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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell

Sceptre, 2011, 564 p.

The Thousand Autumns of Jocab de Zoet cover

This novel has been described in a quote on the back cover as a tour de force and I must say it is likely to remain in my mind for a long time. It will certainly figure in my best of the year even if this is still only February.

The Jacob de Zoet of the title is a Dutchman who, in order to prove his worthiness to marry his sweetheart Anna, is out to make his fortune in the Dutch trading mission on the island of Dejima off Nagasaki at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (CE) – during the Tokugawa Shogunate, when all other European contacts were banned, as was travel abroad for Japanese. The present tense narration is in the third person, save for a single chapter in first person from the point of view of a slave in the Dutch trading post. Woven into the tale is the history of relations between Japan and the outside world up to that point. While the novel is roughly based on incidents that took place on Dejima around that time I would hazard that the part of the plot involving the Lord Abbot Enomoto is not.

The first part of the novel outlines de Zoet’s endeavours in exposing the various corruptions of previous Chiefs of the post and his interactions with Japanese translators. Reading about the difficulties of translation between Japanese and Dutch in a third language – English – is a bit surreal. The very first chapter, however, introduces us to Aibagawa Orito, the disfigured daughter of a samurai, who is learning to be a midwife under the tutelage of the Dutch doctor at Dejima. Her path and de Zoet’s cross and, despite feelings of guilt at betraying Anna, Jacob becomes attracted to Orito. His hopes in affairs of the heart and commerce are both soon dashed. In the second section, where Aibagawa Orito has been taken away to the religious institution run by the Lord Abbot, the novel takes a sudden left turn as this middle part of the book deals solely with her plight and the efforts of her Japanese admirer, the interpreter, Ogawa Uzaemon, to free her. The third and concluding part of the novel returns us to Dejima as well as on to the British frigate which arrives to attempt to take advantage of the fall of the Netherlands to Napoleon’s armies.

The book is unusual in that it contains a number of illustrations, mostly anatomical but also two townscapes – well, one townscape and a shrinescape – plus some of “de Zoet’s” sketches of Origo.

While reading I was struck by certain parallels with Science Fiction. There is a type of SF story which also has an isolated trading/diplomatic post many months (or years) travel from home, dealing with and trying to understand a different culture. In Origo’s captivity we have different SF parallels but they are even more marked, as the Sheranui Shrine is a closed society with its own rules and a menace at its heart.

The characters, especially the Japanese, impress. Care and detail is lavished both on them and on the background. Even the minor ones have the ring of truth. That short first person chapter includes a meditation on the internal autonomy of slaves. One member of the Dutch mission tells de Zoet, “Tain’t good intentions that pave the road to hell; it’s self-justifyin’s.” There is also towards the end a very rhythmic paragraph listing the lives/occupations of the inhabitants of Nagasaki which is reminiscent of Auden’s The Night Mail in its metre and rhyming. Then there was the almost impenetrable phrase, “A smoke-dried Dane makes Finn’s Cock of a tangled Vang,” which seems to entangle nautical terms with the history of the times.

A tour de force? It was certainly fascinating and absorbing throughout, likely to remain with me for a long time.

Pedant’s corner:- “A well-travelled round of Edam and sour apples are divided,” (a round is singular;) snonky appears to be a coinage by Mitchell; wistaria (apparently a variant of the more usual wisteria) was repeated several times; “the pair enjoys,” (again; a pair is singular) guarding this natural revile (revile here is in the sense of ravine but I can’t find such a definition anywhere.)

For Interzone 258

 Beta Life cover
 Impulse cover

My review of Beta-Life for Interzone 257 was sent off at the end of January. The issue should be out soonish.

Now arrived for review for Interzone 258 is Impulse by Dave Bara. Book one of “The Lightship Chronicles” apparently. Mr Bara is new to me. There’s an Ancillary Justice/Sword feel to that cover – which is a fair amount to live up to.

