Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Red Seas Under Red SkiesTitle: Red Seas Under Red Skies
Scott Lynch
Gentleman Bastard #2
 20 June 2007
Gollancz (eBook)
Own copy

Like The Lies of Locke Lamora, Red Seas Under Red Skies uses narratives from different timelines. One picks up shortly after the events in Lies, with Jean tending to a grievously injured Locke as they escape Camorr and head for Tel Verrar by ship. Locke heals slowly, largely because his growing depression becomes a far greater problem than his wounds. Devastated by the deaths of Calo, Galdo and Bug, he wallows in self-pity and cheap wine, becoming so bitter and angry that even Jean is on the verge of just letting him die as he seems to want to.

But we know that Locke somehow recovers from his melancholy because the main narrative sees him and Jean in the middle of a casino heist that they’ve been working on for two years. The Sinspire is a high-class casino with a huge but impenetrable vault. It’s almost impossible to cheat on the gaming tables, and anyone who is caught trying will accidentally ‘fall’ from the ninth storey. Of course, Locke and Jean have been cheating there for months as part of their plan to steal a bigger fortune than the Gentleman Bastards have ever taken.

Everything runs smoothly until the Bondsmages start sending them eerie messages. The terrifyingly powerful sorcerers want revenge for the Falconer, who Locke mutilated in his attempt to stop the Grey King. The Bondsmages operate only through other people, eventually delivering Locke and Jean up to Maxilan Stragos, Tel Verrar’s military leader. Stragos uses them for his own political machinations, sending them to sea as undercover pirates.

Locke and Jean are faced with an impossible con – to pose as a pirate captain and first mate when they know next to nothing about sailing, and trick a group of people who could easily see through them and slit their throats. Refusing to do it, leads to an even more certain death. It makes for a story that’s quite different to Lies, but just as dangerous and thrilling. It also has what I have quickly come to think of as Lynch’s trademark world building (which is fabulously, overwhelmingly detailed) and fantastic characters (including my new favourite pirate captain).

I enjoyed Red Seas even more than I enjoyed Lies, for several reasons. Firstly, it’s more fun and adventurous. It starts out with a casino heist reminiscent of Ocean’s 11, and then turns into Pirates of the Caribbean if it was made by HBO instead of Disney.

I also approached Red Seas blind. Because it was part of a series I wanted to read, I just jumped in without knowing the plot. I knew only that it contained pirates, including a particularly interesting pirate captain named Zamira Drakasha (more on her later). I didn’t know much about Lies either, but its reputation preceded it: I saw a meme for Lies suggesting that Scott Lynch was more ruthless in killing off his major characters than J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin (although, in my opinion, Martin is far more brutal). Based on this, I knew Calo, Galdo and Bug were doomed, so from the beginning I saw them as sacrificial victims. They existed to die tragically, so I didn’t get attached, and missed out on key emotional impact.

Luckily I encountered no such spoilers for Red Seas, and except for one or two slow sections, I loved reading it. Lynch continues to explore the rich world he started creating in Lies, and although he still provides more detail you could possibly take in I’ve grown accustomed to just enjoying it without trying to learn it all. Tel Verrar is very different from Camorr; the world of the pirates even more so. Lynch just keeps unveiling one wonder after another and it all feels just as amazing as the wonders in book one. I could do a whole series of blog posts on the world building; instead I’ll just discuss my favourite points.

I particularly liked the fact that Lynch developed the thieves’ belief in the Thirteenth/The Crooked Warden. In Lies, Locke and the other Gentleman Bastards just seemed to be thieves who prayed to the god of thieves for protection and good fortune. Now, we get a deeper understanding of their belief as a religion. They live by the tenets that “thieves prosper” and “the rich remember”. This is why Chains taught the Gentleman Bastards to defy the Secret Peace and steal from the rich as a duty, not merely a preference:

Nara, Mistress of Ubiquitous Maladies, may Her hand be stayed, sends disease among men so that men will never forget that they are not gods. We’re sort of like that, for the rich and powerful. We’re the stone in their shoe, the thorn in their flesh, a little bit of reciprocity this side of divine judgement. That’s our second mandate, and it’s as important as the first. […] It’s my divine duty to see that the bluebloods with their pretty titles get a little bit of what life hands the rest of us as a matter of routine – a nice, sharp jab in the arse every now and again.

