Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Grace of Kings - Ken Liu

Ken Liu has produced an impressive number of high quality short stories in the past few years. His stories have won him several awards and gathered a whole bunch of nominations. His first collection, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, is expected later in the year and I am really looking forward to getting my hands on that. Given the name he's been making for himself lately, it is no wonder that many people have been eagerly awaiting his first novel. The Grace of Kingswas released in April and is the first book in The Dandelion Dynasty series. He sold a total of three of them to Saga Press, the new Simon & Schuster SFF imprint that launched this year. The Grace of Kings is a secondary world fantasy but, as you would expect from Liu, heavily influenced by Chinese culture and history.

The Dara archipelago once housed seven kingdoms. Then a man rising up from the lowliest of the seven, conquered them all and unified them into one empire. In his search for greatness and eternal life, he neglected the needs of his people and failed to provide a secure throne for his heir. The boy unfortunate enough to take the throne is kept ignorant of what goes on in  his kingdom. As rebellion brews, he is distracted with games. Soon rebellions spring up all over the empire. Two men in particular, the great warrior Mata Zyndhu and the clever rogue Kuni Garu will shape the future of Dara in their search for justice, revenge, power and prosperity.

The Grace of Kings is an epic fantasy containing all that you might expect in one of those. The main difference with a lot of epic fantasy that is being written today, is that where most would use medieval Europe as a model, Dara is clearly inspired by China. You have your blond, blue-eyed characters but the whole novel breathes China. The food, the writing system, the political structure, the scholarship, the buildings, the symbols, it is inescapable. To be more precise, Liu was inspired by the rise of the Han dynasty. It was preceded by the brief Qin dynasty, the first imperial dynasty in China's history. Liu follows history loosely. It is not so much a retelling as a novel that takes history as a starting point. Liu's influences from Chinese history are taken from other periods as well.

One of his most obvious influences is The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a fourteenth century historical novel attributed to Luo Guanzhong. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of Chinese literature and tells the history of the demise of the Han until the reunification under the Jin dynasty. It is part history, part legend and severely romanticized and Liu seems to have used many of the same storytelling techniques in his novel. I have been told The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is about twice the size of The Lord of the Rings and has more characters than The Wheel of Time. It sounds like a fascinating but challenging read. I'm not familiar with it, which makes me wonder what someone who is more familiar with this work would make of Liu's effort.

The thing that most readers will notice right away about this novel is the manner in which Liu tells his story. The story covers about two decades and involves a lot of military campaigning. Liu is not afraid to skip the boring bits. He imparts a lot of what happens in a few brief sentences without lingering on the details, and mixes in brief bits of dialogue to keep us connected to the main characters. He zooms in on them and then retreats to show us the big picture. It is a huge contrast to some of the more recent and wildly popular epic fantasy out there. They focus on character, making the reader feel an emotional bond with them.Guy Gavriel Kay's recent novels inspired by Chinese history, Under Heaven (2010) and River of Stars (2013) focus much more on the personal drama of the main characters.  Liu keeps more distance and counts on the reader's curiosity to find out what happens to Dara next to keep them hooked. The tragedy that unfolds in this novel is that of a whole nation rather than the troubles of an individual character. I guess that more than a few readers in our individualistic society will have a problem with that style of storytelling.

As a result of Liu's stylistic choices, The Grace of Kings is a pretty fast paced book. I had expected to need more time to read it but the story flows in such a way that it is an almost effortless read. In this single volume, Liu stuffs a conflict comparable to the war in the Seven Kingdoms that George R.R. Martin expects to need seven volumes to finish. The way he prevents the story from bogging down in detail is really quite refreshing.

What The Grace of Kings does have in common with a lot of popular epic fantasy is the cynical view on power, gaining it, using it and especially holding on to it. Both the main characters are basically decent people who find it necessary to do horrible things to achieve their goals. The two main characters are very different men, united by a common goal. Events soon drive them apart however. What they do have in common is the belief that the other will inevitable try to force them from power. When it comes to ruling, it is all or nothing, nobody in this novel ever sets for a part of the whole. Which makes me wonder if we will see another betrayal by one of the secondary characters in the next novel.

I've seen a number of comments on the fact that women play second fiddle in this book, which surprised me a bit since Liu is an author associated with the call for more diverse fantasy and science fiction. This criticism seems valid enough though. Most of the women in this book are subordinate to men, are cast in traditionally feminine roles and do not play a part in the actual fighting. There is one notable exception but she doesn't change the general picture much. Not yet anyway, there would appear to be some interesting possibilities for this character in the second novel. Hopefully Liu can do a bit better on that front in the second volume. It seems like a shame to write a trilogy that could change the way epic fantasy is told and yet remain stuck in traditional gender roles all the same.

All in all I thought The Grace of Kings was a marvelous read. It remains to be seen how the series will develop of course but it is definitely off to a good start. Liu managed to deliver a debut novel that lives up to the promise shown in his short fiction, and that is no mean feat. The year is not nearly done and there are a few more big fantasy titles expected still, but the Grace of Kings will probably turn out to be one of the big releases of 2015. His short fiction already made Liu a writer to keep an eye on, this novel makes it clear there is much to be expected from him in the long form as well. The Grace of Kings is definitely recommended reading.

Book Details
Title: The Grace of Kings
Author: Ken Liu
Publisher: Saga Press /i>
Pages: 623
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-4814-2427-1
First published: 2015

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sailing to Sarantium - Guy Gavriel Kay

I spent a lot of time on the trian in the last couple of weeks so I needed something to read to take with me. I'm currently reading The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu and Dreamsongs by George R.R. Martin, both of which are hefty tomes, so I fished an old paperback out of the book case to read on the train. I've read Sailing to Sarantium, the first part in Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic duology for the first time in 2006. Back then I was a bit disappointed with it because I felt I had read half a story. I have read the sequel, Lord of Emperors, not long after finishing my first read of this book in fact, and so that flaw bothers me a bit less. Structurally I still don't think it works that well but Kay makes up for that on other ways.

The empire of Rhodias has fallen and the peninsula that was once its hart is no ruled by an invading tribe whose conversion to the sungod Jad is only skin deep. In the city of Varena, the master mosaicist Martinian receives a summons from Emperor Valerius II of Sarantium, the state in the east that sprung froth from the ancient Rhodian empire. Martinian is an old man however, and he decides the journey is too much for him. Instead he sends his companion Crispus to Sarantium. It will be a dangerous journey that will alter the course of his life forever.

The Sarantine Mosaic is another one of Kay's trademark historical novels that thinly veiled as fantasy. For this set he used the Byzantine Empire under Justinian the Great as an example. During his 38 year rule lasting from 527 till 565 the Byzantine empire reached its greatest expansion. His general Belisarius reconquered parts of the lost western half of the empire, including the city of Rome. His reign is something of a watershed in the history of the empire. It is believed that he was the last emperor to speak Latin as his first language. After his rule, the empire turned to Greek for most purposes and gave up all hope of expanding west. It entered a decline that would last for several centuries. Because of this, Justinian is often called the last Roman.

