Sunday, April 28, 2013

Shattered Pillars - Elizabeth Bear

Range of Ghosts was one of the best books I've read last year. Bear's attempt to show what epic fantasy can be if you strip away the sexism, overused tropes, excessive word count and pseudo medieval European setting. It was a bit of a departure from Bear's previous work but certainly a successful one. One element typical of epic fantasy Bear didn't discard is the trilogy format, although the books appear to be one long novel split in three rather than three distinct novels. I was late picking up Range of Ghosts, reading it months after it was published so fortunately I didn't have to wait that long for the second volume Shattered Pillars to appear. My expectations were high and I must say Bear has met them. If Bear can keep this going for the third volume, Steles of the Sky, expected in early 2014, The Eternal Sky trilogy will be a landmark in modern fantasy as far as I'm concerned.

Re-Temur and Samarkar the wizard have reached the house of Temur's grandfather in the city of Asitaneh. Temur's grandfather is a man of influence there but that doesn't mean they are safe. Violence and disease plague the world all along the Celadon Highway and Temur's enemies will not give up that easily. While the pair and their companions try to find a way to free Edene from the hands of the Rahazeen and forward his claim to the Khaganate that is still in dispute. The world doesn't wait for the two of them to sort out their problems though, assassins find them soon enough and on top of that political manipulations pose a challenge as well. Their position is desperate but they are not read to give up.

As with the previous volume, the novel is fairly concise. Where epic fantasy tends to run in may hundreds of pages, with large casts of characters and often many points of view, Bear manages to do an epic in just over 300 pages. Quite a feat if you consider that the novel follows three other major story lines besides that of Temur and Samakar. I haven't quite pinpointed how Bear manages. It is certainly not short on action scenes for instance. If I had to have a stab at it, I'd say it is probably a bit heavier on dialogue and light on descriptive passages. Bear manages to flesh out her world in remarkably efficient prose. Her language is gorgeous in this novel. If I had to make a comparison, the nature of the story and the prose reminded me of Guy Gavriel Kay. Bear doesn't borrow as heavily from history as Kay does but there are clear parallels with existing cultures throughout the book.

The women in this novel again take center stage. Samarkar is particularly impressive. She has always claimed to be a wizard of modest ability but the various life threatening situations she finds herself in make her pull off some impressive feats of wizardry. It is interesting to see that bear presents her magic as a combination of an elemental system and science. In one scene Samarkar is forced to manipulate fire for instance and in a leap of understanding she skips the phlogiston theory and reaches an intuitive understanding of the interplay between fuel and air. The science that can be found reading between the lines expands to such complex issues as radioactivity and human anatomy in other parts of the book. It is an interesting contrast with the sometimes very strange religious views of some of the characters and the Eternal Sky itself, which doesn't behave in any way science could explain.

Gender roles are further explored in this novel as well. Again Samarkar important here. The city of Asitaneh is part of the Uthman Caliphate where the Scholar-God is worshipped. There are some parallels with Islam in this particular faith regarding what is considered proper for women. In one scene, Samarkar is forced to wear armour, complete with helmet in the appalling heat of the city to avoid having to around veiled. Her modesty becomes her armour so to speak, I thought it was an interesting compromise. Appearing warrior like when modesty was the aim. It does allow Bear to show off Samarkar's impressive physical skills as well though.

One of the other plot lines that interested me in particular was the one set in the Song empire. It deals with the outbreak of an epidemic and focuses on the wizards of  Tsarepheth scrambling to find a cure for the disease as well as finding out the origin of the magical attack. Their research is an odd mix of a surprisingly deep understanding of the working of the human body and the magic that suffuses the whole city. I was very impressed with the way Bear describes the procedures. Although there is a distinct supernatural element to the disease the whole handling of the epidemic somehow struck me ar very realistic. One of the more powerful moments in the novel is when the Empress fully grasps her own part in these tragic events. It is topped by a (very understated) death of one of the secondary characters though. The response to this death of one of the wizards affected me greatly.

Shattered Pillars is every bit as good and Range of Ghosts. Never in this novel does Bear let the pace of the tale of the quality of the writing slip. Many an epic fantasist could do worse than take a few pointers from what Bear is trying to do here. Unfortunately I am going to have to wait the full year this time to read the conclusion but given the quality of the first two book I have no doubt it will be worth the wait. I may have to check out the accompanying novellas Bone and Jewel Creatures and Book of Iron, sometime soon. I can't emphasize this enough. Bear is on her way to creating a great work here. Fantasy readers take note!

