Monday, 23 December 2013

Article | When the Present Catches Up

...Inspired by reading a near-future SF novel where the near is becoming progressively "nearer". I can easily imagine that soon, the technology of "Halting State" won't be so far from our own. But what happens when the present does catch up with the imagined future, with the date of that future... or simply with a date at which that future itself looks  outdated?

It's clear that some novels are still successful despite (and some even partly -because- of) this, whereas others prove easily dated. 1984 is long gone, 2001 saw very few space odysseys (to say nothing of 2010), but neither Orwell nor Clarke will fall off our reading lists any time soon! Part of this, I think, is generality, and in this I think softer SF tends to persist better. It latches more onto the fantasy end of the market: views of technology might be easily outdated, but we still want to explore views of humanity - or even just views of a particularly interesting character. The Handmaid's Tale, for instance (though I don't recall whether its epilogue ever set an exact year), I can imagine being read for a long time to come. Regardless of if we use credit cards (which the text mentions), or - I don't know - chips embedded in our fingers (wait, that's horrible, but still), her dystopian vision will still be relevant. While the worldbuilding is always interesting, if a tale doesn't stand as something other than exposition, there isn't much to it - I can imagine a lot of the near future crime SF sticking around.

What about the view of technology itself? Well, it seems to help to defy the current aesthetic: if a novel is just one of hundreds of 70s SF novels all espousing the same vision of the future, it'll date quickly, especially when we reach the set date of said future, and it's completely wrong (meanwhile, there's always room for a quirkily different vision, even if wrong!). As always, it's the different ideas which stand out - whether socially or scientifically. Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan series will be around for a while: plenty have thought up similarly space-operatic futures, but the societies she places in these futures are endlessly inventive. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash (which popularised the word 'avatar') easily stands out from its cyberpunk lookalikes with the franchised USA setting (plus a hefty dose of amazingness. Protagonist as pizza deliverer for the Mob, anyone?).

Thirdly, a lot of the novels which stick around are simply lucky. Nobody can avoid being influenced by their time, and their contemporaries. Just look at the parade of fiction which used nuclear physics as a general do-anything tool, just because it was new! But exactly which of these similar novels or stories ends up defining that time period in the present day is often due to luck, or popularity (I guess there's also an element of which best fits current values as well).

...don't worry, I don't have any particular point in bringing this up - I just think it's interesting to think about which SF novels have stuck around, even when their technological predictions are hopelessly outdated. Any you particularly think will stand the test of time?

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Review | Halting State - Charles Stross

I've always enjoyed Charles Stross' novels - though admittedly, mainly those involving Bob Howard facing more Lovecraftian spywork/the threat of paperclip audits - so I thought it was past time to pick up the first of this series. Halting State is a near-future SF novel, set in a Scotland post secession from the UK, and one in which a puzzling digital crime has been committed. Hayek Associates, economists for online games, have been robbed - ingame, and impossibly, suggesting that somebody has leaked cryptographic keys. Now the local police are involved, and Sergeant Sue Smith has to investigate a virtual robbery. Meanwhile, the insurers are panicking, and so Elaine Barnaby is sent in to gather evidence - paying Jack Reed, an ex game developer, an obscene sum as consultant. In other words, our three protagonists! But nothing's quite that simple: the robbery seems only the start of a larger crime, Jack's relatives are being threatened, and a Hayek programmer has apparently disappeared...

The most unusual thing about Halting State is the way it's told: second person, from three perspectives. I did eventually adjust, but it took longer than I thought it would - it's a little hard to simply drop in and out of. It's also a slow start from a technobabble perspective - as expected from a novel about a technical crime, and one in which the protagonists are experts in their fields, it's a little heavy (overly heavy?) on the jargon to start with, sometimes needlessly. That said, past the first third, the pace accelerated rapidly and I found myself quickly absorbed.

The technothriller aspects of the novel - particularly later - are wonderful, and the way in which the initial crime fits into the larger picture is perfect: as always, Stross' worldbuilding (even in the near future) is both inventive and compelling. But what about characterisation? Despite enjoying Halting State, that's where my second gripe comes in: while both Elaine and Jack's plotlines had clear structures, Sue Smith's perspectives seemed simply there to keep an eye on the police side of things, and tie the others together. In other words, her role seemed far smaller than expected, and I was occasionally left wondering why such a large chunk of the novel was devoted to her viewpoints - while I liked her as a character, it would be nice to have seen her have a more active effect on the plot. That said, all three characters worked well in the setting, and I found Elaine particularly engaging: a businesswomen essentially hung out to dry on a troublesome case by her partners, she's nonetheless determined to make sense of the situation, and definitely manages to take charge. There's also a nice revelation with Jack's character that I didn't see coming, and succeeds - as all good twists should - in really turning things around.

