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Mage’s Blood by David Hair

November 27, 2013 Leave a comment

magesblood-large

Culturally, Mage’s Blood by David Hair (Jo Fletcher/Quercus, 2013) The Moontide Quartet 1, takes us into the high fantasy equivalent of Earth distilled down to the hegemonically inclined Europeans and the states on which the predators would wish to impose colonial or vassal status: for these purposes, simplified down to Arab and Indian nations. In the “West”, the early religion has been displaced by the worship of an individual who’s credited with the development of magical powers in three-hundred of his disciples. Depending on your point of view, you can either see this man as an analogue of Jesus or a peace-loving hippie. Having collected a large group of people we then have the darkly amusing threeway split between the mythology and the facts as recalled by two different people who were there. In the religiously and politically correct version, the entire group was surrounded by an army preparing to slaughter them as fanatics and terrorists. The leader then inspired the core of three-hundred believers who wiped out the armies around them and then went on to create the current empire. The oral history has the leader conducting a drug trial on his unsuspecting followers. Most died or became insane, but a group survived more or less intact. Two factions acquired supernatural powers. One group hewed to the “give peace a chance” philosophy of their leader. The second saw a route to military power and political dominance. The third seemed not to have acquired powers. They separated and have largely avoided fighting each other although the neutrality of the pacifists has been sorely tested by the atrocities perpetrated by the militarists.

In a sense, this might have remained a rather academic dispute, but some of these mages have lived for six-hundred years while discovering they can pass their magical abilities to their children (there’s a further interesting side effect which will make a pleasant surprise when you read it). For plotting purposes, we have the offspring of the whole blood feted as powerful, while the level of achievement declines depending on the ancestry. As in caucasian culture, we have fine distinctions based on half-blood, quadroon, octoroon, and so on. Perhaps the most populist of the fictional explorations of this theme have been in the Harry Potter series where bigotry and active discrimination bedevil relationships between the magicians themselves, and between the magicians and the muggles. Thematically, this book also has a short Hogwarts element where we see young magicians being trained in the different arts.

As world-building, we seem to have a rather interesting situation. On our world, we had a coherent land mass on which our species could begin its evolutionary rise to dominance. Movement of the tectonic plates then slowly produced the current distribution of land about the planet. Obviously, there are oceans stretching several thousand miles between continents. That’s why the human species is widely dispersed. As the configuration of the land changed, so our ancestors moved from one area to another to hunt and gather. It would be interesting to know whether this world followed a similar pattern of geological development given the closer proximity of the moon.

David Hair

David Hair

If the moon is so close and the gravitational force it exerts is strong enough to produce the equivalent of a very low tide which lasts for two years, where does the water go? If it’s being drawn to a different part of the world, do we assume this part of the world is flooded for two years? The moon’s effect cannot be to cause immediate evaporation of the seas. So why does the part of the world we can see not flood at their equivalent period of high tide? Put it this way. The gap between these two continents is only some three-hundred miles and, at one period of time, the water level drops to the point where the mages can build a bridge on the not quite exposed sea bed, you would expect there to be a matching period when the sea inundates the low-lying land on both sides of the sea. Yet there are no dykes as in the Netherlands and no historical records of agriculture being cyclically disrupted by the arrival of large quantities of salt water. Then there’s the mystery of the moon that does not bark in the night. If this moon is so close it can have this effect on the fluid dynamics of the seas, why is the land so stable? I was expecting there to be fairly continuous seismic activity, yet there are no reports of tremors and earthquakes. The latest research suggests seismic activity is more likely in areas where the gravity field is weak. Higher gravity slows the frictional behaviour of the fault lines, i.e. if the area has higher gravity for longer periods of time, the tectonic plates are less likely to slip. So if the moon’s gravitational effect is producing wider variations in the subduction zones, you would expect more instability in some areas.

Ah but, wait a moment. This is high fantasy and so the world-building doesn’t have to match currently scientific thinking. A fantasy author is free to establish his or her own “ground” rules for how stuff like gravity works, particularly if mages can defy gravity to fly carpets and boats. The only things required are that the way the world works is coherently described (if not explained) and the magic system must not be capricious, i.e. it must be subject to predefined rules which produce known strengths and weaknesses. On this basis, I’m pleased to announce this is in the top three fantasy books I’ve read this year. Ignoring all the previous issues, this fantasy has two strengths.

