Thursday, June 23, 2022

Microreview: Up Against It by Laura J Mixon

 Laura J Mixon’s Up Against It is an unusual fusion of two narratives in telling the story of an asteroid settlement’s trials and tribulations several centuries hence.

Geoff has a problem. He has a brother who can do no wrong, and he can do no right. He and his friends try and make their own fun, with nanotech assemblers, with bikes, with visits to Geoff’s own small asteroid (deeded to him by an old prospector). When they are at ground zero for a disaster that strikes Phocaea, Geoff’s life gets turned upside down, and he finds himself at the center of problems facing the asteroid. It’s a classic coming of age narrative, and it's time for Geoff and his friends to step up.

Jane has a problem, too. Several of them. With her job in the bureaucracy of Phocaea, when the aforementioned disaster strikes, she has to be the person to make hard decisions (and if necessary, fall on her sword for them).  With a sudden resource crunch thanks to the disaster, the entire viability of the asteroid’s population is now in question...and evacuation except for a few is not an option. And even when she thinks she has a hold on the problems facing the asteroid, new problems and threats keep pushing her to her own limit and beyond them. Can Jane step up, too? 

Their two intertwining stories are what make up Laura Mixon’s Up Against It. 

I want to explore the book and talk about it from that perspective of it being two novels in one, because, really, it feels like there are two books here that intersect at an angle, and sometimes those intersections work, and other times it feels a little forced and a  bit of a gear clash now and again, mostly in terms of tone and feeling more than anything else. While I am sure it wasn’t written as two separate books that intersect, it certainly reads as if the two narratives, taking place at the same time and place, got braided into a single novel.

Let’s go back to Geoff’s story. Teenagers from our perspective, they have what appears to be a standard life on Phocaea. Getting into hijinks and adventures, getting into trouble, zooming through life on their bikes as it were. Even when they run into actual peril and trouble, and Geoff winds up intersecting with nearly every running plot in the entire book, there is a briskness and a lightness of tone and feeling to the entire affair. What it feels to me, having re-read a couple of them lately, is that Geoff’s story is a recapitulation, an updating, a rebranding of Golden Age Heinleinian style YA adventure in space. Geoff and the others would not be out of place in Red Planet, The Star Beast, and others, and in turn, if Podkayne came to visit Phocaea, she would fit right in with Geoff and company. Podkayne on a rocketbike is an idea worth thinking about.

Even when Geoff and his friends wind up in serious peril, and they do at multiple points in the narrative, the stakes of the novel don’t feel dire, there is a confidence that even if they are going to go through some things, and perhaps get hurt, that in the end they are going to come through it, even if we can’t quite see how. The novel does explore some sometimes tough things. Geoff’s home life, his relationship with his family and the early loss of his golden boy brother Carl, with Geoff being the “unwanted” survivor that he feels (and to be clear, his family reacts as such) of the pair to his parents. It’s weighty, it's freighted, it's tough, but again, it's keeping in the YA tradition of giving readers who themselves may have difficult home lives a role model to work it.   And while I focus on Geoff as our point of view (and he does dominate his side of the narrative, even as his companions sometimes berate him for it), we get a classic “team” of friends with well defined personalities. Ian, the impulsive one. Amaya, the one with a head on her shoulders. Kamal, the loyal one. Geoff gets the most characterization and development, although all four are distinct, and important to the flowing of events.

And then there is Jane’s narrative.  Jane is a resource manager for the asteroid, and as the opening disaster (which claims Carl’s life) threatens the viability of the asteroid’s population, Jane has to juggle a number of disasters and problems--not only the lack of resources caused by the disaster, but the attempt by the Martian Mob to move in on the asteroid, a feral sapient AI whose very existence could threaten more than just Phocaea, a weird and mysterious transhuman splinter group, and much more. Jane dances from disaster to disaster, and while she doesn’t run the settlement, she is very much the point person for all of this. 

And on top of all that, Jane has to balance and deal with local politics. If Geoff’s story is a breezy YA tale, Jane’s story is hard nosed realpolitik and how people working in an administration have to deal with the concerns of constituents, interest groups, and each other. I found the political machinations and tribulations that Jane has to deal with believable, complicated and the fact that politics often hamstrings Jane in a believable way puts paid to the notion of a single person being able to do everything in an omnicompetent way. Jane has to negotiate, compromise, and even when things turn her way,  In other words, in some ways, it feels like a critique (rather than a criticism) of Geoff’s story and plotlines. 

We also get a third point of view, but the less said about that, the better. Quaerendo Invenietis.

