Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

February 23, 2010

Elizabeth Bear – Blood and Iron/Whiskey and Water

This is a re-read – I didn’t like these very much the first time around, but it would have been unfair for me to dismiss them on one reading. So now I’m going to dismiss them, rather more comprehensively, after two. It’s a pity; I’m immensely fond of the basic themes involved. Tradition & the supernatural vs progress and the “mundane[1]“, grace and pride and redemption, human brilliance and folly in the face of the crushing historical weight of evil and incompetence… and it has both Lucifer and Kit Marlowe in it. It also has both Sidhe and werewolves in it, but I wanted to give it a fair chance to impress me despite those.

Bear’s an immensely talented writer – technically brilliant, in fact. And I’m sure these books have a lot to say to many people, but I’m not one of them. They’re just not speaking my language.

Bear has talked about writing “comedies of ethics” – that’s a pretty fair description of these books. The thing is, though, ethics are always very much dependent on the moral gravity of the universe in which one finds oneself, and this one’s been quite thoroughly structured as a crapsack dystopia where kingship really matters, where biology is destiny, and where absolutely everything is a competition – predator and prey, and everyone is both at once. Victim and victimizer, in fact, with no space for any other mode of interrelation.

They’re also intensely American books, and intensely Eurocentric & colonial. Somehow, the Courts of the Sidhe have become some sort of paradigmatic supernatural force, accessible from all over the world (though focused on America) and apparently in charge of all the weird-shit; there are Russian horse-fairies serving them, a subcontinental assassin, and (in the second book) an Aboriginal spirit, the Bunyip, as a major villain. (Though I use “villain” advisedly; these are not books for clear-cut shades.)

I counted one reference to anything Native American anywhere in the two books, and that was a white New Age hedgewizard who tried to look like one. There are a couple of black characters; the only female one is introduced with a ridiculously lubricious passage of race-centric drooling.

[A] mask as impassive as an Egyptian empress’, lips blooming fat and sensual as orchids beneath the flat, aristocratic nose; skin red-black as the famous bust of Queen Tiy; hair braided in a thousand beaded Medusa serpents.

Others have spoken, at length, on the problematic nature of the first we see, who is a murderous cannibal rapist horse-spirit, and who is the first whom we see enslaved, so I’m not going to.

It amuses me that several of the characters – and ones who should know better – use the term “Dark Ages” without irony, and referring to something dreadful that should never be allowed to happen again. Then again, they’re all hung up on the hierarchy/kingship shite… but so is the universe, and whilst there are hints of subversion there aren’t any sensible characters to support them.

The elevation of some little local narrative to overarching global significance has a long tradition in fantasy & SF (after all, it’s what ends up happening in the real world too) but we have to be particularly careful when one author’s responsible for the lot – as has happened here, it erases any other narrative. Unlike in the real world, alternative narratives become not just invisible but nonexistent.

And it’s always the same little local narratives that get elevated. One of these days we’ll see Fairy Queens chained and leashed by the Bunyip’s divan bed, or Nyaminyami commanding djinn and talking horses, or the Workers’ Council of Naiads, Rusalka, Berehynia, and Allied Trades with their Sidhe flunkies. But so far? Not a sausage.


[1] “Mundane” is so often applied, or understood, derogatorily – especially by some particularly stupid SF fans. But consider the derivation; is there anything more wonderful?

February 17, 2010

Chronicles of an Age of Darkness

Between 1986 and 1992, New Zealand-based author Hugh Cook wrote a ten-volume series of inventive, grim, exuberant, disconcerting, nonplussing, and downright bloody weird fantasy novels. They weren’t nearly as popular as they should have been – I suspect he was mostly just ahead of his time, given the popularity of work in a similar style now. China Miéville has described them as “intensely clever, humane, witty, meta-textually adventurous and pulp-avant-garde”.

I first read them in my early teens, and I adored them – I think that was one of the things that originally set my standards for fantasy, and I’ve been seeking out More Like This ever since. Luckily, there’s a lot of it around now.

