Monday 25 December 2017

Paladin of Souls, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Lois McMaster Bujold is best known for her long-running Miles Vorkosigan series, but she has occasionally written different kinds of novels, including in the classic fantasy genre. One of these is The Curse of Chalion, first published in 2001 and reviewed on this blog in August 2011; two years later this resulted in a sequel, Paladin of Souls, which I have only just got around to reading. While Paladin is a sequel, it effectively stands alone so you don't have to read Chalion first. However, it contains so many intriguing references to past events that I had to pick up Chalion to read again, so I'll start with that, by repeating my previous review, slightly amended:

The story is set on an unspecified planet with vague geography (no maps) which seems to be a kind of alternative Earth, judging by the plants and animals described. There are the usual small kingdoms in uneasy juxtaposition, fighting occasional wars in various combinations. Military technology consists of swords and crossbows. The religion has five gods with different roles (although one bunch of heretics only worships four), but while there is occasional evidence that the gods exist, they rarely get involved in human affairs. There isn't even any magic in the usual sense of practitioners casting spells, with one exception: Death Magic. Anyone can learn how to do this, with enough research and determination; it involves calling on one of the gods to send a demon to kill a hated enemy. The only catch is that the person working the magic invariably dies too. There is also the deadly curse inflicted on the ruling house of Chalion, referenced in the title.

The hero and only viewpoint character of the story, Cazaril, is a minor lord and former courtier and soldier who has fallen on hard times due to betrayal and subsequent slavery. Penniless, exhausted, and still half-crippled by injury, he makes his way to Valenda, a city in the land of Chalion in whose court he had worked as a young page some twenty years before, in search of some menial job and a place to live. There he meets Iselle, a royesse (princess) of Chalion, and finds himself reluctantly roped in to act as her secretary/tutor. He tries to impart some of his hard-won wisdom to the headstrong young royesse but when the action moves to the royal court in Cardegoss, Cazaril is tested to the limit in his determination to protect Iselle from the political and magical dangers surrounding her.

The setting sounds somewhat unoriginal as similar territory has been marched over countless times by other authors, but Bujold adds her own distinctive style. She is a natural and intelligent story-teller, injecting occasional flashes of wry humour (an element which tends to be sadly lacking in fantasy, in which authors often take their creations much too seriously). Her characterisation is as good as usual and the reader soon comes to care about her characters and what happens to them. There is something of the flavour of Guy Gavriel Kay in the writing, but Bujold is less dark and elegiac. After a slowish start the pace gradually accelerates and I read the last half of this substantial (500 page) tome in one sitting, late into the night: something which I rarely do.

The Curse of Chalion may appear somewhat formulaic but if you enjoy this kind of story this is about as good as it ever gets. 

I don't have anything to add to this assessment after a second reading, except that I still found it compelling and, yep, I read until late into the night to finish it again! It is rare these days for me to enjoy a story so much that I hate putting it down and can't wait to pick it up again, but Bujold has the skill to press that button.

Paladin begins three years after the events in Chalion and, although the background and some of the characters are the same, different people take centre stage: most notably the heroine Ista, who is the Dowager Royina (widowed mother to the Roya or queen); and the soldier brothers Ferda and Foix, who are less important characters in the first book. The story follows the life of the lonely and frustrated Ista, trapped in the provincial city of Valenda following the death of her mother. She decides to go on a pilgrimage as an excuse to escape from the stifling court, and that is the start of a series of adventures which see her battling demon-driven invaders while she tries to sort out what the gods want her to do.

Other characters in Chalion, particularly the hero Lord Cazaril and Ista's fiery daughter Roya Iselle, are mentioned quite frequently but never appear, and none of the action is set in Cardegoss, the capital city. Some new characters are added early on, notably Liss the courier, a young woman who becomes Ista's servant and companion, and Chivar dy Cabon, a Divine. Later, these are joined by two other brothers, Arhys and Illvin, commanders of Porifors (a border fortress), and Arhys' young wife Cattilara, whose combined plight (due to magic again) forms the main plot thread of much of the book.

Ista is a sympathetic and likeable heroine so the reader is soon rooting for her, and as the story is threaded with Bujold's characteristic humour, it is a great read and just as difficult to put down as Chalion.  Highly recommended.

