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Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

The Hexarchate is facing a catastrophic defeat. To stave off a crippling loss, Kel Cheris recommends using the tactical genius of Shuos Jedao, an infamous general who slaughtered his own troops to achieve victory centuries ago. Damn, Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee is freaking awesome. Yoon Ha Lee has crafted an amazing blend of intellectual science fiction, military science fiction, space opera, and weird fiction.

The world building is excellent. And quite weird. Melded with real physics is a sort of consensus physics by which many exotic effects are achieved through adherence to various calendars. To rebel against the hegemonic calendar is to enact heresy, which threatens the entire fabric of the society of the Hexarchate. And many of these exotic technologies have become essential to the continued existence of galactic society.

Which explains why the Hexarchate is a very authoritarian, brutal culture to live in.

Several reviews I have read remarked upon the difficulty of following along with the weird/ exotic science Lee develops for Ninefox Gambit. But I do not agree. I find no problem understanding the science, even if it is weird.

In fact, I had no problem following along with the cultural world building either.

Ninefox Gambit is a relatively slim novel that packs quite a punch. Especially during the siege and battle that takes place over the last third of the novel. The Siege of the Fortress of Scattered Needles is one of the best science fiction battles I have ever read.

My one criticism, though, is that I wish the Neo Liozh Heresy had been more of a match for Jedao and Cheris. I wish more had been done with Vahenz (whose communications with Liozh Zai are delightfully hilarious) to make her a more credible antagonist.

The characterization is subtle and very well done. The reader feels for these characters. The readers rage at Kel Command with Cheris, feel for the soldiers fighting in the battle (and often dying), and come to recognize the ignored importance of the servitors. The characters, no matter how short their appearance, come across as multidimensional.

My one major criticism is that Ninefox Gambit is only 317 pages in the edition I have. I want more. I want to know what happens to Cheris after the end of the Siege. I want to see her next moves.

Review: The Night Ocean by Paul LaFarge

Did H.P. Lovecraft write the Erotonomicon, a diary of forbidden sexual desire and experience? Did R.H. Barlow fake his suicide in Mexico City to live a new life in Montreal? Who is L.C. Spinks? What drove Charlie Willett to suicide. That is what Charlie’s wife, Marina Willett is determined to find out. But will Marina’s quest drive her to the madness that claimed Charlie? If you want to find out, read The Nigh Ocean, Paul LaFarge’s own Lovecraftian pastiche. Or is it parody? In either case, I would urge a prospective reader to pull back before it is too late.

The Night Ocean is not a good novel.

The plot is ridiculous and convoluted, surviving on the audaciousness of the salacious implication that H.P. Lovecraft may or may not have been fond of teenage hustlers. And R.H. Barlow. Before readers jump to Lovecraft’s defense (and spoiler alert!), the Erotonomicon is revealed to be a forgery. Like the rest of the various narratives designed to evoke Lovecraftian paranoia and madness.

It is all a bunch of hot air that does not even capture the evocative power of Lovecraft, even at his worse.

The characters are all flat and unrealized. Especially as the novel is told second and third hand.

Are there any redeeming features of the novel?

Yes. There is one.

I did enjoy the scenes of Barlow’s life in Mexico City before his suicide. That is, for me, the sole interesting thing in the novel. Pity the novel is not about Barlow in Mexico City.

Otherwise, this is just a truly terrible novel.

 

Review: The Collapsing Empire

The Flow, the sole means of traveling faster than light, is shifting away from the human occupied worlds of the Interdependency. Can the heroes wrangle competing factions to save humanity? The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi has the beginning of the answer. (What do you expect from the first book in a series?) A fast paced space opera, The Collapsing Empire is a fun read with some serious issues (mainly I have major nitpicks regarding the world building).

The Collapsing Empire is fast paced. Amazingly so. The reader zips through the story wanting more.

The plot is fun. Reading how the protagonists work their ways into position to start the process of saving humanity against entrenched political corruption, sociopathic ambition, and endemic structural weakness is, honestly, a joy.

The main protagonist is Cardenia Wu, or, as she is formally styled, Emperox Grayland II. The bastard daughter of the previous emperox, she finds herself thrust into saving humanity from a position of power she never wanted.

Supporting her are Kiva Lagos, from the wealthy Lagos Guild, and Marce Claremont, a flow physicist on the run who has key information on the Flow’s shift. A foul mouthed force of nature, Kiva comes close to stealing the book. All three major characters are fascinating, but standard space opera character types.

