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Beautiful Blood by Lucius Shepard

July 7, 2014 6 comments

BEAUTIFUL_BLOOD_by_Lucius_Shepard

Beautiful Blood by Lucius Shepard (Subterranean Press, 2014) is, in a word, magnificent! It manages something only rarely seen in these increasingly less intellectual years. It takes a work of fantasy about a dragon named Griaule and contrives to make it about ideas. Under normal circumstances, no doubt even the most hardened fantasy lover would run screaming from the room. But this carries off the entire project with such panache, you can’t help but be enthralled by the chutzpah and emerge applauding at the end.

Way back in “The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule” (1984) we were introduced to a large lizard. As a result of combat with an altruistic magician, concerned the dragon was becoming too much of a hazard for local people, the giant beast was, for the most part, frozen into immobility. Proving that humanity is remarkably adaptable, a settlement springs up around this beast in its magically-induced coma. In due course, the settlement becomes a village becomes a town becomes a small city. The few straggling lean-to hovels, develop a life of their own as some buildings extend up the sides and on to the back of the beast. Others become the essential ground-based buildings any group of people need from church to brothel, from militia compound to tax collection vaults. One of those who come to this new spawning ground for humanity is Richard Rosacher. He’s a man who pursues a dream of science and seeks to understand the body so obviously dominating the local landscape. Being a man who likes to work with blood, he pays a local to climb into the mouth of the beast to extract some of the life-giving essence from the beast’s tongue. Unfortunately, through circumstances outside his control, our hero ends up with a substantial amount of this blood injected into him. We spend the rest of the book watching what happens to the man and attempting to distinguish between evidence of determinism and free will.

Lucius Shepard

Lucius Shepard

So let’s get to some of the ideas. Going back to the origin of this enforced sleep, the beast has entered a phase of what we might term physical stasis, i.e. the body is not affected in any significant way by the passage of time. So Richard finds himself experiencing a form of dislocation in time. It seems he lives through the years but only fully inhabits his body at intermittent moments. This is sufficient to accumulate memories of what he has been doing but, only when he surfaces, does he pick up the thread of running the body in real time. At such times, he can receive warning messages in his dreams from contemporary or future individuals who have a “relationship” with Griaule, e.g. as scalehunters. In other words, he becomes a form of sock puppet for the dragon. Even when he’s autonomous, there’s still some doubt as to whether he’s truly free. Assuming the dragon to be a form of god, this may be inevitable since gods always manage to get their prophets to do what they are supposed to do. There’s a parallel model of this state in a child rapist called Frederick. He’s also transformed by Griaule and becomes altogether something more primal. The point of this counterpoint is to show both Richard and Frederick have different kinds of friend who offer guidance or direction, yet both in their own ways end up as forms of marauders.

In turn, this leads on to a consideration of the extent to which the beast should be considered a deity. At an early stage, we see flocks of birds and insects being influenced as they move around or fly close to the surface of the dragon. Even Richard finds he achieves a rather pleasing meditative state at some points on the dragon’s skin. During these times, he feels his mind can make sense of different factual elements in his life. Who’s to say whether he’s integrating these facts into a coherent understanding or telepathically communing with the dragon and listening to its thoughts. No matter who’s doing the thinking, the result is that Richard survives and the dragon’s existence is not threatened in any meaningful way (unless you count the poisoned paint and only the dragon knows whether it’s permitting the slow death to come). It’s therefore not unreasonable to believe the dragon is influencing the people who live on it and, to a lesser extent, around it. When a major physical beast or object can interact with those around it, promoting the interests of those who do its bidding and punishing those who defy it, characterising it as a deity is not unreasonable. Indeed, the otherwise powerful church feels threatened by the presence of the beast and would like nothing better than to dispose of it. Unfortunately, the fallible human beings in charge of the church lack the control over the people to sway them away from dragon worship (which can come with fringe benefits) in favour of conventional beliefs which have less provable benefits in a life hereafter.

