Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

November 8, 2010

George RR Martin & Lisa Tuttle – Windhaven

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , — Sam @ 5:50 pm

This is a paste-up job—three linked novellas, revised & continued from an original story in Analog of May 1975, The Storms of Windhaven. The first, which is essentially the original novella, is your basic story of a girl longing to join the elite hereditary caste of flyers properly. Their wings, made from the solar sails of the crashed starship which brought all their ancestors to Windhaven, are getting rarer every year as flyers are lost at sea, and Maris—the adopted daughter of a flyer, but forced to hand over his wings to his genetic heir—is determined to bring in new blood so that anyone can challenge a flyer for their wings.

She succeeds, of course, and keeps hers after all, while her stepbrother gets the musical career he wanted all along. So far, so Pern without the dragons.

The second novella, however, shows us some of the societal consequences of this massive change. The new academy, named Woodwings after a popular cautionary tale, isn’t thriving too well; it’s been seven years and not produced any flyers yet. Maris has returned to teach, but there’s a controversial new pupil, determined to win wings and become one of the flyers he hates, rejecting all their traditions. We get to see a lot of social ruptures on a very personal scale, and some vicious political infighting. Again, it ends on a happy, successful note, but it’s very clear that there are a lot of societal changes yet to come.

The third follows Maris still, to the island of Thayos, where she gets caught up in politics between the flyers and the land-born ruler. The text brings in the classic 1970s SF motif of the songs that change everything, and the power of musicians, but it’s also thoroughly problematized—it’s made clear throughout the three novellas that songs sung of heros may not show what happened, but it doesn’t stop them being true.

October 29, 2010

A.M. Tuomala – Erekos

Erekos is A.M. Tuomala’s first novel, and also the first offering from independent digital publishers Candlemark & Gleam. You can read the first chapter, or buy it for immediate download, at the publisher’s website here. (250pp, PDF/ePub/mobi, US$10) There’s also an interview with the author over at Bibliognome.

It’s an intricate, thoughtful jewel of a book, with rich gleams of meaning, translucent depths, and sharp-edged facets, which opens with a magical spell as swamp witch Achane tries beyond hope to resurrect the sister she couldn’t heal. Magic in Erekos—this country of forests and swamps, between the mountains and the sea—is very much a thing of words and sigils, of ink and papyrus and answered prayers, and Tuomala neatly manages that all-too-rare feat of showing us viewpoint characters who use magic themselves without trivializing or demystifying the spells.

Achane’s spell works, after a fashion, and her dead (decayed, rotting, vermin-infested) sister returns as a zombi. We aren’t spared the details, but nevertheless we always see people treating Shabane as primarily a person, rather than as a type or an object of revulsion. The one exception is the king who captures Achane, dreaming of a host of zombi soldiers so that no more living men need die in the war against Weigenland.

Erekos is a colonized country; hundreds of years ago, a pseudo-Greek people came from the sea, and conquered the dark-skinned natives. By the time of the novel, their peoples have melded into one, and so have their mythic cycles, stories colliding and finding a mutual accommodation.

Look closely—can you see the place where two stories collided long ago? Can you see the jagged edges of one ideology grafted messily onto another, justification of war meeting a more nebulous ideal? These edges still grind together today; in places where their shade of skin marks the local people as particularly unmixed, where the colonist or the indigen is particularly close to the surface, the two pieces of the story do not mesh until one has broken the other to fit.

Our other main viewpoint character is Erlen, a young Weiger anthropologist turned mountain commando; we follow him and his lover Jeiger through several battles against the Erekoi invaders. The text is very good about humanising each side, and showing us a fascinating take on the “war god” trope so common in fantasy: The devoted know that Loukaros is only the god of war because war is the swiftest way to change the world. Loukaros is also the god of storms, and water imagery is associated throughout the book with war, but also with healing.