(The villains, again, are standard character types. And very obvious.)

The biggest problem with The Collapsing Empire is thinking too hard about the world building. And the scientific process.

The Collapsing Empire takes place, at the least, in the 3500s. The Flow has been the fundamental bedrock of human civilization for over a thousand years. The Flow has shifted at least twice, stranding two worlds (one of them Earth) from the rest of humanity. In all that time, and with the home world of humanity lost, the Flow is still little understood? Really? Come on. The Flow should be far more understood than it is within the context of the novel.

An added complication to the study, or lack thereof, of the Flow is the obvious problem with the scientific method and peer review presented in the novel. Peer review is mentioned twice in key moments. One character is criticized for not peer reviewing her findings. The chastising character even references the fact that he, himself, needed peer review to prevent himself from making the same mistakes. But, he is satisfied with his work being peer reviewed by only one other person and treats it as sufficient. Should not peer review be more extensive (and therefore alleviating some of the political problems that arise in the novel)? Then again, that would kill the plot.

(To be fair to Scalzi, a lot of space opera, and science fiction in general, have serious problems when it comes to actual science.)

Humans, again, are vastly more advanced in 3500 than they are in 2017. Even in the harshest environments, humanity should be either able to terraform their new home worlds or adapt themselves to their new environments. The fall of the Interdependency should not result in humanity eventually dying out except for those on End, the only world humanity occupies that is in any way similar to Earth.

These world building problems are necessary for the plot to work, however. The immediacy of the collapse of the Interdependency is lessened if the coming shift in the Flow is widely known about. And, again, the economic structure of the Interdependency makes it impossible for humans to survive on their own even if humans should be able to adapt to their new environments.

Clearly, the world building bugs me to no end. I wish it did not. But it does. And consequently, my enjoyment of the novel is lessened by asking these world building questions. The Collapsing Empire is a fun read. But can it escape the collapse of its world building? For me, it cannot.

 

Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror A Review for the Fantasy Writer

I first heard mention of Tyrants: A History of Power, Injustice, and Terror by Waller R. Newell in a post on Black Gate. I was intrigued and sought it out. But, as Tyrants is a new book, I had to wait quite some time to request it through interlibrary loan. Recently, I received a copy and have since read it. The book is a thought provoking read. I found my assumptions challenged quite persuasively in some passages. But I cannot help but feel the book does not adequately cover its subject. While I might not recommend Tyrants to a scholarly audience, I do think, with caveats, this book is useful for fantasy writers.

Tyrants is divided into three parts. While the introduction presents three types of tyranny, the book itself takes the chronological approach of ancient, early modern, and modern. The result is that garden variety tyrants are an afterthought(or addendum) to reform and millenarian tyrants.

Part One is, perhaps, the weakest part of the text. Newell focus on Classical writers interpreting, engaging, and condemning tyrants of garden variety, reform variety, and mixed variety hues. The problem, however, is that he does not engage with the origin of tyranny. For that, one must delve deep into the great Bronze Age world monarchies/ great states (Egypt, Hittite, Assyria, Babylon, and Mittanni) as well as the Persian Empire.

It must also be noted that I caught a number of factual errors in Part One. The war between the Olympians and the Titans is called the Titanomachia not the Gigantomachia (which deals with the Olympians fighting the Giants, not Titans). Athens is located on the Attic Peninsula not the nearby Peloponnesian Peninsula. Harmodius and Aristogeiton change places within a few paragraphs. And Cleopatra did not order the death of Pompey, her brother did (otherwise I doubt Caesar would have supported her let alone begun an affair with her).

Part Two explores tyranny in relation to state formation in late medieval and early modern Europe. There is a heavy component of period political theory by which the various monarchs are judged. This is, honestly, a very interesting part of the book.

Part Three is where Newell shines and is at his most persuasive. His examinations of the millenarian tyrannies of the Jacobins, Bolsheviks, and Nazis are very good and very terrifying. His tying of the the extreme Left with the extreme Right is convincing. His exploration of the rejection of the Enlightenment and the creeping radicalization of intellectual circles is thought provoking.

Newell does, however, lose some of his persuasiveness as he delves into Third World Socialism because, in part, he does not engage with useful concrete examples. The discussion is mostly relegated to the theoretical with a few practical examples.