The Chalice of Death by Robert Silverberg

In “The Chalice of Death,” Planet Stories, 2012, 91 p. First published as Lest We Forget Thee, Earth, 1958, as by Calvin M Knox.

Lest We Forget Thee Earth cover
 The Chalice of Death cover

This book is (dis)graced by one of the most execrable covers (right) it is possible to imagine. I felt ashamed buying it. Still, I suppose it reflects the times in which the story was first published – though the original Ace Double cover (left) is more restrained. Silverberg is of course one of my SF immortals and the book contains two other early works of his which I shall get round to later. Not that his early stuff is necessarily of great quality; he fairly churned it out. It was only when he came back to the field in the late 1960s that his genius shone through. It is to him, specifically his The Man in the Maze, that my continuing reading of SF beyond that date is due.

In The Chalice of Death, Earth, once the centre of a great galactic empire, has been lost in the mists of time but nevertheless Earthmen act as advisors to the rulers on many of the planets. Hallam Navarre acts as one such to Joroiran VII on the planet Jorus. His rival advisor, the Lyrellan Kausirn, takes advantage of a minor slip to lever Navarre away from influence. As a result Navarre is sent by Joroirdan to locate the eponymous chalice, in the hope it will grant eternal life to the ruler. Since it doesn’t exist that represents a problem. Navarre and his companions, one a half-breed Earthman, the other, Helna Wistin a (female) advisor to the ruler of Kariad, nevertheless find Earth within a chapter or so and a vault there where survivors from the time of supremacy have been kept in suspended animation over the millenia. They hatch a plot to revive Earth’s fortunes and the remainder of the story follows that process.

On even the most cursory examination most of this falls apart. Since we only meet two actual full blood Earthmen (which is the generic term adopted throughout) it is difficult to see how the race has managed to propagate itself over the years – still less for individuals to accede to their positions as advisors. The slightly unsavoury assumption that Earthmen (it’s got me at it now) are intrinsically better than the universe’s other inhabitants was also unexceptional back in the 1950s. And it was amusing to find Navarre using a slide rule for a calculation. But none of this is the point. This is pulp adventure stuff and can only be read as such. No pretentions to characterisation need apply; nor any consideration of literary merit. I read it as a would-be Silverberg completist, without high expectation. I wasn’t disappointed. Nothing could dim my memories of Silverberg’s glory period.

A Sparrow’s Flight by Margaret Elphinstone

Polygon, 1989 , 257 p.

A Sparrow's Flight cover

Subtitled on the cover “A Novel of a Future”, A Sparrow’s Flight is set in the same post-apocalypse universe as Elphinstone’s The Incomer and features the same lead character, Naomi. Here, on her last night before travelling across to a tidal island (which internal evidence in the text suggests is Lindisfarne) she encounters Thomas, an exile from the once “empty lands” of the west, and is invited by him to return there with him. The lure is that she will discover there something from the past about music.

The novel covers a span of 29 days in which Thomas and Naomi traverse the country east to west, stay awhile at Thomas’s former home then travel back again. The chapters are of varying length and each covers just one of the days. Elphinstone’s future world is one in which the ruins of the past are feared, only low-tech exists; there is no transport, except perhaps for oxcarts and rowing boats for crossing water. Distance is an alienating factor. Once again the incomprehension Naomi has of the local norms is one of the themes. Complicating things are the fact the empty lands’ inhabitants are mistrustful of strangers and that Thomas himself has a past he wants to expiate.

Again, like The Incomer, this is a book in which nothing much happens, especially if you consider the music element of the story as more or less incidental. But quiet lives led quietly are worthy of record. When Thomas and Naomi return to their starting point they have both found things out about themselves and each other, of the importance of relationships and mutual benefit.

Pedant’s corner:- than you lead me to believe (led made more sense,) picked her her nightshirt, sprung, whistled under is breath.

Predator’s Gold by Philip Reeve

Scholastic, 2004, 316 p.

