Zoo City

Zoo City coverWelcome to Zoo City:

People who would happily speed through Zoo City during the day won’t detour here at night, not even to avoid police roadblocks. They’re too scared, but that’s precisely when Zoo City is at its most sociable. From 6pm, when the day-jobbers start getting back from whatever work they’ve been able to pick up, apartment doors are flung open. Kids chase each other down the corridors. People take their animals out for fresh air or a friendly sniff of each other’s bums. The smell of cooking — mostly food, but also meth — temporarily drowns out the stench of rot, the urine in the stairwells. The crack whores emerge from their dingy apartments to chat and smoke cigarettes on the fire-escape, and catcall the commuters heading to the taxi rank on the street below. (132)

What I like about this passage is its incongruous homeliness. Despite the fact that none of the details are original — several are close to cliche — and for all that it’s clear that Zoo City is a pretty beat-up place, this isn’t a judgmental portrait. These people may be caged, but they’re not animals. Our narrator is matter of fact about the meth being cooked alongside the food; if we didn’t already know by this point, we probably wouldn’t be too surprised to learn that she lives here, that she is part of the community she sets out for our consumption.

It’s clearly a place for people short on choices, however. Zinzi Lelethu December is out of prison but far from out of debt, and has been forced to turn her journalistic tricks to 419 scams: a role she’s good at playing, but not happy about. What’s weighing her down is the novel’s fantastic conceit, so thoroughly normalised that taking the above passage in isolation you might miss it. In Zoo City‘s alternate day after tomorrow (the novel is set in March 2011), there’s a new outcast class, sufferers of a fantastical condition termed Acquired Asymbiotic Familiarism by researchers, and animalism or worse on the street. Its defining symptom is the appearance of a flesh-and-blood animal familiar (and these are animals, not talking pets), it seems to afflict those condemned by society or even by their own conscience (justice be damned) and those affected are excluded, exoticised, or both; and they need places like Zoo City to live. The resonances with Pullman’s His Dark Materials in this setup are unavoidable but, apparently, coincidental, although the similarity is acknowledged and there is at least one witty reversal: familiars often reflect their host’s inner character through a mirror darkly. So Zinzi’s sloth, which appeared after the death of her brother, tells you that she’s smart, sharp, and constantly on the move.

As she has to be, to navigate the competing currents that make up the novel’s plot. There’s her desire to pay her way out of her scamming debt; her uneasy relationship with Benoit, a Zoo City hustler whose presumed-dead wife may in fact be alive; the cryptic emails that keep mysteriously appearing in her inbox; and her private enterprise, her magical talent for finding lost things. It’s the last of these that provides most of the forward motion in Zoo City, as Zinzi is recruited by two deeply shady animalled, on behalf of mysterious music mogul Odi Huron, to track down the missing half of the twins that make up his latest pop sensation. The quest takes her, naturally, out of the zoo and into the wilds of the middle and upper class enclaves of Johannesburg: and back, in some cases, into the circles in which she used to swim.

So far so noir, an impression reinforced by the cool terseness of Zinzi’s narration and, at times, of Zinzi herself — “There are two things in the interrogation room with me and Inspector Tschabalala. The one is Mrs Luditsky’s ring. The other is twelve and a half minutes of silence” (28) — and by the pervasive unfairness of the unfolding story. AAF confers something between the stigma of the ex-con and, as the pervasive presence of AIDS reminds us, the stigma of the disease sufferer. Like those, it is based as much or more on assumptions as it is on any empirical reality. Found documents scattered through Zoo City tell the story of AAF — the journal article, the documentary synopsis, the prison tales. The fantastic nature of the conceit has put some reviewers in mind of Jeff Noon’s surreal Vurt (1993), although I was reminded of the more rationalised fantastic of Kit Whitfield’s Bareback (2006). Either way, for most of the novel what’s striking is how low down in the mix it seems to be: a back-note, not a central flavour. It’s only quite late on that it becomes clear, not just from those found documents, how much the existence of AAF has shaped the society Beukes describes.

More immediately obvious, however, is the care with which Beukes sketches the jungle of Johannesburg, and the people Zinzi meets. We watch, fascinated and helpless, as they are used and use each other in turn. Like Beukes’ first novel, Moxyland (2008 South Africa, 2009 UK, 2010 US), Zoo City is distinguished by its texture. The husbandry of information is mostly superb; the glimpses of Zinzi’s world captivate, from the gated high-rise where a broken lift means the wealthy residents simply throw their rubbish out of the windows, to be cleaned up once it hits the ground, to a “Great Gatsby by way of Lady Gaga” (219) nightclub and Zinzi’s own cluttered, crappy flat; and the various characters Zinzi meets, from Huron himself, to popsters Song and S’bu, to current and ex lovers Benoit and Gio, are captured with precision and detail. Per John Clute’s review, Zoo City is indeed an energetic read; but it’s Zinzi’s binding voice that makes it a visceral one, and more transporting than the earlier novel.

Less welcome is the way in which the marketing-driven cynicism familiar from Moxyland — “it’s not just about the music anymore,” Zinzi is told, “it’s about the brand” (120) — becomes here something of a red herring. Shadowing the brisk surface narrative is the Undertow, a metaphysical darkness that threatens to consume those with AAF. It is the attrition of stigma, and the burden that the novel’s villain seeks to use power and privilege to escape. The impeccably chroegraphed ending that Beukes contrives from these ingredients however, is a betrayal, an imposition of justice that everything else Zinzi has told us, and everything Moxyland might have lead us to expect, insists is unearned. And it diminishes an otherwise fine novel, even if the clue was there from the start. The thing about a zoo, after all, is that it’s a lie: the real world is a jungle.

Retribution Falls

Ark coverINT — STORE ROOM. ANGLE on a BULLET, over which a VOICE: “Just imagine. Imagine what this feels like, going through your head.” Our heroes (Darian FREY and Grayther CRAKE) have obviously been captured by a BAD GUY — who now puts that bullet into a REVOLVER, spins the cylinder, and puts the revolver to Crake’s head. Crake seems unsettled, indeed properly upset. He carries himself, we notice, in a manner at odds with his scruffy appearance, not to mention out of place in this room. Captain Frey is unmoved. The bad guy pulls the trigger. There is a loud CLICK from the gun, and quiet WHIMPERING from Crake. “You’d let him die”, the bad guy says, “rather than give up the Ketty Jay? That’s cold.” Frey shrugs. “He’s just a passenger.” In a WIDER ANGLE, as the bad guy paces the room, we can see some THUGS. Bargaining ensues — on Frey’s part, at least. Then, after a bit of clever trickery involving Crake’s GOLD TOOTH — there should be a CLOSE-UP here — our heroes get loose! A MELEE ensues, during which Frey acquires a SHOTGUN. Charging down a nearby CORRIDOR towards some shuttered WINDOWS, Frey leads with said gun, and then we’re EXT — ALLEY, with an OVERHEAD SHOT on the pair of them falling out of a shabby wooden building towards a COBBLED LANE. Crake lands awkwardly; Frey, of course, is poised. “I feel a sudden urge,” he says to Crake, “to be moving on. Open skies, new horizons, all of that.” Crake looks at him for a beat, perhaps listening to the SHOUTING in the background, probably thinking that this man was, in the very recent past, willing to let him get shot if it would save the ship. “I have the same feeling,” he says. They start running, and off their disappearing forms we SMASH CUT to —

MAIN TITLES: TALES OF THE KETTY JAY

And we’re off. This much — allowing for some elisions, and some obvious stylistic liberties in my version — is covered in the first chapter of Retribution Falls, and it very neatly sets the tone for what follows. Chapter two is a meet-the-crew, as Malvery, the ship’s surgeon, introduces Jez Kyte, a navigator and the new recruit, to pilots Artie Pinn and Jandrew Harkins, and the silent, ex-slave engineer, Silo — only to be interrupted by the return of Frey and Crake, and the firefight they bring with them. After the crew’s escape (aided by the ship’s golem, Bess), and a bit of scene-setting explanation — the Ketty Jay “looked as if she couldn’t decide if she was a light cargo hauler or a heavy fighter” (11); Frey’s crew mostly do black-market work, or “sort of anything, really, if the price is right” (12), largely because he won’t work for the ruling Coalition — our heroes are hired, in what looks like the opportunity of a lifetime, to steal a shipment of gems. But — wouldn’t you know it — the heist goes wrong, and pretty soon everyone and their mother (or at least Frey’s ex-fiancee, now a pirate captain) is after the Ketty Jay, leading to inventive set-pieces, well-judged reversals of fortune, some reasonably convincing character growth, and at least one thrilling sky battle. It is, in other words, a romp, and really a very well paced one: only in the final third, thanks to one too many backstory-revealing sidebars, are there any glitches in the pacing. For the rest of the time, the pages fly by.

So Retribution Falls is perhaps the smart solid action-adventure sf recently sought by Dan Hartland and Jonathan McCalmont, and for that reason welcome as a Clarke Award nominee, even if I wouldn’t give it the prize. It succeeds, in part, as the opening of this review should suggest, by following the narrative model that has come to dominate genre television. It is not at all a surprise to find that it inaugurates a series of books: the characters are established as ongoing entities, which means their arcs in this novel are rather limited things, interesting as much or more for where they will go next as what happens now; and its themes are broad, “universal” ones, the challenges of leadership and loyalty, not particularly inflected by the book’s sfness. Following a specific narrative model, indeed, that may seem overly familiar to fans of contemporary genre TV; which is a roundabout way of acknowledging that if there’s one thing people know about Retribution Falls, it’s that it’s a bit like Firefly.

It would undoubtedly be unfair to Chris Wooding to dismiss his book on such grounds, since not only has he (I gather) never seen the series, but there are important differences. The setting is probably the most obvious. As with Wooding’s rather good previous novel, The Fade (2007), Retribution Falls can be understood as fantasy or as science fiction, which means the furniture is rather different to Firefly’s many moons: in their stead we have one large continent on one planet, airships lifted by electromagnets that turn “refined aerium” into “ultralight gas”, and are powered by “prothane thrusters”; “daemonists” like Crake who can entice “little sparks of awareness” into artefacts (such as a mesmerising gold tooth, or the handily magic sword he gives Frey in payment for his passage); and a deity, the Allsoul, whose worship wiped out the “old religions”, and who is believed by its devotees to be a kind of “sentient, organic machine … they believe our planet is alive, and … vastly more intelligent than we can comprehend” (104). To get the sf reading you have to assume this is all post some kind of singularity, in other words, although Wooding is careful never to finally confirm or deny this reading, and thus avoids his tale degenerating into a frictionless pocket-universe escapade along the lines of Karl Schroeder’s Virga books, and preserves some joy and mystery in his setting. As much as Firefly, actually, I was put in mind of the techno-magical beauty of some of the Final Fantasy games. More than this, the most prominent character dynamic, that between Frey and Crake, is much more central than its Firefly equivalent (that between Mal Reynolds and Simon Tam), and really as much or more reminiscent of that between Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin. All the characters, indeed, are pretty familiar types, and none are unique to Firefly.

