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 Book review: Among Others, by Jo Walton

Among Others is a beautiful book.
It's one of those books that you imagine the author has written just for you, and it struck so many chords with me in so many ways.

The book's protagonist, Mori, has just saved the world from her evil mother's magic. Her twin has been killed while doing so, and Mori herself is badly injured. Sent to a boarding school where she makes few friends, she joins a local book group and talks to fairies, all the while devouring authors such as LeGuin, Zelazny and Tolkien. Mori is Welsh, from the valleys, and she tells us that fairies particularly favor places where humans have been , and where they aren't any more-places like abandoned tramways, old buildings, and industrial relics. 

It's true that magic is not the main focus of the book. But the strength of Among Others is that it conveys quite perfectly what it means to be a lonely bookish child (full disclosure; I am a twin and was once a weird, bookish child) quite desperate for escape. I especially loved the passage where Mori quotes Psalm 121 'I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from where comes my help."'

We grew up, my sister and I, on the edge of Nottingham in an area rich in post-industrial wastelands- -abandoned railway tracks, flooded gravel pits, and the grounds of stately homes that had long since been turned over to the state. Our family's escape route was always Derbyshire and the Dark Peak, our countryside peat-covered fells, our skies grey. We spent our weekends fell walking, and we holidayed in Scotland, the Pennines, the Lakes and once we got older, the Pyrenees.The hills have always been my help.

I have spent the last few years living near my man's family in Suffolk, where the fairies must have a far easier time than they ever did in Nottingham. I now live in the far south of New Zealand, though my twin still lives and works in the Midlands.We spend a lot of time in the mountains. 

We will return at some point. I love it here, but it is a long way away, and Among Others brought me a little closer to home.

But there are so many mountains here.

And they are all so beautiful.

 

communi_kate: (monkey)
 So I finished the last book in Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadow's of the Apt series. 

It's been a long ride (ten modestly-sized novels) and a hell of a fun one. Few series manage to blend an Tchaikovsky's grasp of character with the series' epic feel.  The character list runs to several pages and by the end of the series I cared for every single one. Every good guy has a dark side, and every bad guy is given their moment to shine (of course, not all of them take the opportunity). The plot is resolved neatly with without a deus ex machina, there are very few kings, lords or princes, and the whole is brought to a very satisfying conclusion.  

My favorite book in the series will always be The Scarab Path (Che/Thalric forever!) but those last two books found me biting my nails and wondering just how the hell Tchaikovsky would manage to pull the story off. There's some real tear-jerking moments-the siege of Collegium and the final scene between Tisamon and Stenwold come to mind, but the mood is one of cautious optimism, as the kinden take their first steps into a brave new world. 

Tchaikovsky's posted casting for the main characters in the series here on the author's blog and there's a bunch of world-building and short stories that are more than worth a read on his website, shadowsoftheapt.com.

As famous last words go, "You didn't think I'd go on without you, did you?" takes some beating.
communi_kate: (monkey)

I once read a critique of Mieville's work where the critic complained that he appreciated Mieville's novels for their lyrical prose but couldn't get past the fact that his characters were either bastards or had features that were profoundly unsympathetic and/or terrible fates*. This is an aspect of Mieville's work that's always prevented me from enjoying his adult novels as much as I feel I should.

Those readers who share my sentiments would probably enjoy Railsea, a young adult novel and affectionate deconstruction of Moby Dick. Railsea takes place in an alternate world where the plains between cities are populated by man-eating subterranean monsters. Trains manned by fearless adventurers travel the great railsea searching for the salvage of lost civilizations and hunting the moldywarpe, or giant mole.

The hero, Sham, is apprenticed to a train whose one-armed captain, Abacat Naphi, is obsessed with a great white moldywarpe called Mocker-Jack. Like most of Mievielle's novels, nothing is quite what it seems. Naturally no seafaring cliché is left subverted (at one point Sham is marooned upon an island of higher ground but escapes by repairing an abandoned handcar and setting out alone along the rails), there are pirates and peg legs aplenty and people are forced to walk the plank.  

Railsea's very readable and the world building is entertaining. It's short but sweet and although you suspect that Mieville at times is a touch too pleased with himself it's just so much damn fun you don't much care. The book's only classed as young adult because nobody has sex (plenty of people die) or curses too much and not everyone is a complete cockweasel.  It's definitely worth a voyage into the murky depths of the young adult section of your library.

*Lin in Perdido Street Station has a giant scarab beetle for a head and is turned into a zombie by a giant moth who likes to feed on people's brains. 
communi_kate: (monkey)

Review:

Three Parts Dead/Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone.

Let me start by saying that you should definitely read these books. The writing is beautiful, the covers are awesome and the worldbuilding makes me want to swallow my tongue with jealousy.

