Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

October 11, 2010

Fiona McIntosh – Royal Exile

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 11:05 pm

Book 1 of the Valisar Trilogy. Voyager, 2008, 450ish pp paperback.

This is one of the most compelling pieces of extruded fantasy fluff I’ve read for a long time. I kept snatching moments for a few pages through the day, and then finished it on a long bus ride home. But that said, it’s still extruded fantasy fluff. It’s about royalty, it has a set of bog-standard fantasy kingdoms, it has barbarian invaders (complete with a warlord who’s smarter than he seems), it has legendary magic, it has swords with names, and it has Lost Heirs.

On the other hand, it also reads like a Greek tragedy, rather than the feudal-fetish wankery so many fantasy novelists succumb to. The royalty are uniformly barking mad: King Brennus is as arrogant and as self-important as Denethor, and with very similar consequences. Prince Leonel is clearly going the same way, and the family charisma (which may well be the mysterious genetic magic) draws otherwise sensible people into taking them seriously and going along with their stupid plans.

It’s clearly set in the far future (eight generations or so down the line) of a foreign despot’s conquest, and here comes another one with his horde of tattooed barbarian tribesmen. In the meantime, though, there are rivers of blood, and the number of dead bodies is destroying the economy and the farmland… not that that’s given more than a passing mention in the text, of course.

McIntosh can write teenage boys pretty well, but that’s more or less where “good writing” stops in this book. It’s full of people telling each other things they already know, in unnecessarily formal ways, and quaffy upon quaffy for pointless fantasy flavour. “Anni” means a year, and “tatua” are tattoos, according to the glossary at the back.

Unfortunately, the book also fails the Bechdel test – and not just that, but only one sympathetic female character survives the book. She’s only introduced very late on, at that. The others all meet some grisly and avoidable death at a man’s hands, for the sake of a man.

It’s extremely grisly throughout, in fact, and most of the characters are rather ruthless… in that they’re always eager to sacrifice others, whether a newborn baby or a half-dozen countries. We never see anyone sacrificing themselves.

Part of the reason it was compelling, I think, was that I wanted to keep reading and see if the plot points turned out as I expected. I had to keep waiting and waiting for some of them, but they were all there, and all just as expected. One thing did surprise me, but only because I’d forgotten that in extruded fantasy product women are disposable.

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.

May 29, 2010

Marc Stiegler – Earthweb

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 1:30 pm

Another very characteristic offering from the Baen Free Library. Actually, I’m giving an unfair picture of the Library with these posts—there are some extremely good books in there, and I should post with some positive recommendations soon.

This one, on the other hand, will not be one of them. It reads as though Stiegler had found a comprehensive list of things to avoid doing if you don’t want to give offense, and then treated it as a how-to manual.

The main plot involves a series of huge death-dealing spaceships full of killer robots, which are called (without any explanation whatsoever) Shiva I to VI. Now, it might be possible to argue that this is a reference to Jewish mourning practice, but given the literary antecedents of huge unmanned spaceships on periodic courses through the solar system, it doesn’t wash.

Teams of dedicated and highly trained people, referred to as Angels, are sent up to perform suicide commando raids on the huge killer spaceships named after a Hindu god. Can we say “problematic”, boys and girls? I thought we could!

It’s not as though that’s the only offensive aspect, either. The national stereotypes are thick on the ground, from the flighty spendthrift South American woman (Hispanic, not indigenous, of course) to the upper-class British journalist whose foppish manner conceals a razor-sharp mind. Admittedly, the Chinese scam artist shows no discernable Chinese characteristics; he’s just a generic American like the entire rest of the book.

There’s an autistic child who’s treated only as a plot coupon (they use the phrase “idiot savant” in earnest), and all his implausibly miraculous accomplishments are laid at his mother’s door instead. And, of course, the reason she’s doing it is to earn enough money to find a cure for his autism.

In related disability news, though, there’s a prominent example of wheelchair non-fail—a character who’s lost both legs is treated entirely normally, and not made an object of pity. Of course, his Manic Pixie Dream Girl (who’s also a lethal killing machine, of course—you didn’t think this kind of book would let a heroine get away without that?) doesn’t hesitate to commandeer the controls when she wants to take him on a date.

All in all, this is really rather a special book, and only worth reading for curiosity value. Once I’d finished it, I ended up going straight to the bookshelf for Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark, for a thoughtful, sensible, nuanced treatment of autistic people instead, and I recommend you do the same.

May 23, 2010

Michael Z Stephenson – Freehold

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , — Sam @ 5:56 pm

You know the kind of book where you have to keep reading just to find out how bad it can get, and then when you’re done with it you have to take a long shower? This is one of those.

It’s a preachy lolbertarian wish-fulfillment cacotopia, explicitly pro-torture, pro-terrorism, and pro-war-crimes. It’s also a prime example of the fine art of making your imagined future society look good by erecting strawman dystopias as a comparison—for example, one of the proud boasts the Freehold of Grainne make is a 96% adult literacy rate, much better than Earth under the UN. (That’s right, the UN has somehow morphed into One World Government.)

It has cleared up one minor mystery, though. I’d always vaguely wondered what perfect lolbertarian societies had instead of taxes; it turns out that it’s insurance for everything under the sun.

This is a Baen Free Library book, available to download or read online for free, but I strongly suggest not doing so.

May 18, 2010

David Friedman – Harald

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 7:36 am

Micro-review: Fun bit of mil-fluff; strategy & logistics for gamers. Harald himself is basically Mary Sue Stark. (Er, that’s as in Ned Stark, not Tony Stark. Just to clear things up.) One thing that annoys me, though, is the prevalent voice. Talk like this, all the time. Everyone. Like they hate talking. Hard to follow. And then the narrative voice starts doing it too for some of the action scenes…

This is a Baen Free Library book, which means you can buy, download, or read it online for free here.

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.

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 10, 2010

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 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.

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