Daily Reads: 2 December 2014

DR 02122014

Hey everyone :)

So I’ve got the very lovely Devilskein and Dearlove by Alex Smith on my desk, and I’ll have a review for you later this week. It’s a dark retelling of The Secret Garden, set on Cape Town’s famous Long Street, and if you like YA fantasy at all, you should be reading this. But more on that later. Here’s some cool stuff to check out in the meantime.

Author Cat Hellisen is doing a NotYourNano writing project for December, which she describes as “More like the December Let’s Start A Novel And Talk About Process And Take It Easy But Still Make Progress. Or something equally snappy.” Basically NaNoWriMo doesn’t quite work for her because of the high word count, so this month she’s planning to write 100 words a day, and you can join in :) She’ll be blogging about it daily, offering ideas and guidance to those who want it. There are two posts up so far:
Planting your tomatoes (in which I actually learnt something about tomatoes)
Square brackets of absolution (an excellent writing strategy I can actually recommend because I already do something similar whenever I can’t think of good words but I don’t want to let that bring me to a grinding halt).

- Grace from Books Without Any Pictures reviews She Nailed a Stake Through His Head: Tales of Biblical Terror edited by Tim LiederI bought this book on Kindle a few years ago because I’m the sort of person who is magnetically drawn to weird titles. And it seemed apt, considering the many, many WTF?! moments in the bible. I haven’t finished reading the anthology because, like Grace, the stories are a bit hit and miss for me, but it’s worth checking out her review to see what’s on offer.

Finally, I just loved this tweet from Kameron Hurley last week:

Up for Review: Once Upon a Time by Marina Warner

It’s been ages since I did one of these posts… Don’t know why I stopped because I love showcasing new books. And I’m looking forward to this study of fairy tale by essayist Marina Warner:

Once Upon a Time WarnerOnce Upon a Time: A short history of fairy tale by Marina Warner

From wicked queens, beautiful princesses, elves, monsters, and goblins to giants, glass slippers, poisoned apples, magic keys, and mirrors, the characters and images of fairy tales have cast a spell over readers and audiences, both adults and children, for centuries. These fantastic stories have travelled across cultural borders, and been passed down from generation to generation, ever-changing, renewed with each re-telling. Few forms of literature have greater power to enchant us and rekindle our imagination than a fairy tale.

But what is a fairy tale? Where do they come from and what do they mean? What do they try and communicate to us about morality, sexuality, and society? The range of fairy tales stretches across great distances and time; their history is entangled with folklore and myth, and their inspiration draws on ideas about nature and the supernatural, imagination and fantasy, psychoanalysis, and feminism.

Marina Warner has loved fairy tales over her long writing career, and she explores here a multitude of tales through the ages, their different manifestations on the page, the stage, and the screen. From the phenomenal rise of Victorian and Edwardian literature to contemporary children’s stories, Warner unfolds a glittering array of examples, from classics such as Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and The Sleeping Beauty, the Grimm Brothers’ Hansel and Gretel, and Hans Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, to modern-day realizations including Walt Disney’s Snow White and gothic interpretations such as Pan’s Labyrinth.

In ten succinct chapters, Marina Warner digs into a rich collection of fairy tales in their brilliant and fantastical variations, in order to define a genre and evaluate a literary form that keeps shifting through time and history. She makes a persuasive case for fairy tale as a crucial repository of human understanding and culture.

Publishing date: 1 December 2014
Publisher: Oxford University Press

The Author
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Betrayal’s Shadow by Dave-Brendon de Burgh

Betrayals ShadowTitle: Betrayal’s Shadow
Author: Dave-Brendon de Burgh
Series: Mahaelian Chronicle #1
Published: 25 April 2014
Publisher: Fox & Raven Publishing
Source: own copy
Genre: epic fantasy
Rating: 6/10

For five hundred years, the Mahaelian kingdom of Avidar has been ruled by King Jarlath, whose mysterious magical powers make him a force that no one can oppose. He began his reign by uniting humans against the Elvayn dominion, but now even his iron grip can’t stop the kingdom from faltering. Civil unrest may become a serious problem, and General Brice Serholm is sent to investigate reports of rebellion in the one of the provinces. However, his ship is attacked by a group of islanders wielding magic no one knew existed, and Brice is consumed by the fate that befalls his Blade Knights. It falls to his second-in-command, Alun Dronald, to do his duty if Brice will not, even after a brutal battle leaves Alun forever transformed.

