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January 22, 1979

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  1. The Resurrectionist of Caligo by Wendy Trimboli & Alicia Zaloga

    13 November 2019 - 04:09 PM

    The Resurrectionist of Caligo by Wendy Trimboli & Alicia Zaloga


    Roger Weathersby was once a promising surgical student but he is now a "resurrectionist," a corpse-stealer who takes the recently interred to medical schools to further the cause of science. One such incident leads Roger to investigate a spate of similar deaths and rumours of a serial killer at work. Roger's investigation sees him framed as the serial killer. It falls to his brother and Sibylla, a princess of the realm, to help clear his name and allow him to find the true murderer.

    The Resurrectionist of Caligo is the joint debut novel by Wendy Trimboli and Alicia Zaloga. It mixes elements of Gothic fiction, steampunk, Victoriana and outright secondary world fantasy, with moments that recall China Mieville but an atmosphere all of it own.

    I hadn't heard of the novel prior to randomly wandering into the book's launch party at the Dublin WorldCon in August, and was intrigued enough by the premise to pick the book up. It's proven to be an unexpected delight, a compelling novel with one of the most standard plots you can imagine - an innocent (but not flawless) protagonist framed for a crime he didn't commit, with him and his colleagues trying to clear his name - but set in a vivid and interesting world.

    The book engages with a variety of themes across its length. Class struggle is a key point: the rich and powerful get the best medical attention and the best protection whilst the poor are left to suffer and die without acknowledgement. Class responsibility also comes into play: the nobles of the country of Myrcina (of which Caligo is the capital) are shocking arrogant and feel they have no obligations to their servants, whilst the neighbouring empire of Khalishkha has a very different attitude. Myrcina is also sexist and backwards, again whilst Khalishkha appears to be more enlightened.

    The novel is told entirely from two POVs. Roger is a surprisingly unsympathetic protagonist. He is arrogant, overconfident, embittered and has enough chips on his solider to open a restaurant. He is also intelligent and principled, and his real plight is powerfully realised in the prose. The authors take a risk making Roger an at times difficult-to-like lead character, but it gives him a more discernible personality and also creates a more interesting arc for character change and growth.

    Sibylla is an altogether more interesting protagonist with more agency, despite her station (as several steps removed from the throne) and gender working against her in this world. Watching Sibylla negotiate delicate matters of state and international diplomacy is fun, as she has a lot more charm, wit and finesse than Roger, whose approach is often more of a bull in a china shop.

    The book also features some pretty good worldbuilding. Caligo is depicted in all its glory, a city of dimly lit cobbled streets, back-alley gangs and eerie mausoleums, as well as colourful palaces and dingy gaols. The wider world is also described in more detail than expected, with plenty of references to historical events and personages. As a result, the book feels part of a larger tapestry, one that the ending suggests we will get to see more of (a sequel is implied, but not necessary).

    The Resurrectionist of Caligo (****) is a superb debut novel, well-written and compelling with fascinating characters and worldbuilding. If it has a weakness, it's that one of the two protagonists can be a little grating and the book can't quite avoid a couple of cliches along the way. But the prose is great, the pacing brisk and the storytelling accomplished. The book is available now in the UK and USA.
  2. Gods of Jade & Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

    05 November 2019 - 08:10 PM

    Gods of Jade & Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia


    Mexico, 1927. Casiopeia Tun lives in her uncle's house, where she is treated as little better than a servant. She is demeaned and belittled by everyone, especially her cousin Martín. Casiopeia's fortunes abruptly change when she finds a trunk in her uncle's bedroom which is actually the prison of a powerful being: the Mayan God of the Dead Hun-Kamé. Casiopeia is unwillingly roped into becoming the god's guide and mortal helper as he seeks to find the body parts and treasures removed by his usurper brother...who now sets Martín on Casiopeia's trail.

    Gods of Jade and Shadow is the fourth novel by Canadian author Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a heady period fairy tale which embraces Mayan mythology, the Jazz Age of the 1920s United States and Mexico and combines them into a richly compelling adventure.

