Sunday, August 17, 2014

Random Comments is Five Years Old Today

Five years old and unlike last year I didn't even forget. Still have no other ambitions that keeping it going. Let's see if we can reach double digits ;)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Val & Lana Review: Artemis Awakening - Jane Lindskold

For the four hundredth reviewed work on Random Comments I thought we ought to try something different. I got Lana to agree to do a joint review for the occasion. In the poll I ran a while ago you selected Jane Lindskold's latest novel Artemis Awakening, the first of a new trilogy, and so we set to work. As was the expectation, we don't quite agree on this novel. Maybe it is something worth repeating for a few other titles we have opposing opinions on.

Created from bare rock by a human empire so technologically advanced  that moving planets was a simple task, Artemis was to serve as a  pleasure planet to the few who'd be allowed access to it. But when the empire fell, the knowledge of the whereabouts of the planet was also  lost, and Artemis survived only as a fable told to children, to remind them of the great achievements that their ancestors had once been  capable of.

To Griffin Dane however, Artemis is more than a fable. To him, it is  his path to recognition and fame among his peers. Believing that he might have found the till now lost coordinates of Artemis, he sets out alone on a journey through the stars, afraid that if he accepts the help or company of any others, including his family, he will have to share the glory to come, or even have it taken away from him completely. And  so it is that when he arrives on Artemis, crash-landing his ship in the process, he is alone with no conceivable way to get back home.

Lucky for him, he soon meets Adara and her psych-linked companion, Sand Shadow the puma. They are both ascendants of the bio-engineered humans and animals who were once created to populate Artemis in order to  make the stay more pleasant for its visitors. Convinced that Griffin must be an ascendant of the creators of Artemis, she and her companion  decides to help him find his way on their planet in his search for a way home. Before long, they are joined by Adara's friend Terrell, whose abilities as a factotum will prove invalulable to their cause, as their journey leads them to strange places and unexpected happenings.

Lana's view:

Artemis Awakening is my first book by Jane Lindskold. I have heard of some of her other works, but looking at her bibliography, I cannot say that I have read any of them. As such, I had no idea what to expect when I started on this novel, and it was all quite exciting!

Artemis Awakening is set in a post-apocalyptic world, about 500 years after the events that broke it apart. Humans have managed to regain some of the technology that was lost to them (after a fashion anyway; they did not only lose technology, but special abilities were lost as well), but compared to the legends of their ancestors, it looks as if they may still have som way to go in order to catch up. This seems to be one of the things driving Griffin Dane onwards; perhaps if he finds Artemis, he'll rediscover some lost technology of the past - something that will help humanity take another step towards the greatness they once had. Most of the time, Griffin comes off as the kind of character that is fair, highly intellectual and sympathetic towards others; he is even brave when the situation calls for it. Once he becomes focused on something, however, it is as if all his attention and energy go towards that one thing, and nothing else seems to be of importance anymore. For a long time, one does not get to see that latter part of his personality, so through a lot of the book, I found it hard to imagine this character as someone setting off alone to make a discovery because he did not want to share it with anyone else; he just didn't seem the type.

Another character that kind of tricks you in the beginning, is Terrell. When he first entered the story, I thought he would simply take on the role as someone annoying and arrogant, a pain in the backside and just there to make life difficult for Griffin - and perhaps for Adara as well. Before long, I had to admit that perhaps he was the most likable of the bunch, which is saying a lot as, with two notable exceptions, the people of Artemis generally comes off as pretty likable at all times. I was left with a feeling that he was introduced to the core group (Griffin, Adara and Sand shadow) to make things a bit more interesting - suddenly we have two males interested in one female, and drama can ensue. Except that nothing really ever happens, other than some comments and a few confused thoughts. Perhaps Lindskold is planning on adding more tension and awkwardness to this situation in the sequel since she did not do much with it in the first book.

While the whole idea of bioengineering humans and animals just to bring pleasure to those few who would have access to it sits horribly with me, the link between Adara and her puma was one of my favorite elements of the story, and wouldn't have been possible in this setting, I think, without what was done to their ancestors. Through Adara we get to find out what Sand Shadow thinks about the things that are happening, and their communication is often a bit funny, since the big cat tends to find the actions of her human companions on the amusing side.

Artemis Awakening is not a very complicated story, at least not so far. I felt that it was very fast-paced, and the type of book one can easily read in one go. Since I haven't read anything else by Lindskold, I have no idea whether this is typical for her or not, although, I think my co-author of this review, who has read other books by her, said something one day about it not being her most complicated work ever, so it might be an exception to her usual style. Whatever the case, I did enjoy it, and I would definitely pick up the next book in the series, just to find out what happens next.

