Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

December 27, 2011

Laini Taylor – Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 5:04 pm

This is only going to be a very short one, because I’m too annoyed to do more.

It’s good, but don’t buy it unless you have a high tolerance for unfinished stories, because (without any indication whatsoever on the cover, blurb, or title page) it’s the first book of a series. It’s not even self-contained; the story set up in the early pages mutates to a larger one, and the only resolution we get is to a story arc introduced over halfway through. By two-thirds of the way through, I could tell it wasn’t going to finish, and the last three words of the book are “to be continued”.

This kind of behaviour by a publisher is Distinctly Unimpressive.

December 15, 2011

Seanan McGuire – Rosemary and Rue

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 11:35 am

Let’s get this out of the way first: it’s a fairies-in-America book, the first of the October Daye (Fairy PI) series. It involves the usual pointless feudalism and Native American erasure—the only non-Celtic creatures in the list at the front are djinn, lamia, and peri—but the racial politics are rather more crosslinked and nuanced than in most such.

The list at the front, unfortunately, set my expectations very low for the rest of the book; it’s a pronunciation guide, and it’s wrong. “Coblynau” (Welsh for “Goblins”) is plural, not singular, and it’s “cob-luh’nigh” not “cob-lee-now”; similarly, “Tylwyth Teg” (literally, “fair folk”) is “tuhl’with tair’g” (more or less) not “tillwith teeg”. As for “Tuatha de Danann”, that would have been even easier to research than the modern Welsh names are. As is traditional, they’re all presented as different species or clans, with distinct phenotypes; unusually, none of the traditional names are cultural analogues of one another.

Happily, I can report that the book improved. It’s a good, uncomplicated read, and the worse characteristics of fairies (imperiousness, secrecy, and drama queening, for instance) are presented as annoyances rather than good things. Toby herself is competent and proactive (rather too much so for her own good, at times) and McGuire’s both good at introducing interesting supporting characters and unafraid to kill them off when we’re getting fond of them.

November 13, 2010

Gwyneth Lewis – The Meat Tree

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Sam @ 4:44 pm

Seren Books, 2010—part of the “New Stories from the Mabinogion” series. Paperback, 256 pp., £7.99.

The Mabinogion is the mediaeval Welsh myth cycle; it comprises the Four Branches themselves; the four native tales; and three romances. There are several English translations available online, linked from the Wikipedia page above, and they’re well worth reading. You don’t need any familiarity with the original to read this, and I’d be really interested in hearing from someone who came to the story fresh with this version. For me, it’s in my blood & bone; I read it in English and in Welsh before I was fifteen, living in the same green valleys where it’s set, so when I was reading this I had the ghosts of a half-dozen different versions reading over my shoulder.

The Meat Tree is a version of the Fourth Branch, called in most translations “Math son of Mathonwy”; here it’s “Blodeuwedd” after the woman made from flowers to be Lleu’s bride, and Lewis’s narrative moves away from the traditional masculine-centred tale of magic and war towards a story centred on relationships—sexual & familial, through love, hatred, resentment, and obligation—and on what it means to be a flower and what it means to be meat. Gwydion and Gilfaethwy’s journey to Annwn, and the War of the Pigs, is passed over in a paragraph, but we hear a lot from Blodeuwedd herself and from Aranrhod. None of the women are given much page time in the original, and are mostly positioned as villains, victims, or (usually) both, so this is a good change.

Trigger warning: the myth deals with rape and incest, and this version doesn’t sugar-coat it.

The framing story is explicitly science-fictional, with two people going to board an unknown derelict near Mars. Campion is an Inspector of Wrecks, a fussy old man nearing retirement who sublimates himself in his work; Nona is an up-and-coming young student, sent out for some practical experience. The wreck looks like an old-time Earth ship, but it’s come from entirely the wrong direction; that’s the first mystery we see, and the story keeps circling back to it.

Inside, there are no bodies, and nothing in the logs to indicate what happened. There’s a clunky old VR immersion unit, though, and our protagonists decide to experience it in order to reconstruct what was important, what the crew valued, what might have happened.

The whole book is told through the crew logs; we open with the Inspector of Wrecks, in his distinctive (and very Welsh) narrative voice.

Is that working now, I wonder? I hate these thought recorders. They’re good in very confined spaces, where you don’t want to overhear the idiotic things your colleagues say to their families back on Mars, but I think they’re overrated. But, there we are, I’m Old School. The trick is to keep the unconscious out of it as much as possible and pretend that you’re talking to yourself.

