Home » Uncategorized
Category Archives: Uncategorized
There is a lake of marvels. A lake of water lilies that glow with the color of dawn. For generations Kai’s people have harvested these lilies, dependent upon them for the precious medicines they provide.
But now a flock of enchanted cranes has come to steal and poison the harvest. The lilies are dying. Kai’s people are in peril. A mysterious young man from the city thinks he might have a solution. Kai must work with him to solve the mystery of the cranes, and it will take all her courage, love, strength, and wisdom to do what she must to save both the lilies and her people.
The language of myth is third person. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Ramayana, the Legend of the White Snake; there are of course exceptions, though largely within other third person myths (think of Odysseus’ recounting of his voyage in the Odyssey). The myth-teller is divorced from the myth by this device; it lends authority and distance. Lately though, there is a movement to make myth more personal, and more immediate; in The Lilies of Dawn, Vanessa Fogg shows her allegiance to this movement.
The Lilies of Dawn does it excellently, too. A slim volume, 60 pages of story, takes in a whole cosmology, but never paints it in detail; this isn’t an attempt at a classification of the system of deities and heavens, but a specific story, told from amongst many, with stories very clearly spinning off it and into it. Fogg suggests the world in which this tale takes place with rough strokes of the pen, rather than detailed sketches; calls to mind associations with the scent of the lily, rather than a full scientific sketch of one. This is myth in a truer sense than many mythic retellings we see now, clearly part of a set of stories rather than a story independent of others, and that lends it a richness and strength that Fogg capitalises on beautifully.
It helps, of course, that Fogg’s writing is beautiful, and lyrical; that is, The Lilies of Dawn has a flowing quality in its prose, like liquid running over one, cleansing and cooling, a kind of gentle current that simultaneously allows one to relax into it whilst still pulling one along with it. It’s an impressive feat; the craftsmanship is such that one doesn’t notice it for itself until the end of the story, when its strength to carry one through becomes suddenly apparent, and the loss of its beauty at the end slightly wrenching.
That’s important, because the characters Fogg creates don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Kai, our voice and protagonist, is someone we’ve met before, all too many times; the frustrated younger sibling trapped by duty, feeling they’re failing in it, and over their head. Indeed, none of the characters of The Lilies of Dawn are novel; their mythic and cultural resonance is obvious but does not successfully lend them character, only archetype, that could have done with a much greater attention paid to individual interiority. Instead we’re left with a cast acting out a myth because a myth is to be acted out, bereft of true reasons of their own.
Of course, we essentially come to myths for the story, that is to say the plot, of them, and that is why we return to them and retell them time and again; what is to be said of the plot of The Lilies of Dawn? It isn’t a subtle thing, with twists and turns that the reader doesn’t expect; it takes a fairly standard route from start to finish, with minor embellishments, but does it well, which is a skill all too often neglected. Hints aren’t dropped without thought, but the conclusion is inevitable and foreshadowed excellently; the inevitable trajectory of the story is finely wrought, and well carried out.
In the end, does the strength of plot and the sheer beauty of the language outweigh the simplicity of the characters? Well, The Lilies of Dawn is myth, and myth often has simplistic characters, and less well done plots; rarely does it have language so beautifully tuned as Fogg produced here, though.
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.
Dev is a smuggler with the perfect cover. He’s in high demand as a guide for the caravans that carry legitimate goods from the city of Ninavel into the country of Alathia. The route through the Whitefire Mountains is treacherous, and Dev is one of the few climbers who knows how to cross them safely. With his skill and connections, it’s easy enough to slip contraband charms from Ninavel – where any magic is fair game, no matter how dark – into Alathia, where most magic is outlawed.
But smuggling a few charms is one thing; smuggling a person through the warded Alathian border is near suicidal. Having made a promise to a dying friend, Dev is forced to take on a singularly dangerous cargo: Kiran. A young apprentice on the run from one of the most powerful mages in Ninavel, Kiran is desperate enough to pay a fortune to sneak into a country where discovery means certain execution – and he’ll do whatever it takes to prevent Dev from finding out the terrible truth behind his getaway.
Yet Kiran isn’t the only one harboring a deadly secret. Caught up in a web of subterfuge and dark magic, Dev and Kiran must find a way to trust each other – or face not only their own destruction, but that of the entire city of Ninavel.
