Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Year of Our War - Steph Swainston

Earlier this year I read Steph Swainston's short story The Wheel of Fortune, which has recently appeared in Dutch translation. It was my introduction to the world of Castle. While a short story can't possibly convey all the nuances of Swainston's creation, it was more than enough to convince me to try a full novel. The individual titles in the Castle trilogy are a bit hard to come by at the moment, but an omnibus edition is readily available. Besides the trilogy there is a fourth book called Above the Snowline (2010) available. A fifth novel, Fair Rebel,  is expected later this year. In an interview I did with her earlier this year, Swainston confirmed that she is working on a sixth Castle novel.

Jant is a member of the Circle, a group of immortals lead by the emperor, tasked with watching over the world until the creator returns. His role is that of the Messenger. Being the only immortal capable of flight, he uses his wings to get around the world quickly, delivering messages and reporting on what he sees. The world has come under increasing pressure from an insect invasion. Where previously they seemed content behind their wall, recently they have been pushing deeper into lands held by humanoid species. Their advance seems unstoppable and soon it becomes clear the insects won't stop until they've colonised the entire world. On top of that threat, Castle has to deal with internal conflicts as well. As the insects advance, Jant becomes ever more desperate to find a way to defeat them and restore some semblance of order in the world.

Although the author doesn't particularly care for this label, Swainston's novels have often been characterized as New Weird. Whatever you may think of that, her books  are definitely not run-of-the-mill fantasy. The world is populated by several humanoid species and interbreeding is possible. The technology level in the novel is mostly fairly modern but such things as internal combustion engines and gunpowder (or other heavy explosives) are missing. Wars therefore, are still fought with swords, pikes and crossbows and transport depends on horses and sailing ships. I had to adjust my mental image of what this world looked like several times because of this curious mix of older and modern technology.

The book is written in the first person. We see the entire story through the eyes of Jant. He is something of an anti-hero. Where in The Wheel of Fortune, set chronologically some two centuries before the bulk of The Year of Our War, Jant  is just dealing drugs, by the time we meet him again, he is heavily addicted. The only thing that has saved him from an overdose is the fact that he is immortal. At times, his constant craving for his next shot makes him intensely annoying and rather pathetic. On the other hand he is well aware of what is going on in the world and, while not always completely voluntary, he does put his life on the line during the insect onslaught in more ways than most of his compatriots are aware of. He has, in other words, quite a complicated personality. Some readers might be put off by the whiny side of him and his constant worries about where his next shot will come from. I thought it was a very good bit of characterization though.

Deeply flawed yet heroic is a pattern we see with other immortals as well. Swainston portrays them as larger than life. They assume a kind of Olympic quality if you will. There is a definite parallel between Jant and Hermes in fact. The immortals' internal bickering sends shock waves through the world and ends up killing a great many people. The members of Castle are very human in some respects. Pettiness, power struggles and jealousy are part of every day life at the court of the emperor.The various currents at court adds to the complexity of the tale and gives the world more depth. Throughout the novel there are hints of the politics in the various nations as well, leaving quite a bit to be explored in further novels.

While I liked the worldbuilding and what Swainston does with the main character, structurally it is not a particularly strong novel. Not to put too fine a point on it, it rambles along here and there. Swainston uses flashbacks to give us an impression of Jant's past in some places that do more to disrupt the flow of the story set in the present than enlighten us. Throughout the story you can also feel the strain of having only one point of view character. Jant is constantly lost in the fog of war. Events in some places in the world simply outpace Jant and he frequently  has to adjust to developments he neither foresaw or was present to witness. It's reasonable when looked at from Jant's point of view but for the reader it is not always a satisfying experience. I also felt that the ending of the novel was fairly abrupt and left an awful lot of story lines open for the next volume.

In some ways The Year of Our War is a rocky start to the trilogy, but also one that shows a lot of potential. The setting is absolutely unique and after reading this book you can't possibly not want to learn more. The story is a dark one, but it doesn't overly rely on shock tactics to keep the reader's attention. Swainston is clearly interested in the darker side of human nature and her main character is a big part of that. His addiction and personality make him a character that is guaranteed to provoke a reaction in the reader. Probably not a positive one in all readers but if you can stomach a main character you can't always sympathise with, he is bound to take you for quite a ride. I'll be reading the second volume in the not too distant future to see where he will lead us and of course to find out if he can get the monkey off his back.

Book Details
Title: The Year of Our War, part one of the Castle Omnibus
Author: Steph Swainston
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 267 of 867
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-575-09125-2
First published: 2004

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Central Station - Lavie Tidhar

Between 2011 and 2014 a series of short stories by Lavie Tidar appeared in such magazines as Interzone, Clarkesworld and Analog, as well as a couple of anthologies. All stories centred on Central Station, a space port facility located in the vicinity of Tel Aviv that has grown to become a city in itself. Tachyon Publications is now publishing a book containing rewritten versions of these stories with a few original pieces thrown in. The result is not quite a collection and not quite a novel. Publisher's Weekly calls it a mosaic novel in their review. Perhaps that is the  best description of this work. It is not a book that easily falls into a category whichever way you look at it and all the more fascinating for that.

Gathered around the foot of Central Station are a quarter of a million people from all corners of the globe. They have created a society with a huge number of cultural influences, a place where human and robot form a gliding scale, where genetically engineered beings are commonplace and where the boundary between the physical and virtual world is thin. In this melting pot of cultures, religions and advanced technology, Boris Chong returns after a long absence. He will have to deal with an old lover, a father in poor health, a child he's helped create and someone who has followed him down from space among other challenges.

I name Boris Chong the central figure in the book but that is probably not entirely accurate. Many of the story lines are connected to him but the real centre is Central Station itself. Tidhar is in search of the genius loci as much as the motivation of his characters. Throughout the book you get the feeling that the place is on the verge of awakening, of achieving self-awareness. It's a looming presence, always watching over the shoulder of the characters. It reminded me a lot of China Miéville's Perdido Street Station in that respect. Central Station is a book with many influences and that novel is probably one of them.

