Wednesday, December 30, 2015

2015 in Review - A Year of Uninterrupted Reviewing

No moves, no personal emergencies and (unfortunately) no trips abroad this year. Which means I managed to write at least one review every week in 2015, a total of 64 entries (this one included). I am very pleased with that. One other thing that is unique about this year is that I reviewed everything I have read this year. It's something I always aim for but for some reason I always manage to miss one or two in a year. This year was a prolific one for Hebban as well. My agreement with them is for one article a month but I ended up writing 19 in total. Among them a 25.000 word, ten part series on George R.R. Matin's Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective, which appeared in abridged form on Random Comments. Not sure if I am ready for something like that again any time soon.


I reviewed 56 works in 2015.  44  novels, 4 novellas, 2 short stories, 2 anthologies, 3 collections and one is a work of non-fiction. According to Goodreads these works are good for just over 21.000 pages, which is a lot more than last year. In last year's entry I said I would aim for 60. That has proven to be a bit to ambitious. Next year I will aim for 52. One review a weeks appears to be a pace I can handle.

I've read more books by women this year than by men. That is a first as well. Of the 56 works 30 were written by women, 23 by men and 3 contained work by both men and women. I have been keeping an eye on the gender balance for the past couple of years but I hadn't really noticed I had read more by women than by men. An interesting development. Most of the books I read this year were in English. I read 5 books in Dutch. Of these 2 were translations from French, the other 3 were originally written in Dutch. Of the 51 English language books 3 were translations, 2 from Chinese and one from Russian. Only eight books not originally written in English. Maybe I should keep an eye out for more translated work.

Lana contributed one review this year. Julia by Peter Straub.

Best of 2015

As always it is very difficult to pick the best reads of a year. This year however, it is even harder than usual. I read a great many wonderful books this year so I couldn't possibly limit myself to five like last year. I managed to come up with a list of seven. As usual these are books I read in 2015, not necessarily books published in 2015. They are listed in no particular order.
  • Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. Possibly the most controversial science fiction novel of the year. Robinson takes aim at one of the staples of science fiction and explains in vivid detail why we won't leave the solar system and colonize other star systems.

  • The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard. I haven't exactly  made a secret of my admiration for her writing. This new novel is one of the most interesting books to be published in Fantasy this year. Gorgeous prose and wonderful worldbuilding.

  • Segu by Maryse Condé. A reread of a wonderful historical novel. In two volumes she covers the history of the Bambara state of Segu in present day Mali. Condé follows one family starting at the height of the empire in 1796 up to the arrival of the French colonial forces in 1890. A bit of history not many western readers would otherwise be exposed to. 

  • The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu. The first translated novel to win a Hugo Award. I'm not sure it would have happened without the intervention of the puppies but I am glad a translated novel did receive this bit of recognition. The lack of translations is hurting science fiction. Liu shows us that there are many worthy novels out there that deserve a larger audience. 

  • Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald. A new adult novel by McDonald, set on the moon. This is another book I could read for the beautiful prose alone but McDonald puts in a vision of a colonized near future moon that is absolutely fascinating as well. 

  • The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith. The first in a series of three on the character of Aud Torvingen. These books are crime novels, not a genre I read often. This book had a special attraction to be because of the Norwegian background of the main character. I am still trying to get Lana to read it. Aud is a very interesting main character.  It's a hard-hitting novel though, the end felt like a punch in the gut.

  • The Just City by Jo Walton. Greek mythology, Plato, robots and time travel. How could you possibly make that into a novel. Walton shows us how it is done in this book. This must be one of the most inventive and surprising novels of the year.
There are a number of works that almost made the list. Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor, Falling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson, The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman, Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear, Dragon Heart by Cecelia Holland, Rook Song by Naomi Foyle  and Fool's Quest by Robin Hobb are all very good reads.


Traffic is still somewhere between pathetic and none. No really big hits this year. Like last year the articles that get most traffic are quite old. The most viewed articles are:

The Valley of the Horses - Jean M. Auel
Sarum - Edward Rutherfurd
The Lucky Strike -  Kim Stanley Robinson
The Lazarus Effect - Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom
Blood of Dragons - Robin Hobb
Soul Catcher - Frank Herbert
The Three-Body Problem - Cixin Liu
The Clan of the Cave Bear - Jean M. Auel
The Wind's Twelve Quarters - Ursula K. Le Guin
The House of Shattered Wings - Alliette de Bodard

Only two 2015 articles on the list. A bit disappointing. Most of the others were articles that did well in other years as well. Soul Catcher got a lot of publicity this year because it is being made into a movie. Apparently they are going to change the rather controversial ending of the book. The one that baffles me is Blood of Dragons by Robin Hobb. It is not exactly her most popular novel. The more recent third Fitz trilogy ought to get more attention.


None other than keep going really. I have a lot of half finished series that I would like to wrap up next year. Other than that the plan is the same as always, review everything I read. I will be opening 2016 with an Alastair Reynolds review. This year I will look at his collection Zima Blue. I'm considering trying to read some more works written in other languages than English. Right now, I have two on the to read stack. An Astrid Lindgren book Lana gave me for my birthday and We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, which I have already promised to review for Hebban. It would be nice if I could get into double digits in 2016, that should be achievable.

That's it for this year at Random Comments. I wish you all the best for 2016 and hope to see you all around again on the blog.


Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Fantasy Medley 3 - Yanni Kuznia

A Fantasy Medley 3, edited by Yanni Kuznia, is a short anthology published in the last day of 2015 by Subterranean Press. They were kind enough to provide me with an e-arc. While I haven't seen the finished product, I don't doubt it will be as gorgeous as the rest of their publications. Subterranean tends to pay at least as much attention to the design of their books as it does to the content. This anthology contains four original pieces of short fiction. They are all probably at the low end of the novella range in wordcount. Authors Kevin Hearne, Laura Bickle and Aliette de Bodard each contribute works tied to their novels. Jacqueline Carey's story is unrelated to anything she published before. As with all anthologies, I liked some stories more than others but on the whole A Fantasy Medley 3 is a good read.

Kevin Hearne opens the anthology with his story Goddess at the Crossroads. The title is a reference to Hecate, the Greek goddess associated with, among other things, witchcraft and crossroads. It is part of his Iron Druid Chronicles, which consists of seven novels and various pieces of short fiction. An eighth novel will be released in January 2016. The story is set between the fourth novel Tricked (2012) and the novella Two Ravens and One Crow (2012). It is essentially a camp fire tale in which the druid Atticus tells his apprentice the tale of how he met Shakespeare and how that encounter led to the inclusion of witches in Macbeth.

I must admit that his story did very little for me. I guess it could have worked as a comedy, since Atticus got a lot more than he was bargaining for in this story and the poet himself insists on getting them even deeper in trouble. I didn't think the humorous part of the tale worked all that well though. Most of the plot revolves around Atticus being a badass druid, something the witches find out to their regret. There is a lot of interesting source material in this novella. Shakespeare's play and Celtic and Greek mythology for instance. Hearne doesn't really manage to use those to give the story a bit more depth. It is entertaining but little beyond that. This novella didn't inspire me to seek out the novels it is tied to.

Laura Bickle submitted Ashes,  a novella tied to her Anya Kalinczyk series. There are two novels in this series, both published in 2010. I have no idea where this story fits into the series but it is set in contemporary Detroit where fire-fighter/demon hunter Anya Kalinczyk has a run in with the mythical creature Nain Rouge. Where Hearne doesn't manage to make the story more than a collection of references to history and mythology, Bickle is much more successful. There is a good balance in this tale between the need to catch this menace  before he slips away again for another year and the necessity to provide the reader with a bit of background on the characters and the creature they are hunting. Bickle slips in just enough information about the main character to interest the reader in trying to find out more. It still strikes me as a fairly standard urban fantasy story, but a well written one for sure.

