Thursday, June 27, 2024

Old Bestseller Review: The Hundredth Chance, by Ethel M. Dell

Old Bestseller Review: The Hundredth Chance, by Ethel M. Dell

by Rich Horton

Ethel M. Dell (1881-1939) was a writer of romance novels published between 1911 and her death. She was popular enough -- she made up to £30,000 per year -- that she was routinely disparaged in serious books at the time, and even nonserious books like those of P. G. Wodehouse. Her married name was Savage -- curiously appropriate given some of her sexual themes. She is largely forgotten these days, as with many very popular authors of that era who were considered lowbrow. As I am fascinated by popular fiction of the early 20th Century (and for that matter before and after!) I figured I needed to try her. I had bought a book of hers at an antique store some time ago, but it got buried in a box somewhere when we did some remodeling a couple of years ago, so instead I went to Project Gutenberg and downloaded a copy of The Hundredth Chance, from 1917.

I have to say, upon reading The Hundredth Chance, that I kind of get why she was popular. She wasn't a good writer -- but she was better (at the prose level, and even the character level) than many writers of her era. Certainly she was better than her contemporary E. M. Hull, another romance writer, best known for The Sheik. The Hundredth Chance is involving -- it keeps your attention, makes you care about the characters, even though every reader can guess the shape of the plot from the getgo. I note, too, that it was the 10th best-selling novel of 1917, according to Publishers' Weekly

That said, there are huge caveats to offer. For one thing, there are lots of unpleasant -- often unnecessarily unpleasant -- aspects to the book. There is plenty of casual racism -- several uses of the N-word, for one thing. There are no POC characters, so no outright offensive characterization, but there are attitudes. And there is violence against women -- one beating for example, and an attempted kidnap and rape using drugs. And -- perhaps most troublingly -- there is marital rape, over some time period. None of this is justifiable, but there it is. (I will add that his novel is rapey enough, but The Sheik is far more, and more offensively, rapey.)

And on the literary side, there are faults as well. I've already hinted at the predictability. There is also a heck of a lot of convenient coincidence, and some dei ex machinae. (A miracle cure, for one thing, and some sheer luck rescuing the heroine at the end. And more.) And while the characters are consistently and recognizably portrayed and differentiated -- they are still pretty two-dimensional. But for all that, the book does keep you reading -- and I enjoyed it.

The main character is Maud, a 25 year old woman who has spent much of her life caring for her 10 years younger brother Bernard, who is crippled. Maud's father, a baronet, is long dead. Her mother is a useless whiner. Maud herself had been close to marrying Lord Saltash, an engaging man who seemed to love her, and who is wealthy and of good birth. But Maud rejected him when she discovered his affair with a married woman. Her mother, rather mad at her for turning down such a good match, is, at the start of the book, ready to marry the vulgar local bar owner, to save the family, as she has run out of money. The bar owner turns out to be an abusive slob, and a bad businessman, and when he thrashes Maud she leaves, with Bernard (called Bunny.) 

She and Bunny have already met Jake Bolton, the groom who runs Lord Saltash's stables. Bunny and Jake have struck up a friendship. And Jake has clearly fallen for Maud, and has gone so far ask her to marry him -- an offer she refused, to some extent on the grounds that Jake is not of her social class. But now, with nowhere to go, Maud agrees to marry Jake, for protection. But she makes it clear that while she and Bunny will live with him, they will not sleep together. He makes one condition -- if they ever are living together alone -- that is, if Bunny is ever cured and can live on his own -- they must live "as man and wife". Maud agrees.

Jake and Bunny continue to be friends, and Jake is very good for him. And Jake is friends with an American doctor who just may be able to cure Bunny. At least, there is a chance in a hundred, and Jake is always ready to bet on  the "hundredth chance". But  Lord Saltash has returned. And he begins to attempt to seduce Maud. He urges her to divorce Jake, and come away with him. Maud is too moral to accept, but she still seems to warm to him, despite clear evidence of his immorality, in manners aside from his previous betrayal of her.

Things keep developing -- the American doctor comes, and is able to cure Bunny. This is great for Bunny, but Maud is torn in a way -- she has given over much of her identity to being his caretaker, and Jake has already taken some of that, with his male friendship. And now Jake -- already angry over Maud's apparent dallying with Saltash -- claims his right to live with her as "man and wife". Which leads to carefully offstage incidents of marital rape. Maud grows more and more miserable -- and a form of salvation arises when her wealthy uncle, who had cut his feckless sister (Maud's mother) off, agrees to have Maud and Bunny visit.

There's a lot more going on, and I've already said too much I think. There are horse races involving Jake's favorite horse, and some bad dealing from Lord Saltash, who is always ready to arrange to throw a race for money. There is a religious awakening of sorts in Maud. There is a scene where she is a convinced that Jake (who doesn't drink) is drunk -- due to Lord Saltash's lies. There is a fire, and heroism by both Jake and Maud. It seems that Maud might be pregnant, then she isn't -- and I'm honestly not quite sure if we are subtly shown that she lost the baby or if she really wasn't pregnant. And Saltash makes his final play for Maud -- and goes too far.

