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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan, MCD x FSG Originals, 2019, $16, tpb

Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone, Tor Books, 2019, $18.99, tpb

Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess, Tin House Books, 2019, $24.95, hc

An Illusion of Thieves by Cate Glass, Tor Books, 2019, $16.99, tpb

 
THE central premise of Infinite Detail is an event that doesn't appear on the actual page. Instead, Maughan writes around it, in scenes and segments labeled Before and After. This book is therefore not a linear narrative. I'd go as far as to say it's not actually narrative, although it is a novel. It's not confusing, but its chief concern isn't throughput of story.

Which is fine.

I am drawn, often, to stories about grief and loss, and this one was no exception. The book opens with a young woman, Mary, and her minder, Tyrone, in a dilapidated building that exists in the remnants of the After. She sees ghosts. Or rather, she sees flickering images that she can make more real if she concentrates. She draws the people she's seen, and she places the faces of those people on a wall in the shop.

If customers come in and want to know what happened within a brief window of time, they can pay their money to Mary, and Mary will then return to the place she first saw this person, and she'll…look. The people that come to her are often parents in search of their missing children. Sometimes she can tell them what happened to those children. Often the news is terrible. There is violence, death, blood—things that Mary has seen so often in her forays into the past that she is almost immune to them. What she lacks is context.

Mary lives in the After. Mary has always lived in the After.

But in the Before, other people lived in the rundown area Mary calls home.

One of those people, almost the architect of the zone itself, is traveling to New York City from the UK to meet his lover. Rushdi Mannan is a brilliant coder, a man concerned—always—with privacy and the decentralization of information. He's disgusted by what's been made of the internet with the passage of time: People have become both the content creators (for free) that drive so much of the traffic and the audience that drives advertising and its many clicks.

He's created the Flex OS, and a commune in the Croft emerges in which Flex is the OS of choice. Data is stored locally and transmitted to other users, passed on in a circular spread of information that is never centralized. Other OSes that run on the ubiquitous "specs" that people wear shut down when a border is crossed, and to be online at all, Flex is downloaded and run. And in the Croft, there's an explosion of art, of creativity, of new uses and spectacular uses of software and technology.

But oddly enough, Rushdi isn't thinking as much about this as he is about the cognitive dissonance of…cultural clashes and priorities. He's been stopped at the border—but released—and he knows he's on government lists because of Flex, among other things. But even that's not the issue. The issue is, really, the insecurity and tangible desire and viscerality of love.

If Infinite Detail has a protagonist, it's Rushdi. Maughan does something with relationships and love and hope and principles and people that I seldom see done. Many authors make characters feel true or real to me, but Maughan uses the type of detail, in small, deft sentences, that I seldom see. He makes clear that Rushdi is human, that his own fears and his own needs can swamp the greater goals, the intellectual beliefs, because we're in conflict with ourselves.

This is true of all of Maughan's characters.

The thing that makes the book so strong for me is that they're all real. This book isn't a manifesto. Seen in the space of Before and After, the characters who emerge are people who've made different choices, have different priorities, lead different charges. Everything—the good and the bad of our interconnected life—is seen entirely through human lenses, not the specs that were once our connection to the world.

 

*   *   *

 

Pyrotechnic is a single word description of Max Gladstone's Empress of Forever. If there are Big Summer books in the way there are Big Summer Movies, this is one of them. My expectations coming into this book were: Oh, Max Gladstone has written epic fantasy. This was so wrong.

Vivian Lao is a tech genius. She is also a moving object that's impossible to stop. If she can't go through, she'll go around, and she'll probably knock you flat on your butt while doing it. Not everything she's done or tried is necessarily on the up-and-up, and she's aware that there are people who are looking for her. She's also aware that it would be very bad for her future ability to get anything done if they find her, and when the book opens, Vivian Lao has gone to ground, returning incognito to the U.S. from the Bahamas.

Has gone, in fact, to ground with the help of one of her oldest and most beloved of friends, Magda. She's putting Magda at risk, and knows it—but the risk is one she'll take, and has taken all along, because Viv has plans. She wants to conquer the world, and space, and everything she can even dream of. She's pretty sure she's on to a way to do that.

So of course she's in hiding.

