Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

April 13, 2011

David Anthony Durham – The Other Lands

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 5:40 pm

This is book 2 of his Acacia trilogy—you can read my review of the first book here. It has several good points, so I’ll save those for last.

What I didn’t like—at all—is Durham’s writing style. It reads as though he’s attempting some nihilist theory of anti-narrative, deliberately flattening the emotional peaks and lending spurious bathos to the troughs. He consistently has his characters reveal important, plot-wrecking events in the past tense (“Last week I carried out my master plan, and now you’re not in the plotline you thought you were”) and doesn’t let us feel main characters’ reactions, instead telling us about their facial expressions.

His word choice is odd enough (there is no real reason to use the word “protuberance” unless you’re writing comedy pornography) but he seems to feel an over-eager need to tell us everything.

She made each assignment sound both simple and laced with threat. She was good at that. He would have to keep his wits about him, make journal notes regularly, and find a way to quell the nausea that roiled in him each time he thought of those ocean waves.

The end result somehow manages to be simultaneously lumpy and soggy, like a feather quilt caught in a thunderstorm.

I did say that it had good points, and they’re very good. As in the first book, there’s plenty of racial and cultural diversity, and (as far as I can tell) basically no white people. Given the wholesale erasure and exoticization of nonwhite people in nearly all fantasy, that’s a really good thing. There are women in positions of power, and he’s rowing back on the royal Mary Sue factor that the first book suffered from—one is clearly suffering the corruption of power, and another demonstrating that she’s a warrior not a general. All of the character-development arcs here are extremely dark and nihilistic; the only way to avoid corruption and loss of idealism, it seems, is to die young.

Another good point is that Durham understands and uses rural ecological economics—

Gone were the tiny kive fish, such an important source of protein fried or dried or ground into paste. Gone were the waterfowl that hunted them. Fading was the Halaly vigour—which had been so based on their reliable food sources—and dwindling were the tribute and trade that had made them the beating heart of the continent. If all that wasn’t bad enough, the air swarmed with the mosquitos and biting flies that now gestated in the lake untroubled by the kive fish that had once thrived on their eggs;one of these spread disease, while the other left welts on the skin that easily grew infected.

Strange and offputting were the backwards High Fantasy sentences, however. Needed was a better editor, and no less so for a particularly comedic homonym: when talking about royalty, “secession” really doesn’t mean the same thing as “succession”.

To be fair, Durham does well with descriptive passages where he isn’t required to choose a focus or write dialogue;the landscape porn in the first book was quite spectacular, and there are some passages here—including a literally epic sea crossing—that match it nicely.

Overall, I’d recommend it only to serious series-fantasy fans, and then only if you read & enjoyed Book 1, and only if you have a high tolerance for bad writing.

February 14, 2011

DNF fantasies

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 2:53 pm

I’ve a couple of books here I couldn’t get through, so consider this a review of about the first third or half of each. I may go back to either or both, but right now I have better things to read.

The Adamantine Palace, by Stephen Deas: This one reads like a cross between Pern and A Song of Ice and Fire, and neither dragons nor royal politics hold a great deal of interest for me these days. It’s not badly written; it’s just not for me.

Blood of Elves, by Andrzej Sapkowski (trans. Danusia Stock): I picked this up because I hadn’t read anything so thoroughly Trad Fantasy in a long time, and because translated fiction (especially Eastern European, for some reason) always appeals to me a little more. The basic premise of it was fine if formulaic (orphaned royal heir adopted and trained by mystic warrior society, some sort of Prophecy going on in the background) but I got bogged down somewhere around the extended training montage and travelling scenes.

I’m also quite likely not to finish The Edge of the World, by Kevin J Anderson: I wouldn’t have got beyond the first few pages if it hadn’t been the only book I had with me on a long tube journey. The worldbuilding-mystery is interesting, but since this is apparently Book 1 of N, I’m not likely to get much payoff from it, and the writing style is very generalized, disengaged, and notional—very much tell rather than show.

February 1, 2011

Rebecca Reisert – The Third Witch

Filed under: review — Tags: , — Sam @ 2:40 pm

More Shakespeare! This time, it’s Macbeth: Gillyflower, youngest of the three witches, is obsessed with revenge against the Thane of Glamis, and all the play’s events proceed from her desire for his death. We don’t find out until the last quarter or so of the book why she seeks revenge, but it’s an interesting twist and complexification.

The witches are all marginalized women, living in the forest for one reason or another. A local convent feeds & trades with them, and they supply villagers with herbal remedies—in short, basically what you’d expect “real” witches to be like. The summoning of Hecate is treated as supernatural, but nothing else is; a lot of the supernatural-or-madness events in the play are orchestrated by Gilly, aided by occasionally slipping Macbeth hallucinogenic poisons.