And in “both books”, we get lots of background, engineering, hard SF ideas (from nanotechnology to resource extraction and prospecting and much more), and a very living and vibrantly detailed setting. Again, it feels somewhat Heinleinian, lots of the aspects of the background get slid on the plate while you are following Geoff and his friends, or wrangling how to keep the Asteroid going with Jane. Group marriages, the crapsack nature of Earth (the Future is Space does feel rather like Golden Age), a sense of the politics and factions of the solar system, how AIs work, and much more. The novel isn’t all Golden Age--the queer and BIPOC representation here is very much in line with current sensibilities.  

We don’t get infodumps, its all folded into the plots and character development in a believable and smooth way. James S A Corey wrote the introduction for this new edition of the novel and definitely, if you like Belter culture and the asteroid settlements and politics of The Expanse, this is a novel that takes those ideas and puts their own spin on them.  

And I think that’s a reason why this novel’s reissue gives it a moment that can be a corrective to it being overlooked back in the day. (I discovered in the course of reading this that I had an original copy of the first version under “M J Locke”). Now that the Expanse book and TV series are at a conclusion, there is a niche there for readers who want what I’ve called “Solar System Space Opera”, books whose concerns are within the Nine (not Eight, darn it) Planets, with some solid SF engineering, politics, and adventure. Up Against It is there waiting for you. 

Although it is mostly set in a different solar system entirely, I wonder if Suzanne Palmer’s Finder wasn’t inspired by reading this book back in the day, given its asteroids setting, some similarities of the tech, and factional politics. Readers of that series looking for more might try Up Against It, and after reading Up Against It, one might slide over to Palmer’s series next. 

Still, though, in the end, the strength of this novel is also its weakness. In Geoff's story, and Jane’s story, they don’t quite always match up and align as well as they might. Individually they are solid and immersive stories that one can fall into. But when the two stories intrude onto each other, the thematic, the tonal, the feel of the two stories do not quite work together. Geoff’s story feels really out of place within Jane’s perspective and narrative, and the concerns of Jane similarly feel in a very different light from Geoff’s perspective.  I don’t think it sinks the novel, but readers should be prepared for the tonal shifts and the gear clash.It’s a boat car of a novel whose boat and whose car works better than it has any right to do so...but not quite always at the same time.

Sadly, there were, and are no more novels set in this verse, this is a self contained single novel and story. There are many places a sequel or a follow up might go in this verse, though, a multiplicity of options. I’d read much more in the world that Mixon has created here.


The Math

Baseline Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for two very strong and different narratives and perspectives, with well realized characters, personalities and problems.

+1 for a richly vibrant and realized world, Solar System Space Opera in full flower.

Penalties: -1 The two very different strong narratives don’t harmonize completely when they are thrust together. 

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10  

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin

Reference: Mixon, Laura. Up Against it  [Tor reissue, 2022] 

Microreview [book]: Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

In Ninth House, Leigh Bardugo puts her own spin on the dark academia genre in her first adult novel.  

a black snake weaves between the large title font: Ninth House.

Note: While Bardugo is known for her young adult fiction, this novel is definitely adult. Content warnings include: sexual assault, rape, drug use without consent, gore. 

Alex Stern is only at Yale because she has a secret: she can see dead people. People who can actually see ghosts are rare in the magical underworld of New Haven. After a brutal murder that should have been the end of her future, instead, Alex is offered a new opportunity: serve as the Dante of Lethe House, which oversees the other hidden, magical houses that have graduated some of the rich and powerful, their fame and fortune protected by the spells performed by the underclassmen. 

The novel opens with a prognostication, where Alex must serve as Dante, alone, in observing the ghostly underworld while one of the Yale houses, the Bonesmen, produce their magic from a living sacrifice. With a living body splayed open on an operating table, Alex realizes the usually quiet-enough ghosts are not being quiet, but trying to break through her wards. Usually, her Virgil would be here to guide her through this prognostication until she learned all the ins and outs of magic, but her Virgil, Darlington, has gone missing. On top of all that, a young woman that reminds Alex of just where her life was heading shows up murdered on the same night the ghosts misbehaved. The cops, even Detective Abel Turner who is on Lethe's payroll, want to brush it off as just a girl from Town murdered over drugs. Alex suspects something more. 

In learning to navigate this unfamiliar world of both magic and ivy league “protocols,” Alex is shepherded by Darlington, the charming, rich, and smart senior who she will replace. The only problem: Darlington has disappeared, and Alex has to find out why—or she just might not survive finals, let alone killer demons.

A young woman from New Haven murdered on a magical night, her mentor Darlington gone missing, and her grades are slipping--Alex has her work cut out for her, but what makes everything harder is her status as an outsider. She's from California, grew up in poverty, has severe trauma from seeing ghosts but also from how that horrific ability impacted her mentally, leading her to drug usage. Now, she's dropped into not only the magical societies that influence Yale (and most of the rich and famous) but also has adjust to Ivy League classism, which Darlington--the educational superstar--struggles to understand.

