Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Blue Place - Nicola Griffith

I've been working my way through Nicola Griffith's backlist ever since reading her debut novel Ammonite in 2013. To date, six of her novels have been published and each of them has been wildly different. Griffith has written science fiction, historical fiction and crime novels. The Blue Place is one of the three crime novels focused on main character Aud Torvingen. It was first published in 1998 and was followed by Stay in 2002 and Always in 2007. I don't read a whole lot of crime novels, in fact  I never got much beyond Sjöwall and Wahlöö, so I might be very well equipped to review this novel. Even without looking at the conventions of the genre however, there is plenty in this novel to write about. I thought it was a fascinating piece of writing.

Former police lieutenant Auld Torvingen quite literally runs into a beautiful woman on one of her late night walks thorough the city of Atlanta. The woman disappears again quickly, just as behind them a house explodes. It belongs to a renowned and somewhat reclusive art historian. When drugs are found on the premises, the police assumes some kind of drug deal gone bad. Aud doesn't believe that for a second but it is not her problem until the woman she ran into that night contacts her. Against her better judgment she takes on the assignment of digging deeper into the case and is pulled into a world of art, drug trade, money laundering and murder.

Aud is a pretty dark character. She is clearly traumatized by and event in her past and it takes most of the novel for her to bring herself to the point of talking about it. She is also a very competent woman. Very observant and able to read people very well, she's cut out for police work. Her upbringing and education have made her comfortable in many layers of society and she is quite capable of defending herself if needed. In fact, violence has an attraction to her. It takes her to that cold place where everything is clear and there is no doubt about what she needs to do. It is a place where her rational mind wants to stay away from. All these talents make Aud a bit quick to judge and overconfident at times, traits that leads her to make mistakes. Sometimes very costly ones. It also saves Aud from being too perfect, although there might be readers who feel she is anyway.

The plot itself is quite elegant. It is something of a mystery of course, and every time Aud thinks she has it figured out, there is this one fact that doesn't fit the big picture. This one odd find that keeps bothering her and that leads her to probe ever deeper into the web of criminal activity that lies at the heart of the events in the novel. On the personal level there is also quite a bit going on. Aud, like a true crime novel protagonist, is not really happy. She has a complicated relationship with her mother and her love life appears to be limited to occasionally picking up a woman (like many of Griffith's characters Aud is a lesbian) at a bar. It is clear Aud is paying a price for the independent life she has created for herself.

It would seem Griffith likes to write about things she personally experienced (which, mind you, is not the same as writing autobiographical material) and I'm beginning to see more and more links between the various books as well as between the books and Griffith's life. I know she spent some time in the Netherlands (how you could possibly know about obscure larger like Lindeboom for instance, is hard to explain any other way) and, like Aud, she did teach self-defense at one point.  She also spent time in Whitby in the late 1980s, a place also mentioned in the novel and the site of the monastery of Saint Hilda of Whitby, the main character in Griffith's latest novel Hild. I was half expecting an ammonite to show up in the text too. What I'm not aware of is a connection between Griffith and Norway but this novel has made me wonder if there is one.

In her previous novel, Slow River (1995), the main character is a Dutch woman, although she has a very cosmopolitan lifestyle. In The Blue Place the main character is half Norwegian, half American. This might not mean much to most readers but I am Dutch and my girlfriend is Norwegian, which makes me look at these novels with from different perspective. Where is Slow River, Lore's nationality is not that important to the story, in this novel, it plays an important part. A large section of the final part of the novel is set in and around Oslo. Norwegian food is especially prominent. I've been introduced to such things as lapskaus, lutefisk and raspeballer and most recently krumkake but this novel lists a whole lot I'm not familiar with.

Aud is taking the trip to Norway with her American client, which gives Griffith an excuse to explain some of the Norwegian attitudes. I recognize quite a bit of it. The attitude towards money, the landscape, the reference to tourists getting themselves killed in stupid ways, the position of the church, May 17th and a few more. One of the things I missed was the Norwegian tendency to stick to their local dialect. Aud, who according to the book has lived in both Oslo and Bergen would be very aware of that. I'm trying to get my girlfriend to read it as I suspect we're getting a bit too much of an outsider view on the country despite seeing it through Aud's eyes. You probably have to be Norwegian to see it though.

The Blue Place is quite a dark novel with a very dramatic ending. The novel wraps up the mystery part of the story nicely but it is clear that on a personal level we're not done with Aud. She, it would seem, has a few challenges remaining and if will be interesting to see how she goes on after the events in this book. The novel is quite different from the novels by Griffith I have read so far. It shows her versatility as a writer, something I greatly appreciate in her work. For readers who start out with her science fiction it may be a bit of leap but if you don't confine yourself to reading one genre, you could do worse than give this book a try. I greatly enjoyed it and Griffith has piqued my curiosity about the next volume. Perhaps I'll come back to this series later in the year.

Book Details
Title: The Blue Place
Author: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Pages: 308
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-380-79088-3
First published: 1998

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Doubt Factory - Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi is an author whose work I've been keeping an eye out for ever since I read his debut collection Pump Six and Other Stories (2008). He is probably best known of his first novel, The Windup Girl, which won a shelf-full of awards in 2010. Since then, he has mostly produced work for younger readers. The Doubt Factory (2014) is the third novel that is marketed as Young Adult. He wrote a fourth for an even younger market. Bacigalupi will be retuning to adult fiction later this year however, with the release of his novel The Water Knife. I very much look forward to reading that one. The Doubt Factory is a novel unrelated to any of his other works and clearly aimed at teenagers. It is fast-paced, written in clear language and with an equally clear message. I might have liked it more as a teen but reading it now, I think Bacigalupi is on his soapbox a bit too much.

Alix Banks has a bright future ahead of her. Her father runs his own public relations firm and has made a lot of money doing so. Their family moves in the circles of the powerful and her father's money has bought Alix an excellent education. She is headed for an Ivy League university and a bright career. Until, that is, a group of activists called 2.0 upsets her comfortable life. In a series of bizarre actions, they manage to open Alix' eyes to what her father's company is really doing. It disturbs Alix deeply and she is faced with a choice that could radically alter the path of her life.

