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Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear

June 13, 2014 10 comments

steles-the-sky-by-elizabeth-bear-498x750

Steles of the Sky by Elizabeth Bear (Tor, 2014) brings the Eternal Sky trilogy to a conclusion. I want to start by talking about the prose which is rather more poetic than is usual in modern epic fantasy. In part, this is due to the decision to conflate One-Thousand-and-One Nights with the horse culture of the Steppes. This gives us the tough life of the nomad as the bedrock of the book while magic resonates throughout the land and, somewhat unusually, the sky. This is the first time I can remember reading a series in which the sky changes both according to location, and as key characters rise and fall. This metaphor is pleasing. As the new generation is born, new stars or moons appear. As their status changes, the sky can signal its approval or disapproval. Equally stars can fall and moons can fail to rise come nightfall. What makes all this work over the trilogy is the detail of the different cultures that come together to form this particular world of magic and war. So many books play in the mediaeval European setting with the politics of principalities and petty kingdoms fighting over the bones of a fractured empire. This is a world of long history with ruined cities and the lost dragon road, and our equivalent of the Mongol hordes ride across the plains between more modern cities. Always remember the history of worlds like this is always slightly unreliable for a number of different reasons. That said, each of the current cultures on display feels plausible given the lifestyle and the level of technology, both real and magical. You can’t give higher praise than this.

So where are we with the plot? Re Temur and Samarkar continue in their struggle to reach Dragon Lake where they intend to raise the banner to unit the opposition to al-Sepehr as he wages war in the name of the Scholar-God. Edene with the djin in involuntary attendance is bringing the Ghulam out of their underworld to fight with Re Temur. The “contaminated” monk Hsiung and Hrahima, the Cho-tse warrior, are back in attendance as are a number of key women in different parts of the landscape. This brief introduction should remind people this is a cast of characters in depth and, in substantial numbers, it’s the women who do a lot of the heavy lifting. More than in many other contemporary fantasies, this is a good step forward in demonstrating the merits of gender equality. Pleasingly, although these characters are to some extent stereotypes, e.g. the leader’s wife, the poetess, the sorceress, and so on, they all transcend the usual role limitations and emerge fully-fledged into this rather dangerous world. Many face real and daunting difficulties. Some pay a serious price for the help they give. What makes the book satisfying is that the men respect the women for their achievements and never feel threatened by them. When your community is facing a hostile physical environment and war is imminent, this is not a time to worry about who’s doing what. What’s important is that everything that should get done, is done.

Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear

As an example of the complexity of the emotional issues to be resolved, we should take the mutual affection of Temur and Samarkar which runs on into this book only to be redefined when Edene finally catches up with them. She has, of course, birthed Temur’s son and has certain expectations about her position by her husband’s side. In every aspect of this book, we see people living with the consequences of early decisions. So, for example, Hsiung continues to find himself barely able to control the contamination that came from his previous studies. That’s why he has to take a short leave of absence as this volume unwinds. Similarly, others seek redemption or release from the traps in which they find themselves. Lurking at the end, there are always sacrifices to be made, some more painful than others. Even the appearance of a dragon does not quite play out along the expected lines.

I confess to finding this rather slow until we get into the final third. But once we are set upon the road into the final battle, everything comes sharply into focus and the end itself is quite unexpected for those of us who have had so many fantasies dot every i and cross their ts on the way to a triumphant conclusion. This is not to deny the triumphant qualities of this ending, but it’s perhaps not quite what you might have predicted. On balance, even though I think Steles of the Sky takes too long to get going, there’s considerable power in this particular conclusion and the trilogy must rank as one of the more successful of the last decade. Elizabeth Bear may not be Brandon Sanderson, but this is a high quality piece of work for a modern fantasist to produce.

For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Bear, see:
ad eternum
Book of Iron
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette)
Range of Ghosts
Seven for a Secret
Shattered Pillars
Shoggoths in Bloom
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette)
The White City

The rather beautiful jacket artwork for this Tor book is by Donato Giancola.

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

Seven for a Secret by Elizabeth Bear

December 30, 2013 1 comment

Seven for a Secret by Elizabeth Bear

Seven for a Secret by Elizabeth Bear (Subterranean Press, 2009) sees Lady Abigail Irene Garrett and wampyr Don Sebastien de Ulloa making a home for themselves in a London under German occupation. This novella is set some thirty-five years after events described in New Amsterdam. In this alternate history, Britain lost the peace and, with its king fled to America, the younger generation of the British are growing up through the education system put in place by their conquerors. The first real signs of this are now openly walking the streets wearing the uniforms of the German army. When the occupation is all you’ve known during the formative years, it’s difficult not to be a collaborator. For the record, this is not the German master race we know from our own history. It’s the Prussians who, under the leadership of a Bismarck analogue, have been grabbing European turf. Sadly, from their point of view, Russia has yet to succumb. This leads them to attempt a magical strategy. If their army could be reinforced by werewolves, this would almost certainly give them the edge when it comes to an invasion. The problem is how to resurrect the largely lost packs and, even more importantly, ensure their loyalty. It would be somewhat embarrassing if, having found a way of putting together a regiment of these beasts, they then ate all soldiers in sight, regardless of their uniforms.

Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear

It’s always convenient to read books and see only the superficial story of a British resistance movement with an undead Scarlet Pimpernel working alongside them. But that would be to completely misjudge the quality of the book. This is a book about the power of love at opposite ends of the age spectrum. From the merely old and immortal comes the tragedy of mortality. Vampires were first human and only later came to their higher status. This means they can be tempted by the emotion of love even though, to them, it’s going to be ephemeral unless they turn the object of their affection. So Sebastian is on the cusp of that bittersweet moment when his human love will die. That he’s seen nations born and die gives him perspective, but that doesn’t really change the nature of the experience each time he watches someone he cares about die. At the other end of the age and experience scale, we have two young girls on the cusp of turning into warriors. Yet, despite the psychological manipulation, they find themselves experiencing physical attraction. Further complicating matters is the question of race. One girl is Jewish and she has already assumed responsibility for infiltrating the werewolf operation so she can strike back for her people. For her, the sacrifice of herself or the others around her may become necessary if she’s to carry forward the plan.