In the capital of Cambeith’ar, a man named Cobinian sets a sinister conspiracy in motion. First he kidnaps an Elvayn child, saving it from mutilation so that it will be able to use its incredible magical powers. Next, he gives a dagger to Seiria, the Mistress Concubine, who is torn between loving and hating King Jarlath. Then, he gives a note to the king’s First Advisor Del’Ahrid, undermining Del’Ahrid’s trust in the king while feeding his own dark ambitions. Finally, Cobinian creates an epidemic of Reavers (zombies) to attack the city.

So, I’m delving into the epic fantasy genre again, this time with South African author Dave-Brendon de Burgh. It’s the only local epic fantasy that I know of, and although it doesn’t have any local flavour, it’s great to see SA authors branching out. Hopefully De Burgh’s book will be the first of many.

What it did for me, was to evoke what I realise is a kind of love-hate relationship with epic fantasy. I was quite pleased that it avoided some of the genre tropes and traditions, and got pissed of when it indulged in others. It also got me thinking a lot about some of the characters… but I’ll get into that later.

First off, I’m so glad the novel avoids one of the clumsiest traits of epic fantasy – infodumping. There are no long, dreary tracts on travel, architecture, irrelevant history or whatever else the author thought was so cool that the plot needed to grind to a halt for it. No, Betrayal’s Shadow is surprisingly short at only 263 pages and exposition is kept brief. If anything I wanted to know more, as opposed to feeling that I had to trawl through too much. And without infodumping to weigh it down, the plot and the action scenes can move along unimpeded, making Betrayal’s Shadow a fairly brisk read.

But unfortunately there were aspects that dragged me down. For example, the book did not give me a good first impression – it kicks off with a scene where Brice, a blonde, blue-eyed soldier in heavy armour, leads a force of white knights in fighting a tribe of naked, pierced, tattooed black people who are described as “probably-illiterate barbarians” and “savage”. After the fight, Brice wakes up in a hut full of crude furniture and is surprised to find that the tribespeople removed his armour, because they don’t look to him like people who would know anything about armour. Things are not all they seem, but even then, perpetuating these racial stereotypes is unnecessary.

However, Brice’s racism sets the tone for the world of Avidar. Pretty much every character whose appearance is described is white and blonde with blue or green eyes. Everyone follows the same religion (the Mahaelian Church). People don’t seem to know anything about the world outside of their kingdom. Brice and his Blade Knights clearly had never heard of the island they encountered, even though it was on the route to their destination. References are made to areas that were subdued by war, but little is said about lands the king does not control. But there are definitely other lands, because King Jarlath has started something called the Far Continent Project, in which his people will set sail on giant arks to find new lands that they can explore and exploit for minerals, lumber, farmland and living space. In other words, a colonisation project, except that everyone conveniently avoids mentioning what they’ll do to the people already living there.

It wouldn’t be Avidar’s first crime against another race, though. Centuries ago, the Elvayn were the dominant power, but the humans overthrew them with Jarlath’s help. Rather than wiping them out, King Jarlath chose to keep them as slaves. Because the Elvayn can wield incredibly powerful magic by singing, every Elvayn has its tongue cut out at birth. They’re kept in slave-holds across the kingdom, although they aren’t slaves per se – they don’t do any work (I checked this with the author). There is one case of a merchant using an Elvayn girl as a servant, because rich people are sometimes allowed to use Elvayn slaves, but this comes of as a special circumstance put in place to get a specific aspect of the plot going. In later scenes, people freak out when they see an Elvayn child outside of the slave-holds, so they are certainly not a part of everyday life.

