Monday, September 30, 2013

I've Been Interviewed Again

Just in case you want to know what I was up to last weekend. Jesse, owner of the Speculation book blog has sent me a list of questions each worthy of a lengthy answer. He kindly lets me ramble about books, my blog, my reading habits and science fiction and fantasy in general. The interview can be found here. Go make  your self some tea first, it's quite a long read.

The overlap in reading between Jesse and me (judging form the reviews on his blog) is very large indeed. Quality wise his reviews are a few steps up from mine however, I recommend that you check them out.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Republic of Thieves - Scott Lynch

This book has the dubious distinction of being on the most anticipated titles of the year for several years running. Lynch's first novel, The Lies of Locke Lamora, appeared in 2006 and was a huge success. It was quickly followed by Red Seas Under Red Skies in 2007. The pressure was on to deliver the third book  in what is to be a seven volume series, but Lynch struggled with mental problems that kept him from finishing it. The Republic of Thieves was postponed, and then postponed again until finally earlier this year it was announced that a complete manuscript had been delivered. I've been sitting on an advance copy of this book for quite a while now but with the October release date rapidly approaching, I could no longer contain my curiosity. I finished earlier this week and I have to say, Lynch returns in style.

The Gentleman Bastards are in serious trouble after their botched confidence game in Tal Verrar. Locke is dying from a slow-acting poising after tricking Jean into taking the only vial of antidote. He has given up while Jean is frantically trying to save his life. None of Jean's attempts are successful and he is getting desperate when the Bondsmagi once again interfere. For reasons of her own, a magus using the name Patience offers her assistance in curing Locke. For a price. The Gentlemen Bastards are to travel to the city of Karthain, current residence of the Bondsmagi, and rig an election for them. Problem is that the opposing side has also hired someone to run their campaign for them. Locke and Jean will face their old friend Sabetha, once member of the Gentleman Bastards and the love of Locke's life. With the Bondsmagi looking over their shoulder, business and private affairs become a lethal tangle.

Structurally, Lynch chooses more or less the same approach as he did in the previous novels. Story lines set in Locke's formative years are intertwined with events in the present. Where in previous books Lynch abandoned the scenes set in the past, he keeps it up all the way to the end of the novel in The Republic of Thieves. There is something to be said for the structure Lynch chose in the previous book, there is no point in taking a those story lines past the point where they cease to be relevant, but the more balanced story presented in this novel does make for a smoother read. Personally, I also enjoy the chapters on Locke's youth a lot.

The Gentleman Bastards get involved in all manner of complicated schemes of course, they can hardly avoid it, but what the book is really about is the relationship between Locke and Sabetha. Lynch has hinted at their history in previous books but other than that is was a painful subject for Locke, not much was really revealed. A lot of the story line set in the past lays out their developing relationship and the complications that arise along the way. Although Locke has been the main character for two novels now, this book reveals a new layer to his character. It is, as you might imagine, all very dramatic. Lynch captures the desperation of the teenage Locke and Sabetha quite well.

Like all of Chain's students, Sabetha is quite a formidable young lady. In fact, until Locke's arrival she is probably the most talented member of the gang. Something that will cause problems for them in later years. Lynch always plays for high stakes in his writing. He's been hinting at this character for two books and raising expectations. Personally, I liked the way he portrays her. She's as complicated a person as Locke. The way they attract and repel each other worked very well for me.

The title from the novel is taken from a (fictional) play the Gentleman Bastards get sent to perform in by Chains. It's a drama that Shakespeare wouldn't have been ashamed of an it mirrors the drama that unfolds in the story perfectly. The chaotic preparation for their first performance also adds a comical element to the novel that is needed to break the constant strain Locke and Jean find themselves under in other parts of the novel. I guess I do like the Gentleman Bastards in their teenage years best. Reading these sequences do make me wonder if Lynch has enough material to keep these dual story lines going for four more books.