The book therefore considers the nature of relationships when one or both parties are mayflies. Perhaps we all accept short-term satisfaction when we can place ourselves in a larger context. For Sebastian, he may lose Abigail Irene’s physical body but she will always be with him in memories. It’s the regret you cannot hold hands or kiss that will prove fleeting when all you have to do to be together again is to close your eyes. For the young lovers, it’s the natural feel to the emotions that’s so seductive. Despite the options to persuade or actually change the other person’s mind, they would never do that because it’s a betrayal of the trust they have in each other. That there’s an inherent lack of honesty in the infiltrator does not change her love. That she recognises the other may turn into an enemy the moment the dishonesty is revealed cannot stop her. She’s been honed into a weapon and she has to live with the consequences. She has a higher purpose than ephemeral love.

So Seven for a Secret is a book that features vampires, their renfields, werewolves and assorted manipulative human taskmasters. Yet it’s also about the tragedy individuals have to endure because of the circumstances in which they find themselves. The result is affecting, melancholic and rather beautiful.

For reviews of books also by Elizabeth Bear, see
ad eternum
Book of Iron
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette),
Range of Ghosts,
Shattered Pillars,
Shoggoths in Bloom,
Steles of the Sky and
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette).

Dust jacket artwork is again by Patrick Arrasmith.

Book of Iron by Elizabeth Bear

July 27, 2013 1 comment

Book of Iron by Elizabeth Bear

Book of Iron by Elizabeth Bear (Subterranean Press, 2013) is a second novella in the Eternal Sky series, a prequel to Bones and Jewel Creatures where we first met Bijou, one of the Wizards of Messaline. Her magical ability is as an Artificer. She makes creatures out of bones and jewels, animating then with her breath, guiding them with her mind. These creatures are more than mere puppets. They are extensions of her mind. In this elegantly produced book from Subterranean Press, we find her in a more stable form of relationship with Kaulas the Necromancer and Prince Salih as they are approached for help by a newly arrived trio: Maledysaunte, Salamander and Riordan. They want help to enter Ancient Erem in pursuit of Dr Liebelos who has has two claims to fame. She’s the mother of Salamander and a magician with the rare gift of Precisianism, the gift of making “things” orderly, sometimes permanently so. Although our heroine and her two companions suspect there’s a lot left unsaid in this request for help, they understand that anyone who has the power to enter Ancient Erem may be able to cause serious (and permanent) disruption to their world. Preparing for the worst, they therefore make arrangements to lead their visitors into this most dangerous of places.

This is a fascinating insight into the history of the relationship between the world and Erem, highlighting the way in which magic and technology remain intertwined. In the human world, the vestiges of oil-powered land and air transport remain functional but in such short supply, their use is only for those of high status and power. So Prince Salih, the second son of the local potentate, has a motor car for use when he needs to travel over distance at speed. But when it comes to entering Ancient Erem, they must ride on the backs of dead animals, reanimated for the purpose. Each side of the coin has its uses when something needs to be done. Within Erem itself, the ghuls or dog-men move around on the surface at night. Who knows what dangers may lurk below. From this you’ll understand there’s a curious transition between the human world and the entirely different Erem. Although it may have an oxygen environment similar to the human world, i.e. it supports life, the stars are different and the multiple suns are death to anyone caught out in the daylight. That leaves most of the life in underground caves. Fortunately, electric torches work as well as the more ancient forms of magic. As you’ll no doubt gather from the title, the point of the pursuit into Erem is to decide who shall control the Book of Iron, one of the oldest texts of magic ever created. As with all things magical, nothing is ever straightforward and sometimes painful decisions have to be made when the order of the worlds may be at stake.

Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear

At its heart, the Book of Iron is a story about relationships. In particular, it asks what precisely we might understand by the concept of friendship. Obviously, it’s rather different to the love a child might feel towards a parent because that’s not something originating through choice. Individuals choose to become friends. They come to care about each other, assuming some degree of responsibility for the welfare of each other. It’s possible this will involve some degree of intimacy but it’s not necessary for this to be sexual. Put the other way round, a couple could be lovers in the physical sense but not strictly speaking friends. Physical attraction and the need to possess another for a period of time is not the same as friendship which adds value by sharing ideas and interests. So here we have two trios, both of which have been stable until they come together in stressful times. The “adventure” they share and its outcome forces the survivors to reconsider their relationships. Perhaps existing friendships can survive, but sexual relationships might have to be rethought. Maybe new friendships might form as old friendships are destroyed. When it comes down to the survival of individuals and the fate of the worlds, hard decisions may have unexpected social consequences.

The result of this rumination is an acceptance of delight. Book of Iron is a most pleasing fantasy novella which balances action against the exploration of the human heart. Fortunately, it’s the heart that wins out.

For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Bear, see:
ad eternum
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette)
Range of Ghosts
Seven for a Secret
Shattered Pillars
Shoggoths in Bloom
Steles of the Sky
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette)
The White City

The rather beautiful jacket artwork for this Subterranean Press edition is by Maurizio Manzieri.

