The Red Plague Affair by Lilith Saintcrow (Orbit, 2013) Bannon and Clare Case Book Two finds Archibald Clare, the mentath, continuing in pursuit of Dr Vance while Emma Bannon, Sorceress Prime, keeps this alternate history version of Britain safe from Spanish agents provocateurs. So what we have here is a variation on the theme of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. This man has deductive powers honed to almost supernatural levels and he’s partnered with a magician in this different version of Victorian Londinium with Alexandrina Victrix on the throne as Ruler of the Isles and Empress of Indus with Consort Prince Alberich by her side. It’s not quite steampunk. A missing limb can be replaced but the purely mechanical has to be enhanced by spells for painkilling and full mobility. Consequently, this particular world is experiencing a collision between magic and the scientific method which, amongst other things, is leading to advances in technology and medicine that do not depend on magic for their efficacy. In some respects, therefore, this world is experiencing a delayed renaissance.
The problem, such as it is, may be simply defined. Magic actually works but it is inherently limited to specific individuals who cannot be everywhere. Such is always the way. Only a few gifted people have the talent that can be nurtured and developed into the Prime status. This makes knowledge inherently more useful because once it is disseminated, anyone with the wit to understand it, can exploit it. So there’s a direct conflict of interest. Those whose power and influence in society depend on their innate abilities are hostile to those who would generate practical and more universal applications for their ideas. So, for now, the horse rules for transport across land and the air is reserved for magical creatures. Up to this point, there has been no need to develop steam power for transport purposes because the population level and culture remain more mediaeval than Victorian in the sense we would understand. But, from the point of view of those in leadership roles, there’s a real problem in having to rely on individuals. Loyalties are not always guaranteed to persist. This gives the magically challenged a direct incentive to find ways of managing the world without having to rely on magic.
This book focuses on research which discovers the existence of bacteria. It’s speculated this knowledge could be weaponised and so work is undertaken to culture the relevant strains of bacteria and create a mechanical system for releasing it. This is ingenious because the magicians will not detect the source of the problem and their powers will not be able to defeat what they cannot understand. We therefore have a plot developed which sees Emma Bannon’s talents manipulated to unwittingly bring the infection into the Court while Archibald Clare thinks about the problem and infers the existence of a bacteriophage as a cure.
This is an interesting book with an intriguing premise, but the author has made the strategic decision to focus on the narrative rather than the exploration of the ideas. As a result, we have a relatively simple tale told with great efficiency. It positively zips along as our romantically but platonically entangled couple fight for the Empire’s safety while dealing with matters of the heart obliquely when they have a chance to draw breath. The Red Plague Affair is an enjoyable romp.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Redeye by Michael Shean (Curiosity Quills Press, 2013) Wonderland Cycle 2 is Bobbi January’s story set some two years after the fight at the Genefex Corporation left her frightened for herself and desperately sad at the loss of Agent Thomas Cooley Walken of the American Industrial Security Bureau. She’s taken over the running of The Temple after Anton Stadil’s death and has kept a low profile. Now she shaken out of her quiet retreat by a message from a changed ex-colleague of Tom’s from the Bureau days. Then she was Arnold Kelley. Now he’s Freida Kelley. That’s the future of gender for you.
At this point, I need to give you the headline overview. We’re now more explicitly into the science fiction mode with some levels of uncertainty as to who everyone is and precisely what target(s) they should be aiming for. But none of these elements are sufficient, individually or collectively, to be classified as a mystery. In terms of narrative structure and style, therefore, we’ve rather left the first two books behind. We’re now recognizing that there’s an alien invasion underway and watching our key characters take the fight to the aliens. That said, it’s difficult to define sides in this conflict. Because the form of the invasion is transplanting alien personalities into human bodies, not all the transplants take. This has created a kind of fifth column with some “personality hybrids” supporting humanity’s cause. The problem for both sides is detecting when a transplant is failing and the extent to which the original human personality may be able to reassert control. Taking a step back, this is a very well-conceived plot, nicely picking up from the first in the series and taking us through to a delicate point of balance at the end.
The major problem with the first section of this book is the character of Bobbi. I don’t mind people living in a state of fear for some of the time. That’s an inevitable part of life. And given what’s she’s been through, it’s completely understandable she should feel so insecure. But, after a while, I found her heightened anxiety state rather tiresome. Again making allowances, she’s balanced herself in a difficult position. Like everyone else, she has legitimate curiosity and would like a better understanding of what’s going on. But she’s only too aware how fragile her position is. So she’s isolated herself. This is moderately responsible of her. If she’s going down in flames, she’d rather not see others going down with her. But with the loneliness comes a natural amplification of the anxiety and paranoia. She lacks objectivity because she denies herself the chance to talk with anyone else. So the arrival of Freida should share the burden and ease the fear. But that doesn’t happen. In part this is because Freida seems to have a reckless streak and engages in some highly dangerous activities without first checking with Bobbi. But once you’ve introduced yourself to paranoia, it tends to stay your friend. Trusting this person is a stretch. That’s why the steady presence behind the security of The Temple, is a better person to trust. She’s known Marcus Scalli for ten years. And lurking just out of sight (although somewhat unnervingly in earshot) is Cagliostro whose agenda is a complete unknown but his identity, later revealed, is interesting.
The first big set piece inside Data Nexus 231 is a bit of a cliché with the Wonderland mods, slowish-moving ghouls to contend with. It improves significantly from the entry into Tenleytown until they meet up with the titular Redeye who proves to be the saviour of the book producing a better balance as Bobbi gains in confidence and Redeye proves a powerful catalyst to directing the attack in what looks to be the right direction. As we go along, some of the additional historical background, particularly of the Eurowar, is quite interesting, and we get snatches of memory from the Yathi. When you put the whole thing together, it actually produces an alternate history for Earth starting in pre-Revolution France with influence slowly moving around Europe until the final beachhead is established in the US. But this is less impressive than the first two books set in this version of Earth which were both packed with a wealth of political and economic background information.
