Intellectus Speculativus

Home » 2014 » July

Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Shadow Throne by Django Wexler

image

The King of Vordan is dying, and his daughter, Raesinia, is destined to become the first Queen in centuries – and a ripe target for the ambitious men who seek to control her.

But politics knows no loyalties, especially for Duke Orlanko, spy-master and the most feared man in Vordan. He will bow his knee to no Queen, unless she is firmly under his influence.

Freshly returned from their recent victories abroad, Colonel Janus, Marcus d’Ivoire and Winter Ihernglass must defeat the Duke, using muskets, magic and every weapon at their disposal.
~~~~~
I enthused, rather vocally, about The Thousand Names last week, and quoted Liz Bourke’s fantastic description of Wexler’s followup to it. I’ve now read that second novel, and The Shadow Throne proved to be very much up to the standards Bourke set!

This review will contain SPOILERS for The Thousand Names, however…

At the end of The Thousand Names, Wexler left Marcus and Winter planning to travel back to Vordan, before the King died, after successfully prosecuting a pacification campaign against a religiously-driven anticolonial uprising. The Shadow Throne picks up approximately where the first novel left off; it starts in the palace with our new viewpoint character, Raesinia, and reveals a lot of its secrets very fast: her demonic healing factor (which is very much on a par with Wolverine), her involvement in a plot apparently against the throne with a number of people who don’t know her true identity, her cover within the palace as a brainless girl. That all this is revealed means we really do learn almost all about Raesinia, making her a character as round, complete and whole as any of our prior viewpoint characters; she’s a fascinating additional character to the cast, giving an extra perspective on all our protagonists and especially on the strange genius of Vahlnich, and finally the perspective of his social superior to whom he owes allegiance.

She isn’t the only character newly introduced to The Shadow Throne, of course. The only way to meaningfully write this novel required a huge cast, and Wexler handles that excellently; there are elements that don’t work so smoothly, such as the evilly manipulative Orlanko who seems like he comes straight out of a George R. R. Martin novel, but the characters really have an emotional depth and core to them, even the aforementioned evil Duke. They are affected by and part of events, emotionally moved by things that happen around them, flawed and thoughtless and caring and intelligent by turns, and every decision made by the characters is revealing, of the layering of decisions about the characters that Wexler must have made.

The plot is a beautiful, labyrinthine, complex, revolutionary, political, interweaved one. The Shadow Throne draws heavily on the French Revolution down to the rise of Napoleon, admittedly in a much compressed time; but it’s a French Revolution with a revolutionary princess, a certain amount of magic, and Wexler’s typical humour. We see the factionalism of the revolutionaries, the strangeness of the storming of a prison and what decisions, in various levels of society, that led up to it, the intrigues of an imperial court and more are beautifully presented by Wexler. The way they interact and come together as the plot continues is fantastic, and The Shadow Throne uses its various protagonists brilliantly to present very different views of the same events, showing how history is about the observer.

The Shadow Throne is also, of course, a queer book. For a start, Winter finds Jane, the love of her dreams, early in the book, and their reunion, although inevitably protracted, is also inevitable. Wexler shows us a homosexual relationship that is beautiful, heartwarming, imperfect and deeply human; it’s treated not as a strange abberation but as a romance that can hold a book together the way straight relationships so often are. This book also goes a lot further than The Thousand Names in challenging gender roles; whereas Winter was an exception in that book, here we see a lot more active women in a lot more fields, demonstrating essentially the lack of strict gender binary in life fantastically.

The second book of the Shadow Campaign is even more engaging and impressive than the first; The Shadow Throne is a stunning followup to an amazing novel, and I look forward to seeing where the series goes next.

image

Byzantine Matters by Averil Cameron

image

For many of us, Byzantium remains “byzantine”—obscure, marginal, difficult. Despite the efforts of some recent historians, prejudices still deform popular and scholarly understanding of the Byzantine civilization, often reducing it to a poor relation of Rome and the rest of the classical world. In this book, renowned historian Averil Cameron presents an original and personal view of the challenges and questions facing historians of Byzantium today.

The book explores five major themes, all subjects of controversy. “Absence” asks why Byzantium is routinely passed over, ignored, or relegated to a sphere of its own. “Empire” reinserts Byzantium into modern debates about empire, and discusses the nature of its system and its remarkable longevity. “Hellenism” confronts the question of the “Greekness” of Byzantium, and of the place of Byzantium in modern Greek consciousness. “The Realms of Gold” asks what lessons can be drawn from Byzantine visual art, and “The Very Model of Orthodoxy” challenges existing views of Byzantine Christianity.

Throughout, the book addresses misconceptions about Byzantium, suggests why it is so important to integrate the civilization into wider histories, and lays out why Byzantium should be central to ongoing debates about the relationships between West and East, Christianity and Islam, Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and the ancient and medieval periods. The result is a forthright and compelling call to reconsider the place of Byzantium in Western history and imagination.
~~~~~
Averil Cameron, Professor Emeritus of Late Antique and Byzantine studies at Oxford, is probably the foremost authority on the late antique period in the scholarly world (possible exception: Prof. Peter Brown). In Byzantine Matters, she has worked a series of lectures into chapters illuminating some of the controversies in Byzantine studies and areas of neglect.

