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Monthly Archives: May 2018

“The Cloud Roads” by Martha Wells

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Martha Wells has received a lot of attention lately for her Murderbot sci-fi series but has also written some notable works of fantasy. The Cloud Roads, written in 2011, is the first in a five-book series focusing on the Raksura, a reptilian species in a world inhabited by a wide variety of sapients.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the Books of the Raksura series is the complete absence of humans. Some species look reasonably human-like. For example, the islanders from whom the Raksura seek to hire an airship are hominids with gold-tinted skin and eyes (I imagined them looking a bit like the Sovereign from Guardians of the Galaxy). But we also see an insectoid species and are told of merfolk-like peoples living in the ocean. And then there are the Raksura themselves—shapeshifting beings with scales and prehensile tails, some of whom are capable of flight.

There’s also a lot of gorgeous imagery in the book: islands that float in midair, a city built atop a giant revolving wheel, sprawling landscapes. The vivid descriptions help to make the setting feel more like a living, complete world.

When the story first begins, the main character, Moon, doesn’t even know what species he is. He remembers his mother and siblings but doesn’t know why they lived apart from a community of people like themselves. The mystery of his origins is only partly solved in The Cloud Roads, and while he helps his newfound friends to defeat a powerful enemy, a larger threat still looms. I’m interested to explore the setting and these plot threads further in the rest of the series.

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“The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories” by Ken Liu

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Ken Liu made speculative fiction history with his story “The Paper Menagerie,” which became the first (and so far, only) short story to win all three of the major spec-fic awards (the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy). The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories collects fifteen short pieces, including the groundbreaking title story.

While I greatly enjoyed the much-awarded “Paper Menagerie,” the most breathtaking story in the collection is “Good Hunting.” The fusion of folklore and steampunk makes the story feel truly original, and the characters are compelling. The Amazon blurb for the collection doesn’t list this piece as an award winner or finalist, which I found very surprising, as it’s easily deserving of such.

Like “Good Hunting,” “The Regular” brings two genres together to create a fascinating story. On the surface, it’s a murder mystery. But the private investigator hunting the perpetrator has cybernetic enhancements, and such enhancements are also crucial to the motive for the crimes.

Several of the stories, in the grand tradition of science fiction, posit a fictional technology and then examine the social and economic repercussions of that technology. “The Perfect Match” extrapolates from social media and digital assistants to imagine a world in which such technologies are all-encompassing. “Simulacrum” conjures a setting in which holograms are commonplace and shows how they might enhance—or impoverish—human relationships.

Liu’s prolific imagination is on full display in “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” and “An Advanced Reader’s Picture Book of Comparative Cognition.” Both stories purport to be reference works describing alien species. And this is where the “prolific imagination” comes in, because there are no “rubber forehead aliens” here. Many of the beings described are non-humanoid, and in some cases, even non-organic. We get brief glimpses of many fascinating species, and I would love to read stories that focus on them individually.

Some of the most moving stories in the collection deal with the theme of acknowledging the uglier parts of humanity’s past. In “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” and “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King,” the main character fights to bring a historical atrocity to light, even when the effort comes at great personal cost. “A Brief History of the Trans-Pacific Tunnel” follows a similar theme, although it takes place in an alternate history. Some of the scenes in these stories are pretty harrowing, but they address important questions about how we relate to history and what responsibility we have to the past.

“A Veil of Spears” by Bradley P. Beaulieu

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The fantasy saga that Bradley P. Beaulieu started with Twelve Kings in Sharakhai continues in A Veil of Spears, the third book in the series. As the conflict between the Kings and the Moonless Host heats up, the united façade of the Kings begins to crack, and Ҫeda seeks a way to free the enslaved asirim.

As in the previous novels, Beaulieu deftly provides the reader with a mix of action and intrigue. There’s also a hefty dose of magic, as the gods play a more active role than they did in the previous books. Sometimes, the middle books in a series have a tendency to slump, but that’s not a problem here.