Monday 20 November 2017

Swordspoint, and The Privilege of the Sword, by Ellen Kushner

Swordspoint (subtitled a Melodrama of Manners and published in 1987) is one of those books which I read not long after it came out, and enjoyed enough to hang on to my copy ever since. This also prompted me to buy the sequel, The Privilege of the Sword, when it appeared almost twenty years later; it won the 2007 Locus Award for the Best Fantasy Novel. I have, finally, got around to reading PotS, and that prompted me to pick up SaMoM for a second read.

Swordspoint is set in a fantasy world which is loosely equivalent, socially and technologically, to the late Renaissance period in Europe; duelling with swords is not just legal but is the accepted way of settling disputes among the ruling class; however, they don't normally fight themselves – they hire professional swordsmen to represent them. One such, and the most famous of them all, is the young Richard St Vier. The story follows his unwilling involvement in the plots of scheming nobles while maintaining a turbulent relationship with Alec, a former student. The city setting is richly portrayed; the rough, dangerous and colourful old Riverside area contrasting with the civilised Hill where the nobility live. St Vier ends up facing a very different kind of fight in a climactic scene of political struggle at a full meeting of the nobility.

There may have been a considerable gap before The Privilege of the Sword emerged, but it's a slightly lesser one in "fiction time", as it is set fifteen years after the events in SaMoM. We meet again some of the characters from the first novel, but the focus is on a new young heroine, Katherine, from a poor, country branch of one of the noble families. We follow her progress as she fights – literally – to establish herself both in high society and in Riverside. I found this a more enjoyable tale than SaMoM, Katherine being an engaging character it is easy to support and identify with (regardless of gender!). Together, these two novels make a notable contribution to the more thoughtful and intelligent end of the fantasy spectrum, and are well worth seeking out.

This is not the end of the stories with the same setting. The Fall of the Kings (co-authored with Delia Sherman, and based on an earlier novella with the same title) was published in 2002 but is set a generation after the events in SaMoM and PotS. I gather from decidedly mixed reviews that it doesn't bear much relationship to the earlier works. In addition, there have been various short stories collectively known as the Riverside series, and in 2015 Kushner created the Tremontaine collaborative series, consisting so far of two "seasons" (E-books and audiobooks only) of stories written by a range of different authors but all set in a period before SaMoM.

Sunday 22 October 2017

Of Tangible Ghosts, and The Ghost of the Revelator, by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

A couple of posts ago I wrote about Solar Express, by L.E. Modesitt Jnr., and mentioned that I have Of Tangible Ghosts and The Ghost of the Revelator by this author, but could recall nothing about them. I have now read them, and soon realised why I couldn't recall them – I hadn't actually read them before! At some point, they must accidentally have been put on the wrong shelf.

These are alternative universe stories, but of an unusual kind. The setting is vaguely similar to the present day, but there are many differences. The USA does not exist in its present form; instead there is the smaller country of Columbia (very much dominated by its Dutch heritage) which includes part of Canada (the remainder being French Quebec); New France occupies most of the southern states, and Maximilian controls Mexico. Further afield, the Austro-Hungarian Empire under Ferdinand VII dominates Europe (one ironic touch: their ambassador to Columbia is called Schicklgruber), while Japan and Chung Kuo have divided up eastern Asia.

Other minor differences: Babbage mechanical computers and Stanley steam cars feature, and the histories of some well-known people are rather different: e.g. Mozart obviously lives much longer, as music from his "later period" is mentioned.

These differences are never directly explained, readers having to glean what happened from odd comments (e.g. concerning "William the Unfortunate" who invaded England). However, it gradually becomes obvious that the political differences exist because major international conflicts have been smaller and less frequent; in particular, the colossal disruption of the two World Wars of the 20th century never took place. The reason for this is down to one key factor: ghosts are real and wander round for a while after death, being visible and even being able to communicate with the living. The human population is uncomfortable with this, so the existence of many ghosts (as results from warfare) devalues the areas they haunt.  So warfare, and in particular mass destruction, has been restricted. Futhermore, the technology had recently been developed to to create ghosts (by a mysterious process) by separating them from their bodies; the uninhabited bodies, known as zombies, can carry out simple manual work so this is used as a severe method of punishment.

Despite all of this, these stories are not really about an alternative universe, the plot just happens to be set in one. The only specific reference to this is the well-worn trope of the principal character finding an alternative world novel in which there were no ghosts, and a much bigger Columbia was known as the United States. Nothing much is made of this, however.

