Emily Barton’s The Book of Esther invokes a steampunk, alternative history version of 1942 Khazar (full disclosure – I didn’t know that Khazar was a real place). This is the first novel of Barton’s that I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.
- Barton’s world is intense – the people of Khazar (we mostly see them through Esther’s eyes) have long known that the Germans are coming, mostly because of the streams of refugees that keep appearing, and have tried to prepare, but they are a buffer between the Germans and the Rus, and have tried to balance their relations for centuries.
- The state is Jewish, and rabbis are persons of great respect and political power. Nonetheless, this alternative version of WWII is causing upheaval in their society, and the religious leaders are losing that power.
- She calls forth all sorts of mythical and non-mythical creatures – werewolves, golems, kabbalists, heretics, steppe horseman warriors, and other fantastical folks.
- Creating golems helps them keep the initial German push from their walls, although the novel ends with the Germans about to try again.
- The polyglot nature of the nation seems like a direct extrapolation from the region’s medieval origins.
- The clash of a culture marked by intense religious fundamentalist with modern (in a steampunk way at least) military might causes the rise of Esther, who defies the restrictions against her and with a little luck and a lot of chutzpah takes her own place in line to become queen.
Dreams and Shadows is actually Cargill’s first novel, I guess. I’ve read Sea of Rust, which is darker than even this novel, one that features murderous dwarf fairies and an all-out battle in downtown Austin, Texas.
- Urban fantasy gets a bad rap, but I enjoyed this. Cargill weaves in several different traditions (we see djinns and Coyote, both of whom have major roles), and the idea that the entire supernatural world shares that realm felt natural.
- The novel intersperses an academic text (not really) explaining some of the features of fairy land with chapters that go back and forth between the two main characters, both of whom are human children who have interacted with the fairy world at a young age.
- The ascent of the human Colby doesn’t follow the usual patterns – he doesn’t have to follow some sort of elaborate ritual, and he doesn’t suddenly discover that he’s a wizard – instead, the djinn who gives him the power warns him that he will not be happy with the results.
- The setting in Austin is also cool – it’s not an ancient city, and the near-proximity of hill country makes the closeness of a wild area real.
Cargill’s novel, although far different than Sea of Rust, was an enjoyable read, tinged with far more sadness at the way that this sort of power divides people than joy at the power.
Tade Thompson’s first novel in this trilogy features an alien psychic/cellular invasion, sensitives, healing domes, the Nigerian secret service, the zenosphere, and dreams that invade the biological world. Yep, that’s a lot, and it’s pretty amazing.
- I won’t spoil this for you, but the alien invasion is unlike any I’ve read about. In that sense the novel feels almost Dhalgrenesque, as the narrative goes through multiple entry points, and loops back in on itself. Unlike in Delany’s novel, however, Thompson also provides readers with locators, often chronological. I never felt lost, like I constantly did (intentionally I’m guessing) in Dhalgren.
- The other obvious reference is Pat Cadigan, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that she served as a reader (or in some other capacity) in Thompson’s acknowledgments. This novel moves in that same mindsphere that Cadigan explores, although it expands far beyond where she went.
- Kaaro, our protagonist, is an interesting cat – he was recruited by the Nigerian secret service to help them better understand the alien invader, one that we find out has landed three times already, with catastrophic results. He can use his powers to disrupt and even cause other people to hurt themselves, so in a sense they serve as a superpower.
- They don’t really feel like that, however,
- Thompson’s use/creation of the zenosphere is compelling. The alien presence (one that has its own backstory, which we learn bits about later in the novel) opens new potential for humanity in ways that are often thought of in cyberspace as digitally-based. This one is completely biological, and thus both far different (it requires special brain capabilities that might or might not be centered in the redone structure of the brain itself) and very similar (most humans who travel in the zenosphere use avatars, which can have sex) to those now-standard mindscapes popularized by The Matrix.
Needless to say I am greatly looking forward to the rest of the series. Novels like this posit alternatives to the way we live now (with apologies to Evelyn Waugh) that hopefully can lead us to better futures.
…is my guess anyway – as much as punk and rap look terrifying to those on the outside (and they can inspire fascist followers, no doubt) – the community of folks who feel as if they’re part of the same tribe is undeniable. Jazz doesn’t allow us to grind against each other in the same ways…
While you may see a sort of frightful hellhole of young skinny disaffected white guys, I see an amazing band that is unafraid of its audience, and relies solely on its music.
Not exactly po -tae – to/po – tah – to…
The Power that Preserves is the last novel in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever trilogy. Donaldson completes, sort of, Covenant’s travels in the Land, and allows him to rescue it, although not in the ways that fantasy novels ordinarily approve of.
Re-reading this trilogy after forty years makes me thankful for Donaldson. I’ve spoken of this in the reviews I did of the first two novels, but as a teenager I was so frustrated with Covenant – we know what fantasy heroes are supposed to do (hell, Joseph Campbell knew what they were supposed to do, as he chronicled in work he was doing while Tolkien is publishing the series that starts it all). Looking back on Donaldson’s trilogy makes me think that it is a necessary corrective, one that when viewed with Samuel R. Delaney’s Neveryon series starts to move fantasy away from its potentially fascist, northern European worlds to ones that reflect the world as it is.
Donaldson’s series is far different than Delaney’s, both less and more subtle, but the direction it moves fantasy is no less important I think. The reason adolescent me knows how Donaldson should act – the reluctant Gandalf who gathers allies to confront Sauron, or Aragorn not pronouncing himself king before the ruined gates of Minas Tirith until the people force him to – is because I had hungrily devoured those series multiple times, looking for some sort of understanding of the world that corresponded with my own. Donaldson forcibly refuses to let us indulge in this part of the fantasy, only letting Covenant act the hero after much destruction, some of which he is responsible for, and even in acting the hero he doesn’t, you know, act the hero.
