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Automatic Eve by Rokurō Inui

Haikasoru, 2019, 315 p. £10.99. Translated from the Japanese Jidō ibu (自動イブ,) by Matt Treyvaud. Published in Interzone 284, Nov-Dec 2019.

 Automatic Eve cover

How necessary is it to suspend disbelief in order to appreciate, or perhaps persevere with, a work of fiction? Conventional wisdom suggests it is at least a necessary condition. Automatic Eve suggests that might not be the case.

The plot of Inui’s novel hinges on the existence of elaborate automata. Not toys, not merely small things like crickets, but better than android–like simulacra of human beings. Things of convincing, warm, outer human appearance but internally consisting of metal, cogs, gears, wires – each with a pendulum for a heart. Yet the automata here are effectively so realistic that they appear to be completely human to everyone involved, even to the extent of being able to have sex convincingly, to inspire love and devotion, and to experience these things for themselves. Even capable of being convinced that they themselves are human – until, perhaps, they find otherwise. And that’s a leap that’s a big requirement to ask of a reader. (This one always had nagging doubts.) Yet, to carry on, to keep faith with the story, said reader has to take this on trust. (And, maybe, later, write a review.)

It is a mark of Inui’s writing, and his translator’s ability to convey it, that the necessary perseverance isn’t a problem. The story here is engaging enough to keep you turning the pages. It helps that the central concept is introduced fairly gradually.

The setting is a little odd though. The characters know of Chemistry, electricity and clockwork, yet the society in which they are embedded has a mediæval feel. It is obviously closely based on Japan, but not a Japan which ever existed. Yes, we have sake, bathhouses, sumo, cricket fights, meticulous gardening (albeit also a cover for spying,) a certain pleasure in fine objects, finely wrought – not to mention the goings-on in the building known as the Thirteen Floors. There is, too, intrigue between an Imperial court and a shogunate, but the divine figure is an Empress, and the succession goes through the female line, to a female. It is a Japan tweaked just so, to enable the story. A fantasy, then.

Would-be Sumo wrestler, Geiemon Tentoku, has fallen in love with the Eve of the title and selflessly seeks to release her from her indenture in the Thirteen Floors to restore her to the man he thinks she loves. Kyuzo Kugimiya learned all he knows about the construction of automata from Keian Higa, who had plotted the overthrow of the system before being executed after his plans were betrayed to the authorities. Under the instructions of the Imperial Gardener (really a spymaster) Kihachi Umekawa, the shogun’s spy, Jinnai, is investigating Kigimiya’s activities. All these are actors in the overall plot, which concerns the contents of the Sacred Vessel, a sealed container within the Imperial Palace.

The existence of convincing automata leads a couple of characters to question the nature of humanity. Kyuzo thinks, “A pregnant woman’s body was home to not one soul but two. Where did the life in her womb come from, and when? If souls came from elsewhere to reside in the human body, was it not possible that one might take up residence in the infant automaton they were building?” Later, Jinnai wonders, “Where did the soul come from? Where, in the body or brain, did it conceal itself while a human still lived? …. Automata like Eve showed human behavior [sic] as a response to the care and love they received from humans.”

Such metaphysical considerations are invited by the subject matter – and are arguably the raison d’être of literary fiction – but Inui doesn’t let them bother the thrust of his story for too long.

There is a slight flaw to the book’s structure, however. Rather than a novel it is a succession of seven shortish novellas, albeit featuring ongoing characters. That the narrative viewpoint changes between these sections is not a problem but certain repetitions of information suggest that they may not have been conceived or written as a whole but subject to a later fix-up. And Automatic Eve herself is more like an absence than a protagonist. Though she does appear in them all she is neither the focus nor viewpoint character in any of the seven segments.

None of that, however, takes away from the overall effect. It may lack innovation in its central idea but Automatic Eve is still a well-written, solid piece of fiction.

The following did not appear in the published review:-

Pedant’s corner:- “none were too explicit” (none was too explicit.) “The master of accounts were responsible for” (the master … was responsible.) “None of these new revelations were the answers Kakita sought..” (None of these new revelations was the answer ..) “none of them understand the situation” (none of them understands the situation.) “None of the spies were supposed to know” (None … was supposed to know.) “The attendant’s quarters” (attendants’ quarters.) “The group made their way…” (The group made its way,) “‘I gather that neither of those fates await those who are careless?’” (neither of those fates awaits those, plus the sentence isn’t really a question.) “Mounts of leftover soil and worktools ..” (‘Mounds’ makes more sense.) “‘The palace has decided to keep the news to themselves for now’” (to itself is more grammatical,) “for this automata” (for this automaton.) “These question had always bothered Jinnai.” (These questions.)

