Category Archives: The Mark

The Modern World by Steph Swainston

Steph Swainston returns (returned, actually, given that The Modern World was released back in 2008) with another Circle novel, set five years after No Present Like Time (itself set five years after The Year of Our War, which allows the Circle Trilogy to cover approximately a decade of regular unrest in the Fourlands). At the end of No Present Like Time, we were promised that Jant would be weaned off his regular intake of “cat“, which provides both narrative and character relief. The Modern World shows us the Fourlands in greater details and wider scope than either of the earlier novels – The Year of Our War concerned the Insect incursions and Circle in-fighting; No Present Like Time with outside influences (and neo-Imperialism, so exciting) and the effects and machinations of Circle politics as it affects the people under the Castle’s wardship.

Five years since the scorched earth victory on the isolated Island Tris, the Circle architect, Frost, is nearing the completion of an immense dam at Lowespass, where the invading, ravenous Insects are held at bay (a tedious, centuries-long stalemate). The idea is to drown the Insect hordes and end the war. Frost is a fascinating character, a perfectionist: intelligent, creative and filtered through Jant’s mostly-sober perspective she takes on a presence she might not have had from an older or more socially adept character.

The completion of the dam is to be a military and media event – the near-guaranteed victory, or least tactical and strategic advantage, will change the face of Circle-Fourland power dynamics, allow the Fourlands to recover from a decade of bloody unrest and lay out the field for God to return, taking the world back from Emperor San’s tender care.

Meanwhile, Lightning’s daughter Cyan has disappeared. Lightning remains the presence he has been in the Circle , filtered through Jant’s admiration, suppressed resentment and annoyed respect to an unchanging, dignified tower of history and honour – and for Lightning, Jant takes off to seedy Hacilith to find Cyan and either rescue her or convince her to come to Lowespass where she can watch her father at his work.

Whatever else once may say about Swainston’s work – and I still feel like she spares us the tedium of info-dump at the cost of some economic world-building – she excels at capturing the feel of a location. Hacilith was where Jant lived as a half-grown adolescent, running wild in street gangs and apprenticed to an apothecary. Centuries later Cyan has come here to slum it in the Real World. Cyan is extraordinarily immature – nearly unbelievably so, though I suppose there are no analogues for the daughter of an immortal, a girl who shall inherit lands and has not been educated in her duties and privileges forthcoming, stifled and overprotected and spoiled spoiled spoiled. Cyan’s bad behaviour fulfills the dual purpose of character development for an unexpectedly large number of people, and of a mirror to Jant’s own life and nature. Lightning is Cyan’s father, and he also has the dubious honour of being Jant’s unofficial mentor.

So. Cyan runs away to Hacilith, runs around with seedy men in seedy bars, has an overdose of cat and has a near-death experience in the Shift – a parallel world only reachable through cat overdose or an as-yet unexplained meditative process. Enter the Vermiform, a hive-mind of worms. I kid you not. An all-too-hasty rescue mission and chase scene through too many locations in the Shift later, Cyan is rescued, Jant has seen too many lands destroyed by Insects, and the Vermiform is still around.

The Modern World is mostly narrated by Comet Jant Shira, Messenger for the Circle. Through his jaded, tired, shallow but perspective eyes we see a nation that has lain stagnant for too long, with economies centred around mor and more efficient forms of warfare – medieval to our eyes, and entirely brutal. It’s possible to read The Modern World as a stand alone novel, but I wouldn’t recommend it. As with The Year of Our War and No Present Like Time, the material plot exists as a vehicle for exploring overarching questions of the nature of the multiverse that more and more of the Fivelanders are in contact with, and now beginning to be conscious of said contact. More universal (as opposed to in-novel multi-versal) issues of religion (more precisely, faith), the generational divide, power in the hands of women – more on this later – function following form and the dangers of submitting to your benevolent tyrant.

I’ve skimmed over the concept that Jant embodies the vulnerable male body as written by a female author before, but not in detail. To examine: Jant is a Rhydanne-Awian hybrid, the only one that exists. Think of the Rhydanne as human-shaped people with a LOT of cat mixed in; the Awians have human-shaped but have vestigial wings. In Jant, these combine to give you a man who can, with a lot of training (self-researched), work and more wear-and-tear than seems advisable, fly. A long-limbed, lean, boy with wings is our Jant. The prologue shows us his recurring nightmares of his first major wounding after he joined the Circle and became immortal. It took him a year to recover, under the experienced, incomparable Rayne, the Circle Healer. (Rayne has more of a presence in this novel, but her contributions are more to atmosphere than to plot.) In a strange flashback set before No Present Like Time, Queen Eleonora of Awia ties Jant down and violates him with inanimate objects. The section serves no obvious purpose, unless we’re to be impressed with the idea that Women Can Be Evil And Powerfuller Than Men, Who Moon About Being Sentimental And/Or Useless. It isn’t required to display Jant’s desperate need for control and security, nor is it required as an “explanation” for his habits and character.

It follows, in fact, a rather worrying trend: there are very few women in the Circle novels who are written as positive characters. At their jobs, at their skills, at their life’s work these women are all competent, accomplished, skilled and even excellent. And yet I give you:

  • Cyan, when she uses her teenaged brain (not often) shows the beginnings of a woman to be reckoned with. But for the most part she whinges around saying she wants to be free, make her own decisions, have her dad pay more attention to her, take up her duties, do anything but her duties, and everyone is mean to her.
  • Eleonora, a practical, pragmatic ruler who has rationally and systematically oversaw the reconstruction of her kingdom after two separate incursions. She is an excellent character, and it’s too bad she rapes immortals to sate her pervesrity and reputedly is behaving badly with the castle maids.
  • Mist Ata (last seen in No Present Like Time) – incomparable Sailor for the Castle who uses her body and her femininity to manipulate the men around her, who has no tact, respect, delicacy for anyone but herself and uses her family to extend her power. She killed her last husband, became pregnant to get Lightning (not her husband) under her thumb, and blackmails people as cheerfully as Jant does.
  • Frost, who may have been normal once, but locked in her grieving for her dead husband is a pale cipher surrounded by blind perfectionism. She is sensible and determined and not annoying or in any way malicious, and Swainston does not reward her overmuch.
  • The woman Jant may or may not have raped (it’s a cultural thing) and his cheating wife whom we don’t see much of. (The only wife-of-an-immortal who may have deserved outright respect is dead. There are trends here!
The only female character with any straightforward decency is Rayne, ancient, lonely, a healer, and little to no plot agency. Swainston has been very clear that she does not want to draw pristine characters for us to admire, but I think it strange that
It’s annoying, so sue me.
And yet.  Despite these flaws. The mysteries of San in the multiverse, the vermiform, the Insects, the Fivelands. The politics, the infighting, the Immortals and the mortals. The children. The battles! I have been careful not to say anything about the battles – read and find out! – but the unfolding of that plotline is fantastic, completely inevitable in hindsight and yet completely unexpected. The final chapter-cum epilogue shows us a HUGE character event that will shake the political, Circle, and personal relationships in the Fivelands for years. It’s scnadalous, exciting, frightening and very, very brave.