Put all this together and there’s a general lack of spark. The first two books had spiky prose and a lot of inventiveness. This is a professional job, but it spins the story out too far. It ticks the right boxes and the story moves along, but it would be better if it lost at least fifty pages. This is a shame. I had hoped Michael Shean would develop into a really interesting author for the longer term. On the evidence of Redeye, I’m less sure he’s going to convert his early promise into reliable and consistent performances. Hopefully the next book will get us back on track.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
It’s perhaps appropriate to start off by noting the dominant approach to storytelling on display in Snodgrass and Other Illusions: The Best Short Stories of Ian R MacLeod by Ian R MacLeod (Open Road, 2013). Unlike the majority of writers, this author prefers a dense prose style and often avoids dialogue. Many of the stories are in the first person, involve interior monologues or use reported speech. Personally, I find this a welcome change, particularly because the author’s voice is so pleasing. Indeed, the whole collection is a delightfully eclectic array of themes and authorial concerns. Being a “best of” collection, this draws many stories familiar to me from previous collections and reprints in Best of the Year anthologies — the overall quality of this collection is outstanding.
“The Chop Girl” is a story from my era, a story of life and death on one of the World War II RAF stations which used to send bombers off across the Channel or the North Sea, and wait for them to come back. I’ve encountered this type of superstition before in the real world. It’s the idea of a jinx or hoodoo which is carried by a person and passed on as bad luck by contagion. In this case, the Typhoid Mary is a young girl who, like all young people thrown together in the heat of a war, is not averse to showing affection to the pilots. Except, those she favours seem not to return from their missions. When the penny drops, she’s shunned, of course. Only a phenomenally lucky pilot could break the jinx. But what would happen both at the time and after the war? The answer is straightforward and utterly realistic, as it should be when you’re dealing with superstitions. “Past Magic” pursues this slightly melancholic view of the identity we shape for ourselves and impose on others. It uses the fictional reality of cloning to speculate on whether the replacement version of the person can ever be the same as the original. The problem is that, even with access to all the previous person’s recorded memories, the clone would still be a new person who came into being too recently to have had all these past experiences. Or if a child was replaced, it would grow up in ways that might be similar but. . .
“Hector Douglas Makes a Sale” offers us a brief meander through the thickets of door-to-door selling, pausing every now and then to unravel some of the mysteries of technique that can distinguish between an average performer and a salesman who can charm birds down from trees to buy what he’s selling. “Nevermore” explores the world of unreality we sell ourselves when we fall in love and later use to deceive ourselves when the grief we feel on the death of the loved one threatens to overwhelm us. When reality can be overwritten by technology, so that even the dead can continue in an existence of sorts, how do we feel when the body of our spouse dies but the ghost continues in existence as if nothing had really changed? The collision between technology and the reality of emotion is nicely explored as the artist loses his muse but ultimately remembers what’s important to him.
“Second Journey of the Magus” sees Balthasar, the only surviving member of the original three Magi, return to the Holy Land to see how Jesus is getting along. Curiously, even though he sees what others might take as incontrovertible evidence of the existence of God and the potential accessibility of Heaven, he can’t quite shake off his doubts. Of course, scientists have always had doubts about whether there’s intelligent life anywhere else in the universe, hence “New Light on the Drake Equation”. In all the world, perhaps the only thing we can ever really be certain about is that humans have an innate capacity to surprise us by the things they do. Indeed, in many ways, humans as a species of diversity are probably as alien as creatures from another galaxy when viewed through the prism of age, one generation looking at what the later generations have become. And sometimes regretting decisions made earlier. And talking of decisions we might regret, here comes a wonderful alternate history story dealing with something far more significant than what the world would have been like if Germany had won the war. “Snodgrass” considers what might have happened to John Lennon if he’d left the Beatles before they really took off. I suppose the moral of all these stories is you should never look back with regret.
“The Master Miller’s Tale” is a very clever story making the transition between old and new. We start with artisan worlds where sometimes taken-for-granted skills born of generations of experience seem like magic. But as technology progresses, machines replace the craftsmanship and improve on performance. Over time, few consumers notice or care. Indeed, the products they need are often cheaper and more plentiful. Only the craftsmen feel the pain of redundancy and understand what has truly been lost. “Isabel of the Fall” also deals with the interface between humans and technology, looking at a future world in which the key to survival is light. Here faith by rote has become stronger than knowledge and understanding. In this case, the happy accident of avoiding the ritual blinding proves the saving grace for the people. In the world of the Dawn Singers, only the blind are Kings. The problem then is how to react to what can be seen when our heroine is not supposed to be able to see it.
“Tirkiluk” is a strangely beautiful story of a man sent a meteorological station on a distant patch of land, sometimes visited by Eskimos. When a pregnant Eskimo needs help, he provides shelter and food. All is under control until there’s an accidental fire. Then we gain an insight into the power of the mind to maintain the body so that the woman and her newly born son will survive the rigors of winter. Finally, “Grownups” is one of these slow reveal stories in which the growing boy speculates on exactly what it’s like to be an adult. Of course, to us mere mortals, this is quite easily divined. But suppose the world was complicated by the presence of a third sex. In such a place, it might actually be rather more difficult to understand where babies come from. Indeed, adults might be significantly less inclined to discuss the transition from child to adult and the subsequent need to consider reproductive matters. Out of fear or natural perversity, some children might try to hold back time.
