Embers of War – Gareth L. Powell

Embers-of-War-final-copy

“As a heavy cruiser, I had been an instrument of hard diplomacy and destruction; in the House of Reclamation, with my talents intact but my usefulness as a killing machine at an end, I had become instead a means to save lives.

It was almost enough.”

—Trouble Dog, Carnivore class Heavy cruiser and former member of the Conglomeration fleet.

Source: Review copy

Publisher: Titan Books

Date of Publication: February 20, 2018

***

With a simple order crossing the line from legitimate to war crime, the name Annelida Deal became synonymous with the term genocide throughout the spacefaring societies of the Multiplicity.  Due to the outrage after her decision to raze the sentient jungle of Pelapatarn in a decapitation strike that ended the Archipelago War but produced massive collateral damage, Deal went into hiding.  Meanwhile, the sentient warship Trouble Dog, haunted by her complicity in the genocide, resigned her commission and joined the House of Reclamation, an organization dedicated to life rather than death. While she can never forget her past as an instrument of annihilation, Trouble Dog hopes to find redemption in her new role as a rescue ship, saving those lost and stranded along the space lanes.

Several years later, the space liner Geest Van Amsterdam is shot down by an unknown assailant in a solar system colloquially known as The Gallery. The Gallery is a collection of artificially altered planets, literally sculpted into various unnatural shapes by an anonymous race millennia before mankind looked to the stars. Their purpose unknown, the Gallery has become an astronomical oddity, visited by the occasional scientific mission or site-seeing passenger liner. Famed poet Ona Sudak, one of the Amsterdam’s few survivors, finds herself hunted through the unforgiving environment of the object known as “the Brain” by the mercenaries responsible for the Amsterdam’s destruction.  What she finds within the structure of the Brain will reveal long-lost secrets about its creators, the motivation of her pursuers, and her own past—but only if the Trouble Dog and her eclectic crew get to her first.

***

The concept of artificial intelligence inhabiting a starship has been a staple of science fiction since at least 1968, when Richard Daystrom’s M-5 computer narrowly beat out Dr. Chandra’s HAL-9000 to become the first homicidal ship’s computer portrayed on-screen.  Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker predates both by several years, and further exploration would undoubtedly uncover others.  In recent years it appears the sentient starship trope has undergone a bit of a revival.  Lovelace, aka “Lovey”, the A.I. running  the starship Wayfarer in Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, explores a romantic relationship between a synthetic consciousness and her human minder, while Breq, the protagonist in Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice seeks revenge for the loss of her ship.* It would be negligent to not mention the sentient starships of Iain M. Banks Culture series, however, I have been negligent in NOT HAVING READ ANY OF HIS WORKS**, a situation I hope to remedy at some point.  With Embers of War, Gareth L. Powell uses this trope to good effect, crafting an entertaining tale of a sentient warship that no longer wants to wage war and her crew of emotionally damaged characters

 Embers of War has a cinematic feel, with Powell relying on short chapters and fast pacing to construct his story.  Painting with broad strokes, he allows the reader to fill in the details, conveying a universe with depth beyond the confines of the story and instilling a desire to explore it.  Each chapter represents a character viewpoint, allowing deeper exploration of their motivations and inner struggles than might otherwise be accomplished. While a great device with which to develop the central characters, it does disadvantage the non-viewpoint characters, who tend to come across as one-dimensional.

An example of this is Alva Clay, veteran of the Archipelago War and security chief on-board the Trouble Dog. Supposedly dedicated to Trouble Dog’s captain, Sal Konstanz, for rescuing her after the Pelapatarn massacre, Alva spends much of her time unfairly blaming Sal for the death of their former medical technician. Described as a talented and competent professional soldier, Alva disproves that at every chance, to the point of getting herself wounded while unloading her weapon to check IF IT’S LOADED at the most inopportune moment. She’s the type of soldier that any halfway competent military would weed out during basic training due to her mental instability.  Is this instability due to post traumatic stress or general incompetence? A viewpoint chapter or two would help explore how she came to be such a broken soldier.  Much the same can be said of Preston Menderes, the unqualified med-tech foisted on Sal right before their mission to rescue the survivors of the Geest Van Amsterdam. He’s immature and emotionally stunted, utterly unsuited to the high stress career of a med- tech, and a character that would be more interesting and less annoying if the reader were given more insight into how he came to be so damaged.

Conversely, Powell’s viewpoint characters are more complex, specifically Sally Konstanz, Ona Sudak, and especially Trouble Dog herself.  Sal Konstanz is not only a war veteran and seasoned captain, she’s the great-great grand-daughter of Sofia Nikitas, founder of the House of Reclamation.  Her lineage affords her a legacy, but she’s never been one to ask for special favour, earning her place on Trouble Dog by merit alone. While wholly committed to both her crew and their mission, Sal suffers from a lack of confidence ill befitting her service record. She’s a sympathetic character, tormented by her belief that she hasn’t lived up to her ideals, and riven by guilt after losing a crew member that she realistically never had a chance to save.  Ona Sudak’s chapters show us a multi-dimensional character that I really can’t discuss in detail without revealing major spoilers, so I’ll include her in the end notes.***

And then there’s Trouble Dog, the artificial intelligence bred for war and influenced by the predatory nature of the canine DNA spliced into her computer core, a truly remarkable intelligence displaying the empathy that Annelida Deal never could.  Trouble Dog is very conscious of her feral nature and actively holds it in check, a sign of her growth as a sentient being. Her sisters and brothers are bothered by such thoughts to varying degrees, one going so far as to commit suicide, but Trouble Dog finds a more satisfying outlet for her guilt, seeking redemption by protecting others.

