Saturday, August 20, 2016

Taking a Small Summer Break

I haven't finished a book this week and next week is going to be a very busy at work. As a result there won't be reviews this weekend and next weekend. Service should resume in September.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Children of Earth and Sky - Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay is not a fast writer. His novels take a lot of research. Over the past two decades he has published about one book every three years. For his previous two novels, Kay immersed himself in various periods of Chinese history. The novels Under Heaven (2010) and River of Stars (2013) are arguably some of his best work. For his next project he moved back to Europe again. Children of Earth and Sky is a novel inspired by the Venetian Republic, the Ottoman Empire and 15th century Croatia. It is territory that the reader well-antiquated with Kay's work will most likely be more familiar with. That familiarity can be seen as either the book's strength or greatest weakness. Personally I lean towards the latter.

Life is hard in the borderlands between the empire of the Kohlberg emperor and that of the Asharite conqueror of ancient Sarantium Grand Kalif Gurçu. Lesser powers risk getting mangled in the struggle for control over Trakasia and Sauradia. The mercantile republic of Seressa knows it cannot compete in a military sense. Money can buy influence though and Seressa has no lack of financial resources. Their aid comes at a price though. In recent years the pirates of Senjan have been a thorn in the side of the Asharites but they do not spare Seressa's mercantile fleet either. Their actions are disrupting trade, the lifeblood of Seressa. Getting rid of a few hundred pirates surely is a small price to pay for the continued financial support of one of the world's richest trading ports. A game of diplomacy, murder and open warfare ensues.

The novel contains everything one has come to expect from Kay. It is beautifully written as usual. He uses his omniscient narrator in his usual way. The novel follows quite a few characters in various locations. It allows the reader to follow the larger conflict in detail. The novel is set in a alternate Europe we've seen in many of his previous novels. It is a continent divided by three faiths. The Sun worshipping Jadites (Christian) people of the west, the Star worshipping Asharites (Muslims) of the east and the marginalized Moon worshipping Kindath (Jews) will be well known to the experienced Kay reader.

As usual Kay's story follows history for the most part. The main marker in the book is the fall of Sarantium, an analogue of Constantinople, which is said to be 25 years in the past. That would make it the year 1478. The Grand Kalif Gurçu is clearly based on Mehmed II the Conqueror, although Kay takes some liberties with the struggle over his succession. The Kohlberg dynasty is also clearly recognizable as the (Austrian) Habsburg family. Kay moved the reign of Rudolf II back a century, probably because he was a much more colourful character than Frederick III, who was the Holy Roman Emperor at the time the novel is set. Seressa is obviously inspired by Venice and another historical figure that makes an appearance is the Albanian nobleman Skanderbeg, who in later ages would be the inspiration for loads of nationalistic nonsense. Kay seems to have taken liberties with history here too, although he is not a romanticized figure in this novel.

The inspiration in the story is not in the main lines of history though. In his afterword Kay states that the idea for the story came from the Uskoks of Senj. Bands of irregular soldiers and pirates engaged in guerilla warfare against the Ottomans. Kay seems to have moved them back in time a bit too. The peak of their influence was in the second half of the sixteenth century. While I could trace back most of the history Kay uses in the novel quite easily, I had to look this one up. They appear to have been a small community that nevertheless made their impact felt. I guess you could call that the theme for this novel. None of the main characters are people history would remember for causing great political changes. They are footnotes in history at best. Yet all of their lives are touched by the struggle for power in the region, and in their own way, they help shape history.

Much of the novel is set in a corner of Europe Kay has visited before. It is the same land Crispus travels in Sailing to Sarantium (1998). There are frequent references to the Sarantine Mosaic novels in the story. The Mosaics themselves of course, but also the horse races, the Hagia Sophia (which parallel to history has been remade into an Asharite temple), the Sarantine empress Alixana and so forth. The book is a lament for lost Sarantium. So much so in fact, that in some places it overwhelms the plot. Many of Kay's characters are born after the fall of the city, which has some time before ceased to be a major power in the world. They would not see it with the same sense of history that Kay does. In fact, most of them have much more pressing concerns. Kay also adds references to the Belmote family from his novel The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995). It makes the novel one in which Kay looks back a lot. I felt that his own awareness of history was a bit out of balance with that of the characters in many of the chapters.

In his previous two novels Kay pushed himself. He tackled a piece of history not many westerners will be familiar with at that level of detail. It resulted in two fascinating books. In a way it was a break from the Eurocentric world he had been building until then. This book contains many of the elements he used in previous books but without that little extra the unfamiliar adds. He slips back into his comfort zone as it were. If anything it leans more heavily on history than it does on the individual strands of the story. Children of Earth and Sky is not a bad novel - I don't think Kay could write one if he tried - but it is too much more of the same. There will be many readers who are just fine with that, but for me it doesn't quite satisfy in the way his previous two novels have.