In addition to giving Davud a larger role, A Veil of Spears introduces a new viewpoint character: Brama, a former thief who now treats those addicted to an opium-like substance. He gets drawn into the battle for Sharakhai when Meryam and Ramahd plot to steal the magical gem he’s been using in his treatments. The expanded cast does force Beaulieu to give some of them shorter shrift than I would have liked—Davud’s plotline gets dropped about two-thirds of the way through the novel—but overall, I enjoyed the new dimension Brama’s involvement brought to the story.

Brama’s introduction is related to a larger development: the incorporation of material from the Shattered Sands novellas. Brama and “his” ehrekh Rümayesh featured in The Tattered Prince and the Demon Veiled and Of Sand and Malice Made, while Leorah’s backstory was given in The Doors at Dusk and Dawn. The narrative summarizes the major events of those stories, so reading them isn’t necessary to understand A Veil of Spears, but familiarity with those works will make the main story richer. Weaving those elements into the main plot creates the impression that the tale is becoming grander, drawing everyone in Sharakhai and the desert into its orbit, whether they want to be there or not.

I pre-ordered A Veil of Spears as soon as it was available, and it has me eagerly looking forward to the next installment. The one minor disappointment I had involves a major revelation at the end of the book, so beware spoilers below:

 

I was happy to see Sümeya joining Ҫeda, because I liked her in the earlier books. I especially liked that she and Ҫeda had feelings for each other and was hoping that this relationship might be rekindled now that they’re on the same side. Love triangles are a dime a dozen in literature, but they almost always assume heterosexuality on the part of all participants. Such a triangle between Emre, Ҫeda, and Sümeya would have been a refreshing change. (And there was also a possibility of Sümeya feeling torn between two women she loves when she inevitably discovers that Nayyan’s still alive.) But with Ҫeda’s discovery that they’re half-sisters, that seems unlikely to happen. Though I do wonder whether Ihsan was being truthful about Ҫeda’s parentage…

“Black Light” by Elizabeth Hand

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After thoroughly enjoying Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall, I jumped at the chance to buy a paperback copy of one of her older books, Black Light, when I came across it in the dealers’ room at a convention. The story takes place in a fictional upstate New York town dominated by the manor of a reclusive, controversial filmmaker. The main character’s father is an old friend of the filmmaker, and when he hosts an elaborate party at his mansion, she finds herself being drawn into a battle whose origins are as old as humanity itself.

Hand does a masterful job of gradually revealing the arcane goings-on in the town of Kamensic. Charlotte (known as Lit) is portrayed as an intelligent but bored teenager who, when she discovers that she’s at the center of something much bigger and stranger than she could ever have imagined, goes from confused and frightened to determined. The author’s note at the end of the book indicates that Hand did a great deal of research for this novel, and it shows in the elaborate mythology she builds for her world. My one stylistic complaint is that the sequence in which Lit wanders through the party, talking to various people, went on for too long.

One thing I found very interesting is the thematic connection between Black Light and Wylding Hall. In both cases, the arts serve as an initiation into arcane secrets, and artistic virtuosos can (intentionally or not) draw the attention of something beyond the human. The filmmaker in this book and the lead singer of the band in Wylding Hall both tap into forces through their work which they can’t entirely control, and which draw in the people around them.

Another intriguing aspect of the story involves some major spoilers, so beware of reading farther…

 

During the scene where Balthazar explains the conflict between the Benandanti and Malandanti to Lit, she notes that a woman who closely resembles her appears over and over in history and art. She asks him if this means she’s different from the consorts Dionysos has chosen in his previous incarnations, and Balthazar doesn’t answer. Her question made me wonder whether Lit might be an avatar of Cybele/Diana/The Mother in the same way that Axel Kern is of Dionysos/The Hunted God. Based on the Amazon blurb, Hand’s Waking the Moon appears to be set in the same universe, and I’m curious to see whether that book will give a solid answer to this question.