An interview with Helen Brain

helenCape Town-based author Helen Brain loves to make things: miniature books for keeping secrets in; a garden fence decorated with discarded objects; music and laughter. She also loves to tell stories, and her latest book is entitled Elevation, the first in a post-apocalyptic YA series set in an altered Cape Town, the last human settlement in a ruined world.

Sixteen-year-old Ebba de Eeden grew up in a colony with two thousand chosen children in a bunker beneath Table Mountain. When she is recognised as the missing Den Eeden heiress, she is elevated to the surface, which is not a radioactive wasteland, as everyone in the colony has been told, but home a functioning society split into elite and servant classes.

After a life of slavery, Ebba finds that she is now a rich young woman with servants, a luxurious home and a farm with more potential to grow food than anywhere else in the ravaged world. There is little opportunity for her to enjoy these comforts, however, as Ebba is immediately faced with extreme demands and difficult choices. Aunty Figgy says Ebba is the descendant of the goddess Theia and has to use her power to save the world before the next cataclysm. The High Priest and his handsome son are doing everything they can to get Ebba to leave her farm and join the rest of the elite in their religious community, which worships the god Prospiroh. And Ebba herself can’t ignore the responsibility she feels to use her new resources to rescue her friends in the bunker.

 

elevation

Helen’s novel is a fast, exciting read full of the ecological concerns that are so often captured in post-apocalyptic fiction today. In the middle of this is a young woman who, like most teenagers and many adults, finds herself in a world that’s so much bigger and more complicated than she realised. And she can’t just live in it; she has a responsibility to try to understand it and change it for the better. It’s a scenario that raises all sorts of tough questions. I posed some of mine to Helen, who kindly took the time to answer them.

Welcome to Violin in a Void Helen!

LS: You’ve written over 50 books for children and young adults. What is it that you love about writing for a younger readership? What stories and subjects are you most drawn to?

HB: I love children, I find them much easier to relate to than adults, and I remember my childhood with all its complex emotions vividly, so writing for children came naturally. As a child I read all the time. My mother was the librarian at a teacher’s training college, and she brought home all the Carnegie and Newberry medal winners for me to try out, so I was introduced to the best kids lit and loved the way they could take you into another world.

As a reader I like swashbuckling tales, edge-of-your-seat adventures, imaginative fancies and word play. I try to write what I want to read.

 

Post-apocalyptic and dystopian YA novels have become wildly popular over recent years. What do you think it is about this subgenre of fantasy and science fiction that is so appealing to YA fans (of all ages)? What is it about the genre that attracted you?

I think many teens are in a place that psychologically resembles a dystopian landscape. Their childhood has been destroyed, and they’re struggling to create a new way of being in an adult world. They’re like moths in a cocoon, fighing to break through the layers of silk and, once they’re free, to work out how to open their wings and use them. That’s a very dystopian place to be.

 

The trope of the Chosen One has a long history in fantasy, and it fits neatly into apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, in which authors frequently suggest that humanity has caused too much damage or become too corrupt to save itself or the world. What we need, in some of these narratives, is the intervention of a higher power, such as evolved or enhanced humans, superior alien intelligence or, in this case, divine beings. Descended from a god, Ebba is the saviour – or she will be, if she can step up to the challenge. How did you go about writing this character? What’s it like to rest the fate of the world on the shoulders of a naïve young woman who has, almost literally, spent her entire life living under a rock?

Ebba is of course an element of my own personality – my own struggle to find my inner power and to stop relying on someone else to look after me. She’s also every young woman who thinks she can’t manage life without a boyfriend or a best friend, and who gives away her power because she’s scared to use it. Over the course of the three books she has to learn to access her inner strength – represented by her four ancestors – and to literally wise up.

 

You grew up in a staunch Catholic home, married a priest and lived in parishes all over the Western Cape. Elevation, however, is deeply critical of institutionalised religion. Prospiroh is an angry male god who wipes out most of the world with an ecological catastrophe, leaving only a few select survivors, much like the Christian god does with the Flood. The worship of Prospiroh is characterised by fear, conformity and modesty, while the community of worshippers is bonded by the music and rituals of church services. The High Priest is authoritarian and, most notably, religion is used as a tool of oppression, enslaving the poor to serve an elite. How has your relationship with religion changed from childhood to the writing of this novel?

This series is essentially about wrestling with my issues around faith and religion. I was a committed Christian from 16 to 40. Then, after a year or two of struggling, I stopped believing.

Four years later my very devout husband, the most moral and ethical person I’ve ever known, was struck down with colon cancer, aged 46. In his last month he had periods of the worst physical pain imaginable where he begged god to tell him why he had turned him into his whipping boy.

