Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Not Accepting Review Copies for the Moment

I'm a bit distracted from my reading right now. The observant reader will guess part of the reason. I don't really want to bother you with the whole of it but for the moment, I don't want to have to read against deadlines so I am closing Random Comments for review copies. The novels still in the queue will of course get reviewed.

I expect I will keep reviewing at a modest pace but mostly to make a dent in the to read pile. I'll also try to finish the Grand Master Reading Challenge and make some progress on other reading projects. I have severely limited the book buying at the moment so don't expect too many 2012 titles.

Hopefully I'll be able to reverse this in October but no promises.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Scattered Among Strange Worlds - Aliette de Bodard

There is plenty of Alliette de Bodard's short fiction scattered about on the web I've paid attention to a couple of those stories in the past, all  linked to the Xuya alternative history. Earlier this month, a short fiction sampler became available on Amazon. It is something of a first for me. The first Kindle file for which I actually paid. Not that I have anything against buying e-books but I don't own a Kindle (my e-reader prefers epub) so I can only read them on the laptop. I spend an awful lot of time looking at this screen, but for reading purposes it is not ideal. Still, 58 pages is manageable and the quality of these stories more than made up for any discomfort. In fact, I was so curious about this work that I didn't bother to look around to see if it was available in other formats too.

Scattered Among Strange Worlds contains two short stories and a sample chapter of de Bodard's debut novel Servant of the Underworld. The fist one is Scattered Along the Rivers of Heaven, first published in the January 2012 issue of Clarkesworld, where it can still be read and listened to for free. It is a far future science fiction story that incorporates a lines of Chinese poetry. I must admit the names de Bodard mentions at the end of the story are completely unfamiliar to me. The future she describes is clearly Asian influenced and the story deals with the fall out of a revolution that alienates a mother and daughter. Many years later, the granddaughter returns to the scene of the revolution to visit the funeral of her grandmother. A funeral her mother won't attend.

I think de Bodard is almost being too ambitious in this story. There is so much packed into it that I scarcely know where to begin. Structurally it is an interesting piece. There are two strands in the narrative. One is set in the past; the time of the revolution and its aftermath. Note that the narrator of that section considers itself to be plural. The second strand, set in the present and told in the present tense, is seen from the point of view of the grand daughter Xu Wen. The two are hardly aware of each other but the contrast wonderfully. Especially once the reader realizes the nature of the plural narrator and Xu Wen's opinion of them.

As I said there is a lot packed into this story but I will limit myself to two elements. One of the things that is very relevant to me personally at the moment is the way language is being discussed. It is language that sets groups apart, language that is used to fuel the revolution and eventually to mark the victors. De Bodard looks at these with a sense of loss, which, given the history of the French language and the aggressive movement to force out regional language in the 19th and early 20th century in France, isn't surprising. Language is an important part of a culture and forcing one to disappear a favourite tactic of oppressors. As some of you may know I have recently started trying to learn some Norwegian.* In this country the struggle between local dialects and a standardized language has taken quite a different path. In the story, language is very politically charged. It isn't the mail focus of the story but it contributes to the mood of the piece.

The second element that hit me pretty hard personally is the climatic scene at the funeral. Xu Wen has made a difficult choice in showing up for the funeral. My father is currently very clearly in the last phase of his life and so his last wishes came up recently. We've had people over coming to say goodbye this week. My family is not one to show a lot of emotion so it is not the dramatic scene you may imagine. He does have very particular ideas on his own funeral though. He has always been very socially active and if he wanted to, the funeral would have attracted hundreds of people. A lot of them, people he hasn't seen in years. He has made it very clear that he wants to keep it more intimate though. His reasoning is that you can't be bothered to show up now that he is obviously going through a very tough time in his life, you have no business at the funeral. I can't say I blame him.

In the story, Xu Wen has some of her choices made for her of course, but the fact remains that she really is too late. My response to this element in the story is much more influenced by things going on in my life than anything de Bodard has written. It is clearly an unintended reaction but it does show what kind of a story this is. I have lifted two elements from it I responded most strongly to but there is plenty more in this story. It is a piece that will draw as many unique reactions as it has readers. I think it is a brilliant story and I fully expect it to show up in awards nominations next year.

The second story is not quite as easily characterized as science fiction. It has a bit of a fantasy atmosphere about it. Exodus Tides. It was first published in Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show April 2011 and can only be read online there if you have a subscription. Even if you don't, you should go check it out anyway, if only to have a look at the wonderful artwork by Anna Repp that accompanies the story. Exodus Tides tells the story of Emilie, a young girl of mixed mermen/human origin, who is trying to come to terms with the half of her heritage her parents won't tell her about. It is told from a first person perspective, making it very intimate but in some respects also limited.