Schafer is currently running a Kickstarter for the last book in her ‘Shattered Sigil’ series, The Labyrinth of Flame, after the infamous Night Shade debacle left her series in a publishing limbo. Between that, and the long-term popular praise of her books, the time seemed right to ascend The Whitefire Crossing…
If epic fantasy is defined by journeys (as, say, the epics of Tolkein are), then The Whitefire Crossing is almost the archetypical epic fantasy: it is the story, almost entirely, of a single journey through a mountain pass, in the same way as Xenophon’s Anabasis is about a stroll to the beach. Mind you, it is on much smaller a scale than those epics, a much more personal novel about individuals moving in the world, rather than about grand forces shaping and changing it; of course, that’s just how it seems, and one suspects that as the series continues the repercussions of actions in The Whitefire Crossing will expand outwards, with greater and greater impact on a wider world. However, as contained in this novel, the broader international view is obscured, and we are concerned simply with Dev and with Kiran, and their clandestine passage (well, undercover) across a mountain pass to smuggle Kiran into another nation.
Inevitably, this is complicated, not least by the nature of the terrain; Schafer is a proud climber, and this shows in the course of The Whitefire Crossing, from the detailed descriptions (not overwritten, mind) of scaling a sheer rockface and, from a different viewpoint, watching a character leap seemingly into space; to the contrasting experience of a novice and an expert of scrambling across talus as it shifts and moves under them. It’s a brilliant piece of writing that makes the geography as much a secondary character as any of those who breathe; the mountains, valleys and plains are described with an eye for detail and a human touch that, without anthropomorphising them, Schafer gives them a life of their own, a character of their own, however staid and unforgiving that character in fact is. It’s an excellent piece of writing and includes some really detailed thinking about worldbuilding, geography, agriculture, economics and more that doesn’t get fed to the reader whole, but rather shines through by the obviousness of its presence (although I am left with logistical questions about Ninavel!)
The Whitefire Crossing is ultimately about two characters, and their shared – and less shared – experience. Schafer made an interesting choice in picking characters to centre her novel on who are in some key ways very similar, and in others very different; bruised and having just had their trust broken, each is in some sense running from something, in some way taking this job from necessity. While Dev’s necessity is more obvious, what Kiran is fleeing is clearer; similarly, while the betrayal of Dev’s trust is laid out from pretty much the word go, Kiran’s betrayal is implied from early on but what exactly happened to him is held back until quite late in The Whitefire Crossing. Both are interesting characters, and their growing respect for one another is fascinating, especially as Dev tries to maintain a professional distance and detachment from Kiran that strains under the enforced closeness of his task and of his suspicions of what is to come in Kiran’s future.
Because the characters are so interesting, the pain Schafer puts the reader through in the course of the novel is all the greater; from the first page, practically, characters are forced to compromise morally despite wishing to only do what they see as right, and to sacrifice for a personal greater good. The Whitefire Crossing is full of tragedies writ small and large, some of which are overturned later in the novel and others only compounded; some brought on by the foolishness of our characters, some inevitable, and some thrust upon them without any agency whatsoever, inevitable and insurmountable as, well, a mountain. Schafer, by making these characters interesting, human, rounded and engaging, makes that pain strike all the deeper, and the tragedies of the novel – especially the (by my lights) unjust ending – all the more pathetic.
The weakest part of the novel is its human (as opposed to environmental) antagonists. The Whitefire Crossing makes its various enemies for Dev and Kiran rather simplistic in their evil, for the most part; while one is somewhat leavened in some ways, particularly by a sense of family, the other is simply outright evil, with no thought but for his own power, and neither narrative nor character give any actual explanation for or justification of his actions other than “he wants power”. It’s a frustrating lack in a novel that is otherwise very interested in three-dimensional characters, the ideas of debt and obligation, of actions borne from love, of difficult choices made in impossible circumstances between different evils, and similar; yet its antagonists don’t seem to have any meaningful motivation beyond “being the bad guys”, in an almost Tolkeinian darkness that fits poorly with the shades of grey the rest of the novel is painted in.
In the end though, the antagonists aren’t actually that significant a feature of The Whitefire Crossing; it’s about Dev, it’s about Kiran, and it’s about the journey, and that, Schafer makes clear, is enough.
The phenomenon of colony-collapse disorder, the sudden mass disappearance of bees, has become so widespread that much of the world although not, as yet, Finland is facing agricultural and ecological disaster.