Book Details
Title: Children of Earth and Sky
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: New American Library
Pages: 571
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-451-47296-0
First published: 2016

Sunday, August 7, 2016

No Present Like Time - Steph Swainston

A Dutch edition of Steph Swainston's short story The Wheel of Fortune was my introduction to her writing. I decided quickly I needed to read more of her work after that, so I got a copy of the Castle trilogy. The books were originally published as individual volumes but I own the omnibus edition. I decided to review them separately rather than as one work. No Present Like Time is the second volume in the trilogy. It is set some time after the events in The Year of Our War and again follows the exploits of Jant, Messenger of the Circle. The novel was published in 2005 and was followed in 2007 by a third volume, The Modern World in the UK and Dangerous Offspring in the US, which I hope to get to later this year.

The war with the insects is far from won, but the immediate crisis Jant faced in the previous book has passed. That is not to say everything is quiet in the Castle. Infighting, bickering and challenges to positions of various members of the circle are constant pressures on the immortals. When the Castle's swordsman looses a challenge all hell breaks loose. To make matters more complicated, the Sailor has recently discovered a group of islands inhabited by a displaced population from the Fourlands. The emperor wishes to extend his influence and sends an expedition to meet with the locals. Jant is ordered along. He will have to conquer his fear of ships and the sea to make the journey. It's an experience with far reaching consequences for both Jant and the Castle.

In the previous novel, Jant was a full blown addict and the structure of the story showed that. It was basically a series of coherent snapshots in between trips. On the one hand it is a great way to express the experience of someone drawn so deeply into addiction but on the other, it made the story a bit of a ramble. At the beginning of this book, Jant is clean. He quickly slips back into dependency when he is faced with one of his biggest fears though. It's a pretty hard relapse but, despite the occasional overdose, Jant doesn't sink to the depths he reached in the first book. All of this does the narrative structure of the book a world of good. Swainston does use frequent flashbacks, but on the whole the story flows more smoothly than The Year of Our War.

The archipelago Jant visited has been out of touch with the rest of the world for some 1500 years. It has developed a peaceful society, led by a senate in a way that reminded me of the Roman republic. After such a long time, stories of insects and the emperor San are considered myths and the locals abhor the idea of one man wielding that much power. The confrontation between Castle and the islanders is comparable with what happens when a technological advanced civilization meets one that is less so. It is messy, bloody and the situation is not exactly improved when a third party decides to take advantage of the islanders' naivete.

Jant also gives us more insight into the psyche of an immortal. He thinks much on how they are ruled by fear. As we are shown in the opening scenes of the book and as the title of the book suggests, immortality is a gift that can be taken away in a moment. The pressure to keep on top of your game, and if possible to rig it in your favour is always present and to a point twists the immortals. What I found most interesting about this, and Swainston does hint at it in the book, is what happens when technology overtakes them. What good is a sailor in an age of steamships. Or a swordsman facing a gun? Or a messenger when they invent the telegraph. I wonder if Swainston is going to look into that in subsequent books. Given the level of technology in the book it is possible.

Another internal struggle for Jant is the one with his past. We get a number of flashbacks to scenes from his youth. In one of them we even find out what happened to him on the road to Castle after we leave him at the end of The Wheel of Fortune. He has, to put it mildly, had an interesting childhood. We also get a bit of backstory on how he met his current wife and why their relationship is strained at the moment. It's in this area Swainston really pushes Jant's character development. To untangle the web of dependencies, resentment and desire proves to be quite a challenge.

Between the internal struggles and the exploring being done in this book, there isn't that much happening in the centuries long war against the insects. They play a minor part in the story. In fact, we only get to see one of them. That particular specimen is destructive enough though. Jant may have brought victory a bit closer with one of his decisions towards the end of the book. The emperor doesn't appear to be pleased with his judgement though. He may even have reason to worry.

I enjoyed this second book more than the first. Where the frayed threads of Jant's life make for a bumpy ride in the first novel, this book reads a lot more smoothly. He has a bit more time to reflect on the state of the world, giving the reader a lot more insight into what is actually going on. Swainston leaves quite a lot dangling for the final volume. It has plenty of potential to be a proper climax to the series. I can see all sorts of directions in which Swainston could take the story. Swainston has not only created a fascinating world, she also keeps her readers guessing. How many fantasy novels can you think of that are truly unpredictable? I can't think of many. This sense of unpredictability is perhaps the series' greatest achievement.

Book Details
Title: No Present Like Time, part two of the Castle Omnibus
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 294 of 867
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-09125-2
First published: 2005