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Deathless by Catherynne M Valente

Corsair, 2013, 352p. Reviewed for Interzone 248, Sep-Oct 2013.

Valente here has reworked a traditional Russian folk tale, or perhaps several. Lack of familiarity with this source material may obscure some of its nuances but fear not. In what could have been a dizzying whirl through the unfamiliar – we have to deal not only with the tale itself but with the typically Russian patronymics and diminutives – Valente’s writing, with the occasional exception, is fluid and expressive. Her powers of description and similes can be striking, but her Americanisms stand oddly against the novel’s setting.

The story signals its fantastical elements early on. In a house on a long, thin street during the time St Petersburg became Petrograd, then Leningrad – and the street also changed its name twice – Marya Morevna knows there is magic in the world when she sees a bird fall off a tree – “thump, bash!” – change into a man and ask for the girl in the window. Twice more the same thing happens. (As in fairy tales repetition is a key feature of the novel, though the repetitions may have minor changes.) Each manbird takes away one of her three sisters. She then befriends the domoviye (house imps) who hold soviets behind a door in the stove and tell her Papa Koschei is coming.

Marya regrets missing seeing her bird “thump, bash!” into a man. This is Koschei Bessmertny, Koschei the Deathless, the Tsar of life, who nevertheless, in a mechanical vehicle that is also a horse, spirits her away to Buyan, a land where his previous lovers – all called Yelena or Vasilisa – sew soldiers onto cloth and breathe them into life.

In Buyan Koschei’s mother/sister/sometime wife Baba Yaga – relationships there are somewhat involuted – sets Marya tasks to assess her worthiness as a wife for Koschei. These include subduing Baba Yaga’s traditional method of travel, the mortar and pestle. A nice touch during one of these was the scene which is effectively Little Red Riding Hood in reverse. A character Marya befriends in Buyan expresses to her what is perhaps a very Russian sentiment but with universal application, “You will live as you live in any world; with difficulty and grief.” Koschei’s brother Viy, the Tsar of death, turns up uninvited at the marriage and thereafter there will be war between the brothers.

Birds or eggs occur frequently in the text. Marya kills a firebird; in one of her tasks she fetches an egg she believes contains Koschei’s death; a friend turns into a bird; she spends some time in a place named Yaichka which turns out to be an egg; Alkanost, a firebird-like creature, imparts words of wisdom; she is told the world tries to make stories turn out differently – as perfect as an egg.

In a sudden temporal jump we find a human man, Ivan Nikolayevich, wandering into Marya’s life. In the interim she has become one of Koschei’s generals, but the war is going badly. (The war is always going badly.) Koschei is dismayed as Ivans habitually take his wives from him. Marya chides him for his attitude and takes Ivan as her lover, despite his confusion. She tells him, “What passes between married people is incomprehensible to outsiders.”

Whatever her title may be, Valente’s story is not deathless. Escaping the war in Buyan, Marya chooses to return with Ivan to her childhood home and is shocked that a house in Leningrad is painted with characters from her story. With all the fantastical events that have gone before and come after, though, the impact of the German siege of the city and its attendant horrors of starvation and suffering is lessened. The stripping of wallpaper to make bread, its paste to make butter, are not as horrific, not as devastating, as they could be; as they should be. We have not felt, not been shown, enough of the long, slow descent into abjection and desperation that survival there would have entailed. That Koschei has also turned up and is tethered in the basement only adds to the distancing effect.

An interlude in Yaichka features barely disguised versions of Lenin, Stalin, the last Tsar and his family and a priest with whom his wife may (or not) have had a liaison. Two of these have dreams of a war between red and white ants. Russian history hangs heavily.

The human time span of the novel relates to that of the ascendancy of the “wizard in Moscow with the moustache.” There is the necessity to believe, “there has never been another (world)” – “can never be another.” An explicit message is that living under totalitarianism is like death; but a death where, “You still have to go to work in the morning. You still have to live.” But, to use one of Valente’s repetitions, life is like that.

Addendum: The following did not appear in the published review.

For “Americanisms” above read “USianisms.”

Sunk count = 1; plus “off of,” “hung” for hanged, “all of who” – and stalactites might, but stalagmites can not, teeter above your head.

Interzones 251 and 252

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August cover

My contributor copy of Interzone issue 251 arrived today. It contains my review of The Copper Promise by Jen Williams.

My review of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North has now been sent off and is set to appear in issue 252.

New Review

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August cover

My next book review for Interzone will be The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North.

