Sunday, September 27, 2015

Fool's Quest - Robin Hobb

Fool's Quest is the second book in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy, in which Robin Hobb returns to her most successful character. The previous two trilogies were entirely written from Fitz' point of view though. In the first volume of this trilogy, Fool's Assassin, she adds the point of view of Fitz' daughter. This second volume is mostly focussed on Fitz again, although the Bee chapters do drive the story to a large extent. With 7 books on Fitz under her belt already, Hobb knows where she is going with this character. Fool's Quest is a strong book with a strongly character driven plot. Readers who like Fitz will love this book. It is a middle book in a trilogy though, so don't expect any resolutions just yet.

Fitz has returned to Buckkeep and this time, his role in keeping the Kingdom together during the last years of the reign of King Shrewd is fully acknowledged. Fitz is no longer Tom Badgerlock, he is a Farseer prince with all the power and obligations that come with the position.He doesn't get to enjoy his new status for long though. Word of the raid on Withywoods and the taking of Bee and Shun reaches the court. Fitz wants to go after his daughter right away but practicalities keep holding him back.

Fool's Assassin was a pretty hefty tome at 630 pages. This second volume is even longer. Hobb has never written fast-paced stories and she doesn't start now. Life at Buckkeep and the changes since Fitz' youth are described in detail. The changes in the relationships between the characters and their status also takes up quite a bit of Fitz' thoughts. Kettricken is still her queenly self. Dutiful has grown into his role as king, Chade enjoys his new freedom as member of the court but can't stop playing his games. Lady Rosemary is entirely absent, as befits her status as royal assassin, but between the lines you can feel the tension between her and Chade and the changing view on the usefulness of quiet work. Nettle is still her prickly self but these days, she is backed by impressive knowledge in the Skill as well as a number of coteries. I have rarely read a book in which the secondary characters and their relationships are as detailed as in Robin Hobb's work. The complexities of the court are a joy to read.

Most of the book centres on Fitz and the Fool however. The Fool is slowly recovering from his injuries. The first, reckless attempt by Fitz to heal him did not have the desired effect but after another attempt he appears to be making progress. Both Fitz and the Fool are impatient to be on their way. As Fitz coaxes the horrible tale of his stay with the Servants out of the Fool, it becomes apparent that Bee is in mortal danger and the Servants cannot be allowed to exist much longer. Fitz is not planning on taking the Fool anywhere though. He is simply too weak. The Fool will have none of it and it becomes the ground for another one of their famous spats.

The Fool's tale as well as what Fitz finds at his raided estate, make this book a very violent one. Hobb doesn't show that much of it but at Withywoods especially, the trauma of the raid is described in great detail. Where most fantasy authors would focus on the deed itself, Hobb pays attention to the mess left behind and that makes the book one of the darkest she has written. Where in other books Fitz suffers for what is done to him, in this novel, in part at least, he suffers for what is done to those he loves and cares for. His brief moments of triumph and tiny amounts of hope keep him going though.

Bee's storyline is less prominent in this book. Withywoods is deep within the Six Duchies and her kidnappers have a long way to go to safety. During the gruelling journey Bee begins to realize the full extent of her powers. They don't give her the means to escape though. Unlike Fitz when he was that age, Bee appears to be wise beyond her years. She is still naive in some ways but her magic, or perhaps I should say, her acceptance of it, gives her an edge. Where magic is a struggle for Fitz and has been his entire life, it comes naturally to Bee. You can already tell Fitz and Bee will have some issues to work through if they do get together again.

In terms of the world development there are two things that stand out in this book. The first is the new information we get on the Servants. In the previous seven books Hobb has given us hints but for the most part they remained mysterious. The Fool is giving us a more detailed look at how their settlement works and how much he was made to suffer at the hands of the Servants. Bee's storyline shows us the Servants at work. Although she doesn't understand their motivations, the reader does get to see what can only be described as religious fanatics through her eyes.

