Sunday, April 27, 2014

Steles of the Sky - Elizabeth Bear

Steles of the Sky is the concluding volume in Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky trilogy. It's Bear's attempt to subvert just about every fantasy cliché that so plagued the genre in the years after the publication of The Lord of the Rings. She walks a fine line between writing a traditional epic fantasy and twisting it into a mode of fiction more in touch with modern ideas on gender, sexuality, politics and use of power. I absolutely loved the first two books, Range of Ghosts and Shattered Pillars, so my expectation for this novel were quite high. With a good finale the Eternal Sky trilogy could be something of a landmark in the genre and I think Bear has pulled if off. Steles of the Sky is an immersive and moving read, living up to the promise made in previous books. And to make things even better, Bear recently announced she will be writing three more books in this same universe.

Khagan Re Temur has raised his banner in opposition to the sorcerer al-Sepehr who is attempting to gain the power of a god. Through a series of clever strikes, al-Sepehr has forced together a formidable coalition. Most of them reluctant in their support for him. Temur is not entirely without allies though. With the support of the wizard Samakar, the mother of his child Edene, the monk Hsiung and the Cho-tse warrior Hrahima, he rallies his forces and Dragon Lake for a final confrontation with al-Sepehr.

The world building in these novels is very innovative. The concept of the sky changing with the ruler of the land is certainly one I haven't seen before. Most of it is laid out in the previous novels though. In this final book, Bear is mostly concerned with wrapping up all the dangling story lines. That doesn't mean there aren't some new elements in the story. She fives us a look at the northern people Kyiv, clearly inspired by the early Russian state that existed between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. Another new element is the inclusion of a dragon. How can you write fantasy and let yourself be inspired be Chinese culture without including one of those?

Temur is still the character the story revolves about. He is an almost a classic messianic figure in this novel. The one destined to lead his people against a great threat and deliver them from the evil sorcery of al-Sepehr and the mythical Carrion King. Unlike the stereotype however, he doesn't have to carry the weight of the world on is shoulders or  solve the its problems alone. A lot of the narrative deals with the people around him and it's their struggles carry to plot. The interplay between these characters is one of the elements that make these novels so successful. 

It's not by accident that a lot of the characters surrounding Temur are female. Bear continue to challenge the way women are depicted in fantasy and explores various ways in which they can be included without limiting them to the stereotypes so often encountered in other novels. She acknowledges that the cultures that inspired the novels had sexist elements deeply ingrained in them but doesn't let it stop her from fully developing these characters. Temur's reaction to the activities of the women around him is also something to be noted. Where some men would feel threatened by the strong women around him, in Temur we see respect, affection love and admiration. The way the reunion with Edene is handled is a particularly fine bit of characterization.

I did get the feeling that Bear ran into a problem that may authors of epic fantasy run into. Wrapping up all the story lines in the third book took her more pages than anticipated. This book is about a hundred pages longer than the previous two. Not that that makes it particularly long by the standards of the genre - Bear clearly is no Sanderson -  but the difference is still noticeable. Bear's writing remains effective however. Despite the large cast, the changes of point of view are smooth and the voices of the characters clearly recognizable. She is not tempted to add unnecessary bits of worldbuilding to the story. Where some would have been tempted to draw out the final confrontation a bit longer, Bear wraps up the trilogy is a bitter sweet final fifty pages.

It's in the climax of the trilogy that Bear's genius truly comes to the fore. It is very hard to discuss this without major spoilers for the entire series but I can say that is one of the most heartrending pieces of fantasy I've ever come across. Triumph and sacrifice and the physical reality of warfare make it an emotional roller coaster that will affect the reader long after the last page has been turned. Bear's writing is sometimes a bit understated, more subtle than some the big names in the genre, but she uses it to great effect in this novel. It is one of those pieces of writing you'd wish you could read again for the first time. Stunning, I have no other word for it.

I don't think I can praise Steles of the Sky, or the rest of the trilogy for that matter, highly enough. Bear set out to create a work of epic fantasy that would challenge the genre's clichés and treatment of gender related issues and ended up setting a new standard. Bear retains a lot of elements that make the genre attractive to readers while showing us a whole new way of dealing with them. It's one of the most successful attempts to break with the restrictions Tolkien's success imposed on the genre. I once said that if I'd found the perfect book I'd stop reading. Bear comes dangerously close to making me break that promise.