De Bodard doesn't give too many details about what droves the mermaids from the sea but it is depicted as a deadly place. However much her parents want her to be human, her heritage sets her apart at school. There is a clear connection the the situation immigrants find themselves in and that of second generation in particular. Emilie has no connection to her mother's life at sea apart from the few stories she has heard and on top of that, her world is not just distant, it has been destroyed. This search for cultural identity shows up in De Bodard's work more often. It strikes me as a very difficult balancing act, living among the stories of a country that has moved on by the time you hear them and the reality of a country that doesn't always appreciate its new citizens (an increasingly frequent problem in the Netherlands unfortunately). Emilie is looking for her own answers, despite her mother's wishes. It is a painful process in a way. De Bodard leaves the ending unclear. I guess readers gets to decide what her ultimate decision is. I have given it some thought yesterday but I'm not sure I have an answer.

Scattered Among Strange Worlds is a great introduction to de Bodard's writing. These are multi layered stories with a lot of attention paid to which viewpoint the story should be told from and what tense to use. There is also a lot of cultural nuances in these works, exposing the readers to Chinese and Vietnamese culture in a way I haven't come across anywhere else in the genre. I have long since come to the conclusion that I will read anything by de Bodard  I can get hands on and I very much entourage you to seek out her work. Whether it be her short fiction or one of her novels, it will be worth your time.

* I have written a long ramble about my first encounter with Norwegian on my Livejournal. Since I feel the piece very much shows my ignorance of languages and all things Norwegian I have made it a friends only entry.

Book Details
Title: Scattered Among Strange Worlds
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Nine Dragons River
Pages: 58
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 2012

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Windsingers - Megan Lindholm

The Windisngers is the second book in a series of four featuring Ki and Vandien. It was first published in 1984 but is still available. A Dutch translation appeared a while ago too, lifting on the success of Lindholm's book under the Robin Hobb pseudonym. I got an English language reprint years ten ago and am now in the process of reading them. The first novel, which was also Lindholm's debut, showed some serious flaws in pacing and structure but I still thought it was an interesting book. In this novel, Lindholm clearly improves in those areas but she looses some of the dynamic between Ki and Vandien in large parts of the novel. In the end I did think the first novel, Harpy's Flight, was a more entertaining read, even if the second was better written.

Ki and Vandien are meeting up in the town of Dyal where Ki hopes to find a new cargo to haul. Vandien has been in town for a while and thinks he has come upon a bargain too good to refuse. Salvaging a chest from a drowned temple in a fishing village a few days away from Dyal. Ki knows about this bargain, it is a mission impossible offered to an unsuspecting teamster each year. The villagers have created a festival a out it. Ki refuses to commit her team to this fool's errand and is quite annoyed that Vandien as already accepted. She leaves Vandien to sort out his own mess as she pursues a more lucrative deal. Transporting some household items to a manor in the same direction as the fishing village. She promises to meet up with Vandien to see if she can help him after she is done with her own job. Ki soon finds out that her job is the more dangerous of the two as it earns her the enmity of the powerful, weather controlling Windsingers.

Where Ki and Vandien spend most of the story together, in this novel they spit up early on. Ki spends most of the novel in the company if Dresh, a wizard engaged in a long running conflict with the Windsingers, the true depths of which are not explored in the story. Dresh is a nasty piece of work. He constantly uses his power to control Ki and enjoys showing her just how powerful he is. Fortunately of Ki, he also needs her. His body is split up in several parts, which makes him extremely vulnerable to the Windsingers. Personally I thought the background of this conflict is very sketchy. The world Lindholm created is full of sentient species, many of which are never really developed. The Windsingers and Dresh get more attention than most but it still leaves me with the feeling that even after four books, Lindholm wasn't really done with this series. It makes me wonder why she stopped writing in this world.

The interactions between Ki and Dresh themselves are fascinating though. Dresh may be very aware of his power, he also desperately needs Ki's aid. Ki is more or less forced to cooperate but every time Dresh crosses a line, Ki isn't afraid to slap his wrist. Still, their relationship is forced upon Ki and Dresh remains a thoroughly unpleasant character, always looking to exploit some weakness and push people into doing his bidding. The interaction with Ki is well done, but when you get right down to it, Dresh is little more than the evil mastermind in this story. I think it could have done with a bit more ambiguity.

