Can you imagine being in two places at once? It’s a common image to conjure, but actually imagine it. Weird, huh?
Now try imagining being two people in...moreCan you imagine being in two places at once? It’s a common image to conjure, but actually imagine it. Weird, huh?
Now try imagining being two people in two places at once. Or two people, in the same place. That’s even harder, and even weirder. But it’s exactly what Ann Leckie asks of us in Ancillary Justice, a book about a person who was once and is still but isn’t any more a ship, Justice of Toren. Reduced, through grave misfortune, to a single ancillary—a no-longer-human body, one of thousands, used an avatar for the ship’s AI—it takes on the name of Breq and sets off on a quest for revenge. Its target: no other than the most powerful person in the entire Radch, an interstellar empire Justice of Toren was once sworn to protect and expand.
For the majority of the book, Leckie alternates between Breq’s present-day adventure and a re-telling of the events leading up to the Justice of Toren’s destruction. In the latter events, Leckie undertakes the task of presenting the multiple, simultaneous viewpoints available to Justice of Toren. She switches between these viewpoints without any overt markers to signal the changes. At first, this can be confusing, even overwhelming. But it’s about as close to simultaneity as one can get in a linear medium like a novel. Slowly, it becomes possible to form at least an inkling of what it must be like to have access to so many different perspectives of the same event, all at once.
Breq’s adventure is easier to follow, because on the surface it feels like a traditional narrative. Almost immediately, however, there are some unique qualities that make it more interesting. Breq uses the feminine third-person gender pronouns exclusively when referring to other people. Regardless of actual sex or gender, everyone is "her" and "she". This is an artifact of the Rad’chaai language that Breq speaks, for it has eliminated the idea of gendered pronouns, and Breq in fact has trouble telling the difference between sexes during her travels. Additionally, Leckie doesn’t often deign to describe her characters in a way that makes their sex or gender clear. So it’s interesting to see my underlying gender biases take over and try to fill in the gaps. It’s amazing how much we depend on simple pronouns to form a mental idea not only of how someone looks but how they move, speak, act.
Rather than physical description, Leckie relies a great deal on what people do and how they speak to portray their personalities. The Radch is an empire in the classical sense; its culture is stable enough to last thousands of years and still be vaguely recognizable to Seivarden, who has spent most of that time in suspension. People are very aware of their social standing, tied inextricably to their House, and things like fashion and the sociable nature of tea-drinking have become essential parts of the daily posturing for standing. As a result, one can tell a great deal from a person by their type of accent, how they dress, who they take tea with, and of course, the House they’re from.
This is all well and good, but I still feel like Leckie could have spent more time creating a more nuanced picture of Rad’chaai society. I would like to know how the majority of Rad’chaai civilians make a living. What is the economy like? What is their art and culture like, beyond the same soap operas on television that are apparently so recognizable they haven’t changed in millennia? I have a good idea of what the military side of the Radch is like, but I wish I could understand its people better. And I would like to better understand the ways in which Anaander Mianaii has managed to keep the Radch intact over millennia of rule. That seems like a dicey proposition.
If space was a concern, I could think of some passages that could have been removed. Did Breq really have to spend so much time at that cabin? Many of those scenes seemed like they only existed as a buffer from one of the scenes set in the past until the next. Although the plot itself is gripping, the pace at which it unfolds varies from glacial to merely temperate. It isn’t until we get to the climax of the novel, as we approach Breq’s inevitable confrontation with Anaander Mianaai, that events start moving smoothly and seamlessly.
Ancillary Justice satisfies, but it doesn’t leave me with linger impressions and thought-provoking questions. The unique nature of the protagonist is a draw, and Leckie occasionally seems to come close to exploring the interesting ramifications of Breq’s existence as the fractured remnant of a ship AI. But this book feels more like a rough cut than a polished gem. And I’ll take that any day over something that instead aims for the derivative, or the popular, or the safe. Not everything that Leckie tries here succeeds with me, but the fact that she has tried is itself quite impressive. Perhaps the best thing I can say is that it reminds me a lot of the science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, enough that I’ll keep my eye on Leckie and on the next book in this series.
I looked at my progress today and realized I was only slightly more than halfway through. Every time I go to read it, my eyes feel heav...moreCould not deal.
