Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

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 8, 2010

Feminist indoctrination via SF

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 1:09 pm

First, have a link: Juliet E. McKenna guestwriting for Joshua Palmatier, on the subject of women in SF. (Incidentally, her new novel Blood in the Water, is out—it’s book 2 of the sequence starting with Irons in the Fire. Since I don’t have a copy yet, you can read more about it here, and admire the cover art again.)

I’ve been re-reading some of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series recently (entirely coincidentally, Jo Walton started posting about Darkover re-reads recently too) and I hadn’t realised it had been so long. I first started on these at the age of 14 or so, and a lot of the very progressive social content (for its time – this is 70s and 80s SF here) slipped right past me.

That sort of thing doesn’t slip past without leaving traces, though—the stories we read shape our lives, and we bring all of it to every story after that, whether it’s fiction, the evening news, or family.

So all Bradley’s portrayals of bisexual men, strong women, and young people struggling to make a life for themselves free of the dead hand of history and convention really did stick, and she did a lot to dramatize the struggle that both women and non-alpha men face against patriarchy. There are some problems with her portrayal, of course—there always are—but nobody with any sense will ever have taken it as gospel. Why is it always the absurdly inferior, risibly bad, and philosophically evil books that do get taken that way…

March 2, 2010

All on account of elephants – Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 6:39 pm

This is a Jewish sword-and-horse historical novel of swashbuckling and derring-do, consciously patterned after the great adventure stories of the early 20th century. The cover art (Andrew Davidson) & interior illustrations (Gary Gianni) fit this perfectly—the wood-engraving style is exactly right, and the only thing that would make it perfect is (expensive) watercolour-style colour plates.

I only have two criticisms of this book; it’s too short, and there aren’t nearly enough female characters. The one woman with any agency spends nearly all of the book, and the rest of her life, disguised as a man.

It’s set in the Kingdom of the Khazars, around 950 CE, and follows the adventures of two wandering Jewish adventurers from very different backgrounds. Zelikmann is a Frankish physician suffering from acute depression; Amram is an Abyssinian mercenary. Together, they fight crime put an exiled prince back on a usurped throne.

Since this is a quintessentially Jewish text, it’s very much concerned with two fundamental icons of the Matter of Fantasy—the Road and the Book. Chabon’s afterword talks in detail about the yearning for travel and adventure, and of course there’s a lot of black humour to be had contrasting that to the history of the Jews. Two complementary quotations, first from the book itself—

She looked away so they would not see her tears, and noticed, on its carved and gilded stand, the giant illuminated Ibn Khordadbeh that had so enchanted her as a child, with its maps and preposterous anatomies and flat-foot descriptions of miracles and wonders, page after page of cities to visit and peoples to live among and selves to invent, out there, beyond the margins of her life, along the roads and in the kingdoms.

—and from the afterword.

For better and worse it has been one long adventure—a five-thousand-year Odyssey—from the moment of the true First Commandment, when God told Abraham lech lecha: Thou shalt leave home. Thou shalt get lost. Thou shalt find slander, oppression, opportunity, escape, and destruction. Thou shalt, by definition, find adventure.

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 17, 2010

Chronicles of an Age of Darkness

Between 1986 and 1992, New Zealand-based author Hugh Cook wrote a ten-volume series of inventive, grim, exuberant, disconcerting, nonplussing, and downright bloody weird fantasy novels. They weren’t nearly as popular as they should have been – I suspect he was mostly just ahead of his time, given the popularity of work in a similar style now. China Miéville has described them as “intensely clever, humane, witty, meta-textually adventurous and pulp-avant-garde”.

I first read them in my early teens, and I adored them – I think that was one of the things that originally set my standards for fantasy, and I’ve been seeking out More Like This ever since. Luckily, there’s a lot of it around now.

The setting for the world of Olo Malan – whose name, I think, we don’t find out till Book 6 or so – is extremely post-apocalyptic, twenty thousand years after its connection to the intercosmic civilization of the Nexus crashed and broke. There are barbarous tribes, strange races, empires, priesthoods, magic, technological survivals that look like magic, and technological survivals that aren’t magic at all; the malign torturing monster lurking Downstairs below the island of Untunchilamon is an AI employed by the Golden Gulag as a therapist, and The Combat College in Dalar ken Halvar still trains Startroopers for the Nexus, teaching them to pilot spacefighters in the virtual reality tanks, despite not of course having had any actual spacefighters for millennia.

At the beginning of the series, however – with The Wizards and the Warriors – it looks as though the apocalypse was a standard magical one, with plentiful leftover magical weapons and mysterious devices. The books stand alone, but often cover the same events from the viewpoint of a minor character in previous ones – Togura Poulaan, the hero of Book 2, The Wordsmiths and the Warguild, gets caught up in Elkor Alish’s army, which we saw in detail in Book 1; two minor supporting characters, the pirates Drake and Bluewater Draven, appear in Book 4, The Walrus and the Warwolf (Drake, in fact, is the protagonist); and Yen Olass Ampadara, whom Draven describes as “the reason men should always be in charge of women”, is the centre of Book 3, The Women and the Warlords.