Powell delves into the mind of Trouble Dog, both literally and figuratively, creating a virtual environment for her to inhabit, a plot device he’s used to great effect in earlier novels (artificial realities are a huge part of the Ack-Ack Macaque trilogy), and manages to anthropomorphize her into a complex personality both sympathetic and empathetic.  While a compassionate and fearless defender of life, she’s also a wily street fighter, bloodthirsty enough to take on her less empathetic siblings despite being denuded of her weapons systems after her resignation from the military. Trouble Dog is perhaps the most well-rounded character of the novel, making the entire endeavour worthwhile.

If you’re looking for an overriding theme within Embers of War, that theme would be the concept of redemption.  Sal Konstanz wants redemption for her (misplaced) culpability in the death of one of her crew, while Ona Sudak desires, if not redemption, the absolution of obscurity. Trouble Dog’s redemption comes through her desire to save others. It’s a tale of broken people trying to repair their lives, with Trouble Dog acting as both character and setting while they go about it.

Embers of War is the first of three acts, setting up both the universe in which it takes place, and the confrontation that will drive the next novel.  For what Trouble Dog and her crew find within the interior of the object known as the Brain will bring dire consequences to the inhabitants of the Multiplicity. This next novel, Fleet of Knives, is due to be published early in 2019, and I can hardly wait to read more of the Trouble Dog and her eclectic crew.

Gareth L Powell maintains a website and blog at www.garethlpowell.com.

***

*Having read and enjoyed A Long way to a Small Angry Planet, Ancillary Justice remains on my TBR list.

**Feersum Endjinn doesn’t count, as it was neither a Culture novel nor featured an A.I. character inhabiting a Starship.  It remains a wonderful book.

***Spoiler! Spoiler! Spoiler!  It’s not really a huge reveal, but Ona Sudak is also Annelida Deal, the Conglomeration officer who ordered the massacre that ended the Archipelago War. She’s a strong personality who made a controversial decision that is looked upon with derision yet remains confident in her justification. The strike successfully ended the war and saved lives in the long run, but in retrospect was considered a war crime due to the horrific collateral damage.  The historical analogy would be the decision Harry Truman had to make near the end of World War Two, weighing the lives of those citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki versus the millions of civilian and military lives an invasion of the Japanese mainland would have incurred. She’s perfectly suited  to explore ethical issues such as “the greater good” (Utilitarianism).

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Ninefox Gambit-Yoon Ha Lee

NinefoxGambit

“Seven, Subcommand Two said. “Do you have anything better to suggest?”

Cheris didn’t look at the ninefox’s eyes. “Five suggested one weapon,” she said. “I can do better. You can win this with one man.”

She had their attention.

“Specify,” Subcommand Two said. It knew. What other gambit could she have brought to the table?

“General Shuos Jedao.” There. She had said it.

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Solaris

Date of Publication: June 14, 2016

Kel Cheris is an infantry captain of the Hexarchate, known for her unconventional use of formation tactics in the Hexarchate’s perpetual war against heretical doctrines that periodically arise to threaten their long-established hegemony. A mathematical prodigy, Cheris’ talents are wasted in the infantry, but Kel are soldiers, and as such, her duty is to serve. Yet her capabilities are not long overlooked by her superiors, and when the Fortress of Scattered Needles falls to a faction of heretics believed long eradicated, Kel Cheris is tasked with the mission of retaking the fortress before its loss causes irreparable harm to the Calendar by which all in the Hexarchate live. Her proposed solution to the problem is as unconventional as it is controversial—General Shuos Jedao.

In his time, Shuos Jedao was a strategist of unparalleled skill and his tactics entirely suited to the task at hand. Long deceased, his consciousness was preserved in the Black Cradle, a device that made him immortal, yet incorporeal. Using him is the best chance of retaking the fortress and thus bolstering the defenses of the Hexarchate against a looming invasion by the Hafn. Yet two caveats face Cheris at the prospect of working with Jedao. The first—his motivation, as he has no love for the Hexarchate he once served. The second—he is most certainly insane. For the Black Cradle is not only an immortality device—it’s a prison designed to punish the Hexarchate’s greatest traitor for all eternity.

Paired with Jedao as his corporeal host, Kel Cheris must utilize his brilliance while safeguarding both her mission and her sanity from the brilliant General’s influence. As the fight to retake the fortress progresses, Cheris discovers that while Jedao may be the monster she’s been warned of, he may not be the monster that needs fearing. Defeating the heretics and unravelling the mystery surrounding his past will lead to questions concerning their future path and the true agenda of the Hexarchate.

***

Arthur C. Clarke’s third law states that, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” With Ninefox Gambit, Yoon Ha Lee has accepted the challenge and crafted a novel of stunning audacity, bursting the conventions of traditional Space Opera/Military Science Fiction. In the process, Lee has crafted a genre-bender of sorts, blending traditional science fiction with elements of the fantastical. Whether it works for the reader depends on their willful suspension of disbelief and the concordant ability to blur the line between Fantasy and Science Fiction.

In Ninefox Gambit, we’re introduced to a society where technology is subject to the quasi-religious belief of its inhabitants, what Lee describes as, “The Calendar”, both figuratively and literally their system of perceiving time and space and the mathematical principles sustaining it. Since the fall of the Fortress of Scattered Needle, a space habitat that defends their border and sustains the calendar over a large portion of their empire, “calendrical rot” has set in, where the weapons and tactics of the Hexarchate have become either weaker or non-existent.