The setting for the world of Olo Malan – whose name, I think, we don’t find out till Book 6 or so – is extremely post-apocalyptic, twenty thousand years after its connection to the intercosmic civilization of the Nexus crashed and broke. There are barbarous tribes, strange races, empires, priesthoods, magic, technological survivals that look like magic, and technological survivals that aren’t magic at all; the malign torturing monster lurking Downstairs below the island of Untunchilamon is an AI employed by the Golden Gulag as a therapist, and The Combat College in Dalar ken Halvar still trains Startroopers for the Nexus, teaching them to pilot spacefighters in the virtual reality tanks, despite not of course having had any actual spacefighters for millennia.

At the beginning of the series, however – with The Wizards and the Warriors – it looks as though the apocalypse was a standard magical one, with plentiful leftover magical weapons and mysterious devices. The books stand alone, but often cover the same events from the viewpoint of a minor character in previous ones – Togura Poulaan, the hero of Book 2, The Wordsmiths and the Warguild, gets caught up in Elkor Alish’s army, which we saw in detail in Book 1; two minor supporting characters, the pirates Drake and Bluewater Draven, appear in Book 4, The Walrus and the Warwolf (Drake, in fact, is the protagonist); and Yen Olass Ampadara, whom Draven describes as “the reason men should always be in charge of women”, is the centre of Book 3, The Women and the Warlords.

I never really rated Book 3 when I was a teenager, but re-reading them recently it’s now one of my favourites. Yen Olass is a female slave in a deeply sexist society, an Oracle whose function is to mediate quarrels between men. The book shows her in an uncomfortable position – in a strange legalistic limbo with influence but no power, and power but no influence (it makes sense in context, honest – as much as anything in these books does), with the Collosnon army but not part of it, caught up in politics and quarrelling, trying to make her own way in the world and never getting to do it for long. At one stage, she does establish a small self-sufficient lesbian utopia in the woods; but the politics of men intrude, and one of the heroes of the first book casually takes away her lover and then kidnaps her and her child for politics yet again.

The Walrus and the Warwolf is more or less the opposite of The Wordsmiths and the Warguild: a long hard journey, indeed, and a quest of sorts, but with an utterly selfish, irresponsible, fantasist as a hero – Dreldragon Drakedon Douay, known as the Demon-son, pirate, rightful king of Stokos, priest of the Flame, slayer of a Neversh and a watermelon stand. It’s wonderful, and self-consciously storied – all of these books do interesting things with narrative and legend, but this one is where Cook starts actively playing silly buggers.

Book 5, The Wicked and the Witless, expands on some of the political developments over the last book, as Sean Kelebes Sarazin, one of Drake’s antagonists (though, to be fair, practically everyone he meets is his antagonist, and for very good reasons) schemes and plots to take over the Harvest Plains. It’s good, but I can’t find much to say about it in comparison to the others.

Book 6, on the other hand – The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers – is definitely my favourite of the lot. It’s much more restricted in scope than the others, set entirely in the city of Injiltaprajura on the island of Untunchilamon, and it marks the point both where Cook starts going for really outlandish imagery (a millennia-old Hermit Crab with gourmet tastes and the powers of sorcery; irresponsible children’s toys from the Golden Gulag, reconditioned from military-grade autonomous robots; fountains of thixotropic industrial lubricant pouring into the sea; the Cult of the Holy Cockroach) and when the narrative tricks really get going. We have not only the unreliable narrator’s manuscript, complete with derisive references to the Redactors of Odrum, but a half-dozen layers of editorial interjections, elisions, amendments, and reproofs to less senior Redactors. The Originator, at that, is explicitly insane – an inmate in the Dromdanjerie, the asylum of Injiltaprajura – but the Foreword, in which yet another (nameless) writer debunks the Redactors, makes no mention of that.

As it endured redaction in the dungeons of Odrum, the Text which follows became encumbered by a full two million words of explication and interpolation. In the interests of convenience, readability and sanity, most of this overgrowth has been cut away.

