Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 in Review

Another year has passed. I have run my last review of the year on Saturday so I guess it is time to look back. 2013 has not been a particularly good year on the blog. I have been seriously distracted by a number of things in my personal life. I must say it was worth it though. I've climbed out of the low that was 2011 and although there is lots more I still need to take care of, I do have the feeling I've pulled my life together again. If that goes at the expense of a book blog I guess that is a small price to pay. I hope to be able to put a bit more time into the blog next year but I can't make any promises on that account. There might be another move for one thing, those are always huge time sinks.

I only reviewed three works in the first three months of this year. All things considered it is a small miracle that I have managed to get up to 50 reviews for the whole year. It is still 10 down from last year but all things considered it is not a bad score. I hope to do better next year and get it up to sixty again. I reviewed 40 novels, 4 collections/anthologies, 5 short stories or novellas and 1 work of non-fiction this year. On top of that I read 2 novels, 1 novella and 1 work of non-fiction I didn't end up reviewing, which brings the total to 54. According to Goodreads they contained a total of 20,514 pages. Considerably more than last year, when it was less than 17,000.

Of the 50 reviewed books, 23 where written by men, 26 by women and one contained work of both men and women. This is the first year that I've read more works by women than men. The Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge clearly had something to do with that. It exposed me to a number of books I probably wouldn't have read otherwise. It will be interesting to see if I can keep it balanced without the reading challenge to push me. Note that I might still not have made the 50% by Lady Business' count. I put a work into one category so each work only counts once, they count individual authors. So A Memory of Light by Brandon Sanderson and Robert Jordan is one man for me but two men for them. Hunter's Run even has three male authors. The count for the single anthology I've read this year, We See A Different Frontier, may shift the balance a lot. Given the almost continuous debate on sexism in publishing this year I do hope they repeat there experiment. It would be interesting to see if there is any movement at all.

Best of 2013
Given the small number of books I have to choose from I'm going to limit myself to 5 again this year. The five best books I've read this year in no particular order:
  1. Immersion by Aliette de Bodard. Simply one of the best short stories I've ever read. It did well in this year's awards season and deservedly so.
  2. Hild by Nicola Griffith. I was very impressed with this historical novel. Griffith manages to create a fascinating tale on the scraps of history that have survived the ages.
  3. Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson. It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of Robinson. I guess some people might prefer his science fiction but this prehistoric novel is very good reading too in my opinion. 
  4. We See A Different Frontier edited by Fabio Fernandes and Djibril al-Ayad. I'm probably biased here, I helped fund this project. I'm nevertheless impressed with the selection of stories Fernandes and al-Ayad managed to get their hands on. It's an anthology the genre needed and I would not mind if it got a bit more attention that it has received up to this point. Or see a second volume put together for that matter.
  5. Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. The list is rather heavy on recent works but I did read a few classics this year. Vonnegut is simply a must read. I don't think anybody approaches science fiction with the kind of grim humour that can be found in this novel.
Despite only having reviewed 50 books, it was hard to limit myself to 5 works. Books like The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord, Shattered Pillars by Elizabeth Bear and River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay are also very much worth reading. They missed the list by a fraction.

Traffic is down by 45 percent this year. I lost a lot of readers in the first three months of 2013. Not surprising given the level of activity back then. What also hurt the numbers is stat I apparently haven't produces a bit hit. Last year the reviews of The Hunger Games and Catching Fire drew an awful lot of traffic. This year nothing really jumped out like that. Maybe I should have reviewed Ender's Game after all.  The top ten most visited reviews of last year were:
  1. The Valley of the Horses by Jean M. Auel
  2. The Ice Dragon by George R.R. Martin
  3. The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel
  4. The Willful Princess and the Piebald Prince - Robin Hobb
  5. Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd
  6. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  7. The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson
  8. Immersion by Aliette de Bodard
  9. A Feast of Crows by George R.R. Martin
  10. Blood and Bone by Ian C. Esslemont
I can't really make much of this list. Four titles were in it last year as well. Both Auels, the Martin and the Collins. I guess the debate over whether The Ice Dragon is part of A Song of Ice and Fire still rages. Personally I'm still of the opinion Martin didn't write it with that intend but that if the reader insists it can be passed of as one of old Nan's tales. The Lucky Strike is back on the list. I still suspect it is being used in some kind of literature class because I get a lot of search queries trying to find the answer on very specific questions about this work. Fortunately the review is suitably vague. I'm afraid they will have to read it for themselves. There are four 2013 reviews on the list, none of them very high. The first title in the list got approximately double the number of views as number ten. Things are much closer together than last year. Roadside Picnic had been on the list for the last three years. It has now dropped the the eleventh spot. I guess the new translation that has been released means there are more reviews recent reviews out there.

Nothing to specific at the moment. I'm considering signing up for next year's reading challenge over at WWend but since they haven't released any details of what it might be I haven't decided on that yet. I trust them to come up with something good though. I want to continue working my way through the works of Frank Herbert and Kim Stanley Robinson but I haven't decide on specific titles yet. I also plan on rereading A Dance with Dragons before Martin overtakes me and delivers the sixth volume. I'm also looking forward to reading the final book in Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century and the final book in Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky. I understand Robin Hobb will have a new Fitz book out next year. That one is also high on the list of books to read. Then there are some loose ends from the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge I want to follow up on. In particular Lord's Redemption in Indigo and the short fiction of Carol Emschwiller.
I indicated that there might be a few movie reviews in the near future on Random Comments. That project has stalled and I don't know yet if and when those will start to appear. We'll have to wait and see I guess.

So that is it for this year. I hope to see you all back on Random Comments in 2014, which will traditionally open with a review of one of Alastair Reynold's works. This year it will be Terminal World. Thank you for visiting my blog. I wish you all a healthy and prosperous 2014.


Saturday, December 28, 2013

Kabu Kabu - Nnedi Okorafor

In August I read Nnedi Okorafor's novel Who Fears Death (2010). It was my first experience with her writing in the long form and I found it to be one of the most thought-provoking novels I've read all year. When I saw Kabu Kabu, a short story collection published by Prime Books, pop up on NetGalley I jumped at the chance. Kabu Kabu is a very diverse set of stories. I guess you could call most of them fantasy or magical realism, sometimes with a bit of science fiction mixed in. It's one of those collections that take a bit of time to read. I think it took me three weeks to read all twenty-one stories. It is one of those collections that work best in small portions.

The stories themselves are pretty diverse but a number of themes crop up in a lot of them. Okorafor is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants to the US, more specifically of the Igbo people. The borders of Nigeria are a remnant of colonial times and the nation is home to a ethnically diverse population with the three largest groups, Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo making up almost seventy percent of the population. The Igbo people make up the majority of the population in south-east Nigeria, a place Okorafor has been visiting regularly since her early childhood. Her experiences of visiting Nigeria have worked their way into such stories as Kabu Kabu, a collaboration with Alan Dean Forester and The Carpet. The prejudices of both sides are discussed in this story, sometimes in a humorous way, although at time exasperation also shines through.

The parts of Nigeria where the Igbo people are the majority of the population is also the oil rich part of the country. In several stories oil production plays a large part. She describes the environmental degradation caused by oil spills and the irony of the fuel shortages that plague the local population, as well as the other disastrous effects of attempts to steal fuel. In Spider the Artist, the only story I've read before, it was part of John Joseph Adam's anthology Seeds of Change (2008), she creates monstrous robots released by oil companies to protect their pipelines. It's a very dramatic story that despite the inevitable death and destruction contains a kernel of hope. The Popular Mechanic is another that blends a science fiction element with the reality of the situation in the Niger delta. This time Okorafor aims for more than just the oil companies.

Nigerian folklore shows up in a number of stories as well. The stories How Inyang Got Her Wings, The Winds of Harmattan, Windseekers and Biafra all feature the Windseeker Arro-yo, a character from an unpublished novel, is the main character. Windseekers have a number of supernatural abilities and Arro-yo is regarded with suspicion in most of the stories. Okorafor uses How Inyang Got Her Wings in particular to show the horrible treatment a woman who stands out can expect to receive. The treatment of women who dare to step outside what is deemed proper in a patriarchal society is a theme included in many of the stories. Pretty much all of Okorafor's female characters are unashamed of their ambitions or sexuality. In the Windseeker stories, featuring characters that are very obviously different, this theme is particularly pronounced. I understand Okorafor has written a young adult novel featuring a Windseeker as well. I haven't read that but based on these stories I might pick it up one of these days.

