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The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner

Gollancz, 2015, 543 p.

The Promise of the Child cover

It is sometime in the 14,700s, Homo sapiens has speciated, “Prismed into a dozen breeds of fairy-tale grotesques,” Pifoon, Vulgar, Melius, Amaranthine, being only some of its descendants; Immortals wait out their time before falling into madness, a war is being waged. There is intrigue over the succession of a new Emperor. A machine called the Soul Engine can resurrect dead bodies, undamaged dead bodies, into true immortality and is an object of desire for some of the characters, none of whom engaged my interest or sympathy. A pair of long-dead space-faring dinosaurs found among the rings of Saturn also feature.

Despite containing spaceships and superluminal engines (which somehow also seem to be capable of operating at sub-light speeds) this future still has artillery which fires shells and recognisable place names and locations on Earth. Also marring it all are unconvincing fight and battle scenes, tedious information dumping and a failure to adhere to Colin Greenland’s injunction to beware the pluperfect.

I never give up on a book; but I came perilously close with this one.

Pedant’s corner:- The text mentions lifeless worlds exist where oxygen concentration is higher than that of the Old World. (Oxygen is a reactive gas; without replenishment it would swiftly be used up. Replenishment is a by-product of plant activity, ie life,) “the drilling team were” (was,) whisps, (wisps,) Impatiens’ (Impatiens’s; and this use of the apostrophe is not applied consistently, witness Sotiris’s,) fetid (I prefer foetid,) the crew were (was,) crenulated (crenellated?) metal is “soft enough to mould and carve in a person’s hand, with only a dip in salt water necessary to begin the hardening process” (no metal I know of behaves like this; each metal is either soft or not, depending perhaps on the temperature. Mind you, this metal grows on trees,) “said…. a voice in the chapel that appeared to come from everywhere” (the chapel came from everywhere?) “hoping at least one would find their target” (its target surely?) “but did nothing shade them” (nothing to shade them,) hingeing (I believe the correct form is hinging – but to someone from the West of Scotland there is a distinction between hinge and hing so I would accept hingeing in a Scottish work, which this isn’t,) the expectant trio were (was,) epicentre (centre,) master-at-arms’ (master-at-arms’s,) wollen (woollen.)

A Different Top Ten Space Operas

In response to Gareth Powell’s list Ian Sales has posted his own. Typically of Ian his choices are idiosyncratic. I note he sneaks in more than ten too.

My strike rate here is much lower.

Judgment Night, CL Moore (1952)
Empire Star, Samuel R Delany (1966)
Valérian and Laureline, Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières (1967 – present)
The Children of Anthi and Requiem for Anthi, Jay D Blakeney (1985 – 1990)
Master of Paxwax and The Fall of the Families, Phillip Mann (1986 – 1987)
Take Back Plenty, Colin Greenland (1990)
An Exchange of Hostages, Prisoner of Conscience and Hour of Judgement, Susan R Matthews (1997 – 1999)
The Prodigal Sun, The Dying Light and A Dark Imbalance, Sean Williams & Shane Dix (1999 – 2001)
The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds, Scott Westerfeld (2003)
Spirit, or the Princess of Bois Dormant, Gwyneth Jones (2008)

Was by Geoff Ryman

Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks, 2005, 456p. First published 1992.

Was cover

As I posted in my review of the same author’s Air (or Have Not Have) I didn’t much take to Ryman’s earlier (short) works. I remember Colin Greenland at an Eastercon pointing this book out and saying, “You’ll have read this.” I shook my head and said I had a blind spot where Ryman was concerned. He seemed taken aback. When I saw this recently in a second–hand bookshop I thought I might give it a whirl.

Following her mother’s death a young girl called Dorothy, along with her dog, goes to live with her Aunty Em in Kansas. Any similarity to a well-known film (and slightly lesser known book) is entirely intended. Was is suffused with references to them. But this is no mere retread. Ryman takes the opportunity to illuminate life in late nineteenth century Kansas and so contrast his realistic approach to the smoothed out film version.

Dorothy Gael’s life in her new home is harsh – and unremitting. She does not get transported by a tornado to a more colourful world. Moreover, there are enough wicked witches in our own to suffice for anyone – and not only witches. Dorothy’s lack of understanding of her new environment only exacerbates her estrangement. The main focus of the book is on Dorothy’s experiences but there are chapters setting out Judy Garland’s life as viewed by herself as a child, by her make-up artist on The Wizard of Oz and by her mother after her success, with quotes at chapter heads from various sources commenting on the making of the film, the book on which it was based or the history of Kansas. Topping and tailing it all is the tale of a 1980s (HIV positive) actor trying to find traces of Dorothy Gael in historical documents.

Ryman’s imagining of Dorothy’s story has her surviving into the 1950s where, as a troublesome inmate of a home, she is befriended by a young man who goes on to a successful career in counselling (and one of whose later clients is the actor.) Dorothy tells him, “People are the only thing that can make you feel lonely,” and that Was is “a place you can step in and out of. It’s always there.”

Yet Fantasy comes to the book late. For the most part the tone is resolutely realistic and until very near the end any intrusion of the strange can be taken as imagination or illusion.

In what is perhaps a touch of overkill Ryman has The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’s author, L Frank Baum, encounter Dorothy while employed as a supply (Ryman uses the term substitute) teacher – but it does precipitate a further deterioration of Dorothy’s young life. After this, “Dorothy needed magic….. She began to have another fantasy… walking backwards through the years… back home… away from Is into the land of Was.”