The first is the characterisation. Over the fairly considerable length of the book, we meet a significant cast of characters, but even the relatively minor are given a chance to make their mark. In a sense, this reflects the overall theme of the book which is that, no matter how powerful individual mages may be, the future of the world ultimately depends on the less powerful or, in magical terms, those individuals who have never developed magical powers. Someone always has to do the work or fight in armies when called upon to do so. Hence, we have three major narrative arcs. One features one of the original three-hundred who leads the Peace Faction and foresees the need to produce children. He therefore buys a fertile wife with no magical power. Snatched away from her home, the man she would have married follows to seek revenge. The second shows us three youngsters who get caught up in a political situation because one incautiously speculates that a magical artifact may be hidden in their area. This flirts with YA tropes but just stays on the right side of the line albeit that the “hero” is relatively underpowered and naive. The final arc features two powerful individuals who spy for the dominant militarists. Through them, we get to see the inner working of the empire’s leadership — not a pretty sight.

The second strength is the lack of sentimentality in the plot. Too often fantasy stories deal with simplistic black-and-white characters in replays of mediaeval, Wild West or more modern military scenarios. The good, the bad and, occasionally, the ugly draw weapons appropriate for the level of technology and have-at-it until only the good and, occasionally, the ugly are left standing. In this plot, we have every shade on the way from black to white with expediency shading the response of individuals in each situation. This eschews the tendency of the good to be paradigms of virtue who are always courageous, living their lives according to a higher moral code. The majority in this book are “complicated” with no saints and only one or two irredeemably bad. It’s also refreshing to see even the most powerful come unstuck. This can be because of vanity, paranoia or a blind chance. Wishful thinking and misplaced affection also have their parts to play. In short, this book feels like a slice of real life albeit transposed to a fantasy setting.

Accepting the need for some infodumping to introduce the magic system as we go along, this is a bravura piece of writing and, even though not the most original when it comes to individual plot elements, the overall effect is spectacular. Mage’s Blood is strongly recommended. I see Book Two in The Moontide Quartet is already published in the UK. Hopefully a copy will come my way soon.

For a review of the sequel, see The Scarlet Tides.

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

Kindred and Wings by Philippa Ballantine

October 25, 2013 Leave a comment

Kindred and Wings

To understand this series, you need to imagine a world where reality and chaos interface. As a physical place, this is Conhaero. In a way, it only exists out of sufferance. In other circumstances, it would probably never have existed at all. Having come into existence it could have completely collapsed back into the melting pot from which its constituent elements were drawn. But a bargain was struck which enabled land to form and persist. For all that it frays around the edges with mountains becoming plains and then lakes as random probabilities change the lay of the land, enough of the emerging continent continues in relative stability so that beings may live inside or upon it, and not perish by falling into random holes or being sucked up into the sky. These are the creatures that have their genesis in the formless void. They have come on to the land through their own efforts. They are the kindred of the title. Everything was going along well for them until different races began to arrive through the void. One was the Vaerli. Like the kindred they made a pact, granting them the right to remain on conditions. But they had seers who foretold their downfall. There would be a harrowing. The puzzle the Vaerli had to solve was how to recover after the inevitable fall.

Kindred and Wings by Philippa Ballantine (Pyr, 2013) the second in the Shifted World series finds Finnbarr the Fox (a Manesto-Vaerli hybrid) now riding the dragon Wahirangi as he searches for Ysel, the brother he never knew he had. Talyn (a purebred Vaerli) lost her people and found nothing but pain working for the Caisah, the mortal man who was granted immortality during the process later called the Harrowing. She’s changed employer but still rides Syris, her nykur steed. Now she’s abandoned the process of killing to secure pieces of the puzzle from the Caisah, she has a different mission, this time for the Phage. She acquires a scroll and, according to the Phage, the only way in which it can be destroyed is by the flame of a dragon. Since the only person with a dragon to hand is Finnbarr, this is forcing her to resume her relationship with him. Her ability to edit her memory continues to be fallible and she still finds herself reliving moments with him. Meeting up with him again will be a challenge to her peace of mind. Byre, Talyn’s brother, is still with Pelanor and, having travelled into the past, is now more positively moving forward into the future where he may finally solve the puzzle.

