No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, July 07, 2014

2014/27: Wake -- Elizabeth Knox

And whose thought was that anyway—about the trigger being an open quote? Dan might occasionally use air quotes, but he wasn’t very confident about how to use quote marks on paper. It wasn’t his thought. It was malicious and perverted and savage and clever, and had come as a soundless whisper from the centre of his skull as if there was something inside him, something that wasn’t him, stirring like a hatchling in an egg. [loc.2613]
One weekday morning, almost all of the inhabitants of Kahukura are plunged into madness. Silently, they commit nonsensical atrocities upon themselves and one another. Then they go still. Then they die. And then the survivors, dazed, find that they are locked in with the bodies of the dead: there is an impermeable barrier around the town.

Knox knows her precedents, as we're reminded by teenager Oscar, who has recently 'watched a whole season of Lost; played Oblivion, and Bioshock, and Mass Effect—' [loc.1328]. There is a rag-tag group of survivors -- though, really, their 'survival' is more a case of being immune to the phenomenon -- including a star athlete, an American lawyer, a capable but overwhelmed policewoman, an intellectually-disabled (or mentally ill?) care worker, a fisherman. There is a Mystery: the 'No-Go', the invisible bubble that separates them from the rest of the world. Isolation and confusion, the grim work of burial, the need to share resources, the interpersonal frictions: all standard. Wake might initially seem to be another take on the zombie trope, but once the initial mania has passed it's more science-fictional than that. (One character is described as being 'like Superman, or the Doctor; one of those judicious, sequestered aliens of fiction' [loc.3787]).

It's a very New Zealand novel. Disclaimer: I am not a New Zealander. But I've visited Mapua, which in the novel is near Kahukura and which has the same ambience; and I've talked at length with New Zealand friends about their culture and society. Wake features a kakapo preserve with predator-proof fencing (the No-Go bulges slightly, so that the preserve is wholly within the quarantined area). Maori words, untranslated, are scattered through the novel: one of the characters is Maori. And Kahukura's cats are all being fed by the survivors. These are not just shades of local colour: they are all germane to the plot.

Knox's writing is compelling. Her images are clear, precise and surprising ('it seemed to him that he’d spent his life with his back to the sun and his face to a wall, writing on its white surface, working in his own shadow' [loc.4526]; 'his blood unfolded like a concertinaed red banner down the weatherboard wall' [loc.122]; 'a deep flutter, like a wind-baffled bonfire' [loc.70]). And the gradual unfolding of the novel -- the secrets that everyone's kept close, the mysteries that have divorced them from the rest of the world -- is masterful. Best? worst? most tragic? of all is the revelation of the trap that has been laid. That's the aspect I couldn't stop thinking about: and I have decided not to write about it here.

Wake is a novel about what you hold onto when you have lost almost everything; about what you give up, when you have already given up hope.

We are creatures who learn, and something we learn is to fear for what we love. After the worst has happened our fears are retrospective. We keep trying to warn ourselves. Our now useless fears come and fly around our heads. They circle us, crying. The island they might have landed on, to roost, has vanished beneath the waves. What are our fears? They’re the only birds left in the air. The birds of drowned nests. [loc.905]

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

2014/28: The Calling -- Alison Bruce

‘I have this book too, and most of these in fact, and that picture, and at least half of your videos…’
‘And so does [my boyfriend].’
‘But I had them first. And I’ve watched him with you, and with your replacement, and now with the latest one. And he’s taken us all to the same places and tried to make us the same.’ [loc.2280]
Another novel in the DC Gary Goodhew series, which I started reading because of its Cambridge setting. Alison Bruce is a competent writer who constructs twisty plots with red herrings aplenty. The Calling is less Cambridge-oriented than some of the others, but there were plenty of familiar landmarks (the Flying Pig, Parker's Piece).

Kaye Whiting is found dead, drowned, bound and gagged. Tests show that she was alive for a couple of days after being abandoned at the lakeside. Goodhew's certain that there have been other similar cases of young women left where they might or might not be found in time. As usual, he interprets his orders in a way that lets him get on with what he thinks is relevant: and, as usual, he's right.

The mindset of the murderer is intriguing, nasty and all too credible: the supporting characters are distinct, with their own motivations and interpretations. A compelling, if not exactly cheerful, read.

2014/26: A Monster Calls -- Patrick Ness

Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both. [loc. 1727]
Conor O'Malley, whose mother has cancer, whose father has emigrated to America with his new family and no place for Conor, whose best friend told everyone at school about Conor's mum being ill, which isolated him ... Conor is visited, at seven minutes past midnight, by a monster. It's not the nightmare-spawned monster he was expecting, though: it's something like a yew tree, something like an old god, and it wants to tell Conor three stories and have him tell one, truthful, story in return.