She does this, more or less inevitably, by cutting her hair and going to work as a scullery boy in Macbeth’s household. When there, she befriends Fleance and starts taking fighting lessons with him. It’s an interesting example of the popular “castle life” story, showing us friendship & encouragement intermixed with casual brutality and utterly rigid enforcement of the class system. Macbeth himself is shown to be utterly charming & charismatic, casually saving Gilly’s life at the beginning of the book and later complimenting “him” on “his” bravery in defending a child from bullies, offering future training as a soldier. That all goes completely by the wayside later in the novel, when Macbeth decides that he really does want to be King, and he starts showing all the capricious evil that we see from him at the same point in the play. It’s a very dramatic character change, but we’re seeing him through the eyes of a young woman (early teens, by my guess… not that “teens” has any meaning beyond the numeric at that time) who has every reason to hate him, and indeed to force herself to hate him even more.

I haven’t talked about Lady Macbeth, and part of that is that there’s a huge plot spoiler there, which we find out in the backstory about three-quarters of the way through the book and which I’m not going to give away. She is not treated at all sympathetically, but again, that’s an entirely understandable position for our narrator to be in.

One really interesting parallel that shows up throughout the book (rarely, but clearly) is with Midsummer Night’s Dream. Gilly is likened to the fairies, protean and manipulative, pulling barely visible strings and affecting the fate of nations. At the same time, she’s very clearly not the only manipulator involved.

What originally drew me to this book was the cover on this edition—I can’t find a decent-sized image online, but it’s a good match for the New Penguin Shakespeare editions I used to use at A-level, right down to a printed reproduction of the matte cover texture.

I had quite a hard time getting into The Third Witch, but after about a third of the way through I knew I was definitely going to finish, and would definitely want to write about it. Apparently it’s been optioned for a film; if it ever actually arrives, I’ll have to see it.

November 27, 2010

Walter Rhein – The Bone Sword

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 6:12 pm

I’ve reviewed this one over at The Future Fire.

It’s epic fantasy from new imprint Rhemalda Publishing, and quite frankly it’s dreadful; the only thing worse than the writing style is the cover art. I have accordingly reviewed it at length.

November 23, 2010

NK Jemisin – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

Filed under: rereading,review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 5:12 pm

I first read this quite a while ago, and for some reason I was under the impression that I’d reviewed it then. However, when I went looking for the link to my review I discovered that it didn’t actually exist. Looking back on my first reading I suspect I knew then that I’d need to read it once more, with the ending in mind, before I could do it justice.

Once more was yesterday, so here we go.

This is a deceptively easy book to read—Jemisin’s style is so open and readable that it’s really tempting to rush through it, but that would be a mistake. There are enough layers and hidden motivations that so many of the story elements only reveal themselves in retrospect, and the story repays careful reading.

In some ways, it’s a classic Family Story, with the relative raised outside the Ancestral Home coming to visit, and also a classic story of survival in a Deadly Decadent Court. On the other hand, both are shown to us through a point of view that’s very aware of race & gender politics.

Fittingly, then, it’s about power structures: about the struggle for control of them, and different peoples’ perspective on them. It’s about a contest for control of the world, and two family squabbles. Nothing in this book happens on a small scale. Yeine, our half-blood protagonist, is a leader amongst the matriarchal jungle-dwelling Darr before she goes to join her pale-skinned mother’s family—the literal rulers of the whole world—in their magical palace high above the city of Sky. Once there, she has to unravel the mysteries of her own heritage and of the War of the Gods while keeping herself alive.

It sounds like a portal quest, but it isn’t, really. We don’t see Yeine leaving her homeland; the novel begins with her arrival at Sky. She’s very much the captain of her own fate—within the bounds that her heritage sets up—and the Wizard character (you know the one; the old man who knows what’s going on but doesn’t explain it properly, with potent but mysterious powers) is ambiguous at best and creepy-unpleasant at times. Incidentally, Yeine is mixed-race and nearly everyone else in Sky is so white they’re practically Tesco Value.

Instead of plot coupons and battles, the story progresses through shifting relationships, and through Yeine’s own understanding of her family history. Knowing herself subjugated, jerked about at the whim of her grandfather (significantly, the uncrowned king of the world), and stigmatized for her barbarian heritage, she allies with the family’s “weapons”—cast-down gods, bound to serve the Arameri family. Despite having the power to control and order them herself, she makes a point of not doing so.