Both novels take place in the same world at different times with different characters (the second book in the series, Two Serpents Rise, takes place before Three Parts Dead) and similar themes. The big idea behind Max Gladstone's works is lawyers. More precisely, contracts. Gods exist, and sufficiently skilled and trained persons (wizards, or Craftsmen and women as Gladstone calls them) can negotiate with them for an exchange of their power. The conceit sounds boring, but isn't by any means.

Three Parts Dead's heroine, Tara Reid graduates and is, quite literally, kicked out of her floating wizard school on the same day. She survives, winds up with a job offer from a prestigious but not-quite-trustworthy firm, and is sent to investigate the death of the god Kos Everburning with the help of a gargoyle, a vampire and a chain-smoking priest. In Two Serpents Rise, gambler and professional risk manager Caleb Altemoc is tasked with discovering the source of the demons that have suddenly begun to appear in his city's water supply.

Caleb and Tara are both normal people but the situations they find themselves and the obstacles they face are both extraordinary and beautifully described.    Fans of thoughtful, character-driven and well written fantasy should check Max Gladstone out.

The third book in what I'm calling the Three Word Title series, Full Fathom Five, is planned for later this year and I can't wait to read it.

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 So I've been reading the Thieftaker series by DB Jackson and really enjoying it. There are two books so far: Thieftaker and Thieves' Quarry, and the series is a historical fantasy set in a magical pre-Revolutionary Boston. The prose is spare but flowing, and the characters are engaging. An entertaining read for anyone who enjoyed AC4, although there are no Native and few black characters; it's well worth picking up. And it's by 'an award-winning author of thirteen fantasy novels' who I'm guessing is a pseudonym* as I've never heard of him before. 

*DB Jackson is a pseudonym for Us fantasy author David B. Coe-who I've never heard of either.

Link to the English amazon page here
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This isn't a book review so much as an author rec. Seth Dickinson's the author of two excellent short stories on Beneath Ceaseless Skies: The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Her Field-General, And Their Wounds and Worth of Crows.

Baru Cormorant tells the story of a warrior accountant (yes accountant) dealing with the aftermath of a political and personal betrayal. Worth of Crows features a pair of very different wizards fighting a dragon who draws its power from the magic of thermodynamics.

Both stories have female protagonists, they're both bleak, and have a very pragmatic worldview which I appreciate. And both stories are available for free download via the links above, so all they will cost you is a few megabytes and a moment of your time.It's well worth while. I'm tired so this post is pretty short, but trust me when I say that the length of the post is by no means proportional to the awesomeness of both tales.


communi_kate: (Default)
I did not expect to like this book.

I certainly didn't expect to love it the way I did.  Passion Play begins with a standard fantasy trope: a poor little rich girl is betrothed against her will, exercises her strong and slightly anachronistic will, and runs away. So far, so bleh.

But then Therez, the protagonist, gets into trouble, gets a new name, and gets a job as an accountant in a brothel. And then the book really hits its stride.

I'm not going to give anything away, but this is character driven fantasy at its best. Secondary-world character driven fantasy with a female protagonist and an intricate magic system-the sort of book I love. Yet I nearly didn't pick it up. Why not?

The problem, Dear Reader, was the cover. It's beautiful, but it shows a not inconsiderable amount of tit and together with the title 
gives a really erroneous impression of the book. The Amazon review has a lot of comments along the lines of 'I was expecting a fantasy Fifty Shades and then I got four hundred pages of BROTHEL ACCOUNTS WHERE IS THE SEXXING?' From the title I was expecting something racy, maybe set in a fake medieval Europe with the guild plays or something to do with a fantasy Oberammergau. 

What I got rocked enough that I immediately bought the sequel and all the short stories the author has ever written. So it's not fifty shades, and that's a good thing. It's a great thing. Buy this book!



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Book Review: The Left Hand of God, by Paul Hoffman

The first thing I should say about this book is that I picked it up in a Roman hostel for free, so I wasn't expecting much. The second thing is that I picked it up because it's about a boy raised by a hooded order of assassins to be a semi-psychotic killing machine. Shades of Assassin's Creed, right?

Well, maybe. The Left Hand of God's protagonist is Cale, a socially awkward psychopath who was raised by an equally psychopathic order of evil monks. Cale's upbringing causes him to respond in completely over the top ways to almost every threat, which causes a lot of problems for his friends later in the book (one thing I really enjoyed) but it makes him a rather unlikeable protagonist. On one hand, Cale's matter-of-fact attitude to extreme violence is a refreshing change after the sort of hero who tosses off a one-liner as he cheerfully slaughters crowds of mooks without a thought, but it does make him a rather uncomfortable person to spend time with. He's also extremely good at said violence, but that's not exactly unusual for a fantasy assassin protagonist who's been raised in secret by monks.