Vandien faces a more worldly challenge. After arranging to hire a team to meet his obligation to the village, he soon finds out he set himself an impossible task. The Windsingers, whose ancient temple he will be searching, are set to oppose him and nobody in the village actually expects him to succeed. The history of this festival goes back beyond living memory and most of the villagers consider the chest more of a legend than truth. Not everybody agrees with that assessment however, and it causes tension in the village. He has to carefully navigate this minefield not to upset his hosts.

I thought Lindholm captured the village mentality and the tensions running though the community better than the magic of Dresh. She didn't really spend more words on it than on Ki's side of the story but somehow the conflict Vandien faces is more sharply drawn. I suppose there is a bit of magic in this side of the tale as well, but mostly it is about human emotions. Vandien's reasons for accepting the job, the villagers' attitude towards their past, the reasons why a few villagers believe in the legend and want the chest to be found, and the reasons for the Windsingers' involvement. There are a lot of people who have a stake in this and that makes it a very interesting conflict.

The finale of the novel is also a very well written section. On top of the knot of conflicting interests Vandien is faced with, Ki introduces her own complications. Their separate experiences change the relationship between Ki and Vandien. It isn't spelled out in the novel, there are quite a few subtle hints and unspoken thoughts. The relationship between Ki and Vandien adds another layer in this novel and Lindholm will continue to build on that in the next two books. The author brings together the strands of the story skilfully, without forcing a too neat resolution. Ki and Vandien are adults, life is messy and they know it.

I'm not entirely sure which novel I would rate higher. Harpy's Flight is more frantic, I liked the tension in that novel and the plot better. The Windsingers is definitely better structured though. I felt some of the tension in the sections with Ki and Dresh was lacking a bit although some readers might appreciate the surreal surrounding Ki finds herself in. I guess it is a matter of taste, there is something to be said for each novel. Whichever you prefer, The Windsingers is a solid entry into this series. Ki and Vandien are a more mature set of heroes than you normally find in fantasy and that is refreshing, even thirty years after they were written. I can't think of many fantasy series that have achieved that.

Book Details
Title: The Windsingers
Author: Megan Lindholm
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 392
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-00-711253-X
First published: 1984

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Gallows Curse - Karen Maitland

I have read two of Karen Maitland's historical novels Company of Liars (2008) and The Owl Killers (2009) in recent years. Both are set in medieval England and contain a mix supernatural elements and speculation on less well known historical facts. They are dark and well researched novels, showing the life of ordinary people in detail. I haven't always been too impressed with the way Maitland handled the supernatural elements in her novels but the were decent reads so when I came across The Gallows Curse in a bookstore in Maastricht last month I couldn't resist. Maitland delivered another solid novel but again, I felt some elements of the story were not handled as well as they might have been.

The year is 1210 and England is ruled by King John Lackland. A man with a lot of enemies and one of them happens to be the pope. After a row over the appointment of the bishop of Canterbury, the pope Innocentius III places England under an Interdict. No mass was allowed to be held and many priests fled the country. A situation that lead to babies left unbaptized, confessions left unheard and corpses buried in unconsecrated ground. The interdict puts Raffaele, the steward of the manor of Gastmere, in a very difficult position when his master and friend dies without having the chance to confess his greatest sin. After their experiences shared in the Holy Land, Raffeale cannot let his friend spend eternity in hell. He will have to use unconventional means to prevent it. Without her knowledge young villein Elena plays an important part in his plan and it will dramatically change the course of her life.

The pope's interdict is the historical event that drew Maitland's attention this time. Conflicts between the pope and heads of state over the appointment of bishops was common in Medieval times. Kings saw these appointments as a useful tool to reward supporters while at the same time making sure that the associated titles and lands would fall back to the crown after their death. Clergy could not have legitimate children after all. The pope of course, would rather appoint people loyal to the church and in the 11th and 12th century in particular, this lead to a series of conflicts with successive Holy Roman Emperors in which violence and excommunications were not uncommon. The whole affair became known as the investiture controversy and it was not limited to the Holy Roman Empire. The English King Henry I. ruling a century and a half before our story is set for instance, had an argument with the pope as well.

