Sunday, November 27, 2016

Fair Rebel - Steph Swainston

After a six year break, the fifth novel in Steph Swainston's Castle setting appears this month. Her previous novel, Above the Snowline (2010), is a prequel to the Castle trilogy. Fair Rebel continues the story of the trilogy. It is set some fifteen years after The Modern World (2007). Readers can pick up this novel without having read Above the Snowline. The novel reads like Swainston never really left Fourlands. It is a seamless continuation of the story and I think most readers will agree it was more than worth the wait. Swainston is clearly not done with her creation. She leaves us with a bit of a cliffhanger and the promise of a sixth novel in the making.

A decade and a half after the disastrous attempt to flood the insects out of an area of paper covered land, Castle is ready to go on the offensive again. This time with a new weapon. Gunpowder has been introduced, and with it a whole range of destructive weapons. In an attempt to gain ground on the insects, a plan is devised involving large quantities of the new explosive. Just when the trap is about to be sprung, it becomes clear that a significant portion of the gunpowder is not in the barrels it was supposed to be in. While the offensive grinds to a halt, Jant is sent out to investigate. He soon finds the trail of a conspiracy that threatens the foundations of Castle's power, and with it the worlds most powerful defence against the insects.

The novel opens with a scene that, although the technology is still a bit behind, reminded me of the western front battle fields in World War I. The use of artillery barrages and mining is very reminiscent of some of the huge battles that took place a century ago. The technological mismatch adds an element though. Fourland's armies are still in the process of figuring out the best strategies to match their new firepower, which older technology can still be applied effectively, and how to overcome the disadvantages of gunpowder and spherical musket balls. It's another example of how different levels of technology are woven into the narrative without appearing to be out of place. it is something that continually impressed me over the course of the series.

Although the opening of the novel echoes battles a century old, Fair Rebel is a book very much influenced by recent events. What Jant stumbles upon is in essence a terrorist campaign. Swainston shows us in the novel how a determined person can use the fault lines in society caused by economic inequality, discrimination and racism and tap into bottled up feelings of resentment, jealousy and hatred to unleash terrible violence. Swainston has never been easy on her characters or the bystanders that get caught in the crossfire, but this novel features some of the most brutal events in the series.

Terrorism, if the media and politicians are to be believed, is the great evil of our time. The senseless killing over political or religious differences, often including many who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time is considered an act of supreme evil. And yet, it is perpetrated be people who, despite all their misguided actions, have feelings, loved ones and dreams. Swainston could have chosen to let Jant battle a faceless evil but chooses not to do so. Instead, the main terrorist in the novel is given a point of view. We get to see their motivations and how events affect them. What Swainston does in this novel is uncomfortably close to many events occurring in the world today. Anger and violence toppling power structures without regard for the damage it causes and without a plan for what comes after. She makes it look irrational but understandable all the same.

The other side of the story is of course the temptation to go along with the hatred, fear and suspicion offered by the terrorist. It is tempting to generalize, to suspect whole segments of the population, and to deepen the rift by taking sweeping action against the terrorists. Centuries of life experience clearly does not make the immortals immune to this temptation. The spiral of suspicion, hate and violence is laid out clearly in the book. One does not have to look far in the real world to see this happening.

Swainston also continues to make us doubt the main characters. Seen from the secondary point of view, Jant is a terrible character. He is viewed with a mix of awe, fear and contempt. He has become more comfortable with his power and is ruthless when dealing with his enemies. A rather sharp contrast to the self-doubting, whining addict he can be when seen from his point of view. Emperor San himself is not free of suspicion either. At the end of The Modern World an entity known as the Vermiform accuses him of not developing Fourland's resources to their full potential and of trying to maintain a status quo with the insects. The sudden appearance of gunpowder soon after, seems to indicate that accusation stung. After facing off with the Vermiform, San doesn't seem as distantly all knowing as he did in the previous books. That Olympic quality he (and many of the immortals) started out with has tarnished. He looks like a tyrant. And, what's worse, downright vulnerable.

I did feel Swainston leaves us hanging a bit in the final chapters of the novel. While one part of the story is resolved, a rather large cliffhanger is left to deal with in the next volume. If that sort of thing doesn't bother you, Fair Rebel is a very good read. It is probably the fastest paced of the Castle novels I have read so far. It is one of those books where you just have to read the next volume to see how the story continues. After four novels, many fantasy worlds begin to feel familiar. There clearly is much more to explore in Fourlands though. I eagerly await the next novel to see what else Swainston has in store for us.

