Sunday, November 29, 2015

Stay - Nicola Griffith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Luna: New Moon - Ian McDonald

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Making Wolf - Tade Thompson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Pandora's Gun - James Van Pelt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Philosopher Kings - Jo Walton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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