Archives » Fantasy

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

Hodder & Stoughton, 2015, 239 p. ISBN 9781473617940

 The Book of Phoenix cover

Phoenix is an ABO, an accelerated biological organism, a speciMen. Only two years old, she appears to be forty. Not only that but she is a weapon, forged in LifeGen’s Tower 7; she glows and heats up, destroying all around her. But she rises from the ashes to live again; and grows wings. Later she learns how to slip through time. The only two men she has loved are dead at the hands of her creators. The novel is essentially the story of how she exacts her revenge on those who made her and other speciMen. There is slightly more to it than this though. The tale, a prequel to Who Fears Death, a book I’ve not yet read, is bookended by sections describing how Phoenix’s story was first of all found and, secondly, parlayed into something else, the myth that I assume Who Fears Death is built around.

It did feel to me though to be more of a fantasy than a work of SF.

Pedant’s corner:- rung (rang,) “soothed my skin to no end” (‘to no end’ means without effect; ‘no end’, in the sense of ‘greatly’, was what was intended,) the phenomena (the context suggested phenomenon,) to not get too close (not to get,) sunk (sank; numerous instances – though sank did appear once.) ‘My light shined’ (shone; there were countless instances of ‘shined’ used in this way but only one ‘shone’,) sprung (sprang,) Ok (OK; or Okay [or okay in the middle of a sentence,]) round and about (round about,) albatross’ (albatross’s,) publically (publicly,) to not age (not to age; there were other counts of ‘to not’,) outside of (outside x3,) miniscule (minuscule,) manipulating and flying’ through (an apostrofly has done its work in there, http://www.theguardian.com/comment/story/0,,801364,00.html) ‘saw me as many Arabs saw African slaves over millennium’ (millennia? – or the millennium?) ‘They could monitor control … of who got to read the files’ (monitor control? of? Monitor or control – minus the ‘of’ would surely suffice,) off of (off; just off,) Henrietta Lacks’ (Lacks’s,) plus more than a handful of instances of “’time interval’ later”.

Interzone 261

Nov-Dec 2015

Interzone 261 cover

Five Conversations with my Daughter (Who Travels in Time)1 by Malcolm Devlin. The title pretty much sums this up. The narrator’s daughter travels back in time – on only five occasions – to talk to him when her body in his time is asleep.
We Might be Sims2 by Rich Larson. One of a group of three convicts forced to make a trial run to Europa thinks they may be in a simulation.
Heartsick3 by Greg Kurzawa. Martin has his heart, dying for seventeen years since the drowning of his daughter, removed.
Florida Miracles by Julie C Day. Inside, Esta hears the voice of Mrs Henry. The day comes when Mrs Henry wants out.
Scienceville4 by Gary Gibson. In his basement Joel Kincaird has constructed a map of Scienceville, the town he’d invented as a teenage boy but after an exhibition in which he’d displayed some of his drawings he gets emails from people who claim to have lived there.
Laika by Ken Altabe. The (USian) narrator’s great uncle Dimitri – a real Russian – is dying and asks him to look after his dog Laika whom he claims to be that Laika, the first living creature in space.

1 summersaults (somersaults)
2 snuck (sneaked; I know it was written in USian but still.)
3 miniscule (minuscule), plus written in USian so we had he felt obligated rather than he felt obliged.
4 Despite Gibson being Glaswegian this is written (at least in part) in USian so we have recess for interval, couple hours for couple of hours, ‘getting on what, four years?’ for ‘getting on for what, four years?’ (He lives in Taipei now though (and his protagonist lives in New York.) Ikea (surely it’s IKEA?)