It's too early for grief, so Conor is fuelled by rage. He hates his grandmother; hates his dad's new family; hates his schoolmates, who -- in an acutely painful episode -- taunt him that they don't (won't) see him. The monster teaches him some important lessons about loss, and faith, and love: and in the end Conor does come up with the truth.

Patrick Ness wrote this, but it was Siobhan Dowd's idea -- perhaps inspired by her own cancer, which killed her in 2007. Apparently the illustrations are dark and grim: reading the Kindle deprived me of, or spared me from, those. (C'mon, Amazon: book illustrations aren't difficult.) The book itself is pretty harrowing: it took me back to the winter I was 10, when my mother was in hospital and nobody would tell me what was really going on. I'm not sure I would have benefitted from reading A Monster Calls at that age, though it's assigned reading in Year 7 in some schools. I think it would just have made me angrier.

I'm not sure I recognised how angry I'd been, that winter, until I read A Monster Calls.

Ness's style is plain and unsentimental, but never dull. The monster's voice is clear and poetic: Conor's is colloquial, credibly a teenage boy's. And, admirably, there is no happy ending, except for the calm that comes with acceptance.

2014/20-25: The Mountjoy books -- Elizabeth Aston

There’s an England that lurks in the imagination as much as in reality; an England of villages nestling among green hills, each with its inn, a church, a splendid manor house, Georgian houses and tiny thatched cottages, grouped around a village green.
The England of Agatha Christie and Miss Marple. The England of P G Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle, with imposters lurking within its imposing walls, of Downton Abbey with its family tensions and Gosford Park, full of scheming servants.
Trollope’s England, too, with sly or eccentric clerics, dangerous bishops and gentry families leading tranquil lives on the surface, but seething with disharmony and emotional turmoil within.
And also the England of Evelyn Waugh, of Nancy Mitford and Patrick O’Brian, a land that readers love to visit, an enchanting, deceiving landscape, rich with intrigue and scandal and a life so different from ours.
Imperfect, intriguing, full of ghosts and eccentrics and family values that startle modern minds – this is the England I’ve created for the Mountjoy novels. [from the author's website]

I had a sudden urge to reread these, and Kindle books make it easy to indulge such urges. True, the books are published under the name 'Elizabeth Aston' rather than 'Elizabeth Pewsey'; there are some conversion errors ('nave' instead of naïve, 'corning' instead of coming); and Amazon have unaccountably retitled Divine Comedy as The World, the Flesh and the Bishop (which, come to think of it, is slightly spoilery). But I do still love the slightly supernatural, often ironic portrayal of the English gentry. "Fresh from a hot bath she looked young, squeaky-clean and, thought Seton, very attractive. His feelings towards her were perhaps not a lot stronger than those he felt for a favourite dog; but then he liked dogs very much indeed." [Children of Chance, loc. 1924] And it's hard not to feel sympathy for those involved with the Mountjoy family -- with "their total lack of interest in the rest of the human race, and their unconcern for what other people thought about them" [Unholy Harmonies, loc. 900] -- as well as a masochistic fascination with the Mountjoys themselves.

Last time I reread these novels I was wondering when they were set -- and was misled by a description on Amazon of Children of Chance, which referred to the long hot summer of 1976. I think that's wrong. In Unaccustomed Spirits Cleo heads off to Hungary, which is experiencing political unrest (Hungarian uprising, 1959?), via the Air Terminal in Cromwell Rd (which closed in 1973). On the other hand, she's been sharing a house with two ghosts (one Elizabethan, one from the Civil War) whose favourite TV programme is Star Trek (first broadcast 1966). I have to conclude that the historical period in which the Mountjoy novels are set is simply The Past.

Friday, June 20, 2014

2014/19: Tigerman -- Nick Harkaway

He shouted ‘Stop!’ the way people do when something utterly awful is happening and will continue to happen whatever they say. There was no expectation that it would change anything, but it must be said. The human throat could not keep it inside. People said it to bombs and hurricanes and tsunamis and wildfires. The Sergeant had seen video footage, in 2001, of a woman standing on the street bellowing it at the Twin Towers. It never made any difference, and no one expected it to. It was the soul’s voice, in hell. [loc. 835]

Mancreu, a former British colony in the Arabian Sea which has earned the dubious privilege of being the first 'UNO-WHO Interventional Sacrifice Zone, a place so wretchedly polluted that it must be sterilised by fire'. The island is plagued by Discharge Clouds -- spawned by mutant bacteria and toxic waste -- that transform everything they touch, not necessarily for the better. The island's days are numbered; the inhabitants are Leaving (always capitalised) one by one; and in the bay, a 'strange zone of legal limbo' has drawn a mass of unaffiliated shipping, from casinos to floating torture facilities, known as the Black Fleet.