It’s easy then, to see why people hate and fear the Elvayn. Historically they are the enemy. If even a few of them were allowed to keep their tongues, they easily take their revenge on the Mahaelians. The average citizen doesn’t exactly live in comfort, and has every right to be angry that the king wastes money on the Elvayn for reasons he refuses to disclose. And even if there were no sociopolitical issues, the very idea of mutilating babies and imprisoning a whole race of people for centuries is simply grotesque.

Their continued existence is a mystery that bothers everyone, but Jarlath isn’t exactly politically savvy. He doesn’t have to be – he can single-handedly destroy entire armies on the other end of the continent (which makes for a rather good action scene), so he doesn’t have to be a good king. And he’s not; he’s a tyrant and all-round piece-of-shit human being. He responds to opposition with extreme violence. When Del’Ahrid started his job as First Advisor, Jarlath told him to constantly undermine the governors and ambassadors by playing them against each other. When Jarlath gives a speech about the Far Continent Project, he goes on about how totally awesome the kingdom has become, when in fact it’s only a nice place if you’re a man with money. None of the POVs are from an average citizen, but there are hints about how much people struggle to get by while the wealthy live in luxury.

Avidar is also a crap place to be if you’re a woman. This is pretty common in epic fantasy, but that doesn’t excuse it. The High Cleric in the capital might be a woman, but apparently her brother Del’Ahrid got her the job and one of the first things she reveals about the religion is that it’s based on pain and wives can be punished (“chastised”) for not doing their ‘duty’ towards their husbands. Violence against women is frequently used in the narrative. Almost every woman mentioned gets beaten or raped at some point, and the word “whore” is grossly overused. The Reavers (zombies) are created when a man rapes an Elvayn girl. An ambassador is ‘punished’ by having his wife thrown in a jail cell for three days to be gang-raped. Del’Ahrid physically abuses both his sister and his wife, and treats his poor wife like shit because she was forced to marry him and never learned to love him (even though she tries really hard to be friendly and polite).

Most of the abuse is directed at Seiria, the Mistress Concubine, ie. the court prostitute. She’s there to please Jarlath, who also hands her out to other men. Given that prostitution is her profession, the question of consent is murky, but it’s worth noting that Jarlath chooses her partners, and she feels she can’t leave because she’ll be totally destitute. Thus, she puts up with having to sleep with whoever Jarlath commands her to, and being slapped around, not only by random dignitaries, but also by Del’Ahrid and Jarlath himself. At one point I’m pretty sure that he sends her to a Senator knowing that this guy would beat the shit out of her, just so that he could use that as an excuse to execute the man (but not before the Senator calls Seiria a whore as often as he can fit the word into his sentences). Then, late in the novel, Seiria is revealed to be the victim of what might just be the worst act of sexual violence I’ve come across. I’m still struggling to wrap my head around it.

As the only major female character in the novel, not to mention a woman surrounded by men who are either despicable or bland, I wanted to like Seiria, but I found her frustrating. She loves and hates Jarlath in what looks very much like a case of Stockholm Syndrome. Which is fine, but she spends the entire novel agonising about it. When Cobinian gives her a dagger and she sneaks it into the palace (where weapons aren’t allowed) it looks like she might take some action, but instead she just thinks about holding it to Jarlath’s throat and demanding that he admit he loves her, or stabbing him because he doesn’t. Even after witnessing a zombie massacre, all Seiria can think about is the absurdity of loving Jarlath. And I don’t agree with the idea that Jarlath could never admit to loving her – he is powerful enough to do whatever he wants, including marrying a prostitute he found on the street. Seiria has my sympathy but I desperately wanted her to do something other than pine for Jarlath. It looks like she’ll play a role in the next book, but in this one she’s all victim.

Paradoxically, the character I hate the most is the one I consider to be the best-written – Del’Ahrid. He has serious anger management issues. He physically and emotionally abuses the women in his life. There isn’t a moment when he’s not being an insufferable little shit. He’s never strayed from Jarlath’s “trust no one” approach to politics. He’s always suspicious, always critical, always treating his peers like enemies.