However, later in the book we find that Cale's superhuman fighting abilities stem from a head injury which has given him the miraculous ability to read his opponent's body language and react to moves before they happen. It was at this point, Dear Reader, that I started head-desking. Okay, head trauma makes more sense than many superhero origin stories, but brain damage as a superpower just gets on my tits. I don't know if Hoffman based the character's situation on any similar real-life incidents, but in the end I just didn't care that much about the book to go and check. Hoffman does then have the main character's mentor trying and failing to replicate the effects with a series of boys tied to a table and a variety of small hammers, which I enjoyed immensely, and later a captured mook dies of the head wound that knocked him unconscious, but it still doesn't go far enough to dilute the effect of concussion wound superpowers.

Like a lot of recent fantasy, this book tries just a little too hard to be gritty. There's a lot of Renaissance-style blood and gore, but everyone else has a very twentieth century viewpoint about it. This pissed me off in part because I've just finished reading the Renaissance autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, a Florentine goldsmith, gunner and all-round master of bullshit. Throughout his autobiography Cellini spends far more time describing his latest masterwork than on stabbing a man to death in the street or, for that matter, his entire family dying of plague. Now Cellini is a textbook example of a real-life Unreliable Narrator, but the fact that he glosses over so much violence yet describes each commission in detail then clearly expects you to be impressed says something about the relative frequency of nasty deaths in the Renaissance compared to wonderful works of gold and jewels.

At least, I assume The Left Hand of God is set in a Renaissance-style society. There are longbows and crossbows as well as swords, and people pile into Colosseum-style amphitheatres to watch a duel to the death, but a single chapter refers to Roman theatre, London street gangs, bowler hats and smoking, all mashed together in a way I suspect that the author just added whatever he thought sounded cool. A lot of fantasy societies mix and match their periods, but there are a lot of things there that just don't gel for me.

The other thing that pissed me off about Left Hand is the comparative lack of women's roles. You could argue that this was appropriate to the period if the book had a period to start with. There are no kick-arse women at all. In fact, the whole book fails the Bechdel Test because at the end of the first book none of the women has done anything other than think about how to serve men, think about men, talk about men or have sex with men. The two main female characters are a beautiful ice queen who is first frightened by and then sleeps with the main character, and a buxom serving girl who's rescued from the evil monks by the protagonist. Personally I'd have liked the book far better if the traveller and mercenary IdrisPukke had been a man and also had a less stupid name, but you can't have everything in life.

Book Review: Infidel and God's War, by Kameron Hurley.

While we're on the subject of women, may I introduce my second book review; Infidel and God's War by Kameron Hurley; two books from the Bel Dame Apocrypha series.

Like The Left Hand of God, this series aims for a raw and gritty feel. Unlike Left Hand, the Bel Dame Apocrypha hits its target with flying colours. And, also unlike Left Hand, the Bel Dame world seems real. It's a post terra-forming futuristic gore-fest where nobody much expects to live beyond thirty and having skin cancers cut out is routine. In other words, not somewhere you'd like to spend some time. Hurley goes into more depth on her blog, which I would highly recommend for anyone interested in non-western and feminist SF. The world-building is insanely detailed, but what really stands out is the magic system. The technology of the Bel Dame world is powered by insects, and the magicians are the only people who can control them. This leads to some interesting set-pieces. There's a scene in the second book where one of the magicians is carried away from a ruined church by a pair of giant insects and that's worth a few quid any day. Also, there are shape shifters.

Now if Left Hand's religion is a sort of bastardised Christianity, Hurley's characters practise a religion that's pretty clearly a kind of broken-down Islam. Although it's nice to see a world without the ever present Crystal Dragon Jesus, Hurley's caught some flak for having super-violent black and Islamic protagonists. However, this is a world where everyone is violent. The cover art doesn't exactly help with the perception of the book. In a world where most women are terrifying battle-scarred matrons, it's interesting that the figures that actually make it onto the cover of the first book in the series are a tiny gun-wielding woman wearing dog tags and a big scary black man in a hood. Now Nyx, the main character, is a downright daunting hard-ass (Hurley refs Lena Heady in Judge Dredd on her blog as a similar character) but Rhys, Nyx's companion and the aforementioned scary black man is by far the nicest and most moral guy in the series and in addition is mentioned throughout the first book as being outstandingly pretty. This is probably the main reason Nyx keeps him around in the first place. Needless to say, this didn't make it onto the cover. This saddens me. The world needs more pretty male cover art-if nothing else, it'll stop Jim Hines and John Scalzi from attempting shit like this.

