Saturday, May 31, 2014

Ancillary Justice - Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice, the debut novel of Ann Leckie, has been taking science fiction by storm. It is the first in a trilogy and has been drawing a lot of attention since it was published last year and is looking like a hot favourite to sweep the awards this season. It has already won the BSFA, Nebula and Clarke Awards and it is still in the race for the Campbell Award, the Locus Award for first novel and of course the Hugo. Ancillary Justice was also nominated for The Philip K. Dick Award but that one was awarded to Countdown City by Ben H. Winters. I'm probably overlooking a few other awards and nominations too. In short, a very impressive haul. I'm always a bit wary of books surrounded by this much hype but I decided to give it a go anyway as part of the 12 awards in 12 months reading challenge over at WWend.

The story is a far future science fiction, in which artificial intelligence, space travel and cloning techniques have advanced greatly. We meet our main character, Breq, on a remote planet, where, after a search that has taken almost two decades, revenge is within reach. On the last stretch of the journey Breq meets someone from her past. A time when service to the galaxy-spanning empire of the Radch meant controlling thousands of bodies and being reduced to a single one seemed impossible. Breq is determined to carry on with her plans but this meeting with her past complicates things considerably.

The novel contains a lot of elements that space opera in particular is rife with. Cloning, galactic empires, mysterious alien races and artificial intelligence is hardly new to science fiction. Leckie examines what it is to be human through alien intelligence, tackles empires and the morality of their drive to continually expand, and explores discrimination though the treatment of clones. I can think of dozens of books exploring this idea, quite a few of them doing a better job than Leckie is doing here. So far, there is nothing special about this novel.

What is probably the most inventive part of Ancillary Justice, the very thing that makes the book rake in five star reviews by the dozen,  is Leckie's treatment of gender. Breq used to be a spaceship controlling thousands of clones. It is never explicitly stated in the novel but one would assume both male and female bodies. Breq is referred to as she but cannot be considered to have a gender, or at least not one that is contained in the male/female spectrum. To make matters more complicated, Breq isn't usually sure whether she is dealing with men or women herself.She often resorts to guesses and throughout the novel most characters are referred to as she, although there is no indication of whether or not they actually are.

Breq herself comments on it once early on in the novel.
"I can't see under your clothes. And even if I could, that's not always a reliable indicator."

Chapter 7
Leckie's treatment of gender drives home how important gender is in our culture and language. The moment you're not sure, it poses all sorts of linguistic and cultural problems. Leckie doesn't feel the need to drive this particular point home but the reader can't help but wonder how complicated things can get for someone who doesn't fit neatly into either category. Leckie makes it hard on the reader to an extent, especially with the character of Seivarden, who is referred to as both he and she in the novel. The text can be confusing at times, it demands that the reader pays attention to the scene as in some parts of the novel personal pronouns can't be relied on convey to whom the narrator is referring. In other parts of the novel the author simply defaults to she to avoid making things too complicated. The result for me, and I think hat was what Leckie was aiming for, is that for the most part, I didn't assign genders to the characters at all.

The second element that drew my attention in the novel is the concept of ancillaries. Breq is what is left of a starship called Justice of Toren. She is used to controlling both the ship and thousands of clones, or ancillaries as they are referred to in the book. These bodies are not considered human and are easily replaced. Breq ending up in one means she is caught in a situation where she is forced to consider herself an individual rather than the tool the body she inhabits used to be. I'm not entirely sure Leckie makes the most of it. With the loss of her Ancillaries and primary body the starship, Breq has lost not only part of her body but also a large part of her sensory input, memory and intelligence. She knows this but by the time we meet her, she is so used to it that we hardly see her struggle to adjust. That would have been an interesting challenge for the character, something that is fundamental in shaping the creature we meet as Breq. Instead, Leckie chooses to focus on her feelings of guilt over the events that resulted in the destruction of the largest part of her, which I suppose, is more important to the plot.

Where Breq looses her bodies, the ruler of the Radch struggles with the opposite problem. She (or he) is an entity made up of thousands of bodies. It isn't revealed if the Radch is in fact human in origin or an artificial intelligence but she does control thousands of bodies spread out over the empire to govern. It seems like an ideal solution, to be everywhere at once and keep an eye on everything would probably be the wet dream of every tyrant, but what if the various parts of this entity don't agree with each other? There is a certain weakness in this story line. It is never explained how a single mind can keep itself (him, her it, I'm confusing myself now) from knowing what the opinions of its various bodies are. I guess you could see it as something of a multiple personality disorder. Maybe the Radch is human in origin after all. It contrasts with Breq's struggle in interesting ways however, and makes me curious about what will happen when Breq manages to get to the core of Radch's personality.