I couldn’t reconcile how a caring god would do this to someone who loved him. Murderers, rapists, war criminals, torturers were flourishing, and here was someone who genuinely loved god and had served him faithfully begging to die, screaming from pain. It was excruciating. If he’d been a dog or cat we’d have ended his suffering. I didn’t want to know a god who stood by and let someone who loved him suffer like this.

I began this series as an atheist but as the books are progressing I’m revising my theological stance. In essence they’re a record of my private wrestling match with god. Whether god exists only as a function of my brain chemistry or is a being out there in the ether somewhere I haven’t decided yet.

 

Goddesses are often presented as the nurturing, eco-conscious, egalitarian alternatives to conservative, destructive male gods, and in Elevation, it’s only through the goddess Theia that the world could be saved. Do you think a goddess could save religions from their pitfalls?

I don’t think it’s about having a matriarchal god instead of a patriarchal one. I think it’s about the two living in balance. That’s what Ebba’s job will be – to get them to make peace.

 

You blog about financial advice for an investment and budgeting app, and your posts got me thinking about the powers and pitfalls of money in the novel. Although the world has been reduced to a few small societies at the tip of Africa, it still runs on money. When Ebba is elevated, she not only rises from the bunker to live on the surface, but rises in class thanks to an inheritance that makes her fabulously wealthy. She finds it both liberating and confusing, and although her money empowers her, it endangers her too. How would you describe the role of money in terms of plot, worldbuilding and character development? And why is it that these people are still clinging to the concept of coin?

I found this tricky. I decided that the citizens would still use coins and have a monetary system, but the rest of the world will be using bartering. Ebba’s rich not only because she’s inherited a lot of gold stashed away in a bank vault, but also because she owns the only arable land in the city, and because her goddess blood means plants grow very fast around her. Food is the major commodity in this post apocalyptic world, and she has a unique ability to provide it. That’s why everyone is trying to gain control over her.

The idea of the book came about through my concern about the way we’re destroying the planet in search of material happiness. I think of the series not so much as dystopian or mythology but as eco-theology. I used religion and the gods and goddesses as a metaphor to highlight what I see as our biggest problem today – our material dissatisfaction.

I imagine us like the Little Prince standing on the top of his planet in a pile of garbage. He’s holding more and more things, and to make them he has to dig away at the planet he stands on.

Helen-Brain-garden-fence

Helen’s garden fence, decorated with the things other people discarded.

If we don’t stop wanting more and more and more, new cars when our old ones work, the latest phones, more clothes and things for our increasingly big houses, and toys and gadgets, we will destroy our earth.

We’re treasuring the wrong things. It’s the green spaces, the forests and beaches and gardens and veld that bring us happiness, not more stuff. But we’re hellbent on destroying the very thing that brings us life.

 

Without giving away too much, can you tell us what to expect from the rest of The Thousand Steps series?

In book 2 Ebba has to rescue the two thousand from the bunker before the General genocides them by closing up the ventilation shafts. To do this she has to sacrifice herself, and she doesn’t want to.

In book 3 she is elevated to Celestia, and has to sort out the gods and find the cause of their dysfunctionality. It’s kind of Enid Blyton meets Dante with a healthy dose of Philip Pullman.

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Nexus by Ramez Naam

NexusTitle: Nexus
Series: Nexus
Author:
Ramez Naam
Publisher: 
Angry Robot
Published:
 16 December 2012; my edition published 3 March 2015
Genre: 
science fiction, thriller
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 
8/10

Nexus is a nanotechnology that allows users to link their minds. Kaden Lane and his friends have managed to modify and upgrade it, so that it connects more nodes and allows the brain to run software. Nexus is considered a drug, probably because it’s taken in liquid form and tends to get used for pleasure or abuse in the way drugs typically are, but that isn’t really what it is. It’s a nano-machine that can be permanently integrated after just one dose. And by using it, people can become transhuman or even posthuman.

And that’s where the trouble lies. The American government of 2040 is strictly opposed to posthumans, and deems them non-human and highly dangerous. The Emerging Risks Directorate (ERD) sends agent Samantha Cataranes to infiltrate Kade’s group of scientists and Nexus users, and when they’re caught hosting a Nexus party, almost all of them get arrested. Kade is blackmailed into helping the ERD to save his friends from going to jail. He knows the organisation will steal the Nexus tech for their covert operations, but he feels responsible for the consequences of what he’s created, particularly the fact that his friends’ lives could be ruined because of it. The ERD also convince him that he will be doing the world a favour by spying on Su-Yong Shu, a Nobel Prize–winning scientist who they suspect has been upgraded to posthuman status and is trying to change the world in ways they won’t accept.

