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

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

#22: Subterfuge -- Ian Whates (ed)

Copernicus upset the moral order by dissolving the strict distinction between heaven and earth. Darwin did the same by dissolving the strict distinction between humans and other animals. The next step is the dissolution of the strict distinction between fiction and reality ... (p. 158: 'The God Particle')

Two versions of this anthology are available: the limited edition contains an extra three stories (by Ian Watson, Storm Constantine and editor Ian Whates). Are these three stories worth the extra cost?

The theme of the anthology is subterfuge, 'a clever device or strategy used to evade a rule, escape a consequence, or to hide something ...' The authors collected here have approached this challenge from vastly different angles: about half the stories are fantasy, though boundaries blur, and they range from a rather joky, Golden-Age type story about the Large Hadron Collider to a hallucinatory tale of a world where love and hate are directions, and angels can be called down to answer supplications.

Recurrent themes include telepathy, twists in time, poetic justice (the tables turned). The subterfuges practiced here range from wishes that should never have been granted to treachery and treason, from hidden pasts to hidden agendas. This is a very British anthology; all the authors are British by residence if not birth, and several of the stories are set in locations aglow with familiar detail: Cambridge, a small seaside town in Norfolk, a village on the south coast. Whether comfortably, weirdly local or wholly fantastical, those settings are peopled by ... well, by people: by characters who are involved with the events that surround them, who are changed by those events, who are embittered or triumphant or despairing.

There's some impressive worldbuilding and some clever twists: though Whates has juxtaposed big-name writers with new voices, the quality is remarkably even. I shan't discuss all 19 stories (16 in the cheaper edition) here, just namecheck a couple of my favourites. Juliet McKenna's 'Noble Deceit' is a fantasy about a boy who can make substance out of shadow -- and how he learns that the things he creates aren't just toys. Dave Hutchinson's 'Multitude' is set in a near-future Britain where humans have been defeated (and slaughtered) by elves, who've returned from some mysterious 'other place' -- they were last around when the North Sea was still forest -- to reclaim their land. (Is it coincidence that the entire global economy, communication network and infrastructure has collapsed? I suspect not.) Hutchinson's protagonist, Kaz, is an intriguing character, and there's enough dimension to him to keep him sympathetic even once his nasty past's revealed. And Steve Longworth's 'The God Particle' feels just like one of those Golden Age short stories, complete with twist, but I like what he's done with astrophysicist Piet Hut's theories: reality and anti-reality ambiguons and their six flavours ...

I'd also like to mention Nick Wood's 'Thirstlands', an understated and haunting tale set in Africa when the water's drying up and everyone's thirsty. 'Thirstlands' was selected from a shortlist of six stories written by members of the BSFA's Orbiter workshops. For my money it's one of the most mature and subtle stories in the anthology.

Quibble, though a minor one: the book could have done with more proof-reading, as there are a number of small but distracting errors (missing punctuation; homonyms, such as 'discrete' instead of 'discreet'; plain typos).

I'll be reviewing this properly for Strange Horizons: review will be linked when it appears.

Monday, March 23, 2009

#21:Flora's Dare ... -- Ysabeau Wilce

Flora's Dare: How a Girl of Spirit Gambles All to Expand Her Vocabulary, Confront a Bouncing Boy Terror, and Try to Save Califa from a Shaky Doom (Despite Being Confined to Her Room) -- Ysabeau S. Wilce

This underwater world is an illusion ... my Anima is translating Elsewhere into images I recognise and understand. I know the salmon are really elementals, the kelp is really ætheric energy, the coral is really fragments of old sigils, broken and encased with time. But the illusion is beautiful and I wish with all my Will that I could enjoy it, drift through the Current forever, give in to its pull, allow it to carry me away.
But I cannot.
(p. 462)

Flora's Dare continues the story of Flora Fyrdraaca, just turned fourteen and now under the stern gaze of her newly-sober martinet father. (Her mother, the General, is absent for much of this novel: a shame.) Flora is wrestling with all manner of problems: a midnight curfew cramping her style; a best friend whose latest money-spinning scheme involves bounty-hunting and Sonoron Zombie Powder (one whiff of this stuff and you are no more wilful than a piece of cheese. They use it in Huitzil to control sacrifices and wanton wives (p. 35)); a crush on her mother's great enemy, Lord Axacaya; the problem of what to wear to the Warlord's Birthday Ball; the impossibility of finding a copy of yellowback novel Nini Mo vs. the Ice Weasels: the Ultimate Ranger Dare. And Flora's a growing girl, exploding out of her stays ...

As soon as I'd finished reading Flora Segunda I was greedy for this, the second in the trilogy: it doesn't disappoint, being quite as frothy and frivolous and fun as the first -- etiquette, fashion, honour, rock'n'roll -- with even darker undertones and some harrowing backstory. Murder, (attempted) rape, treason, arson, possession ... The treatment's never sensationalist or overly graphic, and often the more adult themes are merely hinted at. (A special mention to Madama Twanky's Nethersheaths, extra large.) The 'Flora' novels may be targeted at the YA audience, but Wilce handles some mature themes herein, and does so without heavy-handed moralising.