That said, the similarities are real. You might say, for instance, that this particular constellation of character types is strongly reminiscent of that found in Firefly, pace certain differences, such as the on-the-run noble (Simon/Crake) being more prominent, and the taciturn but intensely loyal friend (Zoe//Silo) less prominent. Or you might say that the situation within which these characters operate, as the crew of a small and very grey-market trading ship in the shadow of a large and resented central authority, is more than a little comparable. And you might suggest that the tone of the whole enterprise, the mix of humour and action and drama — battles punctuated by one-liners, and yet willing to take a moment to understand Crake’s shock at seeing death, for the first time, up close — could almost be a variation on a theme of Whedon. But for fairness, if you were going to go down that road, I think you’d have to point out that if Retribution Falls is read as echoing Firefly, it can’t be read as doing so uncritically: this is a version of the story in which Mal is genuinely a bastard, in which Simon is directly responsible for the terrible things done to River, and in which Kaylee is in the process of turning into a Reaver. Or, as a friend put it, it’s like Firefly, except everyone is a bit more dickish.

It’s also a version of the story in which women get a rather less good deal. Not only are Frey and Crake always the central duo — making for a rather bloke’s own adventure — the crew’s two women are, not entirely metaphorically, different kinds of dead, and as a result set distinctly apart from the menfolk. Each has the potential to become the centre of an enormously interesting tale, but in this novel you’d be hard-pressed to call either of them a success. Better done, if less interesting, are Amalicia Thade and Trinica Dracken, both of whom serve as romantic foils for Frey, and both of whom emphatically escape his expectations of their weaknesses. They do this in a feisty action-fantasy way, no doubt — the former by, for instance, kicking Frey in the head after he “rescues” her, the latter by showing absolutely no compunction about shooting her ex when the moment calls for it — but that’s the idiom of the whole novel, and arguably Wooding goes further than most in encouraging us to dislike his protagonist. Frey does, inevitably, start to Learn Better, but even then he’s not so much a charming rogue as an infuriating one. The extent to which he sees Amalicia and Trinica primarily as reflections of his own inner turmoil is foregrounded by the longing of Pinn to return home to his (alleged) sweetheart Lisinda; she is, in so many words, “the heroic conclusion to his quest”, and

… the promise of home comforts after his great adventure. But what if she wasn’t there when he returned? What if she was holding another man’s child? Even in the dim clouds of Pinn’s mind, the possibility must have made itself known, and made him uneasy. He’d never risk the dream by threatening it with reality. (84)

You don’t put that in a novel and then unknowingly recapitulate the same sort of self-centredness elsewhere; you put it in as a signpost. In this case it’s a signpost doing double-duty, not only foreshadowing Frey’s complete bafflement when confronted with an idea of Trinica that contradicts his existing conceptions — “his position was so fragile that it fell apart when exposed to the reality of an opposing view” (298); although the new position he constructs for himself is still steeped in denial — but also the men’s general disillusionment when they reach the legendary pirate hide-out of the title, only to find that it’s somewhat of a dump. “This place was better as a legend,” a clear-sighted Jez tells an upset Pinn. “The real thing doesn’t work” (280). It’s the closest thing Retribution Falls offers to a unifying argument, and as I’ve suggested, does undercut some of the book’s more cliche moments. In the end, of course, the Big Damn Heroes save the day. “They were happy,” we’re told, “and free, and the endless sky awaited them. It was enough.” But, you know, sometimes it is.

Ark

Ark cover “If the answer’s not the one you want, maybe you’re asking the wrong question.” So says Patrick Groundwater, one of the multi-billionaire founders of the Ark One project. His mantra is taken up by others during the development of the spaceship that Patrick and his compatriots hope will offer some of humanity – specifically, their children – an escape route from a drowning Earth. Patrick’s daughter Holle, in fact, uses the principle to ask the question that leads to an essential technological breakthrough. A reader, meanwhile, faced with the answer that is Ark, might struggle to find the right question. It’s not the question that ended the book’s predecessor, Flood – “What is Ark Two?” – since although that question is answered, Ark’s primary focus is Ark One. Yet nor is the question as simple as, say, “what happened next?”

For quite a long time, in fact, the question appears to be “what happened elsewhere?” Flood made it clear that, beyond the launch of Nathan Lammockson’s absurd ocean-going Ark, other projects were afoot to save some remnants of humanity from the inexorably rising waters, and indeed, one of Flood’s rescued-hostage protagonists, Lily Brooke, handed over the daughter of a friend to the Ark One project specifically. Ark reprises that scene for its opening, from the point of view of the daughter, Grace Grey, but then, rather than taking off at a tangent to its predecessor, the novel flashes back to 2025 – not too long after the start of Flood – to spend 200 pages detailing the preparation of the ship and its crew. This can feel a little familiar. There is not, for example, much room within the chronology of the flood for different kinds of stories than the ones Flood covered, with the result that Ark necessarily recapitulates some of Flood’s key notions (most notably the destabilising effect of the steadily increasing flow of refugees from drowned areas into any remaining sanctuary) and partakes of the same urgent tone.

And in the context of Baxter’s work as a whole, even the foreground is not as new as it first appears. In place of Flood’s adult characters, harried from place to place, Baxter here focuses on a group of children growing up in the closest thing to a safe haven left in America during this period. But the sun around which their lives orbit is the Ark: that one of the children sits around reading Heinlein and Niven points to the tradition this novel is in dialogue with, I think. Ark is an Engineering Project novel, and bears plenty of comparison to, say, Voyage (1997), or perhaps more significantly, given the apocalyptic context, Titan (1998). It’s a more American sort of novel than Baxter has written for a while – certainly more American than Flood, which was, for all its ostensible globe-trotting, unashamedly a very British apocalypse; here, a President frames the Ark project, and survival, as part of America’s Manifest Destiny. At the same time, this is not to say that Ark is hard sf, and in fact it comes complete with an honest-to-god Star Trek-style warp drive, to carry the Ark along in a bubble of spacetime, and enable the plot to be completed within a single lifespan. But its themes are familiar from the earlier novels — the tensions between military and civilian interests, and between science and politics as a necessary cost of any large-scale space effort; the intense training programmes, which are in a significant sense literally inhuman, and which unignorably deform the humans who pass through them.

Ark can be a sternly utilitarian novel. To fuel their project, for instance, the masters of the Ark trawl the pool of refugees – “It’s astounding the talent you can filter out of the flood of displaced” (34) – and those who get picked up in such drags, such as the engineer Liu Zheng, are under no illusions about their position. “You’re more than a commodity,” Patrick tries to tell him. “More than a set of skills.” Zheng’s reply is chilling in its bluntness: “Am I? None of us is anything without land, Mr Groundwater” (40). Much is also made of the motivating power of a central mission, of not so much the potential of humans working as part of something grander than themselves, but – once again – the necessity for it. “We are not looking for the outstanding individual,” Holle Groundwater is told. “We are looking for a crew” (63). As with Zheng, the emphasis is on individuals demonstrating their value: Holle, aged six when we meet her and in her early twenties when launch day finally comes, is our primary viewpoint in this section of the novel, but it’s by no means certain that she will last the course. We stay with her as the Ark project is taken over by the rump of the US government, as the somewhat casual but relentlessly intellectual training programme is replaced with something more sternly militaristic, as knowledge of the project becomes public and she and her peers become the last celebrities – but also as people she has trained with her whole life are gradually winnowed out of the crew selection process. The psychological consequences of such a life are, it seems, inevitable.

Jonathan McCalmont’s review of Ark argues that its essential familiarity should be balanced against Baxter’s “seemingly ever-increasing control” over his material. There is something to this. Without question, many parts of the novel are vivid. A shuttle-crash training mission is interrupted by an incursion of “eye-dees” – the refugees not authorised to enter the polder – who are scared off when one candidate, Don, starts cold-bloodedly shooting them down. And there’s a good, if brief (probably too brief) interlude in which Holle experiences life beyond the walls of the project, as one of the faceless millions of refugees. And if much of Ark’s first half feels mechanical – as in the murder-mystery plot that, when the long flashback is over, seems to have been inserted only to give Grace a narrative excuse to get to know the main Candidates – well, you might say, Baxter is often a mechanistic writer, deliberately so, and in his best novels that suits the material he’s working with. In Flood, the plot is as remorseless as the rising water, and the most notable achievement of Ark’s first half, perhaps, is to convey a sense of the mundanity of the Ark project, its fundamental grubbiness. We’re told that “The Ark was an expression of dreams, as much as logic” (83), but for 200 pages, even as the story sweeps towards the launch, and the flight plan becomes ever more delightfully unlikely, that dream is mired in much of the worst of petty humanity.

I’m less convinced by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro’s argument that the paralleling allows for a satisfying “aesthetic of symmetry”. Indeed, between the recapitulation of Flood and the echoes of the “NASA trilogy”, the questions the first half of Ark answers seem to me to be rather unsatisfying ones, to the point that when launch finally comes – in frantic, well-described scenes, although ones that are again reminiscent of earlier Baxter, in this case the novella Mayflower II (2004) – and the Ark soars free, it might be a blessed relief.

###

He deliberately steadied his breathing. He turned, looking back the way he had come. And there were Earth and moon, hanging in space, visible now that the pusher plate eclipsed the sun. […] He held up his thumb, and was able to cover both of the twin worlds. In the first few days, as they had looked back at the receding home planet, they had all been shocked by how little land remained. Even Colorado, which had seemed so extensive when they were down there living on it, was only a scatter of muddy islands, threatened by the huge curdled semi-permanent storms that stalked the ocean world. But from here he could see no detail.

They had already come so far. (203)

Characters in Stephen Baxter novels are fond of remarking on how poorly humans, as a species that evolved on African plains, are adapted to life in space. But I think there is a sense in which humans-in-space is a natural focus for Stephen Baxter’s writing. The sparseness and directness of his style captures something of the all-alone-in-the-night situation of an ape on an interstellar voyage: takes the shock experienced by Wilson Argent in the above quote and makes the reader feel it as well. And the dysfunctions of Baxter’s characters – which loom as large in Ark as they ever have – seem an appropriate response to the vast concepts those apes must wrestle with. Jokes about shits-in-space aside (although, somewhat surprisingly, I don’t recall a single space-toilet scene in Ark), I can’t think of another contemporary sf writer who can so compellingly describe, as Jonathan puts it in his review, a sense of alienation in an empty universe. “They had already come so far”; but they have a very long way to go.

Which is to say that no, of course the launch doesn’t offer any relief. Not for nothing do the characters speculate that what they’ve built is merely “a prison in space” (276). The claustrophobic, crisis-riven atmosphere of much of the second-half of Ark is in an important sense merely an intensification of the atmosphere of its first half — the “bubble of safety” (60) that Holle recognises she grew up in becoming a literal bubble, the seeming-impossibility of the warp bubble shooting them off to the stars. No wonder that they turn inward, huddle inside the two counterbalanced hulls of the Ark (Seba and Halivah, named, we are told, for great-grandsons of Noah, though “Havilah” is consistently misspelled). What is in some undeniably literal ways “a whole new experiment in human affairs” (261) is, in other ways, the same-old same-old. Factions spring up in the aftermath of the chaotic launch – gatecrashers, illegals, Candidates – which quickly harden into prejudices and, crammed into the volume of three jumbo jets, the eighty or so crew find themselves frequently at loggerheads.

