Tuesday 31 March 2015

Indexing by Seanan McGuire

Indexing is a brisk, fun little novel about a world where reality occasionally - well, quite frequently - gets dragged into the shape of a fairy tale. The problem with that sort of incident is that fairy tales are not actually harmless and nice. Enter our heroes - the fairy tale police. Their job? To stop fairy tales from happening in our world and/or minimise the damage they do.

In many ways, the very point of fairy tales is that they have been done so often, in so many ways, that there is nothing new left to them. Their purpose is comforting repetition and reimagination in the hands of different storytellers. While Indexing takes a different angle on them, even that angle is not exactly new. There is at least one terribly bland and disappointing TV show which is not very far off in its approach.

Where Indexing differs from Grimm is that it is actually bloody good fun. The gang of characters has all the wit and sparkle of the earliest seasons of Buffy, back when the Scooby Gang were not yet broken people struggling with "grown up" issues, but a witty bunch of gung-ho, kick-ass super teens...

The heroes of Indexing are not teens, but they read that way. A scary Snow White, a super fun gothy Wicked Stepsister (Sloane), a shoe making elf who is also a pretty good librarian, a newbie / rookie who happens to be a teenaged Pied Piper... there's definitely something a little quirky and light about our heroes. They haven't been weighed down by futility and compromise yet. They don't worry about mortgages or paychecks or pension schemes. They don't have (or think about) children. Their relationships don't seem any more serious than high school / uni cliques and flings... in many ways, that's what makes them fun to read about.

The titular Index is the Aarne-Thompson Index, used to classify fairy tales. Our heroes (and their nebulous government agency) use it to classify what sort of "memetic incursion" (fairy tale shaping of our reality) is in progress / about to happen, and to take appropriate countermeasures. It lends the story a whiff of the police procedural, but it's not so much about building a reality but a sprinkling of a different atmosphere. Yes, we get a cranky superior who chews people out and holds them to task, and a bull pen / open plan office, but it feels like an afterthought, rather than something that is part of the bones of the novel. It's never taken too seriously, because the story doesn't really take anything too seriously at all.

I keep calling it a novel, but the first few chapters can be read more or less independently of each other - they each go over the exposition again and again, so I guess this started out as a "serial"... Do serials still exist? How odd.

As Young Adult Urban Fantasy Police Procedurals about Fairy Tales go, it's a quick, energetic and fun read. It's enormously silly, but enough fun so you can forget about its silliness.

Rating: 3.5/5

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Dark Eden by Chris Beckett

In an valley surrounded by mountains and a sheer drop, on a planet that has no daylight, a few hundred humans live. They are the descendants of two castaways from Earth, brought up to be one Family. They yearn for the day when rescue might come and "return" them to Earth.

John Redlantern is a youth on the cusp of manhood. He does not care for traditions: he yearns for change. And more than anything, he yearns to be the agent of change.

Dark Eden starts with a hunting expedition, during which John separates himself (and his tag-along friend Gerry) from the group. Confronted with a predator, he chooses to fight, rather than hide, and kills the alien "leopard". This turns him into an instant legend - celebrated until he starts disrespecting traditions and openly criticising the elders.

There are several other viewpoint characters (each chapter is told through the eyes of one person), but this is a novel about John and his quest to leave the valley and change human society forever.

The writing is reminiscent of Ian Mcdonald's novels - particularly those set in developing nations. It's the use of repetition to indicate emphasis that creates these echoes, but it's used more heavy-handedly in Dark Eden (on verbs as well as adjectives). The writing voice does not feel quite as self-assured, or just not quite as compelling. I found it a bit awkward: it gives all the characters a child-like sound (to our ears), which is presumably the intention. But these are not child-like people - they are descended from English speaking astronauts. Their speech pattern isn't the result of translation / blending a native language pattern with the English language, but the result of language changing over time. I don't see why they should sound more child-like and primitive than us, and many of the vocabulary choices don't feel right. (Why would their word for the glaciers around them be "snow slugs" - they are unlikely to perceive the movements of the ice and there is no indication there are any slugs on this world. Why would their word for the mountains all around them be "snowy dark" - surely the word "mountain" would have come up in conversation among their ancestors.)

