Tag Archives: Sexuality is Complicated

The Tamír Triad, by Lynn Flewelling

(This “review” was originally posted 8/29/2006 at wotmania.com, which closed down at the end of August in 2009. [Most of the members can now be found atRAFO.] It has been edited, just a little, for  some coherency, spelling and grammar. It has been edited a VERY LITTLE for style, and it is blunt and tactless and appallingly unfluid. I apologise.)

Lynn Flewelling is one of those authors I never seem to hear about in casual conversation, and I’d go so far as to say that she’s low-key – she doesn’t have her own website, merely one of those two-page dinky things on sff.net. But she gets (for the most part) good reviews, and the people who read her books, like her a great deal. [Actually, she has a blog at LJ, which she updates fairly frequently, as I found out sometime later. Not only was I tactless back then, I wasn’t doing my research. And the website is not dinky.]

In The Tamír Triad, composed of The Bone Doll’s Twin, Hidden Warrior and The Oracle’s Queen, Flewelling gives us the land of Skala, ruled for generations by Queens who literally do have the Divine Right – in fact, the god in question goes so far as to deny Skala peace and sovereignty unless a woman is on the throne.

The Bone Doll's TwinFirst edition cover

The Bone Doll’s Twin

And so it goes, until a prince usurps what should have been his sister’s throne, proceeds to murder all his female relatives (except for his sister, which frankly still bothers me) and commits sundry other atrocities, up to and including the persecution of the Illorian wizards.

In due course of things, the sister gives birth to children – a girl, and a boy who dies after his first breath. Concerned wizards who want the Queens to rule again disguise the girl as a boy – magic is used to change the child’s gender so that she displays male genitalia. Prince Tobin grows up thinking of himself – and why not? – as a boy.

These are just the first three chapters of The Bone Doll’s Twin.

One of the things I find interesting is that Flewelling doesn’t beat around the bush in letting us know (by chapter six) whether Tobin ultimately becomes ruler or not. I mean, the reader is clearly told (in the “There was a dog. It died” sense). But it’s still interesting, still fascinating and a lot of that is due to Flewelling’s surprisingly good YA narration. (If you read the Bantam Spectra blurb you wouldn’t have had high hopes for the novel. It’s terrible, even for a blurb.)

Another interesting thing is that – and yes, it happens a lot, but here it seems more obvious – in some ways, reading The Tamír Triad is like reading part (v) of Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings. You know. Aragorn’s important – very important – but he’s still just one part of the narrative. Of the story. Important, close to central – but not actually central, per se. He’s not the most important part. But when you get to Appendix A (v), you’re reading his story, and he’s the most important person in it.

The Tamír Triad is about Tobin (I still think of him/her as Tobin, though s/he wouldn’t like that) and there’s a larger – epic – framework that the reader is given glimpses of, and there’s the obvious beginnings of a new chapter in that framework that are again not directly about Tobin – but this is Tobin’s story and everything else is peripheral. There’s a very This-is-the-nail-the-horse-shouldn’t-lose feeling to it all, for me.

The Bone Doll’s Twin is a good read – and a very good reread. tBDT follows Tobin’s life up to adolescence. Flewelling puts some children through your usual levels of child abuse and actually makes it a) believable b) emotionally compellingly gut-wrenching and then gives you fairly normal children to balance it out. It’s nicely paced – I know that it’s nicely paced because I didn’t think about pacing at all while I was reading it – and ends on a good suspensey note.

If tBDT has any major flaws, they would be the adult wizards. Much conspirating is going on, and not all of it is about Tobin (though of course, once she gets on the throne everyone expects that manna shall fall from heaven and conspirators everywhere shall go into retirement) – and the Wizard/s doing all this work aren’t quite interesting enough to be remembered. In fact, by the time I’d got around to my reread (so that I could read HW and tOQ) I’d forgotten most of the peripheral plot. They’re not boring. They’re just not as interesting or memorable or heartstringtugging.

As an opening novel, tBDT is good. Not GRRM/Erikson/Jordan/pick good writer here great, but still an I-am-nit-picking-to-find-bad-things novel.