Philippa Ballantine

Philippa Ballantine

Complicating matters further are the plans of Kelanim, the Caisah’s current mistress who’s being manipulated into removing the “curse” of immortality from the man she sleeps with. She hopes, if not truly believes, that as a mortal man, the Caisah will be able to love her. In his present state, he simply sees her as a Mayfly, transitorily passing through his life before dying. As they say in books, this is a tangled web but it represents a metaphor in which to explore a number of all too common human strengths and weaknesses. The problem with people who acquire power is the sense of entitlement it brings. They become defensive, looking for every possible way in which their position can be reinforced without any real sacrifice being necessary on their part. This often goes hand-in-hand with pride. They come to expect deference from others. If necessary, those in a subordinate position are expected to make the sacrifices their “leaders” should make. If one or two whipping boys fail to provide results, an arena full may bring better results. This is how the Caisah has ruled. Not only is he immortal but he also possesses such power, he’s effectively invulnerable as well. Yet there are still those who plot against him. Their treason cannot be tolerated. As a people, the Vaerli seem to have lost their ability to empathise with others. They felt themselves superior to other races and groups. This led to pride in their ability to organise the world according to their wishes.

In all this, there’s an underlying irony. The Vaerli have seers who can see their pride will lead to a fall. The puzzle is whether this is predestined or can be avoided by the exercise of free will at critical moments. If fate is implacable and they must fall, is there a way to recover what has been lost? So the book is set in the form of a quest. Those in the past are looking for a means of redemption, knowing that much, if not all, the future is set on a fixed path. Individuals are also searching for their own identity and a better sense of what their role is to be in the greater scheme of things. For some, it means they will be required to die. For other it offers a chance for salvation.

I found Kindred and Wings slightly slow to get going. It takes a while to establish where everyone is and what they are doing. However, once the basic set-up is complete, we’re off on a well-paced plot to some interesting outcomes, at least one of which was unexpected. This leaves a satisfied smile on my lips. There’s enough intellectual substance to lift the book well above average for a high fantasy with dragons. This is worth pursuing.

For reviews of other books by Philippa Ballantine, see:
Harbinger
Hunter and Fox
Phoenix Rising (written as a team with Tee Morris)
Wrayth

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

In Thunder Forged by Ari Marmell

June 16, 2013 2 comments

In Thunder Forged

There are times when I find Wikipedia a real boon. Since I’m a living dinosaur and know nothing of the real world around me occupied by the “young”, I need a culturally savvy compendium of current wisdom. This digital encyclopaedia, written largely by the young for the young, is an indispensable resource when it comes to phenomena like Warmachine and Iron Kingdoms. I now have the inside dope on these fantasy role-playing games from Privateer Press. So here we have the first of a trilogy set in this RPG universe. In Thunder Forged by Ari Marmell (Pyr, 2013) The Fall of Llael: Book One and, although references are made to dwarves, this is an entirely human story albeit, given the fantasy milieu, some of these humans are sorcerers and mages. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I never research a book until after I’ve read it and so I’m able to report that any prior knowledge of the games is irrelevant to enjoying this book. It’s completely free-standing and, in simple terms, a very slick piece of writing from an author previously unknown to me.

So where are we with this book? This is another of these genre-busting efforts that happily ranges over boundary lines like they were designed to be ignored. Indeed, part of the joy in reading this is that the author really doesn’t care what expectations we might come with, he just writes a damn fine adventure with espionage sitting alongside and then merging with military fiction with a high fantasy context and steampunk weaponry allied with sword and sorcery. Sorry, that’s actually misleading. I should have written “pistols and sorcery” in a blend I can’t recall seeing anywhere else. It’s a very ingenious variation on the theme and worth exploring some more. When you roll it all together, this is a real page turner that doesn’t pause for breath until it reaches the dramatic ending of “Round One” with survivors variously placed waiting for the start of “Round Two”. When you have time to look back and think about it all, the conventional espionage and military manoeuvres make perfect sense so long as you ignore all the weirdness surrounding the steampunk weaponry. And I’m not joking when I tell you these machines are weird.