Indeed, perhaps a tad more moralising would've been acceptable: Flora, who is fourteen, does some pretty nasty things, yet doesn't seem to reflect upon them. There's not a lot of time for regret in the breakneck plot, but a girl who gets sentimental over a zombified duck might be expected to show some distress after killing a human being.

The primary plot thread -- in which the city of Califa is shaken by earthquakes caused by an imprisoned, enraged magickal entity -- spins out rather nicely, as does the tale of the capture of infamous criminal Springheel Jack, with his sparkly red snake-festooned 5-inch-heel boots. I confess, though, that my closest attention was on the backstory that's gradually being revealed. I'm fascinated by Hotspur's swashbuckling past and tragic love for Cyrenacia Brakespeare, a woman whose nicknames include the Whip and the Butcher, whose 'crimes were legendary and almost too long to list. Forgery, murder, treachery, treason, necromancy, grand theft ...' I'm avid for more of the family secrets that Flora uncovers, and hooked by her assertion that 'blood will out'. Oh, she's her mother's daughter, all right ...

There are a host of new characters in Flora's Dare; some anticipated, others familiar to readers of Wilce's short stories and novellas, yet others wholly new and unexpected. Lots of strong women: this is a gender-neutral world, in that gender has little or nothing to do with what a person does, or how they dress, or how they interact with others. On the other hand, it's still the women who bear children, wear ill-fitting stays, and have the worst toilets ...

I'm a little dubious as to how well some aspects of Flora's Dare work without any knowledge of those stories: for instance, I believe there's a reason for Flora's incredible luck. Though no doubt that'll be expanded (or confounded) in the third book.

Much is explained in this volume (the mysterious lights and weird events at Bilskinir House, abandoned and closed up since the death of the last of the Harðraaðas; the provenance and nature of the plush pig that somebody sent Flora on her fourteenth birthday; the Ultimate Ranger Dare), but there's a hell of a lot to be revealed in the third and final novel for which I cannot -- but must -- wait.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

#20: Martin Martin's On the Other Side -- Mark Wernham

We're all like ... eels in the mud at the bottom of the river, all burrowing away in our little tubes, eating the fucking mud and thinking that there's nothing else going on -- just our little tunnel and our mud and our wriggling. But that's not how it is. There's totally, like, a fucking whole lot more to it. Like, eels, yeah, they're just in the mud at the bottom of the river, They think that's all there is. Until they get grabbed by a hungry trampy, then they discover that there is air and blue sky and the whole world above the river. Then they get stabbed in the head and have their skin stripped off and then they get eaten. (p. 180)

Read for a panel on the Arthur C Clarke Award shortlist. Martin Martin's On the Other Side feels like science fiction for people who don't read science fiction, though I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the unlikeable laddish narrator, Jensen Interceptor: maybe it's the very British dystopia, reminiscent of 1984, A Clockwork Orange, Brazil.

Jensen Interceptor (the name feels like a joke, though there's no explanation of it: other characters have 'normal' names) works for the Department of Media and Culture, paying off his Life Debt, and spending his free time at Starfucks (pills and orgies, general laddishness) and watching Monster Trucks and Porn Disco on his plasma TV in his trendy Rotherhithe Sky Tower flat. North of the river, London is a sleazy dirty backwater: south of the river is where it's all happening. And Jensen's going to make sure he's part of it.

It looks as though his bosses have faith in him: they assign him to investigate Reg Rankin, leader of a group of Martinists. The cult of Martin Martin is distinctly messianic: MM was this bloke who lived in olden times and ... could read minds and see into the future and talk to the dead ... he was killed by the king or something because Martin was going to teach everyone in the world how to be like him ...(p.62). He had a TV show, and was being promoted by his manager Devlin Williams when they both died after a police chase: Martin Martin was thirty-three years old.

Naturally Jensen Interceptor doesn't believe a word of this. Not at first. But then he's given a make-over, and infiltrates Reg's group: meets a girl, walks the streets of Islington, and starts to doubt the world he lives in and the value of the life he's been leading. Oh, and he has some very peculiar experiences. Or perhaps he doesn't.

Jensen doesn't know what's real and what's not: realistically, neither do we. How much of what he experiences is drug-induced or fed to him by the 'gov'? Is he really, at any point, possessed by the spirit of a murdered man? Jensen doesn't always distinguish between reality and virtuality: Starfucks, for instance. And maybe, like Reg, he's the subject of medical experimentation.

Jensen does become more likeable as the book progresses, as his perceived world starts to fracture and he begins to question the government, the society, the world in which he lives. But that's a narrow blinkered world: there's little sense of the world beyond Britain, except in the (possibly hallucinatory) glimpses of Reg's past, of a time when the EU broke up, the American empire collapsed and China intervened in the Middle East. The emphasis is on the police state that's Britain, where security and paranoia are two sides of the same coin, where everyone's investigated.

