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Musing on Books
Cold Steel, by Kate Elliott, Orbit, 2013, $18.
NOS4A2, by Joe Hill, HarperCollins, 2013, $28.99.
The Fractal Prince, by Hannu Rajaniemi, Tor, 2013, $25.99.
The School for Good and Evil, by Soman Chainani, Harper, 2013, $16.99.
Kate Elliott's worlds never kick me out of the book. None of the details jar, and if I want to think about the economics and the geopolitics that serve as background to the story, I can—without cringing. Her characters are products of their upbringing, their environment, and their economic circumstances—just as, in the end, I'm a product of mine. They give weight and veracity to the existence of this secondary world. Which is, more or less, an alternate, fantasy history.
Cold Steel is the third and final volume of the Spiritwalker trilogy. It's not really possible to discuss it without spoiling some of the first two volumes—so if you want the non-spoiler short version: this is an excellently conceived and written alternate history fantasy, but it isn't a good place to start. Book one is. (I should reveal that my husband read it and spent long hours of thought tracing the various branches of this world and where it diverged from ours; I spent less time because I was caught up in the story itself.)
Catherine and Beatrice have survived their landing in Expedition, the islands which are home to fire mages, rather than the ice mages with which they're both familiar. Andevai, Cat's reluctant husband, now an important and even welcome part of her life—was taken from Cat in the wake of the wild hunt at the end of Cold Fire, and she means to find him and bring him back.
Given that he's in the Spirit World, a place with no obvious geography and no familiar rules or pretty arcane entrances, this isn't as simple as it sounds. And given the fallout of Cat's decisions in Cold Fire, she doesn't have the luxury of planning. Almost from page one, Cat is on the move. She's wanted for murder, for one. She's wanted by the general of an army that is moving inexorably toward the North, lead by the charismatic Camjiata. She's wanted by her father, who rides at the head of the Wild Hunt.
Cat is not a strategist; she's not a careful thinker. Never has been. Of all the characters in this trilogy, it's Cat who's most likely to throw a punch rather than talk or reason; it's Cat who can handle herself in a physical fight. Beatrice, the lovely, sweet, feminine cousin, is far more of a tactician; she knows how to get what she wants, and she's always thinking it through. But knowing how to get what she wants doesn't define her: what she wants does.
One of the things she wants is Cat's safety. One of the things Cat wants is Bee's safety. The other thing she seeks is Andevai's. To find Andevai, she has to return to the Spirit World, travel to the Spirit Court at its heart, free him—and survive. And even then, it's nowhere near over. Beatrice will discover the truth about her prophetic powers—and about dragons.
What I really appreciate about Cat and her husband in this book is that although they've already made the commitment to their marriage, it's not smooth sailing—even setting aside Andevai's captivity in the Spirit World. They're both forced to come to terms with the realities of loving, and living with, people who are not at all like themselves. But even in doing that, they come at it in their own ways, and Cat does something at what's almost a political dinner that had me cheering. It's something that only Cat could do.
Using a first-person viewpoint, Elliott manages to convey a sense of scope and enormity to the two worlds—Spirit and mortal. I started the book, got caught on the opening line, and could not put it down until I was finished.
I've said this before, and feel compelled to say it again: I don't read that much horror. I frequently find it emotionally too claustrophobic. But when it works for me, it really works. Joe Hill's NOS4A2 really works, and I almost didn't read it because: Vampires.
So, if you're like me, don't let that reaction get in the way of the book. If Hill had used any other title, the word "vampire" wouldn't have been the first thing that came to mind when I was finished reading the book. It wouldn't have been the second, third, or fourth, either.
Second would have been Weaveworld. Third would have been Peter Pan. Fourth would have been bad drugs.
Let me explain. Victorie McQueen is a woman who's been in and out of rehab and psychiatric wards. She lives on her own and she battles the constant visions that she self-diagnoses as hallucinations. Part of the way she does this is by illustrating and writing very bizarre and very original children's books. In the eyes of the world, she suffers from PTSD—and why wouldn't she? In her youth, she was kidnapped and almost killed by a version of a totally inverted Mr. Rogers who went by the name of Charlie Manx.
That's the real-world version of the story, at any rate. Charlie Manx was apprehended in his very fancy car, indicted, and sent to jail forever. But it wasn't that simple. Charlie Manx didn't find Vic in the real world.