Book Details
Title: Steles of the Sky
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 429
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2756-7
First published: 2014

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

New Reading Challenge part 2

In January I wrote I was considering taking another reading Challenge on Worlds Without Ends. At the time I was considering the Translation one but coming up with enough titles that were translated and interested me enough to get a copy proved to be challenging. I will keep my eye out for them of course but I decided to pick an other challenge instead. Or rather, I picked two.
The first one is the 12 awards in 12 months challenge.
The WWEnd database tracks 14 different awards, which highlight some very excellent works of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  The awards have different selection methods, and often seem to represent slightly different tastes.  This reading challenge involves reading and reviewing winning novels of twelve different awards.  The rules are as follows:
  • Read 12 novels, each winning a different award tracked by WWEnd, in 12 months.
  • These novels must be new to you (no re-reads).
  • Review at least 6 of these novels.
This one sounds like a good excuse to read some classics of the genre I have so far neglected as well as picking up some recent books that have made an impact. So far I am on schedule. I've already completed the following book:
  1. The Gods Themselves - Isaac Asimov (Hugo, Nebula and Locus SF)
  2. The Mount - Carol Emshwiller (Phillip K. Dick award)
  3. Redemption in Indigo - Karen Lord (Mythopoeic Award)
  4. A Door Into Ocean - Joan Slonczewski (Campbell Award)
Don't know which one I'll be using the Asimov one for yet.

The second challenge is the Book of Ones challenge. This one is a challenge that can make your reading list grow exponentially, I don't think I'll be picking it again.
Read 12 books that begin a series, and review 6 of them. It doesn't necessarily have to be the book identified as the first in the WWE database, but should be a recognised starting point not just a random book. In addition, it should be a real series, where the books relate to one another, rather than a loose collection of stories or a thematic series (so Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea, fine; Hainish Cycle, not so fine).
I'm also on schedule for this one. It actually allowed me to use one book twice. So far I've read:

Forty Signs of Rain - Kim Stanley Robinson (Science in the Capital book 1)
Astra - Naomi Foyle (The Gaia Chronicles book 1)
The Forge of Darkness - Steven Erikson (The Kharkanas trilogy book 1)
The Reindeer People - Megan Lindholm (The Reindeer People book 1)
A Door into Ocean - Joan Slonczewski  (Elysium Cycle book 1)

So far so good.Should make it comfortably this year.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Ascension Factor - Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom

The Ascension Factor (1988) is the third book Herbert wrote in collaboration with Bill Ransom and the fourth in the setting introduced in his novel Destination: Void (1966). It's a series plagued with problems and tragedy. The first novel, The Jesus Incident (1979), had to be extensively rewritten at the last moment after a copyright issue threatened to block its publication. The second novel, The Lazarus Effect (1983), was written during a time of rapidly declining health of Herbert's second wife Beverly. She died less than a year after its publication. Herbert himself did not live to see the publication of the third novel. He died in February 1986, with much of the actual writing of the novel still to be done. Although Herbert and Ransom had agreed on the plot and character development, much of the novel is his work rather than Herbert's. It is clear however, that thematically at least, Herbert had a large influence on this novel.

Twenty-five years after the events described in The Lazarus Effect, Chaplain-Psychiatrist Raja Flattery, to the Pandorans known as the Director, rules the planet with an iron fist. Ecological and geological upheaval continue to wrack the planet and Flattery sees no other course to save humanity than to flee this planet and its dangerous alien intelligence. To do this he has geared the entire planet's economy towards outfitting and supplying a new Voidship. Famine is rampant and Flattery uses it to control the population. The increasing brutality of his rule has made him enemies however. A mysterious organization called Shadowbox is a menace and the kelp, always on the brink of once again becoming sentient, is an ever present threat. It is only a matter of time before he faces a full scale revolt.