As a novel about teenagers living on a high-concept world full of adversarial adults, another series I felt reminded of was Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking trilogy. That, too, was a gritty but compelling and intelligent tale of youngsters changing the world.

Where Dark Eden differs from both is that I found it harder to digest. In fact, I would go so far as calling it unpleasant. As a society that is a mere handful of generations along from a single couple, sex is very much a tricky subject. Everyone here is the product of not-that-distant incest. (I guess that's one of the reasons for the two common types of deformity - clawfeet and batfaces / cleft lips). Perhaps to compensate, everyone has a very relaxed attitude to sex (they call it slip / slippy) and people have lots of casual sex and not many relationships. Some of those relationships are abusive, and one encounter between our hero and another character might even be a Julian-Assange-style rape (it's not entirely clear).

Our protagonist is not really a good person. He is brave and driven, but very manipulative, calculating, and controlling. He does not care much whether anyone consents to his actions (hence the was-it-or-wasn't-it rape, and several other incidents where he violates people's trust), but he is extremely concerned to make sure everyone has the right sort of impression of him. He may well be a psychopath.

The other characters can be difficult to like, too. There are really only one or two which might be described as unequivocally "good".

Balanced against the unpleasantness is the book's intelligence. It's a very carefully thought through world, with lots of interesting perspectives about the origins of religions ad myths, about matriarchies and patriarchies, about leadership, about human drive, about sexual politics... it's the sort of book that's buzzing with ideas - but it does not sacrifice characterisation to those ideas. (Many ideas-focused books neglect characters: Dark Eden has believable and convincing, complex characters, each with their own motivation. It really does feel like an utterly credible world)

In the end, it's a book I don't feel I can give a rating to. It's hugely intelligent, thoughtful and believable. It's full of believable and complex characters. Admittedly, the prose does feel a little second-hand, but that's personal taste. All of which would warrant a high rating - except, I hated reading it. Like the movies of Zack Snyder or the comics of Frank Miller (and, to a lesser extent, Alan Moore), there is something rotten and seedy and grim about the book. The sexual abuse is the biggest example of that, but even without the rape culture / normalised abuse, the story stains the mind with grime. It's like binge-watching Breaking Bad, minus the (dark) sense of humour. It's almost impossible to give up reading the book once the plot is moving along, but it left me feeling soiled and exhausted. I pretty much hated reading it, but I would not stop.

An impressive intellectual and literary achievement, but not exactly wholesome or joyful entertainment.

That's Cheating! My Pet Peeves in SF

A while ago, TOR Books (UK) were inviting people to write blog posts for them. I took them up on the invitation:

That's Cheating! My Pet Peeves in SF

Any thoughts? Do you agree / disagree with my pet peeves?

Saturday 21 March 2015

"Every time someone retells this story, they make another million dollars"

It's still true after all these years:

(Although the amount of money has been subject to inflation)

I'm not going to see the new film. I've seen the story before. Many times. I doubt it comes anywhere close to the best movie adaptation of that story, and I find it a little depressing that Disney is now so out of ideas that they have to resort to regurgitating their own back catalogue in live action. 

Nonetheless, I found myself pondering this story today. It is perhaps the most-frequently adapted tale of them all. Every possible reimagination and twist on this tale appears to have already been done, and yet it still manages to make gazillions at the box office when it is done again. The same is of course true for other stories - the Hero With a Thousand Faces and the generic Rom-Com (mentioned as "Boy Meets Girl" in the video above). But where those other tales tend to hide their commonality by adopting different settings, worlds and titles, the Cinderella story is so recognisable that many of its adaptations draw attention to their retelling of the same old tale. There is something about that template that continues to sell even if you don't bother to change anything at all...

One of my ponderations is that it doesn't actually feel like a story about one girl. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered what real events would have to be like to become, over many retellings, the cinderella story. And the premise I arrived at was quite different.