There's more to this novel than I initially thought, but it still has a hollow empty feeling, an unsatisfactory inconclusion.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

#19: The Thief -- Megan Whalen Turner

I stepped forward until I could reach to take the stone. Then, with my hand extended, I stopped, and was perfectly still as I watched the pattern of light on the velvet robe shift with the movement of a breath. My heart was like stone inside my chest. (p.147)

Gen, chained to a prison wall beneath the city of Sounis at the beginning of this Newbery Honor book, is a famous -- or rather infamous -- thief, caught and imprisoned for stealing the king's seal and then bragging about it in a wine-shop. He's sprung from gaol by a nameless magus who, it turns out, wants him to accomplish an even more daring theft: the retrieval of an ancient treasure that'll persuade the Queen of neighbouring Eddis to marry the King of Sounis. Gen, pragmatic, accepts the challenge, and finds himself travelling with the magus, a pair of stuck-up young aristocrats, and a sturdy soldier. All of them, of course, have Secrets. Including Gen.

The world through which Gen travels is grounded in Greek myth and legend, though the gods have different names, different purviews, different foibles. And those gods are distinctly real: there's a spooky moment when Gen realises this, a nicely understated pivot-point of immanence.

I liked Gen's voice -- sharp, street-wise, good-natured and cynical -- and the revelation of his secrets, both obliquely through his own tales of his immortal namesake and more directly when he's finally forced to act. And I very much like the grudging respect between Gen and the magus. Looking out for the other two in the trilogy.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

#18: Flora Segunda ... -- Ysabeau Wilce

Some of these sigils were quite complicated. The Recollection Sigil ... called for several arcane ingredients (attar of crimson corn, starfish eyes, and a bowline knot), required that the adept prepare by drinking nothing but fizzy lemonade for three days before, and ended with the adept setting herself on fire. The Revelation Sigil ... called for six adepts and copious blood-letting. The Recovery Sigil required actions too disgusting to even contemplate. (p. 100)

In need of a feel-good read, I set aside all the books I should be reading: Flora Segunda was exactly what I needed, but it's far from shallow and the frothiness is more enjoyable for the dark undercurrents.

Flora Segunda -- Flora the Second, the first having died -- is the youngest daughter of the Warlord's Commanding General ('Mamma') and Hotspur, former glory of the Fyrdraaca family, now broken and mad following three years as a prisoner of war. Flora's fourteenth birthday -- her Catorcena -- is approaching: she'll go off to the Barracks and learn to be a proper soldier in the martial tradition of the Fyrdraacas. "We are born to the gun," says Mamma: but Flora doesn't want to be a soldier, she wants to be a Ranger like her heroine Nyana Keegan. Trouble is, Rangers (solitary and stealthy, magick-users) were outlawed, and none survive.

Meanwhile Flora juggles housework, school and the arrangements for her Catorcena party (dress-making, writing and sending invitations, baking tamales), while waiting for her mother to return from military inspection, and dreading her mad father's next descent from the Eyrie where he drinks, smokes and grieves.

Until the day when an overdue library book and a capricious Elevator (Crackpot Hall, a.k.a. Fyrdraaca House, has eleven thousand rooms, mostly inaccessible) combine to introduce her to Valefor, magickal Butler (or Denizen) of the house, abrogated by Mamma for reasons that are never clarified. Valefor -- a skinny boy with purple eyes -- persuades Flora that he can help her, if she'll just share a little of her Anima, her spiritual energy ...

Mamma hates magick: it's a trick, she says, a cheat, an easy way to do hard things. Mamma is all about the hard things. (p. 2)

The plot of Flora Segunda is delightfully complicated: I won't attempt to recount it here. Suffice to say that there are pirates, ghosts, magickal disguises, ice-cream parlours and beautiful foppish youths (well, Flora's friend Udo). Also plenty of backstory, family and otherwise, some of it remarkably dark and bloody for a YA novel.

The setting is fascinating. The Republic of Califa is situated on the west coast of a vast continent, a client state of the Huitzil Empire: the Huitzils (nicknamed the Birdies, as their name translates as 'hummingbirds') are given to blood sacrifice and cannibalism, and are served by half-human, half-eagle Quetzals. Califa is Hispanic -- no evidence of English influence -- culturally reminiscent of the 18th and 19th centuries, with 20th-century overtones: opera, ice-cream parlours, horsecars, Madama Twinky's Lip Rouge, yellowback pulp novels ... There's magick, elaborate and baroque: there is a complex system of etiquette, bows and curtseys and fans. This is not our world -- though Hotspur is given to quoting William Blake, and Valefor has clearly read Lewis Carroll's The Hunting of the Snark.

Flora's language is occasionally quite childish, but she's a brave and resourceful -- if occasionally reckless -- character with an innate talent for magick, who matures and changes over the course of the novel: I'm looking forward to reading the sequel, Flora's Dare, to watch her growing up a little more.

I liked Flora, but I instantly developed a crush on her father (disarmingly, and disconcertingly, referred to by Flora as 'Poppy': Udo calls him Hotspur). Beautiful, broken and with a mysterious swashbuckling past; paints a black mourning stripe across his face; a thin shadow in a worn cadet shawl and bloodstained frock coat creeping out the back door to buy more booze (p. 9): what's not to like? I really want to read more of his story, though I feel rather like a spectator who's watching the wrong part of the stage.