Like The Left Hand of God, the Bel Dame series suffers a little for having a rather psychopathic heroine. Hurley really forces you to smell the blood. There's body horror and gore aplenty, but the world is such a crapsack it somehow seems more believable that Hoffman's world. Nyx is a bounty hunter and assassin who likes to think she's better than everyone else at what she does, when in fact she's just crazier. Like James Bond, her superpower is simple refusing to die. Otherwise, she's pretty broken. Now competence is sexy and all, but it's nice to have a main character who doesn't do everything right the first time. Nyx fucks up a lot, and since she's playing for high stakes the consequences of her errors are worse every single time.

Like I said, body horror.

Needless to say, all books in the series pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours. Now I've read somewhere that female warrior societies don't work in real life because you're killing the only people who can produce more warriors. Hurley hand-waves this with a good old dose of sci-fi-multiple births, and a society where men are sent off to the front at sixteen and the few who return are often horrifically scarred by their experiences. There are a lot of bi and lesbian relationships, although the only gay guy dies in the first book, something which Hurley has addressed on her blog but which is a bit of a letdown.

I do have a few other nitpicks. My first is Rhys's choice of name in a world where no other languages are even vaguely Celtic. It's a small complaint and not his real name anyway, but 'Rhys' is so damn Welsh that it ended up pissing me off a bit. The second is that, being a crapsack world, even the more sympathetic characters like Rhys and, well, Rhys, cheerfully sell their side out to get what they want. It's less of a black-and-white morality and more of a black-and-extremely-dark-shades-of-grey one. You're only rooting for Nyx and her team because they're the protagonists and you get the feeling that the same story told from the villain's point of view would reveal her team to be just as brutal and not nearly as well justified as they pretend. It's not quite All Characters Are Bastards, but it's close. The third is that Raine, the first book's antagonist, never feels especially well fleshed out, and he has the same name as one of the characters from Final Fantasy Eight which I found a bit distracting. But when two out of three of my complaints are related to the names of the characters, you know the book can't be that bad.

So The Bel Dame series gets three and a half out of five, and The Left Hand of Darkness gets two, because at the end of the day reading God's War and Infidel made me want to know more about the world and its author. After reading The Left Hand of Darkness I really didn't care.

definitions

Nov. 4th, 2012 06:49 pm
communi_kate: (Default)
Serendipity (noun): finishing an excellent book and discovering you have already downloaded the sequel during an online bookstore sale the previous month. Related news : for fans of non-western fantasy, try the Mongoliad by Greg Bear et al.
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 One of the reasons I was so pissed off about losing my Kindle (apart from the hundred and fifty quid it's going to cost to replace the damn thing) was that I'd just downloaded the latest Shadows of the Apt novel to read on the plane. I've just finished the most recent book in the series (The Air War) on my computer, and can't believe I didn't blog about the series before this.

So here goes.

The Shadows of the Apt series by Adrian Tchaikovsky is one of the few epic series that I've followed in order from the beginning, and it's currently standing at eight books out of a confirmed total of ten-(Empire of Black and Gold, Dragonfly Falling, Blood of the Mantis, Salute The Dark, The Scarab Path, The Sea Watch, Heirs of the Blade and  The Air War). The series features the insect-kinden; people who evolved into tribes with the abilities and powers of different insect races. I thought it sounded boring the first time I picked the books up (why choose ants and beetles when you could have had eagles or wolves?) but Tchaikovsky handles the worldbuilding superbly, dividing his kinden into Apt (science) and Inapt (magic) races in a world where magic is beginning to give way to technology and using his impressive knowledge of entomology to great effect.

The prologue of the series begins with a motley band of assorted students (stay with me here) fighting a losing war against the great Empire of the Wasps (read, Romans who can fly and shoot flaming 'stings' with their hands). The next chapter begins with another motley band of assorted students being drafted into the Machiavellian schemes of the Beetle intelligencer and scientist Stenwold (one of the surviving students  from the prologue) who's been fighting a singlehanded yet moderately successful war against the Empire ever since.  

Stenwold is a great character, wonderfully Machiavellian in the best Ex Urbe tradition (see earlier blog entry) in that he cares about his city, Collegium, more than anything else, and he'll do anything to save it. This happens to include drafting his ward Tynisa, his niece Che, and their friends into the fight , and it's Che and her friends who we follow through most of the series. Characters are often introduced to showcase a particular purpose or point of view. Some fall quickly by the wayside, while other reoccur in sometimes surprising ways. Tchaikovsky's website (shadowsoftheapt.com) features a number of short stories involving bit-part players for free. 