Told in alternating chapters from the points-of-view of Alex and Darlington, Bardugo develops not just the world and magic systems, but also what it means to be an outsider in a place like Yale. It's not all magic and ghosts--Alex still has to pass her English class with its ungodly amount of reading. Importantly, the hierarchy inherent in academia is on full display, as different professors and deans play favorites with students, placing them in deadly situations, Alex included. But, those same people in power are unwilling to work to protect the students, even when Alex finds out certain students are using magic to drug others. Through this magical hierarchy, Bardugo is able to explore the toxic power dynamics of higher education, whether it's a hidden society, a frat house, or a sports team.   

Part of what makes this first novel a great addition to the dark academia subgenre is the focus on Yale lore. The ghosts, murderers, architects, and locations of Yale aren’t just included to spice up the story but actively tell the tale. In addition to critiquing the power Yale holds as an institution, the historical aspects balance out the magic, just as Bardugo confronts both magical obstacles and problems realistic to academia (such as scheduling appointments with your bougie advisor). Thus, the novel's alternating point-of-view, alternating chronology, and balancing of magic and reality come together to serve each other in a larger critique of institutionalized power.

While Leigh Bardugo's popularity comes from her Grishaverse novels (two of which I reviewed here), Ninth House represents a welcome change. Bardugo demonstrates her strength as a writer to capture reality and fantasy her exploration of a magical Yale with the same entertaining style that she brings to her young adult novels.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10 

Bonuses: +1 for the inclusion of Yale lore as well as ivy-league imposter syndrome

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10: well worth your time and attention

Reference:  Leigh Bardugo, Ninth House [St. Martin's, 2019]

Posted by: Phoebe Wagner (she/her) is an author, editor, and academic writing and living at the intersection of speculative fiction and ecology. She tweets as @pheebs_w.


Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Lightyear doesn't fly, but it falls with style

A character from a lost past trying to earn a place in the future is the perfect metaphor for the Toy Story franchise

Think back to the first time you saw Buzz Lightyear. It was 1995. Digital animation was young and full of promise, talking toys were young and full of promise, Pixar was young and full of promise. Understandably, you were wowed.

Now picture yourself when you next met Buzz. It was 1999. The excitement was still fresh, the story was solid, the twists were earned, the magic was still there. You loved it.

Then came the moment to say goodbye to Buzz. It was 2010. By then, you were more mature, and so was the plot, and there were tears, and hard moments, but you learned a form of bittersweet joy you didn't know you needed, and in the end, you felt lucky to have lived through an era of cultural history.

And yet, somehow, Buzz returned. It was 2019. You weren't sure what more these characters could teach you, but, surprisingly, these symbols of abandoned fantasies pulled off a moving argument for the inexhaustible power to create new fantasies with the tools at hand. You were glad to have had a last chance at reunion.

At each of these reappearances, you were a different person. Buzz was the same, because plastic is made to last for centuries, but you were going through different stages in your relationship with toys, with cinema, with the animated medium, and with allegories of growth via fantasy tales. You aged past Buzz. Each time he came back, he had something important to say to you. But now you take your child, maybe your grandchild, to watch Buzz.

Once, he was a central part of your life. Now he's merely a cherished memory.

Can Buzz Lightyear still mean something in this century?

Pixar's clever dance step around the question of nostalgia rot is to pretend that this is not a new take on the character, but the original version that prompted the mass production of the Buzz Lightyear action figure in the first Toy Story film. It's really a simpler concept than it sounds like, even if its plot engages in deliberate dialogue with a legacy it's not supposed to be aware of, and its metafictional existence within the Toy Story universe opens the way to disturbing implications (if this is supposed to represent a live-action film, is the robot cat prop a sentient toy?).

For the first third of the film, Buzz follows an arc comparable to the breezing summary I've just provided of Toy Story's presence in the lives of audiences: in order to test an experimental hyperspeed fuel, he jumps further and further into the future, becoming an increasingly occasional presence, desperate to maintain meaningful connections, and ultimately retired as a relic as soon as priorities shift. Not unlike the show Quantum Leap, Buzz keeps repeating the same flight test over and over, each time hoping to finally get it right.

Here Buzz displays the same fundamental character flaw as in the 2000 tie-in film Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: a misplaced sense of responsibility that makes him consistently refuse help until it's undeniable that he needs partners. Buzz's spiral of isolation, propelled by his determination to get the mission done, because he's a masochistic self-blamer who has no sense of purpose without a mission, feels like familiar territory already visited in the 2000 film. That's as far as characterization can go in a story like this. As is tradition in many of the space swashbuckling fantasies that served as indirect inspiration for this movie, Buzz is not so much a character as a template for viewers to project themselves onto. For the actual movie Lightyear that you're watching in 2022, this is a scriptwriting problem. But for the fictional movie Lightyear that Andy watched in 1995, this is exactly how you sell toys.

