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Monthly Archives: April 2014

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

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Three strangers, isolated by their own problems: Adaora, the marine biologist. Anthony, the world famous rapper. Agu, the troubled soldier. Wandering Bar Beach in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, they’re more alone than they’ve ever been before.

But when a meteorite hits the ocean and a tidal wave overcomes them, these three people will find themselves bound together in ways they’ve never imagined. Together with Ayodele, a visitor from beyond the stars, they must race through Lagos and against time itself in order to save the city, the world… and themselves.
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Aside from the setting, that blurb makes Nnedi Okorafor’s latest novel sound like just another first-contact novel, a theme and plot we’ve read many times before. To imagine that that’s what Lagoon is would, however, be a serious mistake. Indeed, Lagoon is as far away from the standard first contact novel as its African setting is from the standard Anglo-American one.

The most superficially striking thing about Lagoon is the use of Nigerian Pidgin English for significant parts of the dialogue, a decision which might make the novel seem more formidable to the reader than is actually the case; to leaven this, Okorafor has (I discovered on finishing the novel) included a glossary-cum-dictionary in the back of the novel. However, this is actually not as necessary as one’s immediate impression might lead one to believe. In fact, as one reads the 400 pages of the book the pidgin English becomes almost as natural as the “real” – read, Western/AngloAmerican – language, and it really conveys immediately a lot about a character whether they use formal English or the pidgin form, as well as creating a sense of place and setting like nothing else.

That setting is integral for the plot; Lagoon is at least as much a novel about Lagos (specifically; in the same way much urban fantasy is specifically about the city in which it is set, not “America” as a whole – this is not a Nigerian, let alone an African, novel, but a Lagosian one) as it is about an alien invasion. Whilst the appearance of aliens and the changes they wreak on the environment and people of Lagos is a catalyst for the plot, the way the city reacts and the counterreaction to that reaction form the meat and drink of the novel, with the aliens bookending the novel as cental figures, rather than being central throughout the work. That the aliens are something we’ve seen before, acting in ways that are familiar to us, is irrelevant when how that actually plays out is so fresh and new; and the Lagos-centric view feels as natural, total and complete as the parochial myopia of much Western-set science fiction in its failure to acknowledge non-Western nations’ existence and reactions. There’s a deleted scene at the end of the novel whose inclusion would have rather diluted that, and I’m glad for its deletion, but I’ll discuss that more in a post here tomorrow!

The plot of Lagoon draws in each of the three (black) protagonists, who meet by chance before essentially being abducted by aliens from the beach; aliens who change them and the world – or at least the corner of it that is Lagos. This leads to wahala – chaos, or trouble – in the streets of Lagos as the ramifications of even the smallest actions of the aliens gain greater and greater effect, snowballing into (visibly) global impact by the end of the novel; but we keep seeing those large, national/global concerns brought down to the human level, with chapters that break away from our protagonists and, in either first or third person, recount the reactions of what are essentially bystanders to or spectators of (rather than participants in) this monumental change. Okorafor handles that element beautifully, and really keeps control of her points of view and style such that the different characters of Lagoon (including something that sounds very like an authorial proxy within the story) are immediately recognisable and are also incredibly human and both relatable and believable.

I’m incredibly glad that this book found publishers willing to put effort and time into its distribution; Lagoon is both alike other first contact novels and unique of itself, and I hope it finds success and paves the way for a whole host more African-set genre fiction by nonwhite authors!

Mars Evacuees by Sophia McDougall

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The fact that someone had decided that I would be safer on Mars, where you could still only SORT OF breathe the air and SORT OF not get sunburned to death, was a sign that the war with the aliens was not going fantastically well.

I’d been worried that I was about to be told that my mother’s spacefighter had been shot down, so when I found out that I was being evacuated to Mars, I was pretty calm.

