The Will to Battle – Ada Palmer

51ydnovnysl-_sx328_bo1204203200_Ada Palmer’s fiction gets a lot of attention for its voice and ideas, but I think her greatest strength is actually characterization. The Will to Battle features a large ensemble cast and somehow manages to give all the characters devastating and/or moving moments. Structure-wise it’s a bit off (suddenly a lot of things happen in the last quarter that are not resolved) and the engagement with Hobbes simply doesn’t work, but what do I care when I can wallow in characterization?

Furthermore (and this extends the comparison with Hugo I made in my review of Seven Surrenders), her characters, while all in conflict with one another, are mostly of an elevated, well, character. The few base ones stick out, and undoubtedly have a role to play as the true villains of the story (though I wish Perry/Kraye would just GO AWAY ALREADY, he’s no fun to read about). This is made explicit when Mycroft, the narrator (more passive than usual in this book) confronts Thisbe, the woman with whom he raised Bridger. There’s no love lost between them, however, and Mycroft says of her family members, “…Sniper’s a noble creature, and Propero’s a noble creature. They’re all noble creatures, Thisbe, except you, you’re a….You’re a tick…..A tick, and you feed, and you bloat, and you crawl, and you think it makes you something poetic and exciting, like a vampire, and you’re so wrong.”

They’re all murderers, Mycroft, Prospero, Sniper, and Thisbe, so the difference isn’t in their deeds but in their–there’s the word again–character, their position on the scale of nobility to baseness. Their motives, and their acceptance of consequences. It reminds me, as I said, of Victor Hugo’s novels, where one must never confuse a Javert with a Thenardier, however much they’re both antagonists.

Aside from all that, there’s also some great humor in this book. Achilles, or a version of him, features in this book, and one of the characters has an obvious crush on him. Thus the following bon mot: “‘I know my sister broke your heart, and a rebound is natural, but Achilles? Really? There is such a thing as asking for it!’ Death in the guise of MASON blushed.”

I don’t know that this review will convince anyone to read the book–at this point in the series, either you’re thoroughly enjoying yourself or you’re off the hype train. There’s only one book left to go, and I hope it resolves some of the mysteries of this one. Moreover, I can’t wait to read it and immerse myself once more in the world of these fascinating people.

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The Horse and His Boy – C.S. Lewis

After selling quite a few copies of the Narnia books at the Christmas book drive in the bookstore where I used to work, I decided to pick up this book, one of the two Narnia books I hadn’t read. It always looked boring to me as a child, so I skipped it when reading the series.

The book has many virtues, including a female character with, well, character, a proud, haughty, brave, loyal, impatient girl named Aravis who accompanies main character Shasta on his journey from Calormen to Narnia. Faced with a forced marriage, the young noblewoman steals her dead brother’s armor and runs away from home. Unsurprisingly for an aristocrat or “Tarkheena,” she looks down on Shasta, a fisherman’s adopted son, but she learns better when he shows his courage, facing a lion to help her. Like most of Lewis’s sympathetic female characters, she’s a tomboy and finds her “friend” Lasaraleen, a girly-girl, silly and selfish–their interaction confirms for me that there really is some misogyny in the exclusion of Susan in The Last Battle. Lewis (correctly imo) sees traditional femininity as a trap. However (and here’s where the misogyny comes in), he doesn’t see that traditional masculine roles can also be a trap, and the always-up-for-a-fistfight minor character Corin is portrayed uncritically.

However, I absolutely loved Aravis. If I have a complaint, besides the big one that I’ll get to at the end, it’s that this isn’t a more character-driven book–Aravis’s grief for her brother is largely unexplored, and Shasta, though real enough, is not very deeply characterized. Aravis certainly isn’t the equal of Orual from Lewis’s post-Narnia book Till We Have Faces in terms of depth, but she’s flawed and vivid and good, and I was very happy to find such a character in Narnia, especially one who’s female and nonwhite.

Alas, as I could have predicted from The Last Battle, pretty much the entire country of Calormen is portrayed negatively and racistly. They’re a massive traditional stereotype of a decadent Eastern empire, dirty and superstitious and tyrannical, proud without much to be proud of. Someone on Twitter pointed out that Aravis from this book and Emeth from The Last Battle, the two “good Calormenes” we encounter, are some of Lewis’s best-drawn characters in the series, which is certainly true, and I give him credit for not painting them all with one brush. However, the racism was pervasive and disturbing enough–and it’s not just about culture, there’s emphasis on how much nicer-looking the white Narnians are–that I deducted a star from this otherwise five-star book.

