Jumpdrives & Cantrips

Airs and Graces
March 17, 2008, 1110
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , , ,

Airs and GracesAirs and Graces certainly has a young adult feel to the cover, with the fluffy pink clouds, graceful castle, and the girl and her horse. Nonetheless, Toby Bishop’s sequel to Airs Beneath the Moon has some mature content despite the cover, just as the first did. Toby Bishop is actually a pen name for Louise Marley, who makes a departure from her feminist social science fiction to the realm of more traditional fantasy in this series. There’s no surprise, then, that books in the Horsemistress series have a feminist bent with a little of the “dark side” mixed in.

The Duchy of Oc is notable for its winged horses, who only tolerate children and women who have not borne children as bondmates and riders. This gives horsemistresses a lofty status, and they are normally chosen from noble families. Airs and Graces picks up shortly after the first book when Larkyn witnesses the Aesks, a Northern barbarian society, raiding one of Oc’s villages. Larkyn, our unlikely country-bred heroine, must rise to the occasion with her bondmate Tup–more properly called Black Seraph–to make the duchy aware of the attack. Phillipa Winter, who is the assistant headmistress of the horsemistress academy, takes a more central role in this book in dealing with the Aesk raid and the resulting politics. This leaves Larkyn’s story in the background, even though she mysteriously ends up involved in nearly every major plot point.

One of the main problems I have with this book is that evil Duke William is evil just for the sake of being evil, it seems. He continues to plot ways to breed winged horses who will tolerate men, which wouldn’t really be all that bad if he wasn’t a sadistic psychopath. He spends an awful lot of time trying to quash Larkyn for no real reason other than he dislikes her, which makes his antics tiresome. He also uses magic potions so the winged horses will tolerate him, with the side effect that he physically becomes more female. The villification of this “unnatural” process bothers me on many levels.

Bishop/Marley makes the Aesks one big oversimplification despite their importance to the story. The raid is written twice: both in the prologue and in a redundant first chapter. The Aesks come, they raid, rape and pillage, they take a couple kids, they’re barbaric, and they’re from the North. And so we have another simple viking-type analogue in fantasy, which is pretty tired by now. For some reason slaughtering the entire group of Aesks is first choice and no one bothers to try diplomacy or discover why they attacked after so many years of no contact (which in and of itself seems dubious). One character wonders if the Aesks might not have attacked if Oc had somehow supported them, but never goes any further than to say a barbaric land makes a barbaric people. The oversimplification and generalization present in this book hurts my head. If they are mobile enough to try and raid, one might think it would make more sense to try and settle elsewhere if they are so poorly off. It doesn’t really make sense the way it’s written–even viking society didn’t work that way.

The book focuses on the Aesk issue for the first half then moves on to Duke William and his political manouevres for the second half, abandoning much of the themes from the first portion. The plot felt divided once Oc took their revenge on the Aesks, and the book stagnates after this point. I suspect if the two portions had been structured concurrently this problem would not have occurred. Despite a nice flow to the prose, the story itself just never really felt important. Bishop/Marley wrote a nice story that took no chances; in that respect, it failed for me because there was no emotional impact.

While Airs Beneath the Moon was a middling to good read, sadly Airs and Graces does not match its quality or take the story and characters far enough to prevent retreading the same ideas. The author’s knowledge of equine drills and the intriguing world from the first book fell flat in the second book for mainly structural and logic reasons. Frankly, I was disappointed and expected more from the author, given Louise Marley usually writes with much more thematic structure and thoughtful worldbuilding in her other works.

Rabid fans of the first book or those who are horse-crazy could still enjoy this sequel, though it doesn’t have the same focus on horse and rider that Airs Beneath the Moon did. I would continue on to read the last book in the series, but with the sincere hope that it manages to bring plot and characters together again into a more fulfilling whole.

Bishop, Toby. Airs and Graces. New York: Ace Books, 2008. 346 pages. $10.99 (Canadian).


