Right, so you don’t have a soul, which means any supernatural creature you touch turns back into a mortal. Handy, but also it makes you a kind of threRight, so you don’t have a soul, which means any supernatural creature you touch turns back into a mortal. Handy, but also it makes you a kind of threat to the supernatural community. Queen Victoria makes you muhjah, which is a fancy term for “I have a bureaucratic position as well as target painted on my back.” And you marry a werewolf member of the peerage. Who is Scottish. Then, suddenly, a phenomenon that replicates your preternatural mortality effect across supernaturals in a wide radius shows up in London before migrating north to Scotland. So, of course, you need to investigate, but somehow your snide half-sister and your ditzy fashion-challenged friend manage to inveigle their way into your dirigible party, where the three of you are joined at the last minute by a cross-dressing hat-making French inventor lady scientist who hates the guts out of your French maid.
This kind of thing happens to me all the time.
Alexia Tarabotti (or now Maccon) is a great protagonist, especially when juxtaposed with the romance-trope–heavy setting that Gail Carriger has created here. Though she shares many characteristics with the hapless romantic heroine, she also has a strong sense of agency and a desire for autonomy. We saw this to endearing effect in Soulless, which can be read as Alexia’s struggle to find independence in a society where women of her class have very little, and preternaturals even less so. Changeless is a case of “be careful what you wish for.” Alexia now has even more rank and power, is married to a man of rank and similar power—and who is a ruggedly handsome, sexy werewolf type to boot—and can essentially run her own life, more or less. But she spends most of the book playing catch-up, realizing that she still has a lot to learn about supernatural politics and her own nature as a preternatural.
Carriger does interesting work here, because while Soulless was an effective parody of romance (and even supernatural romance), that does not lend itself well to an ongoing series with the same protagonist. Alexia is married, has settled down, is no longer on the market and “lookin’ for love.” So while Carriger can occasionally invoke a romance novel trope here or there, she has to rely more heavily on the other aspect of her parody, which is Victorian society.
My review of Soulless touches on how Carriger portrays an alternative version of Victorian England, and I criticize her for not going as deep as I would have wanted. Changeless makes me rethink this position a little bit. It’s not so much that Carriger is parodying Victorian society itself—she’s parodying our present perception of Victorian society. A lot of what we think of as “Victorian” in terms of morals and attitudes towards sex, gender, etc., are actually tropes themselves—and like most tropes, many of them have a kernel of truth, but they have evolved and taken lives of their own. In such characters as Felicity, Ivy, Alexia’s mother, Lord Akeldama, et al., Carriger attains a hyperbolic state of satirizing our ideas about what was scandalous and what was permitted in Victorian society.
I’m still not convinced it works, mind you—but I have a little more respect for what Carriger is doing here.
Carriger’s portrayal of sexual desire and the romantic interactions between Alexia and Conall was also something I ended up re-evaluating part-way through the book. At first I was somewhat annoyed by the frequent interjection of scenes in which these two verge upon getting it on—intimations and innuendo, and a lot of talk about nudity, though no actual graphic depictions. It’s not that I mind such scenes, nor do I object to the way Carriger is unapologetically depicting Alexia as a person with a sex drive and desires beyond being a sex object. That’s all well and good. But the frequency and repetitive nature of the scenes seemed like a tiresome digression from the rest of the plot and more salient character development.
I do like it when books can change my mind, and it’s nice when my opinion of something a book does changes as I continue to read. In this case, I started to think about this portrayal of sexuality and nudity within the context of how Carriger is deconstructing romance novels. That’s when I realized that she’s really trying to reclaim women’s sexuality in literature when it is incredibly dominated and perverted by the commodified depiction of sexuality in the romance genre.
There is very little that is feminist about a romance novel. On the surface, sure, it seems to be about empowering women by letting them read about women doing naughty and titillating acts. And therein lies the problem: the enjoyment, here, comes from the transgressive nature of the reading. These acts are so titillating precisely because, in general, our society does not approve of the sexual empowerment of women. Growing up, women get told their bodies are scary and complicated and mysterious and will hurt them for the rest of their lives, but they better deal with it and not complain, because men don’t want to hear about it! “Sex positive” feminism is a thing and is growing louder, and that’s great. But generally our society is still incredibly sexually repressed. We are not much better than our conception of Victorian sexuality—and worse, we’ve papered over our problems with a veneer of “sexual liberation” that is more illusion than any tangible improvement.
So here’s where Carriger and Changeless differ: the nudity and sexuality here is not transgressive. It’s not strange within the context of Alexia’s world—it’s unusual for someone like Alexia to marry a werewolf, maybe, but if anything it has only improved her standing in society. True, this world maintains the kind of rigid gender roles and expectations for comportment we often associate with Victorian society—Ivy’s innocence with regards to kissing seems to be poking fun at this. But in her depiction of Alexia and Conall’s relationship, now that Alexia is a married woman, they sleep two to a bed and have plenty of sexy times. There’s none of this separate beds, women are frigid nonsense.
I don’t really have a complex grasp of the true nature of Victorian attitudes towards sexuality. And, unless you happen to be an expert in that period, neither, probably, do you—we just share a kind of cultural conception of the time period. In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter. Because I’m also pretty sure Victorian society didn’t really have werewolves or vampires living openly—but here, in Carriger’s alternative universe where telegraphs don’t work but aetherographic transmitters do, that happens to be a thing.
Carriger has hit upon the fundamental feminist truth of writing fantasy, which is that even when your setting is based on an actual historical time and place, you can change things for the better. If Carriger is injecting supernatural creatures into Victorian England, she sure as hell can also play around with performance of gender and sexual expression.
Now, as with my earlier comment about her satire of our ideas about Victorian times, whether all of this works is another matter entirely. Let’s just say that I love the characters and love this world Carriger has created, but the plot of Changeless is kind of a drag in comparison. The mystery is flaccid and dull; most of the tension seems contrived. This is particularly true when it comes to the finale, in which Carriger delivers a twist that sets up the next book rather neatly—but she requires Conall to behave, shall we say, far too hyperbolically for my tastes.
Changeless reaffirms my impression that the Parasol Protectorate series is a promising one with great ideas that don’t always live up in their execution. By my personal criteria, story always has to come first—but great ideas, while never quite making up for a lacklustre story, at least give me a lot to think about, and write about, and that’s always good. This is about on par with a lot of other ongoing, character-based fantasy series, where the individual books are not themselves all that remarkable, but the overall world and adventure becomes something altogether worthwhile.
My reviews of the Parasol Protectorate series: ← Soulless
Every ongoing but somewhat formulaic series has its tipping point, that moment where the overall story arc and mythos of the series’ world begins to sEvery ongoing but somewhat formulaic series has its tipping point, that moment where the overall story arc and mythos of the series’ world begins to subsume the individual plots of each book. For The Dresden Files it was Summer Knight, the fourth book, which adds faeries to the Dresdenverse. For the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, that tipping point is here, with Dawn’s Early Light.
On the surface, there is little to make Dawn’s Early Light stand out from the first two books. Once again Eliza Braun and Wellington Books are investigating a curious mystery. This time they are doing it as an officially-sanctioned team of field agents—but they are in disgrace, seconded to the United States to help the American Office of the Supernatural and Metaphysical. Along the way, we find out that the House of Usher has contracted the services of a certain Mr. Edison, who has in turn stolen some very promising plans for a death ray from a certain Mr. Tesla.
Some of you, like me, will be pleased to find out that this book comes down decidedly in the pro-Tesla camp.
Despite the somewhat formulaic framework, though, there are indications that this is different even from the beginning. There is less mystery here: we learn fairly early on about Edison’s involvement. (That’s why I’m not really counting it as a spoiler.) The plot metamorphoses from investigation to a chase across country, and soon Ballantine and Morris send their foursome of agents on a merry little tour of nineteenth-century America. From North Carolina to Michigan to Arizona and then all the way out to San Francisco, Books and Braun get their fair share of travelling in.
Along the way, Ballantine and Morris throw some obstacles between the two. After that passionate kiss from Wellington at the end of The Janus Affair, I assumed that Braun and Books were an item. Clearly I was being naive; Eliza spends most of this book fuming that Wellington hasn’t made any further moves, so she flirts outrageously with her American counterpart, Bill Wheatley. Normally I’m not happy when a series contrives obstacles to two characters’ romantic happiness just ’cause, but in this case I think it works. And, to their credit, Books and Braun eventually have a conversation about it, like two adults. Well, like two adults trying to disarm a bomb. I’m not going to tell you how it works out.
To be honest, the actual chase-Edison-and-the-Pinkertons plot is rather ho-hum. Edison’s motivations are never explored to a satisfactory depth. The House of Usher is at its most transparent here, with its agents walking around with little rings to identify their affiliation. (Clearly they subscribe to the Hydra school of secret, shadowy bad guys—branding is everything!) And neither of the two subplots—much like the Campbell subplot from the previous book—mesh very well with the main story.
The first subplot concerns our favourite Italian assassin, Sophia. This time the Maestro sends her to San Francisco on a mission. She gets to play dress-up to get closer to her target, but nothing really seems to come of it. Similarly, the House of Usher contracts an Episcopal priest named Van to bring Wellington to them alive. She eventually tracks Wellington down, but then people start shooting at both of them. As with Sophia’s subplot, Van’s never seems to amount to much. I wouldn’t have missed its absence, but its presence doesn’t add another interesting dimension to the story.
So if I’m so dissatisfied with the plot, why do I think Dawn’s Early Light deserves to be called a tipping point? Why do I think it’s the best of the books in the series so far?
Simply put: the ending.
I’m not going to spoil it. Suffice it to say that there is no going back. Ballantine and Morris definitively put the series on a very specific track; the next book cannot hew to the “mystery of the month” formula. Shit is going to go down. Chaos is going to happen. We’ve got the House of Usher, the Maestro, and now something happening with the Queen of England. Maybe we’ll even get to find out what Doctor Sound has in that mysterious Restricted Section of the Archives of his. (I’m not holding my breath.)
My point is, for two books now, Ballantine and Morris have been carefully building up certain background elements of this universe. In this third book, they continue in the same vein. But suddenly, in the last chapter, everything comes to a head, and there is no going back.
There is no better way to ensure I read the next book in the series than to leave it at such a tantalizing, promising point. How are Books and Braun going to figure into this? What is Doctor Sound’s game anyway? I can’t wait to find out.
If you read the first book of this series but didn’t bother picking up The Janus Affair … skip it. Read Dawn’s Early Light instead, then read the fourth book when it comes out. This is steampunk the way I like it.
**spoiler alert** Agents Books and Braun are back. Aftering solving their case in Phoenix Rising in their “off hours”, the unlikely duo get involved i**spoiler alert** Agents Books and Braun are back. Aftering solving their case in Phoenix Rising in their “off hours”, the unlikely duo get involved in a new rash of abductions of suffragists from around London. These abductions involve strange, lightning-like teleportations. Braun knows one of the leaders of the suffragist movement—in fact, she used to date the leader’s son, back in New Zealand. Meanwhile, Books continues to struggle with keeping his military past and skills from Braun. Oh, and Lord Sussex and Bruce Campbell continue to plot nefarious plots about the future of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences.
Just another day at the office.
Phoenix Rising was pretty much what one would expect from a first novel in a steampunk series. It was grandiose and larger-than-life, with a typical odd couple pair of protagonists in a fascinating alternate London. The Janus Affair is pretty much what one hopes for in a sequel, then: Ballantine and Morris raise the stakes, introduce new enemies, and revisit old ones. Books and Braun’s relationship evolves over the course of their new investigation, and we learn more about this steampunk world.
Ballantine and Morris continue to eschew fantasy but definitely not the fantastical. After all, the main plot device in The Janus Affair is a teleportation device! There are also bicycle-like helicopters (lococycles), which we can’t really even master today, and the automata we see are quite advanced in terms of their behaviour and functionality. I’d be curious to discover how this nineteenth-century England is so much more advanced than our England of the same era—what sort of inventions helped them along?
Meanwhile, we learn more about both Books and Braun’s pasts. I enjoy how Ballantine and Morris integrate these revelations into the plot itself rather than relying on awkward exposition. With Braun in particular, they use the classic convention of an old flame who has relevance to the case of the day. Douglas Sheppard is an awkward chap: an adventurer, son of a suffragist, and nominal supporter of women’s rights … but he’s also a bit of a chauvinistic boor. Once again, Ballantine and Morris demonstrate a deftness for developing even minor characters. Douglas is neither sympathetic nor entirely unlikable. It’s easy to see how Eliza once fell for him, and easy to see why she reacts the way she does when they are reunited.
Books’ past, on the other hand, was a little less shadowy already. We knew he had been in the military and had rejected that lifestyle when he rejected his father’s strict upbringing. But Ballantine and Morris round this story out with a few more details, and Eliza finally learns Wellington’s secret. I like that they chose to have Eliza find out so soon into the series. I love that they had Eliza and Wellington end up together by the end of the book. Some authors would have played a “will they or won’t they” game for books upon books—but no, Books and Braun are a little more than a team as they head off to America.
The Janus Affair offers compelling characters and a great story, even if the plot itself isn’t as good. The mystery here is not very gripping. The Culpeppers are dull villains with generic, religious zealotry that seems to come from nowhere. And I’m disappointed that the Maestro remains—literally—in the shadows. We get it: he’s dangerous and terrifies even normally cool customers like Sophia and Sussex. So what? He’s too much the cipher, and that makes him less interesting than he should be.
It’s a fun series. That quintessential ingredient that would push it from “fun” to “fucking amazing” is still missing. The combination of humour and sobriety isn’t quite balanced yet: I laugh, and I cry, but not quite in the proportions one might want. The Janus Affair is a novel in a series still finding its footing. Fortunately, it is fun enough despite its flaws to make it and any more sequels worth a look.
Why did no one tell me this book existed until now????!!!!111
Seriously, it took a careful browsing of the library’s New Paperbacks section to discoverWhy did no one tell me this book existed until now????!!!!111
Seriously, it took a careful browsing of the library’s New Paperbacks section to discover the second and third books in this series. A quick hop to the nearby computer (which I think is running some kind of locked-down Ubuntu if the font anti-aliasing is anything to go by) to check the library’s catalogue, and sure enough, Phoenix Rising was in the stacks of that branch. Have I mentioned how much I love my library?
A quick glance at the description for these books was enough to convince me that I must read them all and now. That’s not to say I was convinced I would love them, or even that I loved Phoenix Rising all that much. It actually isn’t very impressive. Nevertheless, I could tell on sight that this was the steampunky equivalent of a beach read: light and frothy and satisfying.
Let’s start with the title. I hate titles of the form x Rising. I think they’re stupid. I have no rational argument for this bias; it’s just the way I feel, and you are welcome to disagree with me on it (but I will cut you).
Wellington Books and Eliza Braun are an unlikely pair of agents for the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, thrust together by chance and the whims of the ministry’s mysterious director, Doctor Sound. I’ll let you guess which one is the brains and which is the … er … brawn. They end up investigating the Phoenix Society, the rumblings of which are getting louder (hence the title). Oh, and the society is also responsible for driving Eliza’s former partner into the clutches of Bedlam.
Ballantine and Morris rely a great deal on the odd couple pairing of Books and Braun. So your mileage of the book’s humour will rest largely on that. It didn’t do much for me, mostly because they don’t do anything new with the trope. Wellington seems to get the share of character development while we learn comparatively less about Eliza. I will, grudgingly, admit that in the broad strokes the pairing works. Just.
What works a lot better for me is the alternative steampunk London in which Phoenix Rising takes place. Ballantine and Morris do a great job at dropping subtle reminders that this is a different London from the one we’re used to. Wellington has somehow constructed Babbage’s analytical engine for himself (though that seems to be a one-time thing). Complicated gramophones and self-service bars exist. Oh, yeah, and there are obviously airships (TVTropes). (Sidenote: I’d love to see a steampunk alternative history that intentionally and viciously doesn’t invoke the airship trope. Like, just totally slaughters any notion that even in a steampunk world airship travel might be viable.) While not subtle, these technological references are presented as normal, everyday parts of life in this alternative world (with the exception of the Gatling-equipped killer robots, obviously).
The emphasis on technology and its role in the plans of the antagonists highlights how Phoenix Rising straddles the steampunk–urban fantasy divide. Technically it falls into the DMZ of speculative fiction, what I like to call agnostic fantasy. There are plenty of mentions of stories or myths about magical artifacts but no actual magic on page. So it remains to be seen whether magic is real in this world or merely very advanced, steam-powered science. On the other hand, there is a shadowy Big Bad behind the Phoenix Society, the House of Usher. (And, you know, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if it turns out to be a sentient house.)
Books and Braun’s bickering might be formulaic, but it gives Ballantine and Morris a way to spin out an already short book for a few more hundred pages. The story doesn’t really pick up until our intrepid duo go undercover to infiltrate the Phoenix Society. Oh, there’s also some kind of subplot involving a mole in the Ministry. It doesn’t go anywhere, which suggests it’s more of a series arc—and it’s good to know, at least, that Ballantine and Morris have some kind of overall vision for the series.
As I said above, I knew before I read it that Phoenix Rising would be light entertainment. Nothing about the book changed my mind on that score. It’s good steampunk in an alternative world.
World War II is understandably an attractive point of divergence for writers of alternative history. "What if the Nazis won?" is a compelling questionWorld War II is understandably an attractive point of divergence for writers of alternative history. "What if the Nazis won?" is a compelling question that has been explored many times over. Dominion takes a slightly different tack, imagining instead that the war itself was largely averted through appeasement. C.J. Sansom takes as his point of divergence the fateful meeting in which Churchill, Halifax, and Chamberlain decide who will succeed the latter as Prime Minister. In Dominion, Lord Halifax’s accession over Churchill results in a Britain that makes peace with Germany, which leaves the island alone as it prosecutes its war across the continent. In 1952, when the novel takes place, Britain is still nominally a sovereign power, but it bows often to Germany’s influence, and homegrown Fascism has taken root.