Ari Marmell

Ari Marmell

Rather than burden you with silly names to remember, let’s just say the aggressors, and therefore assumed bad guys, have both freestanding mechanical equipment and an exoskeleton suit that enhances the operator’s physical strength and gives real firepower. The freestanding equipment is built for size and strength in both offence and defence. The good guys have developed a range of freestanding mechanical equipment that has much greater mobility but sacrifices defence in weaker armour. The theory is that the faster moving equipment outmanoeuvres the slower larger equipment and wins by multiple hits rather than one major blow. Adding to the mechanical equipment we also have weapons carried by knights on horseback based on electricity. Think of these lances as lightning projectors. The interesting and unexplained mechanical technology is coal-driven and high maintenance. But it also seems to be semi-autonomous. I’m assuming there are Babbage type controls, enhanced by sorcery, that gives these machines varying degrees of “intelligence”. It’s all fun so long as you don’t stop to think about it.

The plot revolves around the good guys’ attempt to enhance their weaponry by subcontracting the work to independent contractors. They took all the usual precautions of dividing the work up so that no one contractor could get a feel for what their “part” did in the whole assembly. Unfortunately, a traitor managed to assemble all the different bits into one blueprint and now holds it for auction between the two major players. Spies from both sides converge to try to steal the blueprint while the bad guys launch a parallel military assault to prevent reinforcements coming in. This leaves a small number of both trained spies and military personnel unexpectedly pitched into the fray to fight it out. The results are genuinely exciting.

So the book is beautifully written in a stripped down, no-nonsense style that blasts us through the action. It’s also innovative and, perhaps even more importantly in these modern days, gender blind. This human society values people for the contribution they can actually make and accepts that contribution without prejudices getting in the way. That means we have men and women fighting side by side without worrying too much about issues of equality. If they’re good enough to be in the army or have been through the training to become spies, they are respected and left to get on with their jobs. This is pleasingly refreshing. This makes In Thunder Forged very entertaining and I look forward to the next in the series.

For a review of a collection by Ari Marmell, see Strange New Words: Tales of Heroism and Horror.

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

Seven Kings by John R Fultz

Fultz_SevenKings-TP

Well here I am, mildly surprised at myself for requesting a review copy of Seven Kings by John R Fultz (Orbit, 2013) Books of the Shaper II. To say that I was underwhelmed by the first would be one of my better examples of understatement. It was poorly put together, limiting the pace of the narrative and leaving many elements in the plot confusing or unexplained. Yet, on a whim, I’m back in this High Fantasy (note the use of capitals) world. This author is going for the maximum effect in Sword and Sorcery Epic Fantasy with frequent forays into somewhat poetic metaphors and similes, just in case we’ve forgotten how relatively quiet and unadorned the prose of the old guard writers like Clark Ashton Smith used to be.

In the blink of an eye, we’ve moved eight years beyond the events described in the first volume. Although I could vaguely remember where everyone had ended up, I confess to have been shaky on everyone’s names and their relationships. This time around, it still has all these eminently forgettable names, but there’s slightly greater attention to making these characters somewhat more memorable. After a while, I could remember who all the major characters are, which was a major step forward. Indeed, though that’s obviously not the intention, it would be possible to read this as a standalone which, for an old guy like me with a failing memory, is a big plus. However, as with the first, this has a major cast of characters and you just have to see most of them as the redshirts, expendable as the author requires. And, with much gore, a significant number of these characters are variously dismembered and slaughtered as we work our way through the plot. Although I had no problem with the content, people of a more sensitive disposition may find this literally too bloodthirsty as our quasi-vampires feast on the blood of their slaves in their jungle retreat.

