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Musing on Books
The Causal Angel, by Hannu Rajaniemi, Tor Books, 2014, $25.99.
The Rhesus Chart, by Charles Stross, Ace Books, 2014, $26.95.
Radiant, by Karina Sumner-Smith, Talos, 2014, $15.99.
Wolf Interval, by Chrysoula Tzavelas, Candlemark & Gleam, 2014, $19.95.
The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison, Tor Books, 2014, $25.99.
Jean le Flambeur is a thief. Or perhaps the thief. Impulsive, arrogant, and desperate, he struggles to be a better man than he is—even when he believes that outcome impossible to achieve. This is why I like him so much.
Jean le Flambeur has won a victory, of sorts, by the end of the second novel of this trilogy, The Fractal Prince. The beginning of The Causal Angel, the final book in the trilogy, makes clear that the victory is pyrrhic. But clarity in these books is hard to come by; things move so quickly, events stream past, and there's just so much to see, to pay attention to, that it's hard to hold it all in one place on a first read. What seems certain failure, turned on its head, can come up victory.
Like the first book and the second, The Causal Angel has the verve and cleverness of a caper novel. Everyone is plotting. Everyone has plans. Everyone is smart—but almost no one is operating with a full data set, which makes plans fraught and success ephemeral.
At the start of the novel, Jean's only goal is to rescue Mielli, his winged, Oortian partner. It was the last promise he made to Perhonen—a ship who gave her life to protect Mielli's. He is encumbered by other promises—and by the original upload, in the dark ages, of a boy who will grow to become arguably the most powerful of the Primes in the Sobornost: Matjek Chen. Jean is suffering from incomplete memories, which he's certain he did to himself. There is also the matter of the attempted theft of the kaminari zoku jewel, which was likely the cause of his long stay in the Dilemma Prison.
First things, first: he needs a ship. He needs to find Mielli. To do that, he needs information that appears to have been edited out of every possible feed he can find. Except one.
Everything is interconnected. Mars. Earth. The Sobornost. The Spike. The Collapse. The zoku. It's a wire-frame structure, set spinning, and it achieves dimensionality and grace while it moves, the parts becoming clearer, the whole becoming stronger.
I've got to say, I loved the end of this trilogy.
I can't recommend these books highly enough. They won't work well as entry points into the genre; Rajaniemi's prose is too laden with sf tropes and jargon for that. But his prose itself is assured and graceful enough that I could read him just for sentence level work. And each book is like a layer of onion. Things that are obvious in the second book were not obvious in the first, and rereading the first after reading the third is a very different experience.
I can't wait to see where Rajaniemi goes next.
The Rhesus Chart is the fifth of Charles Stross's Laundry books.
I mention this fact because, if you're daunted by series length, you can start here. I did. I had no problem picking up the story—and the universe in which the Laundry is situated—pretty much from page one. It did make me curious about all the other books, but that's not a bad thing.
The reason I wanted to try this one is because so many of my friends read, and love, them. Computer programming, physics, eldritch horrors and the day-to-day grind of civil service bureaucracy (which reaches Dilbert levels in some cases) as seen by a civil servant. Of sorts—what's not to like?
I therefore had expectations going in. No knowledge, just expectations.
Stross lived up to them all. The opening line pretty much points the reader in the rough direction in which this book is traveling.
"Don't be silly, Bob," said Mo. "Everybody knows vampires don't exist."
The opening chapter rounds out that direction, but adds a distinctly human weight to it: Mo, our narrator's wife, is Not Happy with Bob Howard. She has her reasons (and they're pretty solid reasons). Bob Howard's specialty is computation, Necromancy (magic as it exists in this world is computational. Sort of), and a side-order of Handling Bureaucracy. The subtleties and niceties of marital disagreement are not his strong suit, because the complexity of interactions with other humans aren't the bigger part of his job or his area of expertise.
He means well. He feels apprehensive—when he has a moment to think about anything other than sheer survival. He's not great with people; he's decent, in a middling way, but everything about his character on the page portrays a man who does not like emotional confrontation. If asked, I'm sure he'd say he'd rather have an argument with his wife than an all-out fight with extra-dimensional monsters—but I'm not sure I'd believe it.
Bob Howard is kind of a middle-aged geek's everyman. Except with Cthulhu thrown in.
Given that his boss is the Eater of Souls, and his working life involves necromancy, zombies, and sanity-destroying monsters, the flat-out statement that vampires don't exist seems…odd. But there's a reason for that (of course there is), and also, subcommittees to deal with it (of course there are), and—yes—vampires.