And of course she's discovered. But she's not discovered by the Men-In-Suits that she's been avoiding; she's discovered by a glowing green woman who looks at her with some disgust before shoving a green hand into Viv's chest and yanking out her heart. Vivian's last thought is a terror for the safety of Magda, the friend who she dragged into this.

When Vivian comes to, she is no longer in Kansas, as it were. She is encased in a bubble full of liquid, naked, and if she cannot get out, this is the end. She'll drown. Viv is not a quitter. She's a thinker, and even here, she kicks thought into gear in a way that doesn't—for me—slow action. She does manage to get out of the bubble. There she meets Hong, a monk who is part of an order that serves the Empress. Hong is being pursued by a bunch of unfortunate machines that are trying to kill the monk and recapture Viv. Or kill them both; in the thick of the action it's hard to tell.

The next several chapters define out of the frying pan into the fire, except there's always a bigger fire. The depth of Viv's ignorance is a constant surprise to the monk and a growing irritation to Viv, who is used to knowing everything of note, danger, or value in her environment.

She's stuck on what appears to be a space station, with a direct line to the large sun it's anchored to, and this station is forbidden because it's a prison of sorts. It's a prison that's meant to house the most dangerous criminal in the universe, or at least in Hong's religious universe, Zanj, the legendary demon of the universe into which Viv has been thrown. In the theory that the enemies of the Empress might just be useful allies to a pretty pissed off Viv, Viv does the unthinkable.

From this point on, Viv is determined to find this Empress, to find a way back to her own world, and to find out what happened to her friends. There's a lot that happens between then and the end—as Viv moves from the enclosed world of the space station, to the wider world in which politics, war, and the Empress take center stage in very unexpected ways.

This isn't a caper book; it would be a great movie, because whole action sequences feel almost cinematic. I don't think anyone writes action scenes quite as well as Gladstone. It's a gonzo space opera full of the weird, the wonderful, and the strange. The book never lets up; even in the quieter sections, things are always turning corners. It's a rollercoaster of a ride, and to be honest it was almost exhausting—but I couldn't put it down until the ride stopped.

 

*   *   *

 

K Chess's novel is a much quieter novel. (Then again, most books are much quieter novels compared to Gladstone.) New York City—our New York City—has in recent years received a huge influx of refugees. Almost one hundred and sixty thousand. These displaced people have lost everything but the clothes on their backs and the items they can carry on their person; they've taken a desperate one-way trip to possible safety from events that will destroy them.

There is no way back. There is no home across the ocean—any ocean.

These people of different races and different backgrounds have come from New York City—the New York City of their world. They were chosen by lottery, by random number generation, and they had five seconds to say yes or no. Some people had children, and those children were not selected. The young weren't.

Imagine arriving in a city that is like, and unlike, your home. Imagine being educated and trained in a world with subtle differences, and in which whole fields—medicine or art—have diverged significantly. Imagine, too, that you're divorced and your only child lives across the continent, and by accepting your lottery number and walking through the emergency portal, you've abandoned all chance to see him again—if he survives.

Imagine that everything you've known, everything you've loved, and possibly everything you've devoted your life to, doesn't exist in this almost familiar world into which you've walked.

If you can, you understand Helen Nash. If you can't, and you read this book, you'll understand Helen, Hel for short.

This is a novel about refugees, with an added twist. There is no place waiting for them, and the welfare that does exist is scant and comes with resentment and suspicion. A handful of refugees would be acceptable—but the sudden influx of tens of thousands is not.

Some people find homes and positions of prestige that belie their status. Most don't. Hel begins to study this new New York, this strange Earth, and the divergent histories that exist between the world she knew and the one in which she's an alien. Her boyfriend—met after arrival—was once doing a doctoral thesis on a famous science fiction author, a man who does not exist in this world. He never made it to adulthood; he died as a child.

His death is a divergence point. It's possibly the first divergence point. Hel, whose life was not a study of Ezra Sleight, the famous author who never lived in this continuum, becomes obsessed with the author, the divergence point, and the things that made her world her world.

It's through the lenses of Hel and Vikram, the man who is now a security guard, not a Ph.D. student, that one sees what is lost. Grief, guilt, anger, and a desire for things familiar and known are threaded through all of their interactions with this New York and each other.