The third story, The Death of Aiguillon, is written  by Aliette de Bodard. It is part of her Dominion of the Fallen setting. One novel has been published in this setting this year, with a second one in the works. The House of Shattered Wings was definitely one of the best releases in fantasy in 2015 and in this shorter piece De Bodard manages to capture that same sense of magic and tragedy that makes the novel so beautiful.

The story is set some sixty years before the novel and deals with the fallout of the destruction of the House of Aiguillon. A kitchen maid of Vietnamese origin loses the protection of the House and has to make her own way in a city at war. On her way out, she helps one of the fallen angels tied to the house to escape a certain death at the hands of scavengers. His body parts would have sold for high sums at the the black market because of the magic they contain. He is grateful for her help and promises to be back for her once he has recovered. As time goes by, the kitchen maid begins to realize it may have been an empty promise. Or a dangerous one.

De Bodard packs a lot into this story. Loss is a very obvious theme in a city that is about to hit rock bottom at the end of the magical war. The main character is faced with a decision in the novel. She has lost her place in the world and has to find a new one. The temptation of taking the easy way out is present throughout the story. It is always tugging on the main character. But there is an alternative. One that may be less certain but more rewarding. The dilemma of the main character is laid out in beautiful prose in The Death of Aiguillon. It is a very good introduction to the Dominion of the Fallen setting. Carey gives De Bodard a run for her money but in the end, this one is my favourite of the collection.

The final story in the anthology is One Hundred Ablutions by Jacqueline Carey. We see the story through the eyes of a young girl of the Keren people. Their valley was overrun by the Shaladan some three centuries ago and they have been serving their masters ever since. The main character is the daughter of a fruit picker, not generally worth the attention of the Shaladan. When the flux takes away a lot of higher class girls in her year, she is selected to serve them anyway. Everything she once hoped to get out of life is taken away from her in exchange for a life of service and celibacy. Life is unfair, she lashes out at it.

There is a fine bit of character development in this story. The main character is angry, disappointed and resentful at the beginning of the story. As it progresses, the emptiness of her life weighs on her and when the opportunity comes to strike at her oppressors she seizes it. There is a price to be paid though. What I liked most about this story is that it very vividly shows how her choices affect her emotional state. Not being tied to any other work, this story is by necessity the most self-contained. Carey manages a good balance between characterisation and showing us enough background of this fantasy world to fully appreciate what the main character is going through. No mean feat in such a relatively short text.

A Fantasy Medley 3 is an anthology with a weak start but a strong finish. On the whole, I think it is well worth reading. I enjoyed the stories by De Bodard and Carey in particular.  This third volume in the series is the only one I have read but I like the format a lot. Fantasy and short fiction are not always a successful combination for me but Kuznia's selection is an interesting one. Unfortunately the first two volumes are all sold out and as far as I am aware there is no digital edition. If a fourth volume should appear I will definitely read it though. Recommended for people who feel good fantasy doesn't necessarily need a ten book series.

Book Details
Title: A Fantasy Medley 3
Editor: Yanni Kuznia
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 152
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: E-arc
ISBN: 978-1-59606-767-7
First published: 2015

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Dark Orbit - Carolyn Ives Gilman

Dark Orbit by Carolyn Ives Gilman is a novel set in her Twenty Worlds setting. There are several shorter pieces and one other novel in this setting. Of these I have only read the novella The Ice Owl (2011), which earned Gilman a Nebula and Hugo Award nomination a few years back. That novella was an interesting read, although not the best that year had to offer. I always meant to follow up on it so when Dark Orbit was released I decided it was a book I had to read. It was published in July so I'm still a bit on the late side. Like the novella, this novel turned out to be a very interesting read. I would not be surprised if Gilman reels in a few more award nominations for this one.

Sara Callicot is a researcher sent on a mission to one of the strangest planets science has ever encountered. The crystalline world does not show any signs associated with an advanced culture on the surface but physically it offers plenty of material for research. Sara is there with a double agenda. She has been attached to the team to keep an eye on the scientists rather than do research herself. She has barely arrived at the ship when the decapitated body of one of the security guards is found. It's the beginning of a string of events that will set the crew against each other. When the strangeness of the planet becomes ever more apparent and more threatening, the struggle between the various factions in the crew heat up. The very survival of the expedition soon becomes doubtful.

In a way this novel reminded me of a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin. In Direction of the Road (1973) she shows us the world from the perspective of an ancient oak. Where we perceive it to be stationary, the oak has decidedly different views on the matter. It forces the reader to wrap their mind around a truly alien perspective and think about the meaning of relativity. That is in effect what Gilman does in this novel. Events on the planet the expedition is exploring unfolds in more than four dimensions and that has very interesting consequences for the story.

Part of the plot revolves around a number of well known observations involving quantum mechanics and relativity. The story contains a device that makes it possible to communicate in real time with people many light years away by making use of entangled pairs of quantum systems. My understanding of such theories is not very deep but as I understand it, it seems unlikely that information can actually be transferred this way. A second element in the plot rooted in physics is the effect that observation influences the outcome, or in quantum terms that a particle can in effect be in two states until an observation causes a probability wave collapse and forces the particle to be in one state or the other. This effect is the subject of the famous Schrödinger's cat thought experiment. There are references to other theories as well. String theory and references to branes also pop up at one point for instance.

Gilman applies many of these theories on the macro level, allowing people to travel between dimensions, or witness events many light years way. There are many references to physics in the book but most of the characters don't view these occurrences in a strictly rational way. For many, a more spiritual explanation makes more sense, or at least enables them to wrap their mind around the strange things they are seeing. Gilman constantly challenges perceptions, and whether or not we can trust our own senses. She consistently does so for all the viewpoints presented in the novel, leaving the reader to sort it all into their own framework.

Perception and views on the universe are of course linked to the way our brain works. The way it is wired in the absence of light for instance is one of the many examples of how perspectives differ from one person to another. A village designed by people used to relying on hearing and feel to get around looks radically different to one designed for people relying primarily on sight.  Both make sense to the people involved in developing that particular structure but when seen through the others' eyes it makes little sense. Our brain selects, edits and distorts the bombardment of sensory information it receives. Gilman gives a number of very interesting examples of how this works and how it shapes our view on our surrounding.

At just over 300 pages, Dark Orbit is a relatively short novel. Structurally it is probably closer to a novella than a novel. It is efficient to the point where I wouldn't actually have minded a bit more detail on the universe the story is set in. There are plenty of references to the Twenty Planets but after reading this novel the reader only has a very sketchy idea of how this future history came to be. Gilman is equally brief with the back story of her characters. In a way this is fitting as the scientists that are part of the mission have travelled fifty-eight light years, leaving all they knew behind and knowing it will all be ancient history by the time they come back. Information can be transmitted fast but people cannot. I guess there is no point in dwelling on the past for these people. The novel is very focussed on the now. I suspect it will leave more than a few readers with the feeling that they would have liked it to be a little longer.

The year 2015 is a good one for science fiction. Despite the fact that a handful of angry fans almost succeed in wrecking the genre's best known award, the number of books that challenge the genre's boundaries, that push the reader to think, and that allow them to experience cultures, frameworks of thought and lifestyles unfamiliar to them has never been greater. Gilman's novel does not take this development to extremes, one could say this approach to science fiction is fairly traditional. What it does do is make the reader think about where their own viewpoints fit in a whole larger than we could possibly perceive. In a world where debates become increasingly polarized and many parties seem to feel theirs is an absolute truth, that is a very necessary thing indeed.

