We Who Are About To… by Joanna Russ

We Who Are About ToTitle: We Who Are About To...
Author: Joanna Russ
Published:  1975
Publisher: The Women’s Press Science Fiction
Genre: science fiction
Source: own copy
Rating: 5/10

A passenger space ship crash lands on an uninhabited planet. The eight survivors have no way of sending a distress signal and no hope of being rescued by a passing ship, so they start making plans to colonise the planet. One of them – an unnamed middle-aged musicologist who dislikes her companions – points out the absurdity of this. They have no technical skills, a small food supply, and almost no survival gear. The ship was programmed to crash on a ‘tagged’ planet where the air, gravity and temperature are similar to Earth’s, but tagged planets aren’t necessarily colonisable planets. In short, the narrator argues, survival will be horrific if not impossible, so instead of trying pointlessly to live, they should prepare to die.

This does not go down well. The narrator’s dissent turns the other survivors against her, and they try to force her to submit to their plans, which include making babies as soon as possible. It’s frighteningly ridiculous. They want to build a civilisation but they’re too scared to drink the water. They have no idea how they’re going to eat once their food supplies run out, but they want kids. None of them seem to have considered what their lives will be like if they somehow managed to live. Only the narrator is that realistic:

I think some kinds of survival are damned idiotic. Do you want your children to live in the Old Stone Age? Do you want them to forget how to read? Do you want to lose your teeth? Do you want your great-grandchildren to die at thirty? That’s obscene.

 

Unfortunately, the other characters misinterpret her feelings. They accuse her of being a coward who just wants to give up. They think she wants to die, or that she wants everyone to commit suicide. None of them realise that survival is impossible, and if anything they’re all in denial about the certainty of death. The narrator doesn’t want to die – she has many opportunities to kill herself but doesn’t. She just knows that she will die soon and if no one will listen to her, she wishes they would at least leave her alone to come to terms with death.

But they won’t. They watch her closely to make sure she doesn’t try to run off, and start talking about which man and woman should conceive first. The two younger women who survived are fine with this, but for the narrator it means that she’ll eventually be raped, and possibly die in childbirth because she’s too old to give birth safely.

In their situation of course, the law no longer applies. And in this suddenly primitive context we find that the characters get reduced to the materiality of their bodies. It’s suggested that the women be kept safe because they’re needed for childbirth. Lori, a twelve year old girl, suffers constantly from allergic reactions with little or no means of treating them. Her father Victor is chosen to create the first child because he’s the oldest and his clock is ticking. Alan Bobby, a hulking dim-witted footballer, suddenly realises how empowered he is because of his size. In one scene, a woman, Nathalie, argues with him about wasting water. She’s naturally assumed a leadership role because of her determination and intelligence, but Alan Bobby suddenly finds that he has the power to get his way through violence.

It’s a disturbing black comedy, laced with absurdity with the threat of terrible violence.  The narrator is rather misanthropic, but I like that about her, especially in these circumstances. I certainly admire her forthright perspective and her wit.

For a while I really enjoyed this story. It’s a frank, uncompromising portrayal of a bleak situation. Yes, the characters can be infuriating, but I think Russ kept it balanced enough that it’s intriguing but not so frustrating that you can’t stand to read it. If anything, it’s the interactions with all those characters that make this simple premise interesting. When they’re not around, the whole thing collapses.

About halfway through when the narrator gets what she wants and goes to die alone. The loneliness and hunger soon start to affect her mind, and the narrative becomes a rambling account of her life while she hallucinates the other characters and people from her past. The story gets more layered with some world building and more information on the narrator’s character, but I’m not a big fan of surreal stream-of-consciousness writing and I found most of it dead boring. It’s a really short book at only 170 pages, but in the second half I kept checking to see how much more I had to read as the narrative dragged on. I’d give the first half of the novel four stars; the rest would get two at most. By the end I was just relieved that it was over.

A Calculated Life by Anne Charnock

A Calculated LifeTitle: A Calculated Life
Author: Anne Charnock
Published:  24 September 2013
Publisher: 47North
Genre: science fiction, dystopian
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

I requested this novel after is was nominated for The Kitchies Golden Tentacle Award (debut novel) 2013, and I think it’s one of the more interesting takes on the dystopian genre.