A stable calendar is essential to the functioning of the Hexarchate, as their technology is concordant with belief in a certain set of constants, such as the 24 hour system of gauging time. If a dissident faction creates a system using a different calendar, some technology no longer works, while those “exotic” weapons and devices linked to the new calendrical system will. Formation tactics work in a similar manner, in that the placement of troops or ships in a given situation and rigid adherence to that formation affects the strength of their attack and the effectiveness of their weaponry. Soldiers of the Hexarchate rely on lists of different formations—a standardized playbook—to wage war, and non-standard formations create unexpected effects that are generally discouraged. It’s a rigid system of warfare, combining a blend of Numerology and Feng Shui with a large element of “handwavium” to achieve their goals.

Battles are won and lost by the use of quasi-magical devices such as the carrion glass bomb, reducing its victims to shards of glass containing their memories, amputation guns firing an arcing beam in which victims limbs literally fall off, and that most devastating of weapons, the threshold winnower, whose effects are terrifying, ghastly, and beyond human comprehension. The use of exotic weapons and formations to wage warfare is as analogous to magic as to make a mockery of the appeals to science and mathematical formulas the characters claim as the basis of their technology. Not surprisingly, it’s the least convincing element of the novel.

Yet this sufficiently advanced magic disguised as technology—and let’s not quibble, this is good old-fashioned magic dressed up as science for Hallowe’en—constitutes a unique take on the norms by which we assume technology should work, and in these days of Wi-Fi and virtual reality environments, kudos must be given the author for thinking so far beyond of the conventional.

The world-building of Ninefox Gambit is both complex and inscrutable. There are six factions of the Hexarchate, seven if you include the long eradicated Liozh, and each performs a specialized function in the proper functioning of their empire:

  • The Kel, to whom Cheris belongs, are the grunts, the military with which the Hexarches keep order. The reader learns early on that the Kel are conditioned to be unquestioningly obedient, up to and beyond the point of sacrificing themselves to accomplish their mission.
  • The Shuos, responsible for strategic planning. They’re the schemers, always taking a long view, attempting to influence the rest of the factions into furthering their goals.
  • The Nirai, who oversee much of the technological evolution of the Hexarchate. They’re the engineers.
  • The Rahal, essentially the government overseers, responsible for the maintenance of the Calendar.
  • The Vidona, specializing in indoctrination and stamping out heresy. They’re the commissars of the Hexarchate, enforcing doctrine at the end of a gun.
  • The Andan, whose purview is both culture and finance. They hold the purse-strings, giving them an outsize influence within the Hexarchate.

And finally we come to the Liozh, the seventh faction, the philosophers and ethicists, perhaps the most interesting of the factions. Eradicated for advocating the heresy of Democracy, their enduring influence continues to frustrate the Hexarches and encourage their foes.

Lee reveals the motivations of the various factions in a piecemeal manner, so it’s best to keep a running track of who’s who and which faction they represent if the reader wants to keep from getting confused. Luckily, most characters use their faction as a surname (see Kel Cheris or Shuos Jedao), which makes it somewhat easier to divine their motivations, although a glossary would have come in handy at times.

As to the characters, Yoon Ha Lee does an exemplary job of fleshing out both Kel Cheris and Shuos Jedao, but is somewhat deficient regarding ancillary characters. Early on the reader meets the captain of Cheris’ Cindermoth(command ship), Kel Nerevor, who seems as though she might have a major role to play in the course of the novel, yet she’s casually tossed aside just as she’s getting interesting.

Cheris and Jedao are both portrayed sympathetically, she a slave to her training as a Kel, but still imaginative enough to embrace borderline heretical doctrine, and he a cold tactician willing to throw away the lives of those around him, but only if the benefits outweigh the cost. Seemingly heartless, we’re given a window into his motivations that belies this notion. He’s a villain with depth of character that will hopefully be fleshed out in the next installment.

Lee also introduces readers to the Servitors, autonomous and sentient A.I. forms that serve menial roles within the Hexarchate. They act as servants within the Hexarchate, but are well aware of their status as virtual slaves, and share a subculture their masters show little appreciation for. However, it becomes apparent that the servitors have their own agenda, one not necessarily in line with that of their masters and worthy of further exploration.

Ninefox Gambit is not a particularly easy read, but with some perseverance, readers will come away with an appreciation of the author’s audacious take on the conventions of the genre. It’s as if the author has written a fantasy novel encased in a sci-fi binding, a daunting task to be sure, yet one that puts an interesting spin on what would otherwise be a commonplace Space Opera. Ninefox Gambit has been nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo Best Novel award this year, and while this reader doesn’t see it reaching quite those heights, the novel does constitute an entirely readable debut, one that the author will hopefully build on with Raven Stratagem, the second of the Machineries of Empire series.

Yoon Ha Lee’s author website can be found at http://www.yoonhalee.com.

A Rage In Harlem – Chester Himes

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“Just why did you come here, Brother Jackson? Why did you come to me?”

“I just wanted to kneel here beside you, Reverend Gaines, and give myself up to the Lord.”

“What!” Reverend Gaines stared as though Jackson had uttered blasphemy. “Give yourself up to the Lord?  Jesus Christ, man, what do you take the Lord for?  You have to go and give yourself up to the police.  The Lord won’t get you out of that kind of mess.”

