Aug 25

Book Review: The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

What’s It About

In the frozen kingdom of Saiduan, invaders from another realm are decimating whole cities, leaving behind nothing but ash and ruin.  As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her alien Empress.

Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.

In the end, one world will rise – and many will perish.

Representative Paragraph

Magic is based on whose star is ascendant…

Maralah summoned an air-twisting parajista at the height of his power to secure Aaraduan’s inner and outer gates with shimmering skeins of air and soil. She gazed at the cracked face of the ascendant star, Para, glowing milky blue in the lavender sky. She cursed the invaders for not coming ashore fifteen years earlier, when her star, Sina, was ascendant, and she was the most deadly power in Saiduan. She felt only the most tenuous connection to her violet-burning satellite now, and could do little more to aid in the shoring up of the gates than give orders. Her days of calling lightning and fire from a clear sky were long behind her. If all here went as she foresaw, she would die before seeing Sina again.

Should I Read It?

Maybe.  It’s a bit of a curates egg.  (There’s a term I don’t use everyday).  So you may want to check out a sample before you purchase the book – or read my spoilerific thoughts below.

Commentary

While at an intellectual level I appreciated the ideas that fuel Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire (first book in the Worldbreaker Saga) the novel never engaged me emotionally.

On the positive side, the Mirror Empire is a book that unceremoniously dumps the reader into a secondary world and mostly leaves them to figure out what’s going on.  While there’s a glossary at the end of the book explaining what the made-up words mean, Hurley avoids the compulsion to info-dump each concept she introduces. This means that the first quarter of the novel is confusing in a pleasurable sort of way as you explore the political and cultural dynamics of this fantasy world.

That neatly segways into the world-building which is another strength of the novel.  Hurley has developed a wonderful and original magic system which is based on the waxing and waning of the satellites that orbit the planet.  If your star is ascendant then your magic or power is at its peak.  And each star or satellite – there are four of them – gives the user a specific set of magical skills, such as the ability to heal or control air currents.

Added to that we have the key idea at the heart of the novel, the fact that Hurley’s secondary world and the Empires that rule are facing ruin and destruction from a force that comes from a parallel reality.  Just as Hurley described it in the publicity leading up to the book’s publication, the Mirror Empire is Game of Thrones meets Fringe.  Specifically though, it’s the Fringe aspect that distinguishes this novel (and series) from other grimdark or epic fantasies. I also liked that crossing between these realities involves more than magic and a waving of hands.  Blood needs to be spilt.  Lots of it.

And yet as much as I enjoyed the infusion of parallel universes into a secondary world fantasy, the concept, as handled by Hurley, has its drawbacks.  She makes the bold move of revealing the existence of an alternate reality about a quarter of the way through the novel – other writers would have left this reveal as the cliffhanger to Book One.  And while I’m glad she didn’t hold this piece of information back, the problem is that not all our characters learn the truth straight away.  As a result we have this situation where one set of point of view characters is dealing directly with the threat, while a separate bunch of protagonists are still figuring out who the enemy really is.  It gives the narrative this uneven feel as certain plot strands feel like they’ve been held back just so other characters can catch up. It also means that the middle of the novel drags.

I also didn’t like any of the characters. Not just because most of them were unlikable, but because they didn’t seem to have personalities or lives outside of the role they’d been given in the novel. So Lilia, for example, spends most of the novel fruitlessly looking for her mother.  And Zezili spends most of the novel slaughtering hundreds of innocent people while feeling guilty about it.  And Ahkio spends most of the novel, as the newly appointed rule of the Dhai trying to figure out why his sister, the previous ruler, died. All these are important to the plot of the novel, but they do very little to flesh out each character’s personality.

So, if I wasn’t spending the next how many years reading award shortlists would I proactively go out and buy the second book in the series?  Probably not.  And yet… a part of me is hoping that the second novel does get nominated for an award in 2016 because I am genuinely interested to see what Hurley does next with the parallel universe concept in a secondary world context.

Aug 21

So, who should have won the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel

Because you’ve forgotten, here were the nominees (with handy links to my reviews):

The winner was Ancillary Sword.  I think it will come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog that it’s not the novel I would have chosen or voted for.  That would be Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy.  Yes, we could split hairs as to whether all the books in the trilogy can be classed as science fiction, but I think there are enough familiar markers in Acceptance to deem the series as SF.*  Whatever the case, if I’m judging based on what’s in the category, then the Southern Reach outclasses the other four books nominated.

Having said that, this is a pretty decent set of nominees.  Yes, I had major issues with Ancillary Sword and The Peripheral but even those two books have something interesting to say – whether it’s a passionate critique of colonialism and empires in spaaaace or a wicked look at financial institutions, PR companies and two futures that never will be.  And then there’s a book like The Three Body Problem which would have been my second pick and which bombards you with ideas, set pieces and the Chinese revolution.  I’ve read nothing like it, which is why I think you should be reading it.  I recently reviewed Lock In so I’m not going to repeat myself other than to note that there will always be an important place for good entry-level science fiction.**

If I do have a concern about this particular list of nominees, it’s that it only features one female author.  I know, I know, another blogger talking about gender.  But when we have books like Nnedi Okorafor’s amazing Lagoon or Claire North’s wonderful The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August it’s a shame that this years set of nominees is so male-centric.  Having said that, hurrah and huzzah that a translated book, from China, made the cut.