Sansom is treading sensitive ground. Alternative history where the Allies lose offers the condolence that at least we fought the good fight. Dominion posits rather that we stuck our heads in the sand, and that’s harder to bear. Yet it is inescapable that, at the time, a large number of people favoured appeasement. The horrors of Nazi Germany that are now printed baldly in textbooks and preserved indelibly in the memories of survivors and their families were, at that time, more rumours and whispers than hard truths. Hindsight makes it easy to view the war as the only viable option. But that was not always as apparent.
That makes the vision of Britain that Sansom presents so chilling and simultaneously compelling. This is a Britain of the 1950s that, in some ways, is very recognizable. I’m glad I read this after having lived in the UK for some time. More of the vocabulary makes sense, and although I haven’t visited the places referenced in the novel, I’m more familiar with the atmosphere and the cultural assumptions embedded herein. This, in turn, makes it easier to understand how the Britain of Dominion is a different, darker place. Through careful, well-paced developments in plot, combined with an exquisite attention to differences in media and transport and public services, Sansom builds a strong case for how peace with Nazi Germany would have led to a Britain that is less free, less democratic, and less prosperous than the Britain we got instead.
David Fitzgerald is not an action hero. He’s not a fighter. He’s a civil servant, one who gradually allows himself to be recruited into the Resistance movement. At first he is little more than a spy inside the Dominions Office. But when Frank Muncaster, his roommate at Oxford, becomes privy to secrets about the American atomic bomb project and lands in an asylum, the Resistance taps David to get him out of there before the German and British police close in. Already upset about lying to his wife, David does not relish the possibility of having to give up everything he knows and go on the run.
David’s wife, Sarah, comes from a pacifist family. But her sister has married a Blackshirt. So the family politics are … complicated. Dinners can be tense. And Sarah notices that David is working many late nights and weekends—and she suspects him of having an affair. Still torn by the loss of their son two years ago, Sarah is not sure what to do as she senses David drift further away from her.
And on the other side, Sansom provides the perspective of Gunther Hoth, a Jew-hunting Nazi transplanted from Berlin to London to question and apprehend Muncaster at all costs. Gunther is a good antagonist: he hates Jews and genuinely believes the party line on such points. Yet he is not a sadistic or cruel man. He has an ex-wife and an eleven-year-old son; he is a person, just a particularly bad one. He is also genuinely threatening, able to guess quite a bit of the Resistance plan for extracting Muncaster and getting him to an American submarine. Gunther is, if not one step ahead, then never more than one step behind. It’s this keen intelligence and insight that allows him to come close to catching David and other members of the Resistance several times, and eventually it allows him to leap ahead and lie in wait at the climax of the story.
Through these various characters and their various political and personal beliefs, Sansom builds a holistic picture of this alternative 1952 Britain. It is a warning of what might have happened if Churchill and others had not prevailed in prosecuting the war with such vigour. It is also a cautionary tale of what happens when one allows one’s country to get too caught up in the throes of nationalism. (In his historical note, Sansom goes from recounting the events leading up to the Halifax/Churchill decision before going off on a tangent about how awful the separatist Scottish National Party is, and while I can see the relationship, I’m not sure the connection between the SNP and the events in Dominion is as apparent as he might like. I was more caught up by the terrible things happening to the British Jews rather than the occasional mention of trade union crackdowns and the SNP.)
Dominion is a long novel, but it’s worthy of such length. It has a nice level of detail, not just in terms of history but in the actions and thoughts of the characters. It’s a potent demonstration of the dangers that are always lurking at the edges of so-called democratic processes, something that we would do well to remember given current events. I won’t pretend to understand what life was like in the 1940s, what it was like to see the end of the war and the defeat of Fascism. But it’s interesting to see Sansom’s take on what could have been different: a more isolationist America that actually wants to have ties to Russia, a weakened Britain losing its grip on its empire much more slowly yet more feebly; a terrifying unstable Germany that has bent Europe to its will on the brink of its own implosion.
Definitely interesting and moving, Dominion will appeal to fans of alternative history or anyone just interested in what might have been had we not quite fought World War II.
Not that long ago, I sampled another anthology of alternate history, Other Earths. Now I’m dipping into this specialized sub-genre again with Roads NNot that long ago, I sampled another anthology of alternate history, Other Earths. Now I’m dipping into this specialized sub-genre again with Roads Not Taken. The premise is similar, but in this case the stories were all previously published in either Analog or Amazing. Though I’m disappointed that not one of the ten contributors is a woman, the stories themselves are much more thoughtful and interesting than those I encountered in Other Earths.
“Must and Shall” is a Harry Turtledove story. It diverges during the American Civil War, an all-too-popular event in alternate history. In this case, a stray Confederate bullet kills Lincoln in his first term as he peers over the battlements, so his vice president inherits and the Civil War becomes a much bloodier affair. What makes this story stand out against all the other Civil War alternative history is how Turtledove then jumps towards the present day and shows the consequences of this divergence. The South is a much less forgiving place; the United States are not so much united as held together by the iron fist of the North. It’s intriguing, because Turtledove taps into the cultural tension that is still present, to some extent, in the United States today.
Robert Silverberg’s“An Outpost of the Empire” posits that the Roman empire never fell. Instead, it swallows the Byzantine empire in a single, mighty gulp! The protagonist of this story is a rich, single woman in Venice, watching the Romans move in to occupy her city. She becomes a target of affection for the new consul and aims to seduce him, only to discover that foreigners are more complex than they appear. It’s a slow and thoughtful meditation on the conflict between occupier and occupied.
In “We Could Do Worse”, Gregory Benford paints a chilling picture of a United States in which Joe McCarthy becomes president. This is an America where the Constitution is no longer worth the paper it’s printed on, and civil liberties is a dirty phrase. I couldn’t connect personally with this story, since I’m too young to remember McCarthyism, but I can understand the type of dread it’s supposed to instil. It’s not the most gripping story of the collection, though.
“Over There”, by Mike Resnick, sees Teddy Roosevelt blackmail Woodrow Wilson into resurrecting the Rough Riders division and taking them into World War I. It’s a fabulous concept, but as with“We Could Do Worse”, I wasn’t very intrigued. It was obvious from the beginning that Roosevelt could not achieve the glory he sought. There isn’t much depth here.
A.A. Attansio’s “Ink from the New Moon” reminds me of Bridge of Ancient Birds, in that it has the Chinese visiting North America before the Europeans do. In this time they make contact with the indigenous inhabitants and set up a trading network, scooping the Europeans (also known as the “Big Noses"). It’s a cool concept, and Attansio does a good job developing a main character who is flawed but likable.
“Southpaw” is somewhat similar to “Over There” in that it follows a single character’s divergent path through history. Bruce McAllister wonders what would have happened if Fidel Castro came to play baseball in the United States instead of becoming a revolutionary in Cuba. This story is an excellent example of how alternative history can allow introspection. It shines a light on the paradox of immigrating to a nation like the United States, allowing people who are not migrants to sympathize with the conflicting emotions that migrants face on a daily basis.
Greg Costykian’s “The West is Red” takes us to an alternative universe where communism succeeds and capitalism fails. Central planning is all the rage, even in the United States. This story captivated the technophile in me: Costykian posits that because communism is so obsessed with centralization, it would retard the development of personal computers in favour of large, centralized supercomputers accessed through dumb terminals. I’m not sure it’s that simple, but it’s an intriguing thought that allows him to construct a wholly different technological background to that of our society.
“The Forest of Time” is a story about universe-hopping. A man invents a method to travel to different universes. But the act of travelling itself creates different universes, altering the distance between universes. He ends up in a radically different North America, one where the colonies never unified, and the prisoner of a suspicious Pennsylvanian scout. Michael Flynn sets an interesting dilemma for the main characters, who struggle with whether to believe the traveller. I did find that having some of the names begin with the same letter really confused me with this story, for some reason. That’s really the only criticism though. Otherwise, Flynn does a good job highlighting how fascinating this concept of divergent and convergent universes is.
But now we come to “Aristotle and the Gun”, my favourite story of the entire collection. The other stories were all fine, but none of them really stood out for me. I can’t explain why this one seems so much better than the others, but L. Sprague de Camp somehow manages to make me invest in the main character’s struggle. I think it’s just the fascinating relationship we see develop between the main character and Aristotle. That, and a level of sympathy for his desire to advance science more quickly (and the irony that it didn’t quite work out that way). Though de Camp doesn’t depart from the conventions of time travel and alternate history that much, he embraces them and uses them so well that the result is a predictable yet gripping and fun adventure.
Gene Wolfe finishes up with “How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion". This is best described as “fun”, in a similar vein to the Fidel Castro story above. The main character and his friend are fans of tabletop strategy games. The two World Wars are just games that they designed in this universe. Instead, the “German invasion” of the title is the threat of German cars surpassing British-made ones. The protagonist helps Churchill avert this eventuality in a devious, underhanded competition.
Roads Not Taken has some good alternative history between its cover. I think I’m done with such anthologies for a good long while now. Binging on alternative history is exhausting and can result in a bit of a headache. I’d rather sample a longer work next. Reading so many short stories in a row just makes it harder to appreciate novelty when it does come around.
The novelette offers an opportunity to experiment in a way that short stories and novels don’t often do. You have much more room in which to create aThe novelette offers an opportunity to experiment in a way that short stories and novels don’t often do. You have much more room in which to create a world than a short story, where a glimpse at the larger picture is often all that you can afford. On the other hand, unlike a novel, there is no requirement to have a lengthy plot. With “Fade to White”, Catherine Valente depicts a world torn apart by war and a society that has changed dramatically to compensate. She uses the length of the novelette to delve in and out of different parts of this world, even as she constructs a simple plot about coming of age after the apocalypse.
“Fade to White” is set in an alternate 1950s United States. This is a country recovering from the aftermath of nuclear warfare. McCarthy is in the White House. With much of the population infertile, those who can reproduce are valued for this act, elevated to the role of Mother and Father. Since fertile men are in much smaller supply than women, each Father has four households that he visits in a weekly rotation. Sterile men and women become civil servants, imbibing by order of the state a drug that suppresses their sex drives and makes them happy with their lot in life. Valente doesn’t give us much of an idea of the diversity of occupations in this society, but we spend a lot of time learning about how propaganda works.
The underlying irony of this story is simple: America won the war, presumably, only to turn into the very type of paternalistic, fascist state that they were fighting against. Mutually assured destruction was not so mutual, but it was definitely assured, and now the survivors are trying to pick up the pieces. The government has had to make a lot of hard decisions about how to keep the country together; I don’t envy the leaders who had to step up to the plate after whatever disaster befell them. Valente handles the horror of this world with a light touch, guiding us towards the realization of what has happened but not actively preaching against it. I found this to be a very effective and satisfying way of handling the story.
I’m not sure this novelette is experimental so much as it is a return to older forms. It reminds me of something that an author out of previous generations, someone like Bradbury, might have written. It has that same concern with using science-fiction to depict what society could become, if certain excesses occur. And it has the same dour tone mixed with a kind of dark but situational humour. Retro in feeling, this is a charming but also chilling story that I’d definitely recommend.
**spoiler alert** Certain books only work in the first person. I wouldn’t think Maggot Moon would work any other way: you need to experience the world**spoiler alert** Certain books only work in the first person. I wouldn’t think Maggot Moon would work any other way: you need to experience the world through Standish Treadwell’s eyes—of two different colours. Sally Gardner creates an alternative history dystopia in which an authoritarian Motherland has absolute control, thanks to a combination of propaganda, self-policing, and secret police. It is going through the process of meticulously faking a moon landing, but a single dyslexic child with just enough gumption might be able to screw it up and expose the hoax.
Standish’s voice helps establish the creepiness of the Motherland’s regime. I imagine (because, fortunately, that’s all I can do—imagine) that the way he describes how the enforcers of the Motherland act is similar to how a child of resisters might have experienced Soviet Russia. Standish and his grandfather live in “Zone 7”, an area comprising an uncomfortable mixture of the collaborating, nouveau rich and those like Standish’s grandfather who have narrowly escpaed re-education. Like most children who have been hard done by, Standish views all adults who are not his grandfather with a certain amount of distrust: he has learned early to be wary of authority, so the actions of the hard Mr. Hellman and the kinder Miss. Phillips are viewed with the same lens of suspicion.
The perspective also means that Gardner doesn’t have to explain much. I struggled, at first, to decide whether I was comfortable with the dearth of exposition. There’s something to be said, when one is working in an unfamiliar world, for providing skilful primers. Ultimately, Maggot Moon doesn’t spend much time spelling out what its world is like or how it came to be, and I’m OK with that. Gardner still manages to tell her story, which is of paramount importance, and she doesn’t get too sidetracked.
In this respect, Maggot Moon reminds me a little of The Giver. The two are similar because they have protagonists who are different from the average child, who reject the dystopia around them and learn that there may be more to the world—Standish thanks to his grandpa and television, and Jonas thanks to the Giver. I wasn’t a fan of The Giver, particularly as a work of dystopian fiction for children. The opposite is true for Maggot Moon.
The totalitarian motif that Gardner taps in this story is going to be different depending on whether the reader is my age (or older) or a child. Most children, even older children who have learned about World War II and the Cold War, won’t necessarily understand the historical context in which Gardner’s world lives. This is why her lack of exposition, which effectively decouples the Motherland from any Earthly origins and sets it adrift on the sea of possibility, works well. Children will recognize that this is a world that tries so hard to be fair it is as unfair as it can be; it is a world of fear and darkness hidden by a shabby coat of brighter paint.
This is actually a rather depressing book. In retrospect, that should have been obvious. Consider the title: Maggot Moon. What an unattractive concept! Yet it makes perfect sense, given the nature of the book. And then there are the illustrations: the first pages of each chapter have an illustration going across the two facing pages, and it progresses (almost but not quite like a flipbook animation might) with each subsequent chapter. The first such illustration is simply of a fly flying across the page from left to right. Then, at the bottom of the page, a rat emerges from a hole. Then the illustrations become darker: the rat finds a bottle of poison, sniffs it, tips it over, and then tastes it out of curiosity. It dies, and as the rat’s corpse begins to decay, the fly lays its eggs, which hatch into maggots…. I actually reached a point where I started to find the entire process rather revolting. I’m not sure what children would think (or if they would notice it in the same way).
This is actually a book of hope. In retrospect, that is obvious. Though subtle in other ways, Gardner doesn’t conceal that Standish is a little bit of a Mary Sue as he prepares to play a pivotal role in trying to bring down the Motherland. He plans to show up on camera, to reveal that this moonlanding business is a hoax. Never mind the fact that there is no reason they would possibly be broadcasting the “moonwalk” live, that they couldn’t just edit out the footage of him spoiling the conspiracy. The point isn’t that we see Standish succeed: we see him try, try and struggle and maybe he succeeds. (The ending implies, at least to me, that he dies and joins Hector in heaven. But that isn’t really a downer anyway, is it?)
Maggot Moon is impressive because it manages that balancing act between complexity and subtlety required in books about weighty matters aimed at children. It’s not quite in the same league as Wonder … but it isn’t aiming to be. Whereas Wonder is character-driven, Maggot Moon is more about symbols and metaphors. This makes it simultaneously a more difficult and an easier book: more difficult, obviously, because it requires that extra layer of abstraction; and easier, because the characters are less complex, as they are there primarily to represent certain things.
All in all, it’s a good book. It hasn’t quite displaced Wonder as my favourite of the four nominees I’ve read so far, but I can see why people champion it, and champions it deserves.
I had little but praise for The Alchemist of Souls, the first adventure of Mal Catlyn and Coby Hendricks in an alternative Elizabethan England. AnneI had little but praise for The Alchemist of Souls, the first adventure of Mal Catlyn and Coby Hendricks in an alternative Elizabethan England. Anne Lyle had a keen eye for characterization and an ability to weave a tight, dramatic story that held my attention and left me wanting more. So more’s the pity that The Merchant of Dreams was quite a different experience!
This sequel picks up a little while after the first book, with Mal and Coby living in France while the fallout from their actions in England dissipates. When they learn that the skraylings are going to Venice to seek an alliance with this republic, they return to England to inform Walsingham. Naturally, they get tasked with going to Venice and learning as much as possible about this potential alliance and how it will affect England. Meanwhile, Mal continues to grapple with what it means that he and his twin brother, Sandy, share the soul of a departed skrayling named Erishen. And Coby, who has lived most of her life in the guise of a boy, starts wondering what it would be like to don dresses again and become Mal’s wife.
My disappointment is easily explained through the book’s title. The Merchant of Dreams is a character who shows up in Venice. He’s a shady dealer whom Mal encounters as he begins to send out feelers into the Venetian underworld. And then he dies.
For a book to be named after a character, that character usually has a big role to play. Certainly they are so important, so pivotal, that they don’t die so soon after being introduced (unless their death is itself the event that changes everything, which it doesn’t here). We don’t learn that much about the Merchant of Dreams, beyond the fact that he is a scheming traitor. Mal and friends have very little interaction with him; they don’t cross paths more than once or twice, and they don’t really butt heads.
And this seems to be the issue with the book as a whole: I never really had a clear idea of what story it was trying to tell. Mal’s mission to Venice is vague. He’s "gathering intelligence", and his goal for accomplishing this seems to involve gaining admittance into the skrayling quarters in Venice and talking to his buddy Ambassador Kiiren. Lyle pads out the book with a series of comical and serious mishaps and misadventures. While these are, in their own way, delightful, they also muddle and mask the true nature of the plot, and I confess that by the end of the book, I wasn’t really sure what England had lost or gained. Whereas, in the first book, the stakes were clear and quite dangerous, the stakes here seem … tepid at best.