Snodgrass and Other Illusions has everything you could hope to find in a collection from science fiction, through fantasy, to horror. But above all, the quality of the writing and the ideas shines through. It’s a must-read!
For a review of another collection, see Journeys
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Having found the first Battle Royale fascinating, I’m now slightly embarrassed to find the sequel Battle Royale II: Requiem or Batoru rowaiaru tsū: Rekuiemu or (バトル・ロワイアルＩＩ (2003) offensive. To understand why, we need to review the plot. Set three years after the events of the first film, Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara) has been a catalyst for the formation of a rebel group calling itself the “Wild Seven”. As the government increases the number of young adults forced to participate in the “battles”, the group strikes back in a 9/11 style bombing attack which brings down “twin towers” in Tokyo. This is the group declaring war on the adults. In the name of “justice” the government comes up with a new game plan. A group of school children is to be sent into battle against the Wild Seven. If children are the problem, then children should be the solution. In reality, of course, this is all rather silly. If any group of armed terrorists was sufficiently well organised to bring down two major skyscrapers, every policing and military adult at the disposal of the government would be on their track. The idea this group’s secret base would be identified and then attacked by a ragtag team of untrained students is absurd. But since the point of the film is to give our wild team members a fighting chance of survival, there can be no overflight with some rather large bunker-busting bombs, laser-guided to their destination. Instead, their location on a suitably uninhabited island is noted and the young adults recruited.
In this, I note the more explicit television coverage of the students, now fitted out with their collars, being taken into the centre for their orientation briefing. Seeing the terror on their faces would have the desired effect on the television audience. But just why has this bunch of terrorist kids come to this island? It makes absolutely no sense that such an age range of children and young adults would set up camp in an abandoned building like this when they could be enjoying the sunshine in Afghanistan or some other distant place where terrorism is the way of life and there’s safety in numbers. And before you ask, it turns out our terrorists had escaped to Afghanistan where they saw the true horrors of war and we get crass political interludes praising the children who have survived American bombing and other atrocities.
The main link between the two films is the introduction of Shiori Kitano (Ai Maeda). She’s the daughter of the teacher in the first film where he’s seen talking with her over the phone on several key occasions. It was not a happy relationship so she’s inevitably conflicted about his death. When she learns of his emotional attachment (in the purest sense of the words) to one of the girl’s in the class, she realises she has somehow missed out. In moments of unrealistic jealousy, she thinks this girl had a kind of parental relationship with her father. She therefore wants revenge and asks to be involved in the attack. This is part of some rather cod psychology on the part of the government. In the terrorist outrages, the Wild Seven have been responsible for the deaths of many adults. In selecting people to pit against these terrorists, the government therefore picks young adults whose parents have died at the hands of the Wild Seven. For the most part, these do not look like conventional students. They all affect a dress code and behaviour pattern suggesting they are more likely to be in sympathy with the terrorists than the government. But this just goes to show that, whether in a fictional or the real world, adults know nothing about children. To prove the point that bullying is not always the right approach, the “teacher” in charge, Riki Takeuchi (Riki Takeuchi), lays down the ground rules. You have three days to kill the terrorists or you die. Anyone who does not want to play the game can volunteer to demonstrate the destructive capabilities of those collars.
So this sends off the now forty volunteers on a sea-born landing that’s not exactly a success, leaving the kids running around like headless chickens on the beach (only metaphorically, of course). The shaky cam work is distinctly amateurish and the plot slowly devolves into almost complete stupidity as our amateur soldiers get a kicking from the terrorists who are well dug-in and prepared. The only point of interest in this is that Shiori Kitano proves a good leader and keeps as many alive as possible. Then, when the surviving conscripts have been persuaded to change sides, real soldiers attempt a landing and they are wiped out. This just gets progressively more silly as Riki Takeuchi sits in mission HQ and does nothing.
The real problem with the film is that it has no coherent point to make. It could be deeply political and discuss the relationship between a government and its people. Or it could take completely the opposite line and discuss under what circumstances, if any, it’s justifiable for a people to take up arms against its own government. Instead it flirts with inane trivialities. None of the people involved in this have any rational policy to pursue. These terrorists seem to believe it’s morally acceptable to pursue individual liberty even if it means killing large numbers of people on to way to achieving an unrealisable peace. It’s “children of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but the chains wrapped around you by your parents”. When this absurd propaganda is broadcast to the world, the Americans do what the Japanese should have done from the outset. They fire a few missiles at the island. This exceptionalism is deeply embarrassing to the Japanese Prime Minister. Its ally thinks it’s politically and morally acceptable to drop bombs on Japanese soil without asking permission first. The Japanese army is sent in. Who needs American missiles when the Japanese army can be sacrificed on a nameless island.
I suppose that, if I had to put my finger on the horror element in the first film, it’s the willingness of the “friends” to kill each other. This is not a group of strangers brought together like gladiators for an audience to cheer as they kill each other. This is a group that has grown up together in a classroom. They know each other. As a microcosm of the world, they have divided themselves into factions, grouped around stronger personalities. So when they are abandoned on the island, it’s like a family forced to turn on itself. Brother kills brother, sister kills surviving brother, and so on. The effect of the slaughter is to highlight the immorality of the state in putting these children in that position. Thematically, the sequel changes the focus and with it, loses the moral plot.