The Island Under the Earth by Avram Davidson

Mayflower, 1975, 157 p

The Island Under the Earth cover

I’m not sure I can give a full flavour of this novel as the conditions I read it under were not the best; I was away from home when I started it and my reading of it was interrupted by several days.

Davidson’s world here – it is not apparent whether it really is supposed to be under the Earth as the title implies – is technologically lacking and inhabited by humans (Fourlimbs) and Centaurs known as sixies, between whom there is a large degree of hostility. The setting seems to be agrarian or at least mediæval and the text’s attitudes are of its time, especially in regard to the off-hand (blatantly sexist really) treatment of females – of either species. It involves a quest of sorts and augurs called Gortecas and Castegor who are a sort of serious Tweedledum and Tweedledee and later merge into one entity called Troscegac.

Oddities abound. At one point an old sixie, seemingly dying, asks some humans, in garbled speech, for wine. The next day the sixie has gone, apparently revivified by the wine. Later it is seen frisking about and chasing a young golden-haired female centaur.

The text is couched idiosyncratically. Phrases such as “blue-green-white its phosphor light,” “heed the old ones not,” and “raised his both hands,” give some of the flavour. Some spellings are also non-standard. Yet other things bring us to ground once more. Again Davidson uses words that imply a Scottish ancestry. The implement used for sweeping here is named a besom as sometimes it is in Scotland.

I would say that The Island Under the Earth is not as successful a novel as previous ones of Davidson’s I have read. Rork! for instance.

Pedant’s corner:- talley-pebbles (why the deviation from tally?) “a sick fear that that” (only one ‘that’ required,) miniscule (minuscule,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, semanal (the meaning seems to be ‘seminal’, but it may have meant weekly) “is ought pursuing her” (I’ve only ever seen ‘aught’ before but apparently this is an accepted variant spelling.)

Britain in the the 15th Century

I’ve just been perusing the blurb on the publisher’s page for a book called Divine Heretic written by one Jaime Lee Moyer.

The blurb starts with the sentence, “Everyone knows the story of Joan of Arc, a peasant girl who put Charles VII on the throne and spearheaded France’s victory over Britain before being burned by the English as a heretic and witch.”

Britain? In the 15th century? That’s some Altered History! The United Kingdom didn’t become so until about 300 years later, 1707 in fact.

I wonder who at Jo Fletcher Books (for it was they) thought Britain had an army in the 1400s – or that back then such a country existed that could have one. Or doesn’t know the difference between Britain and its constituent parts. Or mistakenly thought they might offend some not English inhabitant of the present day UK by saying England (in which case they failed miserably.)

(At least they put the blame for Joan’s burning in the right hands.)

Scruffians! by Hal Duncan

Stories of Better Sodomites. Lethe Press, 2014, 205 p.