Interzone 259 Jul-Aug 2015

Interzone 259 cover

Silencer – Head Like a Hole Remix1 by E Catherine Tobbler is about a group who are doomed to commit high-school massacres over and over.
The Deep of Winter2 by Chris Butler. Aluna has invented a system of communication involving “spores” which her government will not allow. She lets it loose into a parallel world.
Rush Down, Roar Gently3 by Sara Saab. A woman travels through a Beirut deluged by 102 days of rain to seek out her former friend with whom she lost contact many years before.
After His Kind4 by Richard W Strachan. The only survivor of a crash onto another planet finds his severed arm generating a new version of himself and his own regrowing.
Edited by Rich Larson is told in a slang idiom5 and relates the tale of what happens to the relationship between our (unnamed) male narrator’s rich boy-friend after the latter’s Editing, “Chemo plug for anti-anxiety. Some body language modulation. Bigger memory retention, better special reasoning.” Plus the shitty things. “I don’t feel bad remembering.”
James White Award Winner:- Midnight Funk Association6 by Mack Leonard. A signal has been ruining the beats of Detroit techno – a sound the colour of a black light.

1 “Glasser slides opposite of me” (opposite me) to not go (not to go.)
2 “It was a noble thing we did, us Guardians.” (the “we” is the verb’s subject, so it should be followed by “we Guardians.”)
3 the League of Nations (in 2007?) snuck (sneaked,) cul-de-sacs (culs-de-sac,) scramble onto low wall (a low wall,) off premises (off the premises.)
4 and not a name or a face (two negatives so: and not a name nor a face.)
5 me and him are used in the nominative case rather than the accusative
6 Written in USian; “queuing up a piece of music” (“cueing up” makes more sense,) “hocked it into the pool” (hawked.)

The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan

Gollancz, 2015, 560 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 The Dark Defiles cover

Firstly I must say I am not the intended target for this sort of stuff. I did enjoy and admire Morgan’s earlier novels but they were solidly SF, with no tinge of fantasy. While there are again hints in the text that the setting of The Dark Defiles may be rooted in the real world – albeit unimaginably long ago in the book’s timeline – and machines that seem to be AIs which would make this a fantasy/SF cross, my misgivings about the second in Morgan’s Land Fit for Heroes series (which I reviewed here) are reinforced in this last of the trilogy. Yes, the main characters are rounded and resourceful and the politicking believable but the narrative focuses almost unremittingly on violence. And our hero has magic powers. I also found that the Dark Lords – and the even darker lords in this one – appear too late to convince entirely that they are worthy opponents.

Still, Morgan can undoubtedly write and his world is well-imagined, dense and detailed but this hand, that could have been a strength, is to my mind overplayed. Background is delivered so minutely that it often gets in the way of story, indeed at one point info dumping about some minor characters is actually expressed as a list. Apart from the externals – not only do we have gods to contend with but there are incidental lizard folk to be fought against and also here be dragons (well, one dragon) – like in so many fantasy tales the society against which this is portrayed is mediæval in form. Then again, without this, it is difficult to see how so many sword fights could be fitted in to 500 plus pages.

The book’s structure is both standard and unusual. We start with three viewpoint characters and follow them to the end (whatever that end is for each of them) but their tales bifurcate early as Ringil Eskiath is separated from Archeth Indamaninarmal and Egar Dragonbane; and never become one again. This is in contrast to most narratives and is a brave decision by Morgan. Yet, despite the cover saying “It ends here….” the ending does leave scope for more.

People do seem to relish this sort of thing; but I enjoyed Morgan’s SF better. I hope he returns to it for his next project.

Pedant’s corner:- didn’t use to be (used,) a missing full stop at the end of a line of dialogue, like a herdsmen (herdsman,) hingeing (the normal English spelling of this is hinging, but Morgan has spent part of his life in Scotland where the verb to “hing” means something entirely different hence hingeing would be my preference: hinging is used later though,) careful not apportion (not to apportion,) judgement of those beings (judgement of is for a case, for beings it would be judgement on,) to breath it (breathe,) sprung (sprang – which appears elsewhere,) bid it goodbye (bade it goodbye,) “are going make” (are going to make,) do the math (maths, if you please, x 2) “He’s going pull” (going to pull,) “the Talons of the Sun” (twice this phrase is given a singular verb, surely talons are plural?) gestures him join (to join.) This is a remarkably low strike count of literals for over 500 pages of densely printed text.