Along with Sam, Kade is sent to a conference in Bangkok, Thailand, to meet Su-Yong Shu. Ironically, he needs Nexus and other transhuman tech to enable him to do this – software to numb his emotions and keep him calm and a combat program to help him defend himself with a minimum of training. It’s even more of a moral quandary for Sam: she’s a government agent fighting transhumanism and posthumanism, but to do that she’s had to become a posthuman supersoldier. She’s driven by childhood experiences that have made her hate this sort of tech, but when she uses Nexus she’s immediately seduced by it. After all, its most noble feature is a beautiful one – connecting people, sharing everything, understanding everyone. By using Nexus, she might be able to come to terms with her past.

It’s this feature that motivates Watson Cole to protect Kade and Nexus no matter the cost. Cole, another supersoldier, committed a great deal of violence on behalf of his government. With Nexus, he connected with his and other victims of political violence and realised the horrors of what he’d done. Even though it still gives him nightmares, Nexus ultimately made him a better person, and he believes it will make a better world, if it’s in the hands of people like Kade.

Obviously there are downsides too. Nexus is mind-hacking tech. A similar drug was used for sex slavery. The ERD is worried about armies of brainwashed supersoldiers and tries to convince Kade to help them by showing him evidence of people who have been hacked and used as assassins. It’s uses are revolutionary, evolutionary and terrifying, and the novel is built on the question of whether or not it should be used at all. Nexus is essentially an ethical debate embedded in what happens to be a pretty good thriller.

Sam’s character is more or less at the entry point of the debate: she has to decide if she’s for or against Nexus, for or against transhumanism and posthumanism for the world. Kade is obviously pro-Nexus, so for him it’s a question of how to use it – give it to everyone, or to an elite? What is the best way of fostering all the benefits of Nexus, while curbing its dangers?

It’s a fascinating discussion, although that’s mostly because of all the possibilities it explores, not because there’s a truly difficult ethical tussle. It’s pretty clear where Naam’s allegiance lies, and the story steers us neatly in that direction with the right placement of good/noble characters vs unscrupulous bastards and government drones. We’re way past the point of asking whether humanity should upgrade itself; it’s just a question of how to do that in the most ethical way possible.

And I guess it’s also an easy question because, in my case, Naam is preaching to the converted. I’m more interested in the stories where things like AI, nanotech or cybernetic enhancements challenge our conceptions of personhood, and create dynamic ways of existing. I’m less interested in stories where these technologies turn out to be more danger than they’re worth. I like sci fi that’s positive about the future, not afraid to face its challenges.

Which isn’t to say that Nexus and its physical enhancements are shown to usher in a utopia. Naam has written a rallying cry for posthumanism, but doesn’t avoid showing us how dangerous it can be. Early in the story, Kade and his friends capture Sam after her Nexus training fails to stand up to the upgraded drug and she accidentally reveals her true identity through the mind-link. Rangan, one of the developers, uses Nexus to restrain Sam by hacking her mind. Sam rightly points out that what they’ve got here is a coercion technology; they have the power to read her mind and force her to do whatever they want. They can control her body while she is helpless to resist. Kade makes a feeble attempt at a counterargument, stating that this is just a safety precaution and they plan to put in safeguards to prevent people from using Nexus for mind control. The naïveté of this is glaring – Nexus will almost certainly be used in horrific ways and as noble as Kade may be, he will never be able to prevent it. Quite often he’s forced to face up to the unintended consequences of his creation, and because he’s a good guy he grapples with the ethics of it.

All this is deftly intertwined with some pretty awesome action and high-tech espionage, so there’s plenty of entertainment to accompany all the food for thought. Nexus is the kind of sci fi you should be playing close attention to, not only because it makes for such a good read, but because we will eventually be caught up in these debates for ourselves and our societies.

Two Serpents Rise read-along: Final

Two Serpents RiseIt’s the final week of the the Two Serpents Rise read-along! Things suddenly got very brutal and bloody, although that’s exactly what you’d expect when you’re reading a book based on Aztec mythology. Nothing I couldn’t handle, but I did have a few issues with the way certain things turned out. Luckily, our host, Lynn from Little Lion Lynnet’s, set some questions that let me get to grips with what happened. Please let me know what you thought in the comments.

This section naturally covers all the final events of the book, so don’t even look at the questions if you want to avoid spoilers!

____________________

1. I think we all pegged Mal as being involved with whatever is going wrong in Dresediel Lex after the way Book 3 ended last week. How do you feel about discovering how deep that involvement goes?

The massacre at Bay Station was a shock; I didn’t expect that she’d go right back there and slaughter everyone. It was an entertaining kind of shock, but it bothers me. Caleb showed Qet to her as a surprise; she didn’t seem to know the god was still alive, where he was, or how to get there. Did she just decide to kill him, cut off the water supply and send the city into a rioting panic on the spur of the moment? If Caleb hadn’t shown her Qet, what would she have done? Surely she should have been busy doing it, preparing for the rise of the serpents, not going on a pre-apocalypse date with Caleb.