Does that mean Ancillary Justice is deserving of the whole shelf of awards it is winning at the moment? I don't think so. It is an interesting debut, a Campbell (if she is still eligible) or Locus Award for first novel might even be in order, but I don't think it is good enough to really propel Leckie to science fiction stardom. A novel that leans so heavily on one single aspect to make it stand out in the crowd simply doesn't merit that kind of attention in my opinion. That being said, I did enjoy it quite a lot and I am curious about several dangling story lines I assume Leckie means to pick up in the next book. She is an author to keep an eye on for sure. The second volume is expected in October. I'll be keeping an eye out for it.

Book Details
Title: Ancillary Justice
Author: Ann Leckie
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 386
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-356-50240-3
First published: 2013

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Sixty Days and Counting - Kim Stanley Robinson

Sixty Days and Counting is the final novel in Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capital trilogy, a work that focuses on the impact of rapid climate change on a near future (when he wrote it, the novel is set right about now) earth. It is one of Robinson's most political books, not so much because of the ideas in it, he's discussed quite a few alternative economies in the Mars trilogy for instance, but because of how close to home it is. This novel is so left leaning by American standards that it will have many a conservative frothing at the mouth within a few chapters. For me it is not as radical as it may seem to others but I have a hard time seeing anything like this happening in the current US political climate.

Democrat Phil Chase, Charlie's boss, has been elected US president and a global response to climate change is high on his agenda. To show how urgent he thinks change is, he launches a slew of initiatives in the first sixty days of his presidency and keeps pushing on long after they have passed. Charlie, Frank and Anna are swept up in various parts of this campaign. The environmental crisis is not waiting for the world to get its act together however, evidence of irreversible changes and imminent system collapsed keep surfacing. A global approach is needed to keep the planet inhabitable in the long run.

Robinson is certainly not afraid to include some very controversial ideas in this novel. In the opening chapters Frank in particular is looking at alternative energy to replace the carbon based systems that currently power the US. The debate focuses on whether alternative sources like wind, time or solar energy are ready to take over, or whether additional nuclear plants will have to be built to cover the transition. He even points out the good (public) record of the US military when it comes to nuclear power. Personally I'm not convinced by this argument. There simply is no good solution for nuclear waste and the idea that we can keep it safe and controlled for the tens of thousands of years some of it needs to degrade doesn't strike me as very convincing. The events in Fukushima has recently made a lot of people jittery about nuclear power plants again but Robinson could no have known that. Interestingly enough, Frank does reach the conclusion that somehow harnessing the power of the sun is the only source that could possibly meet demand and still be sustainable.

Another interesting idea that some will fight tooth and nail, is the connection Chase makes between social justice and environmental degradation. Women's rights in particular, he points out, are linked to birth rate. With women in control over reproduction, the birthrate drops to about the replacement rate. Something that needs to happen to keep humanity from further overshooting the planet's carrying capacity. And this is but many of the social feedback loops that are related to environmental issues. Thus, Chase pursues a policy of technological and social change. In fact, he uses one as leverage to achieve the other. It is at the same time good to see the realization that a technical fix is not enough to solve the problem (Fifty Degrees Below is more focuses on technological fixes than this book) and vexing to see how Chase goes about it.

There is a sense in the novel that once the US has identified something as a problem that needs immediate action, things will get done. In fact they go so far as to strongarm various parties into compliance. It is an unbelievably arrogant position when you take into account that more progressive parties tried to make a start with the reduction of greenhouse gas emission in the early 1990s through the Kyoto protocol. Their targets were of course laughably modest but it was a beginning. The US never had the intention of actually ratifying it. It wasn't alone in this position but to suddenly put yourself forward as environmental champion is not very likely to be taken seriously by the rest of the world. In fact, without the string of natural disasters that Robinson puts in the book, I very much doubt even the strongarm tactics of the US would have been successful. It is probably an accurate portrayal of the attitude in the US political system but annoying nonetheless.