Wilce has written several short stories set in Califa, aimed at an older audience and featuring characters who are (mostly) dead in Flora's time. Of course I had to hunt these down: the language is similarly baroque, bubbly and witty, though the themes are rather darker and more adult.

And I crave more ...

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

#17: An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England -- Brock Clarke

... sometimes the lies you tell are less frightening than the loneliness you might feel if you stopped telling them (p. 278)

At the age of 18 Sam Pulsifer burnt down the Emily Dickinson House in Amherst -- "it was an accident!" -- and spent ten years in prison for that act of arson and the (accidental, incidental) deaths of two people in the fire. Having served his sentence, he creates a new life quite separate from the old: house in the suburbs of Amherst, two delightful children, gorgeous wife (100% ignorant of Sam's past), steady job. Then Thomas Coleman, son of the couple who died in the fire, shows up on Sam's doorstep. And Sam's carefully-constructed new life crashes and ... burns.

While Sam was in prison, he received a lot of fan letters -- letters suggesting that he might wish to burn down the heritage home of such-and-such a writer. Now those houses are being burnt down (or lightly singed), there's a detective on Sam Pulsifer's trail, and Sam's determined to discover the culprit and prove himself innocent. He wants to discover the truth.

Sam Pulsifer doesn't take responsibility: not for the fire, not for anything. He defines himself as a bumbler, and nothing's his fault, and he's not actually that good at the mundane details of life. We know this from observation, but he keeps reminding us anyway.

This is a novel about stories: the stories Sam's mother told him about dreadful supernatural menaces in the Emily Dickinson House; the postcards sent from all over the USA by his father during the three-year period where he was absent from the family home; the memoir published by Morgan, a bond analyst who was in prison with Sam and has borrowed some anecdotes; the stories Sam's mother and father tell about one another, and about Sam; the stories Sam tells himself, and others.

Sam (or the author) has a lot to say, none of it good, about Literature. He mocks a book-club meeting -- the book was there to give the women (mostly) a reason to confess to the feelings they'd already had before reading the book, which as far as I could tell they hadn't actually read (p.85) -- and slides in a snide remark or two about Willa Cather, Mark Twain, J. K. Rowling, Edith Wharton (I kicked the novel [Ethan Frome] away from me, something I had been wanting to do for twenty-six years, and in doing so I imagined I was striking a blow on behalf of its many unwilling, barely pubescent readers (p. 194)) and critic and novelist Jane Smiley (though that's a pretty subtle, and rather affectionate, snipe).

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England is an entertaining read, full of apparently profound aphorisms about truth, lies, stories, parents and children. And yes, it's about painful truth and a really rather nasty denouement, and Sam finally taking responsibility in an unexpected way.

I read this novel because I wanted a break from genre. It didn't engage me as much as the genre novels I've been reading lately, even though the themes -- murder, parent/child, truth, deception -- are big themes. Some excellent one-liners, though, and a sly sniping humour.

I suppose ... the ability to empathise with the people we hate is exactly the quality that makes us human beings, which makes you wonder why anybody would want to be one. (p. 283)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

#16: The Hidden World -- Paul Park

Now she could see herself where the worlds come together and the paths branched down to Great Roumania, and Massachusetts, and the hidden countries, and the land of the dead. This was where the alchemist had built his tower, sealed up the creature that eats away the knowledge of these things. No, knowledge is too strong a word. (p. 283)

The Hidden World concludes the quartet that began with A Princess of Roumania. Miranda Popescu, still homesick for the imaginary world (our world) created as a refuge for her by her aunt Aegypta, finds herself entering the hidden world, the ultra-reality that lies beyond and within the 'real' world where Miranda now lives. That 'real', geocentric world -- the British Isles destroyed by earthquake and tidal wave, North America a wilderness inhabited by yellow-haired savages, Roumania a world power, the Roman gods still worshipped, dead people and vampires and shapeshifters walking abroad in daylight -- is seen through reflection, mirror, analogy. It fascinates me, and I feel cheated by the dearth of detail in this fourth volume.

The novel opens with Miranda recuperating in an isolated farmhouse, musing on her missing friends Andromeda and Peter, and haunted in dreams by her dead aunt Aegypta Schenk, who's still intent on Miranda's destiny and the salvation of Great Roumania.

Roumania is in turmoil: at war with Turkey, both in the real world, where massive tanks roll up from Africa, and in the hidden world where monstrous hybrid dogs snarl and snap. Airships (should they be termed 'zeppelins' here?) rain bombs upon Budapest: radiation sickness afficts survivors of a train crash in the south of the country. The old government has been overthrown, and some still mourn the death of the infamous diva Nicola Ceaucescu, rumoured to have been involved in sundry wickedness ...