And it’s not like she just decided to cut off the water supply in addition to whatever else she was planning – it was an essential step that crippled RKC and left the Red King unable to fight back.

Plot holes aside, I’m not quite sure how I feel about Mal’s role. It was no surprise that she was the villain and I loved that she was, but I expected her to be a more sympathetic. Instead she ends up being the psycho vengeance monster who can’t be reasoned with and has to die. At one point it’s stated outright that this is what motivates her:

She was rage, dying, and born again she was vengeance.

 

I find that a bit simplistic, given the scope of her plan and the nobility of her commitment to saving the world. Maybe it’s a way of making it easier for the reader to side with Caleb and accept Mal’s demise? She’s at least a bit more complex than Denovo in the first book, but I would have liked the narrative to be more sympathetic towards Mal and made the reader feel genuinely dreadful that either she or Caleb had to lose. Personally, I didn’t really feel bad about it even though I mostly agreed with what she was trying to do.

She’s not that different from Caleb, Temoc or Kopil though. Each of them is so set in their convictions that they can’t be swayed, except perhaps for Caleb and Kopil, at the very end. Was Mal’s decision to take down RKC so different from Kopil’s decision to fight the gods or Temoc’s terrorist activities? Is her hatred for RKC any different from Caleb’s hatred of the gods? And, as it turns out, her ideas are actually great, which is why Caleb adopts them at the end. She was doing the right thing, just in the wrong way.

I was thinking a while back about how “mal” in French means “wrong” or “immoral”, and you see it in English words like “malfunction”, “maladroit”, “malpractice”. In the South African language Afrikaans, “mal” literally means “mad” or “crazy”, referring to both anger and insanity. At the time I thought maybe it was a bit too obvious if Mal were a psycho villain, but… yeah.

 

2. Caleb and Temoc have to work together to save Dresediel Lex (and the world) from certain destruction. Do you think they make a good team?

No, not really. I mean they did a decent job of working together for a while, but neither of them can compromise for the other. Caleb refuses to sacrifice even one person to safe Dresediel Lex, even if the sacrifice is willing. Temoc agrees to Caleb’s plan, but this turns out to be a ruse to allow him to sacrifice Teo. Temoc also refuses to use an optera because it goes against his religious principles, which is a bit ludicrous given that he’d just tried to convince Caleb to kill someone. And then they end up beating the crap out of each other… They can work together, but they’re a terrible team.

 

3. What do you think of the narrative’s overall treatment of Teo? Especially in light of her role in the finale?

This is actually something that’s been bothering me very slightly throughout the book, although I wasn’t quite sure how to articulate it or if it was worth discussing, so I didn’t say anything. I immediately liked Teo, but I got the sense that she was there to be a helper of some sort – for the reader, for Caleb, for the plot. The first thing she does in the book is explain a key aspect of Caleb’s character – that he’s become afraid to take risks and his life is a bit dull. Then she pops up whenever he needs to talk, providing an opportunity for conversations that the reader needs to hear. She’s Caleb’s best friend and she works at RKC, so Caleb is free to discuss pretty much anything with her.

She has other traits that seem to exist for their own sake, making her a fuller character, but then these things all end up being what makes her the perfect sacrifice for Temoc – lesbian (so never had sex with a man, supposedly), noble blood, feisty, brave, committed. On the one hand, I loved that twist and thought it was quite clever. I totally didn’t see it coming, and it was all so neat in a way I quite like. On the other hand, Teo ended up being used for the narrative’s convenience, again. I like it, but I don’t like it. Is it efficient writing, or is Teo used as a plot device? I don’t know.

But what the fuck is up with this virgin sacrifice crap? I get the stupid purity thing, but how is Teo more “innocent” because she’s never had sex with a man? Even if she’s really never had sex with a man (something Temoc just assumed) I don’t consider her a virgin, and I hardly think she would call herself one. And surely it’s the physical and emotional intimacy of sex that changes you, not the physical act of penetration by a penis? Does Temoc know anything about lesbian sex? Anyway, the whole thing is a crock of bullshit.

 

4. In the epilogue Caleb seems to have found a way to compromise between the ways of his father and the new world brought about by the God Wars. Do you think he’ll succeed in his goals?

Yeah, I think he will, given that he has Kopil’s support. Also, it might have some major benefits other than sustainability, like opening the oceans to travel and industry again. Caleb mentioned that, without the gods, the sea was just too dangerous for fishing, but with his new scheme he might be able to fix that.

 

Overall, I didn’t like this as much as the first book. It’s not bad, and I’d keep reading the series, but i wouldn’t get terribly excited about it.