The internal mythology of Buzz Lightyear draws from every science fiction franchise you can remember, complete with evil emperors and captain logs, but Lightyear's influences do not get integrated in a cohesive manner. Once Buzz makes his last jump into the dystopian future threatened by Emperor Zurg, the plot starts feeling like it's losing its grasp on a clear direction, and his stubborn insistence on doing everything alone overcomplicate scenes that could have been resolved with less drama.

At its core, Lightyear is the story of a veteran coming to terms with the passage of time and his shrinking place in the story. Buzz's encounter with Zurg signals that the pursuit of an imagined life runs the risk of making you forget the real one you're having in the present. Much has been made of the, frankly, minuscule queer representation in the movie, which may distract from the more obvious plot point that Buzz doesn't truly leave the past behind until he equips his starship with a rainbow gemstone.

The quest for continued relevance is a preoccupation that the movie assigns to both Buzz and itself. It tries to evoke the feel of the Flash Gordon serials and, of course, both of the big Star franchises. But instead of the now-common practice of attempting to recapture an old moment of wonder via repetition and allusion, this movie gave itself the harder task of pretending to be that first experience. Although the villain's big plan involves the return to an idealized past, Lightyear is not a case of nostalgia (because anything it could try to revisit is supposed to be provided by this story for the first time), but of pastiche. It may be unfair to cast Pixar as a victim of its own spectacular successes, but Lightyear is certainly not the best that the studio is capable of, and at times it's a stretch to imagine small Andy being blown away by it.

That brings us back to the issue of nostalgia. Toy Story 3 taught us that it's healthy to let go of the symbols of your childhood. So it's not clear who Lightyear is for: is it for the now-adult generation that grew up with the Toy Story movies, or is it for the younger generation that is only now discovering them? If the answer is the former, there will be little new material to surprise veteran viewers; if the latter, it's doubtful that somewhere there's an Andy who will be so enchanted by this story that he'll make Buzz Lightyear his new favorite toy. As in the movie, the time of Buzz is passed.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for the adorable robot cat Sox.

Penalties: −2 for giving Buzz the same emotional arc he already went through in the 2000 film.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Six Books with Ed McDonald

Ed McDonald’s debut novel BLACKWING began the The Raven’s Mark trilogy, which continues with RAVENCRY and concludes with CROWFALL. His newest book is DAUGHTER OF REDWINTER

Ed has been writing stories since he was a child, and studied history for his BA and MA degrees. He is a practitioner of Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA), and his love of history has helped to inspire the books that he writes.

Today I ask him about his Six Books

1. What book are you currently reading?

Currently I’m reading Wounds by Nathan Ballingrud. It’s a brilliant short story collection about some really gruesome stuff – this horror is not for the faint hearted.

I came to Wounds because I saw the movie of the same name on Netflix. It’s possibly my favourite movie of all time, so I needed to read The Visible Filth, the story that it’s based on. I don’t really get scared by movies or by literature, instead I get this kind of elation at the horror, almost a sense of euphoria from the audacity of the writer. I adore cosmic horror and extra-planar monstrousness and so this is right up my alley.

2. What upcoming book are you really excited about?

Maybe this is cheating because I’ve already read it, but Little Eve by Catriona Ward is finally arriving in the US for publication by Tor Nightfire in October 2022. Full disclosure, Cat is my partner and Little Eve was the first book of hers I read, before we got together and it never received a US release! Despite that it still won the Shirley Jackson Award in 2019. I’m so excited that US readers will finally be able to enjoy it.

Since I’ve cheated the question a bit, there are two non-scheduled books I’m waiting for: Nicholas Eames to finish the series that began with Kings of the Wyld and I’ve been waiting over a decade for J.V.Jones to finish her Sword of Shadows series, which I consider up there in the best fantasy of all time.

3. Is there a book you’re currently itching to re-read?

It’s very rare that I re-read anything, but when summer hits I’m planning to read Daniel Polansky’s Low Town series again, starting with Low Town (published under the much better title The Straight Razor Cure in the UK). There’s this amazing feel to Daniel’s writing, and I’ve rarely read a character done as well as his protagonist.

4. A book that you love and wish that you yourself had written.

Is there any fantasy author who doesn’t wish that they’d written Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy? Just thinking about it gives me a kind of aching feeling, it’s so deeply personal and beautiful.