The pacing, meanwhile - post the first third - is well tuned: we're left just enough time to accustom ourselves to a new mystery before the whole issue deepens. And it's just just investigation, don't worry - there's some... inventive (no spoilers, I promise!) action as well. I especially liked how parts of it are set up from the beginning in the worldbuilding: it's not gratuitous, it fits, and more, it clicks (or at least gives you the "I should have seen that coming, but I really couldn't!" feeling, which is the best feeling).

Overall though, Halting State is well worth reading. If you want a fun, well-developed mystery - with some unusual and interesting protagonists thrown in - I'd advise checking it out, with the caveats that it has a slow start, an odd point of view structure, and Sue's plotline meanders a little. While I'd never recommend it over the Laundry series (so far my favourite of Stross' - though I'm looking forward to the Mo book), it'll definitely pass the time enjoyably. 

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Review | The Glass God - Kate Griffin

I’m quickly coming to love Griffin’s new “Magicals Anonymous” series just as much as her Matthew Swift books – and the effect is only bolstered when Swift plays a major role. (I mean, who doesn’t love a man possessed by the gods of the telephone system?) But this time, Swift (the Midnight Mayor, mystical protector of a magical London, etc) is in a new position: he’s the victim.

In fact, he’s disappeared. And Sharon Li, urban shaman, magical community support officer, and newly appointed deputy Midnight Mayor (which even she isn’t sure is a thing), has been given the job of sorting things out. With people disappearing and leaving their shoes behind across the city, and her only clue an umbrella, it’s going to be a hard job.

…And an amazing one to read about. With Magicals Anonymous, Griffin keeps a great deal of the wonderful features of her previous, Swift-focused series – the setting of magical London, even the presence of characters like Swift himself (though Penny Ngwenya is sadly missing from this one!) – while telling stories that Swift never could. Not least the mystery of his own disappearance! But these other features don’t detract from the central fact here: that Sharon Li is an amazing protagonist. She’s forthright, forceful, likeable and even downright optimistic – something that’s become a little rare with the recent trend towards darker fantasy. That’s not to say she’s not a complex character, but seeing a magical London from the point of view of community support is definitely different from that of an urban sorcerer – and just as fun.

The plot is likewise an intriguing one, and Griffin, as always, carries it off smoothly – with one or two minor stretches. Without spoilers, the tendency of certain characters revealing key facts to be silenced, or only reveal a few cryptic words becomes a little overstated, and there is a moment which comes off – to me – as a deus ex machine. That said, it’s after the main thrust of the resolution, so doesn’t ruin the climax, just coming off as a little unlike a character’s abilities in previous books. Belief still firmly suspended!

…and I have to admit, Kelly (another recurring character, and Matthew’s assistant) and other such familiar faces add as much as ever. Rhys, and his and Sharon’s convincingly awkward relationship, is a perennial favourite! While not painted in such detail as in Stray Souls, Sharon’s shaman mentor Sammy is also a lot of fun – loud, impatient, and seemingly with a bad history with most groups in the city.

Overall, Magicals Anonymous is rapidly growing into one of my favourite series. While Sharon Li in Stray Souls was definitely an interesting character, The Glass God definitely sees her hit her stride as a hopeful yet strong protagonist with a unique approach to negotiation (mainly involving an invitation come along to the titular Magicals Anonymous) – refreshingly different to Matthew Swift. It’s imaginative as always, and a few minor plot problems – and an action of Kelly’s which seems to require a follow up/character development, but never receives it – can’t counteract the fact that this is definitely a very worthy read. Basically? It’s a wonderful read. If you’ve read Stray Souls, save a space on your shelf for this one, because it’s one of the best I’ve read this year.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Article | Maintaining Mystery and Mysticality in Magic

...I may have gone over the top on the 'M's in that title.

Anyway, my readthrough of Lois McMaster Bujold's The Hallowed Hunt got me thinking on its magic system, based around the binding of animal spirits, and of course, sacrifice. It's a system tilted towards the 'mysterious' end of the scale, still far from the Gandalf level of opacity but much, much further from -say- Mistborn. And with fantasy seeming to turn more towards the Sanderson-esque rule based systems, I thought it would be worth looking at the benefits of a more mysterious magic system, and what, in the best examples, really makes it work.

