Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Review: Starman's Quest, by Robert Silverberg

Review: Starman's Quest, by Robert Silverberg

by Rich Horton

Recently I was glancing through the ISFDB entry for Robert Silverberg, looking mainly at his early novels (written in the 1950s), and I realized that I had read nearly all of them. It is perhaps a silly thing to be completist about -- trying to read the products of a young and very prolific writer who had not yet fully mastered his craft, and, worse, who was not yet writing with real ambition -- instead, by his own account, spending much of his time producing yardgoods to fill magazines under a contract whereby the editor would accept a certain number of words per month essentially sight unseen. (It should be said that Silverberg in this period was already sufficiently competent that this early work remains consistently readable, and occasionally interesting, but it is never outstanding.) Indeed, when I mentioned to him that I was having a hard time finding a couple of his early books, he suggested it would be much more rewarding to reread Downward to the Earth instead -- and likely he was right.

(For that matter, even if I finish all these early SF novels, the ones by Silverberg as well as by "Calvin Knox" or "David Osborne", there will still be rafts of work from other genres, such as the crime fiction and soft porn he wrote under such names as Don Elliott, Loren Beauchamp, and Stan Vincent.)

All that said, I did find a copy of Silverberg's 1958 novel Starman's Quest, published by Gnome Press, for a reasonable price. (The novel had a 1969 reprint, and a more recent trade paperback edition is available, which may make used books more affordable.) It seems to be the only form of this story -- many other Silverberg novels were originally published as novellas. (Indeed, sometimes one version was under Silverberg's name, and the other as by one of his pseudonyms, which made the pseudonyms pretty open! (I don't think Silverberg minded.))

Starman's Quest begins with an introductory fictional quote from an essay, discussing the Lexman Spacedrive, which allowed what Ursula Le Guin later dubbed NAFAL ("Nearly as fast as light") travel between stars; and also mention one James Cavour's failed attempt at a hyperdrive. Thus, in the year 3876, the settled worlds are linked by a fleet of starships, crewed by "Starmen", who typically live their entire lives on ship. Due to the Fitzgerald Contraction -- that is, more familiarly, time dilation -- their lives extend for hundreds of years objective time, but only a normal span subjectively. As the novel opens, the Valhalla is returning to Earth from a trip to Alpha Centauri. Alan Donnell is just turning 17. His father is the Captain. Alan himself is a twin, but his brother Steve jumped ship the last time they were at Earth. Alan wants to track down his brother, against his bitter father's wishes, though he knows that Steve is now nine years, subjective, older than him. Alan is also obsessed with the research of Cavour -- what if Cavour's discoveries really could lead to a working hyperdrive?

All this, really, is potentially fuel for a fascinating book. The sociological effects of the slower than light travel, the Starmen who are always years out of date when they come to a new planet, are worth exploring. The effects of a sudden change to hyperdrive, were it too happen, are also worth a look. There are other worthy ideas -- Alan's ratlike "pet", actually an intelligent alien from Epsilon Eridani, is one. The horribly crowded and cramped society on Earth is another. Alan's relationship with his father and his "older" twin brother could be interesting, and so too the surely unusual society of the starships -- with just a couple of hundred or so people on each. Thing is, Silverberg really doesn't do justice to any of these aspects, and the only one he tries to cover is Earth society.

Anyway, Alan decides to leave the Enclave where the Starmen stay, and go look for Steve. Alas, finding one person in a huge city is all but impossible. Especially as Alan doesn't understand Earth customs at all. Luckily, he is saved from jail or a beating or worse by a guy named Max Hawkes, who turns out to be an expert gambler. It seems that gambling is about the only job available for people not born into a profession. Max helps Alan find Steve (rather luckily) and then gives him an offer -- stay on Earth, and he'll teach him how to gamble ... and Alan takes him up on it (after returning Steve to the Valhalla) -- largely because Alan thinks that on Earth he can study James Cavour's work and maybe find more hints ... To be sure, though, Max will exact a price for his assistance ... 

Things work out a) pretty much as you will have expected; and b) involving a lot of sheer ridiculous luck. Leading to a cute enough if all too convenient conclusion, and leaving all the interesting questions I had about this future society unanswered. 