In a futuristic Manchester, Jayna is a simulant, a genetically engineered human designed to have superb analytical skills but only basic social skills and almost no social life. She has been leased out to a predictive economics company, where her talent for identifying patterns and processing data have been highly profitable for her superiors.

In one of her previous research projects, Jayna found a link between north easterly winds and violent crime. The correlation looks pretty solid until a family is murdered during a westerly wind. Although this warrants no more than a brief discussion with her superiors, Jayna is determined to improve her work. She decides that her world is too small and her experiences too limited. She processes colossal amounts of information, but all of it comes from stats and documents, while she lacks the personal understanding to flesh it out. She wants to expand her knowledge by behaving more randomly, interacting with more people, and having more varied experiences.

This sounds like an admirable endeavour, but Jayna quickly realises that it could be a dangerous one too. She and her peers start hearing reports of simulants who were sent back to the Constructor to be reprogrammed after committing offences like “Poor time-keeping, sneaking into restaurants, sexual liaisons”. These things are perfectly normal for other humans, but are considered serious flaws in the simulants, who were designed to function like machines and stick to highly regulated patterns of behaviour.

Jayna has never questioned this, but as she explores a world she’s never seen, from the rich to the poor, learning about adults, children and families, she starts to put her own life as a simulant into perspective, and begins to understand her society as the dystopia it has become.

The world of the novel is built fairly slowly and with a minimum of info dumping, but it’s relatively simple. The most important thing to understand is that society – at least in England – has been altered by cognitive implants that improve brain function. There are also inoculations to protect people from things like addiction as well as disease, and as a result violent crime has become rare. Most people with implants are bionics – normal people with enhanced cognitive functions. The simulants are more specialised, artificial versions. They are genetically engineered to have specific skills. Jayna’s model, for example, is highly analytical.The implant then further enhances those cognitive abilities because it’s working with a better base.

Then there are the organics – basic humans with little or no enhancements. The organics are typically people who can’t afford or aren’t permitted to have implants, and as a disenfranchised group with inferior cognitive abilities, they are stuck on the bottom rung of society. You might think that the simulants could be the most powerful because they’re the most intelligent, but they’re virtually slaves, human machines kept on a leash. Society is geared to benefit the bionics, who are wealthy, free, and highly intelligent (but not in a freakishly simulant way).

Jayna doesn’t think about society in these terms though; it’s just something that you come to understand as she learns more about the world around her. The novel is essentially a character study, putting you in the life and mindset of a simulant, and that’s what makes it an interesting read, rather than any of the dystopian aspects. Jayna never had a childhood, and she has no family. She lives in a “rest station” – hostel-style accommodation for simulants. Her meals are only supposed to come from authorised sources – the canteens at the rest station or the office. She may not take unauthorised trips to certain areas. She has a small allowance for recreational purposes, but receives no salary. It’s lights out at the rest station at 7:30pm, and she’s asleep by 8pm every night. She’s designed to have no interest in sex, but has been tweaked to be more personable than the last model, so she’s better suited to working with other people – the perfect cubicle drone. Her behaviour is no doubt monitored, although we don’t know to what extent.

Despite the way she’s designed and regulated, Jayna has determined little streaks of personality that shine through. She keeps stick insects. She’s fascinated by children, with their boundless energy and irrational behaviour. Despite her seemingly robotic characteristics and the occasional faux pas, Jayna comes off as kind and thoughtful. It’s not easy for her to understand other people, but she makes more of an effort to do so.

This makes her character an odd mix of strict rationality and awkward curiosity. It’s both sweet and sad to see how excited she gets at the opportunity to observe a colleague’s child at work, to see her try to change her life by doing some tiny random or irrational thing, or learn about people by attending a barbecue at her boss’s home.

It’s fairly subtle, toned-down dystopian fiction. The dystopian elements are neatly woven into the world and seen from the POV of a character who is only just starting to think about these things critically and who struggles to do so. Jayna’s story doesn’t lend itself to particularly dramatic events, although many of her new experiences are extremely dramatic or compelling to her. One of the most exciting moments is when she sees a violent fight break out. On another occasion she starts running and says “the world shook” because she’s never run before. Although she slowly begins to resist the social system she’s trapped in, it’s very much a personal resistance. It could be the seed of something much bigger, but the novel focuses on the simpler narrative.