I never really rated Book 3 when I was a teenager, but re-reading them recently it’s now one of my favourites. Yen Olass is a female slave in a deeply sexist society, an Oracle whose function is to mediate quarrels between men. The book shows her in an uncomfortable position – in a strange legalistic limbo with influence but no power, and power but no influence (it makes sense in context, honest – as much as anything in these books does), with the Collosnon army but not part of it, caught up in politics and quarrelling, trying to make her own way in the world and never getting to do it for long. At one stage, she does establish a small self-sufficient lesbian utopia in the woods; but the politics of men intrude, and one of the heroes of the first book casually takes away her lover and then kidnaps her and her child for politics yet again.

The Walrus and the Warwolf is more or less the opposite of The Wordsmiths and the Warguild: a long hard journey, indeed, and a quest of sorts, but with an utterly selfish, irresponsible, fantasist as a hero – Dreldragon Drakedon Douay, known as the Demon-son, pirate, rightful king of Stokos, priest of the Flame, slayer of a Neversh and a watermelon stand. It’s wonderful, and self-consciously storied – all of these books do interesting things with narrative and legend, but this one is where Cook starts actively playing silly buggers.

Book 5, The Wicked and the Witless, expands on some of the political developments over the last book, as Sean Kelebes Sarazin, one of Drake’s antagonists (though, to be fair, practically everyone he meets is his antagonist, and for very good reasons) schemes and plots to take over the Harvest Plains. It’s good, but I can’t find much to say about it in comparison to the others.

Book 6, on the other hand – The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers – is definitely my favourite of the lot. It’s much more restricted in scope than the others, set entirely in the city of Injiltaprajura on the island of Untunchilamon, and it marks the point both where Cook starts going for really outlandish imagery (a millennia-old Hermit Crab with gourmet tastes and the powers of sorcery; irresponsible children’s toys from the Golden Gulag, reconditioned from military-grade autonomous robots; fountains of thixotropic industrial lubricant pouring into the sea; the Cult of the Holy Cockroach) and when the narrative tricks really get going. We have not only the unreliable narrator’s manuscript, complete with derisive references to the Redactors of Odrum, but a half-dozen layers of editorial interjections, elisions, amendments, and reproofs to less senior Redactors. The Originator, at that, is explicitly insane – an inmate in the Dromdanjerie, the asylum of Injiltaprajura – but the Foreword, in which yet another (nameless) writer debunks the Redactors, makes no mention of that.

As it endured redaction in the dungeons of Odrum, the Text which follows became encumbered by a full two million words of explication and interpolation. In the interests of convenience, readability and sanity, most of this overgrowth has been cut away.

A previous draft of the manuscript of The Wishstone and the Wonderworkers actually exists as a major plot point in the next book, The Wazir and the Witch – which is narrated by the same historian as the first, but has clearly not fallen into the hands of the Redactors of Odrum. These two books, together, show off one of the other good features of the series – diversity of races, from the grey-skinned Janjuladoola and the redskins of the Ebrell Islands with their flaming hair to the purple-skinned Frangoni warriors of Dalar ken Halvar. This shows up very strongly in the contrast between these two and Book 9, The Worshippers and the Way – Asodo Hatch, of the Frangoni, and a Startrooper of the Nexus, strongly resents the popular depictions of the Wild Tribes in Nexus popular culture as purple-skinned barbarians, given that the proud warrior culture are already looked down upon by the dominant Ebrell Islanders. On Untunchilamon, on the other hand, “Ebbies” are the lowest of the low – considered feckless, irresponsible lowlives. There are some explicitly white-skinned peoples, but generally when others refer to them it’s with some reference to “the disgusting pallor of the natives of Wen Endex” or some such.

Book 8, The Werewolf and the Wormlord, is set in Wen Endex, where the Yudonic Knights only come out at night; it gives us a picture of a complex society built on violence, financial manoeuverings, scheming, and the strategic use of monsters. It’s my least favourite of the books, and I think the weakest. Book 10, on the other hand – The Witchlord and the Weaponmaster – is rather strong, and we finally get to see the story of Guest Gulkan, Emperor-in-Exile, who has been wandering through others’ stories throughout the series in a rather Moorcockian way. Instead of the brooding questing hero we see from Togura’s perspective in Book 2, or the Conanesque thief-hero in Books 6 & 7, we see a spoilt princeling who grows to become a selfish prince, a foolish (and brief) Emperor, a brave and loving son, a cunning guerilla general who uses the magic of wizards to his advantage, and a hater of the irregular verbs with a passion beyond all telling – and the process happens insensibly, as the narrator never tires of telling us after the fact.

Sadly, they’re almost all out of print; The Walrus and the Warwolf is being reprinted by Paizo Publishing’s Planet Stories, with an introduction by China Miéville, at the end of March 2010, and the Book Depository claim it’s still available in hardcover from Colin Smythe Ltd. Cook made books 2, 9, and 10 available on his website, where they’re free to download in HTML format (and very sensibly formatted for reading on my phone – I’ve been using those for travel books for the last few weeks, since I don’t have physical copies of 9 or 10), and the Book depository claims they’re also available via Lulu, but Lulu doesn’t. Basically – if you can find a set, you should, but good luck!

December 24, 2009

Steampunk, SF, Fantasy – same difference, really

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 9:33 pm

I want to start this off by reviewing Stephen Hunt’s Rise of the Iron Moon. It’s the third in a series, starting with The Court of the Air, but it stands well on its own.

