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Monthly Archives: July 2015

Cold Iron by Stina Leicht

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Fraternal twins Nels and Suvi move beyond their royal heritage and into military and magical dominion in this flintlock epic fantasy debut from a two-time Campbell Award finalist.

Prince Nels is the scholarly runt of the ancient Kainen royal family of Eledore, disregarded as flawed by the king and many others. Only Suvi, his fraternal twin sister, supports him. When Nels is ambushed by an Acrasian scouting party, he does the forbidden for a member of the ruling family: He picks up a fallen sword and defends himself. Disowned and dismissed to the military, Nels establishes himself as a leader as Eledore begins to shatter under the attack of the Acrasians, who the Kainen had previously dismissed as barbarians. But Nels knows differently, and with the aid of Suvi, who has allied with pirates, he mounts a military offensive with sword, canon, and what little magic is left in the world.
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Cold Iron is, Stina Leicht says in her afterword, the novel prompted by wondering what Lord of the Rings would have been like had Tolkein been American; leaving aside the vast disparity in length (Cold Iron isn’t much shorter than the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, and is only book one of a series) this is very much epic fantasy in the Tolkeinian mode, albeit with some clear and interesting departures from that model…

The first is in its protagonists; Cold Iron has three protagonists, rather than the whole team of Tolkein, each of whom has help from friends and subordinates, but neither of whom really functions as part of a team of equals. That two of those protagonists are female is more than a cosmetic departure from Tolkein, as is making only one of them a fighter; the other two (both of the women, unfortunately) have different skills, are required to fulfill different roles, and never have to learn to fight, albeit this is because they are insulated from that necessity by position rather than anything else. Nels is, inevitably, our least interesting protagonist; as a soldier he doesn’t get very involved in the political struggles and has the closest journey of any character to the archetypical epic fantasy hero, realising his mysterious power and having to make difficult choices for the good of his kingdom and the world at multiple turns.

Ilta and Suvi, though, are both more static characters, more engaged with diplomacy and politics directly; Ilta is sidelined for an awful lot of the novel and seems little more than a convenient repository of knowledge on multiple occasions, but has some interesting dilemmas about how to use her powers of healing and foresight in various contexts. Cold Iron‘s real star, though, is Suvi, even if the novel often seems not to realise that; a political character moving through various realms of skulduggery and diplomacy, learning how to be a ruler while discovering the compromises any ruler has to make and the sacrifices that must be made, she’s a character who really grows across the course of the book and whose actions actually seem to make a difference, as opposed to Ilta as an accidental catalyst and Nels providing little if any agency at all.

The plot is as slow as one might expect, with much of the book rendered pointless by its ending; Cold Iron sees the breaking and reforging of familial bonds, the rise and fall of Nels and Suvi as powerful, the faltering failure and subsequent repair of a romance between Ilta and Nels, and – the one thing that does change – the war between the Eledoreans and the Acrasians, humans to the southern border. That so much of the novel replicates the status quo ante bellum at its conclusion is unfortunate, because we’ve ploughed through 650 pages to get there; things have advanced, but in quite a rushed nature, and a large part of the early novel wasn’t advancing anything. Mind you, Leicht does give us a compelling ending, and those things that have moved have moved a lot; I’d’ve liked less jumping around in time and more of a focus on how things were changing that we see changed, because much of the action seems to take place in gaps between chapters, rather than before our eyes.

That’s not to say the writing isn’t good; for a book the length of this one, Cold Iron feels much shorter, with punchy, well-written chapters full of action (just rather episodic and often fizzling to nothing), and some excellent moments. The description avoids falling into the Tolkeinian trap of love of every tree, leaf and twig; rather, it gives us a world that is as full as we need it to be to imagine it clearly, and that allows the sections of Cold Iron where Leicht draws on horror tropes to really have a sense of terror and doom to them, of a strange Outside evil. It’s a well-captured world, without trying to reach too far into a total control of the reader’s imagination but directing it well and accurately.

