Kamo and Pep Together at Last – Pt. 3

THE GRAND AUTUMN 2014 SOCIAL MEDIA BLANKET COVERAGE SECONDARY WORLD NEW RELEASE DANCE BATTLE AND BAKE SALE BROUGHT TO YOU IN ASSOCIATION WITH THE GRAND CLOSING DOWN SALE OF KIRKDALE HOUSE OF MEAT, EVERYTHING MUST GO! GET THE GOOD STUFF BEEFORE IT’S TOO LATE!

And so we come to the final round of this “meating” of the minds. We’d like to thank our sponsors, the audience watching at home, and all of the voters who have kept Kamo and Pep in through rounds one and two. Phone lines will open after the competition for viewers to submit their requests for the next pageant to be held.

Round Seven – Sexytimes (AKA: The Dance OF LOVE)

Kamo: There are five genders. What have you got?

Pep: While it would be amazing if The Spy and The Secretary had a magical moment, especially as The Spy is a mousy, female historian and The Secretary is a one-eyed savage, no such luck. There is a relationship shown in flashback that is torn apart by patriotism, but it won’t hold a candle to five genders.

Kamo: I dunno. It’s only the one culture with that wide a spread of standard roles (though most others have three), and while the Dhai are well down with the polyamory, as a whole the book is an unexpectedly sexless thing. There are a couple of narrowly avoided rapes, and that dysfunctional married couple get interrupted in flagrante (though that’s arguably marital rape as well), but aside from that the only instance of actual consensual sex is a soft-soap PG-13 tilt shot of entwined hands and rumpled bedsheets, followed by a jump cut to coffee and awkward small talk the next morning. Do we get to count this as a theme? There must be no fucking unless it’s awful?

Pep: May I recommend The Barrow for that sort of thing? You’d love it. Nothing but hateful sexytimes. Aside from a bit of human-affirmation-through-naughty-words at the end, we mostly get kind of a censored recollection in City of Stairs. Saypur does, to its credit, have the sort of progressive marriage ideas usually relegated to SF (gender equality, term contracts, hetero- and homo- options, etc), while Bukilov is typically repressive in the way we expect religious communities to be.

Kamo: I should probably clarify at this point that I am in no way clamouring for hateful sex, fictional or otherwise. Though on the plus side this is starting to crystalise for me how for all the novelty of ME’s world it is in many ways quite traditional. Screwing isn’t something that fantasy has usually done all that well, and we’re following that formula here. Gender (and to a certain extend ethnicity) switches aside most of this is your traditional Epic Fantasy pushed to the limits of complexity and then some. EF with a new bass riff and the volume turned up to eleven. I think we can all agree that that’s generally a good thing.

Round Eight – Disco

Kamo: That said, if I’m being perfectly honest the first half of this book just doesn’t work like it should. I’ll try to diagnose it more accurately, because a work with this many obvious and significant strengths deserves better than such cursory dismissal, but it may well prove beyond me. The Mirror Empire took me almost a month to read and, even allowing for its length and a whole host of untimely distractions in my personal life, it’s incredibly rare that a work of fiction I genuinely like (and I should emphasize again that I really do like this book a lot) will ever take me that long; not six seven eight so many weeks ago I disposed of the similarly sized Matter in the course of a long weekend. I keep vacillating on the exact reasons for this, but ultimately I think it’s a perfect storm of little misfires we might usefully group together under the heading ‘Tension Management’.

For example, the chapters feel fairly short which means you can read at a fair old clip, but also means that you don’t spend much time with any one individual, exacerbating that ‘slow-burn’ characterization. This is where those generic expectations start to matter, because two of the key tropes present are the now standard Massive Epic Fantasy Cast of POV Characters and the sprawling, byzantine political interplay of factions, nations, empires, and entire worlds. This is a lot to keep straight in your head and is, perhaps, one of the more comfortable/convenient excuses for why so much EF defaults to a mediaeval European setting; it’s nice and familiar and lets you devote more mental space to the characters and plot. When you’re trying to create meanings for scores of unfamiliar proper nouns, having to make further mental room for homicidal perambulatory trees and quintipartite gender constructions and cometary magic systems is a touch overwhelming. On the upside, none of the swords had fucking names, which is always a relief.

