The Mongoliad: Books Two and Three

The Mongoliad: Books Two and Three
Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, et al

A review of the first volume of The Mongoliad over at Dab of Darkness reminded me that I have yet to write about either of the other books in the series. I talked about Book One here, giving some introduction and background, but didn’t talk as much about the story. It was hard to say much at the time, and even harder to put Book Two on the psychiatrist’s couch, because this isn’t a proper trilogy really, just a very long serial published in three parts. Now that all three books are out in the wild, it’s much easier to take stock of the story. There won’t necessarily be spoilers in this post, but little of it will make any sense unless one has, at the very least, given my first summary a glance.

The volumes under the microscope today follow the same three stories from the first book, but add one more. The originals focus chiefly on the Shield Brethren, a Templar-esque order in Northern Europe, and the Mongols at the Khan’s court. We follow one group of Shield Brethren in a hopeless quest across Asia to assassinate the Khan and another trying to cause havoc on the front lines closer to home. In Karakorum, the brave Mongol warrior Gansukh tries to drag the Khan out of an alcohol-induced haze. New to the story is a semi-related bit in Rome surrounding the election of a new Pope, tied primarily to the other storylines through the Binders, a secret society of women that span the known world as messengers.

I’ll give some opinions on the books here, before moving into a deeper look at random bits and bobs. I enjoyed the first volume well enough, but it wasn’t essential reading. Fun, but it didn’t grab me by the lips and yank. Things pick up in the second book, and by the third, the story rushes on like a heavy cavalry charge. The extensive world building and OCD level attention to detail is the main offender here, I think, as it takes 5-600 pages just to get everything out in the open. Once the (slowly hardening) foundation has been laid, the characters can prance across without getting bogged down in the wet cement of historical accuracy. In other words, Book Three is a great deal more fun than Book One. Not that this is unexpected when Neal Stephenson is at the helm. While The Mongoliad is understandably diluted stuff, his influence looms large over the whole affair. The Number Two name on the cover, Greg Bear, is also no stranger to leisurely narrative, so no reader should be surprised that we’re dealing with some serious plot inertia here.

In terms of story, I found the three initial arcs to be most compelling. I don’t know why exactly the Pope thing got tacked on, since it has only a passing relation to the central characters. It was interesting reading, to be sure, but the authors could just as easily cut the whole thing out, released it as a separate book, and nobody would have noticed its absence. The Mongols and the Shield Brethren, on the other hand, come together in a most satisfying way. Not so satisfying that sequels are impossible, and indeed things are set up for plenty more stories, but there is closure. It was worth it, at the end, to have plowed through so many pages.

Several aspects of the story have provoked further thought. I don’t know a whole lot about this particular time period, so I spent much of the book trying to figure out what is historical and what is fiction. I am guessing that the Shield Brethren are an original creation, as well as the Binders. Of course they are two of the most interesting, what with the hinted pagan origins of the Brethren and the possibilities of a secretive clan of far wandering women. On the other hand, the Brethren may very well be one of a multitude of militant orders that existed at the time. I have a hard time imaging how the Binders would have kept their people straight. I assume that most of the major events, like the battles at Mohi and Kiev, or the conflicts surrounding the papal election, are more or less as portrayed, though anything involving the Khan is probably pure conjecture. All the while I am building these assumptions, I am reminded of Umberto Eco’s afterword to The Name of the Rose. Therein he confides that in all the letters he receives about the book, the plot points people accuse him of fabricating are the most accurate, while the things we all assume to be true are pure fiction.

The whole of the third book left me wondering about magic in this world as well. The Khan’s Spirit Banner may or may not have magical properties. Knights may receive divine guidance, or they may be hallucinating. The Holy Grail may or may not exist, and might have special powers. The authors are coy about it all, making me wonder what direction future books will go in.

I was mildly skeptical when I finished the first book, wondering if The Mongoliad would rise above the world building and slow burning narrative. It was fun, to be sure, but I withheld full judgment on the overall quality. It was clear by the end of the second book that things would pick up and surprises were in store. The last book hurtled on like a horde of Mongols riding a maglev train, leaving roughly as much devastation in their wake as one would expect. Good times. The whole thing will require patience, but is definitely worth it for those interested in a Hard SF take on historical fiction. There is plenty of room in this sandbox to play; I am intensely curious to see where things go next.

Update: Stefan is right in the comments to request an elaboration of the “Hard SF” bit. I talked about this a little in my first review, but probably didn’t explain it well there either. What I am referring to is the attention given to accuracy and the way things work in the story. (Stephenson does this with The Baroque Cycle and has spoken in interviews about having an SF mindset when pursuing historical fiction.) The most obvious example of this is the sword fighting, where weapons, their uses, and the results thereof are awarded the lavish detail usually reserved for FTL drives or Dyson Spheres. The Papal Conclave is another reflection of this, as the authors spend as much time illuminating the machinations (historically accurate, according to Stefan’s research) as they do moving the story forward. One could sweep this all up into the dustpan labelled “World Building,” but I think it’s more of a nuts and bolts thing than drawing some maps and making up a few dynasties. I wonder if this makes any sense, or is just me pulling rhetorical devices out of a top hat.