In the year this film was released, it was estimated that children were fighting as soldiers in most of the ongoing conflict situations around the world. That’s fighting both for and against governments. It’s just the luck of where they happen to be born and which side gets to recruit them first. In making heroes of children fighting in this film, I fear the film-makers have stepped over a line. It shows children fighting heroically and killing adult soldiers. This is an evil condemned by all civilised states. Using children for military purposes is considered the ultimately immoral act not only because it trains the innocent to be killers, but also because it forces adults to kill children in self-defence. When states only reluctantly send their women into battle, this is a film that glorifies children fighting against adults in an all-out war. In modern theatres of war, soldiers must now look on anything that moves as a potential threat. In the good old days of warfare, soldiers would kill the enemy men, rape their women and “save” the children. With today’s children carrying AK47s, the children are no longer waiting to be saved.
I’m open to be convinced by any point of view. Although instinctively I think child soldiers are victims to be pitied and, if possible, rehabilitated, the last thing I expected was a film turning such children into heroes. It’s all there. The martial music, the camera angles and general cinematography that dehumanises the adult enemies in battle, and so on. Worse, it shows the hard core warriors actively recruiting the naive children sent to kill them. By the end of the film, the newcomers are as heroic as their peers when it comes to killing the adult enemy. Perhaps I’m being a little naive in viewing the children as like a virus out to infect children around the world, inciting them to rise up and kill their oppressive parents and all other adults. I was waiting for the film-makers to condemn this. I hoped the ending would reset the moral compass so this alternate history version of Japan could find its way out of this internecine situation. Except what we get is implicit approval for continuing conflict and death. It’s all binary: black and white, adult and child, war and peace. Until everyone learns to compromise, how can anything be resolved? You would hope the adults would know better, that they would create a situation in which even these irrational children could be brought back into the human fold. Except adults in authority positions are not often forgiving. That leaves it to subordinates to decide on the ground, what the outcome should be. So maybe the only possibility is to wait it all out. As we live through winter, it may seem as though spring will never come. Yet, unless the winter is a post-apocalypse affair induced by nuclear fallout, spring always does come and with it, the possibility of a better place to live. Or maybe only death brings peace. Overall this means Battle Royale II: Requiem or Batoru rowaiaru tsū: Rekuiemu or (バトル・ロワイアルＩＩ is neither dull nor unexciting. Taken individually, some scenes match those from great examples of war films. But the morality of the military fiction we’re expected to find exciting makes the film offensive.
For a review of the first in the series, see Battle Royale or Batoru Rowaiaru, バトル・ロワイアル, 大逃殺 (2000)
The question to start us off is whether a state has any obligation to act rationally. It’s conventional to believe that democracy is one of man’s greatest achievements, enabling the people to listen to the arguments made by politicians, and then vote on who has the best solutions to current problems. The one(s) securing the most support then have a mandate to implement the solutions. Except this assumes all the competing points of view are rational, or that the rational groups seeking power have enough support. There are always cultural groups who take extreme positions. If they are in the majority, they win the elections and claim the right to impose their solutions on the minority. Because of this, dogmatic points of view can prevail until the next elections. If those opportunities to vote are separated by years, it allows the group in power to consolidate its grip and, if policing and military power is under their control, begin eliminating the minority.
Battle Royale or Batoru Rowaiaru, バトル・ロワイアル, 大逃殺 (2000) is based on a novel by Japanese writer Koushun Takami. It deals with the position of the least protected group. Although states always assert that the children have absolute protection under their laws, this assumes the adults consider the children worth protecting, i.e. there’s sufficient population growth. With no right to vote, children’s welfare is always at the whim of authority figures. This is an alternate history in which Japan has become part of the broader alliance calling itself the Republic of Greater East Asia. Suffice it to say, this is an authoritative regime that fears the possibility of rebellion. Feeling that the young are out of control, every year the government randomly selects a group of students from a single classroom. They are isolated on an island and encouraged to kill each other until only one survives. The intention is to use this annual selective cull as a warning of the power of the state to kill whenever it wishes and without having to justify itself. The selection of children for this purpose is intended to terrorise. Potential rebels are aware the selection of the annual group can always be manipulated to ensure their own children are included in the annual fight. Indeed, in this film, past winners are included in the current batch of victims to skew the outcome.
Insofar as there’s a primary character, it’s Shuya Nanahara (Tatsuya Fujiwara). We start off in his school where things are not going well. His father has been unable to find work, feels useless and has committed suicide. This came as something of a shock and left our young man alienated. But, thanks to his best friend, Yoshitoki “Nobu” Kuninobu (Yukihiro Kotani), he begins a slow process of rehabilitation. As an indication not all is well in this society, Nobu attacks their class teacher Kitano (Takeshi Kitano) with a knife, but runs away before he can be identified. Noriko Nakagawa (Aki Maeda) hides the knife and keeps the small group safe. Unfortunately, when the class is whisked away to the island to fight it out, Nobu is one of the first to fall. This leaves Nanahara and Noriko to try to survive.
The substance of this film is therefore an allegory, somewhat following in the footsteps of Lord of the Flies by William Golding. To make any society function, there’s a conflict between the need to co-operate and selfishness which fuels anarchy. There’s strength if otherwise weak individuals pool their resources, but individuals can quickly regress to a more primitive state in which their desire for power over each other simply results in the deaths of many. Obviously this film is different in theme because this island is not a paradise lost. It’s intended by the state to be the death of all but one. However, among the children, there’s still a very clear line of demarcation between the leaders and the led, and between those who want to co–operate to maximise their chances of survival, and those who form temporary alliances with a view to killing as many of the others as possible before they must turn on each other. Then the film considers all the reasons one person has to kill another. It can be for fun, or out of self-defence, in anger or out of love. If you look at the motives claimed for killing, everyone is capable of inventing their own justifications for taking the life of another.