We alternate between his narrative, Nona’s, and the shared channel they use when exploring the wreck and in the VR environment. The VR sessions themselves are done at a remove, because all we have is the log, with the two of them discussing what’s happening and trying to analyse both the story and the game system—the story behind the story.

Lewis is an extremely accomplished poet (Torchwood viewers will know her work through the inscription on the Wales Millennium Centre, Creu Gwir Fel Gwydr O Ffwrnais Awen) and she uses the myth to examine ideas about storytelling, imagination, and the writer’s process. More than that, though, the story is about itself, about this Welsh national myth, with its tricks and transformations and the struggle to claim independent selfhood. It has a great deal more in it, but in the end, it’s mythlore; it has a whole peoples’ world in it, and there are a great many perspectives on it.

Science-fictionally, it works well; the framing plot is an interesting twist on the old “something comes from outer space, and it’s not what it seems” plot so popular in Golden Age SF, and both the story-within-a-story and the game-that’s-more-than-a-game have been used to good effect recently as well. (I’m thinking of The Habitation of the Blessed, and Stross’s Halting State, respectively—though that’s the only similarity with the latter.)

The only issue I have with Lewis’s SF writing is that her explanations of her future technology are occasionally a little clunky.

Inspector of Wrecks: No, it can’t be. I’ve heard old-timers talking about something like this, but I’ve never seen one. I think it’s something called an audio-cassette player. There’s even a tape in it. Early personal entertainment system.
Apprentice: You’re kidding, when technology was still outside the body? That’s hilarious.
Inspector of Wrecks: See those couches? I bet they’re old VR systems.
Apprentice: VR?
Inspector of Wrecks: Virtual Reality. Before you swallowed the nano-synaptic dream tablets for training and recreation.

The formatting is from the book there, incidentally—the whole thing is written in the style of a play script, and I’d love to hear a radio play á la Under Milk Wood. Her characterization is amazingly expressive; the Inspector of Wrecks came fully formed from his first words. Nona was less real for me, but I think that’s at least as much because I have more trouble empathizing with her.

Overall, I recommend this highly; it’s very accessible poetic criticism, it’s a new (and woman-centred) take on the mediaeval myth, and it’s good SF.

October 13, 2010

Lavie Tidhar – The Bookman

Angry Robot, 416pp paperback. Out in the UK since January 2010, published in the US and in ebook form October 2010.

“This is the time of myths, Orphan. They are the cables that run under the floors and power the world, the conduits of unseen currents, the steam that powers the great engines of the earth.” — Inspector Irene Adler

The Bookman is set in an alternate Victorian era, and it’s intensely focused on the myths and legends of English literary geekdom. It has echoes of Alice Through The Looking Glass, Perdido Street Station, The Tempest, and The Eyre Affair, with a large chunk of Mayhew thrown in for good measure.

It’s set not long after 1887, several hundred years after an expedition to the Calibanic Isle results in the wholesale replacement of Britain’s ruling classes with giant poetry-obsessed lizards. Lord Shakespeare was the first of the great Poet-Prime Ministers; Moriarty is the most recent. And yes, that Moriarty. At the newly rebuilt Rose Theatre, Henry Irving performs his own adaptation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner supported by Beerbohm Tree. (Described as a young actor; Tree was actually 34 and quite famous in 1887, and we know the book isn’t set any earlier because it mentions a new air from Ruddigore. I mention this nitpick, because it’s the only factual or chronological inexactitude I’ve been able to find in the course of an entire book of Victoriana.)

Opposition to Les Lézards’ rule is rising, however; Karl Marx, John (“Don’t call me Nevil”) Maskelyne, and Isabella Beeton meet in a cellar underneath a Charing Cross bookseller, and notorious terrorist organization the Persons from Porlock besiege literary figures with the nonsense of Edward Lear. And then there’s the titular Bookman, assassin and anarchist.

Tidhar’s style is rather readable, and drops into an intensely Dickensian mode for some descriptive passages. He clearly knows and loves London well, and does a very good job of bringing out the city’s character.

“He stopped in his walk through Leicester Square and bought one of the sausages so advertised, covered in oil, dripping fried onions, held in a soggy bun. Everywhere there was the smell of cooking foods, and the lights in all the public houses were burning, and the cries of the drinking class sounded, merry and loud, from every open window but were drowned by the street merchants.”

There is one problem I need to highlight, however, and that’s the Bechdel test failure. There are female characters; a couple of them are quite important to the political plot going on in the background, but they don’t get much screen time. The protagonist has a love interest, who spends most of the book dead, and a female relative who appears briefly and helps out. None of them get to talk to each other. Given that in this society, a woman can be an Inspector at Scotland Yard, that seems rather a missed opportunity.