The thing is -- a lot of this is absurd. Hyson Concepcion, who mentioned reading Ethel M. Dell with (sometimes horrified, I imagine) enjoyment, upon someone telling her that it's meretricious trash, responded, "Of course it's meretricious trash. That's why I read it." I feel the same way -- there are certain writers who are just trashy enough (and slyly skilled enough) that they are simply fun to read in the right mood. Dell was one of those, it seems. I rolled my eyes at much of this book, but I kept reading, and I enjoyed it (with huge reservations, but hey!) 

I will note that I ordered a couple of used Ethel M. Dell books, and when they came I realized they were abridged, as part of something called the Barbara Cartland Library. Which reminds me that, if you want meretricious trash that ISN'T worth reading, Barbara Cartland's your woman. This is, I note, based on decades old memories of trying a Cartland novel or two after I ran out of Georgette Heyer, and realizing they were dreadful and boring. Anyway, I don't like to read abridged books, so I went to Project Gutenberg as noted above.

Monday, June 24, 2024

Review: The Book of Love, by Kelly Link

Review: The Book of Love, by Kelly Link

by Rich Horton

This may be the most anticipated first novel in the SF/Fantasy field of at least the past decade. Kelly Link has been publishing short fiction since 1995, and she attracted immediate attention. Indeed, in the first year end recommendations piece I did, at SFF Net in 1997, I listed "Flying Lessons", her third story, among my Best Novelettes, and wrote "Of those listed, I'd point special attention to the Kelly Link story, mainly because I think she is a new writer of considerable interest, based on the grand total of two stories of her's that I've read." That's one thing I think I got right!

Since then she has published close to 50 short stories, most included in her six collections (and one slim chapbook.) She has also edited several anthologies and co-edits the magnificent small 'zine Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet with her husband Gavin Grant. Kelly and Gavin also have a bookstore, Book Moon, in Easthampton, MA (very close to my Dad's hometown of Hadley, close enough that last year before Readercon I drove out to west central Massachusetts to see my Dad's old house (and the school my grandmother taught at) and then visited Book Moon.) She has won the Tiptree/Otherwise Award, three Nebulas, a Hugo, a couple of World Fantasy Awards, a Sturgeon, a Stoker. And she has gained plenty of respect outside the genre as well, with numerous placements on "Book of the Year" lists, a Shirley Jackson Award, and being named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

As for myself, I have a long list of Kelly Link stories I adore. I reprinted "The Summer People", "Secret Identity", "The Game of Smash and Recovery" and "The Girl Who did not Know Fear" in my Best of the Year volumes. Other favorites include "Magic for Beginners", "Lull", "Light", "The White Road", "The Faery Handbag", "The Specialist's Hat", and "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose". So I was certainly anticipating The Book of Love.

So what is it like? It's a big novel that takes place over a period of less than a week, in December of 2014 in the town of Lovesend, MA. There are four central characters, about as many nearly central characters, and many more who get brief POV sections. It's a fantasy, involving a Moon goddess, some nearly immortal characters, people coming back from the dead, and lots and lots of magic. It's also a pretty naturalistic story, about life in a semi-gentrified, semi-tourist town, with a noticeable focus on race, as one of the main characters is the grandson of a bestselling romance novelist who happens to be Black (but who only wrote one novel with a Black heroine.) Aspects of the novel reminded me of Elizabeth Hand's Waking the Moon, and as one of the main families in this novel is named Hand, I wondered if that might be a little nod to Hand's book. I should add that while there are some points of resemblance, the two novels are on the whole very different. 

The novel opens with Susannah Hand still mourning the death of her sister Laura, who had disappeared about a year before along with their neighbor Daniel Knowe (who was also Susannah's off-and-on boyfriend) and Mohammed Gortch, another friend of Susannah's. Susannah has graduated from high school but is kind of drifting. Laura and Mohammed were a year younger than Susannah and Daniel. Susannah, Daniel, and Laura were in a band called Our Two Hands Knowe You, while Mohammed was obsessed with music but very private about it.

Then, mysteriously, Laura, Daniel, and Mohammed escape whatever realm they went to when they died. And their music teacher, Mr. Anabin, makes bodies for them and sends them home, having altered the memories of everyone in Lovesend so that they are thought to have returned from a semester studying in Ireland. But there is a catch -- Mr. Anabin and a sinister shapeshifting creature named Bogomil are rivals of some sort, and they agree that the three returnees, plus a strange fourth, a boy named Bowie, must complete some magical tasks, after which, "Two stay, two return".

