nynaeve and Elayne have escaped Tanchico but are not quite sure how to proceed. Rumours of events in the tower reach them and the meetings with Egewene in the World of Dreams convinces them that the Tower has split. With Elaida running the faction in Tar Valon there really seems to be no alternative but to seek out the rebels. Slipping unseen though legions of Whitecloacks, escaping the overprotective eyes of Gallad and staying hidden from Moghedien, who seems to have taken her defeat by Nynaeve in Tanchico personally, are formidable challenges though.

Jordan makes an interesting choice to drop Perrin’s storyline in this novel altogether. There are brief glimpses of the Two Rivers seen in the World of Dreams but other than that we won’t know what is going on there until Lord of Chaos. Jordan didn’t think Perrin’s story during the period covered by The Fires of Heaven interesting enough to mention. He is probably right, as we’ll learn later, Perrin is mostly busy having himself set up as Lord of the Two Rivers by Faile. Still, the absence of Perrin, after he kicked ass in The Shadow Rising must have been a disappointment to many readers. It does help keep the story in this book relatively straightforward with only two mains story lines in novel, and creates space to make significant progress in the overall plot.

Rand in particular is making some great strides in this novel. The military campaign he's directing, leads to one of the major battles in the series, and a confrontation with a number of Forsaken. In a way, this plot line will continue until Winter’s Heart but Jordan does reach some sort of conclusion at the end of the book. The same can unfortunately not be said to for the part of the novel featuring Nynaeve and Elayne. Jordan weaves in quite a bit that will become important later (Forkroot, for instance, plays a vital part in Knife of Dreams) but in this book, their story drags. The constant arguing between Nynaeve and Elayne doesn’t improve things. Especially Nynaeve seems unable to resolve any difference of opinion without resorting to physical violence. Just when it seems things can’t possibly get more ridiculous Jordan throws in a third woman for the pair of them to argue with. Brilliant move.

Several sub-plots are worked into this novel in a way that would get him in trouble from A Crown of Swords onwards. He introduces the Siuan/Gareth Bryne story line, a part of this book I particularly enjoyed. I must admit it gets annoying in later volumes but Siuan’s reaction to finding out Bryne is in Salidar is very funny.
“You were the Amyrlin Seat,” he said calmly, “and even a king kisses the Amyrlin’s ring. I can’t say that I liked how you went about it, and we may have a quiet talk sometime on whether it was necessary to do what you did with half the court looking on, but you will remember that I followed Mara Tomanes here, and it was Mara Tomanes I asked for. Not Siuan Sanche. Since you keep asking why, let me ask it. Why was it so important for me to allow the Murandians to raid across the border?”
“Because your interference then could have ruined important plans,” she said, driving each word home in a tight voice, “just as your interference with me now can. The Tower had identified a young border lord named Dulain as a man who could one day truly unify Murandy, with our help. I could hardly allow the chance your soldiers might kill him. I have work to do here, Lord Bryne. Leave me to do it, and you may see victory. Meddle out of spite, and you ruin everything.”
“Whatever your work is, I am sure Sheriam and the others will see you do it. Dulain? I’ve never heard of him. He cannot be succeeding yet.” It was his opinion that Murandy would remain a patchwork of all but independent lords and ladies until the Wheel turned and a new Age came. Murandians called themselves Lugarder or Mindeans or whatever before they named a nation. If they even bothered to name one. A lord who could unite them, and who had Siuan’s leash around his throat, could bring a considerable number of men.
“He… died.” Scarlet spots appeared in her cheeks, and she seemed to struggle with herself. “A month after I left Caemlyn,” she muttered, “some Andoran farmer put an arrow through him on a sheep raid.”

Siuan and Bryne remembering a past meeting on much different terms – Chapter 28 – Trapped
We also get a closer look at Elaida’s troubled reign in Tar Valon, a meeting of a number of Forsaken, examine Morgase’s affair with Gaebril and see us what Liandrin and her posse are up to. All of these and a few more will continue in Lord of Chaos, making that book the most complex and scattered in terms of characters and location of the entire series. In The Fires of Heaven Jordan still manages to contain the sub-plots to reasonable levels however, one might even wonder if it had not been better to pay more attention to them and less to Nynaeve and Elayne.