When it comes to showing the killings, this is not a film that pulls its punches and it deserves an adults-only rating. However, it’s clearly distinguishable from films like the original Straw Dogs (1971) which portray violence as sadism or for more erotic purposes, i.e. in a rather more disturbing way. This is more a cinema vérité style, simply cataloguing each death as it occurs and showing the countdown to the ultimate winner as if in some reality game show. Some of the events are genuinely tragic as motives are misunderstood and fear prevails. Others show the possibility of hope for the individuals and, by extrapolation, for the human race. That despite all the chaos, some can rise to the occasion and show a certain nobility of purpose. As a final thought, because I prefer not to spoil the interest in watching how the drama unfolds: we can accept that the state itself will not bend in individual cases, but that does not deny the possibility that officers of the state cannot show compassion or perhaps merely a desire for it all to end. Perhaps in another life a teacher can reach out to a girl in the class and somehow inspire her to great things — or perhaps that’s the wrong way round — perhaps the girl persuades the teacher that not all youngsters are the same. Some may not deserve to die. Put all this together and Battle Royale or Batoru Rowaiaru, バトル・ロワイアル, 大逃殺 proves to be a fascinating and thoughtful film. I hesitate to say it’s exciting. That’s not its intention. But it certainly holds your attention as the deaths mount up.
For a review of the sequel, see Battle Royale II: Requiem or Batoru rowaiaru tsū: Rekuiemu or (バトル・ロワイアルＩＩ (2003)
The Inexplicables by Cherie Priest (The Clockwork Century Volume 5) demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of a longer running series. When it’s new, everyone can be genuinely excited by the novelty of the ideas and the loving craft that has gone into realising those ideas on paper. Those who follow the genre will know Boneshaker was nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards. This is no mean achievement. It signals a book that has striven to reach the pinnacles and only just fallen short. I think there were three reasons for its success in 2009. The first was the resurgence of steampunk in the oughties had not produced the greatest of works. This novel had a depth of invention that none of the others had achieved. The mechanics of survival in the gas-infected Seattle were beautifully worked out. Add in the claustrophobic atmosphere and the flesh-eating rotters, and you had a winner. The next three books see the author ringing the changes to keep the ideas fresh. Although there was some overlap in the characters, each novel or novella featured a different set of technological innovation. Despite this braveness in continually expanding the extent of the alternate history and looking in more detail at developments in the dirigibles, steam-power generally and submarines, I had the sense the series was slowly running out of steam. This is confirmed by the latest book’s return to Seattle. I think this was a fundamental mistake.
Assessing the “big picture”, there were fascinating possibilities in moving up to proper authorial omniscience and looking squarely at the broader conflict between the Northern and Southern states with Texas almost neutral. We’ve only viewed this version of the Civil War tangentially. There have been mere glimpses of the politics of the conflict and of the various attempts to resolve the core disputes and produce peace. Yet instead of helping us understand the context for this war, we revert to a Young Adult format rerun of Seattle with tedious results. This time, young Rector Sherman reaches his eighteenth birthday and gets thrown out of the orphanage. Driven by guilt that he might have been responsible for the death of Zeke, he decides to enter the city and try to lay the ghost. It should be said the boy is a fairly hopeless sap addict and not wholly rational when he takes this decision. But, as is always the case with books like this, once the primary protagonist has committed himself to the roll of the dice, you have to go with it.
Thereafter, we have all the faults of a YA approach holding this book back plus a genuinely silly introduction. Dealing with the latter first, about a third of the way through the book, I decided there must be a zoo within the walls or just outside, and one or more orangutans had escaped and entered the city. Boy was I barking up the wrong tree! You see I’d thought the essence of steampunk was some degree of realism and not outright fantasy horror. Even the author’s decision might have been defensible if it had been scary. But when Captain Cly can restrain it. . . Even allowing for the gas weakening this usually unstoppable force of nature, this plot element is a non-starter except in a YA novel that’s pulling its punches. Now add in one of the boys can sooth the savage beast. Well that’s what you get when you mix youngsters with the supernatural. They’re all so dim, wandering around the place as if they were invulnerable. After all, the rotters have either been carefully shepherded from the city or pulled to pieces by the newcomer(s). That reduces the danger factor to an effective zero level. So they can do their Famous Five freelance crime-solving act with only a few relatively ineffective adult drug dealers to worry about. It’s a sadly inadequate contribution to a reasonably entertaining series. Even the steampunk element is glossed over. Rather than repeat all the descriptions from the earlier Boneshaker, we’re given a whistle-stop tour of underground and how to get around safely.
So no matter how innovative and successful the first two books in this series, this is one to avoid unless you are reading as a committed fan. I hate to say it but The Inexplicables is terrible.
For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
Those Who Went Remain There Still
Bronze Summer by Stephen Baxter (Roc, 2012) is the second in The Northland Trilogy and we’ve moved on from the primitive days of the first brick built dykes. Now more than a thousand years nearer our time in this alternate history saga, we’ve got a major civil engineering project using concrete to keep the sea at bay. Yes these clever primitives have cracked the code on concrete. Cement has been around for several million years but, in our timeline, it was the Romans who developed “proper” concrete, using it for all their major structures from around 300 BC onwards. These eager beavers have completely excluded the sea from what is currently the bed of the North Sea. The “wall” now effectively creates a continuous land mass from Wales through to Europe and beyond leaving the current British Government with serious immigration problems as anyone who wants can just walk in (even from Romania if they want to walk that far). For those who have boating experience, a short sail north brings them to Iceland (then known as Kirke’s Land) where there’s a pivotal volcano that decides to make its mark on the world. You have to sympathise with these volcanos. For centuries they sit on their holes into the mantle, each one claiming they are the real-deal supervolcano and they just can’t agree. So periodically, one gets the bit between its teeth and, to prove it’s the biggest and baddest supervolcano, it erupts chucking out local lava but, more seriously, ash which triggers a small ice age featuring nut-obsessed saber-toothed squirrels if you’re lucky, a major ice age featuring species extinction and mass death in the human community if you’re less lucky. Fortunately, for now, the ice is only a gleam in the eye of the epilogue.