Amateur beekeeper Orvo, devastated by the recent death of his eco-warrior son, finds two of his hives deserted and begins to fear that the epidemic has reached Scandinavia. Then, in the attic of the old barn, he makes a mystical and frightening discovery: a pathway to a parallel world. Is it a hallucination stimulated by sorrow and loss or is it something very real and connected with the bees disappearance? His research teaches him that in practically every culture bees are viewed as half-supernatural messengers that can travel between worlds and are associated with resurrection and the afterlife. He begins to wonder if this portal could reunite him with his dead son and whether he can himself escape the ecological meltdown of this world.
The Blood of Angels reworks the Orpheus myth while analysing modern man’s need to deny his mortality and raise himself above the rest of nature, to compare himself to the angels but at what price?
Sinisalo’s writing, and her approach to nature, have been remarked upon as precursors to the approach to the weird taken by Jeff VanderMeer in Area X; having read this novel, that seems to do both a disservice, as they are doing profoundly different things with the environment, but there is no doubt that Blood of Angels has some of the same concerns as Area X, and some of the same presentations.
The similarity is in the understanding of the numinous in nature; Blood of Angels has a reverence and respect for nature throughout its pages, especially bees. It consistently mystifies and weirds nature, makes it strange, barely relatable to humanity; Sinisalo highlights the differences between how we live and nature, how we divorce ourselves from nature, and especially death. It’s a fascinating take on the kind of weird written by Algernon Blackwood, but whereas his sympathy was with man, making nature horrific, Sinisalo makes man horrific, alienates us from ourselves and civilisation, and making nature numinous but also truer, somehow.
It’s intensified by the animal rights theme that comes up in excerpts from the blog of animal rights activist Eero, son of our protagonist Orvo, which emphasises both the similarities and differences between humans and animals, arguing for equal rights from the position of similar-but-different approaches to man and beast. Blood of Angels uses the blog excellently; Sinisalo not only has entries, but comments, and entries coming off comments to previous entries, making it feel like a truly organic blog, the sort of political blog that has sprung up on the internet, with the kind of brashness and rudeness from both blogger and commenters that we have become inured to. It has an interested effect in a novel, shocking the reader with the violence of internet rhetoric, as if a novel should be a more genteel place, as if that vitriol should not infiltrate its pages; but the more traditional chapters of Blood of Angels can also contain that same vitriol and yet it feels totally normal, an interesting comparison.
Sinisalo’s work should not just be analysed on a political level, however, but also on its merits as a novel. Blood of Angels manages one of the most impressive feats I have seen in a novel, that of making a fully fleshed-out character who only appears in the occasional, brief comment on a blog; this is how Tirsu, especially, is manifested, a very real presence in the novel even while never actually appearing in person, and having so few lines dedicated to them. Pupa is similarly clearly portrayed, appearing only in Orvo’s memories, and Ari, who appears only briefly in the whole novel, is very clearly characterised as the money-hungry grubby businessman who will sacrifice anything for profit. It’s an interesting cast in that regard; characters fall on one side or the other of the ethics/profit line, with Orvo straddling it in his roles as undertaker and beekeper. Sinisalo keeps the balance excellently, and through character interactions Blood of Angels challenges orthodoxies on both sides, a difficult trick; yet Sinisalo keeps it meaningful and orthodoxies reveal as much about characters as they do about politics.
The blurb describes this as an Orphic retelling, and spoils a central aspect of the plot that Sinisalo semi-conceals for much of the novel, the death of Eero; Blood of Angels has one particularly Orphic passage, but otherwise is about the process of grieving, of the painful emotional coming to terms with death, and of how this can fail. Rather than being about an attempt to retrieve one’s love for oneself, the loss is concealed for much of the novel, there but not known, some strange cloud hanging over Orvo; when revealed it changes everything that has gone before, and Sinisalo’s concealment makes an awful lot of sense and proves a very interesting piece of character-work.
Blood of Angels is truly a stunning novel of nature, and a strange and numinous work; Johanna Sinisalo has produced a wonderful text here, that I’ll readily recommend.
In the future, Earth is just one of the planets ruled by the vast Chapalii empire. The volatility of these alien overlords is something with which Tess Soerensen is all too familiar. Her brother, Charles, rebelled against them at one time and was rewarded by being elevated into their interstellar system—yet there is reason to believe they murdered his and Tess’s parents.