The Doubt Factory is essentially about corporate greed. What Bacigalupi describes in his novel is a method to cast doubt on scientific findings that can delay regulation or bans on the use of certain substances found to have serious health or environmental effects and allow the company involved to squeeze a few more years of profit out of their product. There is no question about whether or not companies use these kinds of strategies. It is the only reason why tobacco is still widely available in most parts of the world, decades after the conclusive scientific evidence surfaced that it is both addictive and linked to a huge list of life-threatening medical conditions. The same thing is happening in the climate change debate, where an oil money funded tiny group of researchers have managed to convince enough politicians there is doubt about climate change to keep any real action from being taken. These are just the most eye catching cases, the  list of examples is huge, as Alix finds out in the novel.

Bacigalupi provides a playbook in this novel about how the process works:

Chapter 25
You can see this strategy in just about any discussion where science, economics and politics overlap. In fact, when I was in college studying environmental science, tactics like these were repeatedly pointed out to the students to make them aware of the danger. One strategy to deal with this is to follow the money. Asking yourself the question who pays for what research and what are their motives. Bacigalupi even points out ways to obscure the money trail in the novel. It is pretty scary to think that apparently making more money than you'll ever need is so important to some people that they'd be willing to engage in such profoundly unethical and at time outright criminal types of behaviour. Just reading about it makes one feel dirty. It also makes one wonder if we, as a species, are actually capable of facing up to the challenge of keeping the planet inhabitable.

In our ever more complex world we are using literally hundreds of thousands chemical substances of which, beyond the chemical structure, virtually nothing is known. Even if we wanted to, we could not research the impacts on human health or the environment of all of them. New substances are subject to testing of course but we will keep running into situations were the use of a chemical will have unforeseen consequences even if a company follows all the regulations and procedures perfectly. The whole culture of suppressing the knowledge that might result in a product having to be withdrawn or companies having to compensate victims is disturbing.

While I approve of Bacigalupi's message, I'm not sure that he has turned it into a good novel. Bacigalupi lays out his ideas in a very direct manner in the novel, with long monologues of 2.0 mastermind Moses in particular. He lays it out in detail and, not surprisingly, Alix refuses to swallow it whole. She is a bit naive in some ways but even so, Moses makes it sound like a conspiracy theory. Which is, I suspect, how many readers not familiar with the topic will see it. Moses tries too hard to sell it.

Despite his lecturing, Moses does manage to plant the seeds of doubt in Alix mind (no pun intended) and that is one of the aspects I do like. Alix has trouble slipping back into her old life and ignoring the signs that Moses may have a point. Bacigalupi very convincingly portrays a young woman being torn by doubt, feeling the very foundations of her comfortable life starting to crumble. The part of the novel where Alix tries to pretend nothing is wrong is the strongest part of the story in my opinion.

The entire novel is something of a thriller and the novel ends in an action packed sequence that would do very well on the big screen. Alix' decision as to which side she should choose will not come as a surprise to the reader. The way the argument is presented in this novel only allows for one conclusion. It is here that we can really see what this novel lacks to make it into a great work of fiction. The novel polarizes. It clearly defines two sides of the argument and pictures one as being absolute evil that must be fought by bringing their true motives to the light. It's the kind of polarization that currently grips American politics and simply blocks any kind of progress on issues such as business ethics, distribution of wealth, environmental protection and climate change mitigation. It is a complete deadlock, and while Moses has a pretty good handle on the problem, he does not have a solution. He changes one person's mind, or rather makes her think about something she has taken for granted and by doing so, removes her from a position where she might actually be able to influence matters. He moves her from one camp and puts her in the other. It is a sign of personal growth for Alix but doesn't change the big picture. If Moses had had an answer on how to change that, it would have been revolutionary.

What we are left with is a suspenseful novel with occasionally very good characterization. It's a novel with an important message, one that, despite the mechanism being clear for anyone willing to connect the dots, doesn't get nearly enough attention. I enjoyed reading it but after finishing The Doubt Factory it still left me with the feeling that the novel made it too easy to dismiss it as a conspiracy theory. It's unfair to expect a work of fiction to come up with the answer to one of the major challenges facing American democracy but I would have liked to see it reach out a bit more, rather than just condemning shameful corporate behaviour. If simply exposing it would be the answer, we'd have solved a lot of problems by now. Still, it is a message that needs to be spread, and as such the novel is very much worth reading. Just be aware that you will never see a political statement or an article in the news quite the same way after you finish this book. The pattern Bacigalupi describes is everywhere.

Book Details
Title: The Doubt Factory
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Pages: 484
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-316-22075-0
First published: 2014

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Ségou I: De aarden wallen - Maryse Condé

If you read the history of a random country in sub-Saharan Africa, it either begins at the first contact with Europeans or briefly mentions the state of the region right before the colonial powers show up. Before that, Africa appears not to have had a history. At least not one that anybody in the western world is particularly interested in exploring. In the west, Africa might have been an unknown continent until the end of the nineteenth century, but that obviously doesn't make it the start of history. The thing that attracted me to this book many years ago is that Guadeloupean author Maryse Condé explores the history of city of Ségou (or Segu if you prefer the English spelling), located in present-day Mali, before it became part of the French colonial empire. I read it in Dutch translation, the original French title is Ségou: Les murailles de terre. It has been translated into English as well under the rather unimaginative title Segu. It is the first part of a duology, I hope to have a look at the second volume later in the year.

The novel opens in October 1796 when the Bambara state ruled from Ségou is at the height of its power. Its soldiers have subjugated all its neighbours and is growing rich from the trade in slaves. The river Joliba (Niger) keeps its fields fertile and productive and the ruler Mansa Mozon is strong and feared throughout the region. The Bambara are a proud and confident people, but change is about to arrive in Ségou. A white man by the name of Mungo Park presents himself at the gate of the city and from the north the call of Islam is heard ever louder. As the decline of the empire sets in, we follow the members of the Traoré family. Four of its sons will be scattered across the globe, showing us the developments that, unknown to much of the Bambara population of the city, contribute to the downward spiral they find themselves in.