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* You could also argue the fairness of pitting three books against single volumes.  I would counter by saying that Annihilation / Authority / Acceptance clearly combine to form one large 250,000 word novel that happens to have been split into three volumes.

** I also think I’m wrong when I said in my review that the book doesn’t feature far-flung concepts as post-humanism.  The case could be made that the Hadens and their relationship with technology is verging on a posthuman state.

*** I know the UK publication of both these books didn’t help matters.

Aug 20

Book Review: Lock In by John Scalzi

What’s It About

Fifteen years from now, a new virus sweeps the globe. 95% of those afflicted experience nothing worse than fever and headaches. Four percent suffer acute meningitis, creating the largest medical crisis in history. And one percent find themselves “locked in”—fully awake and aware, but unable to move or respond to stimulus.

Representative Paragraph

The early days of the disease…

 “I had a cousin who got Haden’s,” Davidson said, and internally I checked off the victory. “This was back with the first wave, when no one had any idea what the fuck was going on. Before they called it Haden’s. She got the flu, and then seemed to get better, and then—”

He shrugged.

“Lock in,” I said.

“Right,” Davidson said. “I remember going to the hospital to see her, and they had a whole wing of locked-in patients. Just lying there, doing nothing but breathing. Dozens of them. And a couple of days before, all of them were walking around, living a normal life.”

“What happened to your cousin?” I asked.

“She lost it,” Davidson said. “Being locked in made her have a psychotic break, or something like that.”

I nodded. “That wasn’t uncommon, unfortunately.”

Should I Read It?

Yes.

Commentary

John Scalzi’s Lock In is good entry-level science fiction.  It’s light on description, heavy on dialogue and doesn’t tax the mind with complicated far-flung ideas – like post humanism or the singularity – and hard to parse portmanteaus.  It’s the sort of novel you could recommend to a newbie before you ply them with the harder stuff like Charles Stross or Anne Leckie.

But entry-level does not mean simple.  Scalzi’s gift as a writer is taking reasonably complicated ideas – at least from the perspective of someone who doesn’t eat, sleep and dream of science fiction – and communicate them in a manner that’s (a) easy to understand and (b) extremely entertaining.  With Lock In he’s imagined a horrible situation, a worldwide virus that’s paralysed 1% of the population and which on its own would be the meat and potatoes of many a horror story, and applied a shiny science fiction gloss.  He achieves this through the introduction of virtual worlds, neural nets and robot avatars that allow the Hadens (those with the virus) to have a physical presence in the world.  It’s fantastic stuff.  High-concept and brimming with potential.

The point of view character for the novel – it’s told in first person – is Chris Shane, a Haden and an FBI agent.  Shane’s first week on the job involves a murder investigation that has ramifications for the Haden community.  Scalzi deliberately doesn’t identify Shane’s gender.  It’s not something you necessarily notice while you’re reading the book, nor is Chris’ gender particularly relevant to the plot.  Instead it’s an unresolved question, an easter egg that slots seamlessly into a world where a small part of the population use genderless avatars.  Interestingly I read Chris as female.  It’s the vibe I received from the character though I can’t point to a single moment or line of dialogue that proves my case.

What’s more overt are discussions on class and sociology, or at least the cultures that build around disabilities.  In terms of class, it’s clear that Threeps are not cheap, and while most Hadens have access to the basic model, those with money can buy an avatar that has all the frills.  Chris comes from a privileged background,  his/her father was a sport star, now a politician, who is not short of a buck.  This means that she/he has access to the best Threep on the market, something Chris is fully cognisant of:

She [a real estate agent] glanced back to me and her eyes flickered over my shiny, expensive threep, as if to say not that you have to worry about that.

Class, status and power is also a key component of the story, with the murder investigation centering on the Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates of Hadens.

More interesting, though, is the culture that’s built up around the disability.  I’m always fascinated by debates around deaf culture and the threat posed by a cure for those who are proud to be deaf, to have sign language as their main form of communication.  Scalzi explores this very notion.  It’s been a several years since the virus and the Hadens have created a sense of community and culture.  And like deafness, it’s a way of life that would come under threat if a remedy to the virus was found.  This very issue becomes pivotal to the plot.  One of the secondary characters, Jay Kearney, firebombs a pharmaceutical company that’s working on a cure.

Jay Kearney: “But as I went on I began to realize that Haden’s wasn’t some life sentence. It was just another way to live. I began to see the beauty of the world we Hadens were creating, the millions of us, in our own spaces and in our own way. And I began listening to the words of Cassandra Bell, who said that people like me, people who were working to quote-unquote cure Haden’s, were in fact killing the first new nation of humanity to come along in centuries.

It’s a shame, therefore, that this aspect of the novel, while important to the motivations of some of the characters, isn’t one that’s explored in any further depth.  By the halfway point of the book, any commentary around Haden culture, or for that matter class and status, is subsumed by the plot as Sclazi pushes toward a dramatic, if predictable conclusion.

