Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Apex Book of World SF 3 - Lavie Tidhar

A lot has changed in genre fiction since the appearance of the first volume of The Apex Book of World SF in 2009. A discussion about a more inclusive genre in terms of culture, gender and sexual orientation has been raging for quite a while now and progress on this front is clearly being made. Where Tidhar probably had to work very hard to get access to enough material to fill the first volume, nowadays more and more material is being published by writers form outside the English speaking world and western culture. It's a development that can't be completely laid at the feet of this series of anthologies of course, but it does offer a platform for such works and shows that there is a market for it. In other words, there is more than enough reason to keep the momentum going and release a third volume.

This third volume again is a mix of stories originally written in English and translated works. Almost all works were previously published in magazines or other collections, only one is original to this anthology. It has stories from all continents, with maybe a slight emphasis on Asia, and it stretches science fiction to include fantasy and horror. Two things are a bit different compared to the previous two editions. The women far outnumber the men in this collection, and it contains fewer stories than the first and second volume did. I don't know if the the abundance of female authors is intentional but Tidhar clearly did opt to include a few longer pieces in this anthology.

As with any collection, I didn't connect with all of the stories the same way. The overall quality is quite high but the variation in style and themes will almost inevitably cause the reader to have a few clear favorites. I'll mention a few of mine but I encourage you to find your own. These anthologies have been an eye-opener for me.

The Anthology opens with Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. She is from Thailand and has been making her presence felt in the short fiction market in the past couple of years. I've read one other story by her that was contained in the anthology We See a Different Frontier (2013). This story is one of the first she published and if I had to classify it, I'd say it is a form of military science fiction. It is not easy on the reader. Where much science fiction prefers plot over form, in this story neither wants to give ground to the other. It is beautifully written and has quite an emotional impact. Some readers will be left with questions about what just happened though. From a literary point of view this may be the strongest story in the collection.

The City of Silence is another of my favourites. It was written by Chinese author Ma Boyong and is one of the two stories that have been translated by Ken Liu. The story is set in a future where the state exercises extreme levels of control over its citizens. They go so far as to create a list of 'healthy words' that are permissible to be used in conversation and on the heavily censored internet. As people find more and more creative ways to get their opinion across, the list grows ever shorter. Language itself is under threat from the state.

The story is clearly inspired by George Orwell's 1984 but takes the control of the state to even more extreme levels. It underlines the interesting relationship between the state, politics and language in a way. I can't help but wonder how much of this story is criticism of the Chinese government. On the other hand, for the western reader there is a clear parallel to such things as privacy on the Internet and net neutrality. The City of Silence offers a lot of food for thought.

Jungle Fever by Zulaikha Nurain Mudzor (Malaysia) is one of the uncut horror pieces in the collection. It deals with a woman who scratches herself on a jungle plant. A wound that starts to change her immediately. The story is told from first person perspective and the main character knows exactly what is going on but doesn't care. It makes the story a bit understated and somehow that adds to the horror of the transformation. 

Two stories in this collection deal with ghosts. Waiting with Mortals by Philippine author Crystal Koo is the one that had the most impact on me. Like many ghost stories it revolves around unfinished business and the deceased not being able to fully experience mortal life. In this story the dead have the means to influence the living however. It is invasive and profoundly unethical but obsession drives some ghosts to do it anyway. The psychological pressure on the  main character builds to the point where he has to face his situation and his own motivations head on. The tension in the story is very well built up although some readers may find the resolution a bit predictable.

Another horrific story, although it leans towards fantasy a bit too, is Three Little Children by the French writers couple Ange. It was translated by Tom Clegg and is based on a children's song. This version is a lot darker than what you'd normally tell children. In the story we change from the point of view of a child to that of an adult and back, giving it alternately the feel of a fairy tale and a murder mystery. In that sense, it is a very clever piece of writing. I liked the fact that the translator retained the French lyrics of the song too.