A third interesting aspect of the situation Robinson describes is the fact that permanent change is considered inevitable. The situation at the South Pole in particular is considered to have passed the point of no return. Interestingly enough, reports have recently started appearing that saome scientists consider a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet inevitable. Robinson portrays this event in a bit more dramatic way but some of it may come to pass in the not too distant future.

Chase has developed a strategy of adaptation and mitigation to deal with it and to he does not shy away from huge projects to weather the crisis. The restarting for the oceanic conveyor belt described in the previous book is small compared to what is proposed in this novel. The uncontrolled release of genetically modified lichen (a Russian project out of Chase's control), filling up desert basins to create huge salt water lakes and pumping water from the ocean back up the Antarctic plateau are the most eye-catching ones. It's terraforming on the scale described in the Mars novels only this time applied to earth. The sheer magnitude of the changes and the impossibility of predicting their effect with any kind of accuracy made me even more sympathetic to Ann Clayborne's Red position in those novels. Of course, on Earth we may not have the luxury of a choice. It makes you wonder what a world in which decisive action was taken earlier would look like.

Change is obvious in the lives of the main characters too. Frank reaches the conclusion that a blow to the head in the previous book has impaired the workings of his brain and he decides to have an operation to have it fixed. In the mean time he also has to deal with the relationship he started with Caroline and his desire to go back to California. He has quite a bit on his plate in this novel, it is a miracle he has time left for work. His alternative lifestyle has moved to the background a bit in favour of the spy storyline. Robinson seems to get the timing right for this one. The absurd tangle of US intelligence agencies is starting to unravel in this novel, when the president realizes how much of a mess it is. Where Chase's election has a lot in common with the election of Obama in 2008, the latter seems much more reluctant to do something about the gross abuse of power and lack of democratic control over these agencies.

Charlie in the mean time, is faced with another tough decision. With his boss in the White House, he is forced to choose between giving up his job or going back into the office and put his son Joe in daycare. He would rather wrok from home until Joe is old enough to go to school but when the president insists, he agrees to try. He can't stop worrying about Joe though. His wife Anna is faced with another dilemma. She is offered a position in the advisory team of the president. She prefers to stay at NSF however, taking pure science over a mix of science and politics. With a stay at home dad and a mother with a head for numbers and math, Joe's parents make a statement about the traditional role pattern between men and women. It is in fact the same one that returns over and over again in the novel. We can change things if we want to.

Sixty Days and Counting is the most optimistic of the three in a way, but reading it didn't make me share Robinson's optimism. In the book things get done. Despite my annoyance with the way the American political system believing the universe revolves around them (really, in that respect they can teach Wall Street a lesson) you get the sense that the characters in this novel will not let the world cook itself. We have now arrived more or less at the point in time where this novel is set, and if I look around, I still see an outrageous level of denial about the state of the planet and how much trouble we are really in. Robinson is right, we can change things if we want to. But apparently we don't. There is a good chance we'll see another El Niño event this year and some predictions indicate it will be a strong one. Let's hope it won't be the hyperniño described in Forty Signs of Rain. I'm beginning to wonder if in the end, that is what it will take to wake people up. I'd much prefer it if people read these books, thought about it, and not let it come to that.

Book Details
Title: Sixty Days and Counting
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 388
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-553-80313-6
First published: 2007

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Wolf's Brother - Meghan Lindholm

Wolf's Brother is the second half of Lindholm's prehistoric story about the Reindeer people. Lindholm had originally envisioned it as one book but because of its length the publisher decided to split the book. I reread the first half, The Reindeer People, in March and decided not to wait too long to complete this reread. This novel is the last of Lindholm's (under this pen name) I can review. I'm missing the long out of print Cloven Hooves but don't hold your breath for that one. I refuse to pay an arm and a leg for a battered paperback so it might be a while before I can get my hands on it.

As is to be expected with a duology that is really one book, the story picks up right after events in the first novel. Tillu has been offered to join the Reindeer people as their healer,  and with spring approaching, she has to decide quickly. Soon the herds will be moving north across the tundra to avoid the insects that can cause disease among the reindeer. With Carp's arrival and Kerlew's ever growing powers, it is not an easy decision. Then again, life on her own is not without its dangers either. Tillu moves with the Reindeer people and tries to find her place in their society. This proves to be far from easy.

