Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Breath of War - Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard has been producing a steady stream of outstanding short fiction in recent years. Her stories have won her several awards and have been nominated for for a whole bunch more. It should be no surprise that as the nominations for the upcoming awards season are trickling in, her name appears on the ballots again. This year, her story The Breath of War is on the shortlist for the Nebula Award in the short story category. The story first appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #142 in March 2014, in a special Science-Fantasy edition. It can be read on their website for free. The author mentions it is 'sortof' set in her Xuya alternate history but it works as a standalone. In fact, it stands out a bit in the company of other Xuya stories.

In the aftermath of a war, a woman is making a difficult journey into the mountains. Her baby could be born any day now and before that happens, she needs to reach her destination. The journey is not going well though. Well short of reaching their goal, their aircar breaks down. What follows is a dangerous race against the clock. Along the way, the reason for the hazardous journey becomes clear.

I can see why De Bodard set is was 'sortof' part of the Xuya setting. It's the only story in the series where a supernatural element is included in the the plot. On the other hand it does include the Rong space faring civilization and references to the war I suspect we've seen form other corners of the universe in various stories as well. I guess The Breath of War is the odd one out but in a way it does fit in.

As far as I know it is the first time De Bodard mixes fantasy elements into what could be considered a science fiction story. It works very well on an emotional level but I do think that it leaves so much of the worldbuilding vague and uncertain that for the fantasy reader it can be a bit unsatisfying. The vague background of the is a problem I have with a lot of fantastical short fiction though. The reader is often asked to accept a lot of things as a given because the story simply isn't long enough to waste words on details. Sometimes it suffers because of it.  The Breath of War mostly escape this problem. It allows the reader to ignore that background of the planet's culture and the cause of the war by focusing on the character.

The main character Rechan is a woman who is facing the consequence of a choice she made during the planet's unique rite of passage. Rechan is something of a puzzle for the reader. There is a constant tension between choice and conviction and fate and inevitability. The choice she made more than a decade ago was influenced by the war taking away opportunities she feels she should have had. On the surface she is a rebellious teenager finding out the world is not always fair, doing something rash without thinking it through.

That being said, there is also the sense that her choice is not completely her own. The supernatural aspect of her rite of passage leaves the reader with the feeling that what happens is not entirely a conscious decision. Later on in her life, Rechan develops into a woman willing to go against tradition and social conventions and choose her own path, despite (or maybe because of?) longing for some parts of a traditional family life. Her unorthodox ways might have surfaced under other circumstances but you could also see this as inevitable given her past. The choice she makes as a teenager sets her apart, maybe even forces her to consider alternatives she might otherwise not have needed. The reader gets to make up their own mind about how to view Rechan.

De Bodard packs quite a lot of characterization into a 7000 word story. There is regret and loneliness in Rechan, but also resignation and hope. There is the feeling of a permanent goodbye and the start of something new. The Breath of War is an emotionally powerful story and an example that you don't need a novel to create a memorable character. Rechan is one of those characters that will stay with you for quire a while after finishing the story. It is another example of the excellent short fiction De Bodard is capable of creating. I've said it before and I will say it again, it is past time someone put a bunch of them together in a collection.

Book Details
Title: The Breath of War
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Pages: 13, approximately 7000 words
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 2014

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Caliban's War - James S.A. Corey

In the summer of 2011, I read Leviathan Wakes the first book in this series. James S.A. Corey is a pseudonym of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, both form associates of George R.R. Martin. I have read quite a bit by Abraham and some of his books are very good indeed. Leviathan Wakes was quite a fun book to read which I thought did more than just be a the space opera it was supposed to be according to the publisher. The second volume appeared in 2012 and I decided to order it. It then lingered on the to read stack for almost three years. What pulled me back to it was the fact that the shooting for a television series based on this series (the fifth book of which, Nemesis Games, will appear in June) is under way. Having read Caliban's War I must admit it might make of a decent television series. That does not necessarily make it a good book though. I feel it is a step back from the first book in the series.