Dun Lady’s Jess

Dun Lady’s JessDoranna Durgin‘s Dun Lady’s Jess first made it to print in 1994, and it was Durgin’s debut novel plus a winner of the Compton Crook Award. And it has, sadly, been out of print for quite some time up until this past year. While Durgin has gone on to write a number of other books, including mysteries, suspense novels, media tie-ins, and other fantasy novels, I’d always wondered about her first book. And the Star Ink/Red Deer Press reprint has some big names attached to it as well: Julie E. Czerneda was the editor, and Elizabeth Moon penned the foreward.

On first glance, the book looks like one more book in the long line of girl-and-horse fantasy that pops up occasionally. However, there’s a big difference between a girl-and-horse story and a horse-made-human story. The author has a wealth of experience with horses (being the rider of a Lipizzaner plus other horses) and clearly doesn’t hold out. Though I don’t know much about horses, I know enough to know when someone else does.

The titular character, Dun Lady’s Jess (Lady in horse form and Jess as a human), is a courier’s horse who is simultaneously transformed to a human and transported to Earth when her rider triggers an experimental spell to avoid capture. She appears naked with her riding gear in a park, where she is found and taken in by a group of friends, but we soon realise the situation is more complicated than that. Jess has to learn to be human, but she also has to evade the minions of an evil wizard trying to get the spell her courier was transporting–that of travel between worlds. And without the “checkspells” of Jess’ world to limit forbidden spells, all sorts of nasty magic can be unleashed on Earth–and all of Earth’s violent technology can be used in a world innocent of it.

Despite all the action, the core of the book is Lady/Jess and the people around her. Jess must learn language, how to walk on two legs, and how to manage the complexity of human emotions. She doesn’t always succeed–she kicks people when angered, spooks until calmed, sees no point in clothes, and has an obvious affinity for horses that makes her new-found friends suspect that she just might be what she says she is: a horse made human. Their involvement in her journey is part of what makes the book so worthwhile. Not to mention it’s fascinating to read about the details involved in Jess’ equine behaviour.

Dun Lady’s Jess offered me an examination of transformation, not just from horse-to-woman-and-back perspective, but also that of two worlds colliding in novel ways. It looks at what changes a person, and how that change moves through others. Durgin also has themes of choice: can, and even should, Lady/Jess choose what she wants? What changes beliefs, and how is choice involved in the interplay? What about when you have no choice in what happens to you, or even others?

To be perfectly honest, some of the fantasy world logic didn’t always work for me, and seemed to be there just so that a world with wizards and magic was around. For instance, why are wizards stationed in solitary isolated keeps if they are generally co-operative? How are checkspells determined? And why, if magic is such a wonderful technological advance in the area of cleanliness and health and interworld travel, are humans limited to horses for transport of a spell’s hardcopy form? There may even be answers to my questions, but they did not show up in this story.

Despite the unexplained areas, the plot moves along at a nice brisk pace and the writing flows well enough that it didn’t matter much. To be honest, the nit-picky thoughts were interesting in their own right. The characters in the story engage you quickly, and experience their own transformative experiences throughout the book.

Overall, Dun Lady’s Jess is a notable book, and one that deserves to be reprinted. The themes that Doranna Durgin presents resonate deeply, and demonstrate her deft words and clear perception of humans and horses alike. Dun Lady’s Jess is one of the best shape-shifting stories in the genre, and certainly one of the most thoughtful. Which makes me hope she will return for another sojourn in fantasy…

Read an excerpt and download the first chapter from Doranna Durgin.

Durgin, Doranna. Dun Lady’s Jess. Calgary, AB: Red Deer Press, 2007. 295 pages. $22.95 (Canadian), trade paperback.

Code of Conduct

Code of ConductI didn’t manage to catch the Jani Kilian books when they first came out in paperback. Instead, I’ve been reading Rules of Survival, the SFBC omnibus edition of the series’ first 3 books, the first of which is Code of Conduct. Author Kristine Smith began her writing career with this series, which has been described as mystery or even “noir” science fiction. It’s a fair way to sum up the gist of the book, certainly.