A previous draft of the manuscript of The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers actually exists as a major plot point in the next book, The Wazir and the Witch – which is narrated by the same historian as the first, but has clearly not fallen into the hands of the Redactors of Odrum. These two books, together, show off one of the other good features of the series – diversity of races, from the grey-skinned Janjuladoola and the redskins of the Ebrell Islands with their flaming hair to the purple-skinned Frangoni warriors of Dalar ken Halvar. This shows up very strongly in the contrast between these two and Book 9, The Worshippers and the Way – Asodo Hatch, of the Frangoni, and a Startrooper of the Nexus, strongly resents the popular depictions of the Wild Tribes in Nexus popular culture as purple-skinned barbarians, given that the proud warrior culture are already looked down upon by the dominant Ebrell Islanders. On Untunchilamon, on the other hand, “Ebbies” are the lowest of the low – considered feckless, irresponsible lowlives. There are some explicitly white-skinned peoples, but generally when others refer to them it’s with some reference to “the disgusting pallor of the natives of Wen Endex” or some such.

Book 8, The Werewolf and the Wormlord, is set in Wen Endex, where the Yudonic Knights only come out at night; it gives us a picture of a complex society built on violence, financial manoeuverings, scheming, and the strategic use of monsters. It’s my least favourite of the books, and I think the weakest. Book 10, on the other hand – The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster – is rather strong, and we finally get to see the story of Guest Gulkan, Emperor-in-Exile, who has been wandering through others’ stories throughout the series in a rather Moorcockian way. Instead of the brooding questing hero we see from Togura’s perspective in Book 2, or the Conanesque thief-hero in Books 6 & 7, we see a spoilt princeling who grows to become a selfish prince, a foolish (and brief) Emperor, a brave and loving son, a cunning guerilla general who uses the magic of wizards to his advantage, and a hater of the irregular verbs with a passion beyond all telling – and the process happens insensibly, as the narrator never tires of telling us after the fact.

Sadly, they’re almost all out of print; The Walrus and the Warwolf is being reprinted by Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories, with an introduction by China Miéville, at the end of March 2010, and the Book Depository claim it’s still available in hardcover from Colin Smythe Ltd. Cook made books 2, 9, and 10 available on his website, where they’re free to download in HTML format (and very sensibly formatted for reading on my phone – I’ve been using those for travel books for the last few weeks, since I don’t have physical copies of 9 or 10), and the Book depository claims they’re also available via Lulu, but Lulu doesn’t. Basically – if you can find a set, you should, but good luck!

February 13, 2010

Upcoming – Shadowrise

Filed under: meta — Tags: , — Sam @ 12:39 am

I’ve just received Chapter 18 of Shadowrise, by Tad Williams, in the mail, and it’s really rather good.

February 12, 2010

Pennterra – Judith Moffett

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 7:57 pm

This is a colonization[1] novel, and a Quaker novel, but any similarity to The Dazzle of Day is fairly superficial. It begins in media res, with the colonists thoroughly planted on Pennterra, and already firmly in contact with the native hrossa[2], while the other ends as the travellers reach the surface of their planet. Another dissimilarity is that Pennterra has many characters who aren’t Quakers, and the cultural dialogue between them enriches the text – though it would have been interesting to have seen someone cross over properly, or even be in much doubt about their position.

The book was written in 1987, and it shows in the future it depicts – Earth has been ruined, worn out, broken. The overcrowded population are starving, living on algae cakes, so presumably everything went Malthusian. And mass colonization of another planet is still a real possibility. The irresistable comparison, for me, is Anne McCaffrey’s >Decision at Doona, and that was from 1967, so it’s almost certainly an influence.

As regards themes, it’s mostly about food, and sustenance, and how to keep right relations with the world around us. It’s a constant ethical quandary for Quakers and other thoughtfully spiritual people, and this book gives an interesting perspective on it. I don’t think it’s a story that only SF could have told in the same way that The Dazzle of Day is, but it’s still a very good and powerful one.