Book Details
Title: Shattered Pillars
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 333
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2755-0
First published: 2013

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Boy Who Cast No Shadow - Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Something remarkable happened a couple of weeks ago when the Hugo nominations were announced; a Dutchman was nominated in the Novelette category. Although, especially in the short fiction categories, a slow movement towards a more diverse and international genre can be detected in recent years, I can't remember a translated work having made the ballot before. Thomas Olde Heuvelt is well known among genre fiction readers in the Netherlands, I've read two of his novels, the most recent one of which, Harten Sara has been reviewed on Random Comments. This novel is also expected to appear in English translation but other than that is is being translated, I haven't been able to find any details on that project.

The Boy Who Cast No Shadow was first published in 2010 and has appeared in Dutch in various places under the title De jongen die geen schaduw wierp. Olde Heuvelt has stated it was written as an ode to Pop Art by Joe Hill, a story he considers the finest short story of the twenty-first century. I'm afraid I haven't read it but the link might be interesting for fans of Hill's work. I first encountered The Boy Who Cast No Shadow in Pure Fantasy magazine number 19, published sometime in 2010. After winning the Paul Harland Prijs, one of the more prestigious Dutch awards for genre fiction, Olde Heuvelt invested his prize money in a professional translation and managed to get PS Publishing interested. The English translation is part of a collection called Unfit for Eden, edited by Nick Gevers and Peter Crowther. You can download the story as the publisher's website for free at the moment.

I have my reservations about Olde Heuvelt making the short list to be honest. At first glance it sounds like a remarkable feat of a  man who is very driven to succeed as a writer. Congratulations on his nomination, which is certainly a momentous occasion in the history of Dutch genre fiction, are in order. On the other hand it is telling that a man who, to my knowledge, only has one short story out in English (a second story titled The Ink Readers of Doi Saket is scheduled to appear on sometime in the near future) has managed to get nominated in what is essentially a popularity contest. The Hugo, supposedly the premier award in science fiction, has some credibility issues here. I guess this is an issue that comes up every year after the nominations are announced but clearly the need for a more robust membership base is still present. I haven't quite decided whether or not the very limited number of votes necessary to get on the ballot takes anything away from Olde Heuvelt's achievement or not. Of course it would have been a lot easier to make up my mind about this situation if he had submitted a story of lesser quality. Because The Boy Who Cast No Shadow is without a doubt worthy of the nomination.

The story is a fantastic piece about a boy named Look, who, as the title suggests, casts no shadow. He has no reflection in a mirror and no pictures can be taken of him. He doesn't know what he looks like and while his condition brings him his fifteen minutes of fame, is also causes him to wonder who he is. Not being able to see his face brings on an identity crises of sorts. Until he meets a boy who has a very different problem that is. Splinter is a boy named of glass, he is so fragile that even at the age of fourteen, he is the oldest boy with this condition in his family to survive. Despite this challenge he is an eternal optimist. Splinter will change the way Look views life forever.

As in Harten Sara, Olde Heuvelt uses the unreliable narrator to make things that are clearly impossible become real. There is no doubt in Look's mind that what he experiences is real, giving the whole story a kind of surreal atmosphere. The absurd situations the boys find themselves in and the limitations Splinter in particular encounters are told by someone who is convinced all this is actually happening. It clashes with the reader's sense of disbelief in interesting ways if taken literally. As an expression of vulnerably it is very clear though. In a way Splinter is a more successful character than Look. He feels he doesn't know who he is and that he has no ambitions or goals in life. The world is full of people like that, I don't think not being able to look at yourself in the mirror in the morning is going to make much of a difference in that respect. All things considered, he handles his fame better than many other people would in his situation.

Having read the story both in the original Dutch and in the English translation I can say I like the translation a lot. It is a fairly loose translation I suppose, not following the original too literally in many places. It might be a touch too formal in some places. Olde Heuvelt uses a lot colloquialism in his writing, as one might expect in a story told from the point of view of a teenager. Some of that is quite difficult to translate directly but on the whole I think translator Laura Vroomen manages well enough. There are a few passages where she encounters more interesting problems. A reference to a commercial for instance, that is almost impossible to translate. Olde Heuvelt also uses one line of broken English in the Dutch version but in the translation it is grammatically correct. This is mostly due to the choice not to make Look too obviously Dutch. His name has been translated for instance, references to the town where he apparently lives, or, more likely, have been included because it sounds dorky in Dutch, has been removed, there's probably a few other minor things. Reading the Dutch version made me realize how much layers of meaning a text can actually have. It certainly isn't the easiest work to translate.