Imagine a small tribe somewhere. The "king" does not live in a fairy tale palace or a huge castle, but is simply the alpha male / head honcho of the tribe.This is the old times, long before the Arabs invented romantic love, and long before romantic love became fashionable in Europe. Marriages were couplings of convenience, arranged more often than not. So the son of the head man has come of age, and it is time to select a bride. This is before Christianity, before empires, somewhere in the really old times, and society has a boss but not quite so many levels of hierarchy, no obsession with noble blood. All the girls of the tribe have to come to a shindig, so that the King's son can choose.

Imagine the girl who is kept locked away by her parents. Perhaps she is deformed in some way. Perhaps there really is an evil stepmother. Perhaps she was born as the result of a rape, and is resented for that reason. Perhaps she is simply a slave, captured or traded from another tribe. This is the girl who wants to go to the ball, not necessarily because she wants to marry the prince, but because she yearns to be like the other girls, to have the same value as them. This is the girl who defies her oppressors and makes it to the shindig, knowing full well that later, there will be a price to pay.

Imagine the girl who is chosen by the prince. She's pretty and curvy and he definitely wants to bed her most of all the ones at the shindig. But lo and behold, after he picks her, she disappears and runs away. Perhaps she leaves after people have gone to sleep, or perhaps she waits until people are drunk and no longer pay full attention. Perhaps she goes out to the bushes and never returns. Perhaps she really does leave a shoe behind when sneaking out of the clearing where the shindig takes place. This is the girl who runs, not because of some magic or some special hour, but because she does not want to become the bride / property of the prince. A (wo)manhunt ensued and eventually she is caught, with all the consequences that entails.

Perhaps the two girls live at the same time, perhaps they live generations apart. Over time, their tales are joined, and some reason for her escape gets added, and some reason for being locked away despite being pretty, and a happy ending, and so we arrive at Cinderella, which somehow resonates and clicks and has become the most addictive story of them all.

I do believe that some folk tales and myths grew from the seeds of real events. Bluebeard, after all, is suspected of being based on a real serial killer. Of course, over time and many retellings, the events would be distorted and reshaped and more often than not, the original seed is so long forgotten that it is invisible in the story. When I look at Cinderella, there is no sensible way it could have been a single tale of a single girl. It takes the fairy godmother and her magic to glue the events together and create some internal logic. But cut it in two, and suddenly there are believable tales in there, only neither is a happy one...

Thursday 19 March 2015

Europe In Autumn by Dave Hutchinson

Europe in Autumn is sold as a science fiction thriller. This may not be the best possible description: there's not a whole lot of science fictional themes in the plot (some camouflage suits but little else) and to describe it as a thriller is a bit optimistic.

The book has been highly recommended by other reviewers, so I bought it without having much of an idea of what it was about. The level of enthusiasm and the description as one of the genre literary highlights of the year intrigued me.

Our protagonist is Rudi, a chef living in a near-future Krakow. This is a world where the European Union has collapsed, and where nation states have largely crumbled into dozens or even hundreds of little "polities" - micro-nations. (No wonder it's popular among Brits). This was all preceded by a flu epidemic (which triggered the reintroduction of tight border controls and the abolition of Schengen), but it does not feel like a post-flu-apocalyptic novel. Rather, it feels like a novel imagining what it would be like if the growth of the EU (and UN) are cyclical rather than linear geopolitical developments, ultimately leading to a backswing from the currently-growing supra-national entities to crumbling, splintering and widespread micro-nationalism.

In that world, Rudi is soon hired to become a Coureur. Self-described as a glorified postal service, Coureurs are working for an organisation that smuggles. They smuggle information, objects and even people across the myriad borders of the world, using "tradecraft" (i.e. cloak and dagger techniques and habits that seem to be inspired by spy stories), subterfuge and every possible means except legitimate ones.

The book does have an original and unique vision of a possible future for Europe / geopolitics, but once you get past the setting, you are left with a story about an uncaring protagonist who stumbles through events with no initiative, no curiosity or interest in anything, and not a whole lot of motivation. In fact, the only reason he persists at becoming a coureur is because someone is very discouraging and abusive towards him - and this turns it into a battle of wills, which tickles his stubborn streak.

