Jumpdrives & Cantrips


Watchtower
February 24, 2008, 1801
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , ,

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.

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Territory
February 21, 2008, 2345
Filed under: Reviews | Tags: , , , ,

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.



The Family Trade
February 17, 2008, 2050
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The Family TradeCharles Stross is best known for science fiction, and in the last few years has published quite a few award-winning books. But The Family Trade is not a science fiction book. It is a fantasy novel at its heart, one which reads much the same as more mainstream suspense novels. Stross sticks parallel world stories, Cinderella-esque inheritance transformations, and The Godfather in a blender and pulses liberally.

The story begins when Miriam, a journalist who covers the tech beat, does two things that change her life. The first is pitching an article about a massive organization-wide cover up that includes money laundering–unfortunately by the same firm that pays Miriam’s wages–and ends with a security escort from the building, pink slip practically stapled to her forehead. The second involves discovering her heritage as countess when she finds out her mother’s locket enables her to travel to a parallel universe. The aristocracy of the new world happens to be deeply entrenched in the organized crime Miriam discovered earlier, and desperate to maintain their world’s non-modernized status quo to maintain their power via the inter-world drug trade.

Stross credits Roger Zelazny’s Amber books as a partial inspiration for this book, and the influence is obvious. However, the family politics and worldbuilding fall flat in comparison to Zelazny’s, which had more kick. I was most fascinated with the hereditary nature of world-walking (the locket simply enables the ability), how Stross portrays it as influencing social relations and how it creates a need for a violent family monopoly. Given the dire warnings that various characters give her and the amount of times people try to kill her, I was surprised that Miriam emerged unscathed. The politics themselves seem clumsy for a family supposedly involved in organized crime and perpetual behind-the-scenes in-fighting.

The Family Trade also has a substantial blindspot in the relationships between characters. I didn’t really buy that Miriam (a divorcee and hardened journalist who–by her own admission–is used to being on her own) would jump into bed with a man she was barely attracted to a paragraph earlier. It’s also curious that Miriam doesn’t try to find out more about her own direct family connections between dodging assassination attempts. Stross’ strengths are in speculating on business and economics rather than character interactions, which makes machinations a little one-sided, and tends to leave emotions on the back-burner.

The focus instead is on logistics, plot, and constantly questioning who Miriam can trust. This makes The Family Trade into a fast read, but there isn’t enough action to justify calling it a page-turner except in the last third of the book. Be aware that the story does not end with a feeling of closure, almost feeling like someone chopped the first draft manuscript in half without constructing a proper cliffhanger.

The Family Trade is a middling to good read that plain and simple lacks the heart to match its cerebral nature. With numerous unresolved subplots, I am interested to read more in this world, but I’m just not sure I care enough to bother.

Stross, Charles. The Family Trade. New York: Tor, 2004. 303 pages. Bargain bin purchase at $4.99 (Canadian).



Tidbits…
February 12, 2008, 1819
Filed under: news | Tags: , , ,

Tidbit #1: It looks as though screen rights to Michael Chabon’s book, The Yiddish Policeman’s Association, have been acquired by Sony’s Columbia Pictures. Directing the movie? The Coen bros. This excites me a little, but makes me a little wary. The Coen bros. can be brilliant, but sometimes brilliant doesn’t always make for a great movie. The book is on Locus’ must-read list for 2007, and it’s one that I’ve been hoping to get my hands on for some time.

Tidbit#2: Elizabeth Moon returns to the Paksenarrion universe! This is huge news for me, since The Deed of Paksenarrion was a hugely influential book for me when I was in my teens. As far as I can tell, Moon’s website doesn’t have any information on this yet.

Tidbits courtesy of Sci Fi Wire.



The Cipher
February 3, 2008, 2029
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The Cipher

It took me some time to work up the guts to grab this book from the shelf. The back of the book looked so good, with so much potential, and a nice cover (the heroine eerily looking like Julia Roberts). It was that exact veneer of goodness that made me question my choice. I read Diana Pharaoh Francis’ previous trilogy (the Path Series) and the first book was very good. But with discontinuous characters and a storyline nearly at odds with the first book’s plot, the whole series fell flat about midway through the second book. So you might understand I have a little anxiety about the follow-through in the coming books in the Crosspointe series.

Even if the next two books don’t deliver, I can say The Cipher gives us a fascinating world with an interesting magic system. Lucy Trenton, a customs inspector who is a minor member of royalty, starts off as a polite law-bound character and comes out of the story as a magical wildcard. Her secret stash of ciphers (objects with magical properties that sometimes curse their finder) and ability to sense magic only add to the conflict inherent to her character. I found the cast of characters interesting, but found myself almost cheering more for the backseat characters than Lucy and Marten, the ship captain with a gambling problem and debt past his eyebrows–and Lucy’s main love interest.