In this novel Tillu really moves among the Reindeer people, giving the reader a greater insight into their everyday life. Summer is a season of intense activity for them. The herd needs to be moved, a gathering with other groups is planned, food has to be gathered, all while the short summer lasts. The feeling that the Reindeer people are in serious trouble permeates the entire novel. Murders unsolved, tensions between members of the group and a mysterious disease breaking out set the people on edge. Their leader is not up to the task of guiding them through these troubles and those who feel they can do a better job are not content to wait until he screws up by himself. The tensions within the group of people rise until a confrontation is inevitable.

I'm still quite impressed with the way Lindholm describes this lifestyle. The descriptions of the landscape, food, culture and everyday activities is very well done. It is always present, the reader gets enough detail to build a mental picture of what this lifestyle would look like. On the other hand it doesn't get in the way of the story. Where the novels she wrote as Robin Hobb tend to be fairly slow paced, her Lindholm works are usually much faster. This book is no exception. In fact, it is so briskly paced that I wondered at the decision to split it in the first place. The combined page count of my two paperbacks is about six hundred. It almost makes the last volume seem rushed.

Where Lindholm handles the setting very well, I was less impressed with the way the plot unfolds. There was tension among the Reindeer People already. Lacking a spiritual leader and suffering from poor worldly leadership, the tribe is adrift. Carp steps in to fill the gap. He does it in such a way that you'd have to be exceptionally stupid or superstitious to not want to kill the bastard within fifteen minutes after meeting him. Part of his tactic is a confidence game but he manages to make so many enemies along the way that it is a miracle the man has lived as long as he has.

He also has a tight grip on Tillu's son Kerlew throughout most of the novel. We get to see the story almost entirely though the eyes of Tillu however, so the depth of their relationship is never fully explored. We get a couple of brief snatches of his activities in this novel. Not really enough to make him into a well rounded character in my opinion. We never get to fully understand how he feels about his master for instance. His quest for a vision does give this book a bit more of a fantasy feel I suppose, but this is mostly used to solve a number of riddles the plot poses the reader that would be very hard to explain otherwise. Not the most elegant use of magic (if you want to call it that) in Lindholm's writing career.

Lindholm interweaves the trouble of the Reindeer People with another problem for Tillu. She is attracted to Heckram, one of the few men who will treat her son as a human being and agonizes over whether or not to give into desire, always afraid of having to move on again to protect Kerlew. This dilemma came up in the first book already but now Tillu has to face it. I thought it wasn't handled very well. Heckram, who in the first novel was stubborn and moody as well as considerate and competent, turns into an ideal husband in the later stages of the novel. He's not quite as bad as Jean M. Auel's Jondalar but it's close.

This reread was an interesting experience for me. I can't really remember disliking so many things about this novel. Wolf's Brother is still a decent read but the climax of the novel is so full of melodrama that it's hard to take it serious. Although endings do not appear to be Lindholm's, and most certainly not Hobb's, forte, I felt this one was probably the weakest she has delivered. My reaction to this novel caught me by surprise. The first book in this duology was more or less what I remembered it to be. This one isn't. I guess my taste has developed a bit in the past twelve or so years (or maybe a bit longer, the Dutch edition I read back then was published in 2000) since I last read them. It makes me wonder how some of the other stuff I read back then holds up. Still, if you like prehistoric fiction, you could do a lot worse than these two books. I enjoyed them in a way, just not as much as I did the first time around.

Book Details
Title: Wolf's Brother
Author: Megan Lindholm
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 268
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-00-742543-3
First published: 1988

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A Shadow in Summer - Daniel Abraham

A Shadow in Summer is the first book in the Long Price Quartet and the one that launched Daniel Abraham's career. At the moment he's publishing several books a year under three different pseudonyms. It was not his first novel however. In 2003 a book called Unreal City was published by Meisha Merlin, a publisher that went bankrupt a few years later. Other than a few references and some second hand copies floating around on the web, it seems to have disappeared completely. Quite an achievement in an age where the Internet remembers everything. Although I haven't really been looking into his work under the H.M.L Hanover pseudonym and read only one James S.A. Corey book, I'm quite fond of his work as Daniel Abraham and this book is mostly to blame for that.

The city of Saraykeht thrives on the cotton trade. As with the Khaiem, their wealth and security is based on the possession of an Andat, a concept given shape and volition through language, a bound magical spirit, forced to do the bidding of the poet that holds his leash. The Andat are always struggling to regain their freedom and Saraykeht's Andat is no different. When the young poet Maati arrives in Saraykeht to train with the Andat's master Heshai, he quickly gets ensnared in a plot to destabilize the city. To make matters even more complicated, he recognizes a former fellow student in one of the city's labourers. He has assumed a new identity but Maati knows him as Otah Machi, son of the ruler of one of the other Khaiem cities. Should his identity become known, his life would be in danger.