    The novel is effectively a road trip: Casiopeia gets to flee her abusive home, which is good, but only because she's been roped into helping a manipulative and dark god into helping him reclaim his throne, which is less good. As the story unfolds, the link between Casiopeia and Hun-Kamé becomes more pronounced, causing the god to become more human and less infallible, but also more capable of appreciating the beauty of the mortal world.

    As well as the road trip element, the story is also one about family: Casiopeia despises and hates her family, but it's also the only world she's ever known. Hun-Kamé was betrayed by his brother and yearns for blood and vengeance, even though it will only perpetuate the cycle of hatred that has led to this impasse. The novel does a great job of contrasting the development of the two characters as they grow from their shared experiences, even the one of them who is an immortal.

    The book reminded me somewhat of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, although in this case the novel benefits from a much tighter focus on a much smaller cast and on the Mayan mythology alone (and only being around half as long). The interaction of gods and mortals in the almost-modern world is intriguing and there's a galaxy of vivid supporting characters, humans, gods and demons alike, such as the amusingly mischievous Loray (who it feels could get his own spin-off book).

    The book unfolds with verve and grace: at 330 pages it doesn't hang around and the story is related at a clip. At times I felt the book was too fast: the page count doesn't quite allow the author to fully explore the characters and their moral situations they find themselves in and also relate all the necessary mythology-building. Again, it feels like more could be done with this world, although the author sounds reluctant to embark on a sequel.

    Gods of Jade and Shadow (****) is a enjoyable, gripping novel with a strong, small cast of characters and which unfolds with skill and pace. It is let down a little by being slightly too short and not perhaps being able to fully explore all the elements of the story and worldbuilding, but it's still a fun, compelling read.
  3. The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley

    27 October 2019 - 03:03 PM

    The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley


    The Big Six - the mega-corporations that rule Earth - are at war with the colonists on Mars, who have rebelled and unleashed a horrendous attack on Earth that has devastated an entire city. Thousands of the young and dispossessed are recruited into the corporate armies and transported by FTL to Mars and other places on Earth to fight the enemy. But for one recruit, Dietz, the war they are fighting is not the same as everyone else. The jumps send Dietz backwards and forwards through the conflict at random, but the question is if they can change the future and stop the war?

    If there's one constant about science fiction, it's the acknowledgement that in the future people will still have to go to war and fight wars of varying degrees of pointlessness. The weapons and technology may change but the horror and loss will remain the same. SF has a fertile backlog of novels which have looked at war through the prism of new technology: Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959), Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero (1965), Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (1974), Hiroshi Sakurazaka's All You Need is Kill (2004, filmed in 2014 as Edge of Tomorrow) and John Scalzi's Old Man's War (2005) are among the most notable. Each takes a different approach - Harrison's is satirical, Haldeman's is tragic - to the same basic idea of people fighting and dying for causes both noble and foolish.

    The Light Brigade is Kameron Hurley's contribution to this subgenre. It is her second stand-alone SF novel (after the fine The Stars Are Legion) and the first which moves away from seeking out brand new ideas and settings to adopting a more classic SF approach.

    The result is an unbounded triumph. The Last Brigade is Hurley's finest novel to date, a fast-moving, intelligent science fiction war story that reflects on the pointlessness of war, the evils of unflinching jingoism and the cynicism of corporate culture. It's also a remarkable character piece, all the more remarkable because the book hides a lot about its protagonist, peeling back the layers one light-jump at a time as we learn more about them and the war as they are experiencing it.

    As with her previous work, this is a book that feels angry, with the characters trapped in situations beyond their control and trying to find a way out. Dietz is resourceful, courageous and occasionally hot-headed (although not as much as some of Hurley's previous protagonists) and as bewildered as the reader at what is going on, and it's interesting to see the character putting the pieces together at the same time the reader does. The reader comes to understand the story even as Dietz does, and also understands their own nature.

