Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

January 11, 2012

Gene Deitch’s Hobbit

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


It’s The Hobbit – in twelve minutes, from 1966. With a courageous princess (and love interest), no orcs, no riddles, no dwarves, a traditional Chosen One plotline, gorgeous Czech artwork, and a hobbit Macgyver. The changes are really interesting, and in some ways add a bit of coherence to the plot – but then again, part of the charm of The Hobbit is its bumbling, sprawling arbitrariness. In others, they subvert the Professor’s original intent. The hero only thinks he’s unlikely, and becomes a king (or prince consort – it isn’t specified) and the Arkenstone is the dragon’s doom rather than the cause of strife.

Because I wanted to, here’s a summary!

Dale, the City of Golden Bells, is attacked and ravaged by the dragon Slag the Terrible. The city burns, and the myriad jewels of its treasury – but especially the heart of the city, the shining Arkenstone – are carried off into the jewel mine under the Lonely Mountain.

The only three who survived the flames – a watchman, who slept at his post; General Thorin Oakenshield, of the now-destroyed Garrison of Dale; and (Mika?), the last Princess of Dale – head to the lonely tower of Gandalf the Grey. As is usual with Wizards, Gandalf has a plan.

“It is clear that the time has come. The time of the hobbit!”

Enchantingly, the narration refers to Bilbo being very different from his “great-great-grandhobbit”, over a shot of a family photo showing said great-great-grandhobbit standing in triumphant safari pose on a dragon.

He doesn’t really like Gandalf’s assertion that he is “the chosen dragonkiller”, who will lead this group “over the Impassable Barricade Mountains, through the Impenetrable Mirkwood Forest, across the poisonous Desolation of Slag, to the Lonely Mountain itself, wherein the horrid creature lies”. (Well, would you?) However, when the “furious, impatient” princess scolds him (“if you are so afraid, then I shall go alone”) he realises he has no choice.

The party’s first challenge is a pair of Groans, hungry thick-skinned brutes whose favourite food is people-meat. The three survivors of Dale are quickly trussed to a roasting-spit, but the clever hobbit (who “was a good mimic”) tricked the Groans into arguing with each other until dawn took them and they turned to dry trees.

Gollum is still here, as is the One Ring of Power, though there’s no riddle contest. “Magically, the One Ring of Power had found its true bearer. It was Bilbo Baggins the hobbit!”

Under the Lonely Mountain, Slag sleeps cuddling the Arkenstone. Conveniently, it’s actually shaped like a heart, and Bilbo realises what he must do: sneak down, climb the sleeping dragon, steal the gemstone, build a ballista out of old mining tools, and shoot Slag dead with a giant bolt tipped with the Arkenstone itself.

After that, the brave hobbit marries the Princess of Dale, and they reign there together – but finally they returned to that quiet comfortable life in Hobbiton, until the next time that Gandalf the Grey would knock upon the round green door.

December 27, 2011

Laini Taylor – Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 5:04 pm

This is only going to be a very short one, because I’m too annoyed to do more.

It’s good, but don’t buy it unless you have a high tolerance for unfinished stories, because (without any indication whatsoever on the cover, blurb, or title page) it’s the first book of a series. It’s not even self-contained; the story set up in the early pages mutates to a larger one, and the only resolution we get is to a story arc introduced over halfway through. By two-thirds of the way through, I could tell it wasn’t going to finish, and the last three words of the book are “to be continued”.

This kind of behaviour by a publisher is Distinctly Unimpressive.

December 15, 2011

Seanan McGuire – Rosemary and Rue

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 11:35 am

Let’s get this out of the way first: it’s a fairies-in-America book, the first of the October Daye (Fairy PI) series. It involves the usual pointless feudalism and Native American erasure—the only non-Celtic creatures in the list at the front are djinn, lamia, and peri—but the racial politics are rather more crosslinked and nuanced than in most such.