David Mitchell and Ursula Le Guin

David Mitchell (for my reviews of whose Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet click on the links) has written an article very appreciative of Ursula Le Guin and published in Saturday’s Guardian. It seems it was Le Guin who inspired Mitchell to become a writer.

Well, there’s always someone to blame. In my case it was Robert Silverberg; but Le Guin came a close second – and that only because I came to her later.

Mitchell puts Le Guin’s Earthsea in the Fantasy world’s super league along with Tolkein and now George RR Martin. He argues Earthsea is a superior creation to Middle Earth. Since I never managed to get past book one of Lord of the Rings (probably because I came to it in my late rather than early teens) I would have to concur.

Though Mitchell doesn’t actually rank them against each other I would also place Earthsea above Martin’s Westeros since that world is too focused on violence and its source material is more obvious. Le Guin’s seems to have sprung out of her own imagination and experiences.

The first book in Le Guin’s Earthsea sequence has apparently now been given a Folio Society edition.

Three Days to Never by Tim Powers

Corvus, 2013, 430 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.*

 Three Days to Never cover

This is a surreal tale. A modern urban fantasy/SF crossover (well, 1987; though someone has travelled back in time from 2006) featuring multiple cultural references – both high and low brow – agents of the Israeli Secret Service (one of whom has premonitions,) a group of Egyptian Occultists, the afore-mentioned time travel, a mummified head that is somehow still alive and is kept in a box, ghosts, an astral plane, a blind woman who can see only through the eyes of those close by, a father and daughter connected by a psychic link, and a lost Charlie Chaplin film.

The time machine itself – a contraption which requires you to stand on a gold swastika shape plus place your hands into the prints of Charlie Chaplin’s lost square from Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre in order for it to work – has been kept in their back yard in what the Marrity family call the Kaleidsocope Shed. Importantly, Frank Marrity and his daughter Daphne are descended from Einstein through Frank’s grandmother Lisa (originally Lieserl.) The plot kicks off when she uses the maschinschen to travel sideways in time and this alerts the groups searching for it.

So far, so ordinary. That Powers manages to allow us to make sense of all of it is a sign of the command he has over his material.

*The library had this labelled as a thriller. While it certainly has thriller elements I doubt those who don’t have some familiarity with fantasy or SF will find it a straightforward read. For aficionados it’s good stuff though.

Pedant’s corner:- When paragraphs begin with a piece of dialogue the start quote mark is omitted, one instance of Kaleidosope for Kaleidoscope, sayi (saying?) supercedes (supersedes,) hiterto (hitherto,) intefere (interfere,) a Dahpne for Daphne, “whistling in the wind wing” (????) worse comes to worse, was was (one was would suffice.)

Irregularity. Edited by Jared Shurin.

Jurassic London, 2014, 303 p. Reviewed for Interzone 256, Jan-Feb 2015.

 Irregularity cover

Irregularity is an anthology of short stories inspired by the history of Science from the seventeenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries (the back cover invokes the Age of Reason) and intended to coincide with an exhibition, Ships, Clocks and Stars, The Quest for Longitude, at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
To emphasise the “olde” feel the book is printed in a reconstruction of a seventeenth century typeface – though we are spared that italic-f-shape once used for the letter “s”. It has an unusual dedication, “To failure,” plus five internal illustrations adapted from paintings in the Museum’s collection.

The Prologue, Irregularity by Nick Harkaway, which sets the tone, has a woman bequeathed a library in which she finds a book which bears a cover described as similar (to all intents and purposes identical) to the one we are reading, not only relating her life story up to that point but also seeming to tell her future.
In the Afterword, Richard Dunn and Sophie Waring broadly define Science as the search for nature’s laws in order to codify them and ask what happens when things don’t fit. (Answering that last question is actually the most important scientific endeavour.) Irregularity’s contents are about just such attempts to understand the world.

As a coda, positioned after the afterword and which could easily be missed by a less than careful reader, an “email” to the editor comments on the impossibility of a book that loops back on itself.
The authors have interpreted their remit widely, the stories ranging from Science Fiction through Fantasy to Horror. Some could fall under the rubric of steampunk or alternative history. The literary antecedents being what they are it is perhaps not surprising that the majority lean towards the form of journal or diary extracts and epistolary accounts.