Mal and Coby’s relationship becomes strained as the question of a marriage looms over them. To achieve this, Coby would have to give up living as a boy, losing the freedom such a disguise allows her. Her insecurities about living as a woman, and her love for Mal, are all natural and touching. Lyle once again does an excellent job of portraying differences that gender make in the power dynamics of 16th-century Europe. Yet the actual will-they-or-won’t-they subplot, complete with flashes of comical indignance from each character, is tired and boring.
Then there is a wholly different subplot involving Mal and Sandy’s older brother, Charles, who has apparently gone to ground in Venice (what a coincidence!). A Huntsman, Charles was initiated into a secret society devoted to wiping out the supernatural (including the skraylings). Or something. Anyway, he blathers on about how there are more frightening threats than the skraylings to human society, and one of these threats just happens to materialize at the climax. So it goes.
The Alchemist of Souls was electrifying in the conflict it presented and the way the characters had to handle it. With each chapter, Lyle left me wanting more. The Merchant of Dreams is the opposite. With each chapter, I was left scratching my head and wondering how these events would all come together. In the end, as the characters converged and the conflict intensified, I began to entertain a glimmer of hope. Alas, that’s all it remained: a glimmer. Although Lyle produced a great standalone story in the first book, this second book has not resulted in the ignition of a brilliant new series. I find myself most apathetic towards all the elements of the world here: I don’t really know or remember who the Huntsmen are, and I don’t really care about that. I’m somewhat vague on the whole skrayling reincarnation process, and this doesn’t bother me. A great series embeds this information in a memorable but subtle way within the stories themselves, and it does so in a way that makes me care.
I still find this universe an intriguing one, with all the deviations from established history that Lyle has carefully made. I’ll happily pick up the next book when it arrives and give this series another shot—no author can get it right a hundred per cent of the time. And I still recommend The Alchemist of Souls for those who have yet to meet Mal Catlyn. I just wish this book had lived up to the high expectations established by the first.
Empire State is a frenetic concoction of noir mystery, Prohibition-era gangster-style criminal conspiracy, and Golden Age superhero fiction. Reading iEmpire State is a frenetic concoction of noir mystery, Prohibition-era gangster-style criminal conspiracy, and Golden Age superhero fiction. Reading it is like sitting in a bare room, concrete walls and a single steel table with an uncomfortable chair, as the clock above the door ticks steadily towards 3 AM. It’s minimalist and rough, sometimes surreal and always uncomfortable. Just when I thought I had it figured out, Adam Christopher changes gears and leaves me in the dust. I like that I was always kept guessing in that sense. However, Empire State’s characters and story also leave much to be desired. I’m not sure how great a book this is, but it’s definitely a very interesting experience.
Without spoiling too much of the story, Empire State is basically about the relationship between two alternate universes. The first universe is like ours, except that New York in the 1930s came with two superheroes attached. The second universe, the Empire State, is itself a distilled, distorted version of the first, even more different from our own universe. (And don’t worry, Empire State obeys the airship law of alternate universes (TVTropes), though it’s somewhat justified here because of the time period.)
Although mysteries were my first novel love, way back in grades five and six, I never made it as far as the noir and pulp traditions—I stayed safely in the posh land of Poirot and Holmes and their ilk. Empire State features a private detective named Ray Bradley. He’s exactly what one would expect: short on funds, caught in the middle of an interminable separation/divorce with a woman he might still kind of love, not quite an alcoholic but well on his way to being dependent on the bottle, and possessed of slightly too much in the way of integrity to make his way in this broken town. Unlike his counterpart from New York, Rex, I found Ray a rather tolerable and sometimes even entertaining protagonist.
Christopher aptly bridges the noir genre with speculative fiction. Though I’m not really qualified to judge the noir aspects of Empire State, I think that in general this is a very natural union. The science fictional parts of Empire State are almost but not quite Lovecraftian in atmosphere, almost but not quite steampunk in implementation. Both of these styles are compatible with the dreary, gritty atmosphere of the noir realm, that sense that the world is a tough, unyielding place of grey skies and unceasing rain.
On top of this union Christopher adds the superhero element. The Skyguard and Science Pirate were once a crimefighting duo in 1930s New York. Then they became bitter enemies for reasons no one knows. Their final, climactic fight is related directly to the origins of the Empire State, and the identities of the Skyguard and Science Pirate play a crucial part in the resolution of the book. These heroes are of the technological, Batman kind rather than the alien or mutant kind: their powers are marvels of science and engineering, not natural gifts. This all fits with the setting Christopher has created. Some other reviews have questioned whether these superheroes are necessary (or, along similar lines, lamented the way their stories are sidelined and shoehorned into the rest of the plot). I can see the reasoning behind those critiques, but I personally didn’t mind the superhero part of the plot. Could Christopher have achieved the same ends with different means? Perhaps. But the inclusion of superheroes doesn’t hurt anything.
Instead, I am more disappointed in the characterization—of the superheroes, yes, but also the rest of the characters. Most of the time, the narration follows Rad, occasionally jumping to a different character. Sometimes their actions come out of the blue—Carson’s twist during the climax is a good example of this. With other characters, like the anomalous Katherine Kopek or the Science Pirate, are complete ciphers without so much as a motivation call their own. Christopher has an interesting in-universe excuse related to the paradoxical nature of the Empire State’s existence. Even so, as someone who reads books primarily for the juicy drama of relationships between real human beings, this leaves much to be desired.
I still liked Empire State, mostly because I love what Christopher attempts to do with these universes he has created. I’m not just talking about worldbuilding (a term about which I feel increasingly ambivalent these days), though I can see why Angry Robot decided to use it as the basis for the WorldBuilder project. I’m referring to the way Christopher has intentionally taken these disparate but very compatible genres of noir, superhero, and alternate universe and fused them into a recognizable, workable story. The plot is sometimes lackadaisical in its pacing, and the characters irritate me, but the framework on which these two elements hang is itself very intriguing.
But better a novelist should take a stab at something clever and original and fascinating than play it safe. Empire State doesn’t succeed in a marvellous fashion—but its very attempt, and the creativity behind it, deserves high marks. It’s a story that should appeal to a broad audience—fans of noir mysteries or alternate universe shenanigans will probably find this a must-read.
I rediscovered this while sorting out my overflow bin of books to read. I hesitated, because since buying it years ago, I’ve learned that the series hI rediscovered this while sorting out my overflow bin of books to read. I hesitated, because since buying it years ago, I’ve learned that the series has been re-edited and republished in doorstopper form, apparently to its benefit as a story. Still, it was there, and I wanted something not too heavy to read.
The Hidden Family picks up right where The Family Trade left off (literally, because they used to be one book). Whereas I was impressed with The Family Trade, I’m less enamoured of The Hidden Family. In his quest to create an otherworldly economic thriller, Stross seems to let the details get the better of him (or at least, of us the readers). What should be a white-knuckled race against the clock to find evidence for a hidden family of world-walkers before they can make another attempt on Miriam’s life proves, instead, to be a tedious and not all that suspenseful chronicle of Miriam applying for patents in a new world.
I love the various economic and cultural musings that Stross injects into the book. Miriam brings Brilliana over to our world when she runs, and the two of them and Paulette form a fantastic trio. After Paulette initiates Brill into the way our world works, Miriam discusses with Brill the idea of bringing more than just resources from our world back to her world—she wants to actually improve the technology and landscape of Brill’s world. But then she expresses some angst over the spectre of colonialism—and Brill flips out, because she is tired of not having indoor plumbing and of watching women die in childbirth. This is a none-too-subtle dig at proliferation of feudal/medieval settings in fantasy despite the fact that such a setting was a shit place to live for the majority of the population. The idea that the past was better because it was “a simpler time” is nonsense. We might have a screwed up world now, but at least we have antibiotics (for now).
Similarly, Stross shows off a more nuanced understanding of mercantilism versus twentieth-century capitalism and import/export and patenting than most of us could shake a stick at. I certainly won’t pretend that I followed it all. But basically, somehow in the course of her career as a tech journalist, Miriam has learned all about economics, patent law, import and export, and how to design car brakes. Which is exactly what you need to know when you find yourself with the ability to travel to world that is similar to your own but stuck in a 1920s era of technology. Whereas the Clan is stuck in the mode of transporting raw materials between worlds, Miriam decides to go a step further, bringing ideas into world three and getting a return on her investment.
It’s an interesting evolutionary step. I don’t buy that Miriam would be the first one to come up with it. If the Clan has been operating for as long as it has in both worlds, surely someone would have seen the potential before now? Then again, maybe the very way in which the Clan has become a power in its own right in its world makes it harder for it to influence the development of that world through the introduction of new inventions.
At an intelluctual level, The Hidden Family is stimulating. Stross has set up a really cool political dynamic, with a missing/lost family operating in a heretofore unknown world. Miriam is an engaging protagonist, extremely capable and cool, but also prone to moments of self-doubt and introspection. So it’s all the more disappointing that Stross doesn’t back this up with a better plot.
All the building blocks are there. I’m fascinated my Miriam’s exploration of world three and the threat looming of its police apparatus cracking down on her new business. I just wanted more of a sense of urgency and danger than I got. This hidden family doesn’t seem like all that much of a threat now that we know about them, and Miriam deals with their goons like they are amateur burglars. Similarly, she cuts through the backstabbing boardroom intrigue of the Clan’s big summit without much difficulty. The only thing to really trip her up is what happens with Roland at the end, and that is a blink-and-you-missed-it thing—literally, I zoned out for half a page and then suddenly had to backtrack to see if it really happened.
I’ve got The Clan Corporate, but I don’t think I’ll bother. I’ll pick up the revised, recombined trilogy of the series at some point in the future, and hopefully I’ll have better luck with that.
I was under the impression that this was a science fiction book set in the far future, with a family that controlled merchant interests across a far-fI was under the impression that this was a science fiction book set in the far future, with a family that controlled merchant interests across a far-flung, loosely-connected human civilization. I was completely off the mark on that … and I couldn’t be happier. The word for this book, I think, is romp. Specifically, it’s a low-tech/hi-fi political and corporate intrigue and espionage romp. I love heist movies. I live for that moment where the protagonist gets a bunch of people together and says, “Let’s rob a bank.” The Family Trade isń’t a heist novel, but it has that same vibe. The protagonist, Miriam Beckstein, gets sick of being a pawn in other people’s plans—so she forms an alliance of her own and decides to upset every other gambit in play. My kind of heroine.
I suppose I should backtrack and explain one essential plot point. Miriam is adopted. It thus follows, by the laws of Fictional Universes, that she is the Long Lost Something-or-other (TVTropes)—the last of her kind, or in this case, long lost daughter of an inter-universal mob. She’s a high-ranking heir in one of the six families of a Clan from a parallel dimension, and believe me, the bizarre starts there. With a medieval, pre-industrial culture rooted in Scandinavian-style language and mythology, the Clan and its world is backwards compared to our Earth. Members of Clan families have the intrinsic ability to walk between the two worlds, and bring anything they can carry along with them. This allows the Clan to operate a very limited import/export trade. And now that everyone knows Miriam exists, she is a rogue chess piece on the playing board. No one wants that.
Charles Stross doesn’t always wow me. I’ve liked almost all of his books so far, but it’s safe to say that only Palimpsest looms large in my mind (though I have a soft spot for Singularity Sky as well). As a thinker, he gets it when it comes to theorizing and philosophizing about humanity’s futures. And as a tech guy, he knows how to make with the sexy science talk. But his narratives have seldom managed to grab me and make me go whoa.
The Family Trade changes that for me. As I’ve read more of Stross’ work, particularly Rule 34, his skill at planning the arc of a story has become increasingly apparent. It’s even more visible here, where there are tantalizing hints at this vast new parallel world and society—as well as dark secrets even the Clan doesn’t know. Discovering all this along with Miriam is great fun, and the fact that she refuses to submit and just play along makes it all the more entertaining. Stross knows where subterfuge and subtlety is necessary and when the shit should hit the fan.
Miriam’s problems start almost immediately. She works for a magazine, and she discovers a criminal conspiracy of which the magazine’s parent company is a part. She realizes this too late and gets fired (and threatened). And if her day had stopped there, it would have sucked, but she could have moved on. Instead she pays a visit to her mother, retrieves a locket that was found on the body of her biological mother, and ends up sitting in her desk chair in the middle of a forest. Welcome to a parallel universe, Miriam. You just got more problems.
And her reaction is the reaction of a normal human being: she freaks out. Then her journalist instincts and training kick in, and she starts to think about how to document. She tries to replicate her results. She brings in outside help—a friend—and tries it again. Miriam’s methodical approach lands her in more trouble, yes, but it keeps an otherwise slow start to this story from feeling dull and lackadaisical. Instead, we’re treated to watching Miriam try to figure it out before the other shoe—which we know is there—drops.
What really surprised me, however, is how much I liked Roland and Olga. Stross really pulled a fast bait-and-switch, because our first glimpses of them are not in favourable lights. Roland shows up and sounds like a whiney brat who doesn’t get to play with the best toys. Olga sounds like, as Miriam herself describes her, an airhead ditz. Eventually we get to know them better, and while Roland is still a bit of an oaf, he has a three-dimensional personality and a good brain of his own. (I just wish the whole romance aspect didn’t feel so forced!) But Olga … I love Olga. She is a total paradox: raised in this backward world and never allowed to visit ours, she has very strict ideas about station and etiquette and comportment. She does seem like an airhead—harmless 15th-century nobility. And then she turns, and you can see the steel in her. She’s not quite a spymistress yet, but with a few more decades of practice … I have high hopes for her.
The other side of The Family Trade is the fusion of corporate espionage with royal backstabbing politics—a match made in some kind of writer heaven. As with Rule 34, much of the jargon Stross employs here goes over my head—I can grok “hostile takeover” and not much more. I’m a mathematician, but the moment financies or economics get involved, I start looking for the exit sign. My inability to understand the intricacies of these plots, however, didn’t much reduce my enjoyment of watching Miriam, Roland, Angbard, et al do their plotting. I just went along for the ride, and I’m glad I did.
These sort of parallel world, mixture of modern and medieval fantasy novels don’t always turn out well. (Case in point: The Fionavar Tapestry.) I was expecting something good from Stross, but instead I got something even better—probably the best Stross novel I’ve read since Palimpsest and Singularity Sky. Maybe it’s because it’s just so different from the science fiction I’m accustomed to seeing from him—the fantasy feels fresh but still very comfortable. If you were hoping for another nanotechnology-laden dream from a master of posthumanism, then this is not going to be it (I honestly don’t understand why I thought this was science fiction). But putting that expectation aside, The Family Trade is by all measures very satisfying.
**spoiler alert** I imagine being a detective is difficult enough without specializing in the supernatural. It probably helps that in Justin Gustainis**spoiler alert** I imagine being a detective is difficult enough without specializing in the supernatural. It probably helps that in Justin Gustainis’ alternative world, the existence of supernatural beings from vampires to ghouls to witches has been public knowledge since after World War II. So at least you don’t run into the common problem of everyone thinking you’re crazy. Still, solving mysteries is difficult enough when you don’t have to worry about failure meaning the end of the world as we know it.
Hard Spell takes the path less travelled in urban fantasy and lets the supernatural out of the closet. In fact, Gustainis rewrites the twentieth century to include them, and this was a source of fascination and frustration to me. Fascination, because it means Gustainis—and therefore the reader—can have fun with the laws, precedents, and policies put in place to deal with supernatural threats and crimes. Frustration, because I can’t help but think that if we lived in a world where the supernatural had been more apparent since World War II, then it would somehow be even more different than the one Gustainis portrays. Markowski essentially lives in “Scranton, with monsters”. In alternative history, changing one thing should ripple forward in a wave, not a straight line. The world shouldn’t be “the same, with monsters”. It largely is though.
This one complain aside, Hard Spell is the fairly standard urban fantasy/mystery story. Instead of a hardboiled private investigator, the main character is a Scranton PD detective by the name of Stan Markowski. I really like Gustainis’ portrayal of Markowski and his colleagues. The first-person narration has that somewhat weary, wise-cracking tone one might expect from a detective novel, but Gustainis never overdoes it. Markowski has his biases and his problems, but he genuinely cares about people—even the supernatural ones—and he’s definitely a good cop. Most of the other cops Markowski works with are the same way. This is not a book full of stereotypes of the lazy cop, the racist cop, etc. Every character has their flaws—I found Markowski’s chauvinistic attitude difficult at times—but few of them are bad people. In fact, I would argue that Markowski is remarkably well-adjusted considering how much he has experienced.
A vampire-wizard wants to make himself invincible and able to walk in sunlight. To do this, he needs to sacrifice five vampires to a Sumerian god. The last of those vampires? Stan’s daughter. So aside from, you know, preventing the world from ending, Stan has a very personal stake in this conflict. So does his sometime-ally, Vollman, the local Big Vampire on Campus. Whereas Christine is the victim, her captor and would-be killer is Vollman’s own son. After centuries of trying to reconcile with his estranged offspring, Vollman has finally come to terms with the fact that his son has to die to save the world.
These parallel progeny-related plot points are cool, but not as cool as Stan’s vampire ally. Gustainis walks the middle ground between the happy-shiny vegetarian vampires of that other vampire novel and the dark and brooding, terrifying vampires of Buffy and Stoker and Rice. In general, I lean towards the latter when it comes to fulfilling my government-mandated quota of vampire fiction—but it’s good to know that some authors can do benign vampires well. Granted, Vollman isn’t necessarily a happy-go-lucky “I love humans” kind of guy—but he doesn’t have the same sinister, “I will turn on you at any moment” vibe that a lot of reluctant vampire–human team-ups do in other books. He is a potential antagonist but not necessarily a villain, and I like that.