There follows a sort of whirlwind series of days -- just days -- in which the four returnees variously struggle with their increasing magical abilities (or resist them, in Daniel's case), and reintegrate themselves with their families: Laura with her sister and their mother and an unexpected visit from their father who left long ago; Daniel with his horde of step-siblings plus his mother and stepfather; Mohammed with -- well, the shocking realization that his grandmother (the romance writer) died in his absence (his mother was long dead) and all he has is his grandmother's assistant, Jenny Ping; and Bowie -- well, Bowie, who had died centuries before, has mainly to realize his own identity. Daniel and Susannah reignite their relationship, Mohammed breaks off with his occasional hookup before falling in love with a strange visitor named Thomas; Laura finally takes the chance to encounter her long time crush Rosamel; and Bowie -- well, things are different for Bowie.

All along there are occasional spooky encounters with Mr. Anabin and Bogomil, some definite indications of magic, and then the realization that there is a new more powerful entity in Lovesend, a goddess named Mala Mogge, whose servants are Anabin and Bogomil -- and Mohammed's new boyfriend Thomas. Mala Mogge is a tacky individual, evil incarnate in ugly costumes and shabby temples, and she is looking for her lost key -- which she is convinced one of the returnees has. And that's what the novel turns on -- what is this key? Where is it? And should whoever has it cooperate with someone as vile as Mala Mogge?

The novel is a bit of a slow burn. It's never not interesting, but it takes a while to cohere -- I think for good artistic reasons, but readers do need to stick with it. We do get an extended look at life in Lovesend -- the coffee shop, the Cliff Hangar bar, the school, Little Moon Bay. And we learn a lot about not just the main characters, but people like Mohammed's grandmother Maryanne, who writes as "Caitlyn Hightower"; and Rosamel Walker, the sassy Black Lesbian; and her friends Natalie and Theo, whose parents own Thai Super Delight; and Daniel's little sister Carousel; and the statues Maryanne Gortch bought, of Black women whose achievements are in danger of being forgotten; and of course the back history of Bowie, and Thomas, and a girl named Avelot.

The novel comes to a climax after much chaos, some honest tragedy, some triumph, and some compromise. Towards the end the slow burn ignites, and there are some truly wrenching passages. Having said that, the resolution felt just slightly flat -- perhaps I simply wanted too much. It's an honest conclusion, to be sure -- it doesn't cheat. But it doesn't quite astonish. Still -- it's a novel above love -- and love's end -- and love send -- and maybe love zen! -- and successfully so. It's also about doors, and revenge, and magic, and death, and family. It's a very good novel, not quite a great novel, but a wonderful first novel. 

Friday, June 21, 2024

Resurrected Review: Trash Sex Magic, by Jennifer Stevenson

This is a review I wrote back in 2004 for the Internet Review of Science Fiction, a quite impressive webzine devoted to, er, reviews (and essays, etc.) of Science Fiction. It was founded by John Frost, and lasted until 2010. I contributed a couple of pieces.

Trash Sex Magic was Jennifer Stevenson's first, and it came out from Small Beer Press. She published a few more novels for Ballantine in 2008: The Brass Bed, The Velvet Chair, and The Bearskin Rug. I read the first couple of those and found them light sexy fun. They are paranormal romance with mystery elements. Since then most or all of her many novels have appeared from Book View Cafe, and seem to be in a similar mode, and are set (mostly?) in the same paramormal version of contemporary Chicago, called Hinky Chicago.

Resurrected Review: Trash Sex Magic, by Jennifer Stevenson

a review by Rich Horton

Jennifer Stevenson, a Chicago-area writer, has published a few short stories, but Trash Sex Magic is her first novel. It is set near the Fox River, in a version of Geneva, Illinois (called here Berne or perhaps Rimville). A real estate development is going up, but a few trailer owners who are about to be displaced are holding out.

The story is made up of a complicated, one might say organic, web of interactions among a large cast. Perhaps the main character is Raedawn Somershoe, a young woman living among the trailer park holdouts. Rae holds the group together, earning most of their money, acting as something of a voice of sanity. The rest of the locals' lives are intertwined, like vines or tree roots, with Rae's life. There is her older but still aggressively sexy mother, Gelia; and Gelia's main squeeze, an elderly black man named Erny Brown. There is the extended Gowdy family: Cracker Coombs, their disreputable uncle; King Gowdy, the straitlaced son who has just returned from Alaska and wants to take Rae away from all this; Cracker's basically feral twin children, Mink and Ink; and King's brothers: Willy, who is coming to terms with his homosexuality, and Davy, a rather simple teenager.

The outsiders represent the real-estate company. Central among them is Alexander Caebeau, a Bahamanian construction worker, heartsick at tearing down beautiful trees to put up ugly buildings, heartsick even more because he's missing his home island, and falling very quickly in love with Rae.

John Fowier is a sleazy executive, scared by the sudden seductiveness of Raedawn, plotting a backhanded way to get the holdout properties for his development. And Suzy Wohnberg is John's associate, bitterly aware that the price for advancement in the company will be sleeping with John.