I like The Modern World. Descriptive, vast, with little to no drag, it’s a must-read for every Swainston reader (even if you were a bit drained by No Present Like Time).  There’s been no word (that I can see) of a sequel, though Swainston had out a prequel this year – I want very badly to see what happens next. Not for the Insects, but for the world, and the people in it.
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The Ingenious Edgar Jones by Elizabeth Garner

William Jones walks down the streets of Oxford, navigating its shadows, crossing the boundaries of its inner and outer foreignness – the ones that mirror his relationship with his wife. Night is falling, it is the Nineteenth century, stars are falling in the sky, and at home his wife Eleanor is giving birth to Edgar. Edgar is smaller than expected, very healthy, with unnaturally aged skin and a line of hair down his back.


Elizabeth Garner‘s prose is light, taking much prosetic licence – the effect is charming, and very gripping. Within an illustrative, detailed (though incomplete) geography of Oxford, William Jones, porter at an unnamed college, looks at his son as a delightful miniature of himself. Eleanor wanted a girl, and got an “unnatural” boy instead. William is much older than his wife, and spends most of his waking hours in the darkness, at the college gates. Eleanor stays at home, watching over her son. Her only visible contact outside of that home is Mrs. Simm – practical, clear-sighted Mrs. Simm, who assisted at the birth, who gave Eleanor a job as a seamstress, who advises her to accept her son as he is.

While William dreams of the greatness his son will achieve, and Eleanor stitches and dreams of the life she wanted to escape to, Edgar runs literally wild through his home and garden. If Eleanor accepts that her boy is a rambunctious, William, brought up a foundling by the Oxford clergy, is alarmed.  attempts at disciplining Edgar fail only in part to Edgar’s unmalleable incorrigibility – William’s process is didactic, incoherent; Edgar might be dyslexic. William’s growing disillusionment reflects in a waning expressed love for his only son.

Edgar has nothing with which to woo his father save his brilliance and his eagerness to please. Instead of acting out and breaking all his father’s stuff, Edgar goes out into the world and seeks employment. The idea of his son serving an apprenticeship with a blacksmith pleases William even less. William glowers through his nights, Eleanor sews in her private room full of light and colour, and Edgar leaves smoky prints wherever he goes – until he gains the attention of The Professor, who sees in Edgar the small, agile, smart, starved-for-love tool he needs to build his Museum to Biology and Evolution.

In time, William is displeased by this, too. Eleanor is stuck in the middle, playing peacekeeper, but William is not the sort of man who listens, and Edgar still very young. The entire novel is set up in terms of opposition and advancement – the Pagan, the Medieval, the Christian, the Rational, the Academic, and the Desiring all jostling for overlapping spaces within one small household amidst three small people. Oxford and the Jones household lay out the cartography of the human soul – itself liminal, changing, selectively steadfast, and not always in the right contexts.

Edgar has been ruined by the wrong kinds of mentors for years before he finds the perfect fit – unlike Goldilocks, he cannot truly appreciate his third and final helping, since he is so hung up on the first two, and how much he needs them to love him. Mr. Stephens the instrument maker is a lovely man, whose shop is somewhere in between the University and the Jones’ home. (Coincidentally next to Eleanor’s first home in a tavern.)

And then disaster strikes(!). Eleanor learns of the perfidy of mankind, William learns nothing at all, and Edgar loses the little freedoms he has. The novel careens to its inevitable dénouement, and at the closing the three Jones move their separate ways.

That’s not really a spoiler, so I’m leaving it in.

Garner’s prose, as I’ve mentioned, is light and gripping, and she has a knack for saying a great deal without beating the dead donkey over the subject. The novel is descriptive with that hint of enigmatic other-worldliness that we see hints off through out Oxford’s gargoyle-laden streets. What makes this novel less than ideal for me is the ending. Where William goes, well, that is perfect. It fits in neatly with all the facets of his personality, the concrete details of his life as he walks stonily through it. Eleanor and Edgar do not give us the same sort of closure. I would have appreciate a. a sequel or b. more chapters, telling me what the hell happens to them. The Ingenious Edgar Jones reads like incomplete but lovely novels (I’m looking at you, Heyer and Steinbeck!) – lovely, but incomplete. The reader is left hanging, while Eleanor and Edgar move away with no knowledge of each other to do – what? I found it completely unsatisfactory, worse still because I was hooked from the beginning.

You could read it as a way of allowing them their freedom, unfettered by our gazes (gaze, and entrapment within gaze, is a running subtext through the novel), but  that still leaves me hanging. Eleanor and Edgar has a great deal of potential in terms of development and adventure(!!), and I’m basically left with them saying goodbye, this isn’t for you anymore.

All in all? The Ingenious Edgar Jones is a lovely, emotional novel about the boundaries of loyalty, and the damage that a trespass against loyalty can cause – no matter how much love there is to patch up the breaches. It has an ending that will leave you wanting more, with little likelihood that you will get it. It’s an exercise in humanity and frustration. I wouldn’t recommend it.

Undertow by Elizabeth Bear

Pretty Pretty Covers Make Me Happy

 I’m not sure I would have loved Elizabeth Bear‘s Undertow quite as much as I did if it were not for André Deschénez, who rules the opening paragraphs, along with the planet – Greene’s World – he inhabits. (Someone help me, I am sure I am using that verb incorrectly.) Andre is a preemptive, overwhelming response to Laura Miller’s first piece of advice: He wants, very badly, to be a “conjurer”. Currently, he is an assassin. (There is a part of me that still wishes that we got a heart-wrenching tale of the bad man who kills people who turns a new leaf and proceeds to entertain small children by pulling rabbits and doves out of hats. Alas, Andre wants more esoteric stuff.) While there are other characters in Undertow, some as or maybe even more compelling, some with agendas or their own, André’s want is the most convincing thing this story has given me. (It’s been months since I read this novel, and the scenes that stay with me are Andre’s and another’s, whom I’ll get to in a bit. This review is taking forever to get to the point, isn’t it?)