In turn, this leads to a meditation on the different forms of leadership and whether it’s ever going to be possible to have a human leader without faults. For these purposes, we’re offered many exemplars. At the apex, we have Breque, an overtly corrupt and not a little incompetent man when it comes to the management of finances. He runs the city forming around the dragon and, amongst other things is responsible for defence. Carlos is the king of the neighbouring state. He lives for and through his people. If there’s a local problem, he jumps on his horse and rides out to solve it. He asks no thanks, only that his people love him. Ah, so he’s a narcissist and while such men can go through a benign phase, they can get a little tricky to manage if they lose confidence the people actually love them. Some of the most interesting debates consider how best to motivate the mass of people into doing what you want. One might develop an opiate for the masses, i.e. leadership through the exploitation of chemical dependence, or another might rule through a primary emotion like love or fear, or someone might seek influence through the interpretation of faith, and so on. Power comes in many forms, whether between individuals in relationships or at wider levels. Curiously, the dragon’s rule (if such it be) is through passivity. This leaves its presence as enigmatic and, of course, that allows people to develop all kinds of superstitions about it. Perhaps that’s the most effective long-term way to control people. To allow them to deceive themselves into doing what you want. Put all this together and Beautiful Blood emerges as the most intelligent work of fantasy published so far this year.

For other reviews of books by Lucius Shepard, see:
The Dragon Griaule
Louisiana Breakdown
The Taborin Scale
Two Trains Running
Vacancy and Ariel

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

Afterparty by Daryl Gregory

June 10, 2014 6 comments

afterparty by Daryl Gregory

There are some books that are made for people like me to review. Whereas some people sit on the fence on all questions of religion, I’m as complete an atheist as it’s possible to get. When presented with a book like Afterparty by Daryl Gregory (Tor, 2014) which suggests faith in God can be induced by taking a drug, my eyes lit up. Just as the poor guy in The Matrix can take a pill to open his eyes to the reality of the world around him, this book’s premise is that a chemjet printer can be programmed to come up with drugs to adapt the mind to any particular point of view. So, for example, Ollie was a brilliant intelligence analyst who took a drug called Clarity. This enabled her to see patterns in databases and human behaviour that no-one else could see. Unfortunately, when her dosage ran too high for too long, she began to see threats that were less real. This led to her declaring a terrorist alert over a national holiday. The false alarm did not go down well with her superiors and landed her in a mental hospital. At the other end of the threat spectrum, The Vincent is the personality of a paid killer that emerges when a mild-mannered man, who has adapted his apartment to farm miniature bison, takes another type of drug.

This is a future world in which the ability to develop highly specific drugs has been refined to a fine art. Our protagonist, Lyda Rose, was one of a small team to develop what became the God pill. The other members of the team were her genius wife, Mikala, Gil the IT guy, Edo the money man, and Rovil the guy who did a lot of the spade work in the lab. They began a company to develop a drug to fight schizophrenia (Lyda’s mother had schizophrenia and was the motivation for creating the drug later called Numinous). Unfortunately, when celebrating the entry of the drug into clinical human trials, Mikala spiked their champagne with the drug and they all overdosed. Mikala was stabbed to death with Gil taking the blame. Edo seems to have become hopelessly insane. Lyda is also declared insane and locked up along with her invisible companion, a guardian angel called Dr. Gloria. Only Rovil seems functional, going on to a successful career in a pharmaceutical corporation.

When word of a new drug comes into the institution were Lyda is held, she suspects the God pill has been put into production. This was not supposed to happen, so she talks her way out of the hospital on licence, and begins to track down this drug. If it’s confirmed as her drug, she wants to shut down production before too much harm is done. If you want to know the detail of why she thinks chemically inducing a belief in God might be a bad idea, read the book. In a nutshell, it’s one of these nature/nurture arguments.

Daryl Gregory

Daryl Gregory

If we assume the personality is a direct mirror of the way in which the brain works, we can program the brain to produce the desired personality. In fact, we’ve been doing this for centuries through the socialisation process. Parents and other authority figures influence the child during the formative years, and hope to produce the desired type of adult. All these chemists do is assume the body is a biological machine and make drugs to reprogram the brain’s chemistry and so induce specific shifts in behaviour or belief systems. So, for example, one of the new drugs on the market temporarily shifts sexual orientation or, in this case, creates the belief the person is able to talk directly with God or one of His angels. Lyda, as a rational person, knows exactly what has happened to her and so is able to have a moderately reasonable relationship with her angel. When people fail to realise they have taken a drug, the changes in belief and behaviour seem a completely natural conversion to, or a deepening of, their faith. For the record, the drug is ecumenical and individuals interact with their culturally specific god or gods. Rovil as a Hindu, for example, has routine meetings with Ganesh to guide his life’s journey and career.

With this set-up, all our hero has to do is deal with the psychopathic Afghan mothers, negotiate with the cigarette-smuggling North American Indians to cross the border, and make her way across America. It’s an epic journey in thriller terms, considerably enlivened by the appearance of the Cowboy about one-third of the way through the book. When the dust has settled, we find people have losses and gains. Even the fate of the bison is added to the mixture, whether as fiction or as a parable told by the angel.