Firstly, the best systems - to my mind - balance both aspects. And it all comes back to Sanderson's First Law: "an author's ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic". If the magic is ultimately mysterious - if the reader can't understand its limitations, powers, and abilities at all - then the magic must be irrelevant, it can at most provide some of the book's problems, but never solve them. Take The Lord of the Rings: Gandalf's abilities are enough to be convincing, but for the most part, he's never a real problem solver. And when he does, well, then it comes down to the next element for me:

Price. In order to believe that somebody won't just swoop in and save the day with magic, and to keep that sense of the forbidden, there has to be a price - and a high one. Take George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. Magic is rare, but it does get involved in the plotline, and with consequences. What keeps it from becoming simply another utility (albeit one fairly incomprehensible to the reader)? The cost. It's bloody, largely religious, and nobody in their right mind is going to use it unless they have to. And that helps to maintain it as mystical, rather than a more magical shovel-replacement (as in some high-magic worlds). Rachel Aaron's The Spirit Thief does this by making it dependent on spirits. You want them to do something, and keep doing it? You're going to need leverage, and there's no guarantee someone's not going to forget their "holding up a bridge" bargain.

Another element is specificity. In my opinion, the magic systems which work best at keeping a sense of the mystical are specific, limited to a couple of areas - they're not the "do everything" sorcery of, say, the Dragaera books (which I do love). This ties into the price as well, because if your magic system can do pretty much everything, sooner or later lots of instances are going to crop up where your bloody, high cost magic does become the easier option, and maybe not atmospherically. Magical curses on rival banks? It's going to happen. I loved The Hallowed Hunt's system precisely because it was limited [spoilers!] - Ingrey got a few mystical powers relating to other possessed men and women, but apart from that, it was just the weirding voice: magically commanding people. Constraining your magic helps to keep it mystical.

And lastly, we've talked about how to keep it rare, but keeping it mysterious is more than that. Some of the best systems do it via stories: there's no Mistborn esque, manual-style explanation. Instead, it's more legend and stories: "never open the eighth door on a moonlit night or something bad will happen" rather than "do that and a 40 foot woodworm will devour your books (and you)". Wards off the video game feeling.

Anyway, that's my quick take on the subject - as always, just an opinion, and I'd love to hear what other people think, as well as any recommendations. These are all things my favourite books do when attempting to keep magic at least a little mysterious. Personally, I like rules to my magic - and I like to discover them - but I can't deny that I enjoy a good atmosphere to a story as well, and this, well, helps. Sometimes the best novels are in the middle: the first three Erikson books embody this (don't mention what happens to the magic system after that. Mostly).

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Review | The Hallowed Hunt - Lois McMaster Bujold

Bujold has always been one of my favourite authors - and The Curse of Chalion definitely makes my (entirely imaginary) list of top ten novels: ie. I get a periodic and unavoidable desire to reread it. A lot. The Hallowed Hunt is the third novel set in the Curse of Chalion's world, and with each focusing on one of the world's five gods (Mother, Father, Son, Daughter, and Bastard), Hunt is firmly the Son's book. And it's well worth a read.

Set in the Wealds, an Orthodox Quintarian country built on the remnants of... a much older one. But the Old Wealds aren't quite as dead as all that, and their practices of binding animal spirits aren't either. Ingrey kin Wolfcliff, possessed of - you guessed it - an illegally-bound wolf spirit, is the one who ends up discovering this first hand. When the Lady Ijada kills Prince Boleso in self-defence, Ingrey is sent to escort her for trial - but he rapidly finds out that some unknown power is manipulating both him and Ijada for some unknown purpose, and one intimately involved with the magics of the Old Wealds.

In Bujold's best vein, the characterisation is superb - even if Ingrey isn't quite a Miles Vorkosigan, an Ista, or a Cazaril, he's still a convincing protagonist, and despite his curse, he avoids the worst cases of the "reluctant hero trope". Basically? It avoids cliches and hits believability. Which in turn is something that any reader appreciates! Ijada, similarly, is a great character, and very refreshing in that she reverses the tired old "man constrained by duty, woman urges him to desert obligation..." dynamic: Ijada, of the two, is the one who feels obligated - where Ingrey suggests fleeing the country! Though again, not quite Ista (who in the second half of Paladin of Souls is one of my benchmarks), the pair work well together.

The magic system, on the other hand, feels far darker -and seems more inspired - than that of Paladin: not in the same way as, say, Sanderson. whose intensely imaginative rule-based systems are well known, but more in the sense of what it evokes. Mistborn's magic is one easily imagined, understood in detail. The Hallowed Hunt's brings that sense of mystery: the feeling of the forbidden, brought up through images like those in the Wounded Woods, rather than the pretty lights and the other typical magical trappings.