While he’s not running around killing people and trying to learn to be a Conjurer, Andre is Cricket’s lover. Cricket is an archinformist, which basically is exactly what it sounds like. Cricket, in her own turn, is at the initial stages of what might turn out to be a rewarding, long-lasting relationship with Jean-Gris and Lucienne – and they are working for the rights of Ranid, who are the native inhabitants of the planet these people all live on – corporate imperialist efficiency at its heartless, soulless best treats the native people – who look like frogs, and so are called, however lovingly or derogatorily (guess!) “froggies”.

André receives a commission to kill Lucienne. He does. Cricket does not take this well, and a lot of time is spent through the novel worrying about Andre’s degree of redeemability. (It’s his job, come on.) Unfortunately, I like André and so these moments are the ones where I flag and get irritated. While André struggles with issues of trust with Cricket and Jean-Gris (who, coincidentally, is a Conjurer, one of the best, and maybe he’ll give André what he wants, and maybe he won’t), Cricket must work with the last cache of information Lucienne sent her. (This entire planet has something like the Internet on Brain Steroids. It’s cool, but it gives Cricket a particular sort of distance which her character, given its crazy, pseudoscientific [or maybe not so pseudo] unfolding arc, would have developed anyway.)

In the meanwhile, Gourami, a Ranid who works for the human corporate overseers of Greene’s World, makes a potentially embarrassing discovery. Se (gender-neutral) is injured, endangered, on the run. So very much hangs around Gourami’s existence (as opposed to Lucienne’s non-existence) that it’s easy to see her as the focal point of the novel. Hir perspective is startlingly clear, and quietly emotional. Through Gourami we see more of the sociopolitical realities of Greene’s world than Cricket or André can outragedly shout at us.

This is a very tactile narrative, whether the Point-of-view narrator of the moment is Human or Ranid. In a story whose local plot is at least three-fourth alien, this is a very good tactic, making the R factually, sensorial alien, as opposed to simply visually and sensationally.

A lot of the future!science involves some very slick working around Quantum theory – and raises a question I have about that poor Cat. It  involves some pseudoscientific power – it’s fantasy, masquerading as science, to me (just like Star Wars! Only I dislike Star Wars). Anyway, everyone runs around like chickens with their heads cut off, or like R versions of the same (it is hard to be nasty about a race of story tellers, especially xxxx [plot device I won’t reveal] story-tellers), and the climax is an insane explosion of information, pseudo science and possibility.

So what do we have? Pseudoscience, a beautifully described, near-convincing alien race, at least two fascinating characters who keep the novel moving, a labyrinthine, Machiavellian plotline that I could not reduce down for the sake of this review, a mostly satisfactory ending, with potential for sequels. I liked it, quite a bit. If it’s around, and you have the time, you should try it.

Interview with Karin Lowachee

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[Karin Lowachee is an award-winning SF-novelist. She has published three novels – Warchild (2002), Burndive (2003) and Cagebird (2005). This interview was conducted via email for wotmania’s Other Fantasy section, and can also be found on the Wotmania Other Fantasy Message Board and the Other Fantasy Blog of the Fallen.]

For those of us not familiar with your work, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

Well, I draw a line between my background as a person and my work in general, mostly because there aren’t any straight lines as to why I write what I write, at least not in the superficial aspects. I was born in Guyana, South America and moved to Canada when I was about 2 years old. I graduated from York University’s Creative Writing program with an Honours degree, but what that all says about me as a writer is pretty slim. I do tend to prefer that people read my work without knowing anything about me as a person, because frankly I don’t think it’s important, or should be, to understand the books themselves. I can say that for some reason in early high school I became very interested in issues of war and devoured a lot about Vietnam and WWII in particular, and that probably carried through to when I began to write publishable stuff. I’m interested in all aspects of history, science, art, film…you name it and I’d like to learn about it, generally. I suppose that makes me the ‘right’ personality for a writer. You have to find fascination with the world from all angles. That may be, perhaps, the most important aspect of me that’s relevant to my writing.

Without giving away major spoilers, could you introduce your three novels for those of us unfamiliar with your writing?

The 3 novels – Warchild, Burndive, and Cagebird – chronicle the beginnings of an arduous peace process between warring species, from 3 different points of view, one per novel. It’s a macrocosmic tale about the ramifications of war on children told through the very specific and internal experiences of 3 young men who have been impacted in different ways. I sometimes think of them as ‘anthro-psychological military science fiction’, with the emphasis being on the first part of that phrase.

What literary influences might have shaped your writing? And – this might be the same question, really – do you have any particular favourite novels and authors as a reader?

The ‘marker’ books that I remember being influenced by, consciously, were books like: The Outsiders (and all the works by SE Hinton), The Chocolate War, Watership Down, Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, Psion, Cyteen, Tigana, For Whom the Bell Tolls, As I Lay Dying, China Mountain Zhang, Ride With the Devil, Lonesome Dove, Fight Club, Shakespeare, as well as many poets…the list goes on. I was drawn to them for different reasons and at different stages in my development as a writer, where I was noticing technique and things like that. I still do that, I’m still influenced by great writing and try to learn from them. All the works listed above are favourites of mine.

Your first novel, Warchild, won the Warner Aspect First novel award back in 2002. I believe this means a shortened wait before the novel was published? How was the experience of writing and publishing different for your next two novels?

The WAFN contest really allowed a young, unpublished writer like myself to get their novel read by a big house publisher, with no agent and no contacts. It’s really incredible for me to think, to this day, that my book won and was given the opportunity to be read by the public. I’m really grateful it happened, obviously, because it’s so difficult to get your foot in the door. I began to work with some fantastic editors who have faith in me. The process was pretty much the same for all three novels, except there was a lot less stress in the last two because at least I knew the process through the first book. Doing anything for the first time can be harrowing and though being a published writer has pretty much been my dream since I was a kid, it was still nervewracking because I didn’t want to screw up. Once I realized that as long as you hand things in, communicate, and work hard on your stuff, it turns out all right. It excites me still. I love the process of writing, from my computer to publication. I’m not one of those writers that actually really hates any part of the process, maybe because I still walk around in wide-eyed wonder that I’m given the chance to do what I love. It’s hard work but I love it.

Of the three novels you’ve written, do you have a personal favourite?

