Sunday, March 31, 2013

Blood and Bone - Ian C. Esslemont

Blood and Bone is Ian C. Esslemont's fifth novel set in the Malazan universe he created with Steven Erikson. The first of these Night of Knives serves as a prequel to the series, where subsequent books explore events and continents not covered in Erikson's ten book series. Esslemont's previous book, Orb Sceptre Throne, was mostly set in and around the city of Darujhistan, familiar territory for fans of the series as it is the main setting for the novels Gardens of the Moon and Toll of the Hounds, in this new novel we're off to the unknown continent of Jacuruku. It has been mentioned in previous novels but until now, we haven't seen much of what has been going on there. I've never been quite as enthusiastic about Esslemonts writing as I haven been about Erikson. That trend continues in this book. I liked it a whole lot better than Orb Sceptre Throne, which is a bit of a mess in my opinion, but it is not as strong as Stonewielder.

The Visitor is hanging in the sky of the continent of Jarcuruku as an omen of war. It approaches from all sides as the thaumaturges that dominate half of the continent prepare to launch another expedition into the wild Himatan jungle that has thus far eluded their control. It is said to be the domain of a powerful entity known as the Queen of Dreams. Further south, the tribes are being united by a recently arrived foreign warlord, looking to strike further into the thaumaturge lands than they ever have before. On top of the locals rattling their swords, the Crimson Guard make an appearance, hired to bring to heel their own runaway Skinner and his band of Disavowed. In other words, a convergence is happening on the continent and such events attract the attention of the gods. Even if events on the Letheri keep some of the gods busy, Jacuruku will not escape their notice entirely.

The jungle setting Esslemont employs in this novel is definitely a first in the series. Where the action in this series usually takes place  in arid climates or frozen wastelands, the this tropical ecology is quite a change. The jungle Esslemont describes has a bit of an Asian flavour too it. I guess that is not entirely surprising given the fact that Esslemont has spent time in south-east Asia in the past. What struck me about his descriptions in particular was the way he describes the jungle has hungry, insatiable for nutrients, with cycles that are so fast everything that dies is consumed again before it has time to accumulate in the soil. The speed at which organic materials such as wood and leather decays in the novel might be a bit exaggerated but this fierce competition of nutrients is a characteristic of tropical rainforest ecotopes. That kind of ecological insight is not something you come across often in fantasy novels.

Malazan chronology is notoriously impenetrable but I'd say the novel is set more or less in the same time frame as Stonewielder and The Crippled God. Despite that, it is a very self contained story as Malazan novels go. There are references to events in Toll of the Hounds, Stonewielder, Orb Sceptre Throne and the concluding volumes of Erikson's Part of the tale, Dust of Dreams and The Crippled God, but mostly the story stays focussed on on events on Jacuruku. It is a quality it shares with Stonewielder I suppose. When Esslemont tries to mesh more closely into the areas Erikson has already covered, the result is often confusing or unsatisfactory. This novel shares a number of characters with other books, but not so many the effect of the different treatment Esslemont and Erikson give them that the result becomes jarring. It also helps Esslemont keeps the number of story lines contained to half a dozen or so. Orb Sceptre Throne had so many it is very easy to loose track of what is going on. This novel is complex in its own right but doesn't depend so much on what has gone before. Esslemont leaves himself more space to tell his own story and he uses it to full effect.

Once again, the Crimson Guard provides the link to much of the rest of the series. Their internal struggles and clashes with the Malazan Empire feature prominently in the novel. It appears the novel also sets up the story for Esslemont's final novel in this series, tentatively titled Assail. The Crimson Guard appears once in a while in Erikson's books but it wasn't until I read Esslemont's books that their history really became clear to me. In Blood and Bone the conflict between Avowed and Disavowed comes to head when K'azz sees no other option than the take a contract against Skinner and his company. Their trip over the river into the jungle will remind readers of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, as every bend seems to reveal a new horror to the company that appears to be totally unprepared for what is hiding amongst the trees. Esslemont focusses more on the environment than Conrad did though. Natives do show up in the novel but in a different story line but not so much as an extension of the darkness encountered but the foreign travellers.

The cast of Blood and Bone is large though, and not only made up of characters we've already seen. Esslemont introduces quite a few new ones too. The Thaumaturges deploy a kind of magic we haven't encountered before. It is a mix very strict mental training and a kind of vivisection that H.G. Well would have ascribed to Dr. Moreau if he'd been around to read this novel. Theirs is a society full of contrasts. Their mental discipline makes you expect balanced personalities and yet, their order has turned into one of the most tyrannical systems of government encountered in the novel. Their society is highly organized and the land heavily cultivated at the expense of just about every basic human right. A sharp contrast to the natives of Himatan, who, when we finally meet them turn out to possess almost nothing and like their jungle just fine the way it is.