Val's view:

I've read seven of Lindskold's novels before starting this one. All six Firekeeper books and one of her early novels Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls. Compared to these books Artemis Awakening is a very light read. The Firekeeper books is a fairly complex story in the sense that the reader has to keep up with a large cast and the relationship between lots of noble houses, as well as a detailed history of the part of the world the books are set in. Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls is much more a character study, where we see the entire story though the eyes of an unreliable narrator, essentially forcing the reader to evaluate each bit of information carefully to figure out what is going on. Artemis Awakening is neither of these things. The premise of this novel is simple, the execution straightforward. In fact, if it hadn't been for the references to rape and sexual abuse, none of which is explicitly depicted in the novel, it could have been a book for young readers. As Lana has already noted, It is not a very challenging book.

I didn't think it was a hugely original book either. Lindskold sets her story in a universe where a huge galactic empire reached levels of technology that Arthur C. Clarke would equate with magic before tearing itself apart. Now, humanity is slowly beginning to rediscover their past. A concept like this made Asimov famous in the 1940s. It is quite obvious that Artemis Awakening leans quite heavily on tried and trusted science fiction tropes.

On top of that, Lindskold sets the novel up like a romance early on in the book. Handsome hero is rescued by capable and beautiful heroine and together they trek trough the unspoilt wilderness of Artemis. Mutual attraction is obvious in those first pages of the book. I wonder how many readers of science fiction will be put off by this. It's not a crowd that is very tolerant to this sort of thing. I must admit I had my doubts as well when Lindskold introduces a rival, setting things up for a classic love triangle. For some reason the author doesn't follow though on this however. Not yet anyway. Further along in the novel a measure of respect develops between the three characters.

I can't say I thought the story itself was that interesting but the concept of the planet Artemis is. It is essentially a world that is tailored to fit the ideal of a wild, unspoilt world. It is designed to keep an ecological balance between the population and their environment that keeps the place empty, wild and unspoilt. A planetary wildlife preserve almost. To achieve this, all sorts of comforts - surely the decadent rulers of a galactic empire can't be expected to rough it - have been hidden away, just waiting for rediscovery by someone who knows what to look for. Someone who is used to a higher standard of technology than the local population. Someone from outside.

Ecosystems are dynamic. There is no such thing as a system that is entirely in balance. It might hover around a kind of dynamic equilibrium for some time but in the long run they tend to evolve. Artemis is of course a designed system, but since it does not appear to be actively managed anymore and several hundred years have passed since it has, one would expect it to drift away from the ideal state the designers had in mind. It would certainly have made things interesting but so far no evidence of that happening has shown up in the story. Lindskold mostly keeps it limited to the adaptations of a small part of the population of Artemis.

One theme that does come back in a lot of Lindskold's work is the connection between people and animals. In the Firekeeper books it was the one between wolves and the main character. Here, the Huntress Adara is accompanied by a puma of unnatural intelligence. To make matters worse, the puma as opposable thumbs. Think about how scary a cat with opposable thumbs would be. They are quite enough trouble without them. And the ones we keep around are not the size of a puma either. It's a fun bit of wish-fulfillment I suppose. One that Lindskold uses to get past all sorts of obstacles the puma would not be able to negotiate otherwise. As always, she has managed to convincingly capture the spirit of the animal. It is anthropomorphizing to a high degree of course, but cat owners will recognize a lot in the Sand Shadow's behaviour.

All things considered, Artemis Awakening is not an unpleasant read. Just a very straightforward one. The plot is well put together but somewhat predictable. The observant reader will see the hook for book two coming quite some time before the climax of the book. It is the kind of cozy science fiction that will not really challenge the more experienced read and as such, I thought it was only mildly entertaining. I might be convinced to read the second volume but I doubt it will leap to the top of the to read stack when it appears.

So there you have it, two opinions of Artemis Awakening. We'll leave it up to you to figure out who is right ;)

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Entire Gollancz SF Masterworks Series Reviewed

Peter Young, editor of the Big Sky, has dedicated the entire third and forth issue his fanzine to the Gollancz SF Masterworks series. He has scoured the internet collecting the most interesting reviews of each title in the series and released the result to coincide with WorldCon, held in London this year. The scope of the project is huge. Some of these books are very well known, there must be thousands of reviews out there. I don't want to think about how many reviews Peter must have looked at to make his selection. It's an impressive feat to put something like this together.

The reviews have been written by a host of well known critics, writers, blogger and editors, from a wide variety of blogs and websites. The list of contributors is impressive and I feel honoured to be among them. Please take the time to check out Peter's work, he has made the fanzine available for free download here. Enjoy!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Hex - Thomas Olde Heuvelt

Thomas Olde Heuvelt has been making quite a name for himself in the Dutch speculative fiction market. Hex is the third novel I've read by him and in terms of craftsmanship, he is well ahead of most other authors in the field. He's been trying to get into the inroads in the English language market too. Several of his shorter pieces have been translated and last year, The Boy Who Cast No Shadow even made it to the Hugo shortlist. This year he's on there again with The Ink Readers of Doi Saket. He's made attempts to get his previous novel, Harten Sara (2011) translated but so far they have not resulted in a book on the shelves. The prospects for Hex are looking even better, the translation right and television rights have been sold. Provided it survives development hell, Hex might even make it to the small screen.

