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“Locklands” by Robert Jackson Bennett

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Robert Jackson Bennett’s Founders Trilogy is a fascinating fantasy epic, set in a world inspired by Renaissance Italy. In the climactic final volume, Sancia and Berenice must face an enemy vaster and more terrible than anything they’ve seen before.

As befits such an epic series, Locklands is full of awe-inspiring set-pieces and frenetic action. It also features some incredibly tender moments between Sancia and Berenice. Beyond that, the secret histories of Clef and Crasedes feature prominently. Fans of plot-driven and character-driven stories will both find something to love here.

Locklands also asks some deeper questions. Some of the magic discovered by the characters over the course of the series has allowed for a kind of society that no one has seen before. The changes are so radical that they force the characters to grapple with the very definition of a society, or a people. Sancia, Berenice, and their compatriots also have to deal with competing strategies for how to heal the damage their adversary have done to the world. “How does one deal with a world-spanning, seemingly all-encompassing threat and repair the harm that’s already been done?” is a particularly relevant question in the real world. Like the best SFF, Locklands presents us with possible answers through the lens of fiction.

Bennett has given his trilogy an ending that respects the sprawling scope of the series without forgetting the smaller-scale interactions between the characters we’ve come to love.

The Paradox Hotel, by Rob Hart

Rob Hart’s The Paradox Hotel takes place in a world where time travel has been discovered, and tourists can go back into the past to observe famous people and events. Near the timeport is the titular hotel, which is experiencing increasingly strange temporal events. This is happening at the worst possible time, with four trillionaires competing to buy the hotel. The hotel’s head of security, January Cole, begins to suspect that someone is trying to interfere in the bidding process. Then she begins to suspect that something even bigger, stranger, and more dangerous is going on.

The Paradox Hotel is billed as a sci-fi thriller, and action abounds here. January careens from one crisis to the next, and a much higher proportion of those crises than she’d like involves getting into fights. (Most of the opponents are human, but a trio of velociraptors also features in the plot.)

There’s a lot more than chases and fisticuffs here, though. The book explores philosophical questions about what time travel means for the human condition. Scientists theorize dire consequences if large changes are made to the past, but for obvious reasons, this hasn’t been empirically tested. Are theoretical consequences enough to refrain from trying to change large-scale natural disasters or monstrous atrocities? On the other hand, is it selfish to put the world’s whole population at risk for the possibility of saving people who died long ago? And what, if anything, does the inability to travel into the future mean for free will?

January goes through a lot of character development, too. At first, she seems to be a pretty standard jaded, snarky protagonist. Gradually, Hart reveals more about her love for her girlfriend, the impact of a tragic event in her past, and the reasons for some self-destructive behavior she engages in. All in all, The Paradox Hotel is proof that a thriller doesn’t have be shallow.

“Hokuloa Road” by Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand loves to put her main characters in an isolated, often rural, setting and force them to confront some entity or power that’s been there much longer than they have. In Wylding Hall, a folk band finds that writing their next album is a lesser challenge than dealing with an eerie force in the English country manor where they’ve gone on retreat. In Black Light, a small community nestled among the hills and forests of upstate New York hosts an ancient god. And in her latest novel, Hokuloa Road, the caretaker of a house in a remote stretch of Hawaiian wilderness is caught between his eccentric employer and a supernatural force.

Hand does a wonderful job of juxtaposing Hawaii’s lush beauty with the desolation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns. Grady is stunned by the sheer variety of plants and birds he encounters at Minton’s residence, and even more so by what he sees when he ventures into the wilderness beyond. But he’s also struck by the homelessness and substance abuse resulting from the collapse of Hawaii’s tourism industry, and the general social disconnection compounds his feelings of isolation. Neither of these impressions is presented as “more true” than the other. They coexist side-by-side.

I also appreciated Grady’s character arc. Some failures in his past have led him into a state of perpetual fear that he’ll fail again. Throughout his investigation of a disappearance on the island, he’s beset by a sense of self-doubt. He worries about whether he’s doing the right thing and about whether all his efforts will be in vain. But he doesn’t give in to his second-guessing. He pursues the clues he finds and ultimately chooses to trust in the guidance the island seems to be giving him. I have a little more to say about how Hand resolves this character arc, as well as one minor quibble with another aspect of the book, but both of those deal with the ending, so I’ll discuss them under some spoiler space. Overall, Hokuloa Road is a great book, as expected from Hand, and it fully validated my decision to read it as soon as it came out.