The text refers heavily to the greats of speculative fiction. From Bram Stoker's vampires to Frank Herbert's Sandworms, just about every creature or technology you can imagine seems to have found a place in the chapters. There are so many of them that I probably missed half during this first read. There's a dash of New Wave, a helping of Cyberpunk and a pinch of Philip K. Dick. All these ideas are mixed into an almost surreal world, one that pays homage to almost every subgenre in science fiction since the Golden Age. It's a book that has got a lot to offer for the experienced science fiction reader.

The plot meanders quite a bit. Through the eyes of several characters we explore the various aspects of Central Station. Some characters are very old and give us an insight into the past of the place. Others see it for the first time and experience the bewildering environment with fresh eyes. There are lots of tragedies worked into the stories. Characters struggle with imminent death and the possibility of immortality, drowning in perfectly stored memories, complicated old and new love affairs and how to deal with intelligence that is not quite human. Despite meeting most of them only briefly, the reader is made intensely aware of their state of mind.

With so many cultural influences on the society that has formed around Central Station, it is no surprise that the language is influenced as well. Most characters speak several languages, and Tidhar introduces a pidgin language early on in the book as well. There is a bit of English in it but a lot seems to come out of other languages. There's bit of Yiddish in the novel too. Throughout the book Tidhar pays a lot of attention to the surroundings. The descriptions of the city and its institution are colourful,  rich and tantalizing. There is constantly the feeling that you really want to explore one of the elements of Central Station further. Tidhar keeps us on track however. Many of the fascinating things that can be found in Central Station are only mentioned in the passing.

All in all Central Station is one of the most peculiar books I've read in a while. Tidhar could have made it into a collection but chose to rewrite the stories to make them fit into one narrative. It would probably have worked as a more traditional collection, but I must admit the rewrites add something to the book. The meandering plot will not please everybody. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is that Tidhar refers to so many classics in science fiction, yet chooses a structure for his work that not many of those writers would have considered. It's a work in conversation with the genre but not afraid to go off the beaten track. As such it is not a book for everybody, but if you like a book that is a bit different, Central Station might be your thing. Personally,  I thoroughly enjoyed it. I wouldn't be surprised to see this one on the Nebula shortlist next year.

Book Details
Title: Central Station
Author: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Pages: 290
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: E-ARC
ISBN: 978-1-61696-215-9
First published: 2016

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Dancer's Lament - Ian C. Esslemont

In 2014 Ian C. Esslemont delivered Assail, the sixth and final novel of the Malazan Empire, a series that intertwines with Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen. Like Erikson, he has now chosen to delve into the rich past of their shared fantasy world. Dancer's Lament is the first novel in a series describing the rise of the Malazan Empire. It's a period Erikson has not published any material on, leaving Esslemont a bit more free to find his own path. It seems to have done him a lot of good. The story works well for veteran readers but it might also be a good entry point. Let's face it, there are significantly less unknown terms, unexplained histories and strange magics dropped on the reader than in Erikson's first books.

The continent of Quon Tali was once unified, but in recent decades various regional powers have vied for control. Most of this has passed the city of Li Heng by, however. Ruled by a powerful sorceress, the city has known generations of stability. This is about to come to an end when the armies of the Itko Kan arrive. Their ambitious young king is aiming to conquer the city. He is not the only arrival however. Two young men with ambitions that stretch far beyond controlling one city, slip into Li Heng just before the besiegers arrive. The game of power is played on several levels and as usual in the world of Malaz, the use of power attracts the powerful. What starts out as a simple siege ripples though the Malazan pantheon.

As I understand it, Esslemont is under contract for three books in this series. This first book doesn't quite feel as the setup for a traditional trilogy, however. I would not be surprised to see the author take it beyond three books. The Malazan timeline is notoriously (and intentionally) vague so it is hard to pinpoint when exactly this story takes place in relation to other books in this universe. My best guess is that this story is set at least a century before the events in Gardens of the Moon but I could be a few decades off.

Although the history of this universe goes back a lot further, Erikson is currently writing books that are set many thousands of years before the events Esslemont describes here, Dancer's Lament is something of an origins story. We meet a number of young characters who will go on to become big players. The title is giving one of them away. Dassem Ulthor makes an appearance, Kellanved shows up and the Crimson Guard, before undergoing the ritual, pays Li Heng a visit. There is, in other words plenty for the reader familiar with the Malazan books to recognize.

All these familiar characters in the story could have the drawback that the observant reader will guess the shape of the story early on. Between them, Erikson and Esslemont have given quite a few hints on the past of some of the key players in the story. I have a nagging suspicion that later books might become more predictable. It will be interesting to see how Esslemont handles that. In Dancer's Lament, predictability is not (yet) a problem. We are a long way from Malaz, the empire is a distant dream. It will take the reader the better part of the book to figure out who is who, and more importantly, what they are capable of. Names are fluid in this series. They are often earned rather than given, and quite a few characters still have to earn theirs.

As usual the conflict in the novel plays out on several levels. The worldly politics of Quon Tali is intermingled with the struggles of gods and ascendants. This last conflict is reflected in changes in the Deck of Dragons, where as of yet unaligned cards start to appear. The origin of the house that is forming is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel for me. For characters who are, in later books, seen to be playing the long game, meticulously plotting their moves, their actions in this novel appear rash. In fact, they cause the nearest thing to panic among the  ascendants I've seen in this series.

Despite the multilayered conflict, the novel is fairly concise as Malazan books go. It is just over 400 pages in hardback. Some of the bigger novels in the overall series are easily twice as long. Esslemont starts his new series in a relatively contained setting and with, for Malazan standards, a fairly limited cast. Where in some of his previous novels I had the feeling he had trouble juggling the characters, writing his novels in between Erikson's parts and pulling all strands together for a good convergence, he doesn't have any such problems in this book. It is a tightly written novel with a satisfying climax. Sure, there are lots of open ends, it is the first book in a series after all, but structurally, this novel may be the best Esslemont has produced to date.