A simple head shot of John R Fultz

A simple head shot of John R Fultz

So who features this time around? We start off with Tong, a slave escaping from the evil kingdom of Khyrei into the jungle where he’s rescued by the Sydathians. This new race is a kind of borrowing from both H G Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs who had ferocious ape-like creatures which respectively lived underground or, as the White Apes, in the deserted cities of Barsoom. Vireon continues as King of the Giants, with his sister Sharadza married to a reconstituted D’zan, while the divided throne of the Stormlands, is threatened by drought because the magic no longer brings the rains. Conceptually, the relationship between the brothers Lyrilan and Tyro, sons of Dairon, is the most interesting. In theory, this is a literal division of rulership between the brain and raw instinct. Lyrilan is bookish and cerebral. Tyro is the warrior quick to anger and always looking for a fight. Against the perceived threat from Khyrei, this is a recipe for inaction since the caution of Lyrilan will delay joining battle. That they are, in real terms, already outgunned in magical terms, is neither here nor there. Delay on the part of this kingdom merely gives the enemy time to grow stronger. Whether immediately or in time, the victory of Khyrei is assured. Unless. . . There always has to be an unless, doesn’t there. Writers of High Fantasy are not prone to allowing the forces of darkness to prevail. Heroes must arise. Battles must be fought. Victories must be won for the side of light.

I suppose the best way to describe the mechanism of High Fantasy is to see it as a series of cycling binaries. At the highest levels, there must be a perpetual movement through life, to death and rebirth. Sorcerers usually have a way to manipulate this process to achieve practical immortality. Each new generation of mortals plans for the future with the birth of children to take over the running of the world when the parents die. Through oral histories and the work of librarians, knowledge is passed down through the ages and the slow accumulation of wisdom leads to better lives in the short term. But there are always prices to be paid for each advance. The other mechanisms at work are a cycle from success to tragedy, paralleled by a cycle from despair to hope. Without hope, we would never recover from the tragedies. There would be no will to learn from losses and to prepare against the repetition of the same losses. In theory, each time we lose, we can return stronger if we wish it. So books like this test the mettle of our protagonists. How strong is their desire to prevail when it’s so easy to wallow in self-pity, the humiliation of defeat, and the fear of further losses? As applied to civilisations, it’s rebirth, ruination and reinvention as we stagger blindly through time. After each civilisation’s fall, there are dark ages followed by slow renaissances. Only when recorded history can survive the dark interludes can each new civilisation climb higher on the shoulders of the past.

So I’m moving not unhappily through this volume until, about four-fifths of the way through, I’m suddenly reminded this is the second volume of a trilogy. What reminds me? Well, in plotting terms, everything screeches to a halt and, instead of the plane landing at the airport, it goes into a holding pattern. All of which mixed metaphors should tell you that the only thing really achieved in this book is the identification of the real threat this part of the world faces. We now have to wait until December when the concluding volume is due to be released. This leaves me with the sense of hopes dashed. Seven Kings seemed so much better than Seven Princes yet it turns out to be a damp squib — a British simile referring to the habit of fireworks to fizzle miserably if they get wet, i.e. you get all the anticipation of a massive bang followed by incandescent sparks and flying blobs of bright colours, but all you get is a faint pop.

For a review of the first in the series, see Seven Princes.

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

Seven Princes by John R Fultz

When you start off reading a book, one of the first signs all may not be entirely well in the garden of happiness is the naming system. Being old and struggling with a failing memory, I like people’s names to be memorable. When picking up a book titled Seven Princes by John R Fultz, first in the Books of The Shaper (Orbit, 2012), I want names like Prince Hector Elastoplast III and Prince Rocky Gastropod X. If I see Fangodrel, I’m profoundly relived when the others prove to be Tadarus, Vireon, D’zan, Tyro, Lyrilan and Andoses. Those who write fantasy have a habit of picking longer names. Olthacus the Stone and Grodulum the Hammer spring to mind and then are almost immediately slipping away into darkness, saved only by the presence of everyday objects like Stone and Hammer. These give me something I can relate to. But then come the women with Princess Sharadza and her mother Queen Shaira. And given the flood of names at the start of a book with more than 500 pages, whose names do I try to remember? Who among all these exotically named folk will prove to be significant when the final spell is cast and the last fatal hammer blow is struck (having invested effort in Grodulum, I do hope he’ll be the One aka Neo)? It’s a real challenge, I can tell you. I suppose the answer would be to start off a card index system. That way, if I were to come across Count Vilsnoticus in Chapter 10, I could check back to discover he’s the vampire hippopotamus I met briefly in Chapter 3. So in Seven Princes, do I need to remember the names of horses when their riders are killed shortly afterwards? To those not blessed with eidetic memories, such decisions assume major importance. There are linguistic highlights, of course, like a tavern called the Molten Sparrow and we should thank the local gods for the pithily-named Vod even if he does disappear into the Cryptic Sea shortly after we meet him.