It’s steampunk; that’s more or less inarguable. The question is, what makes it steampunk? It has brasstech[1], a more or less Victorian social and aesthetic atmosphere (complete with workhouses), and steam-powered robots. So those are more or less classic markers of the SF subgenre of steampunk.

On the other hand, it also has multiple races (including the aforementioned steam-powered robots, who are sapient and self-perpetuating), a nation state under attack by invaders, and magic – even a bloody magic sword. So that’s your “gaslamp fantasy” for you.

As far as the -punk component goes, it’s got a royal family subjugated and kept in squalor (though still Genetically Superior – less a Missing Heir rising from obscurity to save the world than a set of heirs kept around in case they were needed), a Parliament that works by violence, and a lot of blood and death.

And as far as non-Victorian SF goes, it’s also pure Dan Dare-grade docsmith stuff, with two-fisted fights in the dank, strangely twisted interior of the – well, you can fill in the details yourself. They’re all there.

So that’s a set of roots like Japanese knotweed, there. One of the fundamental problems with the classic SF movement – you know, the ultra-rationalist idea of prophesying the future, introducing a novum and extrapolating what would really happen in a world with that novum, these other three random hidden assumptions, and the rest of society staying exactly the same as it was – is, well, that it doesn’t work. What we’ve learned over decades of doing that is that doing that doesn’t bloody well work.

What does work, on the other hand, is the glamour and wonder of Science. The thrill of engineering, of invention, of delight in craft and Mastery. It may well be technologically implausible these days, but then the only useful definition of “plausible” for SF purposes is “things nobody’s yet proved won’t work”. Only the glory of engineers lives forever.

What really is implausible – what breaks our immersion, what reminds us constantly that these are historical texts and must be interpreted through a lens of their time – is the social and cultural context that these Science Heroes live in. And one of the criticisms that gets constantly levelled at steampunk is that same one – that the social and cultural context is wrong, implausible, impossible.

The criticism’s correct, of course. But it’s also missing the point, because that’s the idea. It’s not wide-eyed unicorn-spattered utopianism; it’s deliberate dissonance, it’s the invocation of a time and culture that never was, never shall be, and never should have been[2], in order to express those same tropes of wonder and delight. It gets the implausible cultural context out of the way to start with, in the full recognition that there’s always going to be some there, for someone, and we may as well start with one that nobody’s ever been in, and which we all know[3] is heavily problematic, but is nevertheless familiar to everyone who’s likely to be reading it.


[1] That is, non-Victorian level of technology powered by Victorian means – which strictly speaking Does Not Work, and if it did would require a hell of a lot of constant intervention by a great many skilled workmen and unskilled labourers. Sigrid Ellis has a fantastic rant on that, even namechecking Bazalgette and talking about the wide base of the tech tree needed to support all of that.

[2] Steampunk Victoriana is full of aristocrats and wealthy industrialists, but it’s also full of street urchins, black-gang crewmen, and factory kids. This ain’t no Deco future here.

[3] You’d hope, anyway. But there are still some people who don’t know that “Victorian” is basically shorthand for “racist, sexist, classist, imperialist, colonialist, and practically everything else you can think of”.

December 12, 2009

Misogynist marketing – The Thief of Kalimar

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 1:55 am

By Graham Diamond.

This one is a triumph of marketing, for 1979ish values of “triumph”, and for the kind of marketing that doesn’t involve very much honesty about the book’s contents. In fact, it hits a double word score on the ism front – it’s racist and sexist.

The blurb starts, Ramagar was a thief, and carries on talking about him, mentioning in passing his clever mistress Mariana, the beautiful dancing girl. The front cover shows a very Nordic guy in a short tunic, with a small scimitar; this is not Ramagar. The book has (of course) a map in the front, and the map is a slightly distorted version of Europe with all the names (except Brittany) completely changed. There’s an Aran, but it’s both much larger than either Aran or Arran, and in entirely the wrong place. Ramagar, on the other hand, comes from a city which roughly corresponds to a heavily exoticised Marrakech. It isn’t a case of whitewashing, but what they’ve done is almost as bad; they’ve put a more minor member of the adventuring party on the front, rather than the headline guy they talk about on the back, because the headline guy has brown skin.

Oh, and guess what? He’s not actually the hero, either. 90% of the book is about Mariana, the clever dancing girl, who talks to people, recruits more help for the quest, saves everyone through quickwittedness a few times, gets the long-lost family plotline, and makes the decision to go back to Not North Africa instead of staying in Small North Atlantic Continent when the quest is complete. If they’d written her into the blurb instead, though, goodness only knows what their sales would have been like… someone might have got the idea that this was a book for girls. (Aided, admittedly, by the note in the author’s bio that says “His young daughters, Rochelle and Leslie, were an inspiration for this book.)

September 13, 2009

Tigana part 5 – The Memory of a Flame

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 9:40 pm

Another long post – quite fitting, for the last one. I might well return to Tigana in the future, but this covers the last book of five. We begin with a map of Chiara, and Dianora’s POV, remembering a dream of drowning and that today she’s going to go into the sea.