Tchaikovsky is one of the few fantasists I've read who can handle a huge cast effectively and still excel in characterisation.  The battle between Stenwold and the Wasps evolves throughout the books into something spanning most of Tchaikovsky's invented world, but the writing focuses on the effect the war has on the characters that fight it (on both sides) a much as it does on the battle between science and magic (or science and more science). And have I mentioned the worldbuilding? Because the world of Shadows of the Apt is complex and as intricate as one of the many clockwork machines that jolt into action beneath the hands of its heroes and its villains. It's steampunk in the best sense, and completely lacking in the usual thin veneer of gears and grease that rubs away to reveal a world just like our own. 

Plus, Thalric and Che have to be one of the genre's great double-acts, and it you have no idea who I'm talking about, then now's the time to read this series and find out.
communi_kate: (monkey)

I first read Mary Gentle's Orthe series ten years ago, when I picked up a copy to take travelling.  Back in those days, before e-readers, a two-week holiday meant a book the size of a brick that would last the whole fortnight. Now, of course, you can load five or six new novels onto a Kindle or Kobo, but in 2002 e-books hadn't been invented. and I couldn't afford many new books. Orthe was definitely worth the cash-sufficiently so that the novel survived periodic paperback cullings whenever my books threatened to take over the house. It's been on my shelves ever since (you can tell I'm impartial here), and I recently reread the series with a more critical eye.

Orthe really is a doorstop of a novel. My 2002 volume comprises all three Orthe tales: 'Golden Witchbreed', 'Ancient Light' and the novella 'The Crystal Sunlight, the Bright Air', which is set in the same world but otherwise doesn't have much to do with the main novel, so I'll leave it out.

Anyway, the book tells the tale of Lynne deLisle Christie, a human envoy posted to the newly discovered alien world of Carrick V/Orthe. She promptly goes native and has various thrilling adventures (in Golden Witchbreed) and then returns to the world years later as a representative of a private company (whose business model appears to be based upon the corporates of Alien) and discovers just what Orthe's contact with humans has done to their society (Ancient Light)

Orthe reads like a travelogue or an autobiography rather than a novel. This is the book's greatest strength, but it's also its main weakness. The writing is incredibly immersive and engaging, but in true travelogue style there's a fair few parts where nothing much happens. It's like, you know that Indiana Jones must find time to have a cup of tea occasionally in between rescuing damsels and fighting Nazis, else he'd die of thirst? But somehow the movies never take time out to describe this, unless the tea happens to be toxic or the cup is the Holy Grail or some such? Well, the point I'm trying to make here is that in real life there's far more tea than Nazis, and that's the sort of book that Orthe is. The interludes aren't uninteresting-there's intrigue and politics aplenty, but sometimes Christie spends a lot of time hanging around trying to get an audience or recovering from whatever harrowing adventure she has just embarked upon: it all adds realism, but it's slow at times.

Fortunately Christie is the sort of person you enjoy spending time with. The book's first-person narrative is used to great effect and this adds to the absorbing nature of the novel. Christie is the first person who's ever been in extensive contact with the Ortheans, so you explore the world as she does and see them through her eyes. It's a great way of explaining the society without too many infodumps (more on that later). Christie is either a bit of a Mary Sue, though, or else merely extremely likeable-the resident xenoscientists refuse to socialise, openly criticism most aspects of the world and can't wait to leave the planet, but Christie gains admittance to Orthean society with relative ease. More, she discovers important information-such as the Ortheans' gender differences-in casual conversation, whereas the scientists who have been studying the Ortheans for months still haven't worked out their life-cycle. Maybe that's the point-the other scientists don't make friends with the natives, whereas Christie takes the trouble to do so.

The native Ortheans are portrayed as roughly human height, with six fingers, and a nictating third eyelid, but they're close enough to humans for the protagonist to have sexual relationships with them (yes, more on that later as well) But there's a fine line between too alien and just alien enough for humans to empathise with your characters. Gentle falls into the same inescapable trap as many authors-aliens written by human authors are inevitably filtered through human perceptions and senses and often end up looking like us with bits stuck on. She does do a good job of thinking through the cultural implications of a society where children don't develop gender until puberty-much like Ursula K LeGuin, but with much more human characters.

Regardless of this, there are a lot of strong points in the novel, and swords and lost technology are always fun elements no matter which sandbox you play in. And Orthe really is one hell of a sandbox, despite its similarity to Earth. The novel really shines in its delicious descriptions of its world and the people who live there. If there's one reason why you should read Orthe, then it's the sheer lyricism Gentle invokes when describing her settings. Here's a passage from Golden Witchbreed that describes the ancient city of Kirriathe.