The second thing the reader will notice is that Hobb is weaving storylines of her Rainwilds books into these novels. The reappearance of dragons, to which both of these sets of novels have contributed, is obviously going to be important to the resolution of this story. We get to see a bit what has happened after the ending of Blood of Dragons. Events in Buckkeep point at tension between the Rain Wilds and the Six Duchies over the dragons. It will be interesting to see if this is just background or if Fitz will have to come to some sort of arrangement with them. Hobb also leaves herself an opening here to return to Kensingra for more stories.

What can I say about Fool's Quest that I haven't said of other Hobb books already? I'm a great fan of Hobb's novels (and Lindholm's for that matter) and this book delivers what I have come to love about the series. In terms of characterization Hobb is just way ahead of the pack in epic fantasy. It will likely be another year before it appears but the final volume in this trilogy is already on my to read list. With Hobb in this form, it promises to be a dramatic ending to the story of Ftiz and the Fool.

Book Details
Title: Fool's Quest
Author: Robin Hobb
Publisher: Voyager
Pages: 739
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-00-744421-2
First published: 2015

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Skin - Ilka Tampke

It's been a while since I read some historical fiction so when the good folks at Hebban offered me a review copy of Ilka Tampke's début novel Skin I jumped at the opportunity. The slightly different Dutch language version of this review can be found here. Other than that she is from Australia I don't know anything about the author and since it is a début I had no idea what to expect. Skin turns out to be a novel set right before the Claudian invasion of Britain, including some very peculiar speculations  on Celtic society in the first century AD. It's probably a book that is going to divide readers.

Ailia is dropped at the doorstep of the Queen's kitchen. She is raised by the cook and as a person of unknown parentage, or skinless person, she is one of the lowest ranked members of her tribe and considered unfit to learn just about anything to improve her position. Ailia wants to learn though, and as she grows up, it becomes apparent that she has a talent for the spiritual teachings of her people. The nation is desperately searching for guidance under the threat of a Roman invasion but do they dare put their fate in the hand of a skinless woman?

Skin is centered on the Druidic culture that existed in Britain before the Roman invasion. Since the Celts didn't write any of it down, at least not in those days, we actually know very little of their teachings. There are Roman sources of course but they are not considered too reliable. Roman historians had the tendency to portray Rome's enemies as more barbaric than they really were. When it comes to the customs of the Celts at that time, a lot of stuff has been written that the archaeological records doesn't support. It gives a historical novelist quite a bit of space to work with and Tampke uses that space extensively in the novel. Sometimes a bit too extensively. One of the major plot twists hangs on a dubious depiction of human sacrifice, a custom that may well have been a figment of a Roman historian's imagination.

That isn't to say the author hasn't done her homework. Most of the story is set in Cad (modern day Cadbury Castle in Sommerset), one of the large hillforts in the south of England. Tampke hints at the events and social developments (the move away from hillforts to towns in particular) that are apparent in the archaeological and historical record. She admits to slightly adapting the timeline to better suit the story but the main sequence of events is historical.She also borrows a bit from early Welsh and Irish written sources. For readers familiar with this bit of history, the  story is clearly recognizable but there is also something very alien about it.

The central concept of the novel is skin. Skin determines all sorts of things in a person's life. Which animal their totem is, whom they can marry, whom they consider kin. It creates bonds beyond blood relationships but is also the source of taboos. Without a skin, a person's place in society is undetermined and it limits them in all sorts of ways. It will come as no surprise to the reader that Ailia is desperate to find out what her skin is. It is one of her motivations throughout the novel.

I've read a number of novels in this timeframe as well as some non-fiction and I haven't come across this concept before. It wasn't until I came across a clear reference to the songlines, an Australian Aboriginal concept, that the penny dropped for me.
‘What is it we stare upon?’ he asked.
I looked at him. Did he trick me? ‘It is Central Durotriga…?’
‘But what do you see in it?’ He bit into his fish.
I frowned. ‘Fields, rivers, many stones…’
‘When you train you will see it in a different way’ The sun turned his eyes to amber. ‘You will see the stories.’