After Third World Socialism, Newell turns to the merging of Third World Socialism and Nazism: Jihadism. Newell’s analysis is good, but I wish he had delved deeper. These final explorations seems rushed.

Despite my problems with Tyrants, I do think that the book is very useful for fantasy writers. It will provide, I believe, a firmer grounding and foundation in political and literary theory when it comes to world building. It must also be said that a writer does not have to agree with his sources or inspirations. I have (obviously) numerous arguments with this book. But that does not stop me from having being inspired or using what I learned to better help me with my writing.

Review: The Devourers

The Devourers , Indra Das’s debut novel, is an intoxicating and troublesome tale of an Indian history professor being enmeshed in a cycle of outcast “werewolves” interacting with humans throughout the centuries. It is not what I expected. But I don’t think I’m disappointed. I like The Devourers, but I’m not in love with it, either.

Das’s take on werewolves, or shapeshifters, or rakshasas, or the myriad other terms for them is interesting and unique. But it is also very familiar territory for the readers of urban fantasy.

The Devourers is a beautifully written novel. The language is flowing and enticing. The reader, like Alok (the history professor who acts as the frame narrator), is enmeshed into the story of Fenrir and Cyrah before they even know it.

The limited cast is amazingly well done and realized. Especially Alok and the mysterious “half werewolf.” The bitter loneliness, the act of romantic mystery that hides, perhaps an even deeper loneliness is excellent. Cyrah, the lone woman of consequence in the novel (which is a problem), is a masterful creation. Her story, her character is absolutely compelling.

But she is also too modern. For a woman of the Mughal Empire, she reads as if she is a modern Indian woman. The same problem, honestly, also flaws Fenrir and Gevaudan. The two read as modern or postmodern human men, not centuries old non humans.

The plot is engrossing and flows nicely. The Mughal Empire narrative is gorgeous and surprising. This is not paranormal romance. Rather, The Devourers is best described as literary dark fantasy. The Kolkata narrative is a romance in the way these type or narratives are (Alok is a closeted gay or bisexual man and rakshasa culture tends to bisexuality). It is beautiful and bittersweet. And transformative.

That is, I think, the key to The Devourers: Transformation. Alok is transformed by the Stranger. The Stranger is transformed by Alok. Fenrir is transformed by Cyrah. Cyrah is transformed by her experiences hunting Fenrir. A shapeshifter is defined by their transformative nature, the human form and the other form.

The Devourers is not a perfect novel. But it is a rich and evocative one. I found it enjoyable. But not without its flaws.

The Imaro Review

I’m ashamed to admit it has taken me this long to finally read Imaro by Charles R. Saunders. Having finally read one of the seminal works in sword and sorcery, I’m glad that I finally did. Imaro is amazing. This book is going on my shopping list.

But first, some background. Charles R. Saunders, in the 1970s, desired to write the stories he wanted to read- stories inspired by his African heritage.  Thus was born the character Imaro and his world of Nyumbani. The Imaro stories where published throughout the later seventies and early eighties before being reissued (and revised) in the 2000s.

Imaro is a short story novel that depicts the life of Imaro, an Ilyassai youth, at various ages from five (when his mother abandons him) to late teens or very early twenties (when he leads his haramia band). The novel, and the component short stories, explore Imaro’s growth as a great warrior and his conflicted status as an outsider as he confronts enemies both mortal and sorcerous.

And this is what is so amazing with Imaro as a character. He is the “son of no father”, an outsider, who desperately wants to be accepted by his mother’s people. But they hold him in utter disdain until it is far too late. Their acceptance comes only after he has come to hate them, and himself for wanting to be accepted by them.  But that desire to belong is still present for Imaro. He achieves this when he joins the haramia and earns the acceptance and respect of outsiders like him.

Pity he has demon gods and their sorcerer servants after him.

Is this destiny, as implied by the narration (the language equating Imaro with a weapon during its forging stages), or is this the inability to let go of a grudge (Imaro certainly seems incapable of letting go, and the same seems equally true of the Mashataan and their Namaan servants)?

Personally, I think the narrative thrust has more to do with a general inability on the part of most of the characters to let go of grudges.

All of the stories that make up Imaro are quite good. But the best ones are “The Place of Stones,” “The Afua,” and “The Black Hills.” I also quite like “Betrayal in Blood,” but I feel that Imaro’s rise to a military prodigy that can run the combined armies of two of the most powerful kingdoms on Nyumbani raged to be a bit much.