Britain's sole remaining representative in Mancreu is Lester Ferris, better-known as 'the Sergeant'. The Sergeant's job is to do nothing, and be seen to be doing it. His amiable oversight and laissez-faire attitude takes a hit when his friend Shola is gunned down in the bar. The Sergeant is determined -- with the help of his 'kid partner', known only as 'the boy' -- to bring Shola's murderers to justice. The boy is a comics fan, and perhaps it's simply his constant talk of superheroes and cultural icons that sparks the invention of Tigerman.

you were chosen by the tiger[...]! There is no justice, there’s just us! When it is necessary ...’ The boy waved his arms again, now in a gesture which was either movie kung fu or the tricky business of changing costumes in a phone box. ‘When it is necessary: Tigerman!’ [loc. 1366]

Tigerman's adventures (far from heroic) uncover some truly nasty business that's conducted on the island: but his encounter with Bad Jack, who's initially presented as a malicious supernatural being but turns out to be horribly real, is perhaps the most damaging.

It was interesting to read this novel with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay still fresh in my mind. The comics / fandom culture of Tigerman is eighty years on from that of Kavalier and Clay, and thus more familiar to me: Harkaway peppers his novel with genre references (Hitch-Hiker's Guide, Captain America, Blade Runner, Space Invaders) and scenes that could come straight out of a comic. But there's deeper darker stuff going on here too: one of the themes this novel shares with Kavalier and Clay is that of the father. The Sergeant, having seen what becomes of refugees, would like to adopt the boy, but isn't sure whether the boy has living parents with a better claim. The relationship between the two -- weary soldier and exuberant child -- twists and morphs through the core of the novel.

Possibly that all sounds rather grim. Tigerman is also extremely funny, even when the humour is black as night: and when the boy's riffing on popular culture, there's a deceptively innocent enthusiasm that sparks from the page.
If Pippa Middleton and Megan Fox had announced their intention to marry during a live theatrical production of 50 Shades of Grey starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and then taken off their clothes to reveal their bodies tattooed with the text of the eighth Harry Potter novel, they might just have approached this level of frenzy. But probably not, the boy said, because not everyone liked Benedict Cumberbatch. If you asked the boy, personally, he would say that Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes possessed fractionally more win, although no one could replace Basil Rathbone because he was entirely the godhead. [loc. 4457]

2014/18: Indexing -- Seanan McGuire

Everyone thinks of them in terms of poisoned apples and glass coffins, and forgets that they represent girls who walked into dark forests and remade them into their own reflections. Worse, they forget that we’re still remaking those reflections. The whole “woodland creatures” thing is a relatively recent addition to the tale, borrowed from Disney and internalized by so many children that it has actually modified the narrative itself. Even as the narrative drives us, so do we drive it. [loc. 3473]

The premise of Indexing is simple. Narrative is a powerful force that enforces fairy-tale archetypes by playing out the stories over and over again. Anyone can be shaped into a character from a story: memetic incursions can mould a child into a Wicked Stepsister or a Goldilocks. The ATI Management Bureau is dedicated to tracking and containing the incursions, and it uses the Aarne-Thompson classification system to categorise the stories as they manifest.

So: our narrator, Henrietta Marchen (known as Henry), is a seven-oh-nine -- Snow White, and also the daughter of a Sleeping Beauty -- and looks the part. White skin, red lips, black hair: "like a modern-day interpretation of Death," she says wryly, in a nod to Gaiman's Sandman. She has never tasted an apple.

Henry's team members are Jeff, a shoemaker's elf who likes to keep busy; Sloane, a Wicked Stepsister who likes to be a glorious bitch; and Andy, who isn't on the ATI spectrum at all, but who discovered the Bureau after an uncontrolled four-ten (Sleeping Beauty) caused the death of his brother. Together they fight crime subvert the power of story.

Indexing was originally published as a Kindle Serial, and there's an episodic feel to early chapters: first a Snow White incursion, then a Pied Piper, then a Goldilocks ... However, the overall story arc of Indexing encompasses the whole book, and the denouement brings all the stories together in unexpected ways. I was especially taken by the Snow White / Rose Red subplot, which involves Henry's identical twin brother Gerry, and with the Cheshire Cat. (Psychotropic claws, naturally.)