Predator's Gold cover

I spotted this in one of the local libraries that’s within a few miles of Son of the Rock Acres (there are actually six – only one of which the good lady has not yet checked out – plus several more within ten miles) and since I felt like a relatively undemanding read while still cogitating on my review of Beta-Life for Interzone and Bring up the Bodies I borrowed it.

It contains more adventures of Tom Natsworthy and Hester Shaw in the world of Municipal Darwinism familiar from Mortal Engines. Here Tom and Hester are forced to flee the Green Storm, a militant offshoot of the Anti-Traction League, and land on the city of Anchorage whose margravine Freya, a teenage girl forced into rule by the untimely death of her parents in a plague, takes a fancy to Tom. Hester flies off in a fit of jealousy and betrays Anchorage’s location to the predator city Arkangel before being kidnapped by agents of the Green Storm. Tom is also kidnapped: by some Lost Boys, experts in burgling the wandering cities. Adventures ensue before our heros are reunited and return to try to save Anchorage from its fate.

This being a “young adult” book the subsidiary characters are drawn with broad brush strokes but are still recognisable people for all that. Not that Reeve is a slouch in the characterisation department. In the course of Predator’s Gold Freya and Hester undergo a fair degree of development.

The concept of Municipal Darwinism doesn’t withstand a moment’s scrutiny, of course. It isn’t meant to, but is a glorious device to allow the playing out of Tom’s and Hester’s relationship and the examination of issues of morality against a backdrop of jeopardy. The Lost Boys – under the direction of the nefarious “Uncle” – are a clever conflation of situations from Oliver Twist and Peter Pan.

The book is a delight throughout. (But does the cover not bring to mind Tintin books?)

Pedant’s corner:- One instance each of quick and slow being used as adverbs rather than adjectives, one opened set of brackets which wasn’t ever closed and a solitary typo, desciptions for descriptions. Reeve gets plus marks though for the word gowk and the diæresis in “Aëro engines.”

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The Worldbreaker Saga Book I. Angry Robot, 2014, 541 p.

 The Mirror Empire cover

In a series of planets with twin hour-glass suns and strange satellites named Para, Sina and Tira from which certain inhabitants can draw power when they are in the ascendant, an invasion from a parallel world is taking place. Transit between the worlds (which have differently coloured skies) is by means of something resembling a mirror but isn’t possible if the companion person is alive on the other side. The most powerful satellite, Oma, has not been ascendant for 2000 years but its influence is being felt more strongly.

Now, this parallel worlds and weird suns scenario could have been an intriguing SF setting but the author lost this reader’s sympathies when it turned out early on that the shedding of blood could also open gates between the worlds. Cue gratuitous bloodshed on a wide scale. I would submit this is laziness on the author’s part. Couldn’t we have had something a bit more inventive, a bit less sanguineous?

Add to this the fact that the characters have very little agency beyond advancing the plot, which itself takes a long time to get going, and you end up with a less than satisfying read. Oh, there is some jiggery-pokery about different gendering and women tend to be in power; but when they behave as powerful men would in our world is there any point?

Plus I really don’t see the point of Fantasy when its characters wield strange powers, even when they do have to endure for a while before growing into them. How does that illuminate the human condition?

It may be that I am committing the error of wishing to read the book that I might have desired Hurley to have written rather than the one she actually has, but when a book revels in so much gratuitous slaughter more or less for its own sake it’s time to call it off. I won’t be taking The Worldbreaker Saga any further.

Pedant’s corner:- Admittedly mine was an advance reading copy – I have my sources – but it was so full of typos, verb/noun disagreements, misspellings, missing words, repeated words, malapropisms (or near malapropisms which are perhaps better described as dyslexisms – scarified for sacrificed anyone?) awry punctuation and errors in lay-out etc that I gave up counting them after page 63. It may be she was under pressure to hand this in quickly but to my mind Hurley’s manuscript hasn’t been looked over critically enough before submission. And did no-one at Angry Robot seek to check it? Such things make the whole more difficult to read you know. I’m left harbouring a sense of disappointment with all concerned. And there was the use of drug as a past tense of drag which may be a niche USian habit but reads absolutely horribly.