Imaro can be a great warrior without being a great general. Making him such a prodigy, while giving him a credible reason to put off his pursuit of the Mashataan, creates the impression that Imaro is, in part, wish fulfillment.

Not that wish fulfillment is a bad thing. It isn’t. Quite the contrary, wish fulfillment can be a great thing.

On the whole, Imaro as wish fulfillment is handled extremely well. Except when he is depicted as a military prodigy.

The biggest problem with the stories that make up Imaro is Imaro’s love interests. Both Keteke and Tanisha are war trophies. Imaro won Keteke during a raid on the Zamburu, a tribe bordering the Ilyassai. Tanisha  is meant for a noble’s harem before she is captured by the haramia and becomes Imaro’s woman. Yes both women willingly “choose” to be Imaro’s, but that choice is effectively negated by their circumstances. Keteke is a straighter example given that she is more explicitly a war prize. But Tanisha “choosing” Imaro as “her one and only” is, to me at least, a poor attempt at giving Tanisha the semblance of choice. Perhaps a better option would have been to have Tanisha be a member of the haramia and avoid the war trophy implications.

The world building of Nyumbani is fairly impressionistic. Nyumbani is a fantasy construction explicitly based on Africa. Many of the tribes and cultures of Nyumbani can be easily traced to real world counterparts. The best example are the Maasai inspired Ilyassai, but the sources of inspiration are quite clear to the reader.

I like the world building. The impressionistic quality avoids the information dumps that can so often ruin fantasy novels.

Despite its flaws, I love Imaro. This is one of the best novels I’ve read in quite a while. A definite inclusion to my buy list.

Review: A Tale for the Time Being

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki is a postmodern novel that explores the tragedy of the human condition. Yasutani Nao, a Japanese school girl who has spent most of her life in America, writes a diary detailing her life and her decision to, perhaps, commit suicide. Her diary comes into the possession of Ruth, a middle aged writer, when it washes up on the beach of the Canadian island she lives on. Together, the two narratives intertwine to interrogate the various tragedies that befall both women. And it is that entanglement, separated by several years, that ultimately saves both women.

I honestly love this novel. The various voices are distinct and extremely well done.

And it forces me to think about how people interact, even separated by time and place. 

There are some things about the novel that bug me to no end, though.

For one thing, Nao undergoes tribulations that would make any grimdark fantasy writer proud. She is the subject of intense bullying at her school. So intense and extreme that I, personally, have to wonder, within the world of the text, why no one seemed to notice what was going on. The abuse is so obvious and organized that the school administrators should have been aware of it. (Her parents do become aware of it, but due to both of their failings, they are largely powerless to stop it until it is almost too late).

I understand that one of the themes of the novel is triumphing over the most crushing adversity. But the bullying is, honestly, just too much. 

In many reviews I’ve read, Nao’s story has been much preferred over that of Ruth’s, but I actually find Ruth the more interesting character. Nao’s problems are obvious. They pound the reader over the head with their excess. Ruth, on the other hand, faces subtler, and no less frightening, problems. 

As much as I love this novel, there is a bit of being cheated. 

Nao’s diary purports to be telling the reader (Ruth) the story of her great grandmother, Yasutani Jiko. But, in fact, the story told is that of Nao herself and, later, her great uncle Yasutani Haruki. While Jiko comes off as an amazing cipher and mentor, whether or not her story is actually told is irrelevant to the text as a whole. Rather, it is Nao’s development of her “superpower” and the conscience of the two Harukis that form the core of the diary.

The other bit of being cheated comes from an award that this novel is up for. The Kistchies are a set of awards that are aimed at speculative fiction.

Is A Tale for the Time Being speculative? I, personally, would say no. There is a scene, the denouement, where Ruth’s dreams may be temporal projections, which alters the history of the text. But while this occurrence might be magical realism, or even Canadian gothic, I would not call it speculative. Nor is any of the literary quantum theory engaged within the text exactly speculative. Rather, this is what modernist and postmodernist literature is. The whole point is to explore the nature of fiction and reality. 

That A Tale for the Time Being engages in the same dialogue should not be surprising. I can see the argument for calling this novel speculative. It does “speculate” about the nature of reading and reality. And the time traveling dreams are a speculative trope. But, again, I do not think this novel is exactly speculative. What sf elements are present are not essential to the text. 