While I would have liked to have seen more exploration of class, status and disability culture I also accept that this is not that type of book.  Like good entry-level science fiction, it’s happy to start the discussion, happy to have readers reflect on these issues – and question their own gender bias – but not necessarily tackle the thorny problems that emerge from discussing these themes and concerns.  In the end story and plot take precedence.  In this case the story was fine, if a little thin and obvious, but I appreciated the world building and would be more than happy to see a world like this depicted on TV.*

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*Which might actually happen because Legendary have bought the TV rights.

Aug 12

Book Review: Acceptance by Jeff Vandermeer

What’s It About

It’s the third and final book in the Southern Reach series.  Do I need to say more?

Representative Paragraph

The majesty of the natural world – the known and the unknown…

Once, from this vantage, [Saul Evan’s had] seen something vast rippling through the water beyond the sandbars, a kind of shadow, the grayness so dark and deep it had formed a thick, smooth shape against the blue. Even with his binoculars he could not tell what creature it was, or what it might become if he stared at it long enough. Didn’t know if eventually it had scattered into a thousand shapes, revealed as a school of fish, or if the color of the water, the sharpness of the light, changed and made it disappear, revealed as an illusion. In that tension between what he could and couldn’t know about even the mundane world, he felt at home in a way he would not have five years ago. He needed no greater mysteries now than those moments when the world seemed as miraculous as in his old sermons. And it was a good story for down at the village bar, the kind of story they expected from the lighthouse keeper, if anyone expected anything from him at all.

Should I Read It?

Absolutely, but you won’t get the full effect if you haven’t read Annihilation and Authority.

Commentary

Acceptance is probably the most accessible of the three Southern Reach novels.  That doesn’t mean you can or should skip Annihilation or Authority.  To appreciate the trilogy in its full, off kilter glory, you need to read each book in order.  However, in terms of storytelling and structure, Acceptance is an easier novel to get a handle of.

There’s a few reasons for this.  The first, and most obvious, is that this is the novel where Vandermeer starts to reveal the origins of Area X.  Well, sort of.  There isn’t necessarily a single source of truth, or a long monologue from one of the characters explaining what Area X is.  The closest we get is Ghost Bird’s* following epiphany (warning – the quote is spoilerific):

She saw or felt, deep within, the cataclysm like a rain of comets that had annihilated an entire biosphere remote from Earth. Witnessed how one made organism had fragmented and dispersed, each minute part undertaking a long and perilous passage through spaces between, black and formless, punctuated by sudden light as they came to rest, scattered and lost—emerging only to be buried, inert, in the glass of a lighthouse lens. And how, when brought out of dormancy, the wire tripped, how it had, best as it could, regenerated, begun to perform a vast and preordained function, one compromised by time and context, by the terrible truth that the species that had given Area X its purpose was gone.

So, yes, some questions are addressed*, including greater insight into character motivations and who knew what and when.  That makes Acceptance a quicker read, more of a page turner than its predecessors.  But it’s not the only reason the novel is more accessible.  Much of it has to do with the introduction of Saul Evans.

Area X has two prominent locations.  The typographical anomaly – a long, vertical tunnel with words scrawled across its unending walls – and a lighthouse.  When the Biologist visits the lighthouse in Annihilation she sees a faded picture of the lighthouse keeper (she also briefly meets him, or someone who looks like him, at the end of that novel).  The same picture adorns the wall of the previous Director’s office – the Psychologist from Annihilation.  His name is Saul Evans and Acceptance fills us in on his story.

The phrase lighthouse keeper immediately, at least for me, summons up an image of a crusty old loner with a shaggy beard and well-worn pullover.  Saul Evans couldn’t be different.  He was once a preacher, who, in search for inner peace, decides to leave all that behind and tend to a lighthouse.  It’s there where he meets Charlie and falls in love.  He also takes a shine to a young, inquisitive girl named Gloria, who later in life, becomes the Director of a certain secret Government organisation.

Saul is a wonderful character.  It’s fascinating that in a series where so much of the cast – the Biologist, the Director, Control, Whitby – are distant and flawed and obsessed and broken, that we are introduced to a man who is so engaging, so warm and generous of heart.  And while that bastard Jeff Vandermeer will, inevitably, rip all that away, you can’t help but want Saul to somehow survive, to live a long life of love and joy.

Saul’s story may only be a third of the novel, but in a sense he’s the key to the whole series.  Not just because Area X begins with him – he sees a glint in the corner of his eye… a shard of glass?… reaches down to pick it up and although he’s wearing gloves the sliver of light enters his thumb – but because even as he succumbs to Area X, his humanity shines through, his final thoughts directed at those he loves.  And it’s Saul’s humanity that allows us to view Area X as more than just an alien experiment in terraforming or a weird phenomenon that plagues the mind of the Southern Reach personnel, but as a sentient organism that, like all the humans in the story, is struggling to make sense and take control of its surroundings.

Acceptance may not be as intense and atmospheric as the previous two books, but I can’t imagine a more fitting end to a remarkable trilogy of novels.

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* Ghost Bird is a doppelgänger or clone of the Biologist from Annihilation.  We learn in Acceptance that while the doppelganger was sent to the Southern Reach, the real Biologist remained in Area X and in fact ended up on a small island off the shore of Area X.

*As this recent blog post from Vandermeer indicates, the novel features a number of mysteries that aren’t explicitly explained.

