Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

December 30, 2009

KJ Parker – The Company

Filed under: review — Tags: — Sam @ 12:00 am

Like all Parker’s other work, this one is grim and depressing, but still interesting and absorbing. Unusually, the protagonist (I can’t think of many authors for whose work it would be less accurate to say “hero”) isn’t a craftsman or engineer, and whilst there is a competent workman amongst the eponymous Company he doesn’t get that much screen time.

This is basically a demob novel, following five ex-soldiers trying to find lives after the end of the war, and for the most part not succeeding. I get the feeling they generally would have, if it weren’t for each other; but at the same time, each other is all they have, and pretty much all they value. They can’t decide what they want (and most of them don’t seem to be able to decide anything for themselves) and nearly everything they do goes wrong.

If a relative of mine expressed a desire to join the armed forces, this is the book I’d give them.

December 24, 2009

Steampunk, SF, Fantasy – same difference, really

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 9:33 pm

I want to start this off by reviewing Stephen Hunt’s Rise of the Iron Moon. It’s the third in a series, starting with The Court of the Air, but it stands well on its own.

It’s steampunk; that’s more or less inarguable. The question is, what makes it steampunk? It has brasstech[1], a more or less Victorian social and aesthetic atmosphere (complete with workhouses), and steam-powered robots. So those are more or less classic markers of the SF subgenre of steampunk.

On the other hand, it also has multiple races (including the aforementioned steam-powered robots, who are sapient and self-perpetuating), a nation state under attack by invaders, and magic – even a bloody magic sword. So that’s your “gaslamp fantasy” for you.

As far as the -punk component goes, it’s got a royal family subjugated and kept in squalor (though still Genetically Superior – less a Missing Heir rising from obscurity to save the world than a set of heirs kept around in case they were needed), a Parliament that works by violence, and a lot of blood and death.

And as far as non-Victorian SF goes, it’s also pure Dan Dare-grade docsmith stuff, with two-fisted fights in the dank, strangely twisted interior of the – well, you can fill in the details yourself. They’re all there.

So that’s a set of roots like Japanese knotweed, there. One of the fundamental problems with the classic SF movement – you know, the ultra-rationalist idea of prophesying the future, introducing a novum and extrapolating what would really happen in a world with that novum, these other three random hidden assumptions, and the rest of society staying exactly the same as it was – is, well, that it doesn’t work. What we’ve learned over decades of doing that is that doing that doesn’t bloody well work.

What does work, on the other hand, is the glamour and wonder of Science. The thrill of engineering, of invention, of delight in craft and Mastery. It may well be technologically implausible these days, but then the only useful definition of “plausible” for SF purposes is “things nobody’s yet proved won’t work”. Only the glory of engineers lives forever.

What really is implausible – what breaks our immersion, what reminds us constantly that these are historical texts and must be interpreted through a lens of their time – is the social and cultural context that these Science Heroes live in. And one of the criticisms that gets constantly levelled at steampunk is that same one – that the social and cultural context is wrong, implausible, impossible.

The criticism’s correct, of course. But it’s also missing the point, because that’s the idea. It’s not wide-eyed unicorn-spattered utopianism; it’s deliberate dissonance, it’s the invocation of a time and culture that never was, never shall be, and never should have been[2], in order to express those same tropes of wonder and delight. It gets the implausible cultural context out of the way to start with, in the full recognition that there’s always going to be some there, for someone, and we may as well start with one that nobody’s ever been in, and which we all know[3] is heavily problematic, but is nevertheless familiar to everyone who’s likely to be reading it.


[1] That is, non-Victorian level of technology powered by Victorian means – which strictly speaking Does Not Work, and if it did would require a hell of a lot of constant intervention by a great many skilled workmen and unskilled labourers. Sigrid Ellis has a fantastic rant on that, even namechecking Bazalgette and talking about the wide base of the tech tree needed to support all of that.

[2] Steampunk Victoriana is full of aristocrats and wealthy industrialists, but it’s also full of street urchins, black-gang crewmen, and factory kids. This ain’t no Deco future here.

[3] You’d hope, anyway. But there are still some people who don’t know that “Victorian” is basically shorthand for “racist, sexist, classist, imperialist, colonialist, and practically everything else you can think of”.

December 12, 2009

Misogynist marketing – The Thief of Kalimar

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 1:55 am

By Graham Diamond.

This one is a triumph of marketing, for 1979ish values of “triumph”, and for the kind of marketing that doesn’t involve very much honesty about the book’s contents. In fact, it hits a double word score on the ism front – it’s racist and sexist.