The village of Beek, near Nijmegen close to the Dutch-German border, hides a terrible secret. To outsiders it looks like an idyllic place but once you are unfortunate enough to move there, you're stuck. A woman burnt there as a witch in the seventeenth century is holding the village hostage. Her eyes and mouth are sown shut and the villagers are under strict orders not to attempt to communicate with the witch. Doing so almost always results in death. A strict regime to keep the village safe and the witch a secret to the outside world has been put in place. It has worked reasonably well but such restriction chafe, especially for the younger generation for whom the world, thanks to modern communication devices, does not stop at the edge of the village. Their attempt to gain a little more freedom sets in motion a series of events that will change the village forever.

Beek does indeed exist. I've lived in that part of the country for almost three years but I've never visited it. Olde Heuvelt has used quite a few locations that actually exist but the characters and events are of course fictious. He gives the place quite a rough treatment in his book. Lots of small minded people, plenty of paranoia, racist tendencies and mob mentality. That's on top of the havoc wreaked by the witch of course. It makes me wonder what someone born and raised in Beek would make of it.

The witch herself, a woman named Katharina van Wyler, is not the most original element in the story. Her history is not very well known but she was accused of bringing her son who died of the plague back to life. The superstitious locals then tortured her to death. She now haunts them as a vengeful reminder of the crimes the villagers committed in the past. On several occasions she has gotten into the head of villagers and made them commit suicide. The last time this happened was in the 1960s, well before the the younger generation in the village was born. Never having experienced the horror she can unleash firsthand, they are not so certain that all the restrictions imposed on their lives are necessary.

Olde Heuvelt doesn't really explore the motivations of Katharina in the novel. Instead he creates something of a generational conflict. Having to spend your entire life in the village of Beek, which has no economy to speak of, is inconceivable. The constant need of having to keep secrets from their fellow students and friends from outside Beek weighs on them. It is only natural that they start pushing against the restrictions to find out what they can get away with. In fact, in today's world, being cut off from the the rest of the country simply isn't an option. It's an expression of the small-mindedness of the village council that they do not see the need to adapt. Rebellious youngsters and conservative village Elders are an explosive mix and Olde Heuvelt strikes the spark in a very convincing way.

One of the most interesting things in this novel is the use of language. Modern Dutch is very much influenced by English. To the extent even, that for many recent inventions, no Dutch word exists. Computer, laptop and smartphone are part of the everyday vocabulary of the Dutch. On top of that a whole set of Anglicisms has entered the language, literal translations of English expressions. It makes me cringe every time I hear someone say 'soort van', 'daar heb je een punt', 'seks hebben' (or if you really want to make a purist cringe 'sex hebben') or 'fokking'. Obviously I don't have a problem with the English language, but I don't think the fact that it is the lingua franca of our time is an excuse not to speak your own language properly. The most recent development the use of English words to replace words that do have a translation in Dutch. Recently I heard someone use the word flabbergasted (verbijsterd) in what was otherwise a Dutch sentence. If you pay attention to it, you'll hear plenty of examples.

Whether I like it or not, it's the way a lot of people talk these days and Olde Heuvelt makes his characters do it. Especially the younger ones use a lot of Anglicisms and English words. In fact, the title of the novel is probably the most clear expression of this fusion of languages. The Dutch word for witch is 'heks', while hex (pronunciation is almost identical) has a meaning in English as well. Olde Heuvelt himself has a fine command of the Dutch language. His prose is often quite creative and likely to give a translator a few headaches. It results in a pretty sharp contrast between dialogue and exposition in the book. It makes me wonder how much of this will survive translation.

In terms of style the novel is quite different from his previous novel as well. Harten Sara is almost entirely told from a first person perspective. In Hex, the entire community is the main character and to accurately describe what is going on, Olde Heuvelt switches a lot between characters. Especially towards the end of the novel, when things really start to heat up, you have to have a firm grasp of who is who in the village to follow the story. Given the number of characters employed, it could easily have been a much longer novel. Olde Heuvelt's writing is pretty concise considering the story he is trying to tell. It does go at the expense of the depth of some of the characters. There is one suicide towards the end of the novel for instance, that shocks the village but doesn't do much for the reader because we haven't seen much of this character except his self-righteous behaviour at a council meeting. Overall, I think this is the kind of tale that is more suited to speed and a more general overview of what is happening though. Olde Heuvelt is trying to show the impact on the larger community after all.

Where Harten Sara was much more of a character study and tended towards magical realism, in Hex Olde Heuvelt returns to the dark fantasy he showed in Leerling Tovenaar Vader & Zoon (2008).  It's fast paced, horrific and absolutely thrilling. I had to force myself to put it down a couple of times to go do other things. If you have the time for a reading binge, this is the kind of book you could read in one go. Personally I enjoyed the more challenging Harten Sara a bit more, but it is a fine novel. It will be interesting to see if it manages to conquer the English language market as well.