This isn’t a history of the Byzantine period, and indeed, historically, it is rather slight; Cameron tends to brush over the history to talk more about the historiography, and while her use of history shows a deep understanding of and engagement with it, Byzantine Matters won’t pass much of that on to the reader. Instead, she addresses in turn and in connected fashion a series of what she sees as the biggest issues facing Byzantine studies, including the neglect of Byzantium, the role of Byzantium as an empire, the originality or Greekness of Byzantine culture, the art of Byzantium, and the religion; this review will discuss each chapter in turn.

The first is, perhaps, the most fascinating. Byzantine Matters posits that in scholarly and general literature of the ancient and mediaeval worlds, Byzantium is passed over, excluded, and neglected. A glance at the bookshelves of any bookshop will back up this assertion; Byzantium is represented minimally at best, and normally with histories of specifically Constantinople. Cameron discusses both the reasons for this historically, and the problems it causes; in so doing she draws on multiple historiographical traditions and demonstrates why Byzantium fits with none of them well enough for full inclusion. Her discussion is heavily focused on Western scholarship, but one suspects it holds true for non-Western scholarship just as strongly and for many parallel reasons.

The next chapter draws much more heavily on theory, including from luminaries such as Edward Said. In discussing Byzantium as empire, Cameron also has to tackle the questions of what makes an empire, and how Byzantium related to its neighbours and vassals. Inevitably, Byzantine Matters collapses an awful lot of material into a very short discussion, but what Cameron very fruitfully achieves in this chapter is a demonstration of the way scholarship on the Byzantine empire has not advanced through the twentieth century, and must take proper account of post-colonial historiography and of new theoretical frameworks for understanding empire that historians have as tools; while not doing so herself, she points the way for others.

A similar pattern is on display in the chapter on Byzantine art and, indeed, on Orthodoxy; in each case Cameron draws out the scholarly orthodoxy, demonstrates its shortcomings, puts it to the test, and shows how modern scholarship in other disciplines (art history especially) must co-ordinate with late antique/Byzantine studies lest each fails to recognise the importance of the other. Byzantine Matters remains inevitably light on these fronts but does deal very well with the Orthodox church, discussing the shortcomings of the standard model of it as monolithic and heirarchical; and Cameron’s fruitful comparisons with the Western tradition of Christianity are fascinating.

The weakest chapter is that on Greekness. Hellenism is a key part of Byzantine cultural identity, and Byzantine Matters accepts this; however, Cameron wishes to challenge the scholarly consensus of a period of imitation, derivation, and lack of innovation. However, her approach to this is flawed; looking at Byzantine self-definition she contradicts herself, especially in the context of her later discussion of empire, and her model of discussion here is much more limited and less elucidating than in other works. Indeed, she seems drawn very much into the question of modern Greek inheritance from Byzantium, a wholly separate discussion from Byzantium as inheritor from Greece.

The whole work is both very engaged with scholarship, but also very accessibly written; Byzantine Matters requires very little knowledge of Byzantine matters, instead starting from a position of familiarity with the general outline of the post-Roman/mediaeval world and with Classical history. Cameron’s style is both engaging and fresh, startling in its clarity and simplicity; for a work grappling with some very complex issues, Byzantine Matters is stunningly readable and clear, with enough explanatory material around its meat for the casual reader to understand what is being driven at, and enough discussion of other scholarship to point where one might wish to go next.