Interestingly, Condé starts where many of the history books would start, with the first white man to show up in the area. She chooses to use him as a herald of change but the change that most directly affects the city in the book doesn't come from the western powers. Ségou would not be taken by the French until 1890. Tiékoro hears the call of Islam early on in the novel. His curiosity about the religion shocks his family. The morals of his new religion clashes with the traditional Bambara views on sexuality, family and religion. He gets sent to Tombouctou to study however, accompanied by his brother Siga. Where Tiékoro's conversion is complete, Siga's is only skin deep. He adopts an Arab name out of necessity and while he is interested in learning to write, he doesn't particularly care for a ban on alcohol or extramarital sex. The conflict in the family between Siga's practicality and Tiékoro's fanaticism is one that will play out throughout the Bambara empire. It's a conflict that rips the city apart in the end, and if you look at current events in Mali, it is a conflict that continues to be relevant to the region.

A third son, Naba, is pulled in another direction. He is taken prisoner and suffers the fate so many Africans taken in raids and wars have had to endure. He is sold as a slave and ends up on the island of Gorée, the departure point of many transports to the new world. He is bought by one of the rich inhabitants of the island but when he falls in love with a slave girl about to depart for Brazil, he sneaks on board and goes with her. From Naba's point of view we get to see the slave trade and its importance to the economy of many of the African empires, but also the cost in human suffering and effects of a loss of their roots and culture. The novel is set in a period in which slavery is challenged from several sides. The ban on the trade  in 1807 by Great Britain is a historically important moment, although in practice the slave trade would go on for decades after.

The fourth member of the Traoré family Condé uses to explore the external pressures on the Bambara empire is Malobali. He makes a run for it after being sent to Djenné to study the Islam and ends up serving in the army of the Ashanti Empire, in what is today part of Ghana. Through his eyes we explore the expanding influence of the British, the introduction of Christianity and the effect the (descendants of) returning slaves have on west-African society. While the Ashanti would not be completely defeated and colonized by the British entirely until after the fourth Anglo-Ashanti War starting in 1895, their influence is still felt throughout the region.

The brilliance of this book is probably in the way Condé manages to describe so many diverse cultures the characters encounter. She manages to step into the Bambara worldview but describes places like Brazil, the Ashanti empire, Morocco, London, Djenné and Tombouctou vividly as well. The author doesn't overwhelm the reader with it, but in most of these places, hints to the history are included. The Bambara Empire for instance, is not the only one to flourish in the region. Ségou was once part of the Songhai Empire, and before that the Mali Empire. It is very interesting to see how the Traoré sons often represent the outsider view to a particular culture, religion or nation, while in the generation of their children it shifts dramatically. There is also a big gap between the characters who stay in Ségou and those who have seen parts of the world. In the entire novel you can feel the hammer coming down on the city that despite all these omens remains proud and self-assured to the point of arrogance.

With the frequent changes in point of view and the large timespan the novel covers, the character development is not very in depth. Characters are chosen to represent a development and Condé spends quite a lot of time telling us exactly what makes them tick. What she is interested in is what they witness and how it will shape the city that is the real main character of the novel. It's a style of writing that is not that unusual in historical novels but not everybody can appreciate it. Personally I like the variety in characters and locales Condé employs just fine.

One other thing that might turn the reader of is the way gender relations are portrayed in the novel. Although there are plenty of female characters in the book, almost the entire novel is written from male points of view. They have opinions on women and sexuality that fit the society and religion they adhere to and usually those ideas are quite sexist. Condé doesn't steer away from it. Forced marriages, abuse of slaves and rape are very much part of the story and we are not spared the consequences of it. Several of the characters struggle with the restrictions their new religion puts on sexual activity in ways that often quite brutally expose the hypocrisy of the characters and their society. Bambara customs are not spared in that department. Their views on sex, while not as restrictive to the men, are not exactly free of sexism and other problems.

I think this was the fourth time I've read this book and I still think it is an amazing read. It is one of the few novels I'm aware of that shows us an African society from the inside and succeeds in making it believable. Condé has obviously put in a lot of research into the history, culture and customs of Ségou and the result is a very good historical novel. It's a book that will make the reader a lot more aware of the fact that slave trade, religious fanaticism and colonialism left their scars on many local cultures and have sown the seeds of many of the post-colonial conflicts that still plague the continent. On the other hand it also shows this part of the world as vibrant, culturally rich and in some ways very resilient. I must admit that I knew very little of Mali before I read this book for the first time many years ago and that may have been the type or reader Condé was aiming for. It is a great introduction to a piece of Africa that does not show up in the history curriculum of the average western highschool student. Since that is not likely to change anytime soon, you should probably just go out and read this book.

Book Details
Title: Ségou. I: De aarden wallen
Author: Maryse Condé
Publisher: Rainbow Pocket
Pages: 609
Year: 1993
Language: Dutch
Translation: Stefaan van den Bremt
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 90-6766-085-X
First published: 1984

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Lana Reviews: Julia - Peter Straub

First time I came across Peter Straub - that I knew of - was during a Stephen King spree I had some years back, which eventually led me to read The Talisman and Black House, two The Dark Tower-related novels that he and King wrote together. Only in November last year, did I realize that a horror movie I had watched at the tender age of 11-ish was in fact based on another of his books, Julia. What exactly made me look the movie up that random evening in November, I do not remember anymore, but I know I had exactly two clues to go on; Mia Farrow was in it, and it was about a creepy evil ghost girl. When I subsequently discovered that the movie was based on one of Straub's earlier novels, I knew I'd rather want to read that, than look at the movie again. So I hinted at this before Christmas, and soon after, it was to be one of the presents resting under the Christmas tree.