It is not wise or prudent to curse the dead, because the dead can hear us. Often they don't care. Many are able to lay down their grudges with their abandoned bodies. Many are able to forget their struggles and animosities. Nicola Ceaucescu was not one of these. (p. 66)

Critics seem to love Nicola Ceaucescu, the widowed Baroness: the most complex, poisonous, entrancing, unforgivable villainess I have ever encountered in a tale says John Clute. One of Park's major achievements in this sequence is to make her a sympathetic villain, -- well, a likeable and charismatic one. She's very much a product of her time and her world, and her fragile, careful shell of vulnerability ("the happy thing about being a woman ... you don't have to do anything, but only suffer for long enough" (p. 207)) overlays an indomitable core. Being dead is no impediment to Nicola Ceaucescu: on the contrary, it opens up whole new realms of opportunity.

This review may seem patchy, top-heavy with quotation. That's because I'm still working through and thinking through this novel: it feels oddly unfinished, though perhaps that's the author's intention. There are a number of things I think are significant, and not merely interesting. For instance: photographic portraits of General Frederick von Schenck (Miranda's father) show his face 'blurred and indistinct': he's in motion, hidden in plain view, unrecognisable. For instance: in this world Jesus was not crucified, but was responsible for the crucifixion of the Roman generals. For instance: the tourmaline that permits Miranda to enter the hidden world is less and less like a stone, more like a fruit or a 'tough little sack of flesh'. For instance: Newton and Kepler were alchemists, and Newton a great admirer of Kepler. It was Newton who broadcast the tale of Kepler seducing a creature of the Hidden World 'with a mixture of honey and blood', and locking it in a stone tower. (It was Newton, too, who conjured six demons, demons who later ended up in General von Schenck's pistol.)

... perhaps before that you could pray to God and God might answer. There were miracles that could be verified. The histories are full of them. Since then, nothing. Not a single visitation or answered prayer. Now we are left with science as a last resort. (p. 178)

This is not to deny the sense of resolution in the last few chapters of The Hidden World. Both Andromeda and Peter find a measure of peace with their true selves: of the original three protagonists, though, it's Miranda who sees her choices clear-eyed and determines that the price she'd have to pay is too bitter, too high.

"There were a lot of books I used to read ... There was always something to be accomplished, and it was always difficult. People suffered. But at the end of the book it was all worth it, because the thing was finished and the story over. That's not true here."
"No," said her aunt. "That's not true here."
"Tasks without end," Miranda said.
(p. 282)

Read for (overdue) Vector review -- this is the more subjective version, and I may also post the actual review after publication.

Monday, March 09, 2009

#15: Urban Shaman -- C E Murphy

I held my balance there ... the city revitalising me like fresh strong blood in my veins. Inside a breath I was a mugger, a fireman, a newborn, a dying man. The impatient roar of vehicles filled my ears, the city's lifeblood flowing from one place to another. Even the air was charged, electricity carried in the molecules along with particles of smog and dust. If I could carry this in me all the time, I would never be tired, never need to eat or breathe ... (p. 301)

January in Seattle. Returning from her mother's funeral, Joanne Walker looks out of the window of the plane and sees a woman fleeing a pack of dogs and a man with a knife. Enlisting the help of a cab-driver, she seeks out the scene of the attack -- only to find herself implicated in a series of supernaturally-motivated murders.

Luckily Joanne Walker -- also known as Siobhan Walkingstick -- has intriguingly mixed blood (Irish and Cherokee) and a powerful heritage of her own, never mind that she turned her back on all of it as a teenager with a secret tragedy ...

Jo's an interesting character: a cop who prefers to work in the garage, demoted to the beat, full of mechanical metaphors for her new shamanic awareness: It's like the whole world is a badly-tuned engine. I'm starting to feel when it misses or lurches. And I've got this stupid idea that I can fix it. (p. 120). She evokes strong reactions in those around her (though she doesn't seem to have any actual friends, unless you count cab-driver Gary who's instantly loyal, helpful etc despite being dragged off to a crime scene in the dark before dawn).

Urban Shaman blends Celtic myth (Cernunnos, Herne, the Wild Hunt) with Native American: Coyote, brick-red and golden-eyed, haunts Jo's dreams and has done for a long time. This was a fast, pacy read -- Murphy eschews the High Fantasy style in favour of gritty noirish thriller-type prose -- with some inventive variations on Celtic and shamanic themes.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

#14: Un Lun Dun -- China Miéville

The giraffes bleated hungrily in the distance as Hemi led Deeba through the unstable streets of Wraithtown, past shops and offices clouded with their own remembered selves. (p. 208)

China Miéville's first novel for children is a dark, hilarious romp through the underside of London -- UnLondon, not a million miles from Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and twinned, no doubt, with Parisn't or Helsunki. Miéville acknowledges Gaiman's influence, as well as Lewis Carroll's, Tanith Lee's (especially notable in the reworked place names, as in Piratica) and others, though I'm not quite sure I want to know how Beatrix Potter comes into this tale of predatory giraffes, malefic umbrellas and valiant binjas ...

