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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Death's End, by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu, Tor Books, 2016, $26.99.

The House of Binding Thorns, by Aliette de Bodard, Ace Books, 2017, $27.

Summerlong, by Peter S. Beagle, Tachyon Publications, 2016, $15.95.

The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales, edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, Saga Press, 2016, $25.99.

 
I WRITE THIS in November of 2016.

I write this after the election. The U.S. election. I am not American, but the U.S. election has always drawn the eyes of the rest of the world. If one knows nothing at all about politics, one still knows who the leader of the U.S. is: the leader of the free world.

I write this after the emergence of neo-Nazis, swastikas left as evidence of their jubilation, their certainty that now, now, it is safe and even acceptable for them to declare themselves.

I write this in the beginning of the aftermath, in the wake of open discussions about Muslim registries and the existence of Japanese internment camps as a legal precedent for their existence.

I miss a deadline, because a review column is predicated on reading, on writing, and I have bounced off almost every word that others have written—all of those words written in a world before sexual assault and racism were acceptable in the highest office in the U.S.—and tripped over sentences of my own. I am gripped by the certainty that somehow, we have failed. We?

Yes.

In a world like this, reading—and writing—genre novels has felt almost trivial, unacceptable. The motors of my mind are turning, turning, turning, and it has been hard to feed them anything.

 

*   *   *

 

Perhaps because of this frame of mind, Death's End speaks to me. It is not particularly escapist, and on the surface, seems to more than imply that humanitarian concerns—freedom, love—are not only effeminate, but are tantamount to genocide. Or rather, humanity's suicide.

Let me back up. Death's End is the third of three novels that form a trilogy. The first, Hugo winner The Three-Body Problem, posited first contact with an alien race. It was both sf and a mystery in a near future setting. It took Stephen Hawking's stance that alien visitation, alien attention, might well be a very bad thing for us, and ran with it. Given Liu's sf, I think it impossible that he was not aware of Hawking's views.

At the end of The Three-Body Problem— and if you have not read the book, stop here unless you are not spoiler adverse—humanity is faced with a seemingly hopeless future: the Trisolarans are coming to invade our world because their own was mostly destroyed in early wars and they need a new place to live (it's a bit more complicated than that, obviously, but that's what it breaks down to). They will reach the Earth in four hundred years. They can see everything we do, hear everything we say, and inhibit the research that might—just might—prepare us to meet them head on.

They cannot, however, hear what we think. On their side are the people who have been hurt and damaged and isolated enough that they welcome the destruction of humanity. To those people, the Trisolarans are almost literally gods, and their devotion is religious. They are not, however, stupid. To counter the Trisolarans, a very odd project is put in place: the Wallfacer project. A handful of men are chosen who are given resources and set the task of coming up with a strategy that will preserve humanity in the four centuries to come. They cannot speak of what they are doing; the Trisolarans cannot read human thoughts.

They can, however, read each other's. The idea that thought and speech are not the same is the cultural pivot around which the survival of humanity depends.

Luo Ji is the Wallfacer who succeeds. He succeeds because he understands the nature of the universe: It is a dark forest in which predators will destroy whatever prey they can see. It has happened before. It will happen again. Humanity's tech level has been below the radar, as it were, and the Trisolaran tech level is not—but the Trisolarans are hiding from predators. Their fear of predators is stronger than their fear of anything humanity might do—with cause. Luo Ji transmits coordinates for a solar system into the black unknown—and that solar system is utterly destroyed.

Now, there is leverage. Now there is a reason that the Trisolarans must accommodate human demands and negotiate with humanity. If they are unwilling, Luo Ji will press the button that will transmit the coordinates of the Trisolaran world into the ether. Yes, it will more than likely kill humanity as well, because our solar system is too close to the Trisolaran home world and might well be noticed—but that is a risk he is willing to take in the ultimate breakdown of negotiations.

 

*   *   *

 

Death's End begins, oddly enough, at the same time as The Dark Forest, the second book in the trilogy. Yun Tianming is a young man who has been diagnosed with cancer. He is undergoing chemo in a hospital when a new law emerges from an international council: the euthanasia law. It allows for the legal termination of life for those who are terminally ill. He is not close to his family, although his father is paying his medical bills; he has not been successful enough on his own to afford them himself. He doesn't own a house; he lives in a company dorm. He has very few friends—in fact, one—and no wife. He is a drain on his family's resources, his sister's future, and he decides he will die, taking advantage of that law, because he understands that's what his sister wants, and he can accept that.

He has been in love with one woman he met in university, and because death approaches, he has been thinking of her. They talked alone together once, just once, but she was sunlight to him, a warmth of presence that the rest of his life lacked. He never confessed, never made it clear—one doesn't propose to the sun, after all. But he wanted to be in her orbit while he could. She was successful, friendly, involved with people; he was not.