The biggest problem with this book, though, is that we’re rooting for the villains. Cold Iron gives us as heroes a magical species whose royal family and others have a verbal command magic that can be used on anyone; while there are ethical rules around its actual use, these are established early on as frequently broken. Essentially, the kainen can – and do! – bypass consent; every character who can, does this at some point, and Leicht doesn’t seem to interrogate how problematic this is. The Acrasians, humans, don’t have but are affected by this magic, and that’s no small part of what drives them; unaccountable being who can completely control them against their will are an easy enemy to hate – but again: Leicht makes those beings the hero, and does so by simply (at least in this novel) waving away the issues of consent, of agency, that such magic inevitably gives rise to, while using it to prop up a monarchy and class system which is equally unquestioned.

Cold Iron is a bit of a bumpy ride, then, and one whose ultimate destination I at least am rather disturbed by; but Leicht’s characters are interesting and human, and her writing is generally good, so I’m likely to see where the next leg of the journey takes us… given the dramatically changed circumstances of the cast at the end of this novel, it’s sure to be interesting!

Tiny Pieces of Skull by Roz Kaveney

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In the 1980s, poet and activist Roz Kaveney wrote a novel, ‘Tiny Pieces of Skull’, about trans street life and bar life in London and Chicago in the late 1970s. Much admired in manuscript by writers from Kathy Acker to Neil Gaiman, it has never seen print until now…Funny and terrifying by turns, and full of glimpses of other lives, it is the story of how beautiful Natasha persuades clever Annabelle to run away from her life and have adventures, more adventures than either of them quite meant her to have…
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Roz Kaveney is someone I have known for a little while now, and consider a friend; she also showed me a draft of the manuscript for this novel some time before publication. So when Tiny Pieces of Skull finally came out back in late April of this year, I knew I had to read it; and after wrangling with various attempts to lay hands on a copy, I finally got one by mid-May… just when my reviewing dried up. So, rather belatedly, I’m now reviewing the book, having read it nigh on two months ago; sorry for the delay, Roz! (Consider this a late birthday present?)

Tiny Pieces of Skull is itself a tiny book – only 180 pages long – produced by a tiny press – Team Angelica. This feels wrong for someone with a personality, and a reputation, as massive as Roz Kaveney’s; activist, poet, editor, author and critical writer, she has turned her hand to many things in the queer and the science fiction communities, and made friends along the way with luminaries such as Neil Gaiman. Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that a novel based on her life-experiences in the 1970s feels larger than life, especially since for the UK at that time the United States of America, where Kaveney was, was larger than life (see Gaiman & Pratchett’s Good Omens for another example of that larger-than-life attitude to the USA). It feels much more fantastical than is the case, purely because of the absurdity of the experiences it contains; and yet it also has an honesty about racism, sexism and transphobia – and how those, and movements fighting some of those – intersect (the portrayal of TERFs is, of course, deservedly unflattering at its kindest).

This is also the kind of book that would make a great piece of evidence for a prosecutor, if statutes of limitation didn’t exist. Tiny Pieces of Skull is very honest about survival as a trans woman in the 1970s: drugs, sex work, and a certain amount of at least proximity to serious crime all feature in the story, and Kaveney treats them in a matter-of-fact manner, as simply things that formed part of her (or rather, her character Annabelle’s) life; it’s a riotous, chaotic, confused life that involves gullible johns, corrupt moralising cops, drug dealers with commitment issues and controlling arseholes as well as a wide range of drag queens and trans women all trying to just get by as best they can in a society that often looks down on and despises them.

If there’s one problem with the book, it’s actually given away by the blurb; this is a novel full of people who are defined by a single character trait. Natasha is beautiful, Annabelle is clever, et cetera; Tiny Pieces of Skull has an awful tendency to reduce everyone else to being bit-players in Annabelle’s life, of significance only because of their significance to her… and worse, always stupider than her, needing her to help them or easily tricked and manipulated by her. While this is inevitable to some extent – no autobiography or memoir casts its protagonist in a villainous role – it grates a tad and starts to feel a little light and glib, as if Kaveney has given up on the realities of her life in favour of a version that feels less like reality and more like reality TV or soap opera, where schemes interact with schemes at every turn and witticisms are the only form of communication. This is especially egregious in the dialogue, which just doesn’t have a ring of verisimillitude to it; if this is fictionalised, then it needs to have the plausibility realism doesn’t need, and which this novel at times definitely lacks.