 

LOLs
Things get pretty serious at the end, but I had a few little laughs:

– “You did not tell me you were seeing anyone.” [Temoc, when Caleb tells him that his girlfriend is the villain. The absurdity of this man expecting Caleb to keep him up to date on his personal life :D]

– “I apologize for hitting you.” Temoc bowed his head. “I do not relish striking women.” “Thank you,” Teo said with a cold edge, “for your condescending, sexist apology.” [Yay Teo!]

– Temoc, Priest of All Gods, sipped water from a blue coffee mug emblazoned with the words “World’s Best Daughter” above a picture of a goddess suckling a serpent. [This city is weird.]

– “The trouble with atheism,” Temoc said, “is that it offers a limited range of curses.” [A lot less guilt though.]

Two Serpents Rise read-along: part three

Two Serpents RiseHey everyone! It’s week 3 of the Two Serpents Rise read-along, and I’m glad I happen to be the host for this week because “Part Three” has been the most interesting part of the book for me so far. The relationship between the two main characters finally starts to develop and together they grapple with the core ethical issues of the plot. There’s some more incredible worldbuilding, and another cliffhanger to whet your appetite for the final section.

Please feel free to leave a link to your post in the comments, and I’ll add it to the blog hop list at the end of this post.

For those who haven’t been reading along, be warned that there are plenty of SPOILERS ahead!

____________________________

1. After the fight at Seven Leaf, Caleb apologises to Mal and they finally start dating. What do you think of the way their relationship has developed? Do you agree with Mal that Caleb chased her because he needs gods in his life?

I’m so glad that something finally happened between these two. I really wasn’t feeling their chemistry, but when they started having some actual dates and in-depth conversations (without any blood or death) I could imagine them as a couple.

I don’t quite agree with Mal’s idea about Caleb’s motives; I wouldn’t say he longs for gods per se, but everyone needs a sense of purpose for which they’re willing to make sacrifices. It just so happens that religion fills that role for some people. Caleb was in a rut, as evidenced by his recent tendency to play it safe when playing cards. Gambling probably offered a temporary solution to the need for purpose and risk, but I don’t think it’s sustainable. His work clearly isn’t all that fulfiling either. So when he met Mal, he found something (someone) to bleed for.

One last thing: Gladstone totally wins the award for most original sex scene – lying on a magical ocean, half-devoured by a shark, with fireworks going off in the background. Definitely haven’t come across that before. Don’t know if it’s cool or just absurd.

2. This section has been quite philosophical. Where do you stand on the debate – gods, no gods, or some kind of compromise? Do you agree with Caleb’s idea of sacrificing your morality because the religious alternative is even worse?

I think this, more than anything else so far, has got me invested in the novel.

Clearly the current system isn’t sustainable. It’s going to wreck the environment and then, as Mal speculates, Dresediel Lex will cannabilise other cities in order to survive. Caleb’s argument about sacrificing morality is a particularly interesting one. I think Qet was an extreme example, and doesn’t apply to the general populace since most don’t know about him, but most citizens probably do see – and ignore – all the terrible things that have to happen to allow them to go one with their lives. And that applies to the real world too – we all know that our environment is being ruined, species are being driven to extinction, people work hard only to live in poverty, etc., but we generally just ignore it so we can go on living the way we want to. Caleb seems to think this kind of moral bankruptcy is the only choice for Dresediel Lex.

And yes, I have to agree with him that they shouldn’t go back to the old system of human sacrifice. Maybe the sacrifices are willing, but what happens to the loved ones they leave behind? And what happens when the priests don’t have enough volunteers?

So I guess Mal’s idea is the only viable option:

“We should bring [the gods] back, on our terms. We form a society with sacrifice, but without death.”

I don’t know how that would work, but I certainly agree with her principle in general. For any society. I think most of us live too easily without knowing what it takes to make our lives possible. Paying money for things isn’t the same as knowing what they cost. The price of my food tells me nothing about the environmental effects of producing it. The price of a t-shirt would reveal nothing about whether or not the person who sewed it gets a decent wage.

So yeah, I like the idea that there should be some system of sacrifice so that people can engage with the way the world works on a personal level, but the sacrifices shouldn’t have to be fatal. Death surely makes the system unfair – some die, others live off those deaths. Rather, you should be able to enjoy the benefits of your sacrifice.

3. Gladstone is still unveiling amazing things in his world, like a sport based on myth, the eclipse festival, walking on water, and a half-dead sea god whose heart is being used for desalination. What interested you the most? 

“Meh” tends to be my reaction to almost any sport, but I thought the scarred ocean was quite a cool idea. And I really want to walk on the ocean! Terrifying and amazing, not to mention a great thing to show your date, assuming at least one of you has the power to chase away sharks and other nasties from the depths. Caleb made a good bet when he packed that condom.