5. What’s one book, which you read as a child or a young adult, that has had a lasting influence on your writing?

David Gemmell’s Legend spoke to me in a way that no other book has ever managed to achieve. It’s not very well written. There are some dubious character portrayals. It’s far from a perfect book. And yet, the overall message and feeling it gave me as a teen became something that I’ve kind of based my entire life philosophy around. Never give up, never back down in the face of evil, never let others suffer through your inaction, even if it costs you. I believe in the heroism of the message David put forward in that book to my very core. I’ve never read a last stand written so well.

6. And speaking of that, what’s your latest book, and why is it awesome?

I’m so excited to finally bring Daughter of Redwinter to readers. Raine is a 17 year old girl just trying to find a place to belong, and has fallen in with a dubious cult of travelling spiritualists, but has found herself besieged for a mistake they made. All her life she’s had to hide the fact that she can see the souls of the dead, and as she becomes embroiled in dangerous events she’s taken to the fortress-monastery of the Draoihn, warrior magicians who have a sacred duty to keep the Night Below contained beyond the veil. But Raine’s ability to see the dead is inherently tied to the darkness, and she finds herself living among enemies.

There are a lot of different themes to unpack in Daughter of Redwinter. It’s a coming of age story, it’s about found family, it’s about abusive relationships, love, depression, sexuality and trust, but ultimately it’s a story of hope. I believe that all authors inadvertently state their truth in their writing, and I hope Raine’s story is one that excites readers.

Thank you, Ed!

POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

The Wheel of Time Reread: The Dragon Reborn

I’d like to welcome you back, dear readers, to The Wheel of Time Re-read. Today we’re going to talk about The Dragon Reborn. We are still in the heady early part of the series where Robert Jordan’s storytelling is firing on all cylinders and if you want some big budget 1990’s epic fantasy - this is it, y’all.

The Dragon Reborn is the third volume of The Wheel of Time and we’re charging headlong into some sort of acknowledgement that Rand is, in fact, the titular Dragon Reborn. Rand has twice now faced Ba’alzamon (and twice assumed that he has defeated the Dark One) but the battle against the darkness has only just begun (or, never ended if you pay attention to what Ba’alzamon says). There are any number of prophecies that need to be fulfilled for Rand to be proclaimed and acknowledged as the Dragon Reborn and one of the more significant ones is that the Stone of Tear must fall (be captured) and before that happens, that Callandor (“the sword that is not a sword”) is held by the Dragon. It’s a seemingly contradictory prophecy because Callandor is the greatest treasure of the Stone and how does one get so deep into the Stone to claim the sword without having first captured the fortress. That’s one question The Dragon Reborn (the novel) will answer.

But first, Rand (and everyone else) needs to get there.

Let’s find out how.

Spoilers, ho!

I wish I could remember every prologue in the series so I could figure out just where The Dragon Reborn’s prologue ranks, but I can’t, so I’m just going to assume it’s pretty low. This is the Ordeith prologue, the new incarnation of Padan Fan who has now wormed (his name means Wormwood in the Old Tongue) his way into being an advisor of Pedron Niall, the Lord Captain Commander of the Whitecloaks.

If you’re thinking this sounds a bit like Grima Wormwood in Lord of the Rings, you’d be right. It does. Ordeith is a poison. Similar to Mordeth at Aridhol / Shadar Logoth, Ordeith is going to further rot the Whitecloaks from within, twisting their plans. Pedron Niall does not appear to be a Darkfriend, but it’s not going to matter when the evil that Ordeith exudes takes hold. That’s it for Ordeith in this novel, it’s more of a set up after Fain escaped from Fal Dara in The Great Hunt than it is something that directly comes to play in this novel.

Despite the title of the book, The Dragon Reborn is not really Rand’s novel. We spend far more time in Tar Valon with Egwene, Nyneave, Elayne, and Mat and then on the road towards Tear with those same characters (though Mat is mostly riding with Thom Merrilin, initially to deliver a letter on behalf of Elayne and later in a hope to rescue Team Super Friends).

Early on, Rand is *very* isolated. He meets with and frequently yells at Moiraine and also has absolutely no control over his power. Unless Egwene, Rand has nobody to teach him how to use saidin. What’s the quote from Moiraine? Easier for a fish to teach a bird how to swim? He’s on his own with a destiny he does not want, with a power he can’t control and sometimes can’t even reach and has no idea what’s going to happen even if he can - even in the midst of a trolloc attack. It’s bad, though we mostly see this from Perrin’s perspective before Rand runs off for Tear by himself with Moiraine / Perrin / Lan / Loial in chase.

I don’t remember how I felt about Rand in my first read-through, but he’s not a lot of fun to read this time. He’s important, but his chapters are tedious. He’s suffering, terrified, driven, and struggling. I wish I could say that this is the last time that Rand will be a deeply unpleasant protagonist in this series, but this is only the beginning and there is a lot of breaking Rand down to go.