Book Details
Title: Hex
Editor: Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Publisher: Luitingh-Sijthoff
Pages: 351
Year: 2013
Language: Dutch
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-90-245-6025-7
First published: 2013

Sunday, August 3, 2014

A Betrayal in Winter - Daniel Abraham

When I first read A Betrayal in Winter, the second installment of Daniel Abraham's Long Price Quartet, I didn't quite like it as much as the first volume. The youthful and often rash characters in A Shadow in Summer spoke to me more than the same ones fifteen years on. That was six years ago however, and in those years I have read a great deal. My taste has developed somewhat and since I still don't have the complete set reviewed for Random Comments I decided to see how it would hold up during a reread. As it turns out, my opinion of this novel has changed a bit but all things considered I think I still prefer the first volume.

Fifteen years after the event that brought about the demise of Sarayketh, Otah's father, the Khai Machi is dying. To determine who will succeed him, by tradition his sons will have to murder each other until one is left. Since Otah never formally renounced his claim to the throne by joining the poets, he is still in the line of succession. Although he has kept his identity secret for almost two decades now, as long as he remains alive, he is a threat to his brothers. The Dai-kvo, head of the order of poets, has taken an interest in the affairs of Machi too. He sends Maati, who has thus far had a very disappointing career as a poet, to look for Otah.

Some people have described this novel as a murder mystery in a fantasy setting. I don't agree with that description. There is very little mystery about who perpetrated the murders for the reader at least. The plot is one about court intrigue and it is quite convoluted. In fact, it is probably the weaker aspect of the novel. Like in the previous book the Galts have a hand in affairs. They try to manipulate the succession to suit their own interests by essentially buying support for the house they want to see ascend the throne. The influential families of Machi then do the murdering for them in quite an ineffectual way, making all sorts of stupid mistakes along the way. This is definitely something I didn't notice on my first read.

Two other aspects of the novel are very enjoyable however. The worldbuilding for instance, is superb again. We move from the warm climate of the summer cities to the cold north. The mountainous setting, a local economy mostly based on mining and the harsh winters Machi gets to endure, all work their way into the details of the story. A Betrayal in Winter is not a large book, weighing in at just over three-hundred pages. Abraham manages the right balance between the level of detail necessary to allow the reader to immerse themselves in his creation and the necessity to keep the plot moving forward at a reasonable pace. It's a balance he took with him to his later Dagger and Coin novels.

The second aspect of the novel I really liked is the characterization. Maati and Otah return from the previous novel and they have unfinished business with each other. In the opening stages of the novel, Otah is still traveling the Cities of the Khaiem, never quite able to settle down anywhere. His true identity prevents him from doing so. In fact, I always had the feeling that while is he's not prepared to murder for it, Otah does want to rule at some level.

Maati on the other hand has been sinking back into poets' society, taking care of the unglamorous day to day business. He is considered a failure. Despite the disrespect the poets show him, he finds himself unable to let go of that life. To make matters worse, he meets a young poet Cehmai in Machi who is everything he could have been and seems to insist on making the same mistakes he made. Like Otah, Maati is stuck between his desires and what society expects of him. Both of them, if their life would not be severely shaken up in this novel, would be heading for a serious midlife crisis.

A third important character is one we haven't met before. Idaan is the daughter of the Khai, growing up in a society where women, at least in the upper class, are mere commodities, used to cement trade agreements, and sent off to the man considered the most advantageous ally. She strongly resents this. So strongly in fact that she is plotting her own way to power. The Conservative Utkhaiem will not accept a female ruler, but with the right husband, both influential and suitable malleable, she might get there still. It sets in motion a chain of events from which she will not be able to extract herself. Idaan resists the patriarchal society she is part of but uses the instruments that are another flaw of Khaiem culture. Somewhat predictable perhaps, it results in a mess.

Abraham took part of his inspiration for these books from Shakespeare. In fact, Macbeth is mentioned on the inside flap of the cover. It shows in the way these characters interact. There is drama everywhere you look. The characters are passionate and flawed and headed for tragedy. It's a type of story that some readers will experience as over the top. And in a way it is just that. The author twists his plot to create all this drama and he doesn't always to it in the most believable way. Abraham does create characters with real emotional depth though. They all want something, they all strive for it and they all make mistakes that leave real scars. If you can stand a bit of drama, they are a joy to read.

A Betrayal in Winter is not quite as action-packed as the third volume, An Autumn War, nor does it contain the youthful passion of A Shadow in Summer. The main characters have matured, they are more aware of consequences of their actions, but the stakes are not so high yet that their actions influence events beyond the city they are in. Abraham is working towards the climax of his quartet in this book. It is a satisfying read in itself, but I can't shake the impression it still falls a little short of the books that flank it. It lacks the excitement of reading something new as well as the tension of playing for stakes so high that they impact the entire world. I guess I'm going to have to reread the third book sometime soon to see how that one holds up as the climax of the series.