For Locke and Jean this also means sharing a sense of community with other thieves. An incident in the earlier part of the novel serves to illustrate this. Locke and Jean are nearly robbed and killed, but when the situation is turned around and the thief is at Locke and Jean’s mercy, they spare him and send him home with a purse full of coins. Because “thieves prosper” and the thief in question is very poor. This becomes part of an important debate in relation to the pirates, who are, of course, all thieves.

The pirates themselves worship another of the Thirteen gods, and I quite like their beliefs about ensuring good luck at sea:

‘When you go to sea, there’s two necessities, for luck. First, you’re courting an awful fate if you take a ship to sea without at least one woman officer. It’s the law of the Lord of the Grasping Waters. His mandate. He’s got a fixation for the daughters of the land; he’ll smash any ship that puts to sea without at least one aboard. Plus, it’s plain common sense. They’re good officers. Decent plain sailors, but finer officers than you or me. Just the way the gods made ’em.

‘Second, it’s powerful bad luck to put out without cats on board. Not only as they kill the rats, but as they’re the proudest creatures anywhere, wet or dry. Iono admires the little fuckers. Got a ship with women and cats aboard, you’ll have the finest luck you can hope for.

It’s a nice change from our world’s superstition that it’s bad luck to have a woman on board. But Locke’s world is also much more egalitarian than ours when it comes to gender. I noticed that in Lies, and it’s clearer here.

My favourite and most anticipated character was Zamira Drakasha, a black, female pirate captain with two young children. Zamira is pretty badass even when bouncing her two-year-old daughter on her knee, but she’s a much more rounded character that the girls and women who tend to be termed “feisty” or “strong” but have few other qualities. Drakasha feels real – stern, sometimes brutal, funny, curious, carefully affectionate towards a few select people, firm but generous in dealing with the crew, skilled in political negotiations, and every inch an exceptional and experienced pirate captain. She’s one of Lynch’s best characters.

And the absolute best thing about Drakasha? No one makes a big deal about the fact that she’s a black woman. She’s not the only woman on the ship, she’s not the only female pirate captain, and the world is so much more comfortable with its racial diversity than ours. So no one thinks of Drakasha as some kind of fluke, men don’t single her out for criticism or make crude jokes about wanting to sleep with her, she’s not the exceptional woman, or the token black character; she’s a person like everyone else. I really enjoyed seeing that as as a norm, for a change.

I also liked the sexual freedom among the pirates. With a mixed crew, lots of people are having fun casual sex and indulging a variety of preferences. Even Jean gets involved with one of the crew members, which came as something of a relief – it was nice to see a normal human being exists within the master thief.

I really like how Jean’s character develops too. In Lies, he was too much of a faithful sidekick, hovering on standby to assist Locke, who always took centre stage. Now we see Jean come to the fore. He drives the narrative in the early flashbacks, when Locke is too miserable to get out of bed or sober up. Jean loves him, but struggles to put up with his appalling behaviour, and I think most readers would empathise with Jean while distancing themselves from Locke. I certainly did. Similarly, when Jean begins sleeping with one of the pirates, he seems warmer and more human. Locke looks prudishly celibate in comparison, especially when he gets jealous of Jean’s new girlfriend.

Jean, understandably, is fed up with Locke’s emotional bullshit, especially when it comes to sexual relationships:

We carry your precious misery with us like a holy fucking relic. Don’t talk about Sabetha Belacoros. Don’t talk about the plays. Don’t talk about Jasmer, or Espara, or any of the schemes we ran. I lived with her for nine years, same as you, and I’ve pretended she doesn’t fucking exist to avoid upsetting you. Well, I’m not you. I’m not content to live like an oath-bound monk. I have a life outside your gods-damned shadow.

This gives a somewhat feeble excuse for why we learn so little about Sabetha, but more importantly this sort of tension is crucial plot-wise. The prologue takes a scene from late in the novel, where Jean supposedly betrays Locke. At the time I thought it was a stupid prologue, because such a betrayal would be simply impossible. As the novel progressed however, the cracks begin to show in Locke and Jean’s relationship, and in Locke’s reliability, leaving open the possibility that Jean could give up on him.

