Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Why You Should Read | Widdershins - Kate Ashwin

I've ventured into SFF-y music before, but today it's time to take a look at a webcomic, and one of my personal favourites at that: Widdershins, by Kate Ashwin. And as for why this isn't a review? Well, it's simply because I long ago decided that Widdershins is pretty wonderful indeed, so this'll be more in the nature of a recommendation. A very long recommendation.

Widdershins is a steampunk-flavoured fantasy webcomic set in the eponymous town - a city where the presence of an 'anchor' amplifies supernatural talents, allowing spirits to be summoned and imbued into various devices (impatience really does help the trains run on time - at least when the rails are imbued with it). And as expected, it's rather a hub for weirdness of all sorts. The webcomic tells its story in short arcs - and while there are only five so far, it's clear that the short stories are linked (and two have been direct sequels), with recurring characters. I was initially a little worried about whether this would occur - while I do love a short story from time to time, my preference is always for a longer term character investment, and we're definitely getting that here. A
nd what's more, the linked tales form a larger arc. I won't be spoiling anything, but according to the author, there'll be seven in the first main plotline. The stories so far have ranged from 59 to 106 pages in length, so don't worry, there's plenty of time for development within each. In fact, the structure's always been a positive addition for me, giving plenty of aspects of Widdershins (from a run-down hotel seeking out chefs through rather... arcane means, to a company exorcising botched summons) their own space, and providing your regular dose of plotline resolution (something that can easily slip in a webcomic).

So, why should you read Widdershins? Here's a run down:

A moment involving giraffes.
- Did you not hear 'steampunk'? I kid, but Kate Ashwin's art really brings the aesthetic to life. While it's more 'Victoriana-with-a-flourish' than full blown 'airships for all' steampunk (ie. the occasional clockwork contraption), it's a wonderful look (and I doubt many could deny that a number of characters are looking very... dapper). More importantly, it's diverse steampunk - something the subgenre has often failed at in the past. Her take on magical England includes several protagonists who are PoC (including the rather awesome Alexa King), and of course, a number of wonderful female characters (I always look forward to Harry's moments. Especially those including giraffes - and further, she's allowed to exist without apology while representing a character type that's sadly normally portrayed as male-only, which I rather love). As far as LGBTQIA+ goes, it's also promising, though not to the same extent: Mal is asexual (Word of God here), Nicola - though not as yet a main character - lesbian, and there's a gay couple in Piece of Cake, the fourth story. Altogether, it's a very welcome addition, and I can only cheer it on!
Sidney's introduction. It's not hopeful?

- A unique magic system. I know, I know - I'm always interested in the magic. But Widdershins' sorcery involves the conjuring of spirits and emotions, and it's a rather interesting one (especially when rather nastier emotions - greed and sloth for example - get involved). Mechanical insects? Imbue them and maybe they'll fly. A bracelet for the King of Thieves? A bit of greed, and it won't leave its owner until they're dead. But unusually, it also deals with what happens, and who has to deal with it (hint: lowly council employees) when it goes wrong. 'Malforms', or more commonly 'buggerups' are botched summonings, and a major storyline involves some protagonists being enlisted to take care of them. What's more, it's apparent there's more to the system, and we seem to be learning more fragments with every story - and I'm looking forward to every word of it.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Review | Ancillary Justice - Ann Leckie

I first came to hear of Ancillary Justice through Alex MacFarlane's excellent series on Post-Binary Gender in SF, over at Tor.com - and next thing I knew, all my friends were raving about it. Of course I had to pick it up (that, and everyone was telling me I should - I can take hints :P ). And did it live up to the hype? I'm afraid it's an unequivocal yes, and I'm just going to have to join the queue in recommending it. Shoo, go read the thing already... Oh, you need a little more persuasion? Well, here's the actual review.

Ancillary Justice is the story of Breq, a soldier once part of a vast, artificial intelligence: the ship Justice of Toren. A military AI in the service of the Radch, a civilisation that conquered a large section of the galaxy, Justice of Toren was betrayed - and now Breq, the last of the ship's bodies, is poised to achieve revenge. But on her way, Breq meets Seivarden, a former (and much disliked) officer of hers, and suddenly things become complicated. Well, more complicated - there's already galactic politics, aliens, conspiracies and a multiplicity of bodies involved.