James Holden is now in the employ of the outer planets. In his liberated Martian spaceship he patrols the outer reaches of the solar system with his crew. It is a decent living but tensions are rising within the crew and the relationship beween Holden and his girlfriend Naomi is strained. Their situation changes radically when on Ganymede, the breadbasket of the outer solar system and a moon coveted by Earth, Mars and the outer planets, a firefight appears to break out between Martian and UN forces. The truth is more complicated than that though. The alien intelligence that almost killed Holden on Eros station. Once again he is sucked into events that could plummet the solar system into war, or worse, wipe out the human race completely.

Leviathan Wakes was a space opera with noir elements mixed in. In this book a mystery is included too, the disappearance of a young girl is a key part of the plot, but the space opera clearly has the upper hand. Corey shifts from two main points of view to four. Besides Holden, we get to see the story from the point of view of the Martian marine Bobbie, the only survivor of the incident on Ganymede, the scientist Prax from that same moon and father of the missing gril, and  UN official Avasarala who tries to prevent a war from engulfing the system despite her superior's stupid actions. These two men and two women shape the events described in the book. Unlike in Leviathan Wakes, the UN official in particular, can pull strings all over the system, making it much more a political story.

The novel is dedicated to Arthur C. Clarke and Alfred Bester, two greats of science fiction. I haven't read Bester but I can see traces of Clarke in this novel. I suspect that Heinlein was probably a greater influence on the novel though. There are quite a few political statements in the text. Bobbie in particular seems to hold strong views on Earth's social security system. The novel does take us all over the solar system however, and that is something Clarke would have appreciated. It is a story on a grand scale, with characters who, despite making it their home, are still in awe of the vastness of space. Corey might not be able to pull it off for the more experienced science fiction reader but the characters themselves, clearly exhibit a sense of wonder when they have a moment to reflect on their situation.

As I said in the introduction, this book lends itself well to television. It has four clearly defined main characters with clear wants you can easily sympathize with. Holden wants his girlfriend back, Bobbie wants to kill the bastard who wiped out her squad, Prax wants to find his daughter, and Avasarala wants to stay in the game. That is what they work for, it is what drives them and there is very little left over for any other concerns. It makes all of them fairly shallow characters. Holden is the only one who escapes this to an extend because he has a book worth of backstory. I found Avasarala's chapters the worst in this respect as she has the annoying tendency to see every little action in the perspective of her political games and is willing to use anyone to get what she wants. She is refreshingly outspoken about it though, I have to give her that. Still, she struck me as a character who plays the political game for its own sake, regardless of who many people get ground up in her machinations. Corey tries to put things in perspective by anchoring her to her family. Her husband in particular is important to her to keep things in perspective. I can't say I found him very convincing in that role.

Bobbie on sees things more of less from the other end. As a marine too much thinking is not encouraged and she reflects that almost to the point of stereotype. Bobbie is the common sense in this book. Where Avasarala's thinking is convoluted, Bobbie's way of thinking is simplicity itself. Which doesn't mean she doesn't show surprising insights at times. What I didn't think was convincing about her story is that she very easily lets go of her loyalties to Mars to serve the other side in the conflict. She does feel bad about it to an extent but she caries on anyway without, especially early on, a clear idea on how it would help her achieve her revenge or help improve the situation in general. On the one hand she is portrayed as a smart woman, on the other, she can't seem to think further ahead than the next five minutes. The early stages in the novel pay attention to post traumatic stress, something more novels dealing with war situation should take into account. That is definitely one of the stronger elements of her story line.

Prax is the third character with only one thing on his mind. His search for his daughter consumes him to the point that it could easily have cost him his life. He sees his world falling apart and is one of the few people on the station with the knowledge to slow the process enough for help to arrive. He doesn't do it though. His daughter is much more important to him. You can see the insights into what is going on on Ganymede bounce of him. They make no impact whatsoever. It is not until the very end of the book that he reconsiders his verdict on Ganymede as a lost cause. Prax is potentially a very interesting character but like the others, his is completely consumed by the immediate desire to find his little girl. It is a touching story but not one that allows Prax to develop any real depth.