The anthology ends with Dancing on the Red Planet by the Korean-Norwegian author Berit Ellingsen. It's a frivolous piece about the first manned mission to Mars and how to celebrate this momentous occasion. It almost makes you wish the Americans had pulled something like this in 1969. It leaves a smile on your face when you turn the last page of this anthology. It's an excellent choice for a final story.

Once again Tidhar managed to find a number of high quality and very diverse stories to fill the third volume of The Apex Book of World SF. Readers who have enjoyed the first two volumes will not want to miss it. In terms of quality it may well be the best one of the three. Tidhar admits in his Introduction that he has access to a larger number of stories now than when he started work on the first volume. Let's hope this trend continues because these anthologies have made it abundantly clear that it pays to look beyond the English speaking world. Genre fiction is a world-wide phenomenon, it's past time to start treating it as such.

Book Details
Title: The Apex Book of World SF 3
Editor: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Apex Publications
Pages: 266
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-937009-24-3
First published: 2014

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Bound in Darkness - Kim ten Tusscher

Last month I reviewed Kim ten Tusscher's debut novel Hydrhaga, which has recently appeared in English translation. The package the author sent me also contained a copy of her second novel Bound in Darkness. It is the first novel of the Lilith trilogy and a much more ambitious work than Hydrhaga. The Dutch edition first appeared in 2010. As of this year, it is available in English too. I'm not entirely sure if and when the other two volumes will follow. In my review of Hydrhaga I pointed out quite a few things I had problems with. Bound in Darkness shares some flaws with Hydrhaga but overall it is a step up in craftsmanship. Ten Tusscher has developed a much better grip on the plot and the pacing of the story.

The translation of this novel was done by Rianne Stolwijk. I read the Dutch sample provided on the author's website to get a feel for the translation. It looks like a more direct translation to me. The tekst of Hydrhaga deviated a bit more from the literal Ducth original. It's hard to compare the two as Bound in Darkness is better written, but from reading the original Dutch I got the impression Stolwijk is more used to translating technical texts rather than fiction. There is a fine line between literal meaning of the word and the author's intent. I think taking a bit more liberties with the text would have improved it. It's a matter of taste though. Stolwijk clearly has a good grasp of the English language and translating fiction always involves elements that can't be captured in the grammar and vocabulary of a language.

Lilith is on the run. She is desperately trying to escape her master Kasimirh, a magician forcing her into a life of servitude and violence to realize his religious ideals. While trying to steal food, Lilith is caught and in the fight that follows she nearly kills a man. The brother of this man brings her before the king of the nation of Merzia to face his judgment. To pay for her crime she receives a flogging and has to work off her debt to the king after he compensates the brothers for their loss and trouble. Placed in the care of the magician Ferhdessar and the head of the palace household Ghalatea, Lilith is safe from her former master for the moment but once again a prisoner. Kasimirh is not going to let his subject escape though. War is about to engulf Merzia. Another confrontation with her former master seems inevitable.

Once again Ten Tusscher picks a young woman as main character. Where Lumea appears to have had a reasonably happy childhood, Lilith's has been one of abuse. It makes the book a lot darker than Hydrhaga. The title of the novel is clearly fitting in that respect. Despair, guilt and paranoia are always close to the surface. Lilith's behavior follows a pattern seen in many victims of domestic abuse. On the one hand she fears Kasimirh and wants to be free of him, on the other he gives her the attention nobody else seems to be willing to give her. It results in a strange kind of dependance on him, one she spends the entire novel trying to shake.

There is a decidedly violent side to Lilith's personality too. She is a shapeshifter and can change into a powerful dragon. As such, she was very valuable to Kasimirh, whose dreams of world domination in part rely on her strength. She has been forced to wreak havoc on many a village in the past, killing countless innocent people in the process. The guilt of this weights heavily on her. It's one of the aspects of the story I had a problem with. Throughout the novel Lilith is being manipulated, tricked and forced to do certain things which results in the death of many people. At one level it is obvious that she would feel responsible for that but on the other hand the author is careful always to make sure the real blame lies with someone else. Lilith has quite a volatile character, it wouldn't seem that unlikely that she would make a genuine mistake at one point. The tragedy of many people who are forced to fight in a war is that they are both victim and perpetrator. I think Ten Tusscher didn't quite get the most out of her character here. The real tragedy is somehow always one step removed from her.