The most harrowing of the Windseeker stories must be Biafra. As the title suggests, the main character finds herself in the midst of that horrible post-colonial conflict called the Biafra War or the Nigerian Civil War. The story shows the tragedy of the conflict that to an extent still looms over Nigeria. Arro-yo is not one to takes sides, apart form separating those that are doing the hurting from those being hurt. It's a very powerful story.

Two stories are connected to other novels Okorafor wrote. In The Black Stain we return to the post apocalyptic world of Who Fears Death and digs into the history of the Ewu, children of mixed origin, the product of weaponized rape. As the subject suggests it is another tragedy. This time we see the story unfold from a male point of view. It's interesting to see how the main character swings from complete acceptance of the dehumanized status of the (fictional) Okeke people, to love for an Okeke woman so profound he challenges society and stands up for her. The consequences are nothing short of brutal.

The story Tumaki is lifted form Stormbringer, the sequel to The Shadow Speaker (2009). I haven't been able to find much information on it but to the best of my knowledge Stormbringer has not been published yet. Tumaki essentially a love story and one that once again shows the terrible consequences of a woman overstepping the boundaries society sets her. In some places, even reading is a crime. Personally I got the feeling I was missing a lot of the background of the story here. There is obviously a whole future history attached to the story and main character, a boy by the name of Dikéogu, has powers that are barely mentioned in the story. The strength of this piece is that we get to understand his fascination with Tumaki and even why it blinds him to the danger surrounding them. Given the rest of the collection the outcome of the story can't be too surprising to the reader though.

There are quite a few stories in this collection that end badly but Okorafor closes on a slightly lighter note. In The Palm Tree Bandit we see another woman doing something that is forbidden to her, but in stead of being harshly corrected, we she manages to overturn a custom. The foolishness of the men trying to figure out the identity of the bandit will make more than one reader grin. The occasional flashes of hunour in this story and a number of other ones (the opening story The Magical Negro is another one of those) are a nice counterbalance to the darker side of Okorafor's work.

The story contains a lot of different approaches to story telling. They span over a decade in the writing career of Okorafor. Her writing has obviously changed over time and since the stories, as far as I can tell, are not ordered chronologically, the collection might come across as a bit of a jumble. In fact, I'd be curious to know the reasoning behind the order they've been placed in. Personally the diversity of the stories and cross genre nature of the collection are things I enjoyed about Kabu Kabu but Okorafor does make the reader work hard to find the common ground and see the thematic links.  Kabu Kabu is a collection that requires a bit of patience and reflection to properly appreciate. If you are looking challenging reading material, stuff that crosses into territory not often visited in fantasy or science fiction, this collection might be just the thing.

Book Details
Title: Kabu Kabu
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: Prime Books
Pages: 241
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-1-60701-405-8
First published: 2013

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Book of Iron - Elizabeth Bear

One of the most exciting Fantasy trilogies published in the last few years is Elizabeth Bear's Eternal Sky trilogy. In fact, I am so impressed with Bear's attempt to show what epic fantasy could achieve if it lets go of the Tolkienesque heritage that still weighs heavy on the genre, that I am willing to make this statement before the third book appears. Steles of the Sky is scheduled for April and it is one of those must read books for 2014 for me.

To accompany the trilogy, Bear has written two novellas, both published by Subterranean. The first one, Bone and Jewel Creatures, was published in 2010. I missed it at the time and as usual with Subterranean novellas, it is almost impossible to get your hands on a new copy without paying an arm and a leg. I would settle for a digital copy only there appear to be geographical restrictions in that edition. In short, I haven't read it. Fortunately it isn't necessary to have read either the first novella, which I understand is set some 80 years later that Book of Iron, or the trilogy to enjoy it.

The story is set some four centuries after the events described in the trilogy. Technology has advanced to the level of the early twentieth century, with all sorts of modern technology making an appearance. Magic is not gone from the world though, and the sky still changes when one enters a realm where other gods are worshipped. The main character Bijou, works for the second prince of  Messaline. She is an artificer, animating dead bones and creating creature studded with jewels out of them. One day a delegation from a nation further north appears seeking the aid of the prince. It is the start of an adventure that will take Bijou and a select group of adventurers to the cursed city of Erem to keep a dangerous wizard from making a terrible mistake.

In a mere 124 pages Bear doesn't have the space to get into the details of this world but I do think she manages to work in enough to make it a fascinating glimpse into what the world introduced to me in Range of Ghosts grew into. The mix of modern technology and wizardry works surprisingly well. Bear creates the sense of a rapidly changing world where technology is pushing its boundaries ever further outward but where magic shows no signs of being replaced.

The story itself is mostly set in the otherworldly Erem. It's a location that is visited in the trilogy as well and it is a hellish place. Several of its suns kill people in minutes and the  creatures that have managed to make it their home are not the ones you'd want to meet face to face. The party has great trouble fending them off or forcing them to do their bidding. Something that is further complicated by the fact they know almost nothing about each other's abilities.

Book of Iron could easily have turned into a fairly straightforward adventure but Bear works in a lot of hints about the relationships between the characters that add a deeper layer to the text. There is mistrust in the story but also friendship, a sense of loneliness and regret but also hope and attraction. All of this is shrouded in just enough mystery to keep the reader trying to read between the lines. It's very cleverly written really. I'm fairly certain she is not done with Bijou yet, or at least she is leaving herself more than enough room to add to the story of this character. I guess I'm going to have to see about getting my hands on Bone and Jewel Creatures one of these days.

Book Details
Title: Book of Iron
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Pages: 124
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59606-474-4
First published: 2013

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Wrapping up the Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge

Despite a late start and the requirement that all books for the challenge should be reviewed (for last year's Grand Master Reading Challenge it was only half that had to be reviewed) I finished with a few weeks to spare. It was more challenging to find reading material for this challenge. One of the rules was that it had to be a book by a female author I had not read anything else of before. Another  That rules out a number of my favourites and quite a few books by female authors I mean to review one of these days. It also meant I couldn't go nosing around in my bookcase for reading material. In the end I read two books that I already owned, borrowed one from my girlfriend, accepted one for review and bought seven specifically for this challenge. The remaining one is Gemsigns, my random read. I won that book in a giveaway over at Worlds Without Ends.

Here is the complete list:
  1. Grass- Sherri S. Tepper
  2. Sheepfarmer's Daughter - Elizabeth Moon
  3. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang - Kate Wilhelm
  4. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
  5. The Secret City - Carol Emshwiller
  6. Gemsigns - Stepanie Saulter
  7. Jaran - Kate Elliot
  8. Who Fear's Death -Nnedi Okorafor
  9. Palimpsest - Catherynne M. Valente
  10. Arslan - M.J. Engh
  11. The Best of All Possible Worlds - Karen Lord
  12. Debris - Jo Anderton
Eight of these reviews have also been posted on the World Without Ends blog where they did surprisingly well in the monthly polls. You should check out the rest of the reviews that the owners of the site have selected. There are quite a few very talented reviewers hanging around on that site, reviewing a wide range of books by female authors.

I tried to make my own selection it a mix of classic and more recent work, although I must admit I didn't go back very far. Engh's Alrslan and Wilhelm's Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang are both 1976 publications. Those are the oldest. The morst recent is probably either Lord's The Best of all Possible Worlds or Saulter's Gemsigns, both of which are released this year.

When you pick books from authors you haven't read before it chance of picking something that doesn't turn out to be to your taste is always a bit greater. This set of books is a bit of a mixed bag. I didn't like Moon's Sheepfarmer's Daughter at all for instance. Okorafor's Who Fear's Death was probably the most interesting book in terms in a literary sense. I had issues with it, but I it also had quite an impact. It's one of those books one has to admire for dealing with a number of very difficult themes unflinchingly. In terms of sheer enjoyment I probably liked Emshwiller's The Secret City and Lord's The Best of All Possible Worlds best.

There is going to be a new challenge for next year but Worlds Without End hasn't announced what it is going to be yet. I trust them to come up with something interesting so I'll likely be participating. In fact, I'm looking forward to it.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Hild - Nicola Griffith

It's been a while since I read any historical fiction so when I read about Hild by Nicola Griffith it jumped to the top of my reading list right away. I haven't read anything by Griffith before but I understand she has written in several genres and often includes feminists themes and gender issues in her work. Hild certainly contains both. What drew me to the novel was mostly the period it is set in though. Seventh century England doesn't show up that often in fiction. Griffith took on quite a challenge when she started on this book. Griffith points out in the acknowledgements that the life of the main character in particular is very poorly documented. She has had to make up large sections of her life. A lot could probably be said about the historical accuracy of the novel but the way Griffith went about bringing this character to life makes for fascinating reading. It's been quite a while since I read a book I enjoyed this much.