This novel has just about everything you could want in a fantasy novel: magic, good worldbuilding, conflict and strong characters. It has an innovative concept of magic for instance. Personally I think this one could make Brandon Sanderson jealous. The Andat are essentially a concept given physical form. The one we get to meet in this novel is quite a scary creature. Very manipulative. He's also very powerful. Should he manage to escape, the same language that bound him will not work again, and another way to describe the same concept will have to be found. This means that the poets are finding it increasingly difficult to find new ways to bind Andat. Letting one go, would be a disaster of epic proportions. The price a poet pays for hanging on to it, however, is extremely high. Especially in the case of the Saraykeht Andat, who according to his poet has a serious design flaw.

The idea of the Andat puts a lot of tension in this story. The benefits of creating one are obvious. The city's prosperity and safety depend on it. On the other hand it is profoundly unethical to capture one against its wishes. It is a practice that, even if new ways to describe the same concepts can be found, is not sustainable in the long run. We'll follow the struggles of Maati and Otah with this contradiction throughout their lives in these four books.

So we have a personal struggle and the city's internal problems, but Abraham doesn't stop there. He creates an external threat as well. The Galt, a militaristic people with a much younger culture than the Khaiem, on the brink of becoming an industrialized society, are always looking to expand. The Andat are like a nuke targeted at them however, but should the Khaiem lose them, they will be overwhelmed. It adds another player to the complex politics of the city. Abraham deftly weaves all these interests into a conspiracy with the Andat at the center.

The magic Abraham describes in the book also has a major influence on the Khaiem culture. Structure is important in their language and correct grammar essential to expressing themselves. The Khaiem have developed a complex system of gestures and poses to communicate beyond the verbal. Body language is essential to a meaningful conversation. Imagine how much harder it would be to lie to someone attuned to watching your body language as well as paying attention to the spoken word. It does make the dialogue in the novel a bit different from what the reader will be used to. Abraham has to describe the meaning of the poses and it does mean he tells us a lot that maybe he could have shown. Personally it didn't bother me, I think it adds to the richness of the woldbuilding in this novel, but I do know of readers who didn't like it or had a hard time imagining what it might look like.

Another aspect of these novels I very much liked was the way the two characters who will be with us for all four books age. In this novel they are young and hotblooded. Their passions, desires and guilt run close to the surface and make them take rash action at times. In the next novel, A Betrayal in Winter , they'll have aged ten years and matured a lot in the mean time. To balance this youthful exuberance, Abraham has added a few more mature characters to this novel. One of them is an older woman working for one of the Galt trading houses. She is probably the most divisive character in the entire book. She is a very skillful bookkeeper and a woman driven to succeed. Admirable qualities, but when her employer does something she doesn't agree with she is not afraid to take over a brothel and use that income to seek justice. It's an odd thing to see those two combined in that character, I'm not sure Abraham managed to really make me believe her motivations for acting the way she does.

A Shadow in Summer is a very promising start to a good fantasy series. It got a lot of good reviews over the years but apparently the sales were nothing to write home about. Tor didn't bother with a mass market paperback edition of the final book. That is a shame really. The Long Price Quartet is a refreshing piece of writing. Concise by the standards of the genre, but without sacrificing the details that make the world believable. In his new fantasy series The Coin and the Dagger, he has shifted his approach somewhat to a more conventional approach to fantasy. I enjoy those books but I like these ones better. Hopefully Abraham will move on to something a little more daring once he is done with that series. In the mean time, you could do worse than giving this series a try. It is well worth your time.

Book Details
Title: A Shadow in Summer
Author: Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 331
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-765-31340-5
First published: 2006

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Jokers Wild - George R.R. Martin

Jokers Wild is the third volume in the long-running Wild Cards series. The twenty-second volume titled Lowball will be released by Tor sometime this summer. To coincide with the release of new Wild Cards books, Tor is reissuing the first three novels in the series as well. These novels are written by a writer's collective in a style that they refer to as mosaic. Most of the novels are written by a group of writers, and Martin (increasingly assisted by Melinda M. Snodgrass) edits them into one story. The series has gone though several changes in publisher but, partially carried by the success of Martin himself in recent years, seems to be going strong at the moment. I have only read the first two volumes, The Committee triad and the most recently published novel Fort Freak but I do intend to read them all eventually. This third volume was first published in 1987 and features contributions by Leanne C. Harper, Lewis Shiner, John J. Miller, Edward Bryant, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Walton Simons and George R.R. Martin himself.