I really like this about it. Most dystopian stories are brash and sensational. The tragedy of it is always in your face, pushing at least one rebellious character to fight the system in what could be a Hollywood blockbuster. Which isn’t necessarily bad, but I like this introspective version, which is more like an art house movie.

It does have some flaws – there’s a plot strand that’s left dangling and I’m not sure how I feel about certain aspects of the ending. But that’s just nitpicking. A Calculated Life is a strong debut. Recommended.

Short Story Review: February 2014

I’m a bit shocked that February is already over. I don’t think I can handle another year that somehow flashes by as quickly as 2013 did! But on the other hand, I get to go home to South Africa this March, so yay! I’d also like to spend this month checking out all the Nebula-nominated short fiction because, sadly, I have only read two of them.

But, for now, here are my favourite short stories for February:

full_waterthatfalls“The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere” by John Chu (Tor.com)

This story is based on a thoroughly improbable premise – that water will fall on you from nowhere when you lie, and the quantity and temperature of the water depends on the severity of the lie. The how and why of this is unimportant, but it has profound implications for personal relationships and that’s the subject of Chu’s story.

The protagonist Matt and his boyfriend Gus are in love and perhaps even ready to get married, but Matt has never come out to his traditional Chinese family. Not only is he worried about his parents’ reaction, but about his domineering sister who insists that it is his duty to marry a woman and provide their parents with grandchildren, regardless of his feelings. Matt decides to face the issue head-on by inviting Gus to Christmas dinner with his family.

It’s one of those lovely stories that’s full of emotion – fear, sadness, humour, warmth, tragedy, hope, love. Chu also does an amazing job of weaving Chinese culture and the Mandarin language into the narrative, as in Matt’s way of explaining how he avoided revealing Gus’s gender when speaking about him to his family:

“Mandarin doesn’t have gender-specific third person pronouns. Well, the written language does, but it’s a relatively recent invention and they all sound the same and no one really uses the female and neuter variants anyway. And it’s not like there aren’t words for ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ but I always refer to you as ‘愛人.’ It means ‘sweetheart,’ ‘lover,’ ‘spouse.’ And never using your name isn’t all that unusual. Names are for friends and acquaintances. Members of your family you refer to by title—”

Rather than get angry, Gus handles this with amazing tenderness, and often lightens the mood. I was worried that this might be an emotionally draining story to read, but although it can be difficult it surprised me with its complexity. It’s one of the reasons I love speculative fiction – the way authors can write such touching stories using a premise like water falling on you from nowhere.

 

“A Raft” by Charlie Human (Pornokitsch / Pandemonium: Ash)

This is a very short story – only 635 words – so go and read it now because it’ll only take a couple of minutes. It’s an absurd, fucked up horror story set on a raft, and it’s the kind of short fiction that seems to hit you out of nowhere.

You can read it for free via the link above, and you can find it in the anthology Pandemonium: Asha collection of six stories set in the aftermath of the 1883 explosion of Krakatoa – which can also be downloaded for free.

 

 

full_andersonproject“Reborn” by Ken Liu (Tor.com)

I’ll be honest – at least half the Ken Liu stories I read are going to make it into my monthly recommendations. This one is part of a three-story series curated by senior Tor Books editor David G. Hartwell. All three are based on a singular piece of art by Richard Anderson and will be released for free on Tor.com. The image to the right is the Anderson artwork that inspired this story.

Liu tackles some of his common themes in this story – colonialism, culture and the irreconcilable conflicts between past and present. The story is set on Earth after it was colonised by the Tawnin a race of aliens that are neither male or female in gender (Liu uses different pronouns for them; difficult to get used to, but it adds to the worldbuilding). The Tawnin have altered some human minds to remove ‘evil’ and the memories of crimes, allowing both races to live in harmony. The people who undergo these procedures are the ‘reborn’, and of course there are lots of thorny ethical issues surrounding this practice.

Joshua Rennon is a reborn human Special Agent who deals with human rebels, and is in an intimate relationship with a Tawnin. When a bomb is detonated at the arrival of the Reborn from The Judgement Ship (based on the ship in the picture, I think), Josh has to find the people responsible. The case is unavoidably personal, forcing him to deal with issues about his own rebirth and his relationship with the Tawnin Kai. The story explores ideas about gender, sexuality and intimacy as well as memory and human nature, all tied up with the problems of colonialism and post-colonialism. It’s a complex socio-political tangle; definitely something I need to read again.