Hidden Warrior.jpg book cover of   Hidden Warrior    (Tamir Triad, book 2)  by  Lynn Flewelling

Hidden Warrior

Hidden Warrior explores, lessee. Responsibilities of conspirating, fruits of various conspiratings, Tobin and his/her raging but suppressed sexuality – and Flewelling allows a lot of the deeper aspects of that sort of issue to be addressed only in the various basics, and allows a lot of it to be seen in just glimpses, so there’s not much angsting, but at the same time there’s a lot of angsting – the wonderful mechanics of sex and sexual longing in mixed company – and the constant threat of this, that and the other. Tobin is threatened from all angles, and disclosure is only one of the things s/he has to fear. Tobin and company grow, the peripheral plot takes its tottering steps to being in the phase 1 and a bit, war and stuff happen, Tobin and some of his company are cool –

I think what HW does is take Tobin from cool-child-with-potential to Okay, s/he was worth the trouble. The same goes for various subplots.

I like the closing. If it weren’t for a few lose ends, in some ways I would even say that it was okay to not read book 3. HW satisfies very nicely.

Oracle's Queen Oracle's Queen.jpg

The Oracle’s Queen

The Oracle’s Queen, sadly, is not up to par. It’s still not a bad novel, but it doesn’t have quite the pull or the intelligence or the things-to-discuss of the previous two novels.

It begins fairly decently and handles some of the gender issues that crop up now with grit though not necessarily panache. There are some very quick tying-up-of-loose ends, and a mildly neat solution to what, in HW, had seemed a very bad idea, by the introduction of a new character – a sadly two-dimensional one, but at least it fits the purpose.

tOQ focuses all the subplots in one area so you can follow them, allows the reader to see how two mentor-characters have sneakily made themselves very cool in different ways, and ends the saga very very neatly – and there’s a nice tie-in to Flewelling’s Nightrunner books [which I later discovered were mostly written first, and mention the basic Tamír premise in the first book].

Tobin and his/her various relationships evolve/grow/make the reader empathise etc. But tOC has some horrible flaws, too. For one thing, at some point what I considered some fairly important gender issues are simply thrown out the window with some gen(d)eric deux ex machina. (Without the deux.) And if there’s something interesting to be said about a boy-who’s-really-a-girl, there’s a great deal to be said about women who are warriors, and there are so many of them in this novel, and all of them are to a girl girly. I’m not asking for leather and spikes. But… they’re all feminine. Frills. It would have been nice to have at least one who went, Well yeah frills are okay, but I prefer my pants. (Jordan haters will recognise my frustration.) There’s some very patchy characterisation re: Ki, Tobin’s squire, friend and companion, who for some reason seems to be the only one who has trouble with various things that everyone else in the world has no trouble dealing with. Both of which I find odd and annoying.

And the last sixty or so pages are so crowded with Things That Happened that it’s ludicrous. The pacing is rushed – literally – with almost no time for any form of digestion of what is happening, and far too much flat narration that doesn’t in any way evoke any sort of emotion beyond “Where did the rest of the narrative go?” I mean, truly, some very important things happen coming up to the climax and Flewelling narrates them as though they’re of no importance whatsoever. (I reread bits of Tolkien yesterday and maybe that’s why I’m thinking of something similar that he made happen that he handled much better – and that wasn’t one of his better moments.) Vast problems that nobody knew what to do about are snipped through in a matter of paragraphs and nobody reacts as much as they should be. The cleaning up of last threads looks a bit like the author thought, Oh gods, when will it end?

It’s extremely unsatisfying, tOQ. Especially since so much of the bad things happen near the end, which is the bit I remember most.

To be fair, it’s not a bad book. It depicts a great deal of social/political change, upheavals and beginnings. (And one nice insult.) But it’s not as good as the first two. I wonder what it might have been like if Flewelling had taken more – or less? – time over it.

Overall? Read The Tamír Triad. Tis nice, interesting, has many curious parallels and contradictions to make one go hmmmm – and lots of different sorts of magic and some very very cute pseudo-dragons.

EDIT: Because accents are cute and I forgot them the first time around.

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The Nightrunner series by Lynn Flewelling

(This “review” was originally posted 4/11/2006 at wotmania.com, which closed down at the end of August in 2009. [Most of the members can now be found at RAFO.] It has been edited, just a little, for  some coherency, spelling and grammar. It has NOT been edited for style, and it is blunt and tactless and appallingly unfluid. I apologise. Since I wrote this review, a fourth book has been added to the series, but I’m not talking about it here.)

 

This is not a trilogy.
This is not a trilogy.
This is not a trilogy.

– Lynn Flewelling.

