Thursday, October 27, 2011

Master of the House of Darts - Aliette de Bodard

Master of the House of Darts is the third novel in Aliette de Bodard's Obsidian and Blood series. The first novel, Servant of the Underword, was one of my favourite reads of 2010 and it's sequel Harbinger of the Storm, was, if possible, even better.  In between writing these novels, de Bodard has also made an impression with her short fiction. Her novelette The Jaguar House, In Shadow, set in her Xuya alternative history, was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula award last year, while The Shipmaker, set later in the same time line, won BSFA award. Neither the Hugo nor the Nebula went her way last year, but I would be very surprised if she didn't win one of those in the future. In other words, I was looking forward to reading this novel a lot.

Acatl, High Priest of the Dead, has been deeply involved in the recent struggle for succession. With more than just the position of Revered Speaker at stake, not interfering would have meant the end of the fifth world and so Acatl and a number of other priest performed a feat of magic that helped Tizoc to power. His hold on power is far from solid though, especially since the coronation war is less than a success. Various parties doubt the ability of the new Revered Speaker to protect the empire and bring them glory. When a mysterious disease breaks out in the palace as well, Acatl has a new mystery on his hands. Gradually it becomes clear that the way Tizoc came to power, offers enemies of the real the opportunity to destabilize the empire. Acatl will have to deal with the unintended consequences of his actions if he is to save the empire again.

The Obsidian and Blood novels are often characterized as Aztec murder mysteries but like the previous book, this one leans a lot more to political intrigue. We do start with a corpse of course, and a murder that needs to be solved, but it is the first clue in a conspiracy that runs much deeper than the fate of one (rather unpleasant) man. The novel presents a complete story and can be read separately. It would be a challenging read as the power structure and pantheon of the Aztec Empire are very important to the story and will most likely be unfamiliar to the reader. It helps to have that background from previous books. They also provide insight in Acatl's motivation.

Like the other two books, Master of the House of Darts is entirely written in the first person. We see the story though Acatl's eyes and experience his thorough disgust of power politics, selfishness and injustice. He has lost some of his impatience with it though. I wouldn't say he's become a diplomat but he has developed more of a feeling for when pushing will get him the desired result and when letting go is the least frustrating course of action. He's also a bit more self assured when acting as high priest for the dead. Where in previous novels the disapproval of his parents weighed on him significantly, it has faded into the background a bit in Master of the House of Darts, although it does come up in the conversations with his disgraced brother Neutemoc.

One area where Acatl certainly does not lack confidence is his duties as High Priest of the Dead. One of the more interesting scenes in this novel is the conversation in which he berates his priests for sacrificing the life of a slave to save a high official. Acatl feels lives cannot be ranked like that and one life is not more valuable than another. It is an interesting example of his sense of justice, but also stresses that a culture that practices, in our eyes, barbaric human sacrifice, does have a clear moral code. One that can be very unforgiving on people who don't live up to the status and privileges society accords them in fact. It is hard to warp you mind around some of the practices Acatl accepts as a matter of course but in this novel at least, they do fit the larger framework.

Unlike the previous two volumes, this novel relies a bit less on action and leans heavier on unravelling the mystery, figuring out who had a motive and how certain crimes were perpetrated. The real action in the novel is saved for the explosive finale. Acatl needs a little more time to sort through the tangle of hatred, greed and lust for power that surrounds the Revered Speaker, it is most certainly is most challenging and complex investigation yet. As with the previous novel I felt that the first person point of view limited de Bodard a bit in exploring the intricacies of the intrigue Acatl is unravelling. Events follow each other quickly and some do not make sense to the reader until Acatl figures them out, or thinks he does. Some of it relies pretty heavily on the properties of various deities in the Aztec pantheon, which makes his trains of thought challenging to follow sometimes.

I enjoyed reading Master of the House of Darts as much as the previous two novels. We see a bit more confident Acatl in this novel, despite the fact that he is dealing with unintended consequences of his own actions. He is not a particularly optimistic character but his dark moods fits the dire situation the Mexica Empire is in. It was a nice touch to see that even the gods fear what might happen if the fifth world (the current one according to Aztec mythology) were to come to an end. Readers of de Bodard's other works will appreciate the intrigue and vividly realized Mesoamerican setting. As usual, the author leaves me hungry for more. I understand her next project will be the first full lenght novel in the Xuya alternative history. If possible, I look forward to that novel even more than I did to Master of the House of Darts.