As an artefact of the 1970s trans scene in America, as a memoir of Kaveney’s life, and indeed as a soap opera of a novel, Tiny Pieces of Skull is a rather marvellous little book; just, perhaps, not one for this particular reader.

The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre

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In seventeenth-century France, Louis XIV rules with flamboyant ambition. From the Hall of Mirrors to the vermin-infested attics of the Chateauat Versailles, courtiers compete to please the king, sacrificing fortune, principles and sacred bonds.

Here, Marie-Josephe de la Croix looks forward to assisting her brother, Yves, in the scientific study of the rare sea monster he has captured. But when Marie-Josephe makes a discovery about the sea creature that threatens all her brother, the courtiers and the King understand, it is left to her to defy the institutions that power her world.

But in the decadent court of King Louis, where morality is skewed and corruption reigns – will anyone listen to a single voice? Somehow, she must find the courage to follow her heart and her convictions – even at the cost of changing her life forever.
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Historical fiction is an odd genre, and historical fantasy in many ways an odder one; either it has to posit a wholly alternative history with its strange additions like Judith Tarr, or it has to – like Tim Powers – find the cracks in history to put its truths into, to fit the story into the less well-recorded parts of history. The Moon and the Sun does a strange combination of both.

McIntyre’s novel is set in an unusual timeperiod for a historical novel; the court of Louis XIV, the Sun King. The revolutionary period following his reign, and the mediaeval period of which his reign was in many ways the post-climax comedown, are more common choices; but The Moon and the Sun takes place in a brief period between the two, in the course of a short time at Versailles. Hence, we are treated to all the expected elements of Versailles; the courtly intrigues, the fantastic grandeur and artistic showmanship on display in the Palace and its surrounds and in the everyday garb of the courtiers, and the near-worship of Louis XIV (and the very mediaeval struggles between Prince and Pope).

Interestingly, McIntyre chooses to show us this through the eyes of a woman of colour, the orphaned daughter of an impoverished French noble recalled from the colonies; the triple-outsider status to the court of our protagonist (as female, non-white and poor) means that Marie-Josèphe de la Croix gives us a view of the court much closer to our own. On the other hand that view at times veers strangely close to a modern view; Marie-Josèphe seems strangely immune to the worship of the Sun-King of the rest of the court, although she respects him, and her attitude to many of the traditions and to the Palace itself feel less authentic than modern, as does her society’s attitude to slavery (slavery was abolished in the French colony of Haiti in 1793, and in French territory more broadly in 1794, although it was restored less than a decade later). The Moon and the Sun doesn’t shy away from the racial attitudes of the French court, including the idea of paleness as more beautiful and the fetishisation of the “exotic”; which allows it to discuss the idea of what makes humanity, and how we recognise humanity in other beings, without discussing racism through nonhumans (because racism is being discussed through straight-up racism).

This is the main theme of the novel; the question of what humanity is, and how we should treat other beings we believe to be human – including how far we should go to help them. The Moon and the Sun gives us mermaids in the court of Louis XIV, captured by Marie-Josèphe’s brother to help Louis XIV find immortality; a quest whose importance is emphasised by the fear of everyone in the novel about what would happen when his son took over (when really the problem was his great-great-grandson). McIntyre slowly builds up the humanity of the mermaids (referred to only ever as sea-monsters), though hints are given from their first appearance; and simultaneously builds up the court intrigues around the mermaids and the status of Marie-Josèphe and her brother in Louis XIV’s good graces, so that there are a combination of different incentives on the different characters involved in the novel to deal differently with the evidence of the humanity of the mermaids.

