Sunday, October 17, 2021

Review: The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow

 I notice that I haven't made a post here in almost two months. That wasn't the plan, but things happened. I'm going to try to be a more regulat poster.

The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow

a review by Rich Horton


My latest in a long series of reviews of books I heard, rather than read, is The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow. Harrow has been publishing short fiction since 2014, and she came to my notice with her Hugo winning short story from 2018, "A Witch's Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies". Her first novel was The Ten Thousand Doors of January in 2019, and The Once and Future Witches, published a year ago as I write, was her second. It won the 2021 British Fantasy Award for Best Novel.

The novel is set in 1893, in an alternate history in which witchery is real, but has been brutally suppressed over and over again (mostly by men, and often, we eventually learn, but what seems to be the same, nearly immortal, man.) Though it eventually becomes clear that both men and women can do magic, this history assigns most of it to women, including things like collection of fairy tales (by the Sisters Grimm and Charlotte Perrault and Andrea Lang, for example -- and Alexandra Pope is the name of a famous translator of Homer.) Likewise history is altered in curious ways -- the witch burnings in Salem, for example, happened about a century later than in our history, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire becomes the Square Shirtwaist Fire and happens a couple of decades early. I could see the motivation for most of these changes (some, I suspect, just for fun) but I'm not surely they really worked -- at any rate, they nagged at me as artificial. More successful are the reimagined fairly tales intertwined with the main line of the story -- these interrogate the assumptions and intentions of traditional fairy stories effectively, and also work nicely to advance the plot (and back story) of the book.

The story here concerns three sisters: Beatrice Belladonna, Agnes Amaranth, and James Juniper. They grew up in the backwoods, and their mother died young. They were raised by an abusive father, and by their grandmother, who taught them "witch ways" -- little magics, sometimes bigger magics, done in secret by women. The three are separated as the action starts, and each blames the others: Beatrice and Agnes both abandoned the much younger James when she was 11 or so, after a mysterious fire nearly killed their father and injured James Juniper. It's clear to the reader that none of the girls had much choice in the actions they took, and that their mistrust of each other is misplaced, but that mistrust drives the early action importantly. As the book opens, their father has died, and James Juniper, her home given to a male cousin, has fled to the city, to New Salem (while being suspected of having murdered her father.) New Salem (actually location never really given) was built, apparently, to replace the old town of Salem, which was burned to the ground to wipe out all traces of witchcraft, and to kill the remaining witches. As James comes to the city, she is drawn to its center, and so are her sisters, who have lived in the city for a while. (Beatrice is a librarian, and Agnes works in a mill.) As the three come together, a sudden storm reveals a mysterious tower -- the Tower of Avalon -- and it is clear to everyone, hopeful witches and suspicious moralists, that magic in some form has returned.

New Salem, we learn, has been explicitly recast as a highly moralistic city, and witchcraft is illegal, and all but unknown (at least, openly.) It is also the home of a nascent movement for women's suffrage. In something of a reaction to this, the upcoming mayoral race features a reform-minded opponent, Gideon Hill, a slimy man who urges severe opposition to both women's suffrage and any trace of witchcraft.

The three sisters represent a version of the traditional maiden, mother, crone. James Juniper, the youngest, the wild girl, is the maiden; Agnes, pregnant out of wedlock, and the most traditionally beautiful, is the mother, and Beatrice, the eldest, and a Lesbian, is the crone. But these cliched roles are also questioned and examined, and each is given fuller agency than in traditional stories. Soon they are -- if somewhat tentatively -- working together. James Juniper joins the suffragist society, but quickly realizes they are somewhat hidebound, very cautious (especially about any hint of witchery), and racist to boot. The sisters form a new society, explicitly looking to restore witchcraft, at first by resurrecting, from old stories and oral traditions, as many spells (witch ways) as possible, eventually be seeking to restore the Tower of Avalon. Meanwhile Agnes is trying to find a way to keep her coming daughter safe, and to give her a chance at an independent life; while Beatrice is forging a tentative relationship with Cleopatra Quinn, a black journalist from New Cairo, the black neighborhood of New Salem. And Gideon Hill -- who, it is clear to readers from the jump, has his own dark magical abilities -- is trying to capture them and destroy them.

