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January 22, 1979

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  1. A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine

    23 May 2020 - 01:05 PM

    A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine


    Mahit Dzmare has been appointed as the new ambassador from Lsel Station to the homeworld of the vast Teixcalaanli Empire. The previous ambassador has gone silent under unusual circumstances and Mahit's job is to find out what happened to him and why he failed to return home for fifteen years prior and how he has maintained Lsel's independence. Mahit's mission is complicated by a malfunctioning implant containing the memories of her predecessor (fifteen years out of date) and by an internal web of politics within the Empire which threatens to undermine Lsel's position...whilst factions on Lsel itself are interfering with her work from afar.

    A Memory Called Empire is the debut novel by Arkady Martine and the first part of a loosely-connected duology (a second book, A Desolation Called Peace, will be published in early 2021). It is a far-future, science fiction epic revolving around the Teixcalaanli, a civilisation that fuses cyberpunk technology (though with a proscription against brain implants) and Aztec and Mongol cultural influences.

    As is always handy when introducing an alien new culture, our POV character is herself an outsider. Mahit hails from a much more practical, pragmatic society based inside a space station, a self-regulating habitat which is totally technology-dependent with no single points of failure. Every time someone dies, their memories and something of their personality are implanted in a successor, who gains access to their lifetime's knowledge and experience and can start building on it. As such every life is inherently important, as it contributes materially to the development of the culture and society as a whole. This is the inverse of Teixcalaanli, where brain implants are seen as anathema and the society is much more inherently conservative: with access to amazing technology which could be used to create entertainment, their primary cultural obsession remains poetry.

    There's a lot of clever ideas floating around in A Memory Called Empire. The philosophical concept of identity and how it is built from memory and cultural influences is a key part of the text, but one this explored subtly and intelligently throughout. There is also a fair bit of worldbuilding of the Teixcalaanli and their homeworld, which is mostly achieved through plot developments and action. Infodumping is occasional but fortunately rare. Characterisation is strong, as Mahit expertly chooses which sides of herself (and her culture) to show to the Teixcalaanli, and is not above preying on their instinct that she is an uncultured barbarian from a society with nothing to offer.

    A few people have drawn similarities in tone to Ann Leckie's 2013 debut, Ancillary Justice. I think there are a few such comparisons to be made, mainly down to the idea of a technology-driven identity crises, but A Memory Called Empire is also a stronger book, and in particular it does a much, much better job of laying pipework for a sequel whilst being a complete novel in itself (Ancillary Justice was very much a strong stand-alone somewhat undermined by two lacklustre and unnecessary sequels). I think comparisons to the work of Lois McMaster Bujold and to China Mieville's SF novel Embassytown can also be drawn, with regards to how identity, history and language are interrelated concepts which can define people as individuals and a culture.

    If I did have one complaint it would be that the ending feels a little neat (I'm not sure if a symbolic gesture would be really enough to get a determined enemy commanding a vastly superior army to surrender) and abrupt, but Martine does enough good work here to make the semi-sequel an immediate buy.

    A Memory Called Empire (****½) is a striking debut novel which muses on big questions and wraps them around a compelling story that is part identity crisis and part socio-political thriller. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.
  2. The Lyonesse Trilogy by Jack Vance

    18 May 2020 - 01:24 PM

    Book I: Suldrun's Garden


    A time of myth and magic, after the fall of Rome but before the rise of Camelot. The Elder Isles, located in what people would later call the Bay of Biscay, are riven by political intrigue. King Casmir of Lyonesse desires to unite the ten kingdoms of the islands under his rule, but his ambitions are contested by the naval power of Troicinet and the neighbouring kingdom of Dahaut, whilst the implacable Ska prowl along the coasts. Casmir seeks to make a match for his daughter Suldrun to bring him advantage, but Suldrun is unconcerned with politics, instead preferring the solace of her favourite garden. When a young man is washed ashore and is rescued by Suldrun, the fate of the Elder Isles is abruptly changed.