The Kingdom of Gods read-along part 4

The Kingdom of GodsHi everyone, it’s week four of The Kingdom of Gods read-along, covering chapters 14-17. Our host for this section is Gabriella from Book Bound, so be sure to head over to her place. Here’s what I had to say for this week’s questions:

 

1. Nahadoth said “You cannot remain in mortal flesh much longer. It’s changing you” to Sieh. Do you think Nahadoth knows what is happening to Sieh? And what could happen to Sieh?
If Sieh’s problems are caused by Kahl being his son and coming out of hiding, and of Sieh regaining his memories of creating Kahl with Enefa, then no, I don’t think Nahadoth knows about it. If he did, he’d probably have murdered Kahl to keep Sieh safe. He might also try to preserve the secret of Kahl’s creation.

His words suggest that he wants Sieh to stay the same, whereas characters like Nsana think Sieh needs to change.

 

2. Sieh half-dies and suddenly comes back with some other magic (something about the universe or other). What do you make of it & why is it only Shahar, Dekarta and Sieh that remember?
That was certainly surprising. I thought Deka would have the power to heal Sieh with his magic alone. But hey, this is much cooler and now we have an explanation for what happened on the Nowhere Stair all those years ago.

I wonder why the three of them have this ability. Sieh says it’s possible for a demon to be more powerful than a godling, so is that the case with Dekarta? What about Shahar? She hasn’t displayed any magical abilities. And why does it still work with Sieh as a mortal? Would it be possible with other combinations of godlings and demons?

I assume only the three of them remember the event because it was their magic that caused it. They altered reality so for everyone else there’s no other version to remember. When Yeine spoke to Sieh in his room though, she seemed to suggest that she knew what had happened.

 

3. What do you think of Yeine’s offer to Remath?
It worried me a little. My first thought was dictatorial power changing hands, rather than the world changing for the better. Why does Yeine want to be worshipped? What will this do for her?

However, it might be that Yeine simply wants the Arameri to worship her because of what it means for the family – a fundamental change in their behaviour. She is all about balance and growth, while Nahadoth is chaotic and Itempas is too resistant to change. By taking her as their patron goddess, they will adopt completely different ideas about power, hierarchy, childcare, religion, race, etc. And I’m reassured by the fact that Nahadoth and Itempas seem to be content with this plan.

 

4. Thoughout the whole book, but more in the last couple of chapters, we’ve seen the Arameri have become more human-like, and especially Remath has been more emotional. Do you think they’ve always been like this or that there is some trigger that is making them behave differently?
I don’t believe that they were genetically predisposed to be assholes, but I do think that their power and culture had an extremely powerful influence on their behaviour and ensured that the most ruthless people came out on top. Based on Sieh’s appraisal, I’d say it’s only since they lost the Enefadeh and T’vril made changes that they started acting differently. Their vulnerability meant they had to change or fall.

I think a lot of their previous behaviour stemmed from hiding their true feelings, so in some cases they changed simply by allowing themselves to show those feelings. Remath’s love for her children reminds me of Dekarta’s love for Kinneth. Shahar’s softness reminds me of Relad.

 

5. The Echo Palace has been built! And Shahar and Dekarta are “safe”. Why do you think Remath is abandoning the normal source of Arameri power?\
As Remath said, the masks that sent “nigh-unstoppable creatures” to kill them, are everywhere. Without realising it, the Arameri have been surrounded by enemies and they are all in danger. Moving immediately to a secret location is a very practical solution and thanks to Yeine, it’s a very simple solution too.

 

6. Sieh has just left with Itempas, Nahadoth and Yeine… How will they save him?
Well, if the Three come together they become omnipotent, so presumably that will give them the power or knowledge to save Sieh. I don’t have any guesses as to exactly what they will have to do, but I believe in Spider’s prophecy, that Itempas is the key. Maybe she just means that Sieh has to accept his help, agree to the plan of Itempas becoming one of the Three for a day so they will have the power to save him. And maybe, if saving Sieh means getting him to accept his son and grow up, then maybe he can learn something from Itempas who, according to Glee, is a good father and loves his children no matter what. Perhaps Sieh has been like Nahadoth for too long – impulsive and chaotic. If he is to grow up, he needs some of Itempas’s stability.

My only concern is that it might ruin Sieh’s friendship with the twins, but now that they know a bit more about their powers, perhaps they can work around that.

 

Other
- Ah, at last, an explanation for what happened in the Nowhere Stair. And I really like the idea that Sieh, Deka and Shahar (unwittingly) altered reality to make the oath possible.

- I thought Glee’s depiction of Itempas was quite touching – he loves his children, and mourned his demon son because he’s a good father and does not love any less if his children are mortal or hate him. She’s also did a nice job of summing up our knowledge of the God’s War so far. Now we just need to know the details of Sieh’s role in deceiving Nahadoth and Itempas.

Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

Strange Bodies by Marcel TherouxTitle: Strange Bodies
Author: Marcel Theroux
Published:  2 May 2013
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Genre: science fiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

Strange Bodies is framed as the testimony of a man named Nicky Slopen, an academic who died several months before writing his story, and who dies again – for good? – at the end of prologue. He claims to be Nicky in a different body, his family and his old life forever lost to him because he no longer looks like the man they know.

After being incarcerated in a mental institution, Nicky started writing his testimony, a story that begins when a famous music producer asks him to authenticate some letters written by Samuel Johnson. As far as Nicky can tell, the style matches Johnson’s exactly, and he believes the letters are real until he takes a closer look at the paper they’re written on – too modern. But the question of authenticity becomes increasingly blurry when Nicky meets Jack, the man who wrote the letters. Jack appears to be some kind of idiot savant; his penmanship and writing style somehow match Johnson’s perfectly, but he spends most of his time locked in a room because of his inability to handle everyday life. Jack insists that he is Samuel Johnson, and is deeply distressed by the unfamiliar modern world he finds himself in.

Nicky, of course, is absolutely certain that the man is insane, no matter how much he behaves like Johnson (on whom Nicky is an expert). For the reader, Nicky’s conviction is deeply ironic, given that his mental-institution narrative shows him trapped in the exact same dilemma – his consciousness is housed in a strange body that prevents him from laying claim to his original identity. The truth of this is taken as proof of madness. Exactly how he ended in a mental institution, in another man’s body, is the subject of the latter part of the story.

Body-swapping is hardly a new concept in sf, but Theroux takes a more metafictional, literary approach than most. The how and why of Nicky and Jack/Samuel’s predicament is only explored in the last third or quarter of the novel. There’s a lot of action/thriller potential, but Theroux keeps the pace slow and steady, focusing on Nicky’s personal dramas and existential ideas. Theroux also takes a fairly close look at Jack/Samuel’s character, whose behaviour matches everything that Nick knows about him – his style of speech and writing, his religious beliefs, his culture. The novel is essentially a reflection on consciousness and human existence. What makes you who you are? Can you be the same person in a different body? In a different time and culture? Does the previous owner of Nicky’s new body still linger in the flesh?

I won’t get into the hows and whys of the ‘strange bodies’ because they occur so late that they constitute a spoiler, but they do make up the most interesting part of the novel. That said, this part is also written rather clumsily in comparison to the rest – all of a sudden you’re faced with long tracts of info dumping, and if you don’t find it interesting it’s going to be a chore to read.

Another glitch is that it requires a quite a stretch of the imagination to believe that Nicky found the time to write his testimony, which, of course, amounts to an entire novel. I think he wrote most of it during the periods he was allowed to use his therapist’s computer, and he still found time to hack into her files and read her case notes on him.

He asks us to “forgive my forgoing the usual niceties of autobiography” because of the constraints imposed upon him, but he nevertheless gives us a detailed – and rather boring – personal history, in addition to the relatively lengthy main story. This story – his mental institution narrative interspersing the main narrative about how he ended up there – is neatly structured, suggesting that Nicky somehow found the time to do a bit of editing and fill in the gaps that would naturally form when you tell a long story like this.

Overall, it’s not a bad book and it has some interesting ideas, but the story as a whole isn’t particularly compelling. Whether the novel is able to captivate you on a philosophical level is a matter of personal interest. For me, it’s kind of vague and failed to leave much of an impression. I don’t have much to say about it now, and I know I’m going to forget most of it in a couple of months.

The Kingdom of Gods read-along part 3

The Kingdom of GodsHi everyone! It’s part 3 of The Kingdom of Gods read-along, covering chapters 11-13. OUr host this week is Grace from Books Without Any Pictures, so head over to her place to get the links to the other replies.

Here’s what I thought (spoilers, obviously):

1.  What are your theories on Kahl?  Who is he, and what is he up to?
I think he is Sieh and Enefa’s son – an elontid. But since having a child is antithetical to Sieh’s nature, Enefa wiped the knowledge of him from Sieh’s memory, and kept him hidden. If no one knew about him, Sieh could be kept safe. I don’t know how long Kahl would have been hidden and alone for, but it would have been millennia, and that could explain his anger (and possibly his complete and utter insanity – we don’t know much about Kahl’s state of mind at this point).

If Kahl is behind the Arameri murders, then I’m not sure what his agenda is. Revenge for his father Sieh? Inciting a Gods’ War as revenge for the way he was treated? I don’t know.

It makes sense that he would have the audacity to do it though – he’s separate from the other godlings so probably does not care about Yeine’s rule against killing humans or interfering with human society.

 

2.  We finally get to meet Oree’s daughter, Glee.  Is she what you expected?  What do you think about her role on the council and her hiding Itempas?
Yes, she’s what I expected. I knew this person would be powerful and probably as determined and level-headed as Oree. So, when we first encountered Glee in Ahad’s office, I wondered if she might be Oree’s daughter, especially since she looks similar, with her afro and dark skin. It was definitely my first guess when she appeared at the council meeting later; it didn’t seem likely that the gods would allow an ordinary human to be part of the group, and I was waiting for Oree’s child to pop up somewhere.

I’m relieved that she’s hiding Itempas and that something bad hasn’t happened to him. I’m not exactly sure who she’s protecting him from though. Yeine? The godlings?

I’m also pleased to hear that Itempas is taking the command to right his wrongs seriously, and that some of the godlings are involved in the endeavour. It actually gives them a good reason to wipe out the Arameri (righting that one “whopping” wrong), but Itempas, as Glee says, would always fight for order. As his representative, I assume Glee would too, will argue for anti-war measures in the council. Which is great; I don’t want war either.

 

3.  What’s up with Deka?  Does he really like Sieh, or is he using him for some later gain?
I’m glad Deka’s not just ok but happy, sane and the most powerful scrivener the world has ever seen. Another demon :) I think it’s possible that Deka has some plan he hasn’t told Sieh about, but I thought his affection for Sieh was genuine. If anything, it’s his desire for Sieh that might become an issue, rather than any malice. There was just one thing about their interaction that worried me a little – Sieh was about to ask where Deka heard about the details of Shahar’s betrayal, and Deka kissed him instead of answering. Is there something important about that answer? Does Deka use spy holes like that demon priest in the previous book?

Oh, and why didn’t Deka and Shahar’s blood kill Sieh if they’re both demons? Still wondering exactly what happened there.

 

4.  In this section, we’re introduced to two new forms of magic–Deka’s use of the gods’ language, and the Darre masks.  What do you think about them?  How do you think the mask will be used?  Does it have anything to do with Sieh’s affliction?
My first guess was that the mask might be used to restore Sieh’s godhood. I’m still holding out hope that Kahl is not (entirely) evil, and wants to give Sieh a chance at being a father. But being a father will kill him, so Kahl needs a mask to counteract that. On the downside, it’s possible Kahl only wants to restore him so he can fight him as an equal.

However, Kahl also seems to hate the idea of being a slave to his nature, and says he wants to control fate, which suggests that he wants to use the mask himself, to be powerful enough to behave in whatever way he wants. That might give him the power to save Sieh though.

Deka’s magic is pretty awesome, but we have no idea what kind of potential it has. It could be really dangerous – as a demon it’s quite possible he could use the magic against the gods. And what would happen if he used that one mask?