Aug 08

Book Review: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

What’s It About

This is second novel in the Southern Reach trilogy and follows directly on from the events of Annihilation.  All you need to know is that a new head has been appointed to lead the Southern Reach (the pseudo government entity that keeps a check on Area X).  His name is John Rodriguez (aka Control) and what he’s about to discover is that the Southern Reach is as disturbing a place as the phenomena it’s supposedly evaluating.

Representative Paragraph

This will make more sense if you’ve read Annihilation.  So… off you go…

The surveyor had been found at her house, sitting in a chair on the back patio. The anthropologist had been found by her husband, knocking on the back door of his medical practice. The biologist had been found in an overgrown lot several blocks from her house, staring at a crumbling brick wall. Just like the members of the prior expedition, none of them had any recollection of how they had made their way back across the invisible border, out of Area X. None of them knew how they had evaded the blockades and fences and other impediments the military had thrown up around the border. None of them knew what had happened to the fourth member of their expedition—the psychologist, who had, in fact, also been the director of the Southern Reach and overridden all objections to lead them, incognito. None of them seemed to have much recollection of anything at all.

Should I Read It?

YES!  But read Annihilation first.  Like now!

Commentary

What I want to do, rather than ramble on about themes and character development, is explain how quickly Authority got under my sturdy, thick skin.  I remember Annihilation having a similar effect, but I’d read that months ago and Authority is a very different book.  It’s told in third person, rather than first person, the setting is the Southern Reach, not Area X and it introduces a bunch of new characters with most of the focus on John Rodriguez, the new boss of SR.  The novel is told through his eyes.  And yet even with these numerous differences, Acceptance just like Annihilation freaked me the fuck out.

We might be viewing Southern Reach through the perspective of the guy in charge, but John Rodriguez provides zero comfort.  You get the immediate impression that previous experiences have hollowed him out.  There’s a reason for this.  A twisted relationship with his mother and grandfather who also happens to be in the Business (covert intelligence aka spying) and a mission a few years earlier that went horribly wrong.  Rodriguez is a man who has severe trust issues and who has never truly been in control of anything in his life.  Coming to Southern Reach only emphasises how little power he has, even though, nominally, he’s the boss.  As the novel progresses, the nickname, Control, increasingly becomes a tragic joke than reflective of his position.

Rodriguez has been asked to head SR to discover what went wrong with the 12th expedition and why the previous head of the Southern Reach – the Psychologist from Annihilation­ – decided to break protocol and enter Area X.  The staff of the Southern Reach are deliberately obstructive, especially the assistant director whose loyalty to the previous director means that Rodriguez is the enemy in her eyes.  This does make for some humorous office politics, but also underlines the novel’s themes about power and control.

But all this talk about themes and characters and plot is a delaying tactic on my part.  Because when you cut away all the smart, intelligent stuff that Vandermeer is doing, what’s left is a book steeped in the unknowable, the transcendent and the freaky.

The found footage plot device grabbed horror by the throat when it was first introduced, to mainstream success, in 1999 (The Blair Witch Project).  Around the same time, Mark Z Danielewski published the House of Leaves.  I avoided reading it for a several years because the weird typography intimidated me.  Thankfully Kirstyn McDermott recommended it for the Writer and the Critic podcast.  Danielewski’s found footage approach to the haunted house story is genuinely unsettling.  I couldn’t help but be reminded of it when John Rodriguez is invited to review videotape of the first expedition.

This is the moment I’ve held back.  This one scene, set halfway through the novel.  Rodriguez sitting in a room, alone, watching a video of “more than one hundred and fifty fragments, most of the surviving footage lasting between ten seconds and two minutes.”  It’s a video that comes with a recommendation… or warning… that you not watch for more than one hour at a time.

Vandermeer has led the reader up to this moment.  Although there have been no scenes of outright horror, the atmosphere Vandermeer creates in those early chapters, as Rodriguez attempts to navigate the quirks and weirdness of Southern Reach, is redolent with uneasiness.  There’s something wrong with the people who work and administer and manage the Southern Reach.  Something fundamental.  And yet Rodriguez can’t put a finger on it, possibly because he’s broken as well.

So when we sit in that room with Rodriguez and watch that video we’re open to suggestion.  A better person than me could deconstruct Vandermeer’s prose when describing what Rodriguez sees and explain why it’s so effective.  Rodriguez’s reaction to seeing the video is to vomit his lunch.  My reaction was nowhere near as extreme, but I was still unnerved.

While not a particularly long novel,  Authority is a slow born.  There are no easy answers, in fact just more and more questions and the feeling of constantly treading water of circling the drain until madness well and truly sets in.  And yet, the ongoing frustration at the lack of answers is key to this novel’s brilliance.  While Rodriguez and the assistant director argue over the minutiae of office politics, you can’t help but feel that their delaying the inevitable, the point at which they – and the reader – are going to recognise that the Southern Reach is a sham and that Area X is something impossible to evaluate and can never be tamed.

I finished Authority and took a deep cleansing breath, only to realise there’s another book to go.

Jul 31

Book Review: My Real Children by Jo Walton

What’s It About

[The back cover blurb is long so I’m just cutting and pasting the last paragraph]

Two lives, two worlds, two versions of modern history. Each with their loves and losses, their sorrows and triumphs. My Real Children is the tale of both of Patricia Cowan’s lives…and of how every life means the entire world.