For the first time, Brandin tells Dianora he loves her, and that he’s going to ask her to marry him. She wants to tell him to let Tigana go, but knows grace doesn’t come that easily. “Not in the world in which they lived.” There are a lot of references to the imperfection of this world here, and to “Finavir”, the world beyond the world. Not having re-read the Fionavar Tapestry in years, I don’t want to comment further on this. Brandin says, I am bound myself to this peninsula by love and grief, and by my own nature, and those three things will hold me here. Alessan, of course, could have said exactly the same.

We now learn Dianora’s plan; she’s going to do the Ring Dive, and thereby legitimate Brandin as Grand Duke of Chiara. And she’s lying, because she doesn’t intend to bring back the ring from the sea. When Onestra di Chiara drowned, the ceremony was discontinued, and that proved a very bad omen indeed for Chiara. Of course, the ceremony was originally just a political ploy by the priests, but that doesn’t stop it being real.

Devin, Erlein, and Alessan are watching from a ship in the harbour – again, we see Kay’s favourite technique for showing disguise and concealment, whereby he tells us about a crowd and a few people in it, then we learn that it’s our protagonists. Brandin makes a speech (of course) before he throws the ring, and names himself Brandin di Chiara. This is an interesting thing to happen – on one level, by adopting the “of Chiara” title, he’s being Nice, submitting himself to adoption. On another, though, he’s saying, I’m one of you now. You’re just like me – offering the island a partnership on his terms, rather than subjugation and conquest. And after that long, I can’t blame them for liking it. There’s a good argument to be made that it really is good for them, too – that the Ygrathen overclass has been fairly thoroughly assimilated. Some lines about the changes in saishan practices from Part 2 show us that one nicely.

These ideas of assimilation and change are at the heart of Tigana, of course – it’s no accident that the novel is set twenty years after Second Deisa. We have protagonists who were born in Tigana, but have no memory of it themselves (ripe for exploitation by a passionate demagogue with a fancy title and a quick tongue), but it hasn’t been long enough for the occupiers to retire, settle down, and raise children to leave home and be new, cosmopolitan citizens of the multi-ethnic Palm.

I’d be (and frequently am) the last to deny that most countries in the real world were formed by a process of invasion after invasion, waves of peaceful or violent settlers changing the face of the land and forcing the previous inhabitants to shift over. After all, less than 1500 years ago the Old North covered pretty much everything from the Humber to the Clyde, until the expanding Kingdom of Northumbria (amongst others) pushed it back. And whilst I might mourn for Rheged, Elmet, and Manaw Gododdin, there’s no way I or anyone else am going to raise the banners now. We’re all mongrels in Britain, and most of the rest of the world too; and if you start talking about links between land and genes, it’s only a short step from there to Blood and Soil, and that’s a step nobody gets to take around me.

We don’t have any sense of a history of invasions and genetic mixing in the Palm, but there’s no way I’m going to call Kay on that as an unreasonable assumption – it’s a pretty standard simplification for an author to make, especially for a peninsula occupied by proud, warlike people and cut off by a high mountain range to the south.

Anyway, back in the narrative, Alessan is getting himself drunk (to the extent of forgetting his oath that his third glass should always be blue wine) and wondering whether he’s done the right thing. He could have stabbed Brandin; he feels a kinship to Rhun, Brandin’s fool. (Foreshadowing, here; we find out very near the end that Rhun is Alessan’s father. Brandin has been keeping his enemies close, hasn’t he…) On the other hand, when a drunkard refers to Dianora as a whore, Alessan can’t help but deck him – and the barman gives him a drink on the house. Blue wine, on Devin’s urgent suggestion. My notes here have “Alessan goes upstairs, to Erlein – Erlein really cares for him now, it seems” and that makes the text sound a lot more homoerotic than it actually is. In all his self-doubt, Alessan actually apologises to Erlein – and looking back, I’m fairly sure this is actually the first time we get Alessan’s POV at all, when he’s feeling uncertain and doubtful. The people around the Prince are taking up the strain for him, even Erlein. Invasion & occupation force you to make choices, and none of your choices are good; and they help you to see the choices those around you are making, and (if you can) to forgive them for it.

With Chapter 18, we start on Revolution again, at Solinghi’s in Senzio. You can tell we’re coming up to the big finish now, because just about everyone’s here – though yet again, we start off without names, seeing our protagonists as strangers see them. The text mentions “a Senzian harper, a piper from Astibar, and a young Asolini tenor” – it’s not as though they could be anyone else. (And of course Devin’s a tenor… all the best men are. Though tenor voices would have been more common in the era in which Tigana is set than they are now.) This technique brings in another reminder of alienation, of not being allowed to own their own names, and of the power that can bring as well as the pain.

About a page and a half later, the rest of the conspirators turn up, and there is an Emotional Reunion – even including Erlein. But most of all, Baerd gets to meet Naddo again for the first time since Naddo left Baerd’s family in Avalle, and the narration tells us just how obviously gay they are. It’s really sweet.

Alais is with the conspiracy, after Rovigo tells her everything; Baerd wanted to keep her safe, but Catriana backs her up. “No right to decide that they must huddle in their homes waiting to see if they are still slaves or not when the summer ends.” Spring might be the season of revolution, but summer has always been the season of war. The other choice quote from this chapter is Alessan’s – “Perhaps I’m mad, but the real madness would have been in pretending nobody’s going to die.”