    The book is fast-paced, with a relentless pace, but which also breaks up the action into distinct episodes as Dietz finds themselves in a new time period and has to work out how events in this time period are relating to those previously experienced. The book asks some interesting questions about control and volition and the first half of the novel can feel a little passive, as Dietz is reactive to events, but this changes in the second half as Dietz is grounded in several of the time periods and is able to spend months at a time working on ideas to see if the future (or the past) can be changed. The result is that the book is thoughtful and action-packed by turns, with a strong ending that succeeds in making sense of all that came before.

    The Light Brigade (*****) is a superlative SF novel of science and war and Kameron Hurley's finest novel to date. The book is available now in the UK and USA.
  4. The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

    10 October 2019 - 08:10 PM

    The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley


    War is raging for control of the Legion, a fleet of organic world-ships travelling on a journey so long nobody can remember when it started or what their destination is. The amnesiac Zan, a soldier of the world-ship Katzyrna, is told she must lead an assault on the Mokshi to claim it and its secrets, but the Katzyrna is also at war with the world-ship Bhavaja, whose ruler is playing their own game. As the rulers of the Legion scheme and feud with one another, Zan finds herself outcast and having to make her own way home...and discover who she is at the same time.

    The Stars Are Legion is a stand-alone novel from Kameron Hurley, the author of the excellent Worldbreaker Saga and the even more excellent Bel Dame Apocrypha. Like the Bel Dame Apocrypha (which, it occurs, could take place in the same universe), The Stars Are Legion mixes elements of science fiction and fantasy. The setting, the space battles and elements such as genetic engineering all borrow from SF, but the journey through a grotesque land of the bizarre and the ultra-advanced technology which seems indistinguishable from magic borrows much more from fantasy.

    Although the worldbuilding is strange, the set-up is fairly standard: we have an amnesiac protagonist who finds her surroundings as whacked-out as we do, and through her we learn more about the world than if we were joining the action in a more traditional manner. Zan's chapters alternate with those of Jayd, Zan's friend and lover who still has her memory intact, allowing us to start piecing together what is going on from incomplete information. Early on it's clear that Zan is a fighter and grunt of unparalleled resourcefulness, with a slightly reckless streak, whilst Jayd is much more a strategist and tactician, with a remarkable gift for planning ahead, although she also tends to underestimate others' own strategic skills and reacts less well to new developments.

    Our two protagonists are both interesting figures whose differing natures are highlighted by circumstance: Zan is cast into the depths of the world-ship Katzyrna and has to make her way back home through mysterious locations, a clear parallel to Orpheus returning from the Underworld (or Jack Vance's Cugel the Clever making his way back from the edge of the world...twice!), whilst Jayd has to play a much more cautious game of politic intrigue and deception between powerful warlords who could kill her in an instant, if they didn't crave the power she possesses.

    The unusual setting - the organic technology which powers everything from weapons to ships to recycling systems is quite spectacularly revolting - is rich and evocative, and the plot ticks along with a nice sense of pace. Hurley's gift is a furious sense of character and atmosphere, and the The Stars Are Legion contains plenty of examples of that gift. However, as the book ticks down to its well-executed ending, it does feel like the book lacks just a little bit of the extra exposition needed to establish the setting a bit better. After her first two fantasy series, it's clear that Hurley isn't a huge fan of the infodump school of exposition, but those series also had the time over multiple volumes to establish their worlds in greater depth. The Stars Are Legion can't do that, and I finished the book with a broad understanding of what happened but some worldbuilding elements still felt a bit fuzzy. Some complaints I've seen that the Legion's origins and destination aren't explained at all (although a children's storybook hints that the Legion may have originated on a planet like ours, many thousands of years earlier) I didn't feel were particularly valid, though. The setting is perfectly adequate to the story being told.

