Sunday, August 30, 2015

The House of Shattered Wings - Aliette de Bodard

For some reason all publishers decided to release works I absolutely want to read in a matter of two months this year. This summer so many books I'm interested in are appearing that I can't keep up with them. For me,  The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard is one of the most anticipated titles of 2015. This book has been on my to read list since I first learnt she was working on a new novel and when it came in last week I almost put Nnedi Okorafor's The Book of Phoenix away to dive into it. That would have totally messed up my review schedule of course, so I regretfully put it away for a bit. The two review copies that are also on the to read stack had to wait though. Reviewing is all well and good but sometimes you have to treat yourself to the book you want to read most at that particular moment. And a treat is exactly what The House of Shattered Wings is.

In the late 20th century the ruins of the city of Paris are populated by a mix of humans and fallen angels. The angels may have lost God's grace but they still have power. Their bodies contain magic that can be used by humans and angels alike. A central government, if ever there was one, has disappeared and the upper layers of society is organized into houses. These houses continually vie for influence in a Machiavellian political game. Silverspire, the oldest of these houses, founded ages ago by the very first fallen angel, is now in trouble. Since the disappearances of its founder, its influence has decreased to the point where its enemies feel they have a chance of taking them down a notch. Distracted by house politics, the real nature of the threat eludes Selene, the head of the House of Silverspire. Three people connect to the house, an addicted human alchemist, a newly fallen angel and a mysterious young man hold the key to saving it or taking it down for good.

The House of Shattered Wings has so much worldbuilding in it that is almost wasted even on a novel length work. Fortunately there is going to be a second book in this setting. The book tells us the basics of what happens from the end of France's Belle Époque to sometime in the late 20th century. De Bodard doesn't mention a specific year but at least sixty years have passed since the end of the Great War and Paris is still struggling to recover. The Belle Époque, a part of French history usually thought of as the years between the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the start of the First World War in the summer of 1914, was a period in which rapid technological progress and economic growth fuelled by France's growing colonial empire seemed to make anything possible. There are hint throughout the novel that fallen angels have been present in the world for a very long time, and that they are not the only mythological creatures appear to mere mortals. Their presence doesn't seem to have radically altered the course of history up to 1914 however.

The focus of the novel is on House Silverspire. It was founded by the very first of the Fallen. He is referred to as Morningstar in this novel, which, as most of you will have already guessed, one of the names of Lucifer. The main antagonist is another figure from Judeo-Christian mythology. Asmodeus is sometimes thought of as one of the seven princes of hell but in the novel he leads a rivalling house. Fittingly, house Silverspire occupies the Île de la Cité in the very heart of Paris. It is the location of one of France's most famous cathedrals, the Notre Dame, which - like much of the rest of the city-  lies in ruins. There is in other words no lack of religious symbolism in the novel.

The author doesn't limit herself to Judeo-Christian mythology. There are references to Greek and, briefly, Persian mythology as well and, through one of the main characters, Chinese/Vietnamese myths. De Bodard uses the word Annam to refer to Vietnam. It is an old name that was used for Vietnam or parts of it before decolonization. What happened to Frances colonial empire after the Great War is a bit unclear in the novel. Travel and communication have been severely limited and the characters do not seem to know much of what goes on outside of Paris.

De Bodard shifts effortlessly between Christian images of heaven and hell and the Chinese influenced court of the Jade Emperor, includes wide ranging concepts as the grace of God to Buddhist views on reincarnation, and views energy not only in the western sense but also as the flow of Khi (or Ch'i, or Qi).  Where many writers would be tempted to simplify matters and pick one religious view as the highest truth, or at best two opposing views, De Bodard's creation has room for many of them. The co-exist in a way that is as complicated and messy as the real word. Behind each character and each significant event in the book lie layers of history and mythology for the reader to unravel. The temptation to infodump every other page must have been overwhelming at times but the author manages to keep that to a minimum. These shifts in worldview and thematic background keeps the reader on their toes.

