Monday, 20 November 2017

Swordspoint, and The Privilege of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner

Swordspoint (subtitled a Melodrama of Manners and published in 1987) is one of those books which I read not long after it came out, and enjoyed enough to hang on to my copy ever since. This also prompted me to buy the sequel, The Privilege of the Sword, when it appeared almost twenty years later; it won the 2007 Locus Award for the Best Fantasy Novel. I have, finally, got around to reading PotS, and that prompted me to pick up SaMoM for a second read.

Swordspoint is set in a fantasy world which is loosely equivalent, socially and technologically, to the late Renaissance period in Europe; duelling with swords is not just legal but is the accepted way of settling disputes among the ruling class; however, they don't normally fight themselves – they hire professional swordsmen to represent them. One such, and the most famous of them all, is the young Richard St Vier. The story follows his unwilling involvement in the plots of scheming nobles while maintaining a turbulent relationship with Alec, a former student. The city setting is richly portrayed; the rough, dangerous and colourful old Riverside area contrasting with the civilised Hill where the nobility live. St Vier ends up facing a very different kind of fight in a climactic scene of political struggle at a full meeting of the nobility.

There may have been a considerable gap before The Privilege of the Sword emerged, but it's a slightly lesser one in "fiction time", as it is set fifteen years after the events in SaMoM. We meet again some of the characters from the first novel, but the focus is on a new young heroine, Katherine, from a poor, country branch of one of the noble families. We follow her progress as she fights – literally – to establish herself both in high society and in Riverside. I found this a more enjoyable tale than SaMoM, Katherine being an engaging character it is easy to support and identify with (regardless of gender!). Together, these two novels make a notable contribution to the more thoughtful and intelligent end of the fantasy spectrum, and are well worth seeking out.

This is not the end of the stories with the same setting. The Fall of the Kings (co-authored with Delia Sherman, and based on an earlier novella with the same title) was published in 2002 but is set a generation after the events in SaMoM and PotS. I gather from decidedly mixed reviews that it doesn't bear much relationship to the earlier works. In addition, there have been various short stories collectively known as the Riverside series, and in 2015 Kushner created the Tremontaine collaborative series, consisting so far of two "seasons" (E-books and audiobooks only) of stories written by a range of different authors but all set in a period before SaMoM.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Of Tangible Ghosts, and The Ghost of the Revelator, by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

A couple of posts ago I wrote about Solar Express, by L.E. Modesitt Jnr., and mentioned that I have Of Tangible Ghosts and The Ghost of the Revelator by this author, but could recall nothing about them. I have now read them, and soon realised why I couldn't recall them – I hadn't actually read them before! At some point, they must accidentally have been put on the wrong shelf.

These are alternative universe stories, but of an unusual kind. The setting is vaguely similar to the present day, but there are many differences. The USA does not exist in its present form; instead there is the smaller country of Columbia (very much dominated by its Dutch heritage) which includes part of Canada (the remainder being French Quebec); New France occupies most of the southern states, and Maximilian controls Mexico. Further afield, the Austro-Hungarian Empire under Ferdinand VII dominates Europe (one ironic touch: their ambassador to Columbia is called Schicklgruber), while Japan and Chung Kuo have divided up eastern Asia.

Other minor differences: Babbage mechanical computers and Stanley steam cars feature, and the histories of some well-known people are rather different: e.g. Mozart obviously lives much longer, as music from his "later period" is mentioned.

These differences are never directly explained, readers having to glean what happened from odd comments (e.g. concerning "William the Unfortunate" who invaded England). However, it gradually becomes obvious that the political differences exist because major international conflicts have been smaller and less frequent; in particular, the colossal disruption of the two World Wars of the 20th century never took place. The reason for this is down to one key factor: ghosts are real and wander round for a while after death, being visible and even being able to communicate with the living. The human population is uncomfortable with this, so the existence of many ghosts (as results from warfare) devalues the areas they haunt.  So warfare, and in particular mass destruction, has been restricted. Futhermore, the technology had recently been developed to to create ghosts (by a mysterious process) by separating them from their bodies; the uninhabited bodies, known as zombies, can carry out simple manual work so this is used as a severe method of punishment.

Despite all of this, these stories are not really about an alternative universe, the plot just happens to be set in one. The only specific reference to this is the well-worn trope of the principal character finding an alternative world novel in which there were no ghosts, and a much bigger Columbia was known as the United States. Nothing much is made of this, however.

