Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

July 21, 2010

Paul Hoffman – The Left Hand of God

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 12:10 pm

I was pleased to find this in the library yesterday, since I’ve been seeing strongly negative reviews from a lot of people since it came out, and wanted to see what all the anti-fuss was about. Having finished it, I still don’t know, because I was rather charmed by it.

It has some flaws—specifically, a somewhat shallow level of characterisation, and a distinct lack of rounded female characters—but I think that’s thoroughly explainable by the biased & unpleasant narrator. (I’m looking forward to reading any sequels that may appear, partly in the hope of finding out who’s narrating it and which bits they just made up.)

Biased and unpleasant the narrator may be, but I was rather charmed by the narrative style, which begins at “baroque” and occasionally takes sudden left turns into “ludicrously surreal”. Sadly, it isn’t kept up consistently throughout the novel, but the lapses into normality are unexceptionable and only stand out because of the very strong beginning.

The nomenclature, geography & theology of the secondary world are equally surreal; it’s an obvious pisstake of Fantastic Europe (complete with religious wars in Eastern Europe, expanding empires, and references to historical figures) with a few invented fantasy cultures plonked into the middle. The religion is a peculiar Christian-heresy-analogue; I’d say an invented one, but I’m mortally certain that at least one historical sect has held it as their central tenet that God just wants to punish us for killing His son, and must be appeased.

There’s a back-cover quote from Charlie Higson, which can be summarized as “Peake does Dickens”. There are certainly a few Dickensian thematic echoes, but I’d want to add Ender’s Game into that, and KJ Parker’s Scavenger trilogy.

Unsurprisingly for this genre of fantasy, the book ends on a large climactic battle; unusually, it’s realistically done. Slow, grinding, messy, and with all the unfolding inevitability of a blocked drain during a thunderstorm.

July 16, 2010

Mike Shevdon – Sixty-One Nails

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 1:37 pm

Angry Robot bill this as “Neverwhere’s faster, smarter brother”. My (somewhat predictable) initial reaction to this claim was along the lines of “Ah ha ha ha ha… NO.” Of course, being the generous and kind-hearted person I am, I decided to keep reading it anyway, just to see whether it did have something comparable to Gaiman’s work after all.

It turns out that there are a couple of points in common—they’re both set in London, and… er. No, I think that’s it.

It’s about fairies—excuse me, “Feyre”. I’d like to say that that’s the single silliest and most pretentious misspelling of “fairy” I’ve ever seen, but one of the subspecies of the Feyre is the “Fey’ree”. The Feyre are all aligned towards one or more of the Aristotelian elements, completed in the obligatory manner by “Void”. The Void fairies are the bad ones who refuse to breed with humans, and there’s a mystical barrier keeping them out of our world. But it’s breaking down… and our protagonist is a special, unique Void-fairy halfbreed, which nobody thought could ever exist. Of course, that particular plot point is resolved casually at the end, with a bit of waffle about unexpected heritages and nobody being able to predict what kind of fairy they’ll turn out to be.

A lot of the story concerns learning & mastering the rules of fairy magic, and working out what fairies can and can’t do. And if that last sentence didn’t seem wrong to you, you’ve been reading about a different kind of fairies to the ones I was brought up on. Honestly, this book would have been more readable and made more sense if it started with a crashed alien ship several millennia ago, and superstitious humans treating the advanced travellers as supernatural beings, because these are no kind of fairies I’ve ever heard of. At least Shevdon doesn’t abuse any of the traditional names, so if you do want to read it you can safely pretend they’re just space aliens.

The treatment of fairy tropes in the book is inconsistent, too. They can’t touch iron (it gives them electric shocks) but they’re absolutely fine with steel. Iron is intensely antithetical to magic, but at one point they get into an iron safe using fairy magic. Fairy magic interfaces nicely with technology (at one point, the protagonist uses a mirror to make a call to someone’s mobile), but they regularly use ignore-me-I’m-not-here fairy magic to conceal themselves, or large melee weapons, from security guards and nobody ever worries about being caught on CCTV.

The CCTV thing is a particularly London issue, but there are a few other places in the book which ring rather untrue to me, too. Fifteen quid for a taxi to Heathrow before dawn, for instance; things that eat London pigeons and apparently enjoy them; walking around next to the Fleet without protective gear, let alone falling in it and surviving… Shevdon’s done his headline research pretty well, it seems, but not bothered with the little things.