The Fires of Heaven is also the book that contains two of the most enduring mysteries in the series. First is the death of a certain forsaken. The second the fate of a certain Aes Sedai. Both mysteries have been fodder for a number of theories, ranging from quite plausible to outright nonsense. It may not be the best book in the series but it certainly helped to boost the online status of these novels and provided material for quite a few fan sites and Internet communities. Jordan never provided us with a definite answer on either mystery, although it was clear one of them would have to be solved in order to tie up a number of loose story lines. Brandon Sanderson tackled both these mysteries in Towers of Midnight.

With a large part of the story dragging and frequently turning downright ridiculous, this is far from my favourite Wheel of Time book. Hemmed in between the two biggest books of the series so far The Fires of Heaven felt longer than either The Shadow Rising or Lord of Chaos. Rand’s adventures makes up for this a bit. After this book he becomes increasingly unstable and unbearably arrogant. In this novel there is enough of the Two Rivers boy in him to like him somewhat. All in all, The Fires of Heaven is a decent read, but certainly not a memorable one.

Book Details
Title: The Fires of Heaven
Author: Robert Jordan
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 912
Year: 1998
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 1-85723-209-7
First published: 1993

Friday, February 4, 2011

De Scrypturist - Paul Evanby

I haven't reviewed a Dutch language title since Profeet van de Duivel by Adrian Stone last November. Much too long if I am ever going to make progress in my attempt to get better acquainted with Dutch genre fiction. I've found more than I expected to find in the last year or so. More than enough to work with anyway. One of bigger releases of 2009 (which I completely missed at the time) is De Scripturist by Paul Evanby. Another one of those English sounding pseudonyms, it must be contagious. Evanby has a number of English language publications to his name. Most recently the novelette Mannikin appeared in Interzone #229. Not sure if it was a translation or if Evanby wrote it in English. There is a Dutch version as well so I suspect the former. De Scrypturist is his first novel and part a duology called Het Levend Zwart (literally: The Living Black). The title of the novel is a made up word but the similarity to words like script and scripture is obvious. I'd say "The Scrypturist" would make a fine title in English as well.

De Scrypturist is set in a world where symbols are much more able to influence the physical world. There is magic in symbols that can be turned to many uses. The language of symbols that is used to wield this power is referred to as scrypture and those who produce it are scrypturists. It is profession for men and women with a steady hand. The closer are symbol approaches perfection, the greater it's power and the longer it will last. In the past, scrypture was monopolized by institutions known as Chambers. These secretive organizations train scrypturists who will stay attached to the Chamber for the rest of their lives and guard their knowledge closely. In recent years a new sort of scrypturist has made an appearance. The so called Scraper's Lodge (named for the belief that its members are so poor they have to reuse parchment) has devised a whole new approach. By pooling their knowledge an alternate reality completely composed of scrypture has been accessed and developed. Evanby uses the Dutch word "schering" for this creation. The word suggests it is woven into our world in some way but I have yet to find an English translation I like.

One of the Scrapers is Mauric Dystergroeve, once part of a Chamber, he is now deeply involved in the Scraper's Lodge. He spends part of his time writing scrypture for a living but a man of his considerable talent earn enough to get by and still have plenty of time left over for other pursuits. They include roaming the scrypture-created alternate reality and constructing scrypture based entities. On one of his trips he discovers that his anchor, a fixed point of entry in the scrypture-based alternate reality, is under attack by a monstrous creature. A creature that is created by scrypture itself. There are a number of safeguards in place to prevent scrypture getting out of control, something that could have dire consequences, but none of them seems to work properly. The deeper Mauric digs in the mystery, the more worried he becomes.

Evanby's style of writing took some getting used to. I don't read a whole lot in Dutch at the moment and that is most likely part of it, but Evanby seems to be in love with punctuation marks. It's been a while since I read a piece of prose that contained so many colons for instance. Their use is grammatically correct but not always pretty. There are also a number of instances where commas seem superfluous. I found it distracting in the early chapters of the book in particular. On the positive side, I very much liked the vocabulary used in the novel. With some carefully chosen old fashioned words Evanby creates an atmosphere that reminded me of 19th century setting. Although the technology level doesn't correspond to that entirely, it did give the novel a feel Evanby was doing more than applying a bit of pseudo-medieval polish to his fantasy tale.