The Quakers – all scientists – gradually find out a lot of the way this new world works, and find clearness on the restrictions the natives have placed on their expansion. On Pennterra, there are no predator/prey relations; all consumption is a gift. This is… not an easy thing to get used to, even for the Quakers, and we see quite a bit of their bitterness and resentment at being casually denied the future they were expecting.

Moffett does a good job of showing us how they find the nature of the planet out, mostly by giving us excerpts from their diaries-cum-informal-lab-notebooks, making no distinctions between biological research, botanical studies, practical anthropology, and conversation between friends. At the same time, we see the characteristic painful Quaker honesty about themselves and their reactions to their work.

The pacing of discovery is good, without playing I-know-something-you-don’t-know tricks on either reader or characters; it might have been good to have seen the author coming down less heavily on the Quaker side, but then I may well be seeing more of that than there is there as a Quaker myself.


[1] Which isn’t the same as a colonial novel; nor is it a postcolonial novel. It’s an interesting beast all of its own. There are some problematic aspects to casting humans as the colonizers (though they’re explicitly multi-racial) and aliens as the colonized party, but otherwise it provides a very interesting vehicle to look at huge differences in cultural practice and needs.
[2] A deliberate in-universe reference to CS Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy – the hrossa there are natives of a planet whose people did not Fall.

February 10, 2010

Quick links: whitewashing in YA fiction

Filed under: meta,sf — Tags: , , — Sam @ 9:27 pm

Two links for you – The narrative we’re told/sold over again by Chally at Feministe, and Kids of Color and the New American Whitewashing by Colleen Mondor at Bookslut.

Catherine Webb – The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle

This is rather good Victorian adventure, starring eccentric inventor & Special Constable Horatio Lyle. And his dog Tate, which gives a neat summary of the level of humour involved!

The science involved is impeccable, and there’s something irresistable about a hero who carries dangerous chemicals around in his pockets. The two other protagonists, Tess the burglar and Thomas the young gentleman, are pleasantly sketched, but obviously will always be more interesting to actual young readers.

As is Extremely Traditional for stories set in the Victorian period, the villains are Chinese; this can get rather dodgy, but there are also Chinese third-parties who both aid and work against the protagonists at different times. The part I’m not sure at all about is the tseiqins’ allergy to iron & magnetism, a characteristic normally given to very Celtic creatures. That said, it’s perfect for an antagonist in this period.

Ebooks & DRM

Filed under: children's lit,meta — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 2:22 pm

Simon & Schuster are offering a free download of the first novel in their Vampirates sequence, for a month from today.

I’ve been vaguely interested in these, and a free ebook really caught my eye – it’s a marketing strategy that’s worked well on me in the past, when Tor gave away a series of first-books and I ended up buying a half-dozen more and not regretting it. And it’s nice seeing a publisher have the confidence in their books to give away a decent-length taster for free.

However, it’s DRM-laden, which means two things. First, there’s a complex process to go through before I can even read the book – I need Adobe Digital Editions, and/or specialised ebook reading software. This is something I’ve never had any interest in acquiring, because I like reading in PDF or HTML for preference.

And second, it presumes to control my reading experience – the link I skimmed to find out what on earth a .acsm file was said something about activation profiles, software used, and so forth. Unless I end up with a book I can freely backup, copy, change format, and read with any device I please, I’m not interested. This kind of DRM (like all DRM) is easy to break, but again, that’s unnecessary hassle – so the end result is that I still don’t have a copy of Vampirates: Demons of the Ocean, and I’m now slightly less interested in reading the series than I was before.

To summarize: 10/10 for intentions, 3/10 for execution, FAIL for marketing.

February 6, 2010

Amazonfail, and the Book Depository

Filed under: meta,sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 12:10 am

I’m not going to comment on the recent Amazon/Macmillan flap, because smarter people than I have already said it all, and you can find that anywhere.