Book Details
Title: Master of the House of Darts
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Angry Robot
Pages: 416
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-85766-159-3
First published: 2011

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ganymede - Cherie Priest

Ganymede is the fourth book in Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century setting and the third one published by Tor. Priest had already sold a fourth book to Tor, to be published next year, and recently is was announced that there will be a fifth novel in 2013. This series hit the ground running with Boneshaker (2009), which was nominated for a Hugo last year, and it seems only to have picked up speed since. Priest certainly managed to hook me on her interesting mix of steampunk, alternate history and zombies. Although Ganymede reads a bit differently than both Clementine and Dreadnought, it is another strong entry in the series.

Captain and pirate Andan Cly has met a woman is and ready to leave his questionable business behind and settle down. Before he can do so however, he wants to make one last and very profitable run. The man in charge of Seattle's drug trade is asking him to ship a lot of equipment needed to keep the gas covered city from turning into a death trap. Andan has also received a request from a woman in New Orleans he has a history with. She is none too clear on what the job entails but together with the supply run, the pay of this job could make his retirement from piracy a real possibility. So, reluctantly, Andan leaves his love behind and sets out one more time to New Orleans, where he will make the acquaintance of a mysterious device known as Ganymede.

The previous two entries in the series the Subterranean novella Clementine and the novel Dreadnought, both published in 2010, read more or less like a high speed car chase. There is lots of frantic action in those novels that would not have been fitting for Ganymede. The Ganymede is a primitive kind of submarine, a slightly more advanced version of a historical craft known as the Hunley, one of the many historical details in the novel. With this machine, the designers hope to finally be able to convincingly blockade the Confederate trade routes and end the war that has been dragging on for two decades. If they can get it in the hands of the Union that is.

The development of the Ganymede has been a process of trail and error, in which error often means death. Although designed to keep the occupants both hidden and safe, the technical challenges of keeping people alive in such a hostile environment allow for very small margins of error. Priest uses that to build the pressure. Everything has to be done just so, and everything as to be done right the first time. Not getting it right means detection, suffocation or drowning and the crew of the Ganymede is well aware of that every step of the way. Some parts of the story are absolutely nerve wracking. Priest eventually releases all that pressure in the very exciting climax of the novel.

Besides Andan Cly, whom readers will already know from previous books, Priest introduces a new main character for the New Orleans part of the story. Josephine Early is a madam in New Orleans, running what is euphemistically called a boarding house for women. Like Brair, she is a middle-aged woman with a no nonsense attitude and definitely not afraid to get her hands dirty. Like many of the characters in this book she is of mixed white and African origin and keenly aware of how precarious her position in the Confederacy (where slavery has been abolished in most states in Priest's alternative history). Through Josephine we explore New Orleans, the heat and humility, a touch of voodoo and more than a bit of the French origin of the city. Ganymede contains some wonderfully atmospheric descriptions of the city, spiced with a number of fantastic Steampunk vehicles.

Josephine is also the link with what could be considered an overarching theme in these novels: the presence of zombies. I must admit I felt that this part of the plot didn't really fit in too well with the rest of the story. It is a complication to their mission with the Ganymede I suppose, but on its own, it does not offer a resolution of any kind. It might be a bridge to the next book though, as more people become aware of this growing threat and the need to do something about it. The whole thing made me wonder if Priest has plans to somehow join these episodes and have the characters tackle the problem more decisively. Or if we will indeed see an end the stalemate the Civil War is in. There is more than enough material for another few episodes anyway.

I guess Ganymede is still a book that can be read independently of the others but Priest lets a lot of characters return and puts in a bunch references to earlier events. The only major character who isn't at least mentioned is Maria Isabella Boyd, one of the main characters of Clementine. I'd say you definitely get more out of it if you have read the others but don't let that stop you from picking this volume up. Ganymede turned out to be not quite the story I was expecting, but once again Priest managed to mix the intoxicating ingredients of the Clockwork Century and a number of memorable characters into a fine novel. Fans of the series thus far, will definitely appreciate this offering.