For all that innominate weaponry though, the first half of this book is also unexpectedly placid. You get a rip-roarer of a prologue and then I think I counted about two more fight scenes in the next 200 pages. This is obviously a pretty crude metric but is indicative of the lack of what, in this Post-Ned Stark era, I like to call* the Flick Factor – when a character’s chapter ends in suspenseful irresolution and you find yourself quickly leafing forward in order to confirm that they reappear, if not hale and hearty, then at least alive and in possession of most of their major body parts. To be fair, this improves as the book progresses and includes an almost joyfully literal cliffhanger, but early on there’s a lot of talk and treaties and positioning and most chapters are wrapped up a little too neatly. Too many natural breaks, which meant that once the book was put down I was under much less compulsion to pick it up again. But pick it up I did, because most of what I’ve just described is par for the Epic Fantasy course. The label implies making a certain commitment for the long-haul, though if I hadn’t been primed for that there‘s a small but real chance this book might still be on the bedside table.

Pep: I had no such difficulty with City of Stairs. The first section roused my semi-dormant love of spy fiction and I stayed right with Bennett as the story switched gears into politico-historic fantasy. Much of this can be credited to Bukilov’s compelling magnetism, but Shara is also the sort of character that many SFF readers will naturally gravitate towards. Reviewer bias should be noted here; if there’s anyone out there who wants to read politically and religiously charged stories about imaginary worlds that are narrated by nerdy history professors, it’s me. I should probably try to pick nits about Bennett’s craft or technique, but it’s kind of beyond me right now. Book Two is apparently in the works; I’ll be waiting in line for a copy.

Kamo: The absence of nits and the picking thereof is to be applauded, I think, but unfortunately not something I’m temperamentally inclined towards. It’s a personal failing, I know. Despite all that however, you (singular and plural) should read The Mirror Empire, as its weaknesses are nothing genre readers haven’t learned to deal with and are amply compensated for by its strengths, which are important in needful ways. Hurley’s last trilogy definitely got tighter as it progressed and I have every confidence that’ll happen here too; frankly she’s set up such a glorious playground for her characters that cool stuff can’t not happen. Now all we have to do is think up another tortured metaphor for our joint post about the sequels…

Pep: I am all for torturing metaphors, especially if we are doing it in tandem. Beauty pageants are no fun when it’s just me. All the more when I lose. Speaking of beauty pageants, this whole thing just reminded me of that one story in the Apex book we both read, about gladiatorial Miss Universe. I digress. Mirror Empire is on my list, though I may wrap up the Nyx-and-bugs books first. I suspect our tastes are close enough that you (and many of the Royal You out there) will dig City of Stairs. Until next time!

[Go on, embed a video of You Can’t Touch This at the end. If not now, then when? 😉 ]
[I … can’t. Some sort of reaction to parachute pants and high top fades.]

 

*By which I mean, “Here’s a pleasingly alliterative phrase I’ve just made up.”

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Kamo and Pep Together At Last – Pt. 1

THE GRAND AUTUMN 2014 SOCIAL MEDIA BLANKET COVERAGE SECONDARY WORLD NEW RELEASE DANCE BATTLE AND BAKE SALE BROUGHT TO YOU IN ASSOCIATION WITH KIRKDALE HOUSE OF MEAT, ‘GAMMON’ IN AND GIVE US A TRY!

Kamo (this is how she fight start): Unless you’ve been dead for the last couple of months (or alternatively completely uninterested in contemporary speculative fiction, in which case YOU’RE DEAD TO ME! DEAD I TELL YOU!) then you’ll have noticed that both Kameron Hurley and Robert Jackson Bennett have recently released new books. While I plumped for a pre-order of Hurley’s Mirror Empire our estimable host here at Two Dudes ended up reading Bennett’s City of Stairs, and so some kind of joint post seemed like the thing to do. Pep, as is his wont, will probably be looking to tease out themes and draw Significant Conclusions about The State of The Genre, but I am both more capricious and more easily distracted and I quite fancy doing this as an antagonistic Jets vs Sharks thing for no other reason than since August these two books have accounted for about two-thirds of my Twitter timeline. So we’re going to have a dance-off. We’ll drag the books on stage, whack some MC Hammer on the boombox and see which has the better moves and more garish costume. Pep and I will champion our respective books, or, since we’re talking about fantasy here, I’ll be pitching for Team Edward and Pep for Team That Other One With The Eyebrows.

Pep: Go Eyebrows. I’m all ready to dance, with a playlist cued up of Westside Story, “Can’t Touch This,” and “Superfreak.” (That’s the Rick James tune that Hammer sampled, for all you young’uns out there.) I tried to wear my old parachute pants, but they don’t fit now, more’s the pity.