When Vic was a child, her mother lost a bracelet. As children are, Vic was determined to find it for her. So she got on her tricycle, and she rode it straight across the bridge to the bracelet in question. There was one problem: her mother had left the bracelet in a store during a family vacation. The store was halfway across the country. Vic left her house and appeared in the store on her tricycle, riding unerringly to where the bracelet was.
And that couldn't happen. But it did.
The tricycle always took her to the bridge; the bridge always took her to where the lost thing she wanted to find was. On good days, Vic can convince herself that none of this was real.
And she has incentive, because while she was out on the other road, she met Charlie Manx. Charlie Manx loves children. But not children as old as Victoria. There's really only one thing to do with a child that age, and it doesn't involve Ferris wheels or the mythical, magical Christmasland to which he drives young children.
Vic barely managed to escape Charlie Manx the first time. Jail contained him until his death, and there was some safety in that. There was, for a brief time, safety in the company of Lou, a large man who happened to be driving by when she left the house that had almost been her pyre. He took her to safety. She stayed with him, although they never married; they had a son.
And then she left, driven by her own sense of the damage she does to people she cares about just by existing. She wasn't a good mother. She wasn't a good wife. She wasn't a good anything, in her own opinion.
But she has a problem. Charlie Manx died in prison.
Charlie Manx isn't dead. He's angry—at Vic—for the lies she told about him, and for his incarceration. She is, of course, the very worst kind of person—and the very worst kind of mother, and Charlie has a plan: he's going to save her son, Wayne. Wayne is still young enough. Wayne deserves to go to Christmasland to meet all the other children who've been waiting for Manx to return to them.
Vic doesn't have a tricycle anymore. She's avoided the old bridge for most of her life. But if she can't embrace the thing that's destroyed so much of her life, she'll never get her son back.
There's something about NOS4A2 that reminds me of Clive Barker's Weaveworld; something in the tone of the book, in the sense that the things unfolding are compelling, beautiful, and deadly, and that they lead to places that exist alongside the threats of a normal existence, sometimes crossing over.
Vic, Lou, and her father aren't rich, they're not wealthy, they're not by any stretch of the imagination kick-ass, would-be superheroes. They struggle to keep a roof over their own heads, and they struggle to keep a grip on their own lives. They're not equal to Charlie Manx; they're just a hair's breadth shy of walking victims. But they're real, to me. They hit the page running with that sense of reality, of coming mortality, of fear—and of the drive to move in the face of that fear, for as long as they can.
It's almost seven hundred pages of book. I could describe the plot to you in two. Less. But I never felt the length—only the journey. I wanted to reach the end, and conversely, could have kept on riding for another several hundred pages. Hill doesn't waste a word.
I adored The Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi's first novel. I adored it enough that the ending of the book, which left far, far more questions than the novel itself answered, didn't bother me at all. The colony on Mars in the post-mortal universe of Rajaniemi's creation was a pressing crush of the type of ideas that are clever, delightful, and arresting. I wanted the answers to the questions the first book raised, first being: Who the hell is Jean le Flambeur? Why was he in prison?
Given the end of Quantum Thief, the second question is more puzzling.
The good news is: There's an answer to the second question by the end of The Fractal Prince. The bad news is, any theory I had for an answer to the first question is now completely shot. I feel I know less than I did when I started. This is a definition of bad that carries no judgment on my part, though. I want the next book—pretty much now.
Fractal Prince opens with a prologue that introduces an entirely new character, Matjek Chen. It reintroduces Jean le Flambeur, and begins the story of how Jean was caught and sent to prison. The book then moves to the present—or at least the events that follow Quantum Thief. If Mars was a closed backwater of an environment, Rajaniemi now opens up his universe.
Here, quantum mechanics can be manipulated by the computing power of the founders—the multitude of AIs patterned on people who must once have been mortal. There's a glimpse of that mortality, a glimpse of a world that was still more advanced than ours, but peopled not by immortal AIs, but us.
It's not like that now.
The AIs and the wildcode and the quantum shifts and the chaos have transformed the Earth. There are pockets of humanity left—but they're not like us. Single individuals in the morass of multiple, almost-identical AIs (with slightly different protocols), they eke out a living at the edge of the virtual desert. Tawaddud is one of the citizens of Sirr, a city that has survived in the lee of the broken pieces of an ancient vessel.