"Knife edged shadows lay across our path, the straight edged shadows that only occur in cities. The sun was low in the south behind us. Ahead there was barely anything left standing. Walls jutted up from moss covered hummocks. Pale-leafed scrub forced its way between the paving stones. The weather had rounded the edges of the slabs, worn them smooth. The walls might have been carved, once. Further on, open to the sky, there were only lines on the barren earth to show where walls had stood. A great flight of steps went down a slope, beginning nowhere and ending nowhere, growth over by a feathery silver-green weed. We stood on the steps. They were as rounded as if the sea had worked on them."

It's a fabulous description, and it's why the collected novels are 980 pages long. Orthe is a book that yearns for the Kindle.

If the descriptions are fantastic, then the society I found distinctly more prosaic. The world of Orthe is a post-holocaust, semi-mediaeval society whose denizens engage in many familiar activities; they fight with swords, sail ships very similar to Earth ships, wear similar jewellery, and the main character walks more or less unnoticed amongst the Ortheans by means of a hooded cloak. This allows for many cool scenes, but seemed rather clunky after reading more alien stories like 'TK'Tk'Tk' by David D Levine and 'The Legend of St Ignatz the Provider' by Samantha Henderson. Orthean society seemed very human in comparison, and I have to admit that Orthe doesn't feel as exotic to me at thirty as it did at twenty.

But the trilogy must be twenty or so by now, and maybe just having a female envoy as the protagonist in a sci-fi series was a bit of a step in those days. Regardless, the settings and societies depicted feel familiar enough that you could imagine the novel taking place in a hitherto undiscovered country on Earth. But Orthe is an immersive world and there's enough nice touches and exoticism to keep the setting from being too cliché-the eternal Hexenmeister and the mysterious town of Kasabaarde come to mind.

The weakest part however, is the relationships. Christie embarks upon a short-lived sexual relationship with an Orthean in the first novel. He's swiftly introduced and fades out within a chapter for no other reason, it seems, that to establish that it is possible. (his mother releases Christie from prison, but her motives have more to do with disagreeing with the faction that installed Christie there than helping her son's lover). Christie becomes friends with a mercenary, Blaize, who's one of the best supporting characters in a novel that's crammed full of them, but he ends up with the daughter of Christie's best friend, and by the time Christie realizes that she has feelings for the friend herself, it's far too late to do anything constructive about them.

It's a shame, because the characters individually are fantastic-each character has their own motivations, and minor players are described in loving detail. This seems to be a trait of Gentle's writing (anyone remember Grunts and its perverted halflings) and it's yet another thing I really like about her work.

Another thing I like is the morality. Everyone has a believable agenda: there are no good guys and bad guys. Orthe is grimly realistic in its depiction of colonialism; its exploration begins with a government team working for high-minded ideals and ends with the invasion of profit-led private corporations hungry for new technology. The company Christie works for in Ancient Light contributes to a civil war (most of it instigated by Christie's sheer presence as a trustworthy human) followed by a seemingly unstoppable onslaught of personal betrayals and an ending that's distinctly bitter-sweet. In that was the novel reminded me a little of ME3, but everything does these last few days.

Just like the Mass Effect series, the alien society is just human with bits on, but it's all so much damn fun you just don't care.
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Book Review: The Shadowed Sun, by NK Jemison

I won a copy of SS in a competition on [livejournal.com profile] kateelliott 's livejournal for writing a review of The Killing Moon, the first novel in Jemison's Dreamblood duology. So It seemed fitting to review the second book as well.

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Jemison's work, and Shadowed Sun has got to be my favourite of all her novels so far. If you have it at your library, go pick up a copy. If you have it at your local bookstore, get two. Seriously. There are ninja priests,* people, It don't get much better than this.

*There's also a neat analogue of Berber/Anasazi culture, some nifty debate upon the ethics of mercy killing. and a family that make the Lannisters look relatively well-adjusted.   These are also good reasons to read it, although not as good as the ninja priests.
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 There are two sorts of SF/F books: books about people and books about ideas, but the really good ones are about both.  

A lot of classic SF (as opposed to space opera) seems to be about the ideas. Fantasy is generally more about the characters-although fantasy's most famous authors, Tolkien, used his stories as a way to develop his ideas about linguistics. The best authors do both well, although there's usually a skew in one direction or another.

The Killing Moon is heavy on character-building, but it has a lot of good ideas as well. And yes, it's another fantasy with a non-western setting from an author that made her name on the Escape Artists podcasts that I'm so fond of (anybody who's interested should check out  L'Alchimista and Cloud Dragon Skies).  The main characters are both Gatherers, an interesting mix of priests and assassins, although that they themselves would probably describe it differently.  As a vet who's heavily involved with ending suffering, I liked this idea and found the ethical issues discussed in the book very interesting. It made for a few interesting reactions to the characters, that's for sure. And I detected more than a hint of Assassin's Creed, which I'm sure Jemison's mentioned on her blog before. It's interesting to see how gaming-both platform and tabletop-is influencing a lot of the new fantasy authors.