    Discussions of Jack Vance tend to focus on his Dying Earth quartet, published irregularly between 1950 and 1984, which had a permanent and transformative effect on the entire genre of the fantastic, influencing everything from Dungeons and Dragons to Dune to The Broken Earth Trilogy. Although a grand work, the Dying Earth series suffers from an inconsistency of tone and quality and, as an older one, parts of it have not aged as well as others.

    The Lyonesse Trilogy (Suldrun's Garden, The Green Pearl and Madouc) is lesser-known but more accomplished, as its World Fantasy Award attests. The trilogy was written much later in Vance's career (began in his late sixties, concluded when he was 75), when he was still at the height of his powers, and unlike his other major series (Dying Earth and The Demon Princes) he did not let decades elapse between volumes, resulting in a much more focused, consistent and coherent story.

    The setting is a fictional, large archipelago of islands off the south-western coast of Britain. It is here that the storied Ys, Avallon, Hybras (or Hy-Brasil) or Lyonesse of Arthurian legend may be found, although the events of Arthur are still several generations off. Instead, the Elder Isles are riven by multiple conflicts. In the temporal world, the islands are divided between ten kingdoms, all threatened by the invading Ska and Celts. In the religious, the islands' native, pagan beliefs are threatened by encroaching Christian missionaries. And in the magical, the islands' magicians, fairies and non-human creatures find their powers waning against the onset of mundane humankind.

    As with most of Vance's work, the tone can be humorous but also melancholic and sometimes tragic. Vance wrote the trilogy in the knowledge that he was losing his sight (and, indeed, by the concluding volume was legally registered as blind) and a subplot in which a protagonist is cursed with blindness cannot help but resonate more strongly with this knowledge. But this fear did not daunt Vance: Suldrun's Garden sparks with his wit (sometimes mordant) and impeccable storytelling skills. With its courtly intrigue and manners (arch-rivals who despise one another nevertheless do so with politeness) and its sometimes fairy story tone, the book occasionally recalls Tolkien, although the characters are decidedly less moral.

    It's this mixture of epic fantasy, fairy tale and moral fable, with high and courtly intrigue blended with merciless warfare, that makes Lyonesse feel unique. The magicians of the Elder Isles are extremely powerful, but are controlled by an edict that means they cannot make open war on one another (as to do so would destroy the islands). As a result they tend to work through proxies and stay within the confines of their laws, which results in some amusing scenes where the magicians' duels are as much legal arguments as they are dramatic confrontations. This is accentuated by the book's use of fairies, here presented much in the Irish mode of being capricious, whimsical and utterly uncaring of the fate of mortals, resulting in extremely tense negotiations between humans and the elder race, which are prone to unforeseen circumstances.

    Characterisation is strong, with Princess Suldrun of Lyonesse presented as our main protagonist for much of the first third of the book, confined to her garden first by her preference and then by the orders of her father. Vance's portrayal of female characters earlier in his career was lacking, but is much-improved here, with Suldrun and several other women given prominence in the text. Unfortunately, the book's 1980s-ness can be deduced by several sequences where sexual violence is threatened (or intimated to have occurred off-page) against the female characters, a tiresome trope which is not over-indulged in (Vance is certainly no Goodkind) but also wearisome by its presence.

    Narratively more regrettable is the odd choice where, by having established the less traditional heroine Suldrun as our protagonist for a good hundred pages, she is thrust aside in favour of Prince Aillas of Troicinet, an intelligent and resourceful young man who is brave, good with a sword, cunning when his back against the wall, etc. Aillas is an amiable and enjoyable, if far more traditional, character, but having him effectively storm in and take over the book halfway through from the character whom the novel is named for feels inelegant.

    Once you move beyond these problems, Suldrun's Garden (****) earns its reputation. The prose and razor-sharp dialogue is a delight, the worldbuilding which mixes political intrigue with magical menace is impressive and the fast-moving storyline (which packs more plot movement and characterisation into 400 pages than some authors manage in 4,000) is compelling. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

    A note on the text: the book is correctly entitled Suldrun's Garden, but on release it was often published under the title Lyonesse. This is corrected in more recent editions as Lyonesse: Suldrun's Garden. It is important when choosing an edition to read that you don't confuse the single-volume edition of the novel with the various omnibus editions of the trilogy, which are often also published as Lyonesse. The reason for the discrepancy - which recurred in 2006 with Brandon Sanderson's The Final Empire, frequently published under the series title Mistborn instead - is unclear.
  3. The Locked Tomb Trilogy by Tamsyn Muir