Innocentius III put England under interdict in 1208. He seems to have been fierce about protecting the church's position and this measure was one of the means he used t get his way. Apart from England, interdicts were placed on France and Norway as well during his papacy. When the interdict failed to make the king give in, John was excommunicated the following year. This didn't seem to have bothered the king in the slightest however. The general population bore the brunt of the pope's displeasure of course. In a society where the church played a pivotal role in everyday life, an interdict was a pretty extreme measure and could be a considerable burden to the population. Historians don't agree on how much of a burden it actually was. The church in those days was pretty demanding too, after all. Personally I think I could have lived with a few less masses. Then again, I don't particularly fear spending eternity in hell. The fact is that John's actions against clergy siding with Rome caused quite a disturbance and in the novel, Maitland uses this historical event in a very believable way. The interdict did not include confessions and absolutions for the dying, even if the text on the back of the book suggests otherwise, but without a priest around, who could perform such essential services?

Perhaps it is not surprising the people in the book are very sensitive to superstition. Without a church to protect them, they see evil omens and witchcraft everywhere. The supernatural part of the novel is based on a series of superstitions surrounding Mandrake root. Many strange properties have been ascribed to this plant through the ages. Maitland mentions more than a few and gives it a point of view in her novel. It plays a pivotal role in events. The Mandrake root never judges but allows people to do some pretty dreadful things. As with Maitland's other books, I feel the supernatural element is the story is more present than it really needs to be. Her characters don't really need it to provide a motivation for their actions and the acts of violence they do commit, are quite within the real of the possible without divine aid. In the end, the Mandrake root is mostly there to misdirect the readers and create an air of mystery in the story. I must admit I didn't really see the eventual twist coming but the resolution of this mystery did not really satisfy me.

Another element I didn't really think convincing is the relationship between the two main characters. Raffaele is a tormented character, castrated before puberty but never achieving the singing voice the church hoped for, he spent most of his life at his Lord's side. He carries with him the scars from events in the Holy Land as well as Gerhard's terrible secret. While this part of his history and motivations become more or less clear over the course of the novel, his obsession with Elena is presented more or less like a fact. He chooses her on the faulty assumption she is 'innocent' and spends the rest of the novel paying for that mistake I guess. Not entirely undeserved one might add, Raefaelle's use for the young girl is quite repulsive. Elena for her part, scarcely seems to care about him beyond his efforts to keep her safe, insofar her hideout could be called that. It leads to quite a lot of melodrama, especially later on in the novel, none of which feels very convincing to me.

All things considered, I liked the history and setting a lot more than the characters or stories in this novel. The Gallows Curse is a decent read, it kept me engaged and mildly curious to see how events would play out but it is not a book I'd be tempted to reread. I do feel the story fell flat in the last few chapters. By the time the fates of Raffeale and Elena became clear I didn't really care about either of these characters enough to really get caught up in the climax of the story. A shame, I feel this novel did have potential. Some readers might still enjoy this novel, as I said, it isn't a bad read, but if you are looking for an introduction into Maitland's writing I would suggest trying Company of Liars first.

Book Details
Title: The Gallows Curse
Author: Karen Maitland
Publisher: Penguin Books
Pages: 564
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-241-95836-0
First published: 2011

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fantasy Mistressworks Fifty!

A recommended reading list featured on the Fantasy Mistressworks blog compiled by Amanda Rutter. Since I've been trying to read more books written by women this year, I couldn't let this one pass.

Bold is what I have read, italics what I own. I've also linked the ones I've reviewed. So how did you do?

1. Songspinners – Sarah Ash
2. The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter
3. Rats and Gargoyles – Mary Gentle
4. Outlander – Diana Gabaldon (this was published as Cross Stitch in the UK)
5. The Riddle-Master of Hed – Patricia McKillip
6. The Blue Sword – Robin McKinley
7. Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirrlees
8. The Curse of the Mistwraith – Janny Wurts
9. Shadow Magic – Patricia C Wrede
10. Assassin’s Apprentice – Robin Hobb
11. A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula K Le Guin
12. Familiar Spirit – Lisa Tuttle
13. Beauty – Sheri S Tepper
14. Diadem from the Stars – Jo Clayton
15. The Crystal Cave – Mary Stewart
16. Black Horses for the King – Anne McCaffrey
17. The Clan of the Cave Bear – Jean M Auel
18. Fortress in the Eye of Time – C J Cherryh
19. Red Moon and Black Mountain – Joy Chant
20. The Birthgrave – Tanith Lee
21. Briefing for a Descent into Hell – Doris Lessing
22. Interview with the Vampire – Anne Rice
23. The Wood Wife – Terri Windling
24. Briar Rose – Jane Yolen
25. The Porcelain Dove – Delia Sherman
26. The Winter Prince – Elizabeth Wein
27. The Time of the Dark – Barbara Hambly
28. Sword of Rhiannon – Leigh Brackett
29. Tam Lin – Pamela Dean
30. Fire in the Mist – Holly Lisle
31. The Sacrifice – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
32. The Beleagured City – Margaret Oliphant
33. The Soul of Lilith – Marie Corelli
34. The Citadel of Fear – Francis Stevens
35. Jirel of Joiry – C L Moore
36. Sheepfarmer’s Daughter – Elizabeth Moon
(added 26-May-2013) 37. Dragon Prince – Melanie Rawn
38. Black Trillium – Julian May
39. The Thief’s Gamble – Juliet E McKenna
40. Daggerspell – Katharine Kerr
41. The Blue Manor – Jenny Jones
42. The Barbed Coil – J V Jones
43. In the Red Lord’s Reach – Phyllis Eisenstein
44. The Spirit Ring – Lois McMaster Bujold
45. The Last of the Renshai – Mickey Zucher Reichert
46. Archangel – Sharon Shinn
47. The Hall of the Mountain King – Judith Tarr
48. A Blackbird in Silver – Freda Warrington
49. Kindred – Octavia Butler
50. The Red Magician – Lisa Goldstein