All in all, at less than 120 pages (with another 26 pages of notes), Byzantine Matters is inevitably not a book with all the answers, but Cameron does pose the questions in a most fascinating, accessible, and, for students of late antiquity, disquieting manner.

The Boy Who Kicked Pigs by Tom Baker, illus. David Roberts

image

Robert Caligari is a thoroughly evil thirteen-year-old who gets his kicks from kicking pigs. After a humiliating episode with a bacon butty, Robert realizes just how much he loathes the human race – and his revenge is truly terrible.

Outrageous and funny, this subversive horror-fantasy from Tom Baker (ex-monk, ex-sailor, and the ultimate Doctor Who) has become a cult classic.
~~~~~
If you ever wonder where Tim Burton gets some of his more grotesque ideas, you can probably look no further than The Boy Who Kicked Pigs, a book revealing a side to Baker that is generally unrecognised…

This isn’t a long book; just over 120 pages, half of those are full-page illustrations by Roberts. Stylistically they are very reminiscent of Tim Burton’s artwork, and fit perfectly with the story; the images are a mixture of direct illustrations of events (with pithy captions) and scenes related to but not actually in The Boy Who Kicked Pigs, all in a uniform style that really is beautiful. The combination of Baker’s words and Robert’s illustrations is an excellent one, as each facing illustration sets the tone for an increasingly dark and yet still funny story.

The plot is really quite simple; Robert Caligari is an evil boy who kicks his sister’s piggybank for fun, and amuses others by doing so. This is just the most minor evil of the protagonist of The Boy Who Kicked Pigs, whose evil escalates itself from pig-kicking into an act so outrageously evil that approximately a third of the novel is given over to its dark ramifications; and yet, even with the discussion of the horrors of this act, Baker slips in humour and satire, about the news, about the emergency services, and more. This is perhaps the strongest part of the book, as the rest is good but light; here, however, Baker really does get into detail about unintended consequences of foolish actions.

This is also a really dark book. Forget the occasional use of words like “arse”; The Boy Who Kicked Pigs is graphic, not in a sexual sense but in a horrific sense. The end of the novel involves a character being eaten alive by rats while staked out helpless and bleeding, and this is presented in gruesome and graphic detail; similarly, the deaths-by-fire of a number of characters are related, again with wrenching brutality. This isn’t a kids book – or rather it is, but not the way Disney Princess novels are, but in an older, darker tradition.

In sum, in 124 pages, Tom Baker and David Roberts give us a modern, dark fable; The Boy Who Kicked Pigs is a wonderful, fairy-tale-esque piece of grotesque.

Any Other Name by Emma Newman

image

Cathy has been forced into an arranged marriage with William Iris – a situation that comes with far more strings than even she could have anticipated, especially when she learns of his family’s intentions for them both.

Meanwhile, Max and the gargoyle investigate the Agency – a mysterious organisation that appears to play by its own twisted rules, none of them favourable to Society.

And in Mundanus, Sam has discovered something very peculiar about his wife’s employer – something that could herald disaster for everyone on both sides of the Split Worlds.
~~~~~
I read the first Split Worlds novel a few months back, and reviewed Between Two Thorns at the time; so when I saw Any Other Name in a Waterstones for the first time last week, I knew I had to pick it up, and so I did!

This review will, inevitably, contain SPOILERS for Between Two Thorns, and contains a SPOILER for a major element of Any Other Name. Also TRIGGER WARNING for discussion of rape.

Any Other Name is in some ways weaker, and other respects interestingly stronger, than its predecessor. The biggest weakness is in the plot; while Between Two Thorns saw Newman introduce a number of different plotlines, they remained closely intertwined by more than just just casual interconnection, whereas Any Other Name follows three different plots, which are linked by friendships or relationships between characters who therefore appear in more than one plotline, but all the same seem completely disconnected. It feels rather like a trio of novels condensed down into one, or like it’s setting up these strands to come together in a dramatic way in the next book; if so, some clearer indication of how they link up would have been rather useful. As it is, none comes to any kind of satisfactory resolution and some are only really getting their feet under them – especially Sam’s plotline – as the novel ends!

