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Friday, April 4, 2014

Shorter Reviews of Six 2014 Novels: R.J. Bennett, R. Ford, S. Saylor, J. Sprunk, A. Furst and A. Roberts (with comments by Liviu Suciu)

"A densely atmospheric and intrigue-filled fantasy novel of living spies, dead gods, buried histories, and a mysterious, ever-changing city-from one of America's most acclaimed young SF writers.

Years ago, the city of Bulikov wielded the powers of the Gods to conquer the world. But after its divine protectors were mysteriously killed, the conqueror has become the conquered; the city's proud history has been erased and censored, progress has left it behind, and it is just another colonial outpost of the world's new geopolitical power. Into this musty, backward city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the quiet mousy woman is just another lowly diplomat sent by Bulikov's oppressors. Unofficially, Shara is one of her country's most accomplished spymasters-dispatched to investigate the brutal murder of a seemingly harmless historian. As Shara pursues the mystery through the ever-shifting physical and political geography of the city, she begins to suspect that the beings who once protected Bulikov may not be as dead as they seem-and that her own abilities might be touched by the divine as well."

So far the biggest positive surprise of the year for me and the current top fantasy for 2014 - though "heavy hitters" from A. Ryan, B. Weeks, D. Wexler and A. Tchaikovsky are due in the summer and I expect at least one of those to get to the top - Robert Jackson Bennett's City of Stairs is one of the rare secondary world fantasy novels that succeed superbly at being different and showing that it is possible to do new things and not recycle the faux-medieval, far eastern, classical or Victorian settings as the genre tends to do over and over, however well done on occasion.

As lots of things happen and I do not want to spoil the twists, I would just mention that there is everything one wants - drama, romance, battles, fights, mysteries, amazing world building and great characters who stay with you.
Regarding originality, the last fantasies I felt similarly about were The Last Page by A. Huso, Thunderer by F. Gilman and Perdido Street Station/The Scar by C. Mieville.

Here is just a small taste of the wonders of the book - an extract from a list of miraculous things now stowed away in a secret warehouse whose content are of course of great interest to our heroes and villains:

"368. Shelf C5-158. Glass of Kivrey: Small marble bead that supposedly contains the sleeping body of Saint Kivrey, a Jukoshtani priest who changed gender every night as part of one of Jukov’s miracles. Miraculous nature—undetermined.

369. Shelf C5-159. Small iron key: Name is unknown, but when used on any door the door sometimes opens onto an unidentified tropical forest. Pattern has yet to be determined. Still miraculous.

370. Shelf C5-160. Bust of Ahanas: Once cried tears that possessed some healing properties. Users of the tears also had a tendency to levitate. No longer miraculous.

371. Shelf C5-161. Nine stone cups: if left in a place where they receive sun, these cups would refill with goat’s milk every dawn. No longer miraculous.

372. Shelf C5-162. Ear of Jukov: an engraved, stone door frame that contains no door. Iron wheels on the base. Speculated that it has a twin, and no matter where the other Ear is, if the doors are operated in the correct manner one can pass through one door and come out the other. We speculate that the twin has been destroyed. No longer miraculous.

373. Shelf C5-163. Edicts of Kolkan, books 783 to 797: fifteen tomes mostly dictating Kolkan’s attitudes on dancing. Total weight: 378 pounds. Not miraculous, but content is definitely dangerous.

374. Shelf C5-164. Glass sphere. Contained a small pond and overhanging tree Ahanas was fond of visiting when she felt troubled. No longer miraculous" 

"The King is dead. His daughter, untested and alone, now wears the Steel Crown. And a vast horde is steadily carving a bloody road south, hell-bent on razing Steelhaven to the ground

...or the city will fall

Before the city faces the terror that approaches, it must crush the danger already lurking within its walls. But will the cost of victory be as devastating as that of defeat?"

The Shattered Crown by Richard Ford is the second Steelhaven novel after The Herald of the Storm which was a surprise hit of 2013 due to its mixing of the familiar with a somewhat outrageous twisting of it in the various story-lines that follow the multiple and wonderfully diverse in all ways cast.

I was wondering a little if that was a one time trick only as there is a clear logic to the "usual" fantasy storyline - whether new gritty and ambiguous or older traditional with clear sides - and what reads new in a first series novel can look gimmicky and become tired fast in a second, but The Shattered Crown managed to deliver another superb reading experience one could not put down.