All of the above seems not at all fantastical, but we soon gather that Gelia and Raedawn have somewhat "elemental" powers. Many of these powers revolve around a huge tree that the two women each treat as a lover (each jealous of the other). There is a perhaps tragic family secret concerning the tree. The plot action is precipitated by the construction workers cutting down this tree. Somehow Alexander Cabeau, as he is drawn to Raedawn, also finds himself taking on treelike characteristics. And the elemental powers of the Somershoe women and their extended family manifest in other ways—the Fox river is rising, and moving in unexpected directions, and foxes turn up in other curious ways.

The novel takes place over the course of only a few days. It's told from a dizzying variety of viewpoints. I do think the multiplication of viewpoints is a bit excessive—for example Davy's and Willy's stories seem mostly superfluous. It resolves rather definitely, though, leaving a few acceptably dangling threads. I enjoyed the novel throughout and read with interest and involvement. It's a strong first novel, a wild book, well-imagined and well-written, with absorbing characters.

Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Review: The Quiet Woman, by Christopher Priest

Review: The Quiet Woman, by Christopher Priest

by Rich Horton

The late Christopher Priest (1943-2024) was one of the greatest SF writers of his generation. He made an early splash with novels like Inverted World and A Dream of Wessex (aka The Perfect Lover), followed by The Prestige, which was made into a succesful movie by Christopher Nolan, and then by any number of stories and novels in his Dream Archipelago sequence. I wrote an obituary of him for Black Gate here

I am scheduled to be on a panel at Readercon next month concerning Priest. In preparation for that, I'm reading or rereading a number of his novels. So don't be surprised when you see a number of reviews of his work on this blog in the coming weeks. I'm starting with one of his lesser known novels, The Quiet Woman. This was published in 1990 in the UK, but didn't get a US edition until 2005, and that from the small press Cosmos (an imprint of Wildside Press.) 

Alice Stockton is a writer, recently divorced and as a result living in a village in Wiltshire, instead of in London. She has just submitted her latest book for publication, but, shockingly, it has been impounded by the Home Office, and she can't get any information about why. And then the one friend she has made in her new village, an elderly woman named Eleanor Hamilton, is brutally murdered. 

So far this seems like a fairly typical dark British thriller/murder mystery. But then Alice learns that Eleanor had a son -- a son she had never mentioned to Alice. Meanwhile Alice decides that her next book will be about Eleanor (her specialty is books about the lives of women.) Eleanor was also a writer, though she was cagy about her publishing history to Alice -- and it takes some time for Alice to learn the name she used as a writer (of children's books, indeed, books that Alice had read at the appropriate age.)

We get chapters from the son's point of view as well. His name is Gordon Sinclair, and we learn that his father and his older brother died in a terrible accident when Gordon was very young, after which, in his words, his mother went mad. Gordon has a difficult childhood, and copes in part by creating an imaginary world of his own. In the present day, he has a job in public relations of some sort, in which he rather sinisterly manipulates the news -- manipulates reality, one might say -- for his clients' advantage -- and his clients may include the government. Or perhaps some of this is his imagination?

The story gets slowly weirder. Eleanor Hamilton's political activities come into focus -- she was an active member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. And apparently there has been a meltdown at a French nuclear reactor close enough to England that fallout reached Alice's village. England's political situation seems darker than it was in our timeline, with much more active government censorship, as evidenced by the treatment of Alice's seemingly harmless book. Eleanor's stories about her past are faintly ominous. Gordon Sinclair seems a creepier figure. Alice worries about her physical condition -- has the fallout affected her? And what about the alien ships that land in the nearby farms, leaving crop circles? Not to mention the sordid sexual assignations between Alice and Gordon in the past -- though neither seems to recognize the other in the present day narrative.

It coheres in the end, with a scary and tricksy and slightly ambiguous resolution. It is in this sense a very Priestian book. I don't think it stands with his very best work, like The Prestige, or A Dream of Wessex, or his several more recent Dream Archipelago books such as The Islanders. But it's a solid work, spooky at times, if at other times I did feel that Priest may have overegged his pudding. 

Monday, June 17, 2024

Review: "The Contract" and "Assaulted and Pursued Chastity", by Margaret Cavendish

Review: "The Contract" and "Assaulted and Pursued Chastity", by Margaret Cavendish

by Rich Horton

I recently reviewed Margaret Cavendish's The Blazing World, a significant piece of proto-SF. (Review here.) The writer is one of the more interesting authors, a fascinating, ambitious, and accomplished woman. She was born in 1623, the youngest child of Sir Thomas Lucas. They were a Royalist family. In 1644, she went into exile in France with William Cavendish, the Marquess of Newcastle, and they married in 1645. He was 30 years her senior, and had five children by his previous marriage -- she never bore him any children, but the marriage seems to have been a loving and successful one. They returned to England after the Restoration, and William's title was elevated to Duke of Newcastle, so that Margaret Cavendish is known as the Duchess of Newcastle (or Newcastle-upon-Tyne). She died in 1673.