So -- is it a good novel? No. Is it readable? Yes -- Silverberg was from the beginning a competent writer who could keep your interest. Does it hint at the writer Silverberg became? Not really, except in that it does have the seeds of some pretty worthwhile ideas. 

Friday, December 16, 2022

Review: Trouble the Saints, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Review: Trouble the Saints, by Alaya Dawn Johnson

by Rich Horton

The 2021 winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel was Trouble the Saints, by Alaya Dawn Johnson. Johnson attracted my attention with some excellent short fiction -- I have used two of her stories in my Best of the Year books. Yet I hadn't heard of this novel until it won the World Fantasy Award -- but then, I miss lots of novels. Still -- it's a book that deserves your attention.

The novel is told in three sections, each from the POV of a different character. It opens with Phyllis Le Blanc, a black woman who can pass for white, talking with her white lover, a dentist. It seems her -- boss, I suppose, a mobster named Russian Vic, wants her to do another job for him -- and we realize that Phyllis is a hitwoman for Vic, his Angel of Death -- and that this is related to her preternatural skill with knives, a skill she believes is "Saint's Hands", a supernatural gift that has come to occasional people in her family (and, we later learn, people in other black families.) The woman she is supposed to kill actually shows up at her door the next morning -- but Phyllis, or Pea, is still hoping she can avoid do this job, as she has declined Vic's requests for months.

The rest of this section reads largely as noir: we are submerged in Russian Vic's world, which includes the dentist; and Tamara the Snake Dancer, and Pea's old lover Dev, a mixed race man with an English mother and a dead Indian (from India) father; and Vic's top assistant, Walter Finch, called Red Man. We learn that Vic is obsessed with "Saint's Hands", and has tried to acquire as many as he can, by killing their owners; and the Pea's belief that Vic will only assign her hits of people who really deserve it is absurdly naive; and that Pea's job has estranged her, to a degree, from her sister and her niece and nephew; and that a war is coming -- the book is set in 1941/1942. The noir aspect seems to point to a confrontation between Pea and Russian Vic, but that comes suddenly, and early, with somewhat shocking results.

So the second part is told by Dev, after he and Pea get back together, and leave the city, to a house Dev owns in upstate New York. Both are trying to stay separate from their criminal past (though Dev, it should be noted, was actually a policeman informing on Russian Vic, though at the same time protecting some of his friends.) But the outside world intrudes -- Dev is drafted, and (as a pacifist, despite his involvement in many murders, which tortures his conscience) he doesn't feel he can serve -- but the only ways to solve that problem involve asking for help from either the police or his criminal associates. Pea is also fighting her guilt over her killings, her feeling that her "hands" are angry with her, and, eventually, a difficult pregnancy. The toll of America's racist system hangs heavy as well, embodied here by the corrupt family that has ruled this small town for decades, and their treatment of their maid, and her son, who has Saint's hands as well. This part too ends with a bang.

The final section is told by Tamara, as Dev (and also Tamara's actor boyfriend) are off at war, and Tamara is staying with Pea. Here (and, really, throughout the book) we learn about the past of all three characters, and we learn more about how racism, in both the South and North, has driven their lives. Pea's pregnancy is fraught, the men at war are constantly in danger, and Tamara is taken up with her own guilt, both about her past association with a criminal organization, that she tried to rationalize away, and her present failure -- maybe? -- to fully help Dev and Pea and their coming child. Again, the ending is shocking, though in a different way, as a racist system is exposed even more fully, even while there are hopeful hints that Dev and Pea's child, Durga, is fated to be involved in the future battles against oppression.

My description, I feel, scants the real power of the book. Yes, there is (in section one) a noirish atmosphere, and criminal violence, and there is intrigue in the other parts as well. There is also jazz, and dancing, and descriptions of the black theater scene in the segregated South. (The North, theoretically less segregated, is shown as effectively as bad.) But the real heart is interior -- as each character battles with their past, their conscience, their present struggles, their supernatural powers. The characters are wholly believable, and the prose is strong. The other characters are well depicted, too, particularly Walter Finch, Vic's sidekick and eventual successor, truly a violent criminal but also, at heart, a moral man (who knows he sins) and a great friend. It's a very powerful novel, angry, deeply, wrenchingly sad, with a seed of hope.

