Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

March 22, 2010

Somtow Sucharitkul – The Aquiliad

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 12:38 pm

This is one of Somtow’s early books, and in a 1983 edition (first, I think) from before he began publishing as SP Somtow. Really, the man is incredibly, ridiculously multitalented. It’s actually the first of three in this world, but I had to go looking to find that out, and I’ll count myself absurdly lucky if I find the others any time soon.

It’s an alternate-history job, set in a world where the Roman Empire develops steam power under the Julio-Claudians and can therefore expand across the Atlantic, into the lands of the Apaxae, Comanxii, and so forth.

Our viewpoint character, Titus Papinianus, is the Commander of the Thirty-Fourth Legion—-not this Papinianus, but presumably a relative. “Papinian” is Somtow’s middle name. The Aquila of the title (“actually some barbaric tongue-twister, but it means eagle”) is the war-chief of a band of Lacotii auxiliaries, bought for the arena and then sent off by Domitian to aid the Thirty-Fourth in Cappadocia.

That’s the first book of Aquila, originally published on its own; the books after that deal with Titus’s experiences as Governor of Terra Nova, sent to find a route to the Chinish Empire by Domitian and then by Trajan. First south, to the land of the Olmechii, and then west and north to the land of the Kwakiutl, which must clearly be the land they seek given the combination of giant bones littering the land (the remains of silkworms, as in the scientiae fictiones of P. Iosephus Agricola[1]) and the discovery of a scroll which is “a dictionary of the Chinook speech! Now what else could that mean, but that we have here a transcription into Egyptian letters of the Chinish tongue?”

There’s a bit of racial stereotyping going on, which is sort of inevitable in SF of this era, but it’s countered by comments about the problems with imperial projects.


[1] No, it sounds more like Herbert to me too, but I may be missing something. There are a lot of these littering the text, such as the Judean Asimianus and his epic poem Fundatio.

March 15, 2010

Alex Bell – Lex Trent Versus the Gods

Filed under: children's lit,review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 10:52 pm

This is a very fun book, and a very quick & easy read. It’s told by a seventeen-year-old confidence trickster and second-story man, who’s a horribly unsympathetic narrator, but it’s still a lot of fun being inside Lex’s head as we rush through a lightly but vividly sketched fantasy world.

Bell’s setting & worldbuilding imagination is wonderful—a world divided in two, with hundreds of ladders connecting the Realms of the Gods below with the Upper Lands, inhabited by humans, enchanters and their crones[1], and any number of strange animals[2].

On the one hand, this book is about overcoming a set of challenges and Humorous Mishaps in the course of winning one of the Games of the Gods for Lex’s patron. On the other, since this is YA, it’s about personal growth & repairing a relationship with family, and for once it isn’t the tedious dealing-with-your-parents’-divorce novel we’ve seen so many times before.

The Gods here are I think the one weak point of the book. Bell’s used the bog-standard Edwardian/TSR interpretation of the Graeco-Roman pantheon, with “X god of Y”—named deities with standard invariate portfolios. Which is simplistic and historically inaccurate.

Take Apollo, for instance. He’s “God of” music, poetry, healing, plague, colonization, and the sun. Animals especially associated with him include dolphins, ravens, roe deer, hawks, snakes, cicadas, wolves, and mice. He’s a pastoral shepherd, a great horseman, the Lord of Hounds, and a catcher of mice. He’s worshipped differently in nearly every site or text, and conflated or aggregated with any number of local deities.

I want fantasy gods with that much realism! Mostly, though, I want fantasy gods derived from ideas about real-world ones, rather than AD&D sourcebooks or half-remembered Edwardian mythology summaries.


[1] This is slightly troubling: old women are presented effectively as a separate species, and mostly the subject of mockery. “Crones need”, “Crones aren’t happy without”, “Poor crone, she thinks she’s a fairy godmother”…

[2] With an actual ecology, no less. Farmers have to wear protective suits, because the hay that drayfii eat (a drayfus is a shaggy hippo with wings, extremely placid and obedient) is a favourite habitat of nasal lice, which live inside nostrils and induce violent sneezing in order to find new hosts.

March 8, 2010

Feminist indoctrination via SF

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 1:09 pm

First, have a link: Juliet E. McKenna guestwriting for Joshua Palmatier, on the subject of women in SF. (Incidentally, her new novel Blood in the Water, is out—it’s book 2 of the sequence starting with Irons in the Fire. Since I don’t have a copy yet, you can read more about it here, and admire the cover art again.)