Corey keeps the pace up in this novel. The chapters are not too long, to very the point and alternate between the four characters. The often end on cliffhangers, making the reader want to read just one more chapter. In that sense it is almost a compulsive read. The ending of the novel also contains a clear hook for the third book in the series. Structurally, you can almost see the episodes of a television series in it. It is a plot that is constructed in advance and then filled in as each of the authors making up Corey delivers their chapters.

The sense that is constructed rather than written is much more present in this second book and that is probably the main reason why I think it is a step back from the first novel Abraham and Franck seem to have settled in a routine and delivered a routine book. Caliban's War is not a bad read mind you, it did keep me entertained and I never considered putting it down, but this time it really is what it says on the package, a soap opera in space. I think these gentlemen are more talented than that. Still, it might make for a good television series. I think I am going to give that a go when the first episodes are aired. I'm not sure about reading Abaddon's Gate, the third book in the series though. I'll have to think about that.

Book Details
Title: Caliban's War
Author: James S.A. Corey
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 595
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-84149-990-1
First published: 2012

Sunday, February 8, 2015

An Autumn War - Daniel Abraham

I'm running low on recent books to review so this week I decided it was time to fill a gap in my reviews of Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet. An Autumn War, the third novel in the series, is the only one I haven't reviewed yet. The Long Price Quartet is, in my opinion, one of the most original Fantasy series to appear since the turn of the century. Much more so than Abraham's current Fantasy series The Dagger and the Coin. It is hard to not see this series as one long story but if I had to choose a favourite, it'd probably be this book. The problematic nature of the Andat really comes to a head in this book. In a way, it is the climax of the series.

Fourteen years after the events in A Betrayal in Winter, Otah is still on his uncomfortably throne in Machi. His rule has not been made easier by his stubborn refusal to give into the pressure of having multiple wives and father a bunch of sons. He doesn't want the cycle of brothers killing each other for the throne to start again. While the Khaiem are mostly concerned with internal affairs, secure in the knowledge that the Andat provide the ultimate defense against invasion, the more technologically advanced Galt are stirring again. They have gotten their hands on a rogue poet, a man wit ideas on how to neutralize the Andat. Led by the general Balasar Gice, they prepare another assault on the Khaiem's unassailable position.

Our heroes Maati and Otah are now middle-aged men, with a life settled in routine. They do still have ambitions though. Otah is looking for a way to pass on the throne without bloodshed and to prevent that custom from bouncing back again after he is gone. Maati is doing research in the hopes of getting back into the good graces of the Dai-kvo, the head of his order. He thinks he has found a revolutionary way of preventing a poet from paying the ultimate price when making a mistake in binding a new Andat. It is typical for men from this culture to be so self absorbed. Since the fall of the empire, many generations ago, the Khaiem have been trying to regain what is lost. It permeates their whole culture, their customs, the way they run their cities and the way they trade. It has become a stagnant culture, with only the ambition to regain powers long gone. In a sense, the end of the Khaiem seems inevitable.

This sense of inevitability is present in other aspects of the book too. The Galts are superior in a technological and military sense. It is only the Andat holding them back. Otah is one of the few who realizes this and wants to start raising a militia. Something the other rulers of the Khaiem, conservative as they are, don't like at all. It's a sign of Otah and Maati, once best friends in A Shadow in Summer, are drifting apart even further. Their shared lover and the the son that one of them can't acknowledged and the other wishes was his are part of it as well of course but the difference between looking forward and looking back is what will cause the real conflict in the final book of the novel. The gap is already widening significantly here.

Abraham includes a major Galtic point of view character in the novel, the first in the series. Balasar Gice is a man with a military mind. He thinks that because the Khaiem posses the Andat, the balance of power tips towards the Khaiem in an unacceptable way. He firmly believes that because the Khaiem poses the Andat, it is only a matter of time before they use them against the Galt. Something of a self-fulfilling prophecy given all the plotting and showing off their military muscle they've been doing. The Andat are a nuclear bomb held by only one side. To prevent disaster they must be neutralized. What is most interesting about Gice is that were most generals and politicians would want the power of the Andat for himself, Gice works to get rid of them once and for all and is even willing to go against the orders of his political masters to do so. Abraham could have made him into a stereotypical hawk but manages to avoid this by adding a bit of personal trauma to the character.