    11 May 2020 - 01:39 PM

    Book 1: Gideon the Ninth


    The orphaned Gideon Nav is a servant of the Ninth House, the guardians of the Locked Tomb, a position she despises. After her latest escape attempt is thwarted, she is recruited to join the House's heir, the necromancer Harrowhark, on a mission to the First House. If successful, the Ninth will gain influence and power in the eyes of the Emperor. But strange tasks await scions of all the Houses, some of which will prove fatal even to those with power over the death.

    Gideon the Ninth is the debut novel by Tamsyn Muir and the first novel in the Locked Tomb trilogy. It has attracted widespread critical acclaim, including being nominated for both the 2020 Hugo and Nebula Awards and coming third in the Goodreads Choice SF Awards in 2019. The novel defies easy categorisation, incorporating as it does elements from science fiction, fantasy and horror, with a tone that could perhaps be summed up as "Mervyn Peake writes Warhammer 40,000."

    The book is a technogothic thriller, where the mismatched Harrowhark and Gideon reluctantly work together with (and against) representatives of the other eight houses to investigate the mysteries of the First House to see who is worthy of becoming the new Lyctor, the right hand of the Emperor. The setting, an empire of nine planets circling a central star, is painted in vague strokes because our only POV character, Gideon, has only ever lived on the gloomy, depressing and death-obsessed Ninth and has no idea what the other worlds are like. Worldbuilding is drip-fed slowly into the narrative, painting a very intriguing picture of an empire which has endured for ten thousand years against remote, external threats thanks to the undying vigilance of the mysterious god-emperor, whose real history, motivation and even name remain a mystery.

    Gideon, our main protagonist, is self-reliant, independent and resentful of authority, but is also fascinated by mysteries and yearns for freedom but isn't entirely sure what to do if she was to achieve it. She is in a dubious, co-dependent relationship with the officious Harrowhark, who strives to be an enigma and be respected (qualities that do not always combine well) but finds this difficult to achieve due to her and Gideon's mutual hatred. Their relationship is at the core of the novel and it's probably not a huge spoiler to say they eventually find an accommodation and a way of working together against mutual, greater enemies, although I must admit I found the swing from outright enemies to banterish frenemies to be a bit abrupt. Gideon is a strong (if archetypical) protagonist whose more relaxed, informal and pomposity-puncturing form of speech can be a bit of a relief when things threaten to go Turned-to-Eleven Gormenghast in terms of oppressive atmosphere and baroque chicanery.

    The book incorporates a small secondary cast of characters from the other houses, such as warriors like Marta Dyas, Naberius Tern and Jeannemary Chatur, and house heirs like Dulcinea Septimus and Palamedes Sextus. Muir has a superb way with names and paints the secondary cast with skill and wit, from Chatur's youthful exuberance to Tern's lethal confidence to Septimus's wounded bird charm.

    The story unfolds at a measured pace, perhaps a bit too measured: the first half of the novel is on the slow side of things and, given the rather limited number of characters and locations, it does feel like it takes a bit too long to get going. Once it does, though, it doesn't stop. The second half of the book is a near-dizzying eruption of plot revelations, deaths and unexpected twists that is quite compelling.

    The other major weakness that comes to mind is the book's tonal dissonance between the ritual-obsessed, formal world and Gideon's near-non sequitur pop culture references. Gideon's informality and ability to take the mickey out of every situation is often entertaining, but on a few occasions (such as direct dialogue quotes from both the US version of The Office and The Simpsons) it lifts the reader right out of the world and story. These times are relatively rare, but feel a bit jarring.

    Overall, though, Gideon the Ninth (****) is a strong debut novel, a dark and bleakly humorous journey through a world of necromancers and grotesques. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. The sequel, Harrow the Ninth, will be published in August 2020.
  4. (Content warning) So it turns out that David Eddings was a convicted and jailed child abuser

    02 May 2020 - 11:37 PM

    And his wife too.