His accomplishments were not only military. He had a lot of influence on the course of the church. In effect, very little went on without his approval and he was very active in suppressing what he saw as heresy.  The Corpus Juris Civilis was complied during his reign. A work that would influence the development of legal systems in Europe for centuries to come. He is also the man that ordered the construction of the Hagia Sofia, on of the city's most famous landmarks. He was in other words, a man you did not want to cross. Nor, for that matter, was his wife Theodora (Alixana in the novel) who also plays an important role in the novel.

In the first part, the novel follows  history more or less like you can find it in the history books. In the prologue, attention is being paid to the Nika riots (532), an event early in the reign of Justinian that almost cost him his empire. The unstable situation in Italy after the death of Theodoric the Great is mentioned although the outcome is twisted a bit to suit the needs of the story. The Justinian plague also makes an appearance but is moved back in history a few years. Justinian's desire to reconquer Rome is also a driving force of the story. There are lot more bits of history worked into the text, the chariot races, several historical figures and references to the rise of Islam to name a few. One of the things that has always attracted me to Kay's writing is figuring out what is history, where het changes it and how much is simply made up.

Kay does not only get his inspiration from history however. The title of the novel is a direct reference to the poem Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats. The poem itself appear to have little to do with the story other than that Kay uses the phrase Sailing to Sarantium as an expression that signifies a defining moment in ones life. Leaving to never come back, a decision that can't be undone. I guess you could say the journey is a spiritual experience for Crispin too, although he didn't set out with that in mind, whereas Yeats is clearly looking for it.

As usual there is a bit of magic worked into the stories. In this duology, it is more than a bit in fact. It plays a crucial role in the story. Early on in the novel Crispin encounters a creature from pagan beliefs, leading him to accept there are more powers in the world than just that of Jad (who is based on the Christian god). It vexes me that I haven't been able to find the origin of this creature. I don't think Kay made it up entirely so if anyone knows the origin of this plot element please enlighten me.

As you will have guessed by now I like what Kay did with the historical background a lot but it does get him in trouble as well. Histoical views on Justinian swings between the two extremes provided by the most important contemporary reports on him. Interestingly enough they were both written by the same historian, a man named Procopius of Caesarea. One is the official history in which Justinian is praised to high heaven. The other is a secret history in which he is vilified and he and Theodora are accused of all maner of crimes, sins and sexual perversions. It is tempting to works some of the juicy stuff into the story. Sex and violence sells after all. Some of it appears to have made it into the novel, especially where Theodora is concerned.

The women in this novel, not just Alixana, are a bit problematic in many respects. They all play their political games, (the plot is byzantine after all) they are all intelligent and beautiful, they all use sex as a weapon and they all try to seduce the main character Crispin in some way. It gets a bit tiresome and frankly quite unbelievable. Kay does a lot better in that respect in some of his other novels. Byzanthine, when used in a review like this, is usually used to describe a plot full of complex, political machinations but, even for a novel set in a reimagined Byzantine empire, the author is pushing it.

As always with Kay, the writing itself is beautiful. He uses an omniscient narrator for the story and frequently moves back and forward in time, especially where story lines come together, to raise the tension. The prologue, especially if one is not familiar with the historical event, is perhaps a bit on the long side but after that Kay drags the reader into the story and makes you want to continue reading. The compelling storytelling becomes a bit of a problem at the end of the novel though. It is clear that the two novels were conceived as one work. The story in this first novel stops quite abruptly and that may be frustrating for readers who do not have the sequel on had. It would have been a big novel to be sure but I do think it might have worked better if it have been one work instead of a novel cut in half.

Sailing to Sarantium is not Kay's best novel. There are too many problems with the structure and the characterization to get anywhere close to Kay at his best. That being said, I do appreciate the handling of the history of the period in this novel, as well as the way Kay tells his story. The book really cannot be judged on its merits without reading the sequel as well but once you have finished this book, there is every reason to read on. Even when he is not at his best, Kay is well worth reading.

Book Details
Title: Sailing to Sarantium
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: Earthlight
Pages: 438
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-7434-5009-4
First published: 1998

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Hard To Be a God - Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

The Gollancz SF Masterworks list includes only a few translated titles and most of them have been written by the Strugatsky brothers. For some reason people like Jules Verne or Stanislav Lem haven't made the list so far. It is yet another sign of how few titles make it in English translation in the genre. To make matters worse, quite a few of the older translations are not very good. Hard To Be a God (1964) for instance, was until recently only available as a double translation. In this case an English translation of the German translation of the Russian original. The Strugatsky brothers were not especially happy with the English translations of their work. Arkady worked as a translator in English (and Japanese), the double translation must have been an irritation to say the least. It doesn't help that censorship in the USSR meant that quite a few translations were based on texts that were not the version the authors preferred.

I read one other book by the Strugatsky brothers, Roadside Picnic (1972), also part of the SF Masterworks series. That edition was based on a translation considered imperfect. In 2012 an new translation appeared by Olena Bormashenko, a few months before the death of Boris, the last surviving brother. I haven't read that translation but from what I hear, it is superior to the earlier one. Unlike Roadside Picnic, which was reissued before the 2012 translation was available, Gollancz used a new translation for this edition of Hard To Be a God. It is copyrighted in 2014 and again credited to Olena Bormashenko. All of this makes me wonder what the story behind the translation of Monday Begins on Saturday (1965), the third Strugatsky title of the SF Masterworks list, is. But enough on translations, let's look at the novel.

An undercover agent has been positioned on a planted where society has regressed to a feudal system. His job is to observe only but he finds it ever harder to keep from interfering in the face of the brutality he encounters. With his more advanced knowledge of history and society, the injustice he witnesses is almost too much to bear. Interfering is not only strictly forbidden, it is also highly dangerous. Those who give in to the temptation put themselves and others in grave danger. It is, in other words, hard to be a god.

The introduction to this edition is written by Scottish author Ken MacLeod and I very much recommend you read it. MacLeod is no stranger to leftist themes in his own work and he manages to put the novel in a political context that many readers would have missed. The idea behind this novel is that society inevitably moves toward a situation where class, money and even control by a state are things of the past. An utopian vision that is not unlike the one encountered in Star Trek. Unsurprisingly, it goes back to the works of Karl Marx. This inevitability comes back a lot in the doctrines of communist states and parties and most of them don't react too well when political theory doesn't quite hold up in reality. A mismatch between theory and reality is what occurs in this novel though, making it a potentially very explosive work in 1960s Soviet society. The brothers had to cover their critique with an exciting adventure but once you have been made aware of the idea that is the foundation of the story, it is impossible to miss.