Struggling to find her place in the world and still mending a broken heart, Tess sneaks aboard a shuttle bound for Rhui, one of her brother’s planets. On the ground, she joins up with the native jaran people, becoming immersed in their nomadic society and customs while also attempting to get to the bottom of a smuggling scheme she encountered on her journey there. As she grows ever closer to the charismatic jaran ruler, Ilya—who is inflamed by an urgent mission of his own—Tess must choose between her feelings for him and her loyalty to her brother.
Having read A Passage of Stars last year, I decided to delve further into Elliott’s early work; and Jaran is widely acclaimed as some of her best work. So that’s where I went next.
Jaran is a fascinating mixture of what we could consider science fictional tropes – aliens, intergalactic empires, vastly superior technology – and fantasy ones; the steppe-riding nomads, the general lack of technology beyond the bow, and so on. The clash between these two worlds, in the person of Tess, makes this novel reminiscent of books like Golden Witchbreed or Left Hand of Darkness, especially when Elliott’s intention – stated in the introduction to the tenth anniversary reissue – of interrogating the patriarchal society we live in is taken into account.
Fundamentally, that’s what Jaran is doing, that’s its “project”; looking at different kind of societies, at how those different societies interact, and at the strengths – and weaknesses – of them. Hence dropping the, essentially modern-Western, Tess into a (moderately; violence is still male-coded, indeed, male-exclusive apart from Tess) non-patriarchal society while also exposing her to the Chapalii, a society that is both intensely patriarchal and also very rigid and formal in its social structure. The way these three worldviews interact across and through Tess is the key concern of the novel, even while more traditional elements of fantastika – anti-colonial uprising, rebellion against oppression, Great Man-driven cultural transformation, romance – go on almost in the background of the book. Jaran manages this fantastically, making Tess question both the strictures and structures of the society she is used to and of jaran society as she runs up against the places they conflict; Elliott handles incredibly well the difficult balance of endorsing jaran culture while not heroising it or making it a perfect, utopian society.
Of course, all this is going on against the background of a huge number of other bits of plot, including Tess’ brother’s plans for a resumption of his rebellion against the Chapaliii; Tess’ companion Ilya’s plans to unite the jaran tribes against the settled khaja people surrounding them; a group of Chapaliii who are travelling on Rhui with Ilya and his tribe for something unknown; and Tess’ burgeoning attraction to Ilya. Jaran is a complex novel indeed. Elliott manages to both meld together and separate out the different elements of plot excellently, and largely focuses on the social side of the story; interactions, conversations, verbal and nonverbal communication all laid out to give the reader a real sense of how people are talking, and what people are talking about, throughout the novel in a really well put together way. It lets us get inside the different characters, under their skins, no matter how different their culture from our own, to understand their motivations, and that gives the plot of Jaran a great deal of extra richness.
Jaran is also astoundingly readable. For a book that has so many different strands, so many different major characters to follow, that hits so many different emotional notes including constrasting ones in the same space of time, and conflicting ones within the same character, Elliott keeps it incredibly unified as a reading experience; her style is neither sparse nor lush, but rather plain, not doing either more or less than it needs to to keep the reader involved in the book and aware of what is happening. Her pacing is excellent and varied, without falling into the trap of flatness or of jerkiness, and accelerates in a very natural way as the conclusion of the novel approaches; and while we’re left with an awful lot of open strands of plot, there is a certain feeling of conclusion about the end, as a number of narrative arcs do get tied up in a satisfying way, the last page of the the book feeling like a place one could stop without reading the rest of the series if so desired.
The novel does have one problem, and that’s a certain backing off from its feminism at times; Elliott can’t quite build the jaran as a non-patriarchal society, and gendered violence is in fact an accepted part of society, in the form of marital rape. Similarly, while women are positioned as the authority figures in jaran society, this doesn’t actually seem to carry over on the whole into personal interactions; authority on a social level isn’t the same as authority on an individual level in any case, but there doesn’t seem to be the correlates of it one might expect. Furthermore, the decisions of Ilya are his decisions; despite affecting how the tribes will live and function on every level, he does not consult the women about it, or deal with the consequences of it for women. Jaran walks up to the matriarchal brink and then, in a number of ways, falls back into patriarchal constructs.
Jaran is one of those books that sets out with big ideas, and delivers beautifully, whilst also being a very enjoyable book to read; if you want to see a great example of the scope of what SF can do, look at what Kate Elliott does with Jaran, and be awed.