The third culture we are introduced to is a collection of what appear to semi nomadic tribes. They show up with great regularity in the Malazan world (Wickans, Awl, Barghast, just to name a few) and although the details differ slightly every time, it is essentially familiar territory. This story line was the one I least enjoyed. I guess the identity of the foreign warlord was an interesting riddle, although the more fanatical Malazan readers will probably figure it out long before I did. Other than that is mostly served to show us the horrors of thaumaturge society. I wasn't too fond of the slightly naive Prince Jatal.

After the messy and disappointing Orb Sceptre Throne, this novel is a return to form for Esslemont. More focussed and less dependent on the story Erikson has already laid out, much more of Esslemont's own talent and ideas on the Malazan world shines through. I still liked Stonewielder better but that is a very personal preference. Looking at the quality of the writing and the way Esslemont handles the multiple story lines and large cast of characters, there is not much in it. Blood and Bone is a worthy extension of this epic tale and promises some very interesting things for Esslemont's next novel. He's been hinting at going to the continent of Assail, one of the last remaining blank spots on the Malazan map. I for one, can't wait to see what he'll treat us to in the next volume.

Book Details
Title: Blood and Bone
Author: Ian C. Esslemont
Publisher: Bantam Press
Pages: 586
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-1-593-06446-7
First published: 2012

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank - Krista D. Ball

I owe the people at Tyche Books a huge apology. I was provided with a review copy of this book and was aiming for a review in December. I did get around to reading it but then I got caught up in all the moving stuff so it is very, very, very late. But better late than never so here we go. I was first introduced to Krista D. Ball's work though the anthology Ride the Moon, which contains a piece of historical fiction based on an archaeological find in Labrador, Canada. It is one of the highlight of the Anthology for me and shows Ball's love for history. What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank - A Fantasy Lover's Food Guide is non-fiction and another way in which Ball's interest in history surfaces. It is a mixture of a cookbook, a writer's guide and a comical look at fantasy food clich├ęs.

Food and Fantasy has a relationship that does not always do justice to the realities of acquiring supplies and storing food in pre-industrial civilizations. In her Fantasy travel guide The Tough Guide to Fantasyland Diana Wynne Jones poked fun at this several times. Her entry on food read:
See STEW, SCURVY, STEW, WAYBREAD (also known as Journey Cake) and STEW - though there are occasional BIRDS, FISH, RABBITS and pieces of cheese. Generally the diet is an unvaried one, although MARSH DWELLERS can do wonders with ROOTS. Puddings are unknown except occasionally in the court of KINGS. Tourists who suffer from diabetes should be quite safe. 
Something must have happened in the years since she wrote that, recently a cookbook based on George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire was published. Martin's decadent descriptions of court food are not for the majority of the population of Fantasyland. Ball's focus is more on everyday food.

It is quite possibly to write a whole library on the topic of food in history. Ball needs to limit herself to keep the subject manageable. She chose to focus on historical pseudo medieval European settings with only minor detours to other periods or parts of the world. Until recently encompassed a very large share of what was published in Fantasy. The genre is shifting towards other settings though. Asian inspired civilizations and other time periods are becoming more common. I wonder how much this limits the use of this book as a writer's guide. There are lot of general observations that are of value in any setting but not much in the way of concrete examples outside the European setting.

Within the limited scope of the book Ball is very thorough in her examination of food and how to acquire it. Hunting and foraging, the logistics of feeding a city or an army, seasonal food and preservation methods, food as a weapon, food available to different  social classes, the availability of beverages, food and health, equipment needed to prepare and carry food and even a bunch of recipes for the more daring of us to try out. I guess the most important lesson of the book is that feeding yourself in a medieval society takes a lot of knowledge and skill. The sheer amount of physical labour required to produce food and, perhaps even more importantly, preserve it before it spoils is easily overlooked. In our age of supermarkets and year round availability of fresh products we are experiencing unprecedented luxury. Perhaps with the majority of the population so far removed from the basic processes that provide our food, it is not surprising authors get so many of the details wrong. This book really impresses the value of food in a society where having enough of it is not a given on the reader.