Round One – Contemporary Hip-Hop

Kamo: We begin, as we seemingly must, with considerations of genre. Both books appear to be characterized by the genre-straddling that seems to be in fashion at the moment: is it horror? is it fantasy? is it science fiction or new weird or slipstream? Who cares?

We do. We care. Or at least I do, for reasons I’ll try to tease out later on. In the meantime The Mirror Empire slots itself relatively neatly into the drawer marked Epic Fantasy. We can be fairly certain of this because there’s a map inside the front cover depicting the conveniently rectangular landmass upon which events are set to unfold. There’s also magic and intrigue and prophecies and children marked for greatness and a metric fuckton of blood. (Is that the correct unit of measurement for lots and lots of blood? An arselitre perhaps? A twatgallon?). There are some vague feints in the ‘indistinguishable from magic’ direction, but as this the first of a series we’ll have to let those bubble along for another book or two, I suspect.

Pep: I care a great deal about genre, or in this case, the breaking thereof. I suppose the catch-all is “fantasy,” but for me it’s more of Cold War spy thriller/steampunk/political fantasy/dead gods religious horror. Is that an official genre yet? If John Le Carre and Immanuel Wallerstein teamed up to write gaslight fantasy with religious underpinnings, we might get City of Stairs. Very little of this book conforms to convention, so the one giant nod to fantasy tropes stands out like a skyscraper in the Sahara. That would be Sigurd, the sidekick and “secretary” for the main character. Sigurd is a brazen archetype, almost a Platonic form of the savage Northern barbarian. It probably goes without saying that he totally kicks everyone’s butt, all of the time. He is certainly jarring, but I’m pretty sure it’s just Bennett trolling the fanboys. When Sigurd is offscreen, things focus much tighter on spycraft, historical analysis, and the governance of empire.

Round Two – Pasa Doble

Kamo: AH-HA! A theme! I told you there’d be some. Because if the genre of ME is relatively easy to define, what raises it above its peers is the way it interrogates, subverts, and generally abuses some key conventions of that genre. And this means we must gird whatever parts of our anatomy we feel most in need of girding and discuss worldbuilding; the storytelling equivalent of Stuart in Accounting who never shuts up about his static caravan in Dorset and that one time he met Carol Vorderman in Tesco but is also the only person in the company who knows how to correctly file VAT returns.

Pep: Apropos nothing really, I wish the US had VAT. It’s a revenue tool vastly superior to most of what we have in place.

Kamo: Now there’s whole other can of worms. Given Japan’s just called an election at least notionally as a referendum on a sales tax increase, with all the promised fun a Japanese election entails, you’ll forgive me if I’m not particularly well disposed to the subject right now. Which is a pain, because I’m usually not so well-disposed to worldbuilding, either, viewing it with a grudging tolerance as, at best, a slightly tiresome necessity for the greater good of the story. I mention this here because while I’ve read, enjoyed, and can highly recommend Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha, she does have an approach to worldbuilding perhaps best described as, “KITCHEN SINK? FUCK YOU AND YOUR SHITTY TIMID SINK, BUDDY,” which means that there’s inevitably going to be a bit of tension on this point. (Read more about Bel Dame here! And here!) Somewhat counterintuitively, it’s an approach that works for me more often than not; whatever else you may accuse her of, she definitely commits to the universes she creates and if you’re going to throw it all at the wall and see what sticks you might as well throw it as hard as you fucking can. Things adhering with a resounding SPLAT! in this instance vary from the overtly ideological (one participant culture has five standard genders, and even in those with a smaller range of roles the male-female continuum is notably mutable), to the innovative twists on the familiar (magicians wax and wane in power according to whether their associated satellites are ascendant or not), to the just plain cool (KILLER BONE TREES! URSINE STEEDS! MAGIC NINJAS!). This book has many strengths, and I think it’s fair to say that the majority of them grow from the mindblowing universe that Hurley has set in motion.

Pep: Coincidentally, worldbuilding is really where Bennett makes his mark. City of Stairs has possibly the best setting in years; it’s completely irresistible. Imagine a city of the gods, animated by their power and filled with all the wonder and beauty that godlike power can bestow. Then imagine the catastrophe when the gods are killed – floating towers crashing to the earth, lines of reality redrawn, temperate weather reverting to a natural tundra, the works. With this description alone, Bukilov is one of fantasy’s most engaging cities, and this is just from the dust jacket. The Bukilov we see is a fallen capital, ravaged by poverty and disease as the empire it once commanded is ruled by a former colony, the upstart Saypur. The first fifty pages of the book felt like a spy novel set in post-WWII Warsaw, with all the paranoia, suspicion, and tradecraft in a rubble-strewn city.

