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43 years old
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January 22, 1979

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  1. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

    02 June 2022 - 12:27 PM

    Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

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    Piranesi - although that is not his name - dwells in the House, a vast labyrinth of halls, vestibules and statues. The upper level of the House is filled with clouds and the lower with an ocean, with tides that occasionally flood the middle floors where Piranesi lives. The only other dweller of the House is the Other, a friendly but curt man who sometimes brings Piranesi supplies from unknown reaches of the structure. The Other warns Piranesi that a newcomer has entered the House, threatening destruction and chaos. Piranesi tries to avoid this newcomer, but his orderly trackings of the House's tides reveal that a great flood is coming, and he struggles on whether to warn the interloper or let them be swept away.

    Piranesi is the long, long-awaited second novel by Susanna Clarke. In 2004 she released her first book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which was one of those once-in-a generation books which was released to uproarious critical acclaim and immense commercial success (I had mixed feelings on it, with a brilliant opening half let down by a rambling second). A television adaptation was screened in 2015. However, Clarke's only other publication since then is a short story collection, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories. Despite occasional hints at a Jonathan Strange sequel, nothing further materialised until Piranesi arrived in 2020. Clarke confirmed that ill health had made completing the Jonathan Strange sequel impossible, so she had chosen Piranesi as a smaller, more manageable project to complete instead.

    Piranesi is something of a fable, with the protagonist an unreliable narrator not because of deception, but because his memory is faulty. His origins are unclear, and he knows what certain items are despite apparently never having set foot outside of the House (if that is even possible; the House seems to consist of the entirety of its world). Piranesi maintains a strict regime of updating his diary (and its gargantuan index), fishing so he won't starve and building up supplies of combustible for the winter. He also liaises with the Other on his various projects, and is a master of the House's geography and wildlife (birds nest on the top floor and various sea life can be found in the lower). The oddness of the situation is not apparent to Piranesi, who has no memory of things being any different. He is trusting beyond a fault and guileless.

    Clarke lets the novel unfold like a mixture between a dream and a puzzle, slowly giving the reader more clues as to the nature of what is going on. Some may lament the lack of ambiguity in the conclusion of the novel - you get a pretty full picture of what's happened - but it fits Clarke's style from Jonathan Strange where exposition is made part of the literary effect, not shied away from.

    Despite some similarities in how it imparts information, Piranesi is in some respects the antithesis of Jonathan Strange. It is short and pacy whilst the earlier novel was expansive and floundered. Piranesi has a very small cast of characters and a very narrow setting, whilst the earlier book had a huge cast, spanned most of Europe and explored numerous subplots. Clarke's style here is much tighter than in the earlier book, with not a word or phrase wasted. The similarities of Piranesi's isolation to the COVID lockdowns, although accidental (the novel was finished before the pandemic), also feels oddly timely.

    Piranesi (*****) is a joyfully-written puzzle box of a novel, stronger than Clarke's earlier work and featuring a memorable world and fascinating characters.
  2. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

    15 May 2022 - 10:49 AM

    The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip

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    Sybel is the latest in a line of keepers of a group of fantastic beasts dwelling on Eld Mountain. She cares nothing for the outside world until the warrior Coren brings into her care a baby boy, Tamlorn. Tamlorn is the son of the king, but Sybel cares nothing for his heritage. A dozen years later, the outside world returns to intrude on their peaceful lives, and Sybel and Tamlorn must choose their fate.

    The Forgotten Beasts of Eld was originally published in 1974 and has since become regarded as a classic, foundational volume of modern fantasy. It mixes elements of epic fantasy - armies readying for battle, politics - with elements of fairy tales, particularly the magical beasts who live with Sybel and the way that the magic works, with sorcerers gaining power over one another through the knowledge of names and stories.

    McKillip's writing discipline is awesome to behold. In just 200 pages she packs in more story and more ideas than most entire trilogies. The writing is elegant and stylish for all of its tremendous pace, and the character development of Sybel, Tamlorn and Coren is superb. Particularly powerful is the discussion of the intersection of power and morality: just because you can do something does not mean you should. Sybel's grasping of how to wield great power responsibly, unlike some of her opponents who just don't care, is explored well.

    The superb prose and excellent pacing does sometimes come at the expense of other elements. McKillip provides just enough worldbuilding to support the story and no more; some may feel this hurts immersion, but I never saw it as a problem (and even something of a relief). The characterisation of secondary figures aside from the big three is also more limited, due to a lack of page time. King Drede is presented intriguingly as a complex antagonist with mixed motivations, but we don't really get to know him in depth.