Take two girls, Zanna and Deeba. They start to realise that Zanna is somehow special: there's graffiti about her, and people rush up to her in the street, ecstatic to actually meet her. But it's not until a broken umbrella crawls up the wall outside Zanna's window that they discover why Zanna -- the 'Shwazzy' -- is special. Or where she's special.

Where's the skill in being a hero if you were always destined to do it? (p. 507)

And then Miéville starts to twist: this is fantasy subverted, with a traditional quest structure that's deliberately skipped to save time; with a book of prophecy consumed by existential angst when it realises it contains things that are Wrong; with antagonists in a centuries-long war whose sole purpose is to make sure they don't find out who won: and with the Chosen One's 'funny sidekick' taking on the task of defeating the enemy. It's not an easy enemy to defeat. For five days, half a century ago, it assaulted London. It killed four thousand people. And still most of you didn't even know you were at war! (p. 111) Yep, they're up against the Smog, with its cohorts and minions -- corrupt politicians, a turncoat or two, and people who are simply, wrong-headedly, hoping for the best.

It's not all gloom, by a long shot. Un Lun Dun (illustrated -- is that the telectroscope on page 398?) is hilariously funny and packed with phantasmagoric images, cool ideas (MOIL technology -- Mildly Obsolete in London -- where disused gadgets and appliances go when they're discarded), and some fine writing that's never too purple. I especially liked Wraithtown, where the ghosts live: Each of the houses, halls, shops, factories, churches and temples was a core of brick, wood, concrete or whatever, surrounded by a wispy corona of earlier versions of itself. Every extension that had ever been built and knocked down, every smaller, squatter outline, every different design: all hung on to existence as spectres. Their insubstantial, colourless forms shimmered in and out of sight. Every building was cocooned in its older, dead selves. (p. 202)

Our heroine gathers the usual motley crew of loyal supporters and some fancy weaponry (I'm reminded of Banks' Lazy Gun, though this is rather less catastrophic and more surreal), but in the end it's up to her to save London and its hidden counterpart.

In the streets of UnLondon a group made up of a girl, a half-ghost, a talking book, a piece of rubbish and two living words was unusual, but not very. (p. 338)

A quick, fun read and an excellent present for anyone with a weird sense of humour, or who enjoys wordplay, or who likes a little eco-conscience with their entertainment.

#13: Quicksilver -- Christie Dickason

Again the clamouring, jagged glassy edges of sound, the piercing smells. Again the fist that crushed the air from his chest, and again the belch of terror that lodged at the base of his throat. The invasion of his body. The shifting of his muscles on his skull. The beast. (p. 180)

Second in the trilogy that began with The Lady Tree, the events of Quicksilver actually parallel those of the previous book, and cast a different light on the enmity between John Nightingale (last seen reclaiming his birthright) and Edward Malise, implicated in the murder of Nightingale's parents.

The novel's title references alchemy, which correlates mercury with the soul, and may also indicate the symbolic role of the Malise Salt, an immense ornate family heirloom that Ned Malise vows to see returned to his ancestral home, Tarleton Hall. Primarily, though, the novel's about Malise's soul -- and the ways in which it's altered by his affliction.

Quicksilver is set in the early seventeenth century, in Holland, Flanders and England. Orphaned Ned Malise grows up in Amsterdam in the care of his grandmother (widow of a Catholic martyr), penniless gentry, singing in brothels and musicos, very much in the shadow of his daredevil older brother Francis. Ned wants nothing more than to be apprenticed to the local luthier, to make lutes and make music (and ideally to marry his childhood sweetheart, Marika). Francis, however, has more ambitious notions, and the brothers travel to England in pursuit of fame, fortune and restoration to the nobility.

After a blow to the head, Ned finds himself subject to sudden transformations: he howls, he sees the world very differently, his very body changes painfully into something Other. He's convinced he's become a werewolf -- and those around him agree. You have been bound to the nature of a wolf and carry it with you. Your fur is on the inside, unseen. (p. 446)

Ned tries to find a cure, an explanation, a palliative: meeting Dutch anatomist Maurits van Egmond, he hopes that science can provide some remedy for his condition. A late-night conversation with Maurits' oddly serene assistant Janni -- an intriguing character who deserves more narrative, more story -- provides some insight into what it is to live as Other in Dutch society. But Maurits' thirst for knowledge soon surpasses the bounds of decency, and Ned finds himself fleeing for his life, hunted by mastiffs, accused of murder and worse.

There's a marvellous moment in this novel, a pivot point when the narrative voice changes from third person to first. By the end of the novel both he and John Nightingale (not to mention Marika and Janni) have left behind the familiar and the old, and are facing new beginnings. I had no doubt that [Nightingale and I] would stumble here and there on the road back from enmity, but we were already bound by being fellow travellers upon it. (p. 573)

Dickason's prose is luminously lucid, deceptively plain ('his thoughts heaved like kittens drowning in a sack') and the descriptions of Ned's altered states are vivid and immediate. With good reason: in the afterword, Dickason explains that Ned's affliction is not lyncanthropism but Temporal Lobe Epilepsy -- which she suddenly developed in her thirties. (Dickason also discusses this here.) She writes of 'altered sensory and emotional states' and notes: As in Ned's case, when not possessed by your beast, you are entirely yourself. So far as you are allowed by everybody else. (p. 589)

Quicksilver is a dialogue between art, science, faith and superstition, through the eyes of a protagonist for whom music reigns supreme: music as performance, therapy and redemption, music as the thing that distinguishes the soul.

