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Irenicon by Aidan Harte

February 15, 2014 1 comment

Irenicon_JK

As all those who read these reviews will know, I’m a bear of little brain, frequently prone to error and misthinging. It’s a miracle I actually navigate from the start to the end of each day without killing myself or being killed by provoked authors, film directors or television producers. When books come in for review, I unpack them from their boxes and, in that order, copy their titles and authors into a list which then, somewhat arbitrarily, becomes the reading order. When I picked up this book and looked at the jacket, I wrote down Frenicon, taking the initial letter to be a gothic “f”. Imagine my surprise when later opening the book and finding the f to be an i. This does not exactly strike the right note (or letter for that matter) when it comes to communicating with the buying public.

So as to the review itself: Irenicon by Aidan Harte (Quercus/Jo Fletcher Books, 2012) is the first book in the Wave Trilogy and sees us flirting with genre boundaries. In broad definitional terms, we could be looking at an alternate history book which takes as its premise that Herod acted in time to kill the infant Jesus before he could be spirited out of harm’s way. This left the Virgin Mary with the task of introducing the elements of the Christianity that would otherwise have conquered the word of faith in the West. But without her son to show his divinity, the resulting belief system is rather different from the version we had in the fourteenth century when this book is set. Hence, if we take books like Pavane by Keith Roberts as our exemplars, this book is outside the definitional boundary because it does not accept the limits of the real world. It treats the supernatural as real. So for all it poses a classical “what if”, we’re actually pitched into a mediaeval Italian environment where a form of magic works. In broad narrative terms, the Concordian northern alliance is actively pursuing expansion into Europe, but is cautious of the independent city states to the south. To avoid vulnerability from the rear, it’s therefore using one of its twelve legions to suppress dissent.

The culture has been through a Re-Formation. Natural Philosophy has applied mathematics and observational physics to the real world. Initially ignored by the pervasive religion, a new breed of engineer arose and established sufficient power to be able to displace both religious power-brokers and the nobility. The result is theoretically a more meritocratic society, but one which proves equally open to abuse by a self-appointed elite. Underpinning the rise to power is the development of Wave technology. Essentially this uses water for military purposes. As a demonstration of its destructiveness, the engineers physically divide the southern city of Rasenna by creating a river. The waters of what’s later named the Irenicon smash through the city walls, devastate the central area, and become a permanent feature of the landscape. It would be just like any other river except that, surprisingly, it runs uphill and it’s also full of spirits which seem intent on grabbing any human who comes too close to the water. Death by drowning is the result. This city gives us the central metaphor for the book to explore.

Aidan Harte

Aidan Harte

Following its division, two feuding families assert control over their half. The Morellos rule the north, the Bardinis the south, albeit both are beholden to the Concord. The only person who might reunite the city is Contessa Sofia, the last surviving member of the Scaglieri family. When she reaches the age of seventeen, she could be allowed to become the ruler. Until then, she’s being trained in “leadership skills” by The Doctor, the head of the Bardini family. One day, Captain Giovanni, a young engineer from the Concord, arrives. He’s been sent to build a bridge across the river. The symbolism is transparent. This is a city divided against itself. Following the model of feuding clans, the socalisation process inducts the young into militias who develop fighting styles using banners designating their families and clan allegiances. The poor and emergent middle class are relatively powerless, depending on local “gangs” for protection. A bridge allowing all to move from one side to the other could end the feuds and reunite Rasenna. So those who are in power see the engineer as a threat. The poor see him as a figure of hope, a force for change.

Change management is challenging at the best of times. In a fourteenth century Italy, the first step is an undermining of the control of the two families and their retainers, quickly followed by the empowerment of the poor and middle class. In an ideal world, there would also be some degree of democratisation but that’s never going to be an easy sell to anyone who’s spent generations under the control of local families and clans. The book therefore explores a perennial problem where entrenched power structures confront the possibility of change. In modern times, we might be looking at the Troubles where relatively small groups of warring paramilitaries disputed which of the adjacent sovereign states should have the right of local control. As in the real world, so in this book, everything depends on the history and context for events. Aidan Harte nicely introduces illuminating insights into the process which Re-Formed the northern part of Italy and consolidated power in the engineers. How and why the science as magic (or vice versa) came into being is deliberately left unspoken. It’s going to be necessary to carve out positions for science and faith, and then support dialogue to understand the relationship and potential synergy between the belief and knowledge-based systems.