Character, though, is where Newman excels. Any Other Name boasts a huge cast, from outcast Rosas through the central characters to Max’s boss Ekstrand and his entourage into more general Society; and each and every character feels incredibly real, feels powerfully well fleshed out. They each have individuality, agency, emotions, reactions to events around them, societally-bred biases which they either embrace or work against, and a core personality that really stands out; Newman makes even brief appearances something much more solid purely by putting some spark into her characters. This is notable especially in two cases, those of Will and Cathy. The latter’s rebellion against her family and society is put to the test, both in kind and in its assumptions, as the novel continues and her latent feminism shifts its focus.

Any Other Name sees more interesting developments on Will’s part, though; he is both humanised and hardened as the novel goes on. Married to someone who refuses to accept society’s strictures, and forced into a new prominence by his family, Will is assailed on multiple sides… and the novel asks us to forgive him the unforgiveable: under orders from his Patron, Will uses magic to rape Cathy. That this is part of a pattern of him increasingly understanding her and her demands on him is notable, as is his guilt over it; but Newman’s presentation is still strange. It’s clearly a use of magic designed to attract Cathy to Will, and thus render the sex nonconsensual, and Will feels guilty about it, but the novel seems strangely quiet on how wrong and abominable this action is, and contrasts it with simply using force to rape one’s wife; partly that’s about Will’s socialisation, but I’m really hoping we see Cathy realise what happened and see her reactions to it in future books.

There’s also a problem of fridging here. Any Other Name sees not just one but three women killed off (or removed from the picture, at least) to motivate men around them; in a series that started with some fantastic challenges to patriarchal narratives and Victorian (gender) roles and values, this is deeply disappointing, and one wonders if Newman could have kickstarted these plot elements in other ways. Indeed, one rather feels she could have, even simply by making one of the attacks more abortive than it was.

In the end, Any Other Name is a good book, beset by problems of its own creation; however, memories of Between Two Thorns give me hope Newman will have addressed some of these in All Is Fair.

The Thousand Names by Django Wexler

image

In the desert colony of Khandar, a dark and mysterious magic, hidden for centuries, is about to emerge from darkness.

Marcus d’Ivoire, senior captain of the Vordanai Colonials, is resigned to serving out his days in a sleepy, remote outpost, when a rebellion leaves him in charge of a demoralised force in a broken down fortress.

Winter Ihrenglass, fleeing her past and masquerading as a man, just wants to go unnoticed. Finding herself promoted to a command, she must rise to the challenge and fight impossible odds to survive.