I had already been apparent that the Bondsmagi still had a bone to pick with Locke after his encounter with the Falconer. The fallout from this conflict is the basis for the story line set in the present. Lynch is expanding this a lot further, connecting the motivations and apparent restraint in controlling the world of the Bondsmagi with the attitude of the gods and of course the mystery of Locke's origins. It is a complex puzzle, especially since not all information the Bondsmagi provide can be taken at face value. They are not entirely omnipotent as Locke has already convincingly proven. Lynch is clearly laying the foundations for future novels here.

The Republic of Thieves is a novel that turned out to be worth the wait. As usual, Lynch plays for high stakes, constantly setting up situations that appear almost impossible to get out of (or write yourself out of from the perspective of the author). He manages to do just that every time. One may wonder, as fellow blogger Kenneth has already pointed out, to what extent these high stakes combined even higher expectations from readers have contributed to Lynch's mental problems. A bit more self confidence is warranted I think. Lynch delivered a book fans will love. Structurally it is stronger than the previous volume. Some of the novelty of The Lies of Locke Lamora has worn off of course, but the book is nevertheless great fun to read. Lynch is a very talented author, I already look forward to reading The Thorn of Emberlain.

Book Details
Title: The Republic of Thieves
Author: Scott Lynch
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 672
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-0-553-90558-8
First published: 2013

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Forest - Edward Rutherfurd

I bought this paperback of Rutherfurd's The Forest back in 2001. It's his fourth novel but my introduction to his work. Not being familiar with Rutherfurd's work,  mostly picked it up because of the subject. During my days in college the New Forest had been mentioned several times as an example of how small scale management practices can lead to a very diverse ecology. Rutherfurd focuses more on the history of the place of course, but the two are so intertwined that a lot of what was mentioned in my ecology classes does show up in the text. From then on I have tried to read one of Rutherfurd's books every couple of years. His works require so much research that he only publishes one every three or four years. Currently he has eight novels out, of which I have yet to read two. Maybe I'll try his latest novel Paris (2013) next year.

The Forest describes his history of the New Forest in the south of England almost from its creation as a royal hunting reserve to the present day. William the Conquerer helped himself to this vast stretch of land around the year 1078. Rutherfurd starts his tale in 1099, with the events leading up to the death of William Rufus in 1100. He then follows successive generations of eight fictional families: the Albions, the Puckles, the Tottons, the Martels, the Furzeys, the Prides, the Grockletons and the Seagulls. Each of these families represent different faces of the Forest in different times and often their life intersects with real historical figures. In effect, Rutherfurd is taking the James Mitchener approach to historical fiction.

This novel is the third novel by Rutherfurd set in a relatively small area. His first novel Sarum (1987) describes the history of the Salisbury plain just north of the New Forest. In London (1997) he tackles the history of England's capital. England's history is rich of course but he still runs the risk of repeating himself. As such, this book is slightly more concise than the other two. Both Sarum and London top 1300 in mass market paperback and start in prehistory. The Forest has to make do with just under 900 pages and 9 centuries of history. Although the books are meant to be read individually, Sarum and London in particular have links between them. Given the proximity to the New Forest, Sarum shows up in the pages of this novel several times as well.

The New Forest really is a unique bit of England. Many people would see it as a wilderness, a large stretch of natural forest, bog and heath and Grassland. Nothing of course, could be further from the truth. The land has been managed in a variety of ways, resulting in the landscape we see today. As one fictional ecologist in the final section of the novel points out, the Forest is a dynamic ecosystem where man has played an important part in creating and maintaining certain balances and occasionally upsetting them. What Rutherfurd also shows in the text is that it is constantly under pressure in various ways. Population growth tourism and economic pressures being the greatest threats in modern times.

Although the New Forest was set up as a hunting reserve for the crown, the local population retained a lot of rights for other uses of the forest. They could let their cows and ponies graze at certain times of year, use the underbrush for firewood, turn out their pigs to feed on beechnut and acorn in fall and  to cut peat for fuel to name a few. Many of these rights were linked to cottages or landholdings and have been in effect ever since the founding of the New Forest, although they weren't recorded until the 17th century. Some of them are still in effect, although the system in under threat. These rights gives one an impression of the numerous ways in with the environment was used but that was not nearly all of it.