But what I like about his character is that it’s more layered than the others. You can always tell how his POV differs from others’, and you can understand his stupid behaviour no matter how much you hate it. He’s not as smart and sly as he thinks he is. He believes in protocol and hierarchy above all else, even in the face of death and disaster. He seems genuinely shocked when people act like ordinary human beings instead of always following the rules. His indignation when people fail to show him the proper formalities as First Advisor is quite entertaining. That said, I do find him difficult to read because he makes me so angry. It’s a bit like having Joffrey Baratheon as a POV character.

A few other things before I go… There are aspects of the worldbuilding that I wish were clearer or more deeply embedded in the world. The Mahaelian religion, for example. It defines the entire kingdom and the series, but except for a short section written from the POV of the High Cleric near the beginning, we learn almost nothing about the nature of the god Mahaelal, or the tenets and practices of his church. Characters often swear by Mahaelal, but religion doesn’t feature in their decisions or daily life.

Worldbuilding aside, the book will also leave you with a ton of unanswered questions simply because it’s very much the first of a series. Lots of things are set in motion, while absolutely nothing is resolved, and the second book isn’t out yet. Finally, if you’re a pedantic reader, be warned that this book needs a good edit – it’s full of errors.

But, overall, not a bad read for something that’s not my genre of choice. It pissed me off quite a lot, but it also got me thinking a bit about passive and unlikeable characters and my reaction to them. There are lots of things in Avidar’s society that raise my hackles, but at the same time it’s a society that’s about to undergo a massive change partly because of the things that are wrong with it. What’s also quite cool is that the author has set up a Goodreads group for the series, where he’s available to discuss it and answer your questions (I’ve already gone to bug him). And if you want to read a bit more while waiting for book two, you can check out the prequel short story “A Song of Sacrifice”, about the Elvayn and their Singing magic.

Daily Reads: Monday 24/11/2014

Daily Reads 17112014

Morning guys! Last week was rather unproductive blogging-wise, but I did get a lot of reading done, so I should have some reviews for you this week. In the meantime, here’s some online reading to kick off your week.

- Are you thinking of buying any South African YA this Christmas? Local author Sally Partridge has put together a lovely YA gift guide.

- Author Alis Franklin, writes a letter to readers about Beauty and the Beast and loving monstrosity: “Because what’s the point of a lesson in accepting difference, for loving people for what they are, when the “reward” for success is conformity?”

- Ken Liu chats briefly about translating Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem (which I recently reviewed). It involves so much more than just converting words from Chinese to English; I really admire the work Liu has done.

- iO9 lists 7 worldbuilding tropes science fiction and fantasy need to stop using. And dear god yes, enough with medieval fucking Europe! This is one of the reasons I’m usually not interested in epic fantasy. It’s beautiful, I know. I’d also like to ride a horse through forests and rolling green landscapes, or be offered a cup of wine in a castle, but it’s so boring and unimaginative in fiction. Isn’t the whole point of fantasy to be fantastical? Go read The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley to see how it’s done.

Daily Reads: Monday 17/11/2014

Daily Reads 17112014

Morning everyone! I’m online early-ish today (for some parts of the world, anyway), with SA author Dave-Brendon de Burgh’s debut novel Betrayal’s Shadow on my desk, ready to review. Before I get started on that, here are today’s Daily Reads:

- Jared from Pornokitsch has been sick in bed reading duchess porn, and came up with a list of five things epic fantasy can learn from historical romance. I particularly like the points about sex, gender equality (yep, even historical romance is waaay more progressive) and a sense of humour. And now I kind of want to read duchess porn…

- The Little Red Reviewer interviews one of my favourite authors – Ken Liu! He chats about his themes, translating Chinese sf, and gives the best answer for reading translated sf – not because it’s ‘good’ for you, but because it’s fun to try new things.

- Lynn’s Book Blog hosts author S.L. Eaves for a guest review of the home-invasion horror movie You’re Next! (2011). And it sounds pretty good! I like horror, but I do find that the genre tends to generate a lot of crap, so I’m always glad to hear about something worth watching.