However, the pacing does falter around the novel's midpoint. This is, to me, essentially due to the novel's antagonist. While unknown, and when known for certain, the suspense is kept high: they're a genuinely interesting, unpredictable adversary. But somewhere in the middle, there's a... gap. The hints as to this antagonist's identity are rather heavy handed, leaving a space where he's essentially known to the reader, but not to the characters, which - for a short time - is a little frustrating. Thankfully, more revelations soon bring an end to this and surprise the reader, putting both reader and characters on an even footing, but it does create a small pause.

Overall? The Hallowed Hunt will never overtake Curse in my affections, but it's definitely a deserving contender for your attention: far from one of Bujold's weaker novels, it's a fast paced read with a well-matched duo, one of the darker and more mystical magics I've seen (and if you like the atmospheric in fantasy, take your cue here!), and a convincing (though mainly angst free, in the long-winded sense at least) dilemma. Ingrey isn't sure if the gods are on his side or if he's part of a sacrifice play, and better, nor is the reader. For that alone I'd read it!

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Review | The String Diaries - Stephen Lloyd Jones

The String Diaries is an urban fantasy, but this time - thankfully - minus the vampires! I love a myth as much as anyone, and The String Diaries finds fresh ground in its particular subject: shapechangers, but in this case, into other humans. But we're getting ahead of ourselves:

According to the blurb, String Diaries follows two protagonists: Charles Meredith, an Oxford professor who find his library table taken (don't ask), inevitably gets dragged into a car chase (really don't ask), and from there into the myth of the story, as well as the life of Nicole Dubois. But in reality, the real focus is on Hannah, his daughter. She's on the run, pursued by a mysterious figure named only Jakab - apparently a shapechanger, and one passed down through the family - and trying to protect her daughter.

Although focus might be a stronger word than really necessary, because The String Diaries takes the long view: telling the story of Jakab and his relationship with the family, told in the titular diaries. That's not to say it isn't engrossing: it is, and Jakab makes a twisted yet understandable villain. Exploring the history of Jakab's people; the book's backstory is particularly interesting - but while generally far from plain exposition, it does flirt with it at times, so can be a little uneven. Nevertheless, it's a very nice touch in an urban fantasy, where the background can sometimes suffer in relation to the action.

That's not to say the action suffers. Generally, the tension and suspense are high, and there are some truly graphic moments when the action comes - lost on me (squeamish me, I'm afraid!), but certainly well written. That said, some characters are insufficiently built up for attachment - the husband, for instance - and a larger complaint would be an insufficiently built up moment in itself: in other words, a revelation which, without much foreshadowing, comes off as simply deus-ex-machina (especially since it resolves, well, rather a lot).

Despite its quirks and the occasional flaw, The String Diaries is intensely readable: I raced through it. It's a readable urban fantasy with likeable characters and a bit more depth than most. And if you want a villain? Jakab's your man/shapechanger. 

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Review | The Long Earth - Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

As yet, I've never truly gotten into Baxter's work - but after this particular collaboration, I'm very tempted to.  A read with an oddly utopian bent, The Long Earth definitely won't be for everyone - but it was for me. It takes as its basis that staple of SF, alternate universes. The twist? Those of The Long Earth are empty of humanity, and correspondingly, its history (no alternate history here... mostly). Though a few of its relatives remain...

The Long Earth's history diverges from ours fully on Step Day, when a public blueprint for a 'stepper', a device allowing travel between these parallel universes, is released, and Earth responds... interestingly. New frontiers open up - bands populating the remote worlds with human settlements. Some Earth countries empty entirely. Some religions seek their respective paradises out in the Long Earth. And the Black Corporation and its partner, Lobsang (a Tibetan AI), decide to venture far into the Long Earth with the assistance of a 'natural stepper', Joshua, who does not require a device to step. This is the major plotline, but there's a loose focus here: there are a number of viewpoints, from a policewoman tasked with dealing with the threat of parallel worlds, to a secretary who simply disappears into the Long Earth, many of which are one-time-only.

It's more utopian than you'd expect. Humanity, away from the pressures of Earth, seems to treat each other - and its relatives - well: and honestly, after the dystopian trend of recent days, is kind of relaxing. The journey of Lobsang and Joshua is just that: a journey, not a war, more discovery than adventure. That's not to say it's tedious. Parallel universes containing every Earth that could be? Far from it. And it's frequently broken up with other viewpoints. But The Long Earth is not a fast paced novel. It's fresh, interesting, and a read for when you have a spare afternoon: not five minutes of excitement, which can be equally entertaining.