That being said, she is a much better developed character than Lumea. Ten Tusscher clearly put more thought into this character. More planning is something that is obvious in all aspects of the novel. I'm not sure there are people who can write a trilogy organically but Ten Tusscher clearly didn't intend to. She has a plan, the story has a clear direction and she completes the novel in what is both a natural break in the story and a hook for the next novel.

The worldbuilding takes a bit of a backseat in the novel. Ten Tusscher describes the religious roots of the conflict briefly and shows us how the political structure of Merzia works, but everything else remains in the background. There is an intense focus on the characters and the relationship between Lilith and the two manipulative magicians in her life that doesn't allow Ten Tusscher to get too descriptive. At times it makes the conflict seem a bit simplistic but especially in the scenes seen from the point of view of Ferhdessar hint at much more depth. Ten Tusscher leaves herself a lot of avenues to explore in the next two volumes.

After reading Hydrhaga I had adjusted my expectations for this novel a bit. Bound in Darkness is such a step up in quality however, that the novel turned out to be a pleasant surprise. So much so in fact, that I wonder if Ten Tusscher didn't do herself a disservice by having Hydrhaga translated. She might have been better off by starting with Bound in Darkness. Ten Tusscher seems to have found her stride in this novel. It is a solid start to the trilogy. Pick this one up and you'll be hooked for the entire series.

Book Details
Title: Bound in Darkness
Author: Kim ten Tusscher
Publisher: Alter Ego Press
Pages: 279
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperbacl
ISBN: 978-94-907-6747-1
First published: 2010

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Necessary Evil - Ian Tregillis

Necessary Evil is the concluding volume in Ian Tregillis' Milkweed trilogy. The series seems to have lost some momentum with readers after Tor failed to get the second book, The Coldest War, out in a reasonable amount of time. Now that all three volumes are available however, it would be a shame to not dive back into this series. In the first two volumes, the author laid out a substantially different history of the second world war. In this third, he intends to take events full circle. I'm usually a bit skeptical when it comes to time travel stories but this one is very convincing in a way.

Gretel's manipulations of the timeline has sent a fifty-something year old Raybould Marsh back into the early stages of the second world war. He has seen his world end but in this one, he can still save his daughter, his marriage and possibly his son's soul. A prize for which he can put up with Gretel for a little bit longer. He does have a condition for saving the world however. He would rather see it destroyed than suffer a Nazi victory in the war. Thus, a new round in the struggle between Raybould and Gretel starts, and the stakes have never been higher.

Tregillis takes us back to the early days of Milkweed, at a point in time already visited a bit into the first novel Bitter Seeds. The outcome of the war still hangs in the balance and Dr. von Westarp's creations are still a huge threat to the security of the United Kingdom. Raybould knows the price of defending themselves with magic but convincing his past self and the other people involved in Milkweed is not going to be easy. His claims to have been transported from another timeline will sound ludicrous even to people used to dealing with magic. Raybould will have to take a more roundabout approach. One that involves a great many despicable acts. Necessary evil, as he thinks of it.

The second volume was not kind on Raybould. He sees his life pretty much turn into a nightmare after the war ends. His marriage is a farce, his daughter has been killed and his son needs round-the-clock care. To be transported back to the time that could be considered his finest hour, is possibly even more of a torment. He comes into contact with his younger, stronger and more healthy self, sees his wife as a young woman who still loved him, gets to travel around London before it was transformed into a city he despises, and meets with his friend Will who has not yet turned into an addict and a traitor. And all of it is out of reach for him. It all belongs to the younger version of himself. Tregillis once again manages to create a thoroughly miserable character. The loneliness and jealousy drip from the pages.