Chapter 19 - Trees
Besides their view on the landscape, it would seem Tampke also let herself be inspired by an Aboriginal kinship system. I know very little about the details of how it works in Aboriginal society but Tampke doesn't seem to have transplanted one on one to her story. It's nevertheless a strange combination. I must admit I had a bit of trouble reconciling elements from two such vastly different cultures. To an extent even, that it derailed the story for me.

Another thing that bothered me in the novel was the language Tampke employs. You'd expect a few Celtic words or concepts to be added to the text to add a bit of authenticity. Tampke doesn't really do that in her novel but, especially in the dialogue, she uses old fashioned English. It makes the dialogue feel forced.
'Why do you cease?' asked Tara. 'Are you troubled?'
'No.' I shook my head. ' I am thinking of a knave I have met near here'
'A knave?' She sounded surprised.
'Yes - of some height with dark hair.' I looked at her. ' Have you seen him? Do you know of whom I speak?'
Her strong brow furrowed. 'No,' she said. ' He has not come here. And it would not be well for him if he did. This is a woman's place. Men are not permitted here. men will not survive.'

Chapter 14 - Ceremony
Why use 'knave', a word with a Germanic origin, instead of lad or boy? Why refrain from using contractions? Remember that this is a girl with no education whatsoever. Would she speak in such a formal style? It strikes me as a very unnatural dialogue.

The fusion culture created for this novel and use of language are personal quibbles of mine. If they don't happen to be your quibbles the book might still still hook you. It is a very fast paced story with a likeable main character. Ailia is a curious girl, stubbornly working towards her goal of obtaining training in the spiritual teachings of her people. I thought there was a bit of a contradiction in her character in that she is trying very hard to save a way of life that essentially dooms her to being a second rate member of the tribe. She does defend it with a fire that makes what history teach us will happen even more tragic.

To let the tragedy that is about to envelop her people even closer, the author presents Ailia with two interesting men in her life. They have radically different views on the future however. Her love life runs parallel to the military conflict that is brewing. At the end of the story, Ailia makes her choice but it is clear that the battle for control of the island is not done yet. Tampke leaves herself more than enough space for a sequel. My advance copy doesn't mention if there will be one but it seems likely to me.

Skin is not quite what I am looking for in a historical novel.For me. it was a decent read but I do feel Tampke sacrifices a bit too much historical accuracy to the needs of her story. I sometimes wondered if, with the fusion culture Tampke uses, it wouldn't have worked better in a completely fictional setting. The story leans on the supernatural for a large extent. The step into fantasy seems a minor one. Still, if that sort of thing doesn't bother you Skin can be a very entertaining read. All things considered, it is a début with room for improvement.

Book Details
Title: Skin
Author: Ilka Tampke
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 356
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Galley paperback, uncorrected proof
ISBN: 978-1-473-61642-4
First published: 2015

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Karen Memory - Elizabeth Bear

Some books spend years and years on the same bookshelf without being touched, others have adventures. My copy of Greg Egan's Teranesia for instance, was printed in the US, shipped to Australia where a friend bought it as a gift for me. It then travelled to Ireland, the UK, Italy, the Czech Republic and Germany before ending up in my bookcase. I also own a copy of Frank Herbert's Destination: Void that once belonged to a highschool library in Canada and had at least two other owners before it ended up in a second hand bookshop in the Netherlands. My copy of Karen Memory also had an adventure. I took it with me to read at the hospital while waiting for my girlfriend to wake up from narcosis after surgery. Of course I forgot to take it home with me. The nurses were kind enough to put it away for me. It then spent a week in the hospital before I could collect it. I'm grateful to the hospital staff, if it had gone missing I would have missed out on an incredibly fun read.

