Three Parts Dead read-along part 1

Three Parts DeadApologies to fellow read-along bloggers! I’m a bit late with the first post after having to work on an unexpectedly long assignment for the course I’m doing. But hey, I managed to finish this post before going to sleep, so I call that a win 😀

For those who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, this is my first post for the read-along of Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1) by Max Gladstone. Like my previous urban fantasy read-alongs (the Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch and The Inheritance Cycle by N.K. Jemisin), this one looks like it’s going to be a great read with fascinating, quirky worldbuilding and complex characters.

If you’d like to follow the read-along or participate, you’ll find the schedule here. Part one only covers the first 100 words or so (the Prologue to the end of Chapter 8 [Edit: that should be the end of Chapter 7]), so you can catch up easily. However, this post will contain spoilers for those chapters; you’ve been warned!

Our host for this part is Lynn from Lynn’s Book Blog, and I’m going to tackle her questions without further ado:

[Edit: So I stupidly misread the schedule and read all the way to the end of Chapter 8 when I should have stopped at Chapter 7. As a result, this post also includes comments about Chapter 8. Apologies if I’ve spoilt anything for you!]

1. Max Gladstone isn’t holding any hands here, we’re dropped straight into the world (which is a bit ironic given the start – but I’ll get to that) and expected to pick up and run with it.  Are you enjoying the style and, more to the point,  what ‘reveals’ have been the most surprising for you so far?

This kind of style might mean I have to work a bit harder as a reader, but I like it. Getting all the necessary worldbuilidng in a nice, clear infodump can be great when that infodump happens to be an awesome story in itself, but most of the time it’s more like pausing to read a Wikipedia article. So yeah, I like the way Gladstone is building his world as the story develops. I also find it very intriguing – the world is unfolding much like the mystery in the plot, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Surprises? Quite a few!

  • technician monks (interesting combo of engineering and religion)
  • Vampires. Nothing new, obviously, but I didn’t expect to encounter them here. I admit I was a wee bit annoyed when I realised there were vampires, since they’ve become such a cliché, but so far Gladstone has proven himself with great worldbuilding, so I trust him.
  • A yellow smiley face on a coffee mug. Yeah, ok, I don’t know what to do about this one. It really throws me off
  • Smoking as an act of spiritual devotion to a fire god. Which actually makes a lot of sense. I also loved the contrast in the first scene of Abelard doing all his holy monk duties and then lighting a cigarette.
  • Tara’s skills in forensic pathology – very impressive!
  • Abelard being unable to understand the concept of a newspaper. This really says a lot about Alt Coulumb and how it relates to the rest of the world. Some excellent worldbuilding there.
  • Cat being Justice and using her power to awesome effect at the end of chapter eight. Not only does it lend an interesting dynamic to her character (who I’d sort of dismissed as a useful but hopeless junkie), it also makes the Justice more of a grey area (after I’d mostly dismissed them as being authoritarian and therefore probably evil).

2. At the start of the book Tara graduates and is cast out of school (literally from a great height) simultaneously – any ideas about why that might be?

Well, her successful attempt to examine Cabot’s body shows that she’s got a strong sense of curiosity and is not afraid to take initiative. That’s also demonstrated by the way she seems to have left home to study at the Hidden Schools, despite the fact that the people around her were a lot more parochial. So my first guess is that she studied and/or experimented with something that the Schools did not approve of. Presumably she was successful, or Ms Kevarian would not have hired her. However, there’s clearly something very dodgy or at least unethical about what Tara did, based on the circumstances of her graduation and the firm’s reluctance to hire her without a probation period.

It might have something to do with controlling other people. She’s skilled at bringing people back from the dead. Then there’s a moment when she considers taking control of the bouncer, but decides not to when she thinks back on her graduation. Soon after, she’s quick to figure out that someone is controlling Raz. Skills like that would be both highly desirable and extremely controversial.

3. I’m always interested in the magical systems and how they work and the one here seems to almost be a ‘payback’ type of affair.  What are your thoughts about the magical system so far, we do have a dead deity after all, not to mention it appears that regular everyday people can access magic as well as deities. Discuss please (if only to enlighten my tiny brain!)