 Scruffians! cover

Unlike normal folk (groanhuffs,) Scruffians are mis-shapes and misfits – Orphans, foundlings, latch-key kids; Urchins, changelings, live-by-wits; Rascals, scallywags, ruffians, scamps; Scoundrels, hellions, – in their chant that last word is followed by, Scruffians STAMP. The Stamp is how they came to be fixed as Scruffians, an excruciating procedure which stops any growth in age from that time on and embeds all their existing characteristics. Only nicks to the Stamp mark on their chests will allow alteration thereafter. Their lore is expressed by tales known as fabbles (an ideal coinage,) some of which appear here as if addressed to potential or newly-Stamped Scruffians. Not all of the stories here are of Scruffians but each section within one that is has a title (or number, depending on the story) and each paragraph a first line in bold type. All are excellent reading.
In How a Scruffian Gets Their Story a new recruit falls in with the Scruffians.
How a Scruffian Gets Their Name tells of how and why Slickspit Hamshankery got that title.
The Behold of the Eye is where humans store all the things they prize most highly. What catches their eye is stored by the eye – and each is a home to a faery. The story relates the experiences of newly born faery Flashjack as he seeks his Beholder (to be found by Toby Raymond Hunter’s Behold) and follows Toby’s life as he comes to terms with himself and his sexuality.
Scruffian’s Stamp is the story of Orphan, the first Scruffian, and how groanhuffs came to invent the Stamp without realising it would Fix Scruffians for good.
An Alfabetcha of Scruffian Names describes the characteristics of twenty-six Scruffians.
Jack Scallywag expands on the one paragraph about the Scruffian Knight in the Alphabetcha, how said Jack aspired to knighthood and came to it as others did, (by stealing it more or less,) how he set off on his mission to slay the dragon only to find out who the real dragons are.
The Disappearance of James H riffs extensively but explicitly on Peter Pan – a shadow, a crocodile tear, “‘I’m not a…’ ‘Fairy?,’ ‘Every time you say that, I whisper, a little part of you will die,’” – in its tale of the titular disappearance.
The Island of the Pirate Gods is another swashbuckling Pannish adventure (with added language) wherein the twin lovers Matelotage and Mutiny are the background to a story of The People’s Independent Republic of Arse, Cock and bloody Yo-ho-bloody-ho, ie PIRACY.
Very well constructed and set against the background of the playing of a hand in a Texas Hold ‘Em game The Angel of the Gamblers is a meeting with the devil type of story except it’s not the devil who demanded a soul, it was the eponymous angel.
The Shoulder of Pelops features figures from Ancient Greek myth and legend in a story about signs, meanings and the difference between words and the things they name.
Bizarre Cubiques is a history – and critique – of an alternative world art movement, the creation of artists Bricasso and Paque. The narrator has made his way from home in New Amsterdam in Amorica to Pharis via Caerlundein, Felixstoff and Diephe.
The worlds of superhero comics are the inspiration for The Origin of the Fiend, a metafiction where differing origin stories for different supercharacters impinge on the consciousness of a young lad ‘sending his mind back and forth along his own timestream,’ in a mundane world where no superhero can stop his brother dying whether that be in France or Korea or Vietnam or Iraq.
Sons of the Law is a Western story with a framing device positing it as a manuscript handed down through a family. It transcends all the Western clichés while at the same time deploying them – the saloon, the hunter, the killer, the slave (whose name, Abraham, and experience embed a Biblical reference,) the bargirl, the gambler, the wrangler, the drifter, in a tale of revenge and implied poetic justice.
Sic Him, Hellhound! Kill! Kill! ticks off two fantasy tropes in one swoop with a story of a boy and his lover (a werewolf) hunting vampires.
Oneirica melds many myths and legends into one tale as it describes a trip by various characters to find a stone chest containing mythological objects.
Inventive, delightful stuff.

Pedant’s corner:- Plasticene (Plasticine,) “fifth formers” (yet the narrator is Scottish, where the expression is ‘fifth years’. Perhaps not in private schools though where the scene was set.) “Joey sees him close his eyes, puts the barrel to his own chest and pull the trigger” (put the barrel,) rigourous (rigorous,) “that’s bound to sparks some stares” (to spark,) “and the hoi polloi” (hoi means ‘the’, so it should really be ‘and hoi polloi.) “None of them are aware” (None of them is aware.) “None of them know what’s in the briefcase” (None of them knows.)

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Head of Zeus, 2015, 637 p, including iii p Contents, a i p Note on Pronunciation, iii p List of Characters, ii p of map, i p Glossary, i p Notes and i p Acknowlegements.

 The Grace of Kings cover

Well. Here we are again in Fantasy Land. A 623 page blockbuster complete with contents page(s), a list of characters, a glossary – which nevertheless doesn’t contain all the invented words employed – even a note on pronunciation no less. Liu is certainly taking himself seriously. And there’s a map. Of course there’s a map. (A dingy map, though, in shades of grey.)

But what’s the story like, I hear you ask?

Well, it starts with an attempt on the life of the Emperor Mapidéré, who had united the warring island kingdoms of Dara by conquest, and whose impositions on the populace thereafter – taxation, impressment of labour for grandiose projects etc – has led to resentment, especially among the representatives of the old order. The attempt is foiled by the quick thinking of the Captain of the Imperial Guard but the perpetrator (who was flying strapped into a kind of kite) escapes. Despite intensive searches the Emperor’s followers never find him. He does turn up again in some later chapters but only as a relatively minor influence on the plot.

We mainly follow Mata Zyndu, scion of one of the deposed ruling families and a formidable swordsman, and former chancer and bandit Kuni Garu as they combine forces to depose the Emperor (who on his death was replaced as figurehead by his son Erishi,) and their inevitable falling out. Almost half of the book is the working out of their conflict as the revolution eats itself. Mata is represented as a military man wedded to strength and order while Kuni is more thoughtful of the position of the ordinary people and their travails but still has to do things that lead to suffering. At times there are interpolations from the seven gods of Dara, sworn not to interfere in the affairs of mortals but who cannot resist meddling at the margins.

Liu makes some obeisance to strong capable women in the shape of Kuni’s wife, Jia, and Gin Mazoti, an orphan who reveals military talents and is made by Kuni head of his army, but, as is usual with the genre this is mostly a male enterprise. One of the more interesting aspects of the novel is the possession by Gya of a book that writes itself but this is largely wasted.