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

Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear

Shattered Pillars

This time, it’s appropriate to start with a moment of sadness. I thought Range of Ghosts, the first in The Eternal Sky Trilogy, was good enough to be nominated for Best Fantasy novel in all the top awards for 2012 but, as seems increasingly the case, my taste is out of step with the youngsters who vote for these things. Obviously it wasn’t this author’s turn to be recognized. And now a note for those who are interested in background trivia: an explanation of the title. In the mythology of this world, the sky is said to ride high on four pillars: The Range of Ghosts, the Shattered Pillars and the Steles of the Sky (the title of the final book in the trilogy). These are ranges of mountains and the fourth support may well be a range near Messaline called the Bitter Root.

As a beginning to this review for Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear (Tor, 2013), I must remind you of the plot. Re-Temur is the grandson of the Great Khan and the legitimate heir by blood to his grandfather’s throne but, having no military allies, he’s weaker than his uncle, Qori Buqa Khan, who usurps power. Once-Princess Samarkar was sent to be the wife of a Prince in Song. She’s now one of the Wizards of Tsarepheth and travelling with Temur. Because this is a fantasy, he’s on a quest to rescue Edene, the woman he loves. He believes she’s a prisoner in the fortress of Ala-Din. As is always the way in these days when the djinns will not pass on useful news, Temur and Samarkar are intent on discovering a way into the fortress and establishing a base from which Temur can raise his banner and call troops to his side to fight for the throne. This leads them on a political mission to seek legitimacy and information. This book is therefore more jaw-jaw than war-war.

This means a quite dramatic shift of scale. In Hollywood terms, the Range of Ghosts is one of these Cinemascope epics in which horses are the basis of the culture on this version of the Steppes as we charge across the vastness of the landscape. Because Temur is on the run, it’s all about survival. This book is smaller in scale and more intimate as the group tries to move on to a more positive footing. One of the consequences is a lack of room to allow all the characters from the first book to shine here. The warrior priest Hsuing and the Cho-Tse tigress Hrahima essentially tag along for the ride until they can flex their muscles in a fight near the end. Further down the Road, the city of Tsarepheth is under magical attack with a plague of demons birthed in the lungs of those who contract the vectoring disease. Once they eat their way out of their victims, the demons are entering the city and causing chaos. This is a beautifully managed balance between magic and science, with the question of control over the city state always in the balance.

Elizabeth Bear

Elizabeth Bear

Economically and philosophically, we’re reliving the days of The Silk Road and the Mongol Empire. This version of history calls the primary route the Celadon Highway. Secure extended trade routes are the glue that hold disparate groups of people together across a continent. This is not just to permit the exchange of goods representing the best each country can offer, it’s also the mechanism that enables the growth of civilisations through the accumulation of wisdom. So long as people remain isolated from each other, they can convince themselves they have achieved perfection in their view of the world and how it works. The moment they are exposed to the ideas of one other country, they realise they may not have had a monopoly on wisdom. Naturally this is unsettling. When multiple competing cultures announce their presence, each individual state must adapt or die, admit ignorance and learn from the others. The question of succession to the Khan’s throne is therefore disrupting trade and bringing economic hardship to all those who depend on commerce for their living. To get things running smoothly again is the primary political aim. Unfortunately, the right people are not yet in the right place with the right level of military support to resolve matters.

At this point, I need to say a few words about gender politics. Ostensibly this trilogy is continuing in the patriarchal mould with a male hero and evil antagonist. No matter how far back you go into classical mythology, this has been the pattern with women introduced to be rescued or to sit patiently until their husbands come home. There are, of course, exceptions. But, with the storytellers largely male, the stereotypes of strong leadership and wisdom are ultimately confirmed in the men, while the women are there for decoration or producing lots of babies to continue the family’s control of wealth and land ownership. What makes this trilogy interesting is the strength of Edene who frees herself from captivity, Samarkar who keeps saving Re-Temur, Hrahima who fights with calm efficiency, and Ashra who proves that wisdom can shine through even when death looms. Even Tsering proves indispensable as the magician Hong-la might not quite have all the insights necessary to resolve the medical and political problems in Tsarepheth. We even have a new entrant in Ümmühan who has been playing literally and metaphorically behind the scenes.

In the usual fantasy written by men, our hero has to rescue his woman. That reaffirms the traditional roles of dominance and subservience. This convention is slowly being subverted. Having managed to get Edene pregnant before she was carried off, Re-Temur has a dual responsibility to his wife and heir. It’s just unfortunate that she’s rescued herself and has gone off to take command of her own army while he’s now realising the strength of Samarkar. Their burgeoning relationship is not supposed to be in the script. Monogamy is the norm in family values books, yet a political “alliance” with Samarkar may be expedient. As an ironic aside, Re-Temur also owes his life to a female horse who’s obviously far more than she appears. In this trilogy, you just can’t keep the female of any of the species down. Females are both power and weakness. As in the case of the Empress of Tsarepheth, the dynamic balance between these binary opposites is achieved because redemption is always possible.

Taken overall, Shattered Pillars shows Elizabeth Bear continuing her beautiful prose in pursuit of a most elegantly designed world in which magic and politics are the weapons of choice for those who want to rule. Although this lacks the breathless excitement of the first volume, this is a necessary regrouping before we launch into the expected excitement of the concluding volume.

For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Bear, see:
ad eternum
Book of Iron
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette)
Range of Ghosts
Seven for a Secret
Shoggoths in Bloom
Steles of the Sky
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette)
The White City

The rather beautiful jacket artwork for this Tor book is by Donato Giancola.

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

Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear

January 25, 2013 1 comment

shoggoths in bloom

Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear (Prime Books, 2012) is one of these pleasingly eclectic collections. It contrives to run from straight SF to fantasy and back again without pausing for breath. One of the essential problems in putting together any collection is that it can show a certain repetitiveness in the author. Some tend to be preoccupied with the same themes, others write in essentially the same way even though the subject matter changes. Elizabeth Bear is one of those authors who manages to be original every time and, in this collection, we have a rare collection of different stories, each different but with the same standard of excellence.

