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

Monday, July 21, 2008

#31: Storm Front -- Jim Butcher

I walked through a spectral landscape littered with skulls, into the teeth of the coming storm, to a house covered in malevolent power, throbbing with savage and feral mystic strength. I walked forward to face a murderous opponent who had all the advantages, and who stood prepared and willing to kill me from where he stood within the heart of his own destructive power while I was armed with nothing more than my own skill and wit and experience.
Do I have a great job or what?

The first novel in the Harry Dresden series, Storm Front sets up a great deal of backstory for the protagonist: I'm sure this will be picked up in subsequent novels, but it does make Storm Front itself feel somewhat unfinished.

Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden (named after three magicians) is a freelance wizard working the mean streets of Chicago. He's called in to solve a gruesome double murder that was almost certainly committed using black magic. Problem is, very few magic-users could pull this off, and Harry is one of the suspects ...

Harry Dresden is more than a little chauvinistic: together with his problems with technology (his very presence causes things to malfunction) this made for some confusion about when the novel's set. It has a noir ambience, and I'd initially thought it might be set in the Forties or Fifties: then, quite a way in, another character used a cellphone and I had to rethink my assumptions. (Never a bad thing.)

It's a competent whodunnit, with a well-constructed theory of magic and a supporting cast who are vividly drawn but do, unfortunately, tend towards the stereotypical. A couple of plot points bothered me (a discarded film canister provides a major clue -- but if they have cellphones, why not digital cameras? And if Harry's a magic-user, surely he'd be able to contact other magic users while they were away from home?). And there was evidence of poor proofing (stray apostrophes) and editing ('whatever contents they contained'). On the whole, though, it was an enjoyable read, and while I'm not hooked I'll probably read more of the series sooner or later.

By the way, am fairly convinced that Dresden's cat is much smarter than Dresden himself.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

#30: The Road to Samarcand -- Patrick O'Brian

"Impress ... an archaeologist, huh? Well, Ay reckon Ay would strike him just behind the shoulder with a twenty-four pound harpoon. Strike hard and fast, not too far back, see? My old man, he chanced on one of them things north-east of Spitzbergen in the fall of, lemme t'ink, 1897 was it, or 1898? It chawed up his long-boat something horrible, but they got fifty-three barrels of oil out of it."

This little-known early novel by O'Brian was first published in 1954, before The Golden Ocean and The Unknown Shore and well before the first Aubrey/Maturin novel, Master and Commander: I'd never heard of it, and snapped it up as soon as I noticed it in a Cambridge remainder shop.

It's a boy's own adventure, set some time in the 1930s (from internal evidence: the year is never stated). Protagonist Derrick, the orphaned teenage son of American missionaries, is learning seamanship aboard his uncle's schooner, the Wanderer, as they roam the South China Sea. He's all set for a life on the ocean wave until his elderly academic cousin appears with plans to send him off to school in England, sugaring the pill by promising that they'll journey by way of Samarcand.

Samarcand is, of course, about as landlocked as you can get: fans of O'Brian's nautical writing be warned. Apart from the first couple of chapters, the action is relentlessly terrestrial. Derrick and his companions (his uncle Sullivan, and Sullivan's good friend Ross; the Wanderer's Chinese cook, Li Han; three Mongol brothers, direct descendants of Genghis (or Chingiz) Khan; Professor Ayrton, Derrick's cousin and a great authority on Oriental archaeology; Olaf, Svensson, a Swedish sailor; and Chang, a disreputable hound rescued from shipwreck) encounter Mongol warlords, perfidious -- yet stupid -- Russians, bellicose lamas, priceless jade treasures and unseen monsters above the snowline. It's all very wholesome and heroic.

O'Brian's gentle mocking of idiosyncrasy, verbal and otherwise, is already there: the Professor describing himself as a 'hep cat' and gently correcting Derrick's attempts to teach him actual (i.e. non-grammatical) American slang; Li Han's surprising, self-taught English vocabulary; Olaf's long Swedish vowels and knack for anecdotes (there's a lovely one about a camel). There are aspects of the Professor that remind me of Stephen Maturin, and aspects of Sullivan (and Ross) reminiscent of Jack Aubrey, though they're at best prototypes.