The story itself takes place in the Noon universe, a loosely related set of novels named after Noon, 22nd Century (1961), the first in the sequence. The brothers didn't really intend to develop a fictional universe so the book can be read independently. On the surface it is an adventure, which according to the afterword by Boris Strugatsky is what the brothers set out to write. They had something along the lines of The Three Musketeers in mind but drifted a bit from the original idea in the writing. Consequently, it is quite fast paced, with developments moving faster than the characters have time to keep up with.

Where theory predicts that society would move into an era of accelerating scientific and economic development and greater personal freedom, the story is one the increasing influence of a cult that looks at knowledge, cultural refinement and even reading as highly suspicious. Knowledge is dangerous and must be suppressed. The level of fanaticism, brutality, rigidity and sheer ignorance reminds me a bit of some of the more extreme Islamist movements that have been making a name for themselves in recent years. The novel draws a direct parallel with Nazi Germany though, the events of  Night of the Long Knives in particular.

Our observer watches all this and tries to subtly influence events by helping notable scientists and intellectuals to flee the country. A task made ever more hazardous by the increasing influence of the cult. It is a very stark contrast to the life our observer has been positioned in. the nobles of the nation are mostly portrayed as corrupt and decadent. Apart from a few exceptions, they don't seem to see the disaster barreling down on them. There would seem to be a parallel between the story and the Stalinist purging of the 1930s. Then again, something that brazen might not have slipped past the censors. Read it a bit differently and it could also be the Russian revolution or the revolution of 1905. There is no shortage of revolutionary events and uprisings in Russian history.

The main character is essentially torn between his experience and knowledge as an observer and growing attachment to the object of his studies. He finds it hard to keep his personal ethics and integrity in line with the assignment he's been given and becomes increasingly desperate over the course of the novel. The increasing strain on the main characters is very well done. It's almost a prediction of what would happen to the USSR when it couldn't bridge the gap between political and economic theory and reality.

The writing style, especially the vocabulary the translator (or the authors?) employs, takes a bit of getting used to. Part of that seems to be conscious choice by the authors to make the nobles in the story sound pompous. The dialogues between them are almost comical to read. The style is probably not something that would get past an American editor though, so for some readers it will be a bit of a rocky ride especially early on. I've seen a lot of comments questioning the translator but one should keep in mind that this book was written by two men from a different literary tradition. Part of it at least, is clearly the authors intent.

The Strugatsky brothers approach science fiction in a very different way than western authors would and that alone makes it a shame that many of their books are out of print. They make a case for more attention to translations if my opinion. There are many more ways to look at science fiction that what the English-speaking world has to offer. Hard To Be a God is, a book that hides a lot under the fast paced surface of the story. Roadside Picnic remains their best known work but I don't think there is much between that book and Hard To Be a God to be honest. It is a work of science fiction that certainly deserves its place in the Masterworks list.

Book Details
Title: Hard To Be a God
Author: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 246
Year: 2015
Language: English
Translation: Olena Bormashenko
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-473-20829-2
First published: 1964

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Just City - Jo Walton

I read Jo Walton's love letter to science fiction, Among Others, in 2011. That was my first encounter with Walton's fiction. The book is not autobiographical but it does borrow elements from Walton's life. Most notably her reading habits. Walton read an awful lot of science fiction and Among Others is riddled with references to them. One of the things that stood out in that novel, is a number of references to the works of Plato, to which she was pointed by Mary Renault's historical novel The Last of the Wine. Plato must have impressed the young Morwenna/Jo because in The Just City we return to him. It's another novel that is hard to categorize. It contains philosophy, Greek mythology, robots and time travel. Sounds like a book that is very hard to market to me. Tor thinks they can do it though. The Just City is the first in a trilogy and the second book, The Philosopher Kings, is scheduled for publication in July. Walton is currently writing the third volume, Necessity, which is expected for some time next year.

The Just City is based on Plato's idea of an ideal city-state. He put it forward in his most famous work: The Republic. Athena, the Greek god of wisdom, takes an interest in these ideas and decides to start an experiment. In a time before the Trojan War, she founds a city on the island of Thera and populates it with people who have read The Republic in the original Greek and prayed to her. From all over history, people are taken to the city to lay the foundations of Plato's ideal and become the teachers for the first generation of citizens. Then thousands of 10-year-old enslaved children are taken to the city to grow up in a community unlike any other in history. Their goal is to pursue arete, which Walton translates as excellence but more commonly translated as virtue. Plato's ideals are not without their flaws though. Gradually, cracks begin to appear.

Walton tells the story from three different points of view. The first is Apollo, god of the sun and brother to Athena. After his adventure with Daphne, a nymph who chooses to turn into a tree rather than have sex with him, he decides there are things mortals can teach him. Reborn as a Greek boy he is taken to the city to live among the children of the Just City. Maia, is a 19th century woman and talented scholar who after the death of her father wonders what to do with her life. Society makes it impossible for her to pursue a career in academia and so she prays to Athena to take her to Plato's utopia. The goddess takes her to become one of the masters in the Just City. One of her pupils is Simmea, freed form slavery some time between the 6th and 11th century in Egypt. Scarred by her experiences as a slave, she thrives in the city which stimulates her curiosity and challenges her to excel. She is not blind to the discontent around her though.

These three points of view show us Plato's ideal and its problems, or, to put it in other words, show us Walton's reaction to Plato. The author has done a very good job of keeping the book accessible. I have read a bit of Greek mythology but as far as philosophy goes, I've never progressed beyond Sophie's World which does contain quite a large section of Socrates, another important figure in this novel, and Plato himself. I had no trouble following the story although you might get more out of it if you do know a bit more about the source material. What the novel did do was have me look up a number of references to artworks that are scattered thoughout the text and read up on the historical figures that populate the city. I probably spent more time on that than reading the actual book. There are quite few historical characters, usually under a name adopted when they joined the Just City, making their identity a bit of a puzzle for the reader. Walton knows how to trigger the reader's curiosity, that is for sure.

The novel is something of a dialogue in the Socratic sense. It is not so much about the characters rather than the position they take in the debate. And that is what the Just City is, a long-running debate. Walton's two major criticisms of Plato's ideal are in essence that a 10-year-old is not a tabula rasa as he supposes and that he severely misunderstands human sexuality. Pile on top of that all the little practical things The Republic does not mention and you can see the whole thing start to slide from the very first moment. That is not to say they don't achieve anything, but Plato's ideal seems a long way off by the end of the book.