And, despite everything that happened to me and my friends afterwards, I’d do it all again. Because until you have been shot at, pursued by terrifying aliens, taught maths by laser-shooting robot goldfish and tried to save the galaxy, I don’t think you can say that you’ve really lived.

If the same thing happens to you, this is my advice: ALWAYS CARRY DUCT TAPE.
~~~~~
Mars Evacuees is a major departure from the Romanitas books Sophia McDougall debuted with; science fiction of a rather more straightforward kind (as opposed to her alternate-history/SF work) aimed at children or young adults (as opposed to the less-age-marketed trilogy of tomes). Some continuities remain however, including a strong, effective use of both male and female central characters and a very unique voice.

The characters of Mars Evacuees are by far its strongest aspect. Alice Dare (never Alisdair) is a fantastically well-written, well-created character, something not often seen in SF for any age group! She is our narrator and her impressions of the events of the narrative colour and affect our perceptions of events, sometimes in subtle ways; and her presence also, a significant amount of the time, acts as a catalyst for events through her ideas and personality, as much as through her actions. Her stubbornness, imagination, strength of character and humanity – including an extraordinary empathy – drive the plot powerfully, changing the course of some of the action; it’s an extraordinary portrait of a 12 year old child, sympathetic but not a Mary Sue by any means. The rest of the cast is just as fantastically portrayed; the prodigy Josephine Jerome, whose unemotional withdrawal conceals deep reserves of emotionality; Carl and Noel Dalisay, the brothers from Australia who have a brilliant sibling relationship; and the rest of the cast, including the spoilery ones. The cast are a racially, albeit not gender-based, diverse; McDougall, with a deft hand, portrays the various cultural heritages of the characters of Mars Evacuees beautifully.

The plot of Mars Evacuees is a less strong element of the book; it doesn’t seem able to decide quite what it wants to be. McDougall uses elements familiar from Lord of the Flies, E.T., Robert Heinlein and more, blending them together in a fashion that doesn’t quite work; the shifts from one part to the next don’t seem to really mesh and previous elements appear to simply vanish as they’re moved past. The evacuation from Earth to escape the Morrors, an invading force, quickly passes into the first acclimatation of the characters to the Mars base; turns into McDougall’s take on a world of children without adult authority; moves onto an escape/travelogue of those weaker; and so on. Each of these parts feels disconnected, with little consideration of prior parts; Alice doesn’t often seem to look backwards, in an odd narrative move that makes this feel like a more episodic plot than it actually is. However, it’s also an incredibly readable plot, and Mars Evacuees isn’t without humour (see the line about duct tape on the blurb); indeed, that humour and lightness of heart and spirit, even in the darkest parts of the novel, is a fantastic sleight of hand on the part of McDougall, not relieving the tension but leavening it, as it were.

In the end, this is a fun novel to breeze through, and for a 9-12 year old Mars Evacuees would be a great book and a fantastic replacement for the Heinlein juveniles as an introduction to SF; reading it as an adult though, it’s a bit dissatisfying, and whilst the characters are fantastic the plot doesn’t quite hit the spot for me, sadly.

Bleach Vol 1 & Deathnote Black Edition Vol I

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Bleach: Ichigo Kurosaki has always been able to see ghosts, but this ability doesn’t change his life nearly as much as his close encounter with Rukia Kuchiki, a Soul Reaper and member of the mysterious Soul Society. While fighting a Hollow, an evil spirit that preys on humans who display psychic energy, Rukia attempts to lend Ichigo some of her powers so that he can save his family; but much to her surprise, Ichigo absords every last drop of energy. Now a full-fledged Soul Reaper himself, Ichigo quickly learns that the world he inhabits is one full of dangerous spirits and, along with Rukia – who is slowly regaining her powers – it’s Ichigo’s job to protect the innocent from Hollows and help the spirits themselves find peace.
Deathnote Black Edition: Light Yagami is an ace student with great prospects – and he’s bored out of his mind. But all that changes when he finds the Death Note, a notebook dropped by a rogue Shinigami death god. Any human whose name is written in the notebook dies, and now Light has vowed to use the power of the Death Note to rid the world of evil. Will Light’s noble goal succeed, or will the Death Note turn him into the very thing he fights against?