The Mongoliad: Volume One

The Mongoliad: Volume One
Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, et al

The Mongoliad is a Northwest All-Star affair. Seattle heroes Neal Stephenson and Greg Bear lead a mostly local team of writers that created a serialized, alternate history of the Mongol invasion of Europe; Amazon subsidiary 47North is now publishing the completed and re-edited manuscripts for those of us who prefer to read on dead trees. (Amazon is also based in Seattle, just in case any readers out there are unaware.) Information about the genesis of the project and its attempts to find new ways to deliver content are covered in more detail at, also at the Subutai homepage. (Subutai is the corporation formed to handle the business end of the Mongoliad, as well as other future related projects in various mediums.) The back end is almost as interesting as the book itself, but I will spare readers a rehash. It is best to go directly to the source this time.

The book is probably best categorized as alternate history, as the authors suggest that the setting is one or two steps removed from our world. Within the first book however, I wasn’t sharp enough to spot any obvious differences, so one could probably call this historical fiction as well, if one really wants to pick nits. Mongoliad follows a similar pattern as much of Stepehnson’s other work, most notably The Baroque Cycle, where he deals with history seen through an SF lens. This may seem counterintuitive at first, but I would argue that there is a way to approach historical fiction with the forward looking, problem solving mindset of hard SF. (Stephenson has said the same in past interviews.) The Mongoliad is less obvious in this than The Baroque Cycle and its Enlightenment scientists, but there is a certain fidelity to The Way Things Work in effect here, rather than The Way Things Were, if that makes sense. Engineering takes top priority.

The authors track several characters in three groups: A Mongol encampment in Northern Europe, a group of knights venturing eastward through Russia to assassinate the Khan, and the Khan’s court in Mongolia. Characters on both sides of the conflict alternate narration duties, giving the perspectives from the knights, their guide, the Mongols, slaves of various Eastern extractions, and the Khan himself. Because this was written as a serial, each chapter is a discreet, cliff-hanging unit. The authors were apparently shuffled around between storylines and characters, which gives the book a certain unity, but there are still bits and pieces that were clearly written by one or another of the team. This may be jarring enough to turn off some people, though I wasn’t overly troubled by it.

One thing that I’m sure will bother some readers is the painstaking attention paid to fighting. The book apparently grew out of Subutai’s interest in Western fighting techniques; they put that knowledge to use in the detailed action sequences. Not everyone will be interested enough in how a broadsword can be effectively used against a naginata to pay attention through duels that march through multiple chapters, but that concerns the authors not a whit. I found it interesting enough, despite my pacifist tendencies, though it is a bit hard to imagine Greg Bear caring so deeply about correct sword grip. (Not saying that he doesn’t, just that it seems a bit odd.)

It’s a little hard to review this book well, as it is the first of three volumes. I am debating reading the rest online rather than waiting for the dead tree editions, which would both satisfy my curiosity and allow for more complete reactions. Book One is certainly not a stand-alone novel and ends, if not with a cliffhanger, then a notable lack of resolution. I’m not sure it will make by Best of 2012 list (though it might in completion), but it is certainly a fun ride. I look forward to the rest of the story.

Rating: Weeks one through three of a new season. A taste of the action to come, without any real indication of how good the season will be.

Master of the House of Darts

Master of the House of Darts
Aliette de Bodard

Master of the House of Darts starts just as the first two books in the series do: with the death of an owl. There is also a murder to solve and a kingdom to save, but those are both so cliché, compared to an owl. It might as well be a dark and stormy night. Anyway, full disclosure at the beginning: I received a free copy of this book for timing a blog comment just right. I’m always inclined to look favorably on free stuff, but I doubt that my opinion of this book would change had I paid for it. I enjoyed the first two books and enjoyed the third just as much. As before, Darts builds on the prior tales in both the narrative and the themes underpinning the story; de Bodard brings the story to a more or less happy end while digging further into the mind of her main character and the society he moves in.

In fact, the viewpoint character, Acatl, is very much at the heart of the story, moreso perhaps that the plot. He slowly grows into his position as the High Priest of the Dead throughout the trilogy, while the author moves along a parallel path, her narrative growing into its teller and inhabiting his mind with increasing comfort and self-assurance. Acatl is both the hero and the author’s avatar as she explores her ideas of what a hero can and should be. Perceptive readers will find Acatl to be a very different kind of hero than we are accustomed to reading about, but the action and the mystery proceed so smoothly that some may never notice the gleeful contrariness that lurks below the surface. (It is clear to me on reflection, but I have also participated in several conversations with the author and her blog readers about this very thing.)