Stross's take on vampires is embedded in all its glory within the universe in which the Laundry operates. Vampires are (like so many world-destroying entities) created in a blend of quantum mechanics and higher mathematical functions. In a world that is much like our own, brilliant mathematical minds are gathered in the heart of—what else?—a brokerage firm. When one of these geniuses looks a bit to the side of his complex calculations, something inside him changes.
What's left is Laundry vampirism.
The vampires are not stupid; they have, and make, plans. But they're babies in a world in which vampires theoretically don't exist, and they're not particularly careful. Their lack of caution catches the attention of Bob Howard's mandatory extra-curricular research project, which in turn drags Bob and the Laundry into the thick of things.
And nothing is quite what it seems (of course), because everyone is making plans, some of which overlap in unfortunate ways.
Bob's generally pragmatic view, overlaid against things eldritch that man was not meant to know, doesn't actually diminish the horror; this is not really a contemporary fantasy, so much as a horror novel filtered through the pragmatic reports of a civil servant. There are elements of the novel that are genuinely unsettling, and elements that made me laugh—in the way that Dilbert sometimes manages.
I admit that I like the narration. I like the sense of Bob as exactly what he is: an overworked, underpaid competent who can barely hold his life together. I like the acknowledgment that living in a universe in which monsters are real, and far worse than you ever imagined, chips away at your own sense of humanity, sanity, and stability—because, honestly, it should.
That said, this book is grimmer than I've probably led you to believe. The humor is black, and no one is guaranteed to survive (except Bob). I enjoyed it, and I certainly understand why most of my friends are Laundry fans.
Every reader has their buttons. Some of those buttons are of the instant "off" variety—if I start something that trips those, the book is pretty definitively not for me.
But I have buttons that work in the other direction —stories that practically scream my name and grab me by the ears, fixing my eyes to the book until the last page is turned. One of the strongest of these is the story of the outsider who finds or makes a place for I.
And so that brings me to the following three books, the first of which is Radiant by Karina Sumner-Smith.
Xhea is a young woman scraping by on the fringes of society; she's a ground-dweller, someone who lives in the shadows of the floating Towers in which the wealthy live and work.
The feel of Xhea's world is science-fictional. The details are magic. Literally. In Xhea's world, currency is literal magic. People have an innate amount of magic, the way they have eye colors. Those with a surplus of magic are important to the Towers and their vast economy—which is based on magic-as-currency.
Xhea, however, has no magic.
What she has in its absence is a gift that she parlays into sustenance (along with petty theft and scavenging): she can see the dead. She can see when people are haunted, and for a price, she can cut the tethers that bind the dead to their living. Most of the living can't see the dead—but they are sometimes aware of their oppressive presence. Xhea can give them a break.
She has no friends. Why would she? People can't even touch her without experiencing a literal shock. She doesn't have time to be lonely, given the precarious life she lives—that's what she'd tell you if she could be bothered talking to you at all.
But she does need to eat. And when a Tower dweller—obvious, from his clothing and his pocketbook—comes to her to ask her to take his dead from him temporarily, she agrees. She's done it before; she'll do it again. She doesn't much care about the dead—they can't hurt her, unlike the living.
This ghost, however, is a young girl named Shai who appears to be able to think and remember her life—not all of the dead can. She is golden, radiant to Xhea's eyes—and she is sad. She is sad and lonely. And, dead, she is also magical. She has magic.
Xhea has seen a ghost with magic before and she swore that she would never, ever, have anything to do with another one.
Shai and Xhea have both lived isolated lives for entirely different reasons, and they have no one. It's not a wonder that they grow attached to each other. Xhea is not particularly trusting—she reminds me very much of early C. J. Cherryh characters who are surrounded by people they might be able to trust, if they have the strength to take that risk.
Their growing friendship is the heart of Radiant. It's not, however, the story, although it informs and drives it. Xhea isn't the only person concerned about Shai—but the others who are don't have the dead girl's best interests at heart; they certainly don't care about Xhea, or consider her of any value.
Sumner-Smith's writing is assured; her Xhea, prickly and inward-looking, feels right, and her world—a world where magic is currency, and the Towers that have most of it cast long shadows across those who can't even ascend to them—feels lived-in and real.
I loved it.
Wolf Interval is the third of the Senyaza books by Chrysoula Tzavelas. Unlike the Stross series, it's probably best to go directly to the first of the three, Matchbox Girls, and start there. AT's story is self-contained, but many of the events that have created the figurative cage of her life occurred in the other books.