Book Details
Title: Ganymede
Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 349
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2946-2
First published: 2011

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Fat Years - Chan Koonchung

The Fat Years is a novel that caught my attention when I read an article about it on BBC News. It is apparently quite popular in mainland China despite being banned. The author had to publish it in Hong Kong to escape censuring by the Chinese government and the English publisher makes the most of this fact by proudly proclaiming it on the cover. The book was first published in Chinese in 2009 and has appeared in English translation for the first time earlier this year. Somewhere between a thriller and near future science fiction, The Fat Years is a novel that is clearly written by someone from a very different literary tradition and cultural background. It made me wonder if I have enough knowledge on the subject matter to fully appreciate it.

In the year 2013, China has entered a new period in its history, an era of rising living standards, widespread contentment of the population, increasing political influence on the world stage and a social stability that appears to be unshakable. For two years not, the communist party has taken the nation down the road of this Golden Age of Prosperity and Contentment. Why is it then, that nobody can clearly recall the events that lead up to this momentous announcement by the Chinese government? A whole month during a vicious global economic crisis seems to have disappeared from public consciousness. Contentment may be near universal, there are always people who ask awkward questions and won't stop digging for the truth.

I guess the publisher foresaw the problem I mentioned in the introduction. The novel opens with a lengthy preface by Julia Lovell, translator and lecturer in modern Chinese history and literature at the University of London. It comments on the human rights situation in China, the censorship by the Chinese government and the level of success of this policy as well as censorship in modern Chinese literature and the reception of Chan's novel. Normally I am not too fond of lengthy prefaces, I like to make my own mind up about books, but in this case it is recommended reading. Ms. Lovell did not translate the novel. That job was done by Michael S. Duke, who adds a translator's note at the end of the novel. It mostly deals with the political and social developments portrayed in the book and how realistic the might be. Again very much worth reading but finish the novel first or you will have it's ending spoiled for you.

Chan's novel is sure to strike a nerve with readers in the west. It is not hard to see the criticism on the Chinese government worked into the novel. He mentions the situation in Tibet, the suppression of the Falun Gong the Uygur unrest in western China, the Tianamen protests of 1989, the failed policies of Mao's Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Have your president mention any of these is guaranteed to cause a diplomatic incident these days. Usually followed by some large business deal being made with a rival. In the novel Chan portrays the Chinese government as a government who feels that for the good of the people, they ought to be in charge. Their new style of leadership allows the people 90% freedom, which, the leaders think, is vastly preferable for the majority of the population over the chaos that would be the result of the communist party loosing its grip on power. It's a disturbing thought, and one that contains more than a bit of truth.

Political and social changes in China are discussed throughout the novel but the focus on the early part is mostly on the mystery of the missing month. There is a sense of fear and suspicion in the characters that know the month has gone from the collective consciousness of an entire people. Questioning the course of the government and state approved history is dangerous to say the least. And what if they are the only ones to remember? Some characters question their sanity, some display paranoid behaviour but they do continue investigating the matter. They are an interesting bunch of people.

Chan does some things that would have a western editor roll their eyes. In fact, I very much doubt this would have left the slush pile in the US. Things like show, don't tell, avoid info dumps, and don't stick the climax of your novel in the epilogue need to be ignored to enjoy this novel. It contains lengthy passages describing the characters' motivation and history and does not shy away from discourses on politics and economics. The most unusual thing about the novel is probably the 80 page epilogue, which takes the shape of a lengthy monologue and is the dramatic highlight of the novel.The translator actually comments on the different perceptions of Chinese and western readers. Despite the rambling character, lean towards the Chinese view. It is a piece of writing that captures the euphoria and megalomania in equal measure. Clearly not feasible, but with enough realism to make the western reader feel uncomfortable about the way Chinese leaders see their position in the world.