–SPOILERS—

While Grady does succeed in his aim of finding out what happened to Jessica and some of the other missing people, and while he does finally defeat the villain of the story, Hand doesn’t entirely abide by conventional tropes. Jessica wasn’t lured or kidnapped by Minton, and it isn’t Grady who rescues her. This doesn’t mean Grady has failed; it just means his success doesn’t take the shape he thought it would. And the implication that he builds lasting relationships with Raina, Jessica, and Dalita, as well as obtaining a steady job as caretaker of the new wilderness preserve’s main facility, shows that he’s solved a more fundamental problem in his life.

The one critique I have regards a warning Grady is given by Dalita’s wife Lorelei, that supernatural beings don’t think like humans and don’t prioritize the same things we do. I expected this to foreshadow that the kaupe, while not hostile to Grady and perhaps even helping him, would also not be hostile to Minton. After all, Minton is trying to prevent Hokuloa Peninsula from being developed. Yes, he’s also killing people…but the kaupe isn’t human, and even occasionally preys on humans itself. Lorelei’s line seemed to suggest that the kaupe wouldn’t care one way or the other about Minton hurting humans so long as he was also preserving his corner of the Hawaiian wilderness. I was a little disappointed that in the end, it did seem to act in a way that’s more consistent with human morality, killing both Minton and Sanchez while not having caused any permanent harm to Jessica. It isn’t so much an unfired Chekhov’s gun as a shape on the wall that’s implied to be a gun but turns out to be a hockey stick instead.

“The Alloy of Law” by Brandon Sanderson

The Alloy of Law is set 300 years after the first trilogy of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books. The main characters of that trilogy have become legends, and people have discovered Allomantic metals beyond those shown in the first three books. Waxillium and Wayne have just returned to the city of Elendel from the rural hinterlands known as the Roughs just in time to get caught up in the investigation of a series of high-profile robberies. This being a Sanderson book, there’s always another secret, and there may be a lot more than money at stake.

In his author notes at the end of the book, Sanderson says he wanted to counter the common trope of static fantasy worlds. In The Alloy of Law, both magic and technology have advanced over the past 300 years. Two skyscrapers are being built in the city of Elend. Trains connect it to outlying cities, and the first subway tunnel is under construction. Meanwhile, more Allomantic and Feruchemical abilities, making use of different metals, have been discovered. Many stories present magic and technology as being in conflict, but even something as simple as a wheel is a form of technology. Having the two advance side by side makes Sanderson’s setting feel refreshingly different.

A friend of mine described the Wax and Wayne books as “steampunk Batman,” and it’s a fitting descriptor. Wax is an orphan from a wealthy family who fights crime. His partner Wayne refuses to use guns. Between Wax’s intellectual prowess and Wayne’s mastery of disguise, the two of them even gesture towards the often-neglected “world’s greatest detective” aspect of Batman’s character. And while Elend is nowhere near as corrupt as Gotham—the world has come a long way since the Lord Ruler’s time—some revelations at the end of the book suggest that it may be in need of a Dark Knight.

The Alloy of Law is shorter than what I’m used to from Sanderson’s books (lookin’ at you, Rhythm of War), but he packs a lot of action, intrigue, and humor into those 300-odd pages. I’m looking forward to the further adventures of Wax and Wayne.

“The Deep-Sea Diver’s Syndrome” by Serge Brussolo

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French author Serge Brussolo has been writing novels since 1972, but it wasn’t until 2016 that one of his books, The Deep-Sea Diver’s Syndrome, was translated into English. Like most of his work, it exists on the border between science fiction and fantasy. In the world of the novel, some people can manifest ectoplasm when they dream. This ectoplasm takes on amorphous but attractive forms and tends to have a calming effect on anything nearby. David’s ectoplasms have been getting steadily smaller and less impressive, and he’s willing to risk his health—maybe even his life—to create one last spectacular work of art.