 

“Tideline” is a rather sentimental post-war story of an automated fighting machine that mothers a young human until its batteries run out and it can no longer survive. I suppose the “ain’t going to war no more” but carry the memory of the honour of those who served is a good message. I could write a lot about “Sonny Liston Takes the Fall” but, in these racially charged times, I’ll leave it that this is quite a brave effort to address an issue many people find difficult. “Sounding” is more-or-less straight fiction about the social and economic distress caused by the slow failure of the fishing industry. It’s a wonder anyone keeps going out to fish. “The Something-Dreaming Game” is a rather beautiful story about a young girl who gets an experimental implant and finds an unexpected friend to talk to. Fortunately, even her mother and the doctor involved turn out to be sensible so everything works out in a way that protects the innocent. “The Cold Blacksmith” says something about love lost. Some live on without it. Others look for ways to mend a broken heart. “In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns”* is an SF police procedural which uses a murder mystery as an excuse to wander round a future society. At its heart, there’s no real mystery to solve. I thought it was obvious what was happening about halfway through, but the end result is quite pleasing because of the inventiveness surrounding the lifestyles and technologies being described. It works well at novelette length. “Orm the Beautiful” is a fantasy that, in a few pages, captures the sadness when a species dies although, in this instance, there’s a kind of phoenix ending that offers a chance to avoid being lost, to preserve the memory of the songs that made them so powerful. “The Inevitable Heat Death of the Universe” is a different way in which the universe may collapse in on itself and then press, “Reboot” and we get another big bang. “Love Among the Talus” is a pleasing fantasy tale in which a princess has to decide how best to manage affairs so she gets what she wants. In political terms, this is an example of expediency rather than emotion, although love does come into it somewhere.

Elizabeth Bear asking how best to take a seat

Elizabeth Bear asking how best to take a seat

 

“Cryptic Coloration” is a fast-paced urban fantasy where a sexy magus defends New York from supernatural beasties. It’s all going wonderfully well until he interests three of the female students in the class he teaches. They think he has some secret and, with the casual disregard for their own safety required of victims in stories like this, they decide to stalk him. Unfortunately, this means following him into danger. “The Ladies” is a short but intriguing “what if” from the alternate history shelves speculating on how the election results might have differed had a woman run for the office of president. As the title “Shoggoths in Bloom” suggests, we’re off into Lovecraftian territory with a rather pleasing one-man, scientific expedition to determine the nature of these beasts that not only comes up with the story of their origin but suggests a new use for them. If the last story was a “what if” this is definitely an “if only”! “The Girl Who Sang Rose Madder” is a nice story about the nature of creativity and the role of integrity. The question we have to answer is how we should react if offered the chance to recover the physical abilities we had when younger. Which is better: for our fans to remember us as we were or an opportunity to make new fans? In the real world “Dolly” was the name given to the first cloned sheep. This is an android “who” may also be on a cusp where important decisions have to be made. This is another interesting future police procedural which takes us a little further forward down a well-trodden road. It succeeds because of the character of the lead detective and her willingness to see beyond simple companionship and find a little hope for the future. “Gods of the Forge” also deals with decisions and values, with the need to confront fear, with the desire to be a better person. In technical terms, this is a classic example of how to switch narrative formats to achieve the right emotional balance in the story. At every level, this is something of a triumph.

 

“Annie Webber” is one of these short, short stories that punches above its weight. This is just a wonderful idea, perfectly executed and nicely made (rather like a good cup of coffee where the barista really cares). “The Horrid Glory of its Wings” offers another choice. When a child is born with an incurable disease and has nothing to look forward to, living is not the only option. The only question, then, is whether dying is the only other option. This is an elegant fantasy answer to the question that manages to balance the pitilessness of reality against the rank smell of a process to recover precious metals from rubbish. “Confessor” continues with another future police investigation, this time of genetic manipulations in a mountain retreat. It takes dedicated professionals to infiltrate a camp like that and then there’s the question of what you do with all the evidence you find. “The Leavings of the Wolf” considers how a woman should deal with the death of her marriage. Grieving is a complicated process but with a little help and encouragement, the vestiges of the past can be cast aside and a brighter future embraced. Finally, “The Death of Terrestrial Radio”reminds us of the problems in long-distance telephone calls when you have to wait for your voice to be received before the other party can reply. Overall Shoggoths in Bloom is excellent and well worth reading.

 

For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Bear, see:
ad eternum
Book of Iron
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette)
Range of Ghosts
Seven for a Secret
Shattered Pillars
Steles of the Sky
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette)
The White City

 

This collection won the 2013 Locus Award.

 

* “In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns” is anthologised in The Year’s Best Science Fiction Thirtieth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois.

 

Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

June 17, 2012 3 comments

Wonderful jacket artwork from Donato Giancola

 

Modern authors are always under pressure to come up with the next big thing. Back in the Golden Age of pulps, it was easier. Editors would send out messages to all the writers on their lists demanding twenty short stories by the end of the month, and “some of them damn well better be good!” In this scatter gun approach to publishing, there was an incredible volume of pure crud — see Sturgeon’s Law — but equally a small percentage of wonderfully inventive fiction. All you had to do as a reader was filter out the rubbish to get to the good stuff. Today we’ve got the reverse problem. Instead of there being several hundred magazine and publishing houses churning out books by the thousands, there are only a few. With tens of thousands of wanna-be authors and slush piles growing ever taller, this puts terrible pressure on editors to pick only the good stuff. To get noticed and become one of the few people published today, authors need a mixture of craft and creativity. In terms of plotting, there’s very little that hasn’t already been done to death. So the skill of an author is to take an idea and dress it up in a slightly different way so we won’t notice it’s not very original.