Hild is a fictional account of the lift of Hilda of Whitby, a seventh century saint who, according to the Venerable Bede, besides being a holy woman, exerted great influence on the complex politics of the British isles at the time. Griffith doesn't mention in the acknowledgements how many volumes she expect to need but it is quite obvious from the book that there is more to come. Hild takes us from her childhood to approximately 630, when she would have been about sixteen. She is present at the court of Edwin of Northumbria, one of the most powerful kings on the island at the time. Hild witnesses the conversion of the court to Christianity, plays a pivotal role in some of Edwin's important decisions and lays the foundation for what is to become a convent.

Hild lived though a time of change on the British isles. The period is known to historians as the Heptarchy, the rule of seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in south, east and central England, which would eventually be united into the kingdom of England in the 10th century. This name doesn't do justice to the complex situation on the island at their time. Their may have been seven main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, but in practice there were a lot more political entities. Kings, earldomans and overkings ceaselessly made war on each other and vied for control over what would now be considered small pieces of land. Mix in the presence of numerous Celtic people and you have a political, linguistic and military patchwork far more complex than seven kingdoms. The history of all these entities is poorly documented but it provided Griffith with enough material to write a story full of intrigue and political and military manoeuvres.

All that is known about the life of Hild is what Bede has to say on her in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. It is one of the few surviving written sources on the periode. Bede was born a few years before the death of Hild in 680, and didn't write her history down until 731. He is unlikely to have met her in person but he could have met people who did know her. That doesn't make Bede particularly trustworthy though. His Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum is as a piece of propaganda as it is a history. He mentions her when it suits his purpose and omits large sections of her life. The image that emerges from the text is that she had been a formidable woman though. Griffith has made a translation of the relevant parts of Bede's work available on her website. It's barely enough to fill five pages. The reader will finds a few names of people who touch upon her life it that the Griffith worked into the novel.

In essence, the novel is a Bildungsroman. Griffith portrays Hild as a special young woman, but also one in a difficult position. As daughter of a deceased prince, she is growing up at the court of King Edwin. Hild is regarded as something of a seer. The author doesn't make it into some kind of supernatural talent, she is just a little better at reading the signs than everybody else. It's quite remarkable when you think about it, this young woman will be revered as a saint after her death but in her youth, religion, even the dominant Anglo-Saxon paganism, doesn't influence her thinking too much. All the omens and other superstitions she wraps her predictions in, are just for show. Het gift earns her respect from some and suspicion from many.Hild steps outside the role society deems proper for her and as a result she is viewed as a witch by many. Hild has trouble dealing with the suspicion and has a hard time finding her place in the world.

Her mother is largely absent in the story. I'm not sure how I would describe their relationship but she is definitely distant. Occasionally she is present to give advice or tell Hild she made a serious mistake but for the most part, she is busy securing her own position in the world. The death of her husband has impressed on her the importance of always having a place to seek shelter in a world where one swing of the sword can change the political landscape of a kingdom radically. Successful as he might be, the current king will not be around forever.

King Edwin may privately agree with the people who look at Hild with suspicion, as a king he doesn't have the luxury of setting aside useful tools. To an extend he allows Hild her eccentricities as long as they serve his purpose. The politics he is involved in are ruthless. A wrong move or lost battle will cost him his kingdom and his life. Very few kings died of old age back then, in fact, they were lucky to reach forty. The moment he loses the respect of his subjects or the fear of his enemies he's done for. Girffith does a good job showing this. The ceaseless moving around his kingdom may in part be to prevent his court from using all the resources of a particular area, it also serves to reinforce his authority. And he'll need all he can get, throughout the novel you can feel the conflict with Penda of Mercia building. Griffith builds the tension between all these factions very well and uses the very limited communication that was possible at the time to full effect. 

Edwin is a true power politician, the new religion the priest Paulinus (of York, a historical figure) is trying to spread in his kingdom is just another tool to him. His court takes it up because he wants them to but nowhere in the novel you get the feeling that it really takes root. Historically there would be a backlash against it after his death. Hild is baptised along with the rest of the court (one of the few things we know for certain about her). She even shows some interest in this new religion but it remains superficial. What she is interested in is the power of the written word. Learning how to write, how to communicate with people in distant places is far more important to her that the message of the Christ. The struggle going on between Celtic Christianity, the pagan beliefs and Rome's missionaries, a matter that is clearly present in the background, doesn't hold her interest for long. It made me wonder what will happen to change that. Presumably Aidan of Lindisfarne will have something to do with it in the next novel.

Her interaction with the king, important of the story as they may be, are only brief. Most of her time is spent among the other women of the court. It may, to our ears, sound like a life of luxury but the face is that in those days, almost everybody was needed to produce enough food and other basic supplies for survival. Even the seer doesn't escape her share of work and she becomes intimately familiar with the misery of those less fortunate than she is. Griffith also pays a lot of attention to giving birth. At court, providing an heir is important but the risks of giving birth are enormous. A pregnancy, especially that of a queen, that isn't progressing well can be a nerve wracking experience for the entire court. Griffith makes sure the reader knows the dangers these women faced. How they deal with it and the manner in which they use what control they have over their bodies and sexuality is an important theme in the novel, gradually growing in importance as Hild start to develop herself.

I could go on a while longer about the complexities of the story and the richness of it's characters, what it comes down to is that Hild is a fascinating piece of literature. I must admit it took me a couple of dozen pages to get into the story but after that, the vivid descriptions of life in seventh century England captivated me. With all the references to historical events and people, as well as a lot of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon names, words and titles it is quite a demanding novel. It is also one of the most rewarding reads I've come across this year. I can't wait for the continuation of Hild's story. When that book is published it will no doubt jump right to the top of my to read list.

Book Details
Title: Hild
Author: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pages: 546
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-374-28087-1
First published: 2013

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Debris - Jo Anderton

For my twelfth and final read for the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge I selected Debris (2011) by Jo Anderton. It is a first part in the Veiled World trilogy. The second part, Suited, has been published last year while the third part Unbound is scheduled for sometime next year. I got a whole bunch of Angry Robot title last year for a bargain price and this was one of them. It has been lingering on the electronic to read stack for quite a while now. I even meant to read it earlier in the year for the reading challenge by every time some other book managed to sneak in first. Fortunately for Anderton I ran out of books by women I haven't read anything of before last month so the last slot is hers. As usual with Angry Robot publications, Debris is a book that is hard to put into a specific genre. Their strategy to look for books that are different has given us a number of very good novels but also some that don't work that well. Debris works for the most part but it is not the most challenging read I've come across this year.

Tanyana is one of Varsnia's most important architects. Her supreme tallen in handing the pions, the force that drives most of Varsnia's society, has placed her at the very pinnacle of her filed, in control of one of the most talented circle of pion manipulators. When working on another magnificent construction, two inspectors show up to monitor the work. Promptly, something goes awfully wrong. Tanyana and her circle are attract by a type of pions she has never encountered before and the whole collapses around her. She is seriously wounded in the accident and when she regains consciousness she is discredited, in debt and has lost her talent to see pions. Tanyana has lost everything that defined her life.

Debris is a very fast paced novel. Anderton tries to hit the ground running and in terms of pacing she certainly have. I have wondered if a more measured approach would have worked better in this case. We don't get to see any of Tanyana's life before the accident. What we do learn of it, makes her come across as spoiled and unaware of how privileged she is. Her accident is horrible and obviously not as accidental as the authorities would have us believe but I couldn't quite suppress that feeling that a bit moe humility would have suited her. Because we really can't connect the way she reacts to the trauma of her accident, her response to it doesn't add as much to her character development as it might have.

What is clear is that she has lost a lot. Her talent for manipulating poins has been replaced for seeing debris, a waste product associated with pion manipulation. To prevent the debris to interfere with the working of all kinds of pion machinery and the prevent structural damage to the city, debris has to be collected and disposed of. Like waste collection in our world, it is not the most respected or well paid job, to put it mildly. It is however, the way in which Tanyana is supposed to repay her debt to society. Before she has a chance to recover form her wounds, she is outfitted with a suit. A piece of technology fully integrated with her body, adding to the trauma and giving yet another set of scars on top of the ones she already has. Most of the novel, Tanyana is busy adjusting to her new life and, in a series of heartbreaking scenes, finding out, how much her status mattered in her social circles.