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I’ve not read manga for some years, at least half a decade in fact; and then, it was Full Metal Alchemist, which I binged on for a short period, and the first few volumes of Battle Royale until the exploitation of young girls for sexual titilation frustrated me too much. Manga is as wide and varied a field as comics, though, and on the persuasion of my girlfriend, I decided to give it another shot, with Deathnote (on her explicit recommendation) and Bleach (on the basis of being one of the longest running series there is). Half of that proved to be a good decision…

To start with the art styles of each, they’re both superficially similar, the black-and-white relatively clean-line images in the same kind of style; it’s a hallmark of most of the manga I’ve read in fact. However, Bleach is distinctly messier, artistically, than Deathnote; between motionlines that obscure rather than clarify the events of the comic, excessive use of shading and chaotic use of space contrast poorly with Deathnote, which is illustrated with a surer hand that combines well with the story, in terms of facial expression, variety of description and more; it’s a fantastic piece of artwork and writing both.

The plots of each are reasonably equivalent in their execution; Deathnote is a combination of a story of a vigilante turning into a villain, a brilliant character study of the degeneration of Light Yagami from high-minded crusader to megalomaniac self-preservationist locked into battle with the equally, albeit differently, competitive and megalomaniac elusive detective L. In fact it’s partially that competition, that need to escape, that drives the degeneration of Light; and it’s a beautifully executed piece of characterwork, especially as Ryuk – the Shinigami whom only Light can see – impartially observes and comments on the events of the plot, and by doing so changes it. The way the different parts of the plot and groups of cast integrate is fantastic, and the consistent tone – serious, philosophical, but not without a significant degree of leavening humour – is brilliant. This is in stark contrast to Bleach, which can’t decide what it wants to be; a bizarre comedy, a sitcom with a difference, a relationship drama, a high school drama, or a sort of urban fantasy ghost story. The plot can’t quite decide what it’s focused on; the integration into humanity of Rukia, the way Ichigo is coming into his powers, the high school drama or the bizarre, exaggerated, impossible home life of Ichigo. These elements don’t really hang together or add to each other, making the story chaotic and confused.

Characters follow a similar line; Bleach doesn’t have characters so much as caricatures, from the rage-driven and impulsive (redhead, of course) Ichigo to the out-of-touch-with-humanity of Rukia; from Ichigo’s ultraviolent, insane father to the lovestruck Orihime. Every single one of these characters is one-dimensional and simplistic; they’re not interesting, they’re not enjoyable to read, they’re not really people we care about or connect with. Ploughing through that lack of distinctiveness for the ‘wacky hijinks’ of the plot feels like a complete waste of time and effort, because those are themselves unfunny and exaggerated. How much of this is due to a loss in translation is of course an open question, as is the effect of cultural shift, but that Deathnote manages to have an absolutely brilliant plot might undermine that somewhat. The dual plots of Light coming into his own as the user of the deathnote to clear up the world and his contest with ‘L’ to avoid capture by this criminological genius. These two strands converge and mix fantastically, and are built on by a wry sense of humour, a use of nonstandard chronology (going back to reveal both Light’s and ‘L”s plans after they have come to fruition), and philosophical considerations especially around the corrupting effect of power. This writing is beautifully done and smooth to boot; Deathnote really flows as a story.

In the end, Deathnote is a fantastic manga and a fantastic advertisement for the possibilities of what manga can do; however, Bleach – seemingly both longer-running and more popular – is simply a mess, undeserving of the attention it has received.

Talus and the Frozen King by Graham Edwards

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Meet Talus – the world’s first detective.

A dead warrior king frozen in winter ice. Six grieving sons, each with his own reason to kill. Two weary travellers caught up in a web of suspicion and deceit.

In a time long before our own, wandering bard Talus and his companion Bran journey to the island realm of Creyak, where the king has been murdered.