The good thing, though, is that this isn’t his story except for at the beginning and the ending. Rand is the table setting that isn’t doing it for me right now. But once the story got moving, I was there. I love Egwene / Nynaeve / Elaye in the White Tower - I think tower politics is always a favorite for me (bring on Knife of Dreams!) - but a crowning moment of awesomeness is Mat vs Gawyn / Galad with the quarterstaff, though it is tempered by Mat being a bit of a dick. But most of my favorite bits are generally tied to Egwene and Mat’s respective storylines.

What’s interesting to me is how much Mat comes into his own in this book. Once he’s healed and he’s not as ravenous or having fever dreams, he really starts to take control of how he interacts with the world. He’s a much more assured character in the back half of the novel.

The Amyrlin gave an exasperated sigh. "You remind me of my uncle Huan. No one could ever pin him down. He liked to gamble, too, and he'd much rather have fun than work. He died pulling children out of a burning house. He wouldn't stop going back as long as there was one left inside. Are you like him, Mat? Will you be there when the flames are high?

He could not meet her eyes. He studied his fingers as they plucked irritably at his blanket. "I'm no hero. I do what I have to do, but I am no hero."
This is a moment of Siuan Sanche talking about her uncle, but she also pegs Mat perfectly. This is touched on multiple times in The Dragon Reborn, when Mat rescues Aludra from the Illuminators, when Mat goes after the Super Girls, even when Mat throws food over the side of the boat to help feed hungry people - but it gets into the core of who is he and who he becomes, much as he will deny it time and again.

There is a point in The Dragon Reborn where everyone starts rushing headlong to Tear: Super Girls chasing the Black Ajah at the behest (or at least with the permission) of the Amyrlin to Tear, possibly led on by Lanfear, but they’re hoping to spring the trap. Rand because that’s where he knows he needs to be in order to claim Callandor and more officially proclaim himself. Moiraine to follow Rand because it’s not time to let him off the leash even if the least was ineffective and chafing. After delivering Elayne’s letter to her mother Morgase and discovering that Morgase’s lover has a plot to harm Elayne, Mat and Thom follow the Super Girls. Perrin is with Moiraine.

As we run into the conclusion of the novel I *think* this is the last time that anyone thinks they actually killed the Dark One and as such should be the end of someone claiming “shai’tan is dead” and having the world lurch while Moiraine yells at them.

To that point, Moiraine is a much more prickly character than I remember. I suppose few Aes Sedai actually explain everything, but her basic attitude is to tell people to do the thing because the thing needs doing but don’t tell anyone and then get frustrated when folk just don’t understand her rightness and wisdom. The show is like that, too.

Brief Notes on Stuff I found interesting:

*Egwene, Nynaeve, and Elayne meet Aviendha, which begins the relationship Egwene will have with the Aiel - another future favorite storyline of mine when Egwene is in the Three-Fold Land. Right now Aviendha is just a new character introduced, but she’ll be much more.

*Egwene’s “Dreams” mirror Min’s visions regarding Perrin with the falcon and hawk, Mat’s putting his eye on the balance scale, Mat and the Seanchan (Tuon!)

*The introduction of Faile was not as quite as annoying as I remember, but I think what gets missed (often by me) is how young Faile is and also how young Perrin is. For large parts of the series I think they’re mid 20’s at the youngest, but really they’re still teenagers and that’s really rough. They’re acting like it here.

*Speaking of Perrin, a scene of incredible poignancy is Perrin working in the blacksmith’s shop.

*”If you see the most beautiful woman you’ve ever met, run” - I’ve always associated this with Berelain and all the trouble she causes Perrin, but I think I’ve been wrong for a really long time. It’s Lanfear, isn’t it?

*Balefire is talked about, and then eventually used. Moiraine talks about how she could be stilled for even knowing about it, let alone casting it. She balefires Be’lal (Forsaken) and Darkhounds. Nynaeve balefires Myddraal. Ishamael tries to balefire Rand, but he blocks it.

*There is a stereotype of Nyneave tugging her braid and while it occurred in the first two books, this is where it becomes noticeable and somewhat cliche.

Next up, The Shadow Rising, which possibly my favorite book in the entire series. Plus, the truth about the Aiel, a game-changing coup (aren't they all?), a Forsaken in Hiding, and Nynaeve’s moment of crowning awesomeness.