I will confess that I thought another novel that year would win the World Fantasy Award -- Susanna Clarke's Piranesi. (And I will admit that I would still have chosen Piranesi, even now.) But it seems to me comparing those two novels reveals the fundamental issue behind all awards: there is no absolute scale on which we can rate art. These are two novels, published in the same year, and each indubitably Fantasy. But there are as different to each other as could be -- in setting, theme, tone. Piranesi's greatest strength is beauty and mystery. Trouble the Saints is darker (though Piranesi is dark enough it its way) and far angrier, and it presents real (and wretched) history far more directly and convincingly. There is no reason to choose one or the other -- read them both!

I'll add one more note -- I have both the Kindle version, and, for my recent read, the audiobook. And the audio version is outstanding -- it's read by Shayna Small and Neil Shah, and both narrators capture the multiple voices (and accents) beautifully.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Old Bestseller Review: Miss Buncle's Book, by D. E. Stevenson

Old Bestseller Review: Miss Buncle's Book, by D. E. Stevenson

by Rich Horton

I recently reviewed two relatively obscure novels by D. E. Stevenson (1892-1973), a very popular British writer of the last century (and a cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson). I had problems with both of these books -- Rochester's Wife and The Empty World -- though it was clear despite that the Stevenson had strong narrative gifts. I decided I should read one of her more popular books, and as I already had a copy of Miss Buncle's Book, which Stevenson enthusiast Scott Thompson, of the Furrowed Middlebrow blog, calls one of his favorite books of all time, I decided that would be next. And, not to bury the lede -- that proved to be a good choice. Miss Buncle's Book is much better than the other two I read, very funny, very sweet, a delightful read. 

Miss Buncle's Book was published in 1934. It was D. E. Stevenson's third novel. The first, Peter West, from 1923, doesn't seem to have made much of an impact. The second, Mrs. Tim of the Regiment (1932), based to a great extent on her diaries from her time as an Army wife, was much more successful (and indeed four more Mrs. Tim books followed.) Miss Buncle's Book was also a success, and indeed by this time Stevenson was established as a popular writer.

Miss Buncle's Book is set in Silverstream, a small English village. Miss Buncle is a fortyish woman, a spinster, and as the book opens in some financial distress -- the investments she lives on have collapsed, pretty much, due the to the depression. So she has written a novel, set in a village called Copperfield, very closely based on Silverstream, and she has sent it off to the first publisher she found alphabetically, Abbot and Spicer. 

I'll pause here and note that Miss Buncle is almost exactly the same age as D. E. Stevenson (at that time). And D. E. Stevenson's first success (Mrs. Tim of the Regiment) was based very closely on her real life. The similarities, perhaps, end there -- for one thing, Miss Buncle is a spinster at 40 or so, and Stevenson married in her mid 20s. But it's still an amusing thing to note.

Miss Buncle, the day the book opens, gets a letter from Abbot and Spicer -- they wish to publish her book! The novel's point of view switches from character to character throughout, and we get the viewpoint of Mr. Abbot, who loves the book, but isn't sure whether the author is a simple writer who has no idea what he's done (the book is signed "John Smith") or a clever man who has written a satire. But he knows the book will be a success. Especially after he changes the title from Chronicle of an English Village to Disturber of the Peace. The book consists of a first part carefully depicting various residents of the village, and their everyday life. Then a "Golden Boy" appears, and his influence causes the villagers to step out of their normal routine, doing unexpected things -- romance, travel, etc.

Miss Buncle's Book -- that is, Stevenson's novel -- also portrays the residents of the village, Silverstream, going about ordinary life. And the disturber of their peace is the publication of Miss Buncle's novel. The characters include the new vicar, Ernest Hathaway; the doctor, John Walker, and his wife Sarah; Vivian Greensleeves, an avaricious widow; Colonel Weatherford; his neighbor Dorothea Budd; the stuck up Mrs. Featherstone Hogg and her henpecked husband; old Mrs. Carter and her granddaughter Sally; two unmarried women, Miss King and Miss Pretty, who live together; an aspiring writer, Stephen Bulmer, who is very abusive to his wife Margaret and their two children; and several more. Miss Buncle's novel has more or less the same set of characters (even including herself, as the somewhat more glamorous Elizabeth Wade), and her keen eye has ferreted out some secrets, including Mrs. Featherstone Hogg's past as a chorus girl; Stephen Bulmer's abusiveness; and the appropriateness of a match between Colonel Weatherford and his neighbor.