Representative Paragraph

Two realities co-existing

[Patricia] had made choices. Thinking about that she felt the strange doubling, the contradictory memories, as if she had two histories that both led her to this point, this nursing home. She was confused, there was no question about that. She had lived a long life. They asked her how old she was and she said she was nearly ninety, because she couldn’t remember whether she was eighty-eight or eighty-nine, and she couldn’t remember if it was 2014 or 2015 either. She kept finding out and it kept slipping away. She was born in 1926, the year of the General Strike; she held on to that. That wasn’t doubled. Her memories of childhood were solitary and fixed, clear and single as slides thrown on a screen. It must have happened later, whatever it was that caused it. At Oxford? After? There were no slides any more. Her grandchildren showed her photographs on their phones. They lived in a different world from the world where she had grown up.

Should I Read It?

 No.

Commentary

I know.  I’m as surprised as you are to find myself recommending that you not bother with a Jo Walton novel.  After reading Among Others and enjoying Walton’s fantastic criticism (especially her look back at the Hugo awards on tor.com) she’s become a writer who engenders a level of expectation and excitement.

I had no issue with the novel’s premise.  It’s an oldie but a goodie.  Take a pivotal moment in a person’s life and explore what might have been if they’d made a different decision.  In the case of Patricia Cowan that turning point is the day her boyfriend, Mark, asks her over the phone (not very romantic) for her hand in marriage.  Her response splits her life in two and from that point onward the novel alternates between the Patricia that said yes and the Patricia (or Pat) that said no.

However, as the lives of Patricia and Pat grew wider apart I found myself growing increasingly annoyed.  I appreciate that Walton wanted Patricia to experience two very different lives based on the answer she gave Mark.  My issue is that the path we see both Patricia’s take is so lacking in subtlety or nuance that the wonderful premise and set-up is totally undermined.

In the reality where Patricia said yes to Mark’s proposal, she lives a life of misery as he sets about emotionally abusing her, and putting down any dreams she might of have of being an academic or writer.  Sex for the two of them is a mechanical, loveless, awful process:

He turned back and lay on top of her again, battering away between her legs again, clearly trying to force a way inside. She tried to keep completely still to help. At last he managed it—she bit her lip to stop herself whimpering, but it was no good, as the battering went on and on she could not stop herself crying or later from begging him to stop. There was no dignity left to her. This couldn’t be it, the thing all the poetry was about, this painful bestial thrusting? At last he climbed off her and got out of bed, leaving her to cry alone in the dark.

Because this is fiction, and not the real world where conception is a crapshoot, Patricia falls pregnant immediately, and miscarries, only to have to go through the same harrowing process again.  In the end she and Mark have four children and aside from their youngest daughter, he is as aloof and emotionally detached from them as he is with his wife.  Patricia does eventually leave Mark, and things do get somewhat better, but the scars of their relationship linger.

While Patricia is going through this living hell, at a the global level things are moving along quite nicely.  Around Patricia’s awful marriage a science fictional utopia emerges, where people are accepted for who they are (gay marriage is legalised without too much fuss) and humanity travels to the moon and sets up a base, the eventual destination for one of her children.

As for the Patricia who said no to Mark, it becomes clear pretty quickly that Walton’s intention is to flip things around on a micro and macro level.  Pat meets Bee and enjoys a wonderful relationship of love and support.  However, at the global level the shit hits the fan as Russia and America end up nuking each other and a cloud of radioactive matter drifts across the world with cancer rates skyrocketing.  While it never reaches the height of a dystopia, it’s the sort of future history where you be constantly looking over your shoulder ready for the next nuke to fall on your head.

And that, frankly, is the be all and end all of this novel.   A good relationship taking place in terrible international circumstances and a horrible marriage taking place in a world where everything comes up Milhouse.  It’s about as nuanced as an episode of Dora the Explorer.

The shame of it is that I thought Walton’s handling of a same-sex relationship was wonderful.  She highlights the issues that gay couples face on a daily basis, issues that heterosexuals never need consider.  Most harrowing is not being allowed to visit your partner outside of hours at a hospital because you’re not recognised as a family member or a significant other.  And yet in spite of this, and in spite of a world where dropping a nuclear bomb on your enemy is de rigueur, Pat is still thankful that she met her lovely Bee.

[Pat:] “I am bringing you my joy, Jesus, as I was taught as a child. Thank you for Bee. Thank you for making her, thank you for letting me find her, thank you for making me worthy of her. Thank you for our house in Florence, for her fellowship, for my teaching. Thank you for our lives, our love. And if this is all there is, if she decides she wants a man later, wants to marry and have children, then so be it. Thank you for giving us this time to be together and be happy.”

Sadly, the goodness of Pat and Bee’s relationship is somewhat undercut by the revelation that Patricia’s husband, Mark, is a gay man who, due to his religious observance, never came to terms with his sexuality.  Because the story is told from Patricia’s perspective, Mark’s confusion in regard to his sexual tendencies is never explored.  Instead we’re given an awful stereotype of the closeted gay man who is an abusive arsehole with zero redemptive qualities.