Previous Re-reads
The Eye of the World
The Great Hunt

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, Hugo Award Winner. Minnesotan. He / Him

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Book Review: How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with it

Another story of a capital city under years-long siege, and a man who would be King

You’ve heard this story before. Notker, our narrator, right at the beginning admits that this is not a new story, it is one that is just in a new guise. An ordinary person winds up, by twists and turns to be mistaken for, or take the place of, someone powerful in power, and must do their best in their role. This professional actor and con-artist tells us his story is one that has happened before, buit the key to telling a story heard many times before...well, the telling of this story is where the difference and detail lies. 

This is the second City Siege novel of KJ Parker (following Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City). 

The previous novel introduced the end of the Robur (roughly, Roman turned Byzantine) Empire, as a outlander mastermind assembled a huge coalition of forces, and marched to conquer and destroy the hated Robur forever. Orban, Colonel of Engineers, in the first book, does his darndest with very limited resources to defend the last, capital city of the Robur against an overwhelming attack. That is a novel of engineer pluck and courage and intelligence trying to stave off the seemingly inevitable.fall of the city.  He does, in the end, fall, but the city’s fate is left uncertain at the end of that novel (although the implication is that the city will eventually lose and fall).

In this second volume, which starts with some overlapping of events from the first novel, we find that the city does settle down to a state of permanent siege. Notker is an actor, and a sometime playwright as well, hustling a living as often as not. Yes, people do go to the theater, but sometimes he gets hired to do impersonations, but he is living hand to mouth.  And so when the ruling military junta who control their popular hero/figurehead Lysimarchus come to him with the role of a lifetime, Notker really has no choice. And as  he continues in that role, he gets ever deeper, even as he is looking for a way out.

While the first volume had Orban explicitly say that he was not telling the whole truth in the end, here from the beginning we have a professional telling us right from the get go about the power of stories, lies, shading the truth and more in order to tell his story. The  first novel was Parker geeking out about engineering and siegecraft and how a determined engineer could frustrate the greatest army the world has assembled. By contrast, this second novel does have concerns regarding the siege and defending it, because Parker does really like to go down his rabbit holes and show it off. (In some ways, I think of him very much like Herman Melville, just enjoying sharing what he has learned and shown off about all sorts of abstruse subjects, interwoven masterfully into the story). 

However, this is a story that is about two other things--stories and the power of stories and why they work, and what we get for telling them. So there is lots of details about fictional plays and books and what those stories reflect upon the narrative and upon people. And as an actor, Notker, once he really starts getting into the role, realizes that he can BE a good Lysimarchus and how that might play to his advantage to eventually getting out of it. There is also a lot about theater and stage life and what a strange thing it is to be an actor, a playwright, a professional entertainer, and the best mordant humor in the book is Notker’s observations on the performing life.

The other thing this story is about is the government. Not about our government, specifically, but there is a lot here about how bureaucracies work, as Notka finds out who really is the underpinnings of the empire and the day to day running of things in the city. Sure, there is a military junta, and then later as Emperor, Notka is a titular head, but there are competing factions, concerns and power structures, but through it all, the civil servants and civil service are what keep a government running, which keep things moving and going. I extend this to the Themes. Like Constantinople, there are two themes in the City, the Blues and the Greens, and they act as (eventually legalized and regularized) extra-governmental organizations not quite unlike the mob. They provide a lot of the services that this government does not. Given Notker’s origins and his father’s profession and how Notker feels about all that, we get some excellent characterization of Notker and what he thinks about it all. 

All of the above, is of course, to be taken with more than a grain of salt, because Notker IS a professional liar. How much he has written down (like the first book, this is a “found document” sort of narrative) is truth, how much is is hard to say. It was entertaining in the early going to compare events and Notker’s view, of say, Orban and the siege and seeing how it looked very different in his eyes, And when Orban exited the narrative, and seeing how things continued on, I kept in mind, and you should, that Notker is telling a story here, rather than a historical narrative. 

And with that in mind, Notker does pitch his story in an entertaining fashion, with many of the little and big worldbuilding touches that Parker likes to put into his stories. Unlike the first novel, here we get a dead-center of power view of the City and its plight, and does uneasy lie the crown? You bet it does. But the beauty of a lot of Parker’s writing (except of course, see above, Notker lies) is that they often feel like historical novels in a history that never was. Between all the novels he’s written in a loosely similar world or worlds (it’s more nebulous than, say, Guy Gavriel Kay where most of his novels by now clearly are in the same single shadow world of Fionavar), there is a real heft and sometimes contradiction, and rarely intersections between the works, their time periods and their characters. But once you’ve read a Parker or two, his voice is very familiar, and even comforting, even as he invents anew. 

One other thing to note. The first book in the City cycle was very much a sausagefest, with no strong female characters. This novel has one, in the personage of Hodda. In fact, Notker telegraphs her existence in the narrative by talking about how plays do well when they have a “kickass female lead”. Hodda definitely fits that bill and her presence alone makes this a better book in some ways than the first.  Was she like this “for real” in the fictional history of the city?  Impossible to tell, because of course Notka is a liar and he is telling a story.

