Apr 08

Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master, the husband who commissioned her, dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York in 1899.

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Though he is no longer imprisoned, Ahmad is not entirely free – an unbreakable band of iron binds him to the physical world.

The Golem and the Jinni is their magical, unforgettable story; unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures – until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together again, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice.

At first glance, there’s something refreshing and a little bit exciting about Helene Wecker’s debut novel.  Partly it’s the innovative move of having a female Golem, something I’ve never seen done before.  And partly it’s having the Golem meet a Jinni in early 20th Century New York, both of them well and truly outside their comfort zones.  And finally it’s Wecker’s beguiling writing style, almost fairytale in quality, that pulls you through the narrative.

Dig a bit deeper though and you discover the novel lacks substance.  While I loved the idea of Wecker exploring two very different cultures through the eyes of the Golem and the Jinni, the actual representation of those cultures rang false.  Wecker may have been drawing on her own Jewish background and her husband’s Arab / American heritage, but in the service of a rip roaring, page turning read, she falls back on caricature and stereotype.  Whether it’s the kindly old Rabbi with a heart of gold, or the earnest, hard working tinsmith, or the owner of the local coffee shop who knows everyone and is in everyone’s business, or the socialist who tries so hard to do the right thing, these characters feel like they’ve been cut and pasted from the latest Disney animation.

Wecker’s take on Jewish mysticism also feels like it’s been given the Disney treatment.  Although there’s much debate in orthodox Jewish circles as to whether the Maharal of Prague actually created a Golem in the 16th Century (to ostensibly stop pogroms and blood libels), in the world of the Golem and the Jinni, animating clay is something any rabbinical student can do with a little bit of knowledge.  Added to that is the laughable idea that Rabbi’s have hidden texts – for all intents and purposes spell books – that they keep away from prying eyes.  Yes, the Kabbalah (which is only referenced twice in the novel) and books like the Sefer Yetzirah talk about the manipulation of reality and the notion of sod, secret and esoteric knowledge hidden from all but the most learned, but the role of mysticism in Jewish culture is far more complex than the magic spell and formula treatment that Wecker provides.

I’m in no position to question whether Wecker’s take on the Jinni and Arabic folklore is accurate.  There’s obviously a push back against the popular culture view of the Genie that grants wishes, and making the Jinni a “fiery” character seems logical given its environment.  But for all I know the same problem of simplification exists.

That said, if you’re willing to forgive the book its Disneyfication of Jewish and Arabic culture, you can admire Wecker’s handling of both the Golem and the Jinni.  There is something genuine and real in how both Chava and Ahmad approach and explore their new environment and their burgeoning friendship.  In particular their sense of loneliness, even when they find each other, gives the novel its emotional core.

It’s also interesting that while the other characters refer to them as Chava and Ahmad, Wecker always labels them as the Golem and the Jinni.  It’s a reminder that they will always be outsiders; and while it’s a little depressing, I credit Wecker for not falling into the trap of trying to humanize either character.  This is not the story of Pinocchio.  Being human – at least in the context of this story – is not something the Golem and the Jinni aspire to.

Unfortunately, once the plot kicks into gear about two thirds of the way through, much of the nuance around the Golem and Jinni’s relationship, including where they fit in the great scheme of things, gets lost in a battle of good and evil, wizards and magic spells, evil laughter and evil schemes.  In other words all a bit Disney.  Which is a shame because in amongst the caricatures and the broad cultural strokes, we have a quirky and unique love story about a Golem and a Jinni.

Apr 01

Book Review – The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata

Lieutenant James Shelley commands a high-tech squad of soldiers in a rural district within the African Sahel. They hunt insurgents each night on a harrowing patrol, guided by three simple goals: protect civilians, kill the enemy, and stay alive—because in a for-profit war manufactured by the defense industry there can be no cause worth dying for. To keep his soldiers safe, Shelley uses every high-tech asset available to him—but his best weapon is a flawless sense of imminent danger…as if God is with him, whispering warnings in his ear. (Hazard Notice: contains military grade profanity.)