I don’t. This is cheesy, perhaps, but they really are like children and I love them all for different reasons. Burndive and Cagebird took longer to warm up to, though, I have to admit. Probably because they put me through hell. I often need time and distance from my writing to actually see it objectively enough to appreciate it for what it is at the time. I always think I can improve but I don’t think any of it is total trash, mainly because I did the best that I could do with what I had at the time, and I have to accept that. That balance seems to keep me motivated and sane.

Cover art is, in some ways, a major hot topic at the moment. What did you think of art for your three novels? And now that (if I understand correctly?) Orbit has taken over the Warner Aspect imprint, do you have any concerns about new cover art? (My personal favourite would be Cagebird – Yuri was so beautifully rendered!)

I liked the cover art for the novels; Warner was pretty open in the second and third books to ask me my opinion which was very gracious and an interesting process – though of course the final word came from the Art Department, Editor, and artist (Matt Stawicki). I understood how Warner was marketing the books. I think if Orbit reprints them I really won’t have any issues with the art because so far all of Orbit’s covers are absolutely beautiful. They are swaying away from the ‘typical’ SF artwork and breaking new ground, and I think it’s fantastic.

I’ve been noticing a trend in your three novels to, well, examine the male body as something that can be wounded, invaded, trapped – the male body as vulnerable. (As someone on wotmania put it, Why a Graphic Male Rape Scene?) I found it interesting that each of the three novels looks at this issue from such a different point of view. It makes for phenomenally thought-provoking reading. I’m trying to make this as open-ended as possible, so I’ll just ask for your thoughts on the matter? Is this an issue you consciously decided to explore through three (and more?) novels, or was it a side-effect of the world and the world-views each character represents?

I’ve read your commentary on that ‘issue’ and I suppose in general the reasons were a bit of both and a bit of other things. It began to be conscious by Cagebird, the fact that I was drawing contrast among the three protagonists (Jos, Ryan, and Yuri), but I never put agenda before story/character, so the things that they went through grew organically out of their lives and points-of-view. For me, I was very specifically writing or exploring 3 very different people in a microcosmic way in order to tell a macrocosmic story. And because of that there could be no excessive puppeteering from me. I write from a psychological standpoint, I plot from a psychological standpoint, and if there are any ‘themes’ or ‘issues’ that manifest from that I run with it on the second or third pass of the book, but I don’t go into it thinking I am Making A Point, and I certainly didn’t go into it thinking I was Making A Point about the male body.

What happens when you decide to write about young men in war? Or disenfranchised children in general? Many common themes will manifest no matter what. I did have in mind that I needed to be as honest as possible with these guys and not cut corners just because it’s unpleasant or just because it’s science fiction and the focus tends to be on whizbang. This is stuff that happens in real life, science fiction for me is a metaphoric literature, and in fact through my research it seemed that reality was far more horrendous than what I was even writing. By the second and third book I was conscious of the fact that I was interested in examining specifically young men in a way that I did not necessarily see a lot in science fiction, but that didn’t mean that the realization dominated what I was doing from a character standpoint. Rather than say they are young guys vulnerable or survivors or any sort of label, I approached them as human, reacting as humans do in those specific situations, and taking into account that their gender holds specific complexities…just as writing a female would.

As a corollary, I wonder if you have any thoughts on what it is to be a female writer, writing about male sexuality, and how it relates to the male victim of rape. Do you think that female authors address this issue more readily than male authors do? (Would it be fair to ask why?)

I don’t think of myself necessarily as a female writer; I think of myself as a writer who has specific interests, many of which have yet to be explored. I think as soon as I start boxing myself in and thinking of outside issues then those outside issues might influence what I do unduly. I do not want to be the Female Canadian Writer Who Writes About Male Sexuality. Because that isn’t true, really. I write about aspects of humanity as I see it. My protagonists so far have been male; I wrote about war. War tends to be a male sphere, but I wasn’t interested in writing gung-ho, alien slaughtering, macho men. Whether my choice to explore further than that is because I’m female, who knows. I rather think it’s because I’m the sort of person who prefers to dig way beneath the layers of people, regardless of gender, race, sexuality or geography, and be as honest as possible with what I might find.

I understand the need to classify or label themes or things that are found in my books, but I didn’t write a male rape because it was something simply interesting to examine for whatever reason. In fact I really hated writing those scenes. They are not things you do for fun or on a whim or just because you might have an agenda, or heaven forbid because it’s ‘edgy’ — at least that’s not me. I dealt with the issue because it was important in order to tell the character’s story, for people to understand what they went through, and perhaps to realize that this isn’t fiction in that sense. This happens to people: males and females. It happens in war, it happens to exploited children, it impacts those children into adulthood. If I was going to write about a child slave ring and didn’t at least discuss that rape happens it would be insulting and dishonest. But these realizations were all byproducts to the character exploration. I begin with the character, always. This is his story, this is her story. This isn’t my story.

I don’t know why female authors in particular do anything. I can only speak for myself and I’ve always felt a little off-center to what others generally do. I really don’t tend to pay attention to what others do either, at least not in a comparative way. Of course I read female writers and appreciate them but I’m not going to necessarily clump myself in with them as some sort of subset. I’d rather concern myself with myself and be as individual as I am. Other people do a fine job of compartmentalizing my writing, which is inevitable and not wholly unappreciated, but it’s not something I think much about beyond being aware of it.

I hesitate to make generalizations about other writers of whom I know nothing of their processes or their interests and approaches to their work. Everyone is different and I respect that in other writers. I have rather strong views about how I approach my work, but not so much about others because I simply don’t know enough about other writers and their approaches. Perhaps if I were writing a dissertation on female writers in this particular ‘issue’ I would feel the need to explore it. It’s interesting but it’s not something I overly concern myself with; if there is a trend of female writers exploring male victimization, well…I wasn’t aware of it when I wrote my books and it doesn’t influence what I choose to write. If women tend to deal with these issues more readily than men, I’m sure I could conjure some psychological generalizations as to why, but I’m not convinced that would be all that helpful or even enlightening coming from me.

Speaking of children in times of war, I’ve been wondering about the three protagonists’ relationships with their chosen and unchosen mentors – Jos with Niko the Warboy; Ryan with his bodyguard, Sid, and his mother; Yuri with Estienne who is both sexual peer and mentor; and all the three of them with Cairo Azarcone – and I’ve been thinking about the delicacy of a relationship where a child depends on an adult, the power dynamic where an adult can betray you, exploit you. How much of such betrayal factor into the war situation? Would the violent personal exist without the violent political?