Acatl is not, and this is apparent from much earlier in the trilogy, a typical action hero. He is not even a typical mystery solver, at least not in the Western idiom. The first book is based on noir tropes, but Acatl is quite different from Sam Spade or some other archetypal detective. (If we’re talking Eastern traditions, I’m less qualified to judge.) There is an interesting interview here on Clarkesworld, where de Bodard talks more about Acatl and writing from his perspective. Acatl is a reflection of a common character type though, but not one we usually see in a starring role. He is, instead, the straight man, the pessimistic worry-wart whose main purpose is to emphasize the hero’s wit, courage, and daring. Think Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character in Inception – no humor, no imagination, just straight-faced competence and a seemingly endless capacity to absorb jokes from the others. This is Acatl. He is an undertaker and coroner, a priest and an administrator. He is not funny, free-wheeling, an iconoclast, or a loose cannon. He helps dead spirits find oblivion in the Underworld; he does not sweep women off their feet or topple a status quo run by entrenched fuddy-duddies. That he remains appealing and sympathetic rather than orthodox and sepulchral is a tribute to the author’s skill.

The truly subversive stuff is down one layer from the archetypes. Like the previous book, de Bodard is emphatic that Acatl will not triumph following a typical Western action movie pathway. In keeping with his stuffy persona, our intrepid High Priest of the Dead overcomes evil conservatively, in a way that fortifies existing power structures and institutions. So what, the reader may ask, he vanquishes bad guys, right? Yes, he does. But he doesn’t win by overturning anything, taking bold and individual initiative, or by showing those fossilized old people that the world has changed and, by golly, it’s time for the youth and their newfangled ideas to take center stage. Instead, Acatl spends the entire book trying to protect the status quo. At one point, a god calls him out as the one who will maintain balance in the Fifth World (our reality). How many Hollywood plots involve the good guy bolstering the existing regime and trying prevent drastic change? All the moreso when the current ruler, who Acatl helped install in the previous volume, is obviously a fool who could easily destroy the city.

None of this is any kind of secret; I’m not revealing some kind of Kabbalahic knowledge here. But between the flesh eating demons, virulent plagues, vengeful ghosts, and empires on the brink, it’s easy to lose the finer points of the character study in the rush of the story. One has to sit back with a fried newt and maize flatbread and take a deep breath to really notice these things. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to hear that people were missing this completely in the mayhem. The plot hurtles forward on multiple parallel tracks, finally coming together at the end in a somewhat hurried resolution. Hurried for both the characters and readers, as the author is juggling a lot of balls in the three hundred plus pages of story. Taking a bit more time (and page count) to make sure all of the connections are clear and to give each successive bit of the resolution a bit more space to breathe might have been a good thing, a rare admission from a ruthless prose utilitarian like me. There were a few loose ends and a few more questions when I put Darts down, though I am willing to concede that my own sloppy reading habits may be partially at fault. Still, as the decisive actions cascaded through the final pages, it occurred to me that in the rush, each piece of the final solution wasn’t getting the time it may have deserved.

That is a fairly minor quibble, however. The breadth of the Aztec Empire grows with each book in the series, as de Bodard has increasing narrative space in which to add detail. The machinations of various characters, both men and gods, have time to percolate across the books, despite each volume being nominally stand alone, which gives a certain richness to mess Acatl finds himself in. The author’s touch for characters and human relationships is as strong as ever, a constant surprise from someone who is essentially writing part-time. (I can barely crank out blog posts while I hold down a job. I can’t even imagine writing novels like this.) The entirety of the Obsidian and Blood trilogy gets high marks from Two Dudes, for creativity, execution, and gentle subversion. Not just recommended, but, to paraphrase Demi Moore in A Few Good Men, strenuously recommended.

Rating: US-Mexico at Aztec Stadium in Mexico City: a venue pulsating with passion and hostility, and plenty of political subtext for those who look for that sort of thing.

Harbinger of the Storm

Harbinger of the Storm
Aliette de Bodard

No owls were harmed in the writing of this review.

I should probably get the full disclosure out of the way first. While it might be presumptuous to say that the author and I are friends, we correspond semi-regularly via email and blog. We have overlapping interests and I enjoy our conversations, a fact which I won’t deny colors my opinion of her books. However, I maintain the highest standards of critical integrity, as befitting the learned nature of a blog that calls itself “Two Dudes in an Attic,” and wouldn’t just pimp out crap for a quick buck (or for a friend’s quick buck, in this case), so the reader can trust my recommendation of Harbinger of the Storm. I will at least point out that reading the author’s blog and knowing more about how she builds her stories makes it all the more interesting to see in action. On to the story.

While the book, and by extension this review, is nominally stand alone, there’s not much sense in reading the series out of order if it can possibly be avoided. Likewise, a quick glance at the Servant of the Underworld post will aid in keeping up with the funny jokes and witty asides that follow.  All of the books are self-contained, but the world and characters are complex enough that it is certainly simpler to start at the beginning. Just laying out the physical, social, and magical geography of Tenochtitlan is enough to keep the author busy throughout, so the reader might as well make things easy on himself.