As to the writing, there is extensive information dumping, far too much is told, not shown, and the scenes where characters are perhaps meant to become more rounded to the reader tend to the sketchy. This is not helped by the habit of the gods in this tale to take on human appearance and interact with the mortals, usually with no intimation of their true nature to the reader till the scene is ending. Above all, there is the relentless catalogue of killing. There must be better ways to order human affairs even if the setting is all-but default mediæval.

Judging by the various blurbs, Liu’s inspiration for the setting (arising from his Chinese background) has been widely welcomed as a fresh angle on the Fantasy genre but to anyone who has read Asian literature in translation things seem utterly unremarkable – indeed familiar.

Nevertheless the narrative has its moments. Luan Gya says to Kuni, “The grace of kings is not the same as the morals governing individuals,” and Kuni wonders, “I think I wield power, but perhaps it is power that wields me.”

The Grace of Kings is fine as far as it goes but at those 623 pages takes too long to do too little. I found Liu’s short stories more to my taste.

Pedant’s corner:- a capital letter on the next word following a colon (why? A colon does not indicate the end of a sentence.) “The crowd’s cheers rose to a crescendo” (No. the crescendo is the rise. Their cheers rose to a climax,) releasing the paper crafts to drift into the dark night sky (the plural of craft, as in ship or aeroplane etc, is craft,) “to not …” (innumerable instances, ‘not to …’ is the usual form, and indeed occurred; once,) “times its” (multiplied by its.) “All the boys had were each other now” (all the boys had was each other,) “Namen’s army were at the walls” (Namen’s army was at the walls,) “who have seen seen” (only one ‘seen’ needed.) “The empire might have lost on land but they could lay siege to the whole island” (sentence structure demands ‘but it could lay seige,) “to no end” (this means ‘without purpose’, Liu meant ‘no end’ ie ‘without limit’.) “‘That makes you think you’ll be better at ruling the world than him?’” (‘What makes you think …’ makes more sense,) laying (lying,) “a pod of crubens beached themselves” (strictly, a pod beached itself,) maws (these are not mouths, they are stomachs,) floatation (flotation,) treaded water (trod water?) “‘How I can face their fathers, mothers, …?’” (‘How can I face…?’)

Heliotrope by Justina Robson

Stories. Ticonderoga Publications, 2011, 345 p, including vi p Introduction by Adam Roberts and i p Acknowledgements.

 Heliotrope cover

The lead story Heliotrope is all that has surfaced from the author’s “Massively Unpublishable First Fantasy Epic” and at times the writing betrays its inexperienced origin. In it an artist finishing her apprenticeship is given by her ageing tutor the task of encapsulating the essence of dance master Jalaeka who inspires widespread devotion and can float. He can also drain his followers dry.

The McGuffin in Body of Evidence is a device which lets the wearer know what everyone is really thinking when they are speaking. Our heroine finds this even more excruciating when she meets another person trialling the device.

The Adventurers’ League was first published in an anthology dedicated to the style of Jules Verne. Voyager Lone Star Isol has returned from interstellar space in a manner suggesting it has been able to return faster than the speed of light. The journalist narrator Riba, is sent to investigate. Isol is one of the Forged people and there is the possibility of a war between them and Original humans. Riba is pushed off a transatlantic helium airship to fall oceanward. He is saved from death by the actions of an immense tentacled creature, which turns out to be a floating organism on which he meets avatars of Jules Verne, Captain Nemo, Sinbad, the Mermaid Silene, Ahab, and Sir David Attenborough, Forged people anxious to avoid war. The story has a fair degree of intrusive information dumping.

The Girl Hero’s Mirror Says He’s Not the One is set in Robson’s Mappa Mundi universe. The Girl Hero is sent to assassinate a poet who her mirror assures her will not the one to kill her. Biut he does have a device that resets internal software.

In The Bull Leapers a woman whose husband is in Knossos for an archæological dig encounters three Greeks who practice the old art of bull-leaping. They are also in touch with the Labyrinth, to where they take her for the story’s transforming episode.

Deadhead is narrated by Lois, a fourteen year-old girl. Her six years older sister Clem has Asperger’s and Lois always resents having to looking after her. She and their mother come to a better understanding after Clem communes with a dead horse’s head.

Erie Lackawanna Song starts off at the Hoboken ferry terminal with a man looking at the derelict Erie Lackawanna jetty next door. His journey across the river takes a different turn from usual when his nodding and sometimes speaking acquaintance, Claire Glick, asks him to look at a phial of liquid she has taken from work. It contains a substance that can rewrite brain synapses.

Cracklegrackle sees a man helped by one of the Forged (one who can “see” at all wavelengths) to find his daughter, kidnapped on Mars some time before, on Jupiter, much changed.

