Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

March 29, 2011

Patricia S Bowne – Advice From Pigeons

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 8:54 am

Hiram Rho is a junior demonologist at the Royal Academy of Osyth, and also a natural philosopher—in this context, someone who can communicate with animals, rather than a proto-scientist. Unlike the normal magical academy this one is thoroughly modern, complete with all the bureaucratic paraphernalia of academia in the real world; the major difference is in the subjects they study and research, and this is carried through into the rest of the society. Wizards work in construction, sorcerers heal, and alchemists change the nature of reality by their will.

Demonology works by belief, by defining the demon into existence and persuading it to believe what you tell it about itself. A corollary of that is that a demonologist’s own skills & abilities are continually negated by the practitioner’s own necessary academic analysis of them, removing their unquestioning belief in themselves. It’s a much more interesting take on demonology than the more traditional realm-of-hell version, and gives a nuanced take on the iron will and self-belief required of the summoning magician. It’s also a good reflection of the traits it takes to survive in academia!

The book begins with a rather forced infodump about the Institute’s magicians, but I can forgive a scene much for lines like this.

He felt himself go cold and then a comforting thought burst on him like sunlight. He was the one furthest from the door. He’d be the one disemboweled, not the one answering questions.

The character thinking there is Warren, a classic academic middle-manager; the book’s second major plot strand is a rather interestingly metaphysicalized dramatization of his midlife crisis. The first is Hiram Rho’s quest to define his academic path, his career, and his self. He’s a graduate student with all the socialization of a starving badger, torn between two schools of magic which promise him very different things, and unable to trust or like his colleagues. Despite that, he’s still an interesting character to spend time with, and deftly drawn.

The book also features gay characters, without making a special point of it; the world apparently has no problem with homosexuality. The text also treats Rho’s past as a sex worker quite matter-of-factly, and it’s a nice change to see that with a male character.

Overall, definitely recommended for anyone interested in the metaphysical nuts and bolts of wizardry (as distinct from the more traditional kind of magic-system fantasy) or for academics, unless they’re desperately trying to repress flashbacks already.

Edit: (since I forgot to note this originally) You can get it from Double Dragon Publishing here, and read the first chapter online here.

March 19, 2011

Collage Criticism

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 3:57 pm

Lud-in-the-Mist Collage This is made from selected parts of an e-text of Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, which I typeset, printed out, and ripped up. (No actual books were harmed in the creation of this artwork.)

I’ve done a few of these; the first was H. Beam Piper’s classic short story Omnilingual, and I’m currently working on a large one made from a play script of Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Don’t worry—that one had a long and happy life, and died a natural death before I saved it from the recycling and turned it into art.) There’s an interesting transgressive feeling to using printed matter like this, even when it’s printed matter I caused to exist purely for the purpose; I don’t think I could bring myself to rip up a physical book that was still in a readable state. Play scripts are a different matter, because an upbringing in the theatre means I regard them as essentially ephemeral: there to be scribbled on, ripped up for prompt books, broken, repaired, and tossed away.

The other Issue I have around this is down to which texts are legitimate targets. Instinct, of course, tells me that they all are; if it’s a text then it’s there to be analysed, reinterpreted, made to jump through hoops. Cutting it up and sticking it back together in a different order—in an entirely different way, in fact—is basically the same thing as literary criticism, albeit interestingly disciplined by the inability to add any new text.

On the other hand, doing this to the work of living authors (and especially living authors I know) is socially and morally fraught. I can’t think of any legal justification for forbidding it, but that doesn’t mean a great deal when it comes to intellectual property versus artistic reimagining and community investment; just look at the perennial debates over fanfic.

It isn’t just the authors, of course. The idea of reifying e-books by printing them out, and doing things to them which can be done to a physical book—treating the digital text as though it were always intended to be paper and ink—is an interesting artistic one in itself, especially when it involves re-typesetting them. But any alteration in the formatting or typesetting of a digital text means changing the work of editors & designers, and while designing for the screen (even when screens are as diverse as those of modern computers & e-book readers) is a very different discipline to designing for print, I still respect the original designers enough not to second-guess their work.

What are your feelings on this? How would it make you feel if I did this to some of your work, and would it make a difference to you if I started with an electronic version or a physical book?

January 11, 2011

Steam Powered – Steampunk Lesbian Stories (ed. JoSelle Vanderhooft)

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 8:17 pm

This anthology works well both as a collection of short work with a steampunk sensibility, and as romance & erotica. Not all of them feature explicit (or any) sex, but they all have good central women, often women of colour at that.