Indexing is entertaining -- occasionally laugh-out-loud funny -- but it's also an interesting take on metafiction and the ways in which stories are shaped and warped by the culture in which they're told. I especially liked Sloane's determination to recast her own story: "Maybe some kid was already dreaming up a Cinderella remix with guerilla fighters in place of stepsisters, and she could tap into that sweet vein of potential story." [loc. 4555]

2014/17: The Golem and the Djinni -- Helene Wecker

"Everyone else walks differently at night than during the day. Have you noticed?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “As though they’re fighting off sleep, or running away from it, even if they’re wide awake.”
“But not you,” he said. “You were lost, but you were walking as though the sun was high overhead.” [loc. 3320]

New York, 1899: a city that welcomes the huddled masses yearning to be free. Among the influx of immigrants are two exiles whose relationship with freedom is more complex than most.

The Djinni is a creature of fire and magic who has been imprisoned in a metal flask for the last millennium. Freed from the flask by a Syrian tinsmith -- though still bound in human form -- he adopts the name Ahmad and the profession of metal-worker: but this does not delight his mercurial spirit.

The Golem was created to be the perfect wife, but her husband died on the ship that was to bring them to their new life. Discovered by a kindly old Rabbi who suggests that she name herself Chava, she becomes a baker: this employment allows her to fulfil her primary function, which is to respond to the wishes of others.

Both pass for human, and both find partners: the Golem marries the Rabbi's idealistic nephew Michael, while the Djinni delights in seducing a young socialite who yearns for adventure. But the most important relationship each has is with the other. Neither needs to sleep, so they take long nocturnal walks together, debating theology and philosophy. The Djinni is tormented by his inability to recall the circumstances surrounding his capture, and by the magic that constrains him to his human form. The Golem is acutely aware of the danger she presents to others: she yearns for a master, finding freedom too terrifying a prospect.

Wecker presents a large cast of viewpoint characters, though the Golem and the Djinni remain the focus throughout. There's Saleh, a prosperous doctor in the old country until he encountered a very real case of possession, who's now a homeless ice-cream seller and can't look anyone in the eyes; there's the delightful Maryam Faddoul, who runs the coffeehouse that's the hub of Syrian social life in New York; there's the adventurous young heiress Sophia Winston, who is not the first woman to fall under the Djinni's spell; and there is the mysterious Joseph Schall, whose past holds secrets pertaining to both the Golem and the Djinni.

I enjoyed this novel a great deal: it reminded me, in places, of Helprin's A Winter's Tale. The two protagonists are a study in contrasts: male and female, fire and earth, liberty and duty, old world and new. They also share a well-founded distrust of (and fascination with) the humans they encounter: and both are bound by the need to conceal their true natures.

2014/16: The 10PM Question -- Kate De Goldi

“You’ve got to admire the technical skill,” said Uncle George, looking down at it too. “The precision really is magnificent. And then, it’s render unto Caesar—” “Okay, okay,” said Frankie. The Fat Controller had left a perfectly cleaned rat kidney and one complete rat eyeball. Her best work yet, Frankie noted with one part of his mind, even as he shuddered at the revoltingness of it. The kidney was a deep red-black, tiny and delicate as a semi-precious stone. It had the look of something licked to a high polish. [loc. 1593]

Set in a small South Island town in New Zealand, The 10PM Question is the story of 12-year-old Frankie. Frankie lives with his mother, his Uncle George, his older sister Gordana, and the Fat Controller (who is the family cat). He spends his time worrying: whether the batteries in the smoke alarm need changing; whether he really does have 'excessive female hormones' as his sister suggests; 'whether blowing a sustained forte passage on the trombone might accidentally trigger a brain haemorrhage'; whether his maths ability is on par for his age. But underneath it all, he is determinedly not worrying about the most important thing: why his mother Francie hasn't left the house for years. Every night at 10 p.m. Frankie goes into his mother's bedroom and asks her about his latest anxiety. Some of her answers are insightful; some are simply amusing.

Into Frankie's small, anxious world bursts new girl Sydney, a blithe extrovert who is curious about Frankie's home life. Sydney's approach to life makes Frankie question his own: and Sydney's questions frame Frankie as a person with answers, which helps to balance his own world view. And, as it turns out, Frankie isn't the only one with a problem parent.