***

Source: Bought Copy

Publisher: Penguin Classics

Date of Publication: 1957 as The Five Cornered Square

 

Jackson is a simple man, a “square” as it were, a black man just trying to get ahead in 50’s Harlem, trying to do right by his lady Imabelle and shower her with the finer things in life.  So when Imabelle introduces him to Hank and Jodie, a couple of cool cats who have devised a way to turn Jackson’s life saving of fifteen hundred bucks into “Fifteen Grand!”, even a God fearing man like Jackson succumbs to temptation.  Alas, for Jackson, stupidity rather than pride comes before a fall, and when the fall comes, it’s to the tune of fifteen hundred bucks.  Jackson, facing financial ruin, compounds the interest by stealing from his employer and investing his ill gotten gains in a game of craps, a game at which he is…well…crap.

Now on the run from an ersatz U. S. Marshall and desperate to repay his former employer, Jackson enlists the help of the only person who might thread this needle of misfortune, namely, the good sister Gabriel, a hustler who works the streets by day in the guise of a Sister of Mercy, and spends the nights as a dope fiend. She’s otherwise known as Jackson’s ne’er do well brother Goldy.  What Jackson lacks in street smarts, Goldy makes up for in spades, and while Jackson just wants back his sweet Imabelle, Goldy is more interested in the trunk of gold she’s been known to travel with. However, to retrieve Imabelle (and the gold), Goldy and Jackson have to outsmart Hank and Jody’s crew, all the while keeping the law off their trail. Before they’re done the streets of Harlem will run red with blood, but it’s an even bet as to whose.

***

The confidence game is a hallmark of great crime fiction, especially when it ends badly. Don’t believe me? Just think of Roy Dillon and his mother Lilly at the end of Jim Thompson’s The Grifters. Combine a con game with a pinch of noir and a dash of the hardboiled, top it with a generous dollop of the absurd, and you’ll find yourself reading A Rage in Harlem, the perfect introduction to the dark noir of Chester Himes. Described in the introduction of my copy as a “comedy caper”, a more apt description would be, “absurd noir”, for there are times when Hime’s black humour sorely tests the reader’s suspension of disbelief. A dedicated reader, managing to push through the more ridiculous aspects of the novel will find their patience well spent, for what it lacks in realism, this tale of greed, deception, and murder makes up for in sheer murderous fun.

A Rage in Harlem also provides the reader their introduction those iconic Harlem detectives, “Coffin” Ed Johnson and “Grave Digger” Jones, a pair of black detectives who can go where their white counterparts dare not. Carrying “specially made long-barreled nickel-plated .38 calibre revolvers”, and being very free in their use, these two detectives have convinced the people of Harlem that they would shoot a man dead for not standing straight in line.

Grave Digger and Coffin Ed weren’t crooked detectives, but they were tough. They had to be tough to work in Harlem. Colored folks didn’t respect colored cops. But they did respect big shiny pistols and sudden death. It was said that in Harlem that Coffin Ed’s pistol would kill a rock and that Grave Digger’s would bury it.

Skirting the edges of the law they’re sworn to keep, these two detectives believe in their own brand of street justice while their superiors believe in looking the other way as long as they bring results.  Those results generally bring a lot of business to the local undertaker. That’s not to say they’re corrupt, but the delineation between right and wrong for Grave Digger and Coffin Ed depends on their own moral compass rather than any set of formal rules. Having found an audience for their peculiar brand of justice, Himes’ A Rage in Harlem became the first of what became known as the Harlem Detective series.

As for our cast of characters, Jackson is the epitome of the hapless protagonist, unwilling to recognize Imabelle’s true nature and innocent to a fault.  His brother Goldy is another creature altogether, street smart and cunning, saddled with an addiction to both drugs and the greed of easy money, and yet altogether more sympathetic than his simple brother, mostly because he’s aware of who and what he is, and of course, what motivates Imabelle.  Jackson may not know it, but he’s run afoul of the femme fatale, although Imabelle would be hard pressed to admit it, perhaps even to herself. What can be said for certain is that she’s plenty capable of handling herself and the men around her, even those that recognize her for what she is, at least until she meets Grave Digger Jones.

Hank and Jody are the least interesting of this cast of characters, a couple of soulless killers with little depth of character, merely a means to an end, so despicable as to make the reader root for the dimwitted Jackson and his shady sidekick Goldy, and to humanize Grave Digger and Coffin Ed when they step outside the lines of what we generally consider acceptable behaviour in those charged with protecting society from its baser instincts.  They’re men in need of murdering, and Grave Digger and Coffin Ed are up to the task.

Within the pages of A Rage in Harlem, Himes has combined all the elements of a classic crime novel, creating a Harlem I’m not entirely sure ever existed, and populating it with classic tropes of the genre.  We’ve got the Mcguffin, evidenced in Imabelle’s trunk of gold, the misplaced love of a good man, and the object of that love, the femme fatale, personified in Imabelle herself. Add to that a couple of hard-boiled detectives working just this side of the law, and you end up with a magnificent addition to the genre.

The Chrysalids-John Wyndam

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I was abruptly perturbed – and considerably puzzled, too. A blasphemy was, as had been impressed upon me often enough, a frightful thing. Yet there was nothing frightening about Sophie. She was simply an ordinary little girl. – if a great deal more sensible and brave than most. Yet according to the Definition…

Clearly there must be a mistake somewhere. Surely having one very small toe extra – well, two very small toes, because I supposed there would be one to match on the other foot – surely that couldn’t be enough to make her ‘hateful in the sight of God…’?

The ways of the world were very puzzling…

***

Source: Bought copy.