 

I start in this way because, in these days of mashups with Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter just about to hit the big screen, Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear (TOR, 2012) has managed to come up with something rather unusual. Most fantasy stories fall into very predictable formats as the fight promoters match up the Hero with the Dark Lord in the best of three falls. Magic will be allowed but not necessarily gouging or cowardly blows. There may be elves or other “folk” who take sides in the good vs. evil contest, a wiseacre will advise the Hero who often has to come out of his/her shell and discover the strength within before being able to vanquish the forces of evil, there should be a quest, and there will be a love interest which may help or hinder the Hero at the whim of the author. So, to provide variety, Elizabeth Bear has hit on the idea of Genghis Khan vs. Aladdin, i.e. of conflating the excitement of horse-born armies thundering across the Steppes with the tropes of One Thousand and One Nights. This is not entirely unfair because, once the Mongol Hordes got going, they occupied a goodly chunk of Central Asia and many of the myths and legends that ended up in the Arabian Nights originated from that region.

Elizabeth Bear on display with a book at Eurocon

 

We start with the battle for the city of Qarash between claimants to the throne of the Khagan. Quori Buqa’s army smashes the defensive forces led by Qulan and levels the city. Timur is one of the few left alive. As the Khagan’s grandson, he’s potentially in line for succession to the throne, but that’s not on his mind as he slowly moves away from the military disaster. The practicalities of survival dominate. He’s adopted by a small kin group and, after a short courtship, falls into a relationship with Edene. What he does not know is that Quori Buqa is being assisted by Al-Sepehr, a powerful wizard (when he communicates with Quori Buqa, he uses the name Ala-Din). Having used the human armies to generate death on an industrial scale, our wizard can raise them as an army of ghosts as did his forebear Sepehr al-Racid ibn Sepehr. This puts the wizard in a potentially dominant position, but the actual process is very tiring. Hence, there’s still a need for human agents. To keep options open, a platoon of ghosts is sent to kidnap Timur. Unfortunately, he fights back. Frustrated, the ghosts carry off Edene instead. This sets Timur off on a quest to find his lost partner. On the way, he meets up with Samarkar, a newly qualified wizard, and they must defend themselves as individuals and seek to make the world safe from the ghost army. For Quori Buqa, his nephew Timur is an unfortunate loose end. The tribes will not unite while a legitimate claimant to the throne is still alive. He therefore demands Ala-Din kills his rival. This drive for unity in the tribes is not what Al-Sepehr has been working towards but, perhaps, that’s what Fate demands and there will be other ways to destabilise the Mongol Empire.

 

Range of Ghosts is firmly rooted in the culture of nomadic tribes so, with everything filtered through the experience of a man who’s spent his life on and around horses, it’s hardly surprising we get such a detailed picture of life, literally from the ground up. It’s actually worth reading just to get a feel for the life on the Steppes. Even the horses get to be real people. As a piece of meticulous background research, it reminded me of Until the Sun Falls by Cecilia Holland which is straight historical fiction. To find such impressive detail in a work of fantasy is even more delightful as the wizard’s manipulation of the Khagan succession and life on the Steppes reaches a critical juncture. Once the magic kicks in, we get a wonderful blend as our heroic group of Mongol Prince, apprentice wizard, Cho-tse and kung fu monk have to fend off assassins and the attack of a rukh or roc as they make their way across the war-torn Empire. It’s all great fun and one of the best fantasy books I’ve read so far this year.

 

The jacket artwork by Donato Giancola is particularly fine.

 

For reviews of other books by Elizabeth Bear, see:
ad eternum
Book of Iron
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette)
Seven for a Secret
Shattered Pillars
Shoggoths in Bloom
Steles of the Sky
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette)
The White City

 

ad eternum by Elizabeth Bear

February 26, 2012 1 comment

ad eternum by Elizabeth Bear (Subterranean Press, 2012) continues in the New Amsterdam series. This time, we move on from the Russia of The White City to New Amsterdam. The time is now 1962 in this rather pleasing alternate history of vampires living more openly in human society. As the title suggests, we’re into a consideration of how one should approach the question of practical immortality. It gives an additional refinement to the notion of existentialism when the series character knows he’s likely to be around for more years than the humans surrounding him. The problem, of course, is ennui. There’s no need to sleep, so our unfortunate wampyr is denied periodic unconsciousness while some hours pass by. He’s obliged to endure every second. Like any sensible person, he cultivates hobbies. In this novelette, he practises his knitting and reads a lot, but there comes a point when even the most challenging of knitting patterns fails to inspire interest. Boredom looms ever larger and he’s threatened by the notion that existence itself is growing meaningless. In philosophical terms, we might assume that if our lives were full of contentment, the fact of continuing existence would have little value in itself. It would simply be the means for continued contentment. But if there’s nothing but boredom, life would be like moving through a fog. We would only dimly see people, places and things around us. Nothing would motivate us. Like those who wait for Godot, we would begin to worry whether the wait is worth the effort.

Elizabeth Bear protecting her neck from unwanted attention

So it is that our wampyr crosses back across the Atlantic to New Amsterdam. It’s his first opportunity to look at the new technology of powered flight. Yet, within minutes, he sees it is no more than a means to an end. Yes, it may be faster than a zeppelin, but it’s less opulent and the functionalism dominates as the plane chases the night across the ocean. Once he lands, he dodges past the paparazzi to make a quiet return to his old home. Yet, within twenty-four hours, he finds himself invited to meet a small group. They have a proposition for him. They plan the establishment of a new university which will teach all things supernatural and magical. They invite him not only to put up the money, but also to pass on his knowledge and experience.