Taking the book as a whole, it represents an outstanding contribution in several different categories. As a novel, it overcomes a slightly slow and confusing start to become a gripping read. As a discussion about the nature of belief, it makes some shrewd observations on the mechanisms for transmitting faith from one generation to the next and from one individual to another. The idea the socialisation one receives as a child can be resurrected by a drug as an adult is fascinating, as is the entire drug culture the book explores. It also considers the circumstances in which a person comes to lose his or her faith. Whether this is through a slow and natural erosion over time, or because of some more traumatic event, or by going cold turkey, the sense of loss can be felt keenly. Put all these factors together and Afterparty is one of the best relatively near-future science fiction stories I’ve read in the last year. I strongly recommend it.

For reviews of other novels by Daryl Gregory, see:
The Devil’s Alphabet
Raising Stony Mayhall
Unpossible
We Are All Completely Fine.

Spiritual Growths by Lori Ann White

June 8, 2014 3 comments

Spiritual Growths

Spiritual Growths by Lori Ann White (Eggplant, 2013) is one a series of novellas published as e-books by Eggplant Literary Productions. As publishing ventures go, this is quite brave because, if you were to ask market professionals, they would tell you short or shorter fiction doesn’t sell. That this operation has a growing list of stories at novella length should tell you something about expertise. It’s only good for what you know. People who work off the beaten track can often find enough buyers to sustain their operation. Anyway, Eggplant specialises in fantasy, horror and science fiction both as standalone stories, in Spellbound, a fantasy magazine aimed at children, and Mescellanea: the Transdimensional Library which collects and provides access to books, periodicals and other media materials from all “known” sources.

In this story, Robbie Holman finds comfort and consolation in a regular hour-long bubble bath to soak away her stress and find new joy in wrinkled skin. On this auspicious evening, she selects a lavender-scented solution and is preparing to enter the nirvana of bubbles when she catches her arm on the faucet and twangs the elastic of her new bead bracelet — a gift from a co-worker, Cousette McCandless. This forces her to consider whether to wear it in the bath. Will it be spoiled or damaged if it gets wet? Ah, such decisions slow down the ritual of entering into the water. So remembering Cousette telling her to wear it all the time, she leaves it on. Sadly, when she looks at her wrist at the end of the soaking session, it’s empty. The bracelet has disappeared. When the loss is reported to Cousette, she’s not entirely calm. The bracelet was made from the seeds of the Bodhi tree. As a purely theoretical problem, Ms Holman dismisses it until it’s time for her next bath. She then discovers there may be a tree growing out of the drain. When she asks the new guy at work for advice, he’s all-fired-up to come to her home to inspect this phenomenon. The question, of course, is not so much how the tree comes to be in her bath — obviously, she dropped the seeds — but why it should have taken root where there should be no soil and why it’s growing so fast — she does take a bath at fairly regular intervals. The situation gets interesting when one or two more trees appear in different locations. Cousette is excited because there were twenty-seven seeds on the bracelet. San Francisco could soon be a forest.

If backed against the wall by some demanding person holding a gun, I might offer the opinion this is a science fiction story that just happens to walk into religious territory when the “what if” takes root. It doesn’t matter this appearance of the trees is scientifically implausible. The story is perfectly credible as a study of human nature and the need for some people to believe in something supernatural. Let’s, for a moment, take at face value the idea this random appearance of the trees is a miracle. There would be a certain weight of expectation about how the trees might manifest, “behave” and, if necessary, defend themselves. If the Dalai Lama came in all seriousness to consider the implications of this event and to say “Hi” to the trees, the world would look on, impressed by the mystery, and enthralled by the magic of the occasion. Put the individual drama of Ms Holman against the world’s fixation with the trees as potential symbols of a faith reborn, and you have a completely entrancing story which is nicely logical and, at times, mildly humorous. I’m definitely converted to Spiritual Growths if not to Buddhism. More power to Eggplant if the other stories are this good!

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

Irenicon by Aidan Harte

February 15, 2014 1 comment

Irenicon_JK

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

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

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

Aidan Harte

Aidan Harte

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

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

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

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

Here’s an interview with Aidan Harte.