Gah, it’s after midnight and I’m not sure my brain has the power to enlighten anyone else’s! Also, magic systems aren’t my strong point, although this one certainly does intrigue me more than most. It’s very “lawyerish” 🙂 I don’t mean that in a bad way; if anything it makes the whole profession seem really cool in a way that is somehow more realistic than the flashy lawyer tactics you see in legal dramas. Craftswomen and men can negotiate with the fabric of the universe – or at least that’s my understanding. This allows them to do all sorts of mundane legal magic, but also gives them the power to kill and resurrect gods. In fact, it’s a way for humans to become god-like, with gods and humans separated by the level of their skills. I’m fascinated by the possibilities here.

What also intrigued me is that people use soulstuff for currency, and metal coins are the means of passing soulstuff around, but have little value in themselves. So if you made an excessive purchase or bargain, would you literally be selling your soul?

4. We’re only a third in but how are you feeling towards the characters so far. are you developing any favourites already, any sneaky suspicions of any of the characters or are you loving them all?

The only ones I’m suspicious of are Shale the gargoyle and Cardinal Gustave. Otherwise, I like all the characters so far, and I particularly like the fact that none of them feel like cliches. Abelard seemed to be a typically naïve young monk, until he grinned at the prospect of trawling through vampire bars in the Pleasure Quarter and hooked Tara up with Cat (how on earth do they know each other?). And as I mentioned in the first answer, I’m curious about Cat now that I know she’s also a Justice.

I like the way Tara seems to have risen above the circumstances of her birth, sometimes literally, like when Ms Kevarian is flying them over farms and village and Tara is thinking about how the people down there never saw much beyond their little homes. I think it’s also telling that after she falls from the Hidden Schools, she goes back to her backwater home, making her fall both literal and figurative. And then she is almost chased out with torches and pitchforks… She doesn’t seem to have too much to worry about though; she seems extremely competent and professional; I wish I was that skilled.

She reminds me a bit of Shara from City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett – like Shara, Tara’s skill lies in her ability to think and study, and that makes her powerful and dangerous, rather than any physical prowess or traditional martial art. In fact, Shara might have been inspired by Tara.

And now let me get some sleep while I still can. I’ll go blog hopping and round up the links tomorrow. Or rather, later tomorrow 🙂

Blog Hop! Go see what everyone else had to say:

Heather – The Bastard Title
Susan  – Dab of Darkness

 

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of StairsTitle: City of Stairs
Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Published: 9 September 2014
Publisher: Broadway Books
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: fantasy, urban fantasy
Rating: 9/10

There’s been a great deal of hype around this novel, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s quite possibly my favourite 2014 publication, competing only with The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine (a totally different kind of story that shouldn’t otherwise be compared with this one).

The story begins with a relatively simple mystery – in the city of Bulikov a well-known Saypuri historian named Efrem Pangyui is found beaten to death. It’s a shocking but unsurprising crime. Bulikov and the rest of the Continent are occupied by Saypur, and a great deal of their history has been censored and suppressed. Dr Pangyui was hated for being given permission to research all that history by the Saypuri government.

When Special Agent Shara Komayd hears about the death, she immediately travels to Bulikov to take charge of the situation before anyone else can. Shara trained Pangyui for his time in Bulikov, she studied the same history at university, and as a member of the most powerful family in Saypur, she has the authority necessary to solve this crime. Accompanying her is her ‘secretary’/bodyguard Sigrud, a Dreyling (a huge, heavily muscled Viking type who specialises in killing people. Very, very violently.)

To understand the significance of this part of the plot, you need to understand the political and mythological worldbuilding that makes this such an amazing book. Saypur and the Continent have a difficult history resulting in a very tense, tangled present-day relationship. For centuries, the Continent thrived on the power of its Divinities – very real, tangible beings whose miraculous abilities defined and maintained people’s lives on the Continent. The Divinities bent the laws of physics to make the Continent into whatever they wanted it to be, while magic and magical artefacts known as miracles were a part of everyday life for the people.