The final chapter makes a clunky attempt to flesh out the main theme of the novel. In her dotage and suffering from dementia, Patricia recalls a fractured life that blends together her experiences as Patricia and Pat. At the heart of this chapter is partly the question of why couldn’t Patricia have experienced the best of both worlds, the love of Bee coupled with Walton’s utopia? With that question comes the guilt, how could Patricia choose that perfect life knowing that her beautiful children (even if they were a result of an abusive marriage) would cease to exist. Who are my real children? It’s an interesting point for discussion but it’s explored far too late in the novel and requires the reader to see Patricia and her children as “real” as more than just a thought experiment. Because ultimately I couldn’t get passed the artifice of this novel. Once Patricia makes that pivotal decision, I couldn’t help but see Walton, in the background, forcing her characters down two specific paths. Like one of those on-rails games where your choices are limited and pre-defined. And it’s this lack of real choice, of the freedom to do something unexpected, even to the author, that made this novel such a disappointing reading experience.

Jul 27

Who Should Have Won the British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel

Because I’ve completely forgotten who was nominated (announced so long ago) here is a reminder of the finalists and links to my reviews:

This is going to annoy some (or most) people but I think the least interesting, ambitious and inventive novel on this ballot, Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, won the award.  Let’s be crystal here, I did not hate Ancillary Sword.  As I said in my review, the writing was an improvement on Ancillary Justice and I appreciated Leckie’s exploration of the effects of colonialism.  But in terms of story-telling, in terms of invention, in terms of pushing the boundaries, Ancillary Sword doesn’t bat as high as the other finalists, and I include The Moon King on this list.

But while the winner may not have been to my tastes, we needs to applaud the membership of the British Science Fiction Association for choosing such an outstanding bunch of nominees.  Add the Goblin Emperor, the Three Body Problem and the Southern Reach trilogy to this list and you essentially have the must read “core” science fiction and fantasy novels of 2014.  The Allan, the Hardinge, the North, the Hutchinson and the Okorafor are all fantastic books, all doing something interesting with their genre of choice, all finding that balance between telling a compelling story, creating an atmosphere and delivering a message or a theme.  They are books that give you hope about the SF/F moving forward.  And in an environment where the moans and groans of the Rabid Puppy campaign dominate the discussion it’s heartening to know that you can cut through the crap and read a shortlist, chosen by readers, not judges, that’s actually worthy of discussion.

As for who I would have award the prize too – that would be Europe in Autumn, but seriously it’s a toss up between that and Lagoon.

Jul 25

Book Review: The Moon King by Neil Williamson

What’s It About

[I’ve gone back to relying on back cover copy.  I apologise for my laziness]

All is not well in Glassholm. Life under the moon has always been so predictable: day follows night, wax phases to wane and, after the despair of every Darkday, a person’s mood soars to euphoria at Full. So it has been for five hundred years, ever since the Lunane captured the moon and tethered it to the city.

Now, all that has changed. Amidst rumours of unsettling dreams and strange whispering children, society is disintegrating into unrest and violence. The very sea has turned against Glassholm and the island’s luck monkeys have gone wild, distributing new fates to all and sundry. Turmoil is coming.

Three people find themselves at the eye of the storm: a former policeman investigating a series of macabre murders, an outsider artist embroiled in the murky intrigues of revolution, and a renegade engineer tasked with fixing the ancient machine at the city’s heart. Each must fulfil their role or see Glassholm shaken apart, while all are subject to the machinations of their inscrutable and eternal monarch, The Moon King

Representative Paragraph

Anton has just discovered that he’s the ruler of Glassholm.

“You say I am the Lunane,” Anton said, leaning against the desk.

Hogarth inclined his head, clearly nervous. “Of course, sir.”

“And you are my biographer?” He had been mistaken in his first assumption that the lad collected the goings on of the Palace for the newspaper scuttlebutt. They really meant the Lunane’s biographer. “You write down everything that I do?”

“Yes, sir.” This was more solid ground for the young man. He knew his own business at least. “Everything.”

Anton sneaked a look at the ledger. Hogarth’s pen was poised, having just completed a line of cramped script. It read, The Lunane questioned the biographer, Hogarth, about his work.

“Why?” Anton said.

The biographer swallowed. “Because you told me to, sir. The unbroken record of your continuity is the story of Glassholm. It’s one of the greatest symbols of our city’s magnificent constancy.”

“I don’t remember telling you to do any such thing.” Anton felt only a little ashamed to watch the boy squirm.

Should I Read It?

No.

Commentary

Neil Williamson’s The Moon King is a frustrating novel.  While I really enjoyed the set-up and ideas on display, the actual execution was sadly lacking.

In relation to the world-building I acknowledge the effort Williamson invests into making the island of Glassholm a layered, believable and unique secondary world.  In particular I loved the idea that the phase of the moon has a direct impact on the emotional state of the populace.  Whereas the full moon brings overwhelming joy and drunken frivolity, when the moon ebbs dark thoughts emerge and everyone stays indoors.  And while I did wonder whether such a bipolar society could actually function for an extended period, it was a passing thought.