The one friend he does have, however, has taken an idea from college, given him by Tianming, and become rich; he gives some of the money he has made to Tianming. He has more money than he has ever had, he is about to die, and he does not wish to leave that money to the sister who wanted him dead, so his thoughts turn to Cheng Xin. He decides to buy her a star. It will be an anonymous gift. He wants no sense of obligation to fall on her.

And then, she arrives just before he is euthanized, and asks him to do worse than die, for the sake of humanity.

And, bitterly, he agrees.

 

*   *   *

 

There are many ways to read the book that follows. Cheng Xin is the person he loved: she is warmth. She is sunlight. She is caring. She is brilliant. Had she not been these things, she would never have reached him. She interacted with him because, in some ways, she thought of him as a child—an unhappy, frightened child—and it was in her to include him, to speak to him, to try to bring him into a social orbit.

Were she not that person, the book as it exists could not unfold as it does. But it is also clear that those traits bring humanity to the brink of extinction; that it is her ethics, her inability to consider genocide, that causes the near fall of her kind.

On the surface—or perhaps only a smidge below it—Liu seems to be arguing that in a dark forest, we need wolves. The least likable man in the entire novel, Wade, is right, most of the time. There is literally nothing he will not countenance in pursuit of his goals. He will, without second thought, sacrifice everything, anything.

And yet, balanced against this, the tiny story of Tianming and Cheng Xin, without which there would be no right decisions to be made; had she been Wade, there would be no story.

 

*   *   *

 

Liu is not the most subtle of writers. His characters are not complex enough to be real to me. But in execution, Death's End is classic sf; it is packed full of ideas and the consequences of those ideas play out for the length of the book, gaining momentum until the end. It is both comfortable and disturbing, the familiar in service to the new. I could not put it down, even when I was shouting at it; at no point did I want to give up.

Like it or hate it, it won't bore you.

 

*   *   *

 

Aliette de Bodard is French. She writes in English. I've been asked about this in the bookstore where I work because some people prefer not to read in translation when they have the linguistic option to read the original, so: Her books are not translated from the French.

That out of the way, The House of Binding Thorns is the sequel to The House of Shattered Wings. I believe it was written so that it could stand alone, but I really, really suggest reading The House of Shattered Wings before you read this book; otherwise some of the emotional weight of the complicated ending will be lost. The story itself makes sense, but story often does; it's the weight of what comes before that gives it resonance.

Madeleine is an addict. She has spent twenty years of her mortal life in House Silverspires; before that, she was a child and a dependent of House Hawthorn. She escaped in the aftermath of a bloody takeover, wounded and broken in so many ways, and she took refuge in two things: Silverspires and addiction. Angel Dust destroys the addict, but it provides a heroin-like high. Madeleine is willing to ride that high until it kills her, because she is not afraid of death. She is afraid of pain.

And Asmodeus, the Fallen head of House Hawthorn, is the center of that fear. He never lets go of what is his, and Madeleine is Hawthorn's. But she is not useful to him as an addict. No one in the House has ever kicked that addiction, but if self-respect isn't enough of a spur, fear is. To give in is to face Asmodeus the torturer. He makes this clear. And he makes clear, as well, that she has never escaped, not truly; she is trapped, and was, even in Silverspires, by the fear he engendered.

She doesn't know what he wants or expects from her; she is too terrified not to attempt to give it. There is no escape from Hawthorn.

What he appears to want is her skills as an alchemist—and she's not the best House alchemist—on a diplomatic mission, to treat with the Hidden Kingdom that lives beneath the waters of the Seine. This makes no sense to her, but as Asmodeus says, she is pathetic at intrigue. She goes with Clothilde, and the resurrected Fallen Elphon, whose memories are lost upon return, and whose death haunts her still.

Asmodeus is in search of a bride. Or a spouse. He will be affianced, as a political maneuver, to a prince of the Hidden Kingdom. The Hidden Kingdom is being destroyed by Angel Dust, hollowed out and rotted by the addiction, and there are factions within that Kingdom that hate the Fallen, for the wars of the Fallen have harmed them immeasurably.

And yet, necessity dictates alliance.

In order to ascertain what Asmodeus really wants, a spy, Thuan, is sent to House Hawthorn—a young man in appearance. He is in the Hawthorn school, and should he excel there, he will become a true dependent of the House, something any Houseless person wants; the House is not a guarantee of safety, but being Houseless poor is almost a guarantee of either starvation or death. He is a prince of the Hidden Kingdom; starvation is not his concern. Asmodeus is.

And well he should be.

Phillipe is the last strand of a complex web. He is Houseless, hiding in the streets of the city, and plying his trade as a doctor to the Houseless. He is not mortal, but immortal. He has suffered at the hands of the Houses and their war. In the near destruction of House Silverspires, he lost someone he had grown, in the fashion of the cautious and the despairing, to love. He promised her that he would resurrect her somehow, because he knows it can be done.

But it cannot be done with his magic, or the magic of his kind, and in the end, he must seek the Fallen. He is willing to risk this because the Fallen to whom he makes his request is Houseless, which is almost unthinkable for the Fallen. Berith lives with her mortal lover, Francoise; she is not without power, even given her status.

Madeline's, Thuan's and Phillipe's stories march inexorably toward death—the death of a House, the death of a love, the death of a race. De Bodard's dominion of the Fallen is a grim world, a place in which lack of caution is rewarded by unpleasant death; where betrayal is a certainty, and loss as well. Politics and personality intertwine in complex ways; you can read the subtle strands of personal history in the way her characters interact, even when that history is never fully revealed.

Unlike Liu's, de Bodard's people feel real to me; this is not a complex philosophical essay. There is hope even in the darkest of places, and there is a desire for love, for trust, for harbor, that takes root no matter how often it's destroyed. This is a stronger, more certain novel than The House of Shattered Wings, and if reading it is sometimes walking the unfenced edge of a cliff, the vista is dizzying and beautiful. It is well worth the wait, and if you haven't read the first novel, I urge you to do so. But have The House of Binding Thorns in hand before you reach the end.

 

*   *   *

 

Peter S. Beagle has long written fantasy that's hard to pin down. There's nothing formulaic in his writing, and if elements of his books appear in other books, it's because the original works have sunk deep roots and flowered in the minds of readers who then become writers.

Summerlong is a short novel; it takes place over the course of less than a calendar year. Abe is a historian. Joanna, his partner, is a stewardess. They live together at Abe's place, but have never married, drifting into a relationship that's spanned two decades. Joanna's daughter, Lily, is the bane of her existence, and yet, in some ways, the center of it emotionally. Lily is unlucky in love, a fact that Abe accepts because he can't change it and that Joanna resents, largely because she's a mother, with a mother's sense of both responsibility and guilt.

When Abe and Joanna go out to dinner at one of their favorite restaurants, they meet Lioness, a new waitress, and they are both struck by her, both drawn to her. She is new in town and has no permanent place to stay, and Abe offers her their garage. Joanna is right behind him. But Lioness is not a normal runaway. She is not what they are, or even what they were in their youth, and her presence has consequences.

The book is slower, quieter, than either Death's End or The House of Binding Thorns; the conflicts that arise are wed to a normal, quiet life. But there is magic in the world, with deep roots, ancient truths, none of which are mortal. No matter how mundane the setting, that magic is never mundane, and that's Beagle's gift: he doesn't privilege the wild and the ancient, any more than one might privilege the Grand Canyon: It exists, and it is larger and grander than mortals. We can touch it, approach it, and get lost in it—but if we cannot do it from a safe distance, it will change some part of our essential nature.

You can't jump off the cliffs of the Grand Canyon and fly.

This is a beautiful, quiet book, almost elegiac, about real people, real magic, and the cost of it. I wouldn't say it's surprising, because it's not the type of story that relies on those beats, but what Beagle does here, he does well.

Recommended.

 

*   *   *

 

I've always been a bit of a sucker for fairy tales. I don't know when that started, because I have no memory of both being a reader and not reading fairy tales. The Starlit Wood is an anthology of new fairy tales—which is to say, an anthology of retellings of old ones.

The table of contents alone reads like a who's who of fantasy authors, but reading a table of contents is almost beside the point. Suffice it to say that it contains new work by Seanan McGuire, Catherynne M. Valente, Naomi Novik, Garth Nix and more.

There are perhaps three stories that didn't work for me out of a total of eighteen, and when I say didn't work, I mean only that; I didn't think they were terrible, they were very well written—they just didn't speak to me. It's highly likely that they will work for other readers; the quality of the anthology in writing terms is very, very high.

I didn't expect the Daryl Gregory take on Hansel and Gretel, and am sorry to say that it made me inhale coffee, with predictable results. I loved the Amal El-Mohtar, which is much more traditional in tone. Stephen Graham Jones's take on the Pied Piper is horror, pure and simple—but it would be, when seen from the eyes of modern-day parents.

I didn't actually spend very long on the table of contents because it gives away the story at the heart of the retelling—instead, I read the stories and tried to guess the inspiration. And I now have to go and find the original for the haunting and sad Aliette de Bodard tale, which I had not encountered before.

Highly recommended.

 

*   *   *

 

And this is the world. It is the day after. I have found my way back to reading, and reading shakes free the webs of despair, because that's the enemy here. It's the voice that says there's nothing I can do. There is always something that can be done.

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