The first story is a novelette by NK Jemisin (author of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), called The Effluent Engine; you can read it online here. It’s a secret-agent story, wherein our hero is sent from free Haiti to New Orleans in order to enlist the help of a brilliant chemical engineer. If he can assist them in refining & stabilizing the effluent from rum distillation, their airships can run rings around the French forces. He may not want to help, but he has a handsome (and equally brilliant) sister…

That’s one of my favourites from the anthology, but a few others come close. Where the Ocean Meets the Sky, by Sara M Harvey, sees an airship privateer come into port in San Francisco for an audience with Emperor Joshua Norton I, and not quite lose her head over a lovely Irish mooring-ship clerk.

“You’ve done it!” He cried, coming forward more like an excited child than a man of majesty. “I mean, lots of folk said they were going to and I signed lots of those letters, but you’re the first one who has returned with tribute. Brilliant!” He clapped his small, square hands together and reached into the box. He did not put one finger on any of the precious metals, but instead brought forth the honey jar. The warm light made it glow perfectly amber in the glass and the courtiers made appreciative noises. “I can tell just by the look of it that it is real Tupelo. The finest honey in the world.” He turned the jar over in his hands and watched the air bubble slowly morph and move. “My mother used to serve this on sourdough.” He spoke in strange tones, like one remembering a dream.

Steel Rider (by Rachel Manija Brown), Truth and Life by Shira Lipkin, and The Hands that Feed by Matthew Kressel make a trio of Jewish stories; emet is the character that gives them life. The second of those, an economical tale of a young woman who becomes a skilled engineer, is my favourite of the three.

Rivka, he said, baking is also a science. Embroidery will teach you precision. All of these things your mother wants you to do, they all give you skills you can use here.

Mike Allen’s Sleepless, Burning Life is a very Moorcockian trip through cosmic clockwork, in search of “the dark-eyed dancer who made the cosmos turn“. The worldbuilding is beautiful, and I’d have loved to see a full-length novel with a similar conceit in the same setting.

The Padishah Begum’s Reflections, by Shweta Narayan, centres on Jahanara Begum, remade after her accident as a mechanical—a woman of silver and enamel, of clockwork and gears—who becomes a cunning and powerful ruler in her own right. A delegation from Revolutionary France have arrived, bringing with them Madeleine Vaucanson, weaver, engineer, and expert with Jacquard looms. As a love object, she is unusual; but of course, she’s so much more than that.

Crickets and the garden’s song of leaf and water settled into Jahanara’s silence. The weaver—she could be the one Jahanara had been hoping for. She was neither young nor pretty as humans counted these things; her hair showed silver, her jaw was long, and her body more square than rounded. She clutched a blue pashmina shawl tightly over the neck of a diaphanous gown, and her shoes exemplified why European ladies must lean on the arms of their men.

None of the stories struck me as bad or inadequate, but these are the ones I enjoyed the most. In Georgina Bruce’s Brilliant, I disliked the love interest (a spoilt, sulky brat) enough to skip to the next story, but that’s a purely personal reaction. A few need trigger warnings: for rape in the case of Teresa Wymore’s very dark Under the Dome, and forced mental-health hospitalization in Clockwork and Music by Tara Sommers.

Overall, these stories are good and well-collected, and present a refreshingly broad view of “steampunk”, with an above-average proportion of real prizes.

December 14, 2010

Some recent reads

Filed under: review — Tags: , — Sam @ 10:31 pm

Surface Detail – Iain M Banks

A story of the harrowing of a virtual Hell, and associated shenanigans. To those who’ve read more of the Culture novels than I have, a particular line at the ending may fall less resoundingly flat. Also: gold does not float in mercury just because it has a lower atomic number. Gold sinks quite hard in mercury, because it has a much higher density. Also, gold dissolves in mercury. Otherwise, good.

Amity – Jeremy D Brooks

A sysadmin has his life destroyed by an internet site where anonymous people compete to outdo each other in sick and tasteless humour, and virtual vandalism. Not for anyone offended by, er, much of anything. Free to download here, though I don’t know for how long.