Sarah Walker is the first to read the novel, and she recognizes her home village quickly, and delights in the depiction of her fellow villagers. But of course those who are depicted less flatteringly eventually discover the book (which becomes a bestseller) and their reaction is less happy. (Notable is the reaction of Miss King and Miss Pretty, who in Disturber of the Peace head off to Samarkand together -- they are actually sympathetically portrayed by both Miss Buncle and D. E. Stevenson, but the clear implication that they are Lesbians disturbs them (a reference is made to a recent scandalous book, presumably The Well of Loneliness, by Radclyffe Hall. When I read Rochester's Wife I wondered if one character, who at the end heads to India with her intimate friend, was intended to be read as a Lesbian, and back then I doubted Stevenson meant it, but now I think maybe she did, and I'd say her attitude is pretty positive on the whole.) 

The rest of the book ,then, involves the efforts of some of the villagers to uncover the real identity of "John Smith", with the object of some sort of punishment. Other aren't so unhappy, and some of them manage to change their lives for the better, either directly following what happened in Disturber of the Peace, or in reaction to it. And some characters -- including Miss Buncle! -- have quite unexpected developments.

Well, none of that really gets much at what makes the book enjoyable. Part of it is Stevenson's narrative gift. She simply could, as they say, tell a story -- make you want to keep reading. And her characters come to life (if sometimes they are fairly clearly "types".) But more than that -- this book is often really very funny. Neither of the other Stevenson books I have read were in any sense comic (and there's no reason they should have been) but Miss Buncle's Book is, and very successfully so. If some of the plot developments are a tad convenient, or easy -- the good people get nice things, the bad people either learn the error of their ways or are punished (somewhat gently.) The book does have its classist side -- the servants, for instance, though coming across as real people, do seem to know their place. And there is one romance that bothered me just a bit -- between a man in his mid to late 20s and a 17 year old girl. In 1934 I daresay that wouldn't have raised eyebrows. 

There are sequels to this book, and they seem worth a try. And I have a couple more Stevenson books on hand, and I just ordered a couple more from the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Books. So this won't be the last D. E. Stevenson book I read.

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Review: High Times in the Low Parliament, by Kelly Robson

Review: High Times in the Low Parliament, by Kelly Robson

by Rich Horton

Here's another look at a recent novella.

I was delighted to get a chance to talk with Kelly Robson and her wife Alyx Dellamonica at Windycon recently, and I also came away with this new novella from Kelly, High Times in the Low Parliament. She discussed its writing on a panel -- she wrote it as a sort of way to cope with the pandemic, so it's explicity a rather -- well, extremely! -- lighthearted novel. Despite that, it's set in a time a crisis! I guess there's a message there.

Lana Baker is a scribe in London, and also part of a big family, which, alas, doesn't much appreciate her lack of interest in the family trade (baking, natch!) and her significant interest in spending times in pubs or in the arms of any pretty woman who catches her eyes. She also has a talent for getting in trouble. And one day, her love of kisses doom her -- as a pretty women convinces her to write a letter and take it to Masterwort, the fairy who is the Director Legate of the Low Parliament Delegation from Angland. This is a trick -- as the Delegation needs a scribe, and before she knows it, Lana is the new scribe.

We gather that this version of Earth is a bit different from ours -- everyone is a woman, for one thing, and fairies live among humans, and pretty much seems to rule. One reason is that humans are quarrelsome and warlike, and fairies don't like that. (Though they seem pretty quarrelsome too!) But the members of Parliament -- which seems a pan-European body -- are all humans, though under the supervision of fairies. Parliament is located on an island of sorts in the sea, and Lana soon learns that there is a problem -- a big one. If the members of Parliament can't come to agreement on the questions they consider, Parliament will be dissolved -- more or less literally, as the sea will overrun it, dooming all there. And lately every question has ended in a hung vote.

