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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

The Stone in the Skull, by Elizabeth Bear, Tor Books, October 2017, $27.99, hc.

A Peace Divided, by Tanya Huff, DAW, June 2017, $26, hc.

The Last Good Man, by Linda Nagata, Mythic Island Press, June 2017, $18, tpb.

Monstress Volume Two: The Blood, by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda, Image, July 2017, $16.99, tpb.

 

Elizabeth Bear cannot, by any conceivable standard, be called unknown. Multiple-award-winning and generally highly regarded for her sf, she is outspoken and visible. So it will come as a surprise to some to hear me say that I think she is invisible in one regard. She is not the go-to name for fantasy readers.

In part this is because Bear is tonally flexible; she writes across a range of subjects and sub-genres, and there's no commonality of voice that declares that the book in question is an Elizabeth Bear book. This is not a bad thing. But it is a thing. And it is also a thing of which I am guilty. The Stone in the Skull is pure, secondary world fantasy. And it is, in my variant of a humble opinion, excellent high fantasy. It is not Bear's first foray into the sub-genre, but…when I think of Bear, I don't think of high fantasy, and I believe the loss is entirely mine. I have read and enjoyed (or adored) her sf. But when a pile of books comes in, I have not really picked up her fantasy, and although a sample of Range of Ghosts was brilliant, when the book came in, I did not immediately pick it up.

I regret this, but luckily for readers, books are persistent.

The Stone in the Skull is not a doorstop-sized novel. It clocks in at 368 pages. For those of you who assume that a short book can't be epic in feel or scope—and most can't—and therefore pass it by, I think you're doing the book a disservice. Bear manages the feat of writing a complicated, complex world and offering it without scanting anything. This is not a sketch of a world that could be living and breathing if given more room—it's complete. It never feels rushed, but it never bogs down in repetition or recycled detail. Every word works for the creation of world, context, kingdoms—and characters.

Characters drive my reading. They always have. And if there is one change in Bear's writing over the years, I would say it's the characters. Not the handling, not the reality, not the pain or the doubt that burden them, but the type of character. The Dead Man and Gage are the characters that begin the book. The Dead Man has been tasked, by the One Eyed Sorceress, to deliver a message to the Lotus Kingdoms. His partner, Gage, carries that message because his partner is literally a man made of metal, the soul housed in his very large metallic body the soul of someone who once had living flesh. He was created by a Wizard, as gages are.

The Dead Man was an oathsworn guard of a Caliphate that has ceased to exist. He's outlived his master—and his family. If he has one friend in the world, it is the Gage, or Gage, as he calls himself. Gage has outlived his creator, as well. They are for hire, landless and homeless.

Mrithuri is the rajni, the queen, of one of the Lotus kingdoms. Her grandfather ruled the principalities, and held the greater kingdom together until his death; now, the unification has broken. She rules her kingdom, and it is to Mrithuri that the message the Gage and the Dead Man are tasked with delivering has been sent. But in the auguries that precede the rains, there is nothing good to be taken, for all imply war. Death.

She is not the only queen in the Lotus kingdoms. Not the only woman whose kingdom is imperiled by war. But it is through the Lotus Kingdoms that the Dead Man and Gage must travel with their message—a message whose contents they do not know—while sorcerers and armies gather in their wake.

Bear's prose here is elegant, descriptive, textured, and pragmatic, filtered as it often is through the viewpoints of the characters that inhabit the text. She brings the characters to life through their conversations, their doubts, their fears and their grief, and she hints at a way forward, a way through these elements which are so foundational. Much is unsaid, but in the hands of an author like Bear, the unsaid exists between the words, implied by action or inaction. There is hope here, and if that hope is bitter and slender, it exists, even as the world begins to go dark and the promise of death and loss grows heavier and heavier.

This is obviously the first of a series. I'm going to guess it's a trilogy, but don't quote me on that if I turn out to be wrong. It doesn't end on a cliffhanger, precisely, but it clearly leaves the story unfinished. And I want more of it. In fact, in that way of impatient readers who have found something to love, I want it all Right Now.

 

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Tanya Huff is, unlike Elizabeth Bear, an author whose every work, and practically every word, shouts Tanya Huff has written this. It doesn't matter which genre, which sub-genre. If the novel has the name Tanya Huff on it, what you're getting is a Tanya Huff novel.

This doesn't mean that there is no originality; it doesn't mean that there's nothing new. It doesn't mean that the stories are retreads—clearly, writing across a spectrum, they can't be. She's written humor, contemporary fantasy/horror, secondary world fantasy; chosen single viewpoint stories, multiple viewpoint stories, epic almost-historicals.