Once he is a coureur, each chapter of the book describes one episode in his life. Some major things happen between chapters (the book does not dwell on all the big events in-chapter), and Rudi rarely has any idea what exactly he is doing, for whom. In fact, it is a mark of the coureur organisation that no one seems to understand anything - all the people painstakingly manufacturing fake identities and alibis, all the people working on supplying coureurs with fake papers and gadgets, all the people delivering or patching through coded instructions in innocuous everyday conversations - they are all ignorant of their organisation and its leadership, just as Rudi is ignorant about what his cargo is or whom he is working for. Even when he encounters peers and superiors, no one dares to ask or answer querstions, everyone suspects everyone else, and the unsaid remains so unsaid that one wonders if there actually is an unsaid, or whether everyone is involved just happens to be ludicrously paranoid. This is a network of networks in a permanent fog - no one knows who is in charge, no one has any overview, and most of the time, no one knows what they themselves are doing for whom. This lends the book a surreal, Kafkaesque feel (if it ever gets adapted, Terry Gilliam should direct), but combine it with an unbothered protagonist, and you end up with a story that is mindbending without being engaging. (Heroes in these sort of tales usually despair about the insanity of their situation - think Jonathan Pryce in Brazil. If the hero instead shrugs and gets on with being a tiny uncaring cog in a machine he does not understand, there isn't all that much of a story.)

The book does have plenty of action sequences, but it lacks suspense: as it's hard to care about Rudi, and as he doesn't really care about anyone, it's a bit like reading a James Bond movie, only without any charme, without repartee, without sexy stuff / romantic interests and with added Kafkaesque themes and Polish cuisine.

There are some subtle hints in the text that this may not be a future version of our Europe in autumn, but a parallel Europe somewhere else. But even with all the clever world-building and clever premise and clever subversion and clever surreal ignorance going on, it's ultimately too boring.

Clever, it turns out, is not on its own entertaining, and not really the best heart to build a book around.

Rating: 2.5/5

Friday 13 March 2015

The Twyning by Terence Blacker

The Twyning is set in a small British town in Victorian times. There, a kindgom of rats lives in the sewers, while, in the town above, an obsessed scientist is intent on launching a war against rats.

The novel alternates between telling the story of Efren, a young rat, and Dogboy, an urchin who earns pennies working for the scientist and the town's rat catcher.

It's rare to read a book starring rats, which makes this an instantly original and off-beat story. It strikes an interesting balance between animalistic and anthropomorphic qualities when telling the rat's view of events. Physically, on the outside, they are definitely rats, their movements and actions described in prose that skilfully draws them very much as rodents. Internally, however, they are not quite so different from humans. True, they can get much more absorbed by tunnel vision and be of a very singular purpose in a crisis, but when not in crisis, they are part of a kingdom with different courts, different vocations, intrigues and power plays... This combination gives them a slightly surreal aspect - it reminded me a little of the way the Fantastic Mr Fox movie combined savagery with civilisation...

I would have preferred it if the rats were more animalistic in their minds - they don't come close to the benchmark set by the amazing In Great Waters for having convincing non-human intelligent characters. I also felt some of the monologuing was a bit unnecessary and un-ratlike. But neither of those things are at the heart of the story. At its heart, this is the tale of a brave young rat trying to find, and later decide, his place in the world. It's also a love story, between Efren and Malaika, a female rat who is not merely a love interest, but very much her own rat with her own perspective and motivation.

The human tale, meanwhile, is one of urchins and underclass people struggling to create a place for themselves in a world that sees no value in them. Oh, and that is a love story too, though not romantic love.

The byline on the book, "A story of love, war and rats" is a perfect summary. The love between different characters is palpable and utterly believable, utterly heart-warming and sometimes heart-breaking. The story of war is, essentially, satirical in the human narrative, but a struggle for survival and against genocide for the rats.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's original, quirky, and heartfelt. It's fast-paced and a page-turner. I would highly recommend it to everyone (except those with a strong phobia of rats).

Rating: 4.5/5

Monday 9 March 2015

The Black Count by Tom Reiss

The Black Count tells the story of Alex Dumas, father of Alexandre Dumas the novelist (and grandfather of Alexandre Dumas the playwright). He is the forgotten Dumas. In France, they call his son "Alexandre Dumas, pere" and his grandson "Alexandre Dumas, fils" and hardly anyone anywhere recalls the man who first created the name and launched the legacy. Until this book was published, Alex Dumas had more or less disappeared from public consciousness, despite achievements and adventures that inspired much of his son's most successful literary output.