This was an unexpectedly lovely read: some gorgeous lyrical writing, some extremely funny scenes, and an utterly credible protagonist. Frankie's 12 going on 50: his mind leaps from topic to topic in that disconnected way of pre-teens, but underlying it all there's a grinding sense of his burden of responsibility. The 10PM Question deals sensitively with mental health issues and doesn't pretend there are easy answers. (I was so glad the novel didn't end with a miraculous recovery or cure for Francie!) I'll look out for more by De Goldi.

2014/15: Soon I Will be Invincible -- Austin Grossman

When life gives you lemons you squeeze them, hard. Make invisible ink. Make an acid poison. Fling it in their eyes. [loc. 693]

Doctor Impossible, victim of a freak science accident, has tried to conquer the world twelve times and counting. At the start of the novel, he is incarcerated in a ridiculously high-security prison, reflecting on his achievements to date and fine-tuning his latest plan for world domination (and invincibility).

Meanwhile, the Champions -- a semi-retired bunch of media-savvy superheroes -- are welcoming a new recruit, Fatale. Terribly injured in a random accident, Fatale was recreated as a cyborg by a mysterious company called Protheon. She dreams about assembler code and wonders why she hasn't heard from Protheon in a while.

Doctor Impossible's latest plan for world domination is as grandiose as ever: but the Champions have another problem. Who killed Corefire, the mightiest of them all? And has Lily -- a woman of glass from the 35th century, once Doctor Impossible's lover -- truly switched sides?

I enjoyed this novel on a number of levels. It's an entertaining riff on superhero tropes (the supervillain island lair, the convoluted origin stories, the improbable science, the overprotective parents); there are sly references to real-world comics canon (Doctor Impossible's therapist is 'Steve, a sad-eyed Rogerian' [loc. 179]); Doctor Impossible himself is the uber-nerd, the sullen teenager eating lunch in the corner on his own, the revenge fantasy of everyone who's ever been shunned by the popular kids. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Soon I Will Be Invincible is that all the superpowered characters, heroes or villains, have mental health issues. (Though not all of these are what they first appear: Damsel's not bulimic, she's half-alien.) Grossman explores the notion that great power can stem from damage, that it can be a survival mechanism. 'There's a fine line between a superpower and a chronic medical condition.' [loc. 2085]

It's become a cliche to focus on the people behind the masks, but Grossman never loses sight of the human stories that underlie the larger-than-life, technicolour conflicts of heroes and villains. The Champions regularly slip up and use real names, rather than coded identities: Fatale nurses a helpless crush on Blackwolf: Doctor Impossible still wonders whether he ever really had a chance with his old schoolmate Erika.

There are some flaws in this book, and in its content. The characters' voices -- apart from Fatale and Doctor Impossible, dual narrators -- aren't especially distinct: at times they feel two-dimensional. There's a lot of backstory that's hinted at just enough to distract. And, content-wise, there are way too many typos. Unfortunately, it's the kind of book (or I'm the kind of reader) where you look for a pattern, a coded message, in the omitted letters.

No message found: so I'll stick with the metaphor of heroes as survivors.

When you can't bear something but it goes on anyway, the person who survives isn't you anymore; you've changed and become someone else, a new person, the one who did bear it after all.[loc. 1938]

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

2014/14: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay -- Michael Chabon

In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier's greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini. "To me, Clark Kent in a phone booth and Houdini in a packing crate, they were one and the same thing... It was never just a question of escape. It was also a question of transformation." [p. 1]

I've owned this novel, in paperback, since about 2003. When I first tried to read it, I couldn't connect: I neither knew nor cared about the early years of the American comics industry, or the superhero phenomenon, or the Comics Code.

Fast-forward a decade or so, past Iron Man and Avengers and the Coursera Comic Books and Graphic Novels course and the mainstreaming of comics culture ... and suddenly, yes, the time is right for me to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Sam Clay is a first-generation New Yorker, fascinated by comics and by science, scraping a living as an illustrator for a novelty products company. One October night in 1939, his cousin Josef Kavalier turns up: Joe's come from Prague, fleeing the rise of Nazism. A student of magic and escapology, Joe's own escape to America riffs on the story of the Golem of Prague. And when he and Sam get together and start talking about comics, they quickly come up with the idea of a superhero of their own: the Escapist.

The Escapist, 'Champion of Freedom', is reminiscent of Captain America, of Batman, of the Scarlet Pimpernel: he's violently anti-fascist (why, yes, he does punch Hitler) and works with the League of the Golden Chain to free the oppressed and imprisoned. In parallel, Joe uses his (paltry) earnings from the comic to fund travel for refugee Jewish children. His aim is to bring his young brother to America, but this ends tragically, and Joe enlists with the hope of fighting Nazis hand-to-hand. This does not work out as he planned.