This time I would say that the novel is less interested in twisting the familiar tropes and more in brutal no let up action that has our main characters in continual dangers as the outside threat of the dark magic invader army becomes imminent; sides are drawn, agents are exposed or make their final move and the novel bursts with action from page one to the last. 

Overall. another highly recommended installment of this wonderful series.


"In 88 B.C. it seems as if all the world is at war. From Rome to Greece and to Egypt itself, most of civilization is on the verge of war. The young Gordianus—a born-and-raised Roman citizen—is living in Alexandria, making ends meet by plying his trade of solving puzzles and finding things out for pay. He whiles away his time with his slave Bethesda, waiting for the world to regain its sanity. But on the day Gordianus turns twenty-two, Bethesda is kidnapped by brigands who mistake her for a rich man’s mistress. If Gordianus is to find and save Bethesda, who has come to mean more to him than even he suspected, he must find the kidnappers before they realize their mistake and cut their losses. Using all the skills he learned from his father, Gordianus must track them down and convince them that he can offer something of enough value in exchange for Bethesda’s release.

As the streets of Alexandria slowly descend into chaos, and the citizenry begin to riot with rumors of an impending invasion by Ptolmey’s brother, Gordianus finds himself in the midst of a very bold and dangerous plot—the raiding and pillaging of the golden sarcophagus of Alexander the Great himself.

New York Times bestselling author Steven Saylor returns, chronicling the early years of his detective, Gordianus, before he assumed the title of The Finder. Raiders of the Nile is the latest in his much-loved series of mysteries set in the late Roman Republic."

Raiders of the Nile by Steven Saylor is the 2nd young Gordianus book and it is excellent stuff and another top 25 of mine for 2014, as it is more coherent and unitary than the short fiction like The Seven Wonders, though it continues strands of the storyline there.

The novel is also much more adventure oriented and Gordianus plays action hero, fights some bandits and joins some others, befriends a lion and even uses his budding observation skills to inadvertently wreak havoc.

The postscript of the author - in the form of a q/a - explains his thinking behind the structure of the young Gordianus books and I definitely want more, though the long promised March Ides book would do quite well too. Any Gordianus will do actually as my older post about this wonderful series explains why!

As an aside, in the upcoming Rogues anthology, Steven Saylor has a young Gordianus story that uses the 40's pulp sf heroes Fafrhrd and the Gray Mouser as legendary beings in the classical worlds, showing again how sff interacts with other genres in occasionally surprising ways,


"Set in a richly-imagined world, this action-heavy fantasy epic and series opener is like a sword-and-sorcery Spartacus.

It starts with a shipwreck following a magical storm at sea. Horace, a soldier from the west, had joined the Great Crusade against the heathens of Akeshia after the deaths of his wife and son from plague. When he washes ashore, he finds himself at the mercy of the very people he was sent to kill, who speak a language and have a culture and customs he doesn't even begin to understand.

Not long after, Horace is pressed into service as a house slave. But this doesn't last. The Akeshians discover that Horace was a latent sorcerer, and he is catapulted from the chains of a slave to the halls of power in the queen's court. Together with Jirom, an ex-mercenary and gladiator, and Alyra, a spy in the court, he will seek a path to free himself and the empire's caste of slaves from a system where every man and woman must pay the price of blood or iron. Before the end, Horace will have paid dearly in both."

 Blood and Iron by Jon Sprunk is a reasonably well executed version of the "humble stranger turns out to have great powers in a different world" version of action adventure fantasy, engagingly written and refreshingly modern in attitudes and language, but not bringing anything new, while the characters and narrative energy on which such stuff depends the most are reasonably interesting to have kept me reading, but not outstandingly so to keep me overtly interested in what comes next. 

Non stop action where the main hero seems not to have any time to do anything but keep saving the world, or at least his current slice at the time...

Overall, a B plus level pulp fantasy which lacks that extra to raise it to the top so far, the way Brent Weeks' novels - by far the best practitioner of this fantasy subgenre of today - do.