These shades of grey pervade the mythology of Hard Spell. In addition to vampires that aren’t straight-up evil, Gustainis populates this world with black, grey, and white magic. Witchfinders don’t care about the difference, but the law does. Although magic and witchcraft is only a small part of this book, I enjoyed seeing the various gradations at work, from the grey necromancy that Rachel does at Stan’s request to the out-and-out black magic wielded by Sligo in his quest for apotheosis. In the end, Gustainis avoids the trap of making magic the solution to everything—though I do take issue with how some things are resolved.
Consider Karl’s fate: his injury is near-mortal, and will likely be fatal because the emergency response time at an abandoned pumping station in the middle of nowhere is terrible. Meanwhile, Christine is has only just survived her near-sacrifice at Sligo’s hands, but his use of silver prevents her from healing herself unless she feeds. So Stan, too weak to do much himself, gives Christine permission to feed on Karl and make him into a vampire. He gets not to die (well, he undies, I guess), and she lives (well, unlives). Sounds like a fair deal, right?
Judging from the voiceover-style epilogue we get, Karl doesn’t seem to mind this transition from life to unlife. So I suppose I’m getting outraged over nothing, but … I hate that Stan did that without even asking Karl. He already did it once, with Christine, and now Karl? This could become habit-forming, dude. It’s great that it turned out to be everything Karl had hoped for, but to do it without even asking for his go-ahead seems callous. One would think the Supernatural Crimes division would have some kind of vampiric-transformation clause in their contract, like an organ donor card—initial here if you’re OK with becoming the undead in the event you’re mortally wounded in the line of duty.
Similarly, I’m kind of disappointed that Kulick surrenders Rachel’s body in such a straightforward way. Rachel herself seemed convinced Kulick had a more sinister ulterior motive, but when Stan has no choice but to summon him, Kulick quickly fulfils his end of the deal with no compunctions. What’s up with that? In the best urban fantasy novels, nothing goes right for the protagonist. Here, he has a wizard/vampire and a wizard’s ghost going to bat for him. That’s called stacking the deck, Gustainis, and you’re supposed to do it for the bad guys. It’s no fun if the protagonist wins because he brings superior firepower. Stan didn’t even have much of a plan!
So I’m of two minds about this book. On one hand, it is an exciting adventure in the tradition of urban fantasy mysteries. On the other hand, the story, and in particular its resolution, lacks a certain complexity and sense of challenge that I need in my fiction. I wouldn’t call Hard Spell a great book, but it seems like the beginning of something good—something that could, hopefully, aspire to greatness. Until then … I mean, it has vampires and witches and hardboiled cops saving the world. That has to count for something.
My reviews of the Occult Crimes Unit Investigation series: Evil Dark → (forthcoming)
I love fiction set in Tudor and Elizabethan England. It seems an era particularly rich in epic, empire-spanning evenNow this is how you write a novel!
I love fiction set in Tudor and Elizabethan England. It seems an era particularly rich in epic, empire-spanning events and internal religious and royal conflict. If an author can make historical figures come alive and explore the emotions and motivations that might have been involved in these intrigues, the resultant novel can be an intense, interesting invocation of history. This era is also a rich source of inspiration for historical fantasy, and sometimes even alternative history. What if Henry VIII hadn’t killed Anne Boleyn? What if he had lived to take a seventh wife? Or what if, as Anne Lyle posits here, Elizabeth I did not remind the virgin queen, but instead married Robert Dudley and bore him princes? And what if, upon expanding into the New World, European explorers encountered more than just the indigenous human inhabitants? They found the Skraylings, non-human beings steeped in mysterious traditions and magic.
The Alchemist of Souls falls into the category I like to call, “What a Great Read.” It’s not a book that is going to keep me up at night pondering its themes and subtext. But it’s far more than just a competent or compelling narrative. Rather, Anne Lyle has achieved something in between the two, and that’s definitely cause for celebration. I enjoyed the few hours I spent with Maliverny Catlyn and Coby Hendricks, and Lyle’s alternative Elizabethan England is a fascinating setting without becoming overbearing or over-the-top.
Mal Catlyn has seen better days. Down his luck, in debt, suddenly he becomes appointed the bodyguard to a Skrayling ambassador. There are deeper reasons for this, which we learn later, but the upshot is that Mal is caught between several masters. He is working for Walsingham, who of course is trying to control everything. He is working for Leland, the Queen’s man in this matter, and theoretically Mal’s direct superior. But mostly he becomes loyal to Kiiren, the young Skrayling ambassador whom he is assigned to protect. Mal overcomes his initial prejudice and distrust of the Skraylings and comes to consider Kiiren a kind of friend—that is, until a close encounter with Skrayling magic and the abduction of his insane brother threatens Mal’s relationship with Kiiren, as well as Mal’s life.
The other half of the book follows Coby, short for Jacob, an adolescent member of an acting troupe. Except she’s a boy (which isn’t a spoiler, because we learn it when we first meet her). As the tireman for Suffolk’s Men, Coby works on the costumes for the troupe. She finds it easier to live as a boy rather than endure the attention that would fall upon her as a parent-less girl. The threat of discovery looms over Coby at every corner, but Lyle never makes it melodramatic. Rather, she plays upon the ambiguous attitudes towards sexuality and sexual orientation among the Elizabethan classes. Coby falls hard for Mal after he teaches her how to fight in return for lessons from her on Skrayling tradetalk. He notices the attraction, but of course he sees it through the lens of Coby’s apparent masculine gender performance and lets Coby down gently. Later in the book, another man who has relations with men assumes it is Coby’s attraction to Mal that makes her so anxious to find and rescue him from the clutches of an adversary.
This kind of play on mistaken identity or misinterpreted relationships and sexuality is nice to see, particularly in a book set in the time of Shakespeare, who was such a master of it. I won’t pretend to any kind of expertise in this area, so rather than saying that Lyle’s portrayal of sexuality and gender lends the book authenticity, I’ll say that it at least demonstrates a keen awareness that ideas about gender in Elizabethan England were very different from ideas about gender now. So many writers of historical fiction nail the events, dates, names, even clothing, but their men act like 20th- or 21st-century men, and their women act like 20th- or 21st-century women. Lyle’s characters have the prejudices and pre-conceptions of 16th-century Europeans, something that becomes all the more obvious when they deal with the Skraylings.
The principal conflict in The Alchemist of Souls concerns one of the many secrets the Skraylings have yet to reveal to humans: they reincarnate. I won’t go into more detail so I don’t have to attach a spoiler warning. Suffice it to say that Mal and his twin brother play an important role in a gambit between Kiiren and another important Skrayling. In the balance lies not only Mal’s life but the alliance between the Skraylings and England against the staunchly-Catholic French and Spain. Lyle includes both personal and very big-picture stakes in the conflict.
Indeed, in general I am impressed not just with the story but with how tightly written this book is. It’s easy to turn historical fiction into sprawling epics, with descriptions and careful flashbacks and long-winded explanations of genealogies and precedents. Lyle manages to establish a lot with very little in the way of exposition. We quickly learn that Mal is the son of a diplomat who married an heiress from the French court. This gives him a half-French, secret Catholic heritage he has to hide, lest it bring him under suspicion. (Lyle drops a few more hints throughout the book that Mal will eventually renew his connection to France in the service of Walsingham’s spy corps, but I assume that will be another book.) Similarly, we learn about Coby’s background and former life in the Netherlands in about a single conversation between her and Mal. No lengthy flashbacks here, and only a few disjointed dream sequences!
I’m not quite as sold on the way Lyle portrays the magical and supernatural in The Alchemist of Souls. Magic doesn’t play an overt role until the last part of the book, and then there’s quite a bit of it, and it can be a little confusing to try to work out what’s going on, especially during the climax. In the end, all becomes clear once the dust settles. But this is an exception to the otherwise skillful use of action and suspense that makes this book so satisfying to read.
This is definitely a refreshing take on Elizabethan England, and one that I will be happy to follow as a series. The addition of the Skraylings into the political and religious fray between England and the Continent can only deepen the amount of carnage and intrigue that will be forthcoming. I can’t wait to see what Mal gets up to next. But far from serving merely to set up any sequels, The Alchemist of Souls is a fine novel that stands alone. It’s entertaining and action-oriented, but with a keen sense of history, neat new supernatural allies and enemies, and worthy characters to cheer (or boo).
With its hundredth anniversary just last month, Titanic was all over the media, much to my dad’s chagrin. He doesn’t understand why everyone seems soWith its hundredth anniversary just last month, Titanic was all over the media, much to my dad’s chagrin. He doesn’t understand why everyone seems so fascinated by Titanic (the ship or the James Cameron movie). I personally don’t care much for the movie, but I can see why the ship has captured so many imaginations. It was a huge testament to human ingenuity—and hubris. Its sinking was a monumental event in the early twentieth century. Not only was the loss of life considerable—and perhaps preventable, had the ship been equipped with enough lifeboats—but the psychological toll for the survivors must have been particularly harrowing.
Of course, no matter how awful the situation, it could always get worse. You could get rescued by a ship unwittingly transporting vampires.
Now, I don’t quite have Titanic fever, and vampires aren’t my favourite beast in the mythological stable. So I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book if it weren’t for my Angry Robot subscription. But I did, and it made for an interesting if unremarkable read. Carpathia has all the makings of a good book, but it’s missing a spark to elevate it above that.
Our protagonists survive the sinking of the Titanic only to discover that the ship that rescued them—the Carpathia—happens to be infested with vampires trying to get back to the Old Country. Some of the vampires see the Titanic disaster as an opportunity for a free meal, but they risk exposure, which the vampire leader does not condone. Soon enough, Quin, Abe, and Lucy find themselves hunting, staking, and battling vampires in a fight for survival just when they thought they were saved.
Matt Forbeck’s vampires are old-school, Stoker-esque creatures of the night. All the classic powers from Dracula: transformation into mist or into a bat, hypnosis, vulnerability to wooden stakes and sunlight and fire, and even sleeping in a coffin filled with dirt from one’s homeland; these are the hallmarks of a vampire in Carpathia. Indeed, the connection to Stoker goes even deeper, as the last names (Harker, Holmwood, and Seward) hint at from the beginning. To be honest, since I haven’t read Dracula, this connection didn’t do a lot for me. However, I appreciate that Forbeck’s vampires don’t sparkle and, you know, are actually kind of like how vampires should be.
Forbeck manages his protagonists’ transformation from sceptics to believers in a very natural way. After witnessing one vampire disposing of a body—at sea, this is as simple as throwing it overboard—Lucy and Quin alert the captain to the presence of a murderer on board. Eventually, they stumble into a cabin that appears to be the scene of some horrific crime. One of the vampires attacks Abe, but thanks to Quin’s quick action, he survives. This leads them to gathering the doctor as an ally, and as the three of them become reconciled to the existence of vampires, they have to decide how to investigate the threat to themselves and to the ship.
Likewise, we get some good characterization from the vampires too. They are unquestionably monstrous, motivated by a bloodlust and inflated by a sense of immortality and power. Yet they are cunning, and their instinct for self-preservation usually wins out over the desire to feed. The lead vampire, Dushko, is a savvy businessman who wants to lead his people back to the relative safety of the Old World. To do this, he knows they need to keep a low profile on board this ship, where the cramped conditions make them vulnerable if discovered (as we eventually see). But Dushko, the old and experienced vampire, is not the only one with opinions about how the vampires should live. Brody Murtagh would rather start a war with the humans and show them their place in the food chain. This point of contention proves dangerous—and fatal—as the book goes on.
Despite this careful cocktail of conflict, however, I had trouble seeing the point of the book for the first half of it. So Quin, Abe, and Lucy survive the sinking of the Titanic, and there are vampires on board the Carpathia. So … what? It took too long for us to go from rescue to the discovery of the vampires, and my interest began to flag. This problem arises again later in the book, after the vampires are no longer a secret and all hell breaks loose. Forbeck’s quite good at the set-up, but once he has set everything in motion, it all seems to move erratically and without any sense of a bigger picture. As much as I enjoyed individual moments in the book, it never really gave me a unified sense of satisfaction.
Also, I hated the love triangle among our three protagonists. I knew from the moment the two men and their woman companion were introduced that this would be a love triangle kind of book. Of course, I don’t object to love triangles per se—when used creatively and appropriately they’re just as interesting as any other trope. But the “I love her but she only has eyes for my best friend, so I will stay strong and silent” trope is just so overdone. To be fair to Forbeck, Quin’s very real brush with death galvanizes him to confess his love to Lucy. But that’s not enough. Combined with the mortal peril Abe suffers during the vampire attack and the eventual resolution of the love triangle, this relationship just felt like too much of a cliché.
Much like my experience with Amortals, I was initially going to give Carpathia two stars. It’s a good book, just not really one that piques my interest. For that reason, I began to reconsider my evaluation and wonder if three stars would be more appropriate. But unlike Amortals, Carpathia doesn’t leave me with any larger thematic concerns. It is a tasty blend of action, horror, and thriller, but beyond the story there isn’t much here. If you’re fascinated by fiction about the sinking of the Titanic or want to read a book with some Stoker-esque vampires, then Carpathia might work well from you. Just don’t expect anything more than what’s exactly on the box.
Two years ago my friend Vivike gave me Kafka on the Shore for Christmas, assuring me that I would like it—and she was right. I also found it confusinTwo years ago my friend Vivike gave me Kafka on the Shore for Christmas, assuring me that I would like it—and she was right. I also found it confusing and daunting and knew that, in Haruki Murakami, I had found yet another author whose works I will continue to digest long after I devour them with all the tenacity my love of reading requires. So for this Christmas as I considered which book to inflict upon Viv, Murakami’s latest was a natural choice. And I prefer to give people books that I have already read, so that my recommendation is all that more genuine. Of course, when I went to buy 1Q84 last Thursday, I didn’t quite realize it was 925 pages. Since I planned to give it to Vivike when I saw her on Monday, I had an intense few days of reading to do. But I made it!
I liked 1Q84 better than Kafka on the Shore almost immediately. It might be owing to the more overtly science-fictional premise, this idea that Aomame might just have slipped into a parallel world. It might be that the mystery in this novel develops at a much less sedate pace than its impressive length suggests. It could be that, unlike the somewhat unequal relationship between Kafka on the Shore’s two main characters, Aomame and Tengo are a much more evenly-matched duo. Watching their stories converge, seeing the foreshadowing that Murakami uses, is one of the most delightful things about this book. I kept developing—then discarding—various theories as to what was going on. There were moments when I was so sure of an answer, only for Murakami to pull the carpet out from beneath my feet a hundred or two hundred pages later. Yeah, occasionally I was right—but who am I to keep score?
1Q84 is a mystery and also a little bit of a fairy tale. Aomame is the investigator, and she is also an Alice in a Wonderland that is uncomfortably similar to her own world. Quickly it becomes apparent that the cult at Sakigake, the Little People, and Air Chrysalis all have something to do with Aomame’s sudden transition to this alternative worldline—but what, precisely, is the connection? Meanwhile, Tengo struggles with the ethics of his role as the ghostwriter of Air Chrysalis; he has also begun to wonder how the novel relates to Fuka-Eri’s real experiences at Sakigake. It’s a rich and multi-layered mystery. Wanting to know the answers was definitely one reason I kept reading (aside from my self-imposed deadline!). But the style and substance in which Murakami steeps his mystery makes the experience all the more enjoyable.
1Q84 reminds me of Bridge of Birds in the way that many of its characters are less like actual people than they are like characters from a myth or a fable. (Alice in Wonderland has a similar quality to it.) The Leader, Professor Ebisuno, the Dowager, and even Fuka-Eri all have an advisory aspect to their personae. Even their names (Ebisuno is commonly addressed as “the Professor”, and while we do learn the dowager’s name late in the book, no one ever calls her by it) suggest the roles they play rather than people. The effect of this characterization is two-fold. Firstly, it supports the Jungian archetypes that Murakami explicitly employs throughout the novel. Secondly, it emphasizes the almost meta-fictional nature of the book—I say almost because 1Q84 never quite reaches the point where I would call it meta-fiction, but it comes very close. As novels that feature novelists as characters often are, it is a novel that is very keen to discuss and allude to various aspects of the conversation around literature.
And like Bridge of Birds, 1Q84 has a happy ending because it has something to say about the nature of happiness. Both Aomame and Tengo have solitary lifestyles that they believe have made them happy, so they must confront whether this happiness to real or merely a wishful delusion (and if it is the latter, does that matter as long as it feels real?). Aomame finds herself making a friend just as she learns her next assassination will result in her going underground and changing her face and name. The death of Tengo’s father, and his mounting foreboding over his relationship to Fuka-Eri and the Little People, make Tengo realize that he is not really close to anyone and that he has no one on whom he can rely. As someone who has few close friends and leads a sparse social life with an emphasis on solitude accompanied by tea and a good book, I appreciated seeing this nuanced and complex take on such lifestyles. Murakami doesn’t draw conclusions so much as present possibilities.
One person noted on my review of Kafka on the Shore that “the best authors (and I include Murakami here) do not set out to write a novel within the boundaries of a particular genre”. I would tend to agree, and 1Q84 is an excellent example where this appears to be the case. This novel flirts with so many genres but ultimately transcends them all. Much like China Miéville, Murakami seems very comfortable taking complete ownership of his story. He very clearly has influences (1984 being only the most obvious one, and perhaps the least significant). Yet like Miéville he seems less concerned with genre than with setting and character, as he should be. Yet Miéville and Murakami approach worldbuilding in totally different ways. Miéville is like the medieval artist who would sea serpents into the corners of maps: he describes his wonderful and terrifying new worlds to us with a level of detail that makes them come alive. Murakami, in contrast, is more minimalist, allowing the reader to build up a world through a relationship with the characters who traverse it. Aside from what Aomame learns, we don’t really know how 1Q84 differs from 1984—and it isn’t all that important. Although these two approaches are different, they achieve the same end: a work of fantasy that is not mired in the medieval tropes embraced by those who seek to emulate Tolkien and Vance. Both are extremely creative and talented authors with original voices.