Tanyana's response to her change in status is at times a bit problematic. She is ready for a fight at some points but also easily convinced it is futile. She is livid at the injustice that is being done to her but also stunned to inaction at times. The way she hangs on to her old apartment, a place she knows she cannot afford anymore, symptomatic in that respect. When the inevitable eviction comes, it still takes her by surprise. The crisis forces her to examine the extent of her newfound talents but a more active approach in adjusting to her new life would have been more interesting. It is not the only situation in which she only reacts to the challenges she faces instead of trying to think ahead.

The way the novel takes off doesn't leave much room for explaining things. Anderton lets the reader find out how her system of poins and debris works along the way. Earlier in the novel I was wondering if there was some parallel with particle physics but the level of anthropomorphizing of the poins seemed to point in another direction. Gradually a link to the belief system of Varsnia appears. Although the lack of information can be a bit frustrating at times, Anderton manages to dose what information the reader needs very well. If the aim was to keep the pace as high as possible she certainly succeeded. What I did think unlikely about the pion/debris system is the sheer ignorance Tanyana displays about the debris side of things. Pion manipulators may not be able to see it, they certainly feel it's impact. To so completely ignore the subject and leave it to the lowly caste of debris collectors strikes me as more than a little arrogant for someone approaching their field in an almost scientific manner.

While Anderton slips in some information about the wider world, most of the novel is dedicated to Tanyana's search for the truth. The whole accident reeks of a setup of course and when the entire system that has raised her to the highest level of society turns on her, she goes in search of other ways to find out what is going on. A whole new world opens up during this investigation and at the end of the novel a motive for the actions taken against Tanyana is starting to appear. There are more than a few questions left for the sequels however.

Debris has more than a few things going for it. If you like your Fantasy with a twist, or are looking for a book that does things just a bit differently this is probably as good a read as you'll be able to find. It's not a novel of huge complexity or unfathomable depth but it will hold your attention from the first page an not let go until the final chapter has been read. I have some issues with the novel, especially the development of the main character, but that doesn't take away from the fact that I found Debris to be a entertaining read. Not a bad way at all to conclude this year's reading challenge.

Book Details
Title: Debris
Author: Jo Anderton
Publisher: Angry Robot
Pages: 464
Year: 2010
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-0-85766-155-5
First published: 2010

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Pump Six and Other Stories - Paolo Bacigalupi

My first exposure to Paolo Bacigalupi's work was the story The People of Sand and Slag, which has been included in John Joseph Adams' excellent anthology Wastelands: Stories of th Apocalypse(2008.) Soon after I had the opportunity to read Bacigalupi's first collection for review. Pump Six and Other Stories was published by Night Shade Books and collects ten stories (eleven if you have the limited edition) from the period 1999 till 2008. The title story is original to the collection, the others have been published in various magazines and anthologies over the years. Having read it, I was nut surprised that Bacigalupi's first novel The Windup Girl (2009) turned out to be such a success. This collection displays Bacigalupi's talent. It  must be said that it is a seriously depressing set of stories though.

Many of the themes that would show up in his later novel. There are two stories with Asian settings for instance, not something many American science fiction writers without an Asian background have attempted. His environmental themes also show up in a number of stories. Climate change, scarcity of fossil fuels, genetic engineering, agricultural practices and water shortages all show up in one or more stories. Two pieces are set in the same future as The Windup Girl and one of them even shares a character with the novel. He has been renamed but is still clearly recognizable. If you want to know what his writing is about, Pump Six and Other Stories is the place to start.

The collection opens with A Pocket Full of Dharma (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 1999), a story set in  a future China. Wang Jun, a young boy, orphaned and homeless, attempts  to survive in the city of Chengdu by stealing and begging. Fortune seems  to smile on him when he sees a foreigner with an expensive pair of  glasses he intends to steal. Following the foreigner he is witness to  his murder. The killers allow him to take the glasses but only if he will carry a datacube for them. When the person he is supposed to  deliver it to, fails to show up he decides to keep the cube and  unwillingly becomes involved in the political struggles over Tibet. I was struck by Wang's will to survive and the lengths he will go to to fill his belly every evening. On the one hand you want to smack him for not seeing the bigger picture, on the other you fully understand his  instinct for self preservation. There is also an undertone in the story that comments on China's drive to grow and develop and the price its leaders are willing to pay for it. Thematically it is pretty dark but I also felt a sense of wonder about the development project described in the story.

The second story is The Fluted Girl (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 2003). Set in a world where in some places at least, governing seems to have reverted back to a feudal  system, with the subjects of of a fief are little more than property. For the rich, virtual immortality is available but at a high price. To gain financial independence Madame Belari has carefully raised two fluted girls. Girls that literally use each other's body as a musical  instrument. One of the two seems happy to go along with this treatment, expecting to one day become a star, but the other, Lidia, is not content. The death or her only friend has hit her hard and when it is time for Belari to reveal her carefully nurtured girls to the general public, she rebels. The only word I can think of that fits what his being done to the girls is "perverse" really. The disregard for the wellbeing or human rights of the girls is shocking. Ones Lidia's eyes are opened, there is no way back for her, she must find a way to free herself, or failing that, take revenge. It is the bleakest story in the collection and the fact that Bacigalupi leaves the reader with an open ending makes it even more depressing.

The People of Sand and Slag (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 2004) is a very different kind of story. Bacigalupi examines what it means to be human using the point of view of far future trans-human beings and, most unexpectedly, a dog. The nearly invulnerable humans inhabit a completely destroyed world. Having advanced to the point where anything can be a source of energy and body parts can be regrown in hours, the dog seems strangely vulnerable to them. And yet, it triggers something in at least one of these people. The casual brutality and the fragility of the poor dog are what gives this story it's punch. When I first read it I was very impressed with it and it holds up well after a reread.

The next story also has an air of far future science fiction, set after we have managed to wreck Earth. It takes us in another, in some ways more positive direction however. The Pasho (Asimov's September 2004) is something of a generational conflict. A young man from a desert tribe goes to the city of their historical enemy to learn the ways of the Pasho. His grandfather, who once led a raid that destroyed the city his grandson went to study, disapproves of what he has become when he returns.

The story is built on the idea that knowledge can be dangerous, especially when a society is not ready to handle it. An acceleration of knowledge is what ultimately lead to the destruction of the world and the Pasho are dedicated to gradually reintroduce it. A frightfully arrogant position when you think about it. On the surface the reader sympathize with the young man but he has good reasons to doubt himself. Not only is his attitude essentially patronizing, he has also brought change that will accelerate the change, or as some would see it loss, of his culture. It is not so straightforward a conflict as it might first appear.

The Calorie Man (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October/November 2005) is a story set in the same world as The Windup Girl. It is not surprising that Bacigalupi decided to produce more work in this future as it is a remarkably complex scenario for such a short work. Climate change, genetic engineering and peak oil play essential roles in the direction this world has taken. Without cheap oil to burn the world has reverted back to the calorie (interesting that he chose to use this outdated measurement for his story) to power the world. Agriculture is the sector that dominates the energy market and it is cornered by a few large companies. With a mixture of patented genetic material, sterile seeds and genetically engineered diseases they keep tight control over the market and essentially the complete economy. Some people are not ready to accept this corporate dominance however. In secret, scientists are working to create seeds that are both resistent to disease and capable of producing fertile crops.

It is a nightmarish scenario (one of many in this collection) but it borrows a lot from developments in agriculture in particular. Part of this story is a reference to the dubious business models of Monsanto for instance. Their combination of herbicide resistent seed stock and enforcement of their patents has frightening implications for agriculture and the environment. Forcing farmers to buy new seed stock every year and abandoning the practice of storing part of the harvest for next year's crops is probably not a particularly smart thing to do when considering food security. In some parts of the world it would even be a complete disaster. There is an environmental side to the story too. Herbicide resistant varieties make overuse of herbicides likely, threating for instance the local water supply, and there is also some concern that his genetic modifications could end up in wild populations. There is a lot going on in the agricultural industry that is reason for concern. The story is getting a bit dated however. A number of important patents held by Monsanto have expired or will expire soon. How this will affect the situation is anyone's guess.

For me, this story was the one that really got me hooked on Bacigalupi's writing. He hits on an awful lot of things that I encountered during my years in college. I do wonder how much someone without my background in environmental science will get out of it however. He presents a complex arguments with a lot of interlocking environmental problems. It's almost a literary equivalent of environmental systems analysis. There is much food for thought in this story, that is for sure. The Calorie Man is definitely the piece that had the greatest impact on me.