The one thing that first time readers to Parker may not know is that a lot of his fantasy fiction, including the City books, take place in a zero magic setting. (Other books of his do have magic, including ones that may be in the same universe or one next door to this one). If you want your fantasy fiction with even just a small touch of magic, then the City books are definitely not for you. Although they are very different in many ways, the best touchstone I can think of to the City books is Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint series. More contemporaneously, Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series also explores the Secondary World fantasy without magic environment. 

Do you need to have read Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City?  Yes and no.  Yes in the sense that it will give you a sense of the setup leading up when Notker steps onto the stage, as it were. We get a little more on the Robur Empire outside the city and in general in the first book that the second book assumes that you know. But on the other hand this book doesn’t quite need the first, this is Notker’s story and he is putting the spotlight on himself and giving himself as playwright of the work, the juiciest part. (as Notker was mentioning this, I kept thinking of the opening to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, where Zero Mostel introduces the setup and characters and gleefully admits that his is the best part, of course. 

I look forward to completing the trilogy at some point. I listened to this one in audio and the narration was a delight.

The Math
Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses : +1 Strong characters and while an old story, it does new and fresh things with that story. Better female characters (specifically, Hodda) than the first book.

+1 For interesting explorations of theme of government, and entertainment.

Penalties: -1 Some readers may not be so charmed by Notker as I was. He is the only Point of View, for better or worse.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

 POSTED BY: Paul Weimer. Ubiquitous in Shadow, but I’m just this guy, you know? @princejvstin.

Reference: Parker, K.J., How to Rule an Empire and Get Away with It [Orbit, 2020]

Nanoreviews: A Mirror Mended, The Jade Setter of Janloon, The Legacy of Molly Southbourne

A Mirror Mended, by Alix E. Harrow [Tordotcom Publishing]

A Mirror Mended is the follow up / sequel to last year’s Hugo Award finalist novella A Spindle Splintered and picks up the story some five years later where Zinnia Gray is traveling the multiverse of fairy tales and fables, rescuing and facilitating escapes for those varied heroines trapped within a forced narrative that doesn’t quite fit. Rather than chasing her own mortality, Zinnia spends her time avoiding her life in lieu of these adventures until a villain wants that same escape Zinnia has offered so many others.

As much as I liked A Spindle Splintered, this is a much stronger novella that goes deeper. Harrow dives into how women are treated in these stories, slotted into neat roles - even the villains, because what other paths do some women have? With quick dialogue and a sharp eye for storytelling - A Mirror Mended is top notch.
Score: 9/10

The Jade Setter of Janloon, by Fonda Lee [Subterranean Press]

Prequel novella to the Green Bone Saga focuses on a specialty jeweler, a “jade setter”, officially allied with a small and fiercely neutral clan. Pulo is an apprentice jade setter to the master setter Isin. Because their clan is neutral, their business caters to all and is treated as neutral ground. When a ceremonial sword from The Mountain Clan is stolen from the shop, that neutrality will be tested.

What works is that if you’re familiar with the Green Bone Saga, this is a story set on the periphery of characters and clans we know and if you’re not, this is a really good story of fairly regular folk potentially caught in the middle between two much more powerful factions. That’s not what the story is, but it provides color and texture.
Score: 8/10

The Legacy of Molly Southbourne, by Tade Thompson [Tordotcom Publishing]

I never wrote about the Molly Southbourne novellas for Nerds of a Feather, but from the start I was hooked on this series - though I didn’t know it was going to be a series when I first began. The Murders of Molly Southbourne featured Molly, a young woman with a peculiar affliction - everytime she bleeds, another “molly” is born full grown and intent on mindlessly murdering her. What a concept! I loved it. I *liked* the second, but it was a somewhat different thing. Still compelling, but perhaps less. It widened the scope of what we knew of the mollys, it just didn’t reach the same highs.

The Legacy of Molly Southbourne is the third, and this time presumably final book in this sequence - now with a community of molly’s trying to make their lives and, interestingly, a community of Tamaras doing the same, until a presumed dormant Soviet cloning program rears its head and puts them at odds.

I’m not likely to do justice to The Legacy of Molly Southbourne, but it takes so much of what I loved about Murders, broadens it, adds depth, and just hits on every level. There’s a murderous molly, a molly-hunter, and a gathering storm of a final fight on the horizon. It’s friggin great. You absolutely need to read the first two books for Legacy to hit. But if you do, watch out.
Score: 8/10

Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, Hugo Award Winner. Minnesotan. He / Him