Book Details
Title: A Betrayal in Winter
Editor: Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 317
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1341-6
First published: 2007

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Apex Book of World SF 3 - Lavie Tidhar

A lot has changed in genre fiction since the appearance of the first volume of The Apex Book of World SF in 2009. A discussion about a more inclusive genre in terms of culture, gender and sexual orientation has been raging for quite a while now and progress on this front is clearly being made. Where Tidhar probably had to work very hard to get access to enough material to fill the first volume, nowadays more and more material is being published by writers form outside the English speaking world and western culture. It's a development that can't be completely laid at the feet of this series of anthologies of course, but it does offer a platform for such works and shows that there is a market for it. In other words, there is more than enough reason to keep the momentum going and release a third volume.

This third volume again is a mix of stories originally written in English and translated works. Almost all works were previously published in magazines or other collections, only one is original to this anthology. It has stories from all continents, with maybe a slight emphasis on Asia, and it stretches science fiction to include fantasy and horror. Two things are a bit different compared to the previous two editions. The women far outnumber the men in this collection, and it contains fewer stories than the first and second volume did. I don't know if the the abundance of female authors is intentional but Tidhar clearly did opt to include a few longer pieces in this anthology.

As with any collection, I didn't connect with all of the stories the same way. The overall quality is quite high but the variation in style and themes will almost inevitably cause the reader to have a few clear favorites. I'll mention a few of mine but I encourage you to find your own. These anthologies have been an eye-opener for me.

The Anthology opens with Courtship in the Country of Machine-Gods by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. She is from Thailand and has been making her presence felt in the short fiction market in the past couple of years. I've read one other story by her that was contained in the anthology We See a Different Frontier (2013). This story is one of the first she published and if I had to classify it, I'd say it is a form of military science fiction. It is not easy on the reader. Where much science fiction prefers plot over form, in this story neither wants to give ground to the other. It is beautifully written and has quite an emotional impact. Some readers will be left with questions about what just happened though. From a literary point of view this may be the strongest story in the collection.

The City of Silence is another of my favourites. It was written by Chinese author Ma Boyong and is one of the two stories that have been translated by Ken Liu. The story is set in a future where the state exercises extreme levels of control over its citizens. They go so far as to create a list of 'healthy words' that are permissible to be used in conversation and on the heavily censored internet. As people find more and more creative ways to get their opinion across, the list grows ever shorter. Language itself is under threat from the state.

The story is clearly inspired by George Orwell's 1984 but takes the control of the state to even more extreme levels. It underlines the interesting relationship between the state, politics and language in a way. I can't help but wonder how much of this story is criticism of the Chinese government. On the other hand, for the western reader there is a clear parallel to such things as privacy on the Internet and net neutrality. The City of Silence offers a lot of food for thought.

Jungle Fever by Zulaikha Nurain Mudzor (Malaysia) is one of the uncut horror pieces in the collection. It deals with a woman who scratches herself on a jungle plant. A wound that starts to change her immediately. The story is told from first person perspective and the main character knows exactly what is going on but doesn't care. It makes the story a bit understated and somehow that adds to the horror of the transformation. 

Two stories in this collection deal with ghosts. Waiting with Mortals by Philippine author Crystal Koo is the one that had the most impact on me. Like many ghost stories it revolves around unfinished business and the deceased not being able to fully experience mortal life. In this story the dead have the means to influence the living however. It is invasive and profoundly unethical but obsession drives some ghosts to do it anyway. The psychological pressure on the  main character builds to the point where he has to face his situation and his own motivations head on. The tension in the story is very well built up although some readers may find the resolution a bit predictable.

Another horrific story, although it leans towards fantasy a bit too, is Three Little Children by the French writers couple Ange. It was translated by Tom Clegg and is based on a children's song. This version is a lot darker than what you'd normally tell children. In the story we change from the point of view of a child to that of an adult and back, giving it alternately the feel of a fairy tale and a murder mystery. In that sense, it is a very clever piece of writing. I liked the fact that the translator retained the French lyrics of the song too.

The anthology ends with Dancing on the Red Planet by the Korean-Norwegian author Berit Ellingsen. It's a frivolous piece about the first manned mission to Mars and how to celebrate this momentous occasion. It almost makes you wish the Americans had pulled something like this in 1969. It leaves a smile on your face when you turn the last page of this anthology. It's an excellent choice for a final story.

Once again Tidhar managed to find a number of high quality and very diverse stories to fill the third volume of The Apex Book of World SF. Readers who have enjoyed the first two volumes will not want to miss it. In terms of quality it may well be the best one of the three. Tidhar admits in his Introduction that he has access to a larger number of stories now than when he started work on the first volume. Let's hope this trend continues because these anthologies have made it abundantly clear that it pays to look beyond the English speaking world. Genre fiction is a world-wide phenomenon, it's past time to start treating it as such.