I looked at my progress today and realized I was only slightly more than halfway through. Every time I go to read it, my eyes feel heavy. Enormous paragraphs of description and narration make for a style of story that just does not work for me at the moment. I need something more quickly-paced, something that grabs and takes me along for the ride.
This is not a bad book. But it’s not interesting me right now. It’s not entertaining me. While I don’t make New Year’s resolutions, if I did, letting go of books that fail to do these things would be one of them. So that’s what I’m doing: I’m not giving up; I’m letting go. Also I kind of forgot about reading the Hugo nominees until a week ago and have so much to get through before the voting deadline.
I might come back to this. I might not. But I know that if I were to continue with it right now, I’d just end up being disappointed with it and giving it a poorer review than it probably deserves. I really like the setting, but the slow pace and embroidered narration make it difficult for me to enjoy in my mood this week.(less)
The Roanoke Colony was in trouble, and when its governor returned from an expedition to secure more help from England, he discovered the entire popula...moreThe Roanoke Colony was in trouble, and when its governor returned from an expedition to secure more help from England, he discovered the entire population had disappeared: all 114 people, including his grandaughter, Virginia Dare, the first English colonist born in the Americas. To this day, there is no definitive explanation for the colonists’ disappearance, making it the perfect fodder for the literary imagination.
In Blackwood, Gwenda Bond takes some liberties with another Elizabethan contemporary, Dr. John Dee. Positing that the colonists were in fact members of a cult led by Dee, Bond uses this expanded mythology to bring the Lost Colony mystery into the present day. The eponymous Miranda Blackwood is a teenager who has spent her whole life on the island. Her father has turned to the bottle since the death of her mother, and Miranda lives her life at the edges of society—more responsible than her father but out of touch with most people her age. But when her father and 114 other people go missing one day in the summer, Miranda finds herself drawn into a modern-day repeat of the Lost Colony.
Bond immediately makes Miranda an endearing, sympathetic protagonist. She has been forced to become more responsible, shouldering more of the burden of running a household than a teenager should have to. (In this respect, she reminded me a lot of Atlanta Burns in Chuck Wendig’s Bait Dog/Shotgun Gravy, although Miranda is a much less broken character.) Miranda is a very practical, focused person who does not like to rely on others. But this latest mystery is too much for her to handle alone.
Enter the love interest (because, alas, Blackwood is both young adult and a “romance”, so boys). Phillips (not Phillip, Phillips) is the son of the Roanoke Island police chief. Thanks to his inheritance from his grandmother, the “witch” of Roanoke Island, Phillips hears voices of the island’s dead. He returns from self-imposed exile because he senses that the island needs him. Despite a rocky past, Philips and Miranda begin working together as John Dee is revealed as the mastermind behind the disappearance of all these people.
As far as romantic subplots go, Blackwood’s is tolerable. Bond portrays Miranda and Phillips’ changing relationship with subtlety and realism: she is still mad at him for how he treated her when they were younger, but they recognize the need to work together during this present crisis. They have different skill sets (Phillips is remarkably good at sneaking around and breaking and entering, for example) that complement each other and allow both characters to shine at different moments. As with Poltergeeks, another YA title from Strange Chemistry that I read recently, I’m heartened to see a young woman as the protagonist in a dynamic, complex role.
I also enjoyed the slang and cultural allusions Bond works into Miranda’s characterization. The casual mentions of shows like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica both establish Miranda’s interests and feel timely—these are the sorts of things that a teenager interested in science-fiction and fantasy would be watching, definitely through torrents and cheap eBay DVDs.
Bond advances the plot at a fast pace, with few lulls in the action. She doesn’t pause too often to provide belaboured exposition on a certain point, trusting the reader instead to keep up and fill in the blanks with new information as it becomes apparent. This is great, and definitely refreshing to see in fiction aimed at younger adults in particular.
I was very enthusiastic about the first half of the book, both intrigued by the mystery and interested in the characters. As the mystery deepened, I had a little bit of trouble following exactly what was going on, and my enthusiasm dimmed. Since I was reading this during a transatlantic flight, though, that might have been down more to fatigue than a problem with the book—your mileage may vary.