My apologies, I’m wandering around here (like many of the characters in this book) and not getting to the point of the review (many of the characters never end up in an ideal position either). So here we have this supermassive concrete structure that runs from here to there. It has a dual function. Obviously it keeps out the sea but, more importantly, it’s also a home to the people. Gone are the days when these primitives lived in caves. Now they’ve got their own continuous high-rise apartment block with major communities at regular intervals along its length. For this to work as a society, what you have to imagine is an amazing belief in the availability of free food. Most of our civilisations have developed with an agricultural base. Once there’s a food surplus, people can urbanise. Not in this book! Here we have an urban community in a ribbon strip development that creates a significant amount of unoccupied land. Quite why no other people invade this free land is left unexplained. The Brits, the French and the Germanic tribes know to stay out of Northland. This allows a hunter-gatherer society to prosper (with fish and sea food as a supplement). Obviously this also depends on there being little or no population growth so that natural sources of food are not exhausted.
So when the ash cloud screws up the already unstable weather systems, the fragile economies in the rest of the region collapse and conflict over access to increasingly scarce resources is inevitable. We start off in Northland with what I expected to become a murder mystery but the lead character, Milaqa, encouraged by her uncle Teel, is no investigator. In fact, for most of the book, she’s rather a diffident individual who shows little enthusiasm and not a lot of intelligence. The one immediately responsible for the death actually admits it about one-third of the way through and we get on with other matters. We also have two characters starting off in Troy. Qirum is a Trojan wheeler-dealer who “buys” Kilushepa, the deposed queen of the Hatti — the alternate history version of the Hittites living in the region we call Anatolia, now part of Turkey. Coming from even further away is Caxa who’s from a culture modelled on the Toltecs. Initially, everyone converges on the Northlands, but after a grand bargain is struck, Qirum, Kilushepa, Milaqa and Teel set off for the long journey to Hattusa, the capital of the Hittites. We then have minor skirmishes, larger scale conflict, quite a lot of brutality and an outbreak of disease.
The problem with all this is that the narrative structure lacks a clear focus. We have incidents and events dotted around the landscape and along the timeline as people travel hither and thither, with set pieces at the key locations as in a kind of historical drama with military overtones. Although there’s a chance for some character development, the primary protagonists are really plot devices to say and do the things necessary to show the development of the environmental disasters as the years pass by. This is not to say the broad flow of history is uninteresting, but I confess it failed to stave off boredom. I gave up caring who anyone was and just read it to the end to see what happened. It’s a shame really because there’s much inventiveness on display and significant rigour in the development of the climatic shifts and cultural consequences. But for me Bronze Summer proved rather tedious. I say this despite the introduction of combat and war which, in other hands, often enlivens proceedings. In this case, it was brutality and cruelty by the numbers with little emotional significance. I can’t honestly say this is worth reading unless you want to bridge from Stone Spring which was much better to the hopefully equally good concluding volume.
For a review of the first in the trilogy, see Stone Spring.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Nostalgia is a rather curious emotional response to a current stimulus or event. Like Pavlov’s dog, we seem to have programmed ourselves to take pleasure in recalling past events. This is not to say we find today’s realities unpleasant and wish to escape. It’s simply that something triggers our memories of past events. It can be coming across an old photograph or a snatch of music half-heard on the radio. Perhaps a casual word in conversation or revisiting a place we knew well as children throws us back in time. No matter what the stimulus, the result is a mixture of faint romanticism and some melancholy, i.e. fairly powerful emotions associated with pleasure are tinged with sadness and a sense of loss. The evocation of the past is strong. We have a sense of “truth” but there’s also a slightly gratuitous and shallow feeling. In our more rational moments, we acknowledge our memories are gilded. That’s it’s convenient to remember the good stuff and push the bad into the deeper recesses of memory.
As I approach the end of my days, I find myself caught in two quite different waves of nostalgia. One is the more conventional sense that there were many aspects of my life as a child and young adult that were positive and constructive. While I would not want to return to that time — there were too many hardships — I miss the sense of innocence that came from growing up in an information bubble. Today the world intrudes in our lives at every point with mass media and the internet competing for our attention, passing on both substantive and trivial news of the latest events from around the world. I’m not sure that the culture of childhood today is giving the young a chance to develop their full potential. The result of this first stage nostalgia is that I’m profoundly relieved to be old and therefore no longer caught up in the lives of the ephemeral Mayflies who declare themselves “adults” before they have had the chance to understand the benefits of remaining young.
The other form of nostalgia flows from the emotional constructs I formed as a child. Even in those days, I was an obsessive reader, ploughing relentlessly through both British and American fiction of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. At that time, my mind was filled with a sense of wonder that the recent past had been so exciting. My memories of this childhood nostalgia for all things Victorian and Edwardian create significant emotional responses to modern subgenres like steampunk. This second tier response reinforces my more general nostalgia for “the past”. I’m therefore predisposed to like modern authors like Tim Powers and James P Blaylock because they are playing with the mythology of the past. Their interests and sensibilities overlap the remembered fictional worlds from Dickens to the penny dreadfuls, from Jack London to the pulps. Yes, it’s actually a false nostalgia, but I enjoy revisiting it every now and again.