From clues scattered among the island’s mysterious barrows and stone circles, they begin their search for his killer. Nobody is above suspicion, from the king’s heir to the tribal shaman, from the woman steeped in herb-lore to the visiting warlord. And when death strikes again, Talus and Bran realise nothing is what it seems.

Creyak is a place of secrets and spirits, mystery and myth. It will take a clever man indeed to unravel the truth. The kind of man this ancient world has not seen before.
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Talus is a novel with undeniable potential for excellence; prehistoric detective, ancient geopolitics, a chance to explore the social world of a purely oral culture. Unfortunately, it lets an awful lot of that potential slip through its fingers.

Talus is peopled by a central pairing we’ve seen before all too often; from the BBC’s Sherlock to CBS’s Elementary, these characters – the effective, human companion who keeps their overly-intellectual companion on the straight and narrow, reminding them of the importance of the human element in explaining crime, and the cut-off, driven, hypervigilant and extremely intelligent but very strange man they accompany. Talus, in Edwards’ novel, fulfills the role of Sherlock very precisely, needing Bran (his Watson) but unable to tell him so. The rest of the cast are equally uncompelling, with two exceptions; thankfully, these are the (two) female characters, who – with some frustrating exceptions – are painted not only well but sympathetically; unfortunately, we also run into occasional moments where these two are characterised based on their gender – not by the cast, but by the author. The characters are almost all simply one-dimensional, uncompelling motivations for plot advancement.

That plot itself is, essentially, an equally Doylian contrivance. Talus begins with the arrival of its main pair at Creyak as the king’s dead body is found; the whole plot of the novel is Edwards’ drawn out homage to unfolding multiple-murder drama. If you’ve seen shows like Criminal Minds, Midsomer Murders, and so on, you’ll know how this works; the detectives slowly close in as the bodycount rises, until the action-filled denoument, with the detective grandstanding and declaring the truth and how he (it’s almost always, as in Talus, a he) worked out the events. Transplanting this into the prehistoric era should make it more interesting, but that Edwards completely fails to actually change societal dynamics or intercharacter reactions from their modern equivalents takes away even that superficial interest; it’s almost as if a modern community, albeit one with a specific set of animistic/ancestor-spirit beliefs, has been dropped into the past. That avoidance of psychological understanding really lets down the novel, unfortunately.

It is characteristic, however, of the worldbuilding of Talus; superficially there’s some great work put in on the construction of the prehistoric world, but this isn’t carried through to any depth. Belief in the spirits is referenced frequently but, in reality, only seems to affect Bran’s actions; this goes for an awful lot of the novel, which doesn’t seem to look into the consequences of prehistoric societies on their members, including things like the prevalence of diseases, the lack of effective medicine and more; indeed, Talus is almost completely unaffected, in most ways, by the lack of 21st century technology. It’s a bizarre piece of writing that even manages to include a British traveller going to, and returning from, not only Egypt, but also MesoAmerica; all this in a society that has barely advanced beyond dugouts in its naval technology.

In the end, whilst Talus and the Frozen King had great potential to prove both interesting and incisive, Edwards failed on both counts. A real shame.

DoI: This review was written based on a free review copy offered actively by Solaris, the publisher.

Comics Haul 10/4/2014

Once again there’s a title I bought this week – Captain Marvel #2 – that is part of an ongoing series; it’s also the first of a new policy, that I won’t review ongoing series because I don’t want to give spoilers, unless something *changes* significantly in their quality (in this case, nope. Captain Marvel is as awesome as ever). As for the rest, the normal standard alphabetical order (excluding prefixes) applies, so without further ado…

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GUEST POST: Worldbuilding by Sarah Monette/Katherine Addison

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Yesterday, I wrote about the fantastic Goblin Emperor, the latest book from Sarah Monette under the nom de plume Katherine Addison; as you’ll have gathered, I absolutely adored the book. However, it struck me how very different the world of the novel was from any of her other work that I have read – the Iskryne books coauthored with Elizabeth Bear, her previous fantasy series The Doctrine of Labyrinths, or her linked series of Lovecraftian homages, the Booth stories. So I asked her how she built such very different worlds… and she very kindly agreed to write about exactly that for me! Below, the fantastic Sarah Monette, with a fascinating essay on Worldbuilding!