It’s a curious coincidence to offer a role that might regenerate some interest in the lives of humans. Yet one of those in the group is an annoyance. Although a human, he pretends to be immortal. His research is as impeccable as it can be and, for flickering moments, he’s halfway convincing, but nothing beats actually living through the times he talks about. Yet why should our vampire care? Surely he should be amused a human should be such a poor fraud. He must ask himself why the emotion he feels approaches anger. When he himself is tempted to end it all by standing on a rooftop while the sun rises, it’s surely ironic a human should be trying so hard to be like him.

Summing up, ad eternum is a quietly meditative disquisition on existential matters. It’s not in any sense intended as one of these Hollywood style vampire sagas in which gangs of bloodsuckers fight with werewolves or an armed group of humans. We’re simply offered the chance to observe a vampire as he goes through a mid-death crisis. As always, Elizabeth Bear delivers a beautifully written novella but here comes the rub. If you’re a fan, you’re going to think the asking price from Subterranean Press for one of these elegantly produced hardbacks is excellent value for money. Otherwise you might think it better to wait until this novelette is anthologised or collected.

For reviews of books also by Elizabeth Bear, see:
Book of Iron
A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette),
Range of Ghosts,
Seven for a Secret,
Shattered Pillars,
Shoggoths in Bloom,
Steles of the Sky and
The Tempering of Men (with Sarah Monette).

Dust jacket artwork is again by Patrick Arrasmith.

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

The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

November 17, 2011 1 comment

Change is something that comes hard to the majority. They grow comfortable with the status quo. They understand its rhythms. For the most part, they know how to survive its perils. Even an invitation to discuss change can seem a threat to the order of their lives. That’s one of the reasons why some societies or groups slowly curl up and die. For, no matter how much the majority may wish the world to pass them by, there’s always a bigger picture and, unless they modify their attitudes and behaviour to accommodate the newer realities, everything can be lost.

 

So here we come to The Tempering of Men by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear. This is the sequel to Companion to Wolves which I thought uninspiring. You might therefore wonder why I should continue the saga. Indeed, having finished this volume which is now intended as the second book in a trilogy (nothing is worth writing unless it can be drawn out to interminable length as a trilogy), I’m faced with the same question. My optimism has been thwarted (yet again) as what could have been quite interesting themes were trampled into the mire.

 

This takes us back to the issue of change. We watch the combined forces of the humans, their wolves and the svartalfar wind up the campaign against the trolls and then the authors pose the question, “If all the trolls are gone now, what use are these warriors?” This is, of course, what every country asks of its standing army when the immediate enemy has been vanquished. Most of the rank and file conscripts happily lay down their weapons and pick up the ploughshares. They never wanted to risk their lives fighting and are grateful it’s all behind them. But there’s always going to be a hard core of professionals left on the shelf. In a developed country, this is less of a problem because governments can develop extended training programs and play war games. If they get too feisty, troops can be sent to fight in neighbouring states or in a good cause. This thins down their numbers and keeps them manageable. But before nation states emerged, there was less civil infrastructure and so most of the best fighters became mercenaries and drifted from one campaign to the next.

Elizabeth Bear faintly surprised with flowers in her hair

 

For authors, describing this drift into obscurity is not the stuff of bestsellerdom. The public want upbeat stories of heroism. This means they must fight and, in most cases, win or lose valiantly. Except killing off the major enemy at the end of the first book doesn’t exactly leave you overflowing with new enemies to fight. So this is always going to be slow going as our warriors get into a little local policing and go exploring. Except, about halfway through, we do get the emergence of the new threat. If you want a historical parallel, this is the equivalent of the Roman Army expanding its Empire ever further north. So an advance expeditionary force makes a probe into our heroes’ country and this involuntarily gives one of their number the chance to weigh up the newcomers’ potential. His reaction is to summon a grand council to discuss all the different Northern groups coming together to fight the common foe. This sets up the third book for the barbarians to defend their territory against the theoretically superior armies of Rome (Rhea for these purposes). Since the Rhean army seems to lack supernatural help, this will be a war of attrition. The invaders have superior technology, better discipline, numerical superiority, and better lines of supply. They can blockade the north and wear down the resistance.

Sarah Monette with books in her background

 

Meanwhile, back up north, our heroes discover there’s a svartalfar community on their doorstep. This gives us a better chance to view this race and to evaluate their powers. Also of potential interest is a cave system that might permit a large number of warriors and their wolves to live securely as and when General Winter decides to take the field. As countless invaders have discovered when trying to conquer Russia, the local forces are aided by the weather with the two seasonal rasputitsas flanking the winter itself. If you add in supernatural powers to communicate over distances and manipulate stone, the Rhean forces could be in for a rough welcome.

 

Except all this potential interest is lost as the pace is lumberingly slow. As in the first volume, I confess to giving up on trying to keep everyone’s name straight. I just don’t care enough to try remembering all these vaguely Norse names along with all the terminology of their culture. I can’t even be bothered to keep track of all the wolves and their human symbionts. At least the sex is toned down for this volume. We don’t have the same overt partying between the men and/or their animals. If that’s what turned you on the first time round, you’re going to find this disappointing.

 

So, unlike Companion To Wolves which we could broadly classify as a coming-of-age story with a fairly linear story as the trolls get mobilised, The Tempering of Men is a slightly sprawling story as different pieces are moved into place for the battles expected in the third volume. I grew increasingly bored and almost certainly will pass on the third volume. As a final thought, I even think the jacket artwork by Cliff Nielsen is twee rather than in any real sense frightening. When an artist is lining up to show a wolf confronting a troll, it would be helpful to make the man caught between them look interested in a fight.

 

For books by Elizabeth Bear, see A Companion to Wolves (with Sarah Monette), Shoggoths in Bloom, Seven for a Secret, The White City and ad eternum. The books in a new trilogy are Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars and Steles of the Sky with Book of Iron an associated novella. For books by Sarah Monette, see The Bone Key, Corambis and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.