The Aylesford Skull by James P Blaylock (Titan Books, 2013) continues the saga of Langdon St James and his battle with Dr Ignacio Narbondo. Although I dislike the publishers’ labelling conventions, it’s actually useful to list the different features of this novel. Insofar as it contains real-world characters like Arthur Conan Doyle and, offstage, Gladstone, we might choose to think of this as being alternate history. It nicely captures the time when London was in a ferment because of the activities of the Fenians and the anarchists. Set in 1883, the world was reeling from the Phoenix Park murders and Gladstone was under pressure to repeal the Irish coercion laws. This book produces a complex plot to destabilise the government and evict Gladstone from power. It’s a great success as a Victorian political thriller. As a second strand, it’s steampunk. History tells us that, in 1883, Gaston Tissandier made the first electric-powered flight in a dirigible. In this book, we have a sophisticated electric motor and steering system for an airship which flies around London. There’s also some interesting technology for using coal dust as an explosive with portable systems for deploying the dust in suspension and then igniting it. Then we have a supernatural element which cloaks the conventional adventure in fantasy motley. Put simply our evil genius has developed a system for trapping the soul in the skull upon death. He plans an explosive release of the trapped spirit which should force open a door. Who can say where the door will lead nor, if it opened in Hell, what might come through into the human realm. We’re also treated to various other supernatural phenomena in Victorian style with references to table-turning, Planchette boards and other forms of spirit-based communication and foretelling.
Overall, it’s a beautifully constructed adventure novel in the Edwardian style. In spirit, it reminds me of thrillers by Sapper (pseudonym of H C McNeile) although, this being a modern book, we get better written female characters and none of the cultural baggage that would make a real period book less than acceptable to modern readers, i.e. the disparaging views of the minorities, the ghastly sexism and the increasingly virulent fascism that came to characterise so much of the fiction written between the wars. From this you will understand this is not a Dickensian novel. Although set in Victorian England, we have a sanitised version of life in and around London. This is very much a “fantasy” version of the capital as befits the steampunk subgenre. We can’t have revolutionary scientific advances against too dark a background. The book is intended as adventure and not a political satire or a realistic depiction of life in some of the more dangerous parts of the capital. That we can have a young Arthur Conan Doyle fighting alongside Langdon St James is simply part of the fun. As you would expect, there’s mayhem and death, political skullduggery and a threatened supernatural armageddon. But it’s all told with breathless excitement and regular edge-of-the-seat cliffhangers.
All of which should signal my immense enjoyment. Although I might cavil at one or two of the vocabulary choices, this is a remarkably sustained piece of writing in a period style suitable for modern sensibilities. I was entranced. That it’s all magnificent nonsense simply adds to the fun of it all. No matter what your age or predisposition to nostalgia, The Aylesford Skull is a book you should read.
For a review of another book by James B Blaylock, see Zeuglodon.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The Devil’s Looking Glass by Mark Chadbourn (Bantam Press, 2012) is the final contracted work for the Swords of Albion series. i.e. this is not strictly a trilogy. It’s left in a way that, should the publishers feel there’s sufficient demand, they can cross the palm of our heroic author with silver and await the continuation of the adventure. Since this is the equivalent of James Bond under the earlier Queen Elizabeth, you can see how our horse-powered, sword-wielding hero could fight enemies around Europe and, when tired of local sport, turn his attention to Russia in the east. Given the inherent flexibility of the format, we could be into a multibook series except. . . This is not to deny the presence of some excellent features, but I’m not sure such a series could maintain itself. The problem lies not so much in the human side of the equation. Indeed, I would say the history in this alternate history is quite pleasingly realistic with the European politics bending to accommodate the outside supernatural input. Half the fun is watching just how perfidious this version of Albion has been and continues to be as the series develops. But the problem lies in the nature of the supernatural beasties.
Perhaps I’m just a natural killjoy but I prefer magic systems to be constructed in a way that treats them as real, i.e. there are rules to be obeyed and recognisable limits on outcomes. The sad fact is I’ve now read all three books and it’s still not at all clear what the context is for this entire conflict. The “fairies” are ruled by the Unseelie Court — somewhat amusingly their base of operation is in the New World. Trust a British author with a sense of irony to make America the source of all this terrorism and potential invasion. As a sticking plaster on this wound to national pride, this is not the New World in our reality — American readers should stay calm. To get to this mirror image version of the New World where the sun rises and falls the other way round, all must pass through a portal. Ah ha! Not only is there a gateway to a transportation system, it depends on a form of lighthouse to guide people from one side of reality to the other. So what we have is the development of an earlier version of life on Earth. Or perhaps this Fay lot came through the portal from this mirror world. Either way, they were here before us and watched us grow up as a species. As in the classic fairy stories, there’s a time dilation effect between our world and the alternate reality occupied by the Unseelie Court. It seems to be about one-thousand of their years to fifteen of ours. When on Earth, they live under hills and in forested areas, generally making a nuisance of themselves. But, at some point, there came a breakdown in mutual toleration. They grew contemptuous of our lack of morals, thinking us little better than animals. Although there could have been a reconciliation, outright conflict was provoked when Dr John Dee built a defensive network of spells to keep the Fay out — the first truly effect immigration controls from the British government.
Why is all this a problem? Well this book seems fairly clearly to signal that the Fey did not create the portal. Although they have natural magical abilities, they fit into a broader system of magic and supernatural powers. Dee is drawing on occult powers and seems to be using a different source of power to control both individual members of the Unseelie Court and as general barriers to movement e.g. the defences built along the banks of the River Thames. There also seem to be other beings around. They may be classic demons or incorporeal beings who can take possession of humans. Not only do we have the transdimensional portal, we also have a real-time communication system through mirrors and a different obsidian mirror with slightly different qualities which John Dee has. So although these three books focus on the conflict with the Fay, there’s absolutely no attempt to give any background on the more general context for working magic, nor is there any explanation for any of the effects we see, e.g. the manipulation of the weather or the creation of different types of land or water-based animals. I have the sense Mark Chadbourn is making it up as he goes along. There’s nothing wrong with this but my money says it’s better for the reader to be able to see both the strengths and weaknesses of the different groups in a consistent way.