The relationship between an adult or anyone who is older and holds that mentoring position (unconsciously or not) with a kid has the potential for damage on the younger person. Though it wasn’t wholly conscious at the time of writing, in the first draft anyway, I think there is a parallel that can easily be drawn between that personal, microcosmic situation of the characters and the macro situation of the war, where vast governments direct things that ultimately filter down to individuals and affect them for good or ill, especially in a war situation. There is a responsibility that oftentimes gets forgotten by the dominant power, when selfish needs (like Falcone’s) override the good of people in general.

All three novels feature Battlemech Bear in some form or the other – books, toys. In some ways it feels like Battlemech Bear is the only form of entertainment the children get, Soldier Barbie for the children of war. Is this the commercialisation of war, or the politicisation of commerce, or “just” the infiltration of both into playspaces that should stay innocent of either?

If it came across as the only form of entertainment, that was unintentional. Ryan does play sports, go to ‘movies’, and that sort of thing, but Battlemech Bear was supposed to be a pervasive toy or children’s cultural icon that spanned genres: art, games, vid, plushies, robots, books … sort of like a war-influenced Winnie the Pooh with a continuing saga behind him and his friends (there were other characters in his platoon, after all). It’s definitely a character that EarthHub would support, but in my mind there were subversive aspects to him too, depending on which part of his marketing you looked at. In the manga or some of the vids, there would be underlying messages that hardly supported the war. As the kids grew older they might’ve picked up on that.

The EarthHub government is at war with the striviirc-na, ostensibly over an inability to share resources and acknowledge territorial rights. And it’s fairly obvious that in the most important of ways those are not the things that are being fought over at all. The three novels seem to chart for a middle course, but negotiations with the other can be very difficult when half your own species doesn’t want to negotiate at all. Jos, Ryan and Yuri aren’t all technically “symps”, but they all do stand on the margins. Is marginalisation the key to sympathy? To looking beyond “Otherness” into communication?

It’s very true what you said. On the outside it seems to be about territory and the like, but there is a deepseated xenophobia, resentment, and perpetuating revenge that is driving much of the war as we see it in the books. And this is speaking for both human and alien sides.

I think standing on the outside of anything can give you a better perspective and hopefully garner compassion. This isn’t always the case, of course, because Falcone and pirates in general are also outsiders who look on things in a very different way — they feel entitled. I think for people like Falcone, standing on the outside of something just perpetuates a cold distance and with that a lack of compassion. But I think there is something to having the shoe on the other foot, so to speak, or walking in someone else’s shoes. That was very much the thrust of Ryan’s narrative. He had a very limited view from where he was, but put into the middle of something unfamiliar and uncomfortable, he gained a better understanding. And that understanding isn’t about dismissing your own situation, but putting it into perspective. This was his father’s hope by hauling him onto Macedon, aside from keeping him safe. This was the captain’s way of educating his son in some harsh realities in as much of a controlled environment as he could manage, as a parent.

They all went through specifically terrible things, and because of those trials they saw the wider situation from a different angle, a more enlightened one. Because I do believe if you’re open to it and get out of your own sphere, you can better understand things and through understanding hopefully gain some compassion. And with compassion does come a desire to make things better for people. People like Falcone wouldn’t necessarily gain that enlightenment, it’s an individual thing…which of course is manifested in any war. There are plenty of people who may understand the plight of others because they’ve been through the same thing, but they simply do not care. Then again, the line of that thinking has its own specific origins. There is personal damage in some way with people when they stop caring about the needs of others in even the most broadest sense. Who knows where it begins?

We see the striviirc-na from three very different points of view in the three novels – the reader needs to filter the striviirc-na through these individual lenses (and obviously it is easiest with Jos) – to walk that delicate path towards compassion. What was it like, writing a well-developed alien species through the eyes of young men who weren’t fully assimilated within that alien culture? (Or their own!)

That was a lot more conscious of a process than some of the other things. Early on I really was aware that I was writing an alien species through some specific filters, and that was the point. They’re aliens and unless we see things through Niko’s eyes or someone similar, there wasn’t going to be any grand, near-complete understanding of the striviirc-na. They’re alien in every sense of the word, from how they look to the reasons they do things, and I pretty purposely did not explain some of their actions because I think, realistically, even with Jos who had the most contact, he simply would not understand and maybe even more realistically, he or Ryan or Yuri wouldn’t always want to. Not everyone would go around with a burning desire to be empathetic toward aliens. This was reflected in how Jos interacted with Niko as well. Some things about Niko he didn’t get and would never get, and understandably so, because Niko grew up among the striviirc-na and Jos simply doesn’t agree with how he does things sometimes. Without spoilering the first book, we see that illustrated specifically at the end.

It was a fun challenge to write because it was like dealing with an extra layer of distance. We’re already filtering the story through the point-of-view of the character – we are always in their heads. So seeing an alien species through those specific biases was a lot of fun, it requires writing and thinking in layers. You are still trying to project to the reader a general, truthful impression even if your point-of-view character doesn’t know what you know and won’t see what you see. How do you tell a macro story through a micro point-of-view? I found that extremely fun to write. It makes the reader work, to leave their own biases at the door the best they can. Some people do and others don’t, and that to me is an interesting thing to elicit in readers. Hopefully it makes them question their own points-of-view about some of the issues raised in the books.

Will there be more novels in the Warchild universe set around the lives of young men? Or will we be looking at the ways in which war can affect, and be affected in the exploitation of young women as well?

Ideally I would like to, but that is not for certain.

That last question was a cheating way of asking what’s next in the works, to be honest. Will your fourth novel be set in the Warchild universe? Or will you be looking to break new ground from what you’ve done before?

I don’t like to talk too much about works in development, but it is safe to say that my next book won’t be in the Warchild universe. I will be breaking new ground with myself and hopefully it will also be something interesting and fresh for readers. If it’s not apparent already with what I’ve written so far, I don’t like to take the easy ways out. My next stuff
will challenge me and hopefully challenge readers too.

Thank you for being so kind as to answer these questions for us! We wish you the best for your future work.

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Cagebird by Karin Lowachee

Karin Lowachee’s Cagebird, released in 2005 under the Warner Aspect imprint, is the third novel set in her Warchild universe. It can be seen as a parallel novel to Warchild and Burndive, covering a large amount of the same time period, and quite a few of the same events. This time, however, our protagonist and narrator is Yuri Kirov, pirate and erstwhile villain. We’ve been trained across the course of two previous novels to see Kirov as a negative character by virtue of his deeds and his allegiance – pirates as represented by Vincenzo Falcone are, after all, the self-centered instigators of violence from Jos’ and Ryan’s points of view, unredeemed by any desires to work for the human/striv races, focussed entirely on their own (often perverted, always commercialised) desires. Cagebird, without turning Yuri into a victim without agency, is an attempt to change this black-and-white picture into a more nuanced chiaroscuro.