Book Details
Title: Fair Rebel
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 322
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-081697
First published: 2016

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Nova - Samuel R. Delany

A very young Samuel R. Delany burst upon the science fiction scene in the 1960s. In rapid succession he produced a number of stories that are now considered new wave classics between 1962 and 1968. After that publications topped for a number of years, and his next notable speculative fiction novel is Dhalgren (1975), which is highly regarded in science fiction circles . Nova is the final novel of the first part of his career. It appeared in 1968 and was nominated for a Hugo the following year. Having only read one other book by Delany, Babel-17 (1966), I'm not really in a good position to say anything about how this work fits into his oeuvre. What I did notice was the same kind of almost uncontrollable energy in the writing. Nova is a wild ride.

In the 32nd century humanity has colonized the galaxy. This expansion is fuelled by a group of super heavy elements (300+ on the periodic table) collectively known as Illyrion. It is extremely rare but the energy contained in these atoms is huge. Captain Lorq von Ray is on a mission to gather Illyrion at the source, the heart of a star going nova. Doing so will change the power dynamic of the galaxy and those currently in power would rather keep it that way. The captain and his eccentric crew are in for a wild ride into the heart of a sun, if they live long enough to get there.

There is a bit of hard (and very speculative) science in the synopsis, and it does have links to golden age science fiction. There is a reference to Isaac Asimov's Foundation for instance, and to Clark Ashton Smith, a prolific author in the pulp and golden age of science fiction. In most regards, it is a new wave novel. It has been described as a grail quest in space for instance, and the crew has been likened to the Argonauts. The mystical aspects of the novel are certainly much more important than the science. Von Ray's grail (or golden fleece) is a vast supply of energy.

Another element, one that hard science fiction fans may frown upon, is very prominent role of tarot in the story. Most characters seem to believe the outcome of a reading. The one exception is the Mouse, a Gypsy character. The novel is showing its age here, these days he would probably have been a Romani character. It reminded me a bit of how the characters seek guidance in the I Ching in Phillip K. Dick's novel The Man in the High Castle (1962). The belief in tarot is so prevalent in the novel that even the Mouse feels uncomfortable at a reading. Fortunately Delany does not appear to have used tarot to guide his plot.

There is a political element to the novel as well. All the characters have sockets installed that allows them to operate machinery with their brain. A machine as extension of a body. Distancing workers from the product of their labour, so Delany argues, leads to a lack of satisfaction in one's job, to unhappiness, and ultimately depression. It's an idea that runs parallel to Marx' ideas on capital. Just as separating workers from the product of their labour, separating them from the means of production has undesirable consequences for society. Delany's society has addressed these issues and while class still exists - Marx would be disappointed - the people are better for it. It's a future that moves away from automation and computerisation. Delany nods at Asimov's work but clearly takes a different route for his future.

Delany overlays these reflections on society, politics and economy with a story of rivalry. A merchant prince and a pirate lock horns over Illyrion. The outcome of their struggle could reshape the galaxy and both men have very different opinions on what that shape should be. To raise the stakes even further there is a personal element to their conflict as well. Grievances go deep and in the scenes where the rivals meet, the tension ranges from barely suppressed to outright, naked hatred. The interesting thing about this conflict is that Delany makes it galaxy spanning and deeply personal at the same time. Delany draws them larger than life but it is still a nice bit of characterisation.

What struck me most about the novel though, and I suppose the same is true for Babel-17, is the prose. There is so much urgency in the text. The novel reads like Delany had to get the story out. The prose drives the story on relentlessly. It does not have the same attention to poetry and linguistics as Babel-17 does - that novel deals with an alien language after all - but for all that, the writing is something special. Delany's work hit the genre hard and his prose is a very important factor in that.

If I had to pick a favourite I would probably pick Babel-17, simply because the subject appealed to me more. Nova is a superb example of what the new wave accomplished in the genre however. It's a story that on the surface connects with much of what has gone before in the genre. If you look under the surface however, new ideas, elements and themes enter into the narrative. Add to that Delany's distinct voice and you have a novel that is bound to attract attention. It's easy to see how this novel became as influential as it did. Nova is a novel everybody with an interest in classic science fiction should read.

