28 September 2014

Review: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs
Robert Jackson Bennett
Jo Fletcher Books, 2/10/14
Hardcover, 400 pages

My copy was bought (yes, it was ahead of UK publication date: I think I got lucky...)

Sometimes, as I approach the end of a book, my reading slows. I don't want the experience to end. I want to stay immersed in the world, accompanying the characters. I just want it go on. This was such a book, such a world; these were such characters. Robert Jackson Bennett has created a wholly believable yet utterly strange setting, peopled by diverse, interesting, maddening yet - above all - credible individuals.

The action takes place in the city of Bulikov, on the Continent (the names of people and places on the Continent are vaguely East European: Vohannes Votrov, Vasily Yaroslav, Pitry...) Bulikov was the chief city of the Continent, location of the Seat of the World where the Divinities would meet together. But it - and much of the Continent - was ruined when enslaved Saypur rose up, slaughtered the gods and enforced the Worldly Regulations, which ban even the mention of a divinity, miracle or other supernatural thing. So the Saypuri are hated by the Continentals for erasing their history: and the Saypuri hate and fear the Continentals for their cruel enslavement before the revolt.

This isn't a mouldering, legendary background.  It all happened within living memory: the events that almost every looks back to - from different perspectives - are as real to them (gods included) as Western colonialism or the Cold War to us.  It's a powerful background, which naturally motivates a story of murder, spying and revenge.

A Saypuri historian, resented by the locals for his explorations of Continental history (history forbidden to those who should own it) is murdered. Shara Thivani, secret operative - spy - for the Ministry of Foreign affairs, arrives to investigate. From that moment, the story become a blend of a Le Carré-esque thriller, a theological meditation on human and divine nature, and a techo-thriller (for certain, miraculous values of tech). If that sounds like a jumble, it really isn't.  The story is compelling: Thivani is a marvellous protagonist, experienced, successful, cynical (she exposed corruption at home and has been exiled from Saypur for sixteen years) - and torn. Torn between justice for Saypur and justice for the Continent. Between duty to her illustrious family and to her country. Between her faithless ex-lover and her murder investigation. She's just wonderful, as is her sparring partner, Governor Turyin Mulaghesh, military ruler of the city. Together the two women grumble and clash and work together to face down plots, violence and nameless horrors. It's great fun, moving, and frankly unputdownable.

Confidently, unselfconsciously, the book challenges the whiff of gender and racial prejudice that still haunts corners of the science fiction and fantasy universe. The setting isn't the stereotyped proto-European fantasy world: Saypur's people are brown, not white.  Unremarked on, women fill central roles: the closest we get to an acknowledgement that some may find this strange is the occasional aside (Shara and Sigurd meeting in an alley to hunt for an elusive piece of magic: "Does it only work for men, not women? No, of course not, don't be absurd", or Mulaghesh, grinning as Sigurd strips naked and covers himself in lard before plunging into icy water: "There are times", she says "when I kind of like my job").

The book has a vein of wayward humour. Under its Divinities, the Continent ran by "miracles" - magical tricks and artifacts created by the gods. With no gods left, many of these have stopped working. The rest are outlawed - but by a bureaucratic quirk this means they weren't destroyed, but rather confiscated, catalogued, and stored in vast warehouses (think of the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.) So we have lists of items, reading a bit like a handbook for Dungeons and Dragons:

"356. Shelf C4-145. Travertine's boots: Footwear that somehow makes the wearer's strides miles long...

357. Shelf C4-146. Kolkan's carpet: Small rug that MOST DEFINITELY possesses the ability to fly...

358. Shelf C4-146. Glass window. Originally was the holding place of numerous Ahanashanti prisoners, trapped inside the glass. When Ahanas perished, the panes bled for two months - prisoners were never found or recovered. No longer miraculous..."

The book also has darkness. The vision of the "knuckle-man", the "voice under the cloth" with its many jointedness, mockery and voicelessness, was disturbing, as were the visions and actions of some of the fanatics, devotees of dead gods.

The dark centre of the book is, perhaps, the theme of lost history. The Saypuris suppress anything divine (for fear that the gods may return? from a desire to forget their oppression? simply for revenge?) But to do this, they need to know what they're suppressing. So we have the catalogues, the warehouses, the historians.  Shara knows more about the divinities than most Continentals are allowed to. She can say things they're forbidden. In turn, the Continental resistance movements, the religions fanatics, have gaps in their knowledge, so they are effectively following a faith they have made up rather than inherited. This spiritual hole echoes the messed-up geography of Bulikov, broken when the gods died (but unremarked, lived with, because to comment on or recognise it would be to mention the divine, and that's forbidden).  The book is a bit Nineteen Eighty-Four in the way history has been rewritten. And we eventually see that this... contagion, this loss of facts, of truth, doesn't just affect the Continentals - there are things the Saypuri conquerors would rather not know as well.