Karen Memery is a 'seamstress'  in Rapid City, a town on the west coast of the United States. She works in Madame Damnable's establishment, catering to high paying clientèle. Life in Hôtel Mon Cherie is thoroughly disrupted when two injured prostitutes appear at their door. They are taken in to recover from their injuries but only minutes later one of the more influential citizens of Rapid City and owner of one of the cheap brothels in town, Peter Bantle, comes calling. His demands are the beginning of a feud that will see Karen plunged in a whirlwind of murder, corruption and violence but will also introduce her to the love of her life.

The novel is set in an alternative version of the 1870's. It is essentially a steampunk western. It is full of strange technologies and fantastical machines. The timeline has been adapted a bit by moving the Alaskan gold rush a few decades back. Rapid City is fictional but it is clearly inspired by some towns that did exist at the time. The setting reminded me a lot of Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century books. There are lots of references in the book to historical figures in the Old West, although their lives, given the alternative timeline, rarely follow the historical paths. For readers who are well acquainted with the period but not too attached to western clichés, there is a lot to be had in Bear's alternative timeline.

Prostitutes are a cliché in both westerns and other genres. They are almost always secondary characters. Women rarely seen as persons by their clients or the writers who use them as characters. Apparently many writers find them hard to write and many readers find it hard to identify which such a character. Bear breaks right though these preconceptions in this novel. Karen is a well rounded character. Her life has not been easy but she has held on to her optimism, dreams and sense of humour. Contrary to the dominant view of her profession displayed in many novels, she is neither a victim nor powerless. In fact, she has a very clear opinion of the fallen woman (or, as they put it in this novel, soiled dove) nonsense that surrounds her. Whichever way you look at it, Karen is (no pun intended) a memorable character.

Bear tackles other clichés in the books as well. The view that the American West was entirely populated by white cowboys and red Indians for instance. With the occasional lost Mexican mixed in if you were lucky. The cast is remarkable diverse. Karen herself is half Danish and the novel also includes a black law man, a Comanche warrior, French, Russian, Chinese and Indian (as in from the country in Asia) characters. Rapid City is a mix of cultures, languages and customs much more representative of historical fact than the dime novels Karen and her colleagues read to entertain themselves. Bear uses the possibilities all these different cultures offer to create a rich environment to tell her story. I thought it was a very well developed setting.

Karen herself is the narrator of the story. She is not a character with a lot of formal education so she tells it to us like she experienced it. The book is written in the first person and is seen entirely from her point of view. Her style is humorous and full of tongue-in-cheek comments on  men and the world around her. Her language is straightforward, full of poor grammar and a kind of vernacular that would have been ruthlessly stamped out by any respectable English teacher of the time. It is quite an achievement that Bear has managed to carry this style for an entire novel without fail. It must have been a challenging book to edit.

The plot itself is that of a good adventure story. Bear keeps the pace up and doesn't let herself get distracted by side plots. The whole story is neatly wrapped up at the end. Although the setting would lend itself to more stories, the novel very much looks like a singleton. As the story advances, the steampunk element becomes more pronounced. Towards the climax of the book, a number of interesting machines play a crucial role in resolving the plot. Bear allows her characters to grow first, without the distraction of too many gimmicks. It's a well structured book in that sense. The main character carries the story, not the cool machines or other steampunk technology.

Karen Memory is a book I appreciate in several ways. On one level it is a fast-paced adventure, on the other it challenges a number of clichés encountered in genre fiction. I loved Karen's sense of humour and the immersive alternative history Bear has created. It's a very fun read. Not as demanding as Bear's previous novels in the Eternal Sky universe perhaps, but clearly showing her versatility as a writer. It is a 2015 release you really ought to read. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Book Details
Title: Karen Memory
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 350
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-7524-7
First published: 2015

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Goodnight Stars - Annie Bellet

I started reading Elizabeth Bear's Karen Memory last weekend. Unfortunately I left the book at the hospital on Tuesday when my girlfriend had an appointment there. It is waiting for me at the desk. When we go back there on Monday, I can pick it up. I didn't think I had enough reading time to finish another full novel for this weekend's review so I had to resort to reading something shorter. I decided to have a go at Goodnight Stars by Annie Bellet. It was originally included in an anthology edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey called The End is Now (2014). It is part of a triptych of (post) apocalyptic fiction. Bellet has stories in all three anthologies and, as far as I can tell, they are set in the same world. Goodnight Stars is readable as a standalone though.