This leaves me seriously impressed both by the quality of the ideas and the ingenuity with which they are explored in the text. In simplistic terms, it’s a coming-of-age story as Sofia chafes against the control of The Doctor and begins to form a relationship with Giovanni. But this is rather more substantial than the traditional amor vincit omnia fantasy plot as our two protagonists come into mutual obit but then have choices to make. I could make disparaging noises about the clichéd necessity for Sofia to develop “powers” by overcoming her fear, but this would be to miss the point. Returning for a moment to the religious context, Mary did not ask to become mother to Jesus. She was chosen and had to make the best of it. In short, Irenicon is completely fascinating, leaving us poised on a wholly unexpected note as a new temporary balance in the power structures is achieved.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Here’s an interview with Aidan Harte.

After Earth by Peter David

after-earth

After Earth by Peter David (Del Rey, 2013) is a film novelisation adapting the script by M. Night Shyamalan and Gary Whitta, based on a story by Will Smith, a species of books I only bother with when I’m interested in the author. Since I’m something of a fan of the series featuring Sir Apropos of Nothing, I decided to read this — if I have the time, I’ll also watch the film to see how it compares. This is the story of Kitai Raige, son of Cypher Raige, the first man able to ghost. At this point, I’m going to diverge from book and film to talk about relevant parallels. When I was young, A E Van Vogt was considered very impressive. He’s another of the authors where I achieved completion. Anyway, my feeble memory recalls the story “Co-operate Or Else” which has Professor Jamieson stranded on an inhospitable planet and hunted by a predatory six-legged alien. It’s one of a species called the ezwall and was later fixed up as part of The War Against the Rull. I mention this because Van Vogt also wrote The Voyage of the Space Beagle which was allegedly the source of the plot for the seminal film, Alien. While I’m not suggesting the team behind After Earth has copied “Co-operate Or Else”, it’s an interesting coincidence.

Anyway, the alien species in this film, which humans call the Ursa, has been bioengineered to track and kill humans. This is all rather strange. In the film Pitch Black, which is terrific entertainment, we have an alien species go through entire reproductive cycle during what passes for night on this planet. The scent of blood attracts them to the humans and light repels them. They are adapted to virtual sightlessness (light frightens them for some reason), relying on a form of radar to move around and detect prey. So these Ursa have been adapted to detect the “smell of fear”. The humans speculate the creators of these predators are themselves sightless, engineering these predators in their own image. As an idea, this is actually quite ingenious, but it seems to me it has a serious defect. The alien species in Pitch Black has multiple mechanisms for navigating both on the ground and in the air. This makes it particularly dangerous. But, on paper, the Ursa seem not very well equipped to move around. Obviously they cannot see. . . but there’s no suggestion they blunder into trees or fall off cliffs. Indeed, once they get the scent, they are fixed on a given “prey animal”, and ignore others around them until the one selected is dead. Quite how they decide the prey is dead is not explained. Perhaps they can hear the heart stop beating. No wait, that can’t be right.

Peter David

Peter David

At this point I need to explain the phenomenon of ghosting. A human who develops a powerful control over his or her emotions, can become invisible to the Ursa, i.e. the body of these individuals stops secreting the chemicals associated with fear. A ghost can physically walk up to an Ursa and get nothing more than a puzzled reaction. This is convenient because the bioengineers have built in some tough defences for their creatures. But if you can get close enough, you can stick your magic blade in through the cracks and deliver a fatal blow. In Pitch Black, Riddick ghosts a large predator, i.e. stands in front of one and is not detected. This is explained. The alien has radar projectors on either side of its substantial skull and Riddick is able to stand absolutely stationary in a blind spot directly in front of it. When the alien moves, it sees the human in the same way it might detect a utility pole, i.e. as a narrow inanimate object. Yet the Ursa seem not to be able to detect a human by any means other than the scent of fear. The tactics for fighting one are therefore interesting. Teams of eight surround one of the beasts. Once it imprints on one, the other seven are then free to close in on the beast and kill it. Except, of course, once seven humans start pricking it with their blades, this beast gets not a little upset and, with six paws to strike out with and a head full of teeth, it can randomly disable the attackers without directly perceiving them. So it can feel when it’s pricked, and it can find doors and walk through them, but it can’t detect a human unless it’s afraid. It seems these alien bioengineers have gone to a lot of trouble to manufacture a predator that’s severely handicapped. When the bioengineers were developing the chameleon-like ability to camouflage to the point of invisibility, you would think they would have given their beasts more sensory input and tracking skills.