Code of Conduct starts with Jani Kilian concealing her past by working as a paper pusher on one of Earth’s colonial planets. We soon find out that she was a captain in Earth’s diplomatic corps, and survived a bloody civil war amongst the alien idomeni only due to a medically questionable patch-job using alien genetic materials. Unfortunately for Jani, two things change her situation. The first kicks off the action: the government finds her as her cover is blown, and when on the verge of escape the Interior Minister–and her former lover–leverages Jani into solving the mysteries surrounding his wife’s death. The second is a slow and occasional theme, following the beginning of Jani’s body’s failure/transformation to a blending of idomeni and human.

Jani is a fascinating woman, and it’s her along with the well-characterized secondary characters that really carry the novel through. She’s cynical, tough, and has the savvy to cross the boundaries of clashing societies–human and idomeni, as well as the varying class stratification within human social groups. She serves as a patchwork human: Frankenstein made alien and genetic. Her past gives her an air of mystery, which isn’t fully unravelled by the end of the book.

The plot starts off with a bang, then slows with the journey to Earth and Jani’s investigation. For having a protagonist who is a diplomatic expert and a world where Earth controls numerous space colonies, the story is almost claustrophobic. This adds to the tension, but be aware that the action comes in short bursts at the beginning and end of the story, with a lot more talking and investigating in the middle portion. This book is not designed as an action-packed suspense novel; the majority of it meanders along with an exploratory bent.

Rules of SurvivalIn fact, I very much enjoyed Kristine Smith’s writing despite a couple of problems that took away from the story. The plot itself is confusing to an extent and leaves a lot of ambiguity. At points Jani hallucinates dead colleagues, and occasionally this back history felt like it was dumped on without any context, and sometimes questionable significance. I didn’t get the sense that all of these ambiguities were red herrings (though some likely were), but rather that some plot points were a little sloppy or not fully planned out. I also wasn’t clear on what motivated certain characters–sometimes a good thing in a mystery, but when it’s most of the big players (not including Jani, who is always well put together, even if her body isn’t), it gets a little tiresome.

However, the most disappointing part of this book was the worldbuilding. I felt like we didn’t really get to go anywhere of note because Smith wasn’t really sure where to take us, and hadn’t really fleshed out the idomeni and human history beyond the bare, bare essentials. I wasn’t convinced of the need for document readers and couldn’t figure what the mess of various governmental agencies seemed to actually do, though granted that’s a question I have in real life regardless. The cultural milieu didn’t fully jive for me in the human end of things, even though the idomeni worked exceptionally well. I also got the sense that Kristine Smith did a lot of background work, but that it didn’t necessarily find its way into the novel in quite the right places.

Kristine Smith’s Code of Conduct is a very well done first novel in a series, and I’m looking forward to the next few books, though hoping to get a little more of the world-mystery solved. I’m very interested to see where Smith’s writing has gone in the next few books, and certainly hope that the human-idomeni aspect of Jani’s body gets fleshed out more in successive books.

Smith, Kristine. Code of Conduct. Rules of Survival Omnibus Edition. New York: Science Fiction Book Club, 2007. Pp. 1-306. $18.99 (Canadian) via SFBC.

A Small and Remarkable Life

A Small and Remarkable LifeI usually don’t like human meets alien or alien meets human stories. Why? Because first contact novels tend to be repetitive: there are only so many ultimate outcomes from someone meeting a different species. So it is all the more impressive that A Small and Remarkable Life puts a different perspective on this type of story. Nick DiChario works more with the emotional context of the characters and provokes a sense of alienation, rather than dwelling on differences alone.

DiChario has a literary tang to his mellow writing, which is rich with allusion and symbolism despite its simple prose. Themes of faith and belief weave together throughout the book, and being that the story is set in mid-nineteenth century America, this means Christianity figures heavily in it. Time-wise, it’s around the time of the American Civil War, a time when racial issues were prime concern. This serves to highlight some of the self vs. other conflict that surrounds what we categorise as alien.