After a brief interlude with Alberico, we see Catriana’s POV – she’s going off on her own to do something drastic, and hasn’t told the others because they’d try to stop her. Her plan is to redeem her father’s rejection of Tigana and assassinate the Barbadian ambassador during sex with an Ygrathen-made weapon, and then jump from the window to her death. It works flawlessly, except that the other revolutionaries have worked out her plan and are waiting below. Sandre tells Devin to cut his hand (to cut two fingers from his left hand) so he can save Catriana with the extra power that being bound to the Palm will give him. That’s quite a sacrifice, and in any decent D&D game it would work… but not here. He can’t control the power, and she falls.

Back at the inn, they respond – unsurprisingly – by getting drunk and playing music. The text refers to this performance of the Lament to Adaon as “the music that marked the beginning of war”. Upstairs, in Catriana’s room, they start planning what to do about the Tracker that probably caught Sandre’s magic.

“If there’s a Tracker in town then anyone near me is extremely likely to be captured and killed.” That’s Erlein, as he climbs through the window with Catriana. This would be an incredibly cheesy moment, if we hadn’t already seen them try – and fail – to save her, and if that act of deliberate, willed assistance to his captors weren’t a really important character moment for Erlein. Without any prompting, Alessan frees him from the binding he used.

And the truth is, I have been made to realize tonight – by you and Catriana, both – that there are limits to what I wish to do or see done for any cause. Even my own.

This is an important turning point in Alessan’s own emotional journey, too – he’s beginning to truly see himself as a man as well as a Prince. This has been happening throughout the section so far, of course – we see it in getting his own POV and in the way the others move to equality with him. When Catriana wakes, Alessan tells her there’s nothing to redeem, and that he loves her – “You are the harbour of my soul’s journeying”. Yet another water metaphor, of course. The stern Prince, with the memory like a blade in his soul, remembers that his mother cursed him at the last; he is discovering that duty is not objective, and that those we love can disagree with us, and that love is still possible.

In this world, where we find ourselves, we need compassion more than anything, I think, or we are all alone.

Chapter 20 starts with Dianora’s POV for a perspective on Brandin. Alberico, we learn, is torching the land as he moves into Senzio, in retaliation for the ambassador’s murder. Brandin hates Alberico, not just in political opposition; there’s no love, no pride, no passion in him. Nothing but ambition.

Now we move into action scenes, or possibly Action Scenes, because there’s a pitched battle going on, and Brandin’s sorcery is opposing Alberico’s. The three Revolutionary wizards link up and join with Alberico, making it much harder for Brandin, who sends his Guard after them. Naddo dies; Devin is wounded. Alais kills the Ygrathen who harmed him. Rhamanus, the captain who first took Dianora to Chiara (and her friend) falls, but he won’t break his oath and surrender; Dianora watches a stranger kill him. It’s Baerd.

Sandre reaches out to Castle Borso with his power, drawing in the combined power of the Night Walkers; Brandin is so hard pressed that he has to undo the spell that cursed Tigana, and at that point the wizards of the Palm withdraw, leaving Alberico defenseless and then dead. So here we see Brandin’s priorities – it’s not his vengeance, or even his own life, but his people. He invokes one of the oldest battle tropes, No Retreat – and adds “Not before the Barbadian”. So ironically, he’s showing here just how much he has in common with the Tiganese, and the people of the Palm generally, valuing that quixotic nobility and devotion to principle, to those bound to him.

With the undoing of all Brandin’s spells, the one that bound Rhun is gone too, and we slip inside his POV to learn just how badly, how dreadfully, he was tortured – twenty years as Brandin’s puppet, dead to the world and almost to himself, unable to do anything for himself and forced to give expression to Brandin’s soul. “You should have killed me by the river.” Valentin di Tigana waits till Brandin meets his eyes to kill him – “the way a Prince kills his enemies”. That’s really rather poignant, given what his son’s been doing all these years. Dianora knows the Prince, and cannot stand the compassion in his eyes; Brandin’s Chancellor kills him, but hesitates for him to speak one final word. Tigana. Dianora leaves Scelto, her servant, to tell the revolutionaries the truth, and goes down to the sea.

It was Morian, come in kindness, come in grace, to bring her home.

Scelto decides to end the cycles of revenge, and lies for Alessan’s sake – the sake of the man, not the Prince. “Who was he?” “No-one very important.”

Alessan tells Scelto that he has enough of blood, and he intends to do what he has to without any more killing – and this is in response to a question about the Ygrathen soldiers.

We don’t hear anything more about them in the epilogue – it’s entirely focused on the protagonists’ future. Sandre is going back to the Ducal palace in Astibar, and Baerd is rebuilding the towers of Avalle. Devin intends to do everything, and we hear that Alessan will most likely be named King of the Palm soon. And then the three men see a riselka.

August 28, 2009

Tigana part 4 – The Price of Blood

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 4:45 pm

The map this section opens with is of the Sanctuary of Eanna, where Alessan’s mother is cloistered. It seems to be your bog-standard monastic community.