In the end, Blackwood provides a good balance between history and mystery, romance and action. It is all of these things, but it’s none of these things in excess. I’m also glad that Bond’s next book, which I’m looking forward to reading, is not a sequel—it’s nice to see a simple, standalone fantasy novel! (I wouldn’t begrudge a sequel to Blackwood at some point, but I appreciate the acknowledgement that not every young adult book needs to be in a trilogy.)
Definitely something I’d recommend, even if, like me, you aren’t particularly interested in the Lost Colony of Roanoke.
For the past three years, I’ve paid for the privilege of voting in the Hugo Awards. I do this not because I love voting in the Hugo Awards (though tha...moreFor the past three years, I’ve paid for the privilege of voting in the Hugo Awards. I do this not because I love voting in the Hugo Awards (though that’s cool) but because, for the past few years, they have made available a voter packet containing digital copies of most of the nominated works. All I need do is purchase a supporting membership at the year’s WorldCon, which is always cheaper than if I were to buy the various novels and anthologies in which these works might be found. (Also, all the digital copies are DRM-free, a philosophy I support.)
This year I’ve actually managed to read two of the Hugo-nominated novels—though 2312 is not one of them. I’ve read fairly little of Kim Stanley Robinson’s work, but what I have read hasn’t impressed me. He’s a good enough writer to deserve the reputation and fandom he has, but he’s not really my kind of writer. Nevertheless, I settled into 2312 (albeit a password-protected, PDF version of 2312) and tried to keep an open mind.
As the title suggests, 2312 is set in the opening decades of the twenty-fourth century, specifically in the years leading up to 2312. Humanity has spread across the solar system. Mars has been partially terraformed, and Venus isn’t far behind. A city flees the sunrise on Mercury, moving around the planet on a system of rails. Various colonies and outposts exist on asteroids, moons of Jupiter and Saturn, and even as far out as Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Never before has the solar system been so teeming with human life and industry.
But it’s still a fragile time. On Earth, the ecological problems we’re beginning to see now have come to a head. While this has motivated much of the advances in spaceflight and terraforming technology, it’s also created a kind of backlash. The people who live off-Earth are “spacers”, obvious from how they move in Earth’s relatively-heavy gravity. Far from providing a united government to deal with its extraterrestrial children, Earth is more fractured than ever, with over 400 countries vying for resources that grow ever more precious each day. Robinson creates a sense that this is a planet in steep environmental decline—not exactly a catastrophe as much as a long, debilitating illness—and no one has really gotten their act together to try to stop it.
In the rest of the system, humanity flourishes politically, psychologically, technologically. But that sense of fragility remains, as the protagonist Swan er Hong reflects upon one of her many visits to Earth. She remarks that the inhabitants of Earth have no idea how precious it is: the only place where humans can walk on the surface, under a sky, without a suit. Robinson does an amazing job letting us see Earth through her eyes, and with that sight, reawakening a love for our planet and a sense of responsibility.
Humans have begun to adapt to their non-terrestrial homes. Those who live among asteroids are “smalls”, adults of child-like proportions, such as Inspector Jean Genette. At the other end of the scale are those who have become so accustomed to the lighter gravity that their mass would be an issue on Earth, such as Wahram. Advances in medical technology allow people to transcend our binary ideas of gender, leading to all sorts of combinations. Longevity treatments also allow people to live in excess of two hundred years. Finally, quantum computing has become a reality, albeit one still in its infancy. With so-called “strong AI” in quantum boxes (even ones that can fit in someone’s head!), humanity should be on a trajectory towards a golden age.
Except, something fishy is afoot.
With the death of Swan er Hong’s grandmother Alex, she becomes inducted into a loose conspiracy investigating the qubes (quantum computer cubes). Swan’s new associates, including Wahram and Genette, were working with Alex to determine whether some qubes might have self-awareness and an agenda of their own. They are not just paranoid—suspicious incidents have been cropping up for the past few years that seem to point to this conclusion. Their investigations continue, in secrecy, and as Swan becomes drawn deeper into the fold, her experiences during her travels begin to change her, perhaps for the better.
That’s a loose plot summary, but the plot to 2312 is as incidental as it can be. It’s really just an excuse for Robinson to tour the solar system, from Mercury all the way to Pluto. And I can see why: he has done an impressive job building this twenty-fourth century civilization, and he does nearly as impressive a job at telling us about it. Sure, there’s some clunky exposition—but I actually rather liked the “extract” chapters that interrupt the various character-driven chapters. It’s neat to see how Robinson depicts the confluence of different technological breakthroughs and social revolutions and describes the changes that these wrought.