The Nightrunner series, so far [as of 2006], consist of a duology and a “sequel“. Luck in the Shadows was released as far back as 1996, Stalking Darkness followed soon after in 1997, and Traitor’s Moon came out in 1999. I think she’s writing a fourth book at the moment. At least, I hope so. [Shadow’s Return was published in 2008.]

Four nations lie on the coast of the Gathwyth Ocean. Mycena, Plenimar and Skala are inhabited by humans. Aurenan is the land of the Aurenfaie (generis elegantly humanlike otherly magical race). The stories and characters concern themselves, for the most part, with Skala and her relations with the other nations.

Luck in the Shadows (Nightrunner)

Luck in the Shadows

“When young Alec of Kerry is taken prisoner for a crime he didn’t commit, he is certain that his life is at an end. But one thing he never expected was his cellmate. Spy, rogue, thief, and noble, Seregil of Rhiminee is many things – none of them predictable. And when he offers to take on Alec as his apprentice, things may never be the same for either of them. Soon Alec is travelling roads he never knew existed, toward a war he never suspected was brewing. Before long he and Seregil are embroiled in a sinister plot that runs deeper than either can imagine, and that may cost them far more than their lives if they fail…”

LitS is a good opening novel, for a series or for a duology. It introduces us to the two main characters, makes clear the differences between them and proceeds to develop those two characters without essentialising them. (I’ll talk more about characterisation a bit later in this review.) The plot rushes – and admittedly, sometimes it plods. The story alternates between the epic and the spy thriller feels. Flewelling’s prose is mostly functional, but her delivery is still fluid. I laughed, and I held my breath, and I worried.

LitS seems to merely set the stage for Stalking Darkness, but in its way it is as important as that, more epic-y, book. It introduces us to the Skalan capital of Rhiminee, glances back at vast portions of Skalan (and other) history, sets the main characters (and their supporting cast for us to follow them as they go about their nefarious/heroic deeds… and makes us understand where the priorities – the novels’, the characters’ – lie. It also raises the dual magic/political issues and concerns that Seregil (and therefore Alec) are immersed in.

All in all, it is an entertaining read, and is the sort of book you find yourself thinking about after you’re done reading it – Flewelling has a definite flavour of her very own.

Stalking Darkness (Nightrunner)Stalking Darkness

Stalking Darkness is both a good and a bad book. It makes a return to the darkness that Luck in the Shadows intermittently commits to, and brings its people forward and fleshes them out… If Luck in the Shadows was ultimately the political half of this duology, Stalking Darkness is entirely given to the magical, and the emotional. Our heroes must Save The World, etc.

There are problems with the book. For one thing, the pace of the novel plods a bit more than it rushes. (And where it rushes it’s in too much of a hurry.) Part of the reason why the pacing is so uneven is that the plot divides between the quest, and the characterisation. Flewelling is taking her time to ensure that all her characters – Alec, Seregil, the wizard Nysander, their friends Micum and Beka Cavish – are not token questors but rather have developed personalities that we would recognise even if they weren’t involved in the epic narrative (and some of them, in point of fact, aren’t). It’s only when I put the book down that I realised that, objectively, things were going rather slow. I didn’t mind it while I was reading – and I still don’t.

A lot of the novel is dedicated to Alec’s growth as a character and as a person – necessary both for the exigencies of the plot and also to ensure that he can at some point interact with Seregil as an emotional equal, however limited his years and experience. It is a gradual, subtle, and delightful unfolding, and it means that when and if he enters into a relationship with Seregil there will be little of the disturbing I-am-young-meat-in-bed-with-a-father-figure feeling that one sometimes gets with young/old romantic pairings. It’s good, and it’s great.

But Bad Things Happen in the last third of the novel. The text allows Seregil to be affected by them. However, Alec’s emotional involvement in those events are sidetracked in order to continue with the original mission statement. It’s in the text that Alec is not as affected as someone else who had been through the same experiences would be, and I find this disturbing, and even annoying. It’s almost like watching a Joss Whedon production: at times, the characters move at the speed of plot, rather than the speed of character.

It’s a small thing, taking up very few pages, but it disturbs me. A- instead of A.

Traitor's Moon (Nightrunner)

Traitor’s Moon

Traitor’s Moon takes place about two years after the events of Luck in the Shadows and Stalking Darkness. As Flewelling states, you don’t need to read the previous two to understand what is happening here, though since she has two kids to put through college she’d rather you did. (Maybe they’ve graduated by now?)