But there's something ineluctably Huff about all of them.

And so it is with A Peace Divided. It's a Huff novel—one of her military sf novels about the no-longer-military former Gunnery Sgt. Torin Kerr. Torin has adapted to non-military life by finding a use for her expertise and experience: She is now a Warden, and part of the Warden special strike force, teams of largely former military personnel who have been tasked with dealing with people who were also formerly military, but who have chosen to use their skills on the other side of federation law.

With her are her old team-mates: Binti Mashona, Wersk and Ressk, Craig Ryder, Alamber. They're a mix of people from the Confederation's younger races, and they're good at their very different jobs. Kerr pulls them together; she makes them run.

Unfortunately for Torin Kerr, the assignment she's given involves not only a Class Two planet, but civilians who could easily become hostages to the mercenary force that's taken over their survey team. And that mercenary force is comprised of former Confederation military personnel and citizens from the Primacy's military races.

The Confederation and the Primacy have been fighting an intergalactic war for far, far longer than they've been at peace, and the peace is therefore tentative. The Primacy citizens are not citizens of the Confederation, and while they may be breaking laws, it's the Primacy's responsibility to police them.

At this time, the policing requires a certain political sensitivity, given peace and its tentative nature, which means Torin and her team are not going down there alone. No, they're going down to the planet with a combined team of Federation Wardens, their Primacy counterparts, and a neutral observer. And one of the Primacy counterparts was an officer in the Primacy forces, Torin's sergeant.

I adore Torin Kerr. I have since the first time she crossed a page. She is one of nature's sergeants, she's good at her job, and she's good at her job no matter what that job actually is. Not being military, she's now a civilian, and as a civilian, she makes a damn good sergeant. But she's learning the ropes of this civilian life, and the rules that come with it. If her team is ordered to finish a mission with a minimum of casualties—she's accustomed to prioritizing low casualties on her own side, but not as accustomed to worrying about the enemy—she's going to do exactly that, even if no casualties involves trying not to kill the people who are actively trying their best to kill her team. And her.

A Peace Divided follows Torin's newly enlarged team as they try to rescue scientists who are being held hostage by a group that is chasing the possibility of a weapon that can destroy the plastic aliens who are at the heart of the Confederation/Primacy conflict (it's a social science experiment, for the aliens). Torin is very interested in that weapon. Everyone is. But that's not the job at hand, and did I mention that she's good at doing the job at hand?

Huff has the best dialogue in the business—which I've said before—but she also has a very pragmatic eye to world-building and the realities of Torin Kerr's life. I don't want to spoil anything, but it's clear that this second book of three is following not just Torin, but the consequences of war, war cut short, and those who profited from it.

This book is fun, it's entertaining, and it touches on serious issues as it zooms along, never dragging its feet. While it's part of a series, I think it can be read as a standalone, although An Ancient Peace is available in paperback as well, if you want to start there. Alternately, you could start with A Confederation of Valor, the first two books in Torin Kerr's story. I don't think there's a bad place to start.

 

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"You need to read Linda Nagata's The Last Good Man. It's almost an older Torin, in a dark near future (no humor), by a better writer."—Tanya Huff, 7/19/17.

You can probably guess the impetus for my choice of Linda Nagata's The Last Good Man. Although the phrase "a better writer" should be excised. Nagata is an excellent writer. She is a different writer. She is not a better writer. Ahem.

The character to whom the above quote refers is a woman named True Brighton. Daughter of a military man, from a family with a military history, she is ex-military, and the Direction of Operations of ReqOps. ReqOps is a licensed private military company. True has seen active combat. Her oldest son followed her family's tradition and paid the ultimate price for it; he was captured and killed on camera in a media-saturated world in which only spectacular, horrible deaths command any attention at all. She knows the price parents pay for war. And she knows, as well, the price daughters pay when their military fathers disapprove of their career decisions.

ReqOps is hired to train people, and its operatives are often hired as private bodyguards or security. They have, however, taken missions that are distinctly military in nature, and as the book opens, they are being asked to rescue a man's daughter. She is technically a hostage, in the hands of El-Hashem, a warlord who navigates in the ungoverned TEZ (Tigris-Euphrates Zone). A medical doctor, she went overseas to help people in need of medical service. Her father begged her not to go because of the dangers. He's desperate.