However, it has Lewis’s usual sense of humor (the grown-up Aravis and Shasta marry so as to go on quarreling and making up “more conveniently”) and sense of the numinous in religion (Aslan of course puts in an appearance, in both his terrifying and comforting forms), and I enjoyed Aravis so much (though Shasta is really the main character) that it may be my favorite Narnia book.

announcing TOXIC BLOOM, a fantasy novella

I’ve just contracted with Falstaff Books to do a novella for their series Tales of the Broken Cities, edited by Jaym Gates.

My novella will be called Toxic Bloom, and follow two idealistic politicians forced to grapple with a killer algae crisis when smuggling across the multiverse brings in an invasive species. But they find themselves increasingly at odds as to how to deal with the toxic mess that threatens to destroy their island world.

I’ll be writing it over the next few months!

STAR WARS Rogue One: Cassian & K2SO Annual #1- Duane Swierczynski and Fernando Blanco

I’m not usually interested in Star Wars novels and comics, though I love the films. Lately, that’s been changing. Elizabeth Wein is writing Cobalt Squadron, taking her pilot-centric stories to a galaxy far, far away. Claudia Gray, a solid and creative if unspectacular writer, gave us the story of how Leia joined the Rebellion. And both authors contributed to the anthology From a Certain Point of View.

More relevant to this post, Alexander Freed did a fantastic job with the Rogue Onenovelization, bringing additional depth to the characters. I’d particularly latched on to Cassian Andor, the rebel spy who’s seen (and done) too much, and loved getting his point of view in Freed’s version. Cassian works with snarky, tactless droid K2SO, who provided most of the movie’s humor. In the novelization, there’s a neat bit of backstory where K2SO offers to have his memory wiped when he stumbles on Cassian holding a blaster and crying. I was excited that they got their own comic, even though it wasn’t going to cover that incident, but rather their first meeting.

Reader, I should have stuck with fanfic.

The comic is occasionally funny but mostly dull. It’s missing a real antagonist–there’s K2SO, whom we already know will end up on Cassian’s side eventually, and there are some faceless storm troopers. One of the strengths of Star Wars has always been its great villains, but none of them put in an appearance.

Nor are there many supporting characters. The two agents under Cassian’s command who sacrifice themselves towards the end are seriously underdeveloped. They communicate with each other by scent, a neat gimmick that however undercuts the story, as they have hardly any dialogue. I couldn’t even think of a single difference between the two, or a defining trait of either.

Cassian himself doesn’t get much development either, and K2SO’s, though entertaining, is predictable–he gets reprogrammed. No one learns, no one grows, all the choices are simple. For comic whose main character’s appeal is partly in his dark backstory and willingness to do morally gray things for a righteous cause, this was disappointing.

Finally, the adventure aspect–the thrilling peril and last minute escapes–was completely perfunctory. There’s a secret place, they break into it, the alarm goes off, they fight their way out and take off just in time. The end. That’s the bare bones of a story, not a story itself.

All in all, I was not happy.

Paladin of Souls – Lois McMaster Bujold

61904-_uy475_ss475_Paladin of Souls won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards when it came out, and is generally reckoned one of the prolific Bujold’s masterpieces, perhaps the best book she’s ever written. That’s a lot of hype to live up to. And it lived up to it.

All the problems I mentioned in my review of The Curse of Chalion stand. However, the heights of emotion which this book reached, particularly in the final third, more than make up for the worldbuilding problem I discussed in my earlier post.

In summary: Ista (analogous to the mentally ill Isabella of Portugal, mother of Isabella the Catholic) is freed from the titular curse of the last book. With her husband and parents dead and her sole surviving child grown-up and married, she’s not quite sure what to do with herself. To escape the narrow life planned for her by well-meaning relatives and friends, she goes on a pilgrimage, but when her party is attacked by enemy soldiers, she ends up at the castle of her rescuer Arhys dy Lutez–the son of Arvol, the man she killed long ago trying unsuccessfully to break the curse.

There are bigger problems than her old guilt and hatred towards Arvol, though. Arhys, his wife, and his brother are caught in a demonic mess that threatens to kill them all, and Ista has been brought there by a god, the Bastard, to sort out the problem. But with her last brush with divinity and magic having ended in Arvol’s murder, she’s reluctant to trust any deity.