Maybe it’s because I’m slightly more familiar with the theories of Jung than those of Hegel or Kafka that I preferred 1Q84 over Kafka on the Shore. That said, familiarity with Jung is certainly not a prerequisite to understanding or enjoying this book. There’s room to interpret 1Q84 through the lens of the Shadow and the Magus, but there are many additional layers of meaning. You will notice that this review focuses on the literary qualities of 1Q84 almost to the exclusion of other concerns. That’s just my particular hang-up, and I hope you won’t come away with the impression that this is a book only book-lovers can love.
There are so many other topics that 1Q84 covers. In general it’s a fascinating window into Japanese culture back in 1984. It deals with issues of abuse, of both women and children, and does not shy away from the ugly truths around this subject. It addresses the fine line between religion and cultism. Also, it’s an interesting example of a novel that wouldn’t work the same if it were set after the advent of the Internet. Murakami refers to computers a few times in the novel—Tengo notably buys a dedicated word processor—but I get the sense that if the novel were set in, say, the 2000s, its tone would be completely altered. The march of digital technology has changed us in ways that we don’t necessarily perceive until we read fiction written now about then.
I can’t quite bring myself to give this book five stars. Unlike some people I’m not going to criticize it for its length, and I was pretty satisfied with the pacing. However, some parts of the book did feel repetitive (and perhaps this was because the three books were published as separate volumes in Japan). For example, I’m not convinced that Ushikawa as a character adds enough dimension to the story to merit his own chapters. (Yet Murakami chose to introduce a third character to the existing duet, altering the structure of the narrative rather significantly, so there must be more to it.) Combined with the extremely compressed time frame over which I read it, this repetition meant that there were moments when I wished Murakami would just get on with it.
For each of those moments, however, there was definitely another moment when I was so invested in this story, so completely sold on its premise and determined to find out what would happen. Without a doubt, 1Q84 is a novel expansive in its philosophical and literary scope in a way that does not sacrifice the true core of any tale of fiction: the story. This is the second Murakami novel I’ve read, and it’s even more enticing than the first. With his careful eye for detail and for balance, Murakami is a first-class writer—and as always, kudos to the translators as well, for their dedication is responsible for helping Murakami’s voice cross the gap between our languages.
Identity is a very fragile and ephemeral concept, and the philosophy surrounding identity fascinates me. If, in the immortal words of Ke$ha, “we R whoIdentity is a very fragile and ephemeral concept, and the philosophy surrounding identity fascinates me. If, in the immortal words of Ke$ha, “we R who we R”, then who we are differs depending upon whether we are alone or with people, with friends or with enemies (or, if you are Ke$ha, with frenemies). We perform identity, wearing it like a costume. But it’s not something we entirely control. Identity is not so much a costume as it is a negotation between two entities, for part of my identity is not just what I seem to be but how others see me and interact with me.
Now imagine that with a sloth clinging to your back as an external manifestation of your complicity in someone’s death, and you have Zoo City.
Lauren Beukes returns to Johannesburg, South Africa in her second novel, but it’s not the same city. Instead of a tour of a corporate-dominated near future, Beukes spins a bit of alternate history our way. Magic is real, albeit not as potent as some people might like, and it’s never more obvious but with the zoos, animalled, or—if you are feeling polite and politically correct, the aposymbiotic. People who are guilty of another person’s death—i.e., murderers—become spiritually attached to an animal. They can’t stray too far from the animal without suffering great pain. And if the animal dies, they are consumed by a cloud known as the Undertow. The animalled, or apos, are thus identified as murderers beyond the shadow of any doubt, and are treated like outcasts.
Zinzi, our intrepid narrator, has a Sloth. It could be worse—at least she doesn’t have a carnivore, which I think would be more of a burden—but a Sloth is kind of a handful to carry around at times. Beukes implies that Zinzi’s complicity is not entirely with malice, thus establishing our otherwise downtrodden and morally ambiguous protagonist as someone who is, if not righteous, capable and worthy of redemption. Zinzi struggles to earn a living using her shavi—if you get an animal, you also get a minor superpower to go with it. Zinzi can find lost things, so that’s how she makes most of her money. In her downtime, she reluctantly composes new email scams for a company to whom she owes quite a bit of money. She gets involved with some even more unsavoury characters, like you tend to do, and that’s where the story becomes interesting.
From thereon out, Zoo City becomes a spiralling descent into the dank madness of a divided city. Beukes’ economy of exposition and keen ear for dialogue and characterization are an asset here. I found this Johannesburg and this cast far more bearable and likable than Moxyland’s. I could sympathize with Zinzi’s plight and genuinely wanted her to succeed, cheering for her resourceful resilience and sighing whenever she suffered a setback. The plot is of the type that doubles back and folds up on itself several times over, which is not to say that it is too complex, but Beukes has skillfully tangled the various threads.
On the one hand, this is a missing person mystery, with Zinzi in the role of lead private investigator. It has all the hallmark archetypes prowling its pages: the shadowy kingpin who both hires Zinzi and poses her a threat; his nefarious henchmen who are Zinzi’s untrustworthy allies; the love interest, whose relationship with Zinzi is far from one-dimensional; and so on. On the other hand, Beukes explores some of the ramifications of her magic and what it means to have an animal. In particular, the book takes a very sharp turn towards the end, after the mystery part is largely resolved, and Zinzi finds herself on the run for a crime she hasn’t committed.
The twin motifs of guilt and innocence are huge here in Zoo City, for they compound that problem of identity that Zinzi and every other person with an animal feels. Nowhere does Beukes so clearly portray this as with Zinzi’s sometime-boyfriend Benoit. He has a Mongoose, and eventually we learn how he got it—the action of a terrified nineteen-year-old in genocidal Rwanda. Like Zinzi, he bears an external marker of his guilt—but does that make him a bad person? Benoit discovers his wife and children might still be alive in a refugee camp outside of South Africa, so he resolves to leave Zinzi and find them. Not only does this alter their relationship irrevoccably, it sets up an ending that is both poignant and nearly perfect.
As I mentioned earlier, Zoo City takes a sharp turn two thirds through. Just as it seems that the plot is winding down, Zinzi stumbles on to a larger game as people try to get rid of their animals (without dying themselves) in a particularly gruesome and costly manner. I’m not a fan of this transition, because it felt jarring. Beukes puts enough foreshadowing earlier in the book that this additional story element doesn’t seem entirely out of place. But I wish it had been developed more gradually instead of suddenly exploding into the foreground in the last part of the book.
Nevertheless, Beukes make up for it in the ending. I love the ending. It’s quite possibly the only way Beukes could have ended the book in a manner that is happy yet costly for Zinzi, which is exactly the balance she needed to strike. For Zinzi to escape these events completely unscathed would have been unrealistic and thematically unsatisfactory: after all, Zinzi still has to redeem herself for her actions as a scammer. Yet she is, I remain convinced, a good person who deserves that chance—and a chance is exactly what Beukes gives her. At great personal cost and with no promise of success, Zinzi sets out to fill in for someone else, just as that person made a regular habit of filling in for another.
Because it all comes back to identity. We aren’t who we think we are; we are our actions. This is the truth Beukes exposes through Zinzi’s voice and decisions. Despite all the prejudice and hardship Zinzi endures as an impoverished, animalled Black person in South Africa, she realizes that there is one thing no one else can determine about her life: what she does. Other people might judge her and construct their own versions of an identity for her, but that can never rob her of her ability to act on her own beliefs and convictions. In Zoo City, Beukes hands us a protagonist with blood on her hands and a Sloth on her back, and in so doing she tells a story about a woman who reclaims her freedom to be who she wants, not who others expect her to be.
All right, I have recovered from my temporary insanity and am now ready to get down to business. I have never before read anything by Ian R. MacLeod. I have a terrible and impoverishing addiction to purchasing titles from specialty publisher Subterranean Press, and during an all-too-common binge (this time it was Charles Stross titles), I saw this on offer, shrugged, said, "What the hell?" and added it to my cart.
I don't recall hearing much about Ian R. MacLeod either. His name is almost criminally similar to Ian McDonald, however, whose The Dervish House is my pick for this year's Hugo Award for Best Novel. Indeed, their names are so similar that I am afraid I will confuse these two authors. I assume that with a name like MacLeod, Ian R. must be immortal, and therefore I shall refer to him as "the Highlander" for the rest of this review. Wikipedia tells me that he was actually born in Birmingham and not the Scottish highlands, but I am too smart to fall for that small bit of trickery, Highlander.
Journeys is an anthology but not a slapdash one. At nine stories it feels short, but the stories themselves are quite long for short stories. And, for the most part, the stories are good. As someone who much prefers novel-length stories, I took a risk in introducing myself to the Highlander through an anthology. I would do it again though, because Journeys was an enjoyable, even magical experience.
Wikipedia also mentions that another of the Highlander's series is an alternate universe affair where the use of aether has preserved the trade guild structure in England and "has retarded technological progress". In hindsight, then, the common theme running through Journeys makes a lot of sense. Several of these stories are set in a similar (if not the same) universe, an alternate England where magic is much more in evidence. The first story, "The Master Miller's Tale", seems to take place near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Nathan watches steam-driven mills slowly supersede his traditional mill, which is held together by song spells. He gets mixed up in a group of Luddite-like terrorists who go around sabotaging steam-driven installations. For Nathan, there is also a personal component: the woman he had an adolescent crush on is now a champion of steam technology. Another story, "Elementals", is set a bit later, toward the Victorian end of the century. Its narrator is acquainted with an amateur scientist who is convinced he can harness elemental beings as an alternative energy source. The truth turns out to be much more complicated—and much more metaphysical.
Most of the stories in Journeys also involve the narrators losing themselves, physically or psychologically, and the above two stories are good examples. Nathan is so attached to his mill that it becomes difficult for him to realize his business is dying. Eventually he becomes obsessed with finding the windseller, a merchant who used to come by and sell bagged winds for him to release and use at his mill. Nathan's own obsessions offer a kind of opening for magic to enter him and consume him, and it's a similar story in "Elementals". The narrator learns that elementals are not tied to one element, that they are not the Other; rather, everything and everyone are elementals in a sense. Everything is powered by belief, his example being that it is more difficult to notice people who are down on their luck when you are at the same parties as them—they sort of fade into the background.
Not all of the stories in this collection fit comfortably into my framework. Two in particular—"The Camping Wainwrights" and "On the Sighting of Other Islands"—are quite different, and another, "Taking Care of Myself", is science fiction rather than fantasy but also deals with questions of identities. That being said, those first two stories certainly fit in with the title: the former is, surprisingly enough, about camping and family tribulations; the latter is told in a collective voice by the inhabitants of one island on a sea of moving islands. All of the stories in Journeys are weird in the sense that they are not quite grokkable the first time around—there are certain twists in the Highlander's narrative style that make the stories feel very original—but those two stories in particular among the weirdest.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that two of the intertwined motifs that seem most prevalent in Journeys—alternative worlds where magic has replaced or remains a rival to technological progress, as well as stories where the use of magic leads to a personal crisis of identity—appeal very much to me. So if the rest of the Highlander's work is like this, I look forward to reading more of it. Looks like this edition is sold out on the Subterranean Press website, so unless they print more or you can pick up a copy used, you'll have to be content with finding these stories elsewhere as you can. Alone, none of them really stand out, but together they form a very unified corpus of works. For a new reader like me, Journeys was a good introduction. Although I obviously can't say for sure, I suspect fans of the Highlander will find it familiar and comfortable.
Yes, I have indeed read another romance novel with vampires. What is wrong with me?
As with The Rest Falls Away, Soulless has been on my to-read listYes, I have indeed read another romance novel with vampires. What is wrong with me?
As with The Rest Falls Away, Soulless has been on my to-read list for a while now. I almost bought the boxed set of all five books in this series at Christmas time, stopping myself on the grounds that I wouldn’t want to bring them back to England with me, so they’d gather dust at home until the summer. When I went to the Bury library last week to pick up some books I’d reserved, I noticed Soulless in a display of alternate history novels. Call it serendipity, but I took the opportunity to cross this one off my list.
I should clarify that, while this is both a romance and a vampire novel, it’s not a romance vampire novel. That is, the main character, Alexia, falls in love—but with a werewolf, not a vampire! However, vampires constitute a significant portion of this story as well.
Gail Carriger takes a lot of liberties in imagining an alternative Victorian England where the supernatural is not just real but openly acknowledged. Vampires and werewolves conform to rules of civility that allow them to coexist alongside humans. (Ghosts also exist but are less … ahem … substantial.) Humans can become supernatural beings if they have excess “soul”. Alexia Tarabotti is special because she is soulless, and therefore neutralizes supernatural beings with her touch. Vampires’ fangs retract, werewolves revert to human form, and the creatures become mortal. Carriger never really addresses how Alexia’s abilities affect ghosts, unfortunately.
Given that Alexia’s state as a soulless “preternatural” is one of the most unique and intriguing things about the book, one might have expected Carriger to explore its ramifications more creatively than she does. Everyone who is aware of Alexia’s status declares her important and significant, as evinced by the resolution of the book setting her up as a VIP. Unfortunately, soullnesses is sidelined in favour of the development of the romance subplots and the mystery of the missing supernaturals. This doesn’t ruin the book—I, for one, still found it quite enjoyable—but it’s a regrettable decision.
Alexia’s romance with Lord Maccon is far from the standard, more torrid fare that one might expect in a stereotypical romance novel. Carriger tends towards comedy in all respects, so the romance is a whirlwind of mixed signals and cross-cultural misunderstandings. Alexia’s difficulties fitting into society—owing to her Italian heritage and her forwardness and independent spirit relative to the ideal for women of that era—parallels Maccon’s own unease as a “barbarous” Scottish werewolf among the London ton. (That’s a brilliant word for the fashionable slice of society, by the way.) Similarly, Alexia’s indomitable “Alpha” spirit matches Maccon’s obstinacy. The two are, in short, perfect for each other.
Carriger pokes fun at all aspects of Victorian comportment, fashion, and attitudes towards women. In flippant tones she describes the social disaster of having a club for scientific gentleman next to Duke Snodgrass’ house, or reminds us that because of Alexia’s Italian heritage, her skin and hair are darker than is ideal. Alexia’s half-sisters and mother are more traditional in how they perform their gender roles—the overall effect almost comes across as a kind of softened version of Cinderella.
For all the light-hearted mockery, however, Carriger is more than content to echo the typical tropes of Victorian high society rather than subvert or interrogate them any further. As with Alexia’s soulless state, it seems there is much more that Carriger could have explored here, had she chosen to take the book in that direction. I love the light and frothy tone that Carriger maintains, but I’ve always been more impressed when an author can maintain such a tone and still engage in more substantial social commentary.
If what you desire is an entertaining mixture of Victorian England, werewolves and vampires, and romance, then Soulless has all of that. It has a snappy, engaging plot—although the villain isn’t necessarily that interesting or imposing—and Carriger carefully introduces nuanced differences between Alexia’s world and ours as a result of the existence of supernatural and preternatural beings.
I’m always intrigued when books receive such a diverse spread of ratings and reviews from my friends on Goodreads. Some of my friends loved Soulless while others hated it. At the risk of seeming tepid, I have to say that I’m somewhere in the middle. Soulless is a lot of fun, but it also has its nuisance moments. I always wanted to keep on reading and to discover what would happen next—but there were times when I had to roll my eyes at the campiness of the whole thing. There is a slight duality of tension within the book, which cannot decide exactly what type of book it wants to be.
I shall definitely carry on with the Parasol Protectorate series, though I’m rethinking that urge to buy the boxed set.
**spoiler alert** Jane Austen and I have had a rocky relationship. I respect her as a writer and believe she deserves a place in the canon of great En**spoiler alert** Jane Austen and I have had a rocky relationship. I respect her as a writer and believe she deserves a place in the canon of great English authors, but I sometimes wonder if she is overhyped. When it comes to Sense and Sensibility, it has a lot of Austen's trademark wit, but as a first novel it also has the immaturity and inexperience of a writer learning the craft. So with Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Ben H. Winters has an opportunity to take a promising tale of two sisters and ameliorate it with his marine menaces. Indeed, this is probably the intention, but as I'm going to emphasize over and over again, it did not work out that way.
Before I launch into my main criticism, I want to note two errors that jumped out at me while I read. The first is excusable, or at least explainable. The second, not so much. Both are good examples of the carelessness that plagues this book.
The first error is in the first paragraph of Chapter 9. The Dashwoods have arrived at Pestilence Isle and are settling into their new home. As part of these activities, "they had strung the encircling fence with garlands of dried kelp and lamb's blood, which Sir John Middleton had proscribed as the surest method to ward off" sea monsters. Rather than proscribed, which means forbidden, I think the word Winters intends is prescribed. The two words are antonyms in meaning but only one letter apart. Hence, this is probably just a rather unfortunate typo. Copy editors are human too. (Well, most of them.)
I cannot quite as easily dismiss the second error. Later in the book (Chapter 46), Marianne is planning her new life without Willoughby: "I shall learn engineering; I shall study hydrology and biology and aeronautics; I shall endeavour to understand Mendel's principles and comparative zoology." Managing that last resolution would be quite an accomplishment, because Gregor Mendel, an Austrian monk known for his experiments with heredity and generally credited for discovering genetics, won't be born until five years after Austen dies. So the Marianne of Sense and Sensibility wouldn't know about Mendel. To be fair, Winters never specifies when this book takes place. Maybe it takes place in a later part of the nineteenth century, after Mendel starts his experiments. Yet this explanation is unsatisfactory for two reasons: firstly, Mendel's work didn't garner much attention until the early twentieth century; secondly, even if the Alteration changed that and led to an earlier realization of genetics, moving the time period forward even by fifty years would place Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters into the Victorian era. And I think that would make for a different tone of book. No, the easiest explanation seems to be that Mendel's mention is an anachronism. It only took me a few seconds to check Mendel's birth date on Wikipedia. What is Winters' excuse?