Ball's writing style is fairly light. There's an impressive bibliography in the back of the book but she carefully avoided making it into a scientific publication. I found it to be very readable even if I at some at some points I would have wanted to know a little more. That kind of depth was, in all fairness, not what Ball was aiming for. The chapters usually include some sort of situation one encounters frequently in Fantasy. Ball then examines how food is generally handled in these situation and where more historical accuracy could be achieved. Or in some cases how blatant basic errors can be avoided. Not that any Fantasy author would (or should) let a lot of the things described in this book get in the way of a good story, but nothing makes our suspension of disbelief come crashing like a hero consuming a meal that takes hours to prepare while on the run from his enemies, or a heroine walking straight for the nearest patch of strawberries in early spring in a forest she's never been to before. This book makes you aware of all the little things that are easy to avoid once they have been pointed out to you.

One other thing this book reminded me of that is a bit outside the scope of the project is the way we only seem to use the choice parts of an animal or the best produce to eat fresh. In times when meat was a luxury few could afford on a regular basis, things were eaten that would make the stomach of more than a few picky eaters roll.  Pretty much every part was used and then we are not talking about unscrupulous cooks and merchants supplementing their supplies with things that even back then were not considered fit for consumption. I guess the whole horse meat scandal that broke recently shows that in that respect at least not a lot has changed. These days we may be a bit more wasteful but especially when it comes to meat, everything that cannot be sold in any recognizable form is still processed in some product. With the increased distance from the primal process of growing our own food many people have lost touch with where their food actually comes from. The focus of this book may be on how to avoid mistakes in writing in a historical fantastic setting but, perhaps unintended, it also underlines some of the absurdities of food supply chains and the production of processed foods.

What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank is a humours book and not a very heavy read but it touches upon the very basics of our survival. As such it points out a lot of very important matters to us if you are prepared to read between the lines. You could read it as a writing guide or a humorous reflection on the Fantasy genre. It is both of these things, but I thought there was even more to it if you project what this book has to teach on our current food situation. Looking at it in this light, What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank is a surprisingly relevant book. It is one of the areas in which I would have liked a bit more information. I see plenty of opportunities to expand it, or even have a more science fictional look at the subject. Maybe food in genre fiction is just too large a topic for one volume. What Ball has produced here is an intriguing introduction to the subject however. Read it and let and let Ball tickle your curiosity. You'll never look at stew quite the same way again.

Book Details
Title: What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank
Author: Krista D. Ball
Publisher: Tyche Books
Pages: 196
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: E-book
ISBN: 978-0-9878248-8-2
First published: 2012

Saturday, March 23, 2013

A Memory of Light - Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson

At long last, the fourteenth and final instalment of The Wheel of Time series has arrived. I sympathize with people who had the bad luck to pick this series up in 1990, when it was thought to become a trilogy. Personally I didn't pick this series up until the summer of 1999, just before the mass market paperback release of The Path of Daggers, book eight in the series. That was less fourteen years ago so I really shouldn't complain. Especially considering all the fun I've had with this series in the mean time. That being said, it is past time the series was brought to a close so I started the concluding volume with a mixture of regret and relief. That feeling stayed with me after I finished it. Relief that the conclusion is here and regret that Jordan didn't finish it himself. As unfair as it is to Sanderson, who, as far as I can tell did his stinking best, it would have been different. If Jordan had managed to tone down this obsession with details a bit, it might even have been better. But that was not to be, the book is what it is and I think most readers who stuck with it this long, will like it just fine.

I'm not going to try to write a spoiler free review. This is a classic example of a fantasy epic. If you have read the previous thirteen books, the ending of this one should not be a surprise. Some of the details might.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Lazarus Effect - Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom

This is one of a handful of Frank Herbert's novels I haven't read before. It wasn't particularly easy to come by. I ended up buying a second hand copy. It is a very nice fist print hardcover by Putman but it did cost me. The Lazarus Effect (1983) is the second book in the WorShip trilogy written with Bill Ranson. The series has its origin in Herbert's 1966 novel Destination: Void, of which he published a revised edition in 1978, prior to the release of The Jesus Incident (1979), his first collaboration with Ransom. The Jesus Incident was rough around the edged, mostly because a copyright issue came up that required lots of last-minute rewriting. This was written in a less frantic fashion. Interesting enough, The Jesus Incident turned out better.