 

The White City by Elizabeth Bear

June 9, 2011 1 comment

The use of language is full of odd experiences. You can be going with the flow one minute and then, much as the stately river makes progress through pleasant fields, you can suddenly come to a rock that disturbs forward motion, diverting the water for a brief moment until it regroups on the other side to resume its journey to the distant sea. But in that moment, calm is lost. So it is with this short novel. You can be wandering through some good prose, not untypical of the period being described, and then you suddenly run across an Americanism. You discover a city like Moscow is homey or a lack of Chinamen is egregious. This is not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with such vocabulary choices. They just jar the sensibilities of an old foreigner like me. I’m all for consistency. If an author is writing an American book, let it be as it should be wrote by an American. But begin a story set in a foreign country involving characters who are not American. Ah, now the rules of the game should change. Instead of an all-American text, we should be aiming for an all-European — although I will concede the editorial decision to continue American spelling and the vagaries of local grammar.

In The White City (Subterranean Press, 2010) Elizabeth Bear offers us the third episode in the ongoing New Amsterdam series describing the existence of Sebastien de Ulloa, a one-time apprenticed stonemason who involuntarily joined the ranks of the undead. In 1903, he and two female companions are returning to Moscow. Sebastien has a history from 1897 when he and Jack Priest knew a certain Irina Stephanova Belotserkovskaya, an artist and member of the vampire underworld.

What makes this alternate history interesting is society’s acceptance of vampirism. A police force knows and understands the strengths and weaknesses of these creatures, using that information to exclude them as suspects from a murder. Well perhaps there has been more than one murder. And it may be these killings are connected. But what, or perhaps more to the point, who is the connection? Well that’s what blends a detective with a vampire story as different sets of forensic skills come into play, overlapping more modern ideas of fingerprints and trace evidence with thaumaturgical impressions visible to a sorcerer with the right skills.

Taking an overview, The White City is actually a gentle variation on the theme of loneliness. I suppose, if we view this as a question of existentialism, we could start with the proposition we are all alone. Without telepathy, we can only approximate an understanding of what others feel. No one can really know what it feels like to be you (or me). So we do our best to share, to explain ourselves, to somehow bridge the gap between each other. Some find this isolation depressing. They curse their lot. Others are better adjusted or merely hide their unhappiness more convincingly.

Elizabeth Bear with holy water to hand in case of emergencies

Perhaps it’s inherent in the male view of the world that, separated by biology from the act of bringing new life into the world, we are more disinterested, less engaged in relationships. Whether by nature or nurture, women seem more committed to the reality of families. Their roles have traditionally been as carers, for the new lives and the old, for the current men who are supposed to protect them from the cruelties of the world. Yet, when you get past the biology, everyone needs other people to some degree. It’s all a question of the terms on which this need is to be expressed and satisfied.

Do we all want to be loved? Perhaps we do even though it may only be an emotional crutch to get us through the years. Is it always a case that those with the power over others can love and leave? Perhaps there’s a kind of paradox here. That we all have a need for other people, for relationships to help keep the loneliness at bay. Yet we always know in our hearts this is a need that can never really be satisfied.

A vampire who has lived a century has known and lost countless lovers, friends and mere acquaintances. The only emotional defence is to step outside time. To live in the moment, not making commitments that cannot be kept. Yet suppose one old vampire meets another who is countless years older. That might pierce the protective bubble the youngster has built around himself. Perhaps that might bring re-engagement with the world. It could help the younger see the importance in relationships even though, to him, they were fleeting.

The White City is a story tinged by sadness. It’s all to do with the joy of acceptance and the pain of rejection. It’s all about the heat of passion and the anger that drives revenge. It’s well worth seeking out and reading.

Jacket artwork by Patrick Arrasmith.

The preceding book in this series is Seven for a Secret and the next is ad eternum. The books in a new trilogy are:
Range of Ghosts
Shattered Pillars
Steles of the Sky with
Book of Iron an associated novella.
There’s an excellent collection Shoggoths in Bloom. For a review of the two books jointly written with Sarah Monette, see A Companion to Wolves and The Tempering of Men.

A Companion to Wolves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear

June 30, 2009 1 comment

So let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Conventional wisdom always seems to think that two (or more) people cannot co-operate to produce a single coherent piece of writing. Supposedly, the professionalism that writers routinely bring to bear when they write on their own deserts them when they write in a team. This is an intensely annoying assumption. It completely ignores the reality that many writers do actively collaborate. Further, many more may actually assist a writer to produce a work. There are these teams of “helpers” who are thanked on acknowledgement pages of novels for reading and commenting on early drafts. Then there are the agents and those mysterious people called editors who also seem to get involved. Adding more people on to the byline (where journalists insist on their multiple acknowledgements) is neither here nor there.

 

So here is yet another example of a seamless piece of writing by two (youngish) writers. If you gave this text to anyone, they would never know that two (more more) people had been involved.

 

And the book itself? Well, we are back in the symbiotic relationship between “man” and “his” animals. One of the more detailed examples of this theme is the accumulated work of Anne McCaffrey in the Pern novels, but Monette and Bear avoid the somewhat saccharine approach and deal with pack animals rather than lone dragons. Both rely an early imprinting system where relatively newly born dragons/wolves are paired with young apprentices. After that, they diverge somewhat dramatically.

 

However, to be convincing, a culture must be reasonably coherent. Here we have an essentially human-based society living in small settlements that is threatened by trolls and (their familiars) the wyverns. The defence is to build fighting teams of men and wolves that, acting with intuitive or telepathic mutual understanding, produce co-ordinated attacks of fang, claw and axe usually accounting for their enemies. For this to work, there has to be a steady feed-through of young apprentices who fill out the ranks of these teams, bonding with newly born wolves as and when they are born.