I suppose I can see why the Chinese government would not be thrilled with the publication of The Fat Years. I think the answer to the riddle of the missing month is so over the top however, that nobody would take it too seriously, including the censors in China. It does offer the western readers a glimpse of life in urban China that we don't often get to see. It shows a level criticism of the government, discussions on various historical events that are usually taboo and a number of frank comments of sexuality that  from an author living in Beijing rarely encountered by the western reader. It probably lacks something of the excitement of reading a banned book that it would have for someone living in mainland China but it is well worth reading nonetheless. As long as the reader has a little patience with the writing style, that is.

Book Details
Title: The Fat Years
Author: Chan Koonchung
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 318
Year: 2011
Language: English
Translation: Michael S. Duke
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-385-61918-9
First published: 2009

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Babel-17 - Samuel R. Delany

I asked you which classic science fiction novel I should read next a while ago. A question prompted by my reading of Among Others by Jo Walton, with contains references to numerous works of science fiction. Babel-17 (1966) by Samuel R. Delany was the winner of that poll. It's the first novel I've read by Delany and I was quite eager to find out why people hold his writing in such high regard. He received the Nebula award for this novel in 1966 and it shares some traits with a number of other works often referred to as New Wave Science Fiction.

Delany certainly was part of a new generation of writers, Babel-17 was published when he was 24. What's even more remarkable is that he had already had six other novels published by that time. Although Babel-17 contains some hard Science Fiction elements that are so typical of Golden Age stories, the emphasis of the novel is much more focussed on linguistics, sociology and psychology. As much as I like Science Fiction, I feel the genre doesn't get really interesting until the 1960s, when a whole new range of topics suddenly becomes acceptable and more attention is paid to the quality of the writing. This novel embraces the opportunities this New Wave offers completely. As such it sounded like something I might enjoy. And indeed, that turned out to be the case.

During an interstellar war in which coalitions of several species vie for control of the explored galaxies, the human intelligence service investigates a number of sabotages that have hit important human targets. All of them are accompanied by a strange code language, dubbed Babel-17. Nobody is able to crack the code and in a desperate attempt to stop the sabotages, they turn to poet Rydra Wong. She is a woman with an unbelievable gift for languages and  she quickly finds out that they are not dealing with a simple code. Wong insists on being given all information available before setting out on a mission to find the origin on Babel-17, a language more compact than anything she has ever encountered and one that fascinates her like no other.

Babel-17 leans heavily on a strong version of an idea that was very popular in science fiction at the time: the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The basic idea is that the structure of language influences the world view of the speaker. The debate to what extend this is true is still raging but generally the influence is thought to be a lot weaker than Delany describes in his novel. The author included some very interesting ideas on languages, expression and thought throughout the novel.
'Why? Well most textbooks say that language is a mechanism for expressing thought, Mocky. But language is thought. Thought is information given form. The form is language.'

Wong to Dr. T'mwarba - Part I, chapter II
Given the problems people can experience in putting thoughts into clear language, I'd say the relationship isn't 1:1. To me, language and thought are a lot more imprecise than Wong states here and I guess a lot of characters in the novel feel that way too. In a way she acknowledges that in her poetry.
'...You know what I do? I listen to other people, stumbling about with there half thoughts and half sentences and their clumsy feelings they can't express, and it hurts me. So I go home and burnish it and polish it and weld it to a rhythmic frame, make the dull colors gleam, mute the garish artificiality to pastels so it doesn't hurt any more: that's my poem. I know what they want to say, and I say it for them.'

Wong to Dr. T'mwarba - Part I, chapter II
Her mastery of language sets Wong apart. Although she speaks just about everybody else's language and can express other people's thoughts more clearly and beautifully than the owners of these thoughts ever could, she has yet to find a language that can fully express her own thoughts.

Wong thinks a lot about concepts, what languages have words for what concepts and how that affects thought. I guess this is best expressed in her interactions with the character known as The Butcher. Although he speaks a form of English, the word 'I' does not appear in his vocabulary, nor does it have any meaning for him. In fact the problem seems to extend to other personal and possessive pronouns as well. Although this was brought about by a form of manipulation, not by natural language formation, it impacts The Butcher deeply and in the end offers the key to explaining his behaviour. Scientifically, I have some serious reservations about the way Delany links The Butcher's actions to his unique way of thinking (shaped by the language he speaks) and the specific, engineered, omissions in the concepts he is able to grasp through his language. Literary, Delany builds a wonderful story around it though. I especially liked his search for someone who speaks 'his language'. Aren't we all looking for that?