The hundred pages or so documenting the Ark’s journey to “Earth II” are the best of Ark, and in many ways the best of Baxter. Along with Holle, and Grace, the most prominent crew members are Kelly Kenzie, their captain – or, as she designates herself once their journey is properly underway, with what Holle considers to be utopian optimism, “speaker” – and Venus Jennings, the sf-reader I mentioned earlier, in charge of the ship’s navigation and astronomical observation. The narrative is episodic, designed to allow us to get to know the crew in their new habitat. Baxter takes us though a day in the life of the Ark in mid-journey, from Holle’s point of view: a search for a missing child, how the senior crew deal with the seductions of virtual reality “headspace”, how they plan for crew expansion (that is: having more children), the shipboard games they play and laws they develop. And he gives us striking set-pieces, such as a fire that leads to an emergency separation of the hulls. Scattered debris sparkles prettily against the brutal walls of the warp bubble. The grip of necessity, already strong in the first half of the novel, tightens here, becoming Cold Equations bullishness. When they reach Earth II, after the best part of a decade’s travel, and find it less than the brochure seemed to promise, there is the clearest sense anywhere in the book of the most interesting question Ark answers. Not: can humanity survive? But: can it adapt?

One of the major battlegrounds for these tensions is sex. The original mission design called for a balanced crew, men and women boarding two-by-two, and a plan to maximise genetic diversity by ensuring that any given pair of men and women had only one child together. (There are a handful of gay candidates, we are told, but they’re still expected to “donate their genetic material” at the appropriate time.) After the chaos of the launch, which left some of the planned crew behind, and carried away some military and other personnel who forced their way on board at the last minute, there’s an imbalance – more men than women – which undermines almost every attempt to maintain a stable society. It may (or may not) have been clear from my review so far that, even more than Flood, this is primarily a story about women. The back cover, in fact, blurbs the novel as “the story of three women, Grace, Venus and Holle and their part in our struggle to rescue a future from the waves”; a slightly odd choice given that Venus is never as prominent a character as Kelly, but certainly accurate on the principle. Indeed the most important male characters are callous patriarchs, serial abusers, or mentally ill. Make of this, as they say, what you will; I at least did not detect any essentialising conclusions to be drawn, except perhaps the trivially true point that the sort of constraints that come to define life aboard the Ark are, across the world today, usually more familiar to women than men.

It’s at Earth II and after that Ark begins to spin apart. The crew splits: some wish to attempt colonisation, some to return to Earth, and some to travel onwards, to a newly detected Earth III. Although Baxter lets the colonists go (at least for now; their descendants’ fate is chronicled in last year’s pretty good novella, “Earth II”), he clings on to the other threads. There have been hints, it’s true, that something like this might happen – seemingly superfluous chapters about some of those left behind on Earth, interspersed with the crew’s antimatter-mining efforts at Jupiter, even a brief scene from the viewpoint of an elderly Lily Brooke – but it becomes, to my mind, a near-fatal flaw, a critical loss of focus. Adam Roberts notes that he didn’t know how the novel was going to end. I have to finesse that. I certainly had a sense of how each individual thread was going to end; to the extent that I didn’t know how the novel was going to end, it was the result of being unable to find any coherence among the divergent threads of story.

Or, put another way, in the end I couldn’t find the right question to ask of Ark. It seems too much a novel of disparate parts – not by any means all bad; but not unified. Perhaps I shouldn’t be treating it so much as its own book. It’s true that the series Baxter has written over the last decade or so – the Manifold books, Destiny’s Children, even Time’s Tapestry – follow the same general pattern, in that they eschew direct continuity even as they share a setting, and can generally be read in any order, and true that readers coming cold to Ark seem to find things to enjoy. But I can’t see the separation as entirely successful in this case. To the contrary, I start to wonder how the tale would have looked if the two novels – the one story – had been published in a single volume. I can imagine an integrated Flood and Ark, in which the overarching story is the trial of living in catastrophic times envisioned as a kind of generation starship, with each new generation raised in radically different circumstances to their parents, and thus coming of age with radically different expectations. Ark emphasises this theme in its second half, as the sense of a project the drives the first half is gradually lost, but for all its lopsided structure, without the additional context in Flood the treatment lacks weight. Now, Flood and Ark would have been a beast of a book, and would certainly have sacrificed Flood’s awesome clarity; but it might also have done some things better than either book does alone, and leave me less able to frame Ark as an answer to: “what bits of story were left over from Flood?”

Elsewhere

Or, two bits of self-promotion. First, I have an article in the new issue of Journey Planet, the fanzine edited by the Bacon-Brialey-Garcia superteam:

The direct link to the (fairly hefty) pdf of the issue is here. It’s all themed around alternate history; my piece is about Stephen Baxter’s Voyage. I’m guessing this is probably also the only time I’ll share a table of contents with Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Paul McAuley and John Scalzi.

Second, I have a review of Justina Robson’s Chasing the Dragon, fourth in the slowly-improving Quantum Gravity series, at Strange Horizons, which is probably the only sf novel you’re likely to read in the near future to contain the phrase, “he was still surprised sometimes to look down and find that he was made of cloth.”

The Returners

The Returners coverThe Returners – Gemma Malley’s third young adult science fiction novel, and the first to stand alone — tells a tense, uneasy story. It may open with a too-familiar earnestness — “What is important,” Will Hodges insists, almost as soon as we meet him, “is that you never know. You never know when everything is going to change” (3) — and, indeed, it may be the case that, by the end of the novel, there has been a little more change for the better than can be entirely believed. But it would be a mistake to make up your mind about this story too quickly, I think; the revolution is at least more internal than external, and there are moments worth experiencing during which it does not seem like a foregone conclusion.

We are in the near future: to be precise, the main action of the novel takes place in suburban England between 4th May and 18th July, 2016. Malley’s extrapolation to this point is minimal. By far the most obvious shaping conceit of The Returners is that The Recession Never Ended, with the consequence that Britain is sliding ever faster down a right-wing nationalist slope. The “National Party” is gaining in power and influence, promising a government that will “work to make Britain great again”, instead of letting the country “get walked over by anyone and everyone” (26). A friend of Will’s father, a policeman-turned-politician called Patrick, takes them to rallies with queasily familiar chants: England for the English! British Jobs for British Workers! If Will’s mother was still alive, it is suggested, things may not have got this bad for this family. But she has been dead for some years, and in her absence neither Will, nor his father — a lawyer whose high-paying private-sector job was a casualty of the economic climate, and who now works for the Crown Prosecution Service – have been immune to the temptations of Patrick’s slogans. Simmering anger, rooted in fear and confusion, is a constant of their lives; and if their resentment is not exactly handled with the subtlety of, say, Ian R MacLeod’s The Summer Isles (2005), it is still grimly recognisable. Enter the plot: a Chinese youth called Yan, once Will’s friend, is arrested for stabbing a white pensioner, and Will’s father is assigned as prosecutor in what is, it becomes quite obvious, a frame job, designed to inflame racial tensions and build support for National Party policies.

While we’re worrying about all this foreground – and, to be honest, whether we can take an entire novel of a narrator as obnoxiously insecure as Will – Malley is establishing a quite peculiar background, one that makes The Returners even more claustrophobic. There’s something funny about Will’s memory. He remembers his mother, dead, “her long hair splayed out over the water like a painting” (5) – like a cliché – but not the circumstances surrounding that death. He remembers whole conversations word for word, and others not at all. He hates history lessons, not least because they give him migraines, and remind him of the terrible dreams – dreams of people suffering and dying – that he doesn’t understand. And then there are the freaks, the strangely familiar people who stare at him in the street: “haunted, sad-looking eyes boring into you, eyes that you recognise; that recognise you, except you don’t really recognise them because you don’t know them, you know you don’t – you’ve been through every person you’ve ever met in your life and they are none of them” (15).

How does all this start to come together? With the hollow-eyed freaks catching up with Will:

“Not reincarnation. Not like other people think of it,” she says. Her voice is soft but insistent. “We actually come back, Will. We’ve existed throughout time. We experience the worst that humankind is capable of; we absorb the pain, contain the horrors. We remember, Will. We are humanity’s conscience.” (134)

Will is, it seems, one of them, and in fact something unprecedented: a Returner who doesn’t remember. Hence the dreams, of Native American massacres, of slave ships, of concentration camps and of Rwanda. He was there, he is told, for all of it. He will be there for it, this time: a gathering of Returners means that suffering is on the way. Hence the visceral reaction against history; as he later puts it, “What’s the point of remembering if it just happens again and again?” (177)

So here, we think, is the twist. Now we will see Will learn about the other side of the coin. The sudden inversion of Will’s privilege seems a bit easy, perhaps, but it’s a worthy story, isn’t it? If there are no characters of colour actually on stage, as such (we have barely seen Yan, and the ethnicity of the Returners is carefully unspecified), Will’s attitudes are worth exploring, aren’t they? And if there’s something disquieting about the notion that humanity was somehow protected from the worst of the Holocaust (and the rest), well, perhaps that’s an unfortunate but unintended consequence.

We should give Malley more credit. The Returners, of course, have not told Will the whole truth, and when they do it becomes clear that we are meant to be asking all the questions listed above, and others. And if the novel’s final third is on one level a conventional broadside against the sort of lazy hands-off fatalism the Returners advocate – they insist that events are “All pre-determined, all set out like milestones on a journey we haven’t met yet” (176-7), and that “We cannot change them. Only humans can change themselves” (178) – it also becomes a rather more nuanced examination of inherited or inculcated responsibility, one that confronts the role of those who held the whip, rather than fetishises those who suffered under it. It remains a white story — a final, cathartic, plot-resolving confrontation aside — and, perhaps just as significantly, a masculine story. But it is also a story that refuses easy sympathy without refusing all sympathy, and one that presents a convincingly scary portrait of the ease with which prejudice can take root and grow, complete with two or three scenes whose intensity I suspect will stay with me for some time. The very end, as I already suggested, perhaps does take Will (and his world) too far for me: “Argue”, he tells the Returners. Argue with those “who think that foreigners are to blame for all our problems, or people who believed different things, or people who eat different food or watch different television programmes. Tell them they’re wrong. Make them see it. Force them to see it” (249). It sounds strange to hear the words in his mouth, after everything he has said and done by this point. But I wonder whether, for a few people, it might be what works.

Seven Bites of Tender Morsels

Tender Morsels coverOne. Tender Morsels is not a short story. This is stating the obvious, but it bears repeating for any reader of Margo Lanagan who, like me, has had their expectations of her fiction shaped by the work collected in White Time (2000), Black Juice (2004), and Red Spikes (2006). There is a temptation, after a particularly striking encounter with a writer working in one form, to be disappointed that their work in the other form does not have the same zing of newness: to feel that, say, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl “merely” explores in greater depth a future already presented in stories collected in Pump Six; or, in the other direction, that Ian McDonald’s Cyberabad Days “merely” adds a spectrum of perspectives to the world of River of Gods. I do not claim to be immune; I feel the lure of both those opinions, though I try to resist them. And in that sense, Tender Morsels is “merely” another fairytale retold with an emphasis on the grit and grim of the real. But, you know, longer.