While the book is short and the characters are fairly flat, The Deep-Sea Diver’s Syndrome contains a potent critique of consumerism. Most people aren’t interested in the philosophical or existential questions posed by the ability to bring physical objects out of dreams; they just see the ectoplasms as pretty knick-knacks. Even the scientists David interacts with seem far less interested in what the ectoplasms can tell them about human psychology or neurology than in whether or not a given dream-object is marketable. On top of that, when the dream-objects eventually rot, they give off asbestos-like fibers. To prevent harm to nearby people, “dead” dreams must be kept in cold storage indefinitely. The huge cold-storage facilities used for this purpose place an ever-greater strain on the country’s electrical grid.

The dream-worlds created by dreamers like David are heavily influenced by the kinds of stories they loved as children. For David, this was heist stories and spy thrillers. For Soler Mahus, it was stories of African safaris. In both cases, the stories have a distinctly pulpy tone. It’s unclear whether this is a necessity of bringing back dream-objects or simply a reflection of these two characters. It doesn’t appear that the simplicity of the stories inspiring the dream-worlds has anything to do with the beauty or power of the dream-objects brought back from them. Soler Mahus, for example, produced one dream-object so potent that it stopped a war and is capable of healing serious illnesses. At first, this might seem like a contrast with the book’s generally scathing attitude toward commercial art. But maybe what’s important is how people react to the art. While neither Soler nor Daniel’s dream-worlds were drawn from what you’d call “high-brow literature,” they played hugely important roles in both men’s lives. They loved these stories in a way that very few collectors of dream-objects love them. Maybe the message is that you shouldn’t acquire a piece of art just because it’s popular or will look good on your wall, but because something about it speaks to you.

“The Hacienda” by Isabel Cañas

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Isabel Cañas’s novel The Hacienda is deeply reminiscent of Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. A young wife arriving at her new husband’s remote home finds reminders of his deceased first wife everywhere. She comes to feel haunted by her predecessor and doesn’t know who in the household she can trust.

Instead of Cornwall, though, Cañas’s book is set in rural Mexico, shortly after the revolution that led to Mexico’s independence from Spain. The sometimes violent political maneuverings that led to the formation of the newly-independent nation’s government are a constant undercurrent running through the story. Other social dynamics also come into play. Of course, there’s a division between the wealthy hacendados who own the haciendas and the villagers who work as farmers, laborers, or domestic employees. Overlapping with this is a split between those Mexicans who are exclusively descended from the Spanish colonists, the Indigenous people, and the descendants of both. All of these social and cultural dividing lines create conflict between the main character, Beatríz, and the other members of the household.

The Hacienda is an unapologetically Gothic novel, and it leans into the Gothic “house as character” trope. In this, it reminded me not only of Rebecca’s Manderly, but of Eel Marsh House in Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. Andrés, a young priest who becomes Beatríz’s ally, can even sense and communicate with Hacienda San Isidro’s essence. Like Beatríz, Andrés faces internal conflicts as well as external ones. In his case, one primary conflict is between the magical skills he inherited from his grandmother and the fear of punishment by the Inquisition if those skills were ever to be discovered. While I liked Andrés and felt very sympathetic to him, the way his talents were presented distracted from the Gothic atmosphere for me. Some supernatural elements, like ghosts, are par for the course in Gothic literature, but Andrés’s abilities felt too well understood and codified. It took away from the mystery a bit. Overall, though, this was an affecting novel that kept me hoping things would work out well for the characters.

“Palimpsest” by Catherynne M. Valente

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Catherynne M. Valente’s novel Palimpsest follows four people who encounter the titular city. One can’t get to Palimpsest by car, train, or plane—the only way to find it is to sleep with someone who has already been there. Moreover, Palimpsest can only be reached in dreams. There are rumors of a way to go from being a visitor to a true resident of Palimpsest, someone who lives there all the time. Each main character is seeking this emigration for their own reasons, but the path is fraught with danger and uncertainty.

Although they’re in totally different genres, Palimpsest reminded me a lot of Valente’s more recent book Space Opera. Both feature a society populated by a wide array of sapient beings, humanoid and otherwise. Both take a joyful “kitchen sink” approach to worldbuilding. Both show emotionally damaged protagonists who find some form of comfort or salvation in a world that’s far weirder than anything they could have imagined.