Book Details
Title: Nova
Author: Samuel R. Delany
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 241
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-473-211991-9
First published: 1968

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Heksenhoeve - An Janssens

Over the past few years I have been trying to keep an eye on fantasy and science fiction (although the latter is virtually non-existent) originally published in Dutch. On one such foray I encountered An Janssens Drakenkoningin. It won a contest organized by one of the leading publishers of speculative fiction in the Netherlands. While not perfect, the novel showed promise and I ended up reading the two sequels as well. In her fourth novel, Janssens takes a different direction. Where her previous three novels were fairly traditional fantasies, Heksenhoeve is something in between horror and a thriller.The title literally means 'witches' farmstead', despite not actually featuring witches. Maybe bewitched farmstead' would be better. Although Janssens does not quite manage to keep the tension up in this novel, it is a very interesting change of pace in her career.

In the Belgian university town of Leuven, a brutally murdered student is found. The body is mutilated and several bits appear to be missing. Sander Dats, on the sufferance of his uncle working of the federal police, does not buy the easy explanation of a jealous ex-boyfriend being responsible. The trail leads to a nineteenth century farmstead in the woods outside of town. It has some very peculiar inhabitants but he can't quite seem to convince his uncle there is more going on than meets the eye. In the mean time Sander's ex-girlfriend has her own run-in with the farmhouse. Looking for a good location to practice her photography she enters the woods on her own. She soon discovers she should have stayed away.

One of the things that makes this novel interesting is the language Janssens uses. She is from Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium. For anybody who has Dutch as a first language, it is obvious which side of the border someone is from as soon as they open their mouth. In writing however, that difference largely disappears. Written Dutch is very standardised and most fantasy novels, whether translated or originally written in Dutch, go to great lengths to weed out all regional variations of spoken Dutch. You may get away with a few bits and pieces in the dialogue but even that is rare. While I dislike the sloppy use of language and the rampant use of English when a good Dutch alternative exists, I have always enjoyed this regional variation. Might have something to do with living in various places in the Netherlands.

In Heksenhoeve there is a fair bit of Flemish and, surprisingly, it is not contained to just the dialogue. Some thought must have gone into how much Flemish was acceptable as Janssens probably sells more books north of the border. Janssens even varies it with each character. For some it is just a choice of words, for others it is completely phonetically written dialect. Standardisation has its uses, but when I read a book like this I am reminded that the richness of language goes far beyond what is considered correct.

Janssens uses two point of view characters to tell her story. They are both flawed heroes in a way. Sander is suffering from a compulsive disorder that requires him to count everything and attach meanings to random numbers. Being around him would drive most people crazy in under an hour and as a result he is lonely. Being acutely aware of numbers also makes him see connections others would miss though, and he feels compelled to follow up on them. Janssens shows how his disorder both limits him and helps him find clues. A sympathetic view on mental problems is rare in genre fiction but here we have a fine example.

Anouk has her own problems to deal with. Like Sander, she is lonely. Her relationship with her mother is complicated and she is single again after breaking up with Sander. When her thirtieth birthday comes around and there isn't really anybody to celebrate with, self pity threatens to take over. Anouk may be lonely, she is also independent, resourceful and strong, and brutally honest with herself. Qualities she will need to survive her ordeal. Janssens manages to avoid making Anouk into a damsel in distress when the story could easily have accommodated that.

While I liked the characters and the writing, the novel does have problems keeping the tension up. The plot is fairly straightforward and not all that difficult to predict. It is obvious early on that the official explanation for the murder doesn't fit. It is obvious where to find the real perpetrator, it is obvious what the farmstead is hiding. In terms of suspense Anouk's story line is probably the most successful.  For most of the novel she is in much more immediate danger than Sander though. While he puts what could generously be called his career on the line, she is in mortal danger. Even in Anouk's story line you never really doubt the outcome though. Janssens is simply too generous in doling out clues to the reader to make it a real mystery.

Janssens tries something different in this novel and for the most part it succeeds. While the real tension in Heksenhoeve never really takes hold, there are quite a few things to enjoy. If you look at the character development and structure of Janssens' fantasy novels, Heksenhoeve is an improvement. I enjoyed her use of Flemish in the book, the characterisation and the setting of the novel. As a thriller it may not really thrill but if you look beyond that, there is a lot to like.