In The Tamarisk Hunter (High Country, June 26th 2006), Bacigalupi tackles another environmental theme: the water supply in the arid west of the US. Water rights in this region are notoriously complex in the legal sense of the world (Kim Stanley Robinson hits on this in his utopian novel Pacific Edge) but in environmental terms it is simple. There is not enough to support the entire population. In this future scenario we follow a Tamarisk hunter. A man who clears Tamarisks, an invasive species capable of taking in and evaporating huge quantities of water, for a bounty. Having seen California, with its legal and financial muscle taking away all the available water form his region, our hunter is not satisfied to support them and see the farmsteads around him empty out. To keep himself in business he reseeds the Tamarisks. A practice that is highly illegal and very risky. Sooner or later, he is bound to be caught.

I liked this story a lot, both for the theme and the plot. When I visited the region myself, I was amazed as some of the unsustainable and outright wasteful ways in which water was used in an area that is partly arid or outright desert. The struggle over water Bacigalupi describes seems almost inevitable. There is also a very nice resolution to the plot. In a way it's obvious but like the main character, I didn't see it coming.

In Pop Squad (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, October/November 2006) Bacigalupi takes a different direction, although it could be argued overpopulation is an environmental theme as well. In this future, humanity has found a way to become immortal. The treatment will simply stop the aging process. To prevent a huge population book, an anti conceptive is added to the drug. The price for immortality is not having children. Some people are not willing to pay that price and procreate anyway. The Pop Squad is on the hunt for such rogue mothers. Their method of dealing with them is ruthless but despite the logic behind the ban on having children, one of their agents begins to wonder what drives these people.

There is a sharp contrast between the refined culture the agent is part of when he is off duty and the ugliness and brutality of his job. The way Bacigalupi uses this contrast will probably not be to everyone's liking. While he does work in some humanity into the story, personally I felt he is trying a little too hard to shock the reader. It is a decent story but in this company it doesn't stand out.

The Yellow Card Man (Asimov's, December 2006) is the second story set in the same future as The Windup Girl. In this story we even meet a character who will return in the novel. Bacigalupi has renamed him though. Apparently the name he chose for the character in this story is an unlikely one given his cultural background. The two short stories share a setting but are otherwise unrelated. Where The Calorie Man is set on the Mississippi river, The Yellow Card Man takes us to a future Thailand. The main characters Tranh, an ethnically Chinese man,  is trying to eke out a living there, after the shipping business he owned in Malaya was taken from him in an anti-Chinese pogrom.

The story is not so much concerned with the environmental situation in the world. Like the main character in A Pocket Full of Dharma,  situation of the main character is pretty desperate.He simply doesn't have the luxury of thinking beyond his immediate survival. Being used to a life of luxury and having people around him to do his bidding, he has fallen to the level of a beggar essentially. Hard labour is the only way in which he can make a living. His current life has made him bitter. The discrimination described in the story is absolutely dreadful, but unfortunately not unlike the things many refugees would face. I guess the opportunism, ugly as it might be, at the end of the story was to be expected.

The next story, Softer (Logorrhea, edited by John Klima, 2007), feels like the odd one out. It deals with a man who, in a moment of frustration has murdered his wife. It's a very character driven story without any obvious speculative element. Other than being pretty dark, it doesn't have much to do with the other stories in this collection. It's well written but I got the feeling it didn't quite fit with the rest.

The collection closes with Pump Six, the story that gave the collection its name and the only original it contains. Again, it's a fairly depressing future scenario. A man working on the systems that keep the city's sewage from running along the streets witnesses astounding levels of stupidity around him. The cognitive abilities of humanity seems to have decreased the the level where they can only act to have their most basic needs met. When one of the pumps he is operating breaks down, he tries to find someone who knows how to fix it and finds out the true extent of the problem.

I wonder if this is Bacigalupi commenting on a society that seems to crave  instant gratification as some put it. Society in this story appears to  have completely lost sight of long term planning. Whether or not it is, Pump Six  leaves you with the feeling that the main character is capable of a lot more than  he himself knows and that somehow he will fix things. A hopeful end to  what is a rather pessimistic set of stories.

It is not often you come across a short story collection that manages such consistency. The stories in Pump Six and Other Stories are simply excellent. Most of Bacigalupi's characters seem to feel they are small people,  powerless to change the world around them. He shows the effects of certain  global developments on the level of an individual, taking complex environmental and social problems and presenting in a way that makes the reader feel right in the middle of it. That is quite an achievement, given the fact that at present very few people seem to feel the need to take responsibility for the mess we're making of our planet and take action to try and lessen the impact. By creating so many broken worlds, it is a collection best enjoyed in several servings however. Most of the stories are very dark, showing us terrible visions of the future. I don't think I could swallow this slim volume, my edition weights inn at 239 pages, in less than a week. To make the most of this collection, these stories need to be digested before moving on. This collection is challenging and thought provoking, taking your time to read it will pay off.

Book Details
Title: Pump Six and Other Stories
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Pages: 239
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-59780-133-1
First published: 2008

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Het einde van de Magier - Raymond E. Feist

Otherwise known as Magician's End. When I was in my late teens I went through a spell when I hardly read any books at all. Literature classes at the time seemed to be aimed to force the most boring reading material on you, or otherwise books that are way over the head of your average teenagers, making reading seriously unappealing. I've always wondered how many people never got back to reading again after going through those classes. I returned to reading in 1996 when I entered college, mostly to take my mind off the more technical stuff I had to read as part of my education. Feist's novels had first started appearing in Dutch translation back then and he is in part responsible for my reading habits these days.

Feist was quickly followed by other big names in Fantasy and Science Fiction. I didn't take me that long to figure out he isn't a very good writer in most respects. What he used to be very good at was hold the reader's attention though. Even if his stories are straight, fairly stereotypical D&D material, there is something in there that keeps you reading. In the late 1999s my access to English language books was limited so I ended up with a whole stack of Feist's novels in translation. He is one of the few authors I never read in English. In hindsight, maybe I should have. the translation contains some annoying inconsistencies, especially in the names of characters. Then again, I suspect Feist's prose isn't the kind that looses anything in translation.

Magician's End is the final part in Feist's riftwar cycle, a series of books that started with the publication of Magician in 1982. As of 2013 there are 29 novels in the series, one novella and several shorter pieces. Apart from the novella, Jimmy and the Crawler, in with Feist tries to salvage the last two projected volumes in the Krondor sub series, I've read them all. Personally I think that Feist hasn't really produced anything decent since the third volume of the Sertpentwar Saga: Rage of a Demon King. Most of the work he produced after 1998 has been sloppy, riddled with continuity errors and frequently feels rushed. I seriously considered dropping the series at one point but by then, he had almost reached the end of the cycle. And it must be said, while his most recent books aren't his best, they have been a step up from the real low he hit in the early 2000s.

Magician's End is the final volume in the cycle. Meant to tie up all loose ends in the series. Pug and his companions are are faced with the ultimate threat to their world, while on the mortal plane, Feist rehashes the plot of Magician and presents us with another difficult succession in the Kingdom of the Isles. Feist among other things resolves the prophecy where Pug has to see everyone he cares for die before his work is done and reveals another layer in the cosmology of Midkemia.

Over the course of the series the cosmology of the Midkemian universe has been revised and added to several times. Marcos in particular has revised his truth so often that nothing he says can be take without a grain of salt anymore. In this novel, Feist expands his analogy between quantum mechanics and magic. It is something that has come up a number of times before, Nakor's view on magic is particularly compatible with quantum mechanics, but I don't Feist has gone into it in so much detail before. It is almost like he is agreeing with Arthur C. Clarke on technology and magic. Of course I don't think I know anyone able to manipulate matter at the quantum level with their mind. When you think about it, the Midkemian universe has an interesting structure to it. Unfortunately the way it is presented in the novels is mostly to serve the story. When Feist needs the rules changed or an even more dangerous enemy introduced, he adds another layer.

While the magical side of the story was decent, I really can't say the same for the events in the Kingdom of the Isles. As usual, the sword part of Feist's sword and sorcery is some kind of boyish wishfulfilment. He rarely includes female characters that are more than the love interest of whatever boy happens to be the main character (a notable exception being Mara, the main character in the Empire trilogy co-authored by Janny Wurts, these are some of the best books in the cycle). The victor of the war of succession is never in much doubt and he observant reader will probably have guessed to outcome in the previous book already. The whole plot line and characters involved are predictable and cliché to say the least. There doesn't seem to be much of a connection between the events in the Kingdom and the magical struggle that Pug and his companions are facing either. The outcome of the war is essentially irrelevant to whether or not the universe Midkemia is part of can be saved.