After the death of her young daughter during a tracheotomy gone wrong, Julia Lofting - trying hard to break out of her old life and the memories it holds - leaves her husband and old home behind, and starts looking for a new place to live. The first house she is shown, seems to beckon to her, and what's more, she glimpses a young girl about her daughter's age, and with the same color hair, roaming about in the neighborhood. After that first visit at Twenty-five Ilchester Place she never goes to look at any of the other places for rent or for sale, - she knows that this large, old-fashioned house in Kensington, London was meant for her, and impulsively makes the purchase.

What seemingly starts out as a positive change and a new clean start for Julia, however, soon turns bitter, as she realizes that the past will not stay in the past. Not only will her husband not leave her be, but something in the house wants her there, needs her to be there, but also hates her, half egging her on to figure out its secrets, half discouraging her from finding out anything by threatening her with death. But Julia won't stop her search into the past. And as she struggles to figure out exactly what happened at Twenty-five Ilchester Place and its near surroundings 24 years earlier, Julia herself falls apart, slowly descending into the darkness of her damaged psyche.

Julia is a haunted house story. Or is it, really? Straub has put it together in such a clever way that one frequently wonders what exactly is going on. From the first page of the story, it is obvious that something isn't quite right with Julia. And throughout the novel, the reader can never be sure if what Julia experiences is real, or whether it's just whatever is wrong with her making her perceive things in a way a person without her mental baggage wouldn't, making her one of the most unreliable narrators I've ever come across. Several times, it is hinted at that some of the things she thinks the ghost did, were in fact done by the people in her life: her husband, his sister, and their adoptive brother. Then again, a few bits of the story is told from these other peoples' points of view, and some of the things they see and experience do indeed match the things Julia herself has seen and felt, making it even harder to figure out what exactly is happening in this novel.

Threatening ghost or not, Julia works hard at solving the riddle of Twenty-five Ilchester Place, and whether or not it was just chance leading her to this old house in Kensington, it turns out that there is a connection of sorts between her and the house. Her hunt for clues, and her slow unearthing of events in the past, lends the novel an air of mystery - and it's a pretty good one at that. But Julia soon looses herself in a really bad way during her search, and doesn't seem to realize or care that what she is doing is slowly destroying her. While she claims several times that she doesn't want to die, all her actions point toward a wish for self-destruction, whether the character herself is aware of it or not. Had she really wanted to break with her old life, for example, she could have moved back to her country of birth and started anew over there, - she certainly had the means to do so. Instead she chose to live in a place where her 'family' could continue to use, abuse and manipulate her.

In a way, Julia is very much a product of the life she chose for herself and the people she chose to have in her life, all poor choices in my opinion. Her husband, Magnus, does not come off as a very sympathetic man. He needs to be in control of every aspect of his life, it seems, including the people in it. As such, he does not take it well when Julia decides to leave and live alone. Apparently, his personality and habits match those of Julia's father, down to how they both had plenty of mistresses and thought this to be only fair. (If Julia had taken a lover, however, there might have been murder.) Magnus' sister Lily comes off as more sympathetic than her brother, but she is manipulative in her own way, and has her own agenda when it comes to Julia. I'm not entirely sure what was going on with Mark, their adopted brother, but he seemed to be having mental issues of his own, making his bits of the story as unreliable as Julia's. Continuing to allow these people to be a part of her life (or be close enough to force their way into it, in her husband's case) is as self-destructive as the hunt Julia cannot abandon.

Julia is not a very complicated book to read, not at first sight, but as it turns out once you sit down and think about it, it has layers and layers of things happening where nothing is what it seems, and where everything can be questioned or looked at from at least two sides. Which in turn makes me wonder whether I've ignored some big things I should have talked about here, in favor of driveling on about the things I thought were interesting, or strange, or worthy of notice and so on. Basically though, it is a chilling story, and if you want laughs and giggles, this is not the right book for you. I have read better ghost stories, and I have read worse, but if you like novels where you have to figure out for yourself what is happening, and don't mind still not being quite sure as you turn the last page, I really do recommend this book as it's pretty clever like that.

Book Details
Title: Julia
Author: Peter Straub
Publisher: Anchor Books
Pages: 291
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-8041-7283-7
First published: 1975

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Slow Regard of Silent Things - Patrick Rothfuss

In 2007 Patrick Rothfuss' debut novel The Name of the Wind, first book in the Kingkiller Chronicles, was published and it launched him right to the top of the Fantasy genre. To have a debut that well received is rare indeed. At the time Rothfuss was confident he would be able to deliver the second volume in the trilogy quickly but it turned out to be more complicated than he expected. The Wise Man's Fear didn't appear until 2011 and now, almost four years later, it is still unclear when the third volume, The Doors of Stone, will be published. October did see the release of a novella related to the Kingkiller Chronicles however: The Slow Regard of Silent Things. It is set in Kvote's world but I doubt it will satisfy those who are waiting for the third book. Rothfuss has written a very unusual novella indeed.

The novella is about a secondary character in the main series, the mysterious woman Auri who lives in the Underthing, the maze of abandoned cellars, tunnels and pipes under the university. She wakes up one morning realizing that in seven days, he will visit her. There is much to be done before he arrives. Auri quickly starts preparing for his visit and takes the reader on a trip though her subterranean world.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things is what happens when a writer writes the story he wants to write rather than what publishers (and presumably the majority of readers) want. Rothfuss opens with an introduction in which is he lays out the many reasons why we may not want to read the  novella. And it must be said, he has a point. The story he has written, to put it in his own words, doesn't do a lot of things a story is supposed to do.  In fact, it is probably one of the oddest pieces of writing I've ever encountered. Certainly not something one would expect of Rothfuss. At the end of the book he explains why he wrote it, which is just as interesting as the story itself. Do read that endnote.

The story did get published despite Rothfuss' own misgivings and that ought to tell the reader something. Publisher DAW spent a lot of effort on the packaging too. It is a nice little hardcover with lots of illustrations by Nate Taylor, the artist who worked with Rothfuss on the equally unusual picture book The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle: The Thing Beneath the Bed. It almost looks like something Subterranean could have published.