Book Details
Title: Dark Orbit
Author: Carolyn Ives Gilman
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 303
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3629-3
First published: 2015

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Reigers vlucht - Sophie Lucas

Despite all my resolve to pick up a Dutch language fantasy or science fiction novel every now and then, Reigers vlucht (literally: Heron's flight) is only the third this year. The other two were both written by An Janssens. Reigers vlucht was published in 2012 and I got it fairly soon after publication. It then lingered on the to read list for three years until I finally picked it up last week. It is a début novel and as far as I can tell, no other novels have been published since by Lucas. I do hope Lucas gets back into writing. Reigers vlucht is not a masterwork but it does show potential. It would be a waste to stop after just one novel.

A war with Yamatan has drained the Yuan empire to the point where the old emperor feels he has to reach a lasting peace agreement. A delegation of Yamatan nobles arrives at court to seal the peace with a wedding. The unfortunate bride is the emperor's daughter Mei Lin. She doesn't fancy the Yamatan prince she is supposed to wed and seeks her brother's aid. When one of her brother's servants, a boy named Cang Lu, informs her of a conspiracy that threatens to destabilize the empire, her life changes radically. Where once she was radically opposed to the marriage, now Yamatan might be her only chance at survival.

Reigers vlucht is a secondary world fantasy clearly inspired by various eastern cultures. The Yuan by imperial China, the Yamatan by Japan, probably before the Edo period. Throughout the novel there are references to other cultures in that part of the world but they are mostly background. I haven't been able to tie any of the events in the novel to a historical conflict. Technologically speaking, it would have to be sometime in the sixteenth century, since one of the plot developments revolves around the effect of the introduction of gunpowder on warfare. Interestingly enough it is the Yamatan military that employs these new weapons first in the novel. In Yuan the stuff appears to be unknown. A strange reversal of history.

It may not be a full-blown historical fantasy but Lucas borrows extensively from customs of both Japanese and Chinese culture. Clothing, court life, weapons, drinks, rituals and social structures are all in some  way or another taken from Chinese and Japanese culture. The endless drinking of tea (which the author refers to as Cha) and rice wine (mijiu or sake), the ritual suicide for disgraced warriors seppuku, fireworks, kimonos, the list is endless. Lucas obviously has a strong interest in eastern cultures but after finishing the book I did get the feeling the way she presented them Reigers vlucht was a bit selective. Where many of the elements are clearly recognizable even to the western reader, there were some strange omissions as well. The importance of poetry for instance, or the convoluted politics at the Chinese imperial court. From someone who has lived there her entire life, and someone who is obviously well educated, Mei Lin seems very naive about such things. Somehow the two cultures at the centre of the narrative never really coalesce into a coherent social structure.

The story is told in fairly short chapters that keep the story moving at a reasonably fast pace. Lucas presents the bulk of the story from the point of view of Mei Lin. She is a feisty seventeen-year-old who, especially early on in the novel seems to think the world revolves around her. It is a trait she doesn't entirely shed over the course of the novel. Being away from court does teach her a few things though. Sacrifice in particular is a theme in this novel. To compensate for Mei Lin's limited understanding of the world Lucas employs a number of secondary points of view. The most important of these is Cang Lu (a nickname meaning heron). It must have been a surprise for many readers that the character who gave the novel its name gets so little screen time.

With most of the plot revolving around court intrigue and warfare, the novel is quite light on magic. Cang Lu is at the centre of what little magic the book contains however. I'm not quite sure what to call it but in effect he sees the future. Or possible futures at least. It is a talent he doesn't master in the early stages of the story. As the novel progresses, he gains more control and starts basing his decisions on what he sees. His actions turn out to be critical to the eventual climax of the novel, something the observant reader will see coming for a while. Cang Lu is, in most ways, a more interesting character than Mei Lin. He is damaged, fragile in a way and hopelessly in love. He has a much more interesting backstory than the pampered Mei Lin. With so little attention being paid to a character that turns out to be very important to the  plot I can't help but feel the novel is a bit unbalanced.

All things considered Reigers vlucht is a flawed début. It's a pleasant read in some respects. The pacing is good, the story flows well and Lucas times her big reveals and climax of the story well enough to make it a satisfying read in that respect. The characters and her use of the different points of view are not as well balanced though and I also felt that the cultures she depicts  are a bit too much a collection of interesting customs and folklore rather than a reflection of a culture as a whole. It is not a début that sends shock waves through the genre or even the Dutch language corner of it, but it is a solid novel. One that I enjoyed reading. Lucas missed a few opportunities to make it a more memorable read, but with a little more experience she could well produce a truly memorable book in the future. It is not a perfect novel but certainly a promising one.

Book Details
Title: Reigers Vlucht
Author: Sophie Lucas
Publisher: De Boekerij
Pages: 480
Year: 2012
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-225-6022-8
First published: 2012

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Uprooted - Naomi Novik

From what I read online, Uprooted by Naomi Novik is one of the surprises of 2015. She is best known for her historical fantasy series Temeraire. I've read the first six of these and while I enjoyed the earlier volumes, the series lost steam and the sixth was so poor that I didn't bother with the seventh. An eightth volume appeared in 2013. Apparently Novik took a break from the series to write Uprooted. The ninth and concluding book is expected some time next year. A break might have been what Novik needed. Uprooted feels fresh and surprisingly different from her other novels. I can see why so many reviewers are enthusiastic about it.

The valley is governed by a wizard. As rulers go he is a good overlord. He doesn't tax to excess, doesn't require men for his army and helps keep the community safe from the malicious forest that constantly threatens the local populations. There is a price however. Every ten years, he takes a young girl to serve him in his tower. When they are released from service, the girls all say they have been treated well but they have changed in ways that make it impossible to sink back into the valley's community. This year, there will be another choosing and Agnieszka is of the right age. She is not worried, everybody knows the lovely and skilled Kasia will be chosen, but then the wizard surprises them all and selects Agnieszka anyway.

Uprooted is essentially a fairytale. Novik was born in the US and is of Polish and Lithuanian descent. She clearly used the stories of her childhood in this novel. It will take someone more familiar with Slavic folklore to pinpoint the exact stories but the influence is unmistakable. The forest, as in many fairytales, is a dark, dangerous place full of secrets. Stray too far from cultivated land and you are likely to meet a gruesome end. Novik captures the maliciousness of the forest and the evil at its heart very well in the novel. It hangs like a dark cloud over the entire story. A stern warning about the dangers of the wilds.

Novik also made it a coming of age story. Agnieszka is seventeen when we meet her. She is clumsy, not particularly high on self-esteem and very naive about what is going on outside the valley she grew up in. Suddenly cast into a role she isn't prepared for, her early experiences with the wizard are terrifying to say the least. He thinks she is a blithering idiot, she feels he is rude, insensitive and cold. The situation doesn't improve when he finds out she has magical abilities. Used as he is to a rigorously structured form of magic, he seems incapable of helping her control her natural and faintly chaotic talent. It takes them a while to get a constructive relationship going.

Agnieszka is even more challenged when she leaves the valley however. Life in the capital is quite different from what she is used to and in her efforts to find her way around she looses track of what she was sent to do there in the first place. The descriptions of her being fooled, patronized and mocked are painful to read at times, and more than once I wondered why she didn't strangle anyone in her time there. It's a painful way of growing up but she does learn a lot from it. Her development into a woman who can distinguish truth from nonsense, knows right from wrong and has a good feeling for how the valley and the people living in it are linked.