When we last saw our hero, he had just saved the world from what we political scientists would call a hegemonic war, or “What We’re Trying to Avoid with China.” One set of disgruntled gods attempted to overthrow the current hegemon, who just happened to be the patron god of the Aztecs, but Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead, managed to head them off at the proverbial pass. He also unloaded a fearsome amount of family-related emotional baggage along the way and hopefully stopped moping so much. All of this took place in an Aztec noir setting; Aztec because it is an imagining of what their Empire might have been if their mythology was reality, and noir for the way that the murder mystery plays itself out. I voiced concern at the end of the first novel about the dramatic possibilities of sequels, wondering if the world almost ending once would dampen the follow-ups.

Lots of questions then to answer about Harbinger, so let’s begin with Acatl. Not only has he stopped staring off at the horizon, wishing for what might have been, but he is slowly turning into an effective leader and advocate. So much so, in fact, that “Acatl Pulls His Head Out” has to be in the running for Harbinger’s subtitle. He’s not done complaining, though, mostly with the fact that he has to deal with the politics of The Empire. Acatl is the type who is much more at home sacrificing owls to the God of the Dead and acting as the royal undertaker than dealing with the scheming and maneuvering of the other High Priests. He could probably stand for a session of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, or at least a Christmas gift of How to Win Friends and Influence People, but realistically, how many coroners out there are irrepressible social butterflies? Some of the most hilarious scenes in the book involve Acatl dealing with attractive women; he is painfully awkward. But again, how many servants of the underworld are smooth operators? I decided after yet another obtuse encounter between Acatl and those who obviously consider him dim that another good subtitle might be, “Priests of the Dead Need Love Too.”

As for the story, there’s a lot less noir this time and a lot more political thriller in place. Fewer harlots, fewer dark alleys, fewer shady characters with questionable backgrounds. These have been replaced by shady characters of highborn heritage and royal corridors; a much different cross section of the Aztec Empire. Where the first book hinted at machinations, but largely kept the action anchored in the mundane, Harbinger brings the politicking of both men and gods to the forefront. This goes a long way towards diffusing possible dramatic hangovers from the first book. Since most of the characters return, they tend to wave off the previous capers as water under the bridge, and nothing to concern oneself about now. In hindsight, the reader is tempted to say, “Wait, you were trying to overthrow gods there – this isn’t just dropping and breaking a ceramic bowl.” In context though, it works. Acatl shrugs it off and we do too.

The situation is reported assiduously from Acatl’s perspective; if he thinks someone is venal and power-grubbing, that is what we see. I was reminded a bit of Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson books, where all of the bosses are so petty and clueless that it’s a wonder the Reds didn’t overrun Britain decades ago. There are hints that deeper games are afoot than Acatl sees, and that his narrow perspective is blinding him to possible alternatives. He remains central to the execution and resolution of the plot, however thinking back I wonder how a more savvy Acatl would have handled things. This is not to say that Acatl’s ham-fisted meddling fouled things up, just that someone a little more tuned into political happenings may have found a different solution. Presumably he is right though, so without his anxious investigation, bad things would truly have happened.

One aspect of the story that interested me the most was the end. This is wandering a bit into spoiler territory, but I won’t be too specific. On her blog, de Bodard has written how she dislikes the Western trope of the Action Hero, one who goes out and willfully Changes Things, acting boldly and decisively to solve problems. Acatl is periodically willful, but is often a passive character. A lot of things happen to him, he occasionally happens back. He is surrounded by men and women who are strong, involved movers and shakers, but he would prefer to stay at home with the corpses. Finally, in the defining climax, Acatl saves everyone not by some heroic action, but by accepting those around him and their collective place in society. He has the opportunity to act, to stand up for what he believes is right, but instead triumphs by not acting, by subordinating his sense of morals to the greater pragmatic good. This is subversive stuff, here in a place that Overcomes Evil and brooks no ideological dissent. (By contrast, I suspect that many an Asian reader would skip through that part without noticing anything amiss.)

So to sum up, Harbinger is well worth the read, if for no other reason than the unique setting. Add to that a well-executed political mystery, sympathetic characters, and a quietly different outlook on heroes and heroism, and we have a fantasy series that deserves some digging into.

Rating: Tigres UANL, the Monterrey-based reigning champions of Mexican football.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

[Ed. note: While there are a couple of big articles in the hopper, nothing was ready for today’s publishing deadline. Fortunately, the soon-to-be-promoted Brad was waiting in the wings, ready to step up at a moment’s notice. Another big thanks to Brad, who will soon be getting his own photo and byline.]

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Susanna Clarke

Let me be frank:  I loved this novel.  I mean, I really loved it.  I know a lot of folks say they loved Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but for me my love of this book goes to an altogether higher level of affection and respect than may be typical for the hackneyed expression, “I loved it.”  Sort of like, Susanna Clarke would be my #2 choice[1] for telling me stories late at night on a chilly evening, in front of a blazing fire, with hot chocolate, roasted marshmallows, and snuggling.  Or like, the amazing feeling when you find Mr. or Ms. Right and discover this person feels the same way about you.  Or in guy terms, your favorite football team crushes its most hated rival in the Super Bowl, and your favorite band pulls of a dynamite halftime show with no bad notes and all the songs you loved as a kid, and Beyonce has a major wardrobe malfunction lasting more than 1 second.  Yeah, the novel is that wonderful!