Publisher: Penguin Books

Date of Publication: 1955

David Strorm was a normal little boy, growing up in the normal way, taking the ways of the world around him for granted.  All he knew of the world was his family, their modest holding in the settlement of Waknuk, Labrador, and what his people taught of the Tribulation, a time when God destroyed the Old People and took away their technology to punish the world for its sins. David would spend his days avoiding chores and wandering the fields and forests surrounding their settlement, while his nights consisted of sermons from his theologically legalistic father, himself the son of Waknuk’s founder. Sermons, or more accurately diatribes, on the issue of physical deviation and the need to guard against any aberration, for fear that God might notice any new blasphemy and re-visit the Tribulation on the good citizens of Waknuk.  Foremost among those warnings: “ONLY IN THE IMAGE OF GOD IS MAN”, followed closely by: “WATCH THOU FOR THE MUTANT!” David could never escape these admonitions.  They were carved both in his mind and on the plaques that line the walls of their kitchen.

So when David finds a new friend in the form of Sophie, a young girl living in a secluded cabin with her parents on the outskirts of the district, the joy of her friendship turns to confusion when he innocently discovers that Sophie has a subtle imperfection, one that would label her unclean in the eyes of his father and subject to censure by their pious community.  Her crime: an extra toe on each foot, such an inconsequential thing really, but enough to question her humanity if ever discovered.

And discovered she is, forced to flee with her parents, caught and sanctioned with banishment to the Fringes, where life is nasty, vicious, and short, all for want of ten toes. Confused and horrified by these events, David, his cousin Rosalind, and various children of the district vow to keep their own secret, lest they suffer a similar fate.  For David and his friends have their own aberration, less noticeable, yet more substantial.  They can talk to each other using their minds, and surely this would be much worse a transgression than such a little thing as an extra pinkie toe?

As David and his friends grow into young adults, so does their fear of discovery, especially after his sister Petra develops their talent at an extraordinarily young age, too young to know either fear or caution, and exhibits the talent with far greater strength and much less restraint.  Soon their secret becomes impossible to hide, and David and his fellow telepaths must flee in the face of their society’s fanaticism and xenophobia, lest they too be sanctioned as aberrations in the eyes of God.

But there is hope in the form of distant settlement across the sea, one whose inhabitants exhibit the same talent as David’s small band, a place of acceptance, understanding and security – if only they can remain free from their hunters long enough for those distant voices to come collect them.

***

John Wyndham (1903-1969) wrote several science fiction novels of note, perhaps most famously The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos, each of which has been translated to film, The Midwich Cuckoos filmed as Village of the Damned. When Penguin Books re-issued his oeuvre back in the late 1990’s, I jumped on the chance and collected as many as I could. Previously having enjoyed both The Midwich Cuckoos and Day of the Triffids, Wyndam’s tale of hope in the face of fanaticism went on my “to be read” list and was dutifully shelved for future enjoyment.

And there it sat, until late last year, when I read a review copy of S.C. Flynn’s Children of the Different, another post-apocalyptic novel of children with unique abilities that explored similar themes. My thoughts then returned to Wyndam’s classic, and here we are with no regret, for The Chrysalids is a wonder of a novel, with a host of themes to unpack, and a denouement that has some unexplored and chilling implications perhaps not intended by the author or recognized by the casual reader.

It’s a novel ripe with allegory, most notably regarding the unfortunate tendency of the human psyche to fear “the other”; those among us who are different, whether physically or psychologically.  In The Chrysalids, this tendency is exhibited in the perverse form of Christianity the citizens of Waknuk observe. They’ve taken religious legalism to the extreme, painting any one or thing that varies from what is considered “the image of God” as sacrilege, allowing extreme punishment with neither compassion nor compunction.  Any “defect” is dealt with by a series of progressively harsh actions. Crops are burned, animals are examined and if found wanting, euthanized. Infants showing signs of divergence are left to the elements, or if discovered to be defective later, banished from their society. It’s a primitive form of eugenics, but one that’s been a common theme in history, from the NSDAP labelling Jews subhuman, to Margaret Sanger’s call for the forced sterilization of those deemed feeble-minded, or poor, or those her followers saw as “the ignorant”.  David and his friends are the allegorical Jews of this oppressive society, attempting to hide in plain sight while living in a constant state of fear.

Complementing David’s society’s religiously fundamental take on eugenics, a more scientific take on the subject motivates the Sealanders to rescue David’s group, and more importantly, his sister Petra.  As the strongest telepath yet discovered, their motive is not so much altruistic as it is selfish, evidenced in their desire to use her as breeding stock to augment and amplify their own telepathic society.  Believing themselves the next step in human evolution, they are merciless in dealing with their evolutionary inferiors, resulting in the massacre of both David’s people and the “mutants” of the Fringes at the climax of the novel. The emissary of the Sealanders excuses their actions in a chilling monologue on the difference between her people and David’s:

In loyalty to their kind they cannot tolerate our rise; in loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstruction.

‘If the process shocks you, it is because you have not been able to stand off and, knowing what you are, see what a difference in kind might mean. Your minds are confused by your ties and your upbringing: you are still half-thinking of them as the same kind as yourselves. That is why you are shocked.’

Just as David and his kin were dehumanized by their society, the Sealanders have divorced themselves from their less evolved counterparts, justifying their actions by dehumanizing their foes.