The Fallen themselves are just as complex as the worldbuilding. They are born into the word with powerful magic but little in the way of memories. They are extremely long lived and, particularly in their youth, radiate magic. Their breath holds power, their nail clippings, their blood all can be made into magical objects. Even their bones can be ground up to make a particularly potent and terrifyingly addictive magical aid. It puts them in a very difficult position. They are born with power but without the experience to handle it - youth is most definitely wasted on the young in this case - into a world that has as much use for them dead as alive. Although their magic dims as they age, many rise to positions of power. A process that tends to turn them from angelic and naive to cynical and cold creatures. Their very nature makes them lager than life, their flaws and mistakes likely to have severe consequences for the people depending on them. The head of Silverspire in particular is in a position of power but lacks the strength to improve the situation of the house. The best she can hope for is maintain the status quo. Seeing that precarious balance between the houses break down might be an interesting topic for another novel.

The main characters are all people who are not in a position of power but possess the potential to wield it in significant quantities. On the surface they appear to be quite different people but they share the fact that they've been torn away from their homes and have to make a new place for themselves in this shattered world. Like the city longs to recapture the optimism of the Belle Époque, the characters long to return to the home that is irretrievably lost to them. The novel is a tragedy on many levels.

With so many influences The House of Shattered Wings is not a novel that is easy to categorize. It has a distinct post-apocalyptic atmosphere with Paris in ruins and largely depopulated. I've also seen it described as a Gothic novel, which given the ruins of the Notre Dame, the sense that the past glory cannot be recaptured,  and the way  some of the characters fit into Gothic archetypes makes sense. You could call it an urban fantasy or an alternative history as well in a way but none of these fit entirely. It's a fusion novel that, in the way it blends and twists familiar genre tropes, remind me a bit of Elizabeth Bear's Edda of Burdens or Ian Tregillis' Milkweed Triptych.

My expectations of this novel were probably unfairly high but De Bodard manages to surpass them anyway. As should be evident from the somewhat rambling review there is so much in this novel worth discussing that I scarcely know where to begin. It is a novel filled to overflowing with fascinating world building, complex characters and elegant writing. It is a demonstration of what is possible within speculative fiction if one is willing to look beyond established formulas and classifications. Once De Bodard has dragged you into this world there is no alternative. You will be back for more. I am not sure that I will be able to resist another of Nnedi Okorafor's books away when the second, as of yet untitled, volume set in this magnificent world is published.

Book Details
Title: The House of Shattered Wings
Author: Aliette de Bodard
Publisher: Roc
Pages: 402
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-451-47738-5
First published: 2015

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Book of Phoenix - Nnedi Okorafor

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor is a prequel of sorts. A story that explores what happened to create the world described in her 2010 novel Who Fears Death. I read Who Fears Death in 2013 and thought it was a very confronting and in some ways very depressing book. It got quite a bit of attention at the time, but maybe not quite as much as it should have. This new entry in the series started out as a short story published in the March 2011 edition of Clarkesworld. It was then expanded to a novella, which appeared under the title African Sunrise in the Fall edition of Subterranean Magazine. The once again expanded novel version of the story was published by DAW in May of this year.

Phoenix is a genetic experiment. Her growth is accelerated and she is able to do things no ordinary human can. She grows up in a facility called Tower 7 among doctors and other genetic experiments. Her heritage is unknown to her as is the full extent of her abilities. Her captors don't seem to fear her as much as they should though. She is not allowed to leave but gets unlimited access to information. She seems content until one day the only man she considers a friend witnesses something that pushes him to take his life. After that, the world is beginning to take shape for Phoenix. She becomes destructively desperate to escape her keepers.

In Who Fears Death, Okorafor tackled some very difficult themes. The use of rape as a weapon of war was one of them, female genital mutilation is another. For her western audience this is something that, while horrific, is not likely to be part of their personal experience. Most western countries haven't had a war fought on their soil in two generations, such brutalities usually take place in far away places. Easy to close the book, shake your head and move on if you choose to do so. In The Book of Phoenix Okorafor tackles slavery. It forces the white western reader to consider their part in that ugly piece of history. There is a lot of uncomfortable material in either book but for different subsets of Okorafor's readership.

The novel shares the same type of futuristic magical realism with Who Fears Death. It is essentially set before the wrath of Ani destroyed the highly technological society that preceded Onyesonwu's world. It is a world severely impacted by climate change, but not so much that society has collapsed completely. With the aid of technology, people have adapted. Technology is the key to power in the world and genetics is an important part of it. It is presented as a framestory. An explanation of how one man found an account of the end of the world in a cave in the dessert and how he, with the aid of his wife used it to write the 'Great Book' of the Okeke, a book that would go on to create misery for many of the characters in Who Fears Death.

