This novel is incredibly satisfying, despite being fairly uneven technically. The characters are charismatic; the mystery, though fairly simple, maint...moreThis novel is incredibly satisfying, despite being fairly uneven technically. The characters are charismatic; the mystery, though fairly simple, maintains an excellent sense of tension due to the stakes; and the world is fascinating, lovingly detailed, and fairly unique among fantasy worlds. I stayed up all night to finish this, and immediately wanted to read the next in the series. (Sadly, neither of the two other Astreiant books are available in any of the library systems I have access to.)
It's actually a little surprising to me, how much I enjoyed this book, because there were several elements of its execution that normally irritate me. Scott & Barnett had inconsistent control over POV -- most of the book is told from a tight third-person viewpoint centered on either Rathe or Philip, but every once in a while they slipped into a third-person omniscient, or switched POV from Rathe to Philip mid-section. Now this isn't uncommon, particularly in fantasy from the 80s/90s, but it always bothers me. The prologue, which let the book pass the Bechdel test on the very first page, was in the POV of characters that did not appear again until a couple hundred pages in, which again isn't really uncommon in high fantasy novels, but again, usually gets under my skin.
And oh, the info-dumping! There are a LOT of passages that are just the characters thinking about how their world works, how peoples' stars affect their chances in life, what the various political factions think of each other, all things that people don't actually think to themselves in real life but which they do in fantasy novels because the authors have put in a lot of work into building their worlds and want the reader to see it. Normally this is a cardinal sin to me; I would much rather just be thrown into the world and forced to figure out what's going on for myself. But here I was willing to forgive it, because the world was legitimately fascinating. The entire social order is built around astrology, so everyone knows the time of their birth down to the hour or better, and their stars determine what careers will suit them, and they go to astrologers often to get readings for what their near-future might hold. There are masculine stars, which encourage people to wander, and feminine stars, which encourage people to settle, so for the most part women hold political power by virtue of being landowners while the militaries and trading companies are dominated by men, but plenty of men have feminine stars and plenty of women have masculine stars. Stars also determine when it's propitious to marry or have children, so same-sex relationships are common and same-sex partners can have legal standing entirely separate from marriage, which is (I think) heterosexual and focused exclusively on property.
This is what perplexed me most about Scott & Barnett. On the one hand, as I said, there were quite a few heavy-handed info-dumps about astrology and politics, and I was fine with them because they were interesting, but I still noticed them. But the world-building around gender and sexuality was just as interesting and different from the norm as the political and magical systems, and Scott & Barnett conveyed that information in my preferred fashion -- the characters simply used the terminology as was appropriate, and I was left to infer what it all meant on my own. I don't know if one author handled the politics/astrology and the other handled the gender/sexuality, and that was the cause of the difference, or if they left the gender/sexuality world-building mostly oblique so that it could fly under the radar of more conservative fantasy readers; but either way, though I did not mind the info-dumping, I wish the astrology/politics world-building had been handled as subtly as the gender/sexuality world-building was.
It was, of course, for the gender & sexuality world-building the I picked up the book -- I'm always looking for SFF that has alternate gender roles and more expansive ideas of sexuality than is typical. On the sexuality front this book satisfied completely; as I said, queer sexualities are incredibly common and entirely unremarkable in this world, and that is delightful. On the gender front my reaction was a bit more complicated. On the one hand, it's world where political power is mostly concentrated in female hands -- Chenedolle is ruled by a Queen, all the prospective heirs are female, most property owners are female, and property passes down to daughters. And this is one of the rare books that I placed on my GoodReads "A Passel of Women" shelf -- there are women everywhere in this world, as pointsmen (police officers), pickpockets, tavern keepers, and shady financiers. The preferred gender-neutral sentence construction is "she or he" instead of "he or she." The book passed the Bechdel Test despite having male leads.