Will The Boy Who Cast No Shadow win a Hugo? Most likely not. To most of the voters he will be an unfamiliar name in a field of established authors. I also suspect that this kind of fantasy isn't the most popular among the Hugo voting crowd. I haven't read any of the other nominated works so I have no idea if there is any particular story that stands out in this crowd but from what I can tell, Olde Heuvelt is facing stiff competition. I don't think he'll get it but if he does, you won't hear me complain. The publication date of his fifth novel Hex is rapidly approaching. I'm looking forward to reading that.

Edited on April 28th 2013 to include the link to The Ink Readers of Doi-Saket.

Book Details
Title: The Boy Who Cast No Shadow
Author: Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Translation: Laura Vroomen
Publisher: PS Publishing
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: e-book
First published: 2010

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Blood of Dragons - Robin Hobb

I guess this week is Robin Hobb week on Random Comments. After reading Hobb's novella The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince, I'm having a go at Hobb's latest novel Blood of Dragons now.  I tend to avoid reading works by the same author back to back but just this once I did anyway. Blood of Dragons is the fourth and concluding  installment of The Rainwild Chronicles, a series that started out as a standalone and, as Hobb puts it herself, grew in the telling. The fact that story grew so much is reflected in the structure of the novels and usually not to their advantage. That being said, I have enjoyed a return to the Rainwilds in the previous three novels so I was quite eager to start reading the final volume. The Dutch version has been available since September2012, I've been sorely tempted to pick it up. If I'd had more time to read this winter I might have.

Blood of Dragons picks up the story shortly after the end of City of Dragons. The dragon keepers have settled near the famed city of Kelsingra with a fast flowing river between them and the comforts of the ancient city. One by one, the dragons make the plunge and start using their wings, allowing the keepers to move into the city start exploring Kelsingra. In the mean time the Tarman is on its way back from the Rainwilds cities with a cargo of much needed supplies. It is being followed by ships of Chalcedean traders and mercenaries and a mixture of Jamalian and Bingtown captives. They are looking for dragons to kill and take back to their ailing Duke. Only the magic of dragons can save him from death and he is determined to hang on to life by any means. As the outside world encroaches on Kensingra is becomes clear an new understanding between the city of dragons and the human nations around it will have to be found.

For some reason I always have issues with the final book in a trilogy or series by Robin Hobb and this book is no exception. It continues the story of the set of characters we've been with for three books already and many of their trials and problems are familiar with the reader by now. Although characterization has always been Hobb's forte, I think many readers are not eager to go over the details of the main characters' challenges again in this novel. At 535 pages it is a quite substantial book and much of it is given over to the personal struggles of the characters. It makes Blood of Dragons a fairly slow moving and at some points (the love triangle between Thymarra, Tats and Rapskal) repetitive novel. It is a book that requires more than a bit of patience of the reader.

One might argue that Hobb's style has never favoured a fast moving plot but in this case I feel the author has let the characters overshadow the larger bigger story that she has been trying to tell. A war and a heads on collision with the Trader Council, both of which had been brewing for quite a while, are dealt with in the final fifty pages of the book, with quite a lot of the action taking place off screen. It makes the end feel rushed and downplays the importance of some events. After all that careful worldbuilding it is a shame not to employ it to full effect. The role of Chalced in particular is underexposed. Hobb tries to drag the nation out of the role of the perpetual bad guy in the Realm of the Elderlings but in the end there is only one Chalcedean character we can feel any sympathy for.

Another resolution that felt rushed is the final confrontation between Sedric, Alise and Hest. Without spoiling the story here, the resolution is both abrupt and unsatisfying. Frankly, I feel Hobb took the easy way out here, although I must admit Hest's behaviour stays consistent until the very end. Still, for a story line that has been going on since the very beginning of the Rain Wilds Chronicles I thought it was too neat a solution for the threat Hest poses to Sedric and Alise. The fall out of their actions among the Trader communities in the Rain Wilds and Bingtown is also mostly glossed over. By the end of the novel, it feels like the Traders are still mostly in denial, pretending it is business as usual. With such, to their conservative society, shocking affairs taking place that doesn't seem like a very likely outcome to me. It is almost like Hobb is playing this part of the story down to prevent adding even more pages to the story.

One aspect of the novel were Hobb does keep things moving is the dragon's development. From the stunted little creatures they were in Dragon Keeper they transform to the confident yet immature dragons we get to see in this novel. Although the effects from their less than optimal youth are still being felt, they reach the point where dragons once again become a force to be reckoned with in the world. The keepers, highly influenced by dragons' glamour as they are, feel this is the setting right of an ancient wrong. Of those keeping a little more distance from the dragons, many will regret the day that Tintaglia crawled out of her cocoon on the banks of the Rain Wilds River. As always, Hobb's characters are many shades of grey, the dragons included.