Sexism is the most obvious obstacle in achieving Plato's ideals the book tackles. The situation is a bit curious to put it mildly. For most of history across many societies women were not seen fit to pursue careers in art, science or the military and that attitude is shared by many of the teachers Alhena brings to the city. Plato (and Socrates) argue that in utopia such discrimination would not exist and so the city teaches both genders the same things. That doesn't change the attitude of many of the men present in the city however, something the female main characters run into time and again. It is not always out in the open but throughout the book examples of how the opinion of women are not taken as seriously can be found and how the women have to find a way around it to get things done. Walton's portrayal of the position of women in the Just City is one of a more subtle kind of sexism than what most of the characters would have encountered in their own time but it is still depressingly obvious.

Where Plato's ideas on equality were revolutionary, his ideas on relationships and sexuality and raising are plain odd. This is a hugely complicated part of the novel as the ancient Greeks use terms like love, affection and friendship in different ways than we are used to. Walton uses the Greek terms agape eros and philia in the novel to keep apart the various relationships between the characters. There is a fourth word in ancient Greek to describe love, storge, but that kind of love plays a minimal role in the novel. These four kinds of love, and especially agape are later used by Christian philosophers in a slightly different context than the ancient Greeks did and that muddies the waters a bit.

The idea behind the city is that people do not form pairs but that procreation is arranged in such a way that the strongest possible offspring is produced. The children are then raised communally and not by their parents. This idea is very distasteful to the modern readers in the light of Nazi racial theories but most of the characters are from earlier times in history and they don't see it that way. It does disrupt the desire to form families and, not surprisingly, the restrictions the city imposes on sexual activity and relationships are broken by just about everybody. Being forced to have sex with people selected though a (rigged) lottery results in some positive but also, inevitably, negative experiences for both sexes. It is without a doubt the most problematic element in the Just City. Walton uses it to discuss issues like birth control, upbringing of children, rape (including a scene where Apollo is forced to do something despicable), sexual freedom and relationships. It would seem that the Just City cannot come about until humanity settles these issues, which makes me wonder if it ever will.

The Just City is without a doubt one of the most interesting books I've read in ages. It combines a story that is highly readable with an enormous amount of food for thought. I could probably go on for quite a while on all the influences, history and philosophy that went into it. I haven't even discussed the importance of art for instance. Or the debates on what constitutes intelligence. Or the ever present question of how much of Socrates' teachings is Plato putting words into his mouth. It's quite clear that Walton is not finished with this creation and that there is plenty of material left for the second and third book. While the novel itself ends with a satisfying climax (a debate of course, it could hardly have ended another way) I look forward to delving deeper into Walton's thoughts on Plato's Just City. The Just City is one of the 2015 books you do not want to miss.

Book Details
Title: The Just City
Author: Jo Walton
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 368
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3266-0
First published: 2015

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ségou II: De verkruimelde aarde - Maryse Condé

Ségou II: De verkruimelde aarde is the second part of the duology Maryse Condé wrote about the city of Ségou in present day Mali. Like the first part, which I reviewed earlier this year, I read it in Dutch translation. The original is in French and appeared under the title Ségou: La Terre en miette. It has been translated in English as well under the title Children of Segu but that edition appears to be long out of print. The second part is generally considered to be the lesser of the two. I tend to agree with that. Although I did enjoy this reread, some repetition works its way into the narrative. That being said, it does a very good job of showing the reader the developments that affect the city.

The second book covers the period from the fall of Ségou to the Toucouleur Empire of El Hadj Omar Tall in 1861 to the arrival of the French in 1890. It again follows the lives of the sons of the Traoré family, who spend lot of time outside the city. The book is essentially divided in four sections. The first deals with the life of Mohammed, who lost a leg in the war against the Toucouleur and desperately tries to reconcile his religious convictions and the goals of El Hadj Omar with his Bamambara heritage. The second section covers the story of Olubunmi, who worked for the French and knows what is in store for the city. The third section deals with the journey of Samuel. Raised by his devoutly Christian father and educated by the English, he decides to seek out his Trelawny ancestors on his mother's side of the family and gets caught up in the Morant Bay Rebellion on Jamaica. The final part of the novel is seen from the point of view of Omar, son of Mohammed, who is trying to understand the father he never knew and end up trying to start a jihad against the French. More than enough material for drama in other words.

There is an element of repetition in these novels. The Traoré men are often idealistic, with grand plans to change the direction of the city of Ségou, the Bambara people or even the continent. They inevitably clash hard with the realities of the world around them and end up disillusioned or dead. Sometimes both. Where in the first novel, fate carried the Traorés all over the world, the characters in this one are more likely to make their own choices. The outcome of these choices are usually not much better than the lives forced upon the four sons of Dousika in the first novel.

The main characters spend relatively little time in the city of Ségou. In fact, most of the main characters are somewhat estranged from their Bambara roots. Mohammed for instance, feels he should be a good Muslim first, and despises his people for the mixture of Islam and traditional beliefs that is practiced in the family. Where the family as a whole, seems to manage a balance, he cannot and it gets him in a lot of trouble. It is a conflict his son Omar will relive to an extent a generation later.

Samuel is even more cut of from Ségou. He has a very poor relationship with his father and that influences his decision to leave for Jamaica. His grandmother was part of the Maroons. Escaped slaves who resisted the British and managed to establish a free community in the 1700s. While the British did not defeat them, they did manage to get them to agree to hunt other escaped slaves for them. Samuel is severely disillusioned when he sees what has become of the people who he considered heroes. It is one of the many examples in the novels of how dealing with white people, one way or another, always ends in disaster for the black characters.

The relationship between Africa and its diaspora is a theme that shows up in many of Condé's novels and it is very prominent in this particular storyline. In the previous novel it was the descendants of Naba who show the problematic relationship between the slaves and their descendants and the Africans who remained on the continent. Samuel shows us another side of this. Because of his education and upbringing, the blacks on Jamaica tease him by wondering how he can be a white man even if he is from Africa. Condé drives how the dramatic consequences of their displacement and the loss of their cultural roots home thoroughly in this book.

Another tragedy that is well represented in this novel is the way in which the colonizing powers manage to control vast stretches of the continent with minimal resources and manpower by exploiting the internal divisions among the local population. Omar's slogan, 'we are one' (against the French) mostly falls on deaf ears or is considered a somewhat controversial interpretation of a sura in the koran. The Bambara try to get rid of Toucouleur rule by enlisting the help of the French, the result of which is the establishment of French rule. While the white men seem to be unable to tell one black person from another, they know how to exploit the differences. The sheer racism and disregard of local culture, traditions and economies and even human life is staggering even to a people who have experienced a jihad a generation before. Condé may well have spared us the worst by ending her tale in 1890.

Once again the women in this book suffer even more than the men. Their men, caught up in wars, religious conflicts and political games do not precisely make life easy for them and neither the Bambara traditions nor Islam treats them kindly. Under the French things would not improve either. Whichever way they turn, they are at the mercy of men who, while not always uncaring, see them as little more than possessions or in some cases distractions from their attempts at living a devoutly religious life. Condé chooses to tell her story almost entirely from male points of view. I can't help but wonder how this novel would have turned out with a bit more sections form a female perspective.