    The Stars Are Legion (****) lacks the epic scope of Hurley's other work, but makes up for it with a great sense of focus and pace. The novel is available in the UK and USA now.
  5. The Witcher by Andrzej Sapkowski

    08 October 2019 - 04:05 PM

    The Witcher #1: The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski


    Geralt is a witcher, a hunter of monsters in return for coin. He wanders the northern kingdoms with a trusty steed (always named Roach) and mingles with everyone from kings and generals to sorcerers and vagabonds. Several times Geralt's path crosses that of the powerful, from saving the daughter of King Foltest of Temeria who has been turned into a monstrous striga to resolving a delicate matter for Queen Calanthe of Cintra. But Geralt's destiny is changed when he demands a strange price from Queen Calanthe and makes the acquaintance of a powerful sorceress, Yennefer.

    The Last Wish (1993, a re-edited version of The Witcher, 1990) is the first book in Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher series (which currently runs to eight volumes), although it is not a novel as such. Instead, it is a closely-linked series of short stories, related by Geralt as he recovers from a pitched battle with a striga. The stories work well as stand-alone adventures, but they are also useful in establishing Geralt's character and the tone and nature of the world he inhabits. There is also much scene-setting for the later books featuring the character.

    Geralt's world is tough, cold and brutal, drawing more directly on European folklore, fairy tales and mythology than the norm. It's also a world of grudging honour, well-earned fellowship and occasional heroism. Geralt is an entertaining protagonist, being taciturn, cynical and world-weary but also has a wry sense of humour, an enjoyment of good ale and a well-hidden yearning for romance.

    The stories themselves vary in tone but the quality is pretty consistent. There's an undercurrent of whimsical humour in the stories that is very reminiscent of Jack Vance. Like Vance, Sapkowski successfully creates a world where his characters feel totally at home. This world is a mix of the traditional Dungeon & Dragons landscape of elves, dwarves and evil wizards, and of darker fairy tales. In this manner the stories' tone and atmosphere is very similar to that of Vance's superb Lyonesse Trilogy, although Sapkowski is not as continuously and unrelentingly funny as Vance; he also lacks Vance's gift for intricate wordplay. That said, when the book is funny it's very funny indeed. The comic highlight comes when Geralt and his sometimes travelling troubadour companion Dandillion are confronted by some kind of bizarre goat-man entity whose preferred method of combat is to pelt attackers with iron balls. Under strict instructions not to kill anything in the area, Geralt has to engage the goat-man in a particularly preposterous wrestling match. Sapkowski also employs Vance's melancholy aspect, such as Geralt's musings on a world where the fantastical is dying and the mundane is taking over.

    The translation appears to be adequate, although Polish commentators seem more dubious, and the general feeling is that David French (who translated the later books) does a better job than Danusia Stok (who translates The Last Wish and Blood of Elves, the first and third books in the series). There's occasional awkward moments (the noble Hereward's rank changes from Prince to Duke at random; sometimes words are repeated very close together) but the stories come through feeling very fresh and energetic. Sapkowski is very good at creating interesting, imaginative characters with unusual levels of depth to them, not least Geralt, whom people are consistently underestimating. Early stories feel slightly repetitive, with Geralt unleashing bloody mayhem to win the day, but in the second half of the book there is a shift in tone with Geralt employing more imaginative methods to overcome the obstacles in his path. There is a great deal left unsaid in the stories in the book: we see the start of Geralt's relationship with the sorceress Yennefer but not its later development, and have to put together what happened with the help of Geralt's thought processes in the framing story. This helps make the book more immersive and less reliant on exposition.

    The Witcher series also consists of a trilogy of well-regarded and very high-selling video games. Players of the games will appreciate the background to the characters provided here (although Sapkowski does not consider the games to be canon).

    The Last Wish (****) is an enjoyable book full of stories both melancholy and comic, establishing a world and cast of characters that is very intriguing. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. A Netflix TV series based on the books is expected to debut in November 2019.



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    22 Jan 2019 - 11:51
    Dun dun dunnnnn ...
    Have a good one.
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    22 Jan 2018 - 08:24
    Same as below. Better make it a good one because it's 40 next year.
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    22 Jan 2010 - 15:32
    Happy Birthday, now go out and get wrecked :)
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