I also got a kick out of the machine hidden in the dungeons of the Palace, a device that literally anchors the moon to Glassholm.  (It’s the break down of this machine, and the resultant effect on the moon and the citizens of Glassholm, that fuels the novel’s plot).  The scene where it’s first revealed is suitably grandiose and exciting:

It was an elegant behemoth of a device, a baroque construction of gleaming steel beam, arcane gearings and powerful electricals that produced a low-frequency vibration discernible through the soles of the feet. At first sight, he [Anton] thought there were some parts that might be recognisable, but making such assumptions based on guesswork was dangerous. The central portion of the construct was balanced on a framework of gimbals in such a way that the spherical body and long limb running through it that extended to the very top of the chamber could move freely in two axes. It resembled nothing so much as a brass apple that had been violently but precisely cored with an iron bar capped on each end by a smaller sphere.

But what I appreciated the most about Williamson’s world-building was that he never stopped supplying the narrative with ideas.  As the novel progresses, and more is revealed about Glassholm and its mysteries, Williamson introduces a range of exciting and wild concepts including a disembodied ruler who manipulates and possesses his citizens, creatures made entirely out of the water and a very, very large fish who holds the future of Glassholm in its belly.

Given how excited I was by the ideas and Williamson’s imagination, it’s a crushing shame that I wasn’t overwhelmed by his prose or characters.  The first quarter of the novel does a decent enough job establishing the world, the main protagonists and the overarching mystery, but it wasn’t enough to sustain my interest.  Part of this is Williamson’s earnest writing style that distinctly lacked a sense of humour.  Not that I was reading The Moon King  for a laugh, but considering the book doesn’t short shrift the reader on crazy ideas (that very, very large fish in particular) a semblance of wit might have made for a more engaging read.

Then there’s our cast of characters, in particular Anton, Lottie and John Mortlock.  Anton is an inventor, Lottie is an artist and John is a cop and I struggled to see them as anything but words on a page.  After the initial mystery surrounding the Palace staff perceiving Anton as the Lunane, his character essentially gets dragged from plot point to plot point.  Lottie has the potential to be the star of the novel but her storyline gets subsumed by the machinations of her mother’s cultish religion that believes Lottie will give birth to the Moon Queen.  Her passivity isn’t helped by her constant state of denial – she refuses to see her morning sickness and her weight gain as symptoms of pregnancy, even though it’s obvious – and her inability to stop her insane mother from taking over the pregnancy.  And then there’s John Mortlock, the clichéd embittered cop with the clichéd dark past.  He’s saddled with an awful serial killer subplot that’s seems to be there to highlight (a) the unrest in Glassholm toward the Lunane and (b) how memories of violence among the populace have been suppressed, so much so that a police officer might investigate a murder he committed and not be aware of it.   Tonally, Mortlock’s story adds a grimness to the novel that it definitely did not need.

I also had an issue with the revelation, toward the end of The Moon King, as to what the machine in the Palace actually does.  The big reveal, [SPOILERS], is that the moon is controlled and influenced by the very, very large fish I note above, called the Moon Fish.  The device has the ability to subdue the fish, keep it swimming in circles in a water catchment under the Palace, thereby anchoring the moon to Glassholm.  The problem, and why the machine has lost functionality, is that the Moon Fish is pregnant and the device hasn’t been calibrated to take this into account.  Once Anton discovers both the existence and state of the Moon Fish he realises that the fix is straightforward, modify the machine so it can accommodate the pregnancy.  Given that the solution is so simple, it wasn’t clear to me why the Lunane didn’t reveal the existence of the Moon Fish earlier in the novel?  If the answer is that the Lunane thought Anton might rebel, might let his morals about the slavery of an innocent fish stay his hand, then how did he expect the inventor to fix the machine?  Yes, I know the Lunane is mad and paranoid and incapable of trust, still holding back this critical information, considering the desperate need to fix the machine, doesn’t make sense, even for the Lunane.  It feels more like the author has intruded into the narrative rather than a choice made by the character.

While I read The Moon King I wanted to like to more.  But at the end I feel like I was admiring the ideas from a distance rather than emotionally engaging with the characters or the story.

Jul 23

So Who Should Have Won This Year’s Golden Tentacle Award?

Here is a much needed reminder of the nominees with links to my wordy and yet delightful reviews:

I’m going to assume that after reading my ecstatic review of Viper Wine you rushed straight to your local independent bookstore or online repository of digital stuff and purchased a copy.  I’m also going to assume that you’ve read it, that you loved it, and that like the judges of the Golden Tentacle you’ve decided to send Hermione Eye an award of your own devising.

Because in this instance the Kitschie judges got it spot on.  Yes, the Byrne and the Itaranta are good books – both doing interesting things and dealing with crunchy themes, but Viper Wine is like nothing I’ve read before.  Historical fiction written with postmodern flair.  Fiction that’s both extremely self aware of its own artifice and also able to say insightful stuff about vanity and science, the rational and the irrational.  The judges noted the novel’s audacity.  An excellent single word description for this fine book.

I wasn’t blown away by the Chamber and had real issues with the Yanagihara, but overall this is a good list of debut novels.  Any shortlist that introduces you to a novel you’ve never heard of, a book that subsequently blows your mind, is a shortlist worth applauding.

By the way, we people in the genre should be making more of the début author category.  We’ve got the Golden Tentacle, we’ve got the Locus Awards and the Crawford Award also looks at début authors (not a shortlist I read, but I may change that next year).  Is there any others in the genre space?  As I see it, the Nebula Award, in particular, is missing a trick by not promoting début genre authors.  I don’t know much about SFWA and its operations, well other than the controversies of recent years, but I would have thought that a best début category would be a fine fit for them.