She then goes on:

‘The static, the enemy of change, is the enemy of life, and therefore our implacable enemy. If you still feel shocked, or doubtful, just consider some of the things that these people, who have taught you to think of them as their fellows, have done. I know little of your lives, but the pattern scarcely varies wherever a pocket of the older species is trying to preserve itself. And consider too, what they intended to do to you, and why…’

Her rationalization of the massacre lays in the idea of progress, much the same as Stalin’s when Communism enslaved a large part of the globe and murdered millions in the twentieth century. Her lack of awareness of the similarity of views (one quasi-religious, one quasi-scientific) puts a chill on what otherwise would be considered a happy ending.  For David and his fellow chrysalids have been saved from one oppressive society, only to discover they’ve traded one form of fanaticism for another, whether they or the reader are aware. Whereas religion can subvert morality in the wrong hands, the pursuit of science can at times ignore morality altogether, justifying it by declaring the subject irrelevant to progress. “Can we do this thing?” becomes the over-riding argument-divorced from the morality based question, “should we do this thing?”

The Chrysalids is an excellent criticism of the binary relation between fundamentalist religion and scientific progress without an ethical underpinning. Wyndam was writing from the viewpoint of a citizen of Western society, much as Margaret Atwood when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, so it’s entirely unsurprising that he would choose Christianity as his subject.  In light of recent history, his warnings still hold sway, especially considering the rise of groups like ISIS, whose corrupted interpretation of a major religion give his overall criticism of fundamentalism a very topical feel.  Wyndam explored ideas and ethical considerations that have timeless ramifications for humanity, and in the end, such thought experiments are the goal of good Science Fiction.

 

Children of the Different -S.C. Flynn

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“‘We’ve got to go back,’ she said.

‘Back where?’ Narrah looked shocked.

‘Into the Changeland.’

‘What? Why?’…

…’If we go back into the Changeland, perhaps we’ll find what we need while the memories are still strong.'”

***

Source: Review Copy

Publisher: The Hive

Date of Publication: September 10, 2016

Print Length: 227 pages.

     When the world ends, it ends in madness, leaving few survivors and even fewer still considered human.  Those who survive with their humanity intact live in fear of the technology believed to have caused the apocalypse and of the roving packs of cannibalistic “ferals” that comprise the rest.  Yet life goes on, diminished but not defeated, if only in small settlements such as the one near the outskirts of Perth, Australia, where survivors have banded together into families of necessity, rather than biology.

Young Narrah and Arika have never known another life than this, neither a time when technology worked, nor a time of safety beyond the walls of their settlement.  They’ve also never known a time without “the changing”, a coma-like sleep children fall into upon puberty, from which they either die or return changed, whether into mindless ferals or beings with bizarre and wonderful powers of the mind.  Their friends Wirrah and Toura have already been to the” Changeland”, as it is called, one returning with an unnatural sense of danger, the other as prophetess whose prognostications are infallible.  Yet Narrah and Arika are unique even in a world of the special, sharing a psychic link they refer to as “the path”, an ability inherited from their long dead parents.  Fraternal twins who once shared a womb, they utilize this ability to communicate, whatever the distance between them.

While in the Changeland, Arika finds herself in a reality made up of memories of those who lived before the fall, and meets a malevolent creature who has taken the form of an echidna that preys on those undergoing the changing.  It’s only through the intervention of Narrah (who is able to enter the Changeland by way of their psychic link) that they are both able to escape.  When she awakes, Arika gradually discovers she can mimic the senses and abilities of myriad animals.  Locked up by the settlement’s inhabitants for fear she may become feral, Arika uses her newly found powers to escape and flees with Toura to find Narrah, who has been kidnapped by the City people (those who still believe in science and technology).  Little does she (or Narrah) know, but he’s essential to them by way of the gift he receives on his own journey to the Changeland.   Arika and Narrah, with the help of their childhood friends and the City People, will embark on a journey to unlock the past to save the future.

***

When evaluating whether I’ve enjoyed a novel, I like to imagine the process as akin to a balance, with one arm representing the mechanics of the prose (how well it’s written), the other representing the plot (the framework of the story), and the fulcrum upon which they rest as my resulting enjoyment.  Topple the balance one way or the other and as a reader, I come away dissatisfied.  It’s an especially tricky tightrope to walk (just like mixing metaphors) when the novel has been self published.  In such cases, my balance is relatively flexible, in that I’m willing to forgive rough prose or a loosely developed story as long as its counterpart shifts the balance into equilibrium. Such is the case with S.C. Flynn’s Children of the Different.

The dystopian novel is a well-worn genre in literary circles, whether it be the post apocalyptic world Stephen King’s The Stand, or perhaps more appropriately to our subject, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids*. In Flynn’s case, he’s travelling well trodden dystopian ground, what with the apocalyptic plague of madness, the loss of technology (and irrational fear of it), the hero’s journey, exemplified in both Narrah and Arika and their individual storylines that inevitably converge, and of course, the idea of the chosen one (or two)  whose path may lead to salvation.  Yet these obvious tropes are manipulated with skillful effect to engage the reader (at least this one) in Narrah and Arika’s exploits, and at the end of the day, leaves the reader wanting more of their story.  It’s not that the plot remains unresolved, but that much of the story falls outside the margins of what we’re allowed to see.  There’s much more to the history of the madness and what led up to it, more of the tale of the twin’s parents and their special connection, and especially, more of Arika and Narrah, whose story is both resolved—yet  not—at the end of the novel. Personally, I’d like to know it.

The other end of the balance is where Children of the Different finds some hurdles to overcome.  At times the author can be overly verbose, specifically regarding the chase scenes, which tend to come across as overlong.  It’s a situation where the use of a professional editor would be useful to tighten the pacing and guard against the aforementioned verbosity while retaining the author’s voice.  Yet it is a quibble rather than criticism, as Flynn’s story more than makes up for the deficit of brevity.  However, as a reader, I must admit to a certain bias regarding concise writing, preferring an economy of words, especially with regards to Young Adult novels, for fear of intimidating the reader.  So it’s a subjective rather than objective criticism, and in the final analysis, the balance between writing mechanics and entertaining story is kept.