 

5.  What secret do you think Enefa wiped from Sieh’s memory?
The child they conceived together (see no.1). Nemmer’s theory about Enefa hiding him makes perfect sense – she could keep him alive by keeping him hidden. From his vague, reawakening memories, I get the impression that Sieh’s union with Enefa was reluctant – he longed for her, and we know he’s always wanted to be part of the Three, but he also knew it would kill him and he was terrified. Enefa should have known better, but seemed to be driven by lust. It was undoubtedly a mistake, so Enefa’s secret could also have been a way of hiding her own crime against Sieh.

 

Other:
- I loved the conversation Sieh had with the godling Egan at the beginning of this section. It added yet another layer to our knowledge of the Gods’ War. In book 1, there was the ‘official’ version – Itempas defeating his traitorous sister and evil brother. There was also the ‘truth’ – Itempas murdered Enefa; Nahadoth and the Enefadeh were defeated and enslaved when they rose up against him. In book 2 we got Itempas’s side of the story. Now we get the godlings POV – the idea that the Enefadeh were “infected” by Nahadoth’s fury and went mad just as Itempas did. Egan says they not only killed adversaries but those who sought a peaceful resolution or tried to help the humans. It reached the point where the godlings thought enslaving the Enefadeh was their only hope. No wonder so many of Sieh’s siblings are angry with him.

Nevertheless, I felt sorry for Sieh at the need of this conversation, when it became clear how very, very lonely he’s been.

- I’m enjoying the way Sieh’s character is unfolding. The conversation with Nsana was very enlightening. There is hope in Nsana’s insistence that Sieh needs to grow up, but that does mean growing old. Even Enefa didn’t think he could be a little boy forever. Obviously Sieh has resisted growing up – to his own detriment – but that means he can change rather than become mortal and die.

By Blood We Live by Glen Duncan

By Blood We LiveTitle: By Blood We Live
Series: The Last Werewolf / Bloodlines
Author: Glen Duncan
Published: 6 February 2014
Publisher: Canongate Books
Genre: fantasy, horror
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

By Blood We Live picks up two years after the events of Talulla Rising. The 20 000-year-old vampire Remshi wakes up to find that he’s been asleep all this time, much to the dismay of his human partner Justine. They’re still trying to sort out their issues when they’re attacked,and Remshi is forced to turn Justine in order to save her life. Through Justine’s blood, Remshi recovers his memories of his obsession with Talulla, who he believes is the reincarnation of his only love, a werewolf named Vali who died 17 000 years ago.

Meanwhile Talulla and the twins are still with the pack from the previous book. Talulla is still with Walker, but their relationship is strained. She never loved him like she loved Jake, and things were never the same after Remshi came to see Talulla and said he’d come back for her.

There’s an outside threat too. WOCOP is no more, but they have been replaced by the Militi Christi, a militant Christian group determined to wipe out werewolves and vampires for the glory of god. The werewolf population has exploded since the virus was cured, and Talulla and Madeline started creating new wolves. The world is turning against both vampires and werewolves, and when Talulla learns of a possible cure, she has to decide if that’s something she wants for herself and her children.

Like the previous two books, By Blood We Live has everything that has come to define this series. Loads of gory violence, most of it involving monsters eating humans. Lots of musing on the psychological experience of being a monster who eats humans and absorbs their memories along through flesh and blood. Conflict with a human organisation whose aim is to kill monsters. There isn’t quite as much sex as before, but there is something new – a vampire having sex with a transformed werewolf (it was really only a matter of time).

However, there are some crucial differences in By Blood We Live. There are two vampire narrators, so for the first time we get some insight into their experiences. While Talulla and Jake spoke of the Curse and the wulf, Remshi speaks about vampirism as the Lash. We also have four narrators total – Remshi, Justine, Talulla and Walker. Justine leaves Remshi shortly after he turns her, believing that he’s going to leave for Talulla anyway. She decides to track down the people who abused her as a child, now that she has all these new vampiric abilities. Remshi goes after her while trying to track down Talulla at the same time. Talulla has been given the book that Jake was looking for, which describes the origin of the werewolf race and apparently gives the cure. However, the pages detailing the cure have been removed; to get them Talulla will have to meet with the vampire who sent her the book. At any rate, she has more immediate problems – the Militi Christi are trying to kill her family. Poor Walker knows that he’s relationship’s about to end, thanks to a dead werewolf and a mythical vampire. He’s well aware of Talulla’s awkward attempts to get him to have sex with his maker Madeline so that she won’t feel so guilty about leaving him.