So I'll definitely be picking up the sequel, and hope that the main characters of the Killing Moon will feature (although based on Jemison's Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I doubt they'll be the protagonists).  The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy was one of the more interesting fantasy series of the last few years, and I'm really interested to see what Jemison does next. 

communi_kate: (Default)
book review: Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville.

I read Perdido Street Station years ago but found my copy during a recent book clear-out and decided it was time for a re-read. This book was the first of Mr Mieville's bestsellers (there was King Rat, but I don't think it was such a smash hit as the New Crobuzon books) It's a fat book, like so many fantasy novels, but every square inch of paper is crammed full of wonderfully bizarre details and ideas. New Crobuzon is a reeking, breathing metropolis, as impressive as it is heartless and as beautiful as it is thoroughly depressing. [deviantart.com profile] gordillo over on deviantart nails the city here.

Mieville's characters are all well-rounded, if typically nonheroic (the most sympathetic character is Lin, a khepri artist with a scarab beetle for a head). The storyline reaches a whole new level of depressing. I'm not sure I'd have the heart to put any of my characters through the amount of shit that Mieville puts his through, but this IS Mieville, after all. He's the Dragon Age of writers. It's like that random Chantry sidequest in Dragon Age: Origins, when you have the chance to help a harmless and sincere dwarf build a church in the cave city of Orzammar. If you decide to help, you get a little coda saying that you unleashed a merciless crusade. The most insignificant of actions have heartbreaking consequences.

The harsh thing is that there's a really easy way out that Mieville could have used to tie everything up at the end, and give most if not all of his characters a relatively happy ending, but instead it all goes to hell and those who don't die only wish they had. The Man always wins, people. ALWAYS. And when he's done he'll graft baby arms to your face, just so you remember what you did.

In summary, if you're in the mood for the bitterest of bittersweet baroque steampunk fantasy stories, read Perdido Street Station. If you're looking for a conventional fantasy tale with a happy ending where the heroes go on adventures yet return relatively unscathed, then go reread the Hobbit.


communi_kate: (monkey)
Continuing the non-Western fantasy theme, my next read was Desert of Souls by Howard Jones. An Arabian-nights style tale of fantastical adventures set in Haroun al-Raschid's Baghdad, this was a good story, although maybe a little lacking in depth. It's a cross between the old style stop motion Sinbad films and the Prince of Persia with a full complement of mysterious fortune tellers, feisty princesses, undead monkeys and lost cities half-buried in sand. 

Unfortunately, I found Jones's characters rather less interesting than they could have been. The main character, stoic guard captain Asim, is rather prosaic, and would have made a great straight man for a cast of sparkling secondary characters a la Captain Jack of the POC franchise. The problem was that Asim's companions, the scholar Dabim and the princess Sabirah,weren't all that interesting either. I never really felt attached to them the way I do to some characters, and the plot wasn't quite strong enough to keep my interest alone.
 
However, my main criticism of the book is that it was too much like old-school Sinbad for its own good-and by that I mean the sort of tale where the Muslim heroes are really Westerners covered in Fake Bake. If I hadn't just read Saladin Ahmed's novel I maybe wouldn't have noticed quite so much, but you can tell that Desert of Souls was written by a Westerner as opposed to an author of Arab heritage. For instance, the spunky princess spends most of the book travelling with two unmarried and unrelated men and is married off-screen on her final return without even a whiff of scandal. Now this isn't a book-breaker for me, but I felt it made the whole novel read like a bit of an exercise in Orientalism.

I'm not quite sure what the solution is here. I'm Western (and atheist) myself but I've read a few Islamic stories written by Western authors that still managed to feel more authentic (Edward Morris's Lovecraftian Assassin demon-hunter in Jihad Over Innsmouth and Pamela K Taylor's 'Fifty Fatwas for the Virtuous Vampire' are both ones that stand out).