With the power and protection of the Divine, the Continent was able to colonise Saypur. Saypur was thus enslaved until a hero known as the Kaj found a way to kill the Divinities. His army was small and pathetic, but without the Divinities and all they had built, the Continent was crippled. The colonised quickly became the colonisers, and that oppressive dynamic defines the present-day relationships between the two regions. In addition, the loss of the Divinities reduced the Continent to a primitive society, having always relied on the magic of the gods instead of making their own medical and technological advancements. Saypur enjoyed technological superiority and remained content to keep it that way, while scoffing at the poverty and backwardness of the Continent.

In order to force the Continent to submit to a mundane way of life stripped of Divine influence, Saypur imposed the Worldly Regulations, making it illegal not only for anyone to worship the gods, but to acknowledge that they ever existed. Trying to erase history seems to have kept the peace while nourishing a deep-seated hatred for Saypur, especially in Bulikov. Once the magnificent Holy City, it is now a dirty ruin and home to a sect known as the Restorationists, who want to stay true to tradition and reclaim the Continent’s cultural identities even though the gods that made that way of life possible are long gone. So when Pangyui pitched up with permission to study the Divinities, he posed an appalling insult to a society of people who were already poor and oppressed.

This is just the very basics of the worldbuilding – the novel is packed with it, and even toward the end you continue to learn more. Every chapter begins with an excerpt from a historical document, and the investigation itself requires a lot of information about the Divinities, their miraculous artefacts, and their roles on the Continent. It might seem intimidating but as someone who loves mythology, I found every bit of it fascinating. When worldbuilding focuses heavily on politics or complex technology I can get a bit lost, but Bennett’s mythology combines politics, culture and (magical) technology in fantastical narratives that makes all those details as riveting as the most action-packed bits of plot (and there’s plenty of that too).

Equally impressive is the way the worldbuilding just keeps… building. We not just getting random bits of information, or even just information to set the scene, but information that adds depth to the world, the plot and the characters.

For example, the structure of Bulikov itself functions as a powerful image for the way the Worldly Regulations have affected society. The god Taalhavras built a large part of the city, but when the Kaj killed him everything he’d built disappeared immediately, an event known as the Blink. This had the effect of pinching and crumpling the city leaving it with spaces and features that no longer make any sense, including countless staircases leading nowhere (hence, City of Stairs).

In interpersonal terms, this tension arises in the anxious way some Continentals speak to Saypuris, afraid to make any reference to the gods in case they get punished for it. But all this denial of history only serves to emphasise how much it has shaped the present, and this is continually developed in the worldbuilding. For example, a story about the Divinity Kolkan explains why the Continent has such conservative attitudes towards women and sexuality. This, in turn helps us understand Shara’s former lover Vohannes, an aristocrat from the Continent. They fell in love at a university in Saypur, but Vo turned out to be gay (Shara suspects he liked her boyish figure). Homosexuality is banned on the Continent, and this informs Vo’s attitudes towards the gods and his society, which in turn has bearing on the plot.

Shara’s character is perfect for her role because she’s one of very few people in the world who know so much history. In fact, she knows so much about things that people aren’t supposed to know about that she’s not allowed to go home because of how extensively she’ll be questioned. One of the most devastating secrets she holds is the possibility that some of the Divinities are still alive.

What I really, really love about her character, is that all this knowledge makes her a force to be reckoned with. Perhaps the best way to explain this is to compare her to Sigrud. Shara seems unimpressive – small, skinny, bespectacled, always drinking tea. Sigrud is brilliant as the badass of typical badasses – huge, muscular, terrifying. He’s violent, ridiculously hard to kill, but also highly skilled in the stealthier aspects of their work. He’s got some truly awesome action scenes in the book, some of the most entertaining I’ve ever read.

However, there’s a point where Sigrud says that “Shara Komayd is as much a weapon as he is”, and this made me think about her a bit more carefully. What Sigrud says is true, not because she can fight but because she studied obscure subjects. She knows forbidden histories, and she can perform miracles (ie. cast spells) that aren’t supposed to work anymore. In this story, that counts for a lot. Shara Komayd is a badass because she’s a geeky academic. And is that not the perfect heroine for dedicated sff fans?

So we’ve got these incredible characters, fascinating worldbuilding, an intriguing mystery, and lots of action. It also has some very interesting ideas on the nature of gods, religion, and the relationship between humans and the divine. It’s the perfect fantasy book really – highly entertaining, inventive, thought-provoking. Seriously, don’t miss out on this one.

Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human

Apocalypse Now Now1Title: Apocalypse Now Now
Author:
 
Charlie Human
Published:
 
8 July 2013
Publisher: 
Century
Genre:
 
urban fantasy
Source: 
own copy
Rating: 
6/10

Baxter Zavcenko is one of the most unscrupulous sixteen-year-olds you’ll ever encounter. At Westridge High in Cape Town, he started The Spider, a group of friends who run a highly profitable  porn business that they’re planning to expand across the Cape Peninsula school system. He’s trying to negotiate a treaty between two rival gangs because he can’t risk having the police rock up and discover his porn ring. At home, Baxter fights with his autistic brother Rafe, who he believes isn’t really as cognitively impaired as he appears and is trying to drive Baxter insane with his obsession with South African history – “Boer generals, English concentration camps and San mythology”. The images have found their way into Baxter’s increasingly violent and disturbing dreams, which “always end with people being massacred. It’s like my sleeping brain is constantly set to the History Channel. If all the re-enactments were directed by Quentin Tarantino”.

It’s no surprise that Baxter’s parents have sent him to a psychiatrist. It’s just “society-sanctioned witchcraft” as far as Baxter is concerned but he does worry about his sanity, and the reader is forced to do the same as the story gets increasingly bizarre. Cape Town is being plagued by a murderer called the Mountain Killer, who carves an eye into the foreheads of his victims. Baxter has been seeing that same eye in his dreams, and then it appears on the wall of his girlfriend Esmé’s bedroom when she suddenly goes missing.

Baxter, as you may have realised, is not the most noble person, but Esmé’s disappearance makes him realise how deeply he cares about her, and that he’d do anything to save her. Like trawling though Cape Town’s underworld of magic and mythological creatures. Baxter’s efforts lead him to the eccentric (to put it mildly), shotgun-toting supernatural bounty hunter Jackson Ronin. In Ronin’s company Baxter discovers a seedy but surreal side to Cape Town that he could never have imagined existed. He slowly starts to understand the dreams he’s been having and learns that he isn’t quite what he seems to be either. Whether that means he’s got supernatural powers or if he’s actually a murderer with multiple personalities is something he’ll have to figure out too.

If you’re wondering about the term “now now”, it’s a South Africanism that doesn’t mean now but ‘soon’. So if I say “I’ll do it now now” I mean I’ll do it in a couple of minutes (or half an hour. If I remember. But definitely not right now). It’s an awesome title, referring of course to an impending apocalypse that really only comes in at the end and is easy to forget about in this riot of urban fantasy. I mean that in a good way and a bad way.

Apocalypse Now Now 2The two covers for Apocalypse Now Now (both fantastic pieces from the inimitable Joey Hi-Fi) perfectly capture the utterly crazy feel of this novel. There’s so much to take in – a serial killer, a high school gang war, an underground government agency dealing with the supernatural, a menagerie of mythical African creatures, a twisted (i.e. really gross) brothel full of zombies and other flesh-eaters, a Murder of giant shape-shifting crows, a magic system described as “S&M without a safeword”… I could go on for a while. You might find it amazing, you might it overwhelming, but it’s certainly unique.

One thing I really like about Apocalypse Now Now is that it brings together seemingly disparate mythologies that I’ve never come across before in fiction. San mythology featuring a praying-mantis god and an Afrikaaner legend about a prophet named Siener van Rensburg play a big role, along with a touch of Japanese and Chinese mythology. There’s also Xhosa, Zulu, central African and West African mythology, along with Human’s own inventions. One of my favourite scenes is when Ronin takes Baxter with him to deal with a ‘township tick’:

They’re made of pure energy so people make deals with them. Communities feed them goats, sheep, the occasional thief or rapist convicted in a kangaroo court, and the elementals let whole neighbourhoods hook power lines into them.’

I love how this magical creature is woven into the life of an impoverished community. It’s dangerous, but it keeps the lights on.