So to the story in Of Tangible Ghosts: the principal character is Johan Eschbach, a former agent of the Spazi (the Columbian internal security service) and previously a government minister, who for political reasons has been retired to a lecturing position in a provincial college. He has a considerable back history which is revealed only gradually and obliquely, but it becomes clear that his wife and child had died as a result of his previous roles. He becomes involved in investigating the murder of another member of the college staff, and realises that he is being set up by his political enemies in the government. He will need every ounce of his considerable ingenuity to survive.

The author makes the reader work quite hard: it requires concentration to keep up with the complex plot or to work out what might happen next.

The Ghost of the Revelator picks up Eschbach's story about a year later. During this time, he has married the French soprano Llysette duBoise, his occasional girlfriend in the first story. She takes on a much larger role because of her battle to re-establish her singing reputation after arriving in Columbia as a refugee from Austro-Hungarian persecution.  She is invited to perform in Deseret, effectively the Mormon Utah, which is a separate country in this world. It becomes obvious to Eschbach that there is a lot of complex plotting going on, including various attempts on their lives, and once again his ingenuity is tested in saving them both. As before, it is his specialist knowledge of ghost technology – for both creating and destroying them – which is key to the plot.

The second novel is as unusual and creative as the first, though it has some curious aspects. In particular, the author really goes overboard in stressing duBoise's superlative singing ability, time after time (I felt that he seemed to be falling in love with his own creation). After all of the complexity leading up to the climax, Eschbach's final success seemed to be surprisingly straightforward.

These stories are very different in style as well as content to Solar Express, not too surprising as they were written some 15-20 years earlier, but are equally worth reading.  Given the vast and varied output of this author, I think I shall try sampling some of his other types of work.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

TV series roundup

TV – Being Human

This comedy/horror series was made for BBC3 and ran for five seasons, from 2009 to 2013, a total of 36 episodes. I missed it the first time around, but in December 2016 the entire series was made available on iPlayer, so I looked at it then. There was a pilot episode featuring some different actors but this was not included in the current "virtual box set". The Being Human series was also remade in the USA (with its own plot variations) and shown in four seasons (52 episodes) between 2011 and 2014.

The basic scenario is a now-familiar one in contemporary urban fantasy: creatures of fantasy (specifically, ghosts, vampires and werewolves) trying to exist alongside humans in the modern world. A vampire and a werewolf combine to share a flat, only to discover that it already has a resident ghost (invisible to anyone but them).  This isn't a must-watch series but it is nonetheless worth trying, mixing adult dilemmas with a fair amount of comedy.

TV – Outlander

A time-travelling adventure in which a young English woman, fresh from working as a nurse in WW2, is on holiday in Scotland with her husband when she is accidentally transported 200 years into the past – a time of intermittent warfare between the English and the Scots. The first episode is terrific, with much painstaking effort to reflect the realities of life in both periods (particularly grim and unpleasant in the distant past, of course). However, after that the action slows down and the focus changes to concentrate on relationships, feelings and emotions; from a healthy 50/50 split between plot and relationships, it shifts to more like 25/75. The tale acquires a distinctly "Mills & Boon" flavour and I lost interest after the third episode. 

TV – Cleverman

An Australian series set in an alternate present day in which the natives, instead of being aboriginies, are "hairymen" with unusual abilities (and lots of body hair). Intriguing, but too dark in all senses to be appealing.

TV – Occupied

A near-future Norwegian thriller inspired by crime writer Jo Nesbø with the basic premise that Norway elects a "green" government committed to shutting down their oil and gas industries to rely solely on renewable energy. The problem is that Norway exports a lot of oil and gas, and its customers are highly alarmed. So much so that when the Russians occupy the North Sea rigs in order to ensure that production is maintained, the EU takes no action. Russian involvement in Norwegian politics becomes ever more complex and a resistance movement springs up among the disaffected Norwegian military.

The principal character is a Norwegian security officer who stops an assassination attempt aimed at the Russian ambassador. He becomes trusted by the Russians, and with official encouragement he gets closer to them – but problems arise over the way he and his family are regarded by their fellow-countrymen. The plot becomes ever more convoluted as the tensions ramp up – with war being declared by Russia against Norway at the end of the first 10-episode season. The second season I haven't yet seen. Gripping, but rather grim.

TV – Valkyrien

Another Norwegian series with an interesting plot with elements of crime, medical drama and "preppers" concerned with preparing for their predicted collapse of society. It has been compared with Breaking Bad, but since I haven't seen that series I can't comment. 

A brilliant surgeon falls ill while working on a cure for a particular disease. Her husband, also a surgeon, tries to obtain approval to try an experimental treatment which they have been working on, but this is denied. He accordingly fakes her suicide as she slips into a coma, and while continuing her research, hides her in part of a network of abandoned tunnels underneath Oslo, with the help of Leif from the Civil Defence Agency who is responsible for the tunnels. He is a prepper (and the most interesting character in the series) obsessed with planning for doomsday, and has been involved in organising bank robberies in order to obtain the funds he needs.

An interesting aspect of the series is that Leif lists a dozen threats that could cause a collapse in society, and these are so realistic that the actor who plays Leif (Pal Sverre Hagen) was invited to address, in character,  a National Security Authority conference on the subject!

The series is intriguing, with the development of the complex plot far more difficult to predict than is usually the case. Worth watching.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Solar Express, by L. E. Modesitt Jr.

I was familiar with Modesitt's name, but couldn't offhand recall reading any of his books. Calling up his bibliography on the web, I was frankly staggered by his output: 73 novels to date, published between 1985 and 2015 (that's an average of one novel every five months), grouped into ten series (both SF and fantasy) with another ten stand-alone books. Plus a lot of short fiction. On checking my shelves I was surprised to find a couple of his novels: Of Tangible Ghosts, and The Ghost of the Revelator, and equally surprised to realise on reading the cover blurbs that I did not recall anything about them.

Solar Express is the latest to appear and is one of the stand-alone novels. The story is set in a future in which humanity is gradually spreading through the Solar System, having consolidated politically into a few major groups (after various conflicts, involving nuclear weapons): Noram (Canada and the USA); the Sinese Federation (China plus adjacent region); India; and various odds and ends like the European Community and the African Union. Tensions between the Sinese and Indians are rising and the threat of war increasing, with a particular focus on the banned militarisation of space. 

Into this tinderbox comes a visitor to the inner Solar System – an object at first thought to be a comet, then a large asteroid, then is finally realised to be an artificial construct of huge size. The story follows two tracks; that of Dr. Alayna Wong-Grant, a post-doc astrophysicist based at a Moon observatory who first spots the construct, and Chris Tavoian, a Noram space pilot who is sent on a solo mission to intercept it. The two know each other and are in frequent communication, their messages forming an important part of the story. They keep finding relevant quotes to exchange – here's a couple:

"Don't we all want some meaning in the universe? Meaning that transcends mechanics?" Tavoian snorted. He doubted that the universe had meaning. Structure, but not meaning. People had to create meaning. Whether it's there or not. Which continued to be the problem with true believers of every kind.


The greatest of all faults in a politician, and in any leader, is the failure to recognize that charisma has nothing to do with ability, excellence or goodness. In fact, charisma enables far more the evils of the universe than great and worthy accomplishments. Give me pedestrian accomplishment over charisma any day.

The basic plot is obviously reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke's classic Rendezvous with Rama, but it is handled in a very different way. Modesitt takes a lot of time in establishing the detailed background, including Alayna's mundane repair-and-maintenance tasks and Tavoian's repetitive duties in carrying out his rather frustrating step-by-step reconnaissance mission. While this is going on, they are also exchanging messages with relatives on Earth who are facing their own difficulties. This certainly provides a strong flavour of their different existences but there is an inevitable consequence - a leisurely pacing with the dramatic tension ticking along very gently for much of the book. There is little of the sense of excitement and awe that RwR generates. Nonetheless, I was never in danger of giving up on the book – the story is too intriguing for that.

The tension does gradually begin to rise as Sinese spacecraft arrive on the scene to begin their own research, while the enigmatic construct begins to show unpredicted behaviour and Chris finds that his time is running out. By this time, I was really gripped and read until the early hours to finish it.

I was increasingly impressed by this novel the more I read of it. The comparison with RwR is instructive as it shows the evolution of SF over the period: Solar Express has far more scientific and technical detail; the characters are much more fully developed; the plot is less straightforward and more sophisticated; and the book is more than twice the length. It demands more time and concentration from the reader, as the astrophysics gets rather dense, but is a rewarding read.