Have a great week guys :)

 

Daily Reads is my new little feature for helping me get more organised about my online reading, and sharing my favourite posts with you. If you know of something cool you think I should check out, please let me know in the comments :)

New Feature: Daily Reads

Daily ReadsLately I’ve wanted to get a bit more organised about my online reading, partly for interest’s sake, and partly to improve my reviews and my blog by maintaining a good general perspective of relevant topics. My goals are to:

1. Pay more attention to the blogs I follow.

2. Keep up with the latest news in sff and the literary scene in general.

3. Learn new things and get fresh perspectives from essays and opinion pieces.

 

With so much content online, it can be fiendishly difficult to stay focused, so I have a few strategies:

- Make a list of blogs I follow, visit each of them at least once a month, and leave a comment if there’s an article that interests me.

- Set aside an hour each day for online reading (while trying not to get distracted by email, Twitter, fb).

- Start a new blogging feature as a way of encouraging myself to stick to the plan.

 

The new feature will be Daily Reads, and it will consist of 3 or 4 links to the day’s best online reading – reviews, short stories, essays/articles, news, etc. It’ll be short enough that I should be able to keep up with the blogging schedule (I’m aiming for about three posts a week) and you’ll be able to read through the whole list in an hour if you want to. And if you know of any sff-related pieces that you think are worth checking out, feel free to let me know in the comments, either here or in any of the feature posts, which will kick off on Monday.

Hope you enjoy it!

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin

The Three-Body ProblemTitle: The Three-Body Problem
Author: Liu Cixin
Translation: Ken Liu
Series: Three Body #1
Published: 14 October 2014 (originally published in China in 2008)
Publisher: Tor Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
Rating: 7/10

In 1967, during China’s Cultural Revolution, Ye Wenjie sees her father, a physics professor, beaten to death for teaching the ideologically unacceptable theory of relativity. It’s a time of catastrophic anti-intelluctualism, when any academic considered too bourgeois and reactionary (ie. most academics) is persecuted and killed. Ye Wenjie is an astrophysicist herself, but is forced to abandon her studies. Because of her father she is considered ideologically suspect, and when she is betrayed by a cowardly rebel, she ends up in jail awaiting death. She is saved only be a second form of imprisonment – the opportunity to work at project Red Coast, a top secret scientific facility conducting SETI type research. Ye’s work in astrophysics caught their attention, and her skills have become particularly useful since China started systematically executing its brightest minds. Ye expects nothing but a quiet life and death at Red Coast, but instead she finds something to change the world – communication from an alien race.

In the present day, nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao notices a disturbing phenomenon on the photos he takes – each of them has a sequence of numbers, counting down. Soon he starts to see it imprinted on his vision, and no matter what he tries he cannot figure out how this could be possible. His investigations lead him to an organisation called The Frontiers of Science and a game called Three Body. In the game, an alien world is besieged by unpredictable cataclysms and apocalypses. Various characters in the game – always leaders, philosophers and scientists from Chinese and European history – try to come up with theories for predicting the next cataclysm or apocalypse, but these always fail. To beat the game, the player needs to solve the Three-Body problem, which Wang eventually realises is a mathematical problem.

All this is connected to the strange phenomena he experienced, the mysterious deaths of scientists, and the way scientific research has been losing credibility in the world at large. And it all comes back to Ye Wenjie, and her actions at Red Coast.

The Three-Body Problem was a particularly challenging novel for me to read and review. Firstly, it’s hard sf, which I seldom read because the science just goes way over my head. Secondly, the novel is partly set during the Cultural Revolution in China, which holds great importance for the story as a whole. And… yeah, I don’t know much about that either. Add to this multiple plotlines, some of which are non-linear and one of which takes place in the surreal world of a complex computer game, and what you’ve got is a book best read at a desk in the morning with a few cups of coffee, not relaxing in the evening with a glass of wine.

Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy The Three-Body Problem. I requested a review copy because I was curious, and although it was tough, it was worthwhile. I wouldn’t be able to tell you much about the science in the novel, but I found Liu’s depiction of the intellectual milieu of the Cultural Revolution unforgettable. China is described as a place where “any idea that dared to take flight would only crash back to the ground. The gravity of reality is too strong.” The Revolution is both wildly ambitious and severely limiting and destructive. It’s hard to fathom how absurdly restrictive life under that regime must have been. One of the scenes I found most memorable is when Ye Wenjie asks her supervisor to authorise an experiment that involves firing a radio beam at the sun. Her supervisor immediately rejects her request – the sun is a political symbol, and firing a beam at it could be interpreted in a negative way that would create a political disaster for everyone involved. Absurd as everyone knows this to be, it’s become such a fundamental part of their lives that Ye isn’t even shocked or angry at her supervisor’s decision; instead, she can’t believe she didn’t think of the symbolism herself.