Lowachee’s previous novels were notable for their thematic shifts in person and tense, moving her protagonists from their un-intimate and not-completely truthful narrative stances to a first-person (and in Jos’ case, present tense) narrative that stood for their readiness to look at their past and present without flinching – and therefore to face their futures with some degree of maturity. Yuri Kirov’s narrative begins in the first-person present tense – by the thematic rules established in the previous novels, he straddles the thin line between falsehood/lack of agency and the final stages of the ever-incomplete Bildungsroman narrative: “All my thoughts are honest, bitch. [Pg. 7]” It makes Cagebird a brutally truthful novel – Yuri doesn’t spare the reader from event, evaluation or emotion, and the change from Jos’ and Ryan’s sometimes frustrating dialogues is both a relief and a burdensome complexity.

Yuri Kirov is twenty-two years old, and he’s incarcerated in an EarthHub prison following the events of Burndive. And Black Ops agents offer him a choice: work for them to bring down Falcone’s still-extant pirate network in exchange for freedom, and protection for fellow-inmate Stefano Finch. Yuri agrees, as much for Finch as for himself. The novel follows Yuri and Finch as they reintegrate with Yuri’s pirate family and untangle the layered game the Black Ops agents are playing with and against them. Interspersed with this forward moving narrative is Yuri’s reminiscences of his life, from childhood to just before his capture – this past-tense narrative takes up about half the novel. This past-tense narrative (practically a different, cleaner language) offers both the story of Yuri’s life and a shift from his hard-bitten, resigned, harshly organic present-tense dialogue, which is dense with analogies to blood-flowing and -letting, tactile and painful. (The shifts put Ryan’s wordsmithing and Jos’ direct lies to shame, and I do think that whatever it’s other faults, Cagebird is the strongest stylistic novel of the three.) This narrative, obsessed as it is with the permeability, the breakability, of the human body, controls what Yuri allows us to see and know. (Mark!)

Yuri’s home colony was destroyed when he was four years old – it is taken from granted this was due to “strit” (striviirc-na) action. Yuri’s family, minus his MIA mother and younger brother (and dead grandmother) are relocated to a refugee planet where his father indulges himself in a downward-spiral of despair and resignation and Yuri runs wild with Bo-Sheng, a slightly older boy. And when Marcus Falcone comes to recruit them for his ship, they’re easy prey. If one reads this novel immediately after Warchild, the differences between Yuri’s and Jos’ parents are frighteningly clear: Jos’ parents taught him to mistrust Falcone’s brand of exploitation, Yuri’s father did not. And more worrisomely, Falcone is shown to be a man who can learn from his previous mistakes: his interactions with Yuri are the extreme opposite of his behaviour in Warchild, and one cannot blame the ten-year old for trusting him as he would trust a parent. (His own parent has proved remarkably unworthy of that sort of dependant trust, after all.) In many ways, this is Falcone’s novel – he dominates Yuri’s narratives as he dominates his ship, and one can extemporise much of his character and his positions in the war against the striviirc-na through Yuri’s musings.

Yuri grows up a pirate protégé – Falcone’s protégé – and when he is thirteen is indoctrinated as a geisha. His relationship with the other members of the hanamachi – his geisha peers and mentors – could stand for his aims and goals and needs through the entire novel – his need for a family, his need for agency – to be in control of his life and loves. [Yuri’s prominent relationships in both of the narrative strands are disturbingly dependant and fraught with the (often fulfilled) potential for betrayal. His relationship with Stefano Finch in particular is one that I would have liked the novel to have taken even further – to whatever conclusion – because in its current state it seems not a relationship that can last beyond Yuri’s (and Stefano’s) healing and maturation to adulthood. It makes for a strangely resolved and yet unresolved closing.]

It’s an ambitious novel, and I think it’s simultaneously the strongest and weakest of the trilogy. It’s strengths lie in its emotive dual narrative, it’s unflinching gaze at a brutal and violent life, seen from the perspective of someone currently too fragile to deal with that life any longer. It makes few excuses, offering the unpalatable truth that perhaps excuses and even reasons cannot apply. It has extraordinarily beautiful prose, with strong characters and the possibility – but no more – of a happy ending. It shows us an aspect of the Warchild universe that that until now has been firmly villainised, and offers a faintly different perspective on how this part of the universe works.

The problem with Cagebird is that, while it fills in the Warchild universe, it does not take us ahead in the timeline – specifically, the timeline of the war/peace negotiations. Yuri’s life as a pirate is rooted in battle action and is tangentially related to the events of the war, but the novel has little direct impact on the overarching events that in Warchild and Burndive affect the protagonists’ personal lives. Yuri’s present tense narrative contains few surprises – in fact, it is depressingly predictable once you’ve read the previous two novels, fitting into patterns of surprise, betrayal and personal development. The past-tense interspersions have their shocking moments, where Yuri refuses to hide a traumatic event – and given that he is surrounded by people engaged in illegal activity and is Falcone’s personal protégé, trauma is not a rarity.

But there it is. Cagebird does not take our overarching plot forward. It even repeats – without giving us a radically new perspective – certain events from Burndive. (It does offer a great deal of potential for a fourth novel in the virtually unexplored new territory offered by Black Ops machinations, but in this novel the Black Ops remain a deus ex machina, unexamined and somewhat remote.) I imagine that if one reads the three novels in order, then Cagebird can come as a bitter disappointment, despite its stylistic, thematic and emotive power. It doesn’t offer a new story. Cagebird does work very well as a stand-alone novel – which is how I read it, before buying Warchild and Burndive and reading those in order.

The illusion of control is brittle at best, and Yuri is no longer capable of lying to himself – or to his audience. In a world full of blacks and whites Yuri must negotiate to find and accept the greys in the violence of which he is both subject and object, so that he may look not to his broken self but perhaps to something better. Cagebird is a powerful (if unsuspenseful) addition to the Warchild universe, one that opens new territories for future books to explore, but can stand well enough on its own if it so chooses.