The story switches between two main characters, Tink Puddah and Jacob Piersol, jumping between different points in time. The book’s structure tends toward the non-linear–Tink’s birth and funeral are both at the beginning of the book, and what may seem to be spoilers in the following paragraphs are not. Tink is born malformed and early after the brutal death of his parents, newly arrived and adapted to life on Earth. His blue skin, fragility, and odd looks set him apart, though less so than his aversion to violence and disbelief in God. This disbelief is the root of conflict between him and the preacher from the valley he later settles in, Jacob, who is so determined to serve his congregation that it segregates him from them.

The story of A Small and Remarkable Life really comes from the characters, more so than anything else. Their lives and beliefs form a dialogue, leading them both eventually towards death and resurrection. Tink and Jacob serve to contrast beliefs about God and mercy, as well as what constitutes an act of good (or an act of God, in some cases). They also serve to show two different manners of alienation–particularly that of the outsider looking in, but also the estrangement one can feel in divisive social situations. DiChario uses the story as a lens to question the construction of what is alien, and acceptance of it, or lack thereof. The sense of alienation cultivated throughout also serves to distance the reader from the story itself–I personally found this fascinating, but other readers may feel, er, alienated by it.

DiChario manages to compress a large amount of information into this novel, which deserves unpacking of a literary sort. However, I suspect that some parts could have stood to fleshed out, most notably the revelation of Tink’s murderer. This moment didn’t feel right to me–not who it was, but rather the “final reveal” portrayed it almost as a deus ex machina, though it wasn’t. This particular moment in the book also happened to stretch out over three chapters–a massive variation in pace to the rest of the book, making it feel forced to an extent.

Regardless, Nick DiChario certainly impressed me with the deft portrayals and layered meaning in Tink’s story. A Small and Remarkable Life is the kind of book that stays with you for a while, and makes you think about things. That’s an impressive feat that leaves me looking forward to DiChario’s next release, upcoming this May.

DiChario, Nick. A Small and Remarkable Life. Calgary: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2006. 238 pages. $19.95 (Canadian).

Odd Thomas
February 27, 2008, 2119
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Odd ThomasDean Koontz: ten books on the New York Times bestseller list, books stocked in convenience and grocery stores, plus an exceedingly recognizable name. Do you think I’ve read anything by him before this? You’d think so, but somehow I managed to bypass the fictionary juggernaut that is Dean Koontz. And I admit, I’m enough of a comics geek that my main interest is in the graphic novel/manga I have heard buzz about (an Odd Thomas series prequel and the Dabel Bros.’ Frankenstein). So when I had a chance to read a Big Name, I figured maybe it was time.

Odd Thomas started off what will be a four-book series with graphic novels, short films, and mucho merchandise as of May this year. It seems the books are popular. Part of the popularity, I think, can be attributed to a certain twenty-year-old short order cook, Odd Thomas, who is the titular narrator. As a character, he pulled me into his story with his honesty, humble nature, and humour. At times he describes himself as an unreliable narrator, His distinctive voice is that of an everyman, albeit one that is set apart by his ability to see the dead. Oh, and has an occasionally-tearful but dead Elvis following him around.

The plot, when it comes down to it, is relatively simple. Odd sees a man–who he soon dubs “Fungus Man”–surrounded by evil spirits that feed on violence and malicious behaviour. Odd calls these spirits bodachs, and they continue to populate the pages, usually as harbingers of potentially-avertable doom. Being the lovable protagonist that he is, he attempts to find out what evil plot Fungus Man happens to be hatching so he can prevent it. Soon Odd has put his friends and girlfriend in inadvertent danger, and he finds out there’s more to fear than he thought possible.

Koontz writes textbook thriller/suspense structure, and nearly every chapter has some “cliffhanger” to keep you reading. But that doesn’t mean it all ties together, despite the rhythmic flow. For example, Odd explores Fungus Man’s abode, entering a curious time-warp within the room, not once, but twice, after which the time change mechanism disappears from the room. This leaves a normal room, and those two instances never influence the story again. Personally, I don’t really see why this portion was included, unless it plays a role in a later book, because it has no explicit purpose.