Book Details
Title: Heksenhoeve
Author: An Janssens
Publisher: Luitingh-Sijthoff
Pages: 283
Year: 2016
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-7082-9
First published: 2016

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Modern World - Steph Swainston

The Modern World (2007)  is the third volume in Steph Swainston's Castle series. It was published as Dangerous Offspring in the US. That title has a nice double meaning to it but it is also a bit of a spoiler, I think I prefer the UK title. In November a new Castle novel, Fair Rebel,  will appear that continues the story of Castle's struggle against the insects. It's probably a good thing I arrived late to this series. While the novel has a strong story arc of its own, it leaves the reader with some very interesting questions to be answered as well. Arriving late saved me a nine years wait. For those who did have to wait, the synopsis released for Fair Rebel hints at getting at least some of the answers in that book.

Castle has been on the defensive against the insects for most of the many centuries they have spent fighting them. Frost, Castle's architect, has now found a way to push them back. By constructing a large dam, a recently lost area is flooded in hopes of driving the insects out. This offensive is hailed in the media as a turning point in their struggle. A triumph of technology over the insects and the beginning of a campaign to reclaim the lost lands. Victory, so the reporters are told, is almost assured. Nobody seems to realize that flooding a large area of insect infested land is in fact a monumentally stupid thing to do. Until it is too late.

The novel opens with a fine bit of Castle propaganda and public perception is definitely a theme in this book. How the population sees Castle and the emperor himself is hugely important to the characters and playing the media is one tool in Castle's arsenal. It's one of those areas where Swainston's world is very modern, a huge contrast with its military technology. The press conference is one in a series of scenes in the novel where characters misdirect, mislead or tell bald faced lies. Lying, misleading, manipulating, -  being immortal doesn't make one a better person it would seem.

The novel has two main narrative strands. The first deals with the insects and Castle's attempt to push them back. It quickly turns into the largest military operation Fourlands has ever seen. Swainston makes sure the reader understands the enormous strain being placed on Castle and Fourlands as a whole in mounting such a huge campaign. It is such an enormous undertaking that some see it as a sign of the end of times. Especially when the emperor leaves Castle for the first time in ages. The focus is as much on what it takes to field such an army as it is on the actual fighting. The way Swainston describes just how unwieldy such a large force is, and how devastating the consequences of a wrong move can be, is impressive.

Despite my admiration for Swainston's grasp of logistics, I thought the second strand the more interesting of the two. Internal conflicts in Fourlands are a theme throughout the books and The Modern World is no exception. In this case the main source of conflict is the troubled relationship between Lightning, Castle's archer, and his mortal daughter Cyan. One has lived well over a thousand years, the other is seventeen. You can't even say it is a generational conflict, they are ages apart. It is telling that Jant, who at just over two centuries old considers himself young for an immortal, can more easily see things from Cyan's perspective than from that of one of his fellow Castle members.

Of course this connection with Cyan also tells us a bit about his character. She may have some legitimate complaints about how she is raised, that doesn't take away from the fact that she is a spoilt brat, and a rather clueless one at that. She probably appeals to Jant's rebellious streak. The eventual resolution of the conflict should make him think though. In the end his actions surprise them all. It leaves Jant with one of several complicated questions to consider at the end of the book.

Some five years have passed since the events in No Present Like Time (2005) and Jant, while still clean, is still feeling the pull of the drug he was addicted to. Swainston again shows us almost the entire novel from his perspective - one chapter is seen from Lightning's perspective - and in a few places conveys the message to the reader he is an unreliable narrator. It's a constant in these three books but what is different about The Modern World is that we get to see a number of characters very bluntly speak their mind. Jant is fairly accepting of the structure of Castle and his place in it. Perhaps even to the point of ignoring the oddities in the emperor's decisions. Sometimes an outsider perspective can be refreshing indeed.

Castle is not quite what it appears to be seems to be the message of this book. Don't believe everything you are told. Don't take things at face value. Swainston makes us question just about everything we think we know about Castle and Fourlands. There obviously is a lot more to this tale, which makes it all the more surprising that the author went on to write a prequel about Jant's early years next. You can feel Castle is at a turning point, even if it takes a while for the full impact to be felt. The Modern World deepens the reader's understanding of Fourlands and Castle in ways neither of the previous two books did. It is without a doubt my favourite of the three novels in this omnibus.

Book Details
Title: The Modern World, part three of the Castle Omnibus
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 302 of 867
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-09125-2
First published: 2007