Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

January 17, 2011

Blake Charlton – Spellwright

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 2:27 pm

Spellwright cover imageThis came hotly hyped and urgently recommended, and it did indeed sound perfect for me—a fantasy story about a wizard, in a world where magic is text and a sentence written in the language of magic can become a weapon, a tool, or a way to change someone’s mind. Cover quotes from Tad Williams, Robin Hobb, and Daniel Abraham (we’ll skate lightly over the one from Terry Brooks) testify to the kind of demographic this is pitched at. It’s a pity about the cover artwork, consisting as it does of the worst kind of hooded-white-bloke-with-boring-glowing-stuff tedium, but a look around the internet reassures me that the one I have is the worst of its many covers, and that most of them (in particular, the US cover by Todd Lockwood) are a great deal better.

Annoyingly, Voyager haven’t given any indication on the cover that Spellwright is the first part of a trilogy. If you’re the kind of reader who wants everything wrapped up, then I’d suggest waiting for the others to come out—the next, Spellbound, is due in the autumn. On the other hand, the basic plot arc here is finished off neatly, though there are plenty of hooks for the next one, and I didn’t feel unsatisfied with it as a book in itself.

The book’s central conceit is fascinating, and well explored. Nicodemus Weal is a wizard (a “spellwright”) who can’t spell right[1], and who may or may not be either the saviour of humanity (the Halcyon); the protector of the Druids, the Peregrine; or the Storm Petrel, the champion of chaos. Explaining how order & chaos link in with the languages of magic would constitute a spoiler, but it’s an interesting episode when it does, and I look forward to seeing the grand themes played out.

Starhaven, the spellwrights’ university, is a distinctive setting with its pre-human buildings and a long arched bridge leading into a sheer cliff face. Like most other wizardly academies it’s an old, complex place, baroquely detailed and full of odd traditions. Normally, these schools are characterful enough in their own right to qualify as edifice fantasy, but I see a bit less of that here. Starhaven feels rather static—more of a backdrop than a participant. Unlike some of the more venerable literary universities—for example, Pratchett’s Unseen University, LeGuin’s Great House on Roke, and Barbara Hambly’s Citadel of Wizards—it’s hard to read Starhaven as contingent or mysterious, hard to imagine that a hallway might abruptly change its mind about its destination or debouch into a summer garden that was yesterday’s hand-numbingly cold lecture theatre.

Most of the text is similarly functional & static; instead of metaphor or description, Charlton usually gives us narrative and statement. Partly, I suspect, that’s because of the sheer amount of setting & magic-system detail he wants to give us; I’m not convinced that all of it is necessary though, and I’d have preferred to have seen more left for the reader to deduce from context. On the other hand, it does fit with the mechanistic, structural nature of the magic, and it’s entirely appropriate for the book’s structure to echo the magic’s mechanics, given that the magic can quite literally (and literarily) rewrite reality.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed with Spellwright, but I think that’s down to the amount of hype as much as anything. The plotting is solid and the high-concept magic system well realized; the only thing that didn’t lift it into the top-fantasy-author tier was the prose, and given that this is Charlton’s first novel I’m sure that will improve.


[1] That’s a rather facile way to put it—Nicodemus’s affliction is based on Charlton’s own experiences with dyslexia, which can be incredibly disabling when not recognized or allowed for. One consequence of that is that it’s better and more believably written than most magical afflictions.

December 11, 2010

Edmund Glasby – Disciple of a Dark God

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 12:55 am

I have a review of this up at Beyond Fiction. Some choice quotations from it:

[V]ery definitely the kind of swords & sorcery that everybody used to write… Our protagonist, Everus Dragonbanner… could easily be a novelization of someone’s old school D&D campaign… the most toxically misogynist book I’ve read in a very long time… faintly purple… outbreaks of passive voice…

December 10, 2010

Jordan & Sanderson – Towers of Midnight

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 1:42 am

I read this yesterday evening, after finding it unexpectedly in the library, and it’s let me crystallize something about the change between authors that was nagging at me. (No spoilers.)

Sanderson actually wants to finish.

I’m not saying Jordan was consciously spinning things further and further out, but I was getting the distinct feeling that he didn’t know where he was going overall. He obviously had the plot mapped out and knew what had to happen where in the story, but I can’t get any clear sense of overarching themes to it all and he kept dragging in new characters and plotlines. To me, that reads like an author trying hard to refine and direct his vision of what the series is for, especially after the explicit bait-and-switch from Book 1; everything I’ve heard on that topic is about a move away from portal-quest fantasy, but not any kind of towards.