Qet was the most awe-inspiring thing for me though – the scale of his body and the horror of his undead state and the way it’s been appropriated.

4. Mal has noted twice that they don’t have much time, and she apologises to Caleb while he sleeps on the ocean. Then Alaxic kills himself and tries to kill Temoc – the last two priests of the old Quechal. What do you think is going on here? Any speculation about how it might turn out?

Wow, I didn’t see that coming. This seems to confirm that Temoc hasn’t been involved. Instead, he’s in the way. Alaxic’s suicide and assassination attempt suggests that he’s much more progressive than I assumed him to be, if he’s trying to make way for a new way of thinking and doing things. So I’m a bit worried that Temoc got away.

I only have vague ideas of how this will turn out. It sounds to me like Mal knows exactly what’s coming, and she and Alaxic both seem to believe in a new way of doing things (sacrifice without death). Based on the title I still think the serpents will awaken, unless the title has some alternative meaning.

Randoms
– I like how you pay small amounts of soul for everything you use, like hot water. It would certainly make people more conscious of their usage!

Check out what others had to say:
Lynn – Lynn’s Book Blog
Heather – The Bastard Title
Ria – Bibliotropic
Susan – Dab of Darkness

Two Serpents Rise read-along: part two

Two Serpents RiseIt’s week two of the Two Serpents Rise read-along and we’ve already had a boss fight! Lisa from Over the Effing Rainbow is our host this week, and has us working through all the drama, so lets get into it.

SPOILERS, of course 🙂

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1)  So we’re halfway in, and we seem to have uncovered the culprit already… What did you make of the confrontation at Seven Leaf?

I highly doubt that Allesandre is the culprit; the boss fight never happens in the middle. My mind has leapt to conspiracy theories. Was this set up so that Allesandre would attack and then be defeated? In “Interlude: Flame”, Alaxic describes Allesandre as his “sacrifice”, so I’m guessing that her death is part of the plan.

And who would stand to gain from that? Mal, perhaps, because by killing Allesandre she proves her loyalty to Kopil and RKC. Is she Alaxic’s agent for a scheme involving the serpents? Now that we know something about her religious beliefs and we’ve heard some criticisms of the environmental impact of RKC’s systems, it seems to be the most likely option.

By the way, did anyone else feel like this fight escalated unexpectedly? At first it just seemed like an investigation with a few guard for safety’s sake, and then suddenly Mal is talking about going to war and the whole thing gets dire fast. I thought the pacing was a bit off there.

2)  Temoc is still turning up at random, and still protesting his innocence. Doth he protest too much…?

Now that you’ve mentioned it, I guess it’s a possibility, but I’m still inclined to believe that he’s telling the truth.

Also, while I’m unlikely to side with a religious terrorist, fantatic, Temoc has made some thought-provoking comments to Caleb about RKC:

you are part of a system that will one day destroy our city and our planet

 

Your system kills, too. You’ve not eliminated sacrifices, you’ve democratized them—everyone dies a little every day, and the poor and desperate are the worst injured.

 

In Three Parts Dead, we saw a compromise between religious and secular perspectives. Part of the debate manifested in the relationship between Tara and Abelard. Will we see something similar in this plot and in Caleb’s relationship with his father? The plight of the zombies does seem rather dire, if people choose to be undead workers to pay off their debts. Choosing to be a willing sacrifice to a god doesn’t seem much better; is there a middle ground?

3)  The Red King. Discuss.

First and foremost: HOW DOES A SKELETON DRINK COFFEE? Caleb specifically states that Kopil doesn’t have an oesophagus. I’m not even sure if he has dried-out flesh draped over his bones, like a mummy, to contain anything he eats or drinks. I’m reminded of that scene in Pirates of the Caribbean, when Captain Barbosa first reveals his undead skeleton form, and drinks some wine that just splashes out between his ribs.

Why would Kopil even need coffee? Surely, at this stage in his “life” he has better pick-me-ups?

I kind of like Kopil though. He’s a bit scary and possibly evil, but he feels real somehow. I sympathise with the heavy burden he’s clearly bearing – replacing the gods he defeated. He seems lonely too. He lost his lover, and in the process of avenging him he became a creature that’s basically doomed to be alone.

And, he’s funny, in a dry sort of way:

This room isn’t large, but the whole building belongs to me, so I don’t feel cramped.

 

“This room doesn’t have any doors.”

“Who needs them?”
“Most people.”
Kopil shrugged, and sipped tequila.

 

By the way, do people drink tequila neat, on the rocks? I thought you drank it in shots with lemon and salt to get hammered. It doesn’t seem like a drink so refined as to be sipped. Or is this just Deathless King sort of habit?

