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The Devoured Earth by Sean Williams

July 25, 2012 4 comments

The Devoured Earth, Books of the Cataclysm: Four by Sean Williams (Pyr, 2012) pitches us straight into the action. The airship piloted by Griel but supported by Mage Kelloman and Skender, carries the Castillo twins up into the mountains. Those of you who’ve been following this story will remember the twins are now occupying the body of the homunculus: two peas in the one pod. On a different part of the mountains, Sal, Kail and Highson are in pursuit of the group including man’kin and Shilly, but falling further behind. Knowing the problems should Yod break through, Pukje offers them assistance. It’s suits him to have everyone in the right place at the right time. Shilly herself is still linked to an older self in another time. The older and apparently wiser Shilly spends her final years producing a vast pattern capable of bending time and space. All the younger Shilly can do is copy down parts of it. It’s like a jigsaw with no clear set of references to show which piece goes where in the overall design. But she’s the only seer left who can catch real glimpses of such a distant future. And even that glimpse is a fleeting one as Yod shuts down the link. You remember Yod. He wants to eat everyone.

The problem confronted by the defenders of the current realities against Yod is that the original design of the realms may be considered flawed. The presence of the Third Realm has always allowed people to explore the possibilities that exist at each pivotal moment of choice. Because of this, humans have been able to make optimal decisions. Equally, Yod can find new ways in which it may be possible to break through the defences. The problem is always one of prevention or early cure. If you can prevent a parasite from infecting the body, you remain safe. If you can detect a parasite early and kill it before it gets a toehold, you restore safety. But if you are complacent and do nothing when the parasite first appears, it grows powerful and can kill the body. People are vulnerable because they are slow to act.

A headshot of Sean Williams

Through the reappearance of Ellis Quick aka Nona, the sole remaining Sister of the Flame, the disparate forces gain a valuable ally. Then with the glast floating into and out of view to express his enigmatic delight in the world just as it is, we come into the final straight in this sprawling four book epic. There’s also a need for the author to be neat and tidy when it comes to wrapping up all the loose threads into a suitable tapestry we can all look back on and admire how well it’s all woven together. This reflects a fundamental truth that, at some point, everything stops. On the way, some characters might try to simplify decisions. In a way, this a way of deceiving themselves. People often feel more comfortable if they can winnow all the possibilities down to a final binary choice. Too many variables looks confusing, an admission that life is just too complicated to understand let alone control. Although, when you do come to think about it, half the fun we have as human beings lies in the randomness of our existences. We live with the risks of uncertainty — some even becoming addicted to gambling. Of course many individual lose, but, if we make humanity the casino, the House always wins. Change comes in fits and starts, but there’s a steady evolution. As a species we’ve never sat back on our laurels for too long. It’s always been one group or another pushing into more uncertainty and hoping for the best.

As a final thought, the language of the book is interestingly colloquial. It’s often the case that authors writing a major fantasy with epic pretensions aim for hyperbolic excesses. Let’s end a world today and offer help to the others from the future. You know the kind of thing you throw out on a wet Thursday afternoon when you want to get the plot going with a bit more pace. Usually the prose style affects high seriousness, a kind of majestic formality you might associate with the workings of courts in mediaeval times. Yet Sean Williams is frequently chatty and, through that conversational approach to the storytelling, cuts through much of the self-important affectation that makes many fantasy novels hard work to read. My only complaint is that all four books get bogged down in exploring every last option and possibility. There’s no end to the invention and creativity and, for me, that’s a problem. I prefer my books shorter unless there’s something wonderful waiting for us at the end. OK, so that asks the question. Is this the end that makes the entire reading experience worth all the effort? In this case, there have to be several answers. The first explains what happens to all the mass of people and different races who currently occupy the world(s). Yet, once you clarify the future for the mass, you can’t avoid asking about the individuals and, since this all began with the twins and Ellis, they need to be settled. There’s emotional satisfaction and almost everyone else who survives gets the payoffs they deserve. However, it’s not quite enough for me. I can admire The Devoured Earth and all that went before it, but I was not enthralled. It may be different for you. Whatever it’s faults, it’s certainly not a standard fantasy and so interesting to read in its own right for that, if for no other, reason.