The other main character doesn't fare much better. Her ability to see the future has always put her in control. Her manipulations have guided her through time, always certain of the outcome of her actions. She has had only one fear, the threat posed by the Eidolons, and she seems to have outsmarted even them. Slowly, doubt is starting to enter her mind however. A fog descends on the future and Marsh, whom she desires, keeps vexing her. Gretel  has always been a scary character, the way Tregillis makes her crack only reinforces that feeling. In a way it makes her more human. Raybould can't feel sorry for her, but the reader might come away with a different impression.

Historically, Tregillis stays a lot closer to the timeline in our history books. There is no easy victory for either side and the conflict quickly envelopes the entire world. The cold war doesn't start early in this timeline and the United Kingdom has to defend itself with more conventional means. The events in the war are much more background to the story than in the previous novels. The reader doesn't have to pay attention to the difference from history as we know it in this book. The actions of the characters more or less ensure that the outcome will be what we know it to be. In effect, Gretel  and Raybould wrench history back on its tracks. Tregillis is much more interested in his characters in this novel than what effect they have on history.

It's probably the focus on the characters that makes this book work for me. Time travel stories tend to tie themselves in knots, always running into paradoxes that makes my suspension of disbelief come crashing down. Let's face it, having two versions of the same character in one story is usually trouble. It turns the whole Star Trek reboot into something slightly absurd for instance. Tregillis uses it to great effect in this novel though. Marsh is constantly tempted to take the place of his younger self. It takes a supreme effort for him not to do so. Tregillis takes a plot element that usually ruins a story and turns it into something very engaging.

If I had to name something I didn't like about the book it's the way Tregillis switches between past and present tense. It's a break with the style of the previous two volumes, and the parts written in the present tense breaks the flow of the story. I understand why Tregillis reached for this technique, in a way it helps the reader to keep the two versions of Raybould apart, but I felt it didn't quite work as intended.

Necessary Evil is a very satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. The way the story unfolded in the previous two volumes, it can't help but deliver a bitter-sweet ending. It's a book that almost forces you to keep reading. Tregillis managed to pretty much constantly make me wonder how he would twist events from the frist novel to fit this new timeline. When you look at the entire trilogy, it is a remarkable bit of plotting. In hindsight, I may have underappreciated the quality of Bitter Seeds a bit. The trilogy as a whole, is one I would recommend to people who enjoy a good alternative history.

Book Details
Title: Necessary Evil
Author: Ian Tregillis
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 384
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2152-7
First published: 2013

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Reviewed work number 400 poll result

The results are of the poll are in. Thank you all for voting.

Carrie by Stephen King - 1 vote
The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman - 3 votes
Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon - 3 votes
Antarctica by Kim Stanley Robinson - 4 votes
Artemis Awakening by Jane Lindskold - 5 votes.

So our winner is:

Of course you all picked a book I don't already own. It is currently on its way here and we'll get reading as soon as it gets here. Look for the review some time in August.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Conservation of Shadows - Yoon Ha Lee

The poll to vote for reviewed work number 400 is open a view more days. Don't forget to put in you vote!
 I've seen a lot of positive comments about this collection floating around the blogsphere so when I realized I hadn't reviewed a collection for a while Conservation of Shadows by the Korean-American author Yoon Ha Lee seemed like an obvious choice. When I picked it up I thought I hadn't read any of Lee's work before. That didn't turn out to be correct. I had in fact read Swanwatch before as part of the John Joseph Adams anthology Federations. The stories in this collection are a selection from what he's published between 2001 and 2013. The collection contains 16 pieces of short fiction and an introduction by Aliette de Bodard. Lee is not hugely productive and hasn't published any novels to date but his short fiction has definitely been noticed. It has appeared in some in magazines like Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld and Lightspeed magazine.

Lee's writing is something you won't come across often. His prose is very poetic and thematically a lot of Asian influences are included. Lee has a bachelor in Mathematics and he has used this as an influence on his stories as well. It makes for an interesting mixture of mathematical concepts and magical plot elements. The stories range form fantasy to science fiction, but in each of them you get the feeling that there is a real scientific concept at the base of the plot. Lee can make a magical system seem rational like no one else I've read.