So to the story in Of Tangible Ghosts: the principal character is Johan Eschbach, a former agent of the Spazi (the Columbian internal security service) and previously a government minister, who for political reasons has been retired to a lecturing position in a provincial college. He has a considerable back history which is revealed only gradually and obliquely, but it becomes clear that his wife and child had died as a result of his previous roles. He becomes involved in investigating the murder of another member of the college staff, and realises that he is being set up by his political enemies in the government. He will need every ounce of his considerable ingenuity to survive.

The author makes the reader work quite hard: it requires concentration to keep up with the complex plot or to work out what might happen next.

The Ghost of the Revelator picks up Eschbach's story about a year later. During this time, he has married the French soprano Llysette duBoise, his occasional girlfriend in the first story. She takes on a much larger role because of her battle to re-establish her singing reputation after arriving in Columbia as a refugee from Austro-Hungarian persecution.  She is invited to perform in Deseret, effectively the Mormon Utah, which is a separate country in this world. It becomes obvious to Eschbach that there is a lot of complex plotting going on, including various attempts on their lives, and once again his ingenuity is tested in saving them both. As before, it is his specialist knowledge of ghost technology – for both creating and destroying them – which is key to the plot.

The second novel is as unusual and creative as the first, though it has some curious aspects. In particular, the author really goes overboard in stressing duBoise's superlative singing ability, time after time (I felt that he seemed to be falling in love with his own creation). After all of the complexity leading up to the climax, Eschbach's final success seemed to be surprisingly straightforward.

These stories are very different in style as well as content to Solar Express, not too surprising as they were written some 15-20 years earlier, but are equally worth reading.  Given the vast and varied output of this author, I think I shall try sampling some of his other types of work.

Saturday 23 September 2017

TV series roundup

TV – Being Human

This comedy/horror series was made for BBC3 and ran for five seasons, from 2009 to 2013, a total of 36 episodes. I missed it the first time around, but in December 2016 the entire series was made available on iPlayer, so I looked at it then. There was a pilot episode featuring some different actors but this was not included in the current "virtual box set". The Being Human series was also remade in the USA (with its own plot variations) and shown in four seasons (52 episodes) between 2011 and 2014.

The basic scenario is a now-familiar one in contemporary urban fantasy: creatures of fantasy (specifically, ghosts, vampires and werewolves) trying to exist alongside humans in the modern world. A vampire and a werewolf combine to share a flat, only to discover that it already has a resident ghost (invisible to anyone but them).  This isn't a must-watch series but it is nonetheless worth trying, mixing adult dilemmas with a fair amount of comedy.

TV – Outlander

A time-travelling adventure in which a young English woman, fresh from working as a nurse in WW2, is on holiday in Scotland with her husband when she is accidentally transported 200 years into the past – a time of intermittent warfare between the English and the Scots. The first episode is terrific, with much painstaking effort to reflect the realities of life in both periods (particularly grim and unpleasant in the distant past, of course). However, after that the action slows down and the focus changes to concentrate on relationships, feelings and emotions; from a healthy 50/50 split between plot and relationships, it shifts to more like 25/75. The tale acquires a distinctly "Mills & Boon" flavour and I lost interest after the third episode. 

TV – Cleverman

An Australian series set in an alternate present day in which the natives, instead of being aboriginies, are "hairymen" with unusual abilities (and lots of body hair). Intriguing, but too dark in all senses to be appealing.

TV – Occupied

A near-future Norwegian thriller inspired by crime writer Jo Nesbø with the basic premise that Norway elects a "green" government committed to shutting down their oil and gas industries to rely solely on renewable energy. The problem is that Norway exports a lot of oil and gas, and its customers are highly alarmed. So much so that when the Russians occupy the North Sea rigs in order to ensure that production is maintained, the EU takes no action. Russian involvement in Norwegian politics becomes ever more complex and a resistance movement springs up among the disaffected Norwegian military.

The principal character is a Norwegian security officer who stops an assassination attempt aimed at the Russian ambassador. He becomes trusted by the Russians, and with official encouragement he gets closer to them – but problems arise over the way he and his family are regarded by their fellow-countrymen. The plot becomes ever more convoluted as the tensions ramp up – with war being declared by Russia against Norway at the end of the first 10-episode season. The second season I haven't yet seen. Gripping, but rather grim.