Phoenix is essentially a slave in the book. She is valued as an experiment, not a human being. Her fellow prisoners are traded like commodities, used to enhance the quality of life for the ruling class. The parallel with the African slave trade is inescapable. Okorafor does a very good job in exploring how Phoenix and her fellow captives are dehumanized and how the fact that their captors don't recognize them as human beings with human desires eventually leads to their downfall. The arrogance of the ruling class in this novel is painfully obvious and possesses the short-sightedness displayed by many currently wielding economic and political power. The Book of Phoenix does not attempt to be a completely accurate extrapolation of current trends but it certainly contains a warning for a society displaying a similar kind of hubris.

Another thing that struck me was how the novel lashes out at the consistently one-sided view of Africa that can be found in western media. What we get to see is the wars, the natural disasters, famines and epidemics. Africa in the media is a place to pity, to send emergency aid to and to avoid if you want to stay healthy. This incomplete image of the continent is one that annoys Okorafor and she is quite clear about it in the novel. One of the characters puts it better than I ever could:
"Will you come with us?" I asked again.
"No." He spread his wings. "I am guarding New York."
"Why not Mali?"
"Africa bleeds, but it will be fine," he said. "I go where I am most needed."

Chapter 18 - Deus Ex Machina
That should give the reader something to think about.

Most of the story, all of the material in the frame, is written in a first person point of view from Phoenix' perspective. The name of the main character is no accident. She is quite literally a phoenix. The novel tells the tale of her transformation, her deaths and her rising from her ashes. Each incarnation is a bit different from the last. Phoenix is a character that doesn't respond well to injustice and one that wields the power to break free of who ever tries to contain her. She spends quite a lot of the novel exploring those powers and figuring out how to use them. Her growth as a character is often in violent spurts, conveyed to the reader in emotionally powerful scenes. She is rash but also compassionate, deeply in love but filled with rage at the same time. She is in other words, a wonderfully complex character.

The Book of Phoenix could be considered science fiction but the language, imagery and themes of the novel are not those encountered in novels that are generally considered science fiction. Is Phoenix post human or godlike? How about the tree that grows through Tower 7? Does humanity fall because of messing with genetics too much or for cutting down the tree of life? Or is one simply a differently framed image of the same thing? Okorafor pours her science fiction in a mythological cast that results in a book with a slightly magical atmosphere to it. It is a rare combination, one that sets this book apart from pretty much everything else I've read this year.

There is probably not much in it but I think this prequel is a better book than Who Fears Death. It is a pretty wild ride, looking over the shoulder of a very unpredictable main character. I felt Who Fears Death relied a bit too much on magic to resolve tricky problems in the plot. The Book of Phoenix is better in that respect. Like its predecessor, it is a novel that asks equally difficult questions to most of its readership, and one that doesn't shy away from pointing out uncomfortably truths. Combine that with beautiful writing and a complex main character, and you end up with a very interesting read. Very much recommended.

Book Details
Title: The Book of Phoenix
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: DAW Books
Pages: 233
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7564-1019-3
First published: 2015

Monday, August 17, 2015

Six Years and Counting

Today it has been six years since the grand opening of this blog. Since I'm past the halfway mark, reaching double digits doesn't seem entirely impossible anymore.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Falling in Love with Hominids - Nalo Hopkinson

Tachyon Publications publishes a lot of very interesting fiction for which there is a limited market. Novellas and short novels, single author collections and themed anthologies for the most part. It is not material that is likely to end up on best-seller lists but for the real fan of fantasy and science fiction, it is a treasure trove of works that would otherwise easily be overlooked. I've been reading a couple of these a year since I joined NetGalley. Tachyon doesn't seem to have a problem with me being located in the Netherlands. Where I get frequent refusals because of my location from other publishers, Tachyon is generous with advance copies. So in the interest of full disclosure, I received a copy of Falling in Love with Hominids from the publisher in exchange for a review.

This collection is my first encounter with Nalo Hopkinson's work. She is originally from Jamaica but has lived in several other places as well before ending up in Canada. In 2011 she relocated to California, where she currently resides. Falling in Love with Hominids collects eighteen pieces of short fiction, all previously published between 2002 and 2014. There is no overarching theme or link between the stories. There are a few recurring elements of course, and some of them are linked to Hopkinson's novels, but other than that the pieces all appear to stand alone.