Kamo: All to the good, I’m sure, but I notice that you nowhere mention Magic Ninjas. This must count against it, I fear.

On the upside, it looks like we can also tick off ‘messy colonialism’ (is there any other kind?) in our I-Spy book of Discourses in Contemporary SFF. The scope of ME is several orders of magnitude larger than a single city, but here too the cultures are marked, and to a large extent defined, by their previous roles as both colonizers and colonized. The history provided for each culture is vast, even if explanations of the accumulated waves of invasion, subjugation, decline, and re-invasion do occasionally bear an unfortunate resemblance to the recruitment scene in Hot Shots (‘They’re the guys sent in to colonize the guys sent in to colonize the guys sent in to colonize…” It’s turtles all the way down). The in-play cultures also all seem to have names that start with D, which doesn’t help with telling them apart. I’m sure there are very sound linguistic reasons for some of the similarities, but what kind of loon would base an epic fantasy on linguistics?

Pep: Very true, there are no magic ninjas. Boo. Or killer bone trees. There is a lot of colonialism however. Saypur revolts, then conquers through science and economics. Once itself oppressed, Saypur now attempts to control the Continent by erasing its history. All references to the dead gods, no matter how obscure or unintentional, are proscribed. The conflict between heritage-burying colonizers and conquered believers flows through and around everything else that happens in the book.

Kamo: This does appear to be A Thing right now. Witness the recent World Fantasy win for A Stranger in Olondria (Note: I really hope this reference is still current by the time we finish this post). Is it that new though? I’m not asking as a rhetorical device either, I get the impression that you’re much better versed in ‘the classics’ than I am. Is it just more visible than before, or is genuinely being interpreted in new ways that extend beyond transparent proxies for The White Man’s Burden?

Pep: I think it is indeed a new thing. People probably touched on it during the New Wave (the period of SF I know the least about), but I don’t think there was a broad consciousness about the whole colonization issue until recently, even in society as a whole. It’s probably related to the ongoing globalization of SFF, at last no longer the sole preserve of white men. I’m trying to think of books that really took on issues of empire or oppressed people, and nothing really comes to mind until the last few years.

With this, Part One comes to a close. Kamo and Pep continued to ramble, at great length, so please stay tuned for Part Two, to be posted over on This is How She Fight Start.

The Blade Itself

The Blade Itself
Joe Abercrombie

At the world premier of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Parisians famously rioted in response to the dissonant music and avant garde ballet. Listening now with ears that know what the 20th Century holds in store for music, it’s difficult to imagine what might have shocked the concert goers. A determined act of imagination is required to push back through time and put oneself in the place of music fans used to Chopin or Rachmaninoff to see what all the mayhem was really about. No easy feat, that. Likewise, without a little time travel back to the mid-2000s, the opener of Abercrombie’s debut series doesn’t seem like the sort of thing to set off a firestorm. A good book to be sure, but I would not have imagined it to be a genre changer.

To research this post, I started reading up on the history of grimdark, soon disappearing down a rabbit hole of passionate defense and angry diatribe. As I understand things, George RR Martin is the father of grimdark, but it was Abercrombie who really pushed it into the fantasy mainstream. Now, the genre is trapped in an escalating battle of grimness and darkness, with each new publication grittier and more hopeless than the last. It is, apparently, the death of a genre, if not most of Western culture. When we are all scrabbling savages, living in dirty hovels and stewing our mothers to fend off starvation, Abercrombie and his crew of morally compromised characters will be to blame.

Going back to music, it’s very hard to get offended by Stravinsky when I spent high school listening to hilarity like this. Likewise, I enjoyed The Blade Itself, but if someone told me I should be shocked at its depravity, I wouldn’t know how to answer. It didn’t strike me as all that cutting edge. To be very clear, this is not because I have leveled up my grimdark and can out-grit a master like Abercrombie. In fact, I do poorly at the sight of blood, dislike killing bugs, and don’t swear. That’s how gritty I am. I also don’t read enough fantasy to speak authoritatively on the subject, so it’s not that I’ve grown coarse and moved on to even harsher books. We are forced to turn the clock back a bit to interrogate my feelings of being merely whelmed by the rampant darkness (though impressed by the quality).