The first chapter, on the other hand, is Dianora’s narration; she goes out walking, and we see what Brandin’s done to the Grand Duke of Chiara’s formal garden. It used to be very neat, tidy, open, pretty – contained and ruled. Brandin had it remodeled to be much more of a wilderness, with narrower paths and dense trees – “deliberately shaped to give a sense of stillness and isolation, and even, at times, of danger.” Dianora reaches a T-junction, hesitates, and turns west “because her heart always did that”. She sees a riselka, and the riselka throws a pebble into the pool, giving her a vision; Dianora knows “her path leads to the sea”. She felt desire for the riselka, but it made her weep. This is the same kind of purposeless, frustrated, mischanneled desire that a lot of the other sexual imagery in the book seems to be aiming at – not that I necessarily agree with the text’s apparent idea of healthy and unhealthy sex, but it’s fairly internally consistent. Of course, it doesn’t say anywhere that people will stop having kinky bondage sex when the curse is lifted…

In Chapter 14, we’re back to Alessan, Devin, and Erlein. On their way north-west they’re being chased by a band of brigands who’ve taken them for Barbadians. When the truth becomes apparent, Alessan tells them about Tigana; most are just confused, and one – Naddo, who later turns out to be the last apprentice of Baerd’s and Dianora’s father – was born there. “Immune to the spell, or another victim of it.” One of the other bandits suggests turning the three in to the Ygrathen garrison, and abruptly dies with a dagger in his back. Captain Ducas isn’t going to condemn the brigand who stabbed him; they all join up with the Cause.

There’s a Barbadian patrol out, with a Tracker to sniff mages; this turns out to be the “first true battle” of the rebellion. The first to die is the Tracker; he’s a twelve-year-old boy. We see quite a lot of Erlein’s character arc here, as he and Rinaldo di Senzio – another of Alessan’s mysterious friends-and-allies, an old blind Healer – blow up at each other over the issue of collaborating with Alessan, and using Senzio as the battleground.

In Chapter 15, we get Devin’s POV as they cross over into Lower Corte; he’s trying hard to feel it as Home, and we see a great deal of landscape porn. (Including a river – flowing north before it curves west to find the sea. This is a perfectly accurate description of the course of the book from now on.) On the other hand, most of what he’s feeling gets embodied in, or reified by, Alessan.

“Devin knew that he was not the first and would not be the last person to find in a single man the defining shape and lineaments for the so much harder love of an abstraction or a dream.”

This is another interesting theme running through Tigana – whether a Prince has the liberty to be a man, or whether he has at all times to be his country before all else. Whether that kind of sacrifice is something to be admired, or whether – as Erlein shows us quite pointedly – it’s a dangerous lunacy is an open-ended question.

At the Sanctuary, Alessan’s mother is living under the identity of one of her ladies who killed herself after Second Deisa. She’s dying, but still bolt upright, back straight and full of rage, for Tigana and against Alessan, condemning him for gambolling around the Palm playing music while Tigana is still cursed.

Alessan: it would be easier to die.
Pasithea: “You would buy Corte’s freedom, and Astibar’s and Tregea’s, at the price of Tigana’s name. Of our very existence in the world. At the cost of everything we ever had or were before Brandin came. At the price of vengeance and our pride.”
Alessan: I learnt about all the provinces’ pride.
Pasithea: What is a peninsula that we should care for it? Tigana is where Adaon lay with Micaela when the world was young.
Erlein: Everyone has stories.
Pasithea: Nobody else will sing ours!
Devin: Yes, they will. Everyone will. Because your son is going to succeed.

Then Pasithea breaks the news to Alessan, and to the reader as well: Brandin has abdicated as King of Ygrath, to be King of the Western Palm. People are singing his name in the streets of Stevanien.

At this point, Devin realises that someone’s spying on them, and gives chase. When he comes to a locked door, Erlein is there, and opens it with magic – he chose to follow, chose to help, giving the lie to his earlier bitter comments about having had all choice taken from him. Inside, a young monk is trying to make a psychic link to Brandin; Devin stabs him before it can go through, in another of those had-to-be-done moments. They don’t grieve; but Danoleon, the High Priest of Eanna, and another of Alessan’s friends, does, because the young monk had been born in Avalle.

Chapter 16 opens with the words “Spring came early in Astibar.” We get Alberico’s POV; his reaction to Brandin’s abdication, and to the letters from Quileia, is to mass troops at the border with Senzio. Moving over to Rovigo and his daughter Alais, they’re both restless; he wants to go to the far south, see the ice-floes breaking up and the river beginning to run again, carrying the floes crashing and grinding down to the sea. Now that’s fairly unsubtle, as far as the water imagery goes! He settles for a voyage to Tregea, and asks Alais to accompany him; it’s her dream to voyage with her father. “A woman cannot live a life at sea. Not in the world as it is.” He’s going to do everything he can for her, though. This is another of those breaking-rules images, like the sex thing and the single candle lit on the Ember days; you take the little freedoms where you can, when the greater are denied you. Which echoes a comment Alessan made after Pasithea breaks the bad news to him; “That may be a gift, not a curse.”

Next, we switch to Catriana, Baerd, and Sandre, who are travelling and spreading word of a summer Rising. In Tregea, Baerd can’t help decking a Barbadian mercenary who gropes Catriana, and they have to separate. Rovigo catches her and guides her to more-or-less-safety, giving everyone the perfect excuse for the classic scene where she cuts off her hair, because it “would give her away”. I’m unconvinced by this, because I have quite a few friends with ten or fifteen years’ uninterrupted growth of glorious red hair, and generally it does bundle up quite small. But that’s petty realism intruding, and the scene’s important to the book.