The list at the front, unfortunately, set my expectations very low for the rest of the book; it’s a pronunciation guide, and it’s wrong. “Coblynau” (Welsh for “Goblins”) is plural, not singular, and it’s “cob-luh’nigh” not “cob-lee-now”; similarly, “Tylwyth Teg” (literally, “fair folk”) is “tuhl’with tair’g” (more or less) not “tillwith teeg”. As for “Tuatha de Danann”, that would have been even easier to research than the modern Welsh names are. As is traditional, they’re all presented as different species or clans, with distinct phenotypes; unusually, none of the traditional names are cultural analogues of one another.

Happily, I can report that the book improved. It’s a good, uncomplicated read, and the worse characteristics of fairies (imperiousness, secrecy, and drama queening, for instance) are presented as annoyances rather than good things. Toby herself is competent and proactive (rather too much so for her own good, at times) and McGuire’s both good at introducing interesting supporting characters and unafraid to kill them off when we’re getting fond of them.

September 30, 2011

Nnedi Okorafor – Who Fears Death

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 6:38 pm

This is postapocalyptic fantasy, but very much not in the Shannara or Shadowrun sense; it’s poetic and spare, without concerning itself with European fantasy tropes or the endless codification which is the curse of so much fantasy.

Codification, indeed, is one of this book’s cores. A Great Book forms the central text of the Okeke/Nuru society in the area; the dark-skinned Okeke grew proud with their technology and their cities, and then disaster fell and the light-skinned Nuru were placed over them. Rana, the Seer, prophesies that a tall Nuru man will rewrite the book; Daib, a sorceror, decides that he is that man and begins exterminating the Okeke. On the other hand, Onyesonwu—the titular “Who fears death?” and an Ewu (child of interracial rape) sorceress—is told by her teachers that Rana had rewritten the prophecy, unwilling to believe that it really could have meant an Ewu woman. So we’re nicely set up for both plot conflict and an ambiguous look at the whole concept of prophecy & textuality.

This is echoed interestingly by Okorafor’s use of nsibidi, ideograms used in pre-Roman-script West Africa for magical & legal purposes as well as for communication. They’re inherently powerful, but they aren’t exclusively powerful, and we see throughout the book that there’s a lot of juju Onyesonwu doesn’t understand or can’t use, as well as juju she has learnt or is inherently very good at. This is no all-powerful player character wizard, and what in a European fantasy we’d refer to as a magic system (it’s neither magical nor systematic here) does not have edges or demarcations. To mix cultural metaphors appallingly, it’s a song not a topographical map.

Another (related) theme is heritage and genetic/familial determinism. Ewu are generally thought to be inherently violent, being the children of violence. That’s something that Onye repeatedly tells us isn’t true, but it isn’t particularly borne out by her actions; she’s very much Not A Nice Person. Mwita, the other Ewu we meet properly, is a child of love rather than violence, but has had a very violent past; his avocation is as a healer. It’s flatly impossible to separate any effect of birth—what in a Christian context we’d call original sin—from the toxic effects of tradition, cultural hatred, and old wounds. (This may look like a traditional African theme, but it isn’t; it happens everywhere, sadly.)

Okorafor easily resists the bog-standard “science and rationalism bad, living in harmony with the environment and intuitive magic good” approach, and undramatically weaves in realistic and useful high technology where it’s appropriate. By European fantasy standards, this is a dystopian future; coin-sized computers and weather-gel treated clothing are sold from open stalls in dusty markets, and slaves carry heavy loads along roads thronged with bio-fuel scooters. I’m rather reluctant to use the word “dystopia”, though, because that implies something that doesn’t exist already; this sort of complex intersection of technology levels, social conditions, traditional practices, and the future is already happening all over the world, and has been for quite some time.

Unsurprisingly, this book easily passes the Bechdel test; not only that, but it gives an interesting look at familial relationships between women, forcing Onye to re-evaluate her mother at the end. Another interesting—and entirely appropriate—representational issue is that there are no white people (except one, Sola, whose milk-coloured skin and flat lips mystify & repulse Onye) and no legends of white people. This is not a story of dark-skinned people emerging from a pale-skinned colonial yoke, but a story of a culture who have re-mythologized their own history.