Things get worse when more enemy soldiers show up to besiege the castle. There’s no way they’re all getting out of this tangle alive, but death at the right time might be worth everything…

My favorite part of this book was the character of Arhys, who is a genuinely good guy (despite his lax fidelity to his wife Cattilara). The other characters call him “great-souled” and despite his flaws, it’s obviously true. He has a strong sibling relationship with his illegitimate brother, and a romantic image of his long-dead father, which Ista shatters. But when the truth about his father, whose courage broke during the effort to lift the curse, is out, he says he does “not desire any softer wreath”.

The way Ista sees him shifts over time, from rescuer/potential romantic prospect to son of a man she hates to hapless part of a mess she’s meant to fix to hero. Their (decidedly non-romantic) relationship, with the grace of the gods, manages to heal Ista of all the rage, guilt, and bitterness that has haunted her since she killed Arvol in her failed ritual.

All the other characters are also sharply drawn–the clever, good-hearted Illvin, the determined though childish Cattilara, the complex figure of Arvol, and Ista’s own personality–cynical, impatient, tough, but reawakening to life.

Walking on Knives is out!

You can purchase it at Amazon here!

Thanks to all of you for your support!

WalkingonKnives-fThe little mermaid has no idea that as she makes her way on land, she’s being watched over by the sister of the very witch with whom she made her bargain. She has no idea that the witch’s sister is falling in love with her.

When the prince decides to marry another woman, the little mermaid’s secret helper offers her a chance to live. But the price may be too high…

Content warning: Walking on Knives contains some explicit content and opens with a disturbing scene of dubious sexual consent.

The Curse of Chalion – Lois McMaster Bujold

The Curse of Chalion is a secondary-world fantasy based off Spanish history–the youth of Isabel I and the Reconquista. Names and some events are changed, but there are clear analogues. Of course, the titular curse is fictional, tying together a string of bad luck in real life as a magical disaster haunting the royal family.

I enjoyed the book greatly–whether you know the history it’s drawing on or not, it’s a wonderful theological adventure, in which fantasy gods play a prominent role. My post however will be less about the book’s many good qualities, and more about something that troubled me.

I don’t pretend to know a lot about the Reconquista, but I do know that during Isabel’s reign, Muslims and Jews were expelled from the country. In this fantasy world, the Christian equivalent are Quintarians, worshippers of the Five Gods, whereas the Muslim equivalent, the Quadrenes, see one of the gods as a demon and do not worship him. In general, the fictional religions have nothing to do with their real life counterparts–the only reason I call them equivalents is because of their position in the political situation. For example, the Quintarians are accepting of homosexuality, because it’s thought to be part of the fifth god’s domain. Obviously 15th century Christians were monotheists and also thought homosexuality a sin.

There is no equivalent population to the Sephardic Jews in this story, which greatly simplifies the ethics of the situation. There also don’t appear to be any equivalent to the moriscos–Muslims of Spanish rather than Moorish origin–which again makes it a lot more clear-cut. There are invaders, occupiers to be kicked out, and no collateral damage along the way. Moreover, the Quintarians are, in the context of the book, objectively right about their religious beliefs. The Quadrenes are simply wrong. 51k72bgtswml-_sy344_bo1204203200_

Now this is obviously not a direct take on the Reconquista and assorted fallout, but a world where magic is real. It still troubled me how thorny historical issues and atrocities are smoothed out in the fantasy world, when it’s so easy to draw equivalents to the real world (Isabel=Iselle, Enrique=Orico, Beatriz de Boabadilla=Betriz). Iselle herself is a lot less complicated and flawed than her real-life counterpart, because she simply has a less complex situation to deal with.

Another series that similarly troubled me was Aliette de Bodard’s Aztec books, in which the Aztec gods are real and demand human sacrifice. This takes place in a world exactly like our own otherwise, without the poetic license of a true secondary world. It seems to justify to some degree the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, making the historical crime of unwilling sacrifice much more palatable.

I don’t have an easy solution for any of this. In fact, I think fiction and particularly fantasy is a good place to explore issues and counterfactuals that make no sense or are even dangerous ideas in the real world. I loved The Curse of Chalion in part because I could recognize how Bujold had taken real events and cleverly made them fantastical, and I am reading the sequel, Paladin of Souls. But the ethics of using and twisting real history in fantasy bothered me nonetheless.