Book Details
Title: The Apex Book of World SF 3
Editor: Lavie Tidhar
Publisher: Apex Publications
Pages: 266
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-937009-24-3
First published: 2014

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Bound in Darkness - Kim ten Tusscher

Last month I reviewed Kim ten Tusscher's debut novel Hydrhaga, which has recently appeared in English translation. The package the author sent me also contained a copy of her second novel Bound in Darkness. It is the first novel of the Lilith trilogy and a much more ambitious work than Hydrhaga. The Dutch edition first appeared in 2010. As of this year, it is available in English too. I'm not entirely sure if and when the other two volumes will follow. In my review of Hydrhaga I pointed out quite a few things I had problems with. Bound in Darkness shares some flaws with Hydrhaga but overall it is a step up in craftsmanship. Ten Tusscher has developed a much better grip on the plot and the pacing of the story.

The translation of this novel was done by Rianne Stolwijk. I read the Dutch sample provided on the author's website to get a feel for the translation. It looks like a more direct translation to me. The tekst of Hydrhaga deviated a bit more from the literal Ducth original. It's hard to compare the two as Bound in Darkness is better written, but from reading the original Dutch I got the impression Stolwijk is more used to translating technical texts rather than fiction. There is a fine line between literal meaning of the word and the author's intent. I think taking a bit more liberties with the text would have improved it. It's a matter of taste though. Stolwijk clearly has a good grasp of the English language and translating fiction always involves elements that can't be captured in the grammar and vocabulary of a language.

Lilith is on the run. She is desperately trying to escape her master Kasimirh, a magician forcing her into a life of servitude and violence to realize his religious ideals. While trying to steal food, Lilith is caught and in the fight that follows she nearly kills a man. The brother of this man brings her before the king of the nation of Merzia to face his judgment. To pay for her crime she receives a flogging and has to work off her debt to the king after he compensates the brothers for their loss and trouble. Placed in the care of the magician Ferhdessar and the head of the palace household Ghalatea, Lilith is safe from her former master for the moment but once again a prisoner. Kasimirh is not going to let his subject escape though. War is about to engulf Merzia. Another confrontation with her former master seems inevitable.

Once again Ten Tusscher picks a young woman as main character. Where Lumea appears to have had a reasonably happy childhood, Lilith's has been one of abuse. It makes the book a lot darker than Hydrhaga. The title of the novel is clearly fitting in that respect. Despair, guilt and paranoia are always close to the surface. Lilith's behavior follows a pattern seen in many victims of domestic abuse. On the one hand she fears Kasimirh and wants to be free of him, on the other he gives her the attention nobody else seems to be willing to give her. It results in a strange kind of dependance on him, one she spends the entire novel trying to shake.

There is a decidedly violent side to Lilith's personality too. She is a shapeshifter and can change into a powerful dragon. As such, she was very valuable to Kasimirh, whose dreams of world domination in part rely on her strength. She has been forced to wreak havoc on many a village in the past, killing countless innocent people in the process. The guilt of this weights heavily on her. It's one of the aspects of the story I had a problem with. Throughout the novel Lilith is being manipulated, tricked and forced to do certain things which results in the death of many people. At one level it is obvious that she would feel responsible for that but on the other hand the author is careful always to make sure the real blame lies with someone else. Lilith has quite a volatile character, it wouldn't seem that unlikely that she would make a genuine mistake at one point. The tragedy of many people who are forced to fight in a war is that they are both victim and perpetrator. I think Ten Tusscher didn't quite get the most out of her character here. The real tragedy is somehow always one step removed from her.

That being said, she is a much better developed character than Lumea. Ten Tusscher clearly put more thought into this character. More planning is something that is obvious in all aspects of the novel. I'm not sure there are people who can write a trilogy organically but Ten Tusscher clearly didn't intend to. She has a plan, the story has a clear direction and she completes the novel in what is both a natural break in the story and a hook for the next novel.

The worldbuilding takes a bit of a backseat in the novel. Ten Tusscher describes the religious roots of the conflict briefly and shows us how the political structure of Merzia works, but everything else remains in the background. There is an intense focus on the characters and the relationship between Lilith and the two manipulative magicians in her life that doesn't allow Ten Tusscher to get too descriptive. At times it makes the conflict seem a bit simplistic but especially in the scenes seen from the point of view of Ferhdessar hint at much more depth. Ten Tusscher leaves herself a lot of avenues to explore in the next two volumes.

After reading Hydrhaga I had adjusted my expectations for this novel a bit. Bound in Darkness is such a step up in quality however, that the novel turned out to be a pleasant surprise. So much so in fact, that I wonder if Ten Tusscher didn't do herself a disservice by having Hydrhaga translated. She might have been better off by starting with Bound in Darkness. Ten Tusscher seems to have found her stride in this novel. It is a solid start to the trilogy. Pick this one up and you'll be hooked for the entire series.

Book Details
Title: Bound in Darkness
Author: Kim ten Tusscher
Publisher: Alter Ego Press
Pages: 279
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperbacl
ISBN: 978-94-907-6747-1
First published: 2010

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Necessary Evil - Ian Tregillis

Necessary Evil is the concluding volume in Ian Tregillis' Milkweed trilogy. The series seems to have lost some momentum with readers after Tor failed to get the second book, The Coldest War, out in a reasonable amount of time. Now that all three volumes are available however, it would be a shame to not dive back into this series. In the first two volumes, the author laid out a substantially different history of the second world war. In this third, he intends to take events full circle. I'm usually a bit skeptical when it comes to time travel stories but this one is very convincing in a way.