In No Man’s Island, on the day she finds she has not got the job at CERN she longed for Mariann Harris consoles herself with her discovery of traces of an alien spaceship having used an Alcbierre warp drive. Meanwhile her husband embarrasses himself with a customer of the shop where he works. Both find solace with their dog, Bing.

Robson’s first published story, Trésor, is understated horror wherein a prostitute has been waiting for her mark.

The Seventh Series is a mythical set of yoga exercises Davey is writing into a computer game. Then he finds that there is a video of that title and goes searching for its origin. The explanation at the story’s end is rather mundane though.

The Little Bear is one of the few SF stories to address the fact that time travel is also space travel and vice-versa. Ronson examines this through a series of vignettes set in different time-lines but with the same characters, each lamenting the human loss they incurred when an experiment involving the teleportation of a bottle of wine changed their world.

In Legolas Does the Dishes an inmate of a mental hospital envisages that the man who doe sthe dishes in the institution is Legolas from Tolkien’s Hobbit universe. Her viewpoint is emphasised when she tells us, “I don’t need to say what might happen if you got a shard in your eye and started to see the world through another lens. Who knows what might be revealed?” It is left open as to whether she is deluded or he really is Legolas.

Dreadnought is the intelligence of a spaceship as mediated through its units which can not exist without a human host.

An Unremarkable Man is the tale of two supernatural women trying to be ordinary, a Viscus Diabolique and the ensuing trade with a non-descript man who materialises from nowhere.

A Dream of Mars is suffered nightly by our narrator who was sent to recover the remains of the dead from a downed cable car in the Martian New South Face Woodlands and destroy the human created Bigfoot who had been intended as a tourist attraction only to form a bond with him instead.

Pedant’s corner:- In Adam Roberts’ Introduction “and both, well, Forged stories” (are both, well, Forged stories,) “of of” (only one ‘of’ required,) “but a tale that understand … are” (understands,) “ontological speaking” (ontologically speaking.) “But another of saying” (But another way of saying,) “knows whats I’m talking about” (what,) “I think that it what her” (that is what her,) a missing full stop, “as a way” (is a way.) “On the contrary the story does is” (what the story does is,) “amply demonstrates” (demonstrated.) Otherwise; “whilst others both showed some degree of chestnut” (both?) Elys’ (x 4, Elys’s.) “‘She dare not breathe’” (the rest of this segment is written in the past tense; ‘dared not’,) bringing her skin up to his awake and. He pinned her down,” (no full stop and subsequent capital needed.) “The paint is so thick that is has” (that it has,) “and Elys’ stops making a noise” (Elys,) “dare not” (again, past tense, dared not,) “like a the funnel” (one or other article, not both,) “sent his Abacand him the time” (either ‘sent his Abacand’, or, ‘sent him’ the time, not both,) “together with in increasing lawlessness” (no ‘in’,) “Jules Verne was a Frenchman of the twentieth century” (only barely; he died in 1905,) “that that” (only one ‘that’ needed,) “your media group have been advocating” (has been advocating,) fit (fitted.) “None of them are interested” (is interested,) “and in just in time to” (and is just in time to,) “its rotor whir softly” (‘its rotors whir’, or, ‘its rotor whirs’,) “I could help but take a sharp breath” (I couldn’t help but, Minos’ (Minos’s,) “It’s comfort” (Its.) “Bishop figure it was for his benefit” (figured,) claimes (claims,) “and sings” (the rest is in past tense, so ‘sang’,) scaned (scanned,) “I dare not” (again past tense; dared,) Mars’ (Mars’s.) “‘Their names is what they are” (Their names are what they are.) “‘and its real, external’” (it’s,) ““Let’s start looking’ Bishop said” (“Let’s start looking,” Bishop said,) iat (at,) “Part sof a” (Parts of a.) “‘may I see it?’” (May,) “much me readily” (much more readily,) “even as it wasn’t part of his concern” (‘even if it wasn’t’ makes more sense,) “all the questions that were hunting him” (haunting him makes more sese,) withy (with,) coudln’t (couldn’t,) “he he” (only one ‘he’ needed,) “those involved Forged” (those involved are Forged,) “less seconds” (fewer seconds,) “for the a regular payment” ( no ‘a’ needed.) “None of them were talking” (None of them was talking,) “(CGPS)was” ((CGPS) was,) a new paragraph taken in the middle of a line when a piece of dialogue is opened (x 2,) “watched the their chosen object” (no ‘the’ I think,) “ ‘still signs himself off “ A Friend of Your Father’s” as if’” (off “A Friend…..) “They stared at the offended item” (the offending item,) Legolas’ (Legolas’s.) “‘I want to see him again,’ She rubbed” (I want to see him again.” She rubbed,) Saclides’ (Saclides’s,) “Laura said ordered a double espresso” (is missing a comma between said and ordered.) “The main criteria is” (the main criterion is,) “the meatl struts of the nearest tower groans and creaks” (the metal struts … groan and creak,) Mars’ (Mars’s,) Raditech were set to lose (Raditech was set to lose.) In the Acknowledgements; Crwther (Crowther.)