4)  And let’s not forget Mal! I confess, I did not see any of those surprises coming. What do you think of Caleb’s ‘sweetheart’ now?

I’m suspicious. Very suspicious. She’s very secretive and I don’t think she’s on the same side Caleb is fighting for even if she just helped restore the supply of clean drinking water to the city.

Which is not to say that I think badly of her. Given the issues that have been raised about zombies and environmental damage, it’s quite possible that Caleb is fighting for the “wrong side” and we will come to sympathise with Mal’s point of view. She could be the villain who becomes our hero.

On a related note, I’m not feeling the chemistry between these two at all. I understand the mutual attraction, but that’s about it. I didn’t feel excited seeing them finally get a bit closer. Perhaps this is intentional though, with the point being that Caleb is a fool who fell for a pretty face.

 

Randoms

– Loved Sam’s snake art as a metaphor for the city.

– How fucking big are those magisterium trees if several of the Couatl – the larger, battle-bred Couatl – can sit on one stump? Would love to see one of those.

– That Heartstone contract! If I was a lawyer I would cry. And negotiate a suitably monstrous raise.

The thing is seventy thousand pages long. They folded space to fit it in one conference room for the signing. It’s not even all on paper: some paragraphs are carved on stone plinths, some on the pyramid itself. Nothing that complex is safe.

 

 

Two Serpents Rise read-along: Part one

Two Serpents RiseHey everyone and welcome to Part One of the Two Serpents Rise read-along! After having such a good time with Three Parts Dead, the first in Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, we decided to jump into a read-along of book two. Our host is Susan from Dab of Darkness, so be sure to hop over to her blog for links to everyone else’s posts. I might also post a list of links once they’re available. And er, if I remember…

But nevermind that, on with the questions. This discussion covers Part One of the novel, and I think it’s suitably spoiler-free for you to read even if you haven’t read this content or book one.

Poison in the Bright Mirror reservoir! What are your thoughts on the infestation? Then an explosion later on! Any ideas of who is the culprit yet? Are the two events related?

I assume they must be related, and I’m pretty sure that Temoc is telling the truth when he says he’s not responsible. I’m suspicious of Alaxic and The Red King, although that’s partly because there just aren’t that many suspects to choose from, and I don’t understand the situation well enough yet to figure out who stands to gain and sketch out a suspect we haven’t met yet.

What I can glean is that the culprit plans to sabotage the city’s basic infrastructure, given that they’re targeted the water and electricity supply. This will hit the general public hard, so I would guess that whever they want to achieve involves the masses being scared and desperate. With both events, they used something from the old, mythological world (a demon, a god). So perhaps someone is trying to demonstrate the anger and power of the gods and reinstate the old order? Or use that as a ruse to take power by purging the old gods and their creatures once and for all?

Let’s talk about Mal and the sport of cliff running. Care to compare this sport to one here in our real world? What do you think Mal gets out of the sport?

Cliffrunning reminds me of parkour. I would guess that Mal loves the adrenaline, and the freedom of not being restricted to moving on the ground. I often look at my cat and wonder how different the world might look if I were so agile that every surface presented itself as a place to jump from or to, if I could move around at any level between the ground and the rooftops, and simply leap over obstacles. It must feel quite rebellious and liberating. It’s even more so in this case, since cliffrunning is illegal. The cliffrunners personify defiance. As such, they’re an interesting contrast to the very strict way the city is structured and maintained – the contracts binding everything, the frightening Wardens keeping the peace.

Are you enjoying the deities and culture this book is infused with? Has any of the architecture wowed or frightened you? 

Definitely! I mean, when we’re talking gods and mythology I’m already there like a bear, and it’s nice to mix it up with some Aztec mythology for a change. It’s so bloody and dramatic with all the sacrifices and fascinating creatures. I might sign up as a Warden if it means I get to ride a Couatl!

I love the way everything is bound by contracts of Craft and that Caleb could use that to chase Mal. I also thought Kopil’s obsidian pyramid was very cool, although I’m inclined to be wowed rather than frightened since I get to enjoy it all at a distance. I’m fairly certain I’ll never have to attend a meeting where the table is a massive stone altar drenched in the blood of countless victims, so I’m free to appreciate how incredibly badass that is. My desk just used to be a dining table.

The Red King is a pretty serious guy. Will he make the deal with Alaxic concerning the powerhouses known as Achel & Aquel? 

I’m not sure what the environmental consequences of this would be (but it probably starts with killing a lot of ocean life), but aside from that it sounds like an excellent idea. Unlimited energy and a new supply of fresh water? Life in the city might improve drastically, so it seems that The Red King would be inclined to make this deal. Of course the downside is that you need to keep the serpents asleep so they don’t rise up and kill everyone… And based on the title, that’s exactly what’s going to happen, unless there’s a twist somewhere.