Music is magic – and magic runs wild!
Between the mysterious Elflands and the magicless world are a wild Borderland and the ancient city of Bordertown. Here Elfin magic and human technology work only sporadically. Here elves and humans mingle in an uneasy truce, vying for control of the city in the Council Chambers of Dragon’s Tooth Hill, in the marketplace called Trader’s Heaven – but most of all in the old, abandoned parts of the city where runaways gather, rock-and-roll clubs glitter, and kids and bands clash in musical, magical revelry.
Welcome to the Borderlands, but watch your step. Magic runs wild in the streets here. Beware.
Borderland is where the cult classic shared-world, recently resurrected by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner in Welcome to Bordertown, began, with two editors, four writers and four stories…
The first, ‘Prodigy’, by Steven R. Boyett, is the longest in the collection, and the earliest chronologically, setting up all the later events. Set recently after the events that brought Elfland and the World (back?) into contact, it is focused on one man, Scooter, but across the course of the story explains the development of the meshed cultures of Borderland, Elfland and the World. ‘Prodigy’ could have ended up terribly solipsistic or white-man-centred, and does at times fall into the trap of being all about the manpain of Scooter, but it also does some very fascinating things with worldbuilding. The story centres on Scooter having to come to terms with his emotions and with responsibility, and in that sense it feels like a standard Literary bildungsroman; but the way it’s treated here is rather different, involving magic, rock-and-roll, and a certain amount of questing. This story is also notable for its approach to music; one of the effects of magic, in some places, is to allow some people who play music to actualise it in a manner rather similar to some forms of synaesthesia. Boyett’s passages around this are really effective and beautiful, and he utilises incredibly evocative but abstract description to show the reader his intent; these bits really are of the highest caliber.
Bellamy Bach’s ‘Gray’, on the other hand, is set many years later, in Bordertown itself, starring Gray, at the bottom of society, and Wicker, a rockstar at the top of the outcasts. Here we see a lot more colour; that is, whereas ‘Prodigy’ is almost rural in its landscapes, ‘Gray’ is set in the urbanscapes, in the slums, in the middle class district, in the punk and rock clubs of the town. This is also the first story to be set when Elfland and the World have mingled somewhat, so it’s the first to introduce us to some of the politics of that; the race-based gangs, the effect on the music and clubbing scene, and the exchange of cultural elements – not artefacts so much as ideas – between the two, along with the development of a whole new subculture. It’s a good story, although most of its twists are telegraphed; and the emotional core at the heart of it, and at the hearts of both Wicker and Gray, ring true and are very effectively done.
‘Stick’, though, is probably the strongest story in the collection. Charles de Lint, luminary of urban fantasy and fairytale, and widely feted, combined Morris Dancing and biker gangs to get this story, and it works much, much better than might be expected. A story about isolation, loneliness, companionship and chosen families, it’s a complex, beautiful story; ‘Stick’ manages to showcase a number of different things, including different kinds of strength (Stick himself has one, Bramble another, and Manda yet another still), different approaches to the world and different forms of fellowship. It also opens up questions about the history of Bordertown and the way it was established. de Lint also fascinatingly highlights the racial tensions between humans, elves and the “halflings”, hated by all and accepted by none except other outcasts; not, clearly, a direct parallel to race relations in 1980s America, but certainly commentary on it. And, of course, it includes a Morris-dancing biker gang!
Unfortunately, the collection ends on its weakest story, Ellen Kushner’s ‘Charis’. Focused on the most privileged members of society, it deals in broken hearts and teenaged angst without really getting into anything interesting; as far as character goes, “whiny and annoying” rather sums the titular Charis up. Furthermore, none of the rest of the cast are any more interesting; while providing something of a contrast with the children with bad backgrounds, ‘Charis’ showcases privilege at its most rank, almost. The whole thing feels contrived and shallow in a way the rest of the collection doesn’t, and adds very little except a glimpse into the high society of Bordertown – but an immature, simple one at that.
Borderland is where the Bordertown shared world began, and there’s a reason it has become a cult classic in the following two decades; this is, for the most part, a really strong collection of stories, so congratulations to Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold on an astounding creation and excellent curation!