Lana, however, is unable to be anything but cheerful, optimistic, and lusty. She takes up her role as scribe for Angland, recording the proceedings. And before long she has somehow made friends with the irascible fairy Beauty Bugbite. And she is also infatuated with one of the deputies from this world's France-analog, a beautiful dancer named Eloquentia.

The rest of the story follows Lana's attempts to seduce or be seduced by Eloquentia, with the reluctant help of Bugbite. At the same time she is slowly learning something about the problems in Parliament, which seem to an extent to be caused by the Anglish Deputy from Berkingmiddleshire. But all efforts by the more reasonable members of Parliament are frustrated by silly rules and obstructionism. Can Lana, Eloquentia, and Bugbite save the day? Well, of course, but not without plenty of setbacks.

It's all gleefully and lushly written, sexy as heck in a very sweet way, and a fun romp (in more ways than one, especially for Lana!) There isn't really a ton of worldbuilding (I felt like I'd have liked to learn more about the world's history, and that of the fairies, for exampel), and the solution comes as something like a deus ex machina. But the characters are fun to spend time with, the writing is enjoyable, the action is spiced with comedy, the final resolution quite appropriate and sweet. A fun diversion indeed.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Review: The Long Game, by K. J. Parker

Review: The Long Game, by K. J. Parker

by Rich Horton

I'm planning to post occasional reviews of short fiction here, given that I'm not writing for Locus any more. (Mostly -- I do plan to contribute the occasional piece there.) Here's my first in that series.

I'm a big fan of "K. J. Parker"'s stories and novels, mostly set in his somewhat vaguely described quasi-Romanish, Byzantinish, fantasy milieu. ("Parker", of course, is a pseudonym for Tom Holt.) In his shorter works Parker tends to use this setting to explore fairly philosophical questions, often turning on the nature of magic (though with the magical system constructed, seems to me, to allow him to explore more broadly applicable questions.) By contrast, Parker's novels, though not without philosophical conundrums to ponder, often spend more time explicating questions of logistics, engineering, politics, or the relationships between men and women. The Long Game, a 2022 novella, available in a very nice (if expensive!) edition from Subterranean Press, is a great example of his shorter works.

The narrator is a magical adept, trained at the Studium. However, his abilities in the field mean that instead of the cushy desk job, with prospects for advancement, that he coveted, he is doomed to a life as a field agent, traveling constantly, mainly sort of "exorcising" demons from people. Demons, we learn, are entities devoted to what the narrator is convinced is "Evil", and his job is to oppose them, for the sake of "Good". This being a K. J. Parker novel, it's clear that "Good", at last, however good it may be at some level, is represented largely by incompetent schemers, who, if they are trying to improve the world, are making rather a hash of it.

He's in the remote town of Sabades Amar when he notices a woman reading a book upside down. And, somehow, she seems to be an adept of some sort -- but everyone knows women can't be adepts! He challenges her, and learns that she is from Idalia, a nearly legendary distant place. He also learns that her powers are at least his equal, and possibly superior to his. But what is she after?

Then a local prior turns up murdered, and the woman is the obvious suspect. But things don't add up. And the narrator reflects on  a long-running adversary of his -- a demon -- who by know he considers almost a friend. This demon keeps showing up -- and we learn more and more about the demon ... and more and more about the narrator's entanglement with it (or him, as the narrator insists on perceiving it.) Of course, it's soon clear that the demon is involved with the murder of the prior -- and also that the Idalian woman has an assignment of her own, which might have pretty terrible implications.

Parker is really, in the end, concerned, as I hinted, with philosophical issues, and with the "long game" implied by the title. The story is appropriately twisty; and, because Parker is Parker, able to make, as they say, a shopping list intriguing reading, the book is compulsively fun and readable. All that said, I ended up thinking that the philosophical speculations -- which are pretty worthwhile -- really could have been handled in a quarter the space. But I didn't mind -- the novella is fun reading throughout. It doesn't rank at the top of Parker's ouevre at all -- not even close -- but I was glad to read it.