As a re-examination of, a commentary on, the mythology of Oz, this is a fine work. It’s also a damn good read.

Ryman’s afterword, where he discourses on the relative utilities of realism and fantasy, of the necessary distinction between history and fantasy, is also worth a look.

Pedant’s corner. Apart from the USian in which the whole book was produced, it was page 246 before I came across an irritant – laying instead of lying, which occurred once more. Unusually, I didn’t spot any typos. This may be because the book is a reprint.

Winterstrike by Liz Williams

Tor, 2008. 358p.

For some reason I just could not get into this book and found it a bit of a slog. As it is the first part of a mooted trilogy this was dispiriting. There were thematic and stylistic similarities between this and the Darkland/ Bloodmind duo of books by Williams which I have read in the recent past but Winterstrike seemed to lack something in comparison.

On a far future Mars inhabited by women – any men are of the changed and to be shunned, contact with them is ostracisable – a woman called Alleghetta has her sights set on becoming a member of the ruling Matriarchy. The daughters of her union with her partner Thea are the main focus of the book as they play out the ramifications of the choices Alleghetta has made about their genetic inheritance.

The changed come in at least two types, strangely altered humans known as demotheas and vulpen who seem to be exclusively male. Curiously – and against the normal English usage (ox/oxen, child/children, brother/brethren) – Williams renders the singular also as vulpen.

Not much is made of the all-female scenario. The characters have all the venalities, jealousies and weaknesses that you might find in any society. Beyond the absence of sex scenes there isn’t much to set this novel apart from others. Maybe, however, this was the point.

The Mars in the book is as you might expect, terraformed and with canals on which someone of course takes a trip. This last is the one bit of using such a setting that is almost obligatory: “the best bit” as Colin Greenland once remarked to me. (No criticism here; I’ve done the same myself in my unpublished novel Who Changes Not. )

The two main protagonists are Essegui and Hestia whose paths soon diverge and never recombine, which is something of a fault in a multi-stranded narrative. (The book does end with a message between the two but this serves only to set up the succeeding volume.) Their other sisters Letetui, also known as Shorn, and Canteley are not viewpoint characters but Letetui is the hinge of the narrative. She has associated with a vulpen, been shut away, but escaped.

At times the treatment tips over from SF into Fantasy – or at least there is no convincing explanation of how certain things occur. Williams has shown such sensibilities in the past and this may be one of the reasons why Winterstrike did not appeal. Her descriptive writing, the convincing dropping in of essential detail, can be excellent though.

However, when a book fails to grip, infelicities begin to stand out, make the reading more difficult than it might be and, crucially, undermine trust in the author. Examples weren’t hard to find. There is a military aircraft – probably the one depicted on the cover – which Williams dubs a dreadnought and which, to indicate age, is described as having rust on it. Now, I would think that, even on Mars, a flying machine made of iron would have too high a density to get off the ground successfully. Some later chapters are set on Earth and feature a post-warming flooded Ropa (Europe) where there nevertheless is a city with an iron tower still surviving to poke up through the waves. The tower plays an important part in one of the scenes but it seems this iron structure is not susceptible to rust, despite enjoying the optimum conditions for it. Also at one point we have the phrase, “The woman brightened imperceptibly.” Really? If the brightening was imperceptible how, then, did the viewpoint character know it had occurred? There is also some confusion between born and borne.

Maybe it is this lack of the necessary consideration which is at the root of my dissatisfaction. A proper editing could have picked this sort of thing up but, increasingly, books do not receive the sort of close attention during the publication process they once did.

Unlike in either Darkland or Bloodmind this book does not bring all the strands together and as a result ends inconclusively. This is perhaps not surprising from the first part of a trilogy but I did feel somewhat short-changed.

Daybreak on A Different Mountain by Colin Greenland

Unicorn (Unwin), 1986

I came to Colin Greenland late, when he turned to SF rather than fantasy and Take Back Plenty won all those awards. I first met him at a Science Fiction convention in Leeds and he’s a really nice bloke, one of nature’s gentlemen. I’ve had the pleasure of his company at other cons since. This is me catching up with his back catalogue.

Daybreak on A Different Mountain was Greenland’s first novel, the start of a fantasy sequence. In the city of Thryn, walled off from the outside world for ages, the local priestess of the god Gomath identifies one of the aristocratic Agui, Lupio, as some sort of messiah, called the Cirnex. Dismayed, he breaks the law by leaving the city, teaming up with Dubilier, who has different reasons for escape. Together they venture off towards a distant sacred mountain. The book chronicles their odyssey.

The novel has an interesting symmetrical structure. Two sections set in Thryn bookend the longer middle part which is itself symmetrical as Dubilier and Lupio have various adventures on their way to the mountain and on the way back meet characters they encountered on their outward journey.

(The next sentence contains a slight spoiler.)

They find the city they come back to is very different from the one they left and the way their encounters are mutated and transform into the mythology Lupio was trying to escape is cleverly done.

The book is 25 years old now, being first published in 1984 and is of its time. Yet while Greenland’s deftness with character is already evident here there is that fantasy quirk whereby many are given strange names. Piripheis anyone? Hirfan? Ibet?

If I were recommending a starting point for anyone unfamiliar with Greenland’s work I wouldn’t suggest Daybreak though it is a worthwhile read. Try instead Take Back Plenty or, better still, his excellent mainstream novel Finding Helen.

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