The novel gains momentum quickly. There are actually three climaxes, each very powerful, each of which brought tears to my eyes. The magic is convincingly and imaginatively described. There are truly wrenching sacrifices that must be made, which are not shied away from. The back story of the sisters in interesting and well revealed, and the back story of some other characters, Gideon Hill in particular, is also intriguing. I will say I didn't quite find James Juniper's character to come to life as fully as her two sisters; and Agnes' eventual love interest seems a bit convenient. The novel makes a brave attempt to engage with racial issues, and also LGBTQ+ issues -- sometimes this aspect seems a bit sketched in, a bit forced. (Though necessary to acknowledge.) All these are quibbles (and so too is my feeling that the denouement is somewhat of a letdown) -- for the most part The Once and Future Witches is exciting, tremendously moving, and earns its ending.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Birthday Review: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips

Today would have been Alice Bradley Sheldon's 106th birthday. I was surprised and disappointed to find that I haven't really written anything substantive about her ... I suppose because I read her complete works before I really began writing about SF. Not that that's an excuse.

Here's a brief review I published in Fantasy Magazine of Julie Phillips' exceptional biography. (The review is brief because that was the format for the magazine.)

Review: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips (St. Martin’s Press, 0-312-20385-3, $27.95, 470pp, hc) 2006. 

A review by Rich Horton


It has been said that the lives of writers are not terribly interesting – perhaps this is sometimes true (though less often so than some might think), but it is certainly not true of the life of “James Tiptree, Jr.”. This was fairly clear even when we did not know who “Tiptree” was, and when rumor and “his” letters spoke of much travel, intelligence work in World War II, a psychology Ph.D., and government work. Then we learned that “Tiptree”, famously an “ineluctably masculine” writer in Robert Silverberg’s words, was a woman, Alice Bradley Sheldon, and her story became even more interesting.

As Julie Phillips’s excellent biography makes clear, her story was still more interesting than we knew. Alice Bradley was the daughter of a very successful Chicago writer, Mary Hastings Bradley, who was also an explorer and took her daughter on three trips to the African interior. Alice grew up rather wild, tumbling into a disastrous first marriage at her debut. She was bisexual, though her affairs with women were generally short-lived – perhaps simply because she couldn’t bring herself to fully accept her Lesbianism – or perhaps because her rivalry with her mother (or something else) made her ever suspicious of women. She was fiercely intelligent, beautiful, and hard to satisfy. Besides worthy service for the U. S. military, she was a promising painter, a chicken farmer, a psychologist, a journalist, a writer for the New Yorker, and more. But above all, once she took her male pseudonym, she was one of the greatest and most original SF writers of all time. 

Phillips’s book tells her life story with sympathy but also with a clear eye to her problems. It is also insightful as to the source of her SFnal inspiration, and quite strong in covering the literary value of the major stories and the novels. And it portrays very well the deep epistolary friendships “Tiptree” made with many SF writers, male and female. This is a moving life story, and an acutely written literary biography – a must for anyone interested in SF history.


Sunday, August 15, 2021

Cordwainer Smith Award Review: The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, by D. G. Compton

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, by D. G. Compton

a review by Rich Horton


This weekend, at Readercon 31 (in a virtual sense), the 2021 Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award was given to David Guy Compton, who wrote his SF as D. G. Compton. (He also wrote crime fiction as Guy Compton, and romances as Frances Lynch.) The jury this year comprised Grant Thiessen, Steven H Silver, and myself. This was our first year on the jury, succeeding Robert J. Sawyer and Barry Malzberg, who resigned last year after many years of service. (Their fellow juror, Mike Resnick, had died before last year's selection was made.) 

We discuss our selection in this video. Short version -- he was an exceptional writer of generally low-key SF (mostly novels), focussed on character and on social themes. The bulk of his work appeared between 1965 and 1980, though after an eight year absence he returned with 5 more novels between 1988 and 1996, plus an outlier short story in 2001. He was born in 1930, and is still alive, though he doesn't appear to be writing. He has been active in the assisted suicide movement. Though born and long resident in the UK, according to information in the 2015 NYRB Books reissue of this novel, he was at that time living in Maine.