Alex Dumas was the son of a French nobleman and a slave woman, born on a Caribbean sugar island. His father was not the hard-working, entrepreneurial kind, but a freeloader living on his own parents' purse, then his brother's, ultimately being driven away after several years of making a nuisance of himself. When, years later, his father returned to France to reclaim an inheritance that had passed to others (as he was assumed dead after his expulsion & flight), he sold Alex Dumas into slavery in order to finance his own journey. "Sold" is perhaps a strong term. More like "pawned" - Alex was brought to France some months later and reclaimed / the pawning fee was paid off. Even so. He was pawned into slavery so his father could afford passage across the oceans. This speaks volumes of his father's nurturing attitude. (He was the favourite son. His brothers and sisters were sold into slavery outright, if my memory serves me right: it's been a month since I read the book)

From such an inauspicious background, he developed into a swashbuckling hero, a formidable warrior, a general who would lead entire armies, and a major figure on the military side of the French Revolution. He managed to achieve tasks where others failed and even got through the Terrors (the phase of the revolution when so many lost their heads as a result of witch hunts and paranoia about traitors), despite the fact that he was black and despite the fact that early in his career, he had been at interventions where the army - including himself - suppressed revolutionary riots.

He achieved all that despite being black, in Western Europe, at a time when black people were not even considered real human beings in the Christian-run empires and nations. He wasn't entirely without advantage: his father's wealth afforded him a good start in society in Paris before he abandoned all that to join the army. To his credit, he did join the army at the bottom and worked his way up through merit. As the son of a noble, he could have started at an officer's rank.

Ultimately, his career (and life) was cut short not through any personal failure, but as a result of his success: he was more impressive than Napoleon, and Napoleon could not stand him.

The Black Count is the story of Alex Dumas, but it is also the story of a tumultous time in French and European history. In fact, while Dumas' impressive achievements will probably stay a nice little anecdote in my memory, it is the book's progress through a time when solid history turned into quicksand, when ideas and notions and idealism and paranoia got to briefly rule the world, that will stay in my memory longer. That sense of instability resonates all the more strongly when looking at the Arab Spring and its aftermath. Compared to those two revolutions, the fall of the Soviet Empire seems strangely orderly, and the slow rise of Naputinon almost benign in scope. Revolutions, it turns out, tend to lead to years and sometimes decades of uncertainty and hard, messy work, before things settle into some kind of stability.

Napoleon, meanwhile, comes across as a complete weasel in this book. I had not really encountered this Anglocentric perspective in lengthy fiction before. Oh, I know, he tends to be a figure of some ridicule in movies, but since I was taught history in Germany, the general impression of Napoleon imparted to me by school education was very different in character. This book begrudgingly talks of infuriating inconsistencies in Napoleon's legacy, with the Napoleonic code adopted through much of Western Europe mentioned as a positive side effect. Perhaps understandably, German history lessons tended to have a different emphasis, with Napoleon drawn as a flawed tyrant, but one who achieved much and left a stamp on the world that lasts to this day. (Most European nations have legal systems that are built on refinements of the ones Napoleon first put in place. Britain may be built on the Magna Carta, and America is built on the Constitution, but Europe is built on the Napoleonic code)

Aside from revolutions in general, the rights of black people and slaves are of course central to the book. It turns out that, for just a few years during the French revolution, France was perhaps the most equal place in the world in terms of the rights and opportunities afforded to black people, and Alex Dumas just happened to live and thrive in the Golden Age of opportunity. There were even attempts to abolish slavery in the colonies - though those were not acted upon by the governors over there, as the sugar industry was considered too important. Under Napoleon, racism and xenophobic policies were gradually reintroduced, until they were stricter and more prejudicial than they'd ever been. Had Alex Dumas been born a generation later, he would never have been allowed into France, no matter who his father was. Had he been ten years earlier or later, he would never have been able to achieve the things he did.