Given that dreaming is the only state in which most people can experience Palimpsest the city, it’s fitting that Palimpsest the novel maintains a dreamlike tone to its narrative. Outlandish and fantastical elements are presented in a matter-of-fact way. It reminded me of how we simply accept strange things as natural while dreaming. The characters also start out stumbling through the city without much understanding of where they are or how things work but progress to being able to take a more active role in what happens to them. It’s almost as if they learn how to lucid dream.

One tidbit Valente fans might find particularly interesting: Palimpsest references an in-universe children’s book, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Valente later wrote this book as a crowdfunded project. I had heard of it but didn’t realize it came from this novel, so it was a pleasant surprise to come across it as I read.

“Neom” by Lavie Tidhar

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Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with a free eARC in exchange for an honest review.

Lavie Tidhar’s latest novel, Neom, is set in the same world as his Arthur C. Clarke Award-nominated Central Station. The lives of receptionist and flower-seller Maryam, police officer Nasir, and orphan Saleh intersect through their encounters with a robot engaged in a mysterious serarch.

The world Tidhar crafts in Neom is a wildly imaginative one. The titular city includes a sort of animal shelter for abandoned digital pets, with Tamagotchis and Furbys being name-dropped. Ambulatory relics of old wars, including one modeled on the giant mecha made famous by anime series like Neon Genesis Evangelion wander the surrounding desert. A long-ago terrorist attack has frozen an area in time. Beings that may be super-advanced AIs or gargantuan aliens lurk at the edge of the solar system. This may seem disjointed, but it’s disjointed in a way that feels real. Humans are messy, and a world shaped by the conflicts between and mingling of human cultures probably isn’t always going to be perfectly neat and organized. Tidhar’s worldbuilding choices also give him the opportunity to include Easter egg references to such writers as C.L. Moore, Robert W. Chambers, Isaac Asimov, and H.P. Lovecraft, which I greatly appreciated.

There were a couple of flaws. At one point in the story, we’re told that one of the past wars was ended by the destruction of a city called New Punt, but we’re also told that New Punt “believed themselves safe from the war,” which indicates that they weren’t one of the participants. If they weren’t a party to the war, how did their destruction end it? I also felt like Saleh didn’t receive as much character development as Maryam, Nasir, and the robot, which made it harder to connect to him. Overall, though, I enjoyed the book, and I hope Tidhar continues to write stories in this setting.

“When Things Get Dark: Stories Inspired by Shirley Jackson,” edited by Ellen Datlow

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Shirley Jackson has rightly earned acclaim as a master of macabre fiction. Her work has inspired many other writers, and she even has a literary award named after her. Ellen Datlow, who’s been editing horror and dark fantasy for decades, is among her many admirers, and in 2021, she published When Things Get Dark: Stories Inspired by Shirley Jackson. In this anthology, eighteen authors present stories whose style, theme, or subject matter reflects Jackson’s influence.

Even in this generally excellent volume, three stories stand out: Kelly Link’s “Skinder’s Veil,” Laird Barron’s “Tiptoe,” and Elizabeth Hand’s “For Sale by Owner.” Link’s story concerns a young man who jumps at the chance to take on a housesitting job so he can get away from his annoying roommate. But there’s something unusual about the house and its owner. The story is full of the dreamlike ambiguity and layered storytelling Link is known for.

The main character in “Tiptoe” reflects on a game he and his father used to play when he was a child. The more he examines his memories, the stranger they seem to become, until a present-day encounter with his brother prompts a horrifying revelation. Many of Jackson’s stories focused on female characters, and particularly on the ways in which women’s lives are constrained by society, so many of the stories in this tribute anthology also naturally center women. I was curious what kind of Jackson-inspired story Barron would write, since he’s more known for his “tough guy” protagonists. Here, he focuses on another story element Jackson is known for, sometimes referred to as “weird ritual”—activities or actions taken by the characters that usually have social significance and would be perceived as eerie or unsettling by the reader. While a whole town participates in the titular lottery from Jackson’s famous short story, the weird ritual in “Tiptoe” is more of a family tradition. A lot of us probably remember games that were traditional to play in our families, whether they were ordinary board games like Scrabble, or something the kids made up out of whole cloth and that only half made sense. By twisting such familiar memories into something uncanny, Barron creates a story that’s truly Jacksonesque.