Sanderson, on the other hand, is nothing if not workmanlike and direct, and it shows. In the two Wheel of Time books he’s written, the plot strands have been coming together at warp speed, and we get much less time-wasting. Mind you, there are still a couple of new developments that are less deus ex machina than

I’m starting to wonder if the Wheel of Time series, taken as a whole, is more of a response to Eddings than to Tolkien. It’s exploring some interesting variations on the One Ninja theory of history, given the contributions of everyone involved (though the side of the Shadow is still as hopelessly blundering as always). It could have something to say about free will, determinism, and redemption, but I honestly don’t know what.

There is always the big theme of gender relations, but Jordan & Sanderson’s treatment of identity politics is so hopelessly reductionist and naive that trying to say anything in that format is like playing patience with no hearts or diamonds and expecting it to come out.

November 27, 2010

Walter Rhein – The Bone Sword

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

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

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

November 23, 2010

NK Jemisin – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

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

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

Once more was yesterday, so here we go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 18, 2010

Alan Campbell – God of Clocks

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 2:36 pm

This is Part 3 of the Deepgate Codex series; I realised after it got to me that I hadn’t actually read part 2 (Iron Angel) after all, but I picked up on what was happening quickly enough.

From my several-years-old recollections of Scar Night I’d expected something fairly intense, with text as gothically baroque as the architecture, but my memories must have been in error because the style here is straightforward and relatively transparent.

What did stick in my mind was the imagery, and it’s amazingly inventive. The god of brine and fog sails a decaying wooden ship across the sky, with an army of deathless corpses hanging from the gallows below, and an immortal man dragging it behind him across the world. The god of knives and flowers rules a kingdom, and commands a legion of soldiers. And the god of clocks lives in a vast castle which exists, in strange and complex ways, across all of time.

Time travel is handled interestingly here—we see the classic looping effect, but without being shown all the branching points for the duplicated character. Mind you, it uses the Very Slow Time Machine method (ie. living through the intervening time, 1:1) for part of the trip, so that was probably a practical decision as much as anything.
It’s introduced very late in the book, though, and doesn’t really relate to—or interact with—anything that happened before it, so its potential feels rather wasted. That’s symptomatic of the whole book, really; vast numbers of cool things happen, but not in any real detail, and without emotional intensity.

I found the characterization a bit lacking, but that can often happen when you (effectively) start with Part 3. Some are excellently done (John Anchor, for instance), but others seem to be coasting rather on their initial introductions. I think part of it is the classic adventuring party problem; with a lot of characters together, it’s rare for an author to find things to do with all of them, and Campbell is noticeably better with two- or three-person scenes.

Overall, it’s a fun and easy read; I’d recommend the series to a mid- to late-teenager looking to move on from Garth Nix, or anyone who’s looking for an uncomplicated thrill to spark their imagination.

November 8, 2010

Lisa Mantchev – Eyes Like Stars

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 1:53 pm

Beatrice Shakespeare Smith (Bertie) lives in the Théâtre Illuminata, where every play in the English language is performed, and the characters themselves tread the boards. Her bedroom is a stage set, and the characters & Théâtre staff are the only family she’s ever known.

Bertie makes rather a good YA heroine—she’s seventeen, impulsive but committed, possessed of brightly coloured hair, and extremely believable as a teenage girl. She has (as is of course obligatory) Relationship Problems, with two men competing for her affections. The Good Boy is called Nate; he’s a pirate, muscular and plainspoken, with a bit part in The Little Mermaid. Ariel (from Shakespeare’s Tempest) is the sly, deceitful, and intoxicatingly sexy Bad Boy, who is using Bertie in some plot of his own, but nevertheless seems to love her.

Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are Bertie’s unruly and chaotic sidekicks. They work very well indeed as backup, comic relief, and a good reason for Bertie to talk about the plot without talking to herself, but they’re also well-sketched characters in their own right; there’s a strong family dynamic going on, with Bertie cast as their amused and harassed older sister. Their first entrance, in Chapter One (“The fairies flew suspended on wires despite their tendency to get tangled together.”) is delightful, and shows the same quirky, subversively faux-Edwardian charm as the rest of the book.

The Théâtre is a peculiar one in many ways—with actors who will always play the same part forever, and who only return to existence when called, a lot of the usual theatre politics are abstracted away. We hear quite a lot about an ongoing feud between Set and Props, but there are no technical staff at all, and everything Just Works—I’m starting to suspect that Lisa Mantchev is a director herself! I’d have liked to see more of the Théâtre’s internal life & social structure, but then I’m a techie myself, and it’s not a long book. Mrs Edith, the Wardrobe Mistress (and the person responsible for bringing Bertie up, insofar as any bringing up happened at all) is rather a stock character, stern and obsessed with Bertie’s appearance but always loving and supportive. Then again, the rest of the Théâtre staff are largely stock characters too; I suspect that’s rather the idea, since all the world’s a stage.