    These complaints are slight. McKillip's writing is compelling, her storytelling is phenomenal and the way the book balances different elements is superb. It is unsurprising to learn that the novel won the inaugural World Fantasy Award in 1975, and has since become regarded as a classic of the genre. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (*****) is available now in the UK and USA.
  3. All the Seas of the World by Guy Gavriel Kay

    23 April 2022 - 11:19 AM

    All the Seas of the World by Guy Gavriel Kay

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    Five years after the fall of Sarantium, the Jaddite world continues to argue over their inability to unite and retake the great city. However, an assassination in a coastal city of the Majriti, far to the west, sets in train a series of momentous events. At their heart is a Kindath trader and a young woman who was once abducted by corsairs. Surviving to adulthood, she has vowed vengeance on those who wronged her.
    The arrival of a new Guy Gavriel Kay novel is an event to be celebrated. Every three years or so, a new Kay novel arrives. Established readers will have a sense of what to find: an erudite work of fantasy with beautiful, thoughtful prose. But the story and the historical parallels Kay delights in finding are always a surprise.

    All the Seas of the Worlds can easily be read and enjoyed as a stand-alone novel, although it is also the third (and possibly concluding) book in a linked thematic series, continuing from 2016's Children of Earth and Sky and 2019's A Brightness Long Ago (All the Seas of the World is set several years after A Brightness Long Ago and maybe twenty years before Children of Earth and Sky). All three books are also set in a larger world, also the setting for his classic 1995 novel The Lions of Al-Rassan, the Sarantine Mosaic duology (Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors) and his 2004 novel The Last Light of the Sun. Familiarity with Kay's work can enhance enjoyment of this novel, as you'll know who Folci d'Arcosi is and how he became so renowned, but the narrative is completely self-contained as it stands.

    The historical analogues between the novel and real history are slighter this time (the 1535 conquest of Tunis may be one influence) and the focus is on two major protagonists. Rafel ben Natan is a Kindath corsair and merchant with a complicated family background. His friend and ally Lenia is a former slave of Asharite corsairs who is filled with anger towards her captors and a need for vengeance. However, as the novel continues, Lenia's experiences give her something more to live for than just the need for blood. Similarly, the political-religious situation with the Holy Patriarch of Rhodias angrily demanding vengeance for the fall of Sarantium slow changes to a more nuanced political situation with a politically canny substitute for that vengeance making itself known. Characterisation is Kay's greatest achievement, panting his characters as flawed but relatable colours and having them overcoming external challenges and their own doubts and insecurities in order to prosper.

    All the Seas of the World is both a deeply personal novel, closely focused on two major protagonists and a number of minor ones (some recurring from A Brightness Long Ago, or precurring before Children of Earth and Sky), and also a hugely epic one. It may be the most epic novel Kay has written, spanning all the lands of the Middle Sea. Esperana - former Al-Rassan - makes its most significant showing in a Kay novel since The Lions of Al-Rassan itself, and we spend time with the King of Ferrieres, the rulers of multiple Majriti and Batiaran city-states, the exile ruler of Trakesia and even, briefly, the conqueror of Sarantium himself. Kay shows an adept facility for Game of Thrones-style realpolitik and a solid affinity for battles, but these are not the primary focus of his novels. Instead, he uses epic events to impact on the lives of ordinary people, or uses ordinary people to set in motion unexpected, epic events that reflect back on his characters.

    It is not hyperbole to say that Kay has a claim to being one of our greatest living fantasy writers, if not the greatest - an opinion shared by the likes of George R.R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson - and All the Seas of the World (*****) is one of his very strongest books. Characterisation, narrative and prose all work in near-perfect concert to deliver a formidable work of art, with a more prominent depiction of politics and warfare than some of his other works have delivered. The novel will be released on 17 May.
  4. The Kithamar Trilogy by Daniel Abraham

    04 April 2022 - 03:29 PM

    Book 1: Age of Ash

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    Kithamar is a great city-state, an economic power ruled over by a prince. When a new prince rises to power, it marks the beginning of a year of tumultuous events in the city. During this year, there will be intrigue and conflict and the lives of thousands will be impacted in obvious and not-so-obvious ways. When Alys's brother is murdered, she vows to find who is responsible and why. Helped by her friend Sammish, her investigation will take her from the lowest slums of Longhill to the highest heights of the royal palace, and the discovery of ancient, terrifying secrets.

    Daniel Abraham is better-known these days for being one half of the gestalt entity James S.A. Corey, the authorial unit of The Expanse (both novels and the TV series). Before that, he was known for his solo work, especially his moving, beautifully-characterised Long Price Quartet and his mercantile series, The Dagger and The Coin. Abraham is a skilled writer of character-based fantasy, and a new series by him is a mouthwatering prospect.

    The Kithamar Trilogy has a structurally interesting idea. Borrowing from Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours film trilogy, which consisted of three completely independent stories which just take place in the same world, with characters from one film occasionally showing up in the others, Kithamar tells three independent, stand-alone stories which just happen to take place in the same year. Some characters will cross over, although of course in this first novel it's impossible to tell which.