 

The leader of one settlement, Lord Gunnar, is deeply prejudiced against the way in which the packs live their lives. This is a man who is dependent on the packs for the survival of his small community, yet is fundamentally opposed to their lifestyle. This does not ring true. This is a vertical pre-feudal society in which the military literally and metaphorically are the top dogs (sorry, couldn’t resist working that in). When the wolfless are always under the protection of the packs, their status would be high and nothing would be allowed to disturb the smooth flow of new recruits. Their “street cred” would be high and their reputations impeccable. For a leader with the power to shape opinion and potentially undermine public support for the packs to be so deeply prejudiced is not sustainable.

 

Every generation of every human community would be reared to venerate the packs and to long for the chance to be picked as an apprentice. Nothing would be allowed to interfere with this. The youngsters would play the local equivalent of “cowboys and indians” with all of them longing to feel some of the telepathic ability so critical to the success of the pack. It seems that every human has the potential for this telepathic linkage, but some are better at it than others. All leaders would always have to be seen to support the system. This whole element feels like a random plot device to allow the authors the chance to explore the theme of homophobia. It is too artificial and, in my view, actively detracts from the flow of the novel.

 

Now we come to the “controversial” part of the book. Socially, the packs are matriarchal, the svartalfar have gender equality, and the wolfless human communities are those scenarios much beloved of authors where the men are the figureheads and women have influence behind closed doors. The effect of the bonding between man and cub is to produce a form of telepathic link between the two. Thus, when the wolves get interested in sex, the linkage so convenient to co-ordinate battles, becomes inconvenient for the men paired with the rutting wolves. They find it difficult if not impossible to avoid sexual activity of their own. This is actually quite interesting but, again, all the punches are pulled. This is all written as a novel of discovery. The young Njall comes over as completely naive (in part explained by the homophobia of his father Lord Gunnar) and no-one really prepares him for what is to come. Then, it is so repetitive. None of it reads true as the men find themselves thrown into and out of relationships depending on the preferences of their wolves.

 

Then we have all this unexplained telepathy and other magical abilities in the novel. Njall turns out to be an ace telepathist and can transmit over major distances to warn the pack of danger. He also seems to have interspecies powers of communication as well. But here we come to yet another serious problem. The trolls are obviously intelligent and live in well-organised communities of their own. This is not a clash between humans and an unthinking enemy. It is the equivalent of prehistory’s supposed war for dominance between the Cro-Magnons and the Neanderthals. Yet no-one seems to try talking to them. Their immediate reaction upon meeting is to kill each other. Assuming that Njall’s ability is not uncommon, why is there no curiosity about the enemy? Why is there no attempt to negotiate some kind of truce? Why must everyone fight aiming for the extinction of the other all the time? It is all the more strange because there is the usual oral history tradition passed down through the songs/sagas. There are all kinds of interesting snippets of information about some things, but very convenient gaps about others.

 

I could go on but you’ve already realised my poor reaction. I grew really bored as this went on. Instead of developing the characters and exploring the cultures in a credible way, I was left with the feeling that these two ladies had decided to write a book to provoke and offend Americans (who generally seem less tolerant of sexual diversity than the rest of the world) and threw in lots of perverse sex and a few random battles as the sticks and carrots to get their readers to the end. It’s a real shame because, with more intelligence, this could have been a good book.

 

The real story is about gender not sexual roles. These are culturally defined. So young boys growing up in the settlements would want the glory of defending the community and be prepared to pay the price required. This would all be documented within the pack culture. There are too many men and wolves wounded or killed in these sessions as it is. Unless there was some form of training, management and accommodation between the species, this could never work over the longer term. It is only written this way because the writers want a shock quality to the narrative. They have subordinated the exploration of gender roles for the purposes of what — titillation, provocation?

 

Then we come to conventional human sexual politics. Njall finds an accommodating local girl in his own settlement and produces a daughter. The status of his partner within the community is never mentioned. One view would be that she gains in status because she beds a wolfman. If they produced a son, he could join the pack and both partners would gain status as adding to the defensive wall. That they produced a daughter is inconvenient because girls don’t do any of the fighting. What would the status of such female offspring be in the community? Would they be more desirable as adults because they carried the genes of a wolfman?

 

Presumably the telepathic linkage that is so strong wolf to human is less strong human to wolf because the wolves are only in heat (and so interested in sex) at certain times of the year. Whereas humans are fertile all year round. Interestingly, the village girl is not unhappy to give up her daughter to be raised as Njall directs (so much for the maternal bond). This is thematically mirrored by the reproductive cycle of the trolls which appears to be hivelike, and the lack of specific gender roles in the svartalfar. Motherhood is treated rather dispassionately in this book which is slightly odd because it is written by two women. The extent to which the wolves are jealous of the human partners is also not really explored. Or perhaps that explains why there are no women around the pack camps.

 

In our own culture, men only really talk about what it means to be a man when something goes wrong. There is a considerable volume of fiction and non-fiction dealing with erectile dysfunction and its consequences. Men, its seems, are poor fragile beings that collapse emotionally when their sexual abilities fail. They stop being proper men. This is the “macho” culture. In the wolfworld, men are required to swing in a number of different ways, so exploring their sexuality would be interesting. I found Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” particularly illuminating. It’s a shame women with more modern sensibilities are not prepared to confront the same kind of issues today.

 

For the sequel, see The Tempering of Men. My other reviews of work by Sarah Monette: CorambisThe Bone Key, a joint review of Guild of Xenolinguists and The Bone Key and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves.

 

For three novelettes in the New Amsterdam series by Elizabeth Bear, see Seven for a Secret, The White City and ad eternam. The books in a new trilogy are Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars and Steles of the Sky with Book of Iron an associated novella. There’s an excellent collection Shoggoths in Bloom.

 

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