Baxter adjusts to this new world fairly easily:

 I know I should be freaking out more, but in a way I feel it’s a homecoming. I’ve been bathed in the warm glow of supernatural fantasies ever since I can remember. The fairytales my parents read me as a kid, TV, video games, it all kinda feels like they’ve been preparing me for this moment. It feels somehow natural and the other world, the one with taxes, life insurance, twenty leave days a year, cancer, and the realisation that you’re never, ever, going to be a celebrity, is the shadow, the fantasy and the delusion. The world is as I always intuited it to be: weird, fractured and full of monsters.

I think that quote captures how a lot of geeks feel – we love our sff worlds, and we spend so much time in them that they feel more real than the boring one we have to live in. Charlie Human has created a particularly bizarre world here, and I like how hilariously batshit-crazy this book can be. Like this little passage:

The knowing-eye is a weapon passed down from generation to generation in my family. My grandfather on my father’s side has it. I suspect it’s what drove my grandmother to alcoholism and sex addiction before reforming, divorcing Grandad and joining a racist commune in the Northern Cape. That and the fact that my grandfather thinks that there are giant shape-shifting crows out to get him.

Also, there are references to tokoloshe porn (Baxter caters to some very odd tastes).

The problem though, is that it does become overwhelming after a while. I really enjoyed the first half of the book, but the second half was a complete overload. New ideas, places and creatures just keep on being introduced, and the plot escalates steadily. By the time Baxter’s dealing with an impending apocalypse, his gang-war problem at the beginning is like a distant memory. There’s enough plot here for several novels, but it’s all been crammed into one.

I would preferred to spend more time exploring other aspects of the story – Baxter’s friends in the Spider, his relationship with Esmé, the strange creatures he encounters, the shadowy MK-6 organisation, the San mythology, and the Afrikaaner legends. I only got a slippery idea of how some of the fantasy and mythology fit into the plot, and I thought some of the characters – especially Esmé – were horribly flat and unfairly marginalised. Less action, more worldbuilding and character development, please.

I like the action, but I felt that some of it just goes way way overboard, especially given that Baxter is a 16-year-old boy. I can just about accept that he’s an entrepreneurial genius getting rich off a high school porn ring, but don’t expect me to believe that he’s brilliant in a hundred other ways too. Mind you, he’s not very plausible as a 16-year-old – his dialogue is too slick, he’s too badass, and he adapts too quickly. And would a 16-year-old reference a movie as old as Cocktail?

There’s one other thing that bothers me about Baxter, and it’s related to his character development. There’s a scene where someone yells at him for being “a horrible excuse for a human being” – he doesn’t care about people, he uses them, then casts them aside. Baxter kind of hangs his head and admits that this is true. The problem is that, although we’re told this about Baxter and he admits to it, we don’t really see it in his character. Obviously he’s not a nice person but he just seems like an asshole rather than a psychopath. This becomes a bit weird when we find Baxter worrying about his sanity – it’s not just his dreams and the mythological creatures that make him doubtful, but the fact that he doesn’t understand why he cares so much about Esmé. I felt that this conflict of a heartless boy finding his heart came out of nowhere.

I like Apocalypse Now Now on the whole and I think it’s an amazing debut, but I felt that it just had too many ideas crammed into it, without giving the reader enough time to really enjoy them. Reading it was like being blasted from one end of an action-packed plot to the other (culminating in a ludicrous boss fight). Everything just escalates too quickly, and too much. It’s something I can enjoy in a movie, but not in a book. It’s a bit unfortunate, I think, because Charlie Human has some brilliant ideas and a fantastic character in Baxter. There’s a sequel – Kill Baxter – due to be published later this year, and I’m curious enough to keep reading. I just hope the next book isn’t quite so insane.

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
Published:
 27 June 2006
Publisher: 
Gollancz (eBook)
Genre: 
fantasy, urban fantasy
Source:
Own copy
Rating: 
7/10

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
Author: 
Peter Higgins
Published:
21 March 2013
Publisher:
 
Gollancz
Genre: 
science fiction, alternative history fantasy, thriller
Source: 
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.

Review of Inkarna by Nerine Dorman

Inkarna by Nerine DormanTitle: Inkarna
Author:
 Nerine Dorman
Published: 15 June 2012
Publisher:
 Dark Continents Publishing
Genre: dark fantasy, urban fantasy romance
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 6/10

In 1966 in Cape Town, Lizzie is about to die for the first time. She is an old woman, and one of only two members of House Adamastor, a secret society based on ancient Egyptian mythology. Lizzie is an Inkarna and will be resurrected in a new body after a few decades spent in Per Ankh, the House of Life in the underworld.