"Paris, 1938. As the shadow of war darkens Europe, democratic forces on the Continent struggle against fascism and communism, while in Spain the war has already begun. Alan Furst, whom Vince Flynn has called “the most talented espionage novelist of our generation,” now gives us a taut, suspenseful, romantic, and richly rendered novel of spies and secret operatives in Paris and New York, in Warsaw and Odessa, on the eve of World War II.
Cristián Ferrar, a brilliant and handsome Spanish émigré, is a lawyer in the Paris office of a prestigious international law firm. Ferrar is approached by the embassy of the Spanish Republic and asked to help a clandestine agency trying desperately to supply weapons to the Republic’s beleaguered army—an effort that puts his life at risk in the battle against fascism.
Joining Ferrar in this mission is a group of unlikely men and women: idealists and gangsters, arms traders and aristocrats and spies. From shady Paris nightclubs to white-shoe New York law firms, from brothels in Istanbul to the dockyards of Poland, Ferrar and his allies battle the secret agents of Hitler and Franco. And what allies they are: there’s Max de Lyon, a former arms merchant now hunted by the Gestapo; the Marquesa Maria Cristina, a beautiful aristocrat with a taste for danger; and the Macedonian Stavros, who grew up “fighting Bulgarian bandits. After that, being a gangster was easy.” Then there is Eileen Moore, the American woman Ferrar could never forget.
In Midnight in Europe, Alan Furst paints a spellbinding portrait of a continent marching into a nightmare—and the heroes and heroines who fought back against the darkness."

After Mission to Paris, the superb previous novel of Alan Furst from his long running Night Soldiers series of late 1930's suspense with different main cast but keeping quite a few secondary characters around,  Midnight in Europe fails to repeat its success despite an exciting start. 

The atmosphere is there and the main character is the vintage non-military Furst one - successful early 40's professional with a taste for women and the good life, but also quietly decided to oppose the creeping menace of Hitlerism - however there is something that doesn't gel together as in the more successful installments. 

Still a page turner I couldn't put down, but overall a B plus Furst versus the A+ of his best like Dark Star - which a bit surprisingly is mentioned as inspiration by RJ Bennett for his City of Stairs novel above - one more example how sff and other genres interact and why "narrowness in reviewing" is self-defeating in many ways...


"It is 1955. Funded, in part, by a reclusive Swiss millionaire and working -- it is claimed -- from Nemo's actual blueprints discovered in India, the French Navy build a replica Nautilus. Crewed with sailors and scientists, and commanded by the short-tempered Captain Mason, it is launched in great secrecy from Bayonne.

Almost as soon as it is underwater, however, and having passed beyond the Continental Shelf, an accident (or sabotage!) sends it plummeting towards the ocean floor. The crew desperately attempt repairs as the pressure builds, threatening to crush the entire craft.

But then something very strange happens: despite the fact that they are still descending, the pressure equalises. The descent continues for days; soon passing the 5000m depth that ought to mark the bottom of the ocean. As days turn to weeks, the mystery of their plight only grows deeper: for they pass hundreds and soon thousands kilometres of 'depth' with no ill effects.

Other constraints press upon them: particularly the need to find food, and conserve fuel. Pressures amongst the all-male crew intensify as well, approaching breaking point as weeks pass, and the depth becomes measurable in millions of kilometres. Are they dead, trapped in an eternal descent to Hell? Have they passed through some portal into a realm of infinite water? Or have they somehow stumbled upon -- or been deliberately lead to, via the mysterious Indian blueprint -- some truth about the world too profound even to be measured in trillions?

Then, when they think all hope is lost, and as they approach the trillionth kilometre of depth, they see light below them ..."

Usually Adam Roberts' novels are in my top 25 of the year, but Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea  was very uneven: as a Vernian pastiche including the superb drawings by Mahendra Singh, it was quite in the spirit, from the lack of female characters, to name checking, to crazy but scientific jargon adventure. 

Unfortunately, it mostly remained that and the genre has moved a lot since the 19th century so the novel fell flat as modern sf which was a bit surprising since Adam Roberts also wrote Swiftly (a Gulliverian pastiche) and Splinter (more Verne) that worked very well, with Splinter one of my huge favorites from the author's work.

On the bright side, the novel was not an utter disaster like the Null-A sequel by J.C. Wright, as its style was good and the pages turned by themselves.

Overall a minor Roberts and one hopes the upcoming Bete will revert to form.


Rites of Passage said...

i really love this fantasy fictional books...
I am going to fill u with enthuasism and fictions with a new coming book "Future Past" written by Author- Subrat plz dont wait read this book

Unknown said...

It's always my pleasure to read this type of stuff.I am very much interested in these types of topics from childhood and it's my habit to read this.


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