Goodnight Stars was nominated for the Hugo this year as part of both the Sad and Rabid Puppy slate. When the shortlist was announced and the success of the Puppy slates became apparent, she decided to withdraw the story and stay out of the fray. That was both a wise and probably very difficult decision. As far as I can tell all the novels she has written are selfpublished. A few of her stories were published by paying markets but a Hugo nomination, or even better, a win, would have put her on the map. It would also have been a bit of recognition for this form of publishing. The Hugos haven't paid that much attention to self-published works yet. The price of being a punching bag in what is basically an extension of the American culture wars was obviously too high and so Bellet had to be content with one of George R.R. Martin's Alfies instead. Personally I consider that a good trade. Especially since her withdrawal allowed Thomas Olde Heuvelt a place on the shortlist. He would go on to win the category and further frustrate the Puppies' attempt to sweep the awards.

In Goodnight Stars we meet Lucy Goodwin. Her mother is an engineer working on a project on the Moon when something strikes it. The Moon is shattered and meteors rain down on the Earth, causing widespread destruction and disruptions in communication. With a group of friends she sets out to reach the relative safety of her father's farm in Montana. A long and dangerous trip.

To be perfectly honest I don't think this story is Hugo Award material. I enjoyed reading it but it doesn't do anything to make it stand out from the mass of high quality short fiction that is being written at the moment. Scientifically I have my doubts about whether the Moon breaking up would be survivable. If only a fraction of the mass of the Moon was to hit Earth it would probably cause a mass extinction event in which humans would be one of the first victims. Bellet's style is not remarkable either. The prose is serviceable but doesn't stand out, she has a very straightforward way of telling her story.

What the story does have going for it, is that it is emotionally powerful. The main character is someone we can relate to. A girl cast into a situation where she has nobody to fall back on. It gives her a new perspective on what's important in life and makes her appreciate her mother's choices more. There is a lot of anger in her, she doesn't feel like her mother understands the choices she wants to make in life. The disaster that strikes them brings them closer together by putting them forever beyond each other's reach. The character development in this story is definitely the strongest part of it.

Bellet may not have chosen to be on the Puppy slates but when you look at it from their perspective, it does make sense to include it. It is a very plot oriented story, with a comfortably familiar topic for science fiction readers. Bellet keeps the pace up and doesn't need any literary acrobatics to tell her tale. It is a story that can be enjoyed at face value. Personally, I don't think that is the most challenging or rewarding kind of reading but if that is what you are looking for in fiction this author delivers. Her Hugo nomination was a very unfortunate way to catch the spotlight but her writing is sure to win her fans. Goodnight Stars will not be the last we have heard of Annie Bellet.

Book Details
Title: Goodnight Stars
Author: Annie Bellet
Pages: 36
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: E-book
First published: 2014

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Dragon Heart - Cecelia Holland

I own a copy of Floating Worlds,  Cecelia Holland's only science fiction novel. It has been on my to read list for ages but  I can't seem to get around to reading it. She wrote that novel fairly early on in her career. Most of the rest is historical fiction but once in a while a fantasy novel appears, usually in a historical context. Dragon Heart is an uncut fantasy novel. When Tor offered me a review copy, the book intrigued me. The cover and synopsis promise a traditional epic fantasy but given Holland's oeuvre I had the feeling it would not be quite what the cover suggested. That turned out be correct. Dragon Heart is probably not quite what the reader would expect but it is a very good novel.