In the desert that surrounds this city exist stories. The stories are virii; they can inhabit, infect, and short-circuit human thought; they have intellect and will. In the desert, treasures are buried. Treasures like data-havens and personal fail-safes, designed to preserve people if a collapse came. The treasures in this strange new universe aren't gold or diamond; they're personalities. They can be unearthed at some cost and with some danger, and sold, to be copied and used as virtual slaves.
The botched theft that landed Jean le Flambeur in prison leads to Earth. But to get past the half a universe that's hunting him, he needs to figure out how to unlock a Schrödinger's Box and survive what's trapped inside.
I can't really say more than this. The book is a braid. All of the strands that seem freefloating at the beginning come together in the end, leading to the same place in ways I couldn't have predicted. This book, like the last, is a puzzle box.
Like Quantum Thief, it's a short book. And like the first book, it's written with the density of short fiction. If you start skipping sentences or skimming text, the book quickly fails to make sense; all of the words are important and significant points come up once, in a sentence, before the book moves on.
But this book has energy, vision, and an expansive take on post-mortality; it still feels to me like the literary descendent of Roger Zelazny at his peak, and I highly recommend it.
Soman Chainani is a new name to me; I think The School for Good and Evil is his first novel. It's somewhere in the middle ground between Young Adult and Middle Grade, although when I was reading YA as a young adult, it would have been considered a young adult novel.
Gavaldon is a picturesque small town—the type that exists in fairy tales everywhere. People live and go about their business in Gavaldon, surrounded by the forest. No one has ever left the town and returned, although some have tried.
Some, however, have left very much against their will. Every four years, two children are kidnapped from their homes by the School Master, to be taken to the schools of Good and Evil. The children are never seen again—except in the pages of picture books that magically appear in the town's bookstore. One child is a prince—or princess; one child is the evil monster that the prince defeats.
This year, Sophie is determined to be kidnapped. She is beautiful, blond, and possessed of perfect skin (she has the best skin-care regimen in the village and sticks to it with ferocious focus). She performs acts of kindness. She says and does what she considers to be the right things. She is going to go to the School for Good. She is going to become a princess. She is, damn it, going to have her happily ever after—and no one is going to stand in her way.
Agatha lives on Grave Hill. She is not beautiful. She is not friendly. Her skin is sallow. She wears black dresses that look like bags with holes for head, arms, and feet. She looks, in short, like a storybook witch, and because of this, she has only one friend: Sophie.
While it's true Sophie befriended Agatha as an act of charity (because it seemed like an astonishingly good deed on Sophie's part—Sophie's idea of good deeds are unfortunate and hilarious), she's become friends with Agatha because, as she says, Agatha sees her for who she really is—and spends time with her anyway. This might be in part because Agatha's never had any other friends.
Agatha, however, doesn't share Sophie's great desire to be kidnapped. She may not have any friends, but she's happy with her cat, her home by the graveyard, and her life in general. She's determined to save Sophie from the kidnapping. Sophie is determined not to be saved. Guess who wins?
The snag is this: Sophie is dropped into the School for Evil; Agatha is dropped into the School for Good. Sophie is surrounded by people who look and dress like Agatha—or even worse, which should be impossible; Agatha is surrounded by people as beautiful and perfect as Sophie. Obviously a dreadful mistake has been made—and a large part of the book centers around Sophie's attempts to rectify this horrible error. She can't possibly have a prince and a happy ever after stuck in a school full of evil, ugly people.
This book plays with the ways in which good and evil are presented to us, tongue in cheek. It's hilarious in places—or at least it was to me. There are moments when I want to strangle Sophie, and where I wonder whether or not having any friend is worth having to put up with one like her. But there are moments when it's clear that Agatha isn't honest—at least with herself—about what she wants, either; that some of what she professes to despise, she despises because she is considered ugly and odd, she's never fit in, and she'd rather reject the world than be rejected by it. Questions of what constitutes good, what constitutes evil, and whether or not we are ever all of one or the other are rolled in—and over—by a plot about resentment, friendship, insecurity, first love, hatred, and envy.
In all, I enjoyed this about a hundred times more than I expected to, and I loved, loved, loved the ending.
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