The way the author presents his magic system shows obvious parallels with developments we see in software programming. The secretive guilds, hoarding knowledge and money, as the Microsoft's of their world, while the Scraper's Lodge shows characteristics of the open source crowd. The Living Black is pretty hard to visualize, much of the debate about this place is pretty philosophic. The scenes presented in the book use utterly fantastic landscapes as a backdrop. One of it's uses is to connect scrypturists separated by large distances in the physical world however. A use not unlike today's Internet.

Another theme in the novel that shows a clear link to recent events is the suspicion and increasing influence of security forces in the city Mauric lives in. His nation is at war and although the actual fighting is taking place a long way off, the effects are noticeable in the city he lives in. Terrorism and ever stricter controls by the city guard are part of everyday life. Mauric is not impressed by the way his government handles the war and security matter. He believes the situation is being used as an excuse to impose further restrictions on the city's inhabitants and permanently increase the authority of the security forces. He's much to caught up in his own affairs to really take notice however. Something that will cost him later in the story. Some interesting social commentary here. One thing did bother me about the security types is that they are a bit too nice when it comes to making arrests. One would expect them to take someone in and then ask questions instead of the other way around.

I had a bit of a rough start with this book but I must admit it grew on me. Evanby has created and interesting world and a fascinating magic system. The finale of this book leaves a lot of questions unanswered however. There is quite a bit left to explore and more than a few story lines needing to be resolved. I thought there were a few too many rough spots to call this book excellent but it is certainly a promising beginning of the series. I guess the good thing about being late to this book is that the next volume appeared last November. De Vloedvormer (now that one is going to be a pain for a translator) is already on the to read stack.

Book Details
Title: De Scrypturist
Author: Paul Evanby
Publisher: Mynx
Pages: 400
Year: 2009
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-8968-146-1
First published: 2009

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Kushiel's Dart - Jacqueline Carey

Kushiel's Dart is the first novel in the Kushiel's Legacy trilogy. This novel is the basis for a successfully series, the ninth book set in this universe is expected this summer. Personally, I feel the series fades a bit in later books, the second trilogy, based on a different main character than Kushiel's Legacy, is not nearly as strong as the earlier books. With the third trilogy, bases on main character Moirin and set some generations after the first two trilogies, Carey seems to have breathed some new life in the series. I rather liked Naamah's Kiss. I have no idea if Carey means to continue the series, although the final book in Moirin's trilogy has been delivered, she hasn't mentioned what her next project will be be yet. But let's get back on topic.

This first novel in the series takes us to the land of Terre d'Ange, a nation founded by rebellious angels, creating a people of unsurpassed beauty. They live by one commandment: love as thou wilt. At the beginning of the story we are introduced to Phèdre, who at the tender age of four, is sold into servitude to House Cereus, one of the houses of the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers. Phèdre's beauty is flawed by a small red mote in her eye, she does not meet the standards to become an adept in the House of Cereus. This means she will have to earn her marque, pay off the debt incurred by raising and educating her. The red mote may be a flaw in her beauty, Anafiel Delaunay sees a mark of the angel Kushiel, one of the founders of Terre d'Ange, in it. He immediately guesses Phèdre's potential and buys her marque from House Cereus. At the age of ten, Phèdre moves to his household to begin her training in earnest.

During her time in the Delaunay household Phèdre is taught many things. Languages and history, the art of a spy but also the arts of Naamah, in which Phèdre develops a curious taste. It appears that she is one of the few people capable of experiencing pleasure through pain. Her talent, Delaunay knows, will make her one of the most desired courtesans of her generation. He keeps his pupil carefully in the dark about his true motives but once Phèdre is introduced to high society and start earning her marque, it quickly becomes clear Delaunay is deeply involved in court intrigues. With an ageing king on the throne and succession by no means assured, it is a dangerous activity. When one of the other players makes a bold move, Phèdre's world is turned upside down and she needs every bit of knowledge Delaunay to survive.