Winter Song – Colin Harvey

An entertaining planetary romance, though it would be improved by cutting the initial space-battle sequence with its (sparse) infodumps on future society and going straight to the bit where our protagonist wakes up on a cold planet, taken in by an abandoned colony with a Norse-like culture, trying to deal with the sentient computer download in his head. The central female character is good, very competent and not just a love interest, but the other women she’s contrasted with are all either sexually manipulative or shrewish & jealous. (eARC – Angry Robot)

Damage Time – Colin Harvey

A future cop story, and a book about a man trying to find himself after having his memories stolen. Strangely for this genre, the protagonist only loses his memory halfway through, which means that a lot of the usual impact of the plotline is lost. I’m not at all convinced it works. There’s a creditable attempt to counter some transphobia, notably through the mouth of a liberal imam (who explains about khuntsa), but that’s rather counteracted by the appalling ignorance about trans issues that the characters display, and which isn’t countered by the text. Both this and Winter Song also show poly families and bisexuality as the norm in their futures. (eARC – Angry Robot)

WTF FTW and Makers – Cory Doctorow

The more interested an author is in making political, economic, or social points, the more likely they are to resort to Idiot Ball plotting. Doctorow is a definite example of this, and it’s frustrating, but since those points are what drives Doctorow’s writing in the first place we’ll have to live with it. WTF is about gold farming in developing nations and union-forming; Makers is about interesting things you can do with 3D printers, techno-junk, and the vast untapped forces of geek nostalgia. Like all Doctorow’s work, you can read them for free here.

December 10, 2010

Best of 2010, and Christmas Giveaway – Erekos by AM Tuomala

Filed under: meta — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 1:49 pm

Now closed! Congratulations, Penelope Friday!

This year’s Best Of post is early, because I’ve managed to arrange a special treat for you! But first, the results. I’ve read enough Really Good Books this year that I’m splitting the nomination in two, for Best From Large Publisher and Best From Small Publisher. (Er, that’s “large” as SF&F imprints go, which is not “large” in absolute terms.) NB: I’m including self-published pieces, and pieces only published on the web, under “small publisher”. Any suggestions for a better name for the category gratefully received!

Out of all the good books from large publishers, Catherynne M Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed utterly blew me away, and sails away with the nomination to some fantastical shore. In second place, if I were awarding second prizes, we have The Meat Tree, a re-envisioning of the story of Blodeuwedd by Gwyneth Lewis.
Honourable mentions also go to Pennterra by Judith Moffett, and to Jasper Fforde’s Shades of Grey.

I’ve read fewer from small publishers this year, and that’s something I want to remedy in 2011. On the other hand, there have been a couple of books that were absolute standouts by any measure, and the winner is Erekos by AM Tuomala. Second prize would go to Akačehennyi on a Diet of Dreams, by Kayleigh Ayn Bohémier, a blog novel published by the author under a Creative Commons license.

Erekos cover

I liked Erekos so much, I want to share the love—and the publisher, Candlemark & Gleam, agree with me, so they’ve donated a copy for me to give away. It’s a digital-only book, and you’ll get your choice of either direct digital delivery (ePub, PDF, or mobi format) or a special gift package with all three formats on a CD, so you have something to put under the tree this Christmas. This is a worldwide offer, but if you choose the CD option we can’t guarantee getting it to you by Christmas unless you live in the US. We’ll try our best, though!

The competition will be open till midnight GMT on Wednesday 15th December, and all you have to do to enter is comment below and tell us who your favourite goddess is. Mythological or fictional, we don’t mind. You can also enter by Twitter, if you use the hashtag #erekos—please spread the word!

November 30, 2010

Jekkara Press

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — Sam @ 2:21 am

I recently got hold of an Android phone, so of course I’ve been looking through the free SF&F ebooks available. There are some really good ones available, and if I scrape up the time I’ll post some recs, but I also found something very odd which I need to post about.

To wit: Jekkara Press, and their gender-switched reissues of classic SF, fantasy, and adventure books. (All out of copyright; they seem to be using texts available through Project Gutenberg.)

In The Three Musketeers For All, by Alexandra Dumas, d’Artagnyn, Athys, Porthys, and Aramys battle the minions of the Duchess de Richelieu and serve Queen Louise XIII. Cathan L. Moore writes about Norawest Smith, and Joanna Harker is the guest of Countess Dracula in Brandy Stoker’s Dracula Refanged.

