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

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

2018/53: The Magick of Master Lilly -- Toshba Learner

... alas the interpretation he did choose to believe was from a French Catholic Priest (of the Queen’s staff) who did convince him the Angel was in fact a Demon sent by evil Protestant forces to sway him from his true path. And thus the King decided to ignore the warning. [loc. 2462]

A promising premise -- the career of William Lilly, astrologer to King Charles I -- but this novel is badly in need of an editor. I received an advance copy from NetGalley (in exchange for this honest review) and hoped that the issues I noted would be corrected before publication, but a quick check of the sample chapters on Amazon, and the e-text on Google Books, dashed my hopes.
I can forgive the archaisms ('I did love it' instead of 'I loved it', 'it were' rather than 'it was'). The plethora of words used wrongly, whether typos or something else, really bothered me. Ships have 'tall masks'; Charles I is 'short of statue'; Lilly wishes to introduce some 'brevity', but his mistress does not smile ... Sometimes turns of phrase become nonsensical; for 'has not gone amiss' read 'has not been missed' ...

I could go on. And I feel mean and curmudgeonly for picking apart the words and ignoring the story: but it's hard to judge a novel when the act of reading it is fraught with constant small annoyances. (Do not start me on anachronisms. Tattoo! Silhouette! Dachshund!)

Lilly's gift is not only to read the future in the stars (he did, in fact, predict the Great Fire with remarkable accuracy) but 'to manipulate outcomes, not just predict them'. He is engaged to read the King's horoscope, and to exorcise a young girl possessed by a demon -- I admire his handling of the latter case. He's certainly adept at politicking -- both in the mundane world, and in the rarified company of the Grand Council of Theurgy.

But his attitude to his wife (they do not love one another) is despicable, and his treatment of his mistress towards the end of the novel infuriating. I would have liked to warm towards Master Lilly, but despite the very real physical and psychic dangers he endures, I didn't really have a sense of him as a vulnerable, troubled human being.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

2018/52: Now We Shall Be Entirely Free -- Andrew Miller

the thought that had touched him several times since coming back from Spain, that we are not private beings and cannot hide things inside ourselves. Everything is present, everything in view for those who know how to look. [loc 3776]
1809: a soldier, near death, is brought to a house in Somerset by a postilion, and nursed slowly back to health by the housekeeper. The soldier's name is John Lacroix, and he has survived the retreat to Corunna. In body, at least: he has become deaf, and his feet are raw, but he is otherwise largely undamaged physically. His mind is another matter, and it's clear that something terrible happened to him during his last days in Spain. When a fellow officer visits to recall him to his regiment, he flees -- first to Bristol, then north to the Hebrides.

On his trail are two hunters: an English corporal, Calley, who has testified against Lacroix, and a Spanish officer, Medina, who represents the victims of an atrocity perpetrated by English soldiers in the small Spanish village of Morales. The two have been enjoined to 'do what your country requires of you'. Calley, it transpires, is not the kind of fellow you would wish to encounter on such an errand: but perhaps the violence which he applies to every obstacle is justified, or at least explicable. Perhaps.

Somewhere in the Hebrides (the particular island is never named) Lacroix meets the Fender siblings, who are members of a community of free thinkers. Emily, the least eccentric of the three, is losing her sight: Lacroix finds in her a kindred spirit, and begins to understand his own freedom in contrast to her 'small independence'. But will love, given or received, help him to confront the terrible things in his past?

Miller's narrative is slow, and seldom straightforward. We see Lacroix and Calley through the eyes of many observers: their perceptions don't always equate with our own. The clues about what happened at Morales are scattered throughout the novel: I'm not sure they're ever stitched into a comprehensive account, except in the reader's mind. Instead, we see how thoroughly the experience has permeated Lacroix: seeing gas-lamps lit, he imagines "if there had been lights like these that night in Spain ..."