But. There was a pattern that I noticed about halfway through the novel, and it's one that I do not like. Despite all the women in the book, somehow, the characters that actually moved the plot were all male. The two leads, of course; but also the butcher that reported the missing apprentice that got the action started; the drunk journeyman that was the main instigator in Philip's changes of fortune; the necromancer that helped Rathe put the pieces of the mystery together; the traders who provided a crucial piece of evidence; the shady businessman who was more involved than he knew. Now, it's possible that this was a deliberate choice by Scott & Barnett. After all, if feminine stars are about stability and masculine stars about change, then it is vaguely in keeping with the focus on astrology for the men to be astrologically more inclined to be the movers and shakers of plot. But really, I'm pretty sure that's a terrible bit of fanwanking on my part; I strongly suspect that despite women having equal or greater power in the world, the men have greater power in the plot because that's how insidious sexism is.
Still, despite all those little critiques, this book was simply fun. I did see where the mystery was headed in advance, but that didn't detract from the tension through the middle of the book because though I knew what was going on I did not know that everything would end well. The climax felt a little rushed, mostly because it wasn't until the climax that I was actually convinced that the astrology-based magic actually had power in the world rather than being superstition, but it was still emotionally satisfying. And despite my reservations about the narrative's gender equality, the world itself is exactly the sort of place I like to spend time, the sort of place I wish was more common in SFF -- one not enslaved to our too-narrow ideas of gender and sexuality, and with swashbuckling heroes and magic to boot. All in all I am very happy I read this, and will be seeking out more of the authors' work as soon as I can.(less)
Within the first few chapters I thought that this book might become one of those that I proselytise for; at the end of it, I find myself fighting the...moreWithin the first few chapters I thought that this book might become one of those that I proselytise for; at the end of it, I find myself fighting the urge to order ten more copies so I can pass them out come the holidays.
And all this despite the fact that I was really turned off by the hyperbolic jacket description.
Part of the reason I don't immediately buy ten more copies is that it's not an easy read -- Fairlie's argument is scientifically rigorous, and even though he explains the math in a way that a lay audience can understand, it's still more of a 201 text than a 101 text. And, unfortunately, the subjects of food security and permaculture don't appear (yet) to be of interest to a general audience.
But they should be. The underlying message of this book, the Big Idea that we have so much trouble accepting, is that the Earth is a closed system -- a fabulously complex one, and one that we understand very imperfectly, but one which we cannot escape taking part in and affecting. From this premise, Fairlie examines the two ends of the ideological spectrum: the arguments for continuing industrialization of agriculture and high meat consumption; and the arguments for a vegan lifestyle, whether achieved organically or through technological fixes.
Being, as I said earlier, a 201 text, Fairlie spends most of his time taking down the vegan argument, assuming that anyone reading the book is already fairly convinced that industrialized agriculture is an unsustainable system. The way he does this is by showing, again and again, the sorts of cycles various nutrients pass through, and the many ways that domestic animals have been bred to faciliate those cycles. Industrialization has usurped those roles by making it possible to mine for or synthesize much of that; but this creates vast inefficiencies, and it is those inefficiencies that vegans hold up as reasons to eliminate livestock altogether. Fairlie is quite convincing in showing the way numbers have been manipulated by both sides of the argument, and in making the reader question whether the low-tech sort of agriculture practiced by humanity for thousands of years was perhaps the most efficient system yet designed.
I do not agree with him on every point; being from the urban elite, his picture of a re-ruralized future was, quite frankly, frightening to me, and I am not so dead-set against developing technologies that mimic the roles livestock traditionally held rather than going entirely back to animal-power. But the greatest strength in this book is that Fairlie invites the reader to argue with him, making his own prejudices transparent and giving the reader as much unbiased information as is possible. He is also, being English, understandably most knowledgeable about (and interested in) the British Isles and their ecology; there are several sections that are useful to an American reader only for the template they provide, rather than any of Fairlie's specifics. Still, this is overall an important book, and one I hope finds a wider audience.(less)
This book has, I think, carved out a little piece of my soul.
This is partly because it caused me to have an epiphany that, even if it isn't particular...moreThis book has, I think, carved out a little piece of my soul.
This is partly because it caused me to have an epiphany that, even if it isn't particularly novel, was still needed. But it's mostly because of the characters.