All in all, I am quite taken with this novel. Dancer's Lament is a fresh start for the series, and that seems to be just what Esslemont needed. It is one of the more accessible books in the universe of Malaz, but still contains enough links to the other works in the series to make it interesting for readers who have read the other books. This novel shows that, whatever we think we know about this most complex of fantasy worlds, Erikson and Esslemont will keep surprising us with their stories. Even if Esslemont's earlier novels didn't convince you, this one is well worth the read.

Book Details
Title: Dancer's Lament
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 401
Year: 2016
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-593-07434-3
First published: 2016

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Always - Nicola Griffith

Always is the third and final novel featuring the American-Norwegian ex-police officer Aud Torvingen. These novels are usually considered crime novels, which I don't read very often. Putting them in that genre might be a bit of a stretch though. There is a crime being investigated in the novel but large parts of it deal with other subjects entirely. Whatever you want to call them, the first two were very good reading so a copy of the third volume was under way before I finished the second book. Griffith takes a slightly different approach in this book (I don't think I've seen her do the same thing twice in  a novel) and I suspect it will divide readers. Personally I liked it a lot but some readers will probably feel it is a bit too long.

Aud is back on her feet again after the events in Stay. Right in time to face a new set of challenges. Her mother, whom she has a complicated relationship with, is coming to the US, Seattle to be exact, and she is bringing along her new husband. Aud could have done without that but she can't very well refuse. Since the inheritance of her father includes property in Seattle which appears to be mismanaged, she sets out for the west coast to sort things out while she is there. For moral support she brings along her friend Doran who, as usual turns out to be a blessing and a curse.

The novel is divided into two narrative strands. The first covers a class in self defence for women Aud is teaching and is set in Atlanta. The second takes place in Seattle. Griffith alternates the chapters but chronologically the self defence class takes place some time before the events in Seattle. They are loosely connected, Griffith only refers to the classes a few times in the Seattle chapters. She does so very cleverly though. With every class you feel the tension mounting, partly because of the hints in the Seattle strand of the story.

That being said, the Atlanta chapters are stuffed to overflowing with details on self defence, the statistics of violence against women (depressingly relevant despite being decades old in some cases) and detailed descriptions of techniques and exercises. There's a lot of discussion on the subject too. The plotline in these chapters is not too complicated. The observant reader will see early on where it is heading. It's a huge contrast with the more complex mystery, and intense pressure Aud faces in the Seattle chapters. Maybe that contrast is intentional and what Aud has to tell about violence against women certainly needs to be heard but I did feel the Atlanta chapters slowed down the book a bit beyond what was necessary.

In Seattle Aud has to deal with an attempt to drive her out of business, with putting a strain on her relationship with Doran by meeting a new woman, and with finding a new balance in her relationship with her mother. Over the space of a few weeks she pretty much needs to come to terms with every emotional scar she has gathered over the course of her life. Where in the Atlanta chapters we see a self-assured Aud, she is constantly confused, distressed or angry in the Seattle chapters, heading from one crisis to the next. In terms of character development there is a lot of interesting stuff going on in these chapters.

The most interesting part in my opinion is Aud's confrontation with her mother. She has appeared briefly in the first novel but most information we get about her is contained in what Aud thinks about her. Which, it turns out, is not always reliable. Aud is surprised by her mother in many ways. Although Aud doesn't appear to be particularly happy with her mother's marriage she has to admit to herself that her mother seems to be genuinely happy. The woman we meet appears milder than the image formed in the previous two books. Milder is clearly not the same as soft though. Like Aud, her mother knows how to get things done and she demonstrates it at several points in the novel. While she lets Aud sort out her own problems for the most part, she is not shy about letting her opinion on a few matters be known.

I'm not sure they would agree with me, but Aud and her mother are alike in many ways. They like being in control and they both have a keen insight into the human mind and use that knowledge to get things done. Aud's approach is often more physical, she relies on body language an awful lot, but the principle is the same. What her mother might be better at is judging at when to speak and when to act though. Aud has the tendency to notice something needs doing and then to take care of it without regard to anybody else's opinion on the matter. Even if you are right, and it has to be said she usually is, this is bound to piss people off. She doesn't discuss things and doesn't doubt her own judgement until later. Her reliance on her own judgement is a trap she falls into every once in a while.

The woman Aud meets in Seattle is the first potential long term relationship since the drama in The Blue Place. As usual it is complicated. First by Doran being interested in her as well and then by a series of misunderstandings and communication breakdowns. It takes Aud most of the book to become comfortable with the idea of being in a relationship again. To start taking someone's needs into account and be aware of their feelings is complicated for her. The risk of adding another scar to an already large collection looms over their romance. Aud, in other words, has some things to work through to make this relationship work. In the final pages her mother throws in a bit of painful relationship advice that makes me glad Aud retained her scepticism towards her mother in this respect at least.

After all that one would almost forget there was a crime to be solved in the novel as well. This time Aud gets to deal with a money crime and some modest local government corruption. In Atlanta she would probably have buried the responsible parties in under five minutes but Seattle is a strange city. Figuring out who to talk to and who can take care of what problem takes a bit of time. Although solving the matter is not without danger, the experience gives Aud a clear goal for the future too. Which makes this book a fitting end to the series.

With Always Griffith once again delivers a fascinating novel. It is an impressive bit of character development. The author pulls no punches when it comes to making her main character suffer. The crime element in the novel is not quite as present as in the first two volumes. If you approach this as a whodunit, the novel will probably not satisfy you. Personally I was much more interested in seeing if Aud would manage to find some stability in her life and heal some of the scars that are so prominently present in her story, and in that respect the novel absolutely delivers. If you enjoyed Griffith's science fiction and are not afraid to try a different genre don't hesitate to pick these up.

Book Details
Title: Always
Author: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Pages: 516
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-59448-294-6
First published: 2007

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Xuya Universe Short Fiction by Aliette de Bodard (Part 3)

Aliette de Bodard's Xuya alternative history is a fascinating project. One that I have returned to regularly on the blog. It's been three and a half years since I did one of these posts however, and since I did mention I might do a third, I guess it is past time. Especially since I got hold of a few of the harder to find pieces recently. I once again picked a pair of contrasting stories. Should there be a part four (you never know) this is going to be a bit harder to keep up. I have exhausted the stories set in the recent past in the Mexica Empire.