Is this perhaps an analogy for nuclear power? Some argue that it’s clean and sustainable, others argue that it’s too dangerous and destructive.

Finally, Caleb has a wealth of scars, linguistic skills, and a complex relationship with his father. Discuss!

Caleb reminds me of Tara in several ways – he’s rebelling against his origins, he’s very good at what he does, he has a tendency to be reckless, and he notes that his employers have given him “a wonderful opportunity to fail”. His scars also remind me of Tara’s sigils, although it seems that Caleb’s are frowned upon. Tara was also at the beginning of her career, whereas Caleb’s been in the game for a while and people are worrying that he’s lost his edge as a result. Now it seems that he’s about to undergo a period of re-self-discovery, thanks to Mal and his determination to help her.

In book one we saw religious and non-religious characters working together and challenging each other’s points of view. It’s an interesting clash of minds, and I think it might be the same here, with Caleb and his father. Although it seems that their relationship has made Caleb very hostile to religion: human sacrifices and scars aren’t quite as appealing as Christmas and Easter eggs for convincing children to be faithful, I’m sure. That said, Caleb’s background does have some benefits: I love the way he can speak fluent High Quechal to the religious fanatics who stumble through the language.

 

Randoms:

– I don’t think I mentioned this in the previous read-along, but I find it quite strange that you can pay animals like rats and horses for providing a service. Do the animals then exchange that for food and shelter? Are they smarter than the animals of our world

– Another oddity in both books is the fashion. It’s very modern – jeans, business suits – while the setting is sort of steampunk Victorian. It’s a strange combination that I can’t quite imagine, although I would guess that neither looks exactly like we know it to be; the designs would be a mixture of old and new, so that the jeans don’t look quite like our jeans, and the carriages aren’t quite like traditional carriages. Frankly, I’m not sure if this combination really works, but I’d love to see an artist’s rendition of it.

– I love that valuable items can be cursed so that terrible things happen to the thief until the item is returned! Way better than insurance.

– When the Wardens pitch up at his apartment, Caleb hopes that there’s “[n]othing incriminating about a woman spending the night at a single man’s house.” Interesting bit of worldbuilding here – suggests that society has only recently become more liberal. Caleb doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with Mal being there, but it still occurs to him that there could be.

– Kopil’s reveal about his lover was surprisingly touching, considering that he’s a frightening, six-foot-tall skeleton. I wonder how that will play into the story.

Two Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone: Read-along Schedule

Two Serpents RiseHey everyone 🙂 I recently joined a couple of bloggers for a read-along of Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone, the first in his Craft Sequence series. We all loved it, so we’re diving into book two, Two Serpents Rise

Here’s the Goodreads synopsis:

Shadow demons plague the city reservoir, and Red King Consolidated has sent in Caleb Altemoc — casual gambler and professional risk manager — to cleanse the water for the sixteen million people of Dresediel Lex. At the scene of the crime, Caleb finds an alluring and clever cliff runner, crazy Mal, who easily outpaces him.

But Caleb has more than the demon infestation, Mal, or job security to worry about when he discovers that his father — the last priest of the old gods and leader of the True Quechal terrorists — has broken into his home and is wanted in connection to the attacks on the water supply.

From the beginning, Caleb and Mal are bound by lust, Craft, and chance, as both play a dangerous game where gods and people are pawns. They sleep on water, they dance in fire… and all the while the Twin Serpents slumbering beneath the earth are stirring, and they are hungry.

The book is divided into four parts, so we’ve scheduled the read-along accordingly:
13 April Book 1: Chapter 1 – Interlude: Fire, hosted by Dab of Darkness
 – 20 April Book 2: Chapter 16 – Interlude: Dreams, hosted by Over the Effing Rainbow
 – 27 April Book 3: Chapter 29 – Interlude: Tea, hosted by Violin in a Void
 – May Book 4: Chapter 36 – Epilogue, hosted by Little Lion Lynnet’s

And these are the participants:
Lynn – Lynn’s Book Blog
Lisa – Over the Effing Rainbow
Lauren (me) – Violin in a Void
Anya – On Starships & Dragonwings
Heather – The Bastard Title
Lynn E. – Little Lion Lynnet’s
Susan – Dab of Darkness
Ria – Bibliotropic Reviews

If you’d like to join in, just let me or any of the other bloggers know via email or in the comments, and we’ll add you to the email list. We’ll send out the discussion questions every weekend so you can post on Monday, but you’re welcome to just comment if you don’t feel like blogging. You can also join our SF/F Read-Alongs group on Goodreads, where there’ll be updates for this and other read-alongs, as well as discussions and suggestions for new ones.

Happy reading!