This sociopolitical landscape is crucial to the story because the Cultural Revolution leaves many characters feeling disgusted with humanity. Ye Wenjie witnesses the death of her father, works for a company that chopping down beautiful, ancient forests for lumber, is betrayed by a friend, her sister and her mother, is jailed, nearly killed and eventually forced to work at Red Coast, all in service of the Cultural Revolution. Her experiences define her perspective of humanity:

Is it possible that the relationship between humanity and evil is similar to the relationship between the ocean and an iceberg floating on its surface? Both the ocean and the iceberg are made of the same material. That the iceberg seems separate is only because it is in a different form. In reality, it is but a part of the vast ocean.… It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race. This thought determined the entire direction of Ye’s life.

This, in turn, drives the plot. There are many people that feel the way Ye does, and what they want is for a superior alien race to take over and force change up on the world. Exactly what action they think the aliens should take is a divisive topic of debate.

It’s a very bleak notion – this idea that humanity is a lost cause if left to its own devices. But I’m not al that optimistic about humanity myself, and in reading the novel, it’s easy to understand how people have come to feel that way. Also, the novel doesn’t push that perspective as the truth – it’s a meditation on morality and human nature, constantly grappling with the questions it raises. As a novel about science and philosophy, The Three-Body Problem is an exceptional piece of fiction. Liu does a really amazing job of tying all the elements of the novel together – the Cultural Revolution, the game Three Body, mathematics, physics, first contact, environmental destruction, etc.

The novel does have its shortcomings however, and its weakest point is its characters. Most of them feel flat, moving mechanically through the story with little to bring them to life. It makes sense in a few cases – some characters are just simulations in the Three Body game, and there’s a fairly long section that doesn’t use any named characters at all, like a fable, focusing only on plot. But some readers might struggle in the absence of strong characters to connect with, and  it really doesn’t help that Wang Miao, one of the protagonists, is terribly bland and forgettable.

There’s not much to say about him except that he works in nanomaterials and gets caught up in the story because of his scientific education and mindset. At the start, we’re told that he’s an avid amateur photographer, but this is just a plot device that gets discarded after serving its purpose. The same goes for his family, except that seem completely pointless. He has a wife and son who both express alarm at Wang’s strange behaviour when he starts freaking out about the countdown, but then they disappear from the plot and Wang doesn’t give them a second thought. It’s particularly odd given that he’s always doing things that would affect his family – he buys a virtual reality suit and spends hours playing Three Body; he skips work; he stays out late investigating the mysteries he encounters; he gets tangled up in a global conspiracy; he finds himself in real danger; he travels to another continent. All this, and not a word about his wife and son. Why write them only to drop them completely?

It’s no surprise, then, that Wang’s part of the story tends to be pretty boring, and the novel as a whole takes a long time to get its main story going with Ye Wenjie. Ye at least is a more exciting, memorable character, given that her experiences are far more dire and her ideas and actions set the story in motion (while Wang just runs around gathering info). Still, she comes across as cold, perhaps because she’s a scientist. In fact most of the characters are scientists or mathematicians, and it’s worth noting that the only other character I found memorable was a police detective – a big, boisterous man named Shi Qiang, nicknamed Da Shi (Big Shi).

So yeah, not an easy read – the content can be complex, the pace slow, and the characters hard to connect with. The one advantage of this is that when the plot eventually gets to its most dramatic moments, it’s incredible to read – bold, exhilarating, thought-provoking stuff. Although there were times during this book that I thought I’d made a huge mistake requesting a review copy, by the end I was very curious about how things are going to turn out for the human race in the second and third books. I don’t know if I’ll keep reviewing the series (feeling a bit out of my depth here), but I would like to keep reading.