Skala is in the middle of war with Plenimar, and she is losing. Alec and Seregil accompany a diplomatic mission to Aurenen, Seregil’s childhood home, negotiating for the things you negotiate for when you need aid in wartime, and there are complications, and skulduggery, and alien cultural misunderstandings, and dragons.

This latest novel marries the fantastic and the politic, carrying the plotlines forward side by side and often together. It’s not a fast paced novel, though I usually find detective fiction to proceed at its own speed, one that’s faster than I feel it to be.

Characterisation here is patchy. Alec and Seregil are beautifully handled. They are logically consistent within the novel and within the series. They are not static, they move forward at the speed of character and not of plot.

I have VERY big problems with women who decide that they do not want to be attracted to/do not want to fall in love with a particular man whom they meet near the opening of the novel before they get to know the man in question. I don’t care how that particular plotline turns out, whether they never do anything, shag like monkeys, fall in love, stay friends, become enemies – make up the combination of your choice. I don’t like that “I don’t want to” moment. It puts me off. It has ruined Beka Cavish – a fairly pivotal supporting character – for me, and makes me want to say bad things about what was done with her. I’ll confine myself to liking her role as a person and within the exigencies of the plot, and her heart and her uninteresting man can both go hang. (Aren’t I a lovely objective reviewer?)

<clears throat> To put it bluntly: If I like what was done with our main characters, who are, after all, the only people we are ultimately concerned with, I still think that the supporting characters (those who will recur through the series and who appeared only in this novel) lacked a certain depth. The antagonising characters are drawn with a bold, complicated, you-think-you-know pen, and I love the shifting intricacies of the plot and the society our heroes find themselves in.

I’m a sucker for a poignant ending, and for new beginnings. Traitor’s Moon gives me both.

There’s good dialogue in these books (she even manages a bearable “I shall give you history” conversation). There’s a well-developed world, with a layered history and layered peoples. There’s an interesting story, and interesting heroes – who will not stay static but will grow, and change, and live (there’s some lovely foreshadowing going on in Traitor’s Moon). There’s a war – we all know those work out fine. There’s darkness, and light.

What do you sacrifice? Well, the prose is not really going to be more than functional. Every so often the supporting cast will look a bit fuzzy. Sometimes there will be quest-travelling.

Try Flewelling. You might find she’s worth it.

EDIT: Luck in the Shadows, I have just rediscovered, has a very short, and very bad, prologue. I must have suppressed it to recover from the trauma.

It is very short, though, so I survived.

Destiny’s Children by Stephen Baxter

(This “review” was originally posted 11/17/2006 at wotmania.com, which closed down at the end of August in 2009. [Most of the members can now be found at RAFO.] It has been edited, just a little, for spelling and grammar. It has NOT been edited for style, and it is blunt and tactless and appallingly unfluid. I apologise.)

*****

Stephen Baxter was the first person to scare me away from Science Fiction. See, I wasn’t too able to handle intelligent plots, once upon a time. I had to lured back in by authors who were sneaky and evil and wonderful – and then I read – or reread – Ring. It was yummy.

But I’m not writing about Ring. I’m talking now of Destiny’s Children, composed of CoalescentExultant and Transcendent (in that order).

Sometimes I still find Baxter confusing. The books fit into the larger Xeelee framework (way into the future, humanity battles against the alien and unknown Xeelee species, and it‘s hard to tell which is the xenocidal villain) – of which I have not read everything there is to read. Books in the framework often (but not always) follow the lives of various members of the Poole family, who Do Important Stuff – and this is why it’s confusing, since I sometimes cannot remember which Poole we are talking about, or if we have seen a particular Poole before, and in any case the books aren‘t really about the Pooles.  Destiny’s Children brings us new Poole men and What They Do Though the Books Aren’t Really About The Poole Men. Except when they are.

Stephen Baxter: Coalescent


<from blurb> “As the light of the Roman Empire gutters and fails one woman begins a remarkable quest to protect her family… [I]n England George Poole is looking for his long-lost sister. It is a search that will take him to Rome and into the heart of an ancient secret…”

Let’s deal with the problems first: This isn’t an exciting novel. It’s not necessarily fast-paced.  This isn’t to say that it’s not an interesting, even fascinating, novel. It is. It’s just that I went into it expecting battlestarships, despite reading the blurb, which mentioned none.