His treatment of Gice is one of the many ways in which Abraham succeeds in creating complex characters. Not of the major players in the story are flawless. They all have their bind spots, their annoying habits and they all make mistakes. Sometimes mistakes with far-reaching consequences. They are also all people you can identify with at some level and that makes this book into a real tragedy. They can't all succeed. One of them seems likely to prevail over the others and will change the world for ever in doing so. It is in the climax of the story that the sense of inevitability finally disappears. The twist at the end of the book makes that really drove it home for me. Abraham's world is not black and white, it is not either/or.It is much more complex like that an things can go wrong in ways even the most prudent leader cannot foresee.

There is one part of the story that I did find somewhat problematic and that is how Abraham handles personal relationships in this novel. The drama that ensues when Liat, the woman both Maati and Otah loved at one point, shows up in Machi feels like a bit too much. The whole mess carries over to the younger generation and that is one aspect of the plot that does become predictable, sometimes to the point of being cliché. They are not the teenagers we met in the first book anymore but Abraham can't quite pull off a more mature kind of drama. I think more interesting things could have been done with Nayiit's story line in particular.

After this reread I still think this book is my favourite in the series. The novel combines the dynamic between Otah and Maati with a view of the world outside the Khaiem cities. The problematic nature of the Andat is also addressed and the whole story reaches a point from which there clearly is no going back. While The Price of Spring is a very good novel in its own right, it feels almost like cleaning up after the big climax of An Autumn War. I've read a whole stack of Abraham's other solo novels and collaborations but I'm not sure he has managed to surpass this novel yet. The combination of the unusual setting and culture with the deeply flawed characters make this a very good read for me.

Book Details
Title: An Autumn War
Author: Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 366
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1342-3
First published: 2008

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Kaleidoscope - Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios

The anthology Kaleidoscope is the first book I've received a review copy of though the Dutch language book portal Hebban. I've been reviewing for them for a while now but I usually review books I already own. They have graciously agreed to let me do and English version as wel. A much longer version of this review will appear in three installments on Hebban, so if you read Dutch head that way.

Kaleidoscope is an anthology of diverse Science Fiction and Fantasy stories. The basis for this anthology was a panel discussion on how few QUILTBAG characters can be found in Yong Adult dystopian novels. The stories in this anthology do not just focus on gender and sexual identity however. The editors want as much diversity in the anthology as they manage, they want to see themselves represented, but also stories of people "who aren't like us." The stories cover a wide range of protagonist, people with handicaps, people with mental health problems, people who belong to ethnic minorities, and of course a bunch of stories of people who are not cis and heterosexual. Sometimes the being different part can even be bound in the ability to do magic when nobody else can. It is, in other words, very diverse and that is both the strength and greatest weakness of this anthology.

Given the somewhat controversial nature of the theme for this anthology - let's face it, in many parts of the world it is still not OK to be different in some or all of the aspects I mentioned earlier - it is perhaps not entirely surprising that the anthology is crowdfunded. Personally, I suspect that many a highschool will put it on the black list based on the pink cover alone. With most of the backers presumably adults, it makes me wonder how many copies will reach the intended audience. The fact that there is a need for such an anthology and the fact that it has to be crowdfunded shows we have a long way to go when it comes to diverse characters in genre fiction.

As usual with anthologies I didn't like all stories equally. There are a few that I simply didn't like or that made me wonder how much they contributed to the overall theme of the anthology. How much did the editors want the writers to engage with the theme? Is merely making a character gay, foreign or disabled enough? Somehow it doesn't feel like it is sufficient if the reader can just mentally ignore that one different fact about them and still read and appreciate the story just fine. Sexuality, gender, ethnicity and so on, shape a person's outlook on life. Not every story has to be a struggle of dealing with rejection, discrimination or accepting differences but I am looking for characters that truly incorporate what they are in there personalities. That, for me, was one of the key elements why some stories worked and others didn't.