The Moon and the Sun has all the complicated interpersonal relationships of a courtly intrigue, including one gay relationship that is handled well – between characters protected from the legal and religious consequences of homosexuality by the king; and yet, the two characters involved are also rather problematically portrayed insofar as other relationships and treatment of others go. That’s actually something of a theme; with one exception, the relationships are somewhat toxic – but unfortunately the one healthy relationship in The Moon and the Sun is the one with the protagonist that involves some serious changes to her partner’s attitude to relationships in a rather problematic manner.

In the end, though, The Moon and the Sun is a well-written, thoughtfully undertaken piece of historical fantasy; it’s not perfect in its representations of relationships, though the portrayal of racial issues is strong, but perhaps worth checking out despite its flaws.

Lois Lane: Fallout by Gwenda Bond

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Lois Lane is starting a new life in Metropolis. An Army brat, Lois has lived all over—and seen all kinds of things. (Some of them defy explanation, like the near-disaster she witnessed in Kansas in the middle of one night.) But now her family is putting down roots in the big city, and Lois is determined to fit in. Stay quiet. Fly straight.

As soon as she steps into her new high school, though, she can see it won’t be that easy. A group known as the Warheads is making life miserable for another girl at school. They’re messing with her mind, somehow, via the high-tech immersive videogame they all play. Not cool. Armed with her wit and her new snazzy job as a reporter, Lois has her sights set on solving this mystery. But sometimes it’s all a bit much. Thank goodness for her maybe-more-than-a friend, a guy she knows only by his screenname, SmallvilleGuy…
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Tie-in fiction is often regarded as somehow “lesser” than original fiction, and criticised as being “less imaginative” or “easier to write” than that which has to establish its own universe (although these criticisms aren’t levelled at mimetic fiction, which also doesn’t have to create its own world?); as such, tie-in writers have in the past been seen as second-rank. With luminaries and critically acclaimed authors like Tobias Buckell, Karen Traviss, Greg Bear and John Shirley writing tie-in novels (all for the Halo series), that perception is changing, and Gwenda Bond’s Lois Lane: Fallout should be stacked up with those novels in demonstrating why tie-in fiction can be just as good as original-world novels.

Lois Lane: Fallout is a true Lois Lane tale; unlike many of those told in comics, Superman doesn’t feature (well, not quite), and this isn’t told in the cracks around a Superman story. Instead, Bond sets her story at a Metropolis high school, with Lois as a student attending the school; she finds ways to tie into the traditional elements of a Lois Lane story – the Daily Planet, Perry White, conflicts with her father General Lane, and of course investigative journalism that annoys the authorities – while never losing sight of the constraints she has placed herself, and her protagonist, under by making her a high school student rather than an independent adult. A consistent threat in Fallout comes from within her own family, as Lois’ disruptive presence at schools (a feature that feels reminiscent of early Buffy) leads her father, General Lane, to want to send her to a military academy.

The story is one of the military-industrial complex and how it is insinuating itself into education and into gaming culture. That might sound like both a dry subject and old hat, and indeed it has been told before in the DCU, but Bond isn’t interested in talking about America’s Army is a recruitment tool for the military or how schools are used by the military to normalise specific kinds of violence; instead, she’s interested more in military experimentation on people without proper consent, and problematic studies that cross lines between the military and education. Lois Lane: Fallout is set in a kind of cyberpunk world with virtual reality headsets and a degree of interactivity that modern gaming still doesn’t allow, and from that she has created a world where the military might exploit that in ways reminiscent of Ender’s Game; the unwitting use of children for military purposes and the idea of gaming as an analogue to, and mask for, actual warfare are both points of interest which Bond engages with in the novel, and shows Lois herself troubled by.