Where we started the tale with a proud, independent nation, over the course of two books we see the city of Ségou decline ever further. Their absorptions into French Sudan seems inescapable. What little hope remains in this book can be found in the roots of the extended Traoré family. It is a family who have weathered all storms for almost a century. Despite religious disputes and all manner of conflict, they have managed to keep that in tact at least. Condé leaves us with a profound sense of loss at the end of the novel, where one of the charters muses on the state of the city and how he is going to lead the family though this. Although the continuing downward spiral in both books suggest an answer, it is up to the reader to decide whether or not to go along with that. Whichever way you choose to look at it, Ségou is a remarkable piece of historical fiction.

Book Details 
Title: Ségou II: De verkruimelde aarde  
Author: Maryse Condé
Publisher: Rainbow Pocket
Pages: 550  
Year: 1990
Language: Dutch
Translation: Edith Klapwijk
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 90-6766-086-8
First published: 1985

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Tuf Voyaging - George R.R. Martin

Early in his career George R.R. Martin was not particularly good at finishing series. A lot of his 1970s stories leave openings for sequels that never got written. Tuf is a bit of an exception in that respect. Martin wrote enough of them to fill a book. In a way, we have to commercial failure of The Armageddon Rag (1983) to thank for it. Martin couldn't get his fifth novel sold and abandoned it eventually. He had a contract for a Tuf collection though, and he needed money quite badly at the time. The result is this book. Not that it is a complete of course. Martin had ideas for more stories, after the publication of this collection in 1986 there was even talk of a full novel. None of that ever happened. Martin left for Hollywood and got into A Song of Ice and Fire later. It looks unlikely that more Tuf stories will appear. Not any time soon anyway. A shame really, rereading this collection left me with the feeling Martin was not yet done with this character.

Tuf Voyaging is sometimes mentioned to be a novel, sometimes a fixup and sometimes a collection. I think it is the last. In fact, if you approach this work as a novel, you'll be disappointed. Martin wrote them as short stories and although there is a bit of development in Tuf's character, there isn't much of an overarching storyline. The oldest story of the bunch, A Beast for Norn  appeared in 1976 but Martin rewrote it quite a bit for this collection. The original version can be found in the massive collection Dreamsongs and was first published in an Orbit anthology called Andromeda I. All others Tuf stories ended up with Analog between 1978 and 1985. That last year was particularly productive for Tuf, with no less than four stories appearing. Martin also added a brief prologue to the collection to gather everything together.

The collection  presents the stories chronologically and starts with The Plague Star (1985). It tells the tale of Tuf taking a group of adventurer out to a derelict spaceship that the party's leader thinks is a huge, ancient seedship from the a huge war fought more than a thousand years ago. The builders had very advanced knowledge of genetics and ecology, making the ship, if intact, very valuable. In this story we meet a Tuf that is almost comic. He's calm and very much in control of the situation even when it appears he's not. He's also verbose, eccentric and seems a little naive. He seems blissfully unaware of the backstabbing that is about to break out yet somehow seems to come out on top.Tuf has reinvented himself as ecological engineer. He now wields the power to shape or destroy entire planets. He has, in other worlds, become a god.

There is a lot of religious symbolism in these stories. Lots of biblical references are sprinkled throughout the text. Martin uses the miracle of loaves and fishes, the ten plagues brought down on Egypt and the manna that feeds the Jews in the Sinai in Exodus all find their way into the stories. At one point Tuf even pretends to be Yahweh to bring a wayward religious leader to heel.  Absolute power and the use of it is an important theme in these stories. Tuf uses his power as he sees fit and seems to have inhibitions about ending ways of life forever, wiping out whole ecosystems or waging biological wars. Tuf feels entitled to make these decisions without consultation. He goes from unassuming to almost tyrannical over the course of the collection. If Martin does write a sequel, it would be interesting to see what Tuf would do if he screws up.

Having taking control of the Ark, as the spaceship is called, Tuf proceeds to the planet of S'uthlam where he hopes to get the damage to his ship accumulated over a millennium fixed. As the name suggests, the planet is in a permanent state of Malthusian crisis. The majority of the population beliefs it is their holy duty to procreate and does so at an alarming rate. Tuf himself, when he finally finds out the size of the population of the planet, responds with a typical understatement.
"Since you solicit my opinion, Portmaster, I shall venture to say  that while the world above us seems formidably large, I cannot but wonder if it is indeed large enough. Without intending any censure of your mores, culture, and civilization, the thought does occur to me that a population of thirty-nine billion persons might be considered, on the whole, to be a trifle excessive."
Tuf talking to portmaster Tolly Mune in Loaves and Fishes.
Mune, interestingly as much opposed to the enormous growth the the population of the planet, is one of the few characters in the story who seriously tries to make Tuf see the problematic way in which he uses the Ark and makes his decisions. Mune and her troubled planet appear in three stories in this collection, making it the spine of Tuf's adventures. Loaves and Fishes, Second Helpings and Manna from the Heavens were all first published in 1985 and contain most of Tuf's development as a character.

Tuf's adventures on S'uthlam can also be seen as commentary on the overpopulation that is one of the main driving forces in environmental degradation all over the planet. One of the strategies Tuf (himself a vegetarian) proposes is the replace all sorts of inefficient foodstuffs (read meat) by much higher yielding, if not always tasteful, alternatives. Tuf realizes that in the face of exponential population growth, this is just a stopgap measure however and that the real solution much be found in birth control. That is one theme where I think the collection could have used a bit more depth. The ethical dilemma is outlined but never really discussed or shown in much detail.

In between de stories dealing with S'uthlam, Tuf visits several other planet. In Guardians (1981) he brokers a piece between humans and an, until Tuf's intervention unrecognized, sentient species. In A Beast for Norn (1976) he end animal fighting in a roundabout way and in Call Him Moses (1978), he stops a fanatical religious leader with a few biological tricks up his sleeve. It's in these stories that you can tell Martin's knowledge of ecology is basic. In the stories dealing with S'uthlam, he needs to employ the entire ecosystem for food production, basically redesigning it completely. In the other stories, he just meddles and the consequences of this could be dramatic.

Tuf tends to introduces species to fix certain biological problems. If experience on Earth is any guide, this almost always backfires in some way. Think of rabbits overrunning Australia, the unbelievable damage rats can do on islands where they are introduced, the devastation caused by the Nile Perch in Lake Victoria, the list of examples in endless an costly in both ecological and economical sense. In A Beast for Norn, in which Martin introduces two dozen alien species to a planet, when confronted with the fact that he ruined the planet's ecosystem and crashed it's economy he remarks:
"Unlikely," said Tuf. "My experience is these matters suggests that Lyronica may indeed suffer a certain interlude of ecological instability and hardship, yet it will be of limited duration and ultimately I have no doubt that a new ecosystem will emerge. It appears unlikely that this successor ecology will offer niches for large predators, alas, but I am optimistic that the quality of Lyronican life will be otherwise unimpaired.
Tuf speaking to one of his customers in A Beast for Norn.
Now that would be a remarkable feat of ecological engineering. Doing away with an entire trophic level of an ecology doesn't strike me as a good way to keep the productivity and complexity of an ecosystem in tact.