Jokers Wild takes place on Wild Cards day 1986, the 40th anniversary of the release of the virus. The day has become something of an odd combination of remembrance and celebrating in recent years, and New York is flooded by tourists coming to witness the celebrations. Not everybody is in a mood to party however. Jack Robicheaux is looking for his teenage niece who ran away from home. Elsewhere Jennifer Maloy, accomplished burglar, unwittingly steals a very valuable little book, greatly upsetting the mobster it belongs to. To make an already chaotic day even more troubling, the Astronomer is out for revenge after his recent defeat at the hands of a group of Aces. Wild Cards day is never a quiet day in New York but this year it will be one to remember.

The entire story is set in one 24 hour period, a way of storytelling that is almost always all or nothing with me. The pace with which events unfold is so rapid that it can easily go at the expense of character development or coherency of the plot. Of course Wild Cards is inspired by comic books, larger than life archetypes, overdrawn emotions and clear good and evil contrast is to be expected to an extend. Jokers Wild manages to pull it off in my opinion but not without leaning heavily on the previous volume Aces High. It is most definitely not a good entry point into the series. The first three volumes, all published in 1987, were most likely planned in one go. It will be interesting to see how much the next couple of books rely on what has gone before.

Each of the authors has a central character with Martin, who writes the point of view of the owner of the the Aces High restaurant Hiram Worchester, tying them all together. Although the missing girl and the stolen book subplots intersect with the Astronomer story line in several places, it is the Astronomer who is central to the novel. Despite his defeat in the previous book, he is still very powerful and out for revenge. It's in this character that the comic book nature of the Wild Cards series shows most clearly. Where most of the characters have at least some redeeming characteristics, the Astronomer is all evil. His aim is to take out the group of Aces that defeated him before Wild Cards day is over and it doesn't take long for the message to get across.

All of the other Wild Cards novels I've read up to this point, deal with discrimination at some level. There is an interesting parallel with the treatment of AIDS patients in the 1980s, when fear of what was back then still a death sentence, resulted in many patients ending up completely isolated. In Jack's storyline it is even briefly touched upon. In this novel the victims of the Wild Cards virus let off some steam. They take over the city. Most of the action takes place among the victims of the virus so the discrimination is not quite as obvious in this novel. There is an undertone of Wild Cards days slowly turning into a freak show however. As with everything to do with the virus the celebration has a distinct dark side to it.

I must admit I'm quite impressed with the way in which the authors have managed to create a credible alternative history of New York, created a number of new landmarks in the city and give the city an impression of the colourful and tragic part of town where the Jokers band together. It's vibrant in a way but also a place where criminal activity comes to the surface and desperation is always present. In terms of setting I think they've done a wonderful job. The Wild Cards world holds infinite possibilities for more stories and the authors don't seem to be shy about using it for a bit of social commentary.

That being said, the novel does show some of the shortcomings of a work with so many authors. In depth characterization is mostly absent and here and there, fault lines in the style of writing are noticeable. Martin has done a wonderful job in editing it so the very compressed time line of the novel makes sense however. It must have been particularly challenging to get everything to fit in just a twenty-four hour time span. It's not the most challenging reading material but it is fast and fun and hard to put down once you've started. I don't think it is quite as good as either Aces High or Fort Freak but a decent entry in the series nonetheless. I certainly wouldn't mind seeing Tor reissue some more of the older Wild Cards books.

Book Details
Title: Jokers Wild
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 384
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2617-1
First published: 1987

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Lana Reviews: Ash: A Secret History - Mary Gentle

I had not read anything by Mary Gentle before, so when I picked up Ash: A Secret History for my reading challenge, I did not quite know what to expect. I knew that the story I was about to read was set in mediaeval Europe, albeit not quite the historical Europe we know today, and I knew that the main character was a woman mercenary leader named Ash. I could also see that this was a very long story I had taken on and that it would take me some time to get through it. With this starting point, I had some trouble getting through what I think was the first one or two chapters. It was not that it was not well written; I just have a natural inborn aversion for anything having to do with history - I blame my history teacher back in school for this; he made that ghost professor teaching History of Magic in the Harry Potter books seem like the teacher of the century. How can they make something that should be interesting so... exceptionally dull? In spite of this though, I had read historical fantasy before and quite enjoyed it, so once I got to where the more obviously fantastical elements were introduced, I was hooked.