I’d normally approve wholeheartedly of what they’re doing, but there are a few problems with it. First, they’re straightforward search & replace jobs, and sloppy ones at that—M. d’Artagnan becomes M. d’Artagnyn, rather than Mlle d’Artagnyn. Some compounded terms (godfather, churchman) are left alone, but on one occasion a “nice” gadget becomes a “nephew” one. In one particularly humourous example, the Countess Dracula is described thus:

Within, stood a tall old woman, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about her anywhere.

Second, at least one of their books is by a living author—Harry Harrison—and though it’s entirely legal as far as I can tell, it seems a bit much.

Thirdly, many of the cover images are inappropriately pornographic. Not only is this annoying and offensive in itself, but rather ruins the general subversiveness.

It was a nice idea, but the publisher could have done so much better a job.

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.

September 8, 2010

Akačehennyi on a Diet of Dreams

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 12:36 pm

By Kayleigh Ayn Bohémier. This is a blog novel, available here under a Creative Commons license.

It’s a dense, flavoursome book, making use of the blog medium—it’s basically in the form of a journal, with text formatting (including blacked-out text and nonlinear idea-clouds) and occasional embedded audio files without transcripts. I suspect it would make a screen-reader go screwy from time to time, but then a lot of SF does that in any case, with the density of odd words & names.

There are quite a lot of those here, since it’s thoroughly immersive, and the worldbuilding is decidedly non-Western. The viewpoint character, Salus Kobsarka-Nitannyi Niksubvya is a dark-skinned lesbian minority-immigrant, just beginning work with one of her political heroes.

You must forgive me when I make embellishments because I do not really remember the cirrus clouds in the sky or my thoughts as I dressed this morning, only the blue sky and the sun-shaped links I clasped around my dreadlocks. When I pose in front of the mirror every morning, I pull the transparent gyena up over my hair. To me, the gyena always suggests more … tantalizing … like the opening of a seductive dance in a film. A confession? While Kelis and I were engaged, I often lamented that she would stop wearing it after the wedding. I think that the bronze hair ornaments look beautiful beneath it no matter what any hotàkhi Shiji woman says.

It’s about a world shaped by colonization, oppression, and the struggle against them, but it isn’t about the oppressors at all; the plot circles around some of the consequences of this, the inevitable factionalism and complexity that you always get with real people and real situations. Mostly, however, it’s about relationships—romantic, sexual, professional, family, friendship—and the tensions between those and with principles or ambition. Between felt affinities and known affinities, perhaps; the truths of the heart and the truths of the mind, which can only be reconciled when one achieves akačehennyi.

There’s a glossary at the back of the book (well, insofar as blog novels have a back) which explains all the unusual words; if you’re the sort of person who likes those, it’s comprehensive and useful. Personally, I prefer to avoid them until afterwards, and enjoy figuring the words out from context. Nitannyi is a semi-stranger in the culture of the novel (a half-blood immigrant, brought up in the canyon dark) and I find the mixture of things she explains to us and things that are normal to her extremely good mind exercise. She’s also keeping this journal partly to improve her Tveshi, and Bohémier evokes that sense wonderfully in the language.

This book reminds me of Le Guin’s Hainish novels, but it’s very much a story told from the inside rather than from the outside. Definitely recommended, and to reiterate: it’s free online, so you have no reason not to give it a try.

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!

February 10, 2010

Ebooks & DRM

Filed under: children's lit,meta — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 2:22 pm

Simon & Schuster are offering a free download of the first novel in their Vampirates sequence, for a month from today.

I’ve been vaguely interested in these, and a free ebook really caught my eye – it’s a marketing strategy that’s worked well on me in the past, when Tor gave away a series of first-books and I ended up buying a half-dozen more and not regretting it. And it’s nice seeing a publisher have the confidence in their books to give away a decent-length taster for free.

However, it’s DRM-laden, which means two things. First, there’s a complex process to go through before I can even read the book – I need Adobe Digital Editions, and/or specialised ebook reading software. This is something I’ve never had any interest in acquiring, because I like reading in PDF or HTML for preference.

And second, it presumes to control my reading experience – the link I skimmed to find out what on earth a .acsm file was said something about activation profiles, software used, and so forth. Unless I end up with a book I can freely backup, copy, change format, and read with any device I please, I’m not interested. This kind of DRM (like all DRM) is easy to break, but again, that’s unnecessary hassle – so the end result is that I still don’t have a copy of Vampirates: Demons of the Ocean, and I’m now slightly less interested in reading the series than I was before.

To summarize: 10/10 for intentions, 3/10 for execution, FAIL for marketing.

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