July 16, 2010

Mike Shevdon – Sixty-One Nails

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , , — Sam @ 1:37 pm

Angry Robot bill this as “Neverwhere’s faster, smarter brother”. My (somewhat predictable) initial reaction to this claim was along the lines of “Ah ha ha ha ha… NO.” Of course, being the generous and kind-hearted person I am, I decided to keep reading it anyway, just to see whether it did have something comparable to Gaiman’s work after all.

It turns out that there are a couple of points in common—they’re both set in London, and… er. No, I think that’s it.

It’s about fairies—excuse me, “Feyre”. I’d like to say that that’s the single silliest and most pretentious misspelling of “fairy” I’ve ever seen, but one of the subspecies of the Feyre is the “Fey’ree”. The Feyre are all aligned towards one or more of the Aristotelian elements, completed in the obligatory manner by “Void”. The Void fairies are the bad ones who refuse to breed with humans, and there’s a mystical barrier keeping them out of our world. But it’s breaking down… and our protagonist is a special, unique Void-fairy halfbreed, which nobody thought could ever exist. Of course, that particular plot point is resolved casually at the end, with a bit of waffle about unexpected heritages and nobody being able to predict what kind of fairy they’ll turn out to be.

A lot of the story concerns learning & mastering the rules of fairy magic, and working out what fairies can and can’t do. And if that last sentence didn’t seem wrong to you, you’ve been reading about a different kind of fairies to the ones I was brought up on. Honestly, this book would have been more readable and made more sense if it started with a crashed alien ship several millennia ago, and superstitious humans treating the advanced travellers as supernatural beings, because these are no kind of fairies I’ve ever heard of. At least Shevdon doesn’t abuse any of the traditional names, so if you do want to read it you can safely pretend they’re just space aliens.

The treatment of fairy tropes in the book is inconsistent, too. They can’t touch iron (it gives them electric shocks) but they’re absolutely fine with steel. Iron is intensely antithetical to magic, but at one point they get into an iron safe using fairy magic. Fairy magic interfaces nicely with technology (at one point, the protagonist uses a mirror to make a call to someone’s mobile), but they regularly use ignore-me-I’m-not-here fairy magic to conceal themselves, or large melee weapons, from security guards and nobody ever worries about being caught on CCTV.

The CCTV thing is a particularly London issue, but there are a few other places in the book which ring rather untrue to me, too. Fifteen quid for a taxi to Heathrow before dawn, for instance; things that eat London pigeons and apparently enjoy them; walking around next to the Fleet without protective gear, let alone falling in it and surviving… Shevdon’s done his headline research pretty well, it seems, but not bothered with the little things.

The writing style is flaccid, with a lot of just-past-tense first-person reflections, and a keen eye for cliché & the pointless minutiae of everyday life, whilst carefully avoiding little details that might enliven a scene beyond the bare-bones setting. It’s still readable, but one gets the feeling that writing is being treated as a necessary inconvenience involved in getting on with the plot, rather than the book itself.

The story’s nominally about the discovery of an unexpected new layer to life, replacing and changing all that’s gone before, but there’s very little sense of real dislocation or threat. The opponents we’re shown are dangerous enough, but they’re all predictable and well defined; there’s none of the lurking, numinous sense of unknown threat, or the unpredictable desires & disposition, that characterize things of faerie in English folklore.

If you have a few hours to waste and nothing better to hand, you won’t be harmed by reading this, but that’s the best I can say about it.

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.

March 22, 2010

Somtow Sucharitkul – The Aquiliad

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 12:38 pm

This is one of Somtow’s early books, and in a 1983 edition (first, I think) from before he began publishing as SP Somtow. Really, the man is incredibly, ridiculously multitalented. It’s actually the first of three in this world, but I had to go looking to find that out, and I’ll count myself absurdly lucky if I find the others any time soon.

It’s an alternate-history job, set in a world where the Roman Empire develops steam power under the Julio-Claudians and can therefore expand across the Atlantic, into the lands of the Apaxae, Comanxii, and so forth.

Our viewpoint character, Titus Papinianus, is the Commander of the Thirty-Fourth Legion—-not this Papinianus, but presumably a relative. “Papinian” is Somtow’s middle name. The Aquila of the title (“actually some barbaric tongue-twister, but it means eagle”) is the war-chief of a band of Lacotii auxiliaries, bought for the arena and then sent off by Domitian to aid the Thirty-Fourth in Cappadocia.