It's a terrific read, compulsive, persuasive and thought provoking. One of my favourites, so far, this year.  And there's a sequel coming!

19 September 2014

Review: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff Vandermeer
Fourth Estate, 2/9/14
Hardback, 352 pages

Warning: this review has mild spoilers for the earlier books "Annihilation" and "Authority" - if you haven't read those yet (and why haven't you?) don't read any further.

In the third part of the Southern Reach trilogy, VanderMeer seemed to have set himself an impossible task, both to match the standard of the previous books and to draw the narrative to a close despite having pretty well established his "other" - that baffling Area X - as unknowable, ineffable. It's a sign of just how good the writing is that he manages the latter at all, let alone, as he does, giving new insights into his characters, creating a pacey, gripping story and leaving the reader with a LOT to think about.

This is a more complex book (structurally and thematically) than the other two. "Annihilation" followed a single, disastrous expedition into Area X, a mysterious, impenetrable region somewhere on the southern flank of the US. "Authority" was apparently a more conventional (...for some value of "conventional"...) story of administration and espionage set in the Southern Reach, the organisation overseeing Area X, which documented the attempts by a new Director ("Control") to grasp what exactly was happening. "Acceptance" dots backwards and forwards, now following Control and Ghost Bird returning to Area X after the events of "Authority", now now following the former Director, now going back to Saul, the lighthouse keeper, before the creation of Area X or to the previous Director and her dangerous plan to... well, that would be telling.

All these are enthralling narratives, sparely told. Though much remains baffling and unclear, we learn a lot about what has been happening - Central's brutal attempts to manage the expeditions, to manage the Southern Reach, even, one suspects, to manage reality itself ("[she] has been operated on, reconditioned, broken down, brainwashed, fed false information that runs counter to her own safety, built back up again...") Control's family and their links to Area X are explained as is the role of the "Seance & Science Brigade", even, at one level, the nature of Area X itself. We learn enough to close the narrative as a story, if that's waht we want to do. 

But on another level, these books aren't - at least I don't think they are - so much about "what happens" that as about the challenge of Area X. 

 Faced with this impossible anomaly, this utterly alien infestation, how do we respond? What do we do? How do we cope with the unstated threat, the uncertainty?  In VanderMeer's trilogy, the guiding hand behind much of the "official" response turns out to be Lowry, portayed almost as an evil genius, with his underground bunker, manipulating, hypnotising, seeking, almost, a way to smuggle a weapon into Area X. he is a spymaster, a planner, a bureaucrat using Cold War tools.  Define the tools, perhaps, and define the threat?  But we saw in Authority how that ended. (Or perhaps not - at the end of this book it's far from clear what really happened).

But there are other responses to Area X. We see Saul's, developing even before Area X's existence. We see that of "the biologist" Annihilation (the account of which I found truly moving). And Control's. In the end, I think they do all - differently - find acceptance (except Lowry, we never learn what becomes of him).  That is the point of the story - not how Area X came about (we find out, but I don't think it is particularly significant).  There is a sense in which the "story", the expeditions, are secondary to this group of characters and their responses.  It is, in the end, all a "long con" - VanderMeer writes of "grifters" and "marks", there is an implication that the Southern Reach, the attempts to understand, contain and control Area X are an elaborate deception - even a self deception - on the part of those involved.

This is a haunting book, a laden book, to be read and thought about. It shouldn't be read quickly and will, I think repay rereading (as would the previous volumes). At first I wished all three had been published together - they are a whole - but I'm now glad they weren't, as for me the tempation to read them in one go would have been too great to resist. And they do need to be read slowly and carefully.

This trilogy and deserves to be recognised as a classic.

10 September 2014

Review: Extinction Game by Gary Gibson

Extinction Game
Gary Gibson
Tor 11/9/14
Hardcover, 400 pages

I’m grateful to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book.

Life is fragile.  In a many-worlds universe, where everything that can happen, does happen, there are so many ways to end civilization

Volcanoes can lob billions of tons of dust into the atmosphere, triggering an ice age.  Asteroids or rogue moons can set the world on fire.  Disease can rage, whether natural or created by humans.

Sometimes, the people just seem to disappear.

Jerry Beche has seen all this, and more. It wasn't enough that he was left alive, the last man in the world. He was then recruited by a shadowy Authority as a “pathfinder”, employed to loot those myriad, desolate alternate Earths for weapons, technology and data.  This book is his story, and that of his colleagues, survivors like him, who have proved themselves up to the task. But people like that don’t just do as they’re told, they aren’t good team players.