MIB John R Fultz photographed immediately before J and K

From all this, you will understand this is an old-style, high fantasy novel in which sorcerers vie for power against each other in a land where humans and giants have a loose alliance, born of the need to see off the serpents — they are like dragons but without the wings. Both in the way it’s written and in spirit, this is very much a throwback to the early sword and sorcery styles of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Howard with some C L Moore thrown in for female power as our heroes battle the evil enemies that would kill them and enslave the kingdoms they rule. It’s full of talk about past exploits of glory with only a few instances of the need to think before launching into battle. In fact, the political situation is quite interesting as two rulers using sorcery represent the evil axis against the good guys, while the magic-tainted genetic drift of the giants must be overcome if they are to resume population growth. There’s dark magic based on blood rites to summon up shadow demons and a kind of ultramagic that goes beyond mere spells and sees entire worlds as all part of the same system and so capable of manipulation once you get the right point of view.

All these are fairly standard to the high fantasy, sword and sorcery subgenre and, in the right hands, this could have been a rousing adventure story as older tropes are recreated for modern times. Unfortunately, this is rather plodding. It does cover the ground but without any real spark or life. In part, the problem is lack of any sense of humour. Michael Moorcock has a very knowing approach in the Eternal Champion novels. He understands the need to smile at some of the more old-fashioned ideas. This is not to mock them, you understand. But simply to accept that when meat has passed its sell-by date, you need stronger spices in the sauce to hide any potential problems of taste. Then we come to the characterisation. We meet a lot of people and, sometimes, I did remember who they were but, after a while, I gave up caring. I’m not sure whether it’s the writing style or the more general lack of insight, but I failed to connect with these people. It’s all too black and white for my taste. Finally, we come back to the title. This is not simply a story about seven princes. Three women are pivotal, one a princess, one a Queen and the other a free spirit. In my view, this makes the title provocatively sexist and demonstrates an extraordinary lack of modern sensibilities on the part of the publisher. There’s no way a new author should be saddled with such a sexist title.

This is not to deny a good story lurking in the 500 or so pages. It would just have been better at around 300 pages or, if the characterisation was better and there moments of affectionate humour, around 400. This just turns into a trial of strength. I did get to the end and saw some measure of order restored to the universe sufficient to leave us poised for book two in The Shaper trilogy. I can’t honestly say I’m motivated to read the next. But if Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, C L Moore and the others of that period are your thing, Seven Princes will be like a homecoming and you will no doubt love every minute of it.

For a review of the sequel, see Seven Kings.

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

The Last Page by Anthony Huso

March 10, 2011 1 comment

Language is one of these slippery concepts. We learn how to communicate meaning from the moment we are born. Most often, we rely on words, but there can be fundamental changes in meaning depending on the choice of words in a given context. Worse, everything can be changed again by body language, expression, accent, intonation. . . Even the clothes we wear can signal different meanings. The whole process of communication is one of the most complicated activities we engage in and, for the most part, we do it with unconscious ease. This often makes it difficult for outsiders to learn such that, almost before someone opens their mouth, they can be identified as an outsider.

When we are forced to rely on the written word, there are real choices to be made. We could opt for simple words in uncomplicated sentence structures. Or we could create complicated clauses with difficult vocabulary. Our decisions will depend on who are writing to or for. If we have no great expectations of our readers, we write as simply as possible. If we expect sophistication, we can allow full rein to our creativity.