Ecology is still a subject a lot of science fiction steers clear of. Martin gives it a try in this collection but on the whole it is closer to a satirical work than a scientifically accurate one. That being said, I did enjoy reading this collection again. The humour is part of it, but I also simply enjoyed the writing. Despite writing them out of chronological order, Martin manages to get a development in the character from a humble and eccentric trader in The Plague Star to a near megomaniac Manna from the Heavens. I've seen many review stating there is no character development in Tuf. I respectfully disagree with that. It is more subtle than in some of his stories, but it is most certainly there. One other thing I appreciate about Tuf Voyaging is that it underlines that Martin is just as comfortably writhing short stories as he is writing huge fantasy novels. Martin is a versatile writer, capable of writing more then fantasy novels alone. As much as I like A Song of Ice and Fire, I still think Martin's best work is in his short fiction and Tuf is one example of that. Don't approach it as a novel and don't expect epic fantasy and you might just end up liking what Martin has done here.

Book Details
Title: Tuf Voyaging
Author: George R.R. Martin
Publisher: Meisha Merlin
Pages: 440
Year: 2003
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 1-59222-004-5
First published: 1986

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Elysium Commission - L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Although much of his output is fantasy, L.E. Modesitt, Jr. delivers a science fiction novel every other year or so. The Elysium Commission is the most recent of these I own and it is already eight years old. It's been on the to read stack for over six years now. I came across it while digging for Terry Pratchett's Small Gods that suffered a similar faith. Like many of Modesitt's science fiction novels, The Elysium Commission is a standalone, although it does have many links with his other works. The novel will not surprise readers familiar with Modesitt's work. It is, as always, solidly written, well plotted and fairly fast paced but it does rely on views Modesitt expressed in many other novels as well.

Blaine Donne has settled into a career as private investigator after serving in the military. He does moderately well and manages to get enough clients to pay for the considerable expenses of his job and his more altruistic side activities. One day, he gets a request to look into the connection between a wealthy entertainment mogul and a scientist. It seems straightforward but is soon becomes clear that Donne looking into the matter is not appreciated by the object of his investigation. After the first attempt on his life, he is caught up in a series of events that unveils a conspiracy large enough to threaten the very existence of the planet.

The novel is set in a fairly distant future on a planet colonized by humans. The city most of the action takes place in is modeled after Paris and many of the names of places, institutions and people have a French flavour, often referring to some of the French literary greats. I couldn't help wondering how much of this novel was inspired by Hugo's Les Misérables for instance. The dynamic between Donne and a police officer named Javerr reminded me of Valjean and Javert and the name seems obvious. Names are big thing in this novel. Modesitt refers to a lot of science fiction and fantasy writers in the novel as well. There are references to Robert Jordan, David Harwell (Modesitt's editor at Tor), Gene Wolfe and Paula Volsky, among others.

The planet appears to be unified but there are several factions in human occupied space with different outlooks on society. One of them is a faction based on the Mormons that shows up in a number of other books. Although the balance of power between these factions is only vaguely discussed, it does limit the effectiveness of the  planetary government and it's space to maneuver. Something that has far-reaching consequences for the plot of the novel.

Modesitt's approach to the novel is familiar. Donne's career path is similar to that of Daryn Alwyn in The Octagonal Raven (2001) and Jonat DeVrai in Flash (2004) for instance. He strikes out for himself after a career in the military. He keeps in shape, keeps up his piloting skills and has a more or less similar outlook on society. Much of what Donne thinks of society, and what other characters contribute over the course of the novel can be linked back to the Paradigms of Power, a set of principles that govern society in his novel Adiamante (1996). One of the factions mentioned in the book may also refer to a faction in his novel The Parafaith War (1996). I haven't read that one myself and he changed the spelling a bit bit so I might be wrong there. The Parafaith War and it's 2003 sequel The Ethos Effect (which I have read) do share the same outlook on society, ethics and the use of power though. Although none of these novels appear to be set in the same future, Modesitt's vision of socety is very consistent across these novels and often voiced by Exton Land, the philosopher Modesitt named after himself.

Where Donne does deviate from other characters is his activities as knight of the shadows. He walks the streets of the city exposing criminals after their intent is clear but before they can do physical harm. In a high-tech society is true identity cannot remain hidden of course and in the later stages it becomes a fact used to put pressure on him. So a dark knight looking to foil a plot by a super rich megalomaniac. If you put it that way, the plot sound downright simplistic. Entertaining perhaps, but not something that you'd remember long after finishing it. Modesitt once stated that he thinks a book should first entertain the reader or whatever else you try to do with it will not matter as the reader will abandon it. This plot creates opportunities for entertainment but it is the deeper layer that makes of breaks the novel in my opinion.

What I liked about it, is that the dark night can't just take a gadget out of his pocket and neutralize the villain. He is hemmed in on all sides by the need to comply with laws and regulations, by public appearance and by his own moral standards. These limitations don't just work for him, it is something everyone, from the highest level of government to the lowest level in law enforcement have to deal with. Not everything they do is legal, but is has to appear legal. Not even the villain, who is not above assassination, bribing or mass murder if it suits his purpose, escapes these restrictions. It is one of the examples of the internal logic of Modesitt's worlds that can be found throughput his novels. As a result, no actions without consequence, excellence cannot be achieved without hard work and no victory is without a price. It's this rigorous consistency that allows the plot to attain more depth than my dark knight versus megalomaniac villain comment suggests.

I do think that Modesitt leans on what he has done before a bit too much in this novel. Not so much in terms of characters (an often heard criticism of his work) but thematically. Over the course of many novels he's laid out a structure of ethics, views on society and human nature that is so central to his work that it is almost misleading to consider The Elysium Commission a standalone story. The author builds on the foundations he has laid in earlier books. They are so interlinked in a way that you will get more out of this novel if you have read more of his work. If you like Modesitt's writing you can't really go wrong with this one, but if you are looking for a good entry point into his oeuvre I'd look elsewhere. 

Book Details
Title: The Elysium Commission
Author: L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 356
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-5654-3
First published: 2007

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Small Gods - Terry Pratchett

On March 12th Terry Pratchett passed away. I never met him in person by he was by all accounts a remarkable man. He'll be remembered for his novels, which includes some of the finest satires ever written, but his attitude towards Allzheimer's disease and his own impending death made a big impression on me too. Besides supporting research into his condition, he was also an advocate of assisted suicide. I watched the documentary Choosing to Die, which Pratchett presented, a while ago. It's a very impressive piece of work but awfully hard to watch whatever your position on the issue. There is much more to remember Terry Pratchett for than just his writing.