Lincoln Han is the CEO and principal owner of ReqOps. The decision to accept the mission is in his hands. And True Brighton knows that he wants to take it. What follows are the various discussions—and permissions—required to get to yes. It's honestly one of the strengths of the book, for me: it's pragmatic, practical; it acknowledges the reality of being a small business owner who operates within the confines and parameters of international law, and U.S. law. This mission is going to be costly; both True and Lincoln are pretty certain they're going to take a bath on it. It requires U.S. military permission, because the U.S. government and the private military do not want to be stepping on each other's toes. All of these things—all of them—are considerations that must be dealt with. The desire to take the job is not the only thing on the table.

That practicality, that forward-looking reality, is blended with near future tech, with 3D printed weapons and 3D printed combat drones; Nagata doesn't look away from the cost of progress, and the benefit, while absolutely there, is shadowed. But it's a future that True and Lincoln both believe is coming: a military world in which soldiers will sit in the confines of rooms as remote from the war as our bedrooms, directing drones and robots to acts of war in zones in which there will always be casualties among the civilians.

What use do retired military have? What use is their skillset, their years of training, what meaning does the physical sacrifice—of limbs, or of life itself—have? How is the cost of fighting a war etched into a society if none of these things can happen?

These are the questions Nagata asks as ReqOps heads out to rescue Fatima Atwan at the request of her father. The whole team knows that they're not going to make any money on this venture—that the best they can hope for is to lose none—but it's the right job. It's a job that they can believe, absolutely, is on the right side. In this opening sequence, you can see the team at work, you can see the tools at their disposal, and you can see what drives their decisions.

It is not, in the end, Fatima alone who is hostage in the compound of El-Hashem; there are three other men. And the team will not leave them behind when they learn of their existence. For True, there's an edge of the personal in their rescue; it is everything she could not do for her own son.

And it becomes significantly more personal when one of the three rescued men, a journalist, tells her that the monstrous man in charge of his capture had a tattoo: Diego Delgado. The Last Good Man.

Thus, the title.

To me, this book has all of Huff's pragmatism and drive. But it is a much darker work, a much grimmer look at the cost of war, the cost of death, the cost of change; at the scars that are obvious and the deeper scars that are not; at the way war changes both sides of the divide that is combat. It is not without hope, but it is grim enough that I was not entirely certain which way things would go until the end.

If you like your military science fiction grounded in the real and in the probable, this is your book.

 

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Marjorie Liu is the author of the under-rated Hunter Kiss contemporary fantasy/horror. She is also the author of a number of other books and comics, but Hunter Kiss is the one I'm most familiar with.

When Liu first announced Monstress, with a preview of the art by Sana Takeda, I was intrigued and, I admit, excited. The art is beautiful. It is gorgeous. I, who am not visual at all, could spend an afternoon looking at the art. I could happily frame it and hang it on the wall.

I'm not, of course, an art critic. Or art reviewer. The only reason I mention the art is because Monstress is a comic book, and the art is part of the structure of the story. The tones of the images are darker, muted, and that suits the story Liu is telling.

Monstress starts with an auction. An auction of curiosities, which in this case includes slaves, almost none of whom are human. One looks human, but she's missing most of her right arm. She is the protagonist of this dark, fantasy story. The pacing of this story is more in keeping—to me—with a novel; the density of words replaced by a density of images. The dialogue is entirely that: dialogue. There's not a lot of info-dumping, which means teasing out the shape of the world, and the rules of the world, by how the people who live in it interact with it. And given that this is an auction, and the people who are talking are either being sold or are buying, there's a sense that this is a story that takes place in the margins of the world.

Maika Halfwolf is the Monstress of the title. She is looking for information about her dead mother, with a mind to vengeance. But what she discovers disturbs her far more than the usual "avenge your dead parents" trope. She is young—a teenager—and powerful, and it is the nature of that power that is the greatest threat, both to Maiki herself and to the people who begin to hunt her when they realize she exists at all.

Monstress: The Blood is the second graphic novel released in this series. Old alliances have been tested, and some have been broken; the strands of a prophecy have begun to take certain shape. Maika is on the run; she has some hope of possibly freeing herself from what she considers her curse: the being she carries inside her. A fallen being, a deadly being, one that would be right at home in a Charles Stross novel—and not as one of the marginal good guys. The demon, for want of a better word, can't answer her questions because he himself cannot remember his past.

Maika knows almost nothing about that being except that it kills indiscriminately whenever it can—and she is not always entirely in control. In this volume, she begins to learn more. There is a powerful sequence in which the unveiling of some of her monster's memories walk hand in hand with her own memories of her mother, and the pain and the doubt are perfectly expressed by the art and events that have very, very little to do with them.

I almost never review graphic novels, but those who like darker epic fantasy that requires a bit of thought and effort will find a lot to enjoy in this. It's not at all appropriate for children, though.

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