It’s nice to see Locke knocked off his pedestal like this. In Lies, he was so smart and slick – an awesome character, but an unreal one too. He could be defeated only through the absurdly powerful sorcery of the Falconer, but even then you knew he’d come out on top. Although he’s criticised for being arrogant, I felt that, ultimately his arrogance was justified.

Now, we see Locke’s character flaws when he allows the Grey-King disaster to cripple him emotionally. Then we see both him and Jean forced into dangerous, demanding situations that they often can’t handle or escape. And while Jean begins an exciting new relationship, Locke can’t get over Sabetha, and feels insecure about losing Jean’s attention. On the whole, it’s a more interesting character story than you find in Lies.

My only complaint about the book is that is drags in parts, particularly when it transitions from a casino heist to a pirate adventure. Locke and Jean are prevented from working on their Sinspire scheme and forced to spend their time learning how to sail a ship. The plot is unable to advance much under these conditions, and there’s little opportunity for action or cons, so it gets boring. I also found sailing as tedious as Locke and Jean did.

I got worried at this point, but the pace picked up again when Locke and Jean left the land, especially with all the tension that comes from them being crap sailors while pretending to be experts. It’s an exciting read, with lots of action, political intrigue, great characters, and a growing world. I also get a sense of the series expanding into something epic and overtly socio-political, with issues regarding the rich vs. the poor and the influence of divinely inspired thieves like Locke coming into play. Lynch leaves a lot of dangling threads to be picked up in the next book, which must have been agony for those who had to wait five years for the sequel. I’m rather pleased that I started reading this now, when I have book three waiting on my Kindle 🙂

Up for Review: The Republic of Thieves

I’ve read The Lies of Locke Lamora and I just finished Red Seas Under Red Skies. I am so ready to join the Gentleman Bastards in The Republic of Thieves, where I can finally meet the Locke’s mysterious love, Sabetha.

The Republic of ThievesThe Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch (Del Rey)

NetGalley blurb (slight spoilers for book 2):

With what should have been the greatest heist of their career gone spectacularly sour, Locke and his trusted partner, Jean, have barely escaped with their lives. Or at least Jean has. But Locke is slowly succumbing to a deadly poison that no alchemist or physiker can cure. Yet just as the end is near, a mysterious Bondsmage offers Locke an opportunity that will either save him or finish him off once and for all.

Magi political elections are imminent, and the factions are in need of a pawn. If Locke agrees to play the role, sorcery will be used to purge the venom from his body—though the process will be so excruciating he may well wish for death. Locke is opposed, but two factors cause his will to crumble: Jean’s imploring—and the Bondsmage’s mention of a woman from Locke’s past: Sabetha. She is the love of his life, his equal in skill and wit, and now, his greatest rival.

Locke was smitten with Sabetha from his first glimpse of her as a young fellow orphan and thief-in-training. But after a tumultuous courtship, Sabetha broke away. Now they will reunite in yet another clash of wills. For faced with his one and only match in both love and trickery, Locke must choose whether to fight Sabetha—or to woo her. It is a decision on which both their lives may depend.

The Republic of Thieves will be published on 8 October by Del Rey in the USA and 10 October by Gollancz in the UK.

The novel on Goodreads
The Gentleman Bastard series on Goodreads
Del Rey (Random House)
Gollancz (Orion)

About the Author
I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota on April 2, 1978. I’ve lived in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area my entire life.
The Lies of Locke Lamora, my first novel, was bought by Simon Spanton at Orion Books in August, 2004. Prior to that I had just about every job you usually see in this sort of author bio– dishwasher, busboy, waiter, web designer, office manager, prep cook, and freelance writer. I trained in basic firefighting at Anoka Technical College in 2005, and became a volunteer firefighter in June of that year.
In 2007 The Lies of Locke Lamora was a World Fantasy Award finalist.
In 2008 I received the Sydney J. Bounds Best Newcomer Award from the British Fantasy Society.
In 2010, I lost a marriage but gained a cat, a charming ball of ego and fuzz known as Muse (Musicus Maximus Butthead Rex I).
My partner, the lovely and critically acclaimed SF/F writer Elizabeth Bear, lives in Massachusetts. – nicked from Goodreads with slight edits.
Interviews: Fantasy Faction | Mythic Scribes | Orbit