There’s an interesting moral quandary regarding the attempt to wipe out werewolves and vampires. One of the defining characteristics of this series is that Duncan doesn’t hide the monstrousness of vamps and weres but emphasises and explores it. It’s impossible for them to exist without killing humans so obviously peaceful co-existence is impossible and violence is inevitable, as Talulla explains:

Here was the core of monstrosity: if you were a monster the human world had nothing to offer you but the just demand for your death. And since they were, in the last analysis, your food and drink, what could they be but right? There was no argument you could bring against them. All you could bring was your monstrous enmity.

Because the vamps and weres are the protagonists, the reader has the opportunity to empathise with them, but they’re still the bad guys. They’re murderers who can’t make any moral objection to the attempts at their genocide. I thought Duncan made a fantastic moral dilemma out of this in the previous book – Talulla was tortured, experimented upon and almost raped, but she admitted that nothing those people did to her was any worse than things she’d done. She wanted to survive but she couldn’t really complain about the violence per se. She was a monster attacked by other – lesser – monsters.

In this novel, Duncan sets up a similar dilemma although I found it less interesting. The Militi Christi are, in one sense, the good guys, because they’re trying to save humanity from a terrifying danger. However, they’re a bunch of militant Christians, and that already sets off lots of alarms. Then you get a closer look at them, and to no one’s surprise, they’re a bunch of ridiculous hypocrites. My problem with this is that’s it too easy to dislike them and side with our monstrous protagonists. WOCOP was also unlikeable, although in different ways. Given that there’s a very good reason for humans to want to wipe out werewolves and vampires, I thought it would be more complex and engaging to have an organisation the reader might actually side with.

Because, honestly, I’ve gotten tired of this monster formula now and I want something to shake it up. It was good in The Last Werewolf and it was great in Talulla Rising, but it’s old in By Blood We Live, especially since I read all three books within a short space of time. I know all about how the Curse (and now the Lash) makes you enjoy being evil. How “It’s only the best for us if it’s the worst for them.” God’s dead but irony’s still rollickingly alive. The great mathematical silence. How werewolves and vampires are like libraries because they absorb the memories of their victims (this is actually awesome, but I often wish Duncan would do more with it). Remshi seemed liked an interesting badass guy in the previous book; here, he’s actually quite a nice guy, but also quite boring.

That said, this book is not without its merits. The way memories are absorbed through the blood becomes really twisted when Justine drinks the man who sexually abused her, and in doing so gains his memories of the abuse, seeing herself through his eyes. Drinking/eating people is compared to reading, and Remshi warns her of the danger of it:

Reading a book is a dangerous thing, Justine. A book can make you find room in yourself for something you never thought you’d understand. Or worse, something you never wanted to understand.

Each of the books has at least one really horrific moment, and this is the one that stood out for me.

I also like that the characters are struggling with the possible truth of myths, dreams, patterns and prophecies. They’re all cynics who don’t believe in god, religion or fairytales, so when they’re faced with the myth of the origin of werewolves, prescient dreams, Remshi’s prophecy about joining the blood of the werewolf (which he wrote himself), and the patterns and connections that appear after feeding, they feel absurd. While they have to admit that they’re all fairytale creatures themselves, they’re disgusted by belief in dreams and prophecies, especially when it seems like they really are caught up in some cosmic plan. It’s amusing in a macabre sort of way.

Appropriately, the prophecy also gets entwined with the poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” by Robert Browning. I’m not familiar with it, but Talulla describes it as a poem about going on and on without hope, on a quest without any clear purpose. This applies to Remshi in particular, but is starting to characterise Talulla’s journey as well. How can she and her children live on in a world that wants them dead? It’s a question I paused to think about a few times during the book.

Ultimately though, the flaws outweigh the merits for me, and I judged this to be my least favourite book in the series. I didn’t hate it; I just found it a bit boring. If the series continues, I doubt I’ll continue reading it. And there is a definite possibility for a fourth book, which could focus on an all-out war between humans and the werewolves and vampires. Which, admittedly, could be interesting. And maybe I just need a break from this sort of style and content to appreciate it more. We’ll see.