Not only is it a great novel of magic and fantasy, set in an alternative England of the early 19th century, it is a superb work of literature that also just happens to be a great novel of magic and fantasy, set in an alternative England of the early 19th century.  And it has an oddly compelling love story as well.  Even grumpy old guys like me can have our hearts softened once in a great while, and the winsome Ms. Clarke does that quite well; the reader ends up caring very much about Jonathan and Arabella, the fictional lovers.  Summary:  There’s nothing in Jonathan Strange that I didn’t find absolutely wonderful, with one major exception.  The book checks in at a hefty 782 pages, causing me to offer up this one complaint:  It’s far too short!  And it cries out for a sequel.  No, for sequellae.

Those who haven’t read it may ask, “What’s so cool about this book?”  Imagine Harry Potter meeting up with Charles Dickens; the two of them then amble down the road to the home of the redoubtable Jane Austen, there concocting amongst themselves an epic tale of history, chivalry, valor, love and betrayal, all with a magical overlay.  Toss this tale into a witchery cauldron of your choice, throw in a dash of Oscar Wilde, a pinch of 21st century postmodern skepticism, and bring a very competent author—prepared to invest about 10 years in a labor of love—who pours in a thorough knowledge of English history from the late 18th and early 19th centuries (the kind you’d only get in an English public school).  Then skew your plot just enough so it’s charmingly cockeyed in places.  Bring this concoction to a slow boil, stirring constantly for about ten years; violá!–you have the finest work of alternative history it’s ever been my privilege to read.  There’s real history mixed in:  For example, the mad King George gets his moment in the limelight; and the English war to stop Napoleon Bonaparte form much of the novel’s sub-text.  In the richness of its world, Jonathan Strange is on a par with Lord of the Rings; better, deeper, more compelling than the aforesaid Harry Potter series.  In fact, Jonathan Strange very much resembles Charles Dickens’ finest work in this regard—those who have read any Dickens will find themselves in familiar literary territory.  The only modern historical novels I’ve read recently to which I can compare it in terms of depth and intricacy are Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost, and Charles Palliser’s The Quincunx.[2]

But like LOTR and the later Harry Potter novels, Jonathan Strange—though it deals with rare magic, cunning fairy princes, inaccessible castles, and damsels in distress—is no kid’s book.[3]  In creating its own world, a world that hangs together throughout, it’s equal to LOTR and to the Dune mythos as well, as well as more outre works of science fiction or fantasy like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy[4] or Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (works which remind me of each other—but that’s a subject for another—as yet unwritten—review).

This glorious novel is set in an England where magic exists but has gone dormant.  In a wonderful scene, conjuring up something oh-so-typically-English, the book opens with a meeting of the City of York Society of Magicians.  But the Society’s members don’t actually do magic.  In proper English fashion, they present to each other lengthy scholarly disquisitions about magic as it once existed, complete with footnotes, arcane quotes from foreign languages and obscure reference works (all of which Ms. Clarke duly cites in footnotes of her own, set out in proper scholarly fashion), and good old 18th century English stuffiness.  What could be more blue-blooded?

It takes Mr. Norrell (we never learn his first name) to show the York Magicians what real magic is.  And he creates a sensation.  Riding on the crest of his fame, he moves to London, where he becomes the toast of the town.  Reluctantly, he takes Jonathan Strange as a pupil, a pupil who will finally become the master (and where have we found that plot device before?).  Norrell and Strange complement each other, but also become rivals, because each has a different magical ethos.  That difference forms the heart and soul of this riveting book.  I won’t give away more than that—no spoilers here!  If you haven’t yet read the book, go for it.  (As a bookseller, I have it on good authority that new or like new copies of the hardbound edition can be found in many remainder bins or on-line at reduced prices.  You really have no excuse not to read this wonderful book!)

From now on, when we talk about the fictional worlds that mean something to us, that shape our personal identities, that resonate with our “real world,” we must add to Middle Earth, Dune, Hogwart’s, “a galaxy far, far away,” and 221B Baker Street, that achingly beautiful England chockablock full of strange magic, inhabited by Messrs. Strange and Norrell.  We must hope that Jonathan can dispel the Darkness and return to his beloved Arabella.  We must hope the good Ms. Clarke comes up with a true sequel to Jonathan Strange, one that has a happy ending.  Finally, we must believe (as all good children know in their heart of hearts) that magic is real, and can heal us like, well, like . . . magic.

Rating:  The World Cup finals!  I cannot recommend this magical book highly enough.  Buy it, read it, read it to your older kids, re-read it, immerse yourself in Susanna Clarke’s wonderful world of magic, and regret that our oh-so-skeptical age has marginalized magic—the magic that exists in each person.  Invite Messrs. Strange and Norrell into your home; they will be very good, polite, English guests, and you will enjoy their odd company immensely.