Four out of fifty. A pretty poor score really. I guess I have some reading to do.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Ice Owl - Carolyn Ives Gilman

The Ice Owl, a novella by Carolyn Ives Gilman's, has been nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo Awards this year. The Nebula has already been awarded to Kij Johnson's The Man Who Bridged the Mist, but since Gilman is still in the race for the Hugo, publisher Phoenix Pick included an e-copy in their monthly newsletter. The novella was originally in the November/December issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction and now Phoenix Pick offers the it as an e-book and in paperback. I always think it is nice to see novellas in print. It is a hard length to get right but the genre has produced some real gems in this shot format. The Ice Owl is set in the same universe as Gilman's earlier novella Arkfall (2008). These stories can be read independently, which is a good thing as I have never read anything by Gilman before.

Thorn is a teenager living in a future where near instantaneous communication is possible but travel is still limited to the speed of light. She and her mother are Wasters. Outcasts in most societies they are part of and often living in their own ghettos, these people are usually seen as trouble, rebels, heretics or rebels. Thorn is a teenager but has already lived parts of her life on nine different planets, making her a 145 years old in sequential time when the story starts. The planet she is living on at that time, is unstable. Riots are common, revolution is in the air. When Thorn's school burns down, she is forced to seek her education elsewhere. That is how she meets Soren Pregaldin, a refugee who will teach her more than he ever intended.

The story contains a lot of interesting science fictional ideas. The situation with information outpacing actual travellers reminded me of Ursula K. Le Guin's Hainish universe for instance, where the ansible links the the various planets but actually going to any of them takes years. Every time Thorn moves, she leaves behind the people she knew with the realization that even if she was to go back, they would have aged far more that she has. It is not only people she leaves behind either. Whole political systems and cultures can change in the time it takes for her to travel between the stars. Wasters are used to this, it is another element of what cuts them loose from mainstream society on many of the planets they are found on. For Thorn, the constant moving is becoming a burden, she is looking to lay down roots somewhere.

The planet most of the story is set on is tidally locked, only a small strip of land is inhabitable, a land in perpetual twilight. The planet has no breathable atmosphere and the city Thorn lives in is domed. In her introduction, Gilman mentioned she meant to create a culture that fitted the harsh conditions on the planet. It turned into a strict, religious society, part of which despises the Wasters' loose morals. There is an uneasy parallel with religious fascism and the attraction of such religion on young people in this story. Thorn feels this attraction, as an act of rebellion she even dons the veil proscribed to women. It makes her feel anonymous but also gives her a sense of belonging that under different circumstances could easily have drawn her in. Scary to think how easily that can happen really.

The real conflict in the novel is the relationship between Thorn and her mother though. Thorn realizes that her mother is a woman who has made a mess of her life more than once and she isn't very impressed with it. Gilman capturers the anger. disappointment and attempts at rebellion of Thorn very well I think. Thorn is quite rash in a way and very harsh in her judgement. Something that leads her to equally rash actions as the story progresses. You can't help but feel for either party really. Thorn's mother is not perfect but, even seen through the eyes of her daughter, you can tell she cares and is trying in her own way.

I have only read one of the other Hugo nominees in this category, Ken Liu's The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary, which I think is a more challenging story in a way. It no doubt faces stiff competition but can see why The Ice Owl made the shortlist. It is a very well crafted novella. Gilman makes the most out of the science fictional concepts used in the story. She sketches what is essentially a very recognizable situation but the unusual circumstances raise the stakes considerably. I am definitely going to have to check out Arkfall one of these days.