In the end I thought Blood of Dragons was a decent novel but not an exceptional one. It suffered from the set up of the series as a whole and . Hobb feels the story grew in the telling. That might be true but I think that with a bit more rigorous editing many of the annoyances in this series could have been avoided. The abrupt cut that was necessary to split Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven into two books for instance. Or the somewhat dragging middle section of this book. The split between City of Dragons and Blood of Dragons is handled a lot better than with the previous two books but the novels feel too long anyway. City of Dragons turns out to be the strongest novel in the series. I feel it is a shame that the conclusion has so many problems. This series deserved a stronger ending.

Book Details
Title: City of Dragons
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 535
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-744413-7
First published: 2013

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince - Robin Hobb

It's a good year for Robin Hobb fans. This month Blood of Dragons. the final installment in her current series the Rainwild Chronicles, appeared and on top of that The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince,  a new novella also set in the Realm of the Elderlings, was released by Subterranean Press. I'm currently reading Blood of Dragons but when This beautiful little book arrived I couldn't help myself an read that one first. As usual the people at Subterranean did an great job of making the book look pretty. It's a nice little hardcover with with a cover and two full colour interior illustrations by Jon Foster. This book is almost worth the price just for the looks.

Robin Hobb is mostly comfortably writing the long form. Her novels tend to be very big books. In her debut under this pseudonym in 1995, only six pieces of shorter fiction have appeared. Five of them are tied to the Realm of the Elderlings in which most of her novels are set. I've read three of these pieces, collected in the Robin Hobb/Megan Lindholm collection The Inheritance (2011). Of those I thought only Homecoming, a story that serves as a prequel to the Liveship Traders trilogy, can live up to the standard Hobb sets in her novels. She just seems to be more comfortable with novel length works.

The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince is a 38,000 word novella, even Hobb's short fiction is long. The story that reaches back to the Farseer trilogy. The legend of the Piebald Prince surfaces several times in those books as an illustration of the prejudice and outright hate people with eh Wit encounter in the Six Duchies. The details of the story are scarce though, and most of it is portrayed as legend rather than history. In this novella, we get an eyewitness account. It is told in the first person and Felicity, the woman who recounts the events, does make it clear that it deviates from official history in a few crucial details. The truth of the matter is for the reader to decide I guess.

Felicity is a servant and wet-nurse in service of the Farseers. She is the playmate of the 'willful' princess Caution and her son the Piebald Prince. The story is told in two parts. She first recounts the story of the princess Caution and her own youth by her side and how the young princess met a certain Chalcedean stable hand possessing the Wit. In the second half of the tale she moves on the Caution's son and the heir to the throne of the Six Duchies. Their lives will bring the Six Duchies to the brink of civil war and change the line of the Farseers forever.

Some reviewers feel this novella is a good entry point into the wider Realm of the Elderlings. I disagree with that. Hobb only touches lightly upon the Wit and the Skill and the significance both kinds of magic have for the Six Duchies. The real significance of what is going on will likely be lost on readers who haven't at least read the Farseer trilogy. The context of that story enriches the novella to the point that is becomes more than a well-written fairytale. Personally I think I would have found it only mildly interesting without having read the rest of the series.

The first person point of view Hobb chooses fits that of the rest of the Farseer books. I thought that was a nice detail. The way the story is split in two halves doesn't work nearly as well though. Essentially it is a tragic repetition. Both the Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince manage to wreck their lives under the influence of the Wit and in both cases it is like watching a train wreck. Hobb's novels are often tragedies and her characters are generally no strangers to self destructive behavior. To fit two of them in less than 200 pages is a bit too much in my opinion.

That being said, it is written with skill. I rarely come across an author who masters the first person point of view like Hobb does. Throughout the tale you feel Felicity's fear of being released from service and having to return to her live of poverty that her mother worked so hard to escape. It's the personal challenges amid events of nationwide significance that make the story come to life. It's the reason why I lived the Farseer trilogy so much and why I have devoured every book Hobb has published since. The novella is perhaps a bit too short for this technique to achieve its full effect but in a way Felicity is a more interesting character than either the Princess or her son.

So is The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince worth the price Subterranean is asking? For a fan of Hobb's work I'd say yes. It is a well crafted tale about a key point in Six Duchies history. It enriches the series as a whole and will keep the experienced Hobb reader turning pages. For a fist time reader I think I'd be better just to pick up a copy of Assassin's Apprentice and start at the beginning. A full novel will be a more rewarding read. That is, if you can find a copy of this book at all. As I understand it Subterranean is almost though the second print of this novella already. Who says this type of work won't sell? I'm glad I got my copy on time, time to head back to the Rainwilds and finish Blood of Dragons now.

Book Details
Title: The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 184
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-544-4
First published: 2013