That question, while pertinent, probably will not bear much fruit. Instead, let's consider two complementary questions. Does the sea monsters story need Sense and Sensibility or could it have worked on its own? Conversely, is Sense and Sensibility helped or improved in any way by the addition of sea monsters? Spoiler alert: the answer to both questions is "no."
Prior to reading this book, I was under the impression that the eponymous sea monsters were anomalies. They are actually much more than that. Some time prior to the story's start, the Earth's oceans experienced an "Alteration," and all marine life became hostile toward humankind. Ocean voyages now hold great peril; even living near a lake is dangerous. Forget Sense and Sensibility for a moment: the Alteration is a great starting point for an alternate history novel set in Regency England! Considering Britain's status as a naval power, a far-flung empire, and an island, there would be plenty of interesting developments as a result of the Alteration. So many questions to explore, characters to create . . .
. . . and it's all wasted on Jane Austen. No offense meant to Austen, of course. But in trying—and I do emphasize that word, trying—to graft the plot and characters of Sense and Sensibility onto his Altered England, Winters misses the mark. Instead of creating a story truly worthy of such a fantastic setting, he tries to stretch a story that wasn't made to fit this canvas—and oh, how it shows.
Take, for example, the cause of the Alteration. Winters throws out some half-hearted speculation. Henry Dashwood dies pursuing the source of a poison stream he believes the cause. Sir John Middleton believes the Alteration is a curse upon England by one of the victims of British imperialism; he has devoted his life to finding the primitive tribe responsible, with no success. Edward Ferrars favours a theory that blames Henry VIII's split with Catholicism. All these sound interesting, but under scrutiny they all fall apart. The Alteration's name (indeed, the very fact that it has a Name) suggests that the oceans were not always like this. So there should be a simple way to test, say, Edward's theory about Henry VIII: what do written records say about ocean voyages prior to Henry's reign? Surely a calamity as great as the Alteration would be recorded: "June 7, waters calm. June 8, the dolphins killed my first mate. God help us all!" I find it very difficult to believe no one knows when the Alteration began. The poison stream and tribal curse theories are also rather silly, but slightly less so, and I suppose the latter works well as a background for Sir John. It just galls me that Winters takes such an off-handed approach to what may be the most important question in his universe.
There's also something suspect about the number of people who spend their time near or on the ocean, considering its dangers. Let's start with Pestilence Isle. Sir John lives on an archipelago off of Devonshire, specifically on Deadwind Island, and he lets a cottage on Pestilence Isle to the Dashwood women. It makes sense that Sir John would live on a tiny island. He's an adventurer, and he likes danger. But why would he put women needlessly in danger by giving them a cottage on a smaller island where he doesn't live? Why would the Dashwoods ever agree to live there? As the frequent sea monster attacks show, the decision is practically suicidal. And don't get me started—yet—about what happens to Margaret.
Moving on: Sub-Marine Station Beta. Actually, I kind of see how this one makes sense. It may be—nay, it is—stupid to build a gigantic dome habitation at the bottom of the ocean off the British coast and then invite all the upper class people to spend the winter there. If this were a James Bond movie, Sub-Marine Station Beta would be part of a trap by the villain. (It would also feature an awesome underwater fight scene, in which Bond dispatches several baddies and a couple of sharks. But I digress.) However, Sub-Marine Station Beta is consistent with the British attitude of stalwart arrogance in the face of adversity. In a time of war, which this is, the British keep those upper lips stiff and like to show that they remain steadfast. How better to show that you do not fear the enemy than building a stronghold in the middle of his or her territory? Sub-Marine Station Beta is an exercise in nationalism and a display of bravado. It's also rather stupid.
The icing on the implausibility cake, however, are the pirates. Are we supposed to believe that there are outlaws who subsist by taking some of the few ships that survive sea monster attacks? And that these ships themselves somehow avoid succumbing to those same attacks? I love reading about pirates, but they are the most obvious example of something included in this book because it's cool instead of its potential contributions to the plot.
No, when I look at it this way, it is a shame that Winters had even to try to follow an outline of Sense and Sensibility in writing this book. It is a waste of a world that could have been so much more. And all of these flaws read like they are the result of carelessness, of unintentional neglect caused by starting with the idea of "it's Sense and Sensibility, but with sea monsters" and then throwing everything at the book to see what sticks. I kind of feel sorry for the setting.
Having determined that the sea monsters suffer at the hands of Sense and Sensibility, can we say the same in reverse? Yes, indubitably. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters does not merely besmirch its source material's good name; it follows Sense and Sensibility down a dark alleyway, beats it senseless, and then slinks away to commit more crimes against Austen's oeuvre.
Harsh much? I thought so too, at first. I wanted to find this book amusing. I wanted to chuckle at how Winters cleverly transposes the class humour and familial squabbles of Austen's characters into this Altered England. The more I read, however, the more I realized that Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters does not just fail to live up to its source. I could handle that. But no, it's much worse. This book actively dismantles everything that makes Sense and Sensibility great English literature.
Nineteenth-century English society holds our interest in part because its class system is very different from the way contemporary society is stratified. But it's not enough merely to mock or to belittle this difference. To successfully satirize Regency England, one must deconstruct its customs and culture and examine why our contemporary society finds it humorous. Otherwise, all you're doing is pointing and laughing; on a scale of sophistication, that is barely above toilet humour.
As its title specifies, Sense and Sensibility is about the balance between reason and emotionalism. Elinor, with her calculating and practical ways, embodies sense; Marianne, the emotional and impulsive one, sensibility. Winters pays lip service to these differences as he develops the plot along the same lines as the original novel. While the developments in relations between characters, sea monster attacks aside, are the same, the emotional and thematic significance of these relationships are mangled in translation. For instance, I never feel the angst of Elinor's realization that Edward, whatever their feelings for one another, is unavailable. Winters develops this, cashes in on the irony, and even makes Lucy Steele a sea-witch. But all the window dressing gets in the way of the nuances at play among Elinor, Edward, and Lucy. Similarly, Marianne's obsession with Colonel Brandon's face adds nothing to the character's obsession in the original novel with his age.
The revelation of Lucy's identity as a sea-witch also bothered me. Specifically, Sir John explains why sea-witches must take human form:
. . . the only certain way for a sea witch to prolong its foul existence is by consuming human bone marrow, which is therefore, to them, the most precious of elixirs. Hence their occasional appearance, in the guise of attractive human women, among the terrestrial world—where they make love to an unknowing man, marry him unawares, and then, when the opportunity presents itself, kill him and suck out his marrow.
It is the last sentence that presents a problem: why bother marrying the man before feeding upon him? Surely it would be more effective to jump his bones (literally) and skip the tiresome courtship. In fact, why bother with a man at all? Why not just subdue some children and feed off of them? It might seem like I'm nitpicking, but I think these are reasonable questions about something that involves the motivations and actions of an important character.
At about the point where the situation at Sub-Marine Station Beta becomes dire, it dawned on me that the scope of Winters' narrative is entirely unsuited to Austen's original story. Sense and Sensibility is, like all of Austen's work, an intimate novel that uses a few families to portray all of English society in microcosm. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters is about a couple of girls crying about guys, kicking sea monster ass, escaping a doomed underwater city, and then witnessing the rise of an apocalyptic Leviathan. The plot has suddenly become much bigger than the original story, dwarfing the characters and their problems, which are supposed to be centre stage.
And . . . Margaret. What the hell? I have no idea what Winters was trying to do with Margaret's—I can only call it a "seduction" by the island. The whole subplot of Margaret discovering an entire species of subhumans who have existed "since the dawn of time" and worship the Leviathan is unnecessary and, frankly, uninteresting. Once again, like Lucy the sea-witch and the cause of the Alteration, Winters has included something that probably seemed like a good idea but, taken together with the entire work, just adds clutter and confusion.
Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters promises that it "blends Jane Austen's biting social commentary with ultraviolent depictions of sea monsters biting." An examination of this very blend belies this claim. I do not doubt the sincerity of the claim; it's clear that Winters and Quirks Classics have tried very hard to do justice to Austen's novel. In some ways, it would be better for everyone if this were some pernicious attempt to mock the source material—as it is, I feel a little pity for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Its mistakes are made in a labour of love, but they are born from carelessness that could easily have been avoided.
It's very rare that I wish I had started a series with the second book instead of the first, but that's what I wish about Jay Lake's Clockworth EarthIt's very rare that I wish I had started a series with the second book instead of the first, but that's what I wish about Jay Lake's Clockworth Earth trilogy. I had some serious reservations about Mainspring. Its sequel, Escapement, might be an interesting example of how to avoid the dreaded "middle book syndrome" that afflicts so many trilogies. Categorically superior, Escapement is the maturation of the fantastic premise Lake began in Mainspring, without the insufferable protagonist and his vague, fuzzy quest from God.
Whereas the narrator of Mainspring followed only Hethor, Escapement follows three characters. Two of them were minor characters in the first book: Emily Childress, the librarian who initially aids Hethor; and Angus al-Wazir, chief petty officer about the ill-fated Bassett. The third, our protagonist, is Paolina Barthes, a young woman of Portuguese descent who has spent her entire life in Praia Nova, a settlement along the Wall populated by the descendents of shipwrecked and outcast sailors. Paolina is provincial in the sense that she knows very little about the outside world. When she builds a unique piece of clockwork that allows her to manipulate reality itself, she sets off in search for England and its "wizards." Suffice it say, she's sorely disappointed.
I like Lake's decision to shift to three perspectives. All three characters are much more interesting than Hethor. Paolina at least seems to have a well-developed sense of the moral implications of what she's doing, and she sets out with a very specific goal in mind. This is preferable to Hethor's, "Well, I guess I'll find the Key Perilous. Or maybe I won't" method of operation. I also got a palpable sense of Paolina's frustration with the misogynistic world order embodied by Praia Nova's fidalgos. Despite Hethor's class-based oppression in the first book, I couldn't sympathize with his hardship, probably because of the golden tablets that kept falling from the sky whenever he needed reassurance. Aside from a brief cameo by an angel at the end of the book, Paolina's experiences notably lack a religious dimension.
This is true of Escapement as a whole, and that pleases me. The central conflict is temporal: Childress finds herself the unexpected representative of one secret society, the avebianco or "white birds," sent as ambassador/sacrificial lamb to the alliance between another secret society, the Silent Order, and the Chinese. These two are collaborating to construct a metaphorical bridge over the Wall. Meanwhile, England has dispatched a team to bore a tunnel through the Wall; Al-Wazir is attached as resident Wall expert and general safety officer.
There is a spiritual component to the conflict. Childress opposes the Golden Bridge project because she recognizes that it will destroy the balance between the two halves of the Earth. Such a bridge would allow the two powerful empires in the Northern Earth to spill into the South, which is still a land of untamed magic. Similarly, Paolina is frightened of her newfound power, especially once she sees what is possible when it falls into the hands of the Silent Order. However, the spiritual component is just that: it's a part of something larger. Mainspring, in which the fate of the world literally depended upon Hethor succeeding, failed because Lake concentrated too much on the big picture. He didn't spend enough time establishing details that would make me care about saving this world. Escapement gives us a much broader look at the politics and philosophies present on this clockwork Earth, which makes the story much richer, and thus better.
We only run into problems again toward the end of the story. While Paolina has more specific goals than Hethor, her disappointment and disillusionment with England and the wider world in general strikes a blow to those goals. She wanders somewhat aimlessly afterward, and as a result, the book itself loses its sense of direction. Perhaps it's true that Paolina's confusion is a realistic and natural response to her experiences. That's all well and good. But fiction can't always be realistic, and Escapement does not sustain the level of drama necessary to keep me engaged throughout the final chapters. There are some more airship battles and some magical translocation and character drama as Paolina tries to decide how to deal with her power. Unfortunately, Lake does not synthesize these disparate dramatic elements into a single, unified plot.
I'm in the strange position of having finished Pinion today, prior to writing this review. So I know how the series ends, and I've already started forming my opinion of it overall—but I don't want to spoil my next review! Escapement is definitely better than Mainspring, and in some ways it made me think I judged the latter too harshly, because I don't see much of a difference in the quality of the writing. My subjective tastes aside, I think it also demonstrates how choices in the scope of a plot and the perspective of the narrator can affect the reader's experience. Mainspring had high stakes but was confined to a narrow perspective that I just didn't like, so I had a hard time liking the book. Escapement branches out a bit even as it tamps down the ambition, resulting in a much more balanced read.
On its own, comparisons cast away for now, Escapement has a strong theme about relationship between self and the orderly world, whether that world is the spiritual or the temporal. Paolina rebels against the world order as she perceives it. She rebels against the men in power, and against her own role as a woman. She does so vehemently:
"If I may ask, why do you travel as a girl? Slim as you are, you could wear trousers and pass for a young man. People would devil you much less if you did so."
"I…" It wasn't as if Paolina didn't understand that to be a possibility. "Men are … men. The venom in the voice surprised her. "I don't want to be one, even for a moment."
(Ellipses and the horrible double negative are both Lake's.) Paolina is staunch and uncompromising in her principles. She abhors when her power results in death and refuses to be kill anyone else to save herself. This is something I admire, and it's this type of convicted characterization that makes Paolina a much better protagonist than Hethor (oh, there I go with the comparison again).
Childress and al-Wazir both experience their own small rebellions. The former assumes the identity of a dead Mask, becoming herself as a Mask, which is a very interesting look at the whole idea of the performance of self. The latter uncomfortably assumes a role in a government-sponsored expedition to the Wall. A petty officer at heart, al-Wazir isn't really sure what to do with himself, so it's not surprising when he finds himself helping the Brass man Boaz instead of pursuing his duty to Dr. Ottweil. In both cases, these characters find themselves making choices to deviate from their previous sensibilities about how the world should be. Watching the consequences unfold from there makes Escapement a fair bit entertaining.
While far from even espying perfection on a clear day, Escapement merits praise and a grudging amount of steampunk love (which is like regular love, only coal-fired and administered by a system of pulleys and gears). So here's something I don't often recommend: don't read the first book. Skip to this one. It's better, and on its own it's even good.
This was not the way I intended to start reading Jay Lake. I heard about him when Green came out and added that to my to-read list, but when I was at a used book store, Mainspring and Escapement were there, so I bought them. I always regret when my first experience with a new author I'm anticipating reading is a sour one. Sadly, Mainspring testifies to the dangers of setting a lousy story in an amazing world.
Lake takes steampunk to its logical extreme and has created a universe literally designed to function as clockwork. The Earth rotates around a mainspring (hence the title). All around the equator is a wall of mountains topped with brass teeth that mesh with an orbital track; the Earth revolves using gears. With God's craftsmanship evident in the cosmos, it seems like a foregone conclusion that the universe was designed by a Maker. Lake reinforces this when he sends a brass angel to incite his protagonist off on a quest. Nevertheless, as Mainspring unfolds, the question of the universe's origin and meaning is one of many things that are more complicated than they first appear.
I don't like Hethor. He's not that smart, not that deep, and all too foolhardy. If the fate of the world really were in Hethor's hands, as they are in Mainspring, we would be Screwed with a capital S. As it is, he manages to Screw us over (which is a good thing, what with rewinding the mainspring of the Earth) despite channelling epic fail for the entire novel. The archangel Gabriel tells Hethor he must acquire the lost Key Perilous, which he can then use to rewind the Earth's mainspring. Of course, being the cryptic messenger of God that he is, Gabriel fails to instruct Hethor how to go about doing this, or even provide a hint as to the Key's location. Hethor stumbles around the world for a few hundred pages, getting too many people killed along the way, and doesn't end up finding the Key. That's OK though, because it turns out that as long as he gets himself to the mainspring, he can rewind it anyway.
I had high hopes for Hethor at the beginning of his quest. And Mainspring is totally in the style of the epic fairy-tale quest. Hethor encounters a number of supernatural guardians he must defeat along his way to finding the Key and saving the world, not the least of which is William of Ghent, a "sorcerer" and Rational Humanist who doesn't seem to know what he wants or what Hethor wants. Lake is never entirely clear on anyone's motivations, and Hethor doesn't bat an eye when his actions cause William to fall (but not fatally) into the depths of the clockwork Earth. No, for this young boy who until a few weeks ago was a clockmaker's apprentice in New Haven, almost killing someone is par for the course.
My apathy for Hethor grew measurably at this point, and its growth proceeded apace for the rest of the book. Despite its quest-like structure, Mainspring makes Hethor into an utterly reactionary protagonist. He just goes along with whatever happens to him; it's very mellow, but it's also a frustrating lack of direction for someone who is supposed to have a very specific purpose. Although he says he is concerned about having no idea where the Key Perilous might be located, his actions (or lack thereof) tell a different story. No, Hethor, in his infinite wisdom and laziness, is content to continue following a breadcrumb trail of golden tablets that drop from the sky.
So Mainspring consists of an uninspiring main character wandering from conflict to conflict. He's supposed to be a misogynistic young prude from Victorian New England, but he has no qualms about having sex with a woman from among the hirsute people who live near the Equatorial Wall in Africa. (This entire part of the book made me very uncomfortable. I recognize that Lake challenges Hethor's internalized Victorian sensibilities about savages and the superiority of English imperialism. Still, a whole bunch of furry people killing in his name and viewing him as a kind of messenger-messiah … well, I'll leave it at that.)