As a standalone novel, Peter David has done a good job in providing a context for the main action. We have a wealth of backstory on the ironically named Raige clan — they do get worked up sometimes but stay calm in a crisis. They are natural leaders who manage both to inspire confidence in the people they lead and to show powerful intellectual abilities. It’s thanks to their commitment that the best of Earth leaves the planet and settles on multiple worlds. When the aliens turn up and start releasing Ursa to drive us away, they organise the defence and, ultimately, develop the right mental state to ghost the Ursa. Not surprisingly, the tiny percentage of people who can successfully ghost have either spent generations breeding for the possibility or have been psychologically predisposed not to show fear. They are cold fish and this explains why the father and son in this film have this strange relationship. As an action adventure, I can visualise what this must look like on screen and it’s one cliché after another. This is not Peter David’s fault. He’s just picking up the money to write the novelisation. I was interested in the overarching context but found the immediate adventure, coming-of-age plot tedious.

There are three short stories bound into the volume by Robert Greenberger, Michael Jan Friedman and Peter David. The second by Friedman is the best thing in the book, asking and answering the question of what might happen if humans decided to modify the brain of one of their soldiers so that he could ghost. This is a natural progression from the aliens bioengineering their predators. Why can’t humans modify themselves to fight back? There’s a lot of cod psychology on display throughout and I find myself relieved I did not pay to see this film on a big screen. Assuming the book to be an accurate version of the story, it’s not worth seeing but I might watch it anyway for comparative purposes.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Holders by Julianna Scott

June 24, 2013 4 comments

The Holders by Julianna Scott

Since my wife used to work in a building almost next door to their offices in Nottingham, I’ve been following the progress being made by Angry Robot Books. Not the most pressing of reasons, I know, but Angry Robot has been publishing some interesting titles making it worth watching their list. While I looked away, there were then developments. They added a young adult line called Strange Chemistry, followed by crime and thrillers with an imprint called Exhibit A. So here I go breaking another of my house rules and, despite my usual contempt for all things YA, I’m plunging into The Holders by Julianna Scott (Strange Chemistry, 2013) to see whether a dynamic British company can do better with the urban fantasy subgenre for teens (I’ve also got two of Exhibit A’s titles and will be reviewing them in the days to come). Having already declared by prejudices, I need to offer a brief definition of YA as a starting point for this review. In theory this is content aimed at those aged between the ages of twelve and eighteen. Since people of this tender age range are supposed by book packagers (and parents) to have undeveloped tastes and to be emotionally vulnerable, their tastes have to be guided away from adult fiction in the non-pornographic sense of the word, and persuaded to read fiction that’s safe and, in many ways, educational. That said, there’s actually evidence people up to the age of twenty-five buy YA without embarrassment. It seems some people’s level of reading skills and emotional development never progress beyond, say, seventeen.

Why pick the age of seventeen? Because the lead protagonist of this first-person narrative is a seventeen-year-old girl and she’s going through the usual rite of passage or coming of age experiences required in YA mode. Because this is also urban fantasy, our young heroine is also required to fall in love but, because this is to be emotionally safe (and not give young readers the wrong idea), she must be chaste. No matter how strong the attraction, she cannot go beyond hand-holding and the occasional kiss. This is unrealistic. UNICEF estimates that more than 80% of teens have sexual intercourse in Britain and the US. The teenage pregnancy and abortion rates in the US are the highest in the developed world. For books not to reflect this statistical reality is surprising if the books are in any way intended as a constructive influence on opinions and behaviour. Yet not just YA but also the majority of books in the urban fantasy subgenre are aimed at female readers who want romance with a supernatural edge. I have no problem with a concept that ring-fences fictional behaviour for educational purposes, i.e. which represents a discussion and commentary upon the behaviour and the downsides of stepping outside the fence. But it does seem problematic when the fence is uncritically presented as a social good, i.e. it becomes propaganda addressed to young minds which are more easily influenced.