Despite Rothfuss' warning this book is going to disappoint some people. The story adds nothing to the main storyline of the novels. It is entirely focused on Auri and as readers of Rothfuss' novels will already have gathered, she is a special woman. She lives completely in her own world, one that is very hard to understand for everybody else. On the surface not much is going on in the novella. She goes about the business of organising her surroundings with an attention to detail that seems both compulsive and random. Slowly, a way of thinking starts to become clear that helps Auri deal with her fears and loneliness.

Key to enjoying this novella is to see through the mundane activities and figure out what makes Auri tick. Rothfuss does leave clues about her past, although we never really get to find out what scarred her in the first place. That is not what Rothfus was trying to explore. He explores Auri's mind as it is, rather than asking how it became as peculiar as he describes it. To convey Auri's view on the world Rothfuss does a number of things with language that are less present in the main series. Auri's continual anthropomorphizing of inanimate objects in particular contribute to the strange atmosphere of the novella. It is definitely not something all readers will appreciate but personally I thought it was a beautiful bit of writing.

There will no doubt be a lot of get-on-with-writing-the-next-book-already type of comments directed at Rothfuss in response to publication. It will disappoint some readers, especially those who somehow missed the warnings not to expect more Kvote style action in this novella. I can't really say I'm sorry for those people. Not all stories have to be cast from the same mould. Rothfuss tried something different here and if you approach the work from the right angle The Slow Regard of Silent Things can be a very good, if peculiar, read. It is probably very much a love it or hate it story but if you like your reading a bit unusual I think you should try this.

Book Details
Title: The Slow Regard of Silent Things
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Publisher: DAW Books
Pages: 159
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7564-1043-8
First published: 2014

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Three-Body Problem - Cixin Liu

Note on Chinese names: Tor has chosen to put the name of the author in the western order. In (tradition) Chinese the family name would come first. Doubleday, for its edition of The Fat Years, has chosen to leave the Chinese order as it is. The translator of The Three-Body Problem uses the Chinese order in the entire novel, with the cover being the only exception. I always use the title of the novel and author name as they appear on the cover but in the rest of the review I've chosen to use the Chinese order for the author and the characters mentioned. Also note that the translator Ken Liu uses his western name - I don't know what it is but I'm pretty sure he has a Chinese one as well -  so I've followed that in the review.

We tend to think of Science Fiction as a largely Anglo-Saxon affair. Most of the big names are from the US, with a bunch of Brits mixed in. This overemphasis on English-language works is a bit misleading however. Science Fiction is written all over the world and one of the largest markets is currently in China. Only very rarely does something of this vast body of work make it into western bookshops but recently a number of initiatives to sell Chinese Science Fiction to a western audience have appeared. Clarkesworld ran a Kickstarter project to make it possible for them to include translated stories in their magazine, stories have shown up in the three volumes of The Apex Book of World SF and a couple of years ago Doubleday published Chan Koonchung's novel The Fat Years, which I must admit is the only Chinese-language Science Fiction novel I've read to date. Now Tor has spotted the possibilities as well and bought Liu Cixin's Thee-Body trilogy. The Three-Body Problem is the first volume and it has been translated by the Chinese-American author Ken Liu, someone with a keen interest in Chinese Science Fiction. Not surprisingly, this publication has attracted a lot of attention, and after reading the book, I can only add my voice to the chorus of reviewers out there telling you to read it. It really is one of the most exciting books published recently.

Amid the turbulent events of the Cultural revolution, astrophysicists Ye Wenjie's life is turned upside down. She witnesses her father, a once well-respected professor, be killed by the Red Guard, and is branded an enemy of the revolution after being caught reading the subversive novel Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. Her knowledge is too valuable to waste away in some reeducation camp however. She is assigned to a military base that serves as a Chinese answer to the SETI project. There, she witnesses what without a doubt is the most important event in human history.

Tor hit the jackpot with this novel. There is of course a large cultural gap between China and the western audience, and that is apparent in the novel. The story and themes clearly reach back to classics of the genre however. Liu's novel is firmly grounded in science. The title refers to a well known mathematical problem in both classical and quantum mechanics. On top of that there is quite a bit of astronomy and references to nanotechnology. I was surprised by the inclusion of ecology in the novel. I must, to my shame, admit to never having read Carson's Silent Spring. A great sin for someone who studied environmental science. It is a very influential novel in the field. Of course the Cultural Revolution and a number of other developments in Communist era China did great damage to the environment so perhaps it is not that surprising.

Chinese novels tend to contain an awful lot of references to the long history of the nation and the literary traditions that go back more than two thousand years. Much of which would be lost on the reader without a little explanation now and then. In fact, when I read Chan's novel I did have the feeling I was missing quite a lot. Translator Ken Liu has tried to help the reader a little bit with a series of footnotes explaining some of the details. In an afterword he also explains some of his choices in translating the novel. There is always a lot of tension in translation between the literal meaning and the intent of the words and I suspect Ken Liu has been a bit more liberal in his translation than Michael S. Duke has been for his translation of The Fat Years. It is a novel that reads very smoothly for the western reader. I did note some things that you don't come across in many western novels, most notably the way the writer conveys the information the reader needs to follow the plot. It borders on infodumping at times and it is something I also noticed in Chan Koonchung's writing. That being said, the differences in this novel are not so obvious that I got the feeling I was missing things.

Liu tells his story out of chronological order. We have sections covering the 1960 to the 1980 that tell the story of Ye Wenjie and her discovery in the military observatory. Her views on humanity and the decision she makes on behalf of the species is the mystery that forms the centre of the plot. The man to unravel it is the nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao. His part of the story is set sometime in the early twenty-first century. Liu doesn't mention a specific year but around now feels right. Near future from the perspective of the novel. The Chinese edition was published in 2007. Wang is caught in a web of mysteries, manipulations of a global movement with, to him, unknown goals and seemingly impossible manipulations of the physical reality at the quantum level. It drives Wang to desperation and many prominent theoretical scientists to suicide. The very foundations of natural science are shaken. This part of the story reminded me of the short story Division by Zero written by Ted Chiang.