Fleeing Tezcatlipoca

This story originally appeared in Space and Time Magazine #111, the Summer 2010 issue. Until De Bodard made it available in Ships in Exile, a collection put together as a reward for a fund-raiser, it hadn't been published anywhere else. The story may be hard to track down. It is a novelette, with a word count of approximately 10,000. As the title suggests, this story is set in the Mexica Empire. According to De Bodard's timeline the events take place in 1990.

The Mexica Empire is in turmoil as the weak Revered Speaker tries to consolidate power by crushing any opposition. In a Tenochtitlan with checkpoints and barricades at every turn and priests and Jaguar Knights enforcing loyalty to the regime, life is slowly becoming unbearable for the main character Necahal. When Palli,  a member of her extended family, asks for her help to cross the border into Xuya, she agrees to come with him. It will be a dangerous journey but before she can ask herself how well she actually knows this man, she is in way over her head.

The story is set some years after The Jaguar House, in Shadow, and shows us a glimpse of how the conflict has developed in the mean time. Stylistically The Jaguar House, in Shadow is a bit more refined. Fleeing Tezcatlipoca, is told in a more straightforward fashion. If not for the alternative timeline you could almost see it as a thriller. There are certainly possibilities for one in this setting. I don't feel this story is the best De Bodard has produced. It lacks something of the grace of her other stories. I do like Necahal though. She does something drastic and clearly hasn't thought it through properly, but she does face the consequences of her actions. I don't doubt she landed on her feet.

Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight

De Bodard recently won the BSFA award for this story. It was published in Clarkesworld 100, January 2015 and can still be read for free on their site. This story takes us into the future a century or two. The story is set on a different planet in a corner of the universe where a space faring Chinese/Vietnamese culture has established itself. It touches upon the concept of Minds, AIs with a biological core brain capable of piloting spacecraft, found in several other Xuya stories as well.  That sounds like space opera but the story is actually very intimate. Grief is a clear theme but in a way, so is identity. And tea, there is lots of tea.

A son, a daughter/Mind and a colleague are faced with the loss of eminent scientist Professor Duy Uyen. Because of the value of her work, the Empress goes against tradition and decides to give her memory implant to the colleague instead of her son, to make sure her unique knowledge won't be lost. Each of the three will now have to deal with their loss in a way none of them expected.

Three characters. One wants the implants but doesn't get them, one gets them but doesn't want them and the third comes to realize she doesn't need them. Family and honouring your ancestors is important in the culture De Bodard portrays, which makes the decision of the Empress controversial. One of the characters explores what it is to lose a mother and have what he thought was left of her taken away as well. Another deals with having a supervisor look over her shoulder from the grave. The third has to face up to the fact that she will never experience loss the way her family does.

The role of technology in the story is also very well done. The implants have been completely incorporated in the culture of the main characters. It offers possibilities they wouldn't have had otherwise but also raises new dilemmas. Readers agreeing with Theodore Sturgeon's definition of science fiction will approve of this story.

Two very different stories. I think they are about as far apart as you can find them in the Xuya universe. I still haven't read them all though. I guess I should get on with that. The more of these stories I read, the more this alternative history fascinates me.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Fevre Dream - George R.R. Martin

Fevre Dream (1982) is Martin's third novel. It follows his début Dying of the Light (1977) and his fixup collaboration with Lisa Tuttle Windhaven (1981). All three are decidedly different beasts. Dying of the Light is a science fiction set in Martin's never officially named Thousand Worlds setting. Windhaven is nominally science fiction as well but much more to the fantasy side of the genre. Fevre Dream is a historical horror novel. For his fourth novel, The Armageddon Rag (1983), he would shoot off in another direction again. A choice that ended up almost wrecking his career as a novelist. Fevre Dream however, was a commercial and critical success. Written in a time when horror was on a high, it earned Martin Locus and World Fantasy Award nominations in 1983.

The Mississippi river system: 1857. Abner Marsh is a riverboat captain down on his luck. Where he once owned a profitable business, owning several steamboats, disaster has struck and he is down to one, severely outdated boat. His luck seems to be changing when he is approached by the peculiar but obviously wealthy Joshua York. Together they build the finest steamboat on the river, and Abner is dead set on proving it is the fastest as well. His partner has some strange conditions for bankrolling the new boat however. Conditions that seem to make little sense to Abner and get in the way of him running his company. Soon York's nocturnal habits and unexplained trips arouse suspicion. Joshua York is clearly not what he pretends to be.

There are a few things that usually don't attract me in fantasy and science fiction, and Martin has written all of them at some point in his career. Time travel (Under Siege, Unsound Variations), comic book style narratives (Wild Cards) and vampire stories tend to make me hesitate to pick up a book. Fevre Dream is a vampire novel. This type of novel has undergone quite a change in the years since Martin wrote this book. Martin wrote vampires in the tradition of Bram Stoker. Dangerous, powerful, charismatic, evil and very hard to kill. Powerful individuals they may be, the modern world is catching up to them. Their aversion to sunlight makes them vulnerable, and places to hide and feed on the population unnoticed are harder to find. The American frontier is still a wild place however, and a group of vampires is making use of that. What they do is horrific and Martin doesn't spare us the horrific details.

There is a bit of a contradiction in Martin's treatment of the vampire mythos. The human characters in the book seem to be aware of Stoker's ideas on what vampires are some forty years before Dracula was published. Joshua even mentions Vlad Țepeș to Abner and some of the characteristics and weaknesses of his race as described by Stoker  in one of their conversations. It's a peculiar lapse in what otherwise appears to be a well researched novel.

Most of the novel is set on the Mississippi river in 1857. Martin has done his research on the history of transport on the river and describes the atmosphere in the towns along the Mississippi very well. It is a highly dynamic place, still wild enough to be considered the frontier, but a place where the impact of modern technology and industrialization are beginning to be felt. Along the river the conflict that will explode into the American civil war is already brewing. Martin doesn't shy away from showing the appalling racism that was part of every day life along the river and still echoes through American society. Slavery and the practice of hunting escaped slaves feature in the novel and it contains a lot of language nobody in their right mind would consider using today. Martin uses this part of history as more than a backdrop. Historical developments shape the story and the main character. Martin has a knack for researching a period and then using it to create a great story. Which makes it all the more of a shame he never finished Black and White and Red All Over.

Martin's preference for morally ambiguous characters is well known and it shows up in this novel as well. Particularly over the issue of slavery. Although Abner, being from a northern state, doesn't own slaves himself, he doesn't really object to the practice either. He hires a mate who can keep 'the darkies' in line and doesn't seem to think they are good for anything but the hardest, lowest paid jobs. Not until his clash with the group of vampires, who see humans as cattle, sometimes useful but mostly food, does he begin to appreciate the injustice of their position. His attitude towards Native Americans, only very briefly discussed in the novel, is similarly racist and ignorant. Martin uses it to develop his character to an extent but you have to be able to stomach a whole lot of racism to appreciate this story.

The dynamic between two other main characters, Joshua and his nemesis Damon is another expression of Martin's preference for complex characters. Damon is what you'd expect of a vampire. Joshua on the other hand isn't. In his struggle with Damon he develops into a tragic character. Perhaps his pointless battering against Damon's power is a bit too dramatic for some but it does suit the southern gothic atmosphere of the book very well. He is pulled between two ways of life and even though we see the effect of that exclusively through Abner's eyes, it comes across very well.

A while back I reread Martin's career spanning collection Dreamsongs: A RRetrospective. In the 1970s Martin produced a couple of stories that were inspired by poems. And Seven Times Never Kill Man (1975) takes the title from a poem by Kipling, in A Song for Lya (1974) a poem by Matthew Arnold is referenced. Joshua York, it would seem, is a fan of British  poetry as well. He references Percy Bysshe Shelley (in particular Ozymandias) and in more detail Lord Byron. Abner is not impressed by York's 'gimp Britisher' but later on in the book it grows on him. Martin must have had an inspirational English teacher to let it influence his work to such an extent. I don't think I've seen any traces of it in his post-Hollywood material though.

Martin may be a fine writer but he didn't convince me to try more vampire novels with Fevre Dream. In the end it is his handling of the characters and the historical backdrop that carry the novel for me. The vampire story itself is rather predictable for a novel published before the Urban Fantasy boom and the introduction of glittering vampires. It's entertaining but of the novels Martin produced in his pre-Hollywood period, this is not the one that stands out. Ironically perhaps, I vastly prefer The Armageddon Rag, the novel that almost wrecked Martin's career. Not everybody will agree with me though. If you like your vampires without glitter, in the hands of an author who can tell a good story, Fevre Dream is worth a try.

Book Details
Title: Fevre Dream
Author: G.R.R. Martin
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 350
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 1-85798-331-9
First published: 1982

Friday, March 25, 2016

The City & The City - China Miéville

Some years ago I read Miéville's Bas-Lag novels. They are challenging reads, especially to a second language reader. Miéville's vocabulary is impressive and he uses it all in those novels. The books centre on the fictional city of New Corbuzon, a place that is as much a character in the book as the people that live in it. Cities, especially strange ones, seem to attract Miéville. He displays a whole range of different genres in his novels but wether it is New Corbuson, Un-Lun-Dun or Besźel/Ul Qoma or Embassytown, strange urban environments seem to connect his work. The City and the City does strange very well. It was nominated for an unbelievable number of awards. After having read it, I'm not surprised it won as many of them as it did.

Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Besźel police, is handed what will turn out to be the most complicated case of his career. The body of a young woman is found dumped in a shady part of town. Soon, the trail leads to the city of Ul Qoma, where Borlú has no jurisdiction. The cities have a long and complicated history together, both geographically and politically. To guard the status quo between them, an organisation called Breach can be invoked for crimes during which the border between the two has been illegally crossed. To Borlú's surprise, no such illegal crossing has taken place. Breach cannot be called upon. Instead, Borlú is sent to Ul Qoma to help the local authorities solve the case.

It took me a while to wrap my mind around the city Miéville is describing. They are two states, essentially sharing the same physical space, where by convention and law, the inhabitants of both cities choose not to see, or as Miéville puts it, to 'unsee' each other. Some streets are fully Besźel, some fully Ul Qoma, others shared or 'crosshatched' as Miéville puts it. It's a situation that constantly influences the inhabitants, and demands that they carefully choose what to see and what not. Miéville's point here is clearly that we all choose to see or unsee certain parts of our environment. That how we perceive our surroundings is partially a choice, to a point dictated by custom or what is specifically targeted at us. Miéville puts a lot of examples in the text of how this situation influences daily life and how it has shaped the cities. The first time you go out after finishing the book you'll probably look around and ask yourself what you  normally aren't seeing.

For some reason the situation in Miéville's fictional city - it is suggested that it is located somewhere in Eastern Europe, perhaps on the Black Sea coast - reminded me a bit of Jerusalem taken a different turn some time in the past. A city that is so layered in history, where several peoples and religions have a claim on the place, and where sharing the place is both unthinkable and the only way to a lasting peace, you can almost see something like what Miéville describes happening. Then again, and Miéville works this dark side of human nature into his novel as well, there are always those who want it all and do not mind shedding blood to get it.

The novel has a definite fantastical aspect to it, but for a large part it is a police procedural. The unique politics of the place gives Miéville plenty of opportunities to develop a good conspiracy. It may start out with a single murder but that proves to be only the tip of the iceberg. The plot itself is very convoluted. In the end it falls into place but I must admit that the final revelation was not quite as interesting to me as the way Miéville uses the plot to show the various ways of seeing the city. The author uses characters from both sides of the border as well as foreigners, and then has Borlú try to make sense of their perspective. It's very cleverly done but I'm not entirely sure it will convince fans of more conventional murder mysteries. You need to be able to enjoy the synthesis of the two genres to really appreciate  it.

I had a lot less difficulty with Miéville's English in this novel than with the language in Perdido Street Station for some reason. It's not that Miéville suddenly abandons his preference for long, complex sentences and matching vocabulary but it's not as extravagant as I remember from his earlier books. Or maybe my English has improved in the past few years. The first explanation is more likely, a darker, less extravagant style seems more fitting.

The City and the City is one of those novels that takes fantasy to a different level. It clearly fantastic yet impossible to categorize, it experiments with fusing genres, with language and with perspective. It nods to  some of the great writers in mystery, fantasy and science fiction, as well as a main stream literature. You could probably do a thesis on everything that went into this novel. In the end I guess it is the way in which Miéville balances the influences, themes and plot that makes this novel stand out. He is ambitious in what he attempts and he pulls it off. That is a rare feat indeed. If you are up for something different and something challenging, The City and the City is a good place to start.

Book Details
Title: The City & The City
Author: China Miéville
Publisher: PAN
Pages: 373
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-330-53419-2
First published: 2009

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Interview: Steph Swainston on The Wheel of Fortune

Earlier this year I read Steph Swainston's story Het Rad van Fortuin for the Dutch language book site Hebban. They asked me to do in interview with Steph as well. Het Rad van Fortuin, of The Wheel of Fortune as it is called in English, is the first work of hers to be translated into Dutch. The questions in the interview are meant to introduce her to this new audience. We didn't want to withhold the result from her English language readers however. Both Steph and Hebban kindly allowed me to run the interview on my blog as well. The review of Het Rad van Fortuin can be found here in Dutch and here in English.

Hi Steph, welcome to Hebban Random Comments. The Wheel of Fortune is the first of your stories to be translated into Dutch. How did your story end up with Quasis?

I was asked by the wonderful Jasper Polane to provide a story for his new Splinters Series.

The Dutch edition The Wheel of Fortune is an expansion of a short story published in 2013. I haven’t been able to find any English publications of this version of the story. Did we get a first?

Yes, you did.

Are there plans to publish it in English?

Eventually I’ll expand it into a full-length novel. I’ve shown flashes of Jant’s brutal past in Hacilith before, particularly in The Year of Our War. I’ve wanted to tell the full story for a long time and the day is getting nearer – maybe after my current novel is complete!

Although there are hints in the story that the wider world in The Wheel of Fortune is much more complex, the story is mainly set in an early industrial environment. It features exploitation of labourers, a lack of environmental standards and a range of social problems. What made you decide on such a grim setting?

The word ‘grim’ is over-used. I’m reflecting my reality and my own background. I come from Bradford in the north of England. It was a boomtown of the Industrial Revolution in the 1890s but is now very deprived. I grew up in the shadows of the huge, abandoned mills, where my ancestors used to work in what were often terrible conditions. At times life expectancy was as low as 12; people would migrate to the city where poverty and disease would kill them before long. The bleakness of industrial Hacilith is largely drawn from the actual circumstances in Bradford.

As a single example, the Galt Foundry in the story blasts soot out of the chimney, and it falls upon the surrounding houses. Lister’s Mill in Bradford used to do this regularly even as late as the 1950s and 1960s, when my father witnessed it. They sounded a siren before the fans started, which was followed by a thick smog of grit, soot and horrendous chemicals ‘like a pyroclastic flow’. The managers didn’t care that it fell on the workers’ houses all around. My father described having to hold onto the mill’s wall to navigate from school to home, the smog being so thick it was impossible to see your hand in front of your face.

Now, Jant lives in Hacilith in 1818, where its industrial revolution depends on water power rather than steam. Workers toil in factories, to clock time, with machinery driven by the flow of the Moren River turning huge waterwheels. Hacilith is also one of the centres of the Fourlands’ smelting industry, so even without steam power, there are still plenty of chimneys spewing out smog.

Hacilith is the capital of Morenzia, the human country. It has a north European climate, and the natural resources of Morenzia are somewhat basic compared to Awia. So Hacilith, which is on the Moren estuary, became a trading and merchant’s town much as Amsterdam did. It prospered and grew in population until, in the thirteenth century, the teeming city was much larger than the towns and villages of the rest of Morenzia. Then, from the 1600s to the 1800s, Awian refugees settled in the Old Town district, in the streets of ‘Little Awia’ and brought their silk weaving to Hacilith.
    The actions of the immortals have also shaped the city Jant knows. After Frost joined the Castle and became the immortal Architect, from 1740-1750 she built the enormous Awndyn-Moren canal which crosses the country and shapes its border. Ships no longer had to round Cape Brattice, and their cargos came to the city and fed it. Frost built an immense series of canal basins and docks in the Galt district, where Jant lives.
    The beautiful seventeenth-century merchants houses and warehouses along the East Bank were too small in scale, so they fell out of use and were incorporated into great factories built there instead, making arms, armour and military equipment for the war against the Insects.
    The people of Hacilith welcomed the canal as an extra line of protection against the Insects. The Governors of the city became more confident. They no longer built defences, they spent their money on luxuries, and on developing the rich central district of Fiennafor, where their palaces are.
    And they continued to build factories along East Bank, where the Moren River turns the waterwheels, and cools the furnaces and foundries. All the weaving – wool and cotton, and the Awians’ silk – were scaled-up and moved into the factories of Galt.
    One of them is a crossbow factory. That’s where the Bowyers’ gang is based. Peterglass, the gang leader, works there, and most of the members are factory boys – they’re very well-armed with crossbows!
    By 1818, the prosperous merchants had moved away from the smog and soot, to Fiennafor, or to Moren Wells. Moren Wells is a spa town in the east of the city, and urban sprawl linked it to Hacilith a hundred years before, when the city changed its official name to the City of Hacilith and Moren – Hacilith Moren – but still Hacilith for short.
    Galt is an area around the docks, a network of brick terraces built to house the millworkers and foundry smiths. It’s desperately poor. When Jant flew in from the mountains he spent a year on the streets, before Dotterel found him and rescued him. They live at 7 Cinder Street, in the apothecary’s shop.

The story is written in the first person.  Do you prefer to write in the first person or is it a demand of the story?

It’s a preference – resulting from how and why I write. I write to be immersed. It’s easier to be completely immersed if you see from the eyes of your characters.
    I’ve been writing Castle in various forms almost since I learned to hold a pen, so I’ve been visualising the characters and the surroundings for so long I can virtually ‘see’ and ‘hear’ them as if I’m watching a film.

I can write from the point of view of all my characters, and at the last count I had 106 characters. I always end up with a lot of extraneous material.

For a number of years, before I was published, I experimented with writing Castle in third person. It has some advantages, because then I could set up groups of characters in different parts of the country, and move the action between them more easily. On the other hand, it calls me to myself and I am more aware of myself as a storyteller, as an author writing a book. This makes writing much more a conscious act and then it becomes too easy to become over-concerned with who your audience is and whether they understand. You end up with over-explanation and the ponderous prose so characteristic of run-of-the-mill fantasy writing. I want readers to be swept along with my characters, not detachedly following a narrative.

The story is set in the same world as your novels. Can you tell us a bit about how this story fits in to the larger series?

Sure. This story is Jant before he joined the Castle and became Comet, the Messenger. It’s set during his last few days in Hacilith, where he lived for six years. Gang warfare, and his own ambition, destroy the Wheel gang which he is part of, and he is forced to flee the city with his girlfriend, Serin.
    The scenes mesh with Jant’s flashback to Hacilith in The Year of Our War. So it’s a sort of prequel.

Did the translator have many questions for you?

My translator was Eisso Post.  He didn’t need to check with me.  He’s an excellent translator and I trust him to do a good job.

You wrote full time at one point in your career and then made the decision to give that up and take a job as a chemistry teacher. Why that decision?

It was a very dark time for me. I was being overwhelmed by a number of problems; health, financial, personal, and the publishers weren’t very sympathetic. So it seemed like a way out, to change a shitty situation. It took years and a move to a new town to get on top of everything and begin writing full time again. Now I’m determined to finish the Castle sequence I had planned.

Do you feel part of a particular genre?

No. I think of it as Castle. It is all-encompassing within my life, so I don’t limit it.
I don’t like fantasy and SF’s obsession with categorising authors within neat subgenres. Most of these are invented as marketing tools. The ‘New Weird’ was conceived by China Miéville and M. John Harrison basically as a means to set fans talking.
    The obsession with genre often leads to the search for influences, usually within impossibly narrow frames of reference. Over the years I have been annoyed and amused in turn by reading what others consider my influences to be. I was sending the completed manuscript of The Year of Our War out before the publication of any of the so-called ‘New Weird’ novels, yet somehow I was apparently imitating them. I’ve not been a big reader of fantasy since my teens; you can perhaps find C.S. Lewis or Delaney in there if you really look but nobody notes the much stronger influences of Dumas, Dickens or William Burroughs. My writing has been part of my life for so long, it’s acquired influence from everything in my life, way beyond just reading. I’m not trying to shape it to fit any deterministic genre.

These subgenres are detrimental to the writer for another reason: they give readers a mental template against which works will be judged, works which may have nothing to do with the template whatsoever. Novels should be judged, and enjoyed, by their own merits. Perhaps some authors do write consciously – commercially – for a genre, but then as Quentin Crisp said, ‘Fashion’s what you adopt when you don’t know what you are.’ I have a very clear idea what I am and what the Castle mythos is, and it doesn’t follow current genre fashions.

Do you think boundaries will become even more fluid in the future?

Yes, but it won’t happen with the large publishers. Innovation is in the hands of the small publishers now.
    Large publishers have to turn a high and predictable profit, so they go for the safe market, which to them is largely the visible end of fandom, the convention-goers and bloggers. Or they’ll pursue books which are similar to movies, and commercial tie-ins, where there is guaranteed brand recognition. Small publishers are more willing to take chances and don’t have the same bloated cost structures to support.
    Thankfully there’s a number of small presses which are nimble, quick, intelligent and inventive. The web gives them publicity, and distribution to equal what a large press can do. So kudos to innovators like Jasper and Quasis, Salt, PS Publishing, Newcon Press, Snow, Unsung Stories.

One last question. Rumour has it you are working on a fifth novel. Is there anything you can say on that project yet?

It’s called Fair Rebel and it’s already available for pre-order on Amazon – go get it! It’s scheduled to be published in November but the manuscript is totally complete.

Following on from that, I’m already halfway through the next Castle book, so that’s book six. It carries straight on from Fair Rebel, but with new characters stepping to frontstage. Its working title is The Savant and the Snake. After that, there’s another planned in the sequence and The Wheel of Fortune expansion which I mentioned earlier. I’d better get back to work!

Steph's website can be found at Her new novel Fair Rebel is scheduled for release in November 2016 and can already be per-ordered at Amazon US, Amazon UK, and The Bookdepository among others. Het Rad van Fortuin is available though the publisher's website and wherever Dutch language books are sold.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Binti - Nnedi Okorafor

Last year, took the plunge and moved into publishing novellas and short novels. Up to that point their original fiction had mostly been limited to short stories and novelettes and had been available in electronic format only. It seems like this new project is paying off. These works have gotten a lot of attention in the blogsphere and with Binti, one of the first novellas to be published in this new format, the first award nomination is in as well. Okorafor can add another Nebula nomination to her tally. Binti and two other pieces make up half of the nominees in the novella category. I would be surprised if it was the last we'd hear from this awards season.

Binti is a young girl of the Himba people with a gift for mathematics. Her scores are so outstanding that she is invited to study at the Oomza University, the most highly rated institution in the galaxy. It is a rare honour but in order to become the first Himba to attend, she will have to leave her family. The Himba do not leave their homeland. The very idea is so preposterous that nobody seriously believes she will go. Binti won't be held back by tradition though. She sets out on her own to her new life at university. Of course, getting there is harder than she imagined.

As far as I have been able to determine Binti is not related to any of Okorafor's other stories. It is set in a future where humanity has made contact with alien species and has left the planet. Other than that, the story doesn't offer much detail on the world. It is focussed on the main character. The Himba as portrayed in the novella are based on the Himba people of Namibia. I know very little about them, and there is a huge gap between the life as described in the novella and the reality of life in Namibia today. Okorafor has used some key components of their culture in her story though.