Julianna Scott meets some of her readers

Julianna Scott meets some of her readers

This leads to a secondary question of why I’m harping on about YA having an educational purpose. Well this book is playing in a well-trodden sandpit for the purposes of offering conservatively framed guidance on how children should react when their parents split up. Our heroine was celebrating the arrival of a baby brother and looking forward to a move across country. Everything went well with the packing and her mother moved. Unfortunately, the father disappeared. This left mother and daughter devastated. So this theme is the main structure on which the story is based. When his son is ten, missing Daddy sends his minions to bring the sprog to a school in Ireland where he can be “safe”. Protective sister goes with him and must therefore reach some form of accommodation with her father. It’s all about forgiveness. Yet, of course, it’s not that straightforward. It turns out that Daddy has some super powers and it’s probable his son has inherited them. He’s being brought to Ireland for testing because, gulp, he may be the Chosen One mentioned in the Prophesy. There must always be prophesies when magic is involved. In this case, we’ve got a series of different types of power. Super Daddy is like Charles Xavier with mind reading and adjusting powers. Needless to say, there’s a counterbalancing mind-adjusting elder who’s out for world domination. That’s why the Prophesy calls for a hero to save the world.

Within five pages of the start, it’s obvious what the broad plot is going to be and what the authorial choices are. The way the plot then develops telegraphs the love interest and how the hero thing is going to work out, i.e. because this is written for the YA market, there can be no real surprises and it must be obvious how everything will be resolved. That way, the young reader can sit back and just savour the steady progress to true love and beating the immediate threat to safety. In fact, the threat comes into focus almost at the end making it all rather perfunctory. This leaves plenty of time to resolve separated parent issues and to work through an allegory about how relationships are formed. Think of it this way. Here’s a young woman who’s been dominant in protecting her younger brother. She meets a slightly older man and there’s a spark. Now how does this work? Does the more experienced and more physically powerful one take the lead, or should the roles reverse when she’s got a long track record of being the dominant one in a broken family? It’s actually socially constructive to discuss the nature of love and explain the different ways in which relationships can be formed and broken. To that extent, I think the book is quite useful, particularly because the love interest also comes from a broken family where he was abandoned by his adoptive parents. As a piece of urban fantasy, it’s completely gutless and anaemic. There’s never any real sense of threat or danger. It’s serene progress to the obligatory happy ending to the first book in an intended series. Of course, the evil one may prove more of a handful when he appears in later volumes, but I suspect this series will keep everything in the safe rather than the edgy zone. As an adult, I can see all the ways in which this could have been so much better, but authors writing for this artificially constructed YA market are not allowed to write anything dangerous. So The Holders has some good supernatural ideas (which are not properly developed) and might be useful for younger readers on dealing with divorce and separation issues, and how to make new relationships. From me, that’s high praise.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

SuckSeed or Huay Khan Thep (2011)

The conversation with my wife began inauspiciously. I suggested we go see a Thai film. She was immediately up in arms. “I don’t like horror films,” was the first of several minutes of complaint, switching from horror to the Muay Thai films with Ong-Bak beating everyone up in his search for a white elephant. I did my best to remind her of The Iron Ladies or Satree lek and its sequel but, for a while, everything hung in the balance. “A comedy? A coming-of-age film? Out of Thailand?” Incredulity was temporarily her middle name. Eventually, curiosity got the better of her and I duly handed over money. We huddled in the back row, trying to blend in while surrounded by a crowd of youngsters. Fortunately, none of them were interested in adolescent canoodling and, as the lights went down with modesty preserved on all sides, we were into SuckSeed or Huay Khan Thep (the three Thai words translate as “Brilliantly Bad”).