But when Lizzie is reincarnated it is 2012 – 5 years later than expected – and she is reeling from the trauma of being stuck in the Sea of Nun, the ancient Egyptian version of limbo. And instead of reincarnating into the body of a 3-year old girl, she ends up in the body of Ashton Kennedy a 21-year old goth rocker with tattoos, piercings and the kind of long hair she considers “slovenly”. Ashton was in a coma after being run over by an SUV, and Lizzie soon discovers that he is the kind of person who deserved it. She’s also unnerved by the fact that Ashton has a devoted girlfriend – Marlise – who stuck by him throughout the coma and expects to continue their relationship.

While struggling to cope with contemporary technology, having a male body, and trying to build a better life from the ruins of Ashton’s, Lizzie/Ash tries to contact House Adamastor only to find that it has all but disappeared. Something has gone very wrong, and the fact that Lizzie ended up Ashton’s body was the first sign of a sinister influence. Further investigations reveal a conspiracy, the beginnings of a war between the Houses, and the hunt for a deadly artefact. To make things worse, Marlise and Ash find themselves haunted by Ashton’s ghost, who is enraged that Lizzie has taken his body and his life.

The major drawcard of this novel is gender game Dorman plays with Lizzie/Ash. It’s a big shock for Lizzie – a straight, prim and proper little old lady who dies in the 60s – to suddenly be transformed into a hulking bastard of a man who she frequently describes as a “thug”. She is relieved though, that Ashton’s size stops people from harassing her when she takes dodgy trains at odd hours (Cape Town doesn’t have the safest railway service, to put it mildly). Everyone who knows Ashton is also baffled when the man they thought they knew stops swearing, starts drinking tea, and generally tries to behave like a decent human being for a change. As a character, Marlise’s presence brings Lizzie’s gender troubles into sharp relief and offers excellent opportunities for her to face some of the more intimate aspects of the transformation. Initially, Lizzie tries to avoid Marlise, but eventually has no choice but to ask her for help. Ashton wasn’t exactly the kind of person who made loyal friends, and begins the story without money, a job, or a home. They stay together in a granny flat outside Marlise’s parents’ house, and Lizzie is uncomfortably aware of being a man sleeping in bed with an unmarried woman who wants to have sex with her/him/Lizzie/Ashton. The question of sex and sexuality is one that will have to be addressed – Lizzie was straight, but doesn’t want to have sex with men as a man. The thought of having sex with Marlise horrifies her, but if she’s going to stick with the heterosexual norm then that means having sex with women.

I’ve been speaking about “Lizzie” and using the pronouns “she” and “her”, but it’s not long before you realise that such a simple way of referring to this character is completely inadequate. At first it feels right to think of “her”, but the gender of the body can’t be ignored, raising the question of whether it’s the body or the mind that defines gender. Soon, the body (or kha, as it’s known in the mythology) starts to impart its previous inhabitant’s habits on Lizzie, and she begins to swear and behave more aggressively. She is no longer Lizzie, but she’s not Ashton either – she/he is “Ash” a compromise between the two that unfortunately has no suitable pronoun in English. Over and above this, she/he is Nefretkheperi, which is the Ren or true name of this being, which has its own Ba (loosely translated as ‘personality’) no matter what body it’s in, or whether it’s dead and in the underworld.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is the use of Egyptian mythology, particularly the mythology concerning the afterlife and reincarnation. With the modern South African setting, there are no mummies, pyramids, or organs in jars; the followers of this faith mostly study and practise ancient Egyptian magic. There are secret Egyptian societies – Houses – all over the world although it seems that these Houses are self-contained and don’t communicate much with each other. House members are regularly reincarnated, and while they’re dead they socialise in Per Ankh – the House of Life. The Inkarna – those who are reincarnated – are the leaders of each House, and the most powerful in the use of ancient magic. One amusing detail about Lizzie/Ash, is that Lizzie, despite being a little old lady, was so skilled that she could do far more with her magic than Ash could ever hope to do with his muscles. She could have kicked his ass, and in Ashton’s body Ash feels weak until he is able to regain the powers that Lizzie had mastered, including telepathy, telekinesis and an ability to unlock doors.