Two. Re-reading “Snow White and Rose Red” once done with Tender Morsels, it is a real joy to discover how clever, and how sly, Lanagan’s revisioning is. The spine of the Grimm tale – two girls, living with their mother in a cottage in the forest, have encounters with a friendly bear and a wicked, treasure-hungry dwarf – is retained in Tender Morsels. But in Lanagan’s novel, the realm in which this takes place is a secondary world, a personal heaven to which the mother, Liga, escapes from a horrific childhood in a “real” world: this is both a necessary escape, and the sort of sanitisation of reality performed by the Brothers Grimm on the later editions of the tales they collected. The bear (multiple bears, actually, in the novel) and the dwarf are intrusions from the “real” world, and eventually harbingers of heaven’s end; and, most importantly, the novel shows us the story before and after the fairytale.

Three. Lanagan remains an extraordinary writer of action, of things happening. Her language itself can create unease; it is only very carefully euphonious, far more often tending to beauty of a guttural, earthy sort, particularly in dialogue or first-person narration, suited to action and discussion. (Less suited to description and reflection, which occasionally seemed to me a weakness.) But this is not to say she is explicit. Much attention has been lavished on the first few chapters, which cover Liga’s upbringing. She is repeatedly raped by her father (leading to several forced abortions, and eventually to Branza, the novel’s Snow White); after her father’s death, she is raped by a gang from a nearby village (leading to Urdda, Rose Red). Reading about this is even more harrowing than it may sound, in part because it does not seem to be leading anywhere (perhaps because a direction would mean a hope of escape), but primarily because Lanagan writes around the terrible events so effectively. Miscarriages endured by Liga are covered (“She tried to stop the baby, but it had been poised to rush out, and so it rushed out, with a quantity of wet noise”, 15), as is the aftermath of rape (how Liga “washed and washed her cringing parts”, how “to walk was to hurt”, 47); but the rapes themselves are not. That’s left to us to imagine.

Four. The novel seems to me to be built around a series of stark contrasts, set up early in the book. Most obviously, there is the contrast between Liga’s two worlds: that defined by her father – “he had run the world for her” (37) – and that defined by her own desire. The former is a place of relentless brutality, the latter somewhere Liga can be utterly trusting of everyone and everything around her. The tranquillity of this world is equally relentless in its way, and bold Urdda, in particular, grows to chafe against it, and eventually leaves. Men and women are divided by perspective: every scene told from a man’s point of view is first-person, while every scene told from a woman’s point of view is third-person. The logic behind this division never quite became clear to me; it could be an effective way of underlining the privilege accorded the male gaze in the novel’s “real” world, but the first-person perspectives persist even when the men are in Liga’s heaven; and a mild criticism of the novel might be that we are never given access to the perspectives of the men who actually commit the worst acts. But perhaps the argument should be that the perspectives we are given access to confirm that not all men are beasts, because man and animal are also contrasted, as young men taking part in a local ritual intended to “civilise” them find themselves transported to Liga’s heaven and transformed into bears. One such is noble, the other rather less so. And so on.

Five. The final section of Tender Morsels – when both daughters and Liga are back in the “real” world – is, I think, the best, but not without its perplexing moments. There are two points in the novel at which Lanagan seems to give her characters a freebie. The first is Liga’s salvation, when she is given the means to access her heaven by a force that is never explained; if the characters were religious, it would be an act of God. The second comes in the latter stages of the book, after Liga tells Urdda how her daughter was conceived. Urdda becomes (not surprisingly) incandescently angry; it is revealed that she has magical talent; in her sleep, unconsciously, she causes five voodoo dolls to go out into the village and gang rape each man involved in her mother’s ordeal; and in the morning she wakes, unknowing, and “fresh of it all”; “Yesterday”, she says, “I thought I would burn with that rage for the rest of my life. Today – well, I have no particular feelings about it at all” (407). She acknowledges that this is “not natural”; but it still feels far too consoling. Life does not provide vengeance so clean, or so easily.

Six. Urdda’s vengeance stands out all the more because most of the second half of Tender Morsels is devoted to questioning and — partially — deconstructing its earlier dichotomies. When the family are first reunited in the “real” world, there is a sense of right finality, as though the story is ending; yet at the same time you can feel, between your thumb and forefinger, the thickness of pages still to go. And so you conclude, because you are back in the world where Liga was so abused – because that horror, as Urdda puts it, is sitting “lumped in the past … impossible to ignore” (389) – that something bad is going to happen. It never does. But the expectation leads to some scenes of almost unbearable tension, often revolving around Branza. Unlike her sister, Branza never chafed against Liga’s heaven. She is desperately unworldly; in Gwyneth Jones’ resonant phrase, a true veteran of utopia, confused by the tragic distance between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. So when she goes for a walk on her own – having been warned against such excursions by her sister – we fear for her. And, sure enough, she is menaced; yet she stands her ground, and bites one of the boys, and the rest are cowed. She walks home safely. Liga is delighted by the sight of her daughter’s accomplishment — “In some way, she had bested them; they were afraid of her, look!” (337) — but another character, standing at Liga’s shoulder, remarks that there’s nothing like being raised in heaven to give someone false confidence. The moment is punctured: we have to agree with that. And yet, Branza walks.

Seven. As Gary K Wolfe puts it in his review, the central theme of Tender Morsels is “the balance between the brutal abuse Liga herself has suffered and the overprotectiveness of the world she has made”. For Abigail Nussbaum, this leads to the novel’s major flaw: that it tells two stories, and that the morals of those stories clash:

Tender Morsels starts out as a story about a character who endures terrible injustices because she lives in a world arrayed against her, and who escapes into another world. It ends as a story about that character learning that life in the real world, though fraught with dangers, is worth more than life in a dream. The problem is that the lesson learned from the second kind of story–acceptance of the inevitability of heartbreak and pain–is precisely the lesson one shouldn’t learn from the first kind of story, which strives to elicit rage and indignation. It’s one thing to say ‘unhappiness and misfortune are the risks you take if you choose to live in the world,’ but it’s quite another thing to say ‘being made into a sex slave by your father and then gang-raped by men who think that having been impregnated by him makes you fair game is the risk you take if you choose to live in the world.’

I don’t entirely disagree with this, as the discussion above of Urdda’s vengeance – which I think can be read as existing to address the rage and indignation produced by Liga’s story, and sweep it under the carpet – may suggest. But it does strike me as risky to draw such direct morals from a novel which is, at base, about revising one of the most moralistic forms of literature there is, and which seems to me to so carefully manage the possible meanings of its events, inviting interrogation. Still, the novel has a happy ending, or something very close to it, despite the well-established darkness of the world — Wolfe writes of “a note of almost astonishing sweetness”, while Meg Rosoff describes a book that “celebrates human resilience” with “audacity and grace” — and a reader does have to be able to accept this as honest. For my part, the security the women achieve, while limited by the nature of the society in which they live, seems convenient but not tenuous. As the novel closes, Urdda is (thanks to the revelation of her magical talent) well on her way to being a powerful witch, Branza is marrying the story’s most noble man (who she met, as a bear, in Liga’s heaven), for love, and Liga is sharing a good house with another witch, who (thanks to the dwarf’s trips to Liga’s heaven) is independently wealthy. As to lessons, if we must have one I think I’m closer to David Hebblethwaite: neither Liga’s childhood nor her heaven makes a good guide to living in the world; neither should be trivialised, but they must not be the whole of the story. Or as Rosoff asks: is it possible to return to life from unspeakable trauma? Answering that question without seeming patronising is a tricky needle to thread, but I’d say Lanagan manages it much more than not; and that if you’re looking for a guide to living in the world, you could do worse than look at Tender Morsels.

The Girl With Glass Feet

The Girl With Glass Feet coverA brief break from Interzone to say that I agree with everything Kari Sperring has already said about this book in her review for Strange Horizons, except that I gulped it down in a couple of days. An intense, entropic, ugly-beautiful fable; heavy with the cold, crisp details of remote St Hauda’s Land, tangled in the quasi-incestuous closeness of the community that lives there, people both exquisitely and exasperatingly broken. A book about ways of seeing, about what we don’t see of other people, or choose not to see, or are incapable of seeing, and what we lose in consequence; and therefore about the power of glimpses, where the fantastic lies in how something is seen as much as in the images breaking through a convincing quotidian skin: “Those few inches of transition astonished him even more than her solid glass toes. Bones materialized faintly inside the ball of her foot, then became lily-white and precise nearer her unaltered ankle … In the curve of her instep wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles” (62). And a cruel story that chooses, uncomfortably, to pay more attention to its men and its landscape than its women; a story that does address this uncomfortableness and this cruelty, but doesn’t escape either. Somewhat in spite of myself, I am transported.

Three Reviews

Graceling coverA first novel first, and one that by rights should be much more annoying than it actually is. Graceling is, after all, set in a generically medieval world with Seven Kingdoms, and never doubts that monarchy is just fine as long as there’s a Good Monarch on the throne; takes as its protagonist a very special young woman with a Grace — a magical talent of mysterious origin — that allows her to be the very best fighter in any of those kingdoms; and has its characters’ maturity levels thoroughly backwards, with a ten-year-old child who says things like, “Think … It wasn’t such a strange thing for him to do, knowing he might die in a fight” (280), and ostensibly worldly adults who need to ask, “Well, why does it pleasure him to hurt people? […] Everyone has some kind of power to hurt people. It doesn’t mean they do” (293). Moreover, it is distinguished by a procession of names that run from the uninspired — Wester for the Western Kingdom, Nander for the Northern one, Estill for the Eastern one, and so on — to the unbelievable — human characters called Tealiff, Raffin, Patch and, most painfully, Po. The whole book is like this, in a way that never really becomes unobtrusive: familiar, safely shaded within the lines of genre convention. And yet, somehow, it’s also zippy good fun, from first page to last.

My answer to this conundrum is to say that Cashore has a Grace of her own: a Grace for clarity. Graceling is distinguished by its crisp, direct language; by the orrery precision of Cashore’s plotting; by the careful but never ambiguous nuances of her characters’ emotional progressions; and by the firm yet unhectoring development of an argument about what it means to be a young woman — a woman with power — coming of age in a man’s world. The irritations noted above flow from the same well (Graces are never entirely without cost), as do some others: the Bad King Leck, for instance, who is simply and purely villainous not just because he has a Grace for telling lies about the world and making them stick — which would be enough — but because he tortures children and small animals.