So Desert of Souls is a big screen Saturday afternoon movie of a book, swashbuckling, big and brainless. I'd still recommend Ahmed's Kingdoms of the Crescent Moon tales if you fancy some Arabic fantasy. Or for fans of Lovecraft, the Supernatural tv series or the AC games I'd also recommend Jihad over Innsmouth,available in full at the attached link and also podcast on Pseudopod.org. 


communi_kate: (monkey)
 Failing the Bechdel test-Havemercy, by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett

The first thing I should mention is that I really, really wanted to like Havemercy.  It's written by two self-professed fangirls who are still active in the Harry Potter fandom, and it reads like a complete labour of love.  Although I initially had doubts about the storytelling (Havemercy is told from the alternate points of view of each of the four main characters), I was quickly drawn into the plot. The protagonists-Rook, an unpredictable, aggressive dragon-rider, Royston, an exiled magician, Hal, a naive country tutor, and Thom-a student assigned to teach dragon riders the finer points of etiquette-are all engaging, and although Hal and Thom especially seemed interchangeable at first, they each quickly developed their own voices.  Add that it's a gay romance story with wizards and steampunk dragons that breathe fire, and what's not to like?

As it turned out, quite a lot.

The first thing I noticed is that there are few woman characters in the novel at all. Now this is fine-Havemercy reads like a boy's own adventure tale from the start. However as I read along I noticed that nearly all of the few female characters mentioned are portrayed negatively- as vapid socialites, whores, or downright nasty bitches. The only major female character is Havemercy the mechanical dragon, and it's made explicit that the dragons don't have a gender, it's just that Rook, her pilot, considers her a female.

 The book broke my brain around the time where the mage Royston's sister in law confronts him for the first time. She loses the (rather spectacular) ensuing argument and promptly passes out on the floor. This is, two watching male characters explain, normal when she is upset. She'll be back to her evil self, by morning, never fear. Now the sister in law is certainly one hell of drama queen, but as a plot device the whole fainting thing just seemed so damn Victorian.

Now I'm all up for the gay romance aspect of the book-Hal and Royston's blossoming love affair is beautifully drawn. Likewise the Boy's Own Adventure aspect. I just like my gay with a little less misogynism. A league of female magicians is mentioned but never expanded upon, and there are no female aviators at all. Why can't women ride the dragons as well? It seems that you have to be a man to have adventures and fun sex in the world of Havemercy. Screw the adventures, you have to be a man just to be a decent human being.

I can see the attraction –especially given Jayd Ait-Kaci's ([personal profile] halcyonjazz) Atlantis-style creator-sanctioned fanart for the series- ho boy, can I see it. I just don't think I could write something where my own sex was so negatively portrayed. Or so absent, come to that..

Having said that, there are other series that go for the gay perfectly well while also featuring female characters of note. My other favourite gay fantasy series of novels, Ink and Steel and Hell and Earth by Elizabeth Bear, features a romance between Will Shakespeare and a fey Christopher Marlowe, but another theme of the plot is how deeply Will is in love with his wife Annie, and Morgan le Fay is a major player too. Swordspoint and the Riverside series by Ellen Kushner focuses on the relationship between a poor student, Alec and the swordsman Richard St Vier, but Alec's niece Katherine and the lady Jessica also feature prominently in the series (and are awesome characters to boot).

I'm told the sequel is slightly better, but based on Havemercy I'm not sure when I'll be picking it up. The misogynism for me was a complete book-breaker. Like the religious symbolism in the Narnia books, once I'd noticed it I couldn't stop. All in all, I think it's telling that the only way I could get through it was by using the first person point of view to pretend one of the main characters was a woman. Rook was my favourite, so I'd much rather imagine her as a medieval version of Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica

communi_kate: (monkey)
 
So there's this series of podcasts over at the Escape Artists websites: Escape Pod, for science fiction, Podcastle for fantasy, and Pseudopod for horror. I listen to them a lot, and recently a lot of fantasy authors who debuted on the podcasts are beginning to make their mark with critically acclaimed fantasy novels. The most prominent to date is probably NK Jemison, who's had great success with her Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy, but my easy favourite is Saladin Ahmed. His whose thoughtful stories set in diverse but still recognizably Islamic settings tick all my favourite fantasy boxes- fleshed out, non-European worldbuilding, main characters that aren't royal, and a beautiful style of writing.

So when I learned his first novel, The Throne of the Crescent Moon, was due to be released, I got very, very excited.

Fortunately, I wasn't disappointed. Throne is not a long book, but it managed to pack a massive amount of characterisation and world-building into its pages. And there's more than a touch of the Assassin's Creed videogames, with a heroic character who can jump up walls using magic. Ahmed's blogged about Islamic themes in videogames in his series Muslims in My Monitor before over at the Escapist , so I guess it shouldn't have been a surprise. The villain- a shapeshifting mage-is deliciously creepy, and I loved the way that the wide variety of environments-marsh-dwelling pseudo-Arabs, fantasy Bedouin, and the inhabitants of the swarming city of Dhamsawaat were so well rounded.

The most critical thing I can say about the book was simply that it wasn't long enough, but there's more going on here than in epics twice this book's size. I'll certainly be continuing to read anything Ahmed writes and I'm looking forwards to the proposed sequel.


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