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

The Lies of Locke LamoraTitle: The Lies of Locke Lamora
Author: Scott Lynch
Series: Gentleman Bastard #1
 27 June 2006
Gollancz (eBook)
fantasy, urban fantasy
Own copy

An orphan in the fantastical city of Camorr, six-year old Locke Lamora is such a lying, scheming, overzealous thief that the Thiefmaker has no choice but to get permission to kill the little troublemaker before he rips the fabric of underworld society. In a last-ditch attempt to make some money off him instead, the Thiefmaker sells him to Father Chains. Chains might look like a humble priest, but he’s the leader of a small gang of talented thieves called The Gentleman Bastards. Locke fits right in, and along with several other children Chains trains him to be a master thief.

About twenty years later, the Gentleman Bastards – Locke, Calo, Galdo, Jean and Bug – run the city’s biggest scams in total secret. Everyone thinks they’re small-time thieves when in fact they’ve become quite rich. This is exactly what Chains taught them to do – steal from the nobility and…. hoard all the money because they don’t really know what to do with it, they just love scheming and stealing from rich people. Under Locke’s leadership, the Gentleman Bastards always have brilliant plans with big hauls.

But Locke is so slick, smart and successful that it’s perfectly clear to anyone who knows anything about stories that he’s soon going to get his ass handed to him and even his fantastic lies won’t get him out of trouble. And that’s what happens when the Grey King shows up.

This mysterious man starts killing the city’s most fearsome garristas (gang leaders) as if they were no more threatening than flies. The murders rapidly undermine the power of Capa Barsavi, the mobster boss of Camorr to whom all gangs musts pay their dues. The Gentleman Bastards fear that Locke could be the next target, but the Grey King has something far worse planned for him.

It’s only about halfway through the book that we actually encounter the Grey King, however. The Lies of Locke Lamora  is a fun read but it does spend quite a lot of time setting up the world, Locke’s character, and the Gentleman Bastards. Which isn’t a bad thing – I enjoyed hearing about Locke’s schemes and his performances as a consummate liar and actor. He’s a fantastic character, an ideal anti-hero: cocky, snarky, ruthless but not evil, so flawed but so remarkable, devious, but fiercely loyal to his friends. You won’t mind getting to know him instead of just rushing headlong into the main plot.

The Lies of Locke Lamora also has some of the most intensive world building I’ve come across. It’s impressive, but it can be a bit overwhelming. It seems like half the book must be devoted to world building – the districts of Camorr, its social structures, culture and religions, the practice of alchemy and other forms of magic, the social structure of the underworld, the smells, the tastes, the colours. Most notable is Camorr’s unique architecture – the world of the novel was once populated by a race of long-dead beings – Eldren – who left behind their gleaming Elderglass structures. Elderglass is virtually indestructible, and at twilight (called Falselight), the sun’s rays reflects off the glass for “an hour of supernatural radiance”. It’s one of about a thousand things in this book that I would really, really love to see in film.

Others include a garden of fatally sharp glass roses that ‘drink’ blood, the “Shifting Market” located on a river, the secret Elderglass basements where the Gentlemen Bastards have their headquarters, an alchemically designed orchard on a boat. It’s because the world building can be so impressive that it doesn’t drag the book down. Although you probably won’t have a good grasp of the world without a re-read or two, you’ll still enjoy reading about it just because it’s awesome.

On the darker side is the city’s underworld. Camorr has over a hundred gangs. It’s almost hard to imagine that some citizens are just ordinary people because it seems like the city is thrives on crime:

‘Gods, I love this place,’ Locke said, drumming his fingers against his thighs. ‘Sometimes I think this whole city was put here simply because the gods must adore crime. Pickpockets rob the common folk, merchants rob anyone they can dupe, Capa Barsavi robs the robbers and the common folk, the lesser nobles rob nearly everyone, and Duke Nicovante occasionally runs off with his army and robs the shit out of Tal Verarr or Jerem, not to mention what he does to his own nobles and his common folk.’

‘So that makes us robbers of robbers,’ said Bug, ‘who pretend to be robbers working for a robber of other robbers.’