Feist's work displays a lot of problematic elements that were common in the sprawling fantasies of the 1980s and 1990s. These works have a certain appeal but in recent years I have drifted away from it a little. The overused pseudo medieval settings, feudal societies, the messiah-like prophecized one, the stereotypical elves, dwarves and dragons, the traditional roles of men and women, the problematic borrowing of non-western cultural practices to represent foreign kingdoms and empires, Feist is guilty of pretty much all of it. Considering how deep a hole he dug himself over the course of the series, I think he manages reasonably well with this final volume. It is not a masterwork of epic fantasy by a long shot but compared to much of his recent output he ends the cycle on a positive note. I guess I have read the final volumes in the series mostly because of an odd sense of nostalgia but in a way I'm glad I did finish the series. It's not a series I would recommend to anyone new to the genre these days, it is likely to confirm any preconceptions about Fantasy they might have, but Feist did get me reading again and I'm probably not the only one who started to explore the genre through his books. I suspect a lot of other Fantasy authors owe Feist for the very accessible books we wrote in the 1980s. I would not be surprised if he is responsible for dragging many more readers into the genre. The genre has moved far beyond the type of work Feist has produced and as a reader I think I have developed a taste for more challenging work. Feist was the entry point however, and I think I can forgive him a bunch of mediocre books just for that.

Book Details
Title: Het einde van de magier
Author: Raymond E. Feist
Publisher: Luithingh Fantasy
Pages: 544
Year: 2013
Language: Dutch
Translation: Lia Belt
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-90-245-2892-9
First published: 2013

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Hellstrom's Hive - Frank Herbert

Frank Herbert's 1973 novel Hellstrom's Hive is considered to be one of his better ones. It is one of the two works currently included in the Gollancz SF Masterworks series for instance.  The other being the inevitable Dune. My copy is an earlier reissue by Tor to coincide with some of the Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson Dune expansions. It first appeared in serialized form in Galaxy between November 1972 and March 1973 under the title Project 40 and saw release as a full novel not long after. I first read it in 2007 and I think that it was as close as Herbert would come to full blown horror in his career. There is something incredibly creepy about the novel. It literally makes your skin crawl.

Herbert was inspired by the 1971 movie The Hellstrom Chronicle, produced by David L. Wolper and directed by Walon Green. Herbert must have seen it shortly after it's release and it obviously had quite an impact on him. I hadn't seen the movie before so in preparation for the review I decided to watch it. Visually it is very good, considering the movie is over 40 years old by now. The content of the movie is utter nonsense however. It is a semi-documentary in which the fictional Dr. Nils Hellstrom (Herbert would use this name for one of the main characters in his novel) shares with us his shocking finding that insects are superior to us in every way and likely to rule the earth long after humanity has gone extinct. He does so by comparing an entire class of animals (there are currently over a million species of insects described by science and the consensus is that there are many more yet to be discovered) to a single species of mammal and, when it suits his argument throws in some arachnids for good measure because the are 'closely related.'  Never mind several hundred million years of diverging evolution.

Obviously, insects have many adaptations not seen in humans and can survive in environments inhospitable to humans. They also have limitations but the film tends to ignore those. Hellstrom, portrayed by actor Lawrence Pressman, takes us though the myriad of survival strategies of insects to show that in a Darwinian competition for survival we will inevitably lose. Hellstrom's narration is probably intended to be satirical. Personally, I found it annoying. The language he uses is pompous, full of grandiose statements presented without context. The facts presented in the movie are supposed to have been checked by several scientists but nevertheless manages to omit most of wider ecology that supports both humans and insects. From a ecological point of view his argument is laughably poorly reasoned. Even if it was meant to take down our opinion of our own achievements a notch I couldn't really take it seriously. In short, despite the pretty pictures, I thought the movie was rubbish.

Herbert himself must have realized some of the movie's shortcomings. Despite borrowing heavily form the movie in the snippets of text attributed to Hellstrom or his brood mother, he does go about presenting his story in a different way. The novel opens with operatives of an organization only referred to as the agency stumble across information regarding technological breakthrough. The information is incomplete but suspicions soon arise that it is a weapon. The information is traced back to a farm in Oregon, property of one Dr. Nils Hellstrom, an entomologist and documentary maker. When the agency starts to investigate his place, agents start disappearing.

Hellstrom's Hive is, as the title suggests, a community modeled on social insects. It's a society of classes, where each member has their own roll, specializations and adaptations. They are bred for the task they are meant to perform and selective breeding has been part of their community since its founding several centuries ago. A select group of specialists holds up a front for the outside world but most of the community is kept carefully hidden in an underground warren.

Herbert's depiction of this human hive is absolutely brilliant. He actually manages to create a kind of sympathy in the reader for poor, embattled Hellstrom, who is only trying to protect his community from outside forces. He realizes that if they are exposed, their society will be considered an abomination. The Hive would be destroyed instantly. They are not without their resources however, a cat and mouse game between Hellstrom and the agency ensues. As the story progresses and more details of the hive are exposed to the reader a sense of dread envelops the reader. The full consequences of the way the hive has chosen to read are horrific to an individualistic society and Herbert uses that to full effect.

The agency certainly seems to see it as such when they see the full extent of what is going on in Hellstrom's Hive. I guess the agency point of view shows the novel's age. It is an organization trapped in a kind of paranoid cold war state of mind. It would have been easy to draw the parallel between a communist state and the hive's social structure. Herbert thankfully doesn't really emphasize that, it must have been obvious enough at the time, and that certainly has helped the novel age more gracefully. It is a false analogy anyway. It's pretty insulting to compare a soviet worker to the mindless drones that make up the majority of the hive and in the end most of the characters who have an inkling of what it really is, seem to realize that.

One of the things that make me like the book much better than the movie that inspired it, is the fact that Herbert is aware of the different ecologies of humans and insects and that humans could never fully fit in the ecological structure of a social insect. The snippets of text from Hellstrom and his brood mother give the the reader some insight into the philosophy behind their community and warning that they should not slavishly follow the termite mold in which the hive is built show up fairly frequently. Another example of Herbert's ecological awareness is the internal pressure the community exerts on its leaders. The community is looking to expand and in times of severe stress, the tendency to swarm and start new colonies in order to maximize the chance of survival suffuses the story. It is almost as if this pressure is coming from the subconsciousness of the entire swarm, although explanations of pheromones are also given. It helps create the image of a Hellstrom beset by problems on all fronts.

If there is any element is the novel that is lacking, it is probably the climax. Throughout the novel, the work is very well paced, carefully keeping the balance between sympathy for the hive and discomfort with its ruthless nature. There is a masterfully depicted scene near the end of the novel that essentially shows us what happens when you poke an ant hill. Despite that, the end of the novel doesn't feel very satisfactory. Throughout the novel both parties search for an advantage but neither seems to get the upper hand. At the end of the novel there is still a status quo. Battles have been fought, secrets uncovered but nothing is really resolved. For a novel that mostly relies on the plot and the big idea behind the story rather than the characters, none of whom attain much depth, the ending really is a bit of a problem.

Despite an ending that could have been better I enjoyed Hellstrom's Hive a lot the second time around. Seeing where Herbert got his inspiration did significantly change my perception of the novel so I guess it was worth watching the rather poor movie after all. I still think The Dosadi Experiment is his best non Dune novel but this one is not that far behind. It takes the ecological awareness that can be found in many of his novels to a new level and the creepiness Herbert works into it make it stand out. If you can forgive Herbert the ending, I think it is well worth the read.

Book Details
Title: Hellstrom's Hive
Author: Frank Herbert
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 332
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-765-31772-9
First published: 1973

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Mind Meld over at SF-Signal

I've been invited to take part in one of SF-Signal's Mind Meld articles. I feel honoured to be included. I've just read through the entire article and I am in some very good company indeed. The questions for this one was: why are anthologies important for writers and readers of Speculative Fiction? What have been some of your favorite anthologies? Find out my answer and a bunch of other opinions here!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Best of All Possible Worlds - Karen Lord

Karen Lord's debut novel Redemption in Indigo was one of the books that received a lot of attention in 2011 and 2012. It's one of those books I mean to pick up but so far I haven't read it yet. From what I understand of the reviews, it's a book well worth reading. While looking for suitable books for the Women of Genre Fiction reading challenge I came across Lord's second novel, The Best of All Possible Worlds, in a bookstore in Amsterdam. If her first novel is anywhere near as good as the second, I can see what the fuss was about. The Best of All Possible Worlds is a very good science fiction novel. Comparisons with the work of Ursula K. Le Guin are made on the inside flap of the cover. For once, I don't disagree with what it says there. Something the flap text doesn't mention is that there clearly is a bit of Bradbury in the novel too.