But this isn’t just a political novel with a dry message to send; actually, it’s not that at all. At its core, this is a high school story combined with an origin story; hence, Lois Lane: Fallout sets the stage for the Lanes to conflict over the proper use of the military, especially in an age of extraordinary individuals (the DEO doesn’t come up by name but at least a precursor organisation clearly exists) and also sets the stage for Lois to become Perry White’s star reporter at the Daily Planet, recruited straight from school thanks to exposes on the youth section of the website. It’s engaged with the changing world of the 21st Century well in that regard; Perry is worried about the newspaper dying, and thinks this online experiment will at best prolong that death, while Lois is still deeply passionate and a believer in curated news sources and trusted news organisations in a way Perry no longer can be.

It’s also, as mentioned, a high school story; Bond gives us the expected cliqueyness of American high school fiction, and turns it into something more sinister over the course of the novel, as Lois Lane: Fallout engages with ideas of groupthink, peer pressure and ostracism in literalised ways that provide metaphors for everyday experiences in the way science fiction is so often said to do; Bond is also incredibly sympathetic to her teenage cast, never treating them as stupid or immature simply because of their age, but rather giving them agency, independence and a fierce sense of individuality not yet blunted by maturity, making them read much more like real teenagers than many authors accomplish.

Occasionally, the novel can feel a little light, and its characters descend at times into tropes – the gamer crowd are social misfits who wear all-black, there’s the preppy rich kid who is actually not as rich as he seems so puts on a front which makes him unlikeable, there’s the mean headmaster who just gets in the way, et cetera; and Lois Lane: Fallout treats its themes a little simplistically, with a generally anti-authority, anti-industrial message that could do with being better thought out and more rounded than the simplistic teen rebellion it at times comes across as, but these are failure modes of good YA, rather than being alien to the genre or feeling intrusive, rather than simply a bit of a let down.

Lois Lane: Fallout may not be the best superhero story out there; after all, it’s not really a superhero story. But it is a fantastic tale told using the trappings of the DCU, and a wonderful exploration of an oft-maligned character. I recommend it.

Last First Snow by Max Gladstone

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Forty years after the God Wars, Dresediel Lex bears the scars of liberation–especially in the Skittersill, a poor district still bound by the fallen gods’ decaying edicts. As long as the gods’ wards last, they strangle development; when they fail, demons will be loosed upon the city. The King in Red hires Elayne Kevarian of the Craft firm Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao to fix the wards, but the Skittersill’s people have their own ideas. A protest rises against Elayne’s work, led by Temoc, a warrior-priest turned community organizer who wants to build a peaceful future for his city, his wife, and his young son.

As Elayne drags Temoc and the King in Red to the bargaining table, old wounds reopen, old gods stir in their graves, civil blood breaks to new mutiny, and profiteers circle in the desert sky. Elayne and Temoc must fight conspiracy, dark magic, and their own demons to save the peace–or failing that, to save as many people as they can.
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As I said when Max Gladstone visited the blog last week, his Craft Sequence is a fantastic, powerful piece of modern, politically interesting piece of fantasy and as a writer, Gladstone seems to be on an ever-upward trajectory of increasingly interesting novels of intricate socio-legal-political fantasy. Last First Snow is the fourth-slash-first installment of the series, and in a number of regards really takes it up to another level…

The two protagonists of Last First Snow are, for the first time in the series, characters we have met before, albeit both in secondary and arguably mentor roles; Elayne Kevarian, Tara’s mentor in Three Parts Dead, is our primary viewpoint character, and Temoc, father of the protagonist in Two Serpents Rise, is our second primary viewpoint character. Both have met before, during the God Wars, when something happened between them which Gladstone never quite makes clear but apparently involves Elayne having saved Temoc; and their friendship stands as a contrast to the friendship and professional relationship shared by Elayne and the King in Red, who stood on the same side of the God Wars. What Last First Snow does is, rather than introducing us to new characters, flesh out existing ones, adding depth and history to them so the reader has a greater understanding of who they are and how they come to be what they are in later books; it’s one of the strengths of Gladstone’s approach to the series that he can retroactively flesh out a character rather than having to just use flashbacks to do so.