Hopkinson's writing is very diverse. It ranges from post-apocalyptic to surreal and from historical to contemporary fantasy. There are a few things that keep coming back in the stories though. There are references to Caribbean/African tradition and folklore in several stories, although Shakespeare and western mythologies pop up too. Hopkinson also uses a very varied cast of characters, people of all races, genders and sexual orientations appear in her stories. Although she doesn't emphasize it in most of the stories in this collection, there is a sensitivity to issues relating to racism and sexism in her writing. For some reason, I also get the impression that Hopkinson's home is full of house plants.

There's a few pieces that connected with me in particular. For some reason most of the ones I liked best are in the first half of the collection. The first is the one that opens the collection. The Easthound (2012) is a post-apocalyptic tale seen from the point of view of a child. It is a very creepy story. The author uses the point of view of the main character to throw the reader off balance. Without adults around, the children create their own view of the world, one where stories and fantasy mix with the deadly reality of their situation. The characters are children and at the same time wise beyond their years. An absolutely brilliant piece of writing.

Soul Case (2007) is more of a historical fantasy in which Hopkinson describes an assault on a community of escaped slaves. The story is based on a number of real communities that existed in various places in the Americas. Most of them were eventually destroyed by the colonial powers. I came across the story of the Jamaican Maroons in Maryse Condé's historical novel Children of Segu a while ago. She focusses on a different part of their history than Hopkinson does. The story is related to the novel Hopkinson is currently working on. I will have to keep an eye out for Blackheart Man. A novel length treatment of this topic could be a very interesting read.

In The Smile on the Face (2004) Hopkinson takes us in a very different direction. Although there is a reference to an early Christian saint it is much more contemporary. In essence it deals with a young girl whose changing body is getting her unwanted attention and is making her feel insecure about her looks. The guy in the story seems to be a bit too good to be true but it is a good look into the mind of a teenage girl and the bullshit they have to put up with in an age that seems to value appearance over anything else.

The final story I want to mention is Old Habits (2011). It is a ghost story set in a rather dreary mall. The main character was unfortunate enough to loose his life there and now he is stuck with a bunch of other ghosts who shared the same fate. They can't see the living, can't interact with them, and can't leave the mall. Or they can but what awaits them outside is just as uncertain as what awaits us after death. Most of the ghosts are not in a hurry. The loneliness and desperation of the ghosts is worked into this story very well. They strike you as a bit peculiar in the opening stages. Hopkinson then proceeds to make them almost inhuman in their hunger for a taste of life, and then shows us the tragic demise of the main character, bringing him back to being human again by killing him. Very disturbing.

A collection of such diversity as Hopkinson delivers here, will always contain a few stories that don't connect with the reader. There were a few that did little for me but overall I very much enjoyed Hopkinson's imaginative and varied approach to storytelling. In just over 200 pages she travels the length and breadth of speculative fiction. Falling in Love with Hominids is as good an invitation to delve deeper into an author's oeuvre as you are likely to get. I think I am going to take her up on that. It would appear that once again the to read stack has grown.

Book Details
Title: Falling in Love with Hominids
Author: Nalo Hopkinson
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Pages: 222
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-61696-199-2
First published: 2015

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Teranesia - Greg Egan

Lana and I had our friend Melanie over last week. Melanie is from  Australia and while I have known her for something like 14 years, I  hadn't actually met her in person before. It's a strange experience, you  have to actively remind yourself once in a while that you do actually  know this stranger very well. Melanie knows a thing or two about me too.  She brought me a gift in the form of this book. Egan happens to live in the same city Melanie does. I have heard the name before of course but I  hadn't read anything by him until now so it was definitely a good choice on Melanie's part. Egan writes hard science fiction  and his work generally includes mathematical themes and quantum  physics. He is also interested in genetics and regularly includes  protagonists with sexual orientations other than heterosexual. Teranesia (1999) ticks most of those boxes so if I were to venture a guess I'd say it is reasonably representative of  Egan's oeuvre.