They aren't Romantic heroes -- they take tumbles down passageways, and they get taken out by ignominous bumps on the head, and afterward they hurt for days or weeks, and that affects their moods and their abilities. Their lives are messy, and Isyllt admits "[I] had never set great store on honor -- it was transitory and subjective, and often directly opposed to practicality." But they live in a deeply Romantic world, where breaking an oath can literally cripple you, and the shadows are definitely filled with monsters. And so they love and they hate, they comfort and they hurt, they live and they die in epic fashion, every event a confluence of secret histories and dark magic and tangled politics.
They are exactly the sort of cast that should be the norm in fantasy, but is sadly rare: spanning three (human) races and a wider range of cultures, at least three generations, all social classes, quite a few sexual orientations (hetero-, homo-, and bisexual, plus polyamorous), the able-bodied and those with various disabilities, and three genders (male, female, and hijra, which includes androgynes, FTM, and MTF transgenders). Even the non-human race we see a decent amount of (the vampires) reflects this diversity. And while I'm sure that having more women than men as named characters was deliberate and pointed, for the most part this diversity is simply a reflection of how any city (including fantasy cities like Erisín) looks. It gives Downum's city a wonderfully organic feel, because it's clear that every person the viewpoint characters see has a history, a life outside the needs of the narrative.
And in this novel that wonderful, diverse, non-Romantic cast starts out investigating a couple of mysteries and ends up neck-deep in nefarious machinations against the kingdom -- a plot I always enjoy. The politics are delightfully twisty, and Downum makes it clear that the politics are always personal. There are no characters acting purely out of a lust for power or sheer evilness; all are doing what they think is right, based on the trauma in their past and their conflicting desires. It's not a perfect novel -- some readers will likely want more info about how the magic works, and I found some of the descriptions repetitive -- but right at the moment it feels like a great novel, one I will treasure.(less)
This is the third book published in Bear's New Amsterdam series; it is the second in chronological order; and while it's helpful to have the backgroun...moreThis is the third book published in Bear's New Amsterdam series; it is the second in chronological order; and while it's helpful to have the background from the previous books, it isn't strictly necessary. Like Dorothy Sayers' Peter Wimsey novels, the characters grow over the course of the series, but each book has a stand-alone mystery that is the focus of its primary plot. Also like the Wimsey novels, the mysteries are completely fair and not terribly twisty, but they aren't the reason I can picture myself reading and rereading and rereading them over again.
No, the reason I can read both Sayers' detective series and Bear's detective series over and over again is twofold: first, they both feature complex main characters (plural, not just the lead detective) that I ache for; second, they both give me tantalizing glimpses of very complex worlds. In Bear's case, it's a paranormal steampunk world, where forensic sorcerors are turn-of-the-20th century CSIs and vampires are marginal members of most societies (but outlawed entirely in the American colonies). It's also a world where blissfully happy endings may exist. . . but they happen to other people.
On her livejournal, Bear said something, somewhere (my google-fu is weak today) about not being interested in the explosions (in other words, the what) but instead being mostly interested, as a writer, in the moment of choice (in other words, the why). It was an apt summation of this novella, and of all the others in this series. There is a mystery -- two, actually, in two separate timelines that come together at the end -- but the book (and this reader) is not primarily concerned with solving it, because there's really only only one possible suspect, and means & motive are crystal-clear. What this book is concerned with is the seemingly central (yet sadly underexplored) question of existence as a vampire (or any other immortal): how do you choose to keep living, when everything and everyone you love is constantly leaving you behind?
Appropriately, this novella shows two very different coping mechanisms, and implies that there are as many more as there are immortals.