A third part of Agnieszka's development is her relationship with the girl destined to go serve the wizard. Kasia has been more or less raised for the part, and not getting it upsets her life completely. She should resent this but manages to overcome it and maintain a deep friendship with Agnieszka. Novik describes this in a way that starts out understated but works to a dramatic climax towards the end of the novel. We see the entire story through Agnieszka's eyes, it is a first person narrative, but Kasia's character development is not diminished by that in the least.

Where at court the novel moves in the direction of epic fantasy, in the forest it is a full blown fairy tale. The presence inhabiting it is old. It has been there longer than the people and so nobody knows for sure how it came to be or what exactly it is. All they know is that it is evil and manipulative, always pushing to drive the population of the valley out. The forest is the perfect counterpoint to Agnieszka. Where she is sympathetic, down to earth and kind, the forest is horrific, mysterious and malevolent. For most of the novel, Novik manages to suffuse the story with its ever present evil. We get to know it in more detail during the final showdown of course but for most of the story the mystery keeps a certain tension in the story that could otherwise have easily sunk to the level of popcorn fantasy.

Where the Temeraire series mostly gets its inspiration from history, Novik has switched to other sources for Uprooted. The result is a novel that is quite different from her previous work. There is a darkness in this book that is not found in the Temeraire series. Novik's reimagining of Poland from its fairy tales is a great deal more successful than the novels she has produced in the past few years. Like many other reviewers I was pleasantly surprised by it. A fresh start did her a world of good. This novel has made me curious about what Novik will take on after the completion of the Temeraire series. She clearly demonstrates she is capable of different kinds of stories. Uprooted has convinced me to keep an eye out for that future project.

Book Details
Title: Uprooted
Author: Naomi Novik
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 438
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-8041-7903-4
First published: 2015

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Stay - Nicola Griffith

Stay is the second of three crime novels Nicola Griffith wrote about Aud Torvingen. They are something of a departure from the science fiction novels Griffith wrote before, and radically different again from Hild (2013), her most recent novel. I read The Blue Place in January and greatly enjoyed it, but then repeatedly forgot to order a copy of the sequel. I won't be making that mistake again. A copy of Always, the third volume, is on the way. The novel picks up almost directly after the events in The Blue Place so this review will inevitably some contain spoilers. You have been warned.

Aud spent the summer hard at work on renovating a cabin far away from the world and her old life. The events at the end of The Blue Place have wounded Aud and these wounds are slow to heal. She is hiding and not yet willing to admit it. Unexpectedly an old friend comes to visit her and asks for her help. The woman he has had a complicated relationship with for years, has never returned from a business trip. He is worried. Aud doesn't particularly like this woman, suspects she is just with another man and would rather not get involved. Her friend insists something is wrong. Reluctantly Aud agrees to go look for her. It turns out there is a lot more going on than a simple missing person case.

We get to see a completely different Aud in this novel. In The Blue Place she is confident, competent and a pillar to lean on for those around her. She has hidden the trauma she suffered years before carefully away and retreats to the blue place, a state of mind where her anger is cold and she is always certain what to do, if she feels physically threatened. The blue place has become a crutch for her, a source of overconfidence. It has lead her to make mistakes with far-reaching consequences. In Stay, Aud is not so sure any more. She has lost something of her confidence and fears some of the things she knows she must do. Her anger, when it comes, is no longer cold but white hot and uncontrolled. In other words, Aud has some issues to work through.

To highlight the shift in Aud's character she is pitted against a man who sees people as objects. He is a monster plain and simple, manipulating everybody around to get what he wants. He wears masks and plays roles, all without any feeling or empathy behind it. It is like looking in a mirror to Aud, the man has as deep an insight in human behaviour as she does, and he uses it to his advantage. She recognizes a lot of herself in him and it shocks her. Meeting this man triggers a violent response that could get her in serious trouble. The big difference between them is that Aud has a moral compass, but the likeness is still entirely too close for comfort. Griffith uses this likeness to make the reader feel uncomfortable about Aud's actions.

In a way, meeting her evil twin only underlines how dangerous Aud herself is. She possesses both the physical and mental skills to deal a lot of damage and Griffith drives that fact home even harder than in the first book. Aud, I suspect, is beginning to see the possibilities for abuse as well. She is torn between wanting to withdraw and her urge to help those that do not have her skills and power. She is looking for a balance in how much of herself she is willing to invest to help those who can't help themselves. It proves to be a difficult question.

One other major change in Aud is that she shows her vulnerability in this novel. At the end of the first book the mask she has hidden behind cracks and slowly but surely she is learning to communicate her feelings to others. Aud is opening up in ways we haven't seen her do in the first book. It's slow and painful but Aud doesn't feel the need to pretend to be superhuman all the time any more and those around her think that is a remarkable improvement.

There is a lot going on in this novel in terms of characterisation but Aud solves a crime as well. Griffith digs into a dodgy adoption/immigration case. It's a tragic illustration of the problems people deemed to be illegal immigrants face and how easy it is to take advantage of their situation. What makes it even more heartbreaking is the fact that the person involved is too young to realize the danger. Griffith shows us one small part of the huge problem the US is having with immigration. This book was published 13 years ago. The situation doesn't  seem to have improved much.

The climax of the first book was absolutely heartbreaking. In this novel you are left with the feeling Aud has managed to crawl out of the hole she found herself in. There is trouble brewing on the horizon of course but she has made great strides towards finding her balance again. Griffith does amazing things with this character, who in the hands of a lesser writer could easily have turned into a clichéd badass former police officer. Stay is a worthy sequel to The Blue Place. I'm looking forward to reading the third book. It will be interesting to see if Aud can hang on to her new found humanity.

Book Details
Title: Stay
Author: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Vintage Books
Pages: 303
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-4000-3230-3
First published: 2002

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Luna: New Moon - Ian McDonald

In the past few years Ian McDonald has produced three young adult novels that make up the Everness series. They're the kind of book that I wish had been around when I was in my early teens. It was quite a drastic change in direction for McDonald. His most recent adult novels are all densely plotted, beautifully written works set in near future developing economies. In his new adult novel he once again takes us in a different direction: the Moon. Luna: New Moon is the first in a duology on the colonization and industrialization of the Moon. It's a book fans of McDonald will love but also one that might frustrate readers because of the abrupt ending.

The Moon has a thousand ways to kill you but that hasn't stopped humanity from colonizing the place. Early in the 22nd century, our satellite is covered with cities, infrastructure and industrial complexes. The Moon is in effect run by five families know as the five dragons. The youngest of these, the Costas, make their money mining the helium-3 on which the earth depends to run its fusion power plants. The head of the family and founder of the company Adriana Costa is nearing her eightieth birthday and feels her time is almost up. It will be up to her children to protect family interests and keep the other four dragons at bay. The Mckenzies in particular, seem be a threat.

Luna: New Moon is a book of sharp contrasts. Society as described by McDonald is a libertarian's wet dream. There is no such thing as criminal or civil law for instance. There are only contracts and terms. Anything can be agreed upon and any breach of contract can be compensated. It creates a society with an unprecedented freedom. Sexually, pretty much everything is acceptable. Marriages are contracts like any other and can be negotiated in just about any imaginable composition. Designer drugs are freely available and just about anything else can be had for a price. It is the ultimate free market, a society with a thorough aversion to laws and limitations. It is almost as if McDoanld wanted to take a step beyond Robert A. Heinlein's classic The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Limited the people are though. The Moon is a harsh environment, hostile to terrestrial life in the extreme. Everybody has to purchase the four basics of life on the Moon: air, water, space and data. No money inevitably means death and with the constant consumption of these four things, the counter relentlessly moves to zero. Escape to Earth is only an option for the recently arrived. Muscles atrophy in the minimal gravity and bone mass decreases. Soon there is no way back. There is money to be made on the Moon but the personal price one pays for it is high. McDonald is constantly showing the readers the contrast between the anything goes society and the environment that demands constant attention to safety and rigorous discipline in maintaining the infrastructure to support life. Anything goes but mistakes are fatal. The most liberated society in human history is in effect a prison.