Another problem is that there are two main protagonists, and the narrative alternates between two radically different people/times. Regina lives in medieval Europe, and George Poole lives in near-future England. (He wears tweed.) The novel shows Regina developing (in a somewhat linear fashion) from youth to old age, while it charts a short span of months in George’s own young middle age. Regina is fascinating. Baxter’s simplicity when it comes to character design pays off here: you wouldn’t be able to construct so complex a character is you tried to make her multi-faceted. And I like strong female characters, and I like it especially when I can see why they’re doing what they’re doing, even if I don’t necessarily agree with what they’re doing.

George on the other hand… well, let’s put it this way. He is boring. His narrative is not. And if nothing else his blankness makes him a good observer/narrator, which is, now that I think about it, his role in the book, so that actually makes it okay. He forms, morever, an aesthetic contrast to Regina. I shouldn’t be complaining at all.

What else? Well, depending on your viewpoint, the novel is either paying too little attention to gender, or it’s doing just the right amount of work to make you do your thinking for yourself. I’ve swung both ways.

That’s it for bad things. Good things?

“This is a novel that makes you think.” It does what one assumes science fiction wants to do: use a scientific concept to examine human society – and the evolution of that society. There’s more meat in this novel, with its subtext that analyses Catholicism, male/female gendering, organisational structuring/evolution, plain old evolution, the Family, the Underground (the Mafia?), schisms in how we look at the changing world we live in, change over time, Darwin and having sex. (And babies.)

(There’s a cameo PoV, of a fifteen year old girl whose name I have forgotten, that I found particularly compelling, and I simply cannot tell you anything exciting about it – partially because it would be spoileric – except that it was fascinating.)

Final analysis: It’s a good novel, thematically strong. Not light reading.


Stephen Baxter: Exultant


<from the blurb> “Faced with certain death, a young pilot, Pirius, disobeys orders and travels into the future. Upon his return, Pirius is court-martialled and sentenced to penal servitude. But it’s not only Pirius that pays the price…Pirius returned to a time before he’d left, a time inhabited by his younger self, who also receives punishment. Comissary Nilis believes that the elder Pirius… may know how to defeat the Xeelee…” and so on and so forth.

This novel is set entirely in the far future, and is more obviously a Xeelee novel.

Again, the novel deals with two very different people – both of them the same. The Pirius’s are well-drawn, but I would have liked some more time spent on Torec, who in some ways has more to deal with than they do.

What doesn’t work? Well, I’m still not keen on time travel stories (though thankfully Baxter doesn’t mess around with Oh me oh my the paradox) and it took me a while to understand what was happening in certain scenes – they happened too quickly for me. [But since this is an entirely personal problem you may ignore it. (Or tell me you have it too and make me feel better!)]

Plotting and pacing lag a bit during the second third (the “middle”) of the novel, and partly it’s due to the schizophrenic nature of the narrative itself – the two “same” characters who we have to deal with, and Nilis and Torec (nominally the female romantic interest) who don’t always mediate between the two like they should – and partially it is because vast amounts of the novel are not “new”. We’ve read them before in other Xeelee novels. (It’s like reading WoT in that regard. The Blues don’t like the Reds? Yawn, and pass me a pillow, please.)

Things shift around a bit as the novel draws to a close, and here everything is too rushed (like the RotK movie). And this is a pity because some very grand things are happening at these points, and I would have liked for things to be more in focus. Granted, the fast pace suits the battle scenes, but that isn’t, to my mind, what the novel is “about”. A+ for content, B for style.

It’s still a fairly exciting novel. (It has fights!) As with Coalescent it rewards the thinking reader (this isn’t easy escapist literature!) – evolution, the vastness of us and them, the tragic scope of war and the waste that efficiency can bring about, hypocrisy of – and so on and so forth. I could have done with more overt engagement with the humanity the novel briefly shows us.

(I’m trying to find the review that says that Exultant is like a homage to the themes and stories of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I remember thinking it sounded perfectly right. It was a semi-compliment, and a semi-complaint.)

Exultant, to my mind, does not work as a stand-alone novel. It fits in thematically with the sequence (the trilogy is beautifully structured in that sense, in terms of theme, content, plotline) but on its own it’s just an okay Baxter novel.

Final analysis: Interesting, bad pacing, good characterisation, great overall plot, iffy on details. More meat than gravy. Not as good as Coalescent. Read it without keeping in mind that Baxter has written better, and you may not have any complaints at all.