That said, there's a lot to like in this contemporary fantasy about AT (her mother's ghost calls her Annalise as well as AT—but anyone else who bothers to call her by name uses the diminutive), a young woman living with a hellishly abusive father. Emphasis is on "hellishly," by the way; her father is a demonic werewolf. He is possessive; his version of protecting what belongs to him doesn't just involve the usual beatings or broken bones—AT heals quickly, after all. No, in order to isolate his daughter from the world, he destroys anyone whom she considers a friend. Anyone.
The only thing he can't destroy are AT's dogs.
This would be because they're already dead; she holds and houses and loves their spirits, and there's nothing they won't do for her. Her father hates the dogs; she only brings them out when she's away from home.
One of the few comforts in AT's life is her mother—dead, killed by her father. AT can talk to ghosts, although not all of them want to talk. It's safer to talk to people who are already dead; her father can't kill them if she does. But something else can—and, while AT is watching, does.
Souls go on forever. Something that can destroy them…is terrifying. AT discovers—when asked for help—that that something is the Wild Hunt, and something is wrong with the Wild Hunt. They're here too early, they have too much power. AT is afraid—for her mother, for the dead.
To make matters worse, she's expected to help however she can at the side of other humans. Not half-demons, not outsiders like herself, but full-fledged humans: Yejun, a Korean-American boy, and Brynn. Yejun has some oddities and appears to understand the geometric patterns of magic to some degree—but Brynn is a normal, teenage girl. Who wants to be AT's friend.
AT knows what happens to mortals who become her friends, or try. They die. They die horribly. AT learned this once and has avoided normal people ever since.
But the truth is: she's lonely. Without her dogs for company, she'd be broken and lost.
AT is an outsider for a very clear, very sympathetic, and somewhat unusual reason. It's not that she's bullied or outcast, at least not by her peers—but the end result is the same. AT is bloody awkward when it comes to social interaction. At one point, she asks Yejun a question, and then freezes in awkward horror when she realizes he's going to answer it and she has to stay and listen, even if she doesn't like the answer. She is too blunt, not blunt enough, and nowhere near clever most of the time—but I genuinely liked and empathized with her, and I wanted her to trust herself and her friends enough that she could take the risk of acknowledging how important they were to her.
But to do that, she has to find, confront, and stop the Wild Hunt, something not even her father could do. (Also, I kind of wanted to kill her father—but that's the parent in me.)
Tzavelas writes genuine, interesting characters with voices that feel real. Well worth your time.
The Goblin Emperor is the story of Maia, the half-goblin son of the Emperor of the Elflands. His father, the Emperor, married his mother, a goblin woman, because of political pressure. He spent one night with her—and she had the effrontery to conceive a child; she was exiled from the court almost immediately, and spent eight years of her life with her son. Upon her death, her son was sent into another exile, with a bitter, angry cousin—a man who drank too much and could not control his temper. He was tasked with the raising of Maia; it was not pleasant.
But the Emperor and his sons are assassinated; the dirigible in which they are returning from a wedding crashes, killing all on board. Overnight, Maia becomes the Emperor, because at eighteen years of age, he is adult and he is next in line for the throne. He is therefore sent for, and flown directly to the Emperor's palace, on command of the Lord Chancellor.
He is half-goblin; the rest of the royal family (what survives of it) is pure elf. He was raised by a distant cousin who resented and hated him, and who comes to the palace by his side. He has no friends. He is not clever. He is awkward, nervous, and feels pretty much like he's drowning: an outsider in every sense of the word, who by law is now Emperor.
And he loved his mother. He misses her, has missed her since her death. He knows how much her exile and isolation hurt her, and he understands that the pain was handed down to her by the Emperor. Now that he occupies that position, he is determined not to be what his father was—and his window into his father is his mother's life.
That determination is strong—it has to be, because Maia knows very, very little about the life of an Emperor, his duties, or his obligations. The hierarchies in place, the politics and the intrigues, the interests of various pedigreed families and their tangled history are mysteries to him. He is insecure and tentative—but the thing that keeps him going is his sense of responsibility and, yes, duty.
Of course there are intrigues. There are attempts to overthrow him, to assassinate him, to control him. But there are people who also offer him kindness, who show a generosity of spirit that he's afraid to trust.
Reading this book reminded me, in ways I can't put my finger on, of Megan Whalen Turner's Attolia books. Maia is not Eugenides. But he doesn't have to be. I liked this book the first time I read it; I loved it, insanely, the second time. It surprises, it is smart, it is careful and intelligent in its world building; it allows for both the bad—which is almost de rigueur these days—and the good, and returns hope in reward for reading.
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