It’s not science fiction’s job or purpose to predict the future, but one thing science fiction can do is offer us possible futures. To me, 2312 is a very believable picture of what the future could be like. If we developed better AI, if we had the right pressures and luck to develop slightly better space travel, if we started spreading into the solar system. Right now, even crewed expeditions to Mars remain mostly a pipe dream. But the way Robinson explains it makes it all seem not just possible but likely. His gentle, uncomplicated explanations combining physics and politics and psychology somehow leave you with the impression that this could all happen in three hundred years.
Robinson provides us with an impressive scope in his setting. It’s almost to the point of giving us too much, of overloading us with the variables involved to the point where the book has become a cacophonous calculation. Great science fiction often relies on simplicity, or at the very least a reductive type of complexity that allows the book to assume a still beautiful and coherent nature. 2312 is a complex, interwoven exploration of how humanity would change after three hundred years of crisis and colonization. Whereas other writers might focus on one or two “Big Ideas” in order to put them under the microscope and examine their consequences, Robinson remains with a bigger-picture approach.
This holistic view works well, because it avoids any kind of tunnel vision that can mar otherwise interesting stories. It’s all well and good to write a book about cloning. But there is never just one technological breakthrough; it’s never just cloning but cloning and AI, or cloning and brain augmentation, or cloning and instant soufflé making. However, this holistic view can also quickly become decoherent, much like the superposition in a quantum computer. It’s hard for the reader to become invested in the characters.
This was my problem with 2312 as a story. Swan is not a very likable protagonist, in my opinion; she is somewhat inscrutable and unknowable. We don’t get a very good sense of her life: despite being over a century old, everyone still refers to her as a “girl”, and despite being the revered designer of several spacefaring terraria, people still seem to look down on her as immature. Though she changes as the story progresses, I never quite feel comfortable around her.
Similarly, the plot moves in fits and jerks, and sometimes it moves without seeming to move at all. There is an extensive section where Swan and Wahram are trapped beneath the surface of Mercury, forced to make a lengthy walk along service tunnels in order to reach safety. It is arguably a moment of intense character development for them, but all the while my inner critic was just screaming, “Get back to the killer quantum computers already!”
The trouble with 2312 is that it draws from two somewhat divergent approaches to pacing. On one hand, it reminds me of Samuel R. Delany’s bigger-picture work, like Triton (a book which, incidentally, deals with a lot of the same themes and issues but to better effect). On the other hand, the underlying mystery and conflicts are more suggestive of a thriller, in the vein of Richard K. Morgan’s Altered Carbon. I desperately love both approaches, but I’m not as fond of slamming them together in the way Robinson has done here.
There’s no doubt in my mind that 2312 is deserving of an award like the Hugo. I’m not at all surprised it won the Nebula. It has the kind of gravitas I expect from an award-winner. Indeed, when I look at the other nominees in this category, I wonder which of them will be the biggest challenger. The rest don’t immediately signal how they approach the big ideas that drive the best science fiction—which is not to say that they are devoid of such reflection. With 2312, despite my complaints about its plot and story, it’s obvious that this is a measured, thoughtful work about humanity’s future. Robinson asks—at times playfully, at times plaintively—who do we want to be?
Given my reading habits, and how quickly I read, I find it difficult to go out and get every issue of a serial. I’v...moreI don’t read comic books that much.
Given my reading habits, and how quickly I read, I find it difficult to go out and get every issue of a serial. I’ve read some collected works, like Sandman, and enjoyed them—storytelling is storytelling, whether it’s in words or art on a page. Digital editions might help, once we finally give up on that DRM nonsense. However, even with that hurdle cleared, I’ll admit I’m not a very visual person. Pictures, whether they are paintings or prints or ink drawings, do not communicate with me the same way words on a page do—they don’t, as I explained to a friend while we saw Picasso at the AGO, convey as much semantic information to me. This is why, above any other literary form, I am so drawn to the novel: it’s a word-dense method of storytelling, and that appeals to me.