The New Forest housed large populations of various deer species. In medieval times these were important to keep the royal court fed and punishments for poaching were very harsh indeed. The deer had a large impact on the forest, eating large quantities of saplings and the lower branches of trees. Later on timber became more important. As the English fleet expanded, the forest's oaks turned into a valuable assets. Selective felling of trees and the appearance of enclosures to grow trees for use as timber again shaped and changed to landscape. When you think about it, this piece of England was far more intensely used than may people realize. Of course it is never enough for some. The many uses of the land, the way these uses are governed and the ways in which this government is evaded are the backbone of the novel and in my opinion a marvelous set of themes.

Rutherfurd also weaves a lot of history into his tale of course. He is quite detailed on the events leading up to the Spanish Armada attempting to invade England in 1588, the reigns of Charles I and Charles II and the English civil war, and the Victorian era, when industrialization and clashes with the traditional ways of life in the forest and the emerging recognition of the region as a valuable ecosystem. The author lectures on the history of England and the Forest in various places, especially to bring the reader up to speed on what happened in the periods he skips. Personally I think there is no point to reading Rutherfurd's novels if you don't appreciate this sort of thing but it has to be said that he has gotten a lot better at it in the years since writing Sarum. These overviews of England's history are inserted much more seamlessly.

Since reading this novel for the first time back in 2001 I've read several thousand pages of other material by this author. Books like Russka (1991), Dublin: Foundation (2004) and New York (2009) impressed my but even after this reread, The Forest is a personal favorite of mine. It's not often you find a book that points out humanity's relationship to the environment and landscape in such vivid detail. This combination of ecology and history gives this novel something extra compared to Rutherfurd's other novels. This is of course my own personal bias. I like books that show a certain awareness of the environment or explore the implications of upsetting an ecological balance. In that sense the novel is a wonderful read. It makes me regret I haven't visited the region myself.

Book Details
Title: The Forest
Author: Edward Rutherfurd
Publisher: Arrow Books
Pages: 883
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-09-927907-X
First published: 2000

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Planet of the Apes - Pierre Boulle

Planet of the Apes by French author Pierre Boulle is one of those rare works in science fiction to come from outside the anglophone sphere and achieve a high level of success. The noevel was first published 1963 as La Planète des singe. There are English language editions with the title Monkey Planet as well. Whoever came up with that title should be introduced to Terry Pratchett's librarian. Planet of the Apes has spawned a move franchise that currently consists of seven movies, with an eight, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, scheduled for the summer of 2014. The moves take he story way beyond the scope of what Boulle envisioned of course, and probably had more of an impact than the book itself. I've seen a few of them and that was enough to spark my interest in the novel. I ended up with mixed feelings about his book. It has some interesting aspects but it is also quite pulpish, especially in character development.

Some time in the far future, a couple sailing the stars at their leisure, discover an interstellar message in a botte. The message contained within, tells the tale of an early interstellar traveler by the name of Ulysse Mérou, who describers his adventures on a planet circling the start Betelgeuse. His tale is one of a society where the roles between man and the great apes have been reversed. Mankind's condition is reduced to that of a mere animal while a society composed of Chimpanzees, Gorillas and Orangutan rules the planet. Without means to leave the planet and captured by the apes, Mérou sees himself put to the task of convincing the apes of his intelligence.

Despite being set more than five centuries in the future from the time it was written, Mérou and  his party have a very colonial outlook on life. They have a hard time imagining any other form of intelligent life besides humanity. There is also a clear element of racism present in the early scenes where the party first meets specimens of the native human population. Disbelieve that humans, and apparently Caucasians ones at that, could be reduced to less than the most primitive tribe on earth. Ironically, Mérou does experience the hunt on them that follows as shocking, while at the same time acknowledging that such hunt occur on earth and that the humans on the planet are no more than animals. It one of the many ethically questionable positions he finds himself in.