This is a novel full of resonant images: 'lyrical and full of light', I have written, though perhaps that's only the ending. Complex philosophies are presented simply, as when a Somerset farmer says 'the man standing still knows just as much and will have his boots less worn. The world will pass through him'. Or Lacroix, reflecting that 'everything in view for those who know how to look'. Which could be a metaphor for Now We Shall Be Entirely Free: it's all there if you look.

I'd recently read False Lights, which also features an officer tormented by memories of war. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free takes a different approach, both with the original horror and the man's reaction to it. Miller's novel feels more vivid as an exploration of PTSD (perhaps because the sufferer is the central character here, and the theme is escape rather than redemption), but this is not to disparage False Lights. These are two very different novels which happen to be set in the same period. They are maps of different territories.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing a free ARC in exchange for this honest review!

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

2018/51: Exit Strategy -- Martha Wells

'Mensah said I could learn to do anything I wanted. I learned to leave.' [p. 64]

Review coming soon! (Publication date 02OCT18)

Monday, August 13, 2018

2018/50: False Lights -- K. J. Whittaker

She realised with detached horror that she was in London – London – and soldiers were firing at will into a crowd of unarmed citizens. This wasn’t just an occupation. It was a tyranny. [loc. 3078]
An alternate history that opens in the Scilly Isles, eighteen months after a Napoleonic victory at Waterloo. England is occupied, with Napoleon's brother Jérôme and his ex-empress Joséphine (who, in this timeline, didn't die in 1814) holding court at Carlton House in London. In the Scillies, French soldiers kill Captain John Harewood, a black sea-captain who triumphed at Trafalgar, and capture his daughter Hester, who overhears her captors discussing a dangerous secret.

Meanwhile, the young Earl of Lamorna (John 'Jack' Crowlas; known as Crow) is trying to extricate his teenaged brother Kitto from a daring but doomed act of sabotage. Crow's groom Arkwright has an agenda of his own; so does Crow, who is juggling allegiances, plots and loyalties, along with hallucinations of the dead and memories of his own appalling failure in the line of duty. As for the female protagonists, Hester's childhood friend Catlin manages to surprise a Duke; Lady Louisa, stepmother to Crow and Kitto, is determined to get what she wants; and Hester herself, well aware of how society treats anyone with Black forebears, has to contend with jealousy, ostracism and treachery as well as explicit racism.

The novel's title is a reference to the wreckers of Cornwall and the Scillies, who lit false lights to lure ships onto the rocks, and salvaged whatever washed up. That sense of trickery and desperation weaves through False Lights. Although there's a classic romance with the usual reversals, there is also a story about rising up under an unjust dictatorship; a story about spies and double agents; Hester's story about confounding racism, sexism and prejudice; and Crow's story of a man trying to live with his memories and his mistakes. Whittaker is to be applauded for making Crow so thoroughly unlikeable at the beginning of the novel -- though to a certain extent that's through careful choice of narrators. (The novel is told in third person, with scenes from multiple characters: Whittaker does an excellent job of differentiating these, though some of them -- such as Arkwright -- are more effective than others.) Crow is clearly suffering from what we'd term PTSD, and even when he behaves heroically the horrors are with him.

Apart from one moment when I screeched aloud (no, nobody would have been galloping across Tower Bridge in 1817, as it did not exist), I found the novel convincing and compelling: there may be flaws in the historical research, but it hung together well. (There is an afterword in which the author discusses her approach, including the resurrection of Joséphine). Whittaker's writing is vivid and sometimes brutal: she doesn't romanticise warfare or poverty. I very much enjoyed False Lights, and I'm looking forward to the sequel, Russian Gambit, due in 2019.

