I can't count the number of times I've dug my heels in when reaching the final handful of pages in a new favourite book, desperately wanting it not toI can't count the number of times I've dug my heels in when reaching the final handful of pages in a new favourite book, desperately wanting it not to end; basking in a comfortable epilogue, or balking at a unexpected denouement. I've always wanted them to be longer, give me a 500 or 1000 page giant any day over a slim volume promising only scant, ephemeral pleasures. (I'm sure you can draw all sorts of conclusions about my personality from this information.) I can't ever remember this happening before, though, reaching the final stretch of a new favourite book and thinking "who the eff needs more than 171 pages anyway?! Why aren't all books this short?"
An entirely new experience? Dayenu. Add to that the customary level of awesomeness I've grown to expect from my favourite author, and it's hard even for a heathen not to feel blessed....more
Everyone knows that Star Wars isn't really science fiction, it's just fantasy with space ships. Which doesn't make it any less amazing (when it's amazEveryone knows that Star Wars isn't really science fiction, it's just fantasy with space ships. Which doesn't make it any less amazing (when it's amazing), mind. Babylon Steel's setting is basically the Star Wars universe at its most fun, exciting and dramatic, only with dimensional portals instead of the space stuff, and without the Evil Empire and past-its-sell-by-date Hero's Journey story structure.
The titular heroine is charming and capable (and non-white, whatever the otherwise amazing cover art might imply) and might be described as Han Solo and Princess Leia rolled into one, but let's leave the whole SW comparison behind, because Babylon Steel is a great enough character to stand on her own. If a fascinating, fleshed-out setting (Scalentine, a city-dimension vibrant and exciting enough to hold its own against Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork -- to drop a different name), a singular protagonist and a lovable supporting cast isn't enough to convince you this is a book worth reading, Gaie Sebold creates a brilliant story structure around them.
If I ever need to explain to someone why I think twists are overrated in fiction, I can point to the way Sebold uses gradual reveals of secrets from the past not to create jaw-dropping surprises, but to increase the stakes and the emotional investment of the reader in her story and characters. It's beautifully done, and more than anything, it's this one element that makes me feel like Sebold is doing something more than churning out a deftly turned romp. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but still, there's nothing better than coming to be entertained, and leaving with more than you bargained for....more
I don't know what's the bigger crime; that this wonderful book is a limited edition out of print for many years and only available for a steep rate seI don't know what's the bigger crime; that this wonderful book is a limited edition out of print for many years and only available for a steep rate second-hand, or my (albeit intermittent and shamefaced) glee at having obtained a copy. Anyway, there are cheaper and more available books of Davidson's out there, and from what I'm able to gather, most of them should be up to the level of these delightful alternate history stories of an Central European empire of the late 1800s. They're more than worth it for the prose alone, which is versatile and nimble in its complexity. Also, I can't remember the last time a book made me laugh out loud as much, and the stories still manage to pack some surprising emotional punches, deftly avoiding the dreaded short fiction trap of beating the reader over the head with its ironies....more
There’s a vast, impenetrable, unknowable forest right there, brushing up against a familiar city of men. It’s right there, and it shouldn’t be.
This isThere’s a vast, impenetrable, unknowable forest right there, brushing up against a familiar city of men. It’s right there, and it shouldn’t be.
This isn’t the first of the fantastical elements we’re introduced to in Wolfhound Century, but this is the image that stayed with me, that really sucked me into the Vlast, Peter Higgins’ alternate Soviet Russia. Even with angels (or “angels”, rather) and giants popping up in its first pages, the Vlast's towns and cities feel very familiar, with their muggy cafés and slush-filled streets. But when Higgins introduces the idea of the Vlast as one almost-isolated wound of civilisation carved into the untamed nature of its world, he also rings a bell of cognitive dissonance that resonates through the rest of the book. Whenever I come across an alternate-history/secondary world fantasy mash-up like this, it’s always tempting to suspect authors of changing out the names and fudging the geography and history because they couldn’t be bothered with the research. In a couple of disorienting, rug-pulling paragraphs, Higgins justifies the Vlast (and the rest of its world) being exactly what it is. A real fake place, and not just Russia with the serial numbers filed off.
The first two thirds of Wolfhound Century’s story is a fairly standard noirish thriller (one good cop up against a corrupt system), but Higgins uses the conventional structures to his advantage. Instead of trying to subvert his audience’s expectations with forced twists and turns, he plays his cards face up. When Very Bad Things start happening to our one good cop (trust me, this is not a spoiler), their inevitability (and matter-of-fact foreshadowing) highlight the consequences of the protagonist’s actions, instead of serving as artificial heightening of stakes and suspense.
The aforementioned unfamiliar familiarity of the world building, and Higgins’ spare and beautiful prose also help augment and transform the standard issue story beats. There’s an otherness to both dialogues and narration that makes this seem more like an impeccable translation, than an English-language original. And I definitely mean that as a compliment.
Even though its prose is minimalistic, the book’s chief strength (one which blindsided me again and again) might be its turns into poetry. Higgins will periodically shift his tight third person narration from human players to other intelligences, whether superhuman or supernatural. More often than not, the resulting sequences are mind-blowing, awesome in the true sense of the word. Now and again, he’ll also knock out a paragraph or two in the middle of the main narrative which has me near catching my breath. Like this one, where the seeds of a decidedly low-key love story are sown:
“Lom watched her walk out of the room, straight and taut and brave. He felt something break open quietly inside him. A new rawness. An empty fullness. An uncertainty that felt like sadness or hunger, but wasn’t.”
I was a bit disappointed not to see the story resolved by the end of the book, but if you’re going to have a multi-part saga, I’d rather its individual instalments be brisk, 300 page affairs like Wolfhound Century, rather than thousand page monstrosities. I’m really, really excited to see where Higgins takes this next....more