I start with this more general introduction because The Last Page by Anthony Huso is something of a puzzle. This is a book which, I suppose, we call high fantasy. Many authors who create these strange worlds of magic use an elevated form of language to add a veneer of the outré. When under control, this can become a powerful way of creating a sense of the different and unconventional. Handled badly and language becomes melodramatic or, at worst, it forms a barrier to understanding. Hopefully, whatever we write for each other is accessible. Except, when people becomes too involved in thinking about the words, meaning can grow blurred and be lost. As an example, take a sentence describing someone climbing in through an upper window:

“Her silhouette balled, extruded and swung like taffy into the murky triangle of shadow beneath the second gable’s crest.” p.289.

It’s at times like this that readers pause, momentarily distracted by their speculation on what taffy looks like when it’s being swung around. I would be the last person to deny Anthony Huso his right to delve into language and produce interesting similes and metaphors. I’m often self-indulgent in these reviews and end up writing in a complicated way. So, knowing myself to be in a glass house, I offer the mild opinion that Huso’s use of language is sometimes excessive. Not only is meaning obscured by neologisms, but it gets in the way of producing a clear view of characters and their motivations.

The Last Page is the first half of a duology

There’s also a real structural problem. The usual convention when a book starts off in a place of education is to give us a chance to learn a little of the society, politics and magic that makes this world go around. Teachers cast their pearls of wisdom and lazy students extract odd passages from what later turn out to be key texts. However it’s done, we should have a clear foreshadowing of what’s to come when our key characters leave the nest. Except, at no point in the book do we get a clear overview of exactly what the magical systems are nor how they work. Frankly, it just feels as though Huso made it up as he went along without having a coherent description of the magic systems before starting off. So we have a set of different cults and groups, each having different access to magic. Some seem to rely on a form of mathematics, others draw power from blood or, even, captured souls. There appear to be supernatural beings who inhabit a different dimension and occasionally break through into the physical reality of the world with destructive effect. Equally, there are mutants with obviously unnatural physical bodies who may be the result of breeding between supernatural and human partners. We even have resurrection. I have read versions of all these ideas elsewhere. Worse, at times, Huso seems to be introducing features simply to express horror or revulsion, as in the random description of surgery as entertainment.

This is not to say that all the ideas are poor or unoriginal. But there’s a general lack of coherence so that the whole feels like an overcomplicated mess. It’s the same with the politics. Some of the manipulations are quite clever with the spymaster Vhortghast playing a deep game. But there’s altogether too much going on. The Shradnae witches compete with the general weirdness of the Willin Droul for control of the book of power called Cisrym Ta. The young witch Sena is caught up in internal politics of the witchocracy but, inevitably, is the renegade who finds the book and takes up with the young king, Caliph Howl. Together, they “save” most of the city and countryside. I largely understand the mundane part of the plan. Quite what process Sena goes through remains a mystery to me. I had probably stopped reading the text carefully enough by the time I came to this part and I have no desire to go back and see if it makes any better sense on a second reading. All that can be said is that she gouges her eyes and, having seen into the nature of matter, becomes superhuman.

In its favour is a general sense of energy and a willingness to trying pushing the genre envelope, but the result is indisciplined and overcomplicated with too many characters introduced and then not really used. Personally, I blame the editorial staff who should have taken this author in hand and shown him how to pull a good novel together out of all these disparate strands. So it’s no worse than many a first novel, but it may herald the introduction of someone to watch in the future. For the record, The Last Page is the first in a duology and the sequel is called Black Bottle.

Jacket artwork by Phil Holland.

Kings and Assassins by Lane Robins

December 16, 2010 Leave a comment

It is always interesting to read two episodes in a series back-to-back, seeing a world created over some years suddenly reduced to a few days of reading. So here we are following Maledicte with Kings and Assassins by Lane Robins. In this instance, it is hard to say whether this was a good strategy, but four things are obvious. The info-dumping in the first section of this episode is really annoying. Yes, new readers who have not had the sense to read Maledicte before picking up this volume do need to be given a chance to understand who everyone is and some of what has gone on before, but this is really clunky. A simple one or two page summary before we start is always better. Second, the quality of the language has dropped from a high fantasy, somewhat florid style, to something more prosaic. This is not a criticism. It simply reflects a decision to abandon some of the pretension and get on with the story. Third, we have a lot more interior monologue and, frankly, it is not that constructive. As a literary device, it should illuminate our understanding of characters and help move the plot forward. It would have been very useful to have had more of these insights during Maledicte. But, in this volume, many of the scenes in which it occurs are more everyday than plot drivers. Finally, the big change is that Maledicte is gone, but not forgotten, and Janus is the focus of interest. I will come back to this later.