There’s a point, just before the halfway mark of The Red: First Light, where it looks like Nagata is about to pull the rug out from underneath the reader.  What starts off as your average military SF novel, with a side order of cynicism, suddenly shifts gear.  Our hero, Lieutenant Shelley, is ordered to meet with defence contractor, power broker and arms dealer Thelma Sheridan.  She says to him:

You are being used, Lieutenant.  For what purpose remains unclear, but there is a force at large in the world interfering in the affairs of Man.  We built its house, when we built the Cloud.  Now it moves among us, bleeding through every conflict, every transaction, watching, manipulating – and it does not have our best interests in mind.

Soon after this meeting with Sheridan, there’s speculation that this same force – an emerging AI – may be using a reality TV show about Shelley and his Unit to influence the thoughts of the millions watching the series.

For a just a moment it seems that Nagata is going to dispense with the ‘Military’ and focus on the SF as she narrows in on the idea of an emergent AI using the media and the narrative of reality TV to influence the population.

But that thread never really goes anywhere.  Yes, the Red – as the AI is referred to – is a constant presence throughout the rest of the novel, a sort of dues ex machina that pops in and out of the plot when required, but the philosophical crunchiness of an accidental AI manipulating the populace through the press and reality TV shows, is lost in all the shooting and righteousness and nuclear explosions.  In other words, after a brief hiatus the Military SF switch is flicked back to ‘on’ and what could have been a brave shift in focus becomes a hum drum shoot em up, damsels in distress included.

If you enjoy MilSF – and there’s a certainly an audience out there if Baen’s publication history is anything to go by – then I’m sure you’ll find The Red: First Light entertaining.  Nagata’s clean, almost transparent prose, means the novel is a quick read.  But for me this Nebula nominated novel is a disappointment.  There’s the enticing hint of another, more interesting, book just under the surface that sadly never breaks past the trappings of the sub genre.  I wanted more.  But maybe I was always the wrong audience.

Mar 25

Book Review – In the Mouth of Whale by Paul McAuley

Fomalhaut was first colonised by the posthuman Quick, who established an archipelago of thistledown cities and edenic worldlets within the star’s vast dust belt. Their peaceful, decadent civilisation was swiftly conquered by a band of ruthless, aggressive, unreconstructed humans who call themselves the True, then, a century before, the True beat back an advance party of Ghosts, a posthuman cult which colonised the nearby system of Beta Hydri after being driven from the Solar System a thousand years ago. Now the Ghosts have returned to Fomalhaut, to begin their end game: the conquest of its single gas giant planet, a captured interstellar wanderer far older than the rest of Fomalhaut’s system. At its core is a sphere of hot metallic hydrogen with strange and powerful properties based on exotic quantum physics. The Quick believe it is inhabited by an ancient alien Mind; the True believe it can be developed into a weapon, and the Ghosts believe it can be transformed into a computational system so powerful it can reach into their past, collapse timelines, and fulfil the ancient prophecies of their founder.

There’s no doubt that In The Mouth of The Whale is more engaging and entertaining read then it’s two predecessors, but it’s also a lot less satisfying.  Given my problems with both The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun – at times they read more like technical manuals then novels – I could be accused of hypocrisy.

But while The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun drove me crazy with their endless descriptions of space plants and space engineering, the imagination on display was, at times, breathtaking.  McAuley’s idea of how humanity might shape itself to deal with environmental and social change both at home and in the outer reaches of the solar system not only had a ring of truth about it but also evoked a genuine sense of wonder, even if my eyes did glaze over at times.

Set more than a thousand years after the events of the previous two novels I was genuinely excited by what McAuley might imagine as the future for post-humanity.  And while the first chapter is intriguing, with lines like: So the Child, our dear mother, twice dead, twice reborn, dreams herself towards her destiny, when we move to Fomalhaut (a star 25 light years from Earth) it all becomes a bit humdrum.  There’s nothing abjectly wrong with the separate tales of Ori and the Librarian, they just lack the spark of imagination that made reading The Quiet War and The Gardens of the Sun a worthwhile experience.

