Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

July 6, 2010

Aliette de Bodard – Servant of the Underworld

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 5:51 pm

It’s pretty much impossible, these days, to chuck a stone in a decent-sized library without hitting a few fantasy books that are also mysteries or police procedurals, and since I’m a definite fan of all those things I rather like this trend.

It has to be done right, though, and done thoroughly enough—nobody ever talks about the Harry Potter books as fantasy mysteries, even though most of them follow that plot structure. This, on the other hand, is mostly mystery, with a hefty dab of mythology, and the fantasy elements are very well integrated with both.

It’s set in pre-Columbian America, in Tenochtitlan; the detective is Acatl, High Priest for the Dead, called in when someone is murdered by magic… and his own estranged brother looks like the obvious suspect. It’s not all paint-by-numbers plotting, however, and it gives a very similar sense of a detective out of his depth amidst politics, but determined to do the right thing, as Lindsey Davis’s Falco books or Liz Williams’ Detective Inspector Chen books (which de Bodard namechecks as an influence in her afterword, at that).

The worldbuilding is solid and consistent, and there’s a reassuringly sizeable bibliography at the back, which is always a good sign. A few things threw me (like the reference to drinking chocolate from a “clay glass”), but those are strictly minor issues. Overall, definitely recommended.

May 22, 2010

China Miéville – The City and the City

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , — Sam @ 11:02 am

This is an utterly classic crime novel (of the grim, realist kind—low crime?) in its structure, but unmistakably science fiction in its methodology. The kicker is that the science involved is poli-sci and sociology.

Besźel and Ul Qoma would each individually be a typical Ruritania[1], but it’s the interaction between them that produces the novum here. Instead of facing each other across a defined border, as other doubled cities do, they interpenetrate—share physical topology, while the psychogeographical landscape is entirely different in each.

The setting could only have been Eastern Europe, and not just for Balkanesque reasons; this sort of calm acceptance of surreal sociopolitical realities, and the concomitant black humour, is utterly characteristic of the literature of the region.

It’s hard to classify by type[2], but then that’s the best kind of novel to think about in that way. The approach it takes to the inherent strangeness of the city and the city (a linguistic construction used in Besźel and Ul Qoma themselves—saying “the twin cities” or “the split cities” would be an extremely politicised speech act, because it would be an attempt to define the relationship between them) is thoroughly immersive, presented as it is by a first-person narrator who does not explain strangenesses to us.

Structurally, though, it’s a liminal fantasy in that it approaches and then (denies? subverts? co-opts?) the possibility of further strangeness hidden within the already bloody weird structure of Besźel and Ul Qoma.

That kind of liminality, an insistence on ambiguously negotiated boundaries, is mirrored in all the narrator’s relationships—unspoken agreements, unoffical arrangements, “they don’t know but they wouldn’t mind”. That’s how they do things in the city and the city, it seems…

[1] “Besźel” is probably taken from the Hungarian beszél, “to speak”. My Arabic-fu is rather more dodgy, but “Ul Qoma” could well be “The Summit”. Most of the initial establishment of place is done through language—the police slang mectec, or a trilingual pun in the name of a drug. The second book, set in Ul Qoma, makes much of the sheer size of the more economically advanced city’s building boom.

[2] The terms “immersive” and “liminal” come from Rhetorics of Fantasy (Mendlesohn – review here). And yes, I’m aware of the peculiarities of using a fantasy-specific theoretical schema on Debatable SF, but you use the tools that fit your hand…

May 3, 2010

Adam Roberts – On

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 12:11 pm

I liked this, but with reservations. It’s a worldbuilding-mystery novel, with the Big Looming Mystery being the big looming worldwall on which everyone lives, and I’m usually keen on those if done right.

This one basically is, but the explanation of the Mystery comes from a pop-up character (even referred to in the text as a Wizard) who performs that particular kind of infodump where the reader understands it completely but the character to whom it’s addressed doesn’t. Obviously, it’s a perfectly valid authorial decision, and it underlines the themes of precariousness and insignificance that run through the entire book (Tighe, the viewpoint character, has his life turned casually upside down several times over), but it grates on my reading protocol. I have a feeling that that’s because it’s unambiguous—once you get given an explanation like that, the Wizard Has Spoken, and the intriguing mystery gets collapsed into something definite enough to have come from a RPG sourcebook, without the inherent crevices and ambiguities of real historical explanations.

This is one of the same reasons I don’t get on with far-postapocalyptic or magical-future fiction, viz. Robert Jordan’s occasional hints of our own history. I would bring in the Shannara books here too, but it’s been fifteen years since I read any of them, I think, and I don’t miss them.

February 10, 2010

Catherine Webb – The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle

This is rather good Victorian adventure, starring eccentric inventor & Special Constable Horatio Lyle. And his dog Tate, which gives a neat summary of the level of humour involved!