The sentient kelp is dead and it's stabilizing influence on Pandora's oceans is sorely missed. All land surface has disappeared under the waves and humanity has devised two ways of surviving in a place that is, if possible, even more hostile to human life. Part of the population, the Islanders, lives in huge, crowded floating cities but the majority, the Mermen, moved beneath the waves. Kelp DNA has been stored in humanity's own gene pool through the experiment of the geneticist Jesus Lewis, cause a whole string of genetic defects in large parts of the population. Now, some seek to harvest the rewards of Lewis' foresight and reintroduce the kelp. Some even believes that this will bring back Ship, who seems the have abandoned his worshippers. Reintroducing will mean the end of a way of life however, and not everybody is pleased about this decision being taken by a small group of people on behalf of the whole of humanity. Tensions run high when the first signs of Avata's return become apparent.

One thing that immediately struck me about the writing was that it is a  much smoother read than The Jesus Incident. The writing is much more polished, more uniform. It also misses the poetic flourishes that Ransom added to the previous book. Give the history of these two volumes, some difference was to be expected but I was surprised by how much the prose had changed. The Jesus Incident is not an easy read, and the prose certainly contributed to that but I think Herbert and Ransom lost something in the polishing as well. It makes me wonder how The Ascension Factor (1988) the final novel in the trilogy has turned out. It has largely been written by Ransom due to Herbert's sudden and untimely death in 1986.

Thematically, tyranny is very much at the forefront of the story. Some pretty draconian rules have been put in place regarding children born with very serious birth defects. Deviate too much from what is considered normal - which, it must be said, is quite a stretch from what we would recognize as a normal variation of the human body - and the child is not allowed to live. One of the main characters is a judge on the panel deciding on such cases on one of the floating cities. He is a very interesting character in a way, feeling completely justified in deciding over life and death based is such a way and on the other hand highly suspicious and dismissive of the Mermen project to bring back the kelp, feeling the Merman are forcing a decision on the Islanders without taking their interests into account. His reaction to the kelp and the cults is has inspired among the Mermen is, if possible even more interesting.

Mermen and Islanders don't always seem to be at odds though. Part of the story is made up of a romance between and Islander boy and a Mermen girl, who set aside all preconceived notions and ignore blatant prejudice after she saves him from drowning. An interesting reverse of the damsel in distress I suppose but I thought the whole thing was a bit cheesy to be honest. As this love story is the backbone of the plot, the novel as a whole doesn't seem quite as intellectually challenging as most of Herbert's other novels. There is plenty hiding under the surface but not nearly as much going on at the forefront as what I've come to expect from Herbert.

In terms of the challenges presented to Pandoran society it definitely is classic Herbert. His motto 'the only constant is change' clearly shows through in this novel. Herbert and Ransom describe a society that had to adapt to radically different environmental conditions and is now on the verge of reversing some of that change. It is these moments of punctuated equilibrium if you will, that fascinates Herbert and this novel is a good example of that. Change is imminent in many areas, a species is being brought back from extinction (the title of a novel is a reference to Lazarus of Bethany, a figure from the gospel of John restored to life by Jesus), environmental changes on a large scale are taking place dooming a way of life and the culture built upon, religions convictions are challenged by the rebirth of the kelp and regaining access to orbital space flight. Change is rapid and profound in this novel.

I must admit I found the premise of the novel and the large scale developments Herbert and Ransom describe fascinating but I didn't care for most of the characters. The judge is mildly interesting, the lovers are not. There are a few other characters I haven't mentioned thus far, including a terrorist, a diplomat and ridiculously stupid historian none of whom were really engaging. Most of them seem to miss the sharpness, awareness and deep insights Herbert's more interesting characters share. Ship's unpredictable presence is also sorely missed in this novel. In short I have to really dig to find things I like in The Lazarus Effect. It is there for sure but buried a somewhat unfocussed plot, featuring bland and largely uninteresting characters. Add to that the unremarkable prose and you end up with a novel that readable but certainly not memorable. I'm hoping for better things from the concluding volume of this trilogy.

Book Details
Title: The Jesus Incident
Author: Frank Herbert and Bill Ransom
Publisher: Putnam
Pages: 381
Year: 1983
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-399-12815-8
First published: 1983

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Inexplicables - Cherie Priest

The Inexplicables is the fourth, or, depending on whether you want to count the short novel Clementine, the fifth book in Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century. An alternative history where the American civil war has raged for two decades and all manner of strange Steampunk contraptions are in use. I've read al the previous volumes and enjoyed each of them. They are not terrifically complex books but great fun to read. Each book is written to be self-contained and centrers on a different main character, it is not necessary to have read any of the previous volumes to enjoy this book. I do think you get a lot more out of it if you have however. Priest makes a lot of the important characters of previous novels reappear as secondary characters in this book.