Anyway, this novel starts us off in 1593 and England’s greatest spy, Will Swyfte, is caught up in the latest crisis as Irish spy, Red Meg O’Shee, kidnaps Dr Dee and sets off to export him to Ireland. With the help of John Carpenter, Tobias Strangewayes, and Robert, the Earl of Launceston, we ride over to Liverpool where there are interesting developments. On their return to London, we get the best bit of the book as the Thames freezes. We then flirt with matters vaguely piratical, i.e. we get on to ships of the period and sail hither and thither avoiding adverse weather conditions, pirate and Fay attacks, and the misplacement of the Sargasso Sea, until we arrive at the “island”. This entertains us with a short version of Shakespeare’s Tempest and then it’s off to the New World through the portal.
Overall, there’s a lot of ingenuity on display to keep the action going. Indeed, some of the plots and conspiracies are quite pleasingly malevolent. At times, the fantasy shades into horror which is again a positive sign, avoiding some of the tweeness that can afflict stories involving fairies. I like some of the ideas discussed on the nature of honour and the prices both sides in a war pay to make progress, but there’s not much philosophical development. The good ideas are repeated with little added save that, as we might predict, no-one comes out of this mess looking good. To that extent, the ending is realistic. So The Devil’s Looking Glass continues the standard of the second outing as a reasonably enjoyable adventure romp around an alternate history sixteenth century with some time spent on ships and in a jungle (yawn) but otherwise blending swords with sorcery in a moderately effective way. If you enjoyed the first two, you will definitely enjoy this.
To start us off with The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick (Ace, 2012), I need quickly to remind you about Cassandra. You may remember all that kerfuffle over Troy when that Helen babe was abducted. Well Cassandra was the nut who kept telling everyone this was a really bad idea. She’d fallen out with Apollo and he cursed her with the power of prophesy (which is pretty cool) but ensured no-one would ever believe her (which is deeply frustrating). “No don’t take the wooden horse inside the walls, you twits!” was one of her better lines. All of which erudition bring me to the idea of conspiracy theories. These are the “secret” deals and cover-ups by the politicians, the military and the monied power-brokers. Needless to say, there’s never any real evidence of such back-room deals, but we’re all invited to believe them as true. As examples of such potentially paranoid delusions, think about the mythology surrounding the JFK assassination, whether the moon landing in 1969 was a government hoax, and the idea that George Bush allowed the 9/11 attacks to justify attacking Iraq. Obviously these are not the kind of prophesies Cassandra would have made.
So this book is about the moon landing program in the 1960s. I remember not going to work so I could watch the television coverage of the Eagle setting down and then that moment recorded indelibly in the memory, “That’s one small step for man. . .” I always wonder how long it took the PR people to come up with that line for Neil Armstrong. It’s a beautifully crafted moment. Coming to this book, we have a perfect example of plausible science fiction — that’s the best kind. It’s the truth ripped from tomorrow’s news headlines. Let’s take Heinlein novels as good and bad examples. Rocket Ship Galileo has our juvenile heroes finding a Nazi base on the moon — seem to remember Iron Sky (2012) rerunning that idea. The Man Who Sold the Moon sees a wealthy businessman invest every last nickel in getting to the moon. The persistence of a lone capitalist opens up “outer space” for commercial exploitation. Who needs government when you have men like Delos David Harriman?
At this point, I need to remind you about Recovering Apollo 8 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch which boldly went into alternate history territory with a story about a mission from the Apollo program ending in the death of the crew. Those of you who can remember back to the 1960s will recall all the missions returned safely. It’s a pleasing variation on the “what if” theme, in this case inviting us to speculate whether the moon missions would have continued had there been such a public disaster. This novel is also playing a “what if” game and, although it’s by no means original, it has the virtue of being the first time I’ve seen it tied in with the Apollo program. Put very simply, the authors want us to consider what might have induced the Americans and the Russians to collude in a cover-up. This was more or less at the height of the Cold War with the Cuban Missile Crisis fresh in everyone’s mind. The two superpowers were still effectively on a war footing. Why should they suddenly agree to collaborate? Even more surprisingly, what would the connection be with the Watergate scandal in 1972. History is very clear that the republican President Nixon broke into the Democratic National Committee headquarters for political purposes. It’s impossible there could be any connection with the moon landings, isn’t it? Yet this book suggests a different motive for the break-in.
All in all, The Cassandra Project by Jack McDevitt and Mike Resnick is a slick and professional job, rewriting history not only to explain the original problem, but also to justify the cover-up — the whole being a genuinely impressive puzzle-solving mystery. Confronted by the same set of facts, I’m not sure I would have made the same decisions as Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, but I concede the risks of a major conflict at that time were significant, so a safety-first approach along these lines might have been expedient. As to the politics at the time the action is set in 2019. . . Well, I suppose it’s all plausible given likely continuing tensions in the Middle East and other parts of the world. This might be the time to let the dogs continue their fifty year sleep. So from this, you can see the book is appealingly thoughtful on both the alternate history front and the politics of it all. On the way, there are moments of amusement as the authors take potshots at the PR industry, publishers and other easy targets. It’s a top class read!
For reviews of other books by Mike Resnick, see:
Dreamwish Beasts and Snarks
The Incarceration of Captain Nebula and Other Lost Futures
Stalking the Vampire.