Many of Bear's stories are about aging; it's one of the things I respond to in her writing. I was more affected by the way she handled it in the last New Amsterdam novella, Seven for a Secret; but that may just be because I care far more for Abby Irene than for Jack Priest, rather than being any indication of the relative quality of the works. Still, I can't quite recommend this one quite as unreservedly; I think the original collection of New Amsterdam stories (titled, obviously, New Amsterdam) is the best entry point to this world, and this novella is a further exploration aimed more at long-time fans.(less)
This is a well-written, evocative book, full of period detail and fully-fleshed, complex characters. It is a historical mystery that succeeds in being...moreThis is a well-written, evocative book, full of period detail and fully-fleshed, complex characters. It is a historical mystery that succeeds in being both accessible to the modern reader and still hard to untangle. It has moments of humor, pathos, and heart-pounding suspense. It also stares unflinchingly into some very dark places, without letting that darkness overwhelm its story. It is a wonderful book, but not one to be read lightly, particularly if you prefer your reading to be full of sweetness and light. Benjamin January's world is full of everyday defeats and stolen bits of happiness -- and the fact that his world is our world makes every defeat that much more painful. But for the stout of heart this is a luminous piece of genre writing.(less)
This is the first novel I've read by Mercedes Lackey, and it took me quite some time to get into it.
I was initially put off by the style -- very purpl...moreThis is the first novel I've read by Mercedes Lackey, and it took me quite some time to get into it.
I was initially put off by the style -- very purple, adjectives attached to every noun (sometimes multiple adjectives), half of each page written as Diana's stream-of-consciousness thoughts, which were equally frenetic when she was standing alone in a shop as when she was having a panic attack. And while it isn't Lackey's fault (her magical butt-kicking heroine predates most others) the whole set-up seemed too familiar by far. It should indeed appeal to Buffy fans, but don't expect it to take the now-familiar subgenre anywhere new.
Then I was put off by a number of items that cropped up that read like anachronisms, whether they are or not. For no reason I could discover, the novel is set in the early 70s, after the Watergate scandal broke but before Nixon resigned in '74. Yet there is a mention of Diana wanting a personal computer -- and I'm pretty sure personal computers weren't available until '75. There's a mention of feeling like being in a Stephen King novel -- but he didn't get published until '73, and I find it unlikely that his was a household name THAT immediately. I grant, the times are close enough that there may have been a week or two in '74 when a person might have thought all those things, but they just READ like anachronisms, whether they actually are or not.
But around 2/3 of the way through, after Diana joined forces with Andre, the plot picked up enough pace that I sped through the rest. Andre was my favorite character, though he doesn't break the ethical vampire mold in any way either, and though I cringed at the way the romance was handled, it was at least blessedly short.
So overall, I have to say I liked the book, but I am very borderline about whether or not to read another.(less)
This was a hard book for me to read. It is undeniably brilliantly written, with characters that go down and down and a world that extends well belong...moreThis was a hard book for me to read. It is undeniably brilliantly written, with characters that go down and down and a world that extends well belong the edge of the page. It is true, there is no magic as so many people insist on having in their fantasy worlds, but the world we get glimpses of is certainly not this one, so there is nowhere else to market it but the fantasy shelves. That depth and realism is extremely rare, and definitely to be commended: every single character whose viewpoint we see (and the viewpoint shifts frequently and with no formatting flourishes like line or chapter breaks) is damaged, driven by wants and needs that we get mere glimpses of. It is really an incredible feat for an author to accomplish: every time the viewpoint shifts the reader can see how the person whose actions we are following is acting in the way he or she thinks is right or justified. Knowing what we know of what else is going on, we can see how the person is short-sighted, or is playing into someone else's hands, or is simply an idiot; but every single person has his or her reasons and, given his or her state of knowledge and desired goals, is justified.