The writing style is flaccid, with a lot of just-past-tense first-person reflections, and a keen eye for cliché & the pointless minutiae of everyday life, whilst carefully avoiding little details that might enliven a scene beyond the bare-bones setting. It’s still readable, but one gets the feeling that writing is being treated as a necessary inconvenience involved in getting on with the plot, rather than the book itself.

The story’s nominally about the discovery of an unexpected new layer to life, replacing and changing all that’s gone before, but there’s very little sense of real dislocation or threat. The opponents we’re shown are dangerous enough, but they’re all predictable and well defined; there’s none of the lurking, numinous sense of unknown threat, or the unpredictable desires & disposition, that characterize things of faerie in English folklore.

If you have a few hours to waste and nothing better to hand, you won’t be harmed by reading this, but that’s the best I can say about it.

July 13, 2010

Justina Robson – Going Under

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 4:03 pm

Micro-review, since I’m about to take it back to the library.

Short summary: para-rom tropes from a perspective about halfway between hard SF and fantasy-of-manners. Good. Warning: contains elves.

Irritated complaint: publishers who don’t make it prominent (eg. on the bloody cover) that it’s part of a series. To be precise, book 3, which is almost inevitably the worst place to start a series.

July 11, 2010

Catherynne M Valente – Palimpsest

Filed under: review,Uncategorizable — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 3:41 pm

What should I write about this book—this book that is a city, this city that is a book, this book that is many books and none of them complete?

Cities are built upon cities and the graves of cities; books are nurtured on the warm, rich humus of libraries, the rotted and matured drifts of pages. A word, a phrase here and there, escapes the embrace of time and settles instead into a new book, bedding down in a second home.

People, too, are built on the ruin and the glory of past selves. The things we do, the books we read, the lovers we take all leave their marks on us, and we mark our cities, our books, our lovers in turn.

We must ask ourselves, then: upon what is Palimpsest written? What was reused, what was erased, what was allowed to remain, that this book could come to me like bread still warm from the oven?

It rests upon three pillars. The first, a thing of steel and mother of pearl, is the portal quest; four very different people find a new world, and there is a destiny only they can fulfill. The second is strange and fantastical, but nobody else gives it more than a passing glance; after all, they see it every day. The world is revealed slowly, in sidelong allusions and small pieces to be jigsawed together—or tossed down and left to make what pattern they will. The last has the dream-logic and strange gravities of a new relationship, of an unexpected seduction, of the discipline you never knew would be your life.

It subverts the portal-quest, in that there is no wizard, no eternally trustworthy guide—and in that the transitions between worlds are quietly backgrounded. An immersive fantasy is normally one in which the reader is the only stranger, and little care is given to make her feel at home; this is very much not the case in Palimpsest. The only intrusion is that of our protagonists, and in the end, that is accepted rather than resolved. And, whilst in the liminal fantasy, the fantastic approaches and retreats (or, conversely, is approached and retreated from) here the fantastic and the reader take their places in a winding, looping dance of approach & retreat, teasingly, seductively. But we all know how those dances end, and so it is with this.

Despite the size and complexity of the city of Palimpsest—which is, after all, almost de rigueur for city fantasy—it feels very circumscribed, very personalized. And the story tells you, its own self, that this is for you: that no other reader has been given the same book.

So, then, let us close the book, and leave the city to live happily ever after. When we return to it, it will be made new.

July 6, 2010

Aliette de Bodard – Servant of the Underworld

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 5:51 pm

It’s pretty much impossible, these days, to chuck a stone in a decent-sized library without hitting a few fantasy books that are also mysteries or police procedurals, and since I’m a definite fan of all those things I rather like this trend.

It has to be done right, though, and done thoroughly enough—nobody ever talks about the Harry Potter books as fantasy mysteries, even though most of them follow that plot structure. This, on the other hand, is mostly mystery, with a hefty dab of mythology, and the fantasy elements are very well integrated with both.

It’s set in pre-Columbian America, in Tenochtitlan; the detective is Acatl, High Priest for the Dead, called in when someone is murdered by magic… and his own estranged brother looks like the obvious suspect. It’s not all paint-by-numbers plotting, however, and it gives a very similar sense of a detective out of his depth amidst politics, but determined to do the right thing, as Lindsey Davis’s Falco books or Liz Williams’ Detective Inspector Chen books (which de Bodard namechecks as an influence in her afterword, at that).

The worldbuilding is solid and consistent, and there’s a reassuringly sizeable bibliography at the back, which is always a good sign. A few things threw me (like the reference to drinking chocolate from a “clay glass”), but those are strictly minor issues. Overall, definitely recommended.

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