For example, while Ori’s people, The Quick, have been enslaved by The True she has dreams and ambitions that go well beyond her station.  When her desires become clear to her fellow compatriots they feel the need to put Ori in her place leading to the sort of earnest and unsubtle pontification you’d expect to hear from Mr Carson on Downton Abbey:

We were made to serve the Trues, and that’s what we do,” Inas said.  “And we do it gladly.  And because the Trues made us, Ori, they don’t think of us as people.  We are their tools, with no more rights to independence than any of their machines.  They can send any one of us on the crew anywhere, without explanation or warning. And we obey them because that’s what we must do.  Not because the only alternative is the long drop, but because it is our duty, and nothing else matters.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the depressing point McAuley is making – that conquering and enslavement of those weaker than us is in our nature, that no matter how advanced we become we will fall back on the well worn grooves of our past actions.  This is further reinforced by the feudal society that the Trues have developed, almost medieval in nature, with certain families holding sway and power.  But it’s not a very interesting argument.  Not because it’s pessimistic, but because in terms of world building and imagining a future society, it seems like the obvious choice, to argue that humans will be humans.  I expected something crunchier from the guy who wrote The Quiet War.

The second story involving The Librarian, Isak, has an epic fantasy / cyberpunk vibe that wouldn’t feel out of place in the 1980s.  There’s a quest for something vague and mysterious and a battle against demons in numerous virtual realities.  It’s, at times, genuinely exciting and engaging but only because it all feels so familiar.

If there’s any originality to be found in In The Mouth of The Whale it’s with the third narrative, a story of a child living in Brazil at a time three or so decades before the events of The Quiet War.  This section gives us an insight into the upbringing of Sri Hong Owen – a major player in the first two novels.  We soon discover that these historical interludes are not entirely accurate, that they’re being cobbled together by a mysterious third party with an agenda of its own.  Here McAuley critiques the way we all revise history, how we manipulate and change it for our needs, to justify our actions of the present and future.

 

In the end, though, I couldn’t help but feel disappointing by In The Mouth of The Whale.  There were times that I found myself wanting just a bit more space engineering if it meant evoking a sense of wonder.

Mar 19

Initial Thoughts on the Clarke Shortlist

On reflection (also known as thinking about these things on the bus on my way to work) I’ve decided that the recently announced Clarke Award shortlist is an excellent example Science Fiction’s diversity – both in who writes SF (gender, cultural) and the type of stories that are told.  As Nina Allan notes:

If there’s a unifying theme to this year’s shortlist, it’s that the six shortlisted works are all genre SF – no Ozeki, Atwood, Crumey, Theroux or Eggers this time around. But these are far from conventional choices, and they’re all quite different from each other, too. We have a techno-thriller, a far-future space opera, a near-future psychodrama, a work of philosophical eco-SF, an almost-New-Weird war story, and a many-worlds quantum love story.

As for the nominees, I’m stoked to see The Machine and The Adjacent on the ballot (the links take you to my reviews of both novels).  I’m also very happy to see Ancillary Justice – a book that’s likely to feature on a few more ballots before the year is out.  My conversation with Kirstyn about the novel in the latest episode of Writer and The Critic has given me a deeper appreciation of the book.

I’m especially looking forward to reading God’s War by Kameron Hurley.  In spite or maybe because of all the hype, it slipped by me back in 2011.  Another book that registered on my radar but which I never got around to reading was Nexus by Ramez Naam. The only book I’m a little suspicious of is The Disestablishment of Paradise by Phillip Mann simply because people whose taste I respect don’t seem to like it much.

By the end of next month I’ll have a clearer picture of the six books chosen by the Clarke judges.  Personally I’d love to have seen books by Ozeki and Crumey on the ballot but as it stands I can vouch for the high quality of 3 out of the 6 books.  And that’s not a bad beginning at all.

Mar 18

Book Review – Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

If FSG Originals had approached me for a front or back cover quote for Annihilation I would have provided them with something like this:

Annihilation is a wonderful paradox of a novel, something that feels familiar but is totally unique.

OK, maybe not the sort of sentiment that would sell the book but it does sum up my feelings toward this the first in VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy.  Annihilation is a novel that provokes comparison with other similar work.  At different stages I was reminded of Lovecraft, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves and the freakier episodes of Lost (I’d also note Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers but I haven’t read it).  At the same time, though, Annihilation never felt like a grab bag of other people’s ideas

You only have to look at VanderMeer’s publishing history – the novel’s he’s written and the anthologies he’s co-edited with his wife Anne – to know that he has a deep, academic appreciation of all things Weird fiction.  He’s also one of the major proponents of the New Weird.  Annihilation probably falls outside the New Weird paradigm – although you could argue that Area X is as much a secondary world as Ambergris, just less populated – though it’s very much steeped in the Weird tradition, especially cosmic horror.