Gabriela Lee 's story End of Service for instance, is about a Filipina character who loses her mother who is hardly ever there because she works abroad. It is a very moving story of dealing with loss but the main character is a Filipina in the Philippines and doesn't feel she is different in any way than the majority in her society. She misses her mother and that doesn't make her half so different as she thinks it does. The theme for this story is so universal that if the main character had been Irish or Senegalese is would have worked fine too. Maybe I could read this as diverse people facing the same challenges in life, that while they may look, act or feel differently, there is still much more we have in common? Other stories that touch on the theme very lightly are The Legend Trap by Sean Williams, Double Time by John Chu and Welcome by William Alexander. It doesn't make these stories bad mind you, but they do not contribute as much to the theme of the anthology as they might have.

Then there are a few stories, that for me at least, hit the bull's eye. One I particularly liked is Ken Liu The Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon. It's a story about two Chinese girls in a relationship and how to carry on after one of them leaves to study abroad. Liu combines it with a Chinese legend related to the Quxi festival (you get to Google this one, I'm not doing anthropology lessons today). It's very moving and very beautifully written. Liu's first novel will be out later this year. I'm very much looking forward to reading it.

One can look at differences from the outside as well of course, and that is what Sofia Samatar does in her story Walkdog. She writes it in the form of a paper from, probably a high school student. I couldn't really tell the exact age of the main character from the story. While on the surface it is a paper, complete with footnotes and the formal structure expected in such a work, in reality it is one long rant. As the story progresses the subject of the paper is more and more abandoned and a story of the bullying the boy who helps the main character write the paper rises to the surface. This should be required reading on schools everywhere. Despite the formal structure of the story it packs a serious emotional punch. A wonderful piece of writing.

A third story I want to mention here is Amal El-Mothar's The Truth About Owls. The story is about a girl who ends up in Scotland, fleeing the violence in her native Lebanon. Estranged from her parents who want her to leave Lebanon behind and faced with prejudice and presumptions of her classmates and teachers she has trouble setting in. The thing I liked about this story is how it mirrors the anthology as a whole in a way. What the main character does to find her balance again and break through the negative spiral she is caught in, is collect her desires, wants, wishes, longing and anthologize them, or as the story puts is makes them into a florilegium. I understand that is a term that isn't used anymore in English but the Dutch word for anthology, bloemlezing, is still derived from it. The story shows us a breakthrough for the character, an acceptance of her wants and desires without judging them by other people's standards that align so well with Kaleidoscope as a whole that I wonder if maybe this should have been the final story in the anthology.

The art of editing a good anthology is to select the stories and present them in such a way that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Krasnostein and Rios would probably have been able to achieve that effect if they had chosen to narrow the theme down just a little bit. Kaleidoscope is so diverse, that apart from showing what is possible in Young Adult fiction, it does not quite achieve that synergy. What I do very much appreciate in this anthology is the fact that the authors do not shy away from difficult themes and accept the reader's ability to handle them. There is no underestimation of the audience anywhere in the selection the editors made. Looking at the stories individually, it contains a number of excellent stories, material even that would not look out of place on the awards ballots. That alone makes Kaleidoscope more than worth reading. It also, as should be apparent from my comments, raises a lot of interesting questions on diversity and the lack of in genre fiction. Looking over all of my comments, the English as well as the Dutch ones, I come to the conclusion that I have much more reading to do before I really have a firm grasp on the subject. If, like me, you are interested in such questions, Kaleidoscope is definitely a good place to start.

Book Details
Title: Kaleidoscope
Editors: Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios
Publisher: Twelfth Planet Press
Pages: 437
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-9221011-1-2
First published: 2014

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Bone Flower Throne - TL Morganfield

The Bone Flower Throne is TL Morganfield's first published novel. According to the Internet Speculative Fiction Database there is an edition published by Panverse (wich at the moment appears to be inactive) released in 2013. The edition I own was published by Feathered Serpent Books which, given the name, I strongly suspect is a self-publishing vehicle owned by the author. I tend to avoid self-published books, but even if this counts as one, I was attracted to it anyway. First of all because of the subject, but I must admit Aliette de Bodard's endorsement and the fact that Morganfield participated in the Clarion West writers workshop also played a part in it. And indeed, the novel doesn't suffer from poor editing, bad cover art or bad formatting that plague so many non-traditionally published works these days. That being said, I do think the novel is not all it could have been.