As the back cover tells us, the Théâtre is under threat, and only Bertie can save it. With that, her romantic troubles, and the mystery of who her family really is, there’s plenty of plot to go around. It’s well-paced, too, with intriguing hints of metatextuality in the worldbuilding and in Bertie’s gift of magic with words. The writing style is lively, vivacious, and at times rather beautiful & magical; it fits the Théâtre well.

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 21, 2010

Catherynne Valente – The Habitation of the Blessed

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 12:16 pm

This isn’t officially released till the 1st of November, but it’s available early for the Kindle and through Webscriptions, where you can read sample chapters.

To summarize the plot briefly, a monk reads three books. He is Hiob von Luzern and he has travelled Eastwards in search of the legendary kingdom of Prester John, who in 1165 sent a long letter to western Christendom detailing the marvellousness of his person and the realms under his rule.

Hiob picked the books himself from the tree where they grow, and is racing to copy them before—like all fruit—they spoil and succumb to mould. The first is The Word in the Quince: “an Account of My Coming to the Brink of the World, and What I Found There, As told by John of Constantinople, Committed to Eternity by his Wife, Hagia, who was afterwards called Theotokos”.

It is, as you would expect, a story of strangeness and newness, of a man missing his first home and his love, clinging to his own notions of rightness and truth in the face of an entire nation who do not know Jesus and who think the concept is Extremely Silly. It’s also a story of a man finding his truth and falling in love. John is an extraordinarily self-centred man and this never changes, but his wife & amanuensis Hagia of the Blemmyae[1] is always present in the text she records.

The second, The Book of the Fountain (“an Account of Her Life Composed by Hagia of the Blemmyae Without Other Assistance”) is her own story, and there we see much more of Pentexore—of the wonderful soil wherein anything, or anyone, which is planted will grow into a tree after its kind; of the multiplicity of races; of the Fountain which confers eternal life; and of the Abir. Every three hundred years, the whole civic and social life of Pentexore is whirled about and shaken and stirred, because immortals inevitably get bored, and a historian might become a playwright, or a amyctrya who brewed poisons and perfumes in his huge jaw like a barrel become a maker of ink instead.

Stories are a heady and an addictive thing in this world (where aren’t they?), and there’s a constant tension running through the novel between faithful, accurate transmission and the golden glow of propriety bestowed by editorial redaction. Brother Hiob voices it, but others live it.

The third book, The Scarlet Nursery, has the subtitle “Told by Imtithal the Panoti[2] to the Three Children of Queen Abir, Who Were Lamis the Reticent, Ikram the Intractable, and Houd, Whom You Might As Well Indulge”. It’s Imtithal’s story of herself and her own life, as she watches the three cametenna[3] children grow up, and of the stories she tells them.

I came to this knowing very little of the source material, or at least never having read the primary sources—this will almost certainly change, quite soon. So I shall say only that the first of the three books reminds me rather of Philip Jose Farmer’s adventure stories, and the third of all those charming Edwardian books for older children (Travers, perhaps?), told in a precise, slightly arch manner like a panoti pirouetting over deep snow. The second is not something that wishes to be categorized by similarity, because Hagia’s voice is insistently unique. She’s a skilled scribe finally telling her own story, a forthright woman with a lot of life behind her and a lot more to come. It isn’t a retelling and revisioning of John’s story, but rather it bookends it, showing what Pentexore was like before he arrived, and how he ruled. It makes me wonder a little how a retelling of Where the Wild Things Are from Moishe’s perspective might look, or The Phantom Tollbooth from the Humbug’s.

The stories are interspersed rather than sequential, and thoroughly fractal; each book contains other books, and tellers of stories, and listeners to stories, and allusions to stories that are not told or not heard.

It’s the first part of a trilogy, but is very much a complete tale on its own; I confidently expect the others to be very similar things, rather than “the middle” and “the end”.


[1] A blemmy has no head, but instead has her face set into her chest, with eyes where those persons possessed of heads keep their nipples, and a mouth at the navel.
[2] A panoti is a small pale person with immense ears, which they can wrap around themselves or a friend like a bat. They do not eat, but live off pleasant sounds.
[3] Cametenna have pumpkin-coloured eyes and extraordinarily large hands.

October 16, 2010

Brandon Sanderson, Earlymodernist

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Sam @ 6:40 pm

There’s been a minor flap recently over a guest post by Brandon Sanderson, in which he talks about postmodernism briefly, and says that he decided not to write The Way of Kings as a postmodern fantasy after all.

The interesting part, for me, are the comments to Jeff VanderMeer’s response.

I realised halfway down that the worldview expressed in Sanderson’s fantasy novels is quintessentially early-modern: it has the same sense of an overarching structure and order, and one that’s inherently within the reach of human understanding but that just hasn’t been grasped yet. The world is always stirring, changing, on the brink of political revolution… and the political landscape is as intimately tied in with occult learning and practice as it was in seventeenth-century Europe.

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