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I world-build like a magpie. Or a bower bird. Find a shiny thing, take it back, incorporate it into the nest. Look for shiny things everywhere.

In the Doctrine of Labyrinths books, I didn’t do much camouflaging, throwing in the Napoleonic revolutionary calendar unchanged and stealing the names of mythical female monsters and lost Shakespeare plays. I was in graduate school for most of the writing of the quartet, and I threw in bits and pieces from all of my classes: the town of Yehergod got its name because I was taking an Old English class. Cerberus Cresset got his name from an English Civil War memoir, in which Lucy Hutchinson bitterly describes her imprisoned husband’s guard as “that Cerberus, Cresset.” The theater sub-plot in The Mirador was a chance to use what I learned from my theater history class about Renaissance and Restoration and Victorian theater. All the Greek and Latin comes from my undergraduate major in Classics. The bog bodies in Corambis are lifted from P. V. Glob’s book The Bog People. Districts of Melusine get their names from Babylonian epics and Spenser’s Fairie Queene and words that I found and loved the sound of when I combined them, like Shatterglass. I could go on indefinitely, but my point is that I was world-building purely for the love of language and esoterica and geeky in-jokes in the Doctrine books, and if that’s self-indulgent, well . . . I’m not sorry.

Kyle Murchison Booth’s world is rather different, since it’s only a fraction off from ours.  The world itself is a pastiche/collage of H. P. Lovecraft and M. R. James, and the world-building primarily takes place through texts, like Wells-Burton’s Demonologica in “Elegy for a Demon Lover,” the works of Carolus Albinus in “White Charles,” and The Book of Whispers, both the genuine (in “The Inheritance of Barnabas Wilcox”) and the forgery (in a novella I’m still working on). One of the reasons I love writing Booth stories is that they let me make up books and authors and bits of literary history, and because books are the way Booth interacts with the world, the world-building is always a reaffirmation of character.

World-building in The Goblin Emperor was rather different because–obviously–I’d cut myself off from all my usual strategies. That wasn’t by design, but I don’t think it was a bad thing. I still world-build through words. Maia, Setheris, Edonomee, The Wisdom of Choharo: I built the world in a spiral out from those words and what those words told me about characters and places. And airships.

I can’t explain how words bring character and place and history with them, how Edonomee was a hunting lodge in the marshes, shabby and isolated, as soon as I’d figured out how to spell it, or Ezho was always a gold rush town (even though we never see it), rich and brawling and brash and young. It’s just how my creativity works, and I don’t get to argue with it any more than I get to understand it.

But the process of world-building is actually easy to explain, because the process is just thinking through the consequences. Every choice you make in building a world leads to other choices. If you have an emperor, he must have a government. How does that government work? If there’s a parliament, how are the members chosen? How much does the emperor actually get to do? He must have a palace. Who built it? When? Is it only the emperor’s residence, or is it also the seat of government? Same goes for geography. Is point A (Edonomee) east or west of point B (the Untheileneise Court)? How far? There’s a river in the way. What’s its name? Is there traffic on it? Are there bridges?

Come to find out, there aren’t bridges, and that turned out to be not just world-building, but an enormous part of the story.

Some writers have to make all those choices before they can start writing. Some prefer to. It’s never worked for me, because part of what makes me write is the part where I get to discover things. E. L. Doctorow describes writing as being like “driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way,” and that’s pretty accurate as far as I’m concerned. I world-build (and character-build and plot-build) as I go, only looking far enough ahead, generally, to see the next obstacle.

It hasn’t stopped being fun yet, either.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison (Sarah Monette)

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The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an “accident,” he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir.

Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment.

Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend . . . and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne—or his life.
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Any book Liz Bourke squeals about so completely as she did of The Goblin Emperor is pretty much guaranteed to be special, so when Sarah Monette (Katherine Addison is a nom de plume for the fantasy novellist, although we shall call her Addison for the rest of this review) put a copy up on Con Or Bust, I decided to make it mine. It arrived with the inscription “Elves, goblins, airships, philosophy and a giant steampunk bridge – enjoy!”; whilst the last word was certainly accurate, as a summing up of the novel, Monette really rather undersold it!

In a genre that has become a touch cliched – the coming of age story, and the disgrace to power story – Addison has introduced a true breath of fresh air. From an opening that drops us, without a lifebelt, straight into the story – with its names, new language, and fascinatingly reproduced C16th English (thee, thou, an and more are all used… accurately!) – through a story that refuses to pull its punches or treat either characters or readers as stupid to an ending that’s both as open and inevitable as it is perfect,  the narrative voice that drives The Goblin Emperor is unique. Despite devoting no more space than many another novel to food, or clothes, or architecture, it feels like it devotes so much more for the compact fullness and richness of that devotion; the perfectly chosen specific detail, the precise nuances of language, the exact use of terms all adds up to such a richly, fully painted world that not only can one completely fall into it, but one can inhabit it fully. The style also emphasises the events of the novel; the stylisation of the language placing weight on the formality of the court, words and action of one piece in a way that is not only rare to see but incredibly striking.

It would be remiss to review only the style of the novel, however, when so much more is on offer, not least a fascinating world. Although we directly see little of it, that we’re following a new emperor, and the way Addison manages her plot, we discover and see a far greater world than that the story itself inhabits. We range over various provinces, different ways of life, and through different classes in a way that exposes the depth and complexity of the worldbuilding without ever throwing it in the reader’s face; I would suspect there’s hundreds of pages of world that weren’t directly relevant to the story but without which the whole edifice would not have been so beautifully complete. This is a world in the grip of its industrial revolution, before its trade unions – which exist on the periphery of the story – have really taken any influence; indeed in some respects it is mid-C19th Britain. At the same time, however, it has areas of significant diversion from that, such as the power of the monarch and the system of government; the world of The Goblin Emperor interlocks various elements to beautiful perfection.

The plot of the novel is inextricably linked both to the worldbuilding and to the families of the novel. We follow Maia, the fourth (and disfavoured) son of the previous emperor, from his discovery in exile of his ascension due to the deaths of those ahead of him in line to the crown to, around a quarter of a year later, his settling in to and inhabiting and making his own the role of emperor; his education about matters of court and country, his handling of personal and political grievances, his dealing with relationships (courtly, friendly and romantic) are all placed on the human (or rather half-elven half-goblin) scale and very understandable to the reader. It is through these that The Goblin Emperor establishes the character of Maia, and the rest of the cast, as much as through exposing their internal introspections; although occasionally events occur a little too conveniently, and Maia seems never to be ignorant at truly crucial moments, both characters and plot feel incredibly real, and powerfully involving; we care what happens to Maia, whether his half-sisters will ever like him, whether he will fit in at court, whether he can have friends or must be alone as emperor. Whilst these questions and feelings are the traditional meat and drink of both YA and coming of age stories, the force with which Addison asks them is truly glorious to behold.

In sum, an you want a novel of court intrigue, of human characters, of character growth, of emotion, of beautiful language, of powerful ideas and politics, of discussion and debate, of a beautiful, fully realised world, or if you just want a really great, intelligent book, The Goblin Emperor is one to seize on as fast as you can; whatever Addison/Monette produces next, I am singularly looking forward to it.