And so we have the inevitable pastiche of Samuel Pepys, M Suddain’s The Darkness, set in a steampunk 17th century with radio, telemessages and air defence antenna arrays, where the French are experimenting with Darke Materials, Restoration London has Tunnelcars and Skycars and a Black Fire of nothingness has begun to eat the city.

Of course, encountering well-known names is one of the pleasures of an anthology like this and there are plenty more to conjure with. Two for the price of one in Adam Roberts’s The Assassination of Isaac Newton by the Coward Robert Boyle, a piece of Robertsian playfulness in which Boyle has had access to modern physics (even discoursing with Brian May, whom Boyle says Newton resembles) and wishes to preserve the more human cosmogony which Newton’s work will displace. Chock full of allusion – including an extended riff on the “operatic” section of Bohemian Rhapsody – this story might just possibly be too knowing for its own good. Charles Darwin appears in Claire North’s The Voyage of the Basset where we follow him on his second sea voyage, utilising his knowledge of the lycaenidae to ensure nothing can mar the glory of Queen Victoria’s coronation. Ada Lovelace helps produce steam-driven animatronic dinosaurs in Simon Guerrier’s An Experiment in the Formulae of Thought, while Fairchild’s Folly by Tiffani Angus muses on the possible classification of love within a taxonomy via the epistolary relationship between Carl Linnaeus and Thomas Fairchild, who crossed a sweet william with a carnation to produce a sterile plant dubbed Fairchild’s mule. In Kim Curran’s A Woman out of Time unnamed creatures relate how they prevented Émilie du Chatelet from disseminating modern Physics too early. A Game Proposition by Rose Biggin has four women get together once every month to play a game which decides the fate of ships, incidentally giving William Dampier the knowledge to compile his atlas of the trade winds.

The most chilling tale is perhaps Roger Luckhurst’s Circulation, wherein a book-keeper is sent out from London to the island of San Domingue to investigate irregularities in the returns from the plantations there and comes upon the secrets of circulation as discovered by “the wizard Sangatte”.

Elsewhere; in Linnaean era Stockholm a young girl has dreams of the future, inspired by spiders; a maker of maritime clocks, in competition with Harrison for the Longitude prize, uses a variety of gruesome fluids to fine tune his escapement; a taxonomist travels to Southern Africa to seek out unusual beasts and finds the egg of a creature variously called gumma, gauma, gomerah, ghimmra, sjeemera; a found manuscript story with not one, but two introductions, suggests a reason for the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral after London’s Great Fire on a realigned axis; an artist and his apprentice, commissioned to depict an anatomy lesson, witness the subject’s heart beating after death.

The stories work well in their own terms, but in totality are rather relentlessly “olde worlde”.

The following comments did not appear in the review:-
In my edition one of the stories was not in the order given on the Contents page.
Span count 1, sunk 1, as you no doubt you anticipated, off of (x 2,) rolled a dice, court-marshalled, the committee force me to seethe (forced,) at prices that seems almost scandalous, her voice is a echo, baster gang (?) missing “it”(x 2,) two references to “three years” since the Great Fire of London (in diary entries dated 1667,) now used now, can secret a substance, they toppled the lids of those wooden prisons and relased their cargo, I might find pick my way back through the canes back to the house, in sight of one of another, walleyed with lust, inside of, to humour and old man.

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Jo Fletcher Books, 2014, 400 p

Borrowed from another but returned to a threatened library.

 City of Stairs cover

The Continental city of Bulikov has been under the rule of former colony Saypur since the Great War in which the Continent’s gods were killed by the last Kaj of Saypur. The war ended with the cataclysmic Blink which somehow altered Bulikov’s topography. Buildings are at odd angles, stairways rise to nowhere. On the Continent all references to the defeated gods are banned by the Worldly Regulations. Yet Saypuri historian Efrem Pangyui has been allowed unfettered access to sources about the Divines. Locals have long been stirred into resentment by the Regulations but more recently by Pangyui’s researches. His murder brings Ashara Komayd, descendant of the Kaj and a Saypuri intelligence operative (but under cover as a Cultural Ambassador,) to Bulikov to investigate it, accompanied by her tall bodyguard, Sigrud, in exile from the Dreyling north. Shara (as she is called) feels her longstanding interest in the Continental gods and their miracles makes her most suitable for the task. Her boss, Vinya Komayd, who is also her aunt, appears to be less sure.