Some people devour his books as soon as they appear. He has a large number of fans no doubt eagerly anticipating the final Discworld novel Pratchett wrote. It is scheduled to be released later in the year. I've been poked and prodded to read his books for years from various sides. In early 2008 I finally caved and started on The Colour of Magic. In a the space of 18 months I read the first twelve Discworld books and then, in the summer of 2009 I stalled for some reason. Small Gods, Discworld book number 13, sat on the self unread for over five years until Pratchett's passing reminded me I really ought to read it. I may not be the most hardcore Pratchett fan but his passing deserves attention. And what better book that the novel that tackles the one subject even more explosive than assisted suicide? In Small Gods Pratchett the central theme is religion.

The nation of Omnia is the bastion of the Great God Om. It is a theocracy completely devoted to this God and living by the countless commandments his prophets have laid down for them over the generations. The time of a new prophet is fast approaching but the god Om has a bit of a problem. In all the realm, there is only one true believer left and not the most formidable human either. His name is Brutha and he is a novice in one the religious institutions in Omnia's capital. With few options open to him, the Great God speaks to his chosen prophet. It is the start of a series of events that will change the course of Omnia's history.

Small Gods is one of the singleton Discworld novels. Apart from Death, Lu-Tze, and, very briefly, the Librarian, no characters from other books show up. You could probably read this without having read any of the other Discworld books. Apart from a few minor references to other stories, the novel is completely self contained. I'm not entirely sure it is a good point to start reading Pratchett though. He takes on controversial topics more often but this book is the only one I can think of that has the potential to be offensive to just about everyone. Not even the atheists are safe. What the novel shows clearly, is Pratchett's ability to write about such topics without being heavy handed. Fairly recently Neil Gaiman in an interview with the Guardian said about Pratchett that he is angry rather than jolly. That statement makes sense in a way but still there is nothing bitter or sarcastic in Pratchett's writing, even if between the lines you can see he has strong opinions on the topic. It's a quality that makes you read on and smile even if he is in the process of tipping your particular sacred cow.

Pratchett bases is story on the idea that people make gods, not the other way around. A small god is a potential really. If they can manage to find true believers the may grow to become something. The gods with real powers are the ones with a large following. Gods who  lose their believers, lose their power. Which of course is exactly what happens to Om after the nation that worships him turns into a huge bureaucratic religious order. What people follow is the structure, the ritual, the dogmas, but no longer the god. In one sweep Pratchett fells god the creator, monotheism an organized religions.

One of the cleverest bits of satire in the novel is the dogma of the Omnians that the world is a sphere (when in reality it is a disc carried on the back of four elephants, standing on the back of a huge turtle, any sailor can tell you) that is challenged by those who believe in the observations made from an island on the rim. The way Pratchett not only lampoons church dogmas but uses it to make fun of science and atheists, who in the face of evidence of their existence, refuse to belief in the gods. In the end it is the story's one true believer who, not though is belief in any particular god, but through a mix of humanism, ethics and pragmatism, achieves peace and prosperity and changes a god's mind. With a nudge from an unseen force of course.

Brutha himself reminded me a bit of Rincewind. He's basically clumsy and not very talented in anything relevant to his chosen career. Like Rincewind he has one great talent. He never forgets anything he's seen. His flawless memory gets him in trouble more than once because he is incapable of forgetting anything even when told to so by his superiors. It does come in handy at other times though. It would be tempting to think of him as not very bright, but in reality he's not really a fast thinker. His ideas, when they do pop up are noting short of revolutionary. He's also often the voice of reason and compassion to balance the insanity around him. It took me a while to like him but I must admit he grew on me later in the book.

There will no doubt be an awful lot of readers who won't like this book, simply because Pratchett's humour doesn't spare anyone. For readers familiar with Discworld that will hardly be a problem. What Pratchett does in this novel is not so much attack religion (or science or philosophy), but rather make fun of closed minded people, wherever they may be found. It's human stupidity and short-sightedness that angered Pratchett according to Gaiman. Whatever Pratchett's exact feeling on the subject of religion and the way it expresses itself in society, he channeled them into a book that is both hilarious and possesses great depth. It will leave the reader mulling over the ideas he put into the text long after the last page has been turned. Small Gods is one of the better Discworld novels I've read so far. If I don't read another anytime soon poke me to get on with it.

Book Details
Title: Small Gods
Author: Terry Pratchett
Publisher: Corgi Books
Pages: 380
Year: 1993
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-552-13890-1
First published: 1992

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lagoon - Nnedi Okorafor

For some reason, in just about every alien invasion movie I've seen, the aliens land somewhere in the US if they don't outright park their ship on the White House lawn. Why they would pick that particular spot on the globe, which covers only a small percentage of the earth's surface and doesn't look particularly special from orbit is beyond me. The makers of the movie District 9 must have wondered about that too because they decided to have their spaceship appear above Johannesburg, South Africa. Okorafor mentions that this movie was what triggered her to write Lagoon, so I decided to watch t. It's a curious movie and I can see why it pissed of just about the entire nation of Nigeria. For a movie which main theme is xenophobia, the portrayal of Nigerians in District 9 is downright offensive. The story must have gotten away from Okorafor's initial inspiration though. The movie and the book have very little to do with each other.

On Bar Beach in Lagos, Nigeria, three complete strangers meet and witness something huge striking the ocean a few miles of the coast. It is the start of a series of strange events that will turn their lives upside down and reshape the history of the city, the nation and the world as a whole. Aliens have landed and they bring change. Before that, our three heroes must save the city from tearing itself apart. Accompanied by an alien ambassador they head out into chaos.

Given my introduction you might expect a more positive picture of Nigerians to emerge than the criminal cannibals in District 9. And in a way that is the case. Lagos is described as vibrant and diverse. That being said, she is not blind to the problems the city faces either. Poverty, prostitution, homophobia, corruption,  internet fraud and religious intolerance all show up prominently in the novel. Riots soon break out after the cause of the strange phenomena that wash over the city becomes known. They are opportunistic and extremely violent. In the midst of all this chaos however, sacrifice, compassion and remorse show up time and again. It is a far cry from the dehumanized criminals in District 9.