For a review of the first book in the series, see The Crooked Letter.

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

The Gift of Fire and On the Head of the Pin by Walter Mosley

June 27, 2012 1 comment

Once again, I’m obliged to remind the readers of these reviews that I’m an atheist. This disclosure will allow you an opportunity to judge the fairness of the opinions offered. It’s a curious coincidence that I should just have seen the film titled Prometheus, and then pick up this latest offering from Walter Mosley. The book is the first in a series of twinned novellas to form a series titled Crosstown to Oblivion. These are The Beginnings of the End making up Fragments of Six Shattered Worlds. The first two stories are titled The Gift of Fire and On the Head of the Pin (Tor, 2012) and are presented in tête-bêche form. This is somewhat unusual from a mainstream publishing house in hardback. For once, it’s good to see Tor-Forge following Subterranean Press in promoting this different format for novellas.

 

Although I’m a major fan of Walter Mosley, having read all but a few of the titles to date, I wish he would stay away from these literary forays into science fiction or fantasy, depending on how you classify these books. He’s unbeatable when he deals with strong men surviving on the mean streets of whichever city he picks. Even the slightly nonstandard efforts like The Man in the Basement manage to overcome their tendency to pretentious preachiness and produce an interesting insight into race relations or whatever the theme he’s chosen for the particular book. But when we come to books like Blue Light, it’s as if he forgets the need to keep his creativity and imagination working along the mainstream tracks. This is a blurring of the borders between metaphor, fable and science fiction. Blue radiance falling as if the tears from God creates sixteen new beings who dispute whether life or death should prevail.

 

The Gift of Fire treads the same path except, this time, Prometheus gets tired of the eagle snacking on his liver and crosses over into modern LA where he uplifts a long-term drunk close to death and then sacrifices his mortal existence for a early teenage boy who’s been paralysed and confined to bed for most of his life. This parallels the fate of Lester Foote in Blue Light. Lester is a black man who played the white man’s game and climbed the PhD ladder. Except when he got to the top, he found he still commanded no respect. This provoked him into a suicide attempt and then his redemption as an acolyte of one of the Blues. In The Gift of Fire, Nosome Blane has fallen to the bottom of the heap, but Prometheus endows him with a blue essence that converts him into a disciple. Chief Reddy becomes the prophet to bring the second fire down to Earth. Unfortunately, before Prometheus has worked out the local conditions, he also empowers Luther Unty who becomes the embodiment of evil. In every equation, there must be balance.

 

Although this novella is more pantheistic than explicitly Christian, Walter Mosley is intent on advocating that we aspire to build a kind of spiritual community in which all differences are swept aside in achieving a oneness. The overall problem with this is the tendency for the author to launch into sermons filled with rather abstract ideas of how we should live our lives. This is not to say the underlying story is without power. It actually demonstrates how a single messianic figure can become a threat to the security of the state and trigger an aggressive response in self-defence. But, to be honest, the conscious parallelism with the story of Jesus, even down to Chief Reddy’s death and resurrection, is not what I feel is appropriate in a story which starts off in the myth of Prometheus, followed by the classical Gods re-emerging and interfering in Earth’s politics. Either you run this in a semi-realistic way to show Prometheus wrestling with the problem of how to transmit the new message to the Earth as he now finds it, all the while fending off the Olympian Gods who want to chain him back to the rock, or you have some unspecified force lift up a disabled young man and make him into a prophet who may later be acknowledged as the Messiah. Conflating the two mythologies produces a singularly unsatisfying outcome.

Is Walter Mosley a great writer? The ayes have it!

 

The second novella is called On the Head of a Pin — a reference to the limit on the number of angels you can balance in a single place. There’s no direct connection between the two stories except this is more explicitly a science fiction story about a scientific development that unexpectedly links into a dimension where the spirits or souls of all life, past and future, can be observed and, in one special case, more directly connected. Yet the theme is the same. This time Joshua, our principal protagonist, is a man who has fallen emotionally. His stable relationship disintegrates and, by chance, he’s recruited to document the development of this device. As is required, he’s an African American and the victim of racial discrimination by Pinkus, a coworker. When the project reaches the testing stage, Joshua is one of two people to be able to interact with the device. In due course, he contacts Thalla, an advanced form of artificial human in the future, and they become soul mates. She tells him what will happen in the future and begins to teach him how to use this unexpected technological breakthrough. The other man able to get a response from the device is, as you would expect, the bigoted Pinkus who conjures up visions of violent sexual abuse. We then get into the familiar debate about whether this device should be turned over to the military for their evaluation and possible exploitation. The resolution of this militarisation theme is not very original and the point at which the novella stops is the usual holding pattern of Joshua waiting for the real action to begin.

 

Again all this is an excuse for Walter Mosley to push some of his pet ideas on the extent we can take responsibility for our actions. We exclude children from liability for their actions because we deem them incapable of understanding the difference between right and wrong. Yet when we grow in experience and become old enough to be considered adults, we are often not held accountable even though many of the things we say and do can injure others. If you look back at history, it’s also possible to excuse early civilisations for the cruelty they inflicted on others. In terms of moral development, humans were still like children and had not grown enough to take responsibility. Yet, if we apply this across time, at what point would we deem ourselves accountable for what we have become. Through this new device, Joshua can see into the souls of others. No-one can ever lie to him. But knowing whether someone is good or evil is not the same as having the right or power to correct those who fall on the side of evil.

 

Both novellas suffer from the same facile moralism. Walter Mosely is promoting the view that coming together across all divides, the art of compromise no matter how repugnant that may be, is the path to enlightenment. Neither story is successful, whether as no doubt well-intentioned moralising or as science fiction/fantasy. Together they extend the boredom by repetition of the same ideas in a different fictional vehicle. I read Walter Mosley because he has a rare writing talent and I enjoy observing him at work. I just wish he would reserve this talent for what he’s actually very good at which is the thoughtful PI/thriller genre.

 

For other reviews of books by Walter Mosley, see:
All I Did Was Shoot My Man
Blonde Faith
Jack Strong
Known To Evil
Little Green
The Long Fall
Merge and Disciple
When the Thrill Is Gone

 

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

 

The Crooked Letter by Sean Williams

Once again, I’m obliged to remind the readers of these reviews that I’m an atheist. This disclosure will allow you an opportunity to judge the fairness of the opinions offered. The Crooked Letter by Sean Williams, Books of the Cataclysm: One (Pyr, 2006) introduces us to the twins, Hadrian and Seth Castillo, but not simply identical twins. They are mirrors of each other, sharing the same genetic code with one the mirror image of the other. Seth’s hair parts on the right, Hadrian’s on the left. Internal organs are also reversed. Their life on a holiday is disturbed by the arrival of Ellis Quick. Sexual attraction and the inevitable choices come between them. Then a man apparently called Locyta starts following them and kills Seth in some kind of ritual. Hadrian passes out and awakes in hospital. There’s a man claiming to be a detective by his bedside and a hospital orderly of some kind offering help from time to time. But it’s obvious there’s something very different about this place. When he eventually manages to sneak out of the room, he’s helped by Pukje. It would normally be reassuring to have someone help when you’re in trouble, but it’s not at all clear who or, indeed, what Pukje is. Nor does he appear to be offering reliable advice. This all becomes much more complicated when Hadrian gets out on to the streets and discovers he effectively has the city to himself. It’s a Mary Celeste situation. Food is abandoned on the tables, shops and offices are open. Yet there’s no electricity or other forms of power. He might as well be walking through an abandoned lifeless hulk — there are no birds or animals either — as if the city just ate up everything living. But counterintuitively, he still the sense his brother is alive. They have always shared a bond. Perhaps this empty city is some kind of illusion. Perhaps he imagined the murder of his brother.

Sean Williams getting in tune with Zappa

When an author sets the readers a puzzle to solve, it’s usually fun to follow the clues to the big reveal at the end. It’s like a detective story where you try to second-guess whodunnit except this is a mythic fantasy. As if Sean Williams has not been signalling this clearly enough, we get to what happened to Seth following his “murder”. So it seems the twins are merely separated and the puzzle is what has happened, why has it happened and can anything be done about it. On the way, we get to consider the nature of reality and the extent to which religions have a role to play. In a purely physical realm, for example, the opportunity for what we might term supernatural activity is inherently limited. But if there were different realms where the power of the mind could transcend basic laws of physics, individual beings might assume powers equivalent to those exercised by gods. At one level, I suppose, a kind of Darwinism would prevail and those with the strongest minds would not only survive but prosper. At some point, they might even reach the borders of their domain and find the constraint frustrating. How can any one being be considered lord of all that can be surveyed when there are other realms? So then the dominant beings look for ways of forcing a breach in the border between their realm of the mind and the mundane realm. Perhaps a gateway can be formed through the relationship between two mirror image twins. Is their bond strong enough to force an opening and then keep it open so long as they are both alive? If so, the result might be a Cataclysm. For these purposes, Sean Williams assumes that events like the Fall and the Flood occurred, but they were so long ago, all we have left are racial memories.

Sean Williams writes with a wonderfully smooth style. He’s economical when it comes to driving the plot forward, but prepared to take a moment for some pleasingly purple prose if it’s necessary for an effect. And, let’s face it, he’s playing in a big sandpit here. At a stroke he can rewrite the whole of the past and explain how we ended up with different mythologies and religions as rationalisations of what word-of-mouth has passed down through hundreds of generations. Then he can be casually throwing aways images of horror as we see the deaths of different types of being, while introducing explanations of how systems of magic work and may be enhanced by the fact of the twins — think anode and cathode in a battery. That said, I come to a sad realisation. After a lively and thought-provoking beginning, the central section of the book goes on too long. The brothers are trying to acclimatise to the developing situations in which they find themselves. Obviously, the effects of merging two realms will be catastrophic to all the different groups of beings on both sides of the border. Some will fight to preserve the integrity of the two realms. Others will see personal profit in the chaos that will ensue from merger. The shifting alliances and combat situations are consistently inventive but they really only mark time until we get the the shorter final section in which we discover what, if anything, can actually be done to forestall the Cataclysm. Then it all comes down to choices and the strength of the relationship between two who have grown up in each other’s shadow.

Taken overall, The Crooked Letter explores some interesting territory. Myths and the religions associated with them have filled in the blanks of humanity’s uncertainties. When you don’t understand the physics of thunder and lightning, it’s not unreasonable to posit one or more supernatural beings who are using them as weapons in some distant battle. When so many die, it’s not unnatural for the survivors to think of a Flood that sweeps all life away and leaves only a few who are saved because they believed strongly enough in what a God told them. When a world is incomprehensible and apparently able to destroy all life, it’s always comforting to believe you can be saved the next time if only you believe. But, as time passes and the memory of events grows blurred, the nature of future threats becomes more vague. So, when a new Cataclysm threatens, the few must have sufficient objectivity to be able to stand back from events and make the right decisions. Failure will leave a deterministic universe to eat them up. Success means that the powers we might associate with godhood flow from free will and the strength to believe in a kind of utilitarianism. That the choices of the few will be most divine when they benefit the greatest number of people. Looking back on the book, I think it’s way too long but it was an interesting ride to the end.

For a review of the final book in the series, see The Devoured Earth.

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

Somewhere Beneath Those Waves by Sarah Monette

The collection, Somewhere Beneath Those Waves by Sarah Monette (Prime Books, 2011), contains some twenty-five stories, some only a few pages long, so this review will be slightly more impressionistic than usual. As a generalisation, we read not only for the quality of the ideas but also for the means of expression. When the language is good, the ideas feel better. This is why it’s worth reading Sarah Monette. She’s one of the few modern writers than actually writes much of her prose using somewhat poetic language, but makes it feel cool. We start off with “Draco Campestris” which is a fascinating piece of writing. The more conventional narrative structure has stories flowing in a linear form. This is deliberately chopped into self-contained elements yet, when you put them together, they represent a remarkably powerful story about love unadmitted and loss. The dragons represent the magnificence of the past that’s now denied. The current reality in the museum finds the key players managing a fleeting acknowledgement of what might have been had circumstances been different. Yet, in the end, all things, including dragons, die. Also playing with form is “Katabasis: Seraphic Trains” which in a rather beautifully poetic way, recasts the story of Eurydice into more modern times and balances an unrequited love against sublime indifference — a kind of antiMuse who sucks in creativity and spits it out, rather than inspiring ever more powerful artistry. If a modern Eurydice found herself in a love triangle, how should she react? Or if a man found his wife had been seduced by the Queen of Elfland and only stayed with him and their child out of duty, how should he react?

So love may only be possible when status permits it. Perhaps all one needs is to believe in the supernatural powers of the other. Or, as between the mundane and supernatural worlds, perhaps ifrits can love. Then there are virgins who, in mythology, must always be sacrificed to save the city from a monster. These women are denied the chance of physical love, supposedly for the greater good. Similarly, if a King takes a Queen, love need not enter into it. The marriage may be an alliance between states or there’s nothing more than a functional desire to produce children. In the titular “Somewhere Beneath Those Waves”, we encounter more relationships without love and study the different forms of imprisonment employed. Men may treasure women because they have been trapped and tamed. They can lock them away, say in a museum, in a display that no-one else bothers to visit. How much better it would be for those women to be able to return to their natural state, roaming free, remembering what it was like before they were trapped into love and then held by fear or recognition that there might not be any better alternative. Or perhaps affection, if not love itself, is what we need as a bulwark against loneliness. What do you lose when your country is invaded? Overnight, men will die and women will be taken into servitude. Family relationships are destroyed. Perhaps one feral child who escaped the carnage can learn what love a mother can give. In a parallel story, we can speculate what is really lost when you discover you’re born into the wrong gender. Those affected may dream that something of a future may still be found even though the way is dark. Yet if you are to find someone to share your life, there’s the perpetual problem that others must see past the gender role and apparent physical appearance. They must want to see the person inside the body.

Sarah Monette prepares to dive into the world of her imagination

Then there’s death. Should we cry for those who have fallen, or is there some other way to deal with the grief? The answer, I suppose, will vary depending on the context and what’s been lost. “The Watcher in the Corners” both recreates the past and reflects on what life must be like when no-one loves you. Marriages can be loveless and innocent children can find themselves marginalised in adult affairs. Perhaps children need someone or something, if not to protect them, then to avenge them. Or perhaps those lost children need to way to reach out to the living so their passing can at last be confirmed. It’s the uncertainty that makes grief so difficult to deal with. Then we need spend a moment thinking about what’s lost when a sister marries and moves out of the family home. For those left behind to care for ageing relatives, the responsibility can be heavy, tinged with bitterness for those who have left.

It’s also strange how little some places change. We can have a mental picture of them as children and, later when we return, we discover that the old flow and pattern of life is the same. Some might find that reassuring, others intimidating. It’s rather the same with the prejudices we acquire as children. A nanny may tell us that goblins will come and take us away unless we co-operate by being well-behaved and sleeping on demand. Just think how disconcerting it would be to suddenly discover the need to enter the goblin realm and talk to them. “The World Without Sleep” finds us confronting four different groups who have lived in a form of social balance, not being aware of how unsatisfactory it all is. It takes an outsider to see the place for what it is and ask the right questions.

In all this, there’s straight fantasy and Lovecraftian high jinx, safe supernatural séances and more edgy mayhem. There’s functional language and florid similes and metaphors. Put it all together and Somewhere Beneath Those Waves takes you to places you might not have dreamed possible and makes them all seem perfectly reasonable. Indeed, as a final thought it even offers the advice that, if you do not like yourself, you cannot expect to like others. All anyone needs to progress in this life is enough determination to rise above hardship and look on the future as a challenge to be overcome. Put baldly on a page in a single sentence, this can seem trite. Incorporate it in a story about a woman maimed by a dragon and it suddenly assumes a power you might not have anticipated. Such is the strength of Sarah Monette’s imagination. This is not a collection to rush through. You should take your time, and consider the prose dreams through which she offers insights into the uncertainties that afflict us all.

A particular mention should be made of the jacket artwork by Elena Dudina. Not only is it beautiful in its own right, but it also rather neatly captures the themes of the collection.

For reviews of other books by Sarah Monette, see:
A Companion to Wolves (with Elizabeth Bear)
The Bone Key Joint review with The Guild of Xenolinguists.
The Bone Key Stand-alone review.
Corambis
The Tempering of Men (with Elizabeth Bear)

Shadow Bridge & Lord Tophet by Gregory Frost

As I sit here, peering uncertainly out of my window at a night sky polluted by light, there is nothing but darkness. Not a single star twinkles back at me. The contrast with my childhood could not be more stark. Long before the development of the high-pressure sodium lamp and its characteristic yellow taint, I grew up in a house overlooking dark tides that sucked unwary swimmers to their doom, the milky way stretching my imagination across storm-tossed seas to other lands of mythic grandeur. I could stand on the headland at night, the looming mass of the gothic keep rearing up behind me and the immensity of outer space spread out in front of me as a smorgasbord of infinite possibility. This, if nothing else, explains my interest in SF and fantasy fiction.

Sometimes an author is overambitious and misjudges what is required to produce good metafiction. It is all very well to want to subvert conventions, but there are times when you can go too far and, rather than produce a literary masterpiece, produce a literary mess. The key problem is always to provide a consistent vehicle for the subversion. In some senses, it works best in the theatre when you watch actors perform a play, e.g. The Dresser by Ronald Harwood, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard or Sounds Off by Michael Frayn because it breaches the convention that the proscenium arch is a barrier through which no member of the audience may pass. Or on stage, cinema or television when a performer demonstrates awareness of role and steps through the fourth wall to directly address the audience. In literature, we have wonderful examples such as The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, where the author appears as a character and offers alternative endings to the book.

I muse along these lines because of the entrancing duology by Gregory Frost, Shadow Bridge and Lord Tophet. Before coming to the books themselves, a minor gripe. Given the propensity of the publishing industry for profit maximisation, this could have appeared as a brick-sized book. At that length, there is a risk we might have left it on the shelf because of the risk of pulling a muscle lifting it down. Nevertheless, I would have preferred to read the work as a continuous whole rather than wait months for the publication of the second volume. Then we come to cost. A single work costs marginally less to buy and ship. Two volumes, even though in trade paperback size, cost more to ship separately and at a retail price of $28 for both, are at the edge of prices for a single hardback volume. Continuing the gripe, there is a slightly dead patch quite early in the second volume. If an editor had been working to produce a manageable length for a single printed book, that would have been tightened up. As it is, I suspect it was left in to make a better balance between the two volumes as a page count.

That said, this is an author at the top of his game. He has constructed a story about a young girl who makes her living as a puppeteer, moving from span to span on the ever-widening network of bridges that magically encircle this world. In each new place, she captures a local story to make her puppet dramas resonate with local cultures. Thus, the narrative is continually interrupted by the telling of other stories that illuminate the history of the world and the all too human condition of its peoples. This sets up a subtle interplay between the mythic universality of some of these stories and the current dilemmas of the protagonists. In turn, this braiding of narratives threads eases us through the novels. They intertwine and, significantly, assume direct parallels with the myths we know so well on Earth. Indeed, the structure of the narrative comes to have three strands: the narrative arc of the primary characters that ultimately becomes the stuff of myths in its own right, the increasingly complex stories of mythic characters who can affect the primary characters’ actions, and the potential for the first two strands to become a retelling of a familiar Earth myth. Or perhaps that should be the other way round. Perhaps the Earth myth as a character directs the actions of the people in the story so that what happens to them transcends their place and time, achieves universality and matches the original myth.

So at an intellectual level, this pair of novels is magical. It equally involves the reader’s emotions because the main characters remain so true to their own fallible natures. It is all too common in fantasy for there to be hero figures who, when in danger, pull out a sword and hack the opposition to pieces. Frost has created real people who have greatness thrust somewhat arbitrarily upon them. Their lives are made extraordinary by accident or design depending on your point of view. Having been forced into excellence, they must rise to the occasion as danger comes looking for them. They become players on a wider stage, seeking something more than survival as they care for and fight for each other. The outcome, in the literal sense, is the stuff of legend. For me, this was the best pair of fantasy books for 2008 and I cannot recommend them too highly.

For my other reviews of books by Gregory Frost, see: Attack of the Jazz Giants and Fitcher’s Brides.

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