Nevertheless, I think I “dig” comics. I appreciate them, perhaps not as fervently as other fans, but with an eye towards their cultural and artistic significance nonetheless. Even if that weren’t the case, after Lynne M. Thomas’ excellent Chicks Dig Time Lords, pre-ordering this from Amazon was a no-brainer. Besides, we nerd genres need to stick together!
At first, I was a little disappointed with Chicks Dig Comics. It might be that I’m less excited about comics than I am about Doctor Who, so perhaps that dampened my enthusiasm for the subjects of these essays. However, I was expecting more of the focused critique of the medium that I saw in Chicks Dig Time Lords. Many of the essays therein were personal, yes, but they always referred back to the show, its production, and its delivery. It was an edification for me, as a fan who came to the series through its 2005 regeneration, to read those accounts. Chicks Dig Comics definitely has a more personal feel to it; almost every essay is about a female fan’s involvement with comic books and how this has enhanced or intersected with her other identities and roles in life.
In that sense, this book doesn’t disappoint—it just wasn’t quite what I expected at first. The essays and interviews are thoughtful, well-written, and above all, insightful. As I continued through the book, my initial disappointment evaporated and then condensed into approval. Because as I kept reading, I started to realize that Chicks Dig Comics isn’t actually “a celebration of comic books” like its subtitle claims. It’s a celebration—and a confession—of the experiences women have with comic books, their relationship to comic books over time. Hence, while the discussions of how most comic books seem aimed and young men are certainly there, they aren’t the focus here.
The value of Chicks Dig Comics comes from the fact it provides space for minorities to speak up about what comics mean to them. The value comes from a reader getting to hear about an experience and say, “Yes, I understand what you mean completely—I’ve had a similar one.” It’s that instant connection to the authors, that sense that you are not alone. It’s putting into words what other fans have felt but could not express. It’s a celebration of women who love comics by women who love comics—and that’s awesome.
The moment this clicked didn’t come until all the way on page 129, during the interview with Greg Rucka. In response to writing so many series with women as the leads, he says this:
But, I think, in all honesty? In all sincerity? I female-identify. I like writing about female characters. I can even go back through my writing—and here I’m talking about the stuff I wrote when I was in my teens … and those stories almost universally have female leads.
And then, to the follow-up question regarding his conscious choice to portray genderqueer characters:
Also, inasmuch as I have always been aware of feminism and interested in feminist politics, I’ve been very aware of sexual politics and issues of sexuality. And, not to be glib about it, but if I female-identify and I’m in a heterosexual relationship, what does that make me? I’ve always been comfortable in my own body, enough that I’m pretty content being biologically male. But certainly intellectually, and emotionally, I’d say that I’ve always identified far more as female than male.
This resonates with me quite a bit. I very carefully reached up to the top left corner of the page and deliberately folded it down into a neat triangle. I don’t dog-ear pages! I annotate; I underline, but to crease the page? I did it anyway.
My exploration of feminism and involvement in feminist discourse has been as much about exploring my own gender identity, and the way I perform gender, as it has been about critiquing gender roles in wider society. A lot of what Rucka says above applies to me—and I’ve said it in various bits and pieces to people at one time or another, but I don’t know if I’ve ever put it all together so succinctly. I too am straight and pretty comfortable in my body (my teeth could be better). But I tend to form stronger friendships with women than I do men. Like Rucka, my stories often involve women protagonists or at least very important women main characters. And I’m intensely interested in what it’s like to be a woman. (I’m not sure whether the relationship between these last two things is cause-and-effect or effect-and-cause.) It is a perspective I cannot, owing to my biology and socialization, realize myself; I have to seek it vicariously through literature and discussions with female friends. For me, personally, my involvement with feminism has been a quest for empathy.
The bottom line here, though, is that this is a book about women and comics, about women who love comics, and all the awesomeness that results. It crosses generations and occupations—there are essays and interviews here from fans, from authors, from editors, from artists. Rather than presenting a prescriptive, monolithic definition of what it means to be a female fan, Chicks Digs Comics embraces a diversity of perspectives. There are differing opinions on what makes a female character empowered, for instance, or the nature of Barbara Gordon’s transition from able-bodied Batgirl to the disabled Oracle. As with so many things viewed through the lens of feminism, I think it can be tempting to simply condemn comics for being bastions of the male gaze or otherwise demeaning to women—and some of the contributors note the surprised reactions they receive when other women learn of their self-professed feminist fandom. Chicks Digs Comics belies this approach to feminism by exposing the nuance that makes comics worthwhile.