I’d also add the Hugos… but, no.

Jul 22

Book Review: The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne

What’s It About

When Meena wakes one morning with snake bites across her chest she decides, in a panic, to leave Mumbai and travel to Ethiopia, the place where her parents met.  Her intention is to traverse The Trail a massive energy harvesting bridge that links India and Africa.  Thirty years previously, Mariama makes the decision to escape her violent slave master.  She stows away on a convoy of trucks heading across Africa – her destination, Ethiopia.

These journeys will converge in ways that are revelatory and unexpected.

Representative Paragraph

Meena’s story is set in the future.  Here’s a bit of background:

Africa is the new India, after India became the new America, after America became the new Britain, after Britain became the new Rome, after Rome became the new Egypt, after Egypt became the new Punt, and so on and so forth. Now we’re back to Punt. I’ve watched the African youth uprisings against land grabs or “colonization by invitation.” Mohini and I used to lie side by side and watch the reports roll in to the cloud. Addis Ababa, the city where my parents were murdered, is now the flagship city of Africa. Lagos is too big, Joburg is too white, Cairo is not really African, and so on. No one expected Addis to emerge as Africa’s sweetheart city. But it has.

Should I Read It?

Yes.

Trigger warning:  The violence, when depicted, is graphic.  There’s also a scene of child abuse.

Commentary

The Girl In The Road is a confronting novel written with an intensity and passion and visceral beauty that compels you to keep reading.  As the novel alternates between Meena and Mariama’s journey – both heading to Ethiopia but thirty years apart – Byrne with great care and deliberation reveals how both her protagonists are connected.  What’s brilliant is how she constantly wrong foots the reader (or at least me) with hints and suggestions as to what links these two women, only to introduce a moment, sometimes shocking in its impact, that undercuts all your assumptions.  And when the bond between Meena and Mariama is finally unveiled it makes perfect sense, even if it was never obvious while reading the book.

When I dashed out my thoughts about the novel on Facebook, I said I had conflicted feelings toward the book.  I noted my love of Byrne’s refreshing use of the unreliable narrator, a narrative cliché that she makes works.  But I also found the novel’s treatment of sex to be confusing.  In particular sex seems to be the trigger for violence in the novel.  The sex itself wasn’t violent, but after the act something brutal and savage occurs.  This happens on two occasions, both pivotal turning points for Meena and Mariama.  Given their importance, I couldn’t help but get this impression that Byrne was punishing her characters for discovering sexual intimacy and love.  But on reflection, and with help from a discussion I had on Facebook with someone else who read (and loved) the novel, I began to understand that Byrne wasn’t so much focussing on the sex and violence, but rather the idea of love and betrayal.  Not to spoil the novel, but it’s this sense of betrayal, and the guilt associated with it, that fuels Meena and Mariama’s journey.

And it’s not the books only theme.  This is very much a story about mothers and daughters.  Both Meena and Mariama lose their mothers at an early age – in fact in the case of Meena her mother was murdered when she was pregnant with Meena – and a good deal of the The Girl In The Road, in particular Meena’s story, is trying to discover and create some sort of bond, no matter how small, with a mother or mother figure.

Then there’s the religious symbolism.  I’ll be honest, much of this went over my head, it’s only something I became aware of once I read reviews on the interwebs which noted how all the characters were named after Saints and Prophets and Angels.  I should have picked this up.  Francis, Mohammed, Gabriel, Yemaya.  But I think I became so caught up in Meena and Mariama’s stories (and trying to second guess their connection) that the religious stuff became one theme too many.  Having said that, there is a definite spiritual feel to the novel, and on reflection Meena’s journey across The Trail has a station of the cross vibe to it.  The ending is also an almost mystical experience, especially for Meena as she goes through a sort of rebirth as she attempts to detox her soul with sea-water.  But while it might have passed me by, it does indicate a book that has several layers, the sort of novel where you can discuss a single theme, a single scene and feel you’ve only smudged the surface.

Themes aside, it’s important to note the Sfnal aspects of The Girl In The Road, because in all this talk about sex, daughters, mothers and religion, it’s easy to forget that this is a story that takes a stab at a near future that deliberately ignores the west and sees Africa in the ascendancy.  Byrne doesn’t encumber us with a future history mapped out with dates and important events, but she explains enough, provides enough back-story to give her future a sense of realism.  Critical to this is The Trail, a wonderful piece of hard SF engineering.  It’s a massive floating bridge that links India with Africa.  The Trail crosses the Arabian sea and was built to harvest energy from the sun and from the ocean.  Because I failed Year 10 Science I have no idea whether something like The Trail is possible or whether a concept like this has been the subject of New Scientist articles and the like.  But as with her future history, the Trail felt like something possible, like something that could be built a decade or so from now.  And some of the more gripping moments of the novel involve Meena’s attempts to survive on The Trail as she attempts to cross it – akin to climbing Everest, just heading in a straight (though unstable) line.

It could be argued that The Girl in The Road is trying to do too much.  Develop complex characters, deal with complex themes, and respect both African and South Asian culture.  Personally I think it’s a powerful and provocative novel, the sort that that sparks conservation and, like The Trail, wends and weaves its way through a variety of themes and issues.

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