The secondary characters are nearly more fascinating than Odd himself, and fit into the book like a worn in pair of runners. The afore-mentioned ghostly Elvis is just the beginning of the eccentricities, although I have to say, the dead Elvis as a vampire or ghost or what-have-you is starting to get really tired. Beyond character, Koontz’ writing flows smooth as can be,and even has the right amount of humour, but there was something missing. I suspect the book neglects asking some of the big questions that come up through the story. Being a series, I doubt all of those questions (life, the universe, and everything) were within the scope of the first book, but I hope they will be woven into the following volumes.

Overall, Odd Thomas is a nice fast read to wile away an evening (or few, depending on your reading speed) with fascinating characters, but nothing ground-breaking or terribly insightful. I can say that I was a little disappointed with the plot’s simplicity and the holes left in the book, but Dean Koontz is clearly a man who knows his craft, and his sales sure show it.

Koontz, Dean. Odd Thomas. New York: Bantam Dell, 2003. 302 pages. A gift–mass market runs $11.99 (Canadian).

February 24, 2008, 1801
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WatchtowerBeing one of those authors who pops in and out of the publishing world, Elizabeth A. Lynn’s books can be hard to find. I first discovered her with Dragon’s Winter, published in 1998, and spent many years thereafter trying to search out anything by her that I could. What I didn’t know was Dragon’s Winter was a massive accomplishment for her. In the early eighties, Lynn suffered from severe writer’s block–she did not begin writing again until the mid nineties. Sometimes shelf space is a losing battle when an author doesn’t keep writing and her books don’t stay in print. In any case, I managed to find the entire Chronicles of Tornor at a book sale earlier this month and grabbed them up, fast as I could.

Watchtower is the first book in the Chronicles of Tornor trilogy, and Lynn’s second published novel. The story starts with Tornor Keep’s defeat from a southern army: Prince Errel is held hostage as the conquering lord’s jester so Ryke, Tornor’s defeated commander, will cooperate as a commanding officer for his new lord. The southern lord’s army has been pressing north in a winter battle, taking the keeps as they move through the mountains. When two messengers from the Green Clan bear a request for a treaty from the neighbouring keep, the prince secretly sends his commander to ask for the messengers’ aid in escaping the fallen keep. This eventually results in a journey to Vanima, a town of revolutionaries hidden in the mountains, and a plan to recapture Tornor.

Themes of societal change, gender and sexual identity, and questioning whether violence and war are acceptable practices permeate Watchtower. Elizabeth A. Lynn was one of the first fantasy and science fiction writers to explore GLBT themes, and this book antes up. The messengers are women who dress androgynously outside of Vanima, and fled their past lives to remain in a long-term relationship. Ryke tends toward the stubborn, and does not welcome change, remaining steadfastly loyal to Prince Errel and Tornor itself. He serves as a foil to Errel, often providing a conservative viewpoint and remains uncomfortable with life in Vanima even as he questions his own society throughout the book. It can be argued that Ryke falls in love with Errel over the course of the book, but there is no explicit mention of this.

Vanima itself has a non-hierarchical social structure with a communal economy. The entire community works together and learns chearis together, an oft nonviolent dance-like form of combat which is very much like aikido (not surprisingly, Lynn is a 6th dan aikido instructor). This is a strong contrast to Tornor, which has strictly defined sexual roles, a strong idea of us versus “the other”, and a distinct hierarchy devoted to warfare. Through Ryke, we experience his eventual horror and disgust with the violence of warfare and its consequences. Even more horrific is his acceptance at one point that sexual assault cannot even really be considered rape when done as a part of war.