Breq's journey is an interesting one, and uniquely written - both from the perspective of an individual body (Breq, or One Esk), and from the other in the equation: the starship, controlling many such bodies. Leckie manages to pull both off well, with some distinction between the two. As a Radchaai-constructed AI, she's an outsider throughout much of the book, allowing an interesting perspective on the different societies. And that leads us neatly on to the interesting things done with gender... In Radchaai society, gender is not linguistically denoted - only a single pronoun is used, and it's (at least to me) unclear whether the majority of the Radchaai identify as non-gendered (at the very least it's implied that some do, and a welcome disassociation between gender and body implied by one brief explanation of the systems in place for parenting, though this might be me reading too much into it), or whether it's simply considered a private matter. At any rate, our protagonist finds the need to guess gender in the other societies glimpsed difficult. In the narrative, 'she' is used as a default pronoun, which I found rather striking - when 'he' is considered an acceptable default in so much of modern society, and even in other SF novels, it's a useful and rather powerful choice. However, you can read some much better thoughts on it in Alex MacFarlane's post on it here - I agree with her in that using a non-gendered pronoun would better reflect the society, and be more interesting in that respect. At any rate, Ancillary Justice does the matter - well, justice. Sorry. I couldn't resist that one.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Article | The Magic of Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell"

If you've been reading this blog for a while (or if you know me in real life, in which case, have my commiserations as well ;) ), you probably know of my love for magic systems. You might even know of my love for Susanna Clarke's wonderful Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (which made one of my very first posts on this blog, back in the darkness of the Deep Archive In Which I May Not Look For Fear Of My Old Writing). Well, that fated day has come. Today, I combine the two!

The cover of my newly acquired
replacement copy! (Black page edges
 - does it get better?The answer is
Or, in less dramatic terms: I just finished rereading it, I'm full of excitement for the BBC adaptation, and talking about magic is always fun.

It's often stated that the more mystical magic systems don't get to play much of a role in plot resolution - pithily stated in Sanderson's First Law:

"Sanderson’s First Law of Magics: An author’s ability to solve conflict with magic is DIRECTLY PROPORTIONAL to how well the reader understands said magic."

But what about Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell? For those who haven't read it, magic permeates the book - both of the titular characters are magicians, and involved in the return of English magic from its supposed demise. And yet, the magic is profoundly mystical: we're allowed to know a little of it, and a few of the spells that Norrell and Strange use most often (moving roads about, scrying, etc) - and yet, when it comes to the magic at the heart of it, the wonderful imagery of the Raven King and his alliances with stones, woods, and the elements, we know almost nothing. So how does Clarke manage it? The first part is in creating conflict outside the magicians' expertise, even conflicts of manners rather than magic. To quote: 
"Can a magician kill a man by magic?" Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. "I suppose a magician might," he admitted, "but a gentleman never could." 
While much of the time, magic could be used to circumvent a problem, its use is often prohibited - often by its public perception. When Norrell brings magic into the Strange/Norrell schism, magically wiping the contents of Strange's newly published book, he meets with massive public disapproval. A great deal of the conflict in the book is character-based, personal rather than public, and centres about their relationship, and so the novel is able to be soft magic-dense without removing any sense of tension.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Review and Thoughts | Words of Radiance - Brandon Sanderson

The US cover of Words of Radiance.
This one's been a while coming! But it's time to finally conjure up some thoughts beyond "SHALLAN BOOK YAY". For those who haven't read the first in the series, The Way of Kings, Shallan is the ward and pupil of Jasnah Kholin - a member of the Alethi royal family. Shallan's plotline in the first involved deceit, a great deal of scholarship, and some wonderful drawings of the local flora and fauna (included in the book) - a far more complex character than she at first seemed, she's also by far my favourite of the series. (Plus, libraries. What can I say? It's Lirael all over again). In the planned ten book Stormlight Archive series, Sanderson is giving each book a character focus, with a set of dedicated flashback chapters. For Words of Radiance, these are Shallan's, explaining my initial reaction. But there's a lot more to the book than that, so let's get started. A word of warning, however: as WoR is a direct sequel to The Way of Kings, there will be unavoidable spoilers for the previous book.