Gretel's manipulations of the timeline has sent a fifty-something year old Raybould Marsh back into the early stages of the second world war. He has seen his world end but in this one, he can still save his daughter, his marriage and possibly his son's soul. A prize for which he can put up with Gretel for a little bit longer. He does have a condition for saving the world however. He would rather see it destroyed than suffer a Nazi victory in the war. Thus, a new round in the struggle between Raybould and Gretel starts, and the stakes have never been higher.

Tregillis takes us back to the early days of Milkweed, at a point in time already visited a bit into the first novel Bitter Seeds. The outcome of the war still hangs in the balance and Dr. von Westarp's creations are still a huge threat to the security of the United Kingdom. Raybould knows the price of defending themselves with magic but convincing his past self and the other people involved in Milkweed is not going to be easy. His claims to have been transported from another timeline will sound ludicrous even to people used to dealing with magic. Raybould will have to take a more roundabout approach. One that involves a great many despicable acts. Necessary evil, as he thinks of it.

The second volume was not kind on Raybould. He sees his life pretty much turn into a nightmare after the war ends. His marriage is a farce, his daughter has been killed and his son needs round-the-clock care. To be transported back to the time that could be considered his finest hour, is possibly even more of a torment. He comes into contact with his younger, stronger and more healthy self, sees his wife as a young woman who still loved him, gets to travel around London before it was transformed into a city he despises, and meets with his friend Will who has not yet turned into an addict and a traitor. And all of it is out of reach for him. It all belongs to the younger version of himself. Tregillis once again manages to create a thoroughly miserable character. The loneliness and jealousy drip from the pages.

The other main character doesn't fare much better. Her ability to see the future has always put her in control. Her manipulations have guided her through time, always certain of the outcome of her actions. She has had only one fear, the threat posed by the Eidolons, and she seems to have outsmarted even them. Slowly, doubt is starting to enter her mind however. A fog descends on the future and Marsh, whom she desires, keeps vexing her. Gretel  has always been a scary character, the way Tregillis makes her crack only reinforces that feeling. In a way it makes her more human. Raybould can't feel sorry for her, but the reader might come away with a different impression.

Historically, Tregillis stays a lot closer to the timeline in our history books. There is no easy victory for either side and the conflict quickly envelopes the entire world. The cold war doesn't start early in this timeline and the United Kingdom has to defend itself with more conventional means. The events in the war are much more background to the story than in the previous novels. The reader doesn't have to pay attention to the difference from history as we know it in this book. The actions of the characters more or less ensure that the outcome will be what we know it to be. In effect, Gretel  and Raybould wrench history back on its tracks. Tregillis is much more interested in his characters in this novel than what effect they have on history.

It's probably the focus on the characters that makes this book work for me. Time travel stories tend to tie themselves in knots, always running into paradoxes that makes my suspension of disbelief come crashing down. Let's face it, having two versions of the same character in one story is usually trouble. It turns the whole Star Trek reboot into something slightly absurd for instance. Tregillis uses it to great effect in this novel though. Marsh is constantly tempted to take the place of his younger self. It takes a supreme effort for him not to do so. Tregillis takes a plot element that usually ruins a story and turns it into something very engaging.

If I had to name something I didn't like about the book it's the way Tregillis switches between past and present tense. It's a break with the style of the previous two volumes, and the parts written in the present tense breaks the flow of the story. I understand why Tregillis reached for this technique, in a way it helps the reader to keep the two versions of Raybould apart, but I felt it didn't quite work as intended.

Necessary Evil is a very satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. The way the story unfolded in the previous two volumes, it can't help but deliver a bitter-sweet ending. It's a book that almost forces you to keep reading. Tregillis managed to pretty much constantly make me wonder how he would twist events from the frist novel to fit this new timeline. When you look at the entire trilogy, it is a remarkable bit of plotting. In hindsight, I may have underappreciated the quality of Bitter Seeds a bit. The trilogy as a whole, is one I would recommend to people who enjoy a good alternative history.

Book Details
Title: Necessary Evil
Author: Ian Tregillis
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 384
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2152-7
First published: 2013

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Reviewed work number 400 poll result

The results are of the poll are in. Thank you all for voting.

Carrie by Stephen King - 1 vote
The Golden Compass by Phillip Pullman - 3 votes
Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon - 3 votes
Antarctica by Kim Stanley Robinson - 4 votes
Artemis Awakening by Jane Lindskold - 5 votes.