Musical inspiration:  No metal here, death or otherwise.  I wrote the first draft this review listening to Pat Metheny’s The Way Up; and did the re-write listening to Metheny’s magical and heartbreakingly beautiful song “Más Allá” (“Beyond”), from an earlier album, The First Circle.  I especially recommend the version with Argentinian vocalist/bassist Pedro Aznar performing with the Aca Seca Trio, found on You Tube at this URL:  Aznar was Metheny’s vocalist for a time, and wrote the Spanish lyrics for this haunting tune.

[1]The #1 choice for this difficult duty is Brad’s significant other, since even grumpy footie coaches need lovin’.

[2]The Quincunx and An Instance of the Fingerpost are not a fantasy or sci-fi novels; they’re historical fiction.  Moreover, they are very good historical fiction.  When you, gentle reader, tire of either sci-fi or fantasy (assuming something so horrible could ever occur!), I highly recommend either book (or both) as worthy of your consideration.  (NB:  The OED defines “quincunx” as “an arrangement of five objects in a square or rectangle in which four occupy the corners and one the center.”  Such a pattern is the key to understanding Palliser’s multi-leveled novel, as well as a worthy metaphor for the novel itself.)  Much as I’d like to do so, I won’t ask Pep for leave to review either fine work in this esteemed blog, having exhausted my visitor’s privileges on non-fantasy/sci-fi by reviewing The Club Dumas a few weeks ago.  And I won’t even bother to ask José; he would simply utter an unintelligible growl, or try to poke my eyes out.  (Second NB:  If you find well-done historical fiction enjoyable, I understand Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Wolf Hall is also worth the time and effort.  I have the book, but have not yet had time to read it—too many cheesy vampire novels, too little time!)

[3]Thankfully, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is a great children’s book!  Read a chapter a night to your kids.  All of you will be glad you did.  They’ll find LOTR on their own when they’re ready for it.

[4]Which Pep swears he will someday review on this esteemed blog—if he doesn’t, I’ll either do it myself or send José and his “magic fingers” after Pep.

Servant of the Underworld

Servant of the Underworld
Aliette de Bodard

Full disclosure: I found out about this book when a link rolled into Two Dudes from Ms. de Bodard’s blog. I followed the trackback and discovered an author who seems like a pleasant, interesting person, writes interesting and challenging posts, who answered my comments, and who unknowingly convinced me to read her books. I went into Servant of the Underworld wanting to like it, so I could write a positive review, and this may have clouded my judgment. I have given good reviews to things written by people I never want to speak to, though, so who knows? The reader is welcome to take this review with a grain of salt, but I stand by my opinions.

De Bodard is a bit of a departure from the stereotypical SF writer. She is an American-born, French-Vietnamese engineer, who lives in Paris, speaks French as a first language, but writes her SFF in English. For whatever reason, she seems to favor Aztec or Chinese settings for her books, which seems like exactly the sort of thing Thomas Friedman would start a book about globalization with. I am puzzled only by the China bit, knowing how the Vietnamese generally feel about their giant neighbor, but don’t automatically assume that because one parent is Vietnamese, the author is a raving Vietnamese nationalist. (National and ethnic identity in the globalized world is a fascinating topic, but not something to delve into today.)

True to form, Servant of the Underworld is hardboiled Aztecs in the 15th Century. Tenochtitlan Noir, as it were. I’m not well-versed enough in Mysteries to promise that the tropes match one-to-one, but this is no locked-room, gentle intellectual exercise. Instead, there is much stalking through alleyways, corruption in high places, violence and physical confrontation, a cynical and jaded investigator, at least one doomed femme fatale, failed love, thwarted ambition and the like. Humphrey Bogart striding through Olde Mexico in a loincloth, cape and feathers is not quite the image I am trying to convey here, but the atmosphere certainly reminded me of the Los Angeles of Chandler or Elroy. Any mystery reader worth his salt will probably eviscerate my analysis, but I am unconcerned. I would simply demand an explanation of Dyson Spheres and mock his ignorance, because this is not pure mystery or historical fiction, this is Historical Fantasy!

Fantasy, because in this Aztec Empire, magic is very real. Also very gross. I will be keeping my budding zoologist daughter away from this one, since a staggering number of owls, rabbits and hummingbirds donate many pints of blood to the cause of magic. I don’t know if this has been optioned as a movie, but PETA would poop themselves during filming. Blood powers magic, which I assume is more or less what real life Aztecs believed, and human blood is the strongest. I’ve always wanted to be a wizard ala Gandalf or Belgarath, but I’ll take a pass on our hero’s life here. My life is painful enough, what with stubbed toes and soccer wounds, to spend putting thorns in my ears or slicing my hands. (Yes, I am a squeamish pansy. What of it?)