Gibson is scarily good at conjuring up apocalypses, ways for the world to die, whether natural or the result of human tampering.  As Beche explores these, we gradually learn what happened to his own – our own? How would you tell? – world, what he went through, and what he lost. I’m impressed that Gibson uses Beche's history mainly as backstory - there is enough there to make a novel in itself.  But he is reaching further than just-another-apocalypse.  While the interplay between multiply-iterated global disaster and the rivalries and squabbles of the pathfinders is also striking, there is still much more going on here than there seems at first.  

The pathfinders are a ragged group, truly diverse in ways that science fiction and fantasy are often accused of overlooking (again, Gibson is good at delineating their personalities and backgrounds). This brings conflict with the Authority, which is revealed to have pretty bigoted, narrow-minded views.  The core of the book, then, is a cross between a spy thriller (who is on which side? What even are the sides? Who can Beche trust? Why do they react so strangely to him?) and a kind of John Wyndhamesque, survivalist nightmare.

Exactly what the Authority is up to, where it came from and how it threatens the future of Jerry and the others - all this does becomes clear, slowly.  It is a compelling story, difficult to put down and pretty much action packed throughout. Gibson evokes a deep sense of unease.  Not only is Jerry alone, amongst strangers who – while human – literally come from different worlds to him, but the very premise of the story emphasises the fragility of the Earth and of life on it. 

That’s backed up by what we’re not told.  Mysteries abound.  Why are so many Earths empty, with no sign of what happened to the people?  Is there something out there even more horrible than artificial diseases, than global winter, than the beebrains?  Lots of ends are left loose, and I hope this means Gibson will follow up with more - even though after reading this I'll see all those routine news stories about spreading disease, global warming and possible asteroid strikes in a different light... 

9 September 2014

Graham Joyce

This evening I heard the sad news that Graham Joyce had died.  Although I came to his books fairly recently, he'd become an author whose new books I'd always be waiting for.  It was a shock to learn last year that he was ill and, though I never knew him other than as a reader, I am sad at his death:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

So, as an inadequate tribute, here is a review of one of Graham's books, Some Kind of Fairy Tale (Gollancz, 2012).  If you haven't read the book, you should.

A few months ago, a Channel 4 series ("Gods and Monsters") presented by Tony Robinson (of Time Team and Baldrick fame) examined the history of superstition. It told the story of Bridget Clary. In 1895 she was murdered by her husband, who believed she was a changeling, that is, not his wife at all - the real Bridget having been stolen by the fairies. Graham Joyce's novel uses this theme, postulating a similar "abduction" in 21st century England. There is a strong and intriguing opening, when Tara Martin knocks on her parents' door just after Christmas. Tara disappeared 20 years ago at the age of 16, and it was assumed that she was murdered in the mysterious Outwoods. When she reappears, insisting that she has only been absent for six months, and she doesn't seem to have aged a day, there are challenges for everyone - her now elderly parents, her brother Peter who has "grown up" since, and her ex boyfriend, upon whom suspicion fell. The book deals with the consequences of the situation.

Joyce weaves together Tara's own story of her experience (white horse, seductive young man, strange, fey land which she cannot get out of) with a very matter-of-fact account of everyday life for the left behind (work, pubs, children, casual police brutality). He grounds the comings and goings to the mysterious otherworld very credibly in a specific English locality, the Charnwood forest, where three counties meet (so, a border place - good for crossing into the Otherworld) which overlies a geological fault. (Those interested in "Earth mysteries" sometimes speculate that spooky experiences may be linked to the influences of gases and vapours seeping up from below ground, as with the oracle at Delphi. Equally, of course, those "stolen" away were thought to be somehow taken underground).

This is done very well. Joyce creates well drawn and believable characters, and the plotting is excellent: I sat up well past midnight to finish this, I simply couldn't stop till I found out how it would finish (without giving too much away, there's a delicious sense that it might NOT have finished).

The chapter headings recount various scraps of lore concerning "fairies" (though we're advised not to call them that - they don't like it) including the tale of the unfortunate Bridget. I smiled to see Joyce introduce thoughts from William Heaney among these. Heaney, also known as Graham Joyce, was the "author" of Memoirs of a Master Forger and the reference - passing though it is - is appropriate in this book, with its themes of truth and falsehood, and how we judge them. (Bridget died because of the accusation that she had "visited" the fairies, though she says she hadn't: Tara suffers because she claims she has, though nobody will believe her).

In all, this is the best book I've read so far this year.

(Review originally published on Amazon.co.uk, 28 January, 2012.)