The accompanying blurb for this (and the link above) states, “Claire North is a pseudonym for an acclaimed British author who has previously published several novels. This book is completely different from any of them.”


I’ve got a BSFA Award nominee to read before that, though. Busy, busy.

Interzone 250

The 250th issue of Interzone has now been published. This is the one that contains my review of Alastair Reynolds’s On the Steel Breeze.

I’ve just received my contributor’s copy. 7 pieces of fiction to read.

The Peacock Cloak by Chris Beckett

NewCon Press, 2013, 239p. Reviewed for Interzone 247, Jul-Aug 2013.

This is Beckett’s second collection, containing twelve short stories – with a few commonalities in background – that have been published during the past five years. Four are from the pages of Interzone. They span a wide range of perennial SF concerns – social or technological extrapolation, global warming, enigmatic aliens, their strange worlds, parallel universes, stargates, altered histories – plus a genuflection to Arthur Clarke’s The Nine Billion Names of God.

Atomic Truth contrasts the seeming connectedness of the digital world with the distancing it carries along with it. Everyone wears bugeyes, interactive goggles that form an interface between the real and virtual worlds and display emails, ads etc. Everyone, that is, except Richard, who has no need of goggles to see visions. His encounter with Jenny provides a small moment of humanity in his disorientated world.

The style of Two Thieves is reminiscent of a fairy tale – a form which has less than cosy attributes. The thieves, exiled to a remote and totally secure penal colony, start work on an archæological site, where they uncover a relic of the Old Empire. It’s a spatial gateway, which of course they jump through. There is some nice foreshadowing here that is both blatant and subtle at the same time.

Johnny’s New Job is set in an Orwellian society with a Stakhanovite labour force and a justice system to gladden a tabloid newspaper proprietor’s heart. Offenders against the public good (who all seem to work in Welfare) are demonised by the authorities. These unfortunates are named and worse than shamed, guilt by association is afflicted on their families. Johnny goes along with the general mood, then gets an unrefusable job offer.

On the planet Lutania lies The Caramel Forest, a malodorous place of grey, brown and pink vegetation contrasted by the bright green of settlers’ lawns. The Lutanian indigenes nicknamed goblins can project settlers’ thoughts back into human minds. The Agency running the planet tries to protect them but the original human settlers have their own way of dealing with them. Cassie, the child of a constantly arguing Agency couple on a tour of duty, is influenced to escape the rows by running off into the forest.

Greenland. Juan Fernandez is a refugee from Spain scraping an ever more insecure living in a slowly submerging south-east of England flooded both by global warming and the so-called beachrats, illegal immigrants lucky to escape the machine-gunners on the shores. He loses his crap job but his future is determined by a lucrative offer to copy him in a hazardous matter-replicating machine.

The Famous Cave Paintings on Isolus 9 depict a God fashioned, as all gods are, in the image of the locals. He is imprisoned and can only dream of escape. The narrator’s Uncle Clancy, a famous womaniser who has finally fallen in love, sees them, and is terrified.

Rat Island is a take on our reckless consumption of fossil fuels. A child whose civil servant father confides to him the inevitability of the consequent crash and likens us to introduced rats on an isolated island eventually eating all the seabirds’ eggs, finds his only consolation is the taking of photographs.

Day 29. Lutania again. Stephen Kohl is coming to the end of his tour of duty for the Agency and is frustrated and worried by the thought of the memories of 29 days he will lose when he undergoes Transmission back to civilisation.

England is occupied, taken over by Brythonic Celts expelled from Britain by the Romans into France, Iberia and the Americas. They have come back to the land they claim that God gave them. The scenario has implicit and explicit parallels to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and, in common with that, isn’t resolved. Beckett’s framing device lets its story, Our Land, off that hook, though.

Jacob Stone is The Desiccated Man, transporting cargoes over the solitary spaceways, accumulating money till he can retire to a life of indulgence. But old habits die hard.

In Poppyfields, a brownfield site subject to a development delay, waif-like Tammy Pendant – who has taken slip, a drug which pierces the membranes between universes – materialises in front of bird-watching Angus Wendering. Angus is easily led.

The creator of a fabricated world called Esperine finally enters it. The copy of himself he installed there comes to confront him wearing The Peacock Cloak, a shimmering all powerful device he has used to rebel against Esperine’s tameness.

Some of these tales have an overly conversational tone, parts have a tendency to be told rather than unfold, info dumping can be intrusive and there are occasional disjunctions where story elements seem to clash but, in all of them, Beckett never loses sight of the humans he is writing about. Here we are in all our folly – and occasional glory.