Almost all the major characters are criminals or engage in some kind of socially sanctioned violence. In the central plot, thieves and killers fight against other thieves and killers. Capa Barsavi rules the underworld through murder and torture. The Grey King isn’t really any worse; he’s the villain mostly because he upsets the social balance and targets the characters we’re meant to empathise with. Whether a character is a good guy, bad guy or victim generally depends on their relationship to Locke. Locke and the other Gentleman Bastards might have a higher moral standing than their peers but only because their victims are nobles rather than common folk or merchants.

One thing I wanted to mention is that Camorr seems to have a more egalitarian society than you typically see in fantasy with quasi-historical settings. When it comes to minor characters – gang members, business people, civil servants, etc. – the genders seem well-balanced. On the downside, it’s still not fully egalitarian (apparently it’s difficult for fantasy writers to be that imaginative) and the narrative favours male characters. Most of the antagonists are male. The Gentleman Bastards are all male, except for a mysterious character named Sabetha, who is mentioned multiple times but never, ever appears on the page. Capa Barsavi admits that his daughter Nazca is the perfect person to become the next Capa, except that she’s a woman so he can’t possibly choose her over her brothers. Admittedly, some physically and socially powerful characters in the novel are women, one of whom is a criticism of male dominance, but their roles are smaller than those of the male characters.

The hype also spoiled this book for me a wee bit. I hadn’t read any reviews, but I heard several times that it was a brilliant, and that it was dark and violent. I think it’s a great book, but it didn’t blow me away. And these days, a book has to be pretty twisted or brutal to stand out as such. Perhaps because I was bracing myself for an onslaught, The Lies of Locke Lamora wasn’t as brutal as I’s expected. Ok yes, it includes some pretty graphic torture, a character drowned in a barrel of horse urine, savage beatings and murders, and aquatic monsters that rip people to shreds, but authors like George R.R. Martin and Gillian Flynn still deliver much heavier blows. Unlike them, Lynch also balances out the grim bits of his story with adventure, humour, and the fantastic friendship of the Gentleman Bastards. This is no bad thing, obviously, it’s just that very little of the novel’s darker content made much of an impact on me. Especially after reading A Storm of Swords.`

That said, it’s still compulsively readable. I didn’t race through it, but whenever I put it down to take a break, I’d soon be thinking about how nice it would be to curl up with it again. At over 700 pages, it gave me about a week’s worth of good reading. I’ve never really empathised with people who say they prefer long books because there’s more to enjoy – the quality of a story has no relation to its length, and if a long book becomes boring it’s torture – but with The Lies of Locke Lamora I understood the point. It’s good fun, and you know you can look forward to a lot of it. At the same time it’s not so long that you’re intimidated by how much time it’ll take, and it doesn’t have an open ending that insists you move on to the next book in the series right away. The ending paves the way for the sequel, but provides satisfying conclusions to this plot.

I will be reading the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, and not just because I received a review copy of book three, The Republic of Thieves. The Lies of Locke Lamora is fun, well-written, dark but not grim, and Locke Lamora is a superb character. I’m curious to see what he does next, and what other wonders his world holds.

Review of Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

Wolfhound Century by Peter HigginsTitle: Wolfhound Century
Peter Higgins
21 March 2013
science fiction, alternative history fantasy, thriller
I received a review copy from Gollancz Geeks, but had to use an eBook for reviewing purposes, hence the absence of page numbers for quotes.
Rating: 7/10

I judged this book by its cover. I took one look and assumed it was a political or military thriller within the sf genre. A perfunctory glance at the blurb –  “SF thriller… alternative Russia” – and I moved on. Only when Gollancz Geeks sent out an email about the book and possible review copies did I take a closer look and realise that Wolfhound Century is actually the kind of weird, hard-to-categorise genre fiction that I like. It’s still, in part, a political thriller but it’s far more bizarre and surprising than I’d expected. 

It’s set in an alternative Soviet Russia known as the Vlast, where for over three centuries angels have fallen from the sky, supposedly killed in a heavenly war. Their massive stone bodies have been used for buildings, machines, and biological modifications that serve the totalitarian state of the Vlast.