Others more versed in fantasy will have to chime in here, but I’m very curious why it’s taken until the mid-2000s for this to become A Thing. A confession: I bounced off Game of Thrones several years ago and never tried Martin again, but I guess the death of a particular character is the most paradigm shifting event in fantasy since Tolkien. At least, that’s what several columns would have me believe. And yet, the whole dark and grim thing doesn’t seem to have exploded until the riotous bloodshed and cynicism of The First Law Trilogy did well. Glen Cook has been plenty dark for almost thirty years now, but nobody seems to have noticed. Likewise, Elric, Malazan, Thomas Covenent, and many others have come and gone without defining a sub-genre. It’s only now that epic whingefests about how Abercrombie & Co. are soiling – SOILING! – beloved fantasy tropes are popping up to amuse us with their butthurtedness. Why now?

I’m even more baffled when looking at other genres. SF came to terms with this back in the 1970s, with Hammer’s Slammers and other Vietnam-influenced books. Westerns had their own period of gritty revisionism that probably reached its peak with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Nobody batted an eye at James Elroy’s hallucinogenic noir. I even remember being angry at the hopelessness and lite-nihilism of Steinbeck’s The Pearl when forced to read it in 4th or 5th grade, having heated conversations with my friends that sounded an awful like grimdark’s detractors do now. So why is fantasy up in arms now? Were things really that innocent and heroic for lo these many years?

I’m trying to figure out why exactly Blade generated the heat that it did. Running through the grimdark playbook, is it because of frequent use of an f-word that is not “forsooth?” I thought that the internet and premium cable networks had put an end to that sort of worry. Is it the violence? Abercrombie spills plenty of blood and guts here, but that hardly seems unique to grimdark. In fact, one of the most gleefully and gratuitously violent fantasy novels I can remember is the first Elminster book, from the ever subversive Forgotten Realms tie-in universe. Is it the cynicism? First, I’m not sure how anyone can be aware of current events and not be cynical. Second, did nobody read Glen Cook all these years? Utopian he is not, but nobody attacks The Black Company. (As well they shouldn’t.) Is it the lack of a white-skinned farm boy of destiny, clad in shimmering, prophetic light as he smites the unredeemably wicked and restores some past age of glory? I, er, well, there isn’t much of that in Abercrombie. On the other hand, isn’t that the sort of thing we left behind in, oh, maybe 9th grade? I realize that many of us read to escape the grubbier parts of our own existence, but morally shallow, Disney-esque narratives not only ruin my suspension of disbelief, but insult my sense of reality. Maybe I’m weird.

I couldn’t write grimdark, I’ll be the first to admit, but I enjoy the respect it shows for my intelligence and grasp of the real world. (Or at least good grimdark. Grit won’t save crap.) I am not yet on the Abercrombie-as-fantasy-author-diety bandwagon, but I will finish The First Law. I’m even looking forward to it.

First Books in Popular Series

First Books in Popular Series

Jhereg
Steven Brust
Agent of Change
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
The Tyranny of the Night
Glen Cook

Despite my stated intention to finish multiple ongoing series, about all I have accomplished this year is to start several new ones. Go me. In my defense, those looked at here are two long-running series that come highly recommended and a third by a very trusted author. The Vlad Taltos books have been on my radar for awhile, so I was happy to find the first two volumes at a library sale. The Liaden Universe must be doing something right, since it’s well into twenty books by now. (Or maybe more. I lost count.) Finally, anything Glen Cook touches is gold, so The Instrumentalities of Night pretty much has to be good, especially with that name. I suppose this means that series completion will have to wait for another day, so let’s all bow to the inevitable and enjoy my irresponsibility.

Jhereg (Steven Brust) – Lots of people rave about these books and Vlad appears to be a favorite of the fantasy crowd. I’m sure he’s not the original super-cool, slightly rebellious but actually a nice guy assassin type, but he does pre-date the widespread subgenre shark jumping that followed R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt, and that counts for something. Jhereg came out in 1983, about five years before my serious fantasy reading commenced, but somehow escaped my notice at the time. While I don’t know enough about fantasy to accurately place Brust in the assassin/thief subgenre continuum, as best I can tell, he was writing the stuff before it was cool. This makes Jhereg hipster fantasy; all it needs is a dapper hat and ironic facial hair.