Delany plays with language in this novel. Not just in the plot but the prose as well. It contains snatches of poetry for instance, and an attempt to render Wong's train of thought in Babel-17 into English that is quite a stylistic experiment. My edition includes an introduction by Adam Roberts in which he points out the importance of names as well. Something I probably would have missed without the introduction. Delany's prose is ... almost exuberant in this novel. The tale is pretty fast paced, almost inviting the reader to rush though the story. I frequently found myself rereading sections of sometimes whole chapters because I felt I had missed things. Wong's thoughts and the way she uses Babel-17 concepts to tackle problems lead to a lot of leaps and bounds that can be pretty hard to follow at times. It did fall into place eventually though. Maybe I've become a bit of a lazy reader lately.

Babel-17 certainly deserves its status as a classic of the genre. Although a linguist would probably have a field day pointing out all the errors in Delany's novel, and the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is currently considered disproven, Delany has managed to build a very good novel around these concepts. It is a novel that does what science fiction ought to do, provoke thought on scientific theories and concepts that are packed into a good story. It's obvious why this novel made an impact when it was published and it certainly aged more gracefully than some of its contemporaries. I guess the collective wisdom of Internet users is not to be underestimated, you did me a service by picking this novel.

Book Details
Title: Babel-17
Author: Samuel R. Delany
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 192
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-09420-8
First published: 1966

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

De Achtste Rune - Adrian Stone

This review contains more information in the plot that I usually include. I try not to write spoilerish reviews but sometimes they turn out that way. You have been warned.

One of my goals for this year was read more novels originally written in Dutch. It is October now and so far I have managed to read and review two books that meet that criterium. Past time for another. Adrian Stone is the only author I have followed from his days as a self published novelist. His first novel, Profeet van de Duivel is a great example of two things. That it is possible to be noticed among the heaps of self published material of questionable quality that floods the market, and that professional editing makes a world of difference. The revised version of Profeet van de Duivel was published by Luitingh in 2009, followed by two sequels dealing with the same main character. His fourth book is the beginning of a new duology. Set in the same universe as Profeet van de Duivel, his new novel De Achtste Rune (literally: The Eighth Rune) can be read independently. It does however, contain enough links to the previous trilogy to make it interesting for the readers who enjoyed Stone's older work as well.

Marak, the Carolian monk dedicated to Ava, the goddess of balance, has died. Greatly respected during his later years, he has left behind a book detailing his life and achievements. His biography includes a description of how he managed to physically enter the fourth dimension. An astounding feat of magic that has drawn the attention of Danobe, the newly ascended God-Emperor of Kadish. The religion of Kadish recognizes only one god, aptly known as The One, and his priests are ranked in circles. Each priest wears the rune befitting his station on his forehead. The highest attainable rank is the seventh circle and traditionally there is only one priest who is worthy of that much power: the God-Emperor. Danobe is an ambitious man, the seventh circle not enough for him. He wants the eighth rune, something that no man has achieved since the cataclysm shook Kadish ages ago, and believes Marak's words contain the instructions he needs. To retrieve the heavily guarded relic, he sends two of his subject to Carolia on a seemingly impossible mission.

In his third novel, Ziel van de Duivel, Stone already hints that he would be exploring the wider world the nation of Carolia is located in. Although a lot of the action is still set in that nation, the plot is entirely driven by events in Kadish. Stone describes it as a nation ruled by an conservative class of priests. It is economically stagnant and for large sections of the population, living conditions are hard indeed. Most of the characters in the novel are part of the upper class but the Sword Master Hotar is a reminder of just how difficult life can be in Kadish. Throughout the novel you feel that stresses on society that make a break with tradition inevitable. Although he aims to concentrate even more power in the position of God-Emperor,  Danobe may well have unleashed an avalanche by breaking several religious traditions.