Okorafor shows a determined girl in the story, but also one who is very unsure of herself. She is the only Himba on this ship out, and even among the humans she stands out. That she is willing to leave the land of her ancestors doesn't mean she is ready to change who she is however. She meets attitudes ranging from curiosity to rudeness to outright hostility, but also plain indifference. Soon she makes friends however, who seem to accept her. The range of emotions she goes through, fear, determination, joy and excitement and how she uses her experiences in the later part of the story make Binti a very well rounded character. Although Okorafor delivers a complete story, she is the kind of protagonist you want to read more about.

The story has more to offer than a strong main character. Another layer of poor treatment of other cultures is added when Binti meets the Meduse. This strand of the story reminded me of the countless artefacts and body parts still in the collection of western musea, collected in colonial times from 'primitive' cultures all over the world. A symbol of the lack of respect for these cultures and a reminder of how these peoples were once considered inhuman. It's a legacy that really should be properly and respectfully dealt with.The Meduse, as it turns out,  have reasons for their actions and make their point very brutally. If Binti is to arrive at the university in one piece she will have to find a way to address their grievances.

I very much liked the emphasis on cultural differences in this story but the climax of the novella, does feel a bit convenient. In one rousing performance, Binti manages to make peace between two species long at war with each other. If it were quite that simple, the UN would have achieved world peace decades ago. I can still see why this novella attracted so many positive reviews though. Binti is a quick but intense read. Okorafor cleverly uses the parallel between Binti's situation and that of the Meduse to keep things moving along quickly. Personally I wouldn't have minded if this story had been fleshed out a bit further, perhaps with a bit more convincing solution to the problem Binti faces, but as it is, it's a very interesting novella.

Book Details
Title: Binti
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Pages: 90
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-00-7653-8525-3
First published: 2015

Sunday, February 21, 2016

American Gods - Neil Gaiman

The first time someone told me I should really read American Gods was back in 2004. It had been out for a few years back then and made quite an impact. It won a whole shelf full of awards and was nominated for even more. The most recent person to tell me to read this was my girlfriend, who wrote a very positive review about it a few years back. I guess it was time to let them have their way. I've read it. I think it was a good thing I didn't read it back in 2004 though. I'm sure I got more out of it now than I would have back then. Gaiman has delivered a complex novel and a very clever one. It is also a novel that will leave a lot of readers with the feeling that it wasn't what they expected of it.

It is well known that people create gods and bring them with them when they migrate. America is a hard country for gods. Many of them end up abandoned and forgotten, when their people die out, move on or start worshipping other deities. Of late, new gods have shown up. Gods of consumerism, capitalism, highways, television, Internet and other aspects of modern life. They are on a collision course with the old gods. In the midst of this brewing conflict, the freshly released convict Shadow is approached by the mysterious Mr. Wednesday. He is a man with a stake in the battle ahead and he means to come out the winner. It draws Shadow into a world of belief, divine realities and extinct religions he never knew existed.

I called American Gods a clever novel in the introduction and it is on many levels. Gaiman sprinkles clues about the identity of the characters around. Mr. Wednesday is a fine example. Wednesday used to be Wodan's day, Wodan being another name for Odin, the Allfather. A title that in itself has a meaning to the narrative. There are plenty of examples of this. Gaiman draws from a wide variety of sources. Egyptian, Norse, Celtic, Hindu and Slavic mythological figures are used in the novel but also figures form West-African, Caribbean and Native American folklore and even the odd biblical figure. America itself is not entirely without old representatives either. American legend Jonny Appleseed makes an appearance. It takes a well read reader to spot them all in one reading although Gaiman gets a bit more generous with his hints towards the end of the book.

We see most of the story through the eyes of Shadow. He does his name justice in many ways in the novel. He has made some bad decisions in his life and ends up doing time for his crimes. When he is released he is drawn into the shadows in another way, when Wednesday introduces him to the world of fading gods. Many things about Shadow remain unknown. His appearance is only vaguely described, his past, except for the time spent in prison and a few brief references to his mother, remains undisclosed.He leaves his old life behind him, adopts new identities and travels the land anonymously, without really putting down roots. He in effect becomes the Shadow he is named after, before coming out the other end and gaining a new identity to replace the one he's shed.

Shadow is the central figure in the novel, the linchpin the story turns around, the one who embodies the biggest mystery the plot offers. Gaiman does much more with the book than just tell his story though. There are numerous sub-plots and here and there seemingly unrelated interludes on the activities of various mythological figures and how they are doing in their  unfriendly new land. Adaptations and survival strategies are many but most of them seem to be stuck in the parts of America passed by by progress. They hide out in declining rural areas, poverty stricken parts of towns and cities, running businesses that are doomed in the face of competition by multinationals and national franchises. And yet, each of them retains a spark of their former power. In the end, Gaiman brings most of these plotlines together. The way he handles that is another way in which this book is clever. Many of the subplots contain elements that turn out to be significant to Shadow in one way or another.

It's this meandering structure of the story that will be problematic for a lot of readers. Shadow, as main characters go, is not the most lively of protagonists. This is an intentional choice by Gaiman. He goes so far as to have one of the secondary characters tell Shadow he is not truly alive. Shadow's responses to the various crises he faces is muted and he lets himself be led by Wednesday a lot. Add to that Gaiman's tendency to digress from the main plot and the fact that the climax of the novel will most likely not be what readers are expecting at the beginning of the book, and you have a recipe for one star reviews. From what I can tell, American Gods has gathered a few of those.

When you get right down to it, I like American Gods as much because of what it isn't as I do because of what it is. It is a book about belief but not religion, a book about a road trip but no celebration of small town life in the American heartland, a book about mythology but no clash of awesome Olympic type gods. Gaiman tackles these themes in his own way. It can be quirky but also tragic, and poetic but also harsh. Many of the ideas in this novel have been used before, by others as well as Gaiman himself, but he manages to mix them in a unique way. American Gods is a remarkable novel whichever way you look at it. Certainly a work that will divide readers but in my opinion a work of twenty-first century literature that one ought to have read.

Book Details
Title: American Gods
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: William Morrow
Pages: 465
Year: 2001
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-380-97365-1
First published: 2001