This, unfortunately, is what made the book so extremely hard to read. Because it takes place among an aristocratic class that does nothing but play politics with their own and other peoples' lives, the only viewpoint that was restful, the only person whose goals and needs were simple and straightforward, the only person who acted consistently with what we normally consider honor in a fantasy novel, was the swordsman Richard St. Vier. His was the most common viewpoint, as it is his story being told, but it was not often enough to prevent the novel from feeling like a tragedy to me, rather than the comedy I was led to believe it was. This was partly aided by the fact that something I read online about it gave away what I think was actually supposed to be a twist in the middle of the story, but I think even without that spoiler I would still have been left feeling unsettled by this novel. It clashes with my view of the world. I made my philosophical choice years ago, and I chose to believe that the world is ultimately a decent place, where people occasionally have misunderstandings, but these misunderstandings can be ironed out if we give honest communication and empathy a try. I do not want to live in a world like the one Kushner so lovingly detailed, where every man is an island to himself and the only choice is who you want to be used by and how. There is too much power in this novel and not enough love, and even the love that is in it is based in mutual conquest rather than in mutual surrender. It is a dark novel, an ugly one, but one that will undoubtedly stay with me for a long time.(less)
Palimpsest is urban fantasy by two of the three most common meanings for the phrase. Half of it is set in a contemporary urban setting -- four, actual...morePalimpsest is urban fantasy by two of the three most common meanings for the phrase. Half of it is set in a contemporary urban setting -- four, actually, with Sei’s plot in Tokyo, November’s in San Francisco, Oleg’s in New York, and Ludovico’s in Rome – and half is set in and completely and utterly about the fantastical city of Palimpsest. Its structure is convoluted -- though still simpler than the labyrinthine structure of Valente’s previous work, the two-volumes of The Orphan’s Tales – and its prose is dreamlike, distantly beautiful and gossamer-light despite the weight of metaphor attendant on every phrase. It is a work of beautiful yearnings, and clearly I’ve been infected by it.
It’s not the sort of book that is suited for a wide audience – the prose is too poetic, the structure is too difficult, and the premise would earn it an NC-17 rating were this ever turned into a movie, even though most of the sex (and there is necessarily a lot of it) is practically fade-to-black. I didn’t love it, despite being in its target audience (and having read Valente before), but I did admire the heck out of it and in retrospect I think it may have moved me deeply at the end.
But that question mark is why the book ultimately frustrated me. There was a great deal that I loved about the book. I loved how well Valente drew the four real-world cities and (more importantly) the strange isolated little burrows the four main characters inhabited in those cities; I loved even more the peculiar but very much character-reflective neighborhoods each of them inhabited in Palimpsest. I loved the city of Palimpsest itself, and the dark beauty Valente imbued it with; and deep down I got how it would be addictive. I even really enjoyed the structure, though I tend to have a better-than-average instinctive grasp of patterns, so I never once got lost.
But ultimately, even though I loved Valente’s lyrical prose at the beginning of the novel, and even though I thought it absolutely the right sort of prose for a story of this sort, it distanced me from the muted tragedy inherent in the ending. One of the things I loved most about the previous Valente work I read (the two volumes of The Orphan’s Tales) was the way she wove joy and tragedy together in every page. She does the same thing in Palimpsest by the end, but I didn’t feel either emotion until I thought about the story afterwards, and I’m pretty sure that that disconnect was because of distance created by the prose.
As a flaw, that’s a pretty minor one – after all, I feel the emotion NOW – but it is a flaw, and I wish with all my heart that I could have loved Palimpsest more.(less)
This is a substantial work. It consists of five stories of varying lengths, a preface, and an appendix. The preface and the appendix profess to be aut...moreThis is a substantial work. It consists of five stories of varying lengths, a preface, and an appendix. The preface and the appendix profess to be authored by a K. Leslie Steiner and a S.L. Kermit respectively, but it is fairly clear that these people are characters in the metafictional work, as is Delany himself. The appendix is titled "Some Informal Remarks Towards the Modular Calculus, Part Three," indicating its place as the third entry in another series of Delany's which starts with Trouble on Triton, a science fiction novel that is also (thematically at least, though maybe also through some bending of space and time; I have not read that work so I couldn't say for sure) a preface to the Nevèrÿon tales. And the structure gets no easier within the tales themselves; they follow Gorgik and Norema alternately, but as narrative is an important theme (THE theme, really) of the work, there are threads of other peoples' stories weaving throughout Gorgik and Norema's sections.
I think that reading Catherynne M. Valente (In the Night Garden) and Octavia E. Butler (Wild Seed) earlier this year prepared me well for this work; if you have bounced off of either of those authors because you found them boring or confusing, I doubt this is for you. Delany sacrifices story to philosophy far more than either of them did, as is fitting for a work of metafiction, but the bits that made my brain hurt are my favorites, so overall I loved this work. I don't exactly know where it's going yet, but I'm positive I want to be along for the ride.