I digress. The story itself is light and fun. It’s the Chips Ahoy cookie of fantasy, if one makes a bizarre comparison of a literary genre to baked goods. It goes down quick and easy, doesn’t require a big investment of time or money, but comes up a bit lacking in depth when placed next to something more challenging. I have no real complaints with the book, but I wouldn’t use the word “weighty” to describe it. Oddly enough, one can see plenty of meatier themes on reflection: there is a lengthy and complicated history in Brust’s world and everything moves against a backdrop of ethnic conflict and discrimination. The plot is a jaunty caper though, skipping lightly across the surface with flashes of sarcastic wit and wry narration.

I will definitely continue this particular series, even though the first book didn’t come across as one for the ages. I liked it and want to read more, though I don’t think Brust is hitting his stride yet.

Agent of Change (Sharon Lee and Steve Miller) – Both this book and the series it opens seem to be the SF counterparts to Vlad Taltos. Popular, multi-volume series that somehow stayed off my radar, fast paced and frothy opener, promise of later greatness….Again, there isn’t much in the first book that makes me expect a demand for twenty follow-ups. Agent of Change was a fun read, but it didn’t seem like a book to launch a major franchise. I guess that’s why I’m not an acquisitions editor for a major publisher, because Lee and Miller have built their careers on the Liaden Universe. That alone guarantees that I will keep reading; I want to know what all the fuss is about.

I should probably offer a more intelligent mini-review, but alas I haven’t retained a whole lot of this one. I keep mixing up in my head with Catherine Asaro’s first book, for no discernible reason. Curious readers can expect more incisive commentary when I get to the second book. I promise.

The Tyranny of the Night (Glen Cook) – Does anyone out there write fantasy that sounds more like Scandinavian death metal records than Glen Cook? Seriously, anything with major characters called “The Instrumentalities of the Night” is begging for gaunt Swedes to record sprawling and pompous concept albums about it, especially if they are signed artists for “The Black Company” or something. I need to make this happen.

However, Cook’s novel is nothing of the sort. It is about 12th Century Europe, if 12th Century Europe had magic, angry elder gods, and an impending ice age. I noticed many parallels while reading, and even more when checking out reviews by bloggers more informed than I. Those parallels help the reader navigate the early infodumps and prevent drowning in the deep waters Cook tosses us into. I expect this series to amp up the butt kicking as it goes on; for now a lot of things feel introductory. There’s a lot of ground to lay before everything explodes, so Tyranny requires a little patience. There are still severed heads and flying limbs, but not before much ink is spilt in exposition.

Cook also writes very short sentences. And fragments. It’s very distracting. Most of the time. I have no idea why he chose to do this, as I didn’t notice the tendency in any other of his books. I found it annoying, but maybe there are artistic reasons. They don’t get completely in the way of the story, though I found it hard to tune the writing style out. It’s not a deal breaker though, since everything else is plenty entertaining.

I will also continue this series, because I trust Glen Cook. If this is half as good as the other Cook books I have read, it will be well worth the time. I hope that the investment pays off in later books, since this first one could be a bit of a slog. I think it will though.

The Thousand Names

The Thousand Names
Django Wexler

I’m always happy to read a book by a fellow denizen of the Northwest. Not that I base my reading choices on geography, but when I find out that someone is from around here, it’s a pleasant bonus. That is incidental to everything that follows, but seemed as good a place as any to start. The Thousand Names has been making its way ‘round the interwebs lately, with multiple friends reviewing it in the last month or so. Their comments were enough to get Names onto the TBR pile, but it was sheer chance that I saw it at the library right when I hit a break between books. This could only mean one thing: the Three Nephites had left a copy just for me, and it was their Will that I pick it up next. Who am I to argue with the Three Nephites? (Mormon humor here. Some small portion of the readership is probably laughing now.)

For those not up on all the current lingo, Names is what young people nowadays call “flintlock fantasy.” This subgenre is the usual secondary-world fantasy, but with muskets and cannons instead of gallant knights in plate mail. The Age of Empires atmosphere is relatively under exploited in fantasy right now, though I wonder if that might be because the historical Age of Empires is kind of glossed over in our educational and cultural presentations of history, in comparison to King Arthur, the High Middle Ages, bits of the Renaissance, etc. Anyway, Wexler is writing about an Imperial Army out on the frontier, when soldiers carried muskets and bayonets instead of swords, cavalry still mattered, and people hadn’t moved past that bizarre stage when standing in straight lines and taking turns shooting at each other was considered the proper way to fight battles. There is also magic, because this is fantasy, but it is understated.