Book Details
Title: The Ice Owl
Author: Carolyn Ives Gilman
Publisher: Phoenix Pick
Pages: 51
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-61242-111-7
First published: 2011

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon - Frederik Pohl

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is the second book in Pohl's Heechee series, a series that started out with the 1972 novella The Merchants of Venus. This novella was reprinted in Platinum Pohl among other collections. The first Heechee novel, Gateway (1976), is one of his best regarded solo novels and won him a whole shelf full of awards. I guess it is not surprising that after that kind of success, a sequel has a hard time living up to expectations. I've heard a lot of people say this is one of those series you should only read the first book of. Pohl went on to write three more books and a bunch of short fiction, none of which I have read, but personally I didn't think Beyond the Blue Event Horizon a bad book. It is very different from Gateway though, that has to be said.

After successfully facing his successes and failures at Gateway, Robinette Broadhead is now living the life of a very rich man. He has married and has diverse interests in various profitable businesses as well as close ties with the Gateway corporation and even quite a bit of political influence. In other words, he has it made. Still, there is the nagging feeling of guilt that the woman who is the love of his life is stuck in a singularity. In business problems arise as well when an expedition to a distant Heechee installation, which Robinette hopes will help combat the chronic food shortages on Earth, meets with unexpected problems. It takes 25 days for instructions to reach the explorers, and as the situation in the outer solar system gets more and more out of control, Robinette's problems increase. Desperate action is needed.

One of the most striking differences between Gateway and Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is that Pohl employs a lot of different points of view in the second volume. In fact. Robinette doesn't even show up until the fourth chapter, some 50 pages into the novel. A lot of the major players in the novel get a point of view, as well as some of the machine entities, but there are quite a few of them, so we only get to scratch the surface of most of these characters. Where Pohl was very concerned with the psychology of Robinette in the first novel, the plot is obviously more important in the second. That is not to say that Robinette's internal struggle is not an important part of the story, he is still this petty, selfish but basically decent person we meet in Gateway, but Pohl leans quite heavily on events in the previous novel to convey this to the reader.

The Heechee on the other hand, although still very absent, are much more important to the story. The artifact being explored is clearly one of theirs but has been circling the sun since before humanity's ancestors learnt to use tools. It has a history of its own and that history includes other intelligences as well. Pohl reveals that history through these many points of view, gradually revealing a new part of the mystery with each chapter. It is this revealing that may put off some readers. In Gateway, the Heechee are a mystery. With only their incomprehensible artifacts and structures around, very little was actually known for sure about them. It made the story unpredictable in a way. With a Heechee artifact around, you never know what might happen. The increased understanding in Beyond the Blue Event Horizon changes that. Personally I don't think you can reasonably expect the mystery to stay intact for several books, there has to be at least some progress to keep the story moving,  but some readers will no doubt prefer their own questions, answers and guesses over those of Pohl.

Pohl's answers to the riddle the Heechee and their seemingly impossible technology pose, involve a lot of guesswork and quite a bit of cosmology and physics. I must admit some of it was right over my head. Still trying to wrap my head around Mach's principle for instance, an idea that was apparently one of the inspirations to Einstein's general theory of relativity. It also contains a number of references to Stephen Hawking's work on black holes. Where electronic shrink Siegfried is Robinette's discussion partner of choice in the first book, in this one his science program, aptly named Albert, takes over. It must be said, Albert is very good at explaining his guesses, which, especially towards the end of the novel, become more and more important to the plot. One would expect a program modelled on one of the greatest physicists of all time to do a little less guessing, but Robinette often orders him to do so anyway. Some of these guesses are obviously a set up for the next novel. It appears fairly obvious what Robinette's next project will be. This novel, after all, does not solve the issue that is the basis of his ever present guilt.

Pohl's work often have a satirical undertone. Many of his works criticize the excesses of capitalism for instance, or are fairly cynical about the political influence and proper healthcare money can buy. Robinette is not adverse to using his wealth to get things done his way for instance. It is not quite as apparent in this book however. The most notable thing about this novel is that it is drenched in fear. The fear of meeting the unexpected in space, where there is no retreat and very little margin for error. More than a few science fiction novels feature fear, suspicion and paranoia.  Especially the so called big dumb object stories, of which Gateway could be considered a variation, usually contain it in a general measure. I guess it is not as claustrophobic as Gateway, but the knowledge that aliens are near weighs on the characters. Due to the number of point of view characters, it is not as oppressive as in the previous novel, but it is almost always present in the background as each of these characters experiences their own personal flavour of fear.