I'm really looking forward to the third in the trilogy, The Memory Palace ...

#12: Living with Ghosts -- Kari Sperring

The lieutenant's ghost sprawled on the daybed, occluding the brocade covers with misty distaste, eyes enviously on a crystal decanter. Drinking water, Gracielis raised his glass to it ... (p.17)

Gracielis de Varnaq, 'gigolo and spy', enjoys (endures) the constant company of a nameless ghost, legacy of a duel fought six years before in which Valdarrien d'Illandre, defending his sister's honour and his own, was slain. Now, reports Thiercelin (Valdarrien's closest friend in life, now married to Valdarrien's sister) there's another ghost on the scene: Valdarrien himself.

Gracielis, by blood and training, is more receptive than most to the magical, the unseen: he becomes aware that the city of Merafi -- a null space. Confluence of salt and fresh water. It's harder for ghosts to manifest here, there's no nourishment for them (p. 60) -- is under sorcerous attack, that something is rising beneath the surface of the river, bringing plague and death and nightmarish creatures to stalk the city streets. That 'something' is intimately entwined with Gracielis' past: with his failure to become undarios, assassin-priest, with his mentor-mistress Quenfrida, and with his flight from Tarnaroq to Merafi.

Thiercelin, assailed by the past -- memory laid hard hands on him and shook (p. 22) -- can only watch and wait as his beloved wife, Yvelliane (advisor to the ailing queen Firomelle) weaves intrigue and information into a complex political web, all the while becoming more distant from her husband. Unwillingly, he comes to believe Gracielis's account of the forces threatening Merafi, and to dread the night when two full moons shine above the city ...

Living with Ghosts is a richly sensuous novel, full of perfumes and sweet scents (as well as less pleasant odours), of face-paint and artifice and echoes through the fog, of reflected gazes and raindrops on glass. I'm reminded of Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, though that's a fantasy without magic and Living with Ghosts is replete with sorcery. The refinements of Merafian society -- duels, masquerades, hot chocolate at breakfast -- bring to mind the 'fantasy of manners' label coined by Don Keller, though the wit and intrigue are balanced by an intricate plot that echoes high fantasy tropes. And yes, if I knew The Three Musketeers better, I suspect I'd see more congruences with the work of Dumas.

The backstory unfolds slowly and teasingly (as soon as I'd finished the novel I wanted to read it again to appreciate the subtlety of those gradual revelations) and the prose is rich and dark. It's very much a character-driven novel, and what fascinated me most was the complex web of relationships: unrequited love (and lust), loyalty, betrayal, sacrifice willing and unwilling, bonds stronger than death.

It was folly, this compassion, in either of his professions. He was merchandise, no more. In him, attacks of conscience tasted only of sophistry. What right had one who lived through the sale of his body to any dominion over his soul? He could not afford the luxury of integrity. (p. 67)

Gracielis is flawed, and thinks himself a failure: but (despite his frequent, reflexive requests for forgiveness) he has sufficient self-knowledge and, well, grace, to seek redemption, to become whole; to cast aside his past, to learn to love and to be loved, and to resist bitterness.

Living with Ghosts is a novel about ghosts, reflections, unrequited love, river turning against city: about the past playing out in the present, and about discovering oneself and one's own flavour of freedom.

Friday, March 06, 2009

#11: Matter -- Iain M. Banks

The galaxy was linked like chain mail ... It was all loops and circles and long, joined-up threads and looked like that old-fashioned stuff some old knights from the deepest, darkest shires and valleys still wore when they ventured to court, even if they rarely polished it in case it got worn away. (p. 320)

The entwined plots of Matter -- a quest for revenge, a Big Mysterious Object, a lost city full of alien tech, feudal warfare -- create a multi-layered narrative (like the multi-layered 'shellworld' that's the setting for much of the action) that showcases Banks' gift for epic fantasy as well as some impressive worldbuilding. Matter's on a par with Greek tragedy in scope and resolution, and it brings together themes from fantasy and from science fiction with innovation and wit.

Matter begins with treason and regicide, witnessed by the King's second son Ferbin. Ferbin, aided by his trusty manservant Choubris Holse, seeks vengeance: the two leave Sursamen (a shellworld of many layers, each housing an entirely different environment, with a possibly-mad WorldGod at its core) on a quest for Ferbin's long-lost sister Djan Seriy Anaplian, taken as a child and raised in the Culture. Anaplian works for Special Circumstances, and takes a professional as well as personal interest in events back home.

Meanwhile, on the Ninth Level (one down from Ferbin's homeland) an alien city is being uncovered, and the secrets it holds are of interest not only to humans but to the crablike Oct and the parasitic Aultridia, as well as other Optimae races (the Morthanveld, the Nariscene) ...