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Burndive by Karin Lowachee

Karin Lowachee‘s Burndive was published by Warner Aspect around 2003. It functions as a sequel/stand-alone related novel to Warchild. I only heard of Lowachee a year ago, and so cannot be certain, but given that Warchild won the Warner Aspect First Novel Award I imagine that hopes ran high for Burndive, with people wondering if it could match Warchild’s bitter fluency. Burndive delivers, but it is a very different novel, and in some ways, I think, more ambitious.

Ryan Azarcon is nineteen years old. He is the son of a daringly rebellious war hero (Cairo Azarcon, whom we saw a great deal of in Warchild) and Austro’s public relations officer (Songlien Lau, who is sleeping with Ryan’s bodyguard, Tim Sidney/Sid). He’s met his father in the flesh thrice his entire life. And recently, ever so recently, he was a bystander at a terrorist attack in Hongkong, an attack aimed at least partially at his paternal grandfather (Admiral Ashrafi, who adopted Cairo when he was eighteen – a full year younger than Ryan is now). And the boy is doing Silver, Austro’s version of pure recreational drug.

The opening of the novel is almost deliberately geared to make one dislike Ryan. He’s a teenager, and is described quite exhaustively in terms that would fit quite well in a romance novel. He’s a celebrity, and the text seems uncertain how to present it to the reader – what happens is very close to the Paris Hilton effect – even before he does anything wrong, you’re not quite disposed to like him. (And he does so very little that is right.) He complains. He is snide, sarcastic, and cynical. And uncomfortably observant.

Ryan’s third person narrative allows him, without necessarily lying (that’s bad PR!) to avoid discussing the traumas that he has suffered, and the daily pains that he still must face. The third person narrative is one that lacks a certain intimacy. It mimics the constant media reporting on his movements, the infringement on his mobility, privacy and person. There is no familiarity, no comfort, when everyone know your name. In the third person narrative, Ryan’s inner and outer dialogue use words as an attack device. While laying bare his needs and reasons for sympathy it closes the reader off from him, it’s simultaneously extremely good writing, and extremely awkward reading.

Ryan’s control over his words is in stark contrast to his control over his body, and who has access to it. From the media (“meedees” in Ryan’s parlance) to unknown assassins, his personal space and bodily integrity are constantly threatened, and his narrative reflects a constant preoccupation with bleeding, with cutting – the breaking of the skin, the loss of life fluids. There’s a shock to the system that reverberates all the more because so much time and effort has been put into protecting him, by adults who all care for him but cannot completely connect with him. Yet his threatened body only reminds him that he has survived, over and over. That’s part of the problem. (Mark!)

As the novel progresses, Ryan’s father takes him aboard his ship, the Macedon, and takes him to Chaos station, where he is in negotiation for peace with the striviirc-na, an alien race with whom the EarthHub government is at war (ostensibly over territorial and resource disputes). This is a chance to see the striviirc-na from a point of view that is not Jos Musey’s. In Warchild, Jos spends formative years among the striviirc-na, and in many ways understands them as a “normal” human being might not. Ryan’s reaction to them, to their “Otherness”, their non-human, non-animalness, is controlled fear and mistrust. This is one of the few moments in the novel that doesn’t work for me, mainly because Warchild has spent so much time making sure that Jos and Cairo Azarcon deal with the striviirc-na, calling them by the name they choose for themselves, rather than the human derogatory term “strit”, which Ryan uses with great gusto, along with “symp” for “sympathiser”. I can see why Ryan speaks the way he does – unlike Jos, his introduction to the striviirc-na is not at all gentle – and his thought processes are not more than usually narrow, but after Warchild, it arouses a sharp dislike for the young man, and a wish that someone would make him shut up and listen for a change. (But words are his weapons, and he won’t let anyone wound him with them if he can help it.)

[It’s a nice note, by the way, on how Ryan might hate being consumed by the media, but when their reports are about Others who are not him, is quite pleased to be a consumer.]

Another note that doesn’t work completely for me is the reintroduction of almost all of Warchild’s supporting cast into Ryan’s story. I can see how Erret Dorr and Jos Musey can entwine into Ryan’s tale – Dorr is an offensively extroverted and intrusive young corporal with Issues hanging off a very large chip on his shoulder and a mysterious (unsexualised) closeness to Azarcon Sr, while Jos is detailed by Cairo to take Ryan in hand and familiarise him with the ship. But all of the others – Evan, Aki, even Sanchez, who is a very unpleasant character and seems to exist for the sake of getting in people’s way – seem to enter Ryan’s sphere of notice arbitrarily, because they had to be there somehow and this was how it was done. By the end of the novel their dynamic has shifted quite a bit – in part due to Ryan’s internal stabilisation – but it never rings quite true to me, since I am never convinced it could exist in the first place. [I’ve not found a single other review which found this a problem, and likely I am picking at straws.]

In some ways, I think of Ryan as a bridge – he connects the protagonists of Warchild and Cagebird (more on this note later), and thematically, within the novel, he is the body upon which negotiations are conducted – between humans and the striviirc-na, between all of his various parents/mentors, between his new peers on the Macedon. War and peace, on their macro and micro levels, are always waged on the bodies of bystanders. And in some senses, Ryan can be this bridge because, for all the pain he suffers (and we need not minimise that pain, or dismiss it out of hand, simply because it does not match Jos’, or Yuri’s, or Cairo’s) he has been protected, and loved, by grandparents, parents, and bodyguard, through all of his life. None of his guardians may have done a perfect job, but who does? Ryan gains the luxury of feeling unsafe, and the greater luxury of finding a centre where he can face the uncertainties of the life and the family he is born to because he has that family to begin with.

Near the end of the novel, we meet Yuri Kirov, a pirate – protégé to Falcone, whom we met in Warchild. Yuri is the protagonist of Cagebird, the third novel set in this universe, but in Burndive he is introduced before we even meet him as the man, the boy, who chose what Jos and Cairo did not choose – he is a pirate, Falcone’s protégé, and his choices mark him as evil. But when Ryan finally meets him, there are these moments – short, but distinct – of understanding, of sympathy. Ryan’s role in this novel is, continually, to face the new, the unfamiliar, the unsafe and to find in them something worth holding to, something to connect with. He stands between Jos Musey and Yuri Kirov, who both have difficulties in making deals because they cannot use words, cannot reach out and touch people. But Ryan learns. It shows most clearly in his final narrative, made strongly and clearly – and somewhat naively, for his is, still, very young – in the first person.

You rarely get to choose the traps that close around you. You do get to choose how you react once you’re there. Burndive follows Ryan Azarcon, who at this age can never really be free, and asks of him what he might do when he finally is. It’s not an easy Bildungsroman , or even a complete one. But it is, perfectly, enough.