On the eve of a recurring catastrophic event known to extinguish nations, a troubled orphan evades death and slavery to uncover her own bloody past. As the dark star of the cataclysm rises, an illegitimate ruler is tasked with holding together a country fractured by civil war, a precocious young fighter is asked to betray his family and a half-Dhai general must choose between the eradication of her father’s people or loyalty to her Empress.
Through tense alliances and devastating betrayal, the Dhai and their allies attempt to hold against a seemingly unstoppable force as enemy nations prepare for a coming together of worlds as old as the universe itself.
One world will rise – and many will perish.
Kameron Hurley is well established, at this stage, as a writer who pushes boundaries, who innovates, who embraces and applies new ideas and ways of doing things. The Mirror Empire, her first new book since finishing the Bel Dame Apocrypha in 2012, in some ways is less radical than that science fiction series; in other ways, however, it bears some of the hallmarks of Hurley’s mould-breaking brilliance.
If the blurb makes The Mirror Empire sound like a complicated novel, that’s because it is one. Despite the farmhand-to-powerhouse trope (subverted in that this time, it’s a girl; and again in that the other farmhand who becomes powerful knows he is the son of the ruler), and the slave-race (the daijin under the Saiduan and Dorinah powers are Dhai who, Hurley makes it very clear, have been broken to slavery as a people; the independent Dhai, once an imperial power, are now isolationist and pacifist vegetarians), The Mirror Empire introduces some fantastic new concepts into the realm of epic fantasy, not least the multiple-worlds interpretation of quantum physics.
As one character after another realises and exclaims, “We’re fighting ourselves.” The Mirror Empire is in a mirror-universe where the Dhai retained power; I didn’t pick up on this until a fifth of the way through the novel, myself. The central conflict of the novel, then, is between the mirror-Dhai trying to leave their world for the “prime” – and needing to wipe out all the Dhai in the “prime”, because they can’t cross between worlds if their double lives; and the various powers in the “prime” world (who, unlike the mirror-Dhai, are all morally complex powers, none of whom can be called outright evil), trying to defend their homes. However, the status of the Dhai as a once-empire, the Saiduan as those who overthrew them, and the Dorinah as a province of Saiduan that successfully won independence, means that those in the “prime” world are as prone to stabbing each other in the back as they are to defeating the mirror-Dhai. The plot weaves a complex knot that, at the end of The Mirror Empire, is made more complex by an unnecessary epilogue that, I think, would have made a better prologue to the next volume; as it is, Hurley leaves us with such a full, complicated plot that it’s clear she can take us through at least a trilogy in this world-breaking conflict.
The characters of The Mirror Empire are all surprisingly winning. From Akhio, the farmhand (well, ethics teacher at a farm) who becomes Kai after the death of his sister, whose unwillingness to rule doesn’t stop him trying to, through Roh’s affable enthusiastic teenage blundering about, to Zezili, raised in a matriarchy where men who are allowed to live are property and to be treated as such, who is half-Dhai but most famous for defeating that people, and Anavha, Zezili’s husband-slave, who has one of the most disturbing points of view in the book, as a victim of essentially domestic abuse; Hurley does an impressive job of writing rounded, interesting full characters, who have understandable and believable motivations for all their actions. Perhaps Lillia is the epitome of this; thrown from one world to another by her mother as a child to save her life, she is driven and motivated in an entirely believable way and incredibly well written.
This is also, it’s worth noting, a book as queer as the Bel Dame Apocrypha, if not queerer. The Mirror Empire‘s cultures all have multiple genders – three or five; and bisexuality is completely normalised and expected. The Dhai are a polyamorous society, where multiple-person marriages with all sorts of configurations of gender are shown without comment, and the men of Saiduan seem to be shared at their owner’s whims. Hurley has also included the Orlandoesque character of Taigan, who changes gender with the seasons; we see Taigan as both male and as an intersex individual in the novel, but presumably in future installments we’ll see her become female too. The one criticism I have is that Hurley only ever uses binary pronouns, which can be startling; someone who thinks of themselves as neither male or female will still be referred to as “he” or “she”, and I think The Mirror Empire might have benefited from greater use of Spivak or even invented pronouns.
There is so much more to this book than will fit in any reasonable length of review; but hopefully I’ve captured some of the glorious essence of The Mirror Empire, even without discussing the moon-based magic system, the “Winter is Coming”-style prophecies of doom, the various characters I’ve not even mentioned who are wonderfully rounded humans, the nuances of the different cultures, the different strands of plot and internecine infighting; Hurley has really come into her full strength with the start of the Worldbreaker Saga, which reads like an angry, feminist George R. R. Martin dropping acid and using steroids.