This is clearly epic fantasy, from the map at the front (beautifully drawn, too, with iconic cities and shrines and even a lighthouse) and the pronunciation guide that follows it. Unusually, though, both of those clearly show competing sources of authority—the map has both Germanic- and Greek-derived placenames, and the pronunciation guide takes care to note several regional accents for each language. Tuomala’s prose shows—and assumes—a lot of familiarity with some standard fantasy tropes:

The priestesses of Terīchone are seldom slender waifs who grow into tall and ethereal women; they have never worn robes of purest white silk. They know that the most powerful mystic pools come after the rains that rip the world apart, and they lie deep in the forest—not ensconced in marble, where the waters cannot touch the land.
No, a priestess of Terīchone is a firm, comfortable sort of woman with serviceably ruddy arms over which she has always pulled up her sleeves. This sort has reaped the rewards of her hard work in the gardens or with the hogs or out on the boats, and she is often heavy in the solid, maternal way of good cooks.

Tuomala’s style is clear but multilayered, showing strange translucencies and currents as the reader looks deeper, with the occasional sentence that chimes like delicate wooden bells, and a strong focus on people usually disenfranchised in epic fantasy.

She looked into the eyes of a beautiful, thick-set woman with her grey hair pulled into a bun; the woman had an age-wrinkled face, nut-brown but with cheeks as red as hands long lent to laundry, and she wore her skirt pinned over the knee and her sleeves rolled up over her broad, hairy arms. Nothing in this woman must seem beautiful, for beauty is too often defined by delicacy. But for those who understand what compassion and love look like when they are ingrained into the fiber of a body—when every muscle is filled with love so that every gesture and step becomes an act of goodwill—for those people, this woman was the most lovely woman alive.

Again in the tradition of epic fantasy, the text has quite a bit of mythology interwoven with the action, and this is also done well—partly, of course, because Tuomala is using it to make the very Tolkienian point that our adventures are others’ stories, and that all the stories came from somewhere. This is not just epic fantasy in the purest sense, but epic fantasy with many characters of colour, competent older women, and a very touching gay relationship. Very much recommended.

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.

Meta, and the Wheel of Time

Filed under: meta,rereading — Tags: , , — Sam @ 5:55 pm

First – apologies to the lovely people who’ve left comments in the last week or two, because my mail client had started marking my notification emails as spam. I’ve had words with it, and I think I’ve caught all the comments now.

Second – I think I’m arguing myself into re-reading all the Wheel of Time books, and trying to give them a fairer shake of the whip. I don’t think any of the flaws I noticed the first and second times through are going to go away, though. Which is to say: unnecessarily prolix padding, no ability to control plot proliferation, far far too much Idiot Ball plotting, and a completely reductionist (not to say irredeemably binary, boringly naive, and inaccurate) approach to gender politics.

But Jordan’s been doing interestingly subversive things to the fantasy form, even if many of those have been done better by other people since he started, and he has been using some actual literary techniques, which puts him head and shoulders above most fantasy authors. Granted, they’re all still standing in a ditch compared to the best (Peake, Kay, Parker, Swanwick, VanderMeer, Vinge) but given Sturgeon’s Law that’s an unfair comparison. So it’s worth another look for me, at least.

October 7, 2010

On the Meaning of Maps

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 8:57 pm

Mapmaking is a modelling technique – it reduces a complex, messy landscape, with all its layers and human factors, to something that a stranger can work with and use. Maps have always been incredibly important to two of the classic fantasy staples, the Invader and the Occupier, and that’s completely historical – the Survey of India is a central feature in many Raj novels, and overlaps firmly with intelligence work (the Great Game) in Kipling’s Kim. Terry Pratchett satirises this in Jingo, when the Ankh-Morpork generals plan their campaign on an “existentially satisfying” map of Klatch modelled from sand, and when the giant sweeping arrows shown on tactical maps turn out to be accurate models of (some) troop formations.

Oddly, maps are relatively obscured inside fantasy texts themselves, in favour of the metadata at the front of the book. That comes in two basic types – window-frame maps, the ones that are useful illustrations of the maps the characters are using; and picture-frame maps, the ones that are blatantly only there for the reader. (more…)

June 10, 2010

Gentlemen of the Road – free online

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Sam @ 11:37 pm

It’s been brought to my attention that Michael Chabon’s excellent novel Gentlemen of the Road is available in its entirety from the New York Times, in serial form. Here‘s the final part, which has links to each chapter on the left.

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.

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…

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