With a swashbuckling, heroic subject, I expected the book to be a little more exciting than it turned out to be. I expected more -tainment from my edutainment.  However, the book's structure does not allow for the build-up of tension. Even when Alex Dumas is captured and imprisoned and deadly ill, you know he will get through this because the book starts with his death, in France, while his son is having a nightmare, and because his entire career has been outlined in broad strokes at the start. Historic faction always has to battle the problem that readers might already know how everything ended. Even so, the best historic novels manage to squeeze tension and excitement and thrills from readers. The gold standard that I use for tense historical factual novels is Nathaniel Philbrick's In The Heart Of The Sea: I fear The Black Count falls somewhat short of that: I wish it had given less away at the start and made more of the periods of uncertainty. On the educational side of things, however, it is excellent, and it has a lot of interesting knowledge to impart.

Rating: 3.5/5

Cardiff SFF Book Club - April and Beyond!

So we had another small get-together on Sunday to chat about Lock In again - and it was great.

This time, the meeting comprised of Nikki, Kelly and myself - check out their book blogs, too!

Thank you very much to both, and to Sarah and Emer for turning up to the meetings so far - both meetings were really great, and I can't wait to have a meeting that all of us can attend at the same time!

I've put the details of the next meeting on the Cardiff Speculative Fiction Book Club Page, which will be the place that always has the most up-to-date details on it.

Next Meeting

The next meeting of the Cardiff Speculative Fiction Book Club will take place:

After that, we'll discuss:


I'll get back to writing book reviews shortly - I've been a bit swamped with other matters over the past fortnight.

Thursday 5 March 2015

Cardiff SFF Book Club Update

I sent out the following by email to everyone yesterday, but thought I'd quickly post it in case I missed anyone or in case the email got disappeared by any spam filters:

Tuesday's Meeting: It was "klein aber fein" as they'd say in Germany - a nice meeting, a little small in numbers (3 people in total). But all three of us intend to go on and books were suggested!

Sunday Meeting: For anyone who couldn't make it on Tuesday, or who wants to meet other people interested in scifi/fantasy literature, there'll also be a chance to meet up this Sunday, 8th March, at 3pm, in Waterstones Cardiff, in the Cafe upstairs. The book for discussion is still Lock In.

Next Books: The easiest way to pick upcoming reads is for those who (intend to) attend our book club meetings to suggest a book each. Rather than have votes, I'll just put them in a queue. So far, three books have been suggested. If everyone's okay with this process, we'll alternate between Scifi / Fantasy books. I'll send out a list after the Sunday meeting. In the meantime, feel free to suggest a book on FB, Goodreads, my blog, by email or in person.

Next Meetings: As the number of people who showed up on Tuesday was actually smaller than the number of people who told me they'll show up on Sunday, I'm now thinking we'll meet on Sunday afternoons in future. That would mean the next few meetings would be scheduled for 12th April, 10th May, 7th June, etc, but I'll confirm after the meeting on Sunday. It's also possible that the meeting venue will shift towards Roath, but again, I'll see what the people on Sunday think about that...

Goodreads: It was suggested that a Group on Goodreads would be nice, so here it is: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/158541-cardiff-speculative-fiction-book-club

Your Email Address: I may have been overthinking my approach to email by BCC'ing everyone. So, from next week onwards, I'll simply put addresses in the "To:" field, which means all of us can use "Reply All" and it won't be just me talking at everyone. If you don't want me to include your address visibly (or if you want me to stop emailing you entirely), please let me know by the end of the week! For info, there are currently 15 email addresses on the list.

Other Meet-ups: Would you like to organise any outings that might appeal to people who enjoy science fiction and fantasy? Cinema trips, theatre performances, book festivals, conventions, exhibitions? Please do get in touch & suggest things – I'd love for others to help out / organise things / suggest stuff. (That's why I set up the Facebook Group & Goodreads Group and why I'll change the way I send emails). For inspiration, I've put together a list of various things below.

Upcoming Events that may be of interest to SF/F readers:

(Mostly local, but I also included a small number of further afield ones, just in case)

If you're not yet on the mailing list and you want to get involved with the book club, please visit the Cardiff Speculative Fiction Book Club page and sign up for email updates!