It's a quietly bloodthirsty novel, informed by the attitudes of the period: physical punishment, quiet courage, perhaps a hint of racism. O'Brian's prose, though not as polished as it later became, is measured, and his dry wit is evident. An entertaining read, but a shadow of what the author later achieved.

Can't help wondering why The Road to Samarcand was never reissued, or even really mentioned, during O'Brian's lifetime (presumably he objected?) and why it's taken rather longer than his other early works (Hussein, Caesar: both published under his birth-name, Richard Russ) to appear posthumously.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Margarets -- Sheri S. Tepper

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in Winter 2008.

Margaret Bain, born 2084, grows up as the only child on Phobos. Earth is over-populated, ecologically devastated and governed by draconian reproductive laws. Those who come from large families (the calculation is based on number of children and number of siblings) are shipped out to one of the colony worlds, or indentured as bond-slaves to various unpleasant alien races. Not all the aliens are bad guys: the Gentherans, small besuited bipeds who made contact with Earth in 2062, seem to feel indebted to humanity, and have provided ships, assistance and galactic good will.

Like many solitary children, Margaret invents alter egos: a spy, a queen, a shaman, a linguist. Unlike most children, though, her fantasy selves become real: they split off at critical junctures, and go off to have adventures (and narratives) of their own. At nine, a version of Margaret leaves Phobos with a woman in a red dress whose spaceship looks like a dragonfly. At twelve, multiple selves leave Earth for different fates. At twenty-two ...

Margaret ends up seven-selved, each self on a different world and usually known by a different name. One self is male. One self is much older than the others, having passed through a time anomaly to reach the colony for which she's bound. Each self is only vaguely, if at all, aware that there are other versions of Margaret out there. And each berates herself for making the wrong choices, or bewails fate stacked against her.

Pan back from the Margarets. There's a plan millennia in the making, and a shadowy Order of the Siblinghood to implement it: there's a cosmic gathering-place, like an ocean or a forest or a galaxy, where the gods of all mortal races dwell. (Well, they say they're gods, but they would, wouldn't they?) The gods can only think, only do, what their followers are capable of thinking and doing; but this does not limit them in any useful way. Humankind's pantheon includes Mr Weathereye (a one-eyed gentleman of indeterminate age), Lady Badness, and the Gardener. There are other, less balanced entities in this assembly, notably a triptych of bloodthirsty Quaatar gods: the Quaatar harbour an innate loathing of humanity, and their gods are hatching a dreadful plot.

Now, blend in Tepper's big themes: population control (at all levels from intra-familial to racial); ecology and the fragile biome of Earth; inscrutable aliens; the need for rescue. Throw in a pinch of kindness-to-animals (in a kind of fairytale morality, this is a gift that benefits the giver), lost children, lost memories, some truly nasty religious practices, slavery and human trafficking, conjoined twins and the misuse of religion. And season with a new take on 'the human problem' -- not the problem perceived by various alien races, of the galaxy (and the pantheon) being overrun by humanity, but the more basic issue of humanity's appetite for wasteful destruction, and whether this appetite can ever be removed.

Stir well.

The Margarets is less about the roles and rights of women, and more about humanity regardless of gender, than in some of Tepper's earlier novels. There's a strong undercurrent of outrage at aspects of contemporary life: the dumbing-down of education, the ineffectuality of environmental policies, the pro-life movement. There's also humour, and something that I suspect an antagonistic reviewer might term 'whimsy', though I found it heart-warming. The seven-fold Margarets give Tepper ample room to indulge other favourite themes (shamanism, medicine, linguistics and a rather swashbuckling romance) without upsetting the balance of the novel. Which is, in a sense, about balance.

There's a certain amount of handwaving at the end of the novel ("The how is less important than the why," insists the Gardener). And readers who've followed Tepper's career may experience a sense of déjà vu from time to time. But this is a complex, cleverly-plotted novel, and a vastly entertaining read.

My personal review of The Margarets is here