The science involved is impeccable, and there’s something irresistable about a hero who carries dangerous chemicals around in his pockets. The two other protagonists, Tess the burglar and Thomas the young gentleman, are pleasantly sketched, but obviously will always be more interesting to actual young readers.

As is Extremely Traditional for stories set in the Victorian period, the villains are Chinese; this can get rather dodgy, but there are also Chinese third-parties who both aid and work against the protagonists at different times. The part I’m not sure at all about is the tseiqins’ allergy to iron & magnetism, a characteristic normally given to very Celtic creatures. That said, it’s perfect for an antagonist in this period.

January 25, 2010


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

Or rather, a few sketchy notes of things I’m going to have to acquire in the near future.

Spellwright, by Blake Charlton. (website) Complex written magic, disability, and murder mystery.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by NK Jemisin. (website) I’d been planning to pick this up since I first heard about her work, but it went abruptly up the list after reading her short story The Narcomancer on Transcriptase.

Manual of Detection, by Jedediah Berry. (website – annoyance warning: Flash, with embedded sound) The first plug I heard for this was “a reallly cool China Mieville meets Raymond Chandler with a dash of Jasper Fforde fantasy detective story”, and how could that not appeal?

Nights of Villjamur, by Mark Charan Newton. (website) A brief look over the material online – since when I know I want to read something, I prefer to stay away from reviews and extracts till I’ve read the whole thing – gives me the idea that it’s rather like China Mieville or Liz Williams via TS Eliot.

Hm. Most of these seem to be murder mysteries. Perhaps there’s something in the SF/murder mystery intersection for this year, or perhaps it’s just me. Bujold’s GOH speech at Denvention makes a passing reference to a blood type system of genre, where SF is a universal acceptor and mystery a universal donor; I’m still of the opinion that they’re on orthogonal axes, somehow.

November 30, 2009

Amanda Downum – The Drowning City

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 2:28 pm

This was a chance discovery at the library. Let me just take a moment to explain why my local library FAILS at shelving. They’ve very carefully taken all the SF and fantasy books (a task made easier by the fact that they all have “SF” classmarks on the spine) and sorted them in alphabetically with other fiction. Crime (detective, police procedural, &c.) still has its own section; so do YA and black fiction. In all three of those sections, there are SF books. I’m not philosophically enamoured of sorting books by genre, but I do strongly prefer to have them sorted by likeness, and publishing-genre gives a good first-pass model for that. Also, the less time I have to spend wading through third-class chick lit[1] and “auto”-biographies of pop singers or models, the better.

Anyway, the book! Haven’t got it in front of me any longer, so this will be fairly brief.

The environment is basically South Asian in inspiration, but the heroine has travelled from a European-ish country. Downum doesn’t shy away from either skin colours or colonialism, and does a good job of depicting tensions between races[2] & nationalities. The magic system is well thought out and interesting.

Oddly, the author Downum reminds me of most is Tamora Pierce (I’m thinking particularly of Wolf-Speaker and Trickster’s Choice), but this is definitely not YA.

[1] I’ll happily read first-class chick lit. But it’s too rare for me to want to look through it deliberately.

[2] Actual races, not this dwarves-and-elves shite.

June 27, 2009

Connie Willis – To Say Nothing of the Dog

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 11:30 pm

If the proposition had been put to me, prior to reading this novel, that it was even remotely possible for a text to be at one and the same time a time travel caper, a 1930s detective story, a deconstruction of the Country House Novel, and an extended meditation on modelling chaotic systems and the cosmological significance of jumble sales, I would (I freely admit) have been dubious.

There are so very many things I would like to say about this book, but it will take another half-dozen readings at least for me to understand it properly. That is, however, a chore I will undertake with equanimity.

Normally, I would encourage all of you to read this book immediately; however, that would be wrong of me. You must, if you have not already, read Three Men in a Boat (though The Wind in the Willows will do at a pinch), The Complete Jeeves and Wooster, By His Bootstraps, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, William the Conqueror, and at the very least The Nine Tailors and Gaudy Night. Then you must read this book.

I was a little disappointed when I worked out one of the central mysteries long before the protagonists did; but then again, it was (in retrospect) inevitable, and I suspect Willis would have been disappointed if a genre-aware reader hadn’t been expecting that.

The book is gentle, witty, poignant, and more than occasionally side-splittingly hilarious. It runs on cheerfully, like the ever-flowing stream which forms such an eminently Victorian metaphor for time, but – like the stream – there are all sorts of interesting eddies and crosslinks inside the flow. Nothing is insignificant, the story tells us. Nothing gets ignored or passed over; not bulldogs, Oxford Dons, kittens, spinster ladies, or the most egregiously hideous Victorian decorative ware. All Nature is but Art.

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