I'm not holding back on spoilers in this review.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

The Water Knife - Paolo Bacigalupi

The Water Knife is Paolo Bacigalupi's first novel length work for adults since his breakthrough novel The Windup Girl (2009). He has written four other novels in between those too, aimed at younger audiences. The Windup Girl was hugely successful, winning Bacigalupi a Hugo, Nebula, Campbell and Locus First Novel Award. Although the Windup universe provides more than enough space for further stories, Bacigalupi opts to expand another future in The Water Knife. The novel is linked to his short story The Tamarisk Hunter (2006). The main theme is environmental. Which given Bacigaulpi's track record will not surprise the reader. He has managed to produce a novel that is very will timed though. His vision of extreme water shortages in the American South West will make for uncomfortable reading for many people living in the area.

Several decades into the future the American South West is a parched wasteland. The states in the area are involved in a deadly game for water rights to support the desperate remains of their population. The region is swamped with refugees as well and local authority has largely collapsed. Among the ruins of Phoenix, Arizona, we follow three people trying to survive. The journalist Lucy Monroe gets in over her head covering the brutal murder of one of her contacts. The Water Knife Angel, a problem solver for Catherine Case, the powerful head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, heads to the city when their agent there shows signs of cracking under the strain of the chaotic events in the city. The Texan refugee Maria has other concerns. She has lost her family and is trying to keep from ending up prostituting herself by selling water. One misstep gets her in serious problems with the local gang. She needs money quickly.

The water situation in the region has always been something of a mess. It has been known for a long time that the current use of water is unsustainable but so far this hasn't stopped cities expanding in the region. Bacigalupi names the book Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner, first published in 1986 and updated in 1993, as one of his inspirations. It is probably a good place to start if you are interested in the problem as it gives a comprehensive overview of the situation. It is clear that there was a lot more research involved in writing this book however. Lots of little details in the book, mostly mitigation strategies, point in that direction anyway.

The drought that has been going on in California in particular in recent years is making this a very relevant book at the moment. After several years with below average rainfall the state is beginning to feel the shortage. I get the feeling that as long as the discussion focusses on who can keep their lawn and who can't, and whether an outdoor pool or a green lawn evaporates more water, the sheer scale of the disaster has not really sunk in yet. In this novel Bacigalupi drives home the importance of good water management. He doesn't focus on the environmental impact as much as I had expected though. The social impact is much more the focus of the novel. The way he goes about portraying that, is probably the book's greatest weakness.

The American government in this novel seems to have lost the ability to combat natural disasters at a federal level. The pressure put on the system by drought, tornadoes, flooding and hurricanes (all of which are becoming more frequent as a consequence of climate change) has stretched it too far and is now limited to feeble attempts at humanitarian aid. Since the role of the central government is limited, the states have stepped in and wage a kind of undeclared war against each other. The water authorities are armed, local militias guard state borders to keep refugees out, and fierce battles in court over water rights rage. All of this frequently turns very bloody and Bacigalupi describes the horror in detail.

What surprised me about this situation is that there is no effort whatsoever being made at making the situation more sustainable. There are plenty of mitigation strategies in place of course, but the real problem is that there are simply too many people, needing too much water for the region to support. What the authorities appear to be busy with, is trying to take water away from somebody else. The overriding motivation of just about all of the characters is greed. The few people who think America might still pull itself together tend to end up dead for their trouble. It is so horribly cynical that at some points in the novel I began to wonder if the wilful ignorance the world is displaying at the moment isn't better. Yes, people are greedy, and corporations perhaps even more so, but is the world in such a bad shape that nobody in the whole wide world wants to do anything constructive any more?

Greed is a theme in just about any of Bacigalupi's other works as well, of course and he often goes into detail on the horrific consequences it can have. In each of his novels there tends to be a bit more hope though. Someone pushing back, trying to get society going again, somehow build a life that is worth living. In this novel there is just violence and corruption. Even the finale of the novel is very cynical. Characters getting out of their personal hell but at the expense of other people. I fear that by injecting so much post-apocalyptic violence into the novel, Bacigalupi has drowned out his message a bit. A terrible shame because it is one that needs to be heard.

That is not to say it is a bad novel. Just a terribly depressing one. The Water Knife is something of a thriller. A treasure hunt if you will, a race against the clock with the players doubting each other at every step. Bacigalupi knows how to build the tension and as an eco-thriller it works well enough. I had hoped Bacigalupi would manage to do a bit more with the environmental and social themes he picks for the novel than just showing us in gory detail where we're heading. In a way he has written the disasterporn his journalist characters report about in the novel. All things considered it was a decent read but not all it could have been.

Book Details
Title: The Water Knife
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Pages: 371
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-385-35287-1
First published: 2015