Priest takes us back to the location of Boneshaker, the first novel in the series. Seattle is still walled off from the outside world to contain the toxic gas that is pouring liberally form a rupture in the earth. The main character Rector " Werck'em" Sherman grows up in an orphanage outside the walls. His parents were likely the victims of the original disaster that struck the city. Life doesn't seem to have too much in store for him and Rector finds himself in deep trouble when the nuns running the orphanage decide his has reached to age of eighteen. Turned out from the orphanage, addicted to the poisonous sap an with no means of sustaining himself or feeding his addiction, Rector decides to try his luck inside the walls of the city. He finds the place full of factions, on the verge of a gang war and in the clutches of a huge creature attacking anyone unwise enough to go out alone. He will have to adapt to this new environment fast if he is to survive in this most challenging of environments.

Addiction is an important theme in this book. Sap slowly kills and Rector is pretty close to the point of no return when we meet him. His cravings and withdrawal symptoms run through the entire narrative. Even though Rector has seen the devastating effects of the drugs he dealt himself at one time, he is still sorely tempted. At the end of the novel I like to believe he will stay clean but Priest left me doubting. Even is the drug is entirely fictional I think it is a pretty convincing depiction of substance abuse. Rector's self-destructive urges don't really endear me to him but it does underline the dreariness of his life and the bad hand it has dealt him. In a way, Rector embodies the problems of the city. Both are dependent on the very thing that destroys them.

The story of Seattle's split community is also pushed forward. The revenue from the sale of sap are vital to maintain the city, which can only be in habited at huge expense. The group who tries to get by more honestly is well aware of the fact that they wouldn't survive without the investment of the local drug lord in their infrastructure. It makes the whole community very morally ambiguous. I guess that suits the main character fine. Such display of wealth and a monopoly on the drug trade is sure to attract those who want a share of the pie without fully understanding the risks involved in running the operation. A conflict is inevitable and I very much liked the way in which Seattle's inhabitants pull together to deal with that threat.

It does lead to some interesting questions though. We see Mercy Lynch, the main character in Dreadnought doing research on sap and it's effects. She is very aware of the link between the rotters, the blight, the sap and war effort and if she succeeds in stopping the trade in sap, the concequences will be huge for Seattle as well as the rest of the nation. The overarching story in these novels is very far in the background but it is still there. I guess at some point Priest is going to tie all of those things up and somehow end this long-lasting conflict. As much as I am enjoying the fast and furious adventure stories that form the backbone of these novels, the alternative history intrigues me even more. Personally I wouldn't mind if it had been a bit more at the forefront.

On top of the alternate history, the troubles of Rector and the gang war that is about to erupt, there is the matter of the mysterious creature attacking people. Priest involved Princess Angeline in this story line, the oldest daughter of Chief Seattle, after which the city was named. She is a historical character and Priest makes her into quite a fearsome lady. On the one hand I liked this link with local history (I'm sure there are more but I must admit I am not that familiar with the region) but it was the one storyline that didn't really mesh in with the others. It was a good reminder that even in those dark days, money and power aren't all there is to life though.

Priest delivered another strong volume in the Clockwork Century series. Like the previous volumes The Inexplicables is a fast, fun read. People who loved the previous books will want to pick up this one. Personally I get the feeling that Priest is steadily working towards a resolution of the overarching story but I don't think we'll see it in the next novel Fiddlehead, which is scheduled for release in November 2013 and will have Belle Boyd as the main character. Readers who have read Clementine will remember Belle for sure. I'm sure Fiddlehead will be on my to read list late this year. This is one series I mean to keep up with.

Book Details
Title: The Inexplicables
Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 366
Year: 2012
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2947-9
First published: 2012

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Signal Boost for Lady Business

As you know I've been trying to read more work by female authors recently. My reading habits were very skewed to the male authors at one point. I did reasonably well in 2012 even if I didn't reach parity. Gender and genre fiction has been a hotly debated issue all over the internet. World Without End for instance, is currently running a reading challenge designed to introduce readers to female authors. At this time I am unable to participate but don't let that stop you.

I came across an article today on Lady Business. Like last year, they analysed the reviewing habits of a number of blogs and looked at "the visibility of women in science fiction and fantasy reviews and whether the gender of the reviewer impacts that visibility." Their sample of blogs include some of the big names in the blogsphere as well as Random Comments.

 Have a look at their results. They are very interesting indeed. Their methodology is a bit different (and infinitely more sophisticated) from the count I did myself in the end of year post by the way, so those numbers don't match.