The Cipher doesn’t really start off with a bang despite major events occurring within the first few chapters that stretch your comprehension. If you stick through the disorienting beginning, though, the book has several major turning points that help to maintain interest. Diana Pharaoh Francis definitely takes world-immersion to heart, which is a good thing once you find your footing as a reader. While the kingdom of Crosspointe is fascinating and well-constructed, the invasion of the Jutras is regrettably made into a simplistic moment of antagonistic contact with “the other.” This immediately dehumanizes the entire Jutras culture without giving enough context to justify why to the reader.

There are also some awkward moments; this is exemplified in a scene where Marten does something I consider unforgivable to Lucy in order to exploit her both bodily and otherwise made me cringe throughout the novel. The theoretical repercussions based on Lucy’s character only partly materialize, and I can’t fully believe her acceptance of him later in the plot. However, the ending point still leaves room for her secondary love interest, who is a much more engaging character. If the author didn’t constantly dangle carrots in front of me, I might have given up hope after this first book.

Despite the problems inherent in The Cipher, Diana Pharaoh Francis did a good job of making me ask more questions than I received answers. And while Lucy & Co. manage to save the day, it is a precarious rescue that I doubt Lucy fully understands herself. That is exactly the way to get me interested in the next books, and I’m certainly waiting for publication of the next Crosspointe Novel, The Black Ship.

Pharaoh Francis, Diana. The Cipher. New York: Roc, 2007. 402 pages. $10.99 (Canadian).



Spellbinder
February 3, 2008, 1205
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Spellbinder

With numerous fans waiting in anticipation since the late nineties for a new novel, Melanie Rawn has produced an immensely readable book with likable and engaging characters in Spellbinder. Rawn is known for her high fantasy novels of consistent thickness and complex politics. Spellbinder (subtitled A Love Story with Magical Interruptions) is a full departure, instead veering into the realms of paranormal romance more so than urban fantasy. The author should be applauded for moving towards new ground, especially in light of her admission in the author’s note that she needed a complete departure from her previous works after recovering from clinical depression.

Some of the plot summaries make the book out to be a massive battle between good and evil: it is not. It speaks to superior construction that everyone has motivations and is not made out to be good or evil, instead working towards their personal ideals. This novel is truly about the relationships in the book; anyone expecting the common tropes of fantasy will be gently dissuaded from their expectations, instead left to be riveted by the interactions between people in the book. Which isn’t to say magic isn’t there, but it is more like the interruption the subtitle promises than a central plot element.

Holly McClure is a wonderful character as a Spellbinder: someone whose blood increases the power of any spell regardless of what the spell intends. I could call her a “tool,” and I wouldn’t be incorrect in the technical sense. She can barely use magic herself, instead relying on her magical guardians and friends for assistance in this realm, and generally spending her time avoiding it. She also is a writer who attempts to create a relationship with a U.S. Marshall, Evan, without letting him in on the fact that she a) lives in a world of hidden magic and b) is a wildly successful best-selling author with loads of cash. The first he can deal with, but the second ends up being a deal-breaker, and much torment ensues.

And the torment spills into–and is partly caused by–the magical end of things. It’s nice to see magic treated as the problem and not just the eternal solution. Which brings me to the antagonists of the book. I applaud heartily that Melanie Rawn wrote these characters as not completely evil for no good reason, but give them choices, and make them in a multi-dimensional manner. Some of them are redeemable, and in fact, some of the less prominent protagonists seems more unlikable than the so-called villains of the novel.

The plot is a slow burn, which isn’t really surprising given the 500-page length. Extended flashbacks sometimes drag a little, but are important to the characters. Things happen, but insidiously, sometimes creeping in under the radar. To be honest, I read this book simultaneously with another that offered a faster turnaround, especially during some of the more miserable “life sucks” portions when Holly’s life goes to pieces. The major “battle” at the end was anticlimactic, but certainly not the point of the book, and didn’t require a massive suspension of disbelief like some paranormal romance.

Essentially, if you like your potboilers, this book may not be for you unless your fascination lies in character studies. However, if you revel in character driven books that dwell in a more realistic realm, Melanie Rawn’s Spellbinder will be a godsend.

Rawn, Melanie. Spellbinder. New York: Tor, 2006. 500 pages. $10.99 (Canadian).