What this issue did inspire me to do, on the other hand, is to look at The Book Depository again, and – hey, free delivery worldwide, and equivalent discounts to Amazon on the things I was looking at. I picked up a couple of Steven Brust books I’ve been wanting to catch up on – reading Jhegaala for the first time, and Issola (in which Vlad starts channeling Khaavren) to fill in the one hole in my collection.

I also went over to Webscriptions and got some nice cheap ebooks to read on my phone – Baen’s HTML format books come in multiple files, with sensible length chapters, which are perfect for reading on the screen of a phone which can’t do multitasking and thus won’t let you skip out and keep your place. All of these are re-reads – The Warrior’s Apprentice and The Vor Game by Bujold, and the first three books in the Serrano Legacy sequence. If you haven’t read them, I recommend them – spaceships, sensible engineering stories, and horses. It’s military SF, but bearable.

February 5, 2010

The Magician’s Apprentice – Trudi Canavan

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 11:54 pm

This standalone novel is an interesting part of the backstory to Canavan’s Black Magician Trilogy, showing the founding of the Magician’s Guild and the discovery of magical healing.

It’s nicely subtle in its examination of war crimes and atrocities – not so much with the relatively flat villains, locked into patterns of evil by their society, but in the effect the war has on the heroes’ supporting cast. It doesn’t go to nearly such a high emotional pitch as a Donaldson or a Kay does (in fact, Canavan’s emotional pitch is relatively unvarying here – it comes across to me as slightly numb, which is certainly a very reasonable artistic reaction to war) but it works.

The one thing that annoys me is the unrelenting smeerpitude – Canavan’s books are scattered with rebers, rassooks, gorins (or is it gorin, plural? Hard to tell), ceryni, ravi, and so on and on. A helpful glossary in the back tells us that a reber is “a domestic animal bred for wool and meat”, a gorin is “a large domestic animal used for food and to haul boats and wagons”, and a rassook is a “domestic bird used for meat and feathers”. So that’s sheep, oxen, and chickens, then. Ceryni and ravi are two sizes of verminous rodent. A yeel is a “small domesticated breed of limek used for tracking”, but a limek is a “wild predatory dog” – aha, dogs, now we’re getting somewhere. And this world has horses, because it’s a fantasy world and horses are inherently fantastic. Her approach seems inconsistent as well as annoying – presumably she does it because sheep, cattle, rats, and so on leap out at her in fantasy worlds and spoil her immersion, but horses and dogs don’t, and a reber or a limek just add fantasy flavour.

To me, it’s the other way around – I want to know more about all these new things. I want to be able to have faith in the author, that she isn’t just splattering strange words around decoratively, but that they’ll serve useful worldbuilding purposes and we’ll get to learn more.

I want to learn that reber have three clawed toes on each foot, and a purple nose. I want to find out what their wool is like, what the people do with it, and what they use to dye it. I want to learn that yeel were first (re)domesticated by the Edrain people, because limeks had sharper noses and more endurance than ordinary dogs, and that the word is a mutated version of their word for “friend”. Or, alternatively, I want to see unremarkable sheep and dogs in the kind of countryside you can expect to have sheep and dogs in, so I don’t get distracted from the book’s themes.

February 1, 2010

The Magic Thief – Sarah Prineas

Filed under: children's lit — Tags: , — Sam @ 2:56 pm

This is about a street urchin who becomes a wizard’s apprentice – or more accurately, demonstrates Destiny Powers when picking the wizard’s pocket, and gets taken on as a servant before convincing the wizard that he really ought to be an apprentice instead. Conn is pleasantly direct and active for a child (pre-teen, I believe) and the fact that he’s used to controlling his own life comes out well in his actions & narration, which is refreshing. Whilst it’s Conn who saves the day, as is traditional in children’s lit, for once there are perfectly good in-universe explanations why adults are useless.

Prineas’s magic system is a well-executed and -explained implementation of the standard flow-and-channel Language-of-Control setup, internally consistent and suitably uncomplicated. It would have been nice to have seen more of the magical academy, but perhaps that’s planned for the next few books.

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