I don’t always read comics. But I do occasionally read books about comics! Because sometimes, things about comics aren’t just about comics, in the same way that comics aren’t just about spandex and onomatapeia. There’s something good here, something human and true. It’s academic, and meaningful, and personal. So if you like comics, even if you don’t read them all that often, read this. And if you don’t like comics? Maybe this will lift the cloud of confusion over why so many women do.
I love fiction set in Tudor and Elizabethan England. It seems an era particularly rich in epic, empire-spanning even...moreNow 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).
Every so often I read reviews that talk about a book or an author being “a breath of fresh air” to a genre or market, and I scoff and wonder what that...moreEvery so often I read reviews that talk about a book or an author being “a breath of fresh air” to a genre or market, and I scoff and wonder what that means. Now I know, because that’s how I would describe Throne of the Crescent Moon. After so many fantasy novels based on a pseudo-medieval European setting, it’s just refreshing to see someone use a pseudo-Islamic setting. Moreover, Saladin Ahmed tells the story in a way that makes it feel like urban fantasy—just not urban fantasy set in the present day. The city of Dhamsawaat is in trouble indeed.
Throne of the Crescent Moon follows Dr. Adoulla Makhslood, an aged ghul-hunter, and his apprentice, the dervish Raseed. The halcyon days of ghul-hunting have long since passed, and Adoulla is one of the last of his order. He’s feeling his age, and his gruff and irreverent character is one of the best things about this book. It’s even better when juxtaposed with the serious seventeen-year-old Raseed, who is obsessed with honour, duty, and not being tempted by attractive young women. When the only survivor of a decimated Badawi tribe joins them, and she happens to be a young woman who can shapeshift into a lion and has a ferocious personality to match, Raseed runs into some difficulties in that last department.
Even the minor characters are far from stock. Ahmed hints at a backstory to each one, previous dealings with Adoulla or Adoulla’s friends that have left them in his debt. It gives the impression that even if Ahmed isn’t telling us everything (why would he?) he has a lot of it figured out—exactly the sort of impression an author should give.
Similarly, Ahmed avoids unnecessary exposition when it comes to describing his world or the history of the Crescent Moon Kingdoms. I suspect that some readers will find this unsatisfying and declaim a lack of worldbuilding. Yet what Ahmed chooses to reveal indicates his world is there and consistent—he just isn’t interested in showing it off at the expense of the story. Which is as it should be. It’s frustrating, sometimes, to hear Adoulla talk about something only in passing when it would clearly make for an interesting diversion—but the result is a book that is briskly paced and never dull.
This is fortunate. Though the plot has admirable layers of complexity, it is ultimately not very complicated, and I’m glad Ahmed did not try to build it up more slowly. Throne of the Crescent Moon has many qualities, but subtlety is not one of them. Instead of showing us the sexual tension between Raseed and Zamia, Ahmed tells us all about it almost from the first time they meet. Instead of gradually hinting and foreshadowing at the nature of the Falcon Prince’s involvement, he keeps us in the dark and then reveals everything just prior to the climax. Though there is nothing wrong with these decisions per se, they make the story feel more linear and much more predictable.
I also wish Throne of the Crescent Moon had a strong, compelling antagonist. As it is, the villain is literally without voice. Instead, its mouthpiece is its minion, Mouw Awa, who is quite insane. And when the climax comes and the good guys square off against Mouw Awa’s master for the fate of Dhamsawaat and maybe the world … well, without going into detail, it was disappointing. It was over too soon, and it was a little too easy. Despite all the groundwork Ahmed lays for Adoulla’s internal conflict about his age and Raseed’s insecurities about his dutifulness and righteousness, it never really comes together. This is all the more unfortunate because I was really enjoying the book up until the ending—which didn’t let me down so much as just not live up to the expectations the rest of the book had established.
Throne of the Crescent Moon is rich in refreshing imagery, magic use, and cool characters. It’s very original, in the sense that Ahmed is working outside the typical scope of mainstream fantasy settings, and he does it well. The ending needs work, and the characterization could have been a lot more subtle. But I’d still recommend it, because it has that refreshing voice reviewers are always prattling on about. I should know. Apparently I’m one of them now.