Equally problematic for instance, is Mérou's relationship with Nova, one of the native women he encounters shortly after landing. Her physical beauty and complete lack of intelligence are described in detail in the early chapters of the book. Mérou feels somewhat guilty about but nevertheless takes her as a mate. His treatment of her is quite often contemptible and not until she turns out to be pregnant, does he begin to appreciate her as a human being.

Mérou is caught between his own prejudice and the treatment he receives as a prisoner of the apes. The put him through a whole series of tests he recognizes as Pavlov's experiments. On the one hand he despises his fellow captives who perform the tricks exactly as predicted, on the other he feels the pull to conform. Sometimes he is absurdly grateful for what little attention he receives from his captors. More often he is thinking about ways to convince his captors of his intelligence so he can regain his freedom. His treatment is one of the ways in which Boulle holds us a mirror. The parallel with animal tests is clear and the author is not afraid to rub that in.

Racism and paranoia are not limited human society, the apes suffer from it too. Boulle shows us a society that is split up in three distinct layers. The Chimpanzees, Gorillas and Orangutan each have their own strengths and their roles in society are defined by it. Mérou has most contact with the Chimpanzees. They are the most intellectual and curious of the three, many of them working in scientific positions. Watching over them are the dogmatic and socially conservative Orangutan. Official science as the Chimpanzees refer to their jobs. Mérou  comes to share their distaste for them over the course of the novel. The militaristic Gorillas are mostly put into jobs that require little intellect and great bodily strength. The three species may superficially be at peace, there is a clear tension between them.

As a science fiction novel, I'm not particularly impressed with the science part. There is a lot of dodgy comments on evolution and the eventual origin of simian society seems to assume that we can bring primates up to the level of human intelligence. They may be our closest relatives, biologically there are still differences. Not only between humans and the great apes but also between the three species of ape in the book. What is depicted in the book is unlikely in the extreme, if not outright impossible. In one scene the native woman Nova, who would go on the be Mérou's mate, strangles a tame chimpanzee. I seriously suggest you don't try that at home.

Boulle didn't set out to write a science fiction novel with the emphasis on science however, so to a point it is excusable. The social commentary doesn't work that well either however. Perhaps if he'd taken a more satirical approach. On that level it doesn't work either. I feel that for the satirical aspect of the novel to have worked, he would have had to exaggerate a bit more. As it is, the novel is terribly blunt in making its point. Most of the time I spent reading it I was annoyed with the characters for something or other.

I can see why Planet of the Apes became a classic but truth be told, I don't really think it merits that status. It is an interesting read in a way though. The Hollywood adaptation of it differs considerably from the original (although the 2001 remake is closer to the book). In fact, the story is changed to such an extent that the end of the novel will come as a surprise to readers who are only familiar with the classic movies. I thought the difference between the novel and he movie adaptation was probably the most interesting aspect of this read. It almost begs the question what a French movie adaptation would look like.

Book Details
Title: Planet of the Apes
Author: Pierre Boulle
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 268
Year: 2001
Language: English
Translation: Xan Fielding
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-345-44798-2
First published: 1963

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Kim Stanley Robinson Interviewed by Adam Ford

As the regular visitors of this site have probably noticed I've been a fan of Robinson's work ever since picking up Blue Mars in the late 1990s. I have reviewed twelve of his novels for the blog so far. There have been a number of interviews floating around the internet to coincide with the release of his latest novel Shaman. I've unfortunately been unable to obtain an advance copy but it is on its way here now and I expect to read it later this month. This morning I took the time to watch an interview with Robinson conducted by Adam Ford over at h+. It is not about his new book especially but touches upon numerous topics that show up in Robinson's writing, in effect discussing his entire oeuvre. The whole thing lasts some 45 minutes and it is well worth watching to. I've embedded the first of five parts. You can find the rest here.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Palimpsest - Catherynne M. Valente

Palimpsest is my ninth read in the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge. I picked it mostly because Valente had caught my eye a few times in the last few years but I never got around to reading anything by her. I remember this novel being well received when it was published. It was nominated for the Locus SF, Hugo and Mythopoeic awards and took the Lambda Literary Award home. Quite an impressive list. The novel also served as an inspiration for Valente's crowd-funded novel The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (2011) and it's sequels. In other words, more than enough reasons to have a closer look at it.