What do you do when your planet and the center of your culture has been wiped out in a single strike? That is the question facing the Sadiri who had the good fortune to be away from home at the time of the strike must answer. Besides drastically reduced numbers, they also face a severe gender imbalance. The question of whether the Sadiri have a future as a separate people or should blend in with the other peoples of the galaxy is very much on their mind. Scientist Grace Delurua is assigned to a project to see if salvaging Sadiri culture by introducing new blood from the planet Cygnus Beta is feasible. It will be a life changing experience of Delurua and the Sadiri.

The Best of All Possible Worlds is not a novel that easily fits into one of science fiction's many subgenres. It is a very character driven novel. Don't expect a lot of scientific speculation or detailed future histories. Lord inserts what the reader needs to know when the characters run into it, so it takes quite a while for the basic outlines of this universe to become clear. Even with what the characters add to the reader's knowledge, quite a few questions about how this universe works, and especially Earth's position in it, remains a bit underexposed. The novel is carried by the dynamic between the two main characters Delurua and the Sadiri councilor Dllenahkh.

Lord does describe a number of cultures on the Cygnus Beta that vary from a Faerie court to a feudal society, although on most of the planet, there seems to be a bit of a frontier mentality. As a striking contrast, the few cities the planet possesses are very liberal. According to the acknowledgments Lord, who is from Barbados herself, has made the planet into a mix of cultures and societies to mirror the situation in the Caribbean. This mix also contains people of Sadiri ancestry, which is why the Saridi are so interested in the planet.

The Sadiri are one four strains of humanity in the galaxy. Their culture has developed to potential of the human mind in ways that others cannot achieve. They are a long lived and telepathic people, who value mental discipline and self-control. Their actions are guided by logic and reasoning rather than my emotion and impuls. I'm probably not the first to note that there is more than a bit of Vulcan in these people, although it must be said, they have a much better sense of humour. Their self control is stretched to the max by the prospect of not being able to find a suitable bride however. When Sadiri snap the results can be quite dramatic, even violent.

The novel is mostly written as a travelogue, with Delurua doing the narrating. It covers the entire year the project she is assigned to is running. Delarua's chapters are written in the first person. Between chapters there are short sections seen from Dllenahkh's point of view. The create a sense of distance and mute the emotion in these sections Lord opts for a third person point of view here. This division works very well. The mind of a Sadiri is obviously alien to the reader, where Delurua's way of thinking is much more recognizable. When the novel opens, she feels she already knows a thing or two about the Sadiri but her understanding deepens immensely throughout the novel.

In essence, and this is another element that will not be to the liking of some science fiction fans, The Best of All Possible Worlds is a romance. Throughout the novel the feelings Delurua and Dllenahkh have for each other grow until the outcome is inevitable. I guess you could say it is a case of opposites attract. Delurua is a very intelligent woman but lacks the Sadiri mental discipline. She often displays much more emotion than the Sadiri and over the course of the novel learns how to reconcile her emotions and intuition with the Saridi way of thinking. Dllenahkh has some adapting to do as well. On more than one occasion he takes a leap of faith and accepts Delurua's conclusions, reached by intuitive leaps rather than measured reasoning. The relationship, both on a personal and professional level develops in a very natural way. It is the key element in this novel and one that is very successfully executed.

My experience with books I've read for the Women of Genre Ficiton reading challenge has been mixed. I've found some very enjoyable reads, some excellent novels and a few that didn't appeal to me at all. The Best of All Possible Worlds is without a doubt one of the excellent ones. With only one book left to read, it is probably my favorite so far. The strong character development, the subtle romance and the sense of humour worked into the novel are a combination that you find very rarely in science fiction. I would not be surprised if it was nominated for an award or two next year. As far as I'm concerned this book is a must read.

Book Details
Title: The Best of All Possible Worlds
Author: Karen Lord
Publisher: Del Rey
Pages: 307
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-345-53405-7
First published: 2013

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Tyrant's Law - Daniel Abraham

The Tyrant's Law is the third of five  novels in Daniel Abraham's Dagger and Coin series. It has been published in spring but back then I hadn't read the second volume yet. Now I've finally caught up with the series. Hopefully I'll be able to do a more timely review of the fourth novel, The Widow's House, which is scheduled for the spring of 2014. Although the series is neither very original or hugely challenging, I've enjoyed the previous two novels a lot. They adhere to the conventions of epic fantasy and make for very comfortable reading. I don't think these novels will end up on any lists of highlights of the genre but I'm pretty sure I'll end up reading all five anyway.

Geder, the Lord-Protector of Antea, has defeated the nation of Asterihold in a quick war. The nations have been embroiled in political and military conflict for generations but this appears to be a decisive blow. This conquest doesn't mean the war is over though. Geder catches wind of a conspiracy against him. The Timzinae, one of the thirteen races of humanity that inhabit the world are behind supposed to be behind it and so Geder's army turns its gaze to the nations where they are most populous. War will soon engulf them and once again Geder's priests play an important part in his campaign.

If there is such a thing as middle book syndrome in five book series then this novel is definitely suffering from it to some degree. As usual Abraham has complete control over his plot but I do feel that the novel lacks a strong story arc of its own. Abraham is getting people from A to B, setting up conflicts for the two concluding volumes of the series and delving into the history of the world. Quite a lo  achieve in one novel but still the result isn't quite as satisfying as The King's Blood.

Abraham keeps the number of points of view down to four in this novel. Geder, Clara, Marcus and Cithrin, all of whom we met before. It is Geder's actions that drive most of the story though. As in previous books, Abraham portrays him as a man who essentially means well but does some seriously creepy things. Protect by his position from the consequences of his actions he rules with an iron fist, depending on the talents of his priests to keep the momentum of the war going. His judgments are often harsh and usually rash. Once his is convinced he knows the truth he applies his brand of justice without digging for motivations or how a person's actions might fit into the larger picture. Geder thinks he will be able to retire gracefully once the prince comes of age but given the speed he is alienating people from him, that seems very unlikely to say the least. The mixture of naiveté and ruthlessness makes for a very disturbing character.

Cithrin, one of the more interesting characters in the novel seems to have come to a standstill of sorts. She is sent to do a years apprenticeship with a more experienced banker. The war interferes however and she is forced to return to her old style of risky banking. I guess what Abraham is trying to do with this character is having her develop a personal and professional moral compass. In the later stages of the book she makes some progress but early on her story line drags a bit. Her plot line ends on a very interesting note however, she seems to have underestimated Geder. It will be interesting to see how that plays out in the next book.

Back in Camnipol, Clara is picking up the pieces of her life. She may be disgraced at court but at least her children are still in a position to regain their standing among the nobility. Her life revolves around bringing down Geder now. Left without influence at court, she patiently looks for other ways to disrupt Geder's war. I thought Abraham did a very good job with Clara. Her perspective on life changes drastically but given the strain she is under, the change doesn't feel forced. It's very interesting to see how a person who is essentially considered to be marginalized manages to impact events to such a degree.

Marcus is out and about traveling with Kit, one of the few people in the world who has a good grasp of what is going on at Geder's court. He realizes that the world is in far more danger than it appears to be and sets out to destroy the source of the power behind the throne of Antea. It seems like a classic quest story line but Abraham does give it a nice twist. Little progress is made in resolving the complex feelings Cithrin and Marcus have for each other however. Like in the previous book, Marcus is definitely the least interesting character that gets a point of view.

Abraham set out to write a classic epic fantasy and do it exceptionally well. I'm not convinced he is living up to that ambition with these books but the fact is they are very fast paced and entertaining reads. They are also much more likely to gain him a large audience than his less conventional Long Price Quartet. If you liked the previous two volumes the only thing that will probably bother you about this novel, is that the fourth part is not available yet. That or the fact that the series has not been blessed with particularly good cover art. With The Tyrant's Law, Abraham has added a solid volume to his traditional epic fantasy series. I for one, am curious how he'll bring this series to a close.