Tenth century Mexico Valley is a place of continuous warfare. The Toltec city states are in a struggle with outside enemies as well as warring with each other. To keep the peace in is city the her father marries the seven-year-old princess Quetzalpetlatl to her cousin. It is the start of a chain of events that will see her driven from her home, losing her parents in the process. With the help of the god Quetzalcoatl she escapes the city with her mother and seeks sanctuary in the temple of Quetzalcoatl  in a neighboring city. There her mother dies giving birth to her baby brother. Quetzalpetlatl and her brother Topiltzin grow up becoming pawns in a game of the gods that pits the compassion on Quetzalcoatl  against the dark power of Smoking Mirror, who's influence is on the rise among the Toltec cities.

The Bone Flower Throne is the first volume in a trilogy and it is a book that is bases on an impressive amount of research. The Toltec civilization lasted from the end of the fifth century till the early 12th century and covered much of what is today Mexico as well as other parts of Mesoamerica. The archaeological remains for this civilization is extensive but written records (the Toltecs are presumed to have developed a writing system) is scarce. Most of what is known of them has come from Aztec sources. The Aztec civilization saw the Toltecs as their spiritual and cultural ancestors and many of their stories and legends were popular among the Aztecs. They did have the tendency to mix historical accounts with legend, making our understanding of the history of the Toltecs hazy at best.

One of the stories that survived is the legend of Topiltzin Cē Ācatl Quetzalcōatl, who may or may not have been an historical figure as well. The story is known in many variations and forms the basis for the trilogy. One of the variations apparently also includes the princess Quetzalpetlatl and Morganfield has chosen her as the point of view character. The mixture of history and legend that infuses the story gives Morganfield a lot of space to work with. She is not constrained by a detailed timeline and uses that to her advantage. Quetzalpetlatl adds a female perspective to what is a very male-oriented legend. The novel mixes the historical and supernatural to create a story that will appeal to readers of fantasy as well as those interested in Mesoamerican mythology.

Quetzalpetlatl grows up to be a priestess of Quetzalcoatl and as his champion she comes into direct contact with him. His aid comes at a price though. Like the later Aztec culture, sacrifice, including human sacrifice, is a part of worship. Quetzalpetlatl soon finds out that the price for the help of a god is always keenly felt. The treatment of human sacrifice is something that is always difficult in works dealing with cultures that practiced them. It's something that clashes so violently with the cultural and religious sensibilities of just about any modern culture that no amount of cultural relativism will overcome the reader's distaste. What is interesting about this legend, is that Topiltzin ended human sacrifice during his reign, which must have been a very bold thing to do in a culture that believed sacrifices were necessary to appease the gods and waged almost permanent wars to find enough captives to sacrifice. In the novel, Quetzalcoatl himself is presented as the instigator of this drastic change in customs, claiming a willing sacrifice is much more powerful than the blood of a slain captive.

Morganfield's mix of history and legend does get her in trouble at times. Quetzalcoatl and his rival Smoking Mirror have a very heavy hand in events, forcing the characters in directions that they would ordinarily not have considered. Quetzalpetlatl is an intelligent woman but throughout the novel, she does things that are simply not in line with her character. This is particularly apparent in her sexual desires, which express themselves in a way that will have many readers roll their eyes. It may have been me not paying close enough attention (or not being familiar enough with the source material) but the realization that Quetzalpetlatl's free will is very limited came pretty late in the novel for me. I found the way the gods sometimes simply take over a bit jarring at times.

That being said, the novel does delivers a story arc with a good climax. It is a story full of love, loss and sacrifice, not short on action, and rich with historical detail. I felt that here and there the author was pulling the characters' strings a bit too obviously but that doesn't take away from the fact that The Bone Flower Throne is a fascinating mix of history and legend, exploring a culture that most readers won't come across too often. It's a book that deserves a larger audience than it is likely to get. The second volume, The Bone Flower Queen, has been added to the to read list.

Title: The Bone Flower Throne
Author: TL Morganfield
Publisher: Feathered Serpent Books
Pages: 360
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-9909207-0-0
First published: 2013