City of Stairs is a tale of intrigue, politics, religion, fanaticism, terrorism and betrayals. In it can be read parallels to our world but in the end it remains its own idiosyncratic one. However, the story still deals with the sorts of motivations which activate humans in any time or place. At times an uneasy mix of detective story, intellectual puzzle and thriller it also has the occasional lurch into action adventure. Shara is an engaging enough heroine, if a little bookish, but her recollected reaction to the revelation in her youth of the true nature of her then lover, Vohannes Votrov, seems a little cold-blooded. And Sigrud (of whom a blurb on the cover says, “My God, ….you guys are going to love Sigrud,” – No. Sorry -) is just a cartoon figure, impossibly accomplished in combat skills. Other characters – fanatics apart – are agreeably delineated, though.

The details of the world are nicely nuanced; for example the jurisdiction of each god was geographical. The story hinges on the existence of remaining Divine artefacts which may or may not still be potent and have since the war been kept in the Unmentionable Warehouse (unmentionable because of course due to the Regulations no-one can talk about it.)

While each chapter (except the last two) ends with an extract from the Book of one of the gods or an excerpt from Efrem Pangyui’s writings there is also some not well-integrated info dumping. And despite the title stairs feature very infrequently in the book.

Bennet allows Votrov to voice the pleas for compassion, “I am sorrowful that my fellow countrymen feel that being human is something to repress, something ugly, something nasty,” and, “This incredibly damaging idea that to be human and to love and to risk making mistakes is wrong.”

A bit baggy, but City of Stairs is worth a look if you like your adventure SF/fantasy tinged with agreeable characterisation.

Pedant’s corner:- the … coat kisses the tops of immense black books (boots, I would suggest,) Ahanas’ (Ahanas’s,) none of them know (none is singular, so none knows; later on we have none strike [strikes],) the both of them (both of them, or, at a pinch, the pair of them; not, the both of them,) smoothes (smooths.) “One of the … problems … were the many, many (one of the problems was, even if it was many, many ) Vohannes’ (Vohannes’s,) “quite terribly” is used twice within two lines, “every single inch …. are engraved” (every inch is engraved ,) “more viscera slips out” (more viscera slip out – viscera is a plural noun; the singular is viscus,) “a gathering crescendo” (don’t all crescendos gather?) “a creature of an aquatic nature… swam upstream … .and begin” (began,) soldiers tumble black shrieking (back makes more sense.)

Interzone 257 Mar-Apr 2015

Interzone 257 cover

We kick off with Alastair Reynolds and A Murmuration1 wherein a researcher into the flocking behaviour of starlings begins to be able to control their movements. This leads to conflict with the referee of the scientific paper on the research. Moreover, the birds start to behave contrarily.
In Songbird2 by Fadzlishah Johanabas, due to addiction to electronic devices people can no longer process emotions apart from a few women who can synthesise the emotions when they sing.
Brainwhales Are Stoners, Too3 by Rich Larson sees a teenage girl and the boy she fancies break into the ThinkTank where a brainwhale is confined, wired up, drugged to do computations.
The Worshipful Company of Milliners4 by Tendai Huchu. In a dilapidated factory in Harare a group of half-human, half-cat milliners – invisible to true humans – make equally invisible hats for authors to wear. Full membership of the sisterhood is only granted when the author becomes successful.
Aliya Whiteley’s Blossoms Falling Down is set on a generation starship where different cultures are housed on different decks with occasional tourism between them. The navigator is struck by his visit to a Japanese “Haiku Room”.