The first half of the book is a military campaign, seen from the alternating viewpoints of an officer and sergeant. Wexler appears to be a tabletop wargaming enthusiast and the battles show the tactical knowledge of a student of ye olde art of war. They did to me at least, and I wouldn’t know any better, but I’m still pretty sure it’s all real. I don’t know the details of musket and bayonet formations, but Wexler flashes a more than casual understanding of everything. This part of the book was the most entertaining, partially because of the military novelty and partially because the characters are interesting and relatable.

The second half of the book tends more towards questing, though there are still battles and armies. This is also where magic comes into play, rather than just rebels and imperials hacking at each other. I think it bogged down a little bit, and could probably do without a subplot or two, but the ending was well worth the wait. I suppose this is de rigueur for the first volume of a series, but the transition from a stand alone story arc into a longer series was seamless. In fact, things felt almost science fictional in the way that later revelations forced a re-evaluation of how the world works. It wasn’t merely, “Here’s the artifact and woah! Wild times a’coming for everyone due to somewhat related hijinks elsewhere!” There is a bit of that, but the way certain quest-related issues play out opens things up in the same way that scientific discovery often changes the game in SF. This is one of the things that most impressed me about Names.

Finally, I am interested in the direction things are heading. Early word on the sequel is that it leaves the military behind in favor of political maneuvering; this could be a very good thing. I enjoyed the world building that I saw, though Wexler kept it to a reasonable minimum. There are obvious similarities to European attempts to pacify the Muslim kingdoms in the Middle East and N. Africa, as the white imperialists and their vaguely Christianity-esque religion duke it out with enrobed, darker skinned desert dwellers. It’s not a blatant ripoff of any particular historical event though, and certain tropes of the colonizer-indigenous relationship are inevitable regardless of other racial or religious identities. Wexler’s portrayal of rebellion on a backwater frontier and the imperial response to it felt spot on to me. If he handles events in the core as well as he does the periphery, there could be excitement on the way.

To sum up: The Thousand Names is unconventional fantasy featuring a plethora of muskets, a well drawn conflict with engaging protagonists, a progressive gender attitude that I probably should have written about but didn’t, and a solid political and historical foundation to build the rest of the series on. It’s also a product of the damp Northwest, which makes me irrationally happy. Things may not be perfect, but I’m signing up for the long haul with this one.

The Pilgrims

The Pilgrims
Will Elliot

I should confess that, while I’m not much of an art person, the cover for The Pilgrims totally sold me on the book. When Tor sent an email offering review copies of a few books, I was skeptical of picking up another fantasy. (I’m trying to keep a more manageable TBR pile for the F end of SFF.) Then I saw the cover, with a stunning white castle towering over the landscape, and knew I’d have to read this one just to see if the book lived up to the artwork.

To be honest, I normally wouldn’t write a post about The Pilgrims until I was further into the series. By itself, the book doesn’t lend itself to any sort of assessment. The first book in a new series usually concerns itself mainly with world building and character introduction, but authors generally try to create and wrap up some sort of narrative arc, even if the point of the initial story is to lead into the bigger, series-spanning plot. The Pilgrims doesn’t act like the first book of a series, more like the first part of the first book of a series. It ends without any resolution whatsoever. I can’t even call it a cliffhanger, more of just an abrupt stop. Needless to say, this is not conducive to pithy and incisive commentary. I did, however, request this review copy with a promise to write about it, so write I will! (Great sighs of relief echo throughout Tor headquarters at this announcement.)

Let’s start with things I enjoyed about the book. Elliot’s world building starts off conventional, but rapidly goes in unexpected directions. Yes, there are the usual evil wizards to slay, naughty emperors, lithe maidens with bows, and mercenaries with tormented pasts, but they are operating in a world that hints of greater depth. The secret history with dragons is neat if not wholly original, the political relationships between various cities show promise, and certain stranger aspects of the world may blossom into something truly unique in later volumes. I have high hopes. I am also intrigued by Elliot’s magic system. No more flowing, white beards and pointy hats, these mages have curly horns and chew on dirt and shrubs to reduce the heat buildup caused by excessive magic use. (I guess they haven’t learned about heat sinks or fins to increase radiating surface area.) Fun stuff. Nothing like a shaggy, ram-headed beast trailing smoke as he flies across the sky.