TV – Valkyrien

Another Norwegian series with an interesting plot with elements of crime, medical drama and "preppers" concerned with preparing for their predicted collapse of society. It has been compared with Breaking Bad, but since I haven't seen that series I can't comment. 

A brilliant surgeon falls ill while working on a cure for a particular disease. Her husband, also a surgeon, tries to obtain approval to try an experimental treatment which they have been working on, but this is denied. He accordingly fakes her suicide as she slips into a coma, and while continuing her research, hides her in part of a network of abandoned tunnels underneath Oslo, with the help of Leif from the Civil Defence Agency who is responsible for the tunnels. He is a prepper (and the most interesting character in the series) obsessed with planning for doomsday, and has been involved in organising bank robberies in order to obtain the funds he needs.

An interesting aspect of the series is that Leif lists a dozen threats that could cause a collapse in society, and these are so realistic that the actor who plays Leif (Pal Sverre Hagen) was invited to address, in character,  a National Security Authority conference on the subject!

The series is intriguing, with the development of the complex plot far more difficult to predict than is usually the case. Worth watching.

Monday 21 August 2017

Solar Express, by L. E. Modesitt Jr.

I was familiar with Modesitt's name, but couldn't offhand recall reading any of his books. Calling up his bibliography on the web, I was frankly staggered by his output: 73 novels to date, published between 1985 and 2015 (that's an average of one novel every five months), grouped into ten series (both SF and fantasy) with another ten stand-alone books. Plus a lot of short fiction. On checking my shelves I was surprised to find a couple of his novels: Of Tangible Ghosts, and The Ghost of the Revelator, and equally surprised to realise on reading the cover blurbs that I did not recall anything about them.

Solar Express is the latest to appear and is one of the stand-alone novels. The story is set in a future in which humanity is gradually spreading through the Solar System, having consolidated politically into a few major groups (after various conflicts, involving nuclear weapons): Noram (Canada and the USA); the Sinese Federation (China plus adjacent region); India; and various odds and ends like the European Community and the African Union. Tensions between the Sinese and Indians are rising and the threat of war increasing, with a particular focus on the banned militarisation of space. 

Into this tinderbox comes a visitor to the inner Solar System – an object at first thought to be a comet, then a large asteroid, then is finally realised to be an artificial construct of huge size. The story follows two tracks; that of Dr. Alayna Wong-Grant, a post-doc astrophysicist based at a Moon observatory who first spots the construct, and Chris Tavoian, a Noram space pilot who is sent on a solo mission to intercept it. The two know each other and are in frequent communication, their messages forming an important part of the story. They keep finding relevant quotes to exchange – here's a couple:

"Don't we all want some meaning in the universe? Meaning that transcends mechanics?" Tavoian snorted. He doubted that the universe had meaning. Structure, but not meaning. People had to create meaning. Whether it's there or not. Which continued to be the problem with true believers of every kind.


The greatest of all faults in a politician, and in any leader, is the failure to recognize that charisma has nothing to do with ability, excellence or goodness. In fact, charisma enables far more the evils of the universe than great and worthy accomplishments. Give me pedestrian accomplishment over charisma any day.

The basic plot is obviously reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke's classic Rendezvous with Rama, but it is handled in a very different way. Modesitt takes a lot of time in establishing the detailed background, including Alayna's mundane repair-and-maintenance tasks and Tavoian's repetitive duties in carrying out his rather frustrating step-by-step reconnaissance mission. While this is going on, they are also exchanging messages with relatives on Earth who are facing their own difficulties. This certainly provides a strong flavour of their different existences but there is an inevitable consequence - a leisurely pacing with the dramatic tension ticking along very gently for much of the book. There is little of the sense of excitement and awe that RwR generates. Nonetheless, I was never in danger of giving up on the book – the story is too intriguing for that.

The tension does gradually begin to rise as Sinese spacecraft arrive on the scene to begin their own research, while the enigmatic construct begins to show unpredicted behaviour and Chris finds that his time is running out. By this time, I was really gripped and read until the early hours to finish it.

I was increasingly impressed by this novel the more I read of it. The comparison with RwR is instructive as it shows the evolution of SF over the period: Solar Express has far more scientific and technical detail; the characters are much more fully developed; the plot is less straightforward and more sophisticated; and the book is more than twice the length. It demands more time and concentration from the reader, as the astrophysics gets rather dense, but is a rewarding read.

I am clearly going to have to pay more attention to Modesitt, starting with the books I found on my shelf!