Children of the Different is a Young Adult post-apocalyptic novel by S.C. Flynn, an Australian ex-pat currently living in Ireland.  He maintains a blog at scflynn.comChildren of the Different is his debut novel, and I look forward to his future endeavors.

 

*note to self—sit down and read your copy of The Chrysalids.

Osama-Lavie Tidhar

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  A man in a robot suit walking down the road, a sign above his head: Half price tickets. ‘There’s no place like home!’ the man shouted.  He stopped by Joe, handed him a leaflet. ‘There’s no place like home, mate. Get a ticket while they’re going.’

  Joe blinked, his vision blurred.  The tin-man walked away.  He’d already forgotten Joe. ‘No place-‘

  ‘Joe?’

  He blinked and opened his eyes.  Madam Seng stood above him.

  ‘You’ve had a bad dream,’ she said.

 

 

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Solaris

Date of Publication: October 9, 2012

Joe is a detective, average and nondescript.  Living in Vientiane, Laos, he spends his mornings drinking coffee in a local café and afternoons reading in his disheveled office, quietly shared by him, a desk, and a gaggle of geckos.  He sits and he reads and he smokes, whiling the time away.

 And then the girl appears, the girl in need of a detective.  She wants to find a man, an author, coincidently, the author of the pulp thriller sitting on Joe’s desk.  The man, who writes about a fictional terrorist, a terrorist whose exploits titillate the reader with his exceptional violence.  She wants him to find the unlikely named Mike Longshott, author of the Osama Bin Laden—Vigilante series, and money is no object.  Then she disappears as if she were never there.

Joe—doing what a detective does—takes the case, commencing a journey that will take him across the world and back, from the banlieues of Paris to the heart of London and then New York,  finally across Asia to Afghanistan and a Kabul that has always been and never was.   Harassed and impeded at every turn by a mysterious group determined to keep Longshott’s anonymity intact, Joe’s pursuit of the pulp author slowly transforms into something altogether different, a search for a truth that once discovered, will slowly unravel his understanding of both reality and his place in it.

Reading a novel by Lavie Tidhar can be a lot like trying to wrestle with smoke.  Reality is reality, until it’s not, as if it simply blew away in the wind.  And that’s why if forced to describe Osama in a word, that word would be “surreall”.   Tidhar’s novel starts innocently enough, at first appearances a traditional boilerplate mystery.  Mysterious woman hires “down on his luck” detective to find equally mysterious writer.  Woman looks familiar, but detective can’t quite place where he’s seen her before.  Detective is given an expense account, begins his search and almost immediately finds himself the target of a nefarious cabal determined to stop him—all very much Mystery 101.

  Or is it?

It quickly becomes obvious that Osama is not your traditional mystery, and as time goes on, Joe’s journey devolves into a schizophrenic dream —a locked room mystery where the room is Joe’s reality, and the mystery is the truth of his existence.  You see, reality is malleable in this Tidhar novel, dependant more on the reader’s point of view than any natural laws.

For instance, the world Joe inhabits is one where Osama Bin Laden is merely a character in a novel.  Al Qaeda, 9-11, the invasion of Iraq and subsequent global jihad—they never happened.  The World Trade Centre is but an architect’s dream, and the world is relatively peaceful.  Yet many people in Joe’s world have glimpsed another, a world where Longshott’s Bin Laden thrillers aren’t merely figments of a frenzied imagination.  As the case deepens, Joe begins to realize he is one of these select few, drawn to this other world like a moth to flame.  The reader is drawn to Joe in much the same way, as one realizes the mystery of Osama has more to do with Joe and Osama than it does the man Joe is trying to track down.  Osama the fictional character is linked to Joe the real detective—but how?

We’re given clues to their connection as Joe comes into contact with others who share this ephemeral bond, refugees, as they’re called.   Who or what are the refugees? Spectres? Transients from another reality? Figments of Joe’s imagination?  There’s a host of possibilities, left up to the reader to decide.  Perhaps Joe and the other refugees are those whose deaths in our world transported them there by the inhumanity of what happened to them.  Perhaps Joe’s reality is merely a construct of a man on his death-bed, unconsciously trying to make sense of what happened to him.  Perhaps it could even be that Joe’s world is purgatory for those who died so quickly they aren’t even aware of their own passage.  It could also be the story of an alternate universe whose borders on our reality are ill-defined.

Just like the setting, the characters inhabiting the world of Osama are as fleeting as their reality.  Osama is a McGuffin of sorts, merely sliding between the pages—the object of Joe’s fascination while he searches for Mike Longshott, much as the Maltese Falcon drove Sam Spade while he looked for Archer’s murderer.  Mike is the link binding the story of Joe with that of Osama.  He’s the facilitator, unintentionally leading Joe to discover the truth of his own existence, and by extension, that of the girl.  He doesn’t recognize her, but she’s clearly familiar with him, as if there were a time and a place where they once knew each other.

And that’s the thing about Tidhar’s characters.  They’re all as ephemeral as the situations in which they’re placed.  There’s a sense of unrealness, an unfinished quality about them.   Joe is the only character of substance, and even that becomes questionable as the novel progresses and both he and the reader begin to question his reality.