The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne by Eric Brown

PS Publishing, 2005, 137 p, plus iv p of introduction by Ian Watson.

The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne cover

This handsomely produced novella was published to coincide with the centenary of Verne’s death in 2005. In that sense I’ve come to it about ten years too late. Part pastiche of Verne, part typical Eric Brown fare, this is an entertaining diversion, in which Verne is wheeched by means of a time-portal off to the Upper Cretaceous and the far future in a time machine which has the unfortunate drawback of leeching power from the sun and so causing Earth to freeze. Here too are a megalomaniac dictator, along with his nubile antagonist, not to mention ant-like interstellar aliens and strange gadgets. These adventures spark in Verne ideas he will later incorporate into fiction. What’s not to like? While there may be no profound points here – but neither were there in Verne’s fictions – what there is is an engaging adventure story with nods to the work of one of SF’s founding fathers.

Pedant’s corner:- gasses (gases,) panatela (panatella,) “hoves” as a present tense (heaves,) had take its toll on his reason (taken.)

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Black Swan, 2014, 622 p.

 Life After Life cover

Preamble:- I wanted to read this because its premise is similar to that of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August which I reviewed for Interzone 252, and put up here two posts ago. (Since Atkinson lives in Edinburgh Life After Life was also eligible for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge, though in her author notes at the end she says it is actually about being English.)

Review:-
So. As the author, where do you start a novel whose conceit is that the same person lives her life out again and again, on each death recycling back to her moment of birth. Is it with her still-birth, when the darkness falls immediately, to set up the premise? No. That life comes second. The one where she drowns as a four-year-old? No. When she falls off the roof trying retrieve the doll her brother had thrown there? No again. The Spanish flu? Several times? No. The Blitz? Again several times? No. So where then?

Oh, Of course. You start, albeit briefly, with the life in which, before his rise to power, she kills Hitler. (Or tries to. We don’t know if she succeeds because his heavies shoot her, the darkness falls and so we recycle back to her birth. I note here that in the real world, outside this novel, many attempts were made on Hitler’s life; all unsuccessful.)

The problem I have with this attempt to attain a spurious significance is that it isn’t developed. In all the lives Ursula Todd experiences within this book – all, by the nature of the premise, altered histories – wider history is not affected one whit; World War 2 occurs regardless (if Ursula even lives long enough to witness it.) I therefore struggle to see the point of the novel, what it is Atkinson is trying to say. Unless it’s that no matter what you do with your life nothing makes a difference. Which is a pretty bleak outlook.

Yes, in some of her succeeding lives Ursula has premonitions, or moments of déjà vu, which lead her to actions which avert the possibility of death or some other potential disaster in her present timeline – and to appointments with a psychiatrist – but this attribute is neglected for long parts of the book only to resurface in another Hitler killing episode. And we never follow events beyond Ursula’s death for, I suppose, the simple reason that she cannot witness them, yet the earliest sections of Life After Life are mainly given over to interactions within the household of which Ursula becomes a part, most of which she similarly does not witness. Life follows life and it is all very well laid out and interesting enough if a trifle depressing what with all the deaths. A recurring child molester/killer incident seems particularly gratuitous. Far from being about the state of Englishness the book is really more bound up with death and the innumerable ways in which it can come about. The other two principal novelistic concerns, love and sex, do get a look in but almost incidentally.

While at one point Ursula is allowed to muse, “That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility) – one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events,” she does not actually travel in time, except in the normal way, before being rebooted, and her foreknowledge is never conscious, she cannot rationalise it. Elsewhere she says, “… you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” To which her brother Teddy replies, “What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Yet even in the life where Ursula reaches 1967 before dying it is difficult to see whether she got it right. (Remember; history isn’t changed.) Yet she can come to the conclusion that time isn’t circular, it’s a palimpsest – a conceit to which Life After Life, as a printed book, cannot quite live up. (Perhaps only an electronic medium would truly allow that.)