Cavendish was a very prolific writer, on philosophical subjects and natural history. She also wrote some 20 plays, and several works of fiction, poems, a memoir, and a biography of her husband. Besides The Blazing World her most significant works of prose fiction are these two stories, which were first published in her 1656 book Nature's Pictures drawn by Fancy's Pencil to the Life. That book is an extended collection of a variety of works, in both prose and verse: essays, morals, fanciful descriptions of nature, an autobiographical essay, etc. The full book apparently has not been reprinted since the 17th Century. These two stories, along with The Blazing World, make up the Penguin Classics edition The Blazing World and Other Writings, edited by Kate Lilley, and first published in 1992. I assume, then, that in Lilley's view these stories are her most interesting pieces of prose fiction. 

The recent sort of rediscovery and rehabilitation of Cavendish as a major early woman writer seems deserved and belated. I think her relative neglect (though she was never forgotten) stems from a few causes -- skepticism about women writers, for one thing (in her lifetime it was often assumed that her husband actually wrote her works), but also resistance to her stubborn royalism and belief in absolute monarchy. Also, to be completely fair to her critics, her works, some self-published, really could have used the attentions of an editor, if simply to normalize such things as spelling and paragraphing, but also to clean up some really infelicitous prose. (I'm aware that in the 17th century spelling and such were not nearly standardized to the extent they are now.) Also, her philosophical speculations, while intriguing, have mostly become out of date due to scientific discoveries, though they were in keeping with such speculations back then, and,  in fact, she apparently published the first discussions of atomic theory in English. Even so, her fiction (and her biographical and autobiographical work) is more rereadable to us now.

At any rate, having read The Blazing World, I figured it made sense to get this Penguin Classics edition, partly for the very useful critical material included, and partly for the more rigorous editorial attention Lilley gave the text. And, of course, for the other two stories. They are both shorter than The Blazing World: "The Contract" is a novelette, and "Assaulted and Pursued Chastity" a novella, by SFWA standards anyway. "The Contract" is not fantastical, but "Assaulted and Pursued Chastity" definitely is -- an allegory set in an invented world, with one extended section set among a quite fanciful variety of humans.

"The Contract" concerns a young woman, named Deletia, heir to a significant estate, who is raised from infancy by her uncle. The uncle was friends with a Duke, and the two men agreed that the child should marry the Duke's second son. However, the son was not interested in betrothal to a child of (at the time) seven, and instead continued his rather debauched ways. Under pressure, he did agree to a contract of marriage, but thereafter ignored her. The child's uncle then arranged for his ward to have a very broad education.

When Deletia reached her teens, she learned that her supposed husband had instead married his latest married lover after her husband died, and had also become the heir to the Dukedom. This did not worry Deletia, for she knew she was blameless, and in fact she felt she had dodged a bullet, so to speak, by not being allied to an immoral man. And she was happy to continue her studies, now encompassing the natural sciences. But she was a very beautiful girl, and her uncle finally decided to introduce her to society. There she soon became a sensation (due rather more to her beauty than her accomplishments, alas) and attracted the attentions of an older man, a Viceroy, who wished to marry her. But she also had again met her contracted husband, now ascended to his Dukedom, and fallen in love. Still, she refused to become the Duke's mistress, and also refused to marry the Viceroy ... all leading to a courtroom drama in which the young lady uses her knowledge of the law to prove that she is the Duke's rightful wife based on the contract executed when the two were much younger. 

It's a curious work -- unsatisfying as a romance, in that the young Duke does not seem worthy of the heroine's affection, and a bit convoluted in working to a satisfactory conclusion, complete with a double marriage. But it's a fierce defense of women's intellectual abilities, and their right to a full education. And it's an enjoyable enough story to read.

"Assaulted and Pursued Chastity" is a stranger work. Like "The Contract", and for that matter, The Blazing World, it foregrounds a woman of great accomplishments and abilities, and indeed this heroine spends much of the story disguised as a man, and acting as one, to the point of engaging the affections of "his" Queen. It's highly allegorical as well, and is set in an invented world. 

A young woman, Affectionata, born in the Kingdom of Riches is forced to flee due to a war. Intending to make it to the Kingdom of Security, she ends up in the Kingdom of Sensuality, but without anyone to protect her, she is sold to a "bawd" (mistress of a whorehouse), who offers her to a debauched Prince. However, Affectionata (now called Miseria) refuses the Prince's attentions, and threatens to kill herself instead of submitting. Over time the Prince falls sincerely in love with her, but she will not have him without marriage, and the Prince is already married. To escape his importunities, she dresses as a boy (calling himself "Travellia") and stows away on a ship. 

It turns out the ship isn't heading in the direction Travellia hoped, so he vows to work for his passage, and before long he has become so useful to the ship's master that the master adopts Travellia as his son. But their ship is wrecked, and they end up in a strange land, described in detail, with unusual plants and animals, and strange (though clearly human) people. The master and Travellia (the only survivors of the wreck) are taken to the capitol city, and meet the King, but seem destined for the dinner pot (as these people are cannibals, and even raise the people of their lower classes for meat.) The two escape by claiming to be messengers of the gods, and indeed in the process convince these people to abandon cannibalism.