Investigator Vissarion Lom has a sliver of angelflesh embedded in his forehead. Among other things, “it encourages loyalty. The sacrifice of the individual for the sake of the whole. It’s a way of binding you to the Vlast.” And Lom is a dedicated, loyal policeman, willing to take down his own corrupt peers even if it means that he’s despised and his career remains stagnant. It’s because of this work ethic that Krogh, Head of the Secret Police, summons Lom to the capital Mirgorod to capture a terrorist. Joseph Kantor is “a one-man war zone”, a man who spreads chaos, fear and distrust”, but who is protected by unknown allies within the Secret Police. He uses his guise as a rebel to uphold tyranny. Because Lom is unknown in Mirgorod, Krogh hopes he can track down Kantor and “stop him. By any means possible. Any at all”.

What Krogh and Lom don’t know is that Kantor is also being influenced by an angel – the last fallen angel, known as Archangel, although it has no real name. Unlike its predecessors, Archangel fell to earth alive. It is slowly poisoning the forest around it as if “shot into the forest’s belly like a bullet, bursting it open, engendering a slow, inevitable, glacial, cancerous, stone killing”. Dying, but fused deep within the earth, the Archangel reached out with its mind and found Kantor. It promised him dominion over this world and others, if only he would perform one task – destroy the Pollandore.

The Pollandore is the stuff of folklore, described once as a ‘”forest god” although that doesn’t really capture its role in the narrative. Rather, the Pollandore is potential personified – it embodies the possibility of another world, specifically a world without the influence of the angels. And this last angel – Archangel – wants to destroy all possibility of a world free from its dominion.

Most people assume the Pollandore is a myth. The Vlast captured and caged it a long time ago, but couldn’t kill it. Now the wounded forest itself sends an emissary to the city to find a way of opening the Pollandore and saving the forest – and presumably the world – from the cruelty and destruction of the Archangel. The forest’s only hope is Maroussia, Jopseph Kantor’s stepdaughter, who holds the key to opening the Pollandore. Her path collides with Lom’s, and although she fears and hates him as a policeman, he becomes her ally when she finds herself hunted by the Secret Police. Lom himself gradually begins to rethink his loyalties as he wonders, for the first time, what the sliver of angelflesh in his forehead has really done to him.

This isn’t what I expected with this novel, and it should serve to remind me to be a bit more open-minded when judging books by their covers. Well, some books anyway. Wolfhound Century frequently surprised me with its world. When I started reading I’d forgotten what was outlined in the blurb; I recalled only that it was supposed to be a genre-leaping book that was hard to categorise, and it had been praised for being dark and inventive. As far as worldbuilding is concerned, the novel certainly lives up to the hype.

At first there are only a few minor fantastical elements – giants, stone golems called mudjhiks, Archangel, the angelflesh that seems to be more than just dead stone. Then some of the characters are revealed to be more than simply human. Maroussia, who has “an open, outdoor scent. Rain on cool earth” clearly has some kind of intrinsic link to the forest; a power which terrifies Kantor. Lom reveals a weak ability to manipulate the air, which he feebly uses when suddenly attacked by sentient rain. Raku Vishnik, a mutual friend of Lom and Maroussia’s, works as the official City Photographer, and has discovered an otherworldly city existing in the same space as Mirgorod. He has photographed the moments when the otherworld breaks through into their world and the laws of physics go awry. And like the alternate reality bursting through into the current one, the novel seemed to flourish with the bizarre as I read. Even as I neared the end it continued to unveil its wonders.

It wouldn’t be nearly as spectacular if not presented in Higgins’s vivid writing, and I spent a lot of time taking down quotes. What I also love is the way Higgins uses the world to emphasis the central conflict between the cold brutality of Mirgorod and the Vlast, and the mythical world of the forest, teeming with life and uncanny beauty. Consider, for example, these descriptions of the Lodka, the colossal building housing the Secret Police HQ:

Six hundred yards long, a hundred and twenty yards high, it enclosed ten million cubic yards of air and a thousand miles of intricately interlocking offices, corridors and stairways, the cerebral cortex of a stone brain. It was said the Lodka had been built so huge and so hastily that when it was finished, many of the rooms could not be reached at all. Passageways ran from nowhere to nowhere. Stairwells without stairs. Exitless labyrinths. From high windows you could look down on entrance-less vacant courtyards, the innermost secrets of the Vlast. Amber lights burned in a thousand windows. Behind each window, minsters and civil servants, clerks and archivists, and secret policemen were working late.