Stephen Baxter: Transcendent


I’m afraid this review is going to be even more scatty than the other two, because it’s a patchy good/great/bad novel. I’m going to say contradictory things about it.

<from blurb> “It is the year 2047, and… Michael Poole is mourning the death of his beloved wife and doubting his own sanity. But he must stave off a looming catastrophe…

…Though born five hundred thousand years after the death of Michael Poole, Alia knows him intimately… Chosen to be a Transcendent, a member of a group mind that is sheperding humanity toward an evolutionary apotheosis, Alia discovers a dark side to the Transcendent’s plans…”

What I liked most about this novel were the structural parallels (not similarities, just parallels) with Coalescent. It’s like being brought full circle and beyond.

I’d say characterisation is again lop-sided. Michael Poole comes through fairly well, and the novel redeems George (from Coalescent) by showing him from the outside/aging him gracefully. Alia is a bit… er. Young. Alia sounds and feels young, and slightly immature. I didn’t like reading her sections, mainly because I kept wanting someone a bit older and steadier in her place. She’s intelligent enough, and there’s nothing positively wrong with her. But because she seems so undeveloped, as a person, important events that she brings into motion come right out of the blue, and her narrative is always jerky and awkward. (She doesn’t have the best of supporting casts, either.)

There’s some amount of “lazy science” (I stole this from a review [uncomplimentary] over at sfreviews.net) where big and plot-important things are done which aren’t really explained at all – something I find slightly annoying in a Baxter novel.

[Warning: this is a book of ideas. It works best – it works beautifully – if you read all the three books in a row. (Which is what I did.)]

{It’s not, in the cold light of day, a very plausible novel. It’s slightly too grand, too myffic, and not woven tightly enough for me to always say, Right! That can happen!

I suppose it’s a bit much to point at someone’s vision of humanity that spans way way way way into the future, looking at what we may or may not become, and where we can go wrng for the right reasons, or vice versa, and what Science (Magic!) can do to us, and forus, and say, “But that doesn’t seem plausible to me!” and I must admit that while I was reading it I didn’t have as many problems with it as I have now.}

By the way, readers who like Isaac Asimov might note this novel as a tribute to some of his works. Or they may not.

Okay. Um. I’ve said many not-quite complimentary things, so here’s the illogical bit: the novel works. Alia and her supporting cast aren’t great shakes, but the Transcendent persona(e) and the humanity(s) we encounter more than make up for it. It’s a fascinating psychological perspective (if lots of reviewers see traces of World War One in Exultant, I’d say there’s a great deal of post-World War Two in Transcendent) on “us” and how we work, change, deal with the cosmos above us and the people around us… And Alia’s odd characterisation (it’s like Baxter threw character-ingredients into a pot, hoping that the result would be edible) is partly caused by a vast musing on Ideas of Humanity That Changes. And yet stays the same.

The meat is still good, though the dressing needs some salt (yes, this evil metaphor shall be used no more). I like the ending, even though I’m still slightly baffled about how we got there (Alia, blame Alia, stupid teenage girl who is just a ragtag bundle of characteristics that move the plot along whenever Baxter feels like it).

Michael Poole’s own narrative works, too, because he is set amongst interesting people, in a story arc that felt oddly relevant to “now”. It’s a traditional sort of story, I daresay you’d call it, but it’s well told, and it hangs together in its odd way. I wouldn’t entirely mind living in the future he lives in… it’s cleaner than here, or at least tries to be.

Final analysis: Really, the problem with the novel is that it is just too easy to nit-pick at it. Baxter has a nice, fluid style and the tale proceeds well. I like the alternating narratives, and even Alia’s at least has a nicely varied world. It wraps up the Destiny’s Children sequence, fits into the overall theme and brings down the curtain gently. Read it, it’s better than I make it sound.

(Note: Since this review was written, Baxter has added one more book to the sequence: Resplendent, published by Gollancz S. F. It’s a collection of short stories which I have not read yet. I’ll rectify that eventually.)

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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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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Warchild by Karin Lowachee

Karin Lowachee‘s Warchild was the second novel ever (there have been only two) to win the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest back in 2001. The hype was extremely localised – I mean, I didn’t hear of it until a year ago, and having read the novel I wonder why.