Meanwhile, Sam (increasingly successful as a comics artist) is wrestling with relationships of his own. He's gay (illegal at the time) and his sexuality blossoms in a brief, glorious affair with the star of the Escapist radio series and movie, but ultimately Sam opts for the safety of marriage. Though it's not actually as simple as that.

A theme that permeates The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is father-son relationships. Chabon's response to Wertham's Comics Code -- which suggests that superheroes such as Batman have paedophilic relationships with their teenage sidekicks -- is that Robin, Bucky etc are looking not for sex but for father-figures. Joe and Sam both have complex relationships with their fathers; Joe's relationship with his own son (who he didn't know existed for many years) triggers resolution and reunites the eponymous pair.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a sprawling novel that eventually resolves all its characters and themes. It's occasionally very funny; more often, sad. I'm glad I didn't attempt to power through it before I was ready: I'm glad I still owned my copy when the time was right to read it.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

2014/13: God's War -- Kameron Hurley

... cutting women out was like cutting out a piece of yourself too. A society needed balance, Khos thought, but a society at balance was harder to control, and Umayma had been founded and built on the principles of control. You controlled the breeding, the sex, the death, the fucking blood that ran in your veins. [loc. 3859]
I read this because it's on the 2014 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I was discussing at Eastercon.

Umayma has been terraformed, and colonised for three thousand years, but is still only marginally habitable. The two suns blaze down on a heterogenous human population that has adapted to frequent skin cancers, stifling heat and giant bugs. The bugs, it must be said, serve a multitude of purposes: controlled by pheremone-producing 'magicians', they're used for energy, for communication, for processing. (It's unclear why 'traditional' technologies aren't in use.)

There are several nations on Umayma, two of which (Chenja and Nasheen) are engaged in a dirty chemical / biological war that has lasted for centuries. Nasheen is a matriarchy, where fourteen year old boys are sent off to the front: if they live to forty, they're allowed to come home. Chenja is considerably more conservative, where a woman's place is in the home. A Chenjan woman wouldn't dream of behaving like a Nasheenian -- especially not like Nyx, the protagonist of God's War, who is lewd, violent, and stubborn to a fault.

At the start of the novel Nyx is a bel dame, an authorised bounty hunter, but then an off-the-books job goes wrong, she's betrayed, and the bel dame Sisterhood casts her out. Fast-forward to Nyx's career as an unauthorised bounty hunter: she has a good team, including the Chenjan magician Rhys (the other protagonist), and Khos, a shape-shifter from Tirhan. At the behest of the Queen, Nyx and her crew hunt down a missing alien, a woman named Nikodem who may hold the secret to ending the war.

The plot of God's War is convoluted (and due to a freak Kindle accident I've lost my highlights): I won't discuss it further. It's the worldbuilding that fascinates me: Umayma has been colonised primarily by Islamic groups, but also by Christians and possibly Jews. One of the stated reasons for the presence of aliens on Umayma is 'they were very interested in finding other followers of the Kitab and its sister books. They have offered an exchange of technologies in the spirit of our shared faith' [loc. 1678]. A little later, they refer to the Umayman interpretation of 'the Kitab and its sister books' as 'exceeingly unique' [loc. 1720]. Nasheen and Chenja are both aspects of the same belief system, and Hurley does an excellent job of showing the pros and cons of both. Better still, this is not the main focus of the novel. Nor is the apparent gender inversion of Nasheen, where the women are dominant and the men (well, 'boys', presumably in the same sense that grown women are referred to as 'girls' in our own culture) who've avoided the draft are concubines or possessions. If the whole of Umayma was a matriarchy, it might count as reversal: but it's not, and the frequent conflicts between Nyx and Rhys (and to some extent Nyx and Khos) demonstrate the damage caused by the gender roles their cultures have imposed.

In summary: people argue a lot in this novel.

I'm most fascinated by the shifters, in particular Khos. Shapeshifting (which sounds much more gruesome than the average CGI depiction: the pictures are always better in prose) is a human mutation unique to Umayma. ('the First Families used to call them angels' [loc. 2696]) The aliens have spotted this too, though they're just as interested in the magicians. And while shifting is not the apparent focus of God's War, I'm keen to read the other books in the trilogy to discover whether it becomes a central concern.