The Lodka cruised on the surface of the city like an immense ship, and like a ship it had no relationship with the depths over which it sailed, except to trawl for what lived there.

It sounds frighteningly Kafkaesque (I also assumed that Joseph Kantor is a reference to Joseph K, although I’m not sure why). Compare it to the sense of life in these passages about the forest:

The tree was eating light and breathing clouds of perfume.

The perfumed tree-breath was its voice, its chemical tongue. It was speaking to the insect population in its bark and branches, warning and soothing them. It as speaking to its neighbour trees, who answered: tree spoke to tree, out across the endless forest. And it was speaking to him. Psychoactive pheromones drifted through the alveolar forests of his human lungs and the whorled synaptical pathways of his cerebral cortex.

Maroussia was walking among them. She placed her hand on the silent living bark and felt her skin, her very flesh, become transparent. She became aware of the articulation of her bones, sheathed in their muscle and tendon. Eyes, heart and lungs, liver and brain, nested like birds in a walking tree of bone. A weave of veins and arteries and streaming nerves that flickered with gentle electricity.

I think science and fantasy are beautifully entwined here, and the descriptions draw distinct parallels between the life of the forest and the functioning of the human body, bringing to light the ways in which life is connected. It’s a stark contrast to the pointlessness within the Lodka’s structure, and the impersonal nature of the work that is done there, ignoring or stamping out life rather than nourishing it. To the Vlast, people are only useful as parts of a vast machine. If it considers it individuals to be connected, it is only so that they may serve the demands of the state, which in turn serves only itself.

While the forest and other mythical beings seek to stop destruction, the Vlast only seeks more power and has been engaged in a years-long war with the vaguely defined Archipelago. No reason is given for the war, but I think it’s safe to assume that the Vlast wants to expand. Although the Novozhod (the Vlast’s version of Joseph Stalin) is set to begin negotiations, Krogh warns that

“There are those who say there should be no end to the war at all. Ever. Warfare waged for unlimited ends! A battle waged not again people like ourselves but against the contrary principles. The great enemy.”

It’s a surreal combination of science fiction, fantasy, folklore and political thriller, but surprisingly undemanding. Wolfhound Century feels like a light combination of China Mieville and 1984. It’s much quicker and easier to read, but still contains social critique and a wonderfully inventive alternate history. Sadly, it fails to be as good as 1984 or a Mieville novel.

The problem is that Wolfhound Century is the first in a series, and the author seems to be saving too much content for the sequels. The first half is brilliant; then it gradually peters out as you realise this isn’t quite the novel you were promised. At first it looked like the climax would involve opening the Pollandore. Instead, the heroes never get anywhere near the Pollandore. There’s a prolonged fight that I thought would be just be the final showdown before the climax, but as I got closer to the end I realised that this fight was the climax. It would have been ok if only the preceding events hadn’t led you to expect so much more.

Yes, it’s just the first book in a series, so no, it won’t resolve all conflicts. But even when novels are written with sequels in mind, they still have self-contained plots – one set of conflicts is set up and then resolved in a way that leaves a new set of conflicts to be tackled in sequel. You get a full story, but with the understanding that it’s part of something bigger. Wolfhound Century seems to give you half of the first story, resolving nothing except for a fight that seemed secondary until I realised it would be the last major event of the book. Despite being quite impressed with most of the novel, I somehow finished thinking “Is that it?”

There are unfortunate gaps elsewhere too. The characters of Lom and Maroussia feel quite flat even though they drive the story, and most of the secondary characters are much more interesting than them. Lom is little more than the standard dedicated cop, wandering through the standard plot where he’s forced to question what he believes in after realising that system has betrayed him. It’s hard to see Maroussia as more than a desperate, gasping victim. They’re both cardboard cutouts in a phantasmagorical world, shuffling between people who seem more real than they do. Kantor, luckily, was fleshed out a bit more. Although his history is a tad vague in parts, we learn a lot about his ruthless philosophy of life:

Kantor’s life had been shaped by the dialectic of fear and killing: if you feared something, you studied it, learned all you could from it, and then you killed it. And when you encountered a stronger thing to fear, you did it again. And again. And so you grew stronger, until the fear you caused was greater than the fear you felt. It was his secret satisfaction that he had begun to learn this great lesson even before he was born. He was an aphex twin: a shrivelled, dead little brother had flushed out after him with the placenta and spilled across his mother’s childbed sheet. Before he even saw the light of day, he had killed and consumed his rival.