In the meantime the Prince has learned that Affectionata has escaped. She left him a letter, admitting that she loved him but would not have him unless he could marry her. In despair, he decided to chase after her -- but the ship he was on was captured by pirates. However, the Prince soon became the leader of the pirates, and ended up staying at sea. Where, of course, as one does, he quickly captured the small boat that Travellia and his adopted father had used to escape the cannibal kingdom. After some further pirate adventures, the Prince discovers Travellia's disguise, and again attempts to make her his mistress, but she still refuses, and she and her father again escape.

The Prince ends up at the Kingdom of Amour, while Travellia has made his way to the Kingdom of Amity. The Prince becomes an adviser to the King of Amour, while Travellia becomes an adviser to the Queen of Amity, who is soon enamored with him. But the King of Amour has long wanted to marry the Queen of Amity, and decides to go to war when she won't have him. In the course of things, the Prince leads the armies of Amour, while Travellia leads the armies of Amity, and both have successes and failures. The resolution, predictably perhaps, turns on the two reconciling (now that, conveniently, the Prince's wife has died back in his home country.) And the Queen of Amity is convinced to turn her affections from Travellia -- now that he is a she again -- to the King of Amour.

I enjoyed reading both these stories -- a bit more than I enjoyed reading The Blazing World, actually. That story has more interesting speculative ideas, but little to no plot, and it becomes quite tedious at times. Both these stories have plenty of action, and "The Contract" has a coherent plot. Both are marriage stories, though it must be said that the central romance is disappointing in each case, with the main female character falling for an objectively pretty awful person. But both stories truly center female intelligence, female agency, female learning. 

And especially in "Assaulted and Pursued Chastity" there is some pretty intriguing play with gender. Affectionata/Miseria/Travellia is referred to by both male and female pronouns, takes traditional male roles, and at the end will be taking a major role in ruling her newly adopted country. It's also interesting to note that both stories feature the female protagonists marrying older men who have been previously married -- just as Margaret Cavendish did. (It's interesting that in the marriage between the rulers of Amour and Amity the author seems clearly to prefer Amity. One could wonder if that's a hint to the nature of her marriage to a much older man.) There's no doubt that these stories are often weird, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes loopy -- but they are also quite interesting. 

Friday, June 14, 2024

Old Bestseller Review: The Flame of Life (Il Fuoco), by Gabriele D'Annunzio

Old Bestseller Review: The Flame of Life (Il Fuoco), by Gabriele D'Annunzio

by Rich Horton

I ran across this book at an estate sale. It is part of a series called The Foreign Classical Romances, published by P. F. Collier. I bought it assuming it would be a romance in the old sense, which is to say a tale of adventure. I also figured reading another book in translation would be a good thing.

I guess I scored one out of two on that. Il Fuoco is a novel first published in 1900, and set in 1882/1883. It is a Romance in the sense that it is part of Italy's Romantic tradition, a late, rather decadent movement in reaction to the more realist tradition led by the great Alessandro Manzoni with I Promessi Sposa (The Betrothed.) It's also a romance in a sense because it is intensely focused on the love affair of two people, Stelio Effrena, an ambitious poet; and La Foscarina, an "aging" actress. This pair are supposedly based on the affair between D'Annunzio and the brilliant actress Eleanor Duse, though of course there are plenty of differences between the novel and real life. (For example, Duse and D'Annunzio's affair was conducted between 1894 and 1910 (with D'Annunzio being consistently unfaithful throughout) -- Duse was 36 and D'Annunzio 31 when it commenced, while La Foscarina is only 34 in 1883 when this book is set, with Stelio Effrena a few years younger -- but a ridiculous fuss is made about La Foscarina's decaying state as an "older woman".) Apparently there was a scandal of sorts when the novel appeared, for its semi-autobiographical nature was obvious, and it was widely felt that he portrayal of Duse was cruel and unfair.

I wanted to look briefly at some of the publication details of the novel. As noted, it first appeared in Italy in 1900 as Il Fuoco, literally The Fire or The Flame. The English translation came out later the same year. The American edition was from L. C. Page & Co., and the copyright was held the publisher (as usual in that day.) The translator appears to have been "Kassandra Vivaria", a pseudonym used by Magda Stuart Sindici, an Italian woman who was married at that time to the English publisher William Heinemann. (I do not know if Heinemann (or anyone else) published a UK edition of the book.) (I should note the Project Gutenberg attributes the translation to Dora Knowlton Ranous, an American translator, primarily from the French I think. I don't know the reason for that attribution, which they date to 1907, possibly when the P. F. Collier edition was published -- but there can be little doubt that Collier used the 1900 translation.) There is, by the way, a much more recent translation, by Susan Bassnett, a scholar of both Duse and D'Annunzio, from 1991, called The Flame. In a sense, Duse has her revenge now -- she is still revered as one of the greatest actors of her time, while D'Annunzio is little read.