Book Details
Title: The Tyrant's Law
Author: Daniel Abraham
Publisher: Orbit
Pages: 497
Year: 2013
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-316-08070-5
First published: 2013

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Steal Across the Sky - Nancy Kress

I've been deeply impressed with Nancy Kress' short fiction ever since reading her collection Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories in 2008. It's another of those books that have been on the list for a review for years now. Short story collections are very time consuming to review however, and since I don't have the time for that right now, I settled for a reread of Kress' 2009 novel Steal Across the Sky. I read it shortly after its publication but never got around to writing the review. To date, I have only read two of Kress' full length novels, the other being Beggars in Spain,  but from those, I get the impression her approach works better when applied to short fiction.

In the near future a group of Aliens make contact with Earth. To make their wishes known, the put up a site on the Internet with a message saying they have wronged the human race in the distant past and with to atone for their actions. They are looking for twenty-one volunteers to visit seven planetary systems and 'witness' for them. What they mean by that remains unclear but there certainly is no lack of volunteers. Soon the Witnesses are on their way to see what the aliens have to atone for. It's a trip that will change the travelers as well as the rest of humanity profoundly.

Steal Across the Sky is a remarkably fast read. It's the kind of book you can read in one sitting. That is not to say it is a light read. Kress packs a lot of information into the text, alternating chapters seen from the point of view of several different characters with short texts showing the response of society to the revelation the aliens bring. It's one of the ways in which you can tell she is good at making the most of the space available. In fact, the novel is more or less structured like a series three of linked novellas, rounded off with a short epilogue.

The core concept of the novel is that the Atoners, as the aliens are referred to, taken something out of the human genome in the distant past, thereby changing the course of history and human evolution. They proceeded to set up a series of double blind experiments with human populations with and without the trait. It is a monstrous crime to steal a part of someone's heritage. Kress links it to the loss of one of the five senses, although after millennia, the loss is not felt as clearly it would be if the entire human population suddenly went blind.

Unraveling the motives of the aliens could have been the main subject of this novel, in fact, Kress has written stories like that before. It is only part of what she is interested in however. One could even say it is a minor part. The largest part of the novel deals with the effect this revelation about the human genome has on the population. Earth has changed and dealing with this change is hard on society. The Witnesses are protected and most of them are shielded from the worst of it but various groups who see the message of the Atoners as support for their previously held beliefs create quite a stir. From terrorist assaults to increased rates of suicide, the level of violence unleashed by the Atoners' revelation weighs on the Witnesses.

Seen as a novel of ideas, the story works quite well but with Kress' attention spread out over a number of point of view characters, most of them are very much in the service of the plot. Lucca for instance feels like twp dimensional rich kid who feels he is held back by his obligations to his family. I couldn't really feel form him despite the loss he suffered. Cam is elevated to a level of fame and influence beyond what her intelligence and education can support. She knows this and yet falls into the same trap time and again. Frank is holding a grudge and just about everything he does is motivated by how society, or rather the police force, wronged him. The only character who I felt was a little better fleshed out was Soledad.

In some ways Kress presents the bare bones of a novel here. John Clute calls it sober in his entry for Nancy Kress in the SF encyclopedia. That is a fitting description. In some respects it is a very well written piece. The style reminded me a bit of The Secret City by Carol Emshwiller I recently read. It is effective in the way it works what the reader needs to know to understand what is going on in the story. Many readers will prefer a novel with a little more meat on its bones though. I enjoyed it, but where I think many of Kress' shorter pieces are exceptional, this novel is merely very good. It is well worth reading but not the best Kress has to offer.

Book Details
Title: Steal Across the Sky
Author: Nancy Kress
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 317
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1986-9
First published: 2009

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Plains of Passage - Jean M. Auel

The literary quality of Auel's The Valley of the Horses and The Mammoth Hunters, the second and third volume in her Earth's Children series, left something to be desired to put it mildly, so I wasn't sure if I wanted to continue this series of reviews. I've always had a soft spot for The Plains of Passage, the fourth volume, and since I recently came across an English language version (this is one of the few novels I've read both in English and Dutch translation) I decided to go ahead and reread it. My recent read of Kim Stanley Robinson's Shaman may also have something to do with it. The novels share a setting during the ice age, if little else.

After a difficult year among the Mamutoi, the Mammoth hunters, Ayla has decided Jondalar is the man for her and that if it takes crossing the continent to travel to his home is the price for being with him, she is willing to pay it. In early summer they set out on their journey. Knowing he is unlikely ever to travel that far again, Jondalar opts for the longer route that will have them follow the Donau, the Great Mother river for most of its length. It is his last chance to see his kin among the Sharamudoi people living on it's banks. Their journey will take them a full year and exposes them to every danger the unforgiving ice age environment has to offer.

The Plains of Passage can be accused of just about everything that bothered me in the previous two books. Ayla is still a Mary Sue. Fortunately, traveling doesn't give her too much time to invent new stuff although she does make a few steps in domesticating wolves. She does find the time to become fluent in three more languages despite spending weeks at most with the peoples in question. Her abilities win her admiration and several invitations to stay permanently. Despite this universal worship of her supreme abilities she still fears being rejected by Jondalar's people and is on the verge of asking Jondalar to stay with one of the peoples they meet along the way.

The repetitions that mar the later books in particular are also very present in this novel. With every new group Ayla is exposed to there is an endless string of formal introductions, disbelieve over her control of their animal companions and admiration for the inventions Ayla and Jondalar bring. After that, we usually find out what challenge is facing this particular community and what Ayla can do to fix it. Once the the proper steps are taken to fix the problem, Ayla and Jondalar are of to continue their journey. Another repetitive element in the story are the many graphic sex scenes. Personally it doesn't bother me, but in this book the scene where a young girl watching Jondalar and Ayla go at it helps her to overcome a gang rape was a bit too much for me.

Jondalar and Ayla also battle their personal demons during their journey. As mentioned before, it is her fear of rejection for Ayla. Jondalar struggles with an equally unlikely issue. He is afraid that the Great Mother won't find him worthy to create children of his spirit. He still refuses to believe in Ayla's theory linking sex and procreation and the uncertainty about whether or not he'll have offspring drives him to seek the aid of a holy man they meet along the way. He even goes so far as to try and get Ayla to have sex with another man. Given the story I guess it is consistent but it had me roll my eyes anyway.

There is plenty of about this novel I find extremely unlikely, incredibly annoying or outright ridiculous but there are a few aspects that appeal to me. As usual, Auel has done her homework. The novel contains rich descriptions of the ice age landscape and ecology. Some may find them boring or repetitive. For me, the way she describes the landscape is very interesting indeed. Some elements do turn up time and again but she has done a good job in describing the various landscapes her main characters travel through. The place might have been a bit colder than it is today, ecologically it was diverse if you know how to look at them. Picture yourself standing on the banks of the river, somewhere north of Belgrade where the Tisza river joins the Donau, trying to imagine what the place looked like some 30,000 years ago. It is quite a feat of the imagination, especially when you consider Auel describes a journey of several thousand miles this way. For some reason Jondalar's journey east in The Valley of the Horses lacked that kind of refined understanding of the environment he was traveling through.

Archaeological finds have also inspired Auel. A number of the artifacts described in the novel are based on archaeological finds. There is a big difference between the archaeological and ecological sides of this story in that the archaeological evidence is usually incomplete and lacking context. Auel built her story of people worshiping the Great Earth Mother around it and we have no way of knowing if it is anywhere near reality. In fact, I suspect she is wildly of the mark in many respects. Still, someone with an appreciation of prehistoric art and artifacts will enjoy these details in the book. Educated guesses and speculation about how these objects fitted into everyday life are part of what makes prehistory fascinating in my opinion.

The thing that most appealed to me when I first read this novel was the fact that at the heart of it, is an epic journey. It's something of a Fantasy cliche really, but one that remains quite popular. There is something about people being reduced to the basics with only their skill and ingenuity between them and disaster that makes for an appealing story. In that sense, the novel works better than Ayla facing impossible odds in The Valley of the Horses or the high school drama that fills The Mammoth Hunters.

Does that mean it's a good book? No, not really. The novel just has too many flaws for that. At best, I'd call it a guilty pleasure. It's a book that at a rational level, could be burnt to the ground in a review without requiring any great effort from the reviewer. Nevertheless, I have a soft spot for it. I don't think I would have bothered with The Shelters of Stone and The Land of Painted Caves without enjoying this book at some level. It is still more than a few steps down from The Clan of the Cave Bear however. The tragedy of this series is that Auel never managed to come close to the level she reached in the opening volume. Still, this minor step up was just enough to keep me going and even to convince me to reread the fifth book. I guess I will finish this series of reviews after all.

Book Details
Title: The Plains of Passage
Author: Jean M. Auel
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 868
Year: 2011
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-553-28941-1
First published: 1990