I hope Kantor will be as interesting an antagonist as his philosophy promises.  He has a strong start in Wolfhound Century, but falls to the wayside in the last third or so.

There are also some issues with the world, although these are less noticeable because that aspect of the novel is generally done very well. Still, I was left wondering about the world outside the Vlast – does anyone else know about the fallen angels? Have they fallen anywhere else? We don’t know exactly where the angels came from, and that makes sense, but the general belief is that they’re aliens, so why does everyone subscribe to the angel mythos? It’s possible that it was put in place by the authorities, who claim that the Vlast’s ongoing war with the vaguely defined Archipelago is an extension of the heavenly in which the angels died. But as far as I can tell there’s no institutionalised religion in the Vlast, so why employ Christian mythology here?

I hope there are answers and a more satisfying story arc in the sequel. I would really like to read it because this was still a mostly good and pretty exciting book. It’s flaws lie not so much in quality, as in the fact that it feels so damn incomplete! So if you’re thinking about reading this, I suggest you do. But put it on hold until the sequel comes out. According to Goodreads, it’s called Truth and Fear and is due to be published in March 2014.

The Book Ferret: The Science Fiction Gateway

In September, Gollancz publishers will launch the SF Gateway, the world largest digital science fiction and fantasy library, making thousands of out-of-print titles by classic genre authors available for sale as eBooks.

From Gollancz’s press release for the SF Gateway:

Building on the remarkable success of Gollancz’s Masterworks series, the SF Gateway will launch this Autumn with more than a thousand titles by close to a hundred authors. It will build to 3,000 titles by the end of 2012, and 5,000 or more by 2014. Gollancz’s Digital Publisher Darren Nash, who joined the company in September 2010 to spearhead the project said, “The Masterworks series has been extraordinarily successful in republishing one or two key titles by a wide range of authors, but most of those authors had long careers in which they wrote dozens of novels which had fallen out of print. It seemed to us that eBooks would offer the ideal way to make them available again. This realization was the starting point for the SF Gateway.” Wherever possible, the SF Gateway will offer the complete backlist of the authors included.

The SF Gateway will be closely integrated with the recently announced new online edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which provides an independent and definitive reference source of information on the authors and books included. Direct links between the Encyclopedia and the Gateway will provide easy access to eBook editions, for sale through all major online retailers.

The Gateway site will also act as a major community hub and social network for SF readers across the world, allowing them to interact with each other and recommend titles and authors. The site is planned to include forums, blogs, regular promotions, and is envisaged to become the natural home on the net for anyone with an interest in classic SFF.

Authors featured in the launch include such names as Marion Zimmer Bradley, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, Alice B. Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr), Robert Silverberg, Kate Wilhelm and Connie Willis.

If you’re as excited about this as I am, you can follow the SF Gateway on Twitter @SFGateway and go to their website, which doesn’t have much content at the moment, but does allow you to sign up for their newsletter, which means you’ll be notified when the library is launched (64 days to go, from today!). The full press release can be downloaded on the website and includes a list of SF Gateway authors as at 20 July 2011.

A little more information was provided in some of their tweets:

Pricing? TBA closer to launch so that we can be sure we’re in line with prevailing market trend, but competitive & value for money.

Formats? The usual. SF Gateway eBooks will be available through all the usual retail channels. Whatever you’re reading on now will be fine.

On whether or not eBooks will be limited to some countries or regions: Some will. It depends on the rights we’ve been able to acquire.

On DRM: They’ll be sold through the usual retail channels, so same as the majority of commercial eBooks.


The Book Ferret is a Violin in a Void feature that will showcase interesting book-related finds – gadgets, websites, book stores, events, cover art, quotes, new releases, etc.; anything bookworms would enjoy hearing about.

If you’d like to do your own Book Ferret post, grab the, link it back here, and let me know about it in the comments. I’ll be sure to mention your post in my next Book Ferret.