That’s the first book of Aquila, originally published on its own; the books after that deal with Titus’s experiences as Governor of Terra Nova, sent to find a route to the Chinish Empire by Domitian and then by Trajan. First south, to the land of the Olmechii, and then west and north to the land of the Kwakiutl, which must clearly be the land they seek given the combination of giant bones littering the land (the remains of silkworms, as in the scientiae fictiones of P. Iosephus Agricola[1]) and the discovery of a scroll which is “a dictionary of the Chinook speech! Now what else could that mean, but that we have here a transcription into Egyptian letters of the Chinish tongue?”

There’s a bit of racial stereotyping going on, which is sort of inevitable in SF of this era, but it’s countered by comments about the problems with imperial projects.

[1] No, it sounds more like Herbert to me too, but I may be missing something. There are a lot of these littering the text, such as the Judean Asimianus and his epic poem Fundatio.

February 23, 2010

Elizabeth Bear – Blood and Iron/Whiskey and Water

This is a re-read – I didn’t like these very much the first time around, but it would have been unfair for me to dismiss them on one reading. So now I’m going to dismiss them, rather more comprehensively, after two. It’s a pity; I’m immensely fond of the basic themes involved. Tradition & the supernatural vs progress and the “mundane[1]“, grace and pride and redemption, human brilliance and folly in the face of the crushing historical weight of evil and incompetence… and it has both Lucifer and Kit Marlowe in it. It also has both Sidhe and werewolves in it, but I wanted to give it a fair chance to impress me despite those.

Bear’s an immensely talented writer – technically brilliant, in fact. And I’m sure these books have a lot to say to many people, but I’m not one of them. They’re just not speaking my language.

Bear has talked about writing “comedies of ethics” – that’s a pretty fair description of these books. The thing is, though, ethics are always very much dependent on the moral gravity of the universe in which one finds oneself, and this one’s been quite thoroughly structured as a crapsack dystopia where kingship really matters, where biology is destiny, and where absolutely everything is a competition – predator and prey, and everyone is both at once. Victim and victimizer, in fact, with no space for any other mode of interrelation.

They’re also intensely American books, and intensely Eurocentric & colonial. Somehow, the Courts of the Sidhe have become some sort of paradigmatic supernatural force, accessible from all over the world (though focused on America) and apparently in charge of all the weird-shit; there are Russian horse-fairies serving them, a subcontinental assassin, and (in the second book) an Aboriginal spirit, the Bunyip, as a major villain. (Though I use “villain” advisedly; these are not books for clear-cut shades.)

I counted one reference to anything Native American anywhere in the two books, and that was a white New Age hedgewizard who tried to look like one. There are a couple of black characters; the only female one is introduced with a ridiculously lubricious passage of race-centric drooling.

[A] mask as impassive as an Egyptian empress’, lips blooming fat and sensual as orchids beneath the flat, aristocratic nose; skin red-black as the famous bust of Queen Tiy; hair braided in a thousand beaded Medusa serpents.

Others have spoken, at length, on the problematic nature of the first we see, who is a murderous cannibal rapist horse-spirit, and who is the first whom we see enslaved, so I’m not going to.

It amuses me that several of the characters – and ones who should know better – use the term “Dark Ages” without irony, and referring to something dreadful that should never be allowed to happen again. Then again, they’re all hung up on the hierarchy/kingship shite… but so is the universe, and whilst there are hints of subversion there aren’t any sensible characters to support them.

The elevation of some little local narrative to overarching global significance has a long tradition in fantasy & SF (after all, it’s what ends up happening in the real world too) but we have to be particularly careful when one author’s responsible for the lot – as has happened here, it erases any other narrative. Unlike in the real world, alternative narratives become not just invisible but nonexistent.

And it’s always the same little local narratives that get elevated. One of these days we’ll see Fairy Queens chained and leashed by the Bunyip’s divan bed, or Nyaminyami commanding djinn and talking horses, or the Workers’ Council of Naiads, Rusalka, Berehynia, and Allied Trades with their Sidhe flunkies. But so far? Not a sausage.

[1] “Mundane” is so often applied, or understood, derogatorily – especially by some particularly stupid SF fans. But consider the derivation; is there anything more wonderful?

September 15, 2009

Frances Hardinge – Verdigris Deep

This book is difficult to describe. It’s about families, mostly, but not in the everything-is-a-metaphor-for-your-parents’-divorce sense so tiresomely common in children’s lit. There is a divorce, but it isn’t where we think it’s going to be, and the well spirit is just that.