McDonald takes his interest in non-western cultures with him to this book. Of the five dragons only the Australian Mackenzies are from an English-speaking nation. Their rivals originate in Brazil, Russia, China and Ghana, making the Moon a very multicultural place. One of the ways in which the author expresses this is the use of language. His writing has always had a poetic feel to it and in this novel he enriches his English with words and phrases from Arab, Portuguese, Spanish, Yoruba, Akan and Chinese. He uses a Hawaiian system for a calendar and corporate titles are borrowed from Korean. It helps define the Moon as a place rooted in cultures from all over the world. Not everybody will appreciate the frequency with which McDonald reaches for words from other languages than English but for me it did add to the experience. At times the novel feels like McDonald is already on the path of creating a Lunar creole language.

Although McDonald is mainly interested in the struggle between the five dragons, there is a fair bit of hard science in this novel. McDonald has clearly done his research on the consequences of being exposed to vacuum or sunlight unfiltered by an ozone layer or magnetic field. Throughout the novel details on the technology that keeps people alive are worked in and the author doesn't fail to point out the consequences should this machinery break down. Transport systems and mining operations are also shown in the novel and to a lesser extent, food production and recycling systems. The Moon cannot afford to waste useful raw materials when importing them from Earth is prohibitively expensive. There's enough technical detail to make Lunar society well fleshed out but without overwhelming the story.

It is clear that Luna: New Moon is only half a story and that is probably the book's greatest weakness. McDonald needs some time to introduce his large cast and make the reader familiar with his creation. Once he has done that, the story picks up speed dramatically and moves towards a violent climax that at the same time resolves the story arc in this novel but also leaves the reader hanging to an extent. It is probably unfair to comment on it without having read the second volume but the way the first book unfolded made me wonder if it wouldn't have been better to have made it one (admittedly rather long) novel instead.

I have pretty much enjoyed everything I have read by McDonald and this novel is no exception. His exuberant writing style from his earlier novels has been tempered a bit, making his more recent books a bit more accessible. Luna: New Moon is a book that walks the fine line between exuberance and discipline both in the plot and linguistically. It is a book of sharp contrasts. Life and death are so close together that there is almost nothing between them. The moon can kill you in seconds and this razor sharp division between perishing and surviving creates a huge amount of tension in the novel. Once you are past the introductions the novel will have hooked you. McDonald shaped my vision of the moon in the way reading Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy did for the red planet. I don't think I can look up at it and see it quite the same way ever again.

Book Details
Title: Luna: New Moon
Author: Ian McDonald
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 398
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7551-3
First published: 2015

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Making Wolf - Tade Thompson

Tade Thompson  is one the authors whose work I first encountered in The Apex Book of World SF 2, one in a series of anthologies trying to showcase genre fiction from outside the US and the UK. Thompson is from Nigeria although he currently lives in the UK. He says his Yoruba roots influence his writing heavily and that is certainly the case of Making Wolf. It is his first novel and it turns out to be something of a thriller. It is a very violent novel, includes noir elements but also comments on the political situation in West Africa at the moment. It doesn't fail to point out the sad legacy of colonialism either. Thompson manages to turn this mixture into a novel well worth reading.

Weston Kogi was sent to the UK during one of the more violent spells in the history of his country of birth. The aunt that oversaw his move stayed behind and has recently passed away. For the first time since boyhood does he return to his home country. He makes the fatal mistake of bragging about his career in the UK, telling his family that he is a homicide detective in London. He soon gets singled out for the rather delicate job of investigating the murder of Papa Busi, a local hero and one of the few people in the country to be respected by just about everybody. The political minefield Kogi is forced to walk into is way beyond what a supermarket security guard normally faces. Any misstep could be his last. And he missteps frequently.

For his story Thompson creates a fictional nation of Alcacia, wedged in between Nigeria and Cameroon. It is clearly inspired by Nigeria but with enough differences that Thompson is probably still allowed to enter the country. Alcacia is a bit of a mess. Corruption is rampant and the government has had to leave control of large parts of the country to two opposing rebel forces. The fighting appears to have reached a stalemate but an end to the conflict is not in sight. All parties in the conflict would have the murder of Papa Busi remain a mystery, something that makes Kogi's task significantly more difficult.

One of the main themes in the book is how Kogi is not at home in the nation of his birth any more. Life in the UK has changed him and while he still has a firm understanding of the customs of his people, the country has changed in his absence. It causes him to make several serious mistakes. He is not quite as naive as a western but in the eyes of the Alcacians the difference is hardly noticeable. They mercilessly use his ignorance. The main character spends most of the novel trying to figure out who he can trust, what he wants out of life and whether he wants it in Alcacia or the UK. I was very impressed with the character development in this novel.

The conflict Kogi is dragged into is a brutal one. Thompson doesn't shy away from graphic descriptions of violence. He meets some people with very little regard for human life, which in a country where the police can be bought easily (if you have the cash) is very dangerous indeed. Especially early on in the novel you can feel Kogi is out of his depth. He doesn't see the violence coming, doesn't understand the consequences of his mistakes and doesn't really want to be part of it either. Along the way he becomes desensitised. A development that disturbs him greatly but one that he seems powerless to do anything about. At the beginning of the novel the reader perceives Kogi as a decent guy, at the end of it he is completely transformed.

Violence is everywhere in this novel and Thompson doesn't spare the reader any of it. The westernised Kogi has some bitter observations about the legacy of colonisation, but also about the failure of the Alcacians to tear down the colonial power structures. Violence is the predictable outcome and nobody can rise above it. Corruption sticks to everybody. From the western diplomat, eager to be fooled into thinking he is saving black children, to the area boys who 'protect' their territory, all are complicit in the violence. There is very little space between predator and prey. In its treatment of violence,  Making Wolf reads like Joe Abercrombie set in the real world.

There is the violence, the malaria, the veneral diseases, the appalling heat and staggering poverty but things are not all bad in Alcacia. For Kogi opportunities present themselves that he would never get in the UK. He is held back there, stuck in a job he doesn't particularly want with little prospect of advancement. Although it doesn't usually manifest itself as naked racism, he feels the white population excludes him. He is allowed to get only so far. In Alcacia however, almost anything is possible if you bring enough money. He may not be able to join the police force, but setting himself up as a private investigator is no problem. So, one foot in a superficially just UK society, battling systemic racism, or bribing your way to a dream unachievable by other means. It is not such an easy choice despite the risk the second option carries.

With all its graphic descriptions of violence and other forms of human misery, Making Wolf is not a particularly easy book to read. It made me uncomfortable in several places, which is probably what the author aimed for. You need to be able to stomach quite a lot to handle this book. That being said, it is a lot more than just violence. Thompson has his reasons to tell the story the way he does. He wants the book to be more than a simple fast-paced thriller and succeeds gloriously. It's a book that hides a lot of food for thought under the surface. I've been spoiled with a great many good books this year. Making Wolf is another book I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Book Details
Title: Making Wolf
Author: Tade Thompson
Publisher: Rosarium Publishing
Pages: 307
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-4956-0747-9
First published: 2015

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Pandora's Gun - James Van Pelt

James Van Pelt's output mainly consists of short fiction. Since the early 1990's his short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies. To date, Van Pelt has released four collections of short fiction, which I suspect do not contain all his stories. I reviewed the third of these collections, The Radio Magician and Other Stories a couple of years ago. I do own the others but as with so much good short fiction, I can't seem to get around to reading them. He released Summer of the Apocalypse, a post apocalyptic story with one main character and two narrative strands set about sixty years apart, in 2006. Pandora's Gun, published almost a decade later, is the second.