This novel is one large attempt at dynamic equilibrium, a concept Herbert uses in many novels. It is most clearly expressed in the ecology of Pandora which plays a very large role in this n novel. Again the connection between the kelp, the ocean, weather and currents are explored. Flattery is aware of the kelp's importance to the planet. He sees it as a treat, trained as he is to act on signs of non-human intelligence. He doesn't dare to kill it off again though. He will not repeat the mistake Jesus Lewis made in The Jesus Incident and cause another ecological catastrophe. As a result he is forced to try and maintain a balance between regulating the kelp and stunting its growth to a level short of gaining self awareness. The margin for error is minimal but Flattery only has to hang on for so long, his escape vehicle is nearing completion after all.

Population pressure is a second example of a dynamic equilibrium. Pandora could comfortably feed its human population and Flattery knows it. To do so, would mean taking away resources from the huge project of building the Voidship however. The construction would become a multi-generational project and given the planet's instability, he feels he cannot afford to spend that much time on it. So hunger is used to keep the population in line and the workforce eager for the privileges their jobs provide. There is even a reference to Malthus in the book. Quite a lot of old earth's history, religion and science has survived it seems. Although the book doesn't really stress the point, it is the connection between economy and ecology that I really liked about it. The Director sees them as one problem to be managed rather than ignoring the ecological impact of economical activity. It's something a lot of science fiction fails to do unfortunately.

Flattery's approach is coldly brutal and relies on absolute control of the economy and communications. And that last bit is what gets him in trouble eventually. Keeping people ignorant is part of his strategy. He controls the media and transport and doesn't allow anyone else to set up their own networks. Keeping people ignorant of what is going on elsewhere keeps rebellions small and manageable. It is here that Flattery makes his mistake. Isolation cannot be maintained. Everything is connected after all, and the kelp is the connected factor.

The novel contains many themes found throughout Herbert's entire oeuvre. In that sense the novel doesn't stand out. The writing is noticeably different however. It took me a while to pin down the difference but I think it comes down to Ransom explaining too much. Herbert always relied on the reader to make the connections. In fact, some people felt he relied on them too much. Some of his leaps were hard to follow since Herbert liked to juggle multiple, often abstract notions in a single novel. This novel is not nearly as ambiguous as some of Herbert's best ones. It doesn't make the reader work as hard.

For me, that took a lot away from this book. Characterization has never been the strength of this series and to be honest, most of the main characters in this book are either two dimensional, uninteresting or plain don't make sense. Avata's new human form Crista Galli is particularly problematic. For someone who all parties in the conflict consider of key importance, she is remarkably passive in the novel. Or maybe it's the unconvincing and somewhat rambling conclusion of the novel that doesn't do her any favours. Bad guy Flattery is probably the most interesting of the lot since we've seen a totally different version of him in the earlier books.

Given the obstacles life threw in Herbert's direction during the writing of the series, it shouldn't come as a surprise that it is not his a highlight in his oeuvre. They are perfectly readable in a way but The Jesus Incident is unpolished, The Lazarus Effect uninspired and The Ascension Factor unconvincing. In a way, I can still enjoy the ideas Herbert and Ransom put in this novel. They are genuine Herbert in most places and I can see how they fit in the larger body of his work, but the story itself is just weak and not very well executed. It's not the kind of novel one would wish for when closing a successful career in science fiction.

Book Details
Title: The Ascension Factor
Author: Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom
Publisher: Putnam
Pages: 381
Year: 1988
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-399-13224-4
First published: 1988

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Ammonite - Nicola Griffith

Ammonite (1992) is Nicola Griffith's début novel. She has produced only a handful of novels since then but they have been generally very well received. I recently read her latest novel Hild, a historical novel based on what little is known about the life of the seventh century saint Hilda of Whitby. Hild is a fascinating book, one of the best I read last year, so naturally I was curious about the rest of Griffith's oeuvre. Ammonite must have made quite an impression as well. It was nominated for the BSFA and Clarke awards and won the Tiptree and Lambda Literary Award. Not bad at all for a début novel.

Centuries ago, on the planet Jeep a virus has destroyed the human colony. It is inevitably fatal to men but the mortality rate among women is only about 20 percent. Slowly a society made up entirely of women has evolved but now the company that sent the colonists in the first place, is trying to regain a foothold. The send anthropologist Marghe Taishan to test a new vaccine and to uncover the secrets of Jeep society. One question in particular is of interest to Marghe. How do these women procreate? As Marghe learns more about Jeep and its people it becomes clear that leaving is not an option. Marghe will have to find a way to protect Jeep from the company's attention in order to save her new home.