The plot is a timely one, that seems to be a plot of the moment; Last First Snow follows Daredevil in being essentially about gentrification, but unlike the Hell’s Kitchen of the latter, Dresediel Lex’s Skittersill isn’t being gentrified by someone obviously evil or protected by a hero; rather, two competing parties, with different motivations priorities, and different understandings of how best to serve the people of the city, are competing to define the district and how it should run. Gladstone’s worldbuilding, whereby magic is a kind of combination of law and money (meaning Gladstone uses financial and legal thinking to approach its mechanics) and the gods have power based on sacrifice and shared beliefs, makes the popular movement resisting the gentrification of the Skittersill powerful because of shared belief; hence Last First Snow is about ideological, rather than physical, dispute, and the resolution of such dispute – so a large part of the novel is concerned with negotiation, with different parties coming together to discuss shared interests and working out how to work together so they all get something approximating what they want.

However, Last First Snow isn’t purely about verbal conflict resolution; Gladstone has some truly fantastic set-pieces that are some of the most over the top battles you will read in any genre fiction novel. Last First Snow features a battle carried out with superhuman capability on top of a reanimated skeleton dragon covered in guns, lightning generators and other projectile devices which itself is fighting semi-angelic undead avatars of the god. If that sounds like the most over the top elements of Warhammer that might be because it is; taking every element one can and just making it more over the top for the violent climactic setpiece is exactly what Gladstone has done, rendering it an amazingly fun and ridiculous piece to read.

Gladstone doesn’t just end with that, though; Last First Snow is not interested in simplistic endings, the kind of endings most epic fantasy of the dragons and gods and liches kind are interested in. Instead, the fight sets up Gladstone’s ending: schemes exposed, families and lives changed and altered, people damaged, a city which cannot go back to being what it was before, relationships damaged and strengthened by actions and choices. Last First Snow keeps one eye on that throughout the novel, and never throws a real curveball; there isn’t any real interest in simple plot twists or trying to fool the reader, instead being more interested in character development and in human responses than in trying to surprise the reader.

Of course, as a novel about social movements and how popular power interacts with other forms of power, particularly economic and political power, Last First Snow is highly relevant at this particular historical moment; Gladstone has thought intelligently about how his different forms of power work, and how they interact and reflect each other, and how each limits the exercise of others. Hence, the King in Red is limited in his ability to leverage his economic and violent (as in, monopoly-of-violence) power by the popular and popular-violence power available to the protesters in the Skittersill; Elayne’s job is to thread the line between the two, as Last First Snow sees characters dealing with competing imperatives and the necessity of balancing different kinds of power to come to an equitable resolution.

Last First Snow might not prove to be the best novel I read this year, but it’s certainly got an incredibly strong chance (reanimated dragon skeleton covered in guns fighting zombie-angels against a background of well-written social commentary and excellent character development!); each novel Gladstone writes proves he is improving as a writer, having started from a high base – this is well worth your time as either an entry point into the Craft Sequence or a return to it.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

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Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, ambitious wizard, known only as the Dragon, to keep the wood’s powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman must be handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as being lost to the wood.

The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows – everyone knows – that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia – all the things Agnieszka isn’t – and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.

But no one can predict how or why the Dragon chooses a girl. And when he comes, it is not Kasia he will take with him.
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Naomi Novik is most famous for her place in the fanfic community, as a cofounder of Archive Of Our Own, and for her Temeraire series of books, best described as Sharpe-with-dragons. Uprooted, at first glance, looks like a continuation of both traditions; a kind of fanfic of Polish fairy and folk tales, with added dragons. But that’s a very misleading glance; Uprooted is something very different, standing rather alone in its field like the tower that forms a key location in the narrative…

In many ways, Uprooted is exactly the kind of book fantasy readers are expected to look down on; a magic system that isn’t really explained, a strange evil force encroaching on the land, a Ruritanian social and political model, and a (late) teenage protagonist who it turns out is more than they seem. On the other hand, that’s also the recipe of an awful lot of successful fantasy novels, so perhaps it’s no surprise there’s so many entries in that tradition. Uprooted isn’t one of them, however; while at first blush using all those aspects, Novik averts, subverts, complicates or simply elevates them in her novel, as well as having a sense of joyousness, of humanity, of humaneness that was last seen in Goblin Emperor and had been missing from much of fantasy for some time before that.