Friday, August 10, 2018

2018/49: Ghost Wall -- Sarah Moss

... a ghost wall, said the Prof, sitting back on his haunches. I was just telling your dad, it’s what one of the local tribes tried as a last-ditch defence against the Romans, they made a palisade and brought out their ancestral skulls and arrayed them along the top, dead faces gazing down, it was their strongest magic. [loc. 946]
Silvie (short for Sulevia, Ancient British goddess of springs and pools) is a young seventeen. Her father, Bill, is a bus driver with an avid interest in archaeology: he, Silvie's mother Alison and Silvie have been invited to join Professor Slade ('call me Jim') and a trio of students (Dan, Pete and Molly) in an 'experimental archaeology' camp somewhere in Northumbria. Jim's interest is scholarly: Bill, on the other hand, would apparently like nothing more than to go back to those simpler, more honest times, free of immigrants and womens' rights and inequality. He is an emotionally and physically abusive husband and father, holding his wife wholly in thrall, and Silvie in a toxic bond of love and fear. Silvie is good at going away inside her head, but even there she doesn't escape her father's dominance.

Molly and Silvie become friends, and bond over forbidden trips to the nearest shop (why, yes, they are both wearing 'Iron Age' tunics and moccasins: but ice cream!) despite the issues of class and privilege that might divide them. Meanwhile, the men -- 'they’re not much interested in the foraging and cooking, they just want to kill things and talk about fighting' -- are talking about the ghost wall, the bog burials, the sacrifices, the liminal zone between life and death, and the rituals and curses by which the Iron Age folk protected themselves. But what about the victims? (The book opens with a short description, third person, of one such woman.) Silvie, at least, understands that you don't sacrifice something you don't love.

This is a very short novel, but quite chilling. A surprising amount of unease stems from the increasing friction (never discussed, of course) between the six members of the group. But there is also the constant presence of the idea of sacrifice, of the dead watching the living: the idea that the dead are not gone. "They had to be pinned to their graves with sharp sticks driven through elbow and knee, trapped behind woven wooden palings, to stop them coming back, creeping home dead and not dead in the dark." [loc. 912]

Moss' prose is poetic, and she's good at layering sensory impressions and simple words to build up ambience. I wasn't wholly comfortable with the way that dialogue and first-person thoughts were blended -- no speech marks, a great many run-on sentences -- but I think this technique did make the novel more immersive.

I'd add a trigger warning for domestic violence and child abuse: I don't know if the latter has any sexual element, and the lack of clarity on that point bothers me somewhat.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing a free advance review copy in exchange for this honest review!

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

2018/48: Rogue Protocol -- Martha Wells

Being a SecUnit sucked. I couldn’t wait to get back to my wild rogue rampage of hitching rides on bot-piloted transports and watching my serials. [loc. 1042]
GrayCris, the Big Bad of the first Murderbot novella, is being investigated for illegal activity pertaining to alien remains, and Dr Mensah has become involved. Murderbot, being better-placed to acquire evidence of GrayCris' wrongdoing (and not wanting anyone to pester Mensah about that missing SecUnit), heads to an abandoned terraforming facility at Milu to investigate.

Murderbot is not the only individual interested in Milu. There are a pair of human security consultants, Wilken and Garth, who are employed as bodyguards to Don Abene and her assistant Hirune -- and possibly also expected to look after Don Abene's 'pet robot', Miki, who vexes Murderbot by referring to humans as its 'friends' and generally being cheerful, positive and wholesome. (I wonder if Miki is any relation to Twiki?)

Murderbot uses Miki's feeds to monitor the situation as the humans head for the terraforming facility, and gets to experience (in private, of course) quite a few emotions, including something that is absolutely not jealousy of a human-form bot. Because Miki is treated as one of the family -- maybe like a pet, maybe like a child, certainly like a friend. It's a kind of relationship between human and bot that Murderbot has never experienced, and it provokes a great deal of reflection. Not that there's much time for reflection when GrayCris' dastardly plot becomes clear ...

Murderbot is as likeable (and relatable) as ever, and Wells is very good at depicting the changes that Murderbot is experiencing -- even when (especially when?) Murderbot is unwilling or unable to consider those changes itself.

There are some excellent one-liners ('There needs to be an error code that means “I received your request but decided to ignore you.”' [loc 39]) and some intriguing observations: and a great lead-in to the fourth and final novella, Exit Strategy, due in October 2018.