As stated before, the main character in this book is a young woman named Ash. She grew up as an orphan camp follower with a group of mercenaries, already knowing as a child that to survive in her world one has to know how to fight, and even more importantly; how to kill. Instead of falling into the more traditional and accepted roles for women at the time, she has the drive needed to become the leader of her own mercenary company. She also hears a voice in her mind that gives her tactical advice on the field of battle, so that - while she might not always downright win - she never loses. Believing this to be the voice of the Lord and His Saints - not entirely unreasonable considering the time-period the story is set in - she does not have much reason to question whether the voice could be something else altogether.

Europe is apparently not a very peaceful place in the 15th century; smaller and bigger battles are being fought out all the time by cities and countries, and the mercenaries hired to fight them. Yet, the armies of Europe are not ready when the Visigoths of Northern Africa suddenly start their invasion in the south, headed by a mysterious general that also hears voices. They come from Carthage, a place that once was struck by a magical curse rendering it forever in twilight, and as their forces conquer Europe, their twilight also spreads. It is in this state of chaos and war that Ash must find out who she really is, as well as the true source of her own voice.

Although I kept complaining throughout my reading about how it ruined my immersion, I can see now that Gentle did something very clever when she wrote Ash: A Secret History. She implemented a framing device that claimed her story as something real; as the work of a scholar translating Latin historical texts. As such, there are footnotes throughout the story explaining things, just as one would find in scholarly publications. This was perhaps one of the things that made it a bit more difficult for me to get into it at the start; I really felt as if I was reading an academic book and not fiction.

That having been said, all the historical details she works into the story did not particularly bother me once I decided to just take everything she said with a grain of salt. Having such poor knowledge about history as I do, it would be impossible for me to differentiate between what is common knowledge and what she has made up (not counting the made up things that were obvious even to me), so for me it was simply just easier to think of everything as fiction instead of wondering what was real and what was not. I did sometimes think, however, that someone with more knowledge than I would be able to enjoy the story even better than I did, perhaps on a different level, even.

As for the story versus character development, I often felt that the former might have been more important to Gentle while writing this book. Because, the story is so well written; the details and the plot are really well worked out. But the characters... there are two characters that are more complex than the rest of the bunch; Ash the female warrior, and her best friend, the company physician. The rest seem to just fall into groups of different roles, were you can't tell one from the other except by name. The women for example; you have noble women and what I would assume would be housewives; regular women taking care of the house and children. But you hardly ever hear of these two groups since they are not the groups Ash tends to be around (with one special exception, but I can't go into that too much without spoiling the story, and she is not the typical noblewoman anyway). The two groups you do hear of are the other female warriors of the company and the company whores.

For the men, I found I could also part them into four groups; the ones that detest Ash, not because she is a warrior, but because she is a woman; the ones that respect her enough as a warrior that they are fine working for her, as long as they are fine with doing what she tells them to do; the ones that both respect her as a woman and a warrior, and in addition feel loyal to her; and the ones that do everything the last group did, but in addition to that, also loves her. And while it works out just fine since the story itself is so good, I never felt very sad when something happened to these characters, because there were so many of the same sort to take over if one was lost.

In the end though, it does not matter if I felt that the characters were not as well developed as the story itself, nor does it matter that I at first found the frame device distracting; the first does not make the story any less amazing, and the second... well, I got over it quickly, and one could even say that the ending would not have been quite the same without it. The size of the book can seem a bit overwhelming at first, but it is not a difficult read as such; Gentle's language, apart from historical names for various pieces of a soldier's armor, for example, is fluid and relatively simple to follow. If you have issues with profanity though, you might want to steer clear. Personally, I have no such issues and heartily recommend this book!