The scope of Liu's tale is much larger than that of Chiang of course. Over the course of the novel the meaning of the Three-Body Problem, the mysterious computer game so many of the characters are playing and Ye's discovery and subsequent actions fall into place. Liu has built a story out of these and many other elements that fans of classic science fiction will appreciate. It is also very much a first book in a trilogy.  Ye's view on humanity is not overly positive, shaped as her life has been by violence and political insanity. She feels the human race is not capable of cleaning up the mess it has created and takes drastic action. This novel mostly deals with the motivations for that action and Ye's secrets becoming public knowledge. The full impact, it is to be expected, won't be felt until the next volume of the trilogy.

Ye is definitely the star of this novel. Her character is by far the most well rounded of the bunch, for the most part skilfully navigating the political minefield she finds herself in. Wang is a spectator by comparison. With his actions mostly guided by others he is not a very interesting man to read about. I would have liked to see him break away from the suggestions of others which he unfailingly follows up on. His scientific world view crumbles to the very foundation but he doesn't think this is enough to put a toe out of line. Around him, many of the secondary characters have less problems with rash action. It lends some parts of the novel an almost thriller like level of suspense.  I can't help but wonder what The Three-Body Problem could have been if the uncovering of this enormous secret would have been a bit less orderly.

The Three-Body Problem is not a flawless novel but it is certainly a very good one. So good in fact, that I wouldn't be surprised if it shows up on a few award shortlists. Ken Liu has obviously put his heart into the translation, as well as his impressive knowledge of both the English and Chinese language. As someone writing is a second language, I cannot emphasize enough how hard translating is. The linguistic and cultural differences that find their way into the text and the shades of meanings and connotations that words can carry in one language but not in another make translating an art as much as writing. The novel itself has many elements of classical science fiction to make it familiar to the reader and enough Chinese culture and history to make it different to the reader, but not overwhelmingly so. It was probably a very good choice picking this novel to bring Chinese science fiction to a western audience. I enjoyed reading it a lot. Bring on the second volume!

Book Details
Title: The Three-Body Problem
Author: Cixin Liu
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 399
Year: 2014
Language: English
Translation: Ken Liu
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7706-7
First published: 2007

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Drakentovenaar - An Janssens

In 2013 An Janssens' debut appeared. The novel Drakenkoningin (literally translated: Dragon Queen) was the winner of a contest aimed at finding new Dutch language Fantasy talent, organized by one of the largest publishers of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the Netherlands. Drakenkoningin is a novel that doesn't stray much from the proven recipe for Fantasy novels that sell well in the Netherlands. As such it was a bit of a disappointment to me. Especially since the novel itself showed more than a few flaws in the writing and characterization. It must have sold well enough though, Luitingh Fantasy bought two more of her books, making Drakenkoningin into the first novel in a trilogy. October 2014 saw the release of Drakentovenaar (literally: Dragon Wizard) the second volume and I understand that the third one is in the editorial stages already. Despite not being terribly impressed by the first volume curiosity got the better of me when I came across Drakentovenaar during a recent visit to the book store. Time to see if Janssens has improved.

Seven hundred years ago a magical disaster of epic proportions tore the world in half. The north (see the first  volume in the trilogy) is growing ever colder, while the south is suffering increasingly hot temperatures. So much so in fact, that humanity has retreated to a vast system of caves to escape the heat that blisters the surface. The remaining wizards have managed to stay in power but their numbers are so few that they have been forced to intermarry with humans. As a result, each generation their power lessens. Now they have gotten to the point where their strictly patriarchal society has to accept a female heir to the throne, and one with limited magical powers at that. Not everybody is pleased with this prospect. Mutiny is brewing.

I characterized the first novel as hasty. It had a relentless pace and lots of action scenes pretty much from start to finish. It didn't do the novel any favours in terms of worldbuilding and characterization. In Drakentovenaar Janssens slows down just a little bit. Especially in the early stages of the book we get a bit more time to become familiar with this new set of characters and their environment. Towards the end Janssens speeds up again, giving the book a proper climax. The chapters have become a bit shorter too, which fits the pace of the story and the multiple points of view Janssens employs. Technically the novel works a lot better than the first volume.

The story runs parallel to that in Drakenkoningin. Like in the first novel, there is a sense that the world is facing its doom if the situation is not remedied. Where the north is said to be cooling even further, the south is heating up. Life underground is just about bearable but especially the less privileged parts of the population are beginning to feel the squeeze. Throughout the novel links between the north and the south are inserted, and one character from the first novel makes a minor appearance. Janssens is clearly setting things up for a third novel in which we can safely assume righting this ancient wrong will be the goal. It's another bit of skill the previous novel lacked. Of course when she wrote that, it was by no means certain there would be a second or third novel, but the forshadowing still adds a bit extra depth to the novel.

Improvement in some aspects of the writing still doesn't mean I absolutely adore Drakentovenaar though. Problems remain with both thematically and with the characters. The novel's main theme is clearly sexism, it crops up in the storylines of most major characters. The society Janssens has created is strictly patriarchal and has become even more restrictive towards women in the last generation or so. One of the main characters, the thoroughly unpleasant princess Nevsemir, is the embodiment of the treatment women suffer. She is heir-apparent because of a lack of male heirs and her father tries to seize every opportunity to find a male heir. Her mother, known as the Nameless Queen, doesn't seem to care for her at all. Nevsemir is determined to take the throne, feeling she has as much right to it as any man, but is something of a contradiction as she does insist on clothes that cover her completely and is outraged by public displays of affection, immodest clothing or pretty much anything else a woman might do in public that gets her attention. Does she intend to rule the nation demurely hiding behind a veil? There is a contradiction in this character that Janssens doesn't really manage to resolve in the novel.