I recently read another novel featuring an all female planet: A Door into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski. It was published a few years earlier than Ammonite but takes a different approach in the way that biology and ecology are at the heart of the novel instead of anthropology. If I compare the two, the difference couldn't be greater. Where Slonczewski makes the contrast between male and female absolute, eventually dragging the entire story down to a good versus evil tale, Griffith's story is more subtle. The planet is populated by people who happen to be women, not a utopian caricature in sight.

So how do women get on without men then? Just fine really. Sure, Jeep has had to take a few steps back technologically after contact with the rest of humanity had been lost, but for the most part, life goes on as usual. There is agriculture, trade, a rich cultural life based on story telling traditions and, of course, war. I must admit that looking back on it, this was not quite what I had expected. Ammonite is often mentioned as being a feminist work. I suppose it is in a way but it doesn't really concern itself with male/female relationships or how the absence of one gender would impact the other. Even the main character doesn't really study the planet in that light. She is mostly interested in the puzzle of procreation.

That doesn't mean Marghe doesn't make a lot of observations about other elements of society however. As a trained anthropologist she immediately notices something odd about the language that is used for instance. While the spoken language on Jeep is a form of English, the various tribes and people use vocabulary form languages that were extinct even before their ancestors left Earth. Gaelic she is most exposed to but others show up too in the story. It's a riddle tied into the spiritual life of the people on Jeep, and one that is ultimately tied to the riddle of procreation.

Although, as a scientist, Marghe is supposed to keep a bit of distance between the object she is studying and herself, she quickly discovers this is impossible. The planet has swallowed her whole and even though she suffers terribly at times, the realization that she will never leave it, is something of a liberation. The culture of the peoples of Jeep relies for a large part on oral traditions. News is spread by traveling wise women, who also settle disputes, entertain and, if they are talented in that area, heal. It's a life that appeals to Marghe, who sees both the spiritual side as well as the structure of storytelling from a scientific point of view. Quite a bit of the novel is taken up by her struggle to reconcile her desires with the mission.

Griffith uses the vaccine Marghe has been given to test as a way to ramp up the pressure. She has a six month supply, after that she will inevitably contract the virus and, if she survives at all, be stuck on the planet. Early on in the novel, Marghe struggles against the planet, she works to get the job done as fast as possible and get out again. There is a clear breaking point in the novel were this becomes impossible. I thought the process of struggle, acceptance and embracing her new life was very well done. It does make it a very introspective novel however, not all readers will like that.

Tiptree and Russ are usually considered influences on Griffith's writing, I haven't read anything by either of them but from what I've read about them it seems quite obvious. With all the anthropology in this novel, there may well be a bit of Ursula K. Le Guin in it too. What surprised me was finding a passage in the story that reminded me of the control the Bene Gesserit, a sisterhood from Frank Herbert's Dune universe, have over their bodies. The ability to look inside at the molecular level seems fitting however. Looking inside and examining both the most intimate desires as well as the most basic levels of how the body works are another expression of the introvert nature of this novel. For Marghe who is very aware of sensory input and  feelings throughout the novel, they are almost the same thing.

Ammonite didn't quite make the same impression on me as Hild. It is a very good novel in its own right but Griffith's writing obviously developed over the course of two decades. Jeep is not brought to life in the way seventh century England is. That being said, it is a very solid science fiction novel. It can be read as a response to the feminist science fiction that has come before but it works fine as a social science fiction story as well. I'll be moving on to her Nebula Award winning novel Slow River as soon as I can get my hands on it.

Book Details
Title: Ammonite
Author: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 400
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-11823-2
First published: 1992

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fifty Degrees Below - Kim Stanley Robinson

Fifty Degrees Below is the second book in Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capital trilogy. It's a near future science fiction novel tackling rapid climate change, a topic that has always greatly interested me. I read it for the first time in 2006, when my classes in things like atmospheric chemistry, environmental systems analysis and ecology were still more or less fresh in my mind. Back then, I thought it a bit better than Forty Signs of Rain, which was a bit of a disappointment to me. After this reread I still feel it's an improvement but for slightly different reasons. I guess my expectations played an important role in my initial read.