What makes Kushiel's Dart an interesting novel is the mix of alternative history, romance, fantasy and spirituality Carey uses to tell the story. Phèdre's tale is quite romanticized and that is something the reader will have to get used to. Carey covers it in pretty phrases such as Night-Blooming flowers, servant of Naamah and a number of others, but when you get right down to it, Phèdre is a prostitute. There's quite a lot of sex in this novel and some of it is quite explicit. D'Angelines take the commandment 'love as thou wilt' serious and do indeed do just about everything two consenting adults can engage in. There are no labels such as straight or homosexual, just preferences and a wide variety is generally accepted. On the one hand I very much appreciate this acceptance of a variety of sexual practices, on the other hand there is not a trace of the problems sex can cause. No unwanted pregnancies (Carey has a supernatural solution for that), no sexually transmitted disease and little jealousy or prejudice (among the D'Angelines anyway). A little piece of heaven on earth, but then, the nation was founded by angels.

The nation of Terre D'Ange is clearly modelled on France. The map in the front of the book shows us a somewhat simplified western Europe. I mentioned this story containing elements of alternative history but maybe that is a bit too strong a statement. There doesn't seem to be a single point of divergence for one thing. Terre D'Ange's neighbours are echoes of various cultures that once existed across Europe. On the Italian peninsula a number of city-states reminiscent of the Renaissance period exist, still hanging on to the analogue for the Roman Empire that is mentioned in the book. To the east of Terre D'Ange is the vast realm of the Skaldi tribes, clearly based on Norse/Germanic culture. On the British isles we find a Celtic-like culture that developed in isolation in recent centuries. Apparently there was no migration period after the fall of Tiberium (Rome), or at least not as bad as the one in our world. To a point, these cultures are a bit stereotypical, something that will will plague the series in later books, but I have to admit they are comfortably recognizable and well realized.

Carey created a uniquely spiritual atmosphere in her novels. Phèdre is tied to two angels in particular. Kushiel, in Judeo-Christian mythology one of the seven angels of punishment, and Naamah, an angel or demon associated with prostitution. The author worked these two and a number of other angels and demons into the tale, connecting them to the figure of Elua, earth begotten son of Yesua Ben Yosef (Jesus). In a way, Phèdre embodies both the stern, forbidding punisher of the One God Kushiel as well as the warm, accepting and sexual Naamah. Given their contrasting personalities, it isn't an easy burden to carry, something Carey will cover in more detail in Kushiel's Chosen and Kushiel's Avatar. The angels shape Phèdre's character. Although absent as characters themselves, they are as much a driving force in the story as the plotting for the throne done by mortals.

The writing style Carey adopts is very rich in descriptions. She uses a lot of old fashioned forms, giving the text a slightly archaic quality. For a second language reader that is a bit of a challenge but it does add to the atmosphere of the entire novel. The tale is told entirely form Phèdre's point of view, in the first person. The language Carey uses also reinforces the feeling that Phèdre received a good education and is used to move in the higher circles of society. The language will change slightly in later books. Carey grows fond of phrases like "Mayhap" and "'Tis" in later books for instance. It's not as noticeable when you read them in order of publication but I did notice when rereading this first novel. She has also become a bit more concise. Kushiel's Dart takes a while to get going, resulting in a 900 page novel. Personally the slow start didn't bother me but it is a much heard bit of criticism directed at this book. So for readers who grew impatient with this book, subsequent novels will take off a bit faster.

You can only read a novel for the first time once, and that truly is a unique experience. I loved this book during my first read for the historical parallels in particular, after a reread I am slightly less enthusiastic. Not so much because of the novel itself but because I can see the seeds of a number of developments that will make later books less than satisfactory reads. That, of course, is not a fair bit of criticism to direct at this book. Kushiel's Dart remains a remarkable début. It's a book that carries a dark sensuality that will appeal to many readers. It combines elements of romance with a truly epic struggle for succession, complete with betrayal, heroism and tragedy. It's very easy to be swept away by Carey's tale and that is probably the best way to approach this book. Immerse yourself in Carey's world and you're in for quite a ride.

Book Details
Title: Kushiel's Dart
Author: Jacqueline Carey
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 912
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-765-34298-7
First published: 2001