On with the story. As the book begins, our Graceling, Katsa — yes, one letter away from being something you can order in Wagamama — is a thug for a Bad King, one who seized on her skill for violence as soon as it demonstrated itself, and moulded her into his strong arm. She has killed and tortured for him, often; but in secret rebellion, she has also set up a Council to carry out good deeds in an attempt to balance the scales. On one such Council mission, Katsa encounters another Graceling, a Prince from one of the other kingdoms — the aforementioned Po — who turns out to be on a mission of his own that intersects with hers. After some narrative throat-clearing, they join forces to solve the mystery of the kidnap of Po’s grandfather. It’s a well-paced adventure, with appropriately thrilling action, and satisfying revelations; but it is also, for a good long while, pretty much an excuse to have the two of them spend time together journeying across the Kingdoms, developing a relationship that is by turns affecting, nauseating, admirable and questionable: which is to say, believable.

In this Cashore is aided by her choice of Grace for Prince Po. Graces can be for almost anything you can imagine; physical skills such as swimming or climbing, say, or psychic talents such as precognition. Po’s Grace is of this latter type. He can sense the presence of other living beings, and when any of them think about him he picks it up like Noise. The downside is that, like other psychic Graces, such a talent attracts a certain degree of prejudice from the people of the Seven Kingdoms — or would, if they knew about it; Po takes care to keep the true nature of his Grace secret. On the upside, it’s a convenient way for Cashore to force characters to be direct with one another about their feelings, and provides many opportunities for knowing riffs on the development of relationships:

They had entire conversations in which they didn’t say a word. For Po could sense when Katsa desired to talk to him, and if there was a thing she wanted him to know, his Grace could capture that thing. It seemed a useful ability for them to practise. And Katsa found that the more comfortable she grew with opening her mind to him, the more practised she became with closing it as well. It was never entirely satisfying, closing her mind, because whenever she closed her feelings from him she must also close them from herself. But it was something. (177)

This is, though Katsa doesn’t use the word, what learning intimacy is like — a sense of the importance of human connection — and it’s a particular challenge for one as fiercely independent and physically-focused as she. (As she has to be, I might say; her Grace is an integral part of her, in that it’s shaped her personality, probably as significantly as anything in her lived experience.) There’s a lot of this sort of thing, and a lot of it goes straight to your heart. [Both Katsa and Po are extremely well-visualised characters, and their thoughts and reactions are complex and meaningful.] The problem, however, is an occasional sense that it’s too easy: that Po is too completely well-adjusted, too good to be true, too sympathetic, patient and generous at all times and to a fault. Po and Katsa’s relationship, for all its mutuality, is not one in which two people grow together, it’s one in which Po waits for Katsa’s emotional growth to catch up to his. The major emotional challenge faced by Po doesn’t come until late in the novel, and it’s the challenge of one who is knocked down and has to get up again, not — as Katsa’s challenge is — one of reaching beyond yourself. Some coincidences of content — an experienced survivor mentoring a younger girl; a long, frozen trek to get someone to safety — had me wondering whether Cashore was referencing The Adventures of Alyx; and thinking that, I can’t help wondering what Russ would make of Cashore’s certainty in the potential for and of open-hearted romantic relationships.

But the clear argument running through Graceling is that it is possible to see clearly in matters of the human heart, and always better to do so. As illustration, consider the portrayal of anger, or more accurately the portrayal of the limits of anger. Katsa is often angry, and her anger is always justified; her world is filled with injustices, and not just ones that afflict her personally. But her anger is also often problematic — “She must guard against using her Grace in anger”, she realises. “This was where her nature’s struggle lay” (94) — usually for the specific reason that it clouds sight, and leads to rash action. We are never allowed to doubt that impulsiveness, action by instinct, is a vital part of Katsa — again, probably innate, thanks to her Grace, as much as learned — but though it solves problems, such solutions are never fully satisfactory. (And towards the end of the book, one of the signs that a particular King is Good is his insistence that Katsa goes slow, thinks first, doesn’t rush in.) It is a somewhat refreshing approach, and one of the relatively few aspects of the book where Cashore does more than simply colour within the lines.

Many Graces, of course, turn out to be more subtle in their action than they first appear, and subject to change over time, with implications for both Katsa and Po’s sense of identity. But the true nature of Po’s Grace, when it is explicated, late in the book, is not a surprise. He begins to sense the physical world, as well as living creatures:

“And then, in the cave, with the soldiers shouting outside and my body so cold I thought I would bite off my own tongue with my chattering teeth — I found it, Katsa.”

He stopped talking, and he was quiet for so long that she wondered if he’d forgotten what he’d been saying.

“What did you find?”

He turned his head to her, surprised. “Clarity”, he said. (323)

In its best, purest moments, Graceling is like this: a revelation that lights the darkness.

#

Gullstruck Island coverIf Kristin Cashore’s Grace is for clarity, Frances Hardinge’s is for play. The opening paragraph of her third novel snares you not just because it’s so confidently done —

It was a burnished, cloudless day with a tug-of-war wind, a fine day for flying. And so Raglan Skein left his body neatly laid out on his bed, its breath as slow as sea swell, and took to the sky. (1)

— but because what it’s describing is a pure kind of freedom, and sounds like fun. And Hardinge doesn’t let it rest there. Skein is a Lost, which means that he’s capable of sending all his senses off independently: “a gifted Lost might be feeling the grass under their knees, tasting the peach in your hand, overhearing a conversation in the next village and smelling cooking in the next town, all while watching barracudas dapple and brisk around a shipwreck ten miles out to see” (1). Just imagine the possibilities. Hardinge does, both for humans and for other animals. Also found on Gullstruck is a species called the farsight fish, which possesses Lost-like abilities and is thus “notoriously difficult to catch because it was almost impossible to take by surprise” (37); though if you do catch it you can borrow its ability for a short period, leading to a rather Douglas Adams-ish observation about the problem of gulls who have feasted on farsight flesh getting confused, thinking they can still see around mist when they can’t, and flying into a cliff.

Hardinge is playing with us in another way here, though, because Raglan Skein isn’t the protagonist of Gullstruck Island. Who is? It might be the girl on whom Skein spies: Arilou, “the most important person” in her village, and “arguably the only excuse for its existence” (4). Arilou is a Lost too, the first born to the Lace — a coastal-dwelling tribe — in over fifty years, and approaching the age where her abilities are due to be formally tested. There is always the danger, with an untrained Lost child, that their senses will wander off, never to be fully reunited. But when they are trained, the Lost are vital, forming a sort of living communication network for Gullstruck, and (in the form of the Lost Council) mediating between the various peoples living on the island. Gullstruck is a messy place; the diverse cultures of the island’s native tribes have, for generations now, been subordinate to the impositions of Cavalcaste settlers — despite the settlers’ stubborn lack of adaptation to the requirements of their new home, in their stubborn retention of inappropriate clothing, in their too-tall buildings, and their outdated laws. (There are no exact historical parallels, but the Gullstruck natives are something like South Pacific islanders, and the Cavalcaste are something like Northern Europeans.) Given the relative lack of space, at this point almost everybody on the island is mixed-race — Hardinge’s word is mestizo — but it’s the Cavalcaste traditions that dominate, particularly their ancestor-worship. So having a Lost in the village is, indeed, a good thing; it brings respect, influence, possibly wealth, all things the Lace have lost. Unfortunately, the secret the village keeps from the outside world is that Arilou may be a lost Lost, her senses hopelessly scattered; or she may be a Lost and mentally damaged in some way; or she may not be a Lost at all.

So Arilou isn’t the protagonist either. Maybe it’s the girl we meet at the start of the first chapter proper —

On the beach, a gull-storm erupted as rocks came bouncing down from the clifftop. Half a step behind the rocks scrambled Eiven, her face flushed from running. (5)

Eiven looks like good protagonist material. She is bold, agile, and confident; she brings news of the arrival of the Lost Inspector, and sets off the preparations for his visit.

And then she pretty much disappears from the narrative. We are being played with, again. There is, admittedly, a clue; the narrative spots a girl who escapes Skein’s notice, “anonymous as dust”, and boldly informs us that “you have already met her, or somebody very like her, and you cannot remember her at all” (4). But it’s another fifteen pages or so before we actually get to meet Hathin, who turns out to stay at the centre of the narrative for most of the rest of the novel’s thirty-nine chapters. First we meet Minchard Prox, assistant to the Lost Inspector, and it’s through his eyes that we learn Hathin is Arilou’s sister, minder and translator. The Lace cover story is that Arilou’s slurred speech is the result of incomplete control of her body (not an uncommon problem for untrained Lost), and only Hathin can understand her. The reality is that Hathin is making it up as she goes, and she’s going to need all her wits to trick the Lost Inspector into thinking Arilou can pass the tests he’s going to set.

Oops. Played again. That is what happens next; but it’s also a distraction, marking time until the real plot snaps into action. Skein dies mid-way through the tests. Soon enough it becomes clear that every other Lost on the island has also died — except Arilou. At first it seems that this will be a benefit to the Lace, a chance to regain some respect and importance. Of course, all too quickly, suspicions are turned against the Lace: did they kill the Lost? They stood to gain. The village is destroyed, and Hathin flees with Arilou across the inland volcanoes. A quest is born: to escape, to clear the name of the Lace, and to bring the true culprits to justice. Hence, presumably, the rather naff title of the US edition: The Lost Conspiracy.

At that point things get a bit more predictable (making it a sort of inversion of Hardinge’s first novel, Fly by Night); but in the end you don’t read Gullstruck Island for the plot. You don’t even read it for the characters who, though appealing, and inter-related in complex and satisfying ways (Hathin and Arilou’s relationship is beautifully developed), are not that deeply rendered. You read it to be enchanted by Hardinge’s voice, whether whimsical or deadly serious, or both at once:

Despite her high status, Milady Page usually spoke Nundestruth. It was nobody’s language, everybody’s language, a stew of words taken from the tribes and the Cavalcaste alike. By the time the first settlers’ grandchildren were full-grown, they found that however carefully they taught their own children their ancestral tongue, the children caught the hybrid chatter in the streets and brought it home like mud on their boots. “That gibberish may be good for the fields and the beach but Not Under This Roof!” the parents cried, only succeeding in giving the new language its name. Proper-speak, the old colonial language, earned the nickname “Doorsy”, indoors-speak. (28)

Most of the time, Hardinge writes in a kind of Nundestruth; resolutely playful in her descriptions, fearlessly indulging in rhyme (“Like many Gullstruck officials he was both well-heeled and bell-heeled”, 9), or cranky repetition (Port Suddenwind, the largest Cavalcaste town, is a “creaking clockwork of laws, laws, laws”, 26), or alliterative chapter titles (“Twisted Tongues”, “Farsight Flesh”, “Trial and Trickery”, “Heat Haze”). But she’s equally competent in Doorsy, when the situation calls for it: “And so ended the conference of the invisible, in the cavern of blood and secrets, on the night of the mist” (43). It is in no way as neat a novel as Graceling (a quite Doorsy book), but it makes of its freedom a strength: it finds joy and pride in its messiness, in the messiness of the things it describes.