Cosmic Monster

Part of the Carina Nebula as seen in Astronomy Picture of the Day for 25/5/20.

It looks like something from the cover of a Fantasy novel:-

Part of Carina Nebula

In the Red Lord’s Reach by Phyllis Eisenstein

Grafton, 1993, 286 p.

 In the Red Lord’s Reach  cover

These are the continuing adventures of Alaric the minstrel, hero of Born to Exile, who has the ability to transport himself instantaneously from one place to another, a trait he has to keep secret for fear of being called a witch. In his wanderings he comes to the domain of the Red Lord where he offers his musical services in return for the usual bed and board. Very soon he realises that there is something disturbing at the heart of the Red Lord’s reign. The hold the Lord has over the valley is as a reward for protection against bandits – of whom Alaric has seen no sign – and screams come from the Lord’s tower every night. When Alaric says it is time for him to leave he is taken to the tower where he finds the Lord tortures and eventually kills his victims, a fate now intended for Alaric.

He escapes (of course, how could a self-teleporter not?) and makes his way to the north lands where he falls in with the deer-herding (and riding) nomads who live there. The chief, Simir, himself a fugitive from the Red Lord, takes to him, as does Xavia the daughter of the nomads’ witch, Kata. Kata’s potions and prognostications are a solace for the nomads – she yearly provides them all with the Elixir of Life and imbues the men with the talent to hunt. Here being a witch is not seen as devilry, though Alaric does not accept that for a while. His relationship with Xavia is not taken well by Simir’s sons and leads to a confrontation. The sons are exiled and Alaric finds himself desired as a successor by both Simir and Kata.

The bad winter which follows leaves the nomads with few deer, no prospects for the next year and little option but what all along the reader knew was coming; to try to overthrow the Red Lord.

It’s decently enough written and engaging (not to mention remarkably free of errata) but an attempted rationale for Alaric’s powers as tapping into what seem to be magnetic field lines, described when Kata leads an expedition north to harvest the strange flowers which grow only there at midsummer and provide the ingredients for the Elixir of Life, sits somewhat oddly with the otherwise purely fantastical premise.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “‘Pilgrim’s bound where?’” (Pilgrims.)

Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse

Hodder, 2019, 317 p.

 Storm of Locusts cover

This is the second of Roanhorse’s Sixth World sequence featuring the adventures of Maggie Hoskie, Monsterslayer. I reviewed the first, Trail of Lightning, here. We are again in Navajo country, Dinétah, and straight away Maggie is asked by Hastiin, of the Thirsty Boys, (drought still afflicts the land after the environmental catastrophe known as the Big Water,) to help with something big and bad over near Lake Asááyi. On the way she is introduced to Ben, who is not a young man, but a teenage girl, Hastiin’s niece, whom Hastiin asks Maggie to look after if anything should happen to him, which naturally it soon does. The something big and bad turns out to be a woman with wings who can sing others to submission and is an adherent of the White Locust. Hastiin is killed, Ben blames herself for attracting the winged woman’s attention and tries to kill her in revenge. In the aftermath Maggie has to accept reponsibility for Ben, who we find, like Maggie, has clan powers, in her case to track people. The winged woman – despite her singing abilities – is then forgotten by the narrative.

Rissa and Clive Goodacre of the All-American bar encountered in the previous book come knocking asking for Maggie’s help to rescue their brother Caleb, taken apparently by Maggie’s former ally, Kai, whom she betrayed in the course of defeating then burying her mentor, Neizghání, whose sword of lightning is now in Maggie’s possession. A video of the abduction is in the bar’s archive, and despite not being very revealing does show Kai mouthing, “I love you. Don’t follow,” presumably to Maggie. Though Maggie is insistent she no longer wants to kill anyone and any pursuit means she might have to, follow is of course what she does, accompanied by Ben, Clive, Rissa, and a shapeshifter called Mósí, escaping pursuit by a swarm of locusts which can devour everything in sight and assemble themselves into a human shape.