While looking around the local dump, high school student Peter Van Meer finds a bag with a mysterious gun inside. It looks high-tech but he can't figure out the symbols indicating the different settings. Using the trial and error method, Peter soon realizes his find is dangerous. He can't help telling his best friend about it however and together they begin to figure out the gun's different settings. Given its capabilities, it is clearly valuable and it soon becomes apparent that the owner of the gun wants it back. Besides the owner, other parties appear to be interested in the gun as well. It draws Peter into a dangerous game of hide and seek. The gun is even more powerful than Peter suspects and having it fall into the wrong hands could endanger everything Peter holds dear.

Like Summer of the Apocalypse, Pandora's Gun is a relatively short novel. It just falls short of 200 pages and is probably right on the edge of the divide between novella and novel. Van Pelt resists making the plot too convoluted and keeps the story moving. He seems to have a clear idea of how long it should be and doesn't attempt to stretch it beyond that. The novel is not specifically marketed for teens but it will clearly appeal to that age group. It has teen protagonists and weaves the thoughts and interests of high school students into the tale deftly.

Pandora's Gun is one of those science fiction pieces that shows a lot more respect for literary fiction than it is likely to receive. Perhaps that is not entirely surprising.  Until last school year Van Pelt taught English at a high school in Colorado and this experience clearly shows up in the novel. The novel is full of references to literature. John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, one of the few English classics that I have actually read even if it was some twenty years ago, is particularly important to the story, as is the poetry of Robert Burns. Burns is apparently one of Steinbeck's inspirations, something I don't remember coming up when we discussed it in English literature class. Despite being retired, Van Pelt still managed to educate me. He also draws on Greek mythology, the title is a dead giveaway. Less obvious is Dante, which Van Pelt chose as the name of Peter's best friend. I'm not convinced it is intentional but there is a scene in the book that shows us a place every bit as terrible as anything in Dante's Inferno.

The gun is the obvious science fictional aspect of the novel. Van Pelt links it to parallel universes and allows Peter access to all kinds of nifty technologies that haven't been invented yet in our world. He uses it only on a few occasions though. The gun drives part of the plot but while it looms over the characters during the entire book, its capabilities or how it works are not what's important in the book. The threat it represents and the problem Peter has saddled himself with is what Van Pelt is interested in. It's is one of the instances where Van Pelt shows restraint. He could easily have written in a few more big explosions or add lots of background on the origin of the gun and how it ended up in the dump, instead the author sticks to what is vital to the plot. It's a very no nonsense way of storytelling.

Although the story is quite fast paced, there is still some space left to explore the theme of friendship. Peter is starting to realize that his friendship with Dante is changing and that they are drifting apart. At the same time he feels attracted to Christy, the girl next door whom he used to play with as a child. While dodging all the friendly folk who want to have a chat with him about the gun, Peter tries to figure out where these friendships are heading. Peter makes some very mature decisions in this book. He recognizes that he can't follow where Dante is leading and that he needs a friend more than a girlfriend. It is here where I think one of the few weaknesses in the book surfaces. Peter is not allowed to drive yet so that would make him 15? Maybe 16? The choices he makes are awfully mature. He may be a clever boy but you still expect him to screw up once in a while.

Van Pelt may still be more comfortable with shorter lengths but Pandora's Gun clearly shows that he can handle a full novel as well. It is one of those books that grab you from the beginning and that can be read in a single session. The author carefully balances characterisation and plot to create a story that is a satisfying read on several levels. Van Pelt wraps up the main story nicely but does leave a few questions unanswered. Should he be inclined to write one, a sequel is possible although not necessary. Once again Van Pelt has shown that I leave his books on the to read stack for way too long. Pandora's Gun is a very good read. Maybe it will even remind me to pick up one of those unread collections some time soon.

Book Details
Title: Pandora's Gun
Author: James Van Pelt
Publisher: Fairwood Press
Pages: 194
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-933846-53-8
First published: 2015

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Philosopher Kings - Jo Walton

In January Tor released The Just City by Jo Walton. It is one of the most difficult books to categorize I've ever come across. Who would think to combine time travel and robots with Plato's philosophy and Greek mythology and hope to end up with a decent story? Walton pulled it off though. The Just City is one of the most interesting books I've read this year. It is also the first in a trilogy. The Philosopher Kings is the second. It appeared in June, less than half a year after the first volume. The third book, Necessity, is scheduled for June 2016. I will be keeping an eye out for that one. The Philosopher Kings is just as strong as the first volume and takes the story in interesting new directions.

Twenty years have passed since the Last Debate and Athene's abandonment of the Just City. The population has split up in five factions, founding four new cities, each with their own views on Plato's utopia. One group even decides to leave the island completely. The five city-states have various disagreements, most notably about the distribution of art taken from various times and places in history. Most of it remains in the original city but other cities constantly raid them to get their hands on some of it. In one of these raids Simmea, one of the main characters of The Just City, is killed. She leaves behind a grieving lover, a daughter and several sons, all struggling in their own way with their grief and the impossible position the city finds itself in.

Of all the characters in the first book, Simmea probably gets closest to Plato's ideal of the Philosopher King. Her life is dedicated to striving for excellence and even in death she has things to teach her loved ones. Her lover Phyteas is Apollo reincarnated in a mortal body. By killing himself he could have regained his powers, after which healing her would have been easy. She stops him from doing so however, leaving him behind to deal with grief and the inevitability of losing loved ones. It replaces his quest to understand consent in the first novel if you will. Simmea's death is a very powerful scene even if Walton writes it in a very understated way. It's an event that echoes through the entire book, relentlessly driving the characters to correct the issue that caused her death in the first place.

Like the previous volume, Walton offers us three points of view. Apollo and Maia, both of whom we met in the first novel, and Arete, daughter of Apollo and Simmea, who takes over from her mother. Through their eyes we see how the cities risk  sliding further and further away from Plato's ideal. It takes a trip off the island to see where it could lead though. On the various islands in the Aegean, the main characters get to see how easy it is to slide down the ladder of Plato's five regimes and what the consequences would be. Arete's point of view is especially clear on this. Used as she is to a city where striving for excellence drives everyday life, she is very sensitive to matters that will lead away from this ideal.

Walton uses the trip around the Aegean to add some more history to the novel as well. We know that the Just City was founded some time before the Thera volcanic eruption, at the tail end of the Minoan era in Greek history. What Walton doesn't tell us is when exactly this is. Possibly because the actual date of the Thera eruption is still uncertain. The characters speculate they were taken to a time shortly before the Trojan War. The novel mentions Laomedon as king of Troy. In Greek mythology he was the father of Priam who would be king during the war. The timeline strikes me as a bit strange. The most widely accepted dates for the historical events that may be the inspiration for Homer's Iliad are several centuries after the Thera eruption. It makes for a good story though. The characters are constantly wondering if some mythological figure might not be alive and walking one of the islands they are about to visit.

The trip, starting with the question of whether or not to make it in the first place, is subject to much debate. Without the guidance of Athene, who has not been seen in the city since the Last Debate, it is unclear if and how their trip will affect history. Athene's reason for placing the city on Thera is that the evidence would at some point be wiped out by the volcano. Why would the philosophers accept that they or their children will fall victim to this disaster in the name of an experiment of the gods? One Athene childishly abandoned after losing a debate, leaving her guinea pigs to their fate. The answer to that question is the climax of the novel and, I suppose, the foundation for the next one.