Pachara Chirathivat and Jirayu La-ongmanee consider their options

 

I vividly remember the first two singles released by the Sex Pistols. “Anarchy in the UK” was raw energy. Their version of “God Save the Queen” was hilariously irreverent. Within weeks of their arrival, they had outraged everyone that should have been outraged and amused the rest of us. Naming a band SuckSeed should give you a clue about what this trio of young Thais is all about. Their first single as an entry into a competition for bands is appropriately anthemic. It runs along the lines, “We suck. We’re complete failures. We’re all going down in flames, but we’re going to do it together. Yes, we all suck together. . .” and so on. So what you have to imagine is three youngsters who cannot play properly, thrashing away on guitar, bass and drums while the “singer” shouts himself hoarse. For the live performance in competition, they even arrange for a young boy to run on stage to be sick while a fat boy does potentially obscene things just out of camera shot. By Thai standards, it’s all a bit radical, but it beautifully captures what the film is all about.

 

Here we have two boys. Ped (Jirayu La-ongmanee) is terminally shy, while his best friend Koong (Pachara Chirathivat) has an older and very talented brother. Consequently, Koong never tries seriously to do anything, having already decided he cannot compete with his brother. Nevertheless, in his relationship with Ped, he finds some degree of liberation and is dominant, always organising Ped into yet another activity. In junior school, they are in the same class as Ern (Nattasha Nauljam). Inevitably, Ped loves her from the start but is incapable of doing anything about it. When he discovers she is moving to Bankok, he does his best by recording an attempted song to declare his love but, when he telephones to arrange delivery of the tape, he’s so intimidated by Ern’s father, he claims to be Koong and then puts down the phone. This leads to the predictable confusion at school when the gossip links Ern and Koong.

Nattasha Nauljam demonstrating real flair on the guitar

 

We now leap forward to secondary school. Ern has returned and, from Koong’s point of view, there’s the worst possible development. His brother has proved himself a wonderful rock musician and is fronting a band called Arena. So great is his charisma, he can pull any girl in the school. This finally provokes Koong into direct competition. When he discovers Ern is also a great guitarist, he decides to form a band. Ped is deputed to hold the bass and a boy, enigmatically named Ex (Thawat Pornrattanaprasert) whose flair at basketball is demonstrated when he falls and breaks his arm, is roped in as the drummer. Needless to say, he’s not a great success with one stick lodged in the plaster cast on his arm. But for a moment, with Ern playing lead, they have purpose and don’t sound too awful. Unfortunately, Koong tries to form a relationship with Ern and drives her away — inevitably, she joins Arena — and Ex has the same unhappy experience with his hoped-for girlfriend. Hence, all three boys are total failures when it comes to girls and reflect this in their song which, not surprisingly, propels them into the final of the competition.

Thawat Pornrattanaprasert thinking about becoming a drummer

 

So, first of all, the good things. Without exception, the acting is naturalistic and affecting. All four leads come out of this well. Although it’s a long time ago, I can remember what it was like as a teen trying to summon up the courage to talk with girls. This script focuses on the inevitable conflict as our two heroes fall for the same girl with first-time director, Chayanop Boonprakob using the music well to capture their moods. The convention of having the lead singers from the original recordings turn up on screen to sing to the cast just about avoids overstaying its welcome. One more time and it would have become annoying albeit one or two sequences are actually amusing. Which brings us to the second good thing. Thai humour is laugh-out-loud when it’s allowed to surface. There were times when the cinema erupted — always a good sign. But this hides a problem. There’s great energy in the direction with there even being some quite witty animation to capture one moment. But the whole is too long by about twenty minutes. It actually lasts 136 minutes with the director showing his inexperience by allowing some of the scenes to overrun. It gives the whole a slightly laboured feel. Yes, the jokes and the central triangular relationship between Jirayu La-ongmanee, Pachara Chirathivat and Nattasha Nauljam keep up the interest, but the slow pacing prevents the film from being a complete “success”.

 

SuckSeed or Huay Khan Thep is fun as a coming-of-age film set to a mixture of punk and contemporary Thai rock music. When they set out to try playing and singing, the boys are gloriously bad and celebrate that fact. Even though shy, they make a sustained attempt to break through their inhibitions. Arena, by contrast, are very professional. On a personal note, I was always slightly more quiet which means I’m probably the wrong generation to judge this. It’s a universal truth that, by our own high standards, we all suck as human beings when we’re young. Perhaps I should just go with the flow of the the young audience around me who found it immensely enjoyable. Continuing the positive side, my wife is now recommending it to her friends as the best Thai horror film of all times.

 

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