Nigeria is a nation with many ethnic groups. The three largest, Yoruba, Haussa and Igbo, make up about sixty percent of the population, with countless others making up the rest. Throughout the novel we find the characters constantly aware of the ethnic and cultural divisions and the linguistic complications that can cause. As happened in many places in Africa, the lingua franca of the nation is that of the former colonial power: English. For everyday use, it has evolved into a pidgin language with many influences from various African languages. Okorafor uses this pidgin English extensively in the novel and provides a list of key terms in the back of the book. It took me a bit to get into it. As a second language speaker of English I always have a bit of trouble with English that deviates too much from the school-taught standards. It does give the reader the feeling it has been written by someone who knows Nigeria. I assume Okorafor had to hold back in a few places to keep the novel from becoming incomprehensible for those who are not familiar with the country but it is the kind of detail I appreciate in a book. There is an audiobook version of this novel, someone probably had a lot of fun putting that together.

Their is more than a bit of religious tension in the book as well. Nigeria is divided in roughly equal parts Christian and Muslin communities and violence between them has flared up periodically. Okorafor works that into the novel at various point but perhaps more interestingly, she also reaches back to the traditional  beliefs of the Yoruba and Igbo peoples. Several mythological figures show up in the story and in those parts it is most obvious that the novel is written for a western audience. Explanations about who these figures are are worked into the text. Especially later on in the novel, these occurrences are used as a herald of change. A departure from the oil addicted, corrupt economy by reaching back to the roots of the land, bringing to the surface a Nigeria that cannot be erased by the evils of colonialism, religious strife and environmental degradation. It is a change that needs a catalyst though, barring alien invasions, it is not easy to see what other development could provide it.

Okorafor uses quite a large and varied cast in this relatively short novel. There is liberated marine biologist Adaora and her fundamentalists Christian husband Chris, the compassionate soldier Agu and the famous Ghanaian rapper Anthony, the corrupt priest Father Oke and the unnamed Nigerian president (probably based on Umaru Musa Yar'Adua who was president of Nigeria from 2007 till 2010) and of course the alien ambassador Ayodele. They all play important parts in the chaotic and dramatic events in the novel. I grew particularly fond on Adaora and Anthony, which in my opinion are the most rounded characters of the lot. That is, if you want to see the people are the main characters. One could very easily argue that this is one of those novels where the setting is the real main character. Lagos after all, is the one that undergoes the most profound change in the novel.

Lagoon is an alien invasion novel like you probably never read before. It's wildly different setting and its clear break with the conventions of this particular subgenre make it one of the most interesting science fiction novels I've read in a long while. There are so many interesting aspects to this novel that I get the feeling I can't possibly do this book justice in a thousand word review. It is another novel in a movement to make science fiction more international and multicultural, one of those books that even a decade ago, would have had a hard time finding an audience. I thought reading it was an amazing experience. It's one of those 2014 books that ought to be in this years awards ballots. I can't recommend it enough. Go read it.

Book Details
Title: Lagoon
Author: Nnedi Okorafo
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 301
Year: 2014
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-444-76276-1
First published: 2014

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Jacaranda - Cherie Priest

According to Priest, Jacaranda is the final work she will write in her Clockwork Century setting. The series consists of five novels, one short story and, including this one, two novellas. I've had great fun with the previous entries in the series, even if they are not the most challenging works in the Steampunk genre, so I really wanted to read this one as well. Like the previous novella in the series, this one was published by Subterranean Press and like pretty much everything they publish, it is a beautiful little book. Great attention has been paid to the design and artwork. Subterranean books are not cheap but they always make sure you know that you paid for quality. The number of hardcovers is very limited so if you want one, better be fast.

On an island off the coast of Texas a hotel built with the finest technology the late nineteenth century has been making a name for itself. The place is thought to be haunted. Two dozen people have already died under mysterious circumstances. The authorities can't be bothered to investigate the deaths anymore and so an unlikely crew of a nun, a Texas ranger and a Mexican priest gathers at the hotel to investigate. As a hurricane barrels down on them, the terrible truth about the Jacaranda Hotel slowly reveals itself to them.

Jacaranda is set in the Clockwork Century but it is only very loosely tied to the rest of the stories. There is a reference to the rotters, the zombie-like victims of an addictive substance introduced in opening novel  Boneshaker, a few references to the alternate version of the American civil war the series covers and a reference to one of the major characters on Ganymede, the third novel in the series. That is all there is to be found of the Clockwork Century really. With a few minor bits of rewriting the whole thing could have been completely separated from the Clockworld universe. As a consequence, it can be read independently without missing much of what is going on. Jacaranda is not a novella meant to close of any dangling threads or answer any remaining questions. The climax of the series is clearly the final novel Fiddlehead.

In essence, Jacaranda is a haunted house story. The plot is not all that original and so the success of the story depends on the execution. Such stories need a certain atmosphere, a buildup of tension at just the right place, revelations at the right time. Priest realized this and paced her story accordingly. Where her first Clockwork Century novella Clementine felt constrained by the need to keep the word count under a certain number (it was intended for Subterranean but for contractual reasons Priest would have had to offer it to Tor first if it got above a certain word count), this one feels about right in length. In fact, take out a few of the plentiful descriptions of a storm approaching and it might even have been a bit shorter.

Atmosphere is important to the story though, Priest uses the approaching hurricane to ramp up the tension. The gradually darkening sky, the preparation for the storm, the subconscious nervousness caused by a rapidly dropping air pressure and the ever prescient threat of the hotel all  add to the sense of dread in the story. People die in it of course, but there is no need for buckets of blood or dozens of bodies. Like in a good horror movie, what you don't see is scarier than what is explicitly shown. It will not surprise the reader that in classic horror tradition, the climax of the story coincides with the climax of the hurricane.

Priest uses another element in her story pops up often in horror movies: guilt. Who gets to die and who is involved in the story in the first place is decided by often peculiar notions on who is deemed guilty and who is considered innocent and free of sin. The visitors of the hotel all bear the burden of guilt until it is too late. While none of them can actually be touched by the law of morals, each of them has broken a vow or a promise that weighs on their conscience. It is what draws them in an keeps them from running. At some level, the guilty want to be punished and the hotel is ready to extract a kind of justice from them. I guess guilt is not a surprising theme in a story where two of the main characters are Catholics who dedicated their lives to god. Especially later on in the novella, this biblical view on sin and guilt becomes more important. I can't say that was my favourite part of the story.

I must admit that this book was not quite what I was hoping for. It certainly doesn't deliver what I read the Clockwork Century books for. The hotel has  few gadgets but they are not important to the story, nor is the alternative history Priest has laid out. Haunted house stories are not really my thing either. They tend to be so stuck in horror clichés that they rarely make for challenging or interesting reading. Putting my personal preferences aside for the moment, I do see a story that is well executed. Some readers may not be entirely convinced by the climax but it worked well enough for me. Jacaranda was entertaining reading, but as a postscript to the Clockwork Century, it is essentially unnecessary. Read it if you enjoy a good haunted house story or if you can't stand to leave a series unfinished. If those two don't apply to you, there are more interesting book out there.

Book Details
Title: Jacaranda
Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 181
Year: 2015
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-684-7
First published: 2015