Uprooted opens in a Ruritanian community that is threatened by a dark, mysterious forest that is evil in an infectious, magical way; the community is protected by a wizard named the Dragon, whose only condition of protection is that, once a decade, he will choose one young woman of seventeen to serve him for ten years. At the end of that decade, she will be released – but will not return to the valley, and won’t be part of the community from which she came. Agnieszka, the protagonist of Uprooted, knows she won’t be the one chosen, because her beautiful, elegant friend Kasia will be; she herself is clumsy, messy and perpetually slightly dishevelled. But when it comes time, it is Agnieszka who is chosen by the Dragon to begin a ten-year period of servitude for which she is completely unprepared.

Novik deals with this upheaval in the life of all her characters elegantly, and without the emotional dishonesty that much Chosen One fiction peddles in: Agnieszka does wish she hadn’t been chosen, but she also feels guilty for it, knowing that she is thereby wishing her friend had been, a rift in their relationship that can’t be addressed because they are unable to see each other. Uprooted handles the emotional complexity of the transfer to a new place and way of life, of dealing with the Dragon’s very open disapproval of her messiness, and of learning why he ended up – against his own judgement – choosing Agnieszka over Kasia. There’s a beautiful emotional core to the novel that wouldn’t be possible had Novik taken the obvious root of making this a coming of age story, rather than the story of someone who has already come of age; a sense of self-awareness to Agnieszka that is absolutely golden, and something we see all too rarely in a tale like this, allowing her to comment on it in a more (although obviously not fully) mature way than would otherwise be realistic.

This is a very character-driven novel, but that isn’t to say there’s no peril or plot; Uprooted may be gentle and generous, but that’s not to say bad things don’t happen. Bad things include terrible things happening to Kasia and to Agnieszka’s friends from her old life, and include a very well-written and sensitively handled attempted rape of Agnieszka (that she shuts down wonderfully); actions have consequences and magic has a price, but Novik also gives the story a soul of gentleness that is belied by how dark it get. In that sense it’s like the best fairy tales, a tradition Novik openly draws on; dark and scary at times but with an intensely humane core that is never buried under the horrors (scary trees! Is this the next trend?).

It’s also an intensely vibrant, beautiful novel. Uprooted is one of those books it’s impossible to talk about with talking about that nebulous concept, “style”; whereas Novik’s Temeraire series couldn’t really settle between modern and period language and narrative, Uprooted knows exactly what it’s doing, and proceeds to do it beautifully. This is a lush, gorgeous novel, full of neat turns of phrase that do far more work than their length suggests in creating a scene or the world; a novel that is openly interested in the aesthetics of language, of how words can create a sense of story. It’s almost like a song, appropriate given how magic functions in the novel, or like a river of words, flowing along, drawing (rather than dragging) the reader with it, through the slower and the faster passages into the rapids that form the final part of the book before crashing over the waterfall that is the ending of the novel.

Uprooted feels very like Goblin Emperor, despite being a very different book, because of its beautiful language and its core of humanity; if you’re wondering where that has gone in much modern fantasy, and even if you’re not, I cannot strongly enough urge you to read this!

Updraft by Fran Wilde

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Welcome to a world of wind and bone, songs and silence, betrayal and courage.

Kirit Densira cannot wait to pass her wingtest and begin flying as a trader by her mother’s side, being in service to her beloved home tower and exploring the skies beyond. When Kirit inadvertently breaks Tower Law, the city’s secretive governing body, the Singers, demand that she become one of them instead. In an attempt to save her family from greater censure, Kirit must give up her dreams to throw herself into the dangerous training at the Spire, the tallest, most forbidding tower, deep at the heart of the City.