August 18, 2009

Tigana, part 3 – Ember to Ember

Filed under: rereading — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 2:12 pm

OK, so in Part 1 we had the backstory and the music-making, the lost child’s heritage and the piercing grief for a land gone if not yet dead. In Part 2 we had reluctant love and strange magics. This is Part 3, and we get knives in the dark, the murder of strangers, terrorism, sedition, poetry, hot kinky sex, drugs, and the death of innocents. Settle in; this is going to be a long post.

We have a new map, of course; this one shows the highlands of Certando (for that matter, Avalle of the Towers was in the mountains, too… there’s just something about mountain people), and part of Quileia. It’s centred on a castle, and there’s nothing much else on the map, so guess where we’re going? That’s right, Castle Borso it is.

First of all, though, we get to spend some time with Devin’s POV in a snow-filled ditch by the side of the road, and watch Baerd and Alessan murder some Barbadians. Baerd strangles a known informer; Devin wonders if he had a wife and children. Alessan kills a mercenary; the text doesn’t even tell us how. And then they take the bodies over to plant them with a second group of Barbadians, and foment discord. There’s a sleeping guard; Devin sticks a dagger in his throat. That’s our nineteen-year-old ex-farmboy singer protagonist for you. Oh, and then they burn down the mansion, and Devin’s dreams are haunted by the screams of horses because they didn’t have time to open the stable doors. Did that Barbadian guard come into the world only to provide him with that right of passage, Devin wonders? “The moment of his ending was not what defined his journey under Eanna’s lights.” This gives us a nice microcosm of the entire book, there. Entities – people, lands, cultures – have worth in themselves, and being killed doesn’t subsume their identity into the killer’s. They have their own stories.

After this, the POV shifts to Alberico of Barbadior, and he’s quite the contrast to Brandin. He takes the Klingon approach to underlings, and starts killing more of the populace too. Someone has been posting elegies to the dead Duke of Astibar around the city; Alberico has every poet he can find arrested. On the first sweep, the poets all deny everything; on the second, they all claim to have written them. Alberico lets them go, suggesting they satirise Brandin; instead, verses about Tomasso’s perversity appear, claiming that it was a deliberately chosen allegory of Astibar’s situation – “a living metaphor for his conquered, subjugated land, for the perverse situation of Astibar under tyranny”. (The Barbadians, incidentally, dislike homosexuality rather a lot.) This is probably the second clearest statement of the sex theme in Tigana there is; we’ll get to the clearest in a few paragraphs’ time! Alberico has twenty or so poets pulled out at random and “death-wheeled”; the text tells us that the author of those verses was among them.

The next part of the book deals with how Alessan and his party lie, cheat, and deceive the people of the Palm into spreading sedition and unrest, and get a lot of people killed doing it. The most notable occasion is when Catriana fakes a suicide leap from a river bridge in Tregea, clutching a copy of the proscribed verses. And into water, no less; what a surprise!

Devin’s thinking about Sandre (the ex-Duke of Astibar) and trying to imagine what it’s like to know that the bodies of everyone even distantly related to you are being death-wheeled across the province. And that, right there, is the cost of what our protagonists are doing. The text doesn’t flinch away from it, doesn’t celebrate it (none of the classic winterborn fallacy here, the idea that just because something is hard and you have to sacrifice everything for it it must be honourable and worthwhile) and doesn’t condemn it.

The next thing that happens, unfortunately, is a bit of Oddness regarding race. Sandre has disguised himself as a Khardhu warrior, with potions and lotions and a shave… and everyone buys it. So these strange dark-skinned people from the hot northern continent are identical to the natives of the Palm in every way except skin colour? I just do not buy it.

After that, on the other hand, we get another Really Cool part – the introduction of Erlein di Senzio, an old session-musician acquaintance, and a wizard. Most wizards of the Palm cut off two fingers on their left hand to “bind themselves to the Palm” for additional power; it’s the tiny glow of the magic Erlein uses to mask this that Sandre sees. And the Princes of Tigana, we learnt in the first part of the book, have the hereditary ability to bind a wizard to their will. Devin suggests that Alessan give everyone a haircut, and he uses that opportunity to bind Erlein – who is, not surprisingly, utterly furious about it. The text uses the phrase “grievously wronged”.

“What gives you the right?”
“I must use what tools I can.”
“I am not a tool!”

Sandre refuses to agree that it’s no more than the exercise of naked power, and justifies it by saying that it’s the duty of a Prince to “do what his soul cries out against for the sake of his land”. I mean, yes, this is pretty winterborn stuff, but it’s quite thoroughly problematized in the text, rather than the usual unqualified adulation for Hard Men who do Things Like That because Someone Has To.

Erlein and Sandre disagree quite thoroughly over whether Erlein was free before; this is a particular issue for him as a citizen of the neutral province, Senzio, unconquered by either Tyrant. (Of course, the Duke of Senzio did demote himself to Governor to avoid upsetting them…)

Alessan spends the rest of the evening playing songs from Senzio on his pipes. Now, from anyone else this could be a cheap manipulative trick, but we’ve seen before that Alessan has too much respect for the music to do that. This is Alessan reminding a fellow musician where the soul of the land lies, trying to awake his patriotism – and stressing the point, which he’s been making over and again in his travels, that the Palm needs to be united, and setting province against province in their pride is why they got invaded. In Devin, it rouses strong grief; “For Catriana and himself and all their generation, rootless and cut off from what they were in a world without a home. For all the myriad accumulations of loss and what men and women had to do in order to seek redress.”