Eight-year-old Jos Musey lives on the trading ship Mukudori. His ship is attacked by pirates, the adults are killed/never seen again. The children are captured. By pirates. Again, some of them are never seen again. Jos becomes a pirate’s personal belonging… and one day he escapes, only to be picked up by human sympathisers with the Alien Enemy. Things get complicated. Again.

Warchild is full of some amazingly nuanced prose, and it is stylistically a very tightly woven novel. The first sectio, which covers what we can consider Jos’ most traumatic years – his captivity with the pirate Falcone – is told in the second person, past tense. It’s a fluent narrative, the first section, and it speaks of some excellent characterisation. (What happens when you speak in the second person? To begin with, you establish that you are distinct from the person you are speaking to. Jos narrates to his younger self the events that he is unwilling to acknowledge as his own. Another advantage for the speaker is that the second person allows you to command – and Jos commands and cajoles his personal history in a manner that might be Not Very Important in the sense of What Happens, but is crucial in terms of how Jos sees himself, and how his interacts with people later.) This first section contains the muted-and-powerful rendering of a child in fear and bondage, and it is an emotional relief when it is done. The distancing of the self that is accomplished here, however, manifests in different ways throughout the forthcoming narrative – the one thing this novel never gives the reader is an easy answer.

The next section covers Jos’ mentoring by a very different, equally dangerous adult. It is very clear that Jos is safer with Niko, the Warboy, a lead human sympathiser with the striviirc-na, the aliens with whom humanity is currently at war, and yet he, like Falcone, is Jos’ entire world. Jos stays with the striviirc-na until his mid-teens, when he leaves to engage in the war effort, following Niko’s orders. We don’t see enough of the striviirc-na for my liking, but it is delightful to note that that they not one-dimensional, are seen to have more than one culture – the people we do see seem to be an odd sort of Zen Warrior caste – without that inherently meaning that they’re on the brink of civil war.

This is not a novel that glorifies war, or finds that a noble nature flowers under the exigencies of bloodshed (it is not Ender’s Game!). A military force – a successful one, fighting a war on or outside the borders of established political territories – is in literal essence, working on its own, in quasi-independance. (I don’t want to hark back to semi-recent soldiers-abusing-prisoners-in-Iraq scandals, but the association is possible.) All that can be, good-bad-neutral, of an armed force is summed up in the crew of the Macedon, captained by Cairo Azarcon who is a law unto himself and a father – think Old Testament God-father – to his crew. And in Azarcon we have our third mentor.

Jos needs mentors. He’s in his teens, that should be reason enough. But he also never fully healed from the trauma of his childhood experiences with Falcone – a fact that becomes more and more clear as the novel progresses. The distancing one notices in the first section is painfully obvious when Jos must deal with several other, better-socialised peers. And with this distancing comes a rigidity in communication. If Selecting The Right Mentor is one of the main quests of the novel, Thinking In Different Languages might be another. Jos’ fluency with different languages and accents, along with his unexplored gift for mimicry, jar tellingly with his inability to open up, to talk, to establish verbal or physical intimacy with another sympathetic character.

What I truly like about this novel is that it doesn’t allow the reader to pity Jos in a blind unobjective manner. Some very hard questions are raised regarding what exactly makes one a victim – what breaks one person yet hardens another? At what point can you condemn a victim for not resisting his victimisation? At what point does a victim stop being an object of pity and instead a target of a bracing “Get over it already!”? Jos is a vulnerable male body (a vulnerable young male body being used as soldier-fodder in a war, no less), and he takes extreme measures to protect that body. Moments when his defences are breached break apart his carefully constructed first-person narrative and force the reader (and Jos himself) to recognise that vulnerability and find a way to come to terms with it. (Mark!)

Warchild is a tightly plotted novel with a strongly-delineated central narrative character and a nuanced, non-stereotypical supporting cast (the main cast is primarily male, but it’s fairly clear that women play an equal, or at least seemingly equal, role in each of the worlds that Jos is located). It covers several years of a young child/youth/soldier’s life, dealing with his reactions to multifaceted levels of violence and camaraderie. It is not a novel with easy answers – not even at its final, hopeful closing, which is not an ending at all but rather the closing of a prologue to potential.

Children don’t get to choose. Victims don’t get to choose. Soldiers don’t get to choose. Warchild charts the life of Jos Musey, who at some point is all three of these things, and it asks of us whether he is able to choose at all – and what might happen when he does.

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