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Mélusine by Sarah Monette

[I have a very big bone to pick with Sarah Monette‘s Mélusine: it is not a stand-alone novel, being the first of a series (a quadrilogy?), and no where on the cover is this information given. I mean, it says it’s a first novel, and there’s an extract of her “next” novel inside, but until you actually reach the end of Mélusine and then read the extract do you find out that this book doesn’t stand on its own. And there is a part of me that doesn’t mind because it doesn’t interfere with the reading process (I’ve sort of developed a way of not checking how many pages are left and just staying in the moment – it doesn’t always work, but often it does!) but it does mean that I’m currently stuck, unable to get my hands on the next novel (poor, poor Student!Roh). I dunno why publishers choose to do this (are they afraid we won’t buy first stand-with-something books?) but it always, always annoys me.

(Larry offered me a sneak peek at an interview he’s conducting with Monette, and it turns out that her title for the series is The Doctrine of Labyrinths. It’s a nice title, and I grudgingly admit that it would be counter-productive to know this through most of book 1, though by the end of book 1 it is almost a given. So fine, fine, I forgive you, evil Ace Books that lied by omission.)]

So. Felix Harrowgate, wizard at the Mirador (the Upper City, socially, politically and economically, of Mélusine) is revealed to be an adventurer who is not in fact from another country, but rather an ex-prostitute from the Lower side of Mélusine itself. In the wake of sudden ostracism Felix falls yet again into the clutches of his former (Evil!) mentor, Malkar, who uses some very, very unpleasant magic to make Felix break The Virtu, which is basically a great big orb that chanels the magic of the Mirador and all the wizards in Mélusine. Malkar does a bunk and leaves Felix to the tender mercies of his former peers. Felix is damaged, physically, mentally and magically, as a result of Malkar’s attack.

Mildmay the Fox, cat burglar from the Lower City, accepts a commision from one Ginevra Thomson – a simple theft of jewelery from her noble ex-lover. Once that is done she intends to hand the jewels over to Vey Coruscant, who is, even for the Lower City, Bad News (it takes a great deal of self-dramatisation or a very bad reputation, and sometimes both, to be called “Queen Blood”). Vey Coruscant has a dangerous agenda of her own, of course, and when a necromantic summoning goes awry Mildmay and Ginevra flee and go into semi-hiding. In the meanwhile, the entire city is shocked by the damage done to the Virtu, and the Lower City is being targeted by official forces in a “hurt someone so we feel safer” maneuver.

Things happen.

The novel is narrated from Mildmay’s and Felix’s point of view, both in the first person, and I really do love how distinct their individual voices are. Felix speaks in the refined tones he learned for his decade-long masquerade in the Mirador, Mildmay speaks in the accents and tone of the Lower City; their voices are fluent, rarely clumsy. For these contrasting(and yet in some ways similar) narrative threads alone, Mélusine is an easily-read novel.

This novel seems to me to be actively engaged in exploring the psyche of the vulnerable male whose body has been attacked and marked – Felix is recovering from a very brutal physical/mental/magical attack, and Mildmay is under threat of physical/magical attack through most of the novel. Both have suffered physical woundings in the past, and both have their share of emotional and psychological pain to deal with in their own ways. The focal point for this, in this novel, is Felix – his wounding and his reaction, and his search for healing, form the main plot of the latter half of the novel. (Mark!)

Mazes and journeys, being lost and being alive, form a major theme of the novel, and perhaps the series. If I were writing a paper I’d be hazily trying to form a link between Felix’s mental regression, labyrinths, the journeys he and Mildmay undertake, and the ghosts that request, continually, to be allowed to move on – the I Am Lost metaphor is, I suspect, going to crop up again and again through the future novels (though of course I make this sort of aggressive prediction lots of times and am almost always wrong).

Felix and Mildmay’s characterisation is excellent, methinks – in some ways these are two men who are very alike in character, but in carriage, education and language they seem completely unalike. In some ways, they seem to complete each other – the way a mirror, by providing a left-right symmetry, might “complete” someone who looks into it. Together, their scars cover an entire body. One of them has surprising moments of kindness, the other surprising moments of cruelty. One of them is extremely (and surprisingly) attractive, the other is extremely not so. One can read in more than one language, the other can speak fluently in more than one language. One of them is mad/regressed to childhood, the other is younger, but currently physically and mentally capable… One comes from the Mirador, the other from the Lower City. Together they comprise all of Mélusine, and Mélusine is a place of darkness and light, of squalor and plenty, of magic and the mundane. Their interactions, and some of their interactions with the other people around them, are a tangled, real, delicate delight.

I have very few pacing issues – I think there was some sequences that are more rewarding for a reread than when I came across them the first time around, but for the most part the pacing is steady. Mélusine is a character-driven novel, and Felix and Mildmay are engrossing characters who don’t let us down.

I’m not quite sure how to look at the world Mélusine is set in just yet – obviously it owes a great deals to the romance countries of medieval (?) Europe, and I did keep hoping that the myth would come into play, but while the city is quite happily peopled and financed by monsters (ah, la, I pun like a punster! Read this book!), on this one score I was doomed to disappointment.

Con time – Felix and Mildmay are wonderfully introspective characters, and every so often they’re wonderfully observant characters too. But Felix’s peers baffle me. I cannot truly understand the decisions they make as a group, and even given the rigid nature of an institution they seem hard headed, clumsy, biased and cruel. Which is all very good in helping us pity Felix, but I am truly not sure of why they say and do some of the things they say and do. I’m hoping that this is because we see them so rarely from the point of view of a sane and clear-thinking Felix. Most of Mildmay’s acquaintances seem to me to be decidedly underdrawn, though of course this might simply be because he doesn’t spend enough time with them to show us more.

It also bothers me a little that for a world so rigidly concerned with magic, and with different schools of magic, most of which seem to have very clear cut methodologies, the reader is allowed so little insight into the workings of those magics. but then again, this will most likely be seen to in the future books.

And finally: Malkar. Since there are going to be at least two (three? I think the fourth book is out in 2008) more books, I daresay this one will be rectified, but currently all I know of Malkar is that he is Evil! and harmed Felix and the Virtu. I can’t completely believe in him as a real person.

It’s a dark, gothic, character-driven novel. It’s got passion and maps and ghosts and superb images and imagery. It’s got old tropes seen from new angles, and is a new voice, from a new author, whom we need to pay attention to now, not five years into the future.

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