Erlein, on the other hand, tries to escape, heading off into the wilderness, tying himself to a tree, and struggling so hard he passes out. And this metaphor is so anvilicious that even Devin points it out to us. Oddly, nobody wonders what would have happened to Erlein if Baerd and Devin hadn’t retrieved him; after all, tying himself to a tree in a “wild and lonely place” and deliberately making it impossible to get himself free is not exactly a recipe for survival.

Chapter 10 starts with some history. The highlands of Certando used to be a very wild and prideful place, and most of the old songs are about clan feuds and battles; and most of those feature Castle Borso. All that’s changed now, and the place is a haunt of decadence and sex, presided over by one Alienor, who gets to vamp over Catriana, give Alessan some letters – his mother is dying – and teach Devin all about switchy bondage sex.

“Is this what happens to us? When we are no longer free. Is this what happens to our love?”
“It is one of the things that happens to us. A kind of insurrection in the dark that somehow stands against the laws of day that bind us and cannot be broken now.”
“Possibly that. Or an admission somewhere in the soul that we deserve no more than this, nothing that goes deeper. Since we are not free and have accepted that.”

Alienor sends Devin away; tomorrow is the first of the Ember Days, when no fires are lit, and he won’t be able to find his way back without a candle. And since her husband died, she always sleeps alone. On the way back, Devin’s candle goes out, and he remembers a saying from the priest who first taught him music. “There are no wrong turnings. Only paths we had not known we were meant to walk.” Today, the dead walk. Who are his dead? Tigana? The Barbadian he killed? He finds his way to Catriana’s room by accident, and we hear her wishing she could be more like Devin, more patient. Her passion for Tigana is mostly down to her father, who left before Second Deisa – possibly before First Deisa – and hated the memory of Tigana, wanted to keep it buried. Her mother always lit one candle on the Ember days; she and Devin discuss this. His father did the same, which he’d always characterised as pride and arrogance, but to Catriana it’s a reminder to herself, like Alessan’s blue wine. This relates to the sex thing, I think; deliberately transgressing because if you can’t have what you love then you need that reminder, that blade in your soul.

Now we’re up to Chapter 11, and this one is Weird. Baerd goes walking out, and discovers a remnant cult of sort-of-wizards who take hallucinogenic drugs on the Ember Night so they can battle an invading blight, spreading from the west (towards Tigana) and destroying the crops. In their overlay-world (Baerd tells us it feels too real to be a dream) the blight takes the form of an invading army of Ygrathen to him, but appears differently to everyone. Apparently, it’s been getting much worse in the last twenty years (since the Tyrants invaded) and the Night Walkers have to choose between opposing it, keeping it from winning even more land, and keeping their strength up to fight it again and again.

Baerd leads them to victory, and challenges the dark figure that leads (or personifies) the blight: Begone, or I’ll name you now and cut your strength apart. He does – “tyranny in a land that has been free” – and it flees towards the west, into the dead lands the blight took. Interestingly, the idea of things that have power only when they’re not named is a pervasive one. It brings up echoes of Walter Wink, which is never a bad thing – and it echoes the power given to a hidden, clandestine revolutionary movement. There’s a passage in Part 2, Dianora’s memories of Baerd in Avalle Stevanien, where the Ygrathen soldiers play a game with him by getting him to say the name of Tigana and going “sorry, what was that? Couldn’t make it out” and then he turns that back on them.

And while they’re there, Elena – the Night Walker viewpoint character, a Certandan born and bred – can hear and speak the name of Tigana. That’s the world-beyond-the-world for you; when you’re in that dreamlike nighttime state, in a TAZ, those kinds of social restrictions and careless ignorances can be bypassed. So they have sex. I’d not realised the similarities between Tigana and the Illuminatus! trilogy before.

The Important Meeting that Alessan was here for turns out to be with Marius, King of Quileia – the Golden Bough-style Oak King who got tired of beating up challengers and overthrew the Matriarchy. At the beginning of this section, we learnt that the Matriarchy had closed off the country two hundred years ago, and the Certandan highlands had withered as a result of the sudden stoppage of trade. Seeing a very male warrior-king overthrowing the female organisation who had previously been in charge is not all that good, but it seems to work in context.

Alessan and Baerd, it turns out, helped Marius onto his throne, and now the favour is to be repaid.

“I cannot give you an army.”
“I wouldn’t ask it, and don’t want to be remembered as the man who brought in a foreign army.”

Alessan asks Marius to refuse trade with Brandin for now, and ask time to think; to refuse trade with Alberico, citing Brandin’s intimidation; and to offer free & unrestricted trade with Senzio, which Alberico will of course know immediately. Trade with Quileia would be the death of Tigana, and failing to bring in prosperity through trade would be the death of Marius, but for Alessan’s sake Marius offers six months. People may not be tools, but if a Prince has the responsibility – the obligation – to use them as such…

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