I can't honestly say that I liked any of the characters in God's War, but I am drawn to Nyx's indomitable spirit and to Rhys' Secret Past. And yes, I want more Umayma.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

2014/12: The Machine -- James Smythe

The Machine contains all that is left of who he once was. Already it’s processed his story, the speech-to-text system inside it turning his spoken, quivering memories into data and patching them. Filling in the cracks in his story. Somewhere, inside the Machine, are the exact constituents of what – who – Vic will be. [loc 1726]
I read this because it's on the 2014 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I was discussing at Eastercon.

Beth's soldier husband Vic isn't on a tour of duty abroad, though that's what Beth tells people. He's confined to a care home in London, helpless and silent, after an experimental treatment for PTSD went horribly wrong.

A teacher's salary has condemned Beth to a solitary, frugal life on the Isle of Wight, while every spare penny has been saved up for an illegal Machine -- an obsolete model of the device that stole Vic's painful memories and stored them as data. Beth is determined to get her husband back. After all, his current state is partly her fault.

Life on the Isle of Wight is not a pleasant experience. Gangs of feral teenagers roam the streets; climate change has baked the landscape to desert. Beth swims in the sea every morning, the only way she can cool down. She's been planning Vic's return for a while, stockpiling food and supplies: soon the school holidays will start and she can put her plans into action. The Machine, huge and black and impenetrable, looms in the spare room, waiting. But her new friend Laura realises that something's afoot ...

The Machine is well-paced, deals with PTSD sensitively, and is horribly accurate about the unease which a woman alone might feel when verbally abused by a group of teenagers. The sense of imminent doom increases gradually, and the desolate landscape outside Beth's window is a good metaphor for the aridity and emptiness of her life: she might as well be in the desert with Vic. But when I'd finished reading and started reflecting, the novel seems somehow empty. Having Beth as the sole narrative voice is very effective in terms of suspense, but it's harder to suspend disbelief when certain plot twists become clear. And it's ultimately a very depressing story.

(Irritatingly, the last 15% of the Kindle version is taken up with notes and an excerpt from another book: so, just when you think you've reached the final twist, you 'turn' the 'page' and realise the novel's over.)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

2014/11: Nexus -- Ramez Naam

Evolution and human cleverness were cast against filter daemon cleverness. Bit by bit, crowdsourced evolution pulled ahead.
NSA agents were slow to grasp the enormity of the new outbreak. When they did, they pulled the plug on all peer-sharing traffic within the United States, [loc.5486]

I read this because it's on the 2014 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I was discussing at Eastercon.

Nexus is a drug that's also an operating system: it connects people to each other and to the web, and enhances their senses. The narrator of Nexus, Kaden Lane, has just upgraded to the latest version when he is apprehended by the security services and pressured into helping them investigate a Chinese variant of the same technology.

Kade is an idealist: Sam, the other protagonist, is a hard-boiled government agent with a Tragic Secret. She's adamant that Nexus is dangerous and flawed. Sam and Kade, with three of Kade's stoner friends (each espousing a different agenda regarding Nexus) have plenty of arguments whilst fleeing those who want to use Nexus as a method of enslavement. Ranged against the more conservative forces are the wannabe posthumans, who believe that Nexus holds the key to future evolution.

It's clear from various remarks about open source, compilation, development environments etc that the author has previous in the IT business: turns out he's worked for Microsoft, and for Apex Nanotechnologies. And his afterword is informative: "it's still fiction. The research to date has been a great proof of principle. It's shown that we can get data in and out of the brain. It's shown that we can interpret that data to make sense of what the brain is doing, or to input new data in a way that the brain can make sense of." [loc.5736]

Nexus is a fast-paced cyberpunk thriller that somehow, despite reflecting cutting-edge neuroscience, feels a little dated. Kade and Sam, separately and together, spend a lot of time either fighting (it's a pretty violent book) or fleeing. The pace of the novel is breathless, but slowing down reveals some fundamental inconsistencies in the way that Nexus works. Interesting, but (for me, anyway) unfulfilling.

2014/10: The Adjacent -- Christopher Priest

‘Quantum technology has been declared toxic. There are known to be occasional health risks for the user, and for anyone else in range. Too many side-effects.’
‘I can’t believe I’m hearing this. How can a camera have side-effects? [loc.860]

I read this because it's on the 2014 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I was discussing at Eastercon.

I am not a faithful reader of Christopher Priest's novels, so suspect I have missed a plethora of references to his previous work: from what I did spot, I'm tempted to describe this as a 'Greatest Hits' compilation. There are magicians, the Archipelago, World Wars I and II, multiple variants of the same character (or are they), amnesia, misunderstood / insufficiently pragmatic scientists, et cetera. The different sections of the novel are interrelated in odd and unexpected ways: names connected with water (Flo, Torrence known as Floody); variants on the names Melanie Roscoe and Tibor Tarent; a weapon that leaves only equilateral black triangles; a camera that uses a quantum lens, based on the work of a scientist named Rietveld -- an echo of Wilhelm Reich? -- who invented adjacency technology.