It’s a deeply affecting book, and as you’d expect it avoids the pile of easy clichés about Africa that what little African-influenced fantasy we do see so often shows off. I’m not in any sense qualified to evaluate the book’s treatment of contemporary African issues, only to note that it exists. I’d recommend this book to anyone, with some serious trigger warnings over rape and female genital mutilation.

May 25, 2011

Charles Yu – How to Live Safely in a Science-Fictional Universe

Filed under: review,signal amp — Sam @ 4:10 pm

I’ve reviewed this for The Future Fire. Shorter summary: it’s good. In fact, it’s absolutely amazing, in a quite literal sense.

April 14, 2011

Dan Abnett – Prospero Burns

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 10:23 am

This is part of the Warhammer 40k franchise’s Horus Heresy line; whilst I’ve not read any of these before, I’m familiar with the general outline through picking up a few Black Library books here and there over the years. This one is billed as what happens when one entire army of super-soldiers turns to the dark side, and another is sent to destroy them. It’s actually deceptive, since that plotline is only introduced properly two-thirds of the way in; it’s possible to interpret the early part of the book as building up to the Space Wolves’ destruction of the planet Prospero, but since we hear almost nothing from the first army (the Thousand Sons) before then it’s very hard to feel invested in this plotline. Also, “Prospero Burns” sounds like a Victorian theatrical impresario.

Fortunately, the main story the book tells is much more interesting. Scholar Kasper Hawser decides to abandon his comfortable life on Earth to live amongst the Viking-themed Space Wolves, taking the name Ahmad ibn Rustah in a nod to history, and record their unique warrior culture. He is accepted, for reasons that seem arbitrary, as their skjald. His developing relationships with the warriors and his increasing awareness of his own role are absorbing, and deftly done, bringing an interesting dimensionality to what would otherwise have been an absurd cliché of a culture. Like all franchise writers, Abnett has to work with what he’s given, but he does a good job of it.

Speaking of what the franchise requires: the denouement is unsatisfactory in itself, being an utter diabolus ex machina, and it would have been nice to have encountered said diabolus before. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense (and is entirely necessary) when viewed as part of the overall arc plot, and these books aren’t really intended to be read on their own. It does give a good sense of the nihilism and meaningless inherent in the 40k universe, and the mind-twisting gulf of scale between the successes and failures of a human life and the long sweep of time on a galactic scale.

March 29, 2011

Patricia S Bowne – Advice From Pigeons

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 8:54 am

Hiram Rho is a junior demonologist at the Royal Academy of Osyth, and also a natural philosopher—in this context, someone who can communicate with animals, rather than a proto-scientist. Unlike the normal magical academy this one is thoroughly modern, complete with all the bureaucratic paraphernalia of academia in the real world; the major difference is in the subjects they study and research, and this is carried through into the rest of the society. Wizards work in construction, sorcerers heal, and alchemists change the nature of reality by their will.

Demonology works by belief, by defining the demon into existence and persuading it to believe what you tell it about itself. A corollary of that is that a demonologist’s own skills & abilities are continually negated by the practitioner’s own necessary academic analysis of them, removing their unquestioning belief in themselves. It’s a much more interesting take on demonology than the more traditional realm-of-hell version, and gives a nuanced take on the iron will and self-belief required of the summoning magician. It’s also a good reflection of the traits it takes to survive in academia!

The book begins with a rather forced infodump about the Institute’s magicians, but I can forgive a scene much for lines like this.

He felt himself go cold and then a comforting thought burst on him like sunlight. He was the one furthest from the door. He’d be the one disemboweled, not the one answering questions.

The character thinking there is Warren, a classic academic middle-manager; the book’s second major plot strand is a rather interestingly metaphysicalized dramatization of his midlife crisis. The first is Hiram Rho’s quest to define his academic path, his career, and his self. He’s a graduate student with all the socialization of a starving badger, torn between two schools of magic which promise him very different things, and unable to trust or like his colleagues. Despite that, he’s still an interesting character to spend time with, and deftly drawn.

The book also features gay characters, without making a special point of it; the world apparently has no problem with homosexuality. The text also treats Rho’s past as a sex worker quite matter-of-factly, and it’s a nice change to see that with a male character.