There is one element in this novel that I absolutely didn't like, and that is the way Robinette's wife is portrayed. She is practically perfect in every way, knowing what is wrong with him before he knows himself and allowing him to go after the love of his life, who according to physics should be out of reach forever. Events in Gateway is more than enough reason to feel guilty but Robinette's treatment of his wife certainly adds to the problem. Siegfried's work doesn't appear to be done. The story is a bit open ended on this point. It looks like Pohl will get back to it in the third volume.

I guess you could say Pohl took a bit more conventional approach in writing Beyond the Blue Events Horizon. It makes the book less groundbreaking than Gateway was and probably is part of the reason why it didn't win any of the awards it was nominated for. The scope of it is obviously much wider too, and the many switches in point of view makes it appear a bit less structured than its predecessor. If you view the story as the unveiling of (part of) a mystery, it makes more than enough sense to me. In the end I guess I agree with many of the critics that it is not quite as good a novel as Gateway was. I also think it would have been nice if it had been a little more self contained; if it were fantasy I'd say this book suffered from the middle book syndrome a bit. That being said, it is a good science fiction novel in the classic sense. Plenty of hard science, scientific speculation and a much larger scope than the first book in this series offer their own attractions. I guess it depend on what you want out of a novel but I thought it was an enjoyable read.

Book Details
Title: Beyond the Blue Event Horizon
Author: Frederik Pohl
Publisher: Orb
Pages: 317
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2177-0
First published: 1980

Saturday, July 7, 2012

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall - Nancy Kress

Recently, I won a copy of Nancy Kress' latest novel After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall over at the Little Red Reviewer. It arrived in record time (thank you Andrea!) but unfortunately I lost it almost as quickly, when my girlfriend snapped it up to read. She has developed a real appreciation of Kress' writing, quite unusual for someone who doesn't read a lot of science fiction. Fortunately it is a quick read so I got it back in a few days and have managed to read it myself. It is an interesting novel(la?), one that can't have been easy to sell given its length, but I do have some reservations about it. I think it is not her strongest work by a long shot but certainly worth reading.

In 2035 a handful of survivors are all that remain of humanity. Rounded up in a structure called the Shell, they are protected from the radioactive wasteland that is all that remains of the earth. A race of aliens known as the Tesslies built this shelter and has provided the inhabitants with the basics necessary for survival. Despite their best efforts, prospects are not good. Too few to prevent inbreeding in the long run and crippled by radiation related genetic damage, humanity looks doomed. One piece of Tesslie technology that may change all this is a time travelling device that allows the survivors to travel to before the fall and snatch children or supplies. The Grabs, as these expeditions are called are getting closer together and more frantic. Time is clearly running out for the survivors.

In 2013, the kidnappings have not gone unnoticed. Brilliant mathematician Julie Khan is working with he police on finding the perpetrator. She believes there is a connection between the disappearances, a mathematical pattern that allows her to predict the next attempt. As she gets closer to the truth, her mathematics leads her to even more disturbing discoveries.

After she finished the novel, my girlfriend said there were a few things I should ignore to really enjoy the book and she was right. Kress does two things in this novel I don't like. It all comes down to personal preferences mind you, it doesn't necessarily make the book a poor one.

First, Kress wrote a time travel story. I generally don't like those, simply because they always lead to paradoxes and other impossible situations. It generally makes my suspension of disbelief collapse pretty quickly. I kept wondering why nobody in the shell ever thought of trying to warn people in the past for instance. Time travel stories somehow always tie themselves in knots. I must admit Kress writes a structurally beautiful story though. The switches between the sections in 2013/4 and 2035 are woven into each other in such a way that it appears to be told in a chronological fashion. A very odd experience when you think about it and it also shows how unfair I am being towards this book. If Kress had separated the characters spatially rather than in time, and then introduced a way of quickly covering this distance, it wouldn't have made think twice.

The next bit is spoilerish.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Blightcross - C.A. Lang

A while ago I read the themed anthology Ride the Moon, edited by M.L.D. Curelas and published by Tyche Books. This publisher has just stated up, in fact I think Ride the Moon was their first release, and they let me have a look at their forthcoming titles. One novel that caught my attention was Blightcross by Canadian author C.A. Lang. Lang also had a story in Ride the Moon, titled Tidal Tantums. I didn't mention it in the review. Blightcross is a full length novel that could very well be linked to that story. The novel is pretty hard to categorize but I guess it might fit the dieselpunk label. The description promised a mix of magic and technology, quite different from more traditional fantasies, which is one of the things that attracted me to the novel. And indeed, traditional it is not.