I’ll say this for Atkinson. She has come up with a neat way of incorporating all the ideas she may have had about the possible courses of her protagonist’s life – too many to be credible for a unique lifespan – without having to discard any single one of them; but while Life After Life is very readable it doesn’t really go anywhere. Maybe time is circular after all.

Pedant’s corner:- Izzie’s call to alms. (Since Izzie was going to be a VAD neither call to arms nor call to alms really makes any sense.) I can find no dictionary entry for “banting” – even online. Then there was, “reached a crescendo,” (that would be a climax, perhaps?) and furlough is USian, as is medieval. Plus points, though, for the Misses Nesbit.

Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above by Ian Sales

Apollo Quartet 3, Whippleshield Books, 2013, 71 p

 Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above cover

Then Will the Great Ocean Wash Deep Above is the third of Sales’s “Apollo Quartet” novellas wherein he mines the byways of the 1960s space programme but puts his own spin on it. This one is told in sections labelled “Up” and “Down” – the “Up” parts delineating the history of the US space programme in a timeline where the Korean War lasted for eleven years and, men being unavailable due to their military commitments, it was women who became astronauts; the “Down” describe a mission to retrieve from the Puerto Rico Trench the contents of a misplaced spy satellite recovery. (Deep-sea exploration is another of Sales’s areas of interest.) Additional sections named “Strange” and “Charm” tell of the information gained from the spy photographs and the response to it while “Top” and “Bottom” give a history of deep-sea exploration technology and women’s involvement in the space programme in our world.

As is usual with Sales the detail he includes is convincing but the human dimension is not lacking. His heroine, Geraldyne Cobb is well drawn.

Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta

Harper Voyager, 2014, 266 p. Published in Finnish as Teemastarin Kirja (The Tea Master’s Daughter.)

 Memory of Water cover

In a far future Scandinavian Union run by the military dictatorship of New Qiao, the seas have long since risen, fresh water is a scarce resource, water crime a capital offence, insect hoods have to be worn outdoors and travelling is difficult. Noria Kaitio is the daughter of a tea master, the latest in a long line. Despite being female she is apprenticed to him. Her life is changed when her father reveals to her the secret spring which allows his tea to be the best his clients have tasted – anywhere. The implications of this follow Noria throughout the novel and it is a mark of Itäranta’s handling of the story that our sympathies for Noria’s fate are not lessened by its inevitability. In parts I was reminded of Margaret Elphinstone’s The Incomer – mostly by the more or less rural setting – but I have seen comparisons with the writing of Ursula Le Guin and in its evocation of a quiet life carried out quietly Memory of Water does bear some similarities with that great Mistress’s work. There are no epic scenes here, no large confrontation between Noria and the soldiers, but the details of a small life are beautifully rendered.

A plot complication occurs in the plastic graves (rubbish dumps) wherein can be found all sorts of oldtech, most of it useless, other parts salvageable. Noria’s friend Sanja has an ability to tweak broken artifacts into workability. Their joint discovery of a set of discs that tells the story of an expedition into the Lost Lands and sheds light on the Twilight Century that is now long gone history propels them into a scheme that promises escape and yields the only consolation the book provides.

The story tells us that water has a consciousness, that it carries in its memory everything that’s ever happened in this world. And the nearest the story has to a “baddie” says when asked why he behaves the way he does, “Because if this is all there is, I might as well enjoy it while it lasts.”

For a first novel, this is very accomplished, especially as Itäranta is a Finn. She apparently wrote Memory of Water simultaneously in English and Finnish.

Pedant’s Corner – most of these may be due to the fact that English is not Itäranta’s first language:- I followed Sanja to a circuitous route, Mhz for MHz, Xinjing might have burned to ground, it was only a matter of time when my suspicions would be confirmed.

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