The National Science Foundation is starting to put its plans to become the global coordinator of the human response to rapid climate change in action. Scientist Frank Vanderwal has agreed to stay on a year longer and help with the project. He has had to move out of his apartment however and with the flood wrecking many homes in the DC area, fining an affordable living space proves to be difficult. While the NSF projects grind on, defying a hostile White House, Frank tries out life as an urban nomad. With the harshest winter in living memory about to descend on North America, things are going to get very challenging both personally and professionally for Frank.

In my previous review I wrote that I had some reason to believe that the novel was set in the 2040s but that it didn't really seem to match with other elements in the novel. In Fifty Degrees Below, more and more hits showed up that would make it more likely that the novel is set right about now. Phil Chase for instance, is mention as having been a reporter in Saigon. Even if he started his career early and got there late in the Vietnam war, it would still mean he is pushing a hundred in the 2040s. A group of Vietnam veterans show up in the novel as well, one mentioning being involved in the Tet-offensive. I'm going to have to look into the Antarctic treaty some time to see where I went wrong. Of course setting it 2014  doesn't match with the presidential campaign described in this book.

In Forty Sings of Rain the novel focused on three major characters, Frank Vanderwall and Anna and Charlie Quibler. Fifty Degrees Below is almost entirely Frank's territory. If you don't like this character, and I have seen plenty of comments out on the web from people who don't, then this novel is going to be dreadful. Personally, I like Frank just fine. He is intelligent, resourceful, impulsive and still obsessed with the prisoner's dilemma and sociobiology. He's also very lonely and throughout the novel shows increasing signs of paranoia, a development that will carry over to Sixty Days and Counting.

In this novel Frank is trying out some of his scientific theories. Although he makes a token attempt to find another place, he convinces himself rather quickly that he can do without a permanent home. It's a fairly common theme in Robinson's work. A lot of his characters are constantly on the move. Frank finds his live with a minimum of material possessions liberating. Although he has a semi-permanent shelter in one of city's parks, closed after the flood, his activities are spread out over the city. This roving lifestyle is perhaps not as extreme as Nirgal's run with the ferals in Blue Mars but the hunter-gatherer Frank so often thinks about is very present in this book. It makes me wonder what Frank, or Robinson himself for that matter, would make of Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines.

His explorations in the park and his experiences as a homeless man often lead Frank to think about how hopelessly ill prepared most people are to live without modern conveniences. He tries to convince people to stop wearing cotton during the coldest parts of winter for instance, and does a lot to help a group of homeless people he's been in contact with. On the other hand, he also feels that if you know how, survival even in this cold winter is quite possible. He thinks about how his basic survival gear, Frank is an experienced mountaineer, has not survived since the time of Ötzi the Iceman. Robinson's interest in Ötzi is one of the things that would eventually inspire him to write Shaman. Frank's new lifestyle will get him in trouble eventually and in a way contributes to his loneliness but he displays a kind of happiness in parts of the novel that clearly wasn't there when he at the end of his first term as NSF.

Frank is full of contradictions in this novel, primitive living conditions if a highly developed urban environment, lonely but surrounded by millions, some of whom he could consider his friends, cynical of politics yet involved in a project to get science some political leverage, a self confessed rationalist deeply moved by Buddhist principles. When you think about it, it's no wonder he looses his mind. But even that is not straightforward, Frank suffers a trauma to the head that clearly influences his behaviour too. Some readers may not like him much, I think he is a fascinating character.

One drawback of this almost entirely single point of view approach is that it gives a very one sided view of events. Frank rationalizes his choice to become homeless by ignoring the drawbacks of his new lifestyle for instance. All this primate on the plain stuff works very nicely when you are strong and healthy and experienced. Mistakes can be very costly. For all his talk of happiness, there must have been a reason why the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was ultimately abandoned. Another obvious issue is Frank's growing paranoia. How much of the spy stuff is actually real? The reader has no way to judge. One has to constantly keep in mind Frank is unreliable and for some readers that gets tiring.