Adjacency, as explained in the novel, is a standard technique of stage magic. 'the audience... should become interested and look away in the wrong direction. An adept conjuror knows exactly how to create an adjacent distraction, and also knows when to make use of the invisibility it temporarily creates.' [loc.1676] I'm still not sure that I understand how this relates to quantum photography, except that 'the adjacency defence' relocates an incoming missile to an adjacent dimension. But is that the same as a magician's adjacency? And does the quantum camera record adjacent realities, or enable (or force) the photographer to slip between them?

The Adjacent is a novel in eight parts, each set in a distinct reality: the near-future Islamic Republic of Great Britain, ravaged by superstorms; a Lincolnshire airfield in World War II where a female ATA pilot is delivering a plane; the island of Prachous in the Dream Archipelago, where refugees are banished to a shanty town named Adjacent ... and France, 1916, where a stage magician discusses new technology and warfare with H. G. Wells.

Every time I think about this book I note another connection, another congruence. I suspect that to reach understanding would be to internalise Priest's entire oeuvre and to familiarise myself with every sentence. I suspect this would be unsettling, but I believe it would be rewarding.

2014/09: Ancillary Justice -- Ann Leckie

She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn’t entirely certain. ... Radchaai don’t care much about gender, and the language they speak — my own first language — doesn’t mark gender in any way. This language we were speaking now did, and I could make trouble for myself if I used the wrong forms. It didn’t help that cues meant to distinguish gender changed from place to place, sometimes radically, and rarely made much sense to me. [loc.63]

I read this because it's on the 2014 shortlist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, which I was discussing at Eastercon.

Much has been made of the use of gendered pronouns in Ancillary Justice. One Esk (or Breq, the narrator's 'human' name) uses the female pronoun indiscriminately -- uncomprehendingly -- for all humans, with ... surprisingly few consequences. Breq doesn't care about gender or sexuality, and so her narrative glosses over aspects of the story that might be foregrounded by another narrator. One or more of the sexual / romantic relationships in the novel may be between characters of the same gender, but there is insufficient evidence -- and, frankly, it doesn't matter.

More intriguing is the blurring of first-person singular and plural: 'I', and 'we'. Breq is the sole remaining ancillary of Justice of Torren, a millennia-old, AI-controlled starship. The ancillaries, colloquially known as corpse soldiers, are the Radch Empire's footsoldiers, the zombified husks of annexed populations, animated by AIs. So in one of the threads in Ancillary Justice we encounter One Esk, a detached unit under the command of Decade Lieutenant Awn. In another thread the narrator is Breq, still mourning Justice of Torren, and possibly more than a little insane. Breq and One Esk are the same person, except that in One Esk's story the pronoun 'I' can refer to One Esk, or to another ancillary, or to Justice of Torren.

Justice of Torren loves music. One Esk can sing harmony: "I opened three of my mouths, all in close proximity to each other on the temple plaza, and sang with those three voices, “My heart is a fish, hiding in the water-grass…” " [loc.373]

Breq knows who destroyed Justice of Torren: Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, who dwells in a thousand bodies and rules supreme. Anaander Mianaai was also responsible for the death of Lieutenant Awn, for whom One Esk (or Justice of Torren?) had complex emotions. To vow revenge on Anaander Mianaai is to wreak destruction on the whole interstellar empire. But Breq knows of a device ...

Breq's search for the person who possesses the solution is complicated by Seivarden, a crew member from a thousand years ago, who's spent centuries in cryosleep and woken to find the whole of the Radch has changed beyond recognition. Breq encounters Seivarden near death, in the snow: the two have unexpected, and largely positive, effects on one another. Because Breq does have emotions, though not human ones: "Without feelings insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s just easier to handle those with emotions." [loc.1199] Indeed, the whole novel could be said to pivot on Breq's / One Esk's / Justice of Torren's emotional reactions to various humans.

I find it hard to review this book without rambling, because I keep remembering new aspects that I loved. It reminds me of Iain M Banks' Culture novels and of Justina Robson's inhuman Forged, in Natural History. Ancillary Justice deals with identity, loyalty, vengeance and war: it's cinematic in scope and devious in nuance: it is, bah, the first in a trilogy, but stands alone. Very highly recommended.