Sexism is also very much part of the life of Zia, another main character in the story. She grows up with her brother Var who, besides being male is fortunate enough to have a few wizard genes expressing themselves. He therefore receives much more of his father's attention than Zia. This might have been reason for a bit of jealous backstabbing in the family but mysteriously, Zia loves Var as no sister should. Even in a world with a severely reduced population this is incest and Zia knows it. Janssens could have done a number of things with this situation that would have made the character of Zia a lot more plausible. It will not surprise the reader that Zia and Var are not really brother and sister but Zia doesn't even begin to suspect this. If she had, the dynamic in the family could have been a whole lot more interesting. Another thing that struck me as strange is that Janssens doesn't use the fact that incest among wizards is not entirely unheard of in this part of the story. In an effort to keep their powers concentrated instead of diluting them further with each generation, marrying family members in the royal family has been proposed. Maybe Zia isn't aware of this but she doesn't reach for this breach of the taboo for justification. It reduces her to a frustrated teenager whose main purpose in the story is to make life hard for the two characters that really call the shots, and that wasn't necessary. Especially not in a novel with sexism as an important theme.

The third main character  in the novel, Zia's brother Var,  is perhaps the most problematic of all. He is manipulated to such and extend, both by emotional means and magic, that the man can't possibly know anymore who he is and what he is supposed to want out of life. In the end he picks the one goal the story demands of him but why he does so remains completely unclear. His story is so erratic that without magical means to move this character would make no sense whatsoever. As it is, Var is a classical example of a writer pulling the strings on a character too obviously. Var will most likely play a major part in the third novel. Let's hope Janssens gives him some more space to develop on his own terms there.

In the end, Drakentovenaar is a step forward but clearly not all I'm looking for in a Fantasy novel. The whole plot feels a bit contrived with the characters mostly present to serve the plot. Still, if Janssens manages to keep taking steps forward in her writing, the final volume of the trilogy could well be a good read. Janssens' creation doesn't lack possibilities. Despite not being thrilled by this second volume I can't deny being curious about the resolution of the story. I guess I will keep an eye out for the third part of the trilogy.

Book Details
Title: Drakentovenaar
Author: An Janssens
Publisher: Luitingh Fantasy
Pages: 287
Year: 2014
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-6474-3
First published: 2014

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Lowball - George R.R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass

Lowball is the twenty-second installment in the series of Wild Cards mosaic novels. It was announced quite a while ago but for some reason there are more than three years between the release of Fort Freak, to which Lowball is a sequel, and this novel. I wonder what caused the delay. Might have something to do with Martin's availability as editor of the series though. For the first time Melinda M. Snodgrass is on the cover as editor. She has been assisting Martin in that job for quite a while next to her writing contributions. Maybe  Martin decided to spend a little less time on this project in the face of the overwhelming success of A Song of Ice and Fire. I also wonder if there is going to be a third novel about the officers of the 5th precinct, because this one does leave a few storylines dangling. There is a title floating around, High Stakes, but I haven't come across a publication date yet. Only thing I can find about it is an announcement from 2012 on Martin's blog.

New York's 5th precinct, better known as Fort Freak, lies in the heart of Jokertown. It is by any means the most unusual post a police officer could get assigned to. A mixture of people unaffected by the Wild Cards virus and those whom the virus did transform try to keep order in a place that is the home of a great many colourful characters, misfits, criminals and strangely deformed people. New talents show up frequently, making police work extremely challenging. Unorthodox methods to keep everybody in line are common in this precinct. Lately, a great many Jokers, generally people who won't be missed have started disappearing. Nobody is greatly concerned, but Father Squid, the local priest, keeps digging into the matter and, reluctantly, so do the officers at Fort Freak. The case turns out to be much more complicated than the captain expected when he assigned it to his newly promoted detective Francis Black.

As always, the novel is written by a number of different authors, all writing from the point of view of one character. This volume contains contributions by Michael Cassutt, David Anthony Durham, Melinda M. Snodgrass, Mary Anne Mohanraj, David D. Levine, Walter Jon Williams, Carrie Vaughn and Ian Tregillis. All of them have previous experience in this shared universe. There doesn't seem to be an obvious frame story this time, several of the sections are split into at least half a dozen pieces. I guess it must have been a pain to edit this one and make everything fit. Then again, that probably goes for all of these novels.

The story can be read independently of everything that has gone before but obviously you get more out of it if you have read more Wild Cards novels, Fort Freak in particular. There are a bunch of references to Fort Freak but nothing that is absolutely necessary to understand the plot. Links to the story of the Committee Triad and a few characters introduced in those books show up as well but again nothing essential. I haven't really found that many links with the older Wild Cards novels I've been reading recently. The authors are really writing for a new generation here.

Martin and Snodgrass have done a fairly good job on the editing. While the point of view changes frequently, the flow of the story feels mostly natural and it builds up to a good climax. Oddly enough it is the contributions that aren't split in many pieces that feel a bit out of place. In particular Ian Tregillis' story No Parking and Carrie Vaughn's piece Once More, for Old Times' Sake feel like they don't fit in with the rest. That is a real shame, I quite liked Tregillis' piece in particular. Both of them are well written but their parts in moving the plot forward don't really feel like they need a separate point of view, or as many pages as the novel dedicates to these storylines. I'm also still not very fond of Mary Anne Mohanraj's Detective Michael Stevens. His character, despite being unaffected by the virus, has to be the most unbelievable in the whole series.

I have a feeling more than a few readers will think the actual plot of the novel feels a bit like a bad movie plot. Something with Jean Claude van Damme in it maybe. It is certainly a bit over the top and not the height of originality. Normally I would probably dislike it but in this case I have to admit it does fit with the comic book background that is the inspiration for this series. The books are all a bit over the top, featuring many characters with superpowers. The perverse purpose to which they are turned in this novel is something that fits the overall setting. David Anthony Durham even turns his story line (Those About to Die) featuring the Infamous Black Tongue into a surprisingly relevant piece as his character, a young black man, struggles to find his place in Jokertown society and stay away from the violence that ruins so many lives in his community.