Overall, definitely recommended for anyone interested in the metaphysical nuts and bolts of wizardry (as distinct from the more traditional kind of magic-system fantasy) or for academics, unless they’re desperately trying to repress flashbacks already.

Edit: (since I forgot to note this originally) You can get it from Double Dragon Publishing here, and read the first chapter online here.

February 24, 2011

A couple more DNFs – Cast, MacAlister

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 1:26 pm

PC Cast, Goddess of Spring: a reimagining of the Persephone myth, in which Demeter decides to teach her daughter responsibility by having her switch places with an Italian-American bakery owner, and sending the latter to look after Hades. Hades, of course, is brooding but hot, and there are happy endings all around—at least, as far as I could tell from a quick skim forwards. It is, to say the least, a bold reinterpretation of the myth. The thing that annoyed me most, however, was the name of the protagonist’s bakery: Pani del Goddess. I don’t even speak Italian, and I can tell that none of those three words are correct; ten seconds’ research confirmed that.

Katie MacAlister, Love in the Time of Dragons: I picked this one up because the idea of urban fantasy which actually had dragons in intrigued me, and because I’m a sucker for lost-memory plots. Unfortunately, the “dragons” turned out to be functionally equivalent to werewolves, and I hate werewolf books even more than I hate badly-done fairies. Humans who can shapechange into monsters; hierarchical clan structures (led by a “wyvern”, which apparently means “drama queen” rather than “smaller, less powerful & intelligent dragon”); unreasonable possessiveness; big men dick-slapping each other at the slightest opportunity; and pissing on lamp-posts. Clearly, these are just suspiciously lizardy werewolves, and being tricked into reading a book about werewolves really annoys me.

Until I saw this quotation, I was mentally encouraging the heroine to dump the lot of them and find someone worth it, but frankly, after this they’re welcome to her, on the basis that then none of them will make anyone else miserable.

My heart warmed. I couldn’t help it. Oh, he was being arrogant and pushy and domineering, but none of that really mattered, not when I could see the insecurity and fear that he tried so hard to keep from me.

February 3, 2011

China Miéville – Kraken

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 11:38 am

Kraken is extremely ambitious; it attempts to draw from dozens of zeitgeist archetypes, pulling up their Mysteries and folding them together in a kind of symphonic origami. However, there’s a very fine line between that and “half-arsed in six different directions” and I’m very much afraid that Kraken is on the wrong side of it.

It’s a novel about surfaces & intersections—we see this most of all with the titular kraken. As we’re often told, the kraken dies when it comes to the surface: accustomed to the crushingly intimate pressure of its benthic home, the openness and emptiness of the surface is lethal. We see it also in the arms-length collaborations and conversations between different cults, the way in which they deal with each other using a kind of multivalent ecumenicism, striking theological poses and leaving it at that. The benthic depths of religion are still there, but they ain’t coming here.

This is the kind of novel that absolutely relies on a city setting, and (for the British) couldn’t be told anywhere except London, metonymically denatured as it is. London’s neomythic character is one of atomized alone-in-a-crowd emptiness, with uncountable individual social & ethnic groups touching only along their edges; there’s always another borough, there’s always something new to discover, there’s always an unexpected alley.

In the same spirit as his earlier Un Lun Dun, Miéville packs Kraken with surreal and fantastic imagery; in this case, however, it’s all explained and demystified. In fact, flattened. Some scenes read like Robert Rankin by way of Clive Barker, with their quotidian treatment of putatively horrific tropes, and then a later casual explanation. I’m thinking particularly of an early scene, where our first introduction to supernatural abnatural assassins Goss & Subby (your basic tattered-and-drab nonsense-talking thug and his creepy child sidekick—2/10 for originality, but of course that isn’t the point) is as they unfold themselves out of a small parcel. That could be a real intrusion moment, a way to ram home the way that strangeness has pushed itself into our protagonist’s life—but we’re in neomythic London, so strangeness is nothing new. A few scenes later, our one-step-behind police officers find out exactly how Goss arranged it (there’s a bloke who folds stuff; in neomythic London, you can buy anything if you know where to go) and that’s the last we hear of literal folding. This kind of semiotic flattening is all over the text, however: two of the antagonists are quite literally signs of themselves.

