Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

October 13, 2010

Lavie Tidhar – The Bookman

Angry Robot, 416pp paperback. Out in the UK since January 2010, published in the US and in ebook form October 2010.

“This is the time of myths, Orphan. They are the cables that run under the floors and power the world, the conduits of unseen currents, the steam that powers the great engines of the earth.” — Inspector Irene Adler

The Bookman is set in an alternate Victorian era, and it’s intensely focused on the myths and legends of English literary geekdom. It has echoes of Alice Through The Looking Glass, Perdido Street Station, The Tempest, and The Eyre Affair, with a large chunk of Mayhew thrown in for good measure.

It’s set not long after 1887, several hundred years after an expedition to the Calibanic Isle results in the wholesale replacement of Britain’s ruling classes with giant poetry-obsessed lizards. Lord Shakespeare was the first of the great Poet-Prime Ministers; Moriarty is the most recent. And yes, that Moriarty. At the newly rebuilt Rose Theatre, Henry Irving performs his own adaptation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner supported by Beerbohm Tree. (Described as a young actor; Tree was actually 34 and quite famous in 1887, and we know the book isn’t set any earlier because it mentions a new air from Ruddigore. I mention this nitpick, because it’s the only factual or chronological inexactitude I’ve been able to find in the course of an entire book of Victoriana.)

Opposition to Les Lézards’ rule is rising, however; Karl Marx, John (“Don’t call me Nevil”) Maskelyne, and Isabella Beeton meet in a cellar underneath a Charing Cross bookseller, and notorious terrorist organization the Persons from Porlock besiege literary figures with the nonsense of Edward Lear. And then there’s the titular Bookman, assassin and anarchist.

Tidhar’s style is rather readable, and drops into an intensely Dickensian mode for some descriptive passages. He clearly knows and loves London well, and does a very good job of bringing out the city’s character.

“He stopped in his walk through Leicester Square and bought one of the sausages so advertised, covered in oil, dripping fried onions, held in a soggy bun. Everywhere there was the smell of cooking foods, and the lights in all the public houses were burning, and the cries of the drinking class sounded, merry and loud, from every open window but were drowned by the street merchants.”

There is one problem I need to highlight, however, and that’s the Bechdel test failure. There are female characters; a couple of them are quite important to the political plot going on in the background, but they don’t get much screen time. The protagonist has a love interest, who spends most of the book dead, and a female relative who appears briefly and helps out. None of them get to talk to each other. Given that in this society, a woman can be an Inspector at Scotland Yard, that seems rather a missed opportunity.

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.

May 1, 2010

Holiday reading

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 3:18 pm

I’ve just come back from two weeks in the Scottish Highlands, so here’s a brief roundup of what I was reading while I was there. (Some of it, anyway—the ones that interested me enough to post about.)

Fire in the Mist, by Holly Lisle

Not bad at all. Notable for the use of conflicting histories, and that not all friendly cute things are Nice. It uses the bog-standard male-female dichotomy (want to split a society into two competing groups? Make one exclusively male or male-dominated, and one female) but that’s a matter of taste as much as anything. Most SF readers are quite a lot more strongly gendered than I am. One solecism leapt out at me, though. Finding a cute dialect/fantasy name for everyday things is all very well, but meals? “Nonce” is obviously based on “nones”, but has a completely different time-based meaning. On the other hand, calling the midday meal “midden” is… rather inappropriate.

War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

This is a wonderful book. It’s a pseudo-history, it’s full of footnotes, and my copy has a really, really beautiful cover, with a painting by Paul Klee. The footnotes are full of newspaper clippings in more than one language (with a detailed history of the collection and explanations of why it’s incomplete), reports of scientific conferences, and extracts from memoirs. Overall, it gives a wonderful picture of a drastically changing world, and of the humanity who ruined it for themselves.

The Dramaturges of Yan, by John Brunner

This is quite a silly book. Nevertheless, it’s great fun.

City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer

There is very little I can sensibly say about this book, not because it is not a book about which sensible things can be said (they can, in profusion) but because the ideas, the eidolons, contained within its pages wreak their effect insensibly, with bare reference to the reader’s normal notions of narrative and literary propriety. It spatters the mind like raindrops, here and there in no apparent order, but nevertheless everywhere.

Ten Little Wizards, by Michael Kurland

A successor novel to Randall Garrett’s Lord Darcy books. Not bad at all.

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.

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.

July 6, 2009

Jonathan Green – Unnatural History

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 9:31 pm

With this, Abaddon[1] Press’s first in the Pax Britannia[2] series, another patchwork cadaver gets unceremoniously slung on the creaking, lurching bandwagon of steampunk.

I had this pressed upon me as a free gift at Eastercon LX, and I have no hesitation in saying it was worth more than I paid for it. I got at least 25p worth of entertainment from writing this review, after all.

There’s a half-decent novella in there, maybe a hundred pages of sparkling wit and madcap action; but it’s encumbered by four things.

The first is the author’s tin ear for dialogue, and inability to separate narrative voice from character; the second is the unoriginality of each tired set-piece scene, from the confrontation with Scotland Yard at the Scene of the Crime to the life-or-death struggle atop a speeding train and the hero’s unorthodox entry to a zeppelin in flight[3]; the third is the glutinous web of what we’ll charitably refer to as plot that binds those scenes together; and the fourth is the excess two hundred pages of leadenly prolix padding that surrounds it all.

It’s written very much in the style of a Strand part-work, and each chapter takes care to recap large parts of the one before. To add to this weight of unnecessary verbiage, there’s also rather a lot of infodump exposition; it appears that Green had simultaneously been writing the roleplaying game sourcebook of the world, and by some budgetary exigence had been forced to combine the two projects into one.

The characters appear to have been ordered from a catalogue, possibly quite cheaply. I suspect that that would be because the millionaire playboy secret agent explorer[4], the ex-prizefighter butler, the ruthless femme fatale villain, the incompetent police inspector, the amoral scientist, and the machiavellian politician would quite happily all roll up and fit in one cardboard tube.

About all I can say about the book’s ending is that it has one, and that the plot strand (there is only one) is resolved, and that in the proper style some of the enemies have escaped for the sequel. If we are lucky, there will not be a sequel.

As far as further detail goes, either I have blotted it from my mind in the last ten minutes or I found myself incapable of reading it with any attention due to the sheer horror of both the prose and the internal logic of the proceedings.

It reads as though the Good Doktor Frankenstein, despite his medical degree, had been unable to tell fresh corpse parts from the sundered limbs of Action Man, and instead of pulling the lever to surge life-giving electricity into his creation had instead attached strings and made it dance the Funky Chicken.


[1] What a name. I suppose at least it has the merit of keeping their books to their intended audiences.
[2] Oh, look, unnecessary Latin. Now there’s a surprise. The text refers to “Magna Britannia” and “Londinium Maximum”, and at one point Our Protagonist gets into a fist fight with something “the academics would give the name homo lizardus or perhaps lizardus sapiens“. And that’s narrative text, not reported speech…
[3] It’s both pseudo-Victorian steampunk and alternate history. Of course it has to have zeppelins. It would have been really quite surprising if it didn’t.
[4] One Ulysses Quicksilver, and the protagonist of this novel. The only distinguishing features that have stuck in my mind are that he learnt generic Eastern martial arts in a generic Eastern monastery, and that he wears a chartreuse and crimson waistcoat. I would really rather not have known these things.

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