Also worth noting that pretty much all the human characters are female.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

2018/47: Lord of Light -- Roger Zelazny

Time like an ocean, space like its water, Sam in the middle, standing, decided. [loc 4237]
From the blurb of the 1973 UK paperback: "A Brilliant Novel of Men Like Gods Long After the Death of Earth". (Why, yes, there are women too. Please file under 'period-typical sexism', of which more below.)

Lord of Light (winner of the Hugo award for best novel, 1968) is set in the far future, on a planet colonised by humans, who defeated the original inhabitants by developing -- through a combination of technology, genetics and psychology -- god-like powers. Each individual having a unique Aspect, they assume the personae of gods of the Hindu pantheon, ruling over a caste-based society composed of the less powerful colonists. Reincarnation, via body transfer, is standard -- though it's controlled by the Lords of Karma, who have recently started using a psych-probe to 'tape' the minds of those applying for new bodies.

The events of the novel occur several thousand years after the arrival of the colonists. Sam, the protagonist, wants to overthrow the deicratic rule of the 'gods', and make technology and reincarnation available to all rather than the domain of the elite. His chosen tool is Buddhism, and his allies include the native life-forms of the planet, now pure energy and considered as demons. Over the course of the novel, various gods turn to Sam's cause: in particular, the Lord of Death, Yama, who is a technological genius and also happens to be in love with Sam's ex, Kali.

I adored Lord of Light when I first encountered it in my teens, and I still think it may be Zelazny's best standalone novel -- though my opinion has altered somewhat since my last reread, which was likely in the 1990s. Although I still know whole paragraphs more or less word for word -- and found myself looking out for familiar typos ('I would have numbered its days internationally', thanks Sphere) -- I had somehow completely failed to notice what I would now tag as 'period-typical sexism'.

When I was thinking about this review, I wondered if it was narrative sexism or the sexism of a particular character: Sam is particularly prone to using sexist (and transphobic) slurs to rile an opponent, but that opponent is also described in problematic terms.
It was almost as if sex were a thing that transcended biology; and no matter how hard he tried to suppress the memory and destroy that segment of spirit, [he] had been born a woman and somehow was woman still. Hating this thing, he had elected to incarnate time after time as an eminently masculine man, did so, and still felt somehow inadequate, as though the mark of his true sex were branded upon his brow. It made him want to stamp his foot and grimace. [loc 976]
So, it's not just Sam -- though he is the character most likely to remark on sex and gender. The demons, pure energy beings who long ago rejected the flesh, have hung onto misogyny: Taraka dismisses Kali as 'only a woman'. The plot hinges on a love triangle: the two men in that triangle are the novel's two protagonists, while the woman seldom appears. The goddess Ratri actually gets to be part of the plot: she is punished by being reincarnated into bodies of 'more than usually plain appearance'.

Despite its problematic aspects, Lord of Light remains a splendid read. I still don't especially like Sam, but Yama is one of my favourite of Zelazny's characters: his final scenes -- the import of which I completely missed as a teenager! -- are intensely moving. The world-building is visually ravishing, never heavy-handed, and creates a sense of an alien world that has become a human home: there are proverbs, customs, ways in which the strangeness has become comfortable. Not comfortable for the original inhabitants, obviously: but for a novel based on forcible colonisation, Lord of Light is remarkably sympathetic. 'To them, we are the demons,' says Sam: and, to Taraka (demon king), 'perhaps some reparation might be made'.

Three final points:
- there is no legitimate English-language ebook edition. If your French is up to it, you can purchase Seigneur de Lumière.
- there was going to be a film; Jack Kirby was involved; and this was used as a cover to rescue US officials from Iran: see How Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light transformed into the CIA's Argo covert op and The book that Argo forgot: SF Classic Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. (The latter also gives a good overview of the novel.)
- no review of this novel would be complete with a nod to one of the most egregious puns in SF, painstakingly built up when Sam is considering reincarnation and sends the Shan of Irabek to test the waters.

I still think it's one of Zelazny's best: and having reread it, I found myself rereading it again, for sheer enjoyment.