Both on their trip and at home the characters are confronted by the influence of Christianity. In the previous novel it was kept out as much as possible but both on their trip to other islands and at home, this religion is making inroads. It's a strange experience to see Christian theology show up more than a millennium before the birth of Jesus. On Thera, the work of Thomas Aquinas drives this development. I have the feeling that quite a bit of what Walton wanted to say with this part of the story went right over my head. This is probably a result of my minimal religious education and lack of interest in such matters. Other readers may do better with this part of the story.

Compared to the first novel  I guess The Philosopher Kings has a bit more plot and a bit less debate. That doesn't make it any less enjoyable though. The mixture of time travel and Greek mythology again works very well. Despite taking on some very difficult ideas the book is not a hard read. Its greatest strength is probably that Walton manages to make philosophy very accessible in this book. It doesn't end on such a dramatic cliffhanger as the previous novel but it is quite clear that the story is not quite finished. It will be very interesting to see what our Philosopher Kings can achieve in the final instalment.

Book Details
Title: The Philosopher Kings
Author: Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 348
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3267-7
First published: 2015

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Drakenvuur - An Janssens

I only read a couple of Dutch language novels every year. While I do like to stay in touch with what goes on in the small but vibrant fantasy community in the Dutch-speaking part of the world, these novels are almost always a few steps behind in craft and professionalism compared to the bulk of my reading. My reviews of Dutch language works tend to focus more on the technical side of writing, (structure, pacing, plotting) than on language, themes or interpretation of the novel. While there are some very talented people out there, a lot of what is being published is substandard. There are reasons for that. Nobody can make a living writing fantasy in the Netherlands. There are no magazines and very few other places to publish short works, the number of professional editors in he field is limited and the few publishers with resources tend to be more interested in translated works. Being a fantasy writer in the Netherlands with aspirations of writing a novel that can compete in international company is hard indeed.

An Janssens is one of the few authors being backed by a large publisher, a privilege she won in a writing contest a couple of years ago. Drakenvuur (literally: Dragon's Fire) is the concluding volume of the trilogy that started with Drakenkoningin in 2013. I picked up the first two volumes at the local bookstore but the third book I received directly from the author. This may seem surprising. The reviews of Drakenkoningin and Drakentovenaar were not exactly  jubilant. There is a story behind this of course and maybe I'll tell you about it some other time. Right now we are going to focus on the book.

For seven centuries a magical barrier has divided the north and the south. Slowly the north has cooled and the south warmed to the point where both of them are becoming uninhabitable. The leaders on both sides of the barrier understand something needs to be done to prevent the extinction of their peoples but neither has the skill and power to undo the magical damage wrought on the world by the powerful wizards of the past. Tentative contact has been made and now the time for bolder action has arrived. Var, Wizard-King of the south sets out to meet the Dragon Queen of the north. Together with their companions they set out to save the world, or break it forever.

With the first and second volume in the trilogy set primarily in the north and south respectively, this book is the first opportunity to see the two sides interact fully. Groups of characters from both novels make an appearance in the book and most of them get a point of view. I counted five major point of view characters and two minor ones. To accommodate the crowd, Janssens writes even shorter chapters in this novel. Drakenkoningin has 19 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue. Drakentovenaar, which is approximately the same length, has 32 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue. Drakenvuur has 47 chapters, a prologue and an epilogue. It must be noted that the page count of the final book is a bit higher than the other two though. It's no surprise then, that the novel moves at the same breakneck speed as the previous two books. In fact, the rapid changes in point of view, especially towards the end of the novel, give it the appearance of even more speed.

Janssens has grown more adept at saying more with fewer words but some readers will feel that being forced to look at the story from a different angle every few pages is a bit too much of a good thing. It also doesn't do the characters any favours in terms of development. Nevsemir for instance, is struggling with what can best be described as post-traumatic stress syndrome. Something she conveniently shrugs off when it really matters. Var, who like in the previous novel, is manipulated at every turn, easily forgives Thala for yet another piece of misdirection. Thala herself struggles with the secret she is keeping from Var but the whole thing is quickly brushed aside when it comes out. None of them seem to have a moment to spare to consider the rather large number of casualties among the population of both the north and the south their campaign to save the world demands. Like in the previous two volumes, many things that could have made the story more challenging, and in my opinion a more satisfactory read, are sacrificed to the demands of a fast paced plot.

Drakenvuur is a book built on shaky foundations. It has inherited the problems of the first two volumes and these issues show in the final instalment as well. That being said, there are elements in the novel that show Janssens growth as a writer. When she  wrote the first novel, it was by no means certain there would be a second volume. There clearly was a bit of improving involved in the creation of this trilogy. Where the first and second book are more or less separate stories, only slightly related to each other, in this novel she must find a way to unify the two halves of her tale. A lack of foreshadowing in the previous volumes sometimes crops up in some elements of the tale. The magic employed by the characters is one area where she succeeds into creating a coherent fusion of the previous two volumes. The abilities and limitations of each of the forms of magic are well thought out. Probably the best element of worldbuilding in this novel.

Janssens' trilogy is a good example of why I don't read many works in Dutch. On the one hand it is brimming with potential, enthusiasm and love for the genre. On the other you can feel the heavy hand of the editor speeding things up and removing the peculiarities of the author's style from the text. What remains is a trilogy that is marketable but not surprising. A fantasy that is both limited by the author's inexperience and the publisher's ambition. Had it been among the English language books on the bookshelves I would have passed it without looking twice. Looking on the bright side, Janssens was presented with an opportunity and she took it. A rare chance to be published as professionally as is possible in this part of the world. While there is still plenty of room for improvement, her writing has gotten better over the course of the trilogy. I hope she can take that experience with her and go on to create something that is a bit more challenging and a bit less traditional. I think she has the talent to do it. It will be interesting to see where she will go from here. Despite not being blown away by Janssens' Song of Ice and Fire, I will be keeping an eye out for the next one with her name on it.

Book Details
Title: Drakenvuur
Author: An Janssens
Publisher: Luitingh Fantasy
Pages: 316
Year: 2015
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-6776-8
First published: 2015

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Rendezvous with Rama - Arthur C. Clarke

Last week I read Cixin Liu's The Dark Forest and in that novel the influence of Arthur C. Clarke is unmistakable. Since I am waiting for some review copies to arrive at the moment, I thought I'd reread something by  Clarke this week. Rendezvous with Rama was first published in 1973 and won him the BSFA, Nebula, Campbell, Hugo and Locus Awards. It is regarded as one of his masterworks, perhaps only surpassed in popularity by 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Childhood's End (1953). The novel spawned three sequels written in collaboration with Gentry Lee. Which is to say Lee did the writing and Clarke limited himself to reading and editing. I never read any of the sequels, from what I have heard they don't reach the level of the original, but Rendezvous with Rama is something of a favourite of mine.

In the year 2131 astronomers spot a large object entering the solar system. At first they dismiss it as another comet or asteroid but when someone takes a closer look it becomes apparent that the structure is not natural. It is travelling at such a speed that only one ship in the solar system is close enough to intercept the object now christened Rama. The space ship Endeavour, captained by Commander Bill Norton is sent to rendezvous with the strange object and to explore its interior.

When you think about it, the popularity of this novel at the time is a bit peculiar. The New Wave had already washed over the genre but Clarke's writing was still firmly founded in the golden age. His grasp of physics and mathematics is impressive but his attention to characterisation is minimal, his prose straightforward and interest in anything other than the natural sciences limited. Clarke's early work may have had some spiritual undertone, by the time he wrote this novel, his work is mostly rational. You could even say that there is not much of a  plot to  Rendezvous with Rama. Clarke pretty much tells us what the expedition sees on Rama, how they overcome several technical problems and adds a bit of speculation on the builders of the object. It is all very simple in a way. Maybe even deceptively simple.