- I’m still shocked about the rape, and I’m perhaps even more shocked that Donaldson never lets Covenant forget about it and even makes him pay in ways that are cruel – he actually gets to feel like a father for the daughter who is the product of the rape, only to see her die, and he chooses to travel with the woman he raped, much later, who as an old woman is obsessed with him and actually dies trying to protect him. This is not the behavior of an epic hero as we think of them.
- The Land is portrayed as this pristine agrarian, craft-oriented utopia – look, they’re like elves with the ways that they keep warm by magically heating rocks and live in trees without damaging wood. And yet Covenant never fully believes in it – even as he defeats Lord Foul at the end he finds power as much in his disbelief as in any of the emotions we agree are part of the generic conventions of fantasy.
- That lack of belief may come from his identity as a writer, but at the very least it never lets us as readers immerse ourselves completely in the world of the Land, no matter how brave and cool they are, how much we want to be like them.
- There’s much more to be said, but I’m pleased that the re-read was worth the time I invested. The series doesn’t necessarily feel modern or contemporary – instead, it feels inspirational, driving those who have pushed the genre even further – Martin, Erikson, Esslemont – to push these boundaries even further.
The continued re-envisioning of fantasy has been eye-opening. I had given up on the genre by the 1980s, as writers milked Tolkien’s formula in ways that I found not that interesting. As often happens, the genre itself was simply going through the types of changes that happen when young readers rethink the generic expectations that they grew up with, and then become writers. Beautiful stories often are the result.
That said, Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass hints at that kind of rethink. Several African authors have created some amazing texts (I’m currently working my way through this list), N.K. Jemisin has won a Hugo and written a fantasy series that I still think about a lot, and even the white guys (Erikson & Esslemont, Martin, Abercrombie, et al.) have pushed fantasy far beyond its previous incarnations, making it both more and less based in real-world laws. Beyond the genre, authors like Susannah Clarke, Karen Lord, Jo Walton, and Akwaeke Emezi incorporate elements of fantasy in texts that fit into a variety of categories, all of which look far different for having accepted this straying.
Maas’s exploration of generic boundaries is a bit more restrained, at least in this first novel, but still Throne of Glass defied my expectations, often. I’ve catalogued some of these thoughts below:
- The female protagonist and heroine has been done, of course, but Maas adds a couple of interesting elements of choice to her portrayal, (this is sort of a spoiler, but not really) including who she chooses to end up with. There are elements of romance in this novel in ways that I do not often see.
- Bringing in chaos and the Wyrd (and the land of faerie) is a touch that I wish more authors did (Clarke is brilliant at it, and Martin’s children of the forest owe a lot to this concept as well), and these features add depth to this novel.
- This is a long series, so I am assuming that these elements get explained more thoroughly in future texts, but there is a lot of potential in that world…
- These characters are also developed differently, in a way that hints at what Lauren Berlant saw as ways to deal with the constant trauma that many people in our world experience. The main character, for instance, is rescued from a slave mine, albeit for a competition that she might not survive (although we know she will). At first I was frustrated, because the slave mine experience seemed to be one that was offered as a isn’t-she-amazingly-tough backstory. As the novel develops, though, the horrors of that place become more apparent, and we start to get glimpses of how the experience has both traumatized and molded her.
- It’s an interesting approach to character development, and I wonder if Maas does this as an element of her craft, mimicking the gradual reveal of trauma that might happen in intensive therapy.
Throne of Glass helps expand the generic boundaries, and I am curious to see how that expansion continues. Fantasy has moved far from the hide-bound genre it was in the 1970s (with apologies to Stephen R. Donaldson, of course), and here’s hoping its influence lives long…
Although I love cyberpunk I was not familiar with Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita series until I saw the film with a friend. I then picked up the comic books, and…well, thoughts below:
- The genial cybernetic surgeon who works for the poor (Dr. Ido) and still swings a mean atomic-powered hammer at night is not something I saw coming…
- The morphing of “battle” and “angel” feels like another look at the Molly from the Neuromancer series…Kishiro seems to roll seamlessly between having characters comment on how cute she is and then having her disembowel or decapitate them. Or both.
- The search for a backstory hints at the economic separatism and destroyed world that the film emphasized, and while the enemy (impossibly rich and obsessed with occupying the top rungs of the economic ladder) is sort of an easy one, the idea of a fall from the heaven of economic security only to be reinstated in a worthy body posits a world in which violence gets directed downwards over and over again…
- The image is fascinating to me, and I think speaks to how little I know of Japanese culture – why a tiny very young woman? Why does Kishiro invert the stereotype so broadly? Why do the “evil” cyborgs fall in love with her, and what are the implications of that?
- Because I’m comfortable with sci-fi and western culture, these questions feel appropriate (and they may not be) – I can endlessly talk about how using Molly as the bodyguard (with a cybernetically-enhanced body that is still captured constantly in all sorts of powerfully disruptive ways) and Case – and Bobby Newmark – as the emotional core shreds science fiction conventions. I have no idea if Kishiro is doing the same thing, but it sure feels like it…
- I am very glad she has some serious plasma weaponry – the film seemed to emphasize her fighting style in ways that felt too used to Hollywood mano-on-mano narratives…
- Finally, the pen-and-ink, sketched out art speaks to manga in my less-than-literate-in-Japanese culture mind…