Kill City Blues by Richard Kadrey

September 6, 2013 Leave a comment

kill-city-blues

There’s an art to writing a long serial without a visible end in sight. From the author’s point of view, it starts with the need to keep very good notes about who everyone is now, what their backgrounds were, and what you plan to do with them. That way, when you get to book seven and you feel like reintroducing an old character, you can look him or her up, and keep the plot running smoothly. For the readers, however, there’s a particularly troublesome problem. Let’s say you’ve been reading this series religiously. As each book has been published, you were there in the queue waiting for the bookstore to open with cash in your sweaty palm. That means, courtesy of the cockamamie publishing schedules, you’ve been reading one book a year for however long. Even when I was young and rose from the couch occasionally to pick up another book, I struggled to remember the detail of every nuance of plot as time passed. Now I’m getting close to death and my brain cells are dying faster than a speeding bullet that can jump tall buildings, I have trouble remembering what day it is. So what’s the author to do? The answer is to remind old duffers like me who everyone as as they read the books. Here comes Billy Bob whom we first met in the second book and he doesn’t get on with Snarky Pants because, in the fourth book, she slept with the woman Billy thought he loved before he found out she swings both ways. And so on. . .

Richard Kadrey

Richard Kadrey

This means, at a technical level, I’m actually getting a bit bored with the way this serial is being told. There’s an awful lot of baggage being dragged through the pages of these books as the story arcs twist and turn, reintroducing people and then discarding them again as needed. When the Sandman Slim serial kicked off in 2010, it was deliciously irreverent and wildly groundbreaking (to allow the dead to rise and for quick access to Hell if the doors got stuck). Now we’ve done all the religion jokes, offended everyone who has faith, and killed off all manner of different beasties supernatural, diabolical or divine, the only thing we’ve got left is the developing story and the cast of tens who keep the action rolling. And I’m beginning to grow sceptical, almost losing faith (in the purely secular sense of the word). I picked up Kill City Blues by Richard Kadrey (Harper Voyager, 2013), the fifth book in the serial, with some mild trepidation and found some of my fears confirmed. The metanarrative remains interesting as the dispossessed old gods continue to seek a way back into their “territory”, but this episode feels like it’s marking time. We talk with the old Lucifer over donuts and visit with the new Lucifer as he tries to restore a little more order in the place after the last holder of the office made such a mess of things. The old gang is still together and the focus of our attention is on recovering the Qomrama. This is going to involve penetrating Kill City, hence the title.

One slightly curious feature of this book is the structure which has the big set piece about two-thirds of the way through, leaving a long epilogue moving the metanarrative forward. If you ever wanted the perfect example of a book that’s so not a standalone in an ongoing series, this is it. Although I imagine a newcomer could just about follow events up to the big fight, there would be bemusement at all the housekeeping to get the right people in the right places for the next exciting instalment in the serial. Under no circumstances should anyone attempt to read this without reading some if not all the earlier books. It will make no sense to see different “people” like or dislike each other, or suddenly manifest with supernatural abilities, or turn out to be the Devil or an angel and start fighting. This leaves me with a big health warning. Kill City Blues is definitely only for the die-hard fan and, speaking as one who has been buying these books, I think this is my last. For better or worse, Richard Kadrey is crunching out the wordage to move the plot forward and all the joie de vivre has gone out of it.

For reviews of the other books in the serial by Richard Kadrey, see:
Aloha From Hell
Devil Said Bang
Kill the Dead
Sandman Slim

The Marching Dead by Lee Battersby

September 5, 2013 Leave a comment

The Marching Dead

It’s remarkable how fast time flies. So fresh is it in my memory, it seems only a few days ago that I read The Corpse-Rat King. This was my first chance to meet Marius dos Hellespont and Gerd, his sidekick, as they perhaps got their just deserts by being caught on a battlefield, stripping valuables from the bodies of the dead. Not surprisingly, the surviving comrades of the fallen do not take kindly to battlefield looters and tend to despatch them summarily. Under normal circumstances, my meeting with this pair would have been somewhat fleeting, their deaths following swiftly upon their capture. But, by one of these accidents of fate, Marius had just picked up the crown of the fallen king and the dead were looking for a king so, in spirit, this was the ultimate case of mistaken identity. From their point of view, the dead headhunted the right person in the right place at the right time. Except Marius didn’t really want to be a king so he made a deal. He would find the body of the most famous king there had ever been and bring him to his new kingdom. Thus began what was clearly one of the better fantasies of 2012. It managed to balance traditional fantasy tropes against an absurdist sense of humour with resulting mayhem and considerable hilarity. So, not unnaturally, I had a standing order with my bookseller for the sequel, The Marching Dead by Lee Battersby (Angry Robot, 2013).

This picks up some four years after Marius had fulfilled his part of the bargain. One king, freshly unpacked from his box, had been delivered within thirty minutes of the scheduled time. With the deadline met (sic), our hero could then retire to the countryside with the love of his life. Yet, as you would expect, the course of true love never did run smoothly. Not only was Marius bored rigid (good for sex but not much else) but the king he’d found proved to be damaged goods and the Underworld decided the delivery failed to meet the specifications. The dead therefore came back for Marius and, to encourage him to adopt an appropriate work ethic, they carried off his true love — yes the dead really do believe in blackmail as the most efficient means for getting things done. To keep our hero company, they returned his sidekick and the latter’s dead Granny as companions on a quest to depose the king not fit for purpose and find a less shop-soiled replacement. On paper, this resumption of the quest should involve much further hilarity. Except, it’s a little disappointing. This is always the risk when I pick up a book with hope levels high. As a reviewer, it’s all part of the day’s work and a relief when I find something better than average. The problem here is repetition.

Lee Battersby

Lee Battersby

The first book has our hero wandering far and wide. Indeed, in terms of settings, he’s collected the complete set of T-shirts for having been there and suffered being the butt of all the relevant jokes based on geography and local environments. So having him walk the same ground without there being new jokes to tell is not going to be a success. Worse, we’ve also done all the main hero and his sidekick jokes. Introducing Granny as a second-string sidekick is less exciting. Hence the author is forced to fall back on the plot as the primary driver. This is at best interesting even though it nicely exploits the philosophical problem inherent in the role of religion. This world has seen a succession of different gods over the centuries. Much like our own world which has seen the development of various mono- and polytheist religions, this world has had difficulty in holding to one set of beliefs. In a sense, this is just a business opportunity for temples and other places for religious observance. As beliefs shift, the people running each place match the sale of relics, indulgences and other money-spinners to each new set of gods. So long as there’s no concrete evidence as to which religion is superior, wealth can flow consistently into the hands of those who run the worship businesses.

It’s therefore somewhat embarrassing when the dead won’t stay lying down and insist on an explanation if not their money back. Imagine a magnificently hypocritical rich man who has spent a small fortune on indulgences guaranteed to open Heaven’s gates. When he wakes up underground and learns there don’t seem to be any gates, pearly or otherwise, to gain entry to the promised afterlife benefits, he comes back to the church/temple in not the best of moods. Confronted by this evidence, what’s the church or temple to say? There are also some deliberate parallels between the status of the dead and slaves, and the inevitable temptation of the humans to recruit more dead slaves by terminating life. So there’s plenty to chew over as we meander through this world trying to devise a strategy for toppling the king of the dead and putting everything back the way it was. Except, of course, the genie is out of the bottle. The human world has seen proof positive that there was no paradise waiting for family and friends who went before them. Religions are therefore going to fall on hard times. More humanist beliefs are needed unless this current mess can somehow be sold as a temporary aberration with normal service resumed once the old king of the dead is removed.

Putting all this together, we have The Marching Dead as good but nowhere near as good as The Corpse-Rat King. If Lee Battersby has any sense, there will not be a third book in this series.

For a review of the first in the series, see The Corpse-Rat King.

Unclean Spirits by Chuck Wendig

June 14, 2013 1 comment

unclean-spirits-chuck-wendig

As an old and physically decrepit man whose mind frequently wanders as it flirts with the idea of dementia, I find it deeply disturbing to read books like Unclean Spirits by Chuck Wendig (Abaddon Books). Now for those of you not yet clued into this publishing house, it specialises in creating series of books as shared universes for their stable of authors to write in. This is a new universe called Gods & Monsters. When I set off, I adopted my usual casual approach which is to pick the next book off the top of the pile and start reading. I never bother looking at any of the PR material sent with the books and don’t start browsing around the internet until after I’ve finished. I prefer to approach each new book with an open mind — I have enough trouble with thoughts of my own without worrying about what other people think. So picture the scene, if you can. I put on my reading glasses, plumped up the cushion in the small of my back and began to turn the pages. Those of you who know me might have noticed the creasing in my forehead growing more pronounced as the years weighed me down.

I’m now going to follow in a style of writing adjacent to that adopted by Chuck Wendig so please forgive the occasional expletive undeleted. This is the story of Cason Cole, his wife Alison and son Barney but, as the pages turn, I’ve no fucking idea what the story is about. This bitch of a wife tries to kill her husband the moment she sets eyes on him (perhaps a not unrealistic scenario). He thinks she cursed (a not unnatural reaction). There’s no knowing what she’s thinking (sexist thoughts deleted). So, fuck it, he runs away and Tundu, his new cab-driving acquaintance, carries him away to temporary safety. And I’m completely lost as we come to the quarter-way-through mark. It’s only when we get to about one-third of the way through that vague understanding begins to dawn. It shouldn’t be like this. I don’t care what the genre. You shouldn’t have to wait until you’re more than one-hundred pages into a novel to begin finding out what a book is about. When I could not understand, I was genuinely worried my mind had quit on me and the dementia had arrived.

Chuck Wendig pleased to see you

Chuck Wendig pleased to see you

I suppose I have to classify this as urban fantasy but, to put it mildly, it strikes off the scale on the weirdometer as the usual expectations are submerged in a pile of surrealist bullshit (or if it’s not from a bull, pick your own damn animal of choice). The best way to think about this situation is that, about fifty years before this story starts, all the supernatural powers-that-be got kicked out of their quiet backwater niches. Some might be considered heavens or hells, others might be Mount Olympus or the forests where Bigfoot roamed. You see all the shades and varieties of gods (whole blood, half-blood and risen from the ranks of the human), all the monsters, creatures, spirits, demons, and then the heroes and other wannabes, have been displaced to the mundane Earth we all know and love so well. In the good old days when gods could come and go as they pleased, mixing with the humans was a holiday adventure type of experience. Now they’re stuck here with diminished powers, they’re somewhat disgruntled and tend to take it out on the humans to hand. Like Eros (aka Cupid), the god of love, is one of the primordials, i.e. arrived on the scene before the humans. His power is to collect a small group of worshippers in a nice quiet place and then fuck them until he tires of them, i.e. like most of the others, he’s not a pleasant god to be around. In fact, when you come right down to it, there’s very little to chose between the gods and the monsters when it comes to pleasantness.

In the midst of all this chaos, our hero Cason is constantly propelled forward, never entirely sure where he’s going, but always convinced he’s going to get there. In a way, it’s a bit like the Wizard of Oz on steroids because whoever it is behind the curtains pulling the strings, we know our hero will finally end up in whatever passes for Kansas and pull the curtain aside. When you get to the end, you can see the plot does all hang together rather well. It’s just such an effort to get through all the confusion of the first part of the book to finally arrive at the sprint to the big reveal and the resolution of all this family’s troubles. I guess I’m slightly equivocal about the book. Conceptually it’s got tremendous scope for exploring the nature of the supernatural powers the different gods and types of being exercise which is what you want for a shared universe concept. But there are two things wrong with this result. The first is the answers end up remarkably conservative. When I finally worked out what was going on, my interest was maintained by the hope the resolution would be pretty radical. . . Sadly, it reflects the religious forms we Westerners are most familiar with. It’s a major opportunity not taken. The second problem is that the focus of the book completely ignores how this version of Earth has been affected by the sudden arrival of all these “divine” and monstrous beings. It’s inconceivable that the history of the world has remained the same. These beings have been interfering with the ordinary flow of human life and there would have been consequences. Perhaps the intention is to explore this alternate Earth in the next books.

So there you have it. I still quite like Chuck Wendig’s writing style and the concept has great potential. I just feel punches have been pulled which is a shame because, in previous books, the one thing the author has not done is to pull his punches. Assuming you’re not offended by books dealing with different religions, Unclean Spirits is interesting.

For reviews of other books by Chuck Wendig, see:
Blackbirds
The Cormorant
Mockingbird.

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

Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks

November 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks (Orbit, 2012) is the ninth Culture novel. For the record, although there’s an internal chronology, it’s actually largely irrelevant to the enjoyment of individual books. You can more or less read them in any order and still understand what’s going on (and enjoy them, of course).

 

Most of the species in the Culture are humanoid but, even when they are insects, there’s a fairly pervasive laid-back quality about them all. Yes, some are militaristic and competitive, particularly when they are still relatively young, but in this galaxy where no-one ever experiences poverty or is denied the opportunity to work (if that’s desired), the active pursuit of individual satisfaction is the main dynamic. This means, for most practical purposes, the business of running the galaxy has been handed over to the Minds, the AIs who look after the shop while the native species play at being adults. They are a combination of quartermasters and police officers with powers comparable to the gods of Ancient Greece or Rome. As with those gods, the machines are capable of great deeds but equally capable of amazing disasters. They epitomise the old paradox that an AI may have access to a vast amount of knowledge but that does not, of itself, make the machines wise. They are just better informed when they fuck up.