There's plenty of info-dumping but it's seldom obtrusive, and Banks tends to show then tell. The prose is generally entertaining, sparky, well-paced with some excellent writing (the winds as whining gears in the vast engine of the atmosphere (p. 410)) and some closely-observed characterisation. Marvellous world-building, too, and some amusing asides on geology (Ferbin suspects plate tectonics to be a joke dreamt up by his tutors: he's pretty clued in to shellworld astrology, where the stars -- fixed and rolling -- of the level beneath is closer than those that illuminate one's own.

What I liked most about this novel was seeing the Culture from an outsider's point of view. Anaplian is modified physically, mentally and emotionally once she becomes a part of the Culture: she marvels at and mistrusts the sheer ease of this money-less, liberal society, at drugs without side-effects and enhancements available on request, though she's unconvinced that such light [is] possible without shade (p. 169).

There's a serious underlying argument about the Culture permitting, allowing (encouraging?) the kind of feudal conflict that killed Ferbin's father, King Hausk. The stage is small but the audience great, (p. 120) Hausk was wont to say, and Ferbin gradually realises that this doesn't merely apply to the 'audience' of the populace but to a wider, greater, unseen -- and possibly hypothetical -- gallery of observers.

The more I think about Matter, the more I think that Ferbin's encounter with 'old family friend' Xide Hyrlis is the key to the whole novel. It would certainly explain the title ...

"... no matter whether we are all in a still greater game, this one here before us is at a cruder grain than that which it models ... you need to play [it] out in reality, or the most detailed simulation you have available, which is effectively the same thing."
Holse smiled sadly. "Matter, eh, sir?"
(p. 348)

There's a mean trick almost at the end of the novel. I swore at Mr Banks. But despite the author's cruel and unusual sense of humour I enjoyed Matter immensely -- much more so than Look to Windward or The Algebraist.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The Company -- K J Parker

This review originally appeared in Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, in Spring 2009.

.. as long as 'A' Company was still alive and together, as long as the five of them were together, the war could never end. It was part of them, their core, their reason, what they were for; they kept it alive and it kept them alive, which was why it, they, had lasted so long, against all the odds. 'A' Company could no more die in war than a fish could drown in the sea.

K. J. Parker's first stand-alone novel – previously s/he (the publicity material indicates a female author, but there is something masculine about the style) has published the Fencer, Scavenger and Engineer trilogies – is distinctly Parker in its focus on the military, the practical, the psychological: and yet it's oddly disappointing.

The war is over. General Teuche Kunessin ('the most devastating fighting man on either side of the war') returns to his homeland, intent on reuniting his comrades from 'A' Company and fulfilling the dream that kept them alive: the colonisation of an abandoned island, which he's ensured will not be of interest to the military. There'd been six of them, but one died right at the end of the war. (The Company is, as much as anything, a thriller about how the sixth man, Nuctos, died.) The remaining veterans, despite their arguments and objections, all leap at the opportunity. Supplies (including wives) are acquired. Sphoe is colonised, and turns out to have rather more resources than they'd been expecting.

As ever, Parker's eye for the gritty realities of a (pseudo)medieval society is impressive. When Kunessin was a boy, his family fell on hard times, because a battle was fought on their field, leaving a harvest of corpses: we can't bury them all, not in time. Can't burn them: there's not enough timber in the valley to fire this lot ... They'll start to rot, and they'll breed worms and flukes: the stock'll pick them up and they'll die. ... It'll be three years, soonest, before this land's fit to be grazed again. And Parker's a master at showing what's said and what's not – the male characters, in particular, are men who'd sooner die than talk out loud about emotions, but nevertheless very clearly have and are driven by said emotions – and at showing us the world through an individual's eyes, coloured and skewed with their perspective. Kunessin sees the sun 'slanting down over the roofs ... like a shower of pitched-up arrows'. Aidi analyses the profit and loss of each transaction. Menin has a sharp eye for nature's bounty.

In a series of flashbacks, we slowly discover how Kunessin amassed the fortune that enabled him to buy Sphoe, a ship, supplies. There are other flashbacks, illuminating the pasts of the other colonists: early on we discover that a couple of the wives have secrets in their pasts. All rumour and conjecture of course, nothing ever proved. And – in a quintessentially and aggravatingly Parker twist – there's an account of the betrayal of Nuctos, carefully crafted using only the third-person pronoun. It's several hundred pages before we can put a name to the viewpoint character of that section, and I cannot help but feel that this is cheating.

'A' Company ('the biggest bunch of underachievers the world had ever seen') are connected by more than chance: they've survived years of war together, and the sense of 'us against the rest of the world' – something darker and more codependent than mere camaraderie – is one of the strongest threads in the novel. Given that focus, the finale is successful, but it feels hasty and unfinished, as though there might be more going on than a bunch of soldiers surviving against all odds.

The Company, though flawed, is an enjoyable read, not least for Parker's dry humour and the careful construction of plot and backstory, and for another fantasy in which there's no magic, no music and beauty only in the eye of the beholders.