    This isn't even a Marion Zimmer Bradley, allegations made after death kind of thing. They were arrested, put on trial and they both went to jail for a year in 1970 for imprisoning and torturing their adopted son. Both their adopted son and daughter were removed from their custody and their adoption papers revoked. Eddings lost his job working in academia in South Dakota and they were forced to relocate to another state, Eddings having to take a job working in a grocery store because he couldn't get another job teaching young people for love nor money (and probably legal requirements).

    There is no suggestion of sexual abuse, but the details of the story are still pretty grim. They had a dog cage in their basement (where several animals lived) that they made their four-year-old adopted son sit in for hours and perhaps days at a time, and inflicted physical punishment on him with a belt and other implements. They were literally caught red-handed in the middle of beating him when the cops showed up and arrested them.

    After becoming famous, Eddings joked that he left academia because the pay was better working in groceries. In the pre-Internet age the story never came up (in fact, they didn't even change their names, otherwise the story may have never come to light).

    It should be noted you don't need to go burn your Eddings books: Leigh died in 2007, David in 2009 and all proceeds from their estate now go to Reed College in Portland, Oregon.
  5. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

    10 April 2020 - 12:31 PM

    The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold


    Lupe dy Cazaril is a former soldier in the army of Chalion. Taken prisoner after a siege, he has been sold into bondage, made a galley-slave and been rescued. Returning to his old home of Valenda, he seeks service with the Provincara dy Baocia. He is made tutor to Iselle, the sister of the heir to the kingdom, a position initially without power or influence. When Iselle and her brother are summoned to the royal court by their brother, the ailing king, Cazaril finds himself in a political nest of vipers, pitted against an old enemy who is very unhappy to see that he has survived, and a curse that may be beyond his abilities to thwart.

    What happens when your life is taken from you and you are left abused, beaten and broken, and then abruptly returned to your former life?

    The Curse of Chalion is a novel about trauma, about a man who has faced serious degradation and danger but lived to tell of it, and afterwards has to find his way back to something approaching normalcy. Unfortunately, whilst this is going on his country is under threat from external enemies and also from internal strife.

    This is a fascinating novel, one that at first glance bears resemblances to Guy Gavriel Kay's classic The Lions of Al-Rassan (particularly the very strong Spanish inspiration) and to George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, particularly the political manoeuvrings within the royal court which start with mild barbed words but soon escalate to intimidation, murder and the threat of civil war. There's also a similarity to Robin Hobb's work, particularly the tight focus on a single character and its exploration of trauma and recovery. But it's also very much a Lois McMaster Bujold novel. Those who have sampled her other work, such as the long-running SF Vorkosigan Saga, will find similarities in the exploration of relationships, tragedy and redemption, although it is written in a different style.

    The book lives and dies by the characterisation of Cazaril, the main protagonist. Although the book is not written in the first person, we spend the entire novel perched on Cazaril's shoulder to the point where it might as well be. Cazaril is a broken man, damaged goods, who tries to piece his life back together by retreating to his childhood home and station as a page to the royal family of Chalion but finds that his gifts and experience elevate him to a new position as a teacher and mentor to the younger members of the family. Cazaril is a refreshing fantasy protagonist; he is not a badass, sword-wielding prodigy or a reluctant youngster nevertheless gifted with vast sorcerous powers, but a middle-aged man who comes into situations he has little control over and has to find a way of negotiating his way through them, for good or ill.

    The secondary cast is a well-drawn and varied lot, and the worldbuilding is impeccable. There's an interesting way of handling magic and the religion and politics of Chalion are drawn in some detail. Bujold's prose, honed at this point by twenty years of experience, is also excellent, evocative without being overwrought and a genuine pleasure to read.

    The Curse of Chalion (*****) is a compelling, richly-detailed fantasy novel with superb, multifaceted characters and a strong sense of direction and purpose. It may just be Bujold's finest novel to date, in an exceptional career. It is available now in the UK and USA. It has a sequel, Paladin of Souls, and a prequel, The Hallowed Hunt.



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    05 Mar 2020 - 09:29
    Sorry, missed your birthday this year. Hope it was a good one.
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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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