What makes it feel so new and fresh – even if the antecedents are as clear as day – is how VanderMeer plays around with and subverts traditional tropes.  Yes, structurally Annihilation feels Lovecraftian – a first person point of view, the tale transcribed in a journal – but instead of the genteel American going slowly insane, VanderMeer’s protagonist is a woman who never really loses her sanity, even if she is infected by Area X.

While the Biologist is never named, as if to elevate her functionality over her humanity, VanderMeer goes to great lengths to humanize her.  A good example, ironically  is the story of why she became a biologist:

My lodestone, the place I always thought of when people ask me why I became a biologist, was the overgrown swimming pool in the backyard of the rented house where I grew up…

[My parents] did not have the will or inclination to clean the kidney-shaped pool, even though it was fairly small.  Soon after we moved in, the grass around its edges grew long.  Sedge weeds and other towering plants became prevalent.  The short buses lining the fence around the pool lunged up to obscure the chain link… Dragonflies continually scouted the area.  Bullfrogs moved in, the wriggling malformed dots of their tadpoles always present.  Water gliders and aquatic beetles began to make the place their own.  Rather than get rid of my thirty gallon freshwater aquarium as my parents wanted, I dumped the fish into the pool, and some survived the shock of that.  Local bird, like herons and egrets began to appear, drawn by the frogs and the fish and insects.  By some miracle too, small turtles began to live in the pool, although I had no idea how they had gotten there.

It’s a long quote, I know, but it’s beautiful and bittersweet – you can’t help but smile wistfully at the line about the turtles – and most of all it grounds the character, explains to us that her function is also her passion.

The novel is full of character moments like this, culminating in the Biologists reason for coming to Area X in the first place.  Her husband was on the previous expedition, and when he came back home – under mysterious circumstances – there was something different about him.  In one of the more chilling passages we’re told:

I found my husband next to the refrigerator, still dressed in his expedition clothes, drinking milk until it flowed down his chin and neck.  Eating leftovers furiously.

Shortly after this the husband is taken away and eventually dies from a cancer that he contracted, presumably, during the expedition.  But it’s not only a search for answers that motivates the Biologist to join the next expedition.  In spite of a strained relationship with her husband – it “had been thready for a while” – she goes searching for him believing that somehow he is still out there.  It’s this sense of love and hope (realistic or otherwise) that propels the story.

Don’t get me wrong, the traditional elements, the bits that remind you of Lovecraft and the Strugatsky brothers, are very well handled.  While not as scary as House of Leaves, Annihilation does have its creepy moments; the discovery of the journals is one particular revelation that got under my skin.  And VanderMeer has nailed that sense of cosmic wrongness with Area X and its fungus and its underground tower, its walls scrawled with text, and its lighthouse, the site of a pitched battle against unknown forces.

But the mystery of Area X is never the focus of the novel.  Foremost, Annihilation is a journey of discovery, of love and hope and destiny, for a woman known only by her function but who we realise is so much more.

Mar 12

Book Review – Wolves by Simon Ings

Augmented Reality uses computing power to overlay a digital imagined reality over the real world. Whether it be adverts or imagined buildings and imagined people with Augmented Reality the world is no longer as it appears to you, it is as it is imagined by someone else. Ings takes the satire and mordant satirical view of J.G. Ballard and propels it into the 21st century.

Two friends are working at the cutting edge of this technology and when they are offered backing to take the idea and make it into the next global entertainment they realise that wolves hunt in this imagined world. And the wolves might be them.

A story about technology becomes a personal quest into a changed world and the pursuit of a secret from the past. A secret about a missing mother, a secret that could hide a murder. This is no dry analysis of how a technology might change us, it is a terrifying thriller, a picture of a dark tomorrow that is just around the corner

I’m going to cheat this time around and point you to two excellent reviews of Wolves.  Together they sum up my feelings toward the novel which, in short, I found difficult to engage with, pointlessly misogynistic, poorly paced and structured and yet featuring some of the best writing I’ve read in some time.  Those reviews are by Martin Lewis on the Strange Horizon website and one that featured on the Bookmunch website (it’s not clear who wrote it).