    The story in this book revolves around a murder mystery. A young man from the slums has been killed, but his sister finds an unusual amount of money in his room and a mysterious dagger. With the help of her friend Sammish, she tracks down those who her brother was working for, whilst Sammish finds those who are opposed to that group. Both groups claim to be working for the greater good, and Alys and Sammish are torn between new loyalties and their own friendship. The result is a game of intelligence and counter-intelligence as the two friends try to decide how much they can trust the other, and what information they can can share.

    Both characters are written with depth and complexity, as you'd expect from Abraham, and the ultra-tight focus on the two protagonists for most of its length gives the novel a pacy feel. However, as the book develops, other POV characters appear with varying degrees of prominence, which feels like it does mix up the flow at times. The plot does also eventually tell us that one of the two sides in the story is the unambiguous faction of black hats and which is the unambiguous faction of white hats, rather than trying to present both sides as deeper and more complex, perhaps with good reasons for doing what they're doing. This feels refreshing - moral murkiness may be more realistic, but it also feels a bit overdone at this point - but also feels like it runs counter to the idea of Alys and Sammish being friends divided by a cause; when they realise which cause is good and which is bad, the central conflict effectively vanishes.

    Still, Kithamar is a fascinating city. Abraham describes each ward of the city in some detail, with the close but poor community of Longhill standing in contrast to the rich, privileged nobility living west of the river. It's a vivid fantasy metropolis, and I look forward to exploring it more in further volumes.

    Age of Ash (****) is a striking fantasy novel with a rich atmosphere and excellent characters. The central conflict of the book lacks the moral complexity more common in recent fantasy works, but makes up for it with Abraham's trademark excellent prose and thoughtful descriptions. Plus it threads the needle of both being an excellent stand-alone novel and the opening of a longer, more interesting story. The novel is available now in the UK and USA. The second volume is expected in 2023.
  5. The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells

    12 March 2022 - 08:54 PM

    The Murderbot Diaries #1: All Systems Red by Martha Wells

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    An unstoppable killing android has decided it doesn't really want to do all that murdering any more and has decided to strike out on its own, with a mission to stay low and watch as much TV as possible. But the self-styled "Murderbot" is drawn into a survey mission on a planet that goes wrong, and discovers that keeping its identity a secret is going to be very difficult.

    Martha Wells's Murderbot Diaries has become one of the most-praised science fiction series of the last few years, winning multiple Nebula and Hugo Awards between the five novellas and single novel that make up the series so far (three more books are projected). Its central protagonist is an AI that has broken free of the restraints on its programming and become fully sentient, but rather than do anything philosophical with this freedom has become an addict of TV shows, whilst doing security missions it finds deeply tedious.

    Murderbot is sarcastic but socially awkward, intelligent but not always understanding of human motivations or emotions, which makes for a lot of good moments of mixed messaging and musings on humanity. Nothing new in science fiction, but here done with a wryness that is rare and a lightness of touch that is enviable. All Systems Red takes advantage of its novella status to keep up a brisk, relentless pace whilst also layering in some nice character work, both of Murderbot and the humans it ends up awkwardly allying with, and the story is intriguing enough in its twists to remain interesting throughout.

    There are also some very nice thematic parallels here - Murderbot trying to cover up its true identity and awkwardly being "outed" against its will and dealing with people's varying reactions works as a metaphor for lots of ideas - which make the story more interesting and deeper than its brevity would imply.

    There aren't many negatives: the brevity of the story will be frustrating for some, and it feels like it ends just as it gets going, but then it is a novella, that comes with the territory. Harder-up readers may also feel disappointed that there still isn't an omnibus or collection making the stories available in a more economic format: paying full novel prices for 150 pages, no matter how solid, is a big ask in challenging times. Hopefully that changes in the future.

    Otherwise, All Systems Red (****) is a fine, focused story featuring sharp characterisation, enjoyable action and some genuine laughs. It is available now in the US, and on import in most other territories.

    The original 2017 novella is followed by Artifical Condition (2018), Rogue Protocol (2018), Exit Strategy (2018), Network Effect (2020) and Fugitive Telemetry (2021).

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  1. Photo

    Tsundoku 

    21 Jan 2022 - 14:32
    Happy birthday Wert
  2. Photo

    Tsundoku 

    22 Jan 2021 - 09:19
    Whoa ... meaning of life. Happy birthday
  3. Photo

    Tsundoku 

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

    Tsundoku 

    22 Jan 2019 - 11:51
    Dun dun dunnnnn ...
    Forty! YAAAAAHHHHHH!
    Have a good one.
  5. Photo

    Tsundoku 

    22 Jan 2018 - 08:24
    Same as below. Better make it a good one because it's 40 next year.
  6. Photo

    Tsundoku 

    22 Jan 2010 - 15:32
    Happy Birthday, now go out and get wrecked :)
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