The collection opens with one of the strongest stories. Ghostweight is a space opera in which the main character carries with her the souls of the dead. It is a very dark tale of revenge with an absolutely devastating climax. Not a very upbeat way to open the collection but it is one of the stories that had the greatest impact on me. Lee mentions in the story notes that it is set in the same universe as The Shadow Postulates, only in a far future. I don't think I would have seen that without her mentioning it.

The Shadow Postulates is the next story in the collection and one in which you can clearly see the mix of influences I mentioned above. It mixes magic and mathematics in very interesting ways. The story follows a student on the verge of graduating and struggling with a mathematical problem that generations of students have tried to crack. It builds towards a conceptual breakthrough in a way that shows Lee understands how to handle the pace of a story. I wasn't surprised to learn that it's partly inspired by Fermat's Last Theorem that nobody has been able to find for centuries. In fact, many now believe Fermat came up with a wrong proof. If I had to pick a favourite, this one may well be it.

It is hard to pick a favourite though, I greatly enjoyed the story Iseul's Lexicon as well. It's quite a complex tale that shows how language and culture are interwoven and how banning languages, over time, can be very effective in suppressing a culture. Lee used the Korean Hangeul, an alphabet that replaced the more complicated Chinese characters from the 15th century on, as an inspiration. The story also shows echoes of the complex and often violent history between Korea and Japan. There are a lot of layers to this story, on the surface there is a military campaign, spying and an interesting magical system, deeper down there are the references to our own world and the parallels with Korean history. Even if it is one of the longer pieces in the collection, I still couldn't shake the feeling that a novel is hiding in there somewhere.

In the story notes Lee mentions several pieces are related to unpublished novels. Iseul's Lexicon isn't mentioned as being one of those but The Battle of Candle Arc is. It is one of several that have a space opera setting and deals with interstellar warfare. War and the price to be paid for it, is one of the themes that pop up in a lot of stories. This one is a story inspired by another bit of Korean history, the 1597 battle of Myeongnyang, part of the Imjin war (1592-1598), in which the Korean fleet achieved a decisive victory of the the vastly numerically superior Japanese invasion fleet. The general in this story reminded me a bit of some of Frank Herbert's characters. The depth of his insight appears to be almost superhuman.

The Unstrung Zither is the last story in this collection I want to mention. It includes a mix of traditional music (it strikes me as Chinese inspired but I don't know enough about this subject to say for sure), elemental magic and a far future setting. The main character is a composer. She doesn't seem to feel she is brilliant at it, merely competent. Nevertheless she is entrusted with a very important mission. Music in this story, is more than a cultural expression. It appears to create structure in society. War and politics are discussed in terms we don't often associate with them. In finding the right structure for her composition, she finds the solution to the problem posed to her. I liked this piece very much although I wouldn't have minded knowing a bit more about the war at the heart of these events.

As usual, I've had a lot of trouble writing this review. It took me well over a week, where I usually do a draft in one day and clean it up the second. Short story collections are a pain to review but Conservation of Shadows was even more difficult than usual. Lee writes very complex stories. He packs a lot into a few pages and often steps outside the western cultural framework. He makes me work pretty hard and I'm sure I missed quite a bit. In fact, without the story notes I might very well have been lost completely.

I'm somewhat frustrated by my own inability to properly express why I enjoyed this collection so much. I guess it is a combination of things. I liked Lee's prose a lot for instance. I'm not one for audio books but from reading these stories I get the impression that it would sound beautiful if narrated skilfully. Then there are the themes Lee addresses that, despite the nagging feeling that I'm missing some of the context, still strike a chord with me. I guess you are just going to have to take my word for it, if you enjoy reading short fiction, Lee is an author you'll not want to miss.

Book Details
Title: Conservation of Shadows
Author: Yooh Ha Lee
Publisher: Prime Books
Pages: 336
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-60701-387-7
First published: 2013