Acatl, our hero and viewpoint character, is made of sterner stuff than I am. He is the Head Priest of the god of the Underworld (thus the title), who is called into action to investigate a strange disappearance. We soon learn that Acatl has been called, not because of his reputation or job description, but because his brother was found at the scene of the crime, covered with the blood of the victim. While the book eases the reader gently into Aztec politics and mythology, the family dirty laundry is on display from Chapter One as Acatl and his brother natter on about failing marriages and disappointed parents. Acatl is tasked with solving the mystery while untangling complicated family issues, all as he is slowly drawn into a political quagmire in one world and a conflict of gods in another. Every time he pulls one thread to unravel, a larger part of the knot reveals itself. Exonerating his brother requires trips into the realms of the gods, interventions at the highest level of Aztec society, and delving into the past of his family and the victims. The resolution of all of this is satisfying, drawing as it does on divine motivations as much as human frailties.

Acatl is also a bit of an emo wanker. A well-drawn emo wanker, but an emo wanker nonetheless. He spends as much time buried in his memories and angst as he does knee deep in the mystery at hand. If Acatl was alive today, he would probably listen to Coldplay and write bad poetry about failed love instead of sacrificing parrots to the god of the Underworld. Fortunately, he and several other characters learn Important Life Lessons as the book progresses, which means that we don’t cheer for demons to devour his immortal soul. Or at least I didn’t. Most of the Lessons come at the hands of angry gods and their demonspawn, but some also come from his sister.

Servant of the Underworld is a page turner. Once the story crosses a certain line, it hurtles forward sleeplessly. The characters begin to transform under the stress of the investigation and the story itself slowly turns from historical mystery to Holy Crap The World Is Ending fantasy. Acatl has to stop moping about his parents’ lack of support long enough to prevent an angry god from destroying everything, not to mention figuring out why a magic jaguar carried off a lovely and seductive priestess and absolving his apparently guilty brother; things move along briskly and the book never fails to hold the reader’s attention.

My only real concern with the story is that this is the first of a series of three novels. The setting is rich enough to reward further exploration, but there is a limit to how many times the world can be threatened. Does this mean that the second and third books will be weaker for a comparative lack of drama? Or is the world close to destruction multiple times in a decade? I am interested how these things resolve themselves going forward, since the author has painted herself into a bit of a corner here. Other than that, this is an impressive first novel. It comes recommended by Two Dudes, especially to those looking for something different in their fantasy.

Rating: Club Deportivo Guadalajara, the most successful club in the Primera División de México.

The Legions of Fire

The Legions of Fire
David Drake

Because we here at Two Dudes are committed to bringing our readers only best, most relevant commentary, we’re very excited to piggyback on the recent release of the second book in a new series by reviewing the first book, now in paperback. This is the kind of cutting edge scoop that we pledge to deliver at least once every few months or so. So with Out of the Waters hitting stores over the summer, let’s take a look at the first book in Drake’s Roman Empire with crazy magic series.

I’ll set out my biases now, so that anyone who disagrees with this paragraph can save themselves the trouble of reading any further. I’m a big fan of David Drake, who writes my favorite military SF. I find him just as interesting as his books; in the countless interviews and podcasts scattered round the internet, he always comes across as a fascinating character. Anytime a Duke law student with a background in the classics gets sent off to Vietnam to witness and participate in horrific events, drama will ensue. Drake’s books are a pretty clear window into the soul of a man who really just wanted to read Virgil, but is tormented by what he’s seen and done. I wrote previously about Redliners and confessed that his books haven’t been the same since; there’s something about treading on the edge of madness that makes for books I can’t put down. Now that Drake is more at peace with himself, his writing is somewhat less compelling. With The Legions of Fire, however, he is opening up a setting that plays right to his strengths and encourages mad creativity. How does it all hold up?

Drake sets his story in the city of Carce and goes to great pains to explain that, even though Carce looks a lot like Rome circa 30 AD and the rest of the world is basically our world in 30 AD, Carce is not Rome. It is, however, pretty much Rome, but with magic and some other mystical stuff. This is a good thing, as Drake’s extensive knowledge of the era makes for a convincing stage. It is also refreshing to escape the Middle Ages, or any derivative thereof, with the usual variations on swords, knights, elves traipsing through the glen, etc. Magic is present in Carce, but it is wild, untamed, and uncivilized. Proper gentlemen keep their distance from the stuff, preferring logic and rhetoric. Magic is relegated to the periphery and practiced only by hairy barbarians. (Or so, at least, is the popular wisdom in Carce.)

The story is a variation of the usual “Youths of destiny come of age while saving the world from unspeakable evil,” though I get the feeling that Drake is beating that dead horse because it is fun, not because he is incapable of anything else. Some authors lack the creativity or courage to tell any story but a pale Tolkien imitation. In this case, however, I can imagine Drake saying to himself, “Fire demons rampaging out of Vesuvius is good. Such a waste to only roast Carce though. Hmm, said demons are summoned by bald, skeletal Hyboreans, foretold by the stars, and opposed by ambiguous, prophetic manuscripts. Why not just destroy all of creation? I’m David Drake, and I can do what I want!” It works for me. The Legions of Fire is, on the surface, predictable and cliché, but this is a densely plotted book, taking convoluted paths towards a familiar end. The good guys are definitely good (though only one is unambiguously awesome), but the bad guys are confusingly bad. Who is opposing whom, and to what end? Which pawns are being manipulated by which side, and for what purpose? And who are all these side characters and what are they after?