Fifty Degrees Below is frighteningly relevant in two aspects. The fist is obviously the harsh winter it describes. The title of the book refers to a particularly cold night when the temperature in Washington DC drops to -50 °F (or about -46 °C for those of us used to a more sensible temperature scale). It was cold in parts of the US this winter but fortunately for the people living there, DC didn't get that cold. The mechanism appears to be a little different, as far as I know the termohaline circulation hasn't stalled (yet), but the link with the disappearance of the polar ice cap is certainly there. Unfortunately, this winter in the Eastern US doesn't seem to have inspired the sense of urgency when dealing with the problem of climate change Robinson describes in the novel. I guess we need a few more signs to get us moving.

In the novel the NSF does get things going however. It focuses extensively on the political side of getting things done. Frank is quite cynical about the whole process. The mudslinging and corruption of pure science to fit a political ideology disgusts him. Fortunately his boss Diane better at politics. Like the previous novel, there is not much actual science in this novel. Where Forty Signs of Rain focused on the process of science, here we get to see the political side of things. One thing that does get described is an attempt to restart the sinking of saline water in the northern Atlantic and thus restart the thermohaline circulation. Between the lines, Robinson does explain the science of this and notes that there are tipping points in all sorts of physical and biological processes that offer opportunities for mitigation strategies. When dealing with climate, relationships are rarely linear.

I must admit I have my doubts about the feasibility of the technological fix Robinson describes but it does make for a very dramatic scene in the final part of the novel. It is a very visible attempt to do something, and therefore from a political point of view useful, but much more structural changes need to be considered to really bring the situation under control. Climatic terrorism, as the incumbent republican president keeps referring to the situation, cannot be dealt a finishing blow that easily. The simplicity of political reasoning is dominant in this novel but Robinson makes sure the reader understands the problems with it. In a way, the Chase campaign reminded me of the Obama campaign in 2008. There's a huge sense of optimism but in the background also the nagging question whether or not he can actually deliver.

The second aspect I found strangely relevant is the surveillance theme in the novel. In Forty Sings of Rain Frank met a woman working for a nebulous secret service. As their relationship evolves, he gets to know more about her work and the inner workings of the organisation she is working for. Frank is amazed that he would be interesting enough to keep an eye on and that it would be so easy. After Edward Snowden's recent leaks, we know that what Robinson describes is positively tame to what is going on in reality. Where the science Robinson describes, still works pretty well, I'm afraid reality has overtaken him on this point. One particular weakness is the low-key role of information technology (and the possibilities to monitor the communication it enables) seems odd. It's one area where technological development almost seems to outpace the capacity of society to adapt to it.

The trilogy is often being described as eco-thrillers and quite a few very dramatic events take place in this novel. Whole islands disappear into the sea, blizzards rage, elections are being manipulated. There is plenty of material for a real thriller here. Robinson didn't write a thriller though. He uses these event to make a point but they are not what the novel focuses on. As such, I think the thriller label is a bit misleading. If you go into these books expecting some Michael Crichton or Robin Cook you're in for a disappointment. Treat is as a near future science fiction novel works a lot better.

I think Fifty Degrees Below is a better novel than Forty Signs of Rain. It's his most political novel up to that point and probably also the one that is most likely to polarize readers. The tighter focus on a single character will not be appreciated by all readers but does give us the most detailed look into the mind of a type character that Robinson portrays in a number of his novels: the scientist engaged with society, working not just to expand the sum of human knowledge but to put this knowledge in practice too. Through Frank's eyes we see science reaching out to society and politics in a way that clashes with the traditional view of science as the pursuit knowledge only. Will science be able to overcome the shortcomings of the current political process? Will science help us deal with the current crisis better than the current policy of denial?

Fifty Degrees Below poses some very fundamental questions about the way we run the world at the moment. Not everybody will agree with Robinson's views but it makes for fascinating reading. At it's core, this novel is not a thriller but a political statement and the message is 'we need to do something now!' Read it as such and there is plenty of material to think about. It hits a lot closer to home than the Mars trilogy or other novels set in various places in the solar system. Earth is old, full and complicated and changing the direction we're headed is hard. The details of a story tackling such a complex subject and the details of science underpinning will always be debatable  but Robinson captures that sense of complexity and inertia in society very well. All things considered I think I got a lot more out of this novel than during my first read.