I’ve been re-reading some of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series recently (entirely coincidentally, Jo Walton started posting about Darkover re-reads recently too) and I hadn’t realised it had been so long. I first started on these at the age of 14 or so, and a lot of the very progressive social content (for its time – this is 70s and 80s SF here) slipped right past me.

That sort of thing doesn’t slip past without leaving traces, though—the stories we read shape our lives, and we bring all of it to every story after that, whether it’s fiction, the evening news, or family.

So all Bradley’s portrayals of bisexual men, strong women, and young people struggling to make a life for themselves free of the dead hand of history and convention really did stick, and she did a lot to dramatize the struggle that both women and non-alpha men face against patriarchy. There are some problems with her portrayal, of course—there always are—but nobody with any sense will ever have taken it as gospel. Why is it always the absurdly inferior, risibly bad, and philosophically evil books that do get taken that way…

March 2, 2010

Ian Whates – City of Dreams and Nightmares

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 10:09 pm

Angry Robot, published on 4th March 2010. Info & sample chapter here.

This is a classic City Fantasy – the city of Thaiburley is just as much a character here as New Crobuzon, Lankhmar, or Haven are, and an inventively realized one. It’s a classic multi-level enclosed hive of scum and villainy, but a much gentler polity than most of the dystopias you see depicted like this—the ruling authorities appear to be both competent and well-meaning, for instance.

The author’s style is very discursive & up-front, happily explaining the action & his characters’ feelings to the reader; it’s not something I like, and I’d far rather see more description and less discursion, but I know a lot of SF readers do prefer it. The other two criticisms I have are that the book doesn’t pass the Bechdel test until halfway through, and the title. City of Two Opposed Yet Generic Fantasy Nouns is not exactly arresting – the effect it mostly has on me is to remind me that I still haven’t actually read City of Saints and Madmen yet, and I really should. The relevance of the title to the book is also rather ambiguous, though there are hints at the end.

Few of the thematic elements are unexpected: we have psionic magic, gruesome patchwork biotech, nonhumans communicating soundlessly and making artwork out of their excreta (distinct shades of Miéville there), street gangs, and incongruous levels of technology amidst filth, swords, and untreated suppurating wounds. They’re well integrated into an interesting, complex world, though, and this is a very solid debut for a series I’ll be wanting to keep an eye on.

All on account of elephants – Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 6:39 pm

This is a Jewish sword-and-horse historical novel of swashbuckling and derring-do, consciously patterned after the great adventure stories of the early 20th century. The cover art (Andrew Davidson) & interior illustrations (Gary Gianni) fit this perfectly—the wood-engraving style is exactly right, and the only thing that would make it perfect is (expensive) watercolour-style colour plates.

I only have two criticisms of this book; it’s too short, and there aren’t nearly enough female characters. The one woman with any agency spends nearly all of the book, and the rest of her life, disguised as a man.

It’s set in the Kingdom of the Khazars, around 950 CE, and follows the adventures of two wandering Jewish adventurers from very different backgrounds. Zelikmann is a Frankish physician suffering from acute depression; Amram is an Abyssinian mercenary. Together, they fight crime put an exiled prince back on a usurped throne.

Since this is a quintessentially Jewish text, it’s very much concerned with two fundamental icons of the Matter of Fantasy—the Road and the Book. Chabon’s afterword talks in detail about the yearning for travel and adventure, and of course there’s a lot of black humour to be had contrasting that to the history of the Jews. Two complementary quotations, first from the book itself—

She looked away so they would not see her tears, and noticed, on its carved and gilded stand, the giant illuminated Ibn Khordadbeh that had so enchanted her as a child, with its maps and preposterous anatomies and flat-foot descriptions of miracles and wonders, page after page of cities to visit and peoples to live among and selves to invent, out there, beyond the margins of her life, along the roads and in the kingdoms.

—and from the afterword.

For better and worse it has been one long adventure—a five-thousand-year Odyssey—from the moment of the true First Commandment, when God told Abraham lech lecha: Thou shalt leave home. Thou shalt get lost. Thou shalt find slander, oppression, opportunity, escape, and destruction. Thou shalt, by definition, find adventure.

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