Rendezvous with Rama is a quintessential Big Dumb Object novel. What it excels at is achieving a sense of wonder in the reader. Although opinions on what this phrase actually means differ, it is something of a holy grail for golden age science fiction. In this novel, written many years after the end of this period in the history of science fiction, Clarke manages to make it tangible. The descriptions of Rama, aided by the clarity of the prose, will have the reader in awe. The sheer scale of the object is described in a way to make the reader feel insignificant In fact, Rendezvous with Rama is probably the only novel I've ever read that manages to make the reader experience vertigo.

The novel humbles the reader in another way as well. Although Rama clearly has a purpose in the solar system, it is entirely uninterested in humanity. It doesn't attempt to communicate or to investigate. It just does what it planned to do and moves on. After being the centre of the universe for all of history, humanity is relegated to a footnote. They can stand and watch in awe, they can speculate and investigate, but they can't match Rama's feats. Clarke goes to far as to make humanity look petty when the Mercurians authorities take it upon themselves to attempt to destroy what they don't understand. In this way, it expresses an idea that couldn't be further removed from the one that is the crux of The Dark Forest. Liu at the same time admires him and portrays his vision on extraterrestrial life as naive.

One surprising aspect of the novel is the humour Clarke has put into it. When the true nature of Rama becomes apparent, a council is set up to guide the expedition to the object. He uses it to mock scientists and politicians alike. In the council the process of science takes a back seat and petty politics take over. Clarke observes these proceedings with a kind of wry amusement. However much human society will change in the future, he doesn't have high hopes in this area it would seem.

The spectacular views Clarke offers, combined with today's technology could make this story into a visually spectacular movie. It has been optioned in the past and Morgan Freeman has expressed interest in making Rendezvous with Rama into a movie. It hasn't happened yet and as far as I can tell it is firmly stuck in development hell. Apparently there isn't even a script yet. Probably, someday, there will be a movie but it might be a bit of a wait.

I'm unreasonably fond of this novel. It is something of a throwback to an earlier age of science fiction, published in a time when the genre had already moved on to other, and in my opinion more interesting, things. The portrayal of future society seems simplistic, the characterisation practically non-existent, and the story arc lacks a clear climax. The list of flaws in this novel is long. And yet, it does one thing so supremely well that all these flaws recede into the background when reading it. Ill-defined as the much looked for sense of wonder may be, Clarke nailed it in this novel. Rendezvous with Rama is not Clarke's best novel, nor his most interesting but, it will remain a favourite of mine.

Book Details
Title: Rendezvous with Rama
Author: Arthur C. Clarke
Publisher: Gpllancz
Pages: 252
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-07733-1
First published: 1973

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Dark Forest - Cixin Liu

Last year the first part of this trilogy, The Three-Body Problem, was published by Tor. American publishers see translated works as a risk because of the cost of translations so works like this are unfortunately something of a rarity still. Tor cleverly made use of the reputation of the translator of the first volume, Chinese-American author Ken Liu, to draw attention to it and that worked very well indeed. It won the Hugo Award this summer and has certainly been one of the most discussed novels in science fiction this year.The Hugo vote this year is highly controversial because of the Puppies' attempt to manipulate the shortlist. In fact, it was only added to the shortlist because one of the other candidates withdrew. Personally I feel that in a year with normal voting practices it would have had a shot at the award as well. It is definitely Chinese but also firmly rooted in western science fiction, making it very accessible to western readers. While I doubt that The Dark Forest can repeat its predecessor's feat, I do think it is a worthy sequel. If you liked the The Three-Body Problem, you will want to read this book.

The Trisolarans are coming and their mission is to exterminate humanity. The human race has four centuries to prepare but with the help of the sophons, sub-atomic particles, they can listen in on any kind of human communication. Humanity is completely exposed to the Trisolarans except for one place: the privacy of the human mind. To exploit this one advantage, the Wallfacer project is started. Four people overseen by a UN committee  are granted the freedom to work on a plan to defeat the Trisolarans without having to outline it to anyone. They are granted access to enormous resources and are expected to defeat the enemy through deceit and misdirection. A dangerous and desperate plan but it seems like the only chance at survival.

The translation of this second volume is in the hands of Joel Martinsen of whom, other than what it says on the back flap, I know absolutely nothing. A quick search doesn't turn up any other translations by his hand. He follows Ken Liu's lead closely though. There is no noticeable difference in tone of voice and Martinsen is equally reluctant to add footnotes, only doing so in cases where the English-language reader is very unlikely to understand a reference to Chinese history or literature. The switch in translator will not bother the reader. I understand Liu is translating the final novel in the trilogy so continuity in the translation should not be a problem.

The novel covers about two centuries. Liu introduces a new calendar in the novel, counting the years from the start of the crisis. In a way, a lot of things stay the same during this long timespan. The Trisolarans use the sophons to limit humanity's progress in physics, essentially allowing only improvements in already existing technology. Quantum computers for instance, cannot be developed so after a certain point there is no increase in the computing power of processors any more. The technological explosion, as Liu calls it, stalls. It leaves the author free to speculate on what such a threat will do to human society and economy.

In his Big Idea piece on John Scalzi's blog Liu said he was writing a worst case scenario. No benevolent aliens or a prospect of a harmonious federation of planets of the people in this story. One of the major themes Liu examines is what the prospect of near certain extinction would do to the human psyche. It shows up in several forms but despair seems to take over every time. Liu describes the severe economic effects of creating a war economy when there isn't an enemy to fight yet. Something that will eventually lead to a collapse some time in the twenty-first century followed by a renaissance some decades later. Personally I'm wondering if something that is four centuries in the future will affect the human psyche to that degree -  we can't even be made to pay attention to a number of environmental problems that most of us most definitely will live to see after all -  but it is an interesting scenario.

Like the previous novel the author, and many of his characters, think about large groups of people. He pays attention to the thoughts and feelings of the main characters to illustrate a larger point. In themselves they are not all that interesting. Something that is probably more of an issue than in the previous book. I thought Ye Wenjie was a more interesting character than Luo Ji, the central character in this book. Luo keeps his cards close to his chest, which I suppose makes sense for a Wallfacer, but it doesn't do much for our insight into his motivations.

The Dark Forest contains a number of massive scenes in space. For the hard science fiction fan this is probably the highlight of the novel. Not all readers will like them but, as he has shown in The Three-Body Problem,  Liu is good at writing such scenes. In this novel he is absolutely ruthless in them. He so thoroughly quashes humanity's previously held beliefs  that it has made me wonder what he can come up with for the third installment of the trilogy.

Liu's story is again firmly grounded in western science fiction. He formulates an answer to the Fermi paradox for instance, and refers to some of the genre's great works (Foundation, A Clockwork Orange) and he doesn't hide his admiration of Arthur C. Clarke. As we move into the future and Liu is able to use less of China's actual history and as the story takes on more of a global perspective, it becomes even more accessible for the western reader. The Dark Forest delivers everything that The Three-Body Problem does and a bit more. If I had to choose my favourite it would still be the first book because of the historical background used in much of that story but I suspect many readers will find the second book a step up. It is a very dark story though, it will be interesting to see if the final volume, Death's End, will show us a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. It is scheduled for April next year. I for one can't wait to get my hands on it.

Book Details
Title: The Dark Forest
Author: Cixin Liu
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 512
Year: 2015
Language: English
Translation: Joel Martinsen
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7708-1
First published: 2008