So, let’s get back to the debate about pronouns I began in the last review. We have the continuing gender dysphoria over Maledicte and now, the polar opposite. This author is obviously running with gender issues and has a transvestite male in a prominent role. This is a far more understanding and sexually liberal culture than the one we have now. It seems to accept fairly overt displays of homosexuality so long as it is kept reasonably discreet and, without so much as turning a hair, a man in woman’s clothing can put on a public display of technology without exciting a lynching. More importantly, there’s something really weird going on in the writing. He is called Delight when en femme, i.e. he changes his name, but is always referred to using masculine pronouns. He does this, his dress, saw him in women’s clothing, etc. This is an amazing double standard. If Miranda is always “he” when dressed as Maledicte, why does the same convention not apply to Delight? Perhaps it is that Miranda was never suspected of being female in public and Delight makes no secret of his sex. If so, this strikes me as a very unsubtle form of discrimination.

I had two major concerns about Maledicte: that it lacked a political context for the action, and there was a real failure to explain the relationship between gods and mortals — indeed, I am still less than convinced that a god could be balked without immediate consequences. Kings and Assassins makes good progress in remedying the first and gets even more frustrating on the second. Although the Luddite theme is slightly clichéd, it does make a convenient peg on which to hang the fifth columnists trying to destabilise the kingdom. Antimachine rallies are a good excuse for potentially violent disorder and the destruction of the kingdom’s industrial potential. But the presence of Ivor Sophia Grigorian to mastermind the overthrow of the kingdom gives the book a much better balance. We can, from the outset, see the plots and counterplots clearly. This is a major improvement. But the gods/mortal theme is complicated by the reappearance of a second god. As if it was not difficult enough to understand the working of Black-Winged Ani, now we have to contend with another diffuse presence in Haith — except, like Ani, he seems to be able to dole out death on demand.

Psyke — a slightly obvious name substituting a k for ch, creating historical credibility and giving a nod to psychic abilities — is possessed by Haith and counterbalances the assassin. She is the reason why we have a revision of the policy on interior monologuing/dialoguing. Courtesy of the god uplink, she can talk to the dead, i.e. we need to be inside her head to hear the conversations. Once the dam breaks, we get to see inside many characters. Except there are very few helpful revelations on the god front. When you know from the outset that the humans are going to have to negotiate with or “fight” the gods, they should be researching urgently and endlessly trying to think up the best strategies. But it is all very low key. This was the real problem with Janus in the first book. He ended up doing all the right things to “cage” Ani, but we still don’t really know how he knew what to do. It was all just a little too convenient.

Having remedied the problems from the first by having a real set of political issues to work through, Lane Robins is still failing to explain the history or practicalities of all this god stuff. If you are going to create a world in which real supernatural beings can directly affect the humans, you need more background and explanation than is on offer here. It should be Shakespearean, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. . .” with them unstoppably pulling off everyone’s wings. We do get an answer at the eleventh hour and it is not unsatisfying, but it is all just too convenient (again). The structure of the narrative should be set up as a mystery — how to control or deflect an angry god — but it is weak. What should be building in parallel to the unfolding political crisis suddenly emerges, almost unbidden, and with Janus beaten, he is rescued.

This is not to say Kings and Assassins is a bad book. Once it gets into its stride, it has a more economical approach to the plotting and has a good level of inventiveness on the political front. Indeed, we would have been better if there were no gods at all. As it is, we are left with significant numbers of humans dead and the city in ruins without any understanding of how it was all done. Truth be told, I don’t think Janus as interesting as Maledicte. She was more in control of her own destiny. You could feel her/him warring with Ani. This poor man seems only to be beaten from pillar to post. He does his best to plan, but he tends to be reactive and is often outmatched. He is not really the hero which, perhaps, is what should be happening. Beating gods is a challenge — too much for one person — and needs to be a team effort. Overall, this book is merely OK.

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