Their fates rest in the hands of an enigmatic new Colonel, sent to restore order while following his own mysterious agenda into the realm of the supernatural.
~~~~~
On the one hand, mysterious desert peoples colonised by Western-styled nation, with a fanatical and murderous fundamentalist religion; on the other hand, cross-dressing lesbian and an interrogation of colonialism. The Thousand Names has a blurb at once compelling at repelling, but Wexler’s brick of a novel proves that one half of that outweighs the other…

The Thousand Names is, on first blush, a sort of Sharpe-meets-Tolkein novel; Wexler’s style and content are both drawn from those areas, his musket-volleys straight out of the Napoleonic Wars while his magical maguffins are a sort of darker One Ring. But underlying that veneer is a darker one, with notes from Abercrombie and Monette; characters are wounded and killed, and Wexler isn’t presenting war as a clean activity – rape, murder, and death are a real part of the world of The Thousand Campaigns, although it isn’t treated as acceptable. This is also a war with no “right” side; there is an overt and a covert war, different sides and different alliances in each, and the full extent of the interlocking wars is only revealed as the novel goes on, with some really well done, as well as some obvious-to-the-reader, twists along the way.

The characters, though, are what really sells The Thousand Names as being more than Bernard Cornwell meets Sarah Monette; they all start out with every appearance of being archetypes, from the worldweary (and just plain weary) Captain d’Ivoire, through Colonel Janus Vahlnich, the eccentric commander who is brilliant but bad with his troops, to Winter, the woman who joined the army to escape abuse at home. Each of these characters, and all the rest of the cast which is as broad as one might expect in a military novel, grows, shows more of their original facets and also developes as a character as the novel progresses; Wexler brilliantly manages to balance the characters’ viewpoints in such a way as to make The Thousand Names incredibly deceptive, including the brilliant approach to the two nationalities in play: Vordanai and Khandarai.

The two nationalities have, as one would expect from two countries in a colonial relationship (well, client-kingdom, technically), a mutual loathing-cum-respect. Each has racist insults for the other (“grayskins”, “corpses”); each has stereotypes about the other, including cliches about the taste of steel; each has built up myths and stories about the other. The Thousand Names also challenges all of those things – each nationality having representatives who both demonstrate and challenge those stereotypes and prejudgements. Wexler’s cast is fantastic in doing this, in challenging racisms on all sides; it works impressively well, despite some flaws as the Khandarai and Desoltai are portrayed as culturally rather stereotypical.

All the social justice elements are worked in subtly and well; Winter’s lesbianism and her gender aren’t key issues of her character any more than Marcus’ heterosexuality or maleness, and the approach Wexler takes when they do come up is fantastically sympathetic and interesting, incredibly good at getting into the heads of his characters whomsoever they are, at understanding their different viewpoints and at imagining himself into their thought processes and hearts. The Thousand Names manages this trick incredibly well, giving its implicit message the strength of empathy and truth, whilst also avoiding turning it into message fiction.

The Thousand Names is a debut novel, and has some of the flaws that involves (including postponed reveals and overcomplexity of plots), but overall Wexler has written a fantastic, powerful, beautiful novel well worth the reading and drawing one into the world of the Shadow Campaigns. Next up, The Shadow Throne, or what Liz Bourke has called “FANTASY FRENCH REVOLUTION WITH LESBIANS”!

image

Neptune’s Brood by Charles Stross

image

Krina Alizond is a metahuman in a universe where the last natural humans became extinct five thousand years ago. When her sister goes missing she embarks on a daring voyage across the star systems to find her, travelling to her last known location – the mysterious water-world of Shin-Tethys.

In a universe with no faster-than-light travel that’s a dangerous journey, made all the more perilous by the arrival of an assassin on Krina’s tail, by the ‘privateers’ chasing her sister’s life insurance policy and by growing signs that the disappearance is linked to one of the biggest financial scams in the known universe.
~~~~~
Neptune’s Brood is that rare thing in science fiction, a hard dismal science fiction novel. Stross’ blog has always shown his interest in economics, and this novel is an opportunity to apply that interest to the gay science

This is a far future novel, making it inherently optimistic, although it is populated by human-identical artificial intelligences for the most part, with “Fragiles” – biological humans – much more limited in their geographical profuction. Neptune’s Brood is also a universe where bodies are very alterable and editable for survival or aesthetic purposes; Stross acknowledges, although not strongly, the impact this could have on ideas of gender while still generally holding to the binary. What makes it stand out from most SF of this sort is the lack of FTL; the implications of that are huge, and what the novel centres on.

Neptune’s Brood is, in no small part, an economics textbook on far-future, interstellar finances with obvious relation to modern banking practices, and a look at the implications of the idea of money. This includes a three-level money system and interstellar debt, interbank cooperation and a twist on the idea of various scams. Stross doesn’t sugar-coat this expository element; the narrator, Krina, actively points out on more than one occasion that she is literally giving what to her is an Econ 101 direct-to-camera, as it were. This is increasingly frustrating as the story goes on, as a page of exposition on complex financial implements relates to another such a hundred pages before and both have to be understood to go forward or to understand the plot; Stross demands a lot from his readers with this approach, although the climax of the economic elements means it pays off handsomely.

Of course, this isn’t actually an economics textbook. Neptune’s Brood, taken as a novel, is a sort of far future posthuman interstellar heist-thriller novel, Scott Lynch meets Alastair Reynolds sort of thing; the action is drawn out by exposition and Stross’ decision to only slowly reveal even the basics underlying the plot, a frustrating device that leaves the reader, rather than wanting to know the whole story, annoyed that the narrator keeps withholding it from their audience. Despite often brushing over its action scenes, the book has its moments of brilliance and flashes of humour that come through in its action, as well as a dark appreciation for the implications of both posthumanism and interstellar non-FTL travel. These redeem it, alongside the characters themselves.