Meet Capra Jorassian, fugitive solder and con artist. Her life has been a string of attempts to steal from the gullible rich while staying out of the hands of the agents sent to capture her and bring her to justice. During one of Capra's attempts to gain wealth, on such agent finds her. They have a history together and he is not going to let her slip away easily. After a wild pursuit Capra and her companion end up on the streets of Blightcross with just the clothes on their backs. They need work quickly. Fortunately a booming city with a burgeoning oil industry ought to provide plenty of opportunities. And indeed, they soon find a promising job. Stealing a work of art from Till Sevari, the mad dictator that rules the city. They quickly find out the job is a bit more complicated than a simple burglary. Soon events spiral out of control and Capra needs to find a way to stop the complete destruction of the city.

Lang has created a world where technology has advanced quite a bit. There are airships, vast oil refineries, internal combustion engines and all sorts of mechanized vehicles. In short, anything that could be found before the digital revolution appears to be present in some form. That is not to say it is a modern world in all aspects. Many of the tasks that are now being handled by machines were once accomplished by a form of magic. This magic still lingers in the world and although it appears to be obsolete and on the way out, it still fascinates the dictator of Blightcross. The is a contradiction in his actions to subdue and replace magic though is huge industrialization effort and his private research into its nature. In fact his actions are so erratic at times that he must be even more insane than the general population seems to believe he is. There is more than a bit of megalomania in him, as well as the belief that he is acting for the good of the city. He's one of the more interesting characters in the novel although the author leaves us with more than a few questions about his past.

The city of Blightcross is described as an industrial wasteland basically. There is heavy industry just about everywhere and the huge expansion of the city has attracted large numbers of migrant workers for lesser developed regions of the world. The city is rife with ethnic tensions and social conflict, working conditions are appalling and pollution is severely limiting the life expectancy of the workers. Three is clearly a parallel with the situation in the middle east present in this novel, where oil rich states employ vast numbers of migrant workers in their industries and the wealth that pours into these nations is distributed in dubious ways. I couldn't help but wonder if there is some commentary on Canada's own oil industry in there somewhere. In particular it's environmental track record.

There is quite a bit of worldbuilding in this novel but in the end, it is a very plot driven tale. Lang doesn't pause to explain the political situation or historical aspects to the reader in the middle of a fight or heated discussion. He keeps the pace high and distractions to a minimum. It does result in lots of unanswered questions about what is going on the wider world. Capra was involved in a brutal armed conflict, the details of which, apart from a number of traumatic memories from Capra, are pretty scarce. The geopolitical ambitions of Blightcross and its relationship with its neighbours (and one assumes customers) is also fairly underdeveloped. I appreciate the author wanting to keep the pace up in this novel but I think in this area the novel could have been better. Second world fantasies do need a coherent structure in which to set the story and in the case of Brightcross, some aspects remain so vague that the responses of the characters, apparently stemming from their ethnic background, don't always make sense to the reader.

That being said, there is a lot of action in this novel, from strange machines wreaking havoc to supernatural beings threatening the world and from frantic attempts to break into strange buildings to desperate pursuits through the city, this novel has is all. Capra is quit an active main character. Lang decided to focus on a female main character, an interesting choice for a male author in his debut novel. Carpa is a very independent and somewhat stubborn woman. Years on the battlefield have shown her she is physically quite capable of taking on any man and this convictions shows in her actions. One of the many elements of the novel that could have done with a bit more attention is the observation that some of the cultures Capra encounters are not as emancipated as she feels they should be. Apparently she has a history there too.

Blightcross is an action packed novel and quite impressive for a debut. While I felt it lacked a bit of detail in some areas, and failed to properly explore the depth that is obviously present in this secondary world, it is an entertaining tale. One that shows a powerful imagination on the authors part and opens plenty of opportunities to further explore the setting. There are no easy answers or black and white situations in this novel, Capra is as flawed as any of the people who surround her and the author isn't afraid of showing the reader just that. In short, it is a promising novel. I wonder if the author means to write more stories in this setting.

Book Details
Title: Blightcross
Author: C.A. Lang
Publisher: Tyche Books
Pages: 350
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: e-book
ISBN: 978-0-9878248-3-7
First published: 2012