What of the characters? Well, suffice to say there seems more of Baxter than Pratchett about them - if you're looking for the wry, comic dialogue of Discworld, you'll be disappointed (there's no Vetinari here). But Lobsang and Joshua, and someone who I really won't spoil, play off each other well. Joshua is an interesting character. Born in another world, he's drawn to silence, and has... unusual instincts and desires in exploring the Long Earth - and interacts wonderfully with the more-than-human Lobsang, also with concerns for more than profit, but with an entirely different viewpoint. And thankfully, the cameos are a varied lot: telling a bit more of Earth's story, post Step Day, but this method of storytelling relies on that very variety to keep it interesting. And it succeeds.

There is a drive though. A threat, a mystery (or dozen), and the actions of those stuck on Earth combine to ensure that - however utopian - this novel is certainly not without compulsion. It is, however, without (much) resolution, and left me eagerly anticipating its sequel, so those who want at least some resolution might want to wait for that particular followup! But that aside, The Long Earth is a quirky book I have no hesitation in recommending - as long as you're prepared for more journey than action, and less cynicism than SF's used to. I enjoyed both, but they're not for everyone, and the cameo viewpoint style is - again - polarising.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Review | Herald of the Storm - Richard Ford

Ford's second novel, and in a very different subgenre from his first - the engaging, steampunky Kultus, which I reviewed back here - Herald of the Storm is an epic fantasy with some interesting twists on the genre. Still, the initial setting is a familiar one: a union of states, an east-west divide (while not dwelt on, I did find this slightly disappointing - barely moving beyond stereotype for the titular herald's eastern background), and a threatening horde. Said horde is currently at war with King Cael, the novel's absent monarch, leaving the city we're concerned with - Steelhaven - stripped of troops, sought by refugees, and preyed on by the Guild (an organisation of occasionally organised thieves). And here's where our story starts to move beyond the typical.
With the characters.

Princess Janessa's first thoughts might seem predictable - an arranged marriage which is entirely undesirable, a distrust of her father's councillor, Odaka. But her arc is far more about a growing role and responsibility in the city - something rarely glimpsed in fantasy's monarchs (which, not to put too fine a point on it, seem to spend more than half their typical books attempting to flee their countries!), and certainly a much more interesting role than the 'rebellious princess' stereotype.

And since this is epic fantasy, there are a few characters. Quite a few. From Kaira, a religious warrior on a mission to infiltrate the city's Guild, to Waylian, a student despairing of ever mastering magic, but dragged into an investigation of black magic in the city. This is both one of the novel's main strengths and its biggest weakness. The multiple plotlines are frequently engaging, and offer a great deal of variety: deftly handled by Ford, nothing is ever allowed to grow dull. There's plenty here for everyone - from (not quite Lynch-style) organised crime, to a learning ruler, to a murder investigation. The weakness? For certain characters, there's a bit of a The Way of Kings analogue: similarly to Sanderson's novels, some plotlines are shorter and read more as an extended character introduction for later novels. This isn't something I object to, but readers interested in some resolution all round might want to hold out for a book or two.

But Ford's talent here, far more so than in Kultus, is the emotional depth of some of his scenarios. Triumph is not unadulterated with regret, and that's another refreshing addition: unlike the abstract Tolkienesque attempts of some "the Elf magic is fading away" plotline, one or two of these are character based and far more powerful for it. While not quite Guy Gavriel Kay, Ford definitely has a knack for this, and I hope this keeps up throughout the series.

Since I'm - well - me, you might expect a certain degree of interest in the magic system. Sorry, I'm not subverting reviewing conventions today: and Herald's system, belying a recent trend, leans firmly towards the mysterious side. That's not a bad thing. Since it's infrequently used, and a decent price is apparent, it works well - though I won't spoil which tidbits we do receive, let's say that it's certainly something whose revelation I anticipate tying further into the series. This isn't Sanderson-esque: but if you like a certain thrill of the forbidden with your magic, the atmosphere which comes with it, this may well be your kind of novel.

Make no mistake, this is a series though - and though many plotlines do have a resolution, particularly emotionally, there is a large element of anticipation. Confrontations, mysterious orders... It's clear the next novel will be one to watch out for. While sticking to a few conventions (particularly in the world, though I'm pleased to note the Odaka plotline avoided stereotype - because in a great deal of fantasy, a trusted councillor is essentially a synonym for "guilty as all hell"), Herald of the Storm generally manages to put its own spin on the subgenre, and the sheer variety of its subplots is a noteworthy quality in itself. In a subgenre often bogged down in convention, Herald is a breath of fresh air. And especially since the female characters got a great deal of said subversion of roles, there's a lot to be said for it.

The verdict? Definitely a recommended read!