The Continous Katherine Mortenhoe, from 1974, is probably Compton's best known novel. This is partly because of the 1979 film adaptation, Death Watch, directed by Bertrand Tavernier, and starring Romy Schneider and Harvey Keitel; but also because it's an outstanding book -- my personal favorite of Compton's oeuvre. It was first published in the US as The Unsleeping Eye (a Don Wollheim title change, and not inappropriate though less good than the original title.) Inevitably there were also editions titled Death Watch. My edition is the 1980 Pocket Books reprint, also called The Unsleeping Eye, and curiously copyrighted 1979, which is either an error, or reflective of revisions Compton may have made, either as a result of the movie, or of his 1979 sequel, Windows

The book is set in the relatively near future -- probably in our past as of 2021. Katherine Mortenhoe is a woman in her 40s. She has been diagnosed with a terminal disease, and given a month or so to live. This is extremely unusual for the world of this novel, as almost all diseases are curable, and no one dies except by old age (or violence.) The other main character, Roddie, is a TV reporter who has had a camera surgically implanted, so that anything he sees is recorded. He is assigned to get close to Katherine Mortenhoe, in order to record her final days for a sort of "reality TV show". (This particular bit of speculation by Compton seems very prescient now.) Katherine is at first very resistant, but she is worn down over time as her fate becomes widely known, and it becomes clear that her privacy is lost no matter what she does.

Katherine works in "the Romance division of Computabooks" -- apparently making revisions to computer-generated novels. (Her rackety father, we eventually learn, is also a writer -- of what seems to be trashy SF, in a sly swipe by Compton at his own preferred genre.) She has urges to write her own realistic novel. She is married to a rather colorless man named Harry, and their marriage is shortly coming up for renewal. Her previous marriage, to Gerald Mortenhoe, ended when he declined to renew. Her problem is that she seems totally out of touch with contemporary life -- and her doctor theorizes that this psychological issue has leaked into her physiological problems, causing her uncurable illness.

Katherine's reaction to her plight is primarly to attempt to escape -- not to escape death, which in essence she seems to embrace, but to escape the sort of ordinary life she had been living, and also of course to escape the intrusive TV focus. She has to elude Harry, but cannot elude Roddie -- who she doesn't know (and who doesn't obviously seem a TV journalist, as his camera is invisible.) So both of them end up with the "Fringies" (essentially, this future society's poor, homeless, and unemployed.) And then they find themselves at the estate of a very rich man, who is having a party/orgy. And they are threatened by nihilistic criminals. Throughout all this Roddie is entirely altering his view of his own job -- and his feelings for Katherine Mortenhoe. And Katherine is becoming, it seems, more and more herself.

There are some plotty twists that I won't reveal, except to say that the unavoidable destiny of the novel's characters cannot be changed. Other characters -- Roddie's boss, Katherine's doctor, her ex-husband, Roddie's ex-wife, Katherine's father -- come into view, and all these viewpoints coalesce to depict this rather interesting and sociologically convincing future more fully -- and more darkly. Katherine is a wholly believable character, and Roddie is interesting and worth following, if, I thought, not quite as convincing. The resolution -- even as its general shape is clear from the getgo -- is quite powerful, quite moving. This is a major novel, and while it wouldn't be correct to say that it was ignored -- it got a fair amount of notice -- it still deserves more attention, and deserves to stand among the key SF novels of the 1970s.




Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Review: We Are Satellites, by Sarah Pinsker

We Are Satellites, by Sarah Pinsker

a review by Rich Horton

Sarah Pinsker has written a lot of outstanding short fiction (and has two Nebulas to show for that), and her first novel, A Song for a New Day, also won a Nebula. So this, her second novel, has a lot to live up to. I "read" it, as I have with many novels since I got my Audible subscription, via listening to it. (In all honesty, the narration wasn't my favorite -- some of it was (probably unfair on my part) reaction to the voice, but also I wasn't quite convinced by how she changed voices between characters, and some of the phrasing didn't seem right to me.) Anyway, how does We Are Satellites stack up?

It's set in the very near future, and it concerns the reactions of a family of four to a new technology. The family consists of Val, a schoolteacher and running coach; her wife Julie, a chief of staff for a member of the House of Representatives; and their children, David, who is in high school as the action starts, and Sophie, a few years younger, who has epilepsy. The new technology is called a "pilot" -- a brain implant which, in essence, allows the brain to multitask much more efficiently. This tech is originally adopted by high school age kids (at least as we see) and David quickly wants one, noticing that his fellow students are doing better in class.

That sets up the central issue driving the book -- for Val is immediately, viscerally, opposed to pilots, and to David getting one; while Julie is open to letting David get one, and moreover she wants one herself. There is a political side illuminated by her position -- her boss is getting one, and most of the other people in her office are as well. Beyond that, BNL, the company making the pilots, is based in their district, so there are lots of jobs on the line -- and even some financial assistance for those who want a pilot. As for Sophie, her epilepsy makes her ineligible to get one.

This sets up some immediate, and interesting, social problems. One is solved quickly -- if pilots are expensive, won't they only increase the divide between the haves and have-nots? BNL, however, offers them for free to those who can't afford them. But there are still people on the "outside" -- those who can't (or won't) get a pilot -- people like Sophie, who can't, and Val, who won't.

The personal issue becomes fraught when David graduates, and instead of going to college accepts an offer to join the Army, which sees tremendous potential for soldiers using pilots. But this unites Julie and Val, who both hate the idea of David joining the military, purely (as portrayed) as mothers, who fear for their son's safety. Meanwhile, Sophie has made a friend at school, and her friend, led by his father, is part of a pilot resistance group, which Sophie joins. The other key development is in David's head -- the pilot gives him the ability to multitask, indeed -- but to a fault. He notices EVERYTHING, which is very distressing, and which he calls "Noise".

I won't detail the further developments, but we see the lives of David and Sophie develop as they grow into adulthood; and we see Val and Julie weather some serious crises in their marriage (caused mostly by lack of communication, which is blamed largely on Julie (and her errors are severe) but somehow some similarly terrible lapses by Val seem forgotten ...) 

So -- how did it work for me? Well, it was a mixed bag. The central idea is outstanding -- plausible, and worth examining, and much of the examination is spot on. But the plot ends up ensnarled in a really sort of cliche "evull corporation" thread. But more to the point, very often I had a hard time believing things. Some of this was character stuff that could be laid at the feet of characterization -- why don't people communicate more? Maybe that really is true to the characters, but if Julie, Val, and perhaps especially David (about his "noise") had actually talked more, things might have been much different. But there are other things -- there's a subplot involving a stolen corporate badge that I simply rejected, as someone who works for a defense contractor and has a badge -- the scheme would not have worked. And Sophie's resistance effort seems based more on the conviction that since she doesn't like pilots (because she can't get one herself?) the corporation that makes them must be up to something. (One of the speeches against pilots reminded me only too much of an anti-vaxxer's screed.) The fact that in this book, her suspicions end up true (for reasons that, again, I didn't quite buy) doesn't seem to me to justify getting there for the wrong reasons. (Especially as it's easy to imagine similar technology being critical to HELP people with epilepsy -- granting that in this future it didn't work, but what if a treatment for epilepsy also turned out to give people the same boost that pilots do? Where would Sophie stand? Even though some of the other, very worthwhile, issues with pilots would remain?)

So -- that sounds negative. But -- I still really liked the book. Why -- partly because Pinsker creates characters we like and root for, and who have real world problems that matter. Also -- the posited technology, the pilots, is both believable, and of real benefits -- but with real problems. I might well be guilty of the reviewer's worst sin -- wanting the author to write the book they want, instead of the book the author meant to read -- but I feel like the central concept is really cool, and the characters will support a nuance examination of some wrenching issues, so it's almost a copout to let things turn on corporate malfeasance instead of a close confrontation with truly troubling implications of a technology that can help, but that also has a dark side. For me, that would have been a more ambiguous novel -- but in the end more interesting.

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Review: The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

a review by Rich Horton


Some little way through The Goblin Emperor I had a thought -- this book's main character is "the Ted Lasso of Emperors". This won't mean much to those who have not seen the TV series Ted Lasso (in which case, my first recommendation is: See it now!) Ted Lasso is about a man hired to coach an English football team who is woefully unprepared for the job (he's an American football coach, which is the lame joke that inspired the series -- but the series is NOT about that joke.) Ted Lasso, with the help of a loyal assistant, and despite the open hostility of his players and many of the local supporters, manages to succeed (to a degree) simply by being unfailingly kind. The Goblin Emperor, then, is about Maia, a half goblin who becomes Emperor of the Elflands despite no preparation, and who faces open hostility from many of his subjects and from many of the people who should be helping him, but who succeeds mostly by being unfailingly kind.

The other thing that came to mind was the novels of Anthony Trollope, mostly because of Trollope's fascination with manners and with political minutiae, but to a degree because the steampunkish and also the monarchy plus nobles social structure in The Goblin Emperor is not entirely unlike Trollope's England. And also because if Jo Walton can do Trollope with dragons (in the thoroughly delightful Tooth and Claw) then why can't Katherine Addison do Trollope with elves and goblins?

I am, to be sure, late to the party with this book -- after all, it won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and was nominated for the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, all this back when it was published in 2014. What can I say? I am perpetually behind on my novel reading! I should also mention that "Katherine Addison" is a pseudonym for Sarah Monette, who was published a number of fine novels and excellent shorter work under her own name (I am particularly fond of her Kyle Murchison Booth stories, and her collaborations with Elizabeth Bear such as "Boojum".) One of my recent stratagems for catching up on novels is listening to audiobooks, and so with The Goblin Emperor, which I "read" in the narration by Kyle McCarley.

To briefly summarize the plot: Maia is the youngest son of the Emperor Verinechebel of the Elflands. Maia's mother was a goblin, and their unhappy marriage was purely political. She was "relegated" soon after Maia's birth, and so Maia never knew his father, nor the court. His mother died when she was 8, and he was raised thereafter by his much older cousin, who has been punished in essence (we eventually learn) for political reasons. This cousin is bitter, and very abusive to Maia.

Then there is an airship accident, and Verinechebel is killed along with all Maia's older half-brothers. He becomes the heir, and is summoned to court to take up his duties. He is confronted with a very hostile Lord Chancellor, and a great deal of suspicion by most of the court, not to mention a fair amount of prejudice due to his half-goblin ancestry. (In this world, it is clear, goblins and elves are the same species, just different races.) Fortuitously, he is able to hire as secretary the courier who brought the news of his elevation, and this man, Csevet, proves to be invaluable and very loyal.

Maia, then, must navigate a passel of issues, some personal, some political. These include the investigation into the airship crash that killed his father (which of course is quickly proven not to be accidental), confrontations with severely jealous relatives like his sister-in-law Chevien, who believes her son to be the rightful Emperor; and his quasi stepmother, Verinechebel's last wife Csoru. Likewise there is the question of his necessary upcoming marriage; and of the supposed necessity of his half-sister's marriage. There are political questions, in this book ultimately revolving around the issue of a proposed bridge across a major river. There is the desire of his grandfather, the Avar of the Goblins, who wishes to visit. His Lord Chancellor continues to obstruct him. His infatuation with an opera singer threatens, perhaps, scandal. And, eventually, he faces two separate assassination attempts. And his reaction, throughout, is to listen, to try to understand the other person, to do the unexpectedly kind thing.

Some of this description may make the book seem full of incident and action, but it really isn't -- it's mostly court intrigue, lots of talk, the occasional revelation of a dark backstory. And I was gripped throughout. I was completely absorbed, and very moved. I loved this novel.

And yet I must admit it's far from perfect. Part of the issue is that Maia -- delightful character though he is -- is perhaps a bit too perfect. Part is that he is really quite lucky -- in most any real life comparable situation he'd have been crushed. And the details of the plot do take on aspects of cliche. (That said, another complaint I've seen -- that there are too many weird words -- strikes me as wrongheaded. Perhaps aided by the narration, I found the words (names, titles, buildings, etc.) delightful -- strange but comprehensible, and greatly adding to the atmosphere.) As "fantasy", it's marginal. There is a touch of magic, but not a lot. The elves and goblins aren't really all that elflike or goblinlike, though I did like their ears -- really, as I said, they are stand ins for different races. (Not that that is really a problem.)

Bottom line -- this is in a certain way a comfort read. In that sense it makes us feel good -- by showing us that a good person can make a difference. I might not always (cynical old me) believe that, at least not to this extent, but I'd like to, and for the space of this novel I did. A good novel, a fun novel, a great read. Not a great novel, but that's not always what we need.


Sunday, July 4, 2021

Review: One Night Stands and Lost Weekends, by Lawrence Block

One Night Stands and Lost Weekends, by Lawrence Block

a review by Rich Horton

Everybody has to start somewhere. Lawrence Block, like many writers who came up in the 1950s, got his start in the men's fiction magazines of just after the pulp era. Digest-sized magazines, for the most part, that published very pulpy fiction. And this book collects the stories Block wrote and sold at the beginning of his career, to magazines like Manhunt, Trapped, Off-Beat, and so on. (One of them even went to Science Fiction Stories.) These pieces were first published between 1958 and 1963, with one outlier in 1966. 

I have read a lot of lower end '50s magazines, but in my case almost all science fiction. But the crime fiction market was similar in its way. Block is quite dismissive of these early stories, and for the most part he is right, at least in that Block's later work, such as the Bernie Rhodenbarr and Matthew Scudder series, is much better. But it is still interesting to see a writer learning. And, really, it's clear from his earliest stories that he could WRITE -- could put words together in interesting ways, could make the reader want to see what happened (even if, in many of these early stories, what was going to happen was fairly predictable), and could make the characters breath, even if, again, these early characters were drawn from stock. I was reminded to an extent of the career of Robert Silverberg, in science fiction -- he began writing fairly routine SF that for all that was never less than compentently executed -- you could see from the start that he could write. And both Block and Silverberg also honed their novel-length skills by writing a good deal of paperback soft porn in the same period, by all accounts likewise competent and professional if formulaic.

This book, a trade paperback from 2008, was actually originally published in two separate volumes by the estimable small press Crippen and Landru. The first book, One Night Stands, collected most of the short stories Block published in the first years of his career. These pieces run from say 1500 to about 4000 words. They are snappy, usually dark, setting up a criminal situation, and typically turning a little twist on things, often to the ironic misfortune of the main character. I had seen only one of these early, not surprisingly (me being me) the one science fiction story, "Nor Iron Bars a Cage", which I had read in its reprint in Judith Merril's Year's Best SF collection, under the original (lesser) title "Make a Prison". I thought the piece amusing anough, but frankly not worthy of inclusion in a year's best book -- and Block seems to agree. (It's about an alien sent to prison for a crime, and the people who imprison him congratulating themselves on the great prison they've constructed -- until they learn something (not all that surprising) about the alien's physical form that renders their prison useless.) But I read through the rest of these stories quickly, always entertained. As implied above, they tend to follow formula -- introduce a criminal situation -- typically someone doing a crime, or someone about to be victimized, occasionally telling of a cop investigating a crime -- and reveal an ironic twist, often the criminal getting caught for some foolish reason. There are a lot of beautiful women, either eager to sleep with the men in the stories, or not so eager but about to be forced to, or willing to sleep with them but for a much higher price than they think they're paying. Are these great works? No. But they're worth the price of admission.


The second Crippen and Landru book was called The Lost Cases of Ed Lincoln, and it collected three novelettes about a private eye named Ed Lincoln. The genesis of these stories is amusing -- Block was hired to do a tie-in novel for a TV series starring Ray Milland about a PI named Roy Markham. His first try seemed too good to waste on a TV tie-in, so he changed the name of the protagonist to Ed Lincoln, and sold it as a standalone (Death Pulls a Doublecross.) (The Roy Markham novel he did write eventually appeared as well, though after the TV series had been cancelled.) Block decided to try to turn Ed Lincoln into a series character, but never could make another novel work. But he did write these three novelettes for Man's Magazine in 1962/1963.

These are actually decent work, and a series of novels might have been OK. They're not great work, though. Ed is a fairly typical private eye, complete with a convenient friend in the police department, and a signature slightly unusual preferred drink (cognac.) He's happy to sleep with his clients -- though an ongoing minitheme is that the nicer (if not necessarily quite as beautiful) women he encounters are better for him. In "The Naked and the Deadly" he is hired by a beautiful young woman who says she's being blackmailed -- but when the "blackmailer" is killed after meeting Ed for the payoff, he learns instead that the woman's father was blackmailing a mob boss, who killed him and will kill the daughter too. But of course things are not quite that simple ... I thought this solid work. "Stag Party Girl" was a bit less successful. Ed is hired to protect a man who's being threatened by his whore/mistress now that he's marrying a rich girl. But when the mistress ends up killed at the man's bachelor party, he's the first suspect. Ed doesn't believe he's guilty, though the police do, and he keeps investigating, undercovering the sad tale of the fiancee, and eventually solving the crime -- a rather melodramatic solution turning on a psychosexual hangup that I frankly didn't buy. Finally, my favorite may have been "Twin Call Girls", in which one of a pair of sisters with the title profession hires Ed because she's been threatened with murder. Alas, before Ed can get to her, she's killed, and Ed needs to find the killer, with the help of her sister. I think I liked it because I figured out the solution right off the top, but it was one of those cases where even so working out the way the details come clear is almost more fun because you can see how they fit. On the whole I'd say a series of Ed Lincoln novels probably could have turned out fine, but perhaps it was better that Block invented Bernie Rhodenbarr and Matthew Scudder instead.

The title of the book refers not just to the experiences of (some of) the characters but to Block's self-deprecating account of how long the short stories in One Night Stands and the novelettes in The Lost Cases of Ed Lincoln took to write. I was amused by the ordering of the stories in One Night Stands -- alphabetical order by title, perhaps the first story collection I've ever seen ordered that way (not counting stories written to fill an alphabetical list.) And I should add that besides the stories themselves, Block's autobiographical introductions (to this combined volume, and to each original collection) are a very enjoyable addition.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Review: Unconquerable Sun, by Kate Elliott

 Unconquerable Sun, by Kate Elliott

a review by Rich Horton

Unconquerable Sun is the first in a new Space Opera trilogy from Kate Elliott. Thus it joins a quite remarkable list of recent Space Operas, many or most by women -- books from Arkady Martine, K. B. Wagers, Ann Leckie, Elizabeth Moon, Elizabeth Bear, Aliette de Bodard, Kameron Hurley, Karen Lord; though of course by men too, such as Yoon Ha Lee, Tim Pratt, John Scalzi, and Gareth Powell. I am confident that that list could be much longer. 

How does it stack up in this company? The short answer is, very well. For the longer answer, I will start with my reservations: it cannot be said that the book avoids certain Space Opera cliches. The title character is a Princess, to begin with -- of a comity that calls itself a republic. (And, yes, the book does eventually explore at least somewhat the contradictions implied therein.) Beyond that, well, the main characters are all very special people, At least three of them (none of them the true central characters, but all important secondary characters) are repeatedly described as implausibly physically beautiful. Beyond that, the characters collectively are remarkably accomplished. As for the plot and action and space battles -- there is a good deal of coincidence and good fortune driving events. Let me add -- every one of these statements is true of many many Space Operas, going back to the beginning. (Indeed, it's true of many books, period.) One might say it's part of the DNA of the genre. We know what we're getting into, and we shouldn't complain.

Well, that last paragraph reads a tad mean. And I don't really want it to come off that way. Because given all that, Unconquerable Sun is both terrifically exciting, and full of neat ideas, unexpected revelations, and characters we really like being with. It is, I think, a very succesful piece of SF. It doesn't really break new ground, but it uses its familiar tropes expertly, and I will certainly be reading the rest of the series.

What is the book about? The title character, Princess Sun, the heir to the throne of the Republic of Chaonia, is 20, and as the book opens has just returned from leading a successful military action against Chaonia's principal rival, the Phene Empire. Over time we learn that Chaonia is a smaller federation of Solar Systems, and that Sun's mother, the Queen-Marshal Eirene, has managed to expand its reach, and forge alliances or at least detentes with important polities. Sun is her heir, but her position is perhaps precarious, because her father, Prince Joao, is a Gatoi, part of a ship-dwelling group who often serve as mercenaries for the Phene. Eirene, who already has several consorts, may be pursuing another marriage. And the rival Lee family, who control the security apparatus of Chaonia, have their own interests in the heirship. All interesting enough (and to be honest, pretty standard.) 