The whole idea of a clockwork Earth is fascinating when expressed as a sentence, but there the romance with this fantasy must end. Lake just doesn't put enough work into convincing me his alternate world is viable. So Queen Victoria still rules the New England colonies. Why? Why are Britain and China the dominant powers? What else is different in this world where no one in the book has ever been to Australia? Instead of providing much background, Lake focuses instead on Hethor's quest, about which I'm torn. Do I not care about it because agents of a force I guess is God always seem to rescue Hethor whenever he's in peril? Do I not care because Hethor, despite not following any instructions he's given, manages to succeed anyway, and it all seems rather pointless in the end?
At first I intended to give this book two stars. However, I have struggled to think of a single positive example to balance my negative tone. I'm drawing a blank. So while I wanted to be charitable, I really can't justify it: Mainspring is disappointing, frustrating, and not all that entertaining.
When something momentous, like a Neanderthal physicist from an alternate universe visiting our universe, happens once, it's a fluke. When it happens aWhen something momentous, like a Neanderthal physicist from an alternate universe visiting our universe, happens once, it's a fluke. When it happens a second time—and when the portal that connects the two universes shows every sign of lasting indefinitely—it's a paradigm shift. Society will have to adjust to having Neanderthal neighbours like Ponter Boddit, who is not only redefining what we consider "human"; he's also holding up a mirror to "human" society, forcing us to reevaluate all the practices we consider normal and even sensible.
Robert J. Sawyer once again uses the Neanderthals as a foil for humanity's questionable environmental and ethical policies. That's not to say the Neanderthals are perfect. In Hominids, we see an example of misguided justice and misjudgement on the part of one Neanderthal. In Humans, the Neanderthals' High Gray Council, its world government, is slow to see the benefits of staying in communication with our universe. When Ponter is shot and its ambassador kills the shooter, the Council decides to cut ties with our universe, stopped only by a brash plan by the ambassador. In general, all the aspects of Neanderthal society that seem to make it peaceful and successful—the Companions, their cosmology, their approach to environmental management—have hindered their development in areas in which we are proud of our scientific achievements. We've been to the moon and the ocean floor; the Neanderthals have done neither. But much of our scientific advance comes at the price of, at the behest of, the need for weapons of war.
Even though it's clear that Neanderthal society is far from perfect or ideal, Sawyer's obviously using it critique our society. Sometimes this comes off heavy-handed, but mostly it works well. My favourite such scene occurs at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Ponter, overwhelmed by the sheer number of people killed in wars, says that Congress should have to declare war in view of the memorial. While I'm sure that politicians weigh the loss of past lives every time they decide to declare war, this scene is a potent reminder of how easy it is for us to lose sight of lessons learned in favour of ephemeral goals. Humans are passionate and ambitious, and while this has resulted in marvellous achievements, it's also a source of actions we later, as a society, tend to regret. Sawyer's "alien visitor to planet Earth" perspective does its job as it reminds us to always re-evaluate our principles, even if we do end up deciding they're correct.
In my review of Hominids, I criticized Sawyer's portrayal of physics. Quantum mechanics and portals don't come up much in Humans. Instead, the new scientific element is a geomagnetic reversal. I'm not as familiar with the science behind this, so I'm not going to discuss it at much length. Suffice it to say that Sawyer once again links his science to his exploration of what makes us conscious beings, and it's interesting, I'll give him that. Also, he presents it in such a way that it's a constant but unassuming part of the plot that readily takes a back seat to the character conflicts that dominate Humans.
Ponter and Mary are now trying to chisel out a "relationship" as best they can. It's difficult, since Neanderthals and Homo sapiens have radically different ideas with regards to mating, cohabitation, and marriage. Mary still perplexes me, and I don't find her a very satisfactory character. Sawyer just doesn't sell me on the motivations behind how she acts, and as a result, she seems to be acting a certain way because the plot requires that she does so. It's not that I'm incredulous that any scientist or any divorced person can still be a Catholic—rather, I'm incredulous of Mary after hearing her flabbergasted explanations to Ponter on how she reconciles the contradictory aspects of her personality. Sawyer is ascribing complex character traits to characters who are not, evidently, that complex at all, and the book creaks under the added stress.
Humans is much like Hominids. I found it a very average book. Typical of Sawyer's writing, it didn't take me long to read at all, and overall the book's enjoyable and interesting. It could be a lot better....more
**spoiler alert** Didn't we just do this? I need to take a break from Robert J. Sawyer for a while now, since I just read Hominids, Humans, and now**spoiler alert** Didn't we just do this? I need to take a break from Robert J. Sawyer for a while now, since I just read Hominids, Humans, and now Hybrids. The complete trilogy! Do I get a set of steak knives?
If you're really interested in a critique, I advise you to read my reviews, neither of which are very spoilerific, of the first two books. All my criticism (and praise) of those books holds for Hybrids as well. It saves me typing and saves you bandwidth and valuable time you could otherwise use for, say, reading books.
Oh, and there are spoilers now. You started reading this review regardless of the automatic warning, though, so I assume you're OK with that.
One of the main plots in Hybrids centres around Ponter and Mary's budding relationship. They need to work out living arrangements, considering that Ponter spends twenty-five days of the month living with his man-mate, Adikor, and if bonded to Mary would only expect to see her four days a month. Mary has to get over her conditioned discomfort with Ponter and Adikor's intimate relationship, and she has to decide where she wants to live—her Earth, or his. Finally, Mary and Ponter want to have a child, and they need to decide if it will have a predisposition toward religious belief (like humans) or be an atheist (like Neanderthals).
This plot is the most interesting part of the book. Mary's ultimate decision to make their child a born atheist is no doubt controversial. I'm an atheist, and even I at first expressed some indignation—I thought Mary's decision was one that she couldn't make, that the child should have the choice. But belief isn't a choice, is it? I can't just choose to suddenly change my mind and believe in God . . . such convictions are deeper than conscious thought. So my initial position seems to be wrong; the idea that Mary and Ponter's child should be born with the potential for choosing religion or atheism because it's an "obstacle" to be overcome is just as bad as saying that the child should be born blind so it can "overcome" the obstacles associated with blindness. Religious people would no doubt disagree . . . but such a debate is outside the scope of this review. It's enough that Hybrids sparks the debate; science fiction should do that.
The other plot is Jock Krieger's genocidal attempt to infect all Neanderthals with an altered, selective strain of Ebola so as to wipe clean their pristine version of Earth and leave it ripe for human colonization. This plot isn't nearly as convincing nor as interesting as the other one. Firstly, Jock is just such a stereotypical villain—the "avaricious American"—that I cringed a great deal while reading his scenes. Secondly, Sawyer can't maintain the suspense required for the amount of travel his characters have to accomplish just to foil the bad guy.
With regards to Jock, I had a hard time believing someone could be both that nefarious and that blasé at the same time. (I'm sure some people in real life are, but fiction, unlike real life, has to make sense.) His character didn't sit well with me in Humans either; he seemed to fluctuate between earnest scientist who desired synergy and coldblooded game theorist who only wanted to exploited the Neanderthals. And as soon as Mary gives him the Neanderthal codon writer, the first thing he does is manufacture a virus that kills Neanderthals—and only Neanderthals. It wasn't a big deal to him though.
After reading Flashforward and these books, I've realized that Sawyer has a penchant for forcing his characters to traverse nearly impossible distances in very short lengths of time. In the case of Hybrids, he ups the ante: our characters have to go back and forth as their goals change toward the very end of the book, and I had a hard time keeping it all straight.
What most let me down about Hybrids, however, was the fizzle of the threat of Earth's geomagnetic reversal. In Humans, we learned that it was possible that the collapse of the Earth's magnetic field would cause human consciousness to "crash." Not only does Sawyer dismiss this threat in Hybrids, but he does it in an incredibly banal way, tacking it on after the climax where Mary and Ponter confront Jock. All of humanity goes on a great big magnetically-induced acid trip with themes ranging from religion to alien abduction? While this could be an important plot point in its own right, the way Sawyer included it at the end of the book turns it into an afterthought and undermines the intriguing ideas he advanced in Humans about the link between consciousness and Earth's magnetic field.
So what's new with Hybrids? Not much. Babies, genocide, a little uncomfortable dramatic irony. As far as concluding volumes go, Hybrids wraps up the plot nice and neatly, but it doesn't earn any points in the drama department. The story here is thin and not very satisfying....more
Few things are probably scarier than suddenly being utterly and totally alone. Robert J. Sawyer reminds us of that fact by transposing Ponter Boddit,Few things are probably scarier than suddenly being utterly and totally alone. Robert J. Sawyer reminds us of that fact by transposing Ponter Boddit, a Neanderthal physicist, from the parallel universe in which he resides to our universe, where Neanderthals have been extinct for tens of thousands of years. Aside from having instant celebrity status—including the paparazzi that come with it—Ponter must face the fact that he might never return to his own universe. And back in his universe, this has ramifications for people he cares about. As the consequences of Ponter's transposition unfold in two universes, Sawyer shows us what might have been if evolution had happened differently, and he presents an interesting contrast to contemporary human society.
I am disappointed with Sawyer's use of physics—more accurately, with his explanations—in Hominids. He gets the premise, quantum computing breaching a parallel universe, as a freebie. With such an intriguing premise, however, I would have expected a more thorough look at the physics behind quantum computing and parallel universes. Instead, we get a watered-down conversation between a physicist and a geneticist that compares the "Copenhagen interpretation" and the many-worlds hypothesis.
Sawyer's explanation of the Copenhagen interpretation is quite misleading. Yes, quantum mechanics is complex, so I don't expect more than a simple explanation of anything—yet Sawyer has demonstrated in other books that he's up to the challenge. Firstly, there is no one explicit "Copenhagen interpretation." It's actually an umbrella term for several related, sometimes contradictory interpretations. Secondly, the Copenhagen interpretation does not strictly rely on a conscious observer; rather, the act of observing a system alters the system. Some interpretations pair Copenhagen with a conscious observer, but not all.
Of course, the more I read Sawyer's work, the more I realize that his underlying theme is one of consciousness. Specifically, Sawyer's interested in what makes us conscious and the implications that consciousness has for human development. I saw this in Wake, in which Sawyer juxtaposes a new emergent consciousness with human consciousness; in Flashforward, consciousness is a key component of the reason behind the eponymous global event.
In Hominids, consciousness is a dichotomous moment: in our universe, Homo sapiens received the quantum fluke of consciousness, as Sawyer interprets it here; in Ponter's universe, Homo neanderthalensis achieved consciousness. That event caused the first divergence of the universe, and since then it's consciousness (specifically, having it) that has made all the difference. But these two conscious species, while both achieving success and dominance on the planet, have developed very distinct societies.
The description of Neanderthal society is probably the most intriguing aspect of Hominids. Everything from the non-agricultural, decimal system of timekeeping to the Companion and alibi archive technology is both different yet familiar. Sawyer manages to take disparate, well-used ideas, like that of a "surveillance society" and combine them in order to create a well-realized, seemingly functional society filled with Neanderthals. Ponter's world has almost no crime and is arguably more environmentally conscious. However, it has its problems too, as we see from Adikor's almost capricious encounter with the judicial system. The parts of this book that take place in Ponter's universe are the best parts, because they're interesting and also exciting.
Would that the rest of the book could keep up! It's an unfortunate consequence of the nature of a linear narrative that authors must occasionally compress the span of events. Otherwise, I don't think that our Earth would have accepted so quickly the idea that Ponter is from a parallel universe; likewise, there would have been more inquiry into exactly what happened to Ponter when he reappeared in his universe. Sawyer presents interesting snippets of news articles that let us know how the wider world is reacting to his plot development, but his scenes are never global in scope. Instead, he focuses on individuals, usually of limited authority, close to the centre of the crisis.
Unfortunately, most of the human characters leave much to be desired. The main character, Mary Vaughan, is raped in her opening scene, doesn't report the rape (because the plot requires it), but tells Ponter about it moments before he leaves to return to his universe. And she apparently manages to fall in love with him because he's attractive and flustered by humanity's paradoxical approach to ethics. I've no doubt that Sawyer's put in a good effort to forge the relationships he needs to explore his larger issues of consciousness, religion, and inter-species romance. But it just comes off as very contrived and even, dare I say, stereotypical, particularly when it comes to how Mary copes with being raped. The fact that the major relationship in this series is shallow does not help Hominids and will not help the other two books.
There's no question here: I heartily recommend Hominids to anyone interested in a glimpse at a world where Neanderthals became the dominant species. As with any Sawyer book I've read, this is a fast read; Sawyer keeps the plot moving and keeps you wanting more. While I can't always laud the results, Sawyer does know what he's doing as a writer, and Hominids demonstrates that with every page....more
Cherie Priest comes highly recommended to me from many people whom I respect; Boneshaker has been lauded most of all of her books. I couldn't fathom FCherie Priest comes highly recommended to me from many people whom I respect; Boneshaker has been lauded most of all of her books. I couldn't fathom Fathom, and that made me apprehensive about my next Priest experience. Boneshaker had two difficult tasks: it had to live up to the expectations heaped upon it by so many others, and it had to be better than Fathom. In both respects, it succeeded, and I have no reservations about declaring Boneshaker a fine novel.
There's a certain fullness to the story that makes it a perfect sort of cozy fireplace read. Priest accomplishes this by setting a deeply personal story—Briar searching for her son—against the backdrop of the intense, altered Seattle after the Boneshaker has unleashed the Blight upon the settlement. The former plot keeps us grounded in the now and interested in what's happening to people instead of just an impersonal place, but it's supported by the rich narrative potential Priest creates with the latter plot. The eponymous machine makes only a minimal appearance in the actual story, but its name pervades the atmosphere of the entire novel. Everything that this world of Seattle, inside and outside the wall, has become what it's become because of the Boneshaker. At the same time, however, Priest gives us yet another example of a situation where humans have adapted to survive the most inimical environments.
So much of what the commentary on Boneshaker focuses on its steampunk side, but I'm more interested in this theme of perseverance. I'm willing to grant that the two aren't mutually exclusive, and one could even argue that there's a quality to the practical, heavily mechanistic philosophies embodied by steampunk that make it useful for this sort of theme. Boneshaker goes deeper than mere machines and mad scientists, however. It bears similarity to post-apocalyptic fiction not only because it has zombies but because it's about the communities that emerge during the struggle for survival. As Zeke and Briar penetrate the wall, they encounter the people left behind when Seattle was partitioned.
Hence, it's frustrating that Priest never fully develops the "underworld of Seattle" that exists inside the wall. We get a vague understanding of the society forged through the uneasy piece between those who seek power, like Dr. Minnericht, and those who respect "Maynard's peace." Then there's the transients, like the airship captains, and the inscrutable and aloof Chinese. We don't get a clear idea of the interactions among these groups. Nevertheless, Priest manages to draw our attention to some interesting individuals. I particularly liked Jeremiah, your typical big guy with the big gun and suit of armour. Captain Cly deserves a mention as well. But Lucy is probably the most enduring member of the supporting cast, for she serves an important role as Briar's companion on her journey to meet Minnericht and confront him about the whereabouts of Zeke.
I liked the parallel narrative structure, where we see Zeke and Briar alternatively exploring their section of ruined Seattle. Their respective perspectives were interesting: Zeke has the somewhat naive attitude of an overconfident teenager; Briar quickly finds herself in more trouble than she was expecting but soon forges alliances based on who she is and, more importantly, what she does. For of course, both are fighting against the reputations society has saddled upon them: Zeke as son and grandson, Briar as wife and daughter. The legacies of two very different men have landed upon them, and they must decide when to be their own people and when to play the role—for as both discover, sometimes it's useful to be related to Maynard Wilkes.
Those two men also form a knot in the relationship between mother and son, a point of contention around which Briar and Zeke dance for much of the novel. Briar doesn't want to reopen that chapter of her life, wants to protect her son and shelter him from what she perceives as the mistakes of her husband and her father. However, she realizes that her own reticence means others can step in and put whatever spin they like on the lives of Leviticus Blue and Maynard Wilkes. It's a credit to Zeke's character that he remains as sceptical as he does.
The book slows down toward the end, after Briar encounters Minnericht and the rotters begin assaulting King Station. I was somewhat disappointed in how the narrative began to coalesce around this point. While I saw the resolution to the question of Minnericht's identity coming, it felt tangential to the main conflict. And for all the drama over Briar going over the wall to find Zeke, she doesn't encounter much difficulty once everything goes pear-shaped. The narrative just slows down, much like a clock in need of winding (see what I did there?). Boneshaker left me wanting more, yes, but I'm not sure if that's because my appetite is whetted or because I feel like there's too much left unfinished.
Whatever the reason, I do anticipate future books. I'd love to see more about life aboard airships, even if that trope is getting rather thin. I want to know more about the source of the Blight, and how the American government is going to react when they eventually stop fighting their little war and decide to make Washington a state. However, I've saved mentioning this enthusiasm for upcoming books until the end of the review, because I want to emphasize that Boneshaker is a good read in its own right, sequels or no.
You can curl up with this novel and sink your teeth into the emotional journey of Briar and Zeke Wilkes. When the Boneshaker came, it didn't just necessitate the remodelling of a town; it meant the rebuilding of myriad lives. And no one was affected more than the widow of the man behind the Boneshaker. This is her story, as much as it's Seattle's story. It's about the mistakes we make, and what we do to make amends, and the people we try to become along the way. And it's about humans, doing what we always do: building, fighting, loving, and if we're lucky, sometimes learning, over and over again until we die (or become zombies)....more
I have fond memories of this trilogy from my youth. Or, more likely, of parts of this trilogy, both because in my rebellious heyday I read things outI have fond memories of this trilogy from my youth. Or, more likely, of parts of this trilogy, both because in my rebellious heyday I read things out of sequence like it was nobody's business (because it wasn't) and because my library is very fond of buying books 2 and 3 but not book 1. So I can't recall if I ever read Newton”s Cannon, but it seemed like a good place to restart my journey through the Age of Unreason. Finding it for 30 p at a library sale was just icing on the cake—it even has that sweet transparent jacket cover for paperbacks that many UK libraries use!