So our winner is:

Of course you all picked a book I don't already own. It is currently on its way here and we'll get reading as soon as it gets here. Look for the review some time in August.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Conservation of Shadows - Yoon Ha Lee

The poll to vote for reviewed work number 400 is open a view more days. Don't forget to put in you vote!
 I've seen a lot of positive comments about this collection floating around the blogsphere so when I realized I hadn't reviewed a collection for a while Conservation of Shadows by the Korean-American author Yoon Ha Lee seemed like an obvious choice. When I picked it up I thought I hadn't read any of Lee's work before. That didn't turn out to be correct. I had in fact read Swanwatch before as part of the John Joseph Adams anthology Federations. The stories in this collection are a selection from what she's published between 2001 and 2013. The collection contains 16 pieces of short fiction and an introduction by Aliette de Bodard. Lee is not hugely productive and hasn't published any novels to date but her short fiction has definitely been noticed. It has appeared in some in magazines like Fantasy & Science Fiction, Clarkesworld and Lightspeed magazine.

Lee's writing is something you won't come across often. Her prose is very poetic and thematically a lot of Asian influences are included. Lee has a bachelor in Mathematics and she has used this as an influence on her stories as well. It makes for an interesting mixture of mathematical concepts and magical plot elements. The stories range form fantasy to science fiction, but in each of them you get the feeling that there is a real scientific concept at the base of the plot. Lee can make a magical system seem rational like no one else I've read.

The collection opens with one of the strongest stories. Ghostweight is a space opera in which the main character carries with her the souls of the dead. It is a very dark tale of revenge with an absolutely devastating climax. Not a very upbeat way to open the collection but it is one of the stories that had the greatest impact on me. Lee mentions in the story notes that it is set in the same universe as The Shadow Postulates, only in a far future. I don't think I would have seen that without her mentioning it.

The Shadow Postulates is the next story in the collection and one in which you can clearly see the mix of influences I mentioned above. It mixes magic and mathematics in very interesting ways. The story follows a student on the verge of graduating and struggling with a mathematical problem that generations of students have tried to crack. It builds towards a conceptual breakthrough in a way that shows Lee understands how to handle the pace of a story. I wasn't surprised to learn that it's partly inspired by Fermat's Last Theorem that nobody has been able to find for centuries. In fact, many now believe Fermat came up with a wrong proof. If I had to pick a favourite, this one may well be it.

It is hard to pick a favourite though, I greatly enjoyed the story Iseul's Lexicon as well. It's quite a complex tale that shows how language and culture are interwoven and how banning languages, over time, can be very effective in suppressing a culture. Lee used the Korean Hangeul, an alphabet that replaced the more complicated Chinese characters from the 15th century on, as an inspiration. The story also shows echoes of the complex and often violent history between Korea and Japan. There are a lot of layers to this story, on the surface there is a military campaign, spying and an interesting magical system, deeper down there are the references to our own world and the parallels with Korean history. Even if it is one of the longer pieces in the collection, I still couldn't shake the feeling that a novel is hiding in there somewhere.

In the story notes Lee mentions several pieces are related to unpublished novels. Iseul's Lexicon isn't mentioned as being one of those but The Battle of Candle Arc is. It is one of several that have a space opera setting and deals with interstellar warfare. War and the price to be paid for it, is one of the themes that pop up in a lot of stories. This one is a story inspired by another bit of Korean history, the 1597 battle of Myeongnyang, part of the Imjin war (1592-1598), in which the Korean fleet achieved a decisive victory of the the vastly numerically superior Japanese invasion fleet. The general in this story reminded me a bit of some of Frank Herbert's characters. The depth of his insight appears to be almost superhuman.

The Unstrung Zither is the last story in this collection I want to mention. It includes a mix of traditional music (it strikes me as Chinese inspired but I don't know enough about this subject to say for sure), elemental magic and a far future setting. The main character is a composer. She doesn't seem to feel she is brilliant at it, merely competent. Nevertheless she is entrusted with a very important mission. Music in this story, is more than a cultural expression. It appears to create structure in society. War and politics are discussed in terms we don't often associate with them. In finding the right structure for her composition, she finds the solution to the problem posed to her. I liked this piece very much although I wouldn't have minded knowing a bit more about the war at the heart of these events.

As usual, I've had a lot of trouble writing this review. It took me well over a week, where I usually do a draft in one day and clean it up the second. Short story collections are a pain to review but Conservation of Shadows was even more difficult than usual. Lee writes very complex stories. She packs a lot into a few pages and often steps outside the western cultural framework. She makes me work pretty hard and I'm sure I missed quite a bit. In fact, without the story notes I might very well have been lost completely.

I'm somewhat frustrated by my own inability to properly express why I enjoyed this collection so much. I guess it is a combination of things. I liked Lee's prose a lot for instance. I'm not one for audio books but from reading these stories I get the impression that it would sound beautiful if narrated skilfully. Then there are the themes Lee addresses that, despite the nagging feeling that I'm missing some of the context, still strike a chord with me. I guess you are just going to have to take my word for it, if you enjoy reading short fiction, Lee is an author you'll not want to miss.

Book Details
Title: Conservation of Shadows
Author: Yooh Ha Lee
Publisher: Prime Books
Pages: 336
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-60701-387-7
First published: 2013