Lewis’ exploration of the books misogyny clarified an uneasiness I had with the main protagonist, Conrad:

This uncertain phasing between artist and text is most troubling when it comes to the representation of women. For the most part they are entirely absent but, when they do manage to press through onto the page, they are always seen through the filter of Conrad’s misogyny. This is first signaled when, amongst the beauty and power of the prose of the establishing scenes, we are confronted by a weird and unflattering parody of the Greenham Common protests. When Conrad goes to visit his mum at an anti-war camp, he discovers a pack of sub-human earth mothers:

There were women all around me, hidden, hissing at me. They were squatting in benders made from old tent canvas. They were crouching in teepees and yurts and behind screens of dead branches. They were hiding in nettle patches, hunkered down there like animals. (p. 55)

A decade later, after fucking Michel’s girlfriend the first time he meets her, he reflects: “She is the most beautiful thing I have taken to bed in my life” (p. 87). It is as concise a distillation of objectification and ownership as you are going to get. The only other time we see him have sex with a woman, she is a prostitute who uses Augmented Reality technology to render herself literally faceless. The scene ends with her banging on the toilet door, demanding that Conrad lets her in so she can have a shit. These encounters are all seen from Conrad’s perspective but they are all situations that Ings has engineered. They are also all too on the nose to be anything less than intentional but I can’t fathom what the intention is beyond the obvious.

While I think Bookmuch provides a perfect summary of the books overall strengths –

 There are exhilarating set pieces - when Conrad is attempting to dispose of his mother’s body, for instance – and moments that feel true, that reveal Ings’ persuasive instinct for human behaviour – I’m thinking of the stormy night on which Conrad and Hanna come together, betrayal offset by the pleasures of sex; it is at these times when Ings is like no-one so much as Rupert Thomson.

– and faults:

In many ways, Wolves feels like a novel that is deafened on its own feedback. In some respects, it is just about the busiest novel I’ve ever read; in others, it seems stitched together from gaps and patches. There are too many words on some things and nowhere near enough on others. It feels like a book in which crucial chapters have been omitted and extended early drafts in need of pruning have been inserted.

I doubt I’d recommend Wolves.  I think the novels problems outweigh the flashes of brilliance.  But I’d certainly read another book by Ings.

Mar 07

Love That Passion. Love That Fandom

At the moment the genre community is flagellating itself over a number of recent controversies.

There’s the minority view that SF/F fandom has been taken over by a raving bunch of politically correct, group thinking, communist leaning straw-people who are looking to take the fun and misogyny out of the genre.  Then there’s the more mainstream view that fandom is facing an existential crisis as it lurches from one fight to the next.

There’s no doubt that since Race Fail 2009 – an eternity ago in internet time – that the fights and the flamewars and the anger have grown in frequency and volume.  The fallout has also been worse.  This is not a game of cricket where everyone shakes hands at the end of the match, even if they’ve been at each other’s throats for the last six hours. In the current age of internet controversy, friendships are sundered and the divisions between groups grow wider.

Fucking depressing, isn’t it.

Personally, I this it’s wonderful.

Each of these fights, with their passion and their vitriol, is a sign of a fandom that’s not only alive but is thriving.  Because why rip your clothes and starting Hulking out against anyone who might disagree with you if you didn’t give a shit.  The response to this is that people, deep down, actually don’t care but the heightened environment of the internet has drawn us into these arguments because we’re bored at work and internet fights are wonderfully distracting.  And I’d believe that argument if these fights ran for short periods during work hours.  But they don’t.  They go on and on, with each day bringing to us a new blog post or tweet that either adds to the fire or tries to explain it.

We do care.  We give a shit.  Because we love the genre and whether we’re libertarian or a social justice warrior or whatever, we want our view of fandom to prevail.  If we didn’t have these fights, if everything was quiet and nice and we were all living in a rosy utopia where Regency fantasies and Military SF can live in harmony then we can be sure that the genre and the fandom was well and truly fucked.