But I digress.
As a mathematician, I am required to be fascinated by Isaac Newton. You should be too, even if you aren’t a mathematician. The man was incredible. In addition to his contributions to math, physics, and astronomy, he was also the head of the Royal Mint and of the Royal Society. He was also, by all reports, a bit of a dick towards his friends and peers. And don't you dare get in a priority dispute with him, because he will cut you, and then he’ll write the anonymous review congratulating the report (by a committee he heads up) that finds in his favour.
It’s an open secret, though, that Newton had some strange ideas. He saw his contributions to astronomy and optics as interesting hobbies, but he was really keen on alchemy and mysticism. In this series, Greg Keyes seizes upon this as the jumping-off point for a creative alternate history: what if our universe actually worked in the alchemical, classical sense of Greek and Renaissance descriptions? Gravity is merely one of many “affinities” that matter displays; rather than vacuum, we really do have luminiferous aether, and electric lights are instead devices that separate aether and lux. In this world, philosopher-alchemists create cannonballs that turn the walls they hit into glass and pairs of machines (aetherscribers) that communicate instantaneously with each other across the world.
Newton’s Cannon follows two protagonists: a young Benjamin Franklin and Adrienne de Mornay de Montchevreuil. Yep, Benjamin Franklin. Only after he gets himself in trouble with a nefarious warlock-type dude, Benjamin flees Boston for London, hoping to apprentice himself to Isaac Newton, who at this late stage in his life has entered a rather deep episode of paranoia. Meanwhile, in France, Adrienne hides her “improper” (for a woman) interests in science, acting as the supposedly bored secretary to an overzealous mathematician who hopes to drop a comet on London. She catches the eye of an immortal Sun King, Louis XIV, who has plans to make her his wife. Before Adrienne can refuse, she becomes involved in a conspiracy to kill the king.
Keyes mixes the historical animosity between English and French with the pressures and changes brought about by Newton's discoveries. Louis’ lengthy reign has prompted rebellion, in addition to the war with England, resulting in a France strained to the limit. Newton's discoveries have attracted the attention of strange, inhuman entities—creatures we might call angels and demons—whose intentions towards humanity are far from good. Throughout the book, we get the sense that everyone (except maybe Newton) is messing with forces beyond their understanding.
Both storylines take a while to get going. Ben spends a great deal of time trying to work at his brother’s printing shop before plot conspires to ship him off to London. Likewise, Adrienne spends a lot of time orbiting movers and shakers before becoming one herself. It’s hard for me to say which one interested me more; I suppose what kept me going was just curiosity regarding the bigger picture. In that respect, Newton’s Cannon remains coy. Much changes, but very little is revealed about what is happening behind the scenes.
It’s worth sticking out. There’s plenty of action scenes to keep one’s interest going. But the payoff is less than what I expected, considering the very cool world Keyes has created here.
Books about special children with magic powers being manipulated by binary forces are kind of boring. There seems to be a glut of them.
As the 18th cenBooks about special children with magic powers being manipulated by binary forces are kind of boring. There seems to be a glut of them.
As the 18th century draws its final, decade-long gasps, America looks a lot different than our history remembers. Dutch colonies and Aboriginal nations have become states. Washington was executed for betraying his British superiors; Benjamin Franklin was (though he denied it), a “wizard”. Faith and superstition have formed a tense equilibrium that could topple given just the right sort of pressure. The frontier remains wild, for now, but civilization continues its inexorable march west.
Alvin is the seventh son of a seventh son, his father also coincidentally named Alvin. He’s from a family of millers, and he is good at everything—however, he is also prone to accidents, because a malevolent force wants him dead. Unlike certain other boy prodigies, Alvin does not have a love-powered lightning bolt scar on his forehead. However, he does have a well-meaning but anonymous protector who is watching out for him, so that’s something.
I guess I was … underwhelmed by Seventh Son. The first few chapters were difficult, but once Taleswapper came in and Alvin grew up a little, the book fell into a rhythm that I enjoyed. Yet for all the interesting interactions between Taleswapper and the Miller family, between Reverend Thrower and the Visitor, between Alvin and his Shining Man, I never got the sense that the book was going anywhere. There’s conflict and a proper climax and falling action and everything that you need to make a story … but it’s a coming of age tale that never really comes of age, and that left me unsatisfied.
My apathy (or perhaps harshness) might be a result of the setting. Revolutionary America does not tickle my fancy the way Tudor England does, and while I cannot apologize for my preferences, it’s possible those who find this era fascinating will be more charitable towards alternate history about it. But I keep thinking about how Seventh Son stacks up against Ender’s Game, and while that is a battle the former could never possibly win, I think it’s useful to examine why I liked one Card book so much and disliked another (albeit not with proportional intensity).
Ender’s Game is a seductive, heartbreaking book. Card gives us a victory for humanity, but in so doing he breaks Ender in the way a child should never be broken. These are the two foci around which the ellipse of the story revolves: the moral impact of the book comes from that central question of whether Ender’s treatment (and, on the periphery, the treatment of all the children at Battle School) was justified by the threat to humanity. It’s an extremely deep yet also entertaining tale.
In contrast, Seventh Son is about a kid with magic powers who breaks his leg. It has a vast and unknowable enemy that is Satan rebranded as a force of pure, neutral destruction—the Unmaker to Alvin’s role as Maker. It sounds titanic and epic and should be awesome—and that’s just the problem. Alvin’s a boy. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He can barely decide to use his power to heal himself, the result of an admirable but perhaps misguided attempt at creating some kind of personal code of ethics. Unlike Ender’s role in his story’s larger conflict, however, I don’t sense much ambiguity over Alvin’s destiny to oppose the Unmaker. As a larger-than-life force that, in some sense, is essentially impossible to defeat, the Unmaker is an ultimate Other.
Unknowable enemies are almost as bad as crazy enemies. It’s unfortunate that Reverend Thrower seems to be going that way, because he starts the book as a fairly interesting character. I enjoyed getting inside his head and seeing his rational mind attempt to reconcile superstition, religion, and science (hopefully he understands why Newton decided to go into alchemy). Yet as the book progresses and the Unmaker seems to get more and more desperate, Thrower degenerates into a Renfield-like character with little intelligence or ambition of his own.
For what it’s worth, Seventh Son is well-written, provided you can tolerate the dialect Card throws in for good measure. There were times when I could ignore my issues with the story and simply enjoy the experience of reading this book—and that is something to write home about. In the end, though, the road Card asks us to walk is a long one, and I’m not entirely sure the destination is worth it.
So you invent a time machine, and what’s the first thing you do? You go back in time and kill Hitler, of course! Except you can’t (TVTropes), becauseSo you invent a time machine, and what’s the first thing you do? You go back in time and kill Hitler, of course! Except you can’t (TVTropes), because either it doesn’t work or it screws up the timeline even more. Thus resolving one of the burning questions surrounding time travel: if it’s possible, why do we still have Hitler? Stephen Fry tackles this in a best-of-all-possible worlds way in Making History, where his protagonist succeeds in averting Hitler’s birth only for someone more charismatic and cunning to rise to power in his place.
I didn’t like this novel at first. I’m a fan of Fry as a TV personality, but the opening pages of Making History didn’t endear themselves to me. Michael Young is such an unsympathetic character. But he kind of needs to be a jerk. One requires a certain level of hubris to think that one should be responsible for changing history, and Michael certainly has that. Of course, a story where one kills Hitler with no unintended consequences would be boring. So things go wrong, and that’s where it gets really interesting.
When reality adjusts to Hitler’s absence, Michael finds himself not in Cambridge but Princeton, where he is supposed have an American accent. But with Hitler out of the picture, a more charismatic German rose to power. He reins in the anti-semitism, and as a result, Germany develops the atomic bomb first. World War II doesn’t happen, and America exists in a tenuous state of non-aggression with a Fascist/Communist Europe. In many respects this world seems more advanced—it’s 1996 and everyone has mobile phones and tablets—but culturally, civil liberties didn’t happen. Racism and homophobia are normal; a climate of McCarthyism is the country’s response to Germany’s power. And the Jews? Well, in Europe, they got shuffled into a supposed “free state” but haven’t been heard from since.
Making History is a fantastic example of alternate history. I particularly enjoyed how Fry shows the same scene, set during World War I, twice, once from the original timeline and once from the timeline after Michael erases Hitler. It’s an “oh shit” moment as the reader realizes the magnitude of what Michael has done. It’s a foregone conclusion that the new world is going to be somehow less preferable to the old one, but it’s not immediately obvious how that’s the case. Fry reveals more about the new timeline gradually, giving the reader time to acclimatize alongside Michael, who must pretend like everything is cool to throw off some suspicious G-men even while he secretly freaks out and wants to find a way to restore the original timeline.
This is a subject understandably close to Fry’s heart, because he has family who died at Auschwitz. And the Holocaust in any light is a serious subject. So it seems like it would be difficult to poke fun at it … and Fry doesn’t try. The humour in Making History is entirely at Michael’s expense (another reason he is an unlikable protagonist). On one level, the narrative just seems to take umbrage at Michael’s ego and conviction that he can make history better. It mocks him for believing that merely removing Hitler from the picture will somehow defuse the anti-semitism and fascist ideologies throughout Europe in the early twentieth century. Fry makes a serious point here, in that often the vilification of Hitler seems to eclipse the more important underlying issues. But he does it with a lighthearted, humorous tone with regards to Michael’s actions and feelings.
The way that Fry balances the serious nature of the subject with his trademark wit is the most stunning aspect of Making History, and the most rewarding. This is far more than just another what-if story of counterfactual fiction: it moves both through pathos and humour. I wanted to strangle Michael sometimes, but by the end I was starting to sympathize with him. And while he’s still a jerk at the end of the story, he has definitely changed and learned from his rather major mistakes. In this way Fry reaffirms what is most important: the close, personal relationship between two human beings, and the reminder that we are responsible for making a better world.
Did you read Neuromancer and say, "This was good, but it could have used more steampunk?" That's kind of how one might describe The Difference EngineDid you read Neuromancer and say, "This was good, but it could have used more steampunk?" That's kind of how one might describe The Difference Engine: Neuromancermeets steampunk. It's not a comprehensive, completely accurate description, but if that's sufficient for you, you can stop reading now and go read the book.
Still here? Cool.
William Gibson is on my "I must read everything by him!" shelf, and his influence on literature, particularly science fiction and subgenres like cyberpunk and steampunk, is unquestionable. One might even go so far as to point out how words he coined or popularized, such as cyberspace, have made their way into colloquial parlance. On top that, he's more than just a great writer; he's a good writer, with stories to accompany all those big ideas. Nevertheless, I gave four stars to Neuromancer, and now I'm giving two stars to The Difference Engine. What's wrong with me?
(Although this is a collaboration with Bruce Sterling, I haven't read anything by Sterling yet—he is on the list. So I'll be focusing on how this book affects my impression of William Gibson.)
There's nothing wrong with me! I'm perfect! It's all Gibson's fault. He has this amazing ability to defy my expectations; I never know what I'm going to get from a Gibson story. Despite my best guesses and suppositions, both Neuromancer and The Difference Engine surprised me, and by the end I realized that Gibson had somehow snuck away while I was reading and come back with an extra portion of crazy ideas and subtext to stuff into the last act. So as much as I enjoy and recognize Gibson's skill, I always tend to put down his books dazed and a little bewildered. Sometimes books like that still manage to earn five stars, but very often they receive only four: they left me with respect and a sense of awe, but they did not make me love them.
I don't really want to discuss The Difference Engine as a steampunk novel. Of course, I am aware of its significance to the genre, and the reasons behind that significance are obvious when one reads the book. Gibson and Sterling have essentially laid the ground for the steampunk premise, if you will, of how all the clockwork revolution could take place. Babbage actually manages to complete his analytical engine, which is notable because it is the first design of a computing machine that is Turing complete. This is a big deal, and as with most high-level computer science can get complex rather fast, but here's the gist: if something is Turing complete, then it can in theory be used to solve any computational problem whatsoever. (In practice there are pesky limitations like, say, time.) So Babbage triggers the computing revolution a century early, and Gibson and Sterling doggedly develop the ramifications of this revolution to its logical extremes. Babbage's engines are aggressively analog, not at all the slick and fast electronic and digital devices to which we are accustomed. They are massive and require yards or miles of gears and tape and, yes, punch cards. So time on engines is a precious commodity, and the use of engines brings with it all sorts of logistical problems, such as cleaning and maintenance. Steampunk triggers an irrational sense of ambivalence in me, partly because it always seems to be so garish and flashy: it's got all this cool technology reimagined as neo-Victorian, clockwork gadgets made from gears and pulleys, and it just seems to offend my sense of plausibility. Which is just silly, when you think about it, because I'm willing to read books featuring hyperspace and wormholes and humanoid aliens, so I shouldn't have a problem with steampunk. But we all have our biases, I guess.
But I digress.
So regardless of its steampunk street cred, The Difference Engine is a great piece of alternate history. Gibson and Sterling drop hints at what an alt-Victorian London equipped with Babbage engines could be like, from automated advertising on the side of a building to the surveillance-state-like use of citizen ID numbers. And yes, there are airships (warning: TVTropes). Not only is "Lord Babbage" in a position of considerable influence, but Byron is Prime Minister, and he lives long enough to see his daughter Ada grow up to become an influential mathematician. Darwin gets a title too, and in general The Difference Engine is a thought experiment that speculates what would have happened if a more progressive generation of "rad[ical] lords" had inherited the government from Lord Wellington's Tories.
Britain's role in the history of science is fascinating, and the nineteenth century particularly so. The scientific community was even more of an Old Boys' club than it is now, and so all the various great scientific minds knew each other (or at least knew of each other) through the various Royal Societies. They socialized, stole ideas, had public spats, and generally make that period of the history of science look like some kind of MuchMusic drama. This is great for science writers, because it makes for an entertaining way to tell the history of science, and I love reading accounts like this. Gibson and Sterling embrace this same dramatic flair and make the rivalries and alliances among the nineteenth-century men of science one of the central pillars of the story.
All of this should make for an amazing story. Alas, The Difference Engine falls short of being awesome, and that's particularly fatal when two big names are attached to it. The novel as a whole lacks coherence and unity in its structure and in the narration. Gibson and Sterling connect the lives of three protagonists, but they don't seem in any particular hurry to develop the plot, and the mystery that gets dangled in front of us at the beginning of the book receives a hasty, even token resolution at the very end. As an egregious example of this incoherent style, just consider the first chapter (or "iteration"), which features Sybil Gerard as the protagonist. Sybil is the daughter of a prominent Luddite leader, and since her father's death she has fallen on hard times and become a high-class prostitute. But then she meets up with Mick Radley, secretary to the exiled Texian president Sam Houston. Radley promises her the world if she'll travel with him and become his apprentice, and Sybil, intrigued, agrees.
For the first iteration, Sybil is a compelling protagonist. She's literate and educated and not very naive, but at the same time she is new to the experiences Radley offers (up to and including some acting and theft!). Through her, Gibson and Sterling ease us into their alternate Victorian London. Her vocabulary is memorable but not a distraction from the prose itself. Most importantly, despite her former associations with the Luddites, opposed the sexy technology that has seduced me, I found myself wanting her to succeed. She seemed like a good person, or at least a worthy person. So I was disappointed when, after the end of the first iteration, Sybil gets sidelined for the rest of the book. She returns near the end in a much-reduced role, but she never again takes centre stage to tell her story. The majority of the book falls on the shoulders of Edward Mallory, a paleontologist recently returned from the discovery of brontosaurus in Wisconsin. Mallory is all right as far as characters go, but he's no Sybil, and neither is the third protagonist, Laurence Oliphant. Just as I felt I was getting comfortable with Mallory, Gibson and Sterling switched the focus of the narrative again.
It's much the same for the plot concerning the mysterious Napoleon-gauge punch cards. These first fall into Sybil's possession, and then somehow Ada Byron acquires them, and then they fall into Mallory's hands for safe-keeping. Their purpose is eventually explained, and it's all very clever, but the plot never develops into the mystery I was imagining when I began the book. Instead, the punch cards lurk in the background while Mallory bumbles through a London on the verge of erupting into class warfare. Which is fine, except that I often lost track of what was happening during this time. (To be fair, I read that part while at my nephew's second birthday party, and I had to devote some attention to keeping an eye out for incoming Awkward Social Encounters.)
And then there is the coda, which is brief and very vague. It gives us a glimpse of the future and seems to imply a grim outcome that is consistent with Gibson's skies tuned to a dead TV channel. It's an awesome vision, one that I wish he and Sterling had elaborated upon—but that's the problem. In its present form, it is more non sequitur than anything else. It's a tease without any real substance, and while it fits nicely with the world that Gibson and Sterling have created in The Difference Engine, it does nothing to improve the book as a whole.
I think it is OK for books to be cryptic, for books to end with cryptic epilogues, and for books to puzzle the reader. I can accept not grokking a book, if it's clear the author has done this to challenge me and force me to think about it. And I'm sure there are some people who feel this way about The Difference Engine, that it scattered narration and perplexing plot are what elevate it above newer steampunk works. For me, though, once you strip away the parts that don't work, the elements of this book that seem superfluous or faulty, there is very little left that I can enjoy. There is an alternate Victorian London built upon a very nifty premise; there are secondary characters and allusions to historical figures that tickle the scientist within me. And while I have my misgivings about the story, I really did enjoy the tone and diction, both of which really helped immerse me in the world. Mostly, though, The Difference Engine left me with too many regrets.