Projected New Year Reading

Happy New Year everyone.

As I mentioned before the good lady suggested I should take part in her blog friend Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland Challenge. This post is about what I intend to read. (Whether I will actually get around to it all is another matter. There is the small matter of a review for Interzone to be got out of the way as a first priority and other reading to be done.)

When it came up I looked on this project partly as a chance to catch up on Scottish classics I have so far missed. In the frame then is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy – I have read most of his œuvre but not this, his most well-known work. The televison series made of it in the 1970s has been in my memory for a long time, though. I also have his Persian Dawns, Egyptian Nights in my tbr pile and a collection of shorter pieces under the title Smeddum many of which I have already read. I have not managed to source his The Calends of Cairo and doubtless if I did it would be horribly expensive.

Another Scottish classic I haven’t read is J MacDougall Hay’s Gillespie, which lies on my desk as I write this but, according to Alasdair Gray, has the “worst first chapter that ever introduced a novel worth reading.” I consider myself warned.

If I can get hold of a copy then John Galt’s The Member and the Radical will go on the list.

As far as modern stuff is concerned there are multiple novels by Christopher Brookmyre and Allan Massie on my shelves and as yet unread, two by Alan Warner, Andrew Crumey’s Mr Mee and James Robertson’s latest The Professor of Truth.

Plenty to be going on with.

We’ll see how it goes.

Interzone 249

I assume I was sent this as a contributor’s copy (my review of We See a Different Frontier appears within) but it’s uncommon for me to receive one.

Interzone 249 cover

Unknown Cities of America by Tim Lees
The fantastical element of this story concerns parts of the US which do not appear on maps and which you stumble into by accident while travelling. The unnamed narrator meets and forms a relationship with a woman from one of these towns who fears she will be taken back there by a man known as the Turk.

Paprika by Jason Sandford
Paprika is a time angel, built to access people’s memories and store them in her pocket universe. Satori the toy maker manufactures toys from the recovered memories of the olds who are all that is left of humanity after rejuvenation treatments mean there is no room for children any more. But the olds are dying off and the memories of time angels are all that is left.

Filaments by Lavie Tidhar
R. Patch-it is an old priest/rabbi of the Church of Robot, wearing out, parts no longer available, reflecting on its legacy and on faith. The story is replete with references, SF and otherwise, – to God’s nine billion names, the sands of Mars, Louis Wu, the Merchant of Venice.

Haunts by Clare Humphrey
Alekra is an ex-duellist, the last of her duelling school to survive, though she is hamstrung due to her one defeat. She is reduced to selling off her fingers one by one to survive. Her former (dead) schoolmates remain in her garden as haunts. A new patron enters her life.

The Kindest Man in Stormland
by John Shirley
Eight hundred miles of the North American coast is a perpetual stormland due to the sudden effects of global warming. A serial killer is on the loose in the flooded remains of Charleston, South Carolina. A detective from Search in Person, of Washington DC, is called in to find him. The setting is atmospheric, but the story is resolved perfunctorily.

Trans-Siberia – an account of a journey by Sarah Brooks
An orphan who has just become a man makes the dangerous journey on the railway from Beijing to Moscow. He encounters an enigmatic woman around whom strange things happen.

Another Review Book

My latest review book for Interzone is by Jen Williams, another writer new to me.

Ms Williams’s novel, her first, is entitled The Copper Promise and has a 2014 copyright date.

Plenty of time for this. The review – for Interzone 251 – is not due in till the end of January.

It’s a bit early yet for Interzone 250, which will contain my review of Alastair Reynolds’s On The Steel Breeze , Book 2 of his Poseidon’s Children series.

Review Delivered

My review of Alastair Reynolds’s On the Steel Breeze has been forwarded to Interzone.

Reviews head honcho Jim Steel tells me I was first in this time. (We aim to please.)

It’s due for Interzone 250, Jan-Feb 2014.

On The Steel Breeze

My latest book for Interzone review is Alastair Reynolds’s On The Steel Breeze, second in the Poseidon’s Children series, the first of which, Blue Remembered Earth, I read only a couple of weeks ago.

It’s a bulky beast and was too big for my letter box. Just as well I was not in a state of indecency as I had to open the door to the postwoman.

The cover of On The Steel Breeze is emblazoned “The Maestro of British SF, A Secret Millions Will Die For.”

Is he?

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