 

This leads to a more general question. If a society claims to be liberal, how far will it go to defend the liberties of its citizens? The answer, of course, is that the AIs have a kind of militant agenda but they long ago decided they should apply a set of moral principles as a limit on their interventions. In a modern context, they are somewhat similar to the United Nations which is only allowed to act when there’s a consensus. But like the individual species, the Minds game the various political and practical systems, and often decide to intervene in real-world affairs simply because they are bored by just floating around not being involved. After all, sitting with all this fire-power at their virtual fingertips and never having the chance to pull the trigger is deeply frustrating. Even if only to satisfy themselves the guns are still working, they have to fire them every now and then.

 

In almost every society at some point during its development, religion becomes important. It reflects a need in those societies. Usually, it’s a way of fostering a greater sense of security. Fear can be reduced and happiness encouraged if the people form and maintain illusions about the benefits to come in the next life. As Karl Marx says, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature. . . It is the opium of the people.” i.e. it’s a form of escapist fantasy that can relieve people who are in distress and/or take away their pain. Except, of course, if you take opium as a medication, it does not cure the injury causing the pain, and religion does not actually remove poverty in societies that often care little what happens to the economically disadvantaged. Indeed, societies that are heartless exploit religion as a distraction. Without it, there might be revolutions with the powerful deposed.

 

The Sublime is a different dimension to which individuals or, if desired, entire civilisations, can relocate. They end up in a state which we cannot understand, more or less out of contact with those who remain in current reality. One of the Minds who has been there and come back says very little about the experience, but describes being back in reality as an extreme form of asceticism. The Gzilt civilisation has a Book of Truth that, uniquely in the history of the galaxy’s religions, has been found an accurate prediction of events through time. As this civilisation prepares to enter the Sublime, a ship bearing information about the Book is destroyed. This suggests the possibility of a conspiracy and the AIs interest themselves in an investigation. In a parallel move on Gzilt, Vyr Cossont is called out of her retirement from military service where she’s trying to master the titular Hydrogen Sonata, and tasked to go off in search of an ancient survivor who may be able to shed light on how the Book of Truth came into existence.

Iain M Banks looking out at the world

 

Thematically, the book is about how we decide what represents personal fulfillment. The Hydrogen Sonata is a metaphor for the Sublime. Vyr is trying so hard to play an essentially unplayable piece of music, she’s even had an extra pair of arms added to give herself the best chance of being able to play it, note perfect. We can see this is only personal fulfillment because everyone with ears agrees the work has no intrinsic musical merit. Why then does she pursue this? A part of her motivation comes from having heard an Avatar of one of the AIs play it without error. At first this was demotivating. As merely a competent musician, she felt she could never hope to recapture the level of perfection achieved by a machine. But as she winds down her life in the real and prepares for the transition into the Sublime, the struggle to replicate that perfection gives her remaining days shape and meaning. She has heard perfection. Now she wants to get there through her unaided effort. This is an ironic endeavour because it’s essentially futile. There’s no-one around who will appreciate or understand the extent of the physical challenge to play the instrument, let alone enjoy the resulting performance.

 

If we now scale up to the Gzilt decision to enter the Sublime, the people could be seeing this as the next logical step in their progression to perfection. The Book of Truth has been guiding them but it has run out of predictions (or prophesies if you prefer). This silence in their holy book has been one of the factors moving the debate forward. If the Book says there’s nothing left for them to achieve in the real, it must be time to transition. But let’s hypothesise that the Book of Truth is a fake, perhaps sent by another race as a joke or some kind of social experiment. Would revelations of manipulation by another race affect the decision to transition? With only a few days left and the majority of the population already in storage to ensure everyone makes the transition at the same time, would the need to suppress this debate be a motive for murder? If so, it would be the final gesture of a heartless society that knowingly plans to move its people to a different dimension even though there’s no guarantee such a move will be an improvement on their “living” conditions. When they do relocate, the scavenger races will come to homestead on the now vacant planets and take such of the technology as they can understand. There’s no sense in letting all this good stuff go to waste. And then the final question: suppose the AIs find out the truth and the Book is a fake, do they tell the people? How far should the Minds go in interfering in the lives of a people that have decided to move on into the Sublime?

 

Hydrogen Sonata is not one of the best Culture novels but, ranking it against other science fiction books published this year, it’s still very good. In the main, this is due to the quality of the ideas which are outstanding. The problem comes in the more general lack of pace. Those of you who are Culture addicts will find a lot of new information to collate and enfold. But the ordinary reader is likely to find much of the information supplied is irrelevant to understanding the plot. It’s Culture background and not essential to advancing the story.

 

For other Culture novels, see:
Matter
Surface Detail.

 

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2013 Locus Award.