Book Details
Title: Fifty Degrees Below
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Pages: 405
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-553-80312-3
First published: 2005

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Talus and the Frozen King - Graham Edwards

I've been reading quite a bit of prehistoric fiction recently  (The Shelters of Stone, Shaman, The Reindeer People),  so when I was offered a review copy of Graham Edwards' Talus and the Frozen King I figured this one would fit right in. Edwards has published a number of fantasy novels under his own name, and more recently, two crime novels as Nick Curtis. I haven't read any of them but it would appear that in this novel he tries to bring these genres together. In this book Edwards introduces 'the worlds first detective.'

On their long track north, in search of the place where the northern light touches the sky, the bard Talus and his traveling companion Bran arrive at the island of Creyak. They arrive at an unfortunate time, the king of the island has just been found dead and strangers are not welcome on the island at the best of times. What is worse, it is immediately apparent to Talus that the kind did not die a natural death. Despite the hostility of some of the islanders, he sets himself the task of unravelling the mystery of the king's death.

Edwards has clearly done quite a bit of research on this book but it is also blatantly obvious he doesn't let his research get in the way of a good story. From what he describes it is almost impossible to date the story or pin down where it is set. The settlement Edwards describes is inspired by the neolithic site of Skara Brae on Mainland, the largest of the Orkney isles. I get the feeling the rest of the description of the island doesn't match however. That particular site was occupied from about 3200 BC, but Edwards states on his site that the story is set a bit earlier. That clashes with the reference to 'the stepped tombs in a distant desert land.' Which, if they are referring to ancient Egyptian monuments, seems to imply that the story is set in the 28th or 27th century BC. Then there is a reference to 'the cairns of the jungle realms that lie far to the west, over the sea', which can't really be placed in this time period at all. In short, Edwards does not strive for historical accuracy as much as tries to evoke a certain atmosphere in his novels.

That atmosphere is certainly there. The landscape he describes is cold and misty. A rocky icebound island, hiding the signs of centuries of habitation. It feels already old in the early stages of what we consider civilization. A place ruled by fear and distrust, illuminated by the eerie aurora that attracts the main characters. It's an almost otherworldly setting. I also got the feeling that is was set a little further north than the Orkney's but again, Edwards is not very precise in this respect.

At the core, the story is a mystery. Talus must find the killer without the aid of forensics or any sort of judicial system. He needs to tie the evidence together with what he learns from the people on the island. It is as much a matter of gaining insight into what drives the people he talks to as much as looking at the physical evidence. Not that Talus discards this altogether. He quickly figures out the killer is left-handed for instance. Despite his modest means, Talus is quite a skilled investigator.

I guess you could say is molded after the classic great detectives. He is a very observant man, good at spotting detail and fitting it into a bigger picture. He is also, how shall I put is, not an easy man to be around. He doesn't always have patience with those unable to follow the leaps in his thinking and often can't be bothered to explain. A trait that gets him in dangerous situations more than once. Fortunately, his gift for words is such that he can usually talk himself out of it. For the people around him, and to an extent for the reader, Talus is a bit of a trail. More than once, his motivations do not become clear until he explains them later on in the story.

The mystery Talus is trying to unravels starts small but quickly spreads. The murder of the king is the pinnacle of a much larger conflict within the community and even involving another local settlement. As strangers, Bran and Talus peel back layer after layer of conflict, strife, discontent and jealousy in order to find the truth. The inner workings of an essentially isolated community where one man with a strong arm and a forceful personality can make his subjects do his biding are slowly revealed to the reader. The pacing is well handled but one thing that did bother me about the plot was that there seemed to be very little in the way of laws and customs regarding crime and punishment within the community. Somehow that strikes me as unlikely.

As a mystery I don't think it is the best I've ever read. Talus needs to do a bit too much explaining for the whole thing to make sense. That being said, the novel is a quick and entertaining read. Not heavy on history or bogged down by archaeologic detail, Edwards keeps the story going at a brisk pace. The mystery set before the reader in the opening chapters is fully resolved by the end of it but Talus and Bran clearly have a past and from what we get to see of it, I would be surprised if Edwards meant to keep it to a single volume. Talus and the Frozen King is an entertaining read that offers plenty of opportunities for further adventures. I for one, wouldn't mind seeing another one of these come my way.

Book Details
Title: Talus and the Frozen King
Author: Graham Edwards
Publisher: Solaris
Pages: 336
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-84997-664-0
First published: 2014