This could so easily turn into the anti-racist Mary Sue, but it’s saved from that by a couple of important points. First, she isn’t Arameri-white; she straddles the fence between them and the brown-skinned barbarians (she uses that term herself) who are her people of birth, and so she’s neither Nobly Changing Sides nor using mixed-race privilege. Second, sometimes she fails. She does use some of the powers she’s been given, but not in the ways her family expect. Indeed, several times she has her unwillingness to do that thrown back at her—not a true Arameri—as an insult.

There’s a strict limit to how far I can evaluate the identity politics here, because I’m quite thoroughly white-male myself, but I’m getting a distinct whiff of Audre Lorde. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t at all academic or preachy—quite the reverse. Those don’t belong in fantasy, and for good reason. If you don’t know who Lorde is, you’ll enjoy this book just as much, but having that cultural context will add a layer of richness to the text in the same way that Marx does Miéville, or Rand does Goodkind.

In summary: if you read fantasy for action scenes & epic battles, this isn’t for you, but on all other counts it works well.

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.

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.

May 25, 2010

Mark Charan Newton – City of Ruin

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 11:31 am

This is the direct sequel to his earlier Nights of Villjamur, and it’s even better. He still has the same taste for overexplanation, and there are a few instances of characters telling each other things they already know, but this one is definitely a complete story within the larger plot arc, and it’s not necessary to read the first before this.

The world is clearly the deep future of our own, enough millennia into the future that the sun has cooled and dimmed to red, in the tradition of Vance’s Dying Earth or Farmer’s Dark is the Sun. Oddly, the connection doesn’t annoy me nearly as much as it usually does in fantasy. I think that’s partly because it is deep time rather than post-apocalyptic, and doesn’t have any of the “clever” little references that set my teeth on edge.

“Ah, yes, you were admiring my antique soup jug, I think?” The slender man’s eyes darkened with pleasure as he traced a finger along its curving flank, following the strange words somehow inked into the ivory-yellow surface: “Russell Hobbs”.

He doesn’t hesitate to kill characters off, in grotesque and meaningless ways, and generally at a viewpoint distance. On the other hand, he also doesn’t hesitate to show complex, interesting plans (for, eg., killing characters off) crashing and burning abruptly. There’s a very strong arbitrary-and-meaningless vibe going on throughout, which might make this sound somewhat Moorcockian (and the sheer prevalence of fantastic and in fact downright bloody weird imagery—I particularly liked the flying monkeys—could reinforce this impression) but he does manage to pull off the feat of having an albino protagonist who is nothing whatsoever like Elric.

One very good thing this book features is a competent, sensible, interesting older woman. You’d think there was some Fantasy Bylaw against those, most of the time… and, speaking of Fantasy Bylaws, this one does indeed have a map in the front. I suspect that after Nights of Villjamur came out, the Fantasy Establishment went around to the offices of Tor UK and started making comments about what a nice place they had here. Not sure what the point is, but if it keeps the traditionalists happy, there’s no harm in it.

May 21, 2010

Paradigmatic Fantasy

Filed under: meta — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 12:32 am

In the pub earlier, we were discussing Classic Fantasy: or, if we gave you £50 to spend on “the best” fantasy, what would you get?

I’m steadfastly against the notion of a canon, or at least of one core canon. Everyone brings different things to the genre, and everyone takes different things from it. So what I’m doing here is making a list of books that exemplify what I think fantasy is about. It will, of course, be a partial and a biased list, and I want to see other peoples’. I’ll do a parallel list for SF (qua SF) soon, too.

Lord of the Rings

This one’s an unquestioned pick for me. I’m not too fond of the hierarchies, the questionable racial stuff, and the inbuilt sexism, but the themes resonate far too strongly with me not to include.

Tigana

Again, no possibility I could leave this off the list. It’s about identity, and place, and love, and pain, and the struggle to find yourself when the world denies you. (I did a set of re-read posts a while ago.)

The Curse of Chalion

Lois McMaster Bujold’s story of a curse, a series of betrayals, fidelity beyond death or all reason (the death is the easy part…), self-realization, the struggle to trust in the gods, and the reward of a home unlooked-for.

Tam Lin

Pamela Dean’s retelling of the Child Ballad, set in an American university in the 1970s. Scholarship, feminism, love, and friendship, in a novel which loves literature.

Bridge of Birds

Barry Hughart’s classic fantasy of a Middle Kingdom that never was. It’s quixotic, joyful, and life-affirming, with thrills, spills, and adventure galore.

I can think of a half-dozen others that might deserve a slot, and often for very good reasons—but I think those come more under personal touchstones, the books that shaped my perceptions of the genre, than classics.

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.

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