Jeon is sent to collect his mute sister Tirza from the monastery where her mother, Queen of Ocean Castle has hidden her away. On the way back, their ship is attacked by a dragon. Jeon survives the sinking of the ship and returns home. Tirza is captured by the dragon. A bond between the two is established that can't be broken by Tirza's eventual escape. When she returns home, many months later, she finds the situation there desperate. Her mother is forced to marry a brother of the emperor whose army killed her father. She has held of, grieving for her supposedly killed daughter, but with Tirza's return, there is no more putting off the inevitable. A power struggle between the old ruling family and the empire is about to begin.

There are two very clear elements in this novel that show it is written by an experienced author. The first is the pacing, which is absolutely amazing. The author takes the time to develop Tirza. Since she can't speak to any of the characters but the dragon, the first section of the novel is where we get to know her. Holland also slips in some history of her family disguised as legends. Once we get back to Castle Ocean and more points of view get mixed in, a game of pretence develops between the empire's representatives and the locals. Like the waves crashing on the beach below Castle Ocean, a series of increasingly violent confrontations wash over the reader, raising the tension until the final, lethal climax of the book becomes inevitable.

The second element of the novel that I really liked was the way it relies on what the author doesn't tell us as much as on what is described. Castle Ocean is a mysterious place. There is a bit of haunted house horror in this novel as well as epic fantasy. The reader gets clues along the way but almost never a straight explanation. For the locals, the events in Castle Ocean are business as usual, nothing to remark upon. For the empire they are a mystery, one they don't care to think about as the habits of the local primitives are beneath them. Holland skilfully uses this to slowly reveal to the reader what we need to know to fully understand the plot.

Just as Holland limits what she tells us about Castle Ocean and the area around it, information about the empire is scarce. We know it is huge and still expanding, technologically more advanced than Castle Ocean and that it radiates the arrogance of power. Where many authors would choose to add more worldbuilding and develop this part of the story beyond the bare minimum Holland keeps her novel concise. It is focussed on the events in Castle Ocean, a very isolated part of the world, and word of events taking place in the world outside their borders penetrates slowly. It is another example of how Holland uses what you don't get to see to shape the story.

Tirza's family has a connection with the castle, the ocean and the lands along the coast the empire fails to understand. They live with the rhythm of the tides, return to the ocean in times of distress and are intimately familiar with the land, seasons and weather. The novel contains a lot of imagery based on storms, waves, foam and tides. The locals exploit this knowledge in their conflict with the empire in a number of very clever ways. In a way Dragon Heart is a tale based on a conqueror's underestimation of the locals. A fairly common theme in fantasy.

Tirza's family is tied to Castle Ocean, they belong there but to an extent it also keeps them prisoner. Their family's history is ingrained in the walls of the castle. The empire may represent culture, splendour, riches and advanced technology, none of it will be able to break the link with their home. It is the tragedy of Tirza, who was despised by her mother but loved by her siblings, that she is unable to communicate her feelings on the matter. As the Castle claims her siblings, the rift between her and the family's residence increases. She is torn between wanting to break away and wanting to protect her home until one of the two must give.

I'm very impressed with this novel. It is so tightly written and so well paced that I can't really find anything negative to say about it. Dragon Heart is one of those fantasies you can enjoy without committing to a sprawling series or a single huge tome. I have no idea if Holland planned sequels. It is not impossible to write more in this setting, but the story in Dragon Heart doesn't require it. Some readers may find it a bit too concise, preferring to spend more time with the many point of view characters. I feel Holland has the skill to give them depth in the short time we spend with them.In less than 300 pages, Holland packs everything a good fantasy needs. Something more than a few fantasy authors should take note of.

Book Details
Title: Dragon Heart
Author: Cecelia Holland
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 288
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-4668-3649-5
First published: 2015