For me, I love these stoushes because they give me an opportunity to check my prejudices to interrogate my own beliefs.  RaceFail was a pivotal moment for me in terms of my engagement with the genre.  At the age of 35 I thought I had my ducks in a row,  but RaceFail scattered those ducks leaving me naked and scared and not entirely sure how I should react to the idea of cultural appropriation.  Add on all the gender discussion that’s happened since and, as Jonathan McCalmont has pointed out, I’ve transformed from an innocent man-child into someone who appreciates and understands the complexities of gender and appropriation and identity within the genre (and outside it as well).

Each fight asks me to check those assumptions.  And I do.  Even if sometimes I fall between two positions.  Even if I believe that Jonathan Ross would have been an interesting choice as a Hugo presenter while accepting that he was going to anger and piss off allot of people for good reason.

The other thing is that each of these fights and spats sparks some magnificent writing on the part of our best bloggers.  Take this recent example from Abigail Nussbaum on award pimping / promotion.  Well considered, well argued.  Articles like this ensure that in between the shouting and the screaming smart people are continuing the dialogue and deconstructing the real issues at hand.

So my view is don’t be depressed when a new fight starts.  Instead use it to check your own prejudices by considering the opposing view.  And yes, send the odd hilarious tweet, because we can’t always take ourselves seriously.  But most of all don’t see each fight as another nail in fandom’s coffin.  Instead see it for what it is.  People who give a shit and being passionate for the thing they love.

Mar 05

Book Review – The Adjacent by Christopher Priest

 

Tibor Tarent, a freelance photographer, is recalled to Britain from Anatolia where his wife Melanie has been killed by insurgent militia. IRGB is a nation living in the aftermath of a bizarre and terrifying terrorist atrocity – hundreds of thousands were wiped out when a vast triangle of west London was instantly annihilated. The authorities think the terrorist attack and the death of Tarent’s wife are somehow connected.

A century earlier, a stage magician is sent to the Western Front on a secret mission to render British reconnaissance aircraft invisible to the enemy. On his journey to the trenches he meets the visionary who believes that this will be the war to end all wars.

In 1943, a woman pilot from Poland tells a young RAF technician of her escape from the Nazis, and her desperate need to return home.

In the present day, a theoretical physicist stands in his English garden and creates the first adjacency.

The Adjacent is my first taste of Priest’s work.  I know, I know how could I call myself a serious genre reader and yet never cracked the pages of a Priest novel?  I’ve always been aware of him as an author – when I was in my teens I knew that Priest had written two Doctor Who scripts for the 4th Doctor that were never made, and, of course, I’ve seen Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige – but I’ve never felt compelled to read his work.  His novels, nearly a complete collection, sit on my shelves in the garage collecting dust.  (Priest is not alone.  My garage has become a Sargasso Sea of novels and novelists whose books I own but whose work I’ve never read).

When The Adjacent was announced I decided to rectify that state affairs… and then nearly didn’t when I read the closing paragraph to Niall Alexander’s positive review of the book on Strange Horizons:

Reading The Adjacent is like taking a grand tour of the larger canon Christopher Priest has established over the course of his forty-year career, so no, newcomers need not apply, but old hands are apt to find it massively satisfying.

Newcomers need not apply

Now that I’ve finished the novel I can appreciate where Niall is coming from.  Even with my limited knowledge of Priest’s oeuvre, there’s a feeling that this book is a continuation of a bar conversation that Priest has begun elsewhere.  Not in specific plot details, but in the recycling of elements that Priest has always been fascinated with – magicians, aeroplanes, H.G Wells, and archipelagos that exist somewhere to the left of our reality.

I’m sure if you’re aware of all the bits and pieces that reflect and echo previous novels you’ll have more fun with The Adjacent.  That’s certainly the impression I get from Niall’s review.  But in spite of Niall’s suggestion you shouldn’t be intimidated from picking up the book.  That’s not to say The Adjacent isn’t challenging, it forgoes a linear structure and easy answers, but the complexity of the novel are specific to the themes of the book and don’t require previous knowledge.