Lynn’s writing reminds me of studying translated Icelandic sagas–the details are important. Characters show their inner thoughts and emotions through actions, and the book lacks descriptions of internal dialogue. However, the sparseness can be problematic and sometimes conceals characters more than revealing. Some passages depicting daily life in Vanima and in the resolution of the story near the end of the book come off as being prescriptive more so than descriptive, and this interferes with the “fourth wall” of the novel and contributes to breaking down the reader’s sense of wonder. A large part of the book is spent in travel of one sort or another, which can be seen as symbolic for the inner paradigm shift–most notably in Ryke.

Overall, Watchtower serves as an entry point to a world in the midst of upheaval. I suspect Watchtower was awarded the World Fantasy Award in 1980 for the intellectual exercise Elizabeth A. Lynn showcases in the novel more so than her prose. However much I like the simple phrasing of Lynn’s writing, it doesn’t negate the tenuous nature of our connection to her characters and world-building. More depth is required for a truly engaging read, but the book remains enjoyable and raises some important questions that remain relevant today.

Lynn, Elizabeth A. Watchtower. 1979. New York: Berkeley Books, 1981. 226 pages. $0.75 (Canadian), bought used.

February 21, 2008, 2345
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TerritoryIt’s a pity that Emma Bull isn’t a more prolific novelist, because her writing is lyrical, elegant, and exceptionally consumable. She has said that “Creativity isn’t some rare quality reserved for annointed artists; it’s what humans do, every day, all the time.” It’s true, and she is one of those writers who puts her creativity to work. Her first novel, 1987’s War for the Oaks, is credited partly for the advent of the urban fantasy subgenre and remains one of her most well known books.

Territory combines history and magic to produce a “secret history” of Tombstone, Arizona in 1881. Bull fills in the stories we don’t know, the sections that are magical and cross gendered and cultural boundaries of the time. In doing so, parts of the story venture into the largely unwritten histories of women and the Chinese community. The novel is set prior to the shootout at the OK Corral and focuses on extraordinarily portrayed ordinary people caught in the midst of a magical and social battle for power between the legendary Wyatt Earp and outlaw John Ringo.

Jesse Fox is a horse trainer in denial of his own latent magical ability, lately of San Francisco. Mildred Benjamin is a widow and aspiring writer working for one of the local papers who befriends the Earp family’s women. And Doc Holliday is a dentist with consumption, a contrary supporter of Wyatt. This triad of voices forms the lens through which we experience Bull’s imagined Tombstone, populated with cowboys, rustlers, gamblers, miners, and the politically ambitious.

Jesse gets held in Tombstone than expected when a friend of his, who is a Chinese physician and sorcerer, enlists his help for magical reasons. He becomes caught up in the antagonism between Wyatt Earp and John Ringo, and also in a budding romance with Mildred. There is also the little detail of a stagecoach holdup Holliday is suspected of participating in, a gruesome magical warning, land-grabs by the mining company, and a murdered prostitute. By the end of the book, the disparate threads weave together into an open resolution (after the requisite gunfight), leaving room for another story to follow.

The magic starts off understated, growing to a pervasive presence by the end of the book. Power is defined by the land, running through it like the lines of silver below the ground level, and by social alliances. Territory is the source of magic here, and as Jesse develops an uneasy acceptance of his magical abilities, he must claim his own. I find this a fascinating statement on the power differentials of people in the society, and I notice that while women sense the power, as of yet none of the women have actively used it.

The frontier setting produces an ideal milieu to explore man’s power, and the intersection of place and person. I noted as well the portrayal of “the natural” throughout the course of the book. To be honest, so many themes of post-modern literature are present here that any literary types could have a field day without even trying. It’s a rare writer who can be so blithely thought-provoking without making the story dry enough to crumble the good parts to dust.

Territory has such great flow that you nearly breathe in the words from the page. My consolation in finishing is that there will be another volume. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if Emma Bull ends up with a new subgenre on her hands (frontier fantasy, perhaps?), and hopefully some major recognition. This book is an amazing one, and one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a long while.

Bull, Emma. Territory. New York: Tor, 2007. 318 pages. $31.00 (Canadian), hardcover.