Lowball is a solid entry into the Wild Cards series. I think it more or less delivers what established readers have come to expect from the series. Like pretty much all of the previous books in this series I've read, it doesn't entirely escape the problems that arise when so many writers work on a single project. The fact that it isn't the work of one author keeps showing and that doesn't always do the novel good. That being said, I thought Lowball was quite an entertaining read, with occasional flashes of very good writing. If you can forgive it the B-movie plot I think you could do worse than pick this one up. It left me hoping Martin and Tor aren't going to make us wait another three years for the next volume.

Book Details
Title: Lowball
Editor: George R.R. Martin and Melinda M. Snodgrass
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 361
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3195-3
First published: 2014

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Blue Remembered Earth - Alastair Reynolds

As usual I'm starting the new year with a review of one of Alastair Reynolds' works. After writing a number of standalones, Reynolds began a new series with the publication of Blue Remembered Earth (2012). It is the first book in the Poseidon's Children trilogy. The second volume, On a Steel Breeze, has already been published and in October, Reynolds announced that he had a complete draft of the third volume. I guess we can expect that one to be published later in 2015. Blue Remembered Earth takes a bit of a different approach to science fiction than we've seen in Reynolds' older work. I guess it is not going to be universally loved among his fans but I thought it was a pretty good read.

Tanzania 2061. The legendary Eunice Akinya, the matriarch of the powerful Akinya family, has passed away at the age of 130. As her family convenes for her funeral, rifts among the children and grandchildren become apparent. Siblings Geoffrey and Sunday never wanted much to do with the family business or its wealth. Geoffrey is a biologist studying elephants, while Sunday pursues a career as a sculptor. It puts them at odds with their cousins Hector and Lucas for whom family and the family business is everything. When they ask Geoffrey to make a trip to the moon for them to settle a bit of unfinished business their grandmother left behind, he discovers the first piece of a puzzle that casts light on their Grandmother's final journey into space, more than sixty years ago.

The novel is a bit of a scavenger hunt in space. Eunice has left a lot of obscure hints that only someone of the family would be able to decipher. It keeps Geoffrey and Sunday busy for most of the novel. There are hints that there is more at stake than Eunice annoying her family from the grave however. Throughout the story Reynolds points out that humanity is on the brink. That there is an opportunity to make a great leap forward and that it will have to be done soon. It's the underlying message of the whole novel and probably what is going to tie the three books together.

Reynolds doesn't just limit it to technology, physics and space exploration either. Geoffrey for instance, is involved in research into what he calls the inner universe: research into the workings of the brain. Implants into the human brain are commonplace and thanks to them, external devices are no longer needed for communication. Everybody can be monitored and reached almost anywhere on Earth. Now, Geoffrey is taking on the next great challenge, making neural contact with another species.

This technology has another, some would say darker, side to it too. When faced with the upheavals of man-made climate change, radical solutions were implemented. Humanity could no longer afford to fight its wars or ignore the abuse heaped on the planet's ecology. Whole nations were emptied of people, research into more durable sources of energy was given priority, adaptable seawalls were created to hold back the rising water, and war, criminality and violence were ruthlessly rooted out by means that would be Big Brother's wet dream. Surveillance is inescapable and genetic engineering is employed to rid society of unwanted criminal impulses in the population. Reynolds' solutions to the problems the planet is facing are radical to say the least.

Where in previous books Reynolds focused on space exploration grounded in the hard sciences, this book takes a look at our planet that far exceeds the attention he has given to it in his earlier works. It feels a bit like the approach of Kim Stanley Robinson really. Reynolds is having a look at sweeping social changes, creating factions along ideological lines rather than geopolitical ones. National interests are still present but appear to be fading as humanity expands into the solar system.The novel is driving for change at a great many levels.

The Akinya family is from Africa. Reynolds is not too clear about their exact origin, old national boundaries are no longer relevant after all, but if I were to venture a guess I'd say Tanzania. Just how much has changed in the world can be seen just by looking at the setting. In the west Africa is still seen as a continent of warlords, dictators,  post-colonial conflict, disease and famine, while the spectacular economic development taking place there is hardly ever mentioned. The west doesn't really want to acknowledge their role in the mess left behind after decolonization, nor does it care for the ways in which the continent is trying to move beyond the past. War, disease and poverty notwithstanding, things are moving there and in Reynolds' story, the continent rises to prominence. Africa has become an economic powerhouse, the western nations are hardly mentioned in the novel at all. An optimistic view on Africa's future from a western author. I don't think I've come across science fiction like that before.

All this is mostly background to the story however, and I must admit, the novel is probably a bit too long for the story it contains. Unlike Robinson, Reynolds doesn't expose the readers to long sections on social developments, politics, religion or science. Most of the novel is taken up by the search conducted by Geoffrey and Sunday. It takes us to various places in the solar system and allows Reynolds to once again show that he is very good at writing science fiction set in space. The feel of Reynolds' descriptions of the moon or Mars can't quite cover for the somewhat unbelievable secret they take over 500 pages to unearth. Keeping a secret like that very violently clashes with the society Reynolds depicts in which everybody is monitored all the time.

The somewhat unbelievable plot is a bit of a shame as Reynolds outdoes himself with the two main characters. Characterization has never been the strong point of Reynods' novels but Geoffrey and Sunday are two of the best developed characters I've come across in this book. Their drive to make a name for themselves independent of their family's legacy drives many of their actions. It leads them to do rash things but also reflect on personal matters such as the loss of someone close to them and their place in the family to more philosophical topics as humanity's place in the universe.

Overall I quite liked this first book in the Poseidon's Children series. Despite being a bit too well padded, Blue Remembered Earth is one of Reynolds' better novels. I very much appreciate the way he focuses on Earth a bit more in this novel, as a starting point for what undoubtedly will develop into a deep space adventure later on in the series. The plot itself may be a bit weak but in other respects the novel has a lot to offer to the reader. It's probably a book that requires a bit of patience from the reader, especially since, being the first in a series, it doesn't try to answer all our questions, but I suspect that once the third volume is out, it will turn out to have been worth it. In other words, I'm quite looking forward to reading On a Steel Breeze.

Book Details
Title: Blue Remembered Earth
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 505
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-575-08827-6
First published: 2012