And what’s it about?  Actually that’s a pretty easy question to answer.  The Adjacent is a love story.  The genius of the novel is you don’t realise you’re reading a love story until the very end.  It’s a canny piece of misdirection that Priest foreshadows earlier in the novel.  In a scene set during WW1, magician Tommy Trent explains:

The principles of magic are much simpler than most people think – concealment, production, and so on.  They apply to every illusion ever performed.  What often looks like a new trick to the audience is a variation of one of these principles; a new way of performing a familiar card trick, a surprise production of a dove or a rabbit, a modified cabinet inside which my compliant niece would seem to be transformed.

The Adjacent is one extended illusion, Priest keeping us off balance as both the setting, and reality itself, shifts and changes.  We move from the near future where an Islamic Republic hold powers over the UK, to WW1 where Tommy Trent meets HG Wells to WW2 where Mike Torrance works on Lancasters at an airbase in Tealby Moor and falls in love and then an extended section on Prachous – an Island in the Dream Archipelago – were a pilot searches for lost love.

Love is evident, but it’s fragmentary, a faded memory or a sense of loss.  It’s only when Tibor Tarent decides to bring his life into focus – both metaphorically and literally, he’s a photographer – that we understand where Priest has been leading us along.  The moment he reunites with his wife, a woman he thought was dead and yet who we only realise at that moment has been searching for him as much as he’s been missing her, is emotional and heartfelt:

Tibor was holding his wife in his arms.  It was so strange to do, yet so right, so unquestionably right.  She was folding herself against him as she used to, a she always had, right at the start when they were young, and even later on, whenever they found the time to be alone together, and still loving.

The Adjacent then, is not a book about Islamic Republics that may or may not take over the Western World in the near future.  Neither is it a novel about a quantum based weapon called the Perturbative Adjacent Field that was built to end all wars.  These are window dressing, “an unexpected pleasantry, to make them look at the wrong object on a table, or to watch an unimportant movement of a hand, or to look in the wrong direction.” Rather The Adjacent is a strange and wonderful story that will leave you with a smile and the realisation that a master illusionist has been holding your hand all along.

Mar 02

Book Review – Hild by Nicola Griffiths

Hild is born into a world in transition. In seventh-century Britain, small kingdoms are merging, usually violently. A new religion is coming ashore; the old gods’ priests are worrying. Edwin of Northumbria plots to become overking of the Angles, ruthlessly using every tool at his disposal: blood, bribery, belief.

Hild is the king’s youngest niece. She has the powerful curiosity of a bright child, a will of adamant, and a way of seeing the world—of studying nature, of matching cause with effect, of observing human nature and predicting what will happen next—that can seem uncanny, even supernatural, to those around her. She establishes herself as the king’s seer. And she is indispensable—until she should ever lead the king astray. The stakes are life and death: for Hild, her family, her loved ones, and the increasing numbers who seek the protection of the strange girl who can read the world and see the future.

As Nicola Griffiths points out in her Authors Note, what we know about Hild’s life, especially her early life, comes from one source – the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation – and can be summed up in a single paragraph.  We don’t where she was born.  We don’t know what she looked like.  And until she was recruited into the Church in 647, we have no idea of her skills, her wants, her desires.  For all intents and purposes Hild is a clean slate.  And Griffith’s novel takes full advantage of this.

In the filling the gaps Griffith’s has done a massive amount of research to bring Hild and her world alive.  You only need to have read her blog for the last couple of years to understand how much time she has spent bringing as much realism and truth to her text.  And at no point during the novel does she ever break that strong sense of verisimilitude. When you enter Hild’s world you are entering 7th Century Britain.  So much so that a number of readers – if Goodreads is any indication – have found the novel too difficult to parse with its unpronounceable names and weird language.

But the brilliance of this book isn’t the amount of research on show.  The brilliance is how Griffiths brings these characters to life without ever applying a 21st Century gloss on who they are.  If Hild frees her slave later in the novel it’s not because Griffith has turned her into an abolitionist, but because Hild has acted within the bounds of her society and the power she holds.