Everything is alive, in Gullstruck Island. “Thunder rolled unseen cannonballs across the sky” (69); “the little clock gnawed away the hours” (111); “flames flung loving, golden arms around the summer-roasted palm thatch” (123). And there are the volcanoes that define Gullstruck’s geography and are, to the tribes such as the Lace, the true powers on the island. These are wonderfully handled: clearly, meticulously researched, but gifted with their own personalities that aid and abet Hathin and Arilou on their journey, from cranky Mother Tooth to mad Lord Crackgem, and the jealous love triangle that is Sorrow and her two suitors, Lord Spearhead and the King of Fans. So much in Gullstruck Island rests on who and what you see as living and worthy of respect, as distinct and individual. For the Lace, the answer is just about everyone and everything; the Cavalcaste are distorted by their fixation on the dead. And in the novel’s darkest moments, the islanders cease being individuals altogether, and become something else: “Mob wasn’t people. It took people and folded their faces like paper” (278).

This is, ultimately, the only real source of disappointment in the book. Gullstruck Island is a light address to serious topics — the hatred stirred up against the Lace in the wake of the Lost deaths is not new, it is an awakening of an old, ingrained prejudice, exploited by the story’s villains. (Who, if doubt remained, are Bad News either because they actively dislike the mess of diversity that characterises Gullstruck, or because their preference for order, their aversion to play, enables them to be twisted into malicious tools.) Hathin’s campaign to right the scales leads her down a dark path, swearing a vengeance that it is very clear could break her, that does in some ways immediately break her. All of this is good: that you don’t put a bunch of volcanoes on the mantel in Act I if you’re not going to do something with them in Act III does not make the ending too neat. What does, unfortunately, is the reduction of people to Mob, because it allows problems to be solved too easily. It’s too great a contrast with Hathin’s spirited individualism (no romance here); it’s not just that it allows there to be a spider at the centre of the web, but that it allows removal of the spider to leave the world a better place. This is, of course, marvellously freeing; the end of the novel is full of messy freedoms — “true joy, like true pain, does not care how it looks or sounds” (487) — and puts Hathin in a position to be whatever she wants to be. But freedom from the ancestor-worship of the Cavalcaste even becomes, it seems, freedom from history: and that’s a freedom too far for me.

#

The Ask and The Answer coverThere is some discussion of the ease with which groups of people can be manipulated in The Ask & The Answer, too. “A man is capable of thought”, one character notes. “A crowd is not” (120). It’s a sentiment that acquires new force in the context of Chaos Walking, for a couple of reasons. One is that the series is set on New World, a planet on which all men, and all active fauna, constantly broadcast their thoughts as Noise. (This includes the sentient Spackle, for whom it is the only method of communication, but not women, who remain exempt — at least for this, the middle book of the trilogy. Since it is pointedly noted, without explanation, that this fact sets humans apart from every other species on the planet — female animals have Noise — presumably further developments will be forthcoming in volume three.) The second reason is that if Patrick Ness has a Grace, it is for manipulation; like The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask & The Answer is staggeringly effective at guiding the responses of its readers, at controlling the flow of information and shaping raw events into irresistable story.

We start out with protagonists Todd and Viola in the power of the series villain, Mayor Prentiss, who has brought the largest town on New World under his sway, and is keen to use the excuse of Noise to institute full-scale segregation of men and women. As he puts it, so carefully and reluctantly: “The borders between men and women had become blurred, and the reintroduction of those borders is a slow and painful process […] but the important thing to remember is, as I’ve said, the war is over” (130). You might be forgiven for thinking, just briefly, that he’s right. The council of what was once Haven, and is now New Prentisstown, did after all vote to submit to the Mayor’s authority because they didn’t want more war, because they decided that capitulation was the best way to save lives. The deposed chair defends the decision: “Not everything is black and white, Todd. In fact, almost nothing is” (36).

Yet what happens in The Ask & The Answer seems black enough. Crudely put, it is the first steps towards building Gilead. Todd and Viola are split up, and the narrative splits with them. Todd is kept alive for the potential the Mayor sees in him, and assigned to oversee the management of a contingent of Spackle prisoners — previously used as servants by the inhabitants of Haven, they are now locked up together, and kept docile through the application of a “cure” for Noise. Viola, meanwhile, is kept alive for the information the Mayor thinks he can get out of her, about the incoming second wave of colonists, and locked up in one of the town’s Houses of Healing with the other women.

The bond between Todd and Viola is — of course — unbreakable, but both are, to an extent, seduced by the crowds they find themselves associating with. Viola becomes part of The Answer, originally set up as an all-female — and thus silent — combat unit in the Spackle war, now reformed as a a Carhullan Army waging a bombing campaign on New Prentisstown. (It’s interesting to note how completely normal it is, both for the novel and for its characters, that the women fight and can fight; there is no amazement on anyone’s part, not even any pointed remarks. The Mayor’s misogyny is not grounded in thinking women weak, in other words; nor does it seem to be grounded in wanting to control their bodies. It seems, instead, to be grounded in the fact that, without Noise, he cannot control them.) Todd, on the other hand, finds himself trying to rationalise the actions his new position forces him into — better he’s the one to implement the latest restriction on Spackle freedom, because at least he cares a little — all the while being shaped by the Mayor’s insistent thoughts, which, he tells us, “hatched right in the middle of my brain, like a worm in an apple” (207). Todd’s sense of self — always fragile, in Noise — starts to deteriorate, and worse, to be consciously repressed.

Even leaving aside the narrative split, The Ask & The Answer is thus a very different book from its predecessor. It’s still told in forthright Nundestruth (Viola’s voice is a bit more Doorsy than Todd’s, but not dramatically so), but a headlong chase is replaced with a slow accumulation of intensity; a tour of New World is replaced with a close focus on New Prentisstown; and an unpeeling of the truth of the world is replaced — other than in a couple of broad hints such as the one noted above — by a concern with the manipulation of truth, how lies become truth in the first place. (The Mayor’s ability to manipulate Noise is, it is clear, an ability to manipulate truth, an ability to make lies true not a million miles from that possessed by Bad King Leck.) It is still, fear not, a quite extraordinarily absorbing story, one of those books you inhale more than read; and though it is (inevitably) a less tidy book than The Knife of Never Letting Go, I think it perhaps more penetrating.

We are the choices we make: nothing more, nothing less. That’s what the Mayor tells Todd in the book’s opening scene, and what Mistress Coyle, head of the Answer, tells Viola somewhat later. Even choices we think we have to make are choices, this book says: rationalizations are just that. And individuals are, in fact, as vulnerable as crowds, if not more so. But this is not to say — despite the insistences of several characters — that there are no right and wrong moves, no black and white to be found in this novel. Todd and Viola’s complicity in the actions of the Mayor and of The Answer is pushed just about as far as it can go; to follow their progress through this book is to watch them make choices, to understand why they make those choices, and yet to know that the choices they make are wrong. The novel insists that what matters is not how you fall down, but how you pick yourself up again; but Viola and to an even greater extent Todd, fall a long way in this book.

The Mayor’s actions are unambiguously black from the get-go, and it becomes increasingly obvious as the novel wears on that Mistress Coyle’s tactics are just as unforgivable. The thing is that they are, both of them, plausible kinds of wrongness, ones that exist, with all their seductive and coercive potency, in our world as much as in that of Chaos Walking. What is hard is not identifying them as wrong, but finding and acting on the right and the good in the face of their existence, and their tendency to grapple each other in violent, escalating feedback loops. This is something Ness gets right that I think the other two books discussed above don’t quite manage. The Mayor is ultimately as cartoonish as Leck, and he’s on screen for a whole lot longer. This seems like a weakness. But in fact his one-dimenstionality matters less, because it’s so clear that he’s merely the visible tip of an iceberg. Leck’s ideas may be insidious, but they’ve got nothing on the prejudices into which the Mayor taps and to which he gives form. By the end of The Ask & The Answer, Todd and Viola have demonstrated that the Mayor can be defeated, but they’re left to face the world the Mayor has wrought: left to face, in other words, the Mayor’s ideology. There’s more than one war that needs to be won in Monsters of Men.

In Great Waters

In Great Waters coverFantasy, I think it is fair to say, is a little bit in love with acts of creation. It is the genre of extravagant creation, in fact, the fiction for which an intuitive understanding that both writing and reading are inherently creative acts is not sufficient: thus the monsters, maps and magic, and the praise for imaginative density and thoroughness. But most of this praise is directed at the density and thoroughness that goes with the creation of the world; hence, for example, the awareness — and implicit prioritization — of the story’s environment that goes with the tags “epic” and “urban”, hence the familiar litany of the famous places of fantasy. Less frequently do books stand out for creating textured and original experiences for their characters. This is not the same as saying that fantasy novels are prone to poor characterization; what I mean is that, for all its merits, in a book like The War With The Mein the characters are human on terms that we can immediately recognise and understand. Strangeness doesn’t enter into it, and not just because the characters are natives of their world. But you can argue that it should: that in a fantastical world, experience, patterns of thought, and the consequent characters should be, to some degree, alien to us.

This is, as Martin Lewis has pointed out, part of what Kit Whitfield gets up to in her very fine second novel, In Great Waters, with the additional complications that we follow both of the main characters growing up, that neither of them are ordinarily human, and that both are children of two worlds. They are hybrids, with blood from both the people of the land and the people of the sea in their veins; although beyond this similarity they mirror each other. Henry is born as Whistle, under the sea, his “bifurcated tail” marking him out as a freak, and providing a handicap that leaves him a target for bullying, and — until he realises he is more intelligent than most of his peers, and able to trick them — often struggling for food. Eventually his mother takes him to the place where “the world gave out”, that is, the shore, and abandons him. Whitfield is good on Henry’s life underwater, in his cradle, alien to us but not to him: the cruelty of it, the tribal rituals, the sense of space and motion that goes with life in three dimensions, the baffling otherness of the sky above the sea. But she is very good at Henry’s life on land, alien to him but not to us. After two days of lying in the surf, Henry is discovered by a man:

In the sea, he’d been small, smaller than other boys his age, but this skinny creature made Whistle feel tiny. Most strange of all was the tint of his skin, a pink-red pale colour like you got in the first few feet of water below the surface, before descent into the depths greyed everything out to shades of blue and green and white. The man himself gasped endlessly for air, inhaling again and again, faster than the waves beating on the shore. Whistle watched the straight limbs of the man as he paced, bizarrely inverted with his body upright as if permanently breaking the surface. (9)

The succeeding pages depict Henry’s experience of being raised by the above man to survive on land. Awareness of his position as (forgive me) a fish out of water is never neglected, and Henry’s situation quickly becomes engrossing. So he conceptualizes new information in terms of what is familiar to him — posture, and the tint of skin, in the quote above; later, he imagines soldiers as being like a shoal of fish — but more immediately, his surroundings are thoroughly strange. The world below had limits, but within itself no boundaries; on land, Henry is constantly thwarted by borders and barriers. He has trouble grasping the concept of nations, their scale and locatedness. More immediately, buildings are “an endless profusion of boxes that [daze] his focus with their stiff, enclosing order” (10; his unfamiliarity with right angles also makes the Christian cross a threatening symbol, a fact which becomes important later in the novel); clothes are “a blindfold for his body” (19); he feels constantly heavy, without the sea to support him, has to walk on crutches, and has to fight the urge to attempt to swim out the window of the room in which he is imprisoned. But as Nic Clarke notes, as good as the physical, tactile elements of Henry’s experience are, equally important are the conceptual challenges he faces. Language becomes a site of struggle. In keeping with their more animalistic intelligence, the language of the deepsmen is simple, declarative, consisting primarily of warnings or commands. English contrasts in every way: complex and contradictory, with meanings to Henry quite unlike those we might construct. One word is totemic: “to Henry, ‘understand’ meant to take up the posture of a landsman: impossible, and unwelcome” (40). So there is no sudden, total conceptual breakthrough, no moment when the nature of his new world becomes suddenly clear to Henry, only a slow, continuous, imperfect process of understanding and adaptation.