To firmly anchor the series in the world Stone explored before, he introduces Serina, a priestess of Viguru, one of the three gods worshipped in Carolia. She has been captured on a raid by the Kadishians and ends up in captivity. Through Serina, Stone explores two of the major stresses on Kadishain society, the poor position of women and racism. Although the mechanics are not entirely clear, the gift to channel divine energy is inherited. The Kadish priesthood therefore keeps a close eye on the children of the more powerful priests. To increase the chances of raising talented priests, a mother capable of changeling divine power increases the chance of success. Since all priests in Kadish are male, women who are known to be talented must be found elsewhere. In Carolia for instance. With captured priestesses of Viguru relegated to the status of brood mare, a new generation of priests, of which Danobe is the pinnacle, is emerging. They clearly show their potential and their mixed origin. Something not all 'racially pure' Kadishians like.

De Achtste Rune contains a more or less familiar quest as well of course, with the priest Ghelan and Hotar travelling to Carolia to try and retrieve Marak's memoires, but for me, Serina's story line is the linchpin of the novel. Whether or not the reader will like this book depends on a large part on how well the reader feels her story line is handled. I must admit the way the relationship between Serina an her captors develops made me blink once or twice. That being said, the quest part of the novel is a bit more predictable for the experienced fantasy reader so I did enjoy her part of the story more. Ghelan is a bit of a too careful and rather slow to anger in this book. I'd be ready to break some faces the moment I'd have figured out the political motivations of his mission.

Stone tackles some pretty complex problems in this novel but he does so in deceptively straightforward language. He has improved considerably as a writer, especially when it comes to plotting a novel. De Achtste Rune is a very tightly plotted novel. Despite my best efforts to shake out a few loose ends, pretty much everything serves a clear purpose in the narrative. I do feel he should trust the ability of his readers to understand where Stone is taking the story a bit more. Clear language is a gift to some readers but at some points I felt I was being taken by the hand a bit too much. For example:
Toen hij weer opkeek kwam de grootste verrassing. Het havenstadje en alles daarom heen was een troosteloze ravage, gespeend van alle leven. Daar was hij op voorbereid. Wat Ghelan echter verbijsterde was de deken van mist die vanaf de krater in de tempelheuvel over de geruïneerde haven rolde.
Want dit was geen gewone mist!

Hoodstuk 19 - bladzijde 310

This fairly loose translation is mine and probably not perfect. I think I can get my point across without getting it exactly right however.
When he looked up again the biggest surprise came. The port and everything surrounding it, was a desolate waste devoid of all life. He'd been prepared for that. What astonished Ghelan, was the blanket of mist rolling in from the crater in the temple hill, covering the ruined port.
This was no ordinary mist!

Chapter 19 - page 310

Drop that last line! Even without the context of Ghelan stepping out the misty environment of the fourth dimension I get it.That exclamation mark should be in the reader's head. And even if the reader doesn't get it right away, the penny will drop when the repercussions of this event will become clear in the second book of the duology.

This is nitpicking though. On the whole, Stone has delivered another well-crafted novel. De Achtste Rune is a novel that packs a number of interesting and complex themes into an exciting story. Although I would not have minded a bit more ambiguity in some sections of the story, it does help making this into a story that with a wide appeal. A book that will satisfy his established fans as well as win him new ones. A very promising start to the duology from a man who is on his way to becoming one of the big names in Dutch Fantasy. And for me personally, another reminder that I really should read more Fantasy originally written in Dutch.

Book Details
Title: De Achtste Rune
Author: Adrian Stone
Publisher: Luitingh Fantasy
Pages: 351
Year: 2011
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-3562-0
First published: 2011

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Poll Result Classic Science Fiction

All right, the poll is closed. For a while it looked like I would end up with two or three books with the same number of votes but it appears someone cast the wining vote in the nick of time.

Babel-17 - Samuel R. Delany (27%)
Tau Zero - Poul Anderson (22%)
Dying Inside - Robert Silverberg (18%)
Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut (18%)
The City and the Stars - Arthur C. Clarke (13%)

I have just finished reading Adrian Stone's latest so that review goes first. I hope to have a review of Babel-17 for you by next weekend. I you voted for one of the other books, I will end up reading those eventually ;)

Thanks for voting!