And it would have been so easy for Griffiths to make Hild more sympathetic, make her more like us.  For one, her ‘visions’ for the King – Sherlockian like deductions based on her observations – make her an outsider.  Aside from her closest friends, most in the Court are either frightened of her, thinking she’s a witch, or would rather see her dead.  It would have been easy, then, to use Hild as a means to commentate on the brutality and savageness of 7th Century Britain.  But Griffith refuses to take that option.  If anything Hild as an outsider gives Griffith the permission to make her more vicious and brutal then other woman of her time.  She learns to fight.  She learns to kill.  And in one startling and genuinely chilling moment we see her compassion when she decides to take on the responsibility of slitting the throats and bashing in the heads of men injured on the battlefield.  A savage act of mercy.

Some might think that if there is a 21st Century gloss on the novel it’s when Hild becomes sexually aware and active. According to Griffiths a number of reviewers have asked her – why make Hild a lesbian.  And Griffith’s response:

I say: First, she’s bisexual. Second, why the fuck not?

I’m willing to admit that I had to push back against my instinctual prejudices when Hild’s sexuality began to blossom.  Not because I thought bisexuality was so 20th Century (which is just silly) but because the pervasive mythology of Sainthood, and how it revises a person’s history to smooth over their failings and flaws to focus on why they’ve been sainted in the first place, affected the way I read the novel.  I simply assumed as a future sister of the Church she would be chaste and virginal, repulsed by the thought of intercourse.

It was a frankly ridiculous and offensive assumption on my part.  As Griffith’s states in her Authors Note,

While people in Hild’s time may have understood their world a little differently from how we understand ours, they were still people – as human as we are.  Their dreams, fears, political machinations, fights, loves and hesitations were shaped by circumstance and temperament, as are ours.

And Hild was no different.  Just because she was eventually sainted doesn’t mean she didn’t have the same needs and desires as everyone else.  The mythology of sainthood might require perfection – but it’s one that does so by ignoring what makes us human.  Griffith’s refuses to do that with Hild.  Refuses to sugar coat her story simply because Hild’s potted history ends with a beatific face staring out from a stain glassed window.

Hild may trip the reader up with its strange language and its stranger names, but at the end of the day this is a remarkable character study of a young woman trying to navigate the challenges of her society and her environment.

Feb 26

The Nebula Awards

Nominees for the Golden Globes of Science Fiction and Fantasy, the Nebula Awards, have been announced.

As I no longer read much short fiction, my interest is with the Best Novel category and what a diverse and interesting bunch they are.  6 women and 2 blokes, which as Timmi Duchamp says, is at odds with the small amount of space given to reviews of books written by women.  Shit, even my own blog bears this out – most of the books I’ve reviewed in the last three months have been written by men.

I’ve read four of the books that feature (Ancillary Justice, Hild, The Ocean at the End of The Lane and The Stranger in Olondria) and I intend to read at least three of the other four.  (I bet you can’t guess the one I’m not keen on).

Of the four I have read, Hild is by far the strongest book (see my review later in the week).  Except it’s also a pure historical novel.  I understand that it “feels” like a secondary world fantasy, what with all the weird customs and unpronounceable names, but that’s more to do with our ignorance of the time period then any link to fantastic literature.  I don’t begrudge the book appearing on the list – I mean it’s fucking fantastic and the more plaudits it gets the better – but it’s not a book I would be nominating for a Hugo award.

I also have a suspicion – without having read it – that the Karen Joy Fowler is also bereft of any speculative content.

The appearance of both books does raise the age old question about the fuzziness of genre boundaries.  I do wonder though if Hild had been written by Hilary Mantel, rather than Nicola Griffith, and received a similar number of nominations, whether it would have appeared on the ballot.  I’m not talking about a SFWA conspiracy here but questioning whether a non-genre book written by ‘one of our own’ would get precedence over the same book written by an outsider.

All that said, It’s possible that if Nicola and Karen are members of SFWA that they can appear on the ballot even if what they’ve written isn’t genre.  It’s also possible that the conveners of the award have the power to put anything on the ballot – genre or not – if it gets enough nominations.  I have no idea, but someone I’m sure can fill me in.

I’ve only read one of the books nominated for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.  That book is Sister Mine by Nalo Hopkinson which I adored.

Congrats to all the nominees.  Whatever my reservations about non fantastical works appearing on the ballot the SFWA members should be proud for coming up with such a varied and interesting list of fine fiction.

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