If Barron’s story evokes “The Lottery,” Hand’s is an homage to Shirley Jackson’s other famous work, The Haunting of Hill House. Three middle-aged women decide to have a sleepover in an uninhabited house at the end of a remote woodland trail in their town. What starts as a fun outing for the characters is marred by strange and ominous events. The entity that inhabits the house—or, perhaps, is the house—doesn’t seem to be a ghost in the traditional sense. It reminded me of a mid-2000s piece of web fiction called “The Dionaea House.” Whatever walks in the house of “For Sale by Owner,” it should have been left to walk alone.

There were a few stories in this anthology that fell a bit flat for me. Especially in horror and adjacent genres, I don’t think it’s always necessary for the author to explicitly explain the precise details of what’s going on. “Skinder’s Veil,” for example, does a masterful job of dropping hints that suggest possible explanations for the house and its owner without ever coming right out and saying, “This is exactly what’s happening.” But a story should feature some sort of resolution, whether that’s the closing of a character arc, the cessation of weird events (even if we never find out exactly what those events meant), etc. A couple of the stories here felt like they ended in the middle. The effect was less one of deliberate ambiguity on the part of the author and more as if some kind of ebook software error had cut off the last page or two. Overall, though, this was a delightful anthology that really did Shirley Jackson proud.

“We Are Satellites” by Sarah Pinsker

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After winning the Hugo Award for her short fiction, Sarah Pinsker has made a foray into long-form work with her novel We Are Satellites. In this twenty-minutes-into-the-future story, a family struggles with the implications of a newly-available brain implant called a Pilot that assists with concentration and multitasking. Each of the four members of the family has a different perspective on the Pilot implant. Julie wants to get a Pilot to help her excel at her job. Her wife, Val, is generally skeptical of the technology. One of their children, David, is eager to get a Pilot to help with his schoolwork. Their other child, Sophie, can’t get a Pilot due to it not having been proven safe for people with epilepsy. As more and more people across the world get Pilots, all of them feel the effects in their own lives.

This is very much a character-driven book, and I loved how Pinsker created characters who are neither paragons nor caricatures, but instead feel like real people. Julie makes some questionable decisions, driven by the desire to protect Sophie from environmental hazards or unscrupulous people that might pose a danger to her during her absence seizures. David also makes some unwise decisions, in his case motivated by desperate attempts to deal with a medical problem no one else will acknowledge. Despite their mistakes, the characters do love each other, and when they’re at odds, Pinsker makes the reader root for them to reconcile.

Through the eyes of her characters, Pinsker shows the wider societal effects of the Pilots. As the technology becomes more widespread, employers, teachers, and others assume people will be using them. At one point, a side character mentions that he had difficulty passing his driving test because the formulation of the test now assumes people will have the ability to pay concentrated attention to multiple stimuli. Children with and without Pilots are placed in separate classes. Adults without Pilots find it hard to compete against those with Pilots when applying for jobs. This kind of two-tiered society, divided between enhanced and unenhanced people, is a common fixture of science fiction stories dealing with genetic engineering. By focusing on an implant instead of a genetic manipulation, Pinsker makes this old idea feel fresh.

I do think the story would have been stronger if the characters who object to Pilots had focused purely on issues such as those who can’t get the implant for medical reasons being discriminated against in job applications. These concerns do come up, but the characters also sometimes espouse a general Luddite-ish sentiment that “we shouldn’t mess with our brains.” That doesn’t make much sense, since 1) Sophie almost certainly takes medication to manage her epilepsy symptoms, and 2) deep-brain stimulation implants have presumably been as much of a godsend for Parkinson’s Disease patients in the setting as they’ve been in the real world. “Messing with our brains” isn’t bad per se; it’s the discrimination against people who don’t have access to the technology that’s bad. There are enough strong arguments for the anti-Pilot characters to use; there was no need for Pinsker to have them resort to weak ones.

That said, this is an interesting and engaging story that mingles a wide-ranging look at the implications of new technology with a cast of compelling characters.