For things I’m less crazy about, the bit about people from our world dropping into fantasy land tops the list. That’s not a plot device I get excited about anymore, since it was beaten to death back in the 80s. The characters, to their credit, are self-aware enough to see what’s going on; one is convinced he’s going to save the day, even though absolutely nothing about him makes me think that he can. I would like to see an author drop people from our world into a kingdom in crisis, then have them fail, or just be irrelevant. Much more entertaining than the usual. Elliot is just vague enough about things to keep me guessing though, so there is hope for an amusing twist later in the series.

Beyond that, the only serious knock on the book is the way it finishes. The plot arcs in one direction for most of the book, then lurches suddenly in a new one about 40 pages from the end, then everything just sort of stops. I am baffled what might happen next. This is nothing that ruins the book for me, but I might caution people to hold off reading until the second volume is out. I expect that it will make more sense then, but would have preferred a smoother transition.

In spite of our boring heroes and the confusing final act, I will be reading the next book as soon as it is available. It’s possible that things could backslide into mediocrity, but I think Elliot is going to come through with exciting stuff. He’d better, since he has this brilliant cover image to live up to.

Metastasis

Metastasis
Ed.: Rhonda Parrish

I’m starting to feel pretty bad about this one. Several months ago, Ms. Parrish contacted the blog with a request to review her newest anthology, Metastasis. I’m still surprised that anyone beyond my mom and a few friends read this blog, let alone actual industry people, so I was flattered to get the email. The book seemed a bit glum though, since all of the stories are about cancer. Still, the email pointed out that most of the money made by this book will be donated to cancer research, which is certainly a cause worth getting behind. I wrote back and said I’d be happy to take a look. Then, real life at the Two Dudes exploded, all blog projects fell behind, and I am still digging out of the rubble. So, to Ms. Parrish, my humble apologies for knocking this out a few months late.

Within the last year or so, I get the feeling that cancer, always a large and scary bugbear, became more personal for the community. Between Jay Lake’s public battle and Iain M. Banks sudden passing, prominent genre voices are talking about cancer in terms of the SFF world, rather than just a disease that probably afflicts someone we know. In fact, Jay Lake was heavily involved with Metastasis, contributing a story and an afterword. The other authors are the usual mix of well known names and emerging talents, many of whom have some connection to the disease. Several of the stories were dedicated to those lost from cancer, others were written by people suffering from it themselves.

I confess to being apprehensive going into the book. There was no way stories would be anything but depressing, and there was the omnipresent risk of situations degenerating into Important Life Lessons, or possibly Redemption. (These are not guaranteed to be bad, but require a certain light touch that is all too often lacking. It is far too easy to just be Nicholas Sparks.) Indeed, the first few stories were pretty dark. Then a funny thing happened. Well, maybe not so funny, since the change is pretty obvious when the “speculative” part of speculative fiction takes over. Happy ends are still scarce, but when cancer changes from an overwhelming shadow to a spur for creativity, people come up with some pretty fascinating ideas. There are alien invasions, other dimensions and universes, identity warping cures, ghosts, and enough dark fantasy to shake a stick at. (Maybe that should be a quarterstaff, since, you know, fantasy and all.) There are also, once, puppets. Many of the stories had an Apex-y feel to them, in terms of the off-kilter view of the world.

I’m not very good at writing up anthologies. I say this every time I do, but that still hasn’t changed. They don’t fit neatly into the narratives I like to impose on the genre, so I am left with saying something like, “Stories A, B, L, and R were pretty neato. There were some others that didn’t work for me, but not everyone will agree,” which is not helpful to anyone. That said, I most enjoyed the stories that, surprise, engaged with science fiction. Multiverses, aliens, and blaster battles will always grab me harder than supernatural stuff, witches, or feelings. I was impressed that the authors were able to take a single idea, cancer, and tell so many different stories about it. Themes like “the apocalypse” or “new space opera” are open-ended enough to tell an infinite number of stories, but a disease seems to limiting. Not so in the hands of a confident and competent writer. I tip my hat to these people for coming at the topic from so many different angles and making me think so many different ways about it.

Rhonda Parrish has collected all the necessary details on her homepage, with additional thoughts, interviews, and news readily available. Metastasis definitely deserves broad exposure, and not just because it’s a way the community can help others. That is initially why I read it, of course, but the stories in the book deserve to be told, and deserve to be read. This one goes out with a Two Dudes recommendation.