This novel has more substance to it than most entire series of fantasy with a pagecount less than many single volumes from those series, and I heartily recommend that you pick up a copy of The Mirror Empire when it is released in September.
DoI: This review was written based on an ARC sent by Angry Robot Books in response to a request for one. Mirror Empire comes out in the UK on September 4th, and is already available in the US.
Khesh City floats above the surface of the uninhabitable planet of Vellern. Topside, it’s extravagant, opulent, luxurious; the Undertow is dark, twisted and dangerous. Khesh City is a place where nothing is forbidden – but it’s also a democracy, of sorts, a democracy by assassination, policed by the Angels, the élite, state-sponsored killers who answer only to the Minister, their enigmatic master.
Taro lived with Malia, his Angel aunt, one of the privileged few, until a strange man bought his body for the night, then followed him home and murdered Malia in cold blood. Taro wants to find the killer who ruined his future, but he’s struggling just to survive in the brutal world of the Undertow. Then an encounter with the Minister sets him on a new course, spying for the City; his target is a reclusive Angel called Nual.
Elarn Reen is a famous musician, sent to Khesh City as the unwilling agent of mankind’s oldest enemy, the Sidhe. To save her own life, she must find and kill her ex-lover, a renegade Sidhe.
Though they come from different worlds, Taro and Elarn’s fates are linked, their lives apparently forfeit to other people’s schemes. As their paths converge, it becomes clear that the lives of everyone in Khesh City, from the majestic, deadly Angels to the barely-human denizens of the Undertow, are at risk. And Taro and Elarn, a common prostitute and an uncommon singer, are Khesh City’s only chance…
Jaine Fenn is one of those authors whose work is widely regarded as excellent science fiction and often brought up in discussion of female authors of SF… but also as someone who, over the course of the five books of the Hidden Empire series, appears to have been increasingly sidelined and vanished by Gollancz.
Principles of Angels is the first of the Hidden Empire novels, and introduces us to concepts and settings such as the Angels, the Concord, and Khesh City; it never quite infodumps, but is very information-heavy, with exposition to introduce Elarn Reen, a tourist, to the world in which the events of ther novel actually take place; that world is a complicated one, with a political system resting on murder rather similar to the way the Athenian democracy rested on the ostrakon process, guarded from the hostile atmosphere of Vellern by a strange unknown force, divided into the posh topside and the underclass of the Undertow. The formalised, covertly-ruled anarchism of Khesh City is not the utopian anarchism of much science fiction, but rather a dystopian, class-divided, starkly unequal, lawless and lethal society. Fenn’s posited world in Principles of Angels gives much of the grimdark fantasy out there a real run for its money in the “grittiness” scales.
The characters, on the other hand, stand as rays of hope in this darkness; Principles of Angels may present us with a world ruled by thuggery, but it also presents characters with hearts. Taro, the rent-boy, is driven by anger at the murder of his aunt-and-protector; but his capacity to take care of himself is strangely variable – at times incredibly strong, at times, convenient to the plot, much weaker. That’s without going into the very problematic approach Fenn takes to his sex work, which treats it as equivalent to rape, and indeed directly draws parallels between the two; Taro’s character allows Fenn to blur these lines in a way I found deeply disturbing. Similarly, Elarn is a mixture of incredibly canny and incredibly naive; indeed, it’s those two characteristics that inform all our major characters, in a weird approach that doesn’t endear so much as frustrate with its inconsistency.
The plot is similarly balanced between excellent and dull. Principles of Angels gets terribly bogged down in detail, in a whole lot of chasing its own tale trying to complicate the story; but at times it is as pacy as a thriller, racing along through the action scenes. This uneven pacing makes it a bit of a tough read, as one moves from high-adrenaline reading to a crashing halt with whiplash suddenness, only made worse by the different viewpoint characters in approximately alternating chapters not necessarily being even remotely similarly paced. While this is arguably a near literary trick, in practice Fenn makes it hard to get and stay in the world of the book, because the bumpy pacing and transparent attempts to set up later twists just become wearing.
In the end, Principles of Angels suffers from a number of the problems of a debut novel, including its issues with pacing; but despite that, the ideas show a talent that, with refinement and experience, might well be worth reading more of.