As she grows in knowledge and power, she starts to uncover the depths of Spire secrets. Kirit begins to doubt her world and its unassailable Laws, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to a haunting choice, and may well change the city forever-if it isn’t destroyed outright.
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I bought Updraft in the same set of Con or Bust auctions as I got The Fifth Season, and in fact read this immediately after Jemisin’s novel; which, perhaps, led me to do something of a disservice to Updraft, for reasons that will become clear…

Updraft combines coming of age tale with deep political intrigue from a secretive faction riven with strife over how best to interact with the community around it, whose law it enforces and whom it functionally rules over as something of an oppressive force. If those themes seem familiar, that would probably be because they are; Wilde isn’t doing anything wildly groundbreaking in an abstracted-out view of her debut, and fits into a long tradition of genre fiction that deals with hidden secrets and young men bringing them to light. While being a description so far abstracted as to be almost meaningless, it’s also not actually unfair to Updraft; it does fit into that long tradition and does surprisingly little, female protagonist aside, to buck it, instead making the unique selling point more about setting than character or plot.

The setting is, to give Wilde her due, new, unique, and impressive; a set of towers rising out of the clouds, travel between which is done on semi-manpowered wings that are somewhere between Leonardo-like creations and personal gliders. Some towers are connected by bridges, and some are shorter than others; both controlled by the Singers, these are markers of status, which can be lost or gained by individual as well as corporate actions from within the towers. This forms part of a strong, broad society that is heavily bound up with rules, traditions, laws and hierarchies; different levels of the towers represent different statuses in society, and different roles give different status. One important element of Updraft is the lack of warriors in this culture; violence, between or within towers, is horrific, acceptable only within very specific circumstances related directly to the Spire and bound with rules and customs. There seems to be an unthinking patriarchy at work in the novel; although there is no explicit patriarchal practice, all the high-status decision makers, faction-leaders and key figures of importance in the novel with the one exception of our protagonist are male, something that isn’t obvious at the time but that stands out in retrospect especially in contrast with The Fifth Season, in which Jemisin had leadership roles filled by men and women, with if anything more women in visible leadership roles.

Once the reader gets passed the fascinating, original setting, though, Updraft settles into almost distressingly trōpic models; we follow the essentially naïve character of Kirit as she breaks the laws of society and starts to see how that will affect her – and then starts to penetrate the secrets of the Singers and the society of towers in which she lives, seeing the things that run under the surface and maturing as she discovers more. The problem isn’t with such maturation so much as the trope-driven trajectory of the maturation; losing Kirit’s mother, discovering more about her father, and then meeting her father, for instance, is the kind of model that we’ve seen in many stories, and Updraft doesn’t really add anything to the standard model of it that we read time and again. Similarly, her discovery of the underlying conspiracies and dark truths of her community aren’t particularly revelatory to the reader; they’re not quite expected and standard, but nor are they particularly unexpected, and there’s a certain cartoonishness to the evil characters of the novel, who are the characters we expect to be the ones in the wrong from the word go. Their motivations are poorly described, and their course of action is simply seen – by both novel and characters – as wrong, in part because its underlying cause isn’t clear; instead there seems to simply be evil for the sake of evil occurring.

Updraft also never really throws the reader out in terms of what they expect from the plot; Wilde delivers the revelations and the character-development in a very straight manner, without ever really surprising the reader even when the characters and even the narrative itself seem shocked by the choices Wilde has made. Updraft keeps trying to make shocking turns, without quite managing it; they’re too telegraphed or things we’ve seen too many times before to be surprised by, and there is so little emotional engagement in the plot that rises above pure manipulation into actual feeling that this feels like a writer who has created a beautiful, fascinating world, but hasn’t quite worked out how to show it off, let alone tell us about its dark side, except through terribly tropic plots and characters.

In the end, Updraft has an awful lot of promise, but feels more like a gaming book than a novel: Wilde has created an amazing world, but populated it with little more than cardboard cut-outs and a plot that goes little beyond a moderately well made video game.