They find Caleb at Dinétah’s southern entry gate, complete with a set of wings and pinned by stakes to the wall that surrounds Dinétah. (For some reason all the Goodacres have red hair. Odd, it isn’t a dominant gene.) The trail leads out into the Badlands beyond Dinétah. Within hours our adventurers are captured and taken to Knifetown, overseen by a man called Bishop who is a trader of all kinds but especially of breedable women. He deems Maggie and Rissa too dangerous though. They are to be harvested for their organs. Somewhat too easily they talk themselves out of captivity by persuading Bishop’s pilot, Aaron, to help them. This is good for plot reasons as he is the brother of Gideon, the White Locust. Mósí engineers that they stop at an abandoned casino named Twin Arrows, where Maggie becomes reacquainted with Ma’ii (Coyote) whom she had killed in the previous book, “The problem with immortals is that they don’t stay dead,” and engages in a game of chance with the god Nohoilpi. There is a diversion to a place called Wahheap, where Maggie learns from Tó how to control Neizghání’s sword, then on to Amangiri and the final confrontation with the White Locust, who holds a grudge against Dinétah and plans to destroy it.

Maggie is an engaging narrator. Despite all the mayhem, violence and killing, not all that much by way of plot, and the lack of filling in of background detail of this supposed future the book is well written. Roanhorse shows understanding of the human condition and a flair for character depiction. The blending of Navajo myth and beliefs with a Fantasy plot works well as a story but the control over natural phenomena by those with powers is always a stretch for me.

The last chapter is a bit of a tease as it does not relate at all to the main thrust of Storm of Locusts but instead promises more in the Sixth World.

Pedant’s corner:- “When the adrenaline spike that drive them fades” (drives then,) “at apace” (at a pace.) “Something about Rissa seem to repel the light” (seems,) “she slides off mattress” (the mattress,) “there’s no arcing patterns” (there are no arcing patterns,) a closed quotation mark at the end of a paragraph when the next paragraph started off with the same speaker (x 1,) “‘I’ve never drank alcohol before’” (never drunk.) “He shakes he head.” (his head.) “‘How it is my fault?’” (How is it my fault?,) “as we race for the Lupton” (for Lupton,) “like she’s relived” (relieved,) “Caleb’s rushes on” (Caleb rushes on,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech. “His freezes” (He freezes.) “Feedings us to the sporting dogs.” (Feeding us to,) hanger (hangar, used correctly later,) “what looks to be modified Heckler assault rifles” (what look to be,) the sheathe (the sheath,) “I loved the way it shined” (shone,) “the pressure of fingers on my neck disappear” (disappears.) “His stumbles back” (He stumbles,) “sounds like I great idea” (like a great idea,) “righted the plan” (righted the plane.) “The use it against a god?” (To use it against a god?) Nohoipli (elsewhere always Nohoilpi,) “making them they sparkle like diamonds” (no ‘they’ needed,) “rarer in this world that you think” (than you think,) “rolling through by body” (through my body,) “‘if you haven’t notice’” (noticed.) “The docks creaks and moans” (the dock,) “I sheath the sword” (sheathe,) “There’s a an individual” (no ‘a’.) “Kai shoulders fall slightly” (Kai’s,) an unneeded end quote mark at the end of a normal piece of prose (x1.) “The spill of pebbles under my feet sound like” (the spill …sounds like,) “reaching up hands up” (only one ‘up’ required.) “The impossibly rare smell of sugar and cinnamon waft from the dish” (the … smell … wafts,) “I cry out at my fingers bend and crack” (as my fingers,) “and his eyes – whatever light they had before – snuffs out” (- whatever light they had before snuff out,) Diyin Dine’ e (elsewhere always Dine’ é,) “the handful that are left” (strictly; the handful that is left.) “Stepping out of from behind” (either ‘out of’ or ‘from’, not both,) “from having the relive the horrors” (having to relive,) “her face tight” (his face.) “As in on cue” (As if on cue,) “his breath coming is gasps,” (in gasps,) Dinetah (elsewhere always Dinétah.)

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville

Macmillan, 2015, 443 p.

 Three Moments of an Explosion cover

This is Miéville’s latest collection of short stories. Like with all such collections the interest varies but the stories are all readable.