 

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 Killing Moon by N K Jemisin

 

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. Let’s start by considering a man who puts his life completely in service to others. He lives in the community and does everything in his power to improve the lot of the individuals he meets. Obviously such altruism is difficult to maintain without belief in a divine mission. Indeed, this person becomes an inspiration to those who believe God works though him to bring comfort to society. For him, the giving is not conditional on belief. Everyone is entitled to God’s love, even atheists who deny his God’s existence.

 

Unfortunately this man is unworldly. He may deliver practical care, but he’s probably unaware of the political situation among those he does not meet. Were he to get an overview, he might find his good works are completely misrepresented by those with a different agenda. So, for example, it may suit the rich that the poor are marginalised and exploited. If some do-gooder relieves their suffering and encourages others to follow his example, the poor may rise up against those that exploit them. So our saint must be diverted on to a different path. Corruption can easily interfere with the actions of the innocent and, because they are innocent, they will never understand how their good works are being subverted until they are forced to confront the evil that has befallen them. Once the veil is lifted from their eyes, however, they must have the chance to defeat the evil even though some may call this revenge.

N K Jemisin waiting for the trained bird to land on her ear ring

 

The Killing Moon by N K Jemisin Book One of the Dreamblood (Orbit, 2012) asks us to consider a culture that uses the psychic energy drawn from dreams to heal those who are injured or sick. The same energy can also grant a calm and peaceful death to anyone who asks for it. Is it compassionate to enable death with dignity? Or is this a culture that believes in murdering people? For the record, voluntarily ending a person’s life is a homicide even though it may relieve suffering. As a dramatic example, suppose a hunter comes across a driver trapped in a burning car. The door cannot be opened. The driver will burn to death in a few minutes. It will be a painful death. As the law stands, shooting the driver is murder. Hence, the decision of states like Holland, Switzerland and Oregon to permit physician-assisted dying creates a formal exception to the general law of homicide. So, in this fantasy world, Gujaareh worships Hananja, and her Gatherers and Sharers work for the benefit of the country. Across the border, the Kisuati long ago rejected narcomancy and the government currently prohibits any use of this form of magic on its lands. This is but one of several tensions that threaten the peace between the two countries. Leaders plot and plan. Spies ply their trade. In this delicate political situation, the most experienced Gatherer takes a new apprentice. This would usually be a smooth process but, from the outset, there are problems. Fortunately, the young Nijiri is fiercely loyal to Ehiru. Indeed, it may be more than loyalty.

 

What of love? A son may love his father before he understands the meaning of the word, a servant may move past obedience, through respect, to love his master. Except, of course, when these boys grow up and experience the world, they have the chance to choose how the relationship will develop. What was love can turn to hate. Or it can change from an unthinking, instinctive love into something broader and deeper as two adults acknowledge each other as equals. Then we take this new love and treasure it for as long as we have it, for uncomplicated love always ends, sooner or later. It’s the same between Nijiri and Ehiru as it was between the apprentice Ehiru and his master Una-une — a relationship that saved Ehiru from the danger posed by his brother, Prince Eninket.

 

In pre-industrial societies, the route to rulership is often bloody. The heirs must fight each other for the right to take the throne. The strongest candidate may even help his father to step down. In such cultures, the ruler will project a reputation to inspire fear in all the followers. This is a man who was not afraid to kill his brothers. He will therefore have no hesitation in killing anyone else who displeases him. Yet there are some who, having come into positions of leadership, decide the overt use of fear and death no longer achieves the most desirable results. It may suit them to project a more caring and loving image. The more gullible in society may believe such a transformation of character is possible.

 

The Killing Moon creates a completely fascinating world with a beautifully realised system of magic. It avoids all the simple-minded tropes and dives into a complicated religious and political situation where the innocent Gatherers suddenly discover their organisation has been corrupted. Not unnaturally, they are outraged and set out to purge the corruption. Except the obstacles prove difficult to overcome. This forces Ehiru and Nijiri on the run, and inadvertently into the business of trying to stop a full-scale war from becoming more likely. This book says interesting things about the uses and abuses of power, the nature of leadership and, at an individual level, how relationships form and potentially grow stronger. As the first in a duology, this is a major step forward for N K Jemisin. Although the Inheritance Trilogy was good, this is far better, leaving me waiting impatiently for the second book to complete the story, titled The Shadowed Sun.

 

For reviews of other books by N K Jemisin, see
The Broken Kingdoms
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
The Kingdom of Gods
The Shadowed Sun

 

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Nebula Award and the 2013 Locus Award.

 

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