Despite that, I do love the mixture of genres present. And I do love the novel. 

Even if I will never look at Japan the same way again. 

The Human Division (and some House Cleaning)

To those who recommended John Scalzi’s The Human Division, thank you. Seriously, it is one of the best novels I’ve read in a while. Just amazing. 

The Human Division is set in Scalzi’s Old Man’s War Universe. The title basically sums up the theme, humanity is divided. For centuries , the Colonial Union has kept Earth a backwater, exploiting humanity’s homeworld for colonists and soldiers. But with the revelations made in The Lost Colony, the relationship between Earth and the CU is ruptured. 

Most of the episodes that make up the novel feature Lieutenant Harry Wilson and the awesome diplomatic team/ crew of the two ships named Clarke, who attempt to deal with the new reality in which the CU must use diplomacy, not force. But, in all honestly, the real plot of the novel is the discovered conspiracy to not only keep Earth permanently estranged from the CU, but to destroy the CU (and the rival Conclave). 

There is action aplenty and lots of humor. Even though the CU is less than sympathetic, I really enjoyed almost all of the characters. Wilson is a trip, Schmidt is endearing, Abumwe is a boss (she is one of my two favorite characters), and Sorvalh is the bomb (my other favorite character). 

There are only two episodes that don’t really work for me. “A Voice in the Wilderness” perhaps is the weakest section of the entire novel. It just doesn’t fit, in my opinion. Maybe i’m just having a hard time with the modern stasis that has afflicted Earth for centuries (no matter how many have passed). But it just doesn’t seem “right.” The other weak episode, in my opinion, is “The Sound of Rebellion.” I think my issue with this episode is that I think the CU won too easily. 

And that is a frustration of the various stories in the novel. Things seem to conclude too easily in the protagonists’ favors (not that it saves them in the end with a holy shit wham cliffhanger). 

I was recommended this novel because it started life through serialization. After having read it, this is not quite what I had in mind. The Human Division is more a short story collection than a novel or a continuing coherent narrative. Rather, it is more like a television series. And it works. I want more. Dammit, I want more. 

 

Now, onto the house cleaning. I need to elucidate a comments policy. Typically, I will allow anything unless it is economic spam, abusive, or too sensitive. 

If you are wanting to comment on posts made by my former co-writer (aka my brother), your comments may never appear. Largely because he was the primary editor when we set up the blog. And by now, he’s forgotten the password. 

Which also explains my failure to redesign the blog last year when I flirted with that idea. One of these days, I’ll need to make a concerted effort to get the password. 

A Short Review of Clark Ashton Smith’s The Return of the Sorcerer

I had read two of CAS’s Zothique Cycle short stories about a year or so ago and have only just picked up a recent collection of his best works. After reading this collection, I have to say that I wish I had discovered Clark Ashton Smith much sooner.

The Return of the Sorcerer collects eighteen of Smith’s short stories from several of Smith’s worlds. They run the gamut from contemporary horror, to science fantasy, to proto-swords and sorcerery. Writing in the early 1930s, Smith manages to straddle pulp fiction in a time when the genres that we know now were in their infancy and had yet to split off and become their own things.

My favorite story from the collection is from his Zothique Cycle; “The Dark Eidolon” is a complicated tragic tale of revenge as the sorcerer Namirrah seeks to avenge a wrong done to him when he was a beggar boy and he was trampled by the Prince Zotulla. I was enthralled as I read the history of Namirrah, the decadence of Zotulla, the horrors that Namirrah’s sorcery conjured, and the destruction wrought by Namirrah’s vengence. I found myself sympathezing and wishing that Namirrah could have found another way.

A close runner up is the short story “The Double Shadow.” Here, a young apprentice sorcerer recounts his master’s obsessive desire to unlock the mysteries of an ancient, prehuman artefact. The build up to the wizard’s folly is excellent and I again feel the horror that the narrator goes through as he realizes the price for his actions.

There are many other great stories in the collection: “The Isle of the Torturers”, “The Holiness of Azedarac”, “The Return of the Sorcerer”, and “The Seven Geases.” I would recommend anyone interested in great storytelling, the pulps, sword and sorcery, etc. to check out The Return of the Sorcerer or you can check out his website http://www.eldritchdark.com.