The novel uses a lot of jargon, and I was glad that I’d studied a bit of Egyptian mythology at varsity, so that I was at least vaguely familiar with some of the words and concepts. I think that someone unacquainted with the mythology might be a bit lost, although the frequency with which Lizzie/Ash repeats most words and phrases means you can eventually pick up their meanings on your own. There’s plenty of time to get yourself acquainted with the mythology, as most of the story is quite relaxed – Lizzie transitions into Ash, gets a job, tries to define his relationship with Marlise, and goes looking for Leonora, the last living member of House Adamastor. Things heat up once Ashton starts making his ghostly appearances and Ash learns more about the conspiracy that put Lizzie in the wrong body. His relationship with Marlise slowly evolves, and although Marlise clearly wants it to be sexual, she is at least happy that Ash is a friendlier, more considerate person than Ashton, who cheated on her and dumped her repeatedly.

It’s a good story, but there were some things that bugged me about it. Ashton’s parents are around in the beginning of the novel, and Lizzie notes sadly that these poor people sold their house to pay Ashton’s medical bills. Because Lizzie/Ash tries to make amends for the terrible things Ashton did, I thought this would include an apology to his parents at the very least. But once he leaves to live with Marlise, his parents disappear from the plot without so much as a phone call to check up on their son, who just woke up from a months-long coma. I felt that an emotional connection was left dangling.

Then Lizzie/Ash adapts a little too quickly to life in 2012, I thought. Besides an inability to drive and difficulty using the internet, jumping 46 years into the future doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue. Cape Town is still familiar enough for her/him to get around easily. Ash mentions the SUVs our politicians drive and at one point voices a concern about security cameras; I wondered if the character would really be thinking like that so soon.

Some plot details were too clichéd or predictable. Marlise is a bit of a damsel and when she’s in distress, Ash comes in like a goth knight wielding Egyptian magic to save her. There are some rather flat ‘minion’ characters. It was no surprise that Ash eventually overcame his sexuality issues and started sleeping with Marlise. The romance builds slowly, but Ash’s reluctance and the sexualised or attractive ways in which he is sometimes described make a sexual relationship inevitable as far as literary tradition is concerned. Admittedly, I wanted this to happen, and I if I were the author I would never have passed up the opportunity to make Ash confront this issue. The sex scenes were a bit too melodramatic for me (much like Ash’s angsty narration in general), but for the most part the romance was ok; I was just hoping that, with the gender play going on, Ash’s sexual awakening would involve something more interesting than him suddenly enjoying having a cock. I predicted a few other things as well, but they’re spoiler-ish so I won’t say more.

Finally, I didn’t quite like the way the book ended. I won’t get into the details, but it had a jocular tone that felt completely wrong under the circumstances. Something creepier would have been much better. The final scene paves the way for a great sequel but laughing about it seems dismissive, while a sense of horror would have been more intriguing.

But, flaws aside, it was a quick easy read and I enjoyed it. I was hoping Ash would cut his long hair (I don’t share the author’s taste for long-haired men) but I liked him and Marlise well enough. Since the book is half dedicated to a dead musician named Peter, and Peter Steele matches the description of Ash, I had a very clear picture of the character in my head throughout the book.

I loved the fact that the novel was set in Cape Town and I knew many of the locations very well. The Maitland Cemetery where the first scene is set is very close to my parents’ home. Ash gets a job at a bar in Long Street, where I’ve spent a lot of time eating out, shopping, having drinks with friends or just walking around. The route he takes to the train station through the dingy Golden Acre Mall is the same path I’ve taken many times to get a bus home from work or when travelling to and from the city centre.

My little shelf of SA genre fiction is slowly growing, and I was glad to add Inkarna to it.

November Round-Up

Gallery

This gallery contains 2 photos.

November was a great reading month, although a little slack in terms of reviews.

My first three review books for the month took me beyond mainstream cultural settings. Infidel by Kameron Hurley is the second book in her Bel Dame Apocrypha series, set on the planet Umayma, where two vastly different Islamic nations have been fighting a religious war for two centuries. Continue reading

Rate this: