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.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Old Bestseller Review: The High Hand, by Jacques Futrelle

The High Hand, by Jacques Futrelle

a review by Rich Horton

Here's a return to the kind of book I started this blog to cover -- popular fiction, often forgotten, from the first half of the 20th Century. Often the books I cover in that category were bestsellers, but I'm not sure The High Hand sold particularly well. It was first published in 1911 by Bobbs-Merrill, but my edition is the 1912 reprint from Grosset & Dunlap. (Grosset & Dunlap were primarily reprint publishers, and indeed they filled a function analagous to that of mass market paperbacks beginning in 1940 or so.) The book is signed on the inside front cover and facing page by Mrs. Alfie Brown, and "? J. Brown", the latter signature dated 7/14/1912. It is quite a short novel, in the range of perhaps 50,000 words. This book is illustrated by Will Grefe. Grefe's illustrations are quite nice, in very much the typical style of late 19th and early 20th Century illustration as reprsented by the likes of Harrison Fisher and Charles Dana Gibson. 

I have remarked in these entries that often the biography of these writers is more interesting than their novels. Jacques Futrelle is another example. He was born in Georgia, on April 9, 1875. He became a journalist, starting the sports section at the Atlanta Journal, and continued to the New York Herald, the Boston Post, and finally the Boston American. In the latter paper he published a detective story, "The Problem of Cell 13", in 1905, featuring a "scientific detective", called, "the Thinking Machine", Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen. He wrote a number of further stories of the Thinking Machine, and it is these stories for which he is now best remembered, to the extent he's remembered at all. He left the American in 1906 to concentrate on fiction, and seven novels followed. He died on April 15, 1912, aged only 37. That date will be significant to some -- it is the date of the sinking of the Titanic, and in fact Futrelle, who had a first class ticket, was on his way back to the US on that ship. He refuse to get in a lifeboat, and (so the story goes) basically shoved his wife into the boat, and her last sight of him had him standing with John Jacob Astor, smoking a cigar as the Titanic went down.

Well, then, what about the book at hand? It's really a fairly minor effort. It's not one of his detective stories. Instead it's a political story, reminiscent of a couple other books I've reviewed here, such as Half a Rogue, by Harold MacGrath. Jim Warren is a young man in Warburton, in an unnamed Northeastern state. He has come from humble beginnings to become superindent of a factory, with the prospects of become manager when his boss retires. He's happy there, but when one of his workers suggests he ought to go into politics, to represent the interests of the working man, and to provide an honest alternative to the crooks who have controlled local politics for some time, he gets intrigued. And before long he has what he calls "the big idea", which is not made clear until the end, though we gather that his study has revealed that the crooks are "playing with marked cards", so Jim Warren will mark his own cards, to sweep them out.

The local state representative is one Francis Everard Lewis, who has become suddenly rich after gaining his seat. Lewis controls a legitimately rich fellow representative, Dwight Tillinghast. Tillinghast is a weak man, and Lewis has maneuvered him into the speakership of the legislature, with prospects of becoming Governor in the next election. Lewis has extracted a price, of course -- Tillinghast's beautiful daughter, Edna, being part of it.

Warren and Lewis' longtime fixer, one Franques, strike a deal -- Franques giving Warren the goods on Lewis. Using this information, Warren is able to force Lewis to drop out of the race for re-election, leaving the field clearl for Warren, who runs as the "honest man" who will clean up the corruption in their state. In the mean time, Warren has chance met Edna Tillinghast, and he is intrigued, but she learns who he is, and will have nothing to do with him when she realizes he has acted against her fiance. Warren carries forth in his campaign, winning easily.

And when he takes office, he continues maneuvering, making deals -- dirty deals -- to get plum assignments. These assignments give him the chance to advance the interests of his constituents -- but at a considerable price: he is acting as corruptly as those he had campaigned against. And soon he realizes that the price is even higher, for he is in love with Edna Tillinghast, and she has nothing but contempt for him. Worse, once he realizes that she has finally learned the depth of her fiance's own corruption, she breaks off the engagement. Moreover, Warren's plans require him to force her father out of the race for Governor. And his honesty compels him to confess to Edna his own involvement in underhanded schemes ...

But -- but -- Jim Warren still has his "big idea". With that, even facing arrest when Lewis exposes his corrupt deals, perhaps he can salvage everything! Everything, perhaps, but the love of Edna Tillinghast!

Well, what can I say? It's rather a silly book in many ways. Jim Warren's scheme is convoluted and reasonably speaking would never have worked. The message is sound enough -- yes, politicians, then and now, were as corrupt as the book displays, but still ... The resolution has some outrageously melodramatic elements (especially when we learn Franques' motivation.) And the depiction of women (basically Edna) is as full of guff as one could possibly imagine. That said, it's a quick read, never boring, and I don't regret the time I took with it.

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Birthday Review: Old Twentieth, by Joe Haldeman

Today is Joe Haldeman's 78th birthday. It is also my son Geoff's 29th birthday! Happy Birthday, Geoff (and Joe!)

Here's my review of Old Twentieth, written for SF site back in 2005 when it appeared. I've added a couple of things to update Joe's career status.

Old Twentieth, by Joe Haldeman

a review by Rich Horton

Joe Haldeman is a wonder. He continues to produce a novel every couple of years, each compact and intelligent and engaging and involving. [Alas, we have not seen a novel since Work Done for Hire in 2014. I suspect Haldeman may have retired -- and a well-earned retirement, no doubt.] At times he fumbles the ending (as with Guardian), but even in such a case the ride is very entertaining. [My main issue with Guardian is that I was loving it so much, when it switched from a historical novel to an SF novel -- and I didn't want that switch! Perhaps the reader's fault, and not the writer's.] And at other times, he finds a surprising yet internally logical ending that wholly satisfies -- so it was with The Coming, and now again with Old Twentieth. Haldeman also, as with some other veteran authors, has a certain facility with the toolbox of SF: with the classic ideas and again with the latest hot ideas; and he combines them effortlessly and effectively.

In Old Twentieth the ideas Haldeman juggles are immortality, Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, and a variant on the generation starship. He is also, as the title tells us, concerned with the 20th Century, the bloodiest century (though the 21st will turn out to be bloodier, says this novel), and the last century in which death was inevitable.

Central to this novel are scenes of war. We open at Gallipoli, one of the worst battles of World War I. But somehow the narrator escapes certain death, and we quickly gather that he is really using Virtual Reality to experience a simulation of an historical situation. He is Jacob Brewer, whose family was rich enough to purchase an immortality treatment before an horrific war between the lucky immortals and the poorer people who couldn't afford the treatment. He and his mother were among a very few survivors, but a couple of centuries later, the world has recovered, and a stable population of a billion or so lives quite pleasant lives. And they have decide to mount an expedition to Beta Hydrii.

Jake is the VR expert on the fleet of starships. His job is to maintain the VR simulation, which is mainly used for immersive experiences in any number of times in the 20th Century. The story concerns the starships beginning their journey. Jake gets married (a ten year contract -- immortals don't marry for life). And as the journey begins, unsettling things start to happen in VR. The most unsettling thing is that people start dying -- immortals. Another concern is some minor inconsistencies in the VR backgrounds. Jake's insistence on returning again and again to the VR tanks, dangerous as they seem to be becoming, puts great strains on his marriage. And he begins to realize that the VR system itself may be showing signs of independent action...

That's the main arc of the "present day" story: a mystery concerning problems in VR, and potential AI activity. And the resolution to this arc is quite surprising, and quite effective. But the story gains depth -- dare I say gravitas -- from the background supplied by the recurring trips to 20th Century milieus: World War I, the influenza epidemic, the Roaring Twenties, the Depression, World War II, Vietnam, the first Gulf War, etc. These, combined with Jake's memories of his youthful experiences in the terrible war that nearly ended human civilization, provide a dark but oddly hopeful backdrop to the story of an expedition of immortal humans to another star -- a likely one way trip for no reason but knowledge, and a trip that almost before it starts is ominously freighted with the reappearance of the specter of death.

I hope I don't damn with faint praise when I say that this isn't a great novel: just another damn good novel, to add to a long list of damn good novels from Joe Haldeman. He may be the writer I can most reliably turn to for a worthwhile SF novel every time out. Old Twentieth is a great pleasure to read, and it rewards your reading not just with page turning interest but with thoughtful speculation. What more do we want from SF?

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Old Bestseller Review: Three Companion Pieces, by Margery Sharp

 Three Companion Pieces, by Margery Sharp

a review by Rich Horton

In this space I have recently reviewed two of Margery Sharp's early novels in their reprints from the much to be celebrated Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Press, Rhododendron Pie and Harlequin House. As a result I want browsing through Sharp's early books and came across a much less well-known one, perhaps partly because it's slightly out of her usual way. This is Three Companion Pieces, a collection of three novelettes published in book form in 1941. As far as I can tell, it's been out of print for a very long time. 

The "three companion pieces" are three novelettes (or novellas), all set in the 19th Century. They are all romances, in that they are about men and women falling in what might be called love, but they are not quite traditional, and indeed in each case to some extent they are mocking, or criticizing, the conventions of romance stories. And, in fact, two of them end quite sadly. The stories are "The Nymph and the Nobleman" (1932, about 14,000 words), "Sophy Cassmajor" (1934, about 15,000 words), and "The Tigress on the Hearth" (1941, about 22,000 words.) At first I thought these were magazine stories, but on closer examination, as best I can tell, the first two were originally published as very slim separate volumes. I believe (though I can't be certain) that "The Tigress on the Hearth" first appeared in Three Companion Pieces in 1941, but it had a later slim edition of its own, in 1955.

In all these editions, including the omnibus volume I have, there are illustrations, by Anna Zinkeisen. The illustrations are fairly simple but quite nice. Zinkeisen (1901-1976) was a Scottish painter, best known for portraits and illustrations of medical scenes (she served as a nurse during the Second World War.) Among her portrait subjects were Prince Philip, and Sir Alexander Fleming (discover of penicillin.) She also did murals, and of course book and magazine illustration. Her sister Doris was also an artist.

So, to the stories. "The Nymph and the Nobleman" concerns Sir George Blunt, a young and fairly dense Englishman on his "Grand Tour". He is in Paris and quite bored when he happens to see a ballet performance, and he immediately falls in love with the head dancer. He arranges to meet her, and she gets the sense that he wants to have a bit of a dalliance, which is all in the usual way of things for her and so she agrees. He carries her off to England, and to her shock she realizes, despite the language difference, that he means to marry her. To her even greater shock, his mother makes no opposition to the marriage! This is where the story breaks with romantic cliche -- for it is quite clear that this alliance is not a love match, and not appropriate at all. And the second half of the story deals fairly realistically with the logical outcome -- George is a clod who has no idea how to take care of his wife, nor even any interest in her; and the dancer is oddly innocent, unable to resist this marriage but terribly sad and neglected, deprived even of her art. The ending is inevitable and quite sad. Sharp's light satirical touch is here, and for a while the story has all the delight of her more contemporary novels; but the conclusion -- while honest and effective -- is in quite a different meter.

"Sophy Cassmajor" tells of the journey from England to India, sometime in perhaps the middle of the 19th Century, of the title girl, only 17 and rather silly. She is going to India to marry an older man, a friend of her father's, and the man seemed nice enough when Sophy met him, so she doesn't seem to mind yet. She has a maid, a farm girl from her neighborhood, who was jilted by the blacksmith, and in something of a premonition, the maid dies of what seems to be heartbreak. Sophy, now chaperoned by a Frenchwoman, Madame Tricoche, meets one of the ship's officers, a fine young man. Soon enough, they think themselves in love -- and perhaps they are! And Madame is not the sort to stand in the way of young love, even if her charge is technically engaged to another. 

Again Sharp is setting up a traditional romance plot, only to upset it. The upset in this case is due to a storm, not to the interference of her family, or her future husband, and Sophy's reaction is perhaps the point of the story, or perhaps the point is simply that sometimes bad things happen. Again I feel that Sharp quite appropriately works out the story in the logical, and not romantic, way, which I think is her point.

Finally, "The Tigress on the Hearth" opens in Albania, with another young Englishman of the Victorian era touring foreign lands. Hugo Lutterwell, however, has manage to get himself in serious trouble, and an Albanian man is trying to kill him. All would be lost, but suddenly a young Albanian woman shows up and knifes the man -- and she and Hugo flee to Hugo's ship. Kathi is her name, and she has decided she is in love with Hugo. And she is a very fine figure of a woman, and Hugo is not entirely displeased ... so they return to England, and they get married, and, as Sharp says archly "at night Hugo found Kathi to be everything a wife should be". 

Hugo's family, who have been told a very inaccurate story of how Kathi saved his life, gladly welcome her, and soon the couple are set up well, and children come. And in a while Hugo is in line to be the next MP from their country district, despite a relative lack of political talent. But then a cad who had fled their county decades ago returns, and runs a very dirty campaign -- it appears Hugo will lose, despite the clear lack of character of his opponent. However, Kathi has her own ideas -- already demonstrated! -- about how to deal with cads who threaten her husband!

The result of all this is quite cleverly (and, I suppose, cynically) worked out, and the eventual effect on Hugo's future career is very amusing indeed. This is perhaps the lightest -- if also the most violent! -- of these three stories, and it's quite amusing. And, again, set very much in opposition to the standard romance cliches.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Review: Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir

a review by Rich Horton

Gideon the Ninth is Tamsyn Muir's first novel. Muir is a New Zealand based writer, who has published some outstanding horror-inflected short fiction since 2012. (I've reprinted two of her stories in my Best of the Year anthologies, which says something, I suppose, as in general horror is not my favorite mode.) Gideon the Ninth got a great deal of attention, including Nebula and Hugo nominations, and a Locus Award for Best First Novel. I knew I wanted to read it as soon as it came out, but, well, I'm terminally behind on novel reading. I have finally read the book, or, I should say, listened to it, via the audiobook read by Moira Quirk. My paper copy of the book is in storage, as we are getting work done on my house, so for the first time I will try to review a book via the audio edition (and some online cribbing!) alone. (I mean, who knew that the word I heard as "Lictor" was spelled "Lyctor"? Not to mention I was not quite sure if the main character's name was Gideon Naff or Gideon Nav, though I eventually leaned towards the latter, which turned out to be correct.)

Short version -- so as not to bury the lede! -- I really really liked this book. It's funny but very dark; it's science fiction but also fantasy and horror; the characters are involving and the plot is excellent, with a truly inspiring and deserved climax. (It's been described often as "Lesbian necromancers in space", which is not exactly wrong but kind of misleading. Yes, there are necromancers -- in fact, lots of them. Yes, there are Lesbians, but straight people too, and the fact that the main characters are Lesbians is important in the way that any character's sexuality is important, but it's not quite central. As for space -- well, this is a spacefaring civilization, but the book is primarily set on a single planet, in a single building.)

We open on the Ninth House, which we soon gather is a planet, inhabited by, as far as we can tell, an extremely small population of mostly older people. The sun is called Dominicus, and there are nine houses, each based on a planet. The fact that there are nine planets suggests that possibly the system might be our Solar System, and the Ninth House Pluto -- though I'm not sure this is a necessary conclusion. (For example, the most populous "House" might be the Third House -- could that be Earth? But the First House seems the historical base of this civilization -- could that be Earth? We really don't have enough information yet. Perhaps those who have read the sequel (Harrow the Ninth) have a better idea.) The primary point of view character is Gideon, who was not born on the Ninth House, but who was more or less adopted by them when her mother's spaceship crashed there, and her mother died. She is plotting to escape the Ninth House and join the Cohorts, the Undying Emperor's army. But her hated enemy, Harrowhawk, the Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House, nominal ruler given that her parents have taken an oath of silence (convenient, that, as they are dead) is one step ahead of her. And then a summons comes from the Emperor. Each of the other eight houses (besides the First) are to send a necromancer, along with a "cavalier", to the First House, to train (or compete?) to become a Lyctor, and aid the Emperor in his ongoing war against some -- not well defined (though again I suspect Harrow the Ninth might help) -- enemy. Harrowhawk is of course the leading necromancer of the Ninth House, and there is a prospective cavalier, but, to Gideon's horror, Harrow has other ideas, and she maneuvers things so that the prospective cavalier is unavailable, leaving Gideon as the only alternative. Gideon is already a good fighter, and she gets some special training before they leave for the Lyctor competition.

This training happens on the First House, in a huge building (or palace) called Canaan House, that seems in terrible disrepair. There are 7 other "pairs" of candidates (though one "pair" consists of two twin necromancers to go with a single cavalier.) These are a carefully varied lot, with some positioned to be enemies of the Ninth House, and others allies. Each house has a different necromantic specialty -- for some reason the Ninth House is roundly feared, because of their traditional role as guardian of the "Locked Tomb" (which holds the body of the Emperor's greatest enemy) and because of their spooky bone magic. But the other necromancy is often just as scary -- the Eighth House specializes in using the life force of another person (typically the necromancer's cavalier), and the Seventh House requires their necromancers to be terminally ill, using the force of their dying to power their magic. The candidates are all given a room, and almost no instructions -- it becomes clear that their task is essentially to solve a puzzle contained within Canaan House. (Indeed, much of the novel really reads like an account of an attempt to solve an escape room -- to be sure, a much more deadly escape room than those I have played!) 

To this point the novel has been dark in a spooky but not really scary way, rather claustrophobic, and quite funny, the last driven to some strong degree by Gideon's snarky voice. Muir's prose strategy (apparently on purpose) is to use utterly implausible contemporary slang (along the lines of "That's what she said" jokes) to balance the strange far future milieu -- and I have to say that I found that a bit annoying at times. The other "weakness", I thought, was a near complete lack of information about the real nature of this spacefaring civilization -- there is a real sense that this Solar System might have a population of just a few thousand, based on what we see. I'm inclined to let that pass -- I suspect we learn a lot more in the second (and upcoming third) novels; and this novel's focus is what it needs to tell its story. (That said, just a bit more sketched in background detail might have been nice.)

Then the "trials" begin. Harrow abandons Gideon, attempting to solve the puzzles (of which Gideon remains at first unaware) by herself. Gideon trains with the other cavaliers, learning that she's actually pretty good despite her relative lack of cavalier training. She also makes some friends, particularly with Dulcinea Septimus, the languidly pretty and dying necromancer of the Seventh House. She also develops a bit of a crush on the stunningly beautiful Coronabeth Tridentarius, one of the curiously mismatched twin necromancers of the Third House. But then some terrible things happen, beginning with Harrow disappearing. With the help of the scientifically inclined necromancer of the Sixth House, Palamedes Sextus, Gideon rescues Harrow from what seems a death trap; and from then on she insists on helping Harrow with the puzzles, which turns out to be crucial. Soon a necromancer/cavalier couple are found horribly murdered, and the whole trial turns real.

So the book continues, with further sets of scary puzzles, and intriguing knowledge gained from each solution. But there are more deaths to come; and a fraught question: is it allowed for the candidates to cooperate? Or must they battle each other to steal the keys and knowledge obtained? And who or what is doing the killing? There are terrible secrets to learn, such as the means by which one becomes a Lyctor. (There are other more personal secrets, involving Gideon's and Harrow's childhood, and what happened to Harrow's parents and for that matter Gideon's mother. Also of course there is the predictable from page 5 or so development of Harrow and Gideon's personal relationship.) And everything winds up to a tremendous whizbang of a conclusion.

And I have to say -- the climax of the novel is just wonderful. It is a triumph in part of plotting -- we can kind of guess who the villains are early on, but who they really are -- and why! -- is a delightful revelation. There is tremendous action, and some really powerful moments, turning on honest and believable sacrifices. There were a couple of times I was cheering -- and times I was close to tears. This is definitely a book that "sticks the landing". And while it's the first of a trilogy, it tells its story completely, and does not leave us hanging on anything crucial (though to be sure there are still questions we look forward to learning answers to in the subsequent books.)