The obvious comparison can be made between the works of Philip K Dick and Lavie Tidhar.   At first I thought that might be unfair, as Tidhar has his own voice and style, but after reading Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, the similarities in their writing come to the fore.  Tidhar plays with much the same themes regarding reality and one’s perspective, and has clearly been influenced by Dick’s writing.  For instance, there’s a scene in Osama where Joe enters an opium den to confront the proprietor, using the delivery of a film case as part of his ruse.  He quickly falls into a fugue state while the film is shown and finds himself in another London, one that looks much the same, but with subtle differences.  The film acts as a catalyst for his transference between worlds, much as the talisman Mr. Tagomi is meditating with in MITHC when he finds himself transported to an alternate Los Angeles where America won the Second World War.  In another scene, Joe is trying to gain entrance to a private club known as “The Castle”, another less than subtle reference.  While each author clearly has their own voice, Tidhar has clearly produced an homage to a master of the alternate history genre using his own distinctive style.

Osama is not a traditional novel, in that the process is more important than the final product.  There’s no clear resolution to this mystery, and it’s almost as if it’s a very well written thought experiment.  A multitude of solutions are posed, but you’re going to have to settle for whichever one you WANT to be the solution.  In the end, that’s what makes Osama a most satisfying read.

Finn Fancy Necromancy-Randy Henderson

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Source: Review Copy from Publisher

Publisher: Titan Books

Publication Date: January 1, 2015

 

Finn Gramaraye is a most unusual ex-con.  He’s a talented necromancer and one of a group of magically gifted humans known collectively as the Arcana, living surreptitiously among the “mundane” population.  His crime—assault on a creature of the fey—and his punishment is exile to the Other Realm, the place beyond the mists the fey call home.  There he’s forced to relive his most intimate memories for their amusement.  Those exiled to the Other Realm feel no sense of the passage of time and when his sentence is completed, 15 year old Finn is transferred into his now 40 year old body.

Normally, such a sentence wouldn’t constitute an insurmountable culture shock to an Arcana.  Finn’s body has been loaned out the past quarter century to a changeling who will catch him up on the life he’s missed.  His parole underway, the transfer ceremony runs smoothly right up to the moment someone interferes using dark magic.  Finn survives the attack but the transfer is incomplete, and he ends up without those crucial memories of his life since incarceration.  For someone stuck in an 80’s frame of mind, 2011 is going require some major adjustment.  As if that’s not enough for his still adolescent mind to deal with, he’s just been framed—again—this time for the murder of the same witch he was convicted of assaulting all those years ago.

Now he’s got 72 hours to not only exonerate himself but to unravel a conspiracy that threatens the uneasy peace between Arcana and Fey, a conspiracy that someone—or something—will do anything to keep him from solving.  Concurrently, Finn finds himself dealing with an older brother who just might want him dead, a younger brother who thinks he’s a waerwolf, a zealous enforcer who isn’t particularly interested in due process, and not one, but two romantic entanglements from his past.  For Finn Gramaraye, exile is not looking so bad any more.

Finn Fancy Necromancy is a novel that took several attempts to fully immerse myself in, perhaps owing to the present state of the genre.  Since J. K. Rowling exploded on the scene, a sort of “Harry Potter Effect” has manifested as publishers chase the phenomenon.  It’s an unavoidable side effect of Rowling’s success–a glut of knock offs and wannabe’s, all published by an industry desperate to replicate her success while the subject is hot.  Upon cursory reading, I feared Finn’s story was going to fall into the “wannabe” category and set it down in search of something else.  Revisiting the novel a few months later, I discovered the folly of my initial impression. Neither Randy Henderson nor Finn Fancy Necromancy deserve the “also ran” moniker. 

Randy Henderson’s novel has all those things you’ve come to expect in Urban Fantasy: Mundies (those regular folks, clueless to the magical world around them), Arcana (those gifted with magical abilities, living un-noticed by regular society), Fey (magical creatures such as Gnomes, Sasquatch, Witches and Waerwolves), all of them maintaining an uneasy truce while they pursue their own goals.  Of course, with all these competing factions, there’s need of a magical police force, the Enforcers, tasked with keeping the peace, or at least some version thereof.  All very standard fair in your typical Urban Fantasy, but it’s also got that certain something that makes a particularly good fantasy story stand out.  Whether it’s the interspersed humour, the compelling characters, or an intriguing mystery, Henderson has found the storyteller’s sweet spot.  Add to that plenty of action, whether in the form of Sasquatch fights, Warlock rumbles, or a mission impossible into the heart of an Arcana vault by Finn and company and you’ve got a winning combination.

There’s also action on the emotional front.  Finn’s tale is a coming of age story, as he tries to recapture both his lost youth and his estranged family and finding out neither may be possible.  Having no experience with the foibles of teen relationships, when he runs into his former girlfriend (now a mother with her own teenager), he’s ill equipped to recognize that though she may be the girl of his dreams, that’s possibly all she ever was.  Nor does it help that the mundie girl he used to pal around with has grown into a beautiful women who’s no longer shy in demonstrating her affection for this clueless boy in a man’s body.

Finn’s relationship with his family is also complicated, considering the eclectic nature of their personalities.  His older brother Mort is consumed by jealousy of Finn’s necromantic abilities and fears that Finn’s re-emergence may usurp his position within the family necrotorium.  Finn’s younger brother Pete adores him, unaware of Finn’s participation in a youthful prank that may or may not have turned him into a lycanthrope.  His father has lost his mind but not his ability to conjure, and his sister is literally allergic to magic, a decidedly unhealthy malady for someone from a family whose business revolves around the one thing she can’t be near. 

All in all, it’s a magical blend of Six Feet Under and the Addams Family upon which Randy Henderson has placed his personal stamp, and an excellent debut to a series which continues in Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free, out this February.  Randy Henderson maintains at RandyHenderson.com.