The end point of the story doesn't quite carry the weight that the rest does—but it turns things around in an interesting way. This is a thoughtful meditation on what home means to those who have lost it forever. The sfnal elements exist, clearly, but they are not the focus of the story, and they both underpin the whole and settle in its depths. People are, regardless, people, and this is a different way of looking at the lives of the refugees who have scattered across the globe—and in the city in question—in a way that makes it both more true and less accusatory.

I'll be looking for what she does next.

 

*   *   *

 

Cate Glass's novel An Illusion of Thieves is a reasonable stand-alone novel that nonetheless has room at the end for more. It's a magic-rich world in which magic is forbidden; children with magical talents are meant to be drowned the moment those talents are discovered—or worse, they're turned over to the men and women who form this city's version of the inquisition. There, broken in all possible ways, those who are not drowned become the bloodhounds of that inquisition, sniffing for magic in those who somehow survived.

Romy is one who survived. Her family was poor enough that she was sold to the Moon House as a child, and raised and trained to become a courtesan. She was bought by the man who is called Il Padrone and The Shadow Lord, the ruler of this citystate, with its politicians, its great families, and the rich and the powerful who want both more wealth and more power.

He is trusted.

He is dangerous.

He has lived his life by a code that allows him to rule, but his ascension to power was not simple or easy, and the power, not certain. Romy has become his lover and his partner; she has been educated, and she is known. He is married to a young girl he has never touched, because marriage can't be offered to courtesans. Romy is content—more than content—with her life. She understands what Sandro, the Shadow Lord, wants to achieve: the safety of Cantagna, and the careful liberation of its people. He wants to build a world in which there is more equality. She wants to support him in any way she can, because she believes in the world that he wants to create and believes that he is committed to creating it.

But she has a secret—of course she does.

She is a child who should have been drowned. She has a power that shouldn't exist. It is a black darkness that can eat or rewrite people's memories… or simply steal them away. She is not the only child in her family to be so contaminated; her younger brother Neri is likewise cursed. But Neri, a boy, was not sold to the Moon House, and he therefore lives in the squalor of their old home, with all of the wisdom and self-control of a poor youth who has never had much to lose.

Neri uses his magic to steal something. Neri is not quite caught. But because he isn't, their father is accused of the theft—and accepts the guilt of it, possibly the only paternal thing he has done for the two cursed children. He loses his hand in the process, and his home.

And Romy loses hers. She is now the daughter of a thief, and the sister of a sorcerer. The latter is never spoken aloud by Sandro, when he kicks her out of the home she loves, and out of his life. She even understands why: He cannot be seen to consort with people like Romy. His rule is tentative enough that were he not so damnably smart, so observant, so careful, he would not be ruling. He does not directly mention Neri's sorcery, but he does make clear that his suspicions about it exist. Child of a thief as Courtesan would be hard to survive. Sorcerer would be impossible for anyone. Sandro is willing to overlook Neri, but he sets Romy as guard, guardian, and parole officer. While Neri lives under her care, and while he makes his parole appointments, Sandro will not have him killed.

Romy leaves without fuss, and with a small store of money with which to rebuild whatever life awaits her in the Beggar's Circle. Hint: It's not the life she's been trained to live. That and her resentful, angry, teenage brother tie her in figurative knots, binding her in a way that she never wanted to be bound, and can't escape.

One of the things I really liked about this book was Cantagna itself, a part of the larger Costa Drago. It has always been Romy's home, and Romy remembers enough of poverty and hieracrchy that she can begin to eke out a living far below that she enjoyed as Sandro's mistress. Cantagna feels real on the page, and Romy's knowledge of it makes it as strong a fantasy setting as any.

But when a plot arises that threatens the man who tossed her into the streets without a backward glance, Romy has a choice to make. The man is forever beyond her, but his dreams, his goals, the life he envisaged for the citizens of Cantagna who were not born to wealth and privilege, are not—if she has the courage and the will to use the powers that she—and others—have been cursed with.

Some web-research says this is the start of a series, and I would really, really like to see more of it. Without, you know, waiting, because I loved the ending, and—no, never mind, that would be spoiling.

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