The supporting cast is one of the best parts of the book. The spirits, gods, and supernatural creatures here are best avoided by the living. Their factions are intentionally left unexplained, so the experience as a reader is much like what the characters are seeing. Is this lovely and flirtatious dryad going to help me? Or am I going to be trapped in a fairy ring, dancing until I keel over? What about all these dead people? Is that spell that allegedly binds them to my service really working? What are its limits, and what happens when I cross them? Who are these crazy, bald geezers on the blasted heath anyway? This is most definitely not Fantasia. As might be expected of Drake, Legions is not a gentle book. There is lots of violence and an assortment of naughty bits. The violence is realistic, but not as graphic as, say, Hammers Slammers, and the naughty bits are mostly just weird, considering the personalities and nature of creatures involved.

For those keeping score at home, Legions loses some points for its rather conventional overarching structure, but makes most of them back with a complex, demanding plot. Rome is a much more fun place to spend some time than a thinly veiled Middle Earth – Olde England hybrid; I certainly wouldn’t cage fight the author over its authenticity either. The human characters are alright, even though some of them “grow” by the end of the story, while the supporting cast of weird creatures is endless entertainment. (Though I shudder to think what the tree sprites in my back yard might look like. Judging from our trees, they’d probably be Russian babushkas.) As mentioned above, Drake’s writing has lost some of its edge of late, now that he keeps the madness at bay. Legions lacks the psychological pyrotechnics of Northworld or Redliners, but I liked it more than other recent concoctions. Still, anyone who already dislikes Drake’s books won’t change their mind with this one.

Rating: For violence and skullduggery in the ancient metropolis, Two Dudes recommends the Roma – Lazio derby!

West of Eden

West of Eden
Harry Harrison

The cover blurbs for my copy of West of Eden compare the book first to Dune, then to Clan of the Cave Bear. I’m not sure how a book can be crap, which I always assumed the latter to be, and still measure up to one of the titans of science fiction, but there you have it. If forced at gun point to make a decision, I would place West of Eden closer to sand worms than romancing cavemen, but it doesn’t belong on the same pedestal as Dune. (Very few books do.)

Preparing to write this review, I checked the response to Harrison’s opus on Goodreads. Some of the comments addressed the usual suspects of plot, characters, themes, etc., but a great many said, in effect, “HOLY CRAP HE HAS CARNAL KNOWLEDGE OF A DINOSAUR!!!” I think this does the book a bit of an injustice, though Kerrick (human dude) is indeed molested by Vainte (dinosaur chick) on a couple of occasions. Later on he scores with a human female whose cleft palate makes her resemble a lizard, which is apparently a good thing for Kerrick, so the diddling is not exclusively cross-species. But as I said, focusing on this sort of base, animalistic hoo-haw shortchanges Messr. Harrison and his remarkable world.

If the dinosaur-killing asteroid had not smashed into the Earth some 65 million years ago, we might be living in this very world right now. The Yilane are sentient reptiles that evolved from one or another smaller dinosaur species. The Tanu are stone age level humans, some of whom have figured out agriculture. The Yilane live primarily in Asia (and probably elsewhere), whereas the Tanu live in North America. An encroaching Ice Age is slowly freezing the Yilane out of their homes and forcing migration to the tropical regions of the the Americas. It goes without saying that “There ain’t room in this here continent for the both of us,” so the two species are driven to war.

World building is the real strength of West of Eden. There is enough packed into the Yilane parts of the book for at least a standalone novel, probably an entire series. Harrison figures out ways for the Yilane to have ocean going ships, guns, and even spy planes without the Yilane ever mastering fire. They have a complex and believable culture, and language that is at least partially mapped out in the book, and enough factions, sects and intrigue that the reader could be forgiven for forgetting that humans make up half of the story. There is also no question that the Yilane are the “bad guys,” as we naturally side with humans in this sort of conflict, but Harrison paints a broad enough picture that each race makes claims for sympathy.

The humans are also interesting, though familiar. Kerrick makes his way through several different tribes of differing belief and lifestyle. The main groups are hunter-gatherers, but some budding agriculturalists make appearances as well. It is the hunters that challenge the Yilane directly, so Kerrick spends most of his time with them. It is a shame that the two species can’t work together, as the Yilane society is in many ways better than the human one. In Harrison’s conception, this is impossible though, which is a bit sad.

I’m going to give this book full points for creativity, both for the Yilane world and the crazy notion to have sentient dinosaurs. It does well enough in execution and storytelling, though I don’t rank it among the most immortal stuff I’ve read. (What is it, exactly, that separates amazing books from the merely good? I guess if I knew, I wouldn’t be writing a small-time blog anymore.) Recommended for anyone needing a change of pace, or who thinks that furries just don’t go far enough.

Rating: Gunnersaurus.