Sun quickly finds herself sidelined to a tour of shipyards, and is furious. Meanwhile, we are introduced to further points of view. One is Persephone Lee, twin sister of one of Sun's formal "Companions", Perseus Lee. Persephone, however, has escaped her family, and secretly enrolled at CeDCA, a military academy, and is about to graduate. Another POV, in chapters headed "A Dispatch from the Enemy", is Apama At Sabao, also a young military trainee, but for the Phene Empire -- and she is suddenly sent on a secret mission to make a surprise attack on Chaonian installations. The fourth major POV character is Zizou, a captured Gatoi mercenary. He has been taken in an attempt to study -- and hopefully subvert -- a treatment that Prince Joao believes the Phene give to the Gatoi, greatly enhancing their strength but also including a compulsion to fight to the death, and to always blindly obey the orders of their Phene commanders.

Soon events transpire that bring all these threads together -- Sun's group of companions is attacked, and Perseus Lee is one of the victims. Persephone, on the verge of graduation, learns she has not truly escaped her family, as she is summoned home to replace her brother as one of Sun's companions -- and also, to her horror, to take up a position as her Aunt's heir to the Governorship of Lee House. Zizou is stolen by the Lee family, in an attempt to embarrass Sun, and so also her father -- but Sun manages to gain his loyalty instead. Realizing that she is potentially under more direct attack (possibly from rival factions in Chaonia -- not just from the enemy), Sun and her group of companions make an escape, and for perhaps implausible but terribly exciting reasons manage to be in the right place at the right time to at least blunt the surprise Phene attack ... and, and, and -- the action is truly nonstop from this point, very nicely done, truly gripping. Mixed into this, of course, are the personal relationships of these characters -- especially those in Sun's entourage. Sun herself has taken her companion Hettie as a lover, which is frowned upon. Sun's mother has several, to some extent dynastic, marriages. And Persephone Lee (my personal favorite character by far) begins to form a bond with another character that will clearly be a fulcrum in coming books. 

I have said little about this stellar milieu. It seems the result of a diaspora from a poisoned Earth (most likely), which founded the Celestial Empire, based around a set of stars connnected by a "beacon network" -- which seems to be a set of artifical wormhole connections left by an older race. So far, so familiar, to be sure -- and the next fillip, that the Celestial Empire collapsed when a subset of beacon connections failed reminded me of Scalzi's Collapsing Empire. This is not a complaint -- all these elements, this furniture if you will, are part of the toolset SF writers use, and they are used nicely here. One element Elliott adds is another means of faster than light travel, rarely used because it's much slower than the beacons -- but also independent of them. The humans who have settled these stars use some degree of genetic engineering. For example, it goes unremarked that children are routinely born to same sex couples using genetic material from both parents (and even a third.) Cloning is forbidden in Chaonia, but it's clearly possible. The Phene Empire is more eager to use this tech -- most Phene have four arms, for one thing, and some (including Apama's mother) were born with a sort of armored shell. They have developed as well another, creepy, capability which looms very large towards the end of the novel. Much of this is not really fully developed in this book, but it has the clear potential to be a major issue in the rest of the trilogy. And it's all well handled, integrated into the book with the seamless skill of a veteran SF writer.

An important subtheme of the book, and presumably the trilogy, is exploring -- at least to a degree -- the injustices in even the supposedly "good" polity of Chaonia. (Note that how "good" Chaonia is, and how "bad" the Phene empire are, at least is not a matter of black and white.) Some of Sun's companions, or their "CCs", give us -- and Sun -- some insight into the contradictions in Chaonian society, and indeed Apama's situation hints at some ethnic prejudice in the Phene Empire. I suspect these aspects too will be more important in future volumes.

So, as I said, this was a tremendously fun read. The start is a little bit slow -- but for good reasons I think -- and once the engine of the plot is ignited, it's fast moving and involving. It's unashamedly full bore Space Opera, with as I've noted some of familiar implausibilities and conventions of that subgenre, and they are nicely deployed.