It’s a book about learning to connect and to value friendships, and about forgiveness – about learning to tell what we, and each other, really want. The well spirit does some monstrous things, and gets described using some really grotesque imagery, but that doesn’t make her a monster to be opposed utterly in the way a less skilled writer might have done.

July 31, 2009

Silver on the Tree

The Dark is Rising Sequence, by Susan Cooper. Book 5.

In many ways, this is a wonderful book. But in a lot of others, it makes me really angry.

Written in 1977 (when mass immigration from the Commonwealth was still relatively new in most of England) it’s explicitly anti-racist, which is wonderful. Will’s family defend a Sikh child (and correctly identify his ethnicity) against a racist bully and his racist father, and the racism is explicitly linked to the Dark. On the other hand, it still doesn’t give active roles to women – Jane’s only task is to avoid being eaten by a lake monster – and demonises people with red hair.

It’s set in Wales again, both in the real and immediate landscape of West Wales and in Cantre’ Gwaelod, the Drowned Hundred – the land lost when the dykes failed and the sea came in, between Llyn[1] and Gower, that now forms Bae Ceredigion. On the other hand, the cast take a train (an antique steam train, in fact, that the Light sends when it’s needed, and which then turns into a boat – I’m reminded of the dream travel sequences in the first and next-to-last Sandman books, though of course they were much later) back to the Chiltern Hills for the arbitrary finale.

It’s arbitrary, because we hadn’t heard about the Midsummer Tree before, nor that the mistletoe on it opened its flowers once every seven hundred years and that the side whose champion cut the mistletoe at the instant of its full flowering could permanently banish the other from Time.

For that matter, we didn’t have (or at least, I didn’t see) any foreshadowing that one of the supporting cast had been a stealth Lord of the Dark until she gets suddenly unmasked and banished on the train.

The Light never tells its champions what’s going to happen, any more than it tells the readers, so this ties in well with the single thing about the book that angers me most.

At the end of the book, after all they’ve gone through, after being chased around and stalked and threatened by the Dark, everyone who’s not a wizard-by-predestined-birthright is made to lose their memory for their own good. The one grownup is given a choice, but resigns it, and asks the Light to choose for him; the children aren’t even given that choice. It’s not even that they go Susan, and think it was all a game; they can’t remember any of it. And John Rowlands, the one mortal adult at the finale – who is a really good character – gets to live out the rest of his life in the comforting illusion that his wife was nothing more than the ordinary loving woman she seemed, and forget everything about the Light and the Dark and the Old Ones, forget that he stood firm against the greatest darkness that ever was, forget that victory hinged on his judgement.

Going back to the bright spots for a while, when Will and Bran go through Cantre’ Gwaelod we see guest appearances from Gwion[2] and Gwyddno Garanhir, and we get a long section all about craftsmanship, which I can’t do better than to quote.

‘It was made by one who was close to the Light,’ Gwion said, ‘but who was neither a Lord of the Light nor one of the Old Ones – there are none such bred in this land… He was the only one who had the skill to make so great a wonder. Even here, where many are skilled. A great craftsman, unparalleled. But the Riders of the Dark, they could roam freely through the land, since we had neither desire nor reason to keep any creature out – and when they heard that the Light had asked for the sword, they demanded that it should not be made. They knew, of course, that words already long written foretold the use of Eirias, once it was forged, for the vanquishing of the Dark.’
Will said, ‘What did he do, the craftsman?’
‘He called together all the makers in the land,’ Gwion said. He tilted his head a little higher. ‘All those who wrote, or brought life to others’ words or music, or who made beautiful things. And he said to them, I have this work in me, I know it, that will be the peak of everything I can ever make or do, and the Dark is trying to forbid me to do it. We may all suffer, if I deny them their will, and I cannot therefore be responsible alone for deciding. Tell me. Tell me what I should do.’
Bran was gazing at him. ‘What did they say?’
‘They said, You must make it.’ Gwion smiled proudly. ‘Without any exception. Make the sword, they said.’

And the Dark’s revenge on the craftsman was to bring a great depression on him –

Fear of age, of insufficiency, of unmet promise. All such endless fears, that are the doom of people given the gift of making, and lie always somewhere in their minds.

Don’t we all know it…

[1] The y there should have a circumflex, but HTML 4.0 does not support Welsh very well. “Llyn” without a circumflex means “lake”, and this particular geographical feature is a peninsula, which is rather different.
[2] Yes, that Gwion. And when he packs lunch for the children, he gives them apples and hazelnuts.

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