"Return. . . a preface by K. Leslie Steiner" -- This is a demanding piece to start the volume off with. It's very much the sort of preface an academic would write - as it should be, as K. Leslie Steiner is "your average black American female academic, working in the largely white preserves of a sprawling midwestern university, unable, as a seventies graduate student, to make up her mind between mathematics and German literature." Steiner is relevant to the story at hand because she is the translator of the Culhar' fragment ("a narrative fragment of approximately nine hundred words" which may be "the oldest writing known. . . by a human hand")which is the supposed inspiration for Delany's Nevèrÿon tales. I didn't quite know what to make of the preface on first reading, but that's okay -- it's mainly there to indicate to the casual reader that this is no standard sword-and-sorcery epic.
"The Tale of Gorgik" -- This first tale is a much easier entry into the volume, as it hews most closely to sword-and-sorcery tropes. A young boy is born into poverty, ends up enslaved, rises out of slavery through the strength of his character and a hefty dose of luck, and ends up with a respected position heading a garrison of soldiers after a brief stint at court. Of course, in this culture the civilized are dark-skinned and the barbarians (who usually become enslaved) are light-skinned; Gorgik's main duties at court are as catamite to a noblewoman AND her eunuch steward; most of the nobles have been slaves at some point due to dramatic shifts in political fortune (though not all have developed an aversion to slavery as a result); and so on, as Delany plays with the ideas of power and race and class and gender and sexuality. Still, this tale can be read pretty much straight, as the tale of Gorgik's development into the person that stands at the center of these tales. It also serves to introduce us to Nevèrÿon, the titular city on the brink of civilization, which has been playing with the idea of coined money for three generations and has had writing for a bit longer even than that. It is interesting to note that very early on the Child Empress (whose ascension to power resulted in Gorgik's enslavement) changes the city's name to Kolhari, and Kolhari it remains through the end of the volume (and likely further).
"The Tale of Old Venn" -- This second tale is the one where Delany makes his theme of narrative explicit; though it serves as a tale of Norema's childhood the same way "The Tale of Gorgik" is the tale of Gorgik's childhood, it is mainly there for the conversations between Norema and the wise woman Old Venn. This was my favorite tale, as I was fascinated by the way Old Venn explained the central concept and the various examples she used. Those examples also give us a picture of some of the "barbarian" cultures, the ones that are still skeptical of the idea of writing though they seem to have embraced coined money quite well, despite the way it has completely upended the way their societies function.
"The Tale of Small Sarg" -- This third tale was a bit of a letdown for me. Small Sarg comes from an even more barbaric culture than Norema, one without writing or coined money at all. He is a prince in his land, but a slave in Nevèrÿon. A middle-aged Gorgik purchases him and beds him; he has a conversation with a young girl, and the story ends. It felt like a necessary placeholder, and while it too addresses the issues of slavery, gender roles, and sexuality, it just didn't quite satisfy after "The Tale of Old Venn."
"The Tale of Potters and Dragons" -- This fourth tale returns to Norema, now a secretary in Nevèrÿon. She embarks on a business trip for her employer and encounters Raven, a traveler from an Amazonian culture who is by turns amused and apalled at the odd gender roles she has encountered in Nevèrÿon. Norema has a run-in with politics and sees some of the concepts she discussed with Old Venn in action. There's a hefty dose of irony about this tale, and I would not have minded if it had been twice as long.
"The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers" -- This fifth and final tale is where Gorgik and Norema's paths finally cross. Gorgik and Small Sarg have been getting into trouble; Raven and Norema have been mostly staying out of trouble, and the men stumble onto the women's campsite and share a meal. Much is revealed to the reader, rather less is revealed to the characters, and again, the tone is ironic. There is actually some action in this tale, and again, Delany packs a whallop thematically into not very many pages.
"Appendix: Some Informal Remarks Towards the Modular Calculus, Part Three by S.L. Kermit" -- In this final segment we jump back out to the world of academia, where Kermit gives the history of the Culhar' fragment and makes Steiner's role in its translation more explicit. This section brings the theme as laid out in "The Tale of Old Venn" back to the forefront and wraps it all up with an appeal to Derrida. It didn't have any emotional impact, but it did its job well and (just as all the other sections) left me wanting more.(less)