Then there is Anne. At this point some additional context is necessary. We are in early Renaissance (or thereabouts) England. The story, as told to Henry early in his captivity, is that first contact between landsmen and deepsmen took place in ninth-century Venice. The landsmen sent out ambassadors in boats, playing beautiful music; the boats were attacked and quickly sunk, and the landsmen moved into the city’s canals, resisting attempts to dislodge them. The situation worsened, and worsened again as Venice found itself under threat from land as well as sea. Then, a woman walked out of the water, and announced that she could command the deepsmen. Soon enough, Venice’s power was once again waxing, with any country dependent on trade or travel by water at the city-state’s mercy, and Angelica on the throne. An empire was forged and, ultimately, crumbled, as other countries learned to put hybrids on their thrones, to negotiate with their local deepsmen. In Anne and Henry’s time, landlocked countries remain relatively stable, but for everyone else Whitfield would have us believe (I can believe it) that times remain edgy. Deepsmen blood has become royal blood. The lines must be preserved at all costs, even as the blood thins, and in-breeding among royal families takes its toll. Every so often, a regime is deposed, as a new bastard emerges from the ocean; the last such event took place in France, a century ago. Now, Henry is being groomed for the same role in England; and Anne is the youngest granddaughter of the current king.

Anne’s narrative is, less ostentatiously but no less thoroughly than Henry’s, a masterclass in the construction of personal worlds. Like Henry, Anne has two worlds, the land and the sea; but they are not Henry’s land and sea. For Anne, the land is home, where she was born. It is still a place whose rules must be learned: her world is the court, after all. Like Henry, Anne is a disappointment to her parents, and to the court: “born a disappointment”, we are told, “but such was often the fate of royal girls” (57). A second girl, in fact, and not only that — meaning that England has no heir ready to take over from an aging king, and that marriages will have to be brokered. This fact becomes only more urgent when Anne’s father, the king’s first son, dies, because the second son, Philip, is no heir. He is, however, an extraordinary, grotesque creation, a full deepsman throwback (tail and all), dumb and violent, driven by unreflexive desire, yet horribly indulged by the landsmen around him. So where for Henry it is the physical challenges of life on land that are most immediate, for Anne it is the political challenges, the constant negotiation of the invisible protocols that shape a society. And no wonder, then, that for Anne the water — which was Henry’s cradle, yet never his home — is a place of freedom. Periodically, the court visits the coast, so that the royals may swim and negotiate with the local deepsmen tribes; but though these visits are a duty, they offer Anne a degree of mental, social and physical escape. “Anne felt stronger, wider awake […] she turned with a flex of the spine that felt almost forbidden in its ease” (78). Of course, this simplicity does not last.

As time passes — we follow both Henry and Anne from childhood to young adult-hood, although with little of the emotional familiarity that such a framework would usually imply — we see how the pair are shaped by their worlds. By their existence, for us Henry and Anne shade each other, but it is their contexts that make them different. Faced with a deteriorating situation at court, we are told that Anne, “not knowing what to do, did nothing”; and that “in consequence, rumours began to build that she was a simpleton” (80). Her deepsman heritage here comes in handy. In moments of high emotion, her face becomes lit by phosphorescence, creating a rather grisly visage — “The effect was only to cast her eyes into shadow, rendering the sockets hollow like a skull” (58) — but one that allows her to build a façade behind which Anne can maintain her own thoughts and a secret self. Of necessity, she becomes observant, careful, resourceful and brave, as she attempts to assert some measure of control over her life. Henry, meanwhile, is raised on land with the expectation that he will one day be king, and acquires the ambition and arrogance that go with that, but neither does he escape the feral, mercurial part of his nature, and he is consequently defined by fear and, inevitably, by anger. Whitfield does a marvellous job with this latter emotion, in particular: Henry is a potent portrayal of the destructive, distorting effect of anger. That he is able to use it is a hollow comfort; it defines him for too much of his life, bringing isolation and instability and reinforcing incomprehension. When he finally meets Anne, his reaction could be Philip’s, if we could believe Philip could articulate his thoughts so clearly: “He would have liked to defeat her, somehow, beat her down in a fight or make her obey him, to stop her face from troubling him any further. He wanted to eat her tongue” (222).

There is, of course, recursion here: the differing experiences of Anne and Henry create our sense that they exist in different worlds; and those different worlds give rise to differing experiences in turn. They read the world, and the world writes back on to them. But in a less subjective sense they live in the same world; and in order to make any headway against the forces that constrain them they each have to, somehow, gain the other’s world. Gradually their stories do merge: from alternating fifty-page chunks we move to alternating chapters, then paragraphs, and then finally the two are together in a single narrative. But their alliance is one of pragmatism, not romance. For Anne, Henry is a way out; for Henry, it is simply that Anne is the first person he has met to speak both his languages, the only one who has a chance of understanding both his worlds.

I have talked so little about the actual story of In Great Waters because, in a sense, it is extremely simple. Stripped down, it is a fantasy of political agency. “Given the right push”, the narrator tells us, “customs could change” (326); and Henry and Anne, thanks to their dual and doubled perspectives, can get themselves into a position from which they can give the right push. But familiar arc though this may be, it is never less than deeply felt, made credible by the texture of its protagonists’ experience. Whitfield’s language is (indeed, languages are, given the attention paid to the representation of the deepsmen tongue) carefully tailored to support her creation. The writing is not archaic, but shaped by a few choices that leave an archaic flavour in the mind: there are almost no contractions, almost no use of the continuous present tense. (I might compare the carefully complementary artifice in this novel to the carefully contrary artifice on display in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle.) Whitfield’s shifts in emotional register are adroit, and her grasp on her narrative is assured. So it is possible to believe that Henry and Anne can create their world anew.

But putting it this way is too sentimental for an unsentimental novel. To my mind there is a powerful Darwinian undercurrent to In Great Waters, not just in the portrayal of the deepsmen — their lives, red in tooth and claw, and the impression that they are water-adapted humans, part of the ecology, not magical creations — but in the clear understanding throughout the book that both Henry and Anne are unfit only to the extent that they do not match their environment. So perhaps it would be more apt to say that what they do is to open up a new niche in which they can live safely. Or to emphasize their strength, and say that like Whitfield’s first novel, Bareback (2006), In Great Waters is ultimately a story about ways of being human, however alien you seem: a reminder that more than reading or writing, the greatest act of creation available to us is living.

The War With The Mein

Acacia coverIt’s a small part of a big book, but I want to start by saying that I like how David Anthony Durham handles his map. We know what The Tough Guide to Fantasyland has to say about maps: that to see one at the front of a book is to know that you must not expect to be let off from visiting every damn place shown on it. At first glance, Durham does not disappoint. Indeed, he opens with a tour, in which an unnamed, pale-skinned assassin rides out from a stronghold in the North, down across the frozen plains of the Mein plateau, down through the fertile woodlands of the Methalian Rim; he then passes through the port of Alecia and boards a boat for the island of Acacia, seat of the empire that dominates the Known World, and home of his target, Leodan Akaran, the king. At each stage the culture and climate of the region through which the assassin is passing are described, along with the darkening colouration of its inhabitants. It’s a smooth introduction to a slice of the world, and it shapes our understanding of the rest of Book One of The War With The Mein (which is itself Volume One of Acacia), also known as “The King’s Idyll”. The next two hundred and fifty or so pages focus primarily on the seat of empire, and there introduce the main cast, each in their own chapter: Leodan himself, aging widower king; his chancellor, and “first ear for any secret” (32), Thaddeus Clegg; his four children (in descending order of age), noble Aliver, brittle Corinn, precocious Mena, and innocent Dariel; a talented Acacian general, Leeka Alain, stationed in the assassin’s homeland; and Rialus Neptos, scheming governer of the fortress where Alain’s army is barracked. A few players remain to be introduced — notably Hanish Mein, brother of that assassin, leader of his “tribal, warlike, bickering” people, and architect of a multi-pronged invasion that stuns the Acacian empire with its speed, ferocity and thoroughness — but you get the idea. This is a story of princes and princesses, soldiers and battles, empires and destinies. With what can only be called, despite its chunkiness, admirable economy, The War With The Mein covers years and a continent. It asks us to learn (and think about) a lot, and by the end of it, we have travelled to each compass point of The Known World. It is, oh, what’s that word? Epic.

But, much as I love a story with scope, such a summary gives only a partial sense of what it is like to read The War With The Mein. There is an iceberg effect here. A Known World — and this is what I like about his map — implies an Unknown World, after all, and what I have so far failed to convey is that the contract made by the story is that it will, when all is said and done, tell a true societal epic, by which I mean an epic that takes at least as much account of large-scale socioeconomic changes as it does of the martial and heroic adventures of a chosen few. Durham’s chosen style is appropriate to the task: dignified, measured, explicative (occasionally ponderous), with an echo of Guy Gavriel Kay, though Durham is less lyric, and more clinical in his dissections of his characters for our edification. When you’ve finished reading this paragraph, for instance, you will know pretty much all you need to know about Leodan Akaran:

Leodan Akaran was a man at war with himself. He carried on silent conflicts inside his head, struggles that raged one day into the next without resolution. He knew it was a weakness in him, the fault of having a dreamer’s nature, a bit of the poet in him, a scholar, a humanist: hardly traits fit for a king. He enveloped his family in the luxurious culture of Acacia, even as he hid from them the abhorrent trade that funded it. He planned for his children never to experience violence firsthand, even though this privilege was bought with a blade at others’ necks. He hated that countless numbers throughout his lands were chained to a drug that guaranteed their labor and submission, and yet he indulged in the same vice himself. He loved his children with a breathless passion that sometimes woke them in terror from dreams of some misfortune befalling them. But he knew that agents working in his name ripped other parents’ children from their arms, never to be seen again. It was monstrous, and in many ways he felt it was his fault. (114)

Many chapters begin with this sort of thing. These are characters who are not allowed to keep very many secrets from their readers; the nuances of their emotional progressions are laid out in careful detail, meaning that if there is sometimes suspense about what exactly they are going to do, the cumulative effect is that we almost always know with piercing clarity why they act. More, this is how Durham gets in a lot of his background. Every sentence in the above paragraph is about Leodan, but most of them are telling you something about how he feels about the world – how he has been shaped by it; in The War With The Mein this is far more common than the reverse – and thus telling you something about the world. There is also a greater-than-average amount of diegesis, or put another way, a relative lack of direct speech (and hence, banter: none of your Scott Lynch snap here) and direct action (there’s a bit more of this, particularly late on, but, for example, the first major battle of the war takes place off-screen), to the point that I don’t think it would be entirely unfair to suggest that The War With The Mein is interested in its characters and their inner lives less for their own sakes, and more for the light those lives can shed on their roles as historical agents. These are, the novel appears to say — thanks to the aesthetic choices that shape it, as much as in any explicit sense — the people by whose actions this world will be turned: now watch it turn.