It’s those characters, so recognisably human while also so very clearly not, that are really the selling point of Neptune’s Brood as more than an extended thought experiment. Krina especially displays a broad, interesting range of human emotion, most fascinatingly her reclusiveness and fear of violence; in a thriller those elements make her an incredibly atypical hero, an academic in the mode of Dan Brown’s tendencies but one who actually acts like an academic, fascinated by her speciality but not all that interested in conspiracies or events outside it, and hardly an action hero. The rest of the cast are painted more sketchily, but from the privateer-insurance underwriter Count Rudi of the Crimson Permanent Assurance Company to Queen Medea, they all have their own secrets, tricks up their sleeves, and other little plays.

All in all, Neptune’s Brood is quite a satisfying read, and one that makes you think; I only wish Stross didn’t like the infodump-exposition as a technique so much!

China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F. McHugh

image

In the world of Zhang, the new charioteers are human-powered kites, racing above New York City in a brief grab at glory. The new ultimate thrill for wealthy urbanites is to flirt with interactive death in illegal speakeasies. The opulence of Beijing has brought a new cultural imperialism. And a new generation lives in fear and hope. It is a world in which Zhang is still finding his way…
~~~~~
From the hot new debut to a debut over two decades old, that won three awards, hit two more ballots (not all genre!), and brought its author to light. Ask about queer science fiction and China Mountain Zhang will inevitably come up; and there’s incredibly good reason for that…

The risk with a future-set novel where China dominates the world is that the Yellow Peril will creep in; China Mountain Zhang‘s first hurdle is acknowledging and dealing with that risk… something McHugh does admirably. This isn’t a China-calling-in-its-debts scenario, this is China as the last man standing while capitalism collapses in on itself; McHugh presents the events leading up to her world only late in the book but they are very plausible, leaving China in the position the US currently occupies: a prestigious place to study, with cultural domination over the rest of the world and the racism/nepotism which goes with that. China Mountain Zhang‘s future Earth isn’t a terribly nice place in many respects – the US has aspects of a developing nation – and it’s an uncomfortable one for Western readers, because it foresees the end of our cultural domination, but it is also a plausible and fascinating one, mixed in its impact, neither wholly negative nor wholly positive.

The plot is a slightly odd coming of age plot; China Mountain Zhang focuses on a series of points in Zhang’s life – his job as an engineering tech, the job in the Arctic that follows it, his studies at a university in China and his return to New York CIty. What we see is his maturing, from an independent but immature person at the start to a rounded, thoughtful, mature human being at the end of the novel; it is explored slowly and through the series of events of which we only see snapshots, and each snapshot advances his character on while showing us how the previous snapshot changed him. It’s a fascinating approach, as we fill in gaps in the chronology ourselves, discover what McHugh has put into her worldbuilding, and constantly have to adjust our expectations. The interspersed snapshots of others, especially the Martian colonies, who interact with Zhang is fascinating, both expanding the world we see and also showing other responses to that world; these glimpses of other lives bring out the complexity and immensity of McHugh’s future in a way Zhang’s life alone could not, and detail aspects of human experience that he could never encounter. That includes an abusive date that ends in rape, something we the reader see coming but the character involved does not, an intensely uncomfortable passage that McHugh builds and builds to its inevitable and horrific conclusion.

It also includes the position of homosexuality in the world. China Mountain Zhang has a large, diverse cast (although no black characters, I think?) of which a not-insignificant proportion, Zhang included, are gay. In this future, however, homosexuality is illegal, and so McHugh uses ideas and models from when homosexuality was illegal in the West in how the subculture works; dogging, rent boys, cruising, and so on are all described in sordid detail (McHugh makes the sordidness clear) while homosexuality is shown to be a perfectly human feeling. It’s this sensitive touch on a sensitive subject that really makes that aspect stand out; McHugh doesn’t condone but also doesn’t explicitly condemn the criminalisation of homosexuality, only looks at the impact of that criminalisation.

All in all, then, China Mountain Zhang deserved the high praise and accolades it won, deserves to be a Gollancz Masterwork (which it isn’t), and is a must-read.

image