Miéville is clearly doing this flattening & estrangement deliberately, but it doesn’t work for me; the text glances over dozens of different mythoi and literary antecedents (my personal favourite was the cult of Sredni Vashtar) but treats them with as much interest as a tourist who goes home with photographs showing signs to historic buildings. I’m sympathetic, in principle, to the message (“There is no one universal meaning, no divine system. Everyone contends for their share of ontological authority. The future is what you fight to make it. Stuff just happens, and it’s up to us to deal with it. Everyone matters.”) but it isn’t coming across with passion or dedication, only with a kind of weary, intellectually smug postmodern box-ticking perfunctoriness.

I think, also, that the time of clever new portmanteau coinages for fantastika tropes is done. In Kraken, we have “realitysmith”, “Londonmancer”, “mageslick”, and “knacker” (someone who uses a “knack”, rather than someone who butchers dead horses) as well as the evergreen “ab-” prefix… abhuman, abnatural, absurd. It gets tiresome.

On the other hand, Kraken does have a lot of good points. Miéville’s imagination is as fertile and profuse as ever, and some of his inventions—like the kraken cult itself, and Wati the union organiser—are amazing.

Overall: if you read for imagery and whimsical invention, I recommend Kraken. For character and plot, it’s passable; as regards themes and style, it’s a failed experiment. But as always, that’s better than not making the experiment at all.

(Pornokitsch are a lot more positive, incidentally.)

February 2, 2011

Michael Moorcock – The Coming of the Terraphiles

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 2:22 am

I’m a big fan of Doctor Who, and I’ve been reading Moorcock since I was 12 or so. So I was extremely disappointed with this book.

It’s not good Who, since Moorcock doesn’t have much empathy with Eleven—the Doctor we see here might be almost any of them—and less with Amy. She gets almost nothing to do, and Moorcock doesn’t have her distinctive voice at all. In fact, since there’s a reference to “her unruly red hair standing on end” at one point, I’m not sure Moorcock has ever done much more than read a written description. The only plot she gets is in turning down an Earl’s proposal, and the flirtation goes on for half the book without any reference to Rory. Presumably, this adventure takes place during the period he spent erased from existence, but the Doctor doesn’t seem to think twice about it either.

It’s set in that last refuge of the SF hack, the Edwardian era IN SPACE, using that hackneyed plot device, the anachronistic mess of half-remembered history. So, in our Incredibly English Future, we have Wodehouse-grade peers & Chaps playing the ancient game of “arrers”, which is basically cricket and archery at once, interspersed with jousting, broadsword fighting (using swords three feet wide and a foot long), and Cracking Nuts With Sledgehammers. Amidst all that, a penniless young man and the daughter of a millionaire fall in love, and the young woman’s mother acquires and wears the most appallingly ugly hat in the multiverse. Oddly, everyone seems to want that hat, and not just as an excuse for Woosteresque hijinks.

I’ll spare you the rest of the plot; it doesn’t get much better. It’s nearly all Moorcock’s consistent Eternal Champion mythos, and what isn’t Moorcock appears to be more Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy pastiche than it is Doctor Who. There are some extremely good concepts involved (Frank/Freddie Force and his Antimatter Men would have made extremely, er, appropriate villains for the Sixth or Seventh Doctors) but they suffer from trying to cram in far too many of them. Introducing us to Captain ‘Ironface’ Cornelius, Peggy the invisible burglar, Captain Abberly and the three singing Bubbly Boys, and Captain Quelch along with the First Fifteen not only dilutes the effect but ensures that none of them get enough screen time actually to be interesting.

It’s not good Moorcock, either—it doesn’t have any noticeable significance in his mythology, and doesn’t provide anything lingering except fluff. The plot ends with two unexpected oh-I-had-it-all-along moments, the McGuffin solving the Problem, a Heroic Sacrifice, and and a Happily Ever After. That’s not necessarily a problem, but if you’re going to go for a trad plot in a stock setting, you can’t do without intense emotional engagement, and I felt none of that at all.

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