Book Details
Title: Ash: A Secret History
Author: Mary Gentle
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 1113
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 1-85798-744-6
First published: 2000

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The Coldest War - Ian Tregillis

In 2010 I read Ian Tregillis' début novel Bitter Seeds. It's an alternative history of the second world war and pits a British secret intelligence organization called Milkweed against a group of human super weapons created by a Nazi scientist. The novel was one of the more noteworthy débuts of the year. Tregillis had a deal with Tor for a trilogy and after the success of the first novel, readers were eagerly awaiting the second. Unfortunately it took Tor more than two years to get the sequel on the shelf, despite Tregillis having delivered the manuscript as early as 2009. Tregillis went into quite a bit of detail on his blog about the history and delays in the publication process. I suspect he lost more than a few readers because of the delay. I must admit I lost track of him myself until I ran into a copy of The Coldest War in a bookshop in Amsterdam in September 2013. I should have paid more attention though. The Coldest War is one of those books that makes me wonder why I left it on the to read pile this long.

Twenty-two years have passed since the end of the second world war. Russia's influence now stretches from the Bering Strait to the North Sea and the British Empire is locked in a cold war with the communist states. Raybould Marsh is no longer involved in this struggle however. He has withdrawn from the nightmare that was Milkweed only to see his marriage descend into a bitter struggle with is wife Olivia. His personal cold was is put on hold when two figures from his pas in Milkweed reappear, Grettel and her brother Klaus have managed to escape their captivity. Their arrival in London sets into motion a series of events that will once again radically alter history.

Tregillis certainly isn't afraid to create great changes in the history of Europe as we know it. Although a cold war does develop after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the US apparently plays no significant part in it, not having been involved in this version of the second world war at all. The nation remains locked in economic stagnation and internal conflicts. The British Empire remains intact and thus remains a superpower in its own right, opposed to the Soviet Union with a sphere of influence much larger than the one in our time line. The entire continent is essentially red except for the British Isles. When you look at it on the map, it creates a bit of a David versus Goliath idea. The power of the British warlocks keeps things even however. It doesn't strike me as the most plausible alternate ending of the conflict, even taking the warlocks and Nazi experiments into account. It strikes me as unlikely that the British would have been able to hang on to their empire regardless of the outcome of the war.  It's not really what the book is about anyway. It deals with the consequences of actions in the previous book and ultimately those consequences are both largely unforeseen and catastrophic.

The past is bothering most of the characters in to the book. All of them are driven by their past mistakes or traumas to some degree. Marsh for instance, is wracked by guilt over what he did back then and how it impacted his personal life. His former colleague Will is consumed by a desire to see justice done on those who exposed the British population to horrible crimes perpetrated under the guise of serving King and Country. Klaus is trying to get away from the influence from his sister and break with his past as a superhuman soldier he wants a normal life. Grettel herself, the one character who can look into the future, is also trying to fix things.

In effect, Grettel is the evil genius behind the events in the novel but Tregillis is careful enough not to reveal her motivations to early. For most of the novel she remains something of an enigma, never allowing us a look inside her head,  keeping the tension in the novel until the very end. I'm having trouble making up my mind about how well Tregillis does with this character. On the one hand he uses her cleverly to keep the reader and the other characters on their toes, on the other hand, the lack of insight into her motivation means she remains a bit of a shallow character. She is disturbing but not nearly as much as she might have been if we had understood a little more of what makes her tick. Tregillis is clearly not done with her though. Maybe he'll give us a little more of that in Necessary Evil, the final book in the trilogy.

With characters so conflicted, it is not surprising The Coldest War is a very dark book. Both parties in this cold war go to great lengths to gain an advantage over the other and if that goes at the expense of the population that are supposed to protect, so be it. While it doesn't leave the main characters untouched, they are clearly not done making sacrifices for their nation. Tregellis is good at writing fucked up characters, that much is clear. If you can't stand characters that are miserable most of the time, this series is clearly not for you. Personally. I have no problems with a well executed tragedy. For the most part, this novel works very well for met. A bit better even than the first volume.

The Coldest War is a strong sequel to a very interesting début. I have a thing for alternative history, although not necessarily for the period Tegillis chooses to change, but even taking that into account, it is a strong book. Tregillis has written an action-packed novel, following a number of very human but twisted characters in a conflict that is much larger than they can handle. It's a shame the publication of this book was delayed, had it come a bit sooner, the series might have been able to keep the momentum gained from the fist book and attract a bit more attention. Do not let that lack hold you back from trying this series. Tregills is an author worth checking out. The final book in the Milkweed Triptych has moved up a few places on my to read list.

Book Details
Title: The Coldest War
Author: Ian Tregillis
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 351
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2151-0
First published: 2012