1 “The cameras should be aimed into the middle of the perimeter, and elevated sufficiently to catch the murmuration’s epicentre.” (Epicentre used, apparently correctly, as meaning “off-centre”. Remarkable.)
2 written in USian, lay (lie,) the liquid in the cylinders in front of me glow green (glows,) staunch (stanch.) Clear seems to be used as a synonym for colourless.
3 less (fewer,) snuck (sneaked,) a “I’m fine” look (an “I’m fine” look.)
4 sprung (sprang,) epaulets (epaulettes,) “‘almost as though you’re recycled no reincarnated,’” is surely missing punctuation of some sort.

This is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2013, 312 p, with iv p introduction by Justina Robson.
(Not borrowed from but) returned to a threatened library.

 This is the Way the World Ends  cover

Framed as a tale told by Doctor Michel de Nostradame in Salon-de-Provence, 1554, (that’ll be Nostradamus to you and me) this is the story of George Paxton, a monumental mason, in the late(ish) twentieth century US.

George is approached by a glib salesman to buy a scopas suit (Self-Contained Post-Attack Survival) for his daughter to protect against nuclear attack. It is too expensive and his wife makes him return it. However, soon such suits are commonplace, people wearing them in the course of everyday life. Then George is offered a free suit provided he accepts the condition that he sign a confession of his complicity in the nuclear arms race. He does so, to give the suit as a Christmas present to his daughter. On his way back home his town is obliterated in a Soviet nuclear strike, a response to the US attack which followed the detection of Soviet Spitball missiles heading for Washington. As he heads towards the blast area to try to rescue his family the last thing he sees before losing consciousness is a giant vulture as big as a pterodactyl heading for him.

As it turns out he was taken from the ruins by the crew of a submarine, the City of New York, now headed for Antarctica. The crew are “unadmitted”, humans – with black blood – whose existences were pre-empted when their hypothetical progenitors were annihilated by the war. The survivors they have gathered were all architects of the war in one way or other. After giving them medical treatment – ‘If one had to say something good about acute radiation sickness, it would be this: either it kills you or it doesn’t,’ – the unadmitted put them on trial, Nuremberg-style. This allows Morrow to skewer the through the looking-glass idiocies and contradictions of deterrence theory. The submarine’s captain, dismissing a particular riddle as having no answer, poses one that does, “When is a first strike not a first strike?” is then asked, “When,” and replies, “When it is an anticipatory retaliation.” (Sounds like 1970s Rugby Union doctrine.)

In the course of all this we encounter a MAD Hatter (Mutually Assured Destruction,) a March Hare (Modulated Attacks in Response to Counterforce Hostilities) and Stable talks (Strategic, Tactical, and Anti-Ballistic Limitation and Equalization,) the likelihood that scopas suits contributed to a willingness to accept the possibility of nuclear war, and the thought that, “When you turn the human race into garbage, you also turn history into garbage.”

At the time of writing (1986) the prospect of nuclear annihilation was never far away, in 2015 it has, perhaps, much less resonance. Whether it is this that contributes to the sense of distance throughout the book is difficult to decipher. Whatever the reason, the tone feels somehow off-kilter. Moreover, rather than being rounded characters most of Paxton’s fellow defendants are ciphers there solely to represent points of view and the unadmitted seem like actors inhabiting parts only shallowly instead of true agents. The role the giant vultures had in precipitating the war is a nice touch though.

The blurb mentions Kurt Vonnegut as a comparison but – repetitions of epitaphs “they were better than they knew” and “they never found out what they were doing here” apart – I was more reminded of R A Lafferty, except without his level of utter bonkersness (giant vultures excepted of course.) Despite Vonnegut’s lighter touches the seriousness with which he treated his subjects was always apparent. Morrow approaches this but doesn’t quite get there.

Pedant’s corner:- Paxton is named as Paxman on the back cover! Then an other (another,) as if a rain were felling on its streets (falling,) Jesus’ (Jesus’s,) videocassertes (videocassettes,) liquifying (liquefying.)
In the introduction:- whimsys (whimsies,) the reasoning of the accused make them (reasoning is singular so “makes”.)

free hit counter script