Palimpsest is a city unlike any you've heard of. It is a city of wonders, a mystery and a curse at the same time. Only a few people can gain access and only for a single night at a time, before being flung back into their mundane existence. Those who make the passage are marked forever but finding others to help them relive the experience isn't easy. The city keeps pulling them in however, the lure of Palimpsest is irresistible, and for a lucky few, permanent residence in the city appears possible. If they can overcome that challenges the city sets them.

The novel follows four main characters who have been introduced to the wonders of Palimpsest in their search for the city an each other. There is a Japanese woman, an Italian bookbinder, a Russo-American locksmith and a beekeeper from California. Each of them have been introduced to the city though sex with a stranger and it remains their portal throughout the novel. As a consequence their is a lot of sex in the book. Sex in all manner of places, sex between people of the same gender, sex with more than one person at a time. Valente is is poetic in her depictions of the act. Rarely very descriptive or unnecessarily explicit but if you don't like sex scenes in a book Palimpsest is not for you.

Some people have described the novel as erotic but personally I didn't really think that was the case. The four main characters are driven by a need that is not unlike a heroine addiction. They are constantly looking fro the next partner, the next trip to Palimpsest. Some of it is erotic but quite a lot of it is lusting after the city rather than the partner they are with. There is something compulsive about it. Something decidedly sordid. Sex as a price to be paid for what you really want, or, as some have observed, the city as a sexually transmitted disease.

As the story progresses and the obsession of the main characters with Palimpsest increased, a lot of the scenes become downright tragic. the characters cease to care about heir life in our world. They lose jobs and partners, the city disfigures them or drives them to physical and psychological extremes. For much of the novel we are reading about characters on the verge of destroying themselves. One might wonder if the city is worth it.

The characters seem to think it is and Valente does create a mysterious city, full of surreal cityscapes and strange inhabitants. I found it vaguely reminiscent of Miéville's New Crobuzon. Valente adds to that by her use of language. There is lots of imagery and de descriptions are very poetic. Some sentences practically beg to be read again and again. To an extend it distracts from the terrible process the main characters are going through. The story features lost of symbols having to do with finding passage to another places. Trains, keys, maps and dreams to name a few.

Palimpsest is clearly not without its dangers but attracts the characters at the same time. Each of them is damaged in a way and it provides the city with the leverage it needs to draw them in. While they have their own motivations for looking to escape to Palimpsest, they share that none of them makes much of an attempt to function in their own world. The novel doesn't show their own lives at all. They don't interact with anybody not involved with Palimpsest in some way. Their isolation and obsession is pretty much complete.

Valente takes her time in shaping the plot. Introducing the city and all four main characters take up quite a few pages. Just looking at the plot, the novel is a bit thin. Each of the characters is introduced to Palimpsest and ends up wanting it more than anything. Then they find a fairly straightforward way to get it. Not much of a story line for a novel really. If you are a very plot oriented reader than Palimpsest is probably going to be a tough read for you.

I must admit I'm not too fond of novels that use beautiful language for the sake of it. It took me a while to read it as I can only take in so much of this style at a time. Puzzling out the the language is challenging and this is one of the few novels I've recently read that make me feel I'm a second language English speaker. At some points I think Valente does go overboard on the poetic descriptions. Despite that, I enjoyed the novel more that I thought I would.  Novels like these are rare in fantasy and especially in the urban sub genre, overrun as it is by sparkling vampires and sexy werewolves. Valente has created something special here, but it will certainly not be everybody's cup of tea.

Book Details
Title: Palimpsest
Author: Catherynne m. Valente
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 367
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-553-38576-2
First published: 2009