The very short Three Moments of an Explosion consists of three fragments all describing explosions, some of which are used for advertisemants.
In Polynia Cold Masses – icebergs – appear in the sky over London (while coral sprouts on the walls of buildings in Brussels.) There’s a Wellsian feel to it but the end result is still distinctly Miévillean.
The Condition of New Death is that all dead bodies orient with their feet pointing directly towards to any observer (including cameras) at all times. Apparently this is linked to a feature of early First-Person Shooters.
The Dowager of Bees is narrated by a card player, inducted one day into the phenomenon of Hidden Suits, where a card (such as the Dowager of Bees) will manifest during a game – and in the rule books – only for both to disappear again once the game ends, with forfeits to be fulfilled. The reader can guess which card the climax will involve but there is still a resolution beyond its appearance.
Narrated by an immigrant shopkeeper on the island where it is set In the Slopes is the story both of two rival archæological digs in the shadow of a volcano which are uncovering evidence of extraterrestrials living alongside humans and of a new resin for preserving the remains.
The Crawl is the text of a trailer for a zombie film.
Watching God is set on a peninsula cut off from its mainland by forest and a ravine. Ships appear from time to time but never come ashore, instead wrecking themselves just out to sea as if forming words with their arrangements.
The title of The 9th Technique refers to a form of torture but the story itself is about the uncanny manifestations attached to the techniques – the cloth from the first waterboarding now having unusual properties – and their value as objects of desire. The 9th technique is confinement with an insect. Viewpoint character Koning acquires it.
The Rope is the World is a history of the girdling of Earth – a thin-spoked wheel – by space elevators and their subsequent inhabitation and decay. Money for old ….
Containing some fables particular to its setting The Buzzard’s Egg is the address of an enslaved member of a defeated city, whose job it is to look after the captured gods of conquered peoples, to one of those gods.
Säcken is a tale of supernatural apparitions arising from an ancient punishment for parricide, the poena cullei, where the criminal was sewn into a bag with a dog, a cockerel, a viper and an ape and then thrown into water.
Syllabus is what it says, an outline for an academic course on the detritus left by time-travellers, the ramifications of the arrival of alien insects for global poilitics and the implications of the privatisation of sickness in the UK.
In Dreaded Outcome a therapist has an unusual proactive role in the restoration of her patients to well-being using what she calls traumatic vector therapy. She also has her own therapist.
After the Festival is a gruesome tale about a new entertainment – the public slaughter of animals and the subsequent wearing of their heads by people chosen from the crowd.
The Dusty Hat starts as a tale of political leftist factionalism but soon veers off into weirdness and a discussion of geological deep time (which gives Miéville the opportunity to make a neat pun with the description glass struggle. He also for some reason finds it necessary to italicise the word stramash.)
Escapee is another text of a film trailer, this time for a horror film.
The Bastard Prompt’s narrator’s girlfriend was a jobbing actor not getting many parts so took a post as a Standardised Patient – helping trainee doctors to recognise diseases from their ‘symptoms’. She’s very good at it but then starts to describe symptoms for diseases that don’t exist – yet.
Rules is a short list of, em, rules for as yet unknown games and also a reflection on imitating an aeroplane with spread arms and making that “now-familiar” noise.
The estate of Estate is a housing one which Dan Loch’s family had to leave one day. When he comes back there is an outbreak of incidents involving drugged deer staggering around with their antlers on fire.
Keep relates the evolution of a new epidemic where, if the afflicted remain too long immobile, trenches appear in a circle around them, and the scientific efforts to discover its origins and possible cure.
A Second Slice Manifesto is that of an art movement which constructs and displays slices through prior paintings; slices which reveal more of the originals than was apparent to the naked eye.
A father and daughter enter a militarily embargoed area around Covehithe. They have come to watch the emergence of a damaged and sunken oil-rig from the sea. It has come to drill down and deposit eggs from which new rigs will grow.
The Junket is narrated by a hard-boiled media journalist describing the controversy around a film (made by Jews) which displays every anti-Semitic trope in the book, and its aftermath.
Four Final Orpheuses gives us four different versions of why Orpheus might have made that turn and fateful look towards Eurydice.
A picture frame turns put to have unusual properties in The Rabbet.
Listen the Birds is another storyboard for a film trailer.
A Mount is a meditation on the ubiquity of porcelain animals and why some seemingly out-of-place people, not their owners, might be fascinated by them.
A sense of understated eeriness hangs over The Design in which a medical student between the wars discovers designs etched into the bones of the cadaver he is dissecting. He concludes that God is a scrimshander.

Pedant’s corner: vortexes (strictly the plural of vortex is vortices,) “a plethora of ceremonies are emerging” (a plethora is singular; a plethora …. is emerging,) indices (yes, it’s an acceptable plural but when it is for book contents it’s usually spelled indexes,) sodium pentothol, (sodium pentothal,) Cheevers’ wife (Cheevers’s,) crevace-spiders (crevice-spiders?) “There were a series of percussions” (there was a series.) “Most of the town were already gathered” (most of the town was gathered.) “None of them leave.” (None of them leaves,) snuck (sneaked.) Pangea (Pangaea, or, even better, Pangæa.) “A line of police block the road” (A line … blocks the road,) “wracks his brain” (racks,) “or that it be not shown” (or that it not be shown,) “Baron von Richtofen” (if it’s that baron, it’s Richthofen,) fit (fitted,) trash (rubbish.)

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