The blurb starts, Ramagar was a thief, and carries on talking about him, mentioning in passing his clever mistress Mariana, the beautiful dancing girl. The front cover shows a very Nordic guy in a short tunic, with a small scimitar; this is not Ramagar. The book has (of course) a map in the front, and the map is a slightly distorted version of Europe with all the names (except Brittany) completely changed. There’s an Aran, but it’s both much larger than either Aran or Arran, and in entirely the wrong place. Ramagar, on the other hand, comes from a city which roughly corresponds to a heavily exoticised Marrakech. It isn’t a case of whitewashing, but what they’ve done is almost as bad; they’ve put a more minor member of the adventuring party on the front, rather than the headline guy they talk about on the back, because the headline guy has brown skin.

Oh, and guess what? He’s not actually the hero, either. 90% of the book is about Mariana, the clever dancing girl, who talks to people, recruits more help for the quest, saves everyone through quickwittedness a few times, gets the long-lost family plotline, and makes the decision to go back to Not North Africa instead of staying in Small North Atlantic Continent when the quest is complete. If they’d written her into the blurb instead, though, goodness only knows what their sales would have been like… someone might have got the idea that this was a book for girls. (Aided, admittedly, by the note in the author’s bio that says “His young daughters, Rochelle and Leslie, were an inspiration for this book.)

December 6, 2009

Triumff, Her Majesty’s Hero – Dan Abnett

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 4:56 pm

The premise of this particular alternate history is that the discovery of Scientific Principles of Magick means nothing much has changed since the 1590s or so. Elizabeth I did end up marrying Philip of Spain, and now Elizabeth XXX[1] (“Three Ex”) rules over the Anglo-Hispanic Unity. People still drink sack and musket, the top ten hits are all played on the lute, and doublets are still very much in fashion. None of this makes sense in a historical sort of way, but this sort of cheerful just-take-this-part-for-granted-so-we-can-get-on-with-the-story is completely within the grand traditions of SF, so who’s counting.

The year is 2010, and Sir Rupert Triumff has just discovered Australia. Well, “discovered” in the sense of “visited”, at least, given that they have quite an impressive technological civilisation going on – the level of real-world 2010, in fact, with VisageBook, ThyPlace, and reliable sanitation[2]. Unlike your usual run of explorer, he’s quite keen on leaving them to it, even though that means missing out on Rather A Lot Of Money. This is one of the big plot points; the other, almost inevitably in alternate Elizabethanism, is an attempt to assassinate Her Majesty.

One of the back-cover quotes describes it as “Blackadder crossed with Neal Stephenson”, and I can see the resemblances, but frankly it’s more like 90% Blackadder.

There’s only one thing that really threw me, and that’s the authorial voice; it veers from omniscient narrator to first-person, and it’s all the same person. We look into the sealed room where people are conspiring, we go to the bath house with Triumff, we follow him as he visits with officials – and then the narration zooms in with an “And I was there, too – yr humble servant Wm. Beaver”. Normally I’d start wondering whether the details of the conspiracy and the heroic capers were Vastly Exaggerated, Improved Upon for Artistic Verisimilitude, or simply Made Up, but
that sort of unreliable narrator tends – for reasons of simple common sense – to be a main character, whereas Wm. Beaver is extremely marginal. So I’m just going to put it down to it being Bloody Weird, which given that it’s Dan Abnett writing for Angry Robot books is probably par for the course.


[1] One of my favourite passages is the description of the royal portraits of various Elizabeths, in appropriate styles. (Even if the dating is a little peculiar in places.)

There was Elizabeth IX, a Mannerist madonna, her elongated, dreamy face averted heavenwards; there was Elizabeth XIV, Barbizon-style, a dot in the middle of the rolling landscape; there was the Moralist Elizabeth XX, with her rosy cheeks and her comical courtiers; there was Pre-Raphaelite Elizabeth XXV, dressed as a winsome Maid of Orleans with a dainty, lethal estoc and a consumptive frailty; there was Elizabeth XXVI, a Futuristic blur of speeding gown and streamlined tiara; and there, apparently, was the De Stijl Elizabeth XXX.

[2] This is Rule No. 1 for writing about the mediaeval or early modern periods. Everything is dirty, torn, badly laundered, and/or covered in shit.

December 4, 2009

Tanith Lee – Piratica

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Sam @ 12:50 am

I’ve been wanting to write about this wonderful book for a while now, but haven’t ben able to find a way of explaining just how utterly fantastic it is without major spoilers.

So I’m pleased to be able to link to this review of it, by Susan de Guardiola.

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