There is certainly a lot to be turned. “This world is corrupt from top to bottom,” as Thaddeus at one point puts it to Aliver. Acacia, home of our heroes, is a slaving empire — it is said as bluntly in the novel — supported by a trade that sees thousands of children shipped into bondage each year, in exchange for a supply of a drug, Mist, that is fearsomely addictive, and keeps the populace numb and domesticated, such that they don’t object next time the Quota comes around. More details become clear as the novel unfolds, of course, but this much is laid out for the reader very early on and returned to very often. As Leodan says, however, for the royal children this truth is initially hidden. The King’s Idyll is ignorance. It is symptomatic of a wider cultural malaise, and one of the reasons Hanish Mein hates the empire. “We Meins live with the past,” he tells his people. “It is the Akarans who rewrite the past to suit them” (173). Sure enough, the legends we learn in the first few chapters of the book about the founders of Acacia and the ancestors of the Akarans turn out to only be true from a certain point of view. But Acacian blinkers go beyond history — and here we come back to the map. It is Mena Akaran who asks the question that frames the rest of the book:

“Why is Acacia always at the centre of maps?” she asked. [Like the one at the front of this novel, she cannot say.] “If the world curves and has no end — as you taught us, Jason — how is one place the centre and not another?”

Corinn found the question silly. […] “It just is the center, Mena. Everyone knows that.”

“Succinctly put,” Jason said, “but Mena does make a point. All peoples think of themselves first. First, central, and foremost, yes? I should show you a map from Talay sometime. They draw the world quite differently.” (24)

The story of Books Two and Three of The War With The Mein (“Exiles” and “Living Myth”) is largely the story of how the royal children come to terms with having their perspective shattered: how they come to terms with knowledge of their inherited guilt, and of the true shape of the world. Though we never leave the map’s boundaries, “The Known World” is, as we may have suspected, very far from being the Whole World. The slave trade that supports Acacia is managed by a commercial organization, the League of Vessels, on behalf of a people, the Lothan Aklun, who appear on no Acacian map. Hanish Mein’s invasion is only a success because he negotiates new deals with these powers. We will turn to them, presumably, in the second and third volumes of the trilogy (volume two, out later this year, is called The Other Lands, though there are reasons internal to volume one to understand that some form of exploration is inevitable), but in the meantime we begin to appreciate that the Known World is not nearly top dog. And every time we check a location, the map at the front of The War With The Mein serves as a reminder of how incomplete the story told so far really is.

Absent that reminder, it would be easy to get lost in the sweep of Durham’s story, because Durham really is good at sweep. So: the royal children are spirited out of the capital as the inevitability of Mein victory becomes apparent, dispersed to various corners of the empire to be raised in secrecy. Three of them make it. The fourth, Corinn, is recaptured and held in a gilded cage by Hanish Mein. Of the others, Mena washes up on an island in the East, hailed as a living incarnation of the local goddess of wrath; Dariel joins the pirates of the West, harrying the League of Vessels and others who ply the same waters; and Aliver is sent to one of the tribes of Talay, in the South, where he becomes a warrior, and a leader. There are adventures and excitements in all four strands of the story, for the most part executed with some flair. In another review I would pay more attention to the vigour that Mena and Aliver, in particular, bring to their fighting by fusing their arthritic Acacian “forms” — literally rehearsals of famous conflicts — with the techniques of other cultures. “Unlike the forms”, we are told, the new style of warfare that Aliver must learn “allowed no actions not entirely necessary” (284). In that other review I might suggest that part of Durham’s project with Acacia is to infuse the forms of epic fantasy with a similar energy. In this review, however, I will point out that it is another way in which Durham is economical: we only get the full Mary Gentle blood-and-guts fury late in the book, when it has most impact, in part because the characters are not capable of giving physical voice to their anger until then. Sometimes, certainly, economy works against the book, such as when Mena goes from swordfighting neophyte to winner of the local tournament in one chapter (chapter forty-seven, thirteen and a half pages), but at other times it is incredibly refreshing. A raid by Dariel on one of the League’s mighty trading platforms, for example, is similarly conceived and executed within a single chapter, and all the better for it, while Aliver’s inevitable quest sees him set out in one chapter and arrive in the next. This isn’t just a matter of pacing; the sense is that there is a lot of story here that could be told, a lot of canvas to be covered, and that (as with the map) Durham is being very selective about what he’s showing us. So what we do get carries weight.

And so you have to think about what it adds up to. Hannah Strom-Martin is right, I think, to identify something fundamentally American in The War With The Mein’s underpinnings; I do not consider myself competent to fully unpack this aspect of the novel, but it’s hard for an observer not to notice that Acacia’s trade with the Lothan Aklun conflates a great sin of America’s past (industrialized slavery) with a great boogeyman of its preset (drugs), and that framing the trade as a product of the supremacy of one race over others is a twist of the knife. Mein aggression is, in part, the aggression of a marginalized race against a dominant one; “Had the entire world,” the assassin sneeringly wonders, “forgotten pride of race?” (102). Equally the ignorance of the Akarans is not just the ignorance of children kept in the dark by parents; it is the ignorance of the privileged, and their exiles are, in part, about challenging that ignorance. So, for example, when Aliver communes with the immortal sorcerers that lurk at the end of his quest, his eyes are opened:

All races are one? Aliver asked.

All races of the Known World are one, Nualo said. Forgetting this was the second crime done by humans. We suffer for it still.

Aliver would have to live with this new version of the world for some time for it to become real for him. […] He was so sure of his own failings that he had sought to hide them every day of his life. None of this had shaken his belief that the differences observed on people’s outsides mirrored equally indisputable differences within. Nualo and the other Santoth slipped this belief from beneath his feet and left him drifting upon a sea of entirely unimagined possibility. For reasons he did not fully acknowledge, this troubled him more than any of the other revelations he received from the Santoth. (416)

(I wonder, now, about that first answer: “All races of the Known World are one”. It has a weasel quality about it that makes me wonder what we may find in the Other Lands. As of the end of The War With The Mein, we have seen only one race from that continent: the Numrek, barbaric and brutal fighters — pale-skinned Orcs, essentially — who serve as Hanish Mein’s shock troops, and whose human-ness, or lack thereof, is a point of debate throughout the book. I had taken it as axiomatic that, per the logic of Aliver’s revelation, the Numrek would be confirmed as human, too. Re-reading the above I am not so sure.)

No zealot like a convert: Aliver is driven forward by a vision of dramatic reform: “He, when victorious, would not rule over them. He’d rule for them. By their permission and only in their interests” (613). The Lincolnesque tone there is unmistakeable, surely, and stirring. Nor is the attack of the white-but-powerless Mein against the brown-but-powerful Acacians as straightforward a revision as it seems: the Acacian empire is set up in such a way as to sustain the power of one race over others, but (as it turns out), the blind mechanisms of the state don’t much care which race is pulling the levers. Hanish finds “the Acacian template the only reasonable, achievable answer” (320) for many situations; the institutions, once created, are resistant to change. Indeed, we are told that Hanish’s rule is rather worse for the average citizen than Leodan’s was. So much for the actions of a few turning the world.

Or so you might think. But all of this is talk on behalf of a general populace whose absence leaves a ragged hole at the core of The War With The Mein. There is no street-level perspective in this book. Certainly, as I mentioned, the Akaran children all have their privilege challenged by their exile. For Mena, the challenge comes as she flees, and is confronted by the desolation and cruelty of an enormous mine run by her family. “Clearly,” she realises, “the world was not as she had been led to believe […] Those people, those children … they worked for her” (327). Dariel, meanwhile, is the most sympathetically inclined of the children from the start, being the youngest and having befriended some of the palace staff even before the trouble starts. But entering Talay, on his way to join Aliver’s crusade, he finds himself disoriented by the polychromatic display that leaves him feeling that his brown skin is “weak tea in a sea of black coffee” (494). “Nobody looked at his features and read his identity on his forehead”, he realises. “How could he be central to the workings of the world when nobody even knew who he was?” (496). And Corinn faces the realization that her dark-skinned features, so beautiful to her countrymen, are unappealing in the face of icy Mein standards of attractiveness. Yet each of these incidents is extremely limited, and none of them feel lasting. Mena becomes a goddess, moving from one privileged position into another; Dariel is back at his brother’s side, back at the heart of events, within pages of the above doubts; and although Corinn never fully loses her outsider status, she does find that she is attractive to at least some of the Mein. (The relationship that results is not the most successful part of the novel — indeed, neither Corinn’s story nor Mena’s is impervious to feminist critique. But they are well-done iterations of their kind, and may develop further.) It all leaves the grand sentiments of equality espoused by Aliver ringing slightly hollow. A story about the inadequacy of a model of history based solely on the actions of Great Individuals cannot get by only telling the stories of the elite, even if it is to reveal that, in the bigger picture, they too are constrained.

While reading the book, this does cause problems. It gets repetitive to be told that the Akarans (or at least Aliver) are fighting on behalf of a mass of people we don’t know, and whose plight we are to a large extent taking on trust; and at the same time, there is something unavoidably patronising about such a fight, for all Aliver’s tentative yearning towards a more democratic social order. Moreover it leaves some of the detail of the current social order – precisely how it sustains itself – vaguer than is desirable. But all this may be deliberate. I am more than half-convinced that it is, that the social gap in the book is part of the contract made, intended to be as keenly felt as the geographic vacuum within which these events take place. The War With The Mein appears to stop at a natural ending – the Akaran lineage is restored, and the Mein are vanquished. But this is, as an epilogue makes clear, a metastable situation at best. The relationship between Acacia and the Lothan Aklun has changed and will have to be addressed. But by all rights, the internal politics of the Empire will also be thrown into disarray. No trade with the Lothan Aklun means no Mist, and no Mist means that at least some people should be thinking about Aliver’s dream. So the end of The War With The Mein is an end that requires more story, and more radical change, to complete its argument. There are hints that Durham is well aware of this — a revelation that the characters we have become invested in are not the centre of the story would seem to be foreshadowed by the demonstration of the limits of their control; and Aliver is seen by at least some people not as a saviour but as a “lesser evil” — and it is Mena, once again, who asks the pertinent question. “Are we going to make a better world?” (682). I hope so. I want to believe so. I want to know what happens when the Whole World is the Known World. Because the map thing isn’t so small after all: to say that I like how Durham handles his map is to say that — so far — I like how he handles his world.

[January 2010: review of the second volume of the trilogy, The Other Lands]