I am clearly going to have to pay more attention to Modesitt, starting with the books I found on my shelf!

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Brass Man, Polity Agent, and Line War, by Neal Asher

These are the third, fourth and fifth (and evidently last) books in the author's Agent Cormac series to be reviewed on this blog (Gridlinked and The Line of Polity being the other two) although the chronology of Asher's novels is more complex than this suggests. Of his nineteen novels so far, fifteen are set in his far-future Polity universe, which has similarities to Iain M Banks's Culture – including an IA-governed interstellar civilisation with vast, highly intelligent spaceships which give themselves idiosyncratic names. Only five of the fifteen novels feature Ian Cormac, the formidable agent of Earth Central Security. However, nine other novels are set in the Polity (plus several short stories) but without Cormac; two of these are set before the first Cormac story, the other seven are later, of which six form two trilogies (Spatterjay and Transformation). The order in which these were written bears no relationship to their Polity chronology or which series they belong to. So readers who enjoy debating whether such a collection of tales should be read in their order of writing or in accordance with their internal chronology are now faced with an additional pair of options: to read them one series at a time, and if so either in order of writing or by their internal chronology within each series (which is, on balance, my preference). I hope all is now clear!

With that settled, let's turn to Brass Man. This follows on directly from The Line of Polity, being essentially a continuation of the same story, so it is highly desirable to read them in order. The novel begins with various parallel plot threads as is usual for this author, but complicates matters considerably by also throwing in flashback scenes set at various times in the past. The structure of the book is therefore headachingly complex, leaving the reader to try to work out when as well as where each sequence fits into the story. Asher does provide some helpful props in the form of mini-infodumps scattered through the early part of the book, but they are really to refresh the memory of those who have already read the previous book; anyone who hasn't will be left floundering.

Another unusual aspect of this story is that Asher evidently liked some of his earlier bad-guy characters so much that he decided to bring them back to life after seemingly finishing them off in the previous book. I can't help a vague feeling that this is cheating in some way and if I were Ian Cormac I would be feeling rather exasperated. However, Cormac does have a lot of other things to worry about, in fact the author enjoys placing his heroes in seemingly impossible situations before arranging their escape – usually. It won't really be a spoiler to reveal that the redoubtable Cormac survives every misfortune, since he was obviously contractually obliged to appear in another two books.

Polity Agent follows immediately on from Brass Man, so as with my comment above, reading these books in the right order is essential. The author makes no concessions at all to readers who might pick up this volume as their visit visit to the Polity – they will be completely lost from start to finish. The structure this time is simpler, but the downside is that there is less variety in the drama. A new enemy is introduced – a rogue AI – and the emphasis is much more on military SF, in the space-opera tradition of grand starship fleets clashing; somewhat reminiscent of Jack Campbell. This extract will give something of the flavour of the descriptive writing: if you like it, you'll probably enjoy the book; if not, not:

Definitely one of the newest designs: attack-ship configuration with a state-of-the-art chameleonware hull which, as well as being able to bend low intensity EM radiation around it, could also, to some degree, deflect high-powered lasers and masers. The outer skin was a form of polymerized diamond, over layered composite laced with super-conductors. The ship's skeleton, composed of the usual laminated tungsten ceramal, shock-absorbing foamed alloys and woven diamond monofilament, in this case was cellular and more substantial than usual. Cormac also knew that its extra weapons nacelle contained gravtech armament in addition to the usual lethal complement housed in the other two nacelles.

From my viewpoint, rather more putdownable than the earlier books, but still an entertaining read, as long as you've enjoyed the earlier novels in the series.

The final book in this series, Line War, is more of the same and follows straight on; this series is effectively one 2,500+ page story. Cormac masters a new power, which he needs to survive the deadliest threat yet, and he also acquires some strange new allies – among them, those who had been enemies in the past. The story is intensely action-focused with a rather cinematic feel; the author is good at projecting images into the readers' minds. As usual, concentration is needed to keep up with everything that is going on, as the viewpoint constantly switches between several different characters. The ending is satisfying, wrapping everything up quite tidily.

In the first paragraph I compared the Polity and Culture universes; in a nutshell, Asher's writing style could be considered a rocket-boosted version of Banks's, with a faster action and less of the whimsical meandering. This is not a criticism of either – I enjoy the work of both authors who have produced good quality space opera – and which I prefer depends on the mood I'm in.