I'll link to this fine piece from Susan Bassnett, on translating Il Fuoco, and on D'Annunzio in general, from a 20th or 21st century perspective, to be sure, but a very fair one, and a perspective that I think sees D'Annunzio's faults and his skill pretty accurately. 

The dating of the P. F. Collier Foreign Classical Romances is an interesting (to me) question. Abebooks listings say 1900, but that's absurd, as at least one book in the series is copyrighted 1901, and the introductory material discusses books published even later -- 1905 for a novel D'Annunzio was supposedly working on that is discussed in the biographical sketch in this book. Paul di Filippo found a newspaper advertisement for the series from 1907 -- so I'd suggest the books were published in 1906 or 1907.

Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863-1938) was a major literary and political figure in Italy. From the age of 18 he was publishing short stories and poems, and later turned to novels, journalism, and eventually plays. His politics were at that time socialist, but always very nationalist. He was elected to the Council of Deputies in 1897. He became a war hero in the First World War, as fighter pilot (he had taken a flight with Wilbur Wright as early as 1908.) His nationalist views hardened, and he briefly took over the city of Fiume in what is now Croatia, and declared himself dictator. He was allied with Mussolini and is considered a proto-Fascist, though his political views remained ambiguous. He appears to have written little or nothing after the onset of the war.

So, what to say of The Flame of Life? It's an odd bird. The writing is florid but sometimes effective. The pace is slow, and I was tempted to skip at points, especially in the beginning. The descriptions -- mostly of Venice and points nearby -- are lovely, but the grandiose artistic theorizing is a bit tedious. I will add that as with any translated literature, one should caution that some of the prose issues may not be the original writer's fault.

The story opens in September 1882, at a festival sponsored by the Queen (or Dogaressa, wife of the Doge) of Venice. The young poet Stelio Effrena is to give an address at the festival. He is accompanied by his friend La Foscarina, a famous actress who is worried that her age (all of 34!) and her history of affairs make her increasingly ineligible to be the mistress of a younger man such as Stelio (late 20s -- just a kid!) To this point she has vowed not to make their relationship sexual. They discuss Stelio's theories about his art, and his ambitions, particularly to create a new poetic/musical ballet/drama, in which Foscarina will play the lead role. He also wants to build a new theater for his drama, and he needs a singer for his work, and a dancer. He brings up the young singer Donatella Arvale, who is also performing -- and later La Foscarina introduces him to Donatella, who is going home to care for her dying father. La Foscarina then finally agrees to become Stelio's mistress.

This sets the stage for the rest of the novel. Most of the scenes concern long conversations between the two, as they, over the next few months, spend a great deal of time together, visiting various Venetian locations, such as the island of Murano, home of the glassworks (moved there centuries before because of the danger of fire) where a master glassmaker gives La Foscarina a beautiful goblet. Their discussions turn primarily on two subjects: Stelio's artistic ambitions and theories, and La Foscarina's jealousy of Donatella Arvale, with whom she is convinced Stelio wants to have an affair. Much of this is internal dialogue, especially La Foscarina's side, as she contemplates killing herself or otherwise submitting to Stelio's desire to stray. And Stelio does make it somewhat clear that he believes it is his right as a great artist to have that freedom in their relationship.

We hear, too, of La Foscarina's early life -- poverty as a child, a full-time actress from the age of 14, early subjection to the desires of men, and her theories of acting (which are kind of method-like, actually.) Much of this is actually quite closely based on Duse. There are some passages concerning Richard Wagner, as well. Stelio is given a role at Wagner's funeral, indeed -- and Wagner did die in Venice in February 1883. Part of this is thematic -- D'Annunzio was a great admirer of Wagner, but it is clear that Stelio's aim is to create a more Italian, or more Latin, art, to succeed Wagner's Teutonic work. 

The novel ends without the melodramatic events that seemed to be hinted at, instead with La Foscarina resolved to support Stelio's projects; and apparently (with pains) also ready to bear his seemingly likely affair with Donatella Arvale. D'Annunzio had planned two more novels in what would have been collectively called The Romances of the Pomegranate, but neither ever appeared, though the biographical sketch here implies that he had written the second volume, to be called The Victory of Man. This must have simply been a mistake. I suspect the other two novels might have followed Stelio's career to its triumph, and also focused on the other two women -- Donatella Arvale and, I imagine, the dancer who would also have had a role in Stelio's magnum opus. 

So what do I think? I'm glad I read it, but it's a mixed bag. It's really very sexist, and if we accept the apparent semi-autobiographical nature of it, it suggests that D'Annunzio was fairly horrible to his lovers. The prose is overdone by contemporary standards -- and I suspect also by the standards of its time -- but it hits some powerful notes. The philosophizing is a bit grandiose, and I don't buy it, but it was sometimes interesting, and a plausible representation of the character's beliefs. 


Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Review: Inside Man, by K. J. Parker

Review: Inside Man, by K. J. Parker

by Rich Horton

Inside Man is a 2021 novella by K. J. Parker (Tom Holt.) It was published by Tor.com. I got my copy from John O'Neill at Windy City Pulp and Paper a little while ago. Parker is a writer I always find entertaining in his sardonic fashion, so I brought it with me while I attended my niece Katie's wedding, figuring (correctly) that I wouldn't have much reading time, so something slim would be appropriate.

This story is set in Parker's oft-used fantasy world, but it has an oddly Christian feel to it, complete with references to Saint Michael. It's already clear that we are not to expect any particular historical consistency in this setting, and not necessarily consistency of, say, magical rules either. It's just a convenient frame for stories. (The ISFDB suggests that this is part of a series with Prosper's Demon (2020), which does treat the idea of demonic possession with the goal of influencing future events in a "long game", much like this novel, but otherwise it doesn't seem closely related. I will say that I liked Prosper's Demon rather more than this book.)

The narrator is the Devil, or, as he quickly explains, part of the Devil's organization, thus the Devil in the "My Name is Legion, for we are many" sense. He has been demoted to liturgical compliance at a monastery -- attempting to disrupt the prayers for the soul of a particularly foul sinner who gave the monastery a bunch of money. The ambiguity implied there -- the side of God is taking money to allow a terrible man to escape his deserved punishment while the Devil is trying to stop that -- is part of the point: the narrator argues that he and his fellows are a necessary counterpoint to the hosts of Heaven.

Over time we learn the reason for the narrator's demotion -- a traumatic event while he was possessing the mind of an unborn child with the intention of subverting him as an adult. We learn a bit about unfortunate event in the distant past -- the Rebellion. We learn a lot of Satanic bureaucracy. And we encounter a new assignment for the narrator -- back on the front lines, so to speak -- which is entangled with all that history. 

It's reliably amusing and provoking in Parker's trademark cynical fashion. There is a mass of spot on Biblical references, lots of snark, and a very twisty and clever plot. And there is a certain amount of philosophical/theological speculation. And some real feeling. But it still feels to me like pretty minor K. J. Parker. Not quite as intricate as his novels (not surprisingly, due to length), and lacking the extended passages on how things work that are an abiding pleasure in other Parker stories. (There are also no women characters, which is not necessarily an issue, as Parker's typical view of male/female relationships is quite odd and quite dark. This can be profoundly effective and affecting, as in Tom Holt's masterwork, The Walled Orchard; but it can also come off as unproductively and unconvincingly cynical.)

If you like Parker, you'll enjoy this novella. But it's not essential.

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Hugo Nominees for Best Novel, 2024: review summary

Hugo Nominees for Best Novel, 2024: review summary 

by Rich Horton

Over the past few weeks (with one exception that I read last year) I have read and reviewed all six novels on the 2024 Hugo ballot. Those reviews are linked below, in alphabetical order by author:

The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, by Shannon Chakraborty

The Saint of Bright Doors, by Vajra Chandrasekera

Translation State, by Ann Leckie

Starter Villain, by John Scalzi

Some Desperate Glory, by Emily Tesh

Witch King, by Martha Wells

As I think my reviews make clear, none of these books are terrible -- they all have redeeming values, and I'm glad I read them all. Having said that much, it also might be clear that I'm having a hard time enthusiastically supporting any of them for the Hugo. Is that a statement about the state of SF today, or the state of me as a reader of SF today? Probably both, in all honesty.

In my reviews, I identified one even split between the novels: there are three nominees who are all a bit older than the other three, and who have all won Hugos for Best Novel. These are Leckie, Scalzi, and Wells. The other three nominees are actually not terribly young, but they are younger than the others and I believe the only Hugo nomination among them, before this year, is Chakraborty's for Best Series. (And Chakraborty's nominee is her fourth novel -- Chandrasekera and Tesh's books are first novels.)

There is another even split: three are Fantasy (The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi, The Saint of Bright Doors, and Witch King), the other three are Science Fiction. In my view there is a third split -- this may be a more controversial statement, but it's what I think -- three of them are more ambitious, while three strike me as, let's say, "entertainment first" (which doesn't preclude ambition, to be sure.) The more ambitious books, I claim, are Translation State, The Saint of Bright Doors, and Some Desperate Glory. By ambitious, I mean to suggest that these three books tackle knottier themes, and introduce more intriguing and original SFnal or Fantastical ideas. 

Two of the books are the first books in series (The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi and Witch King), while Translation State is an entry in a long set of books set in the same universe, but it is essentially a standalone (thought there are definite references to events in other books.)

One other link to note -- and this has nothing to do with the quality of any of the books -- is that only one of them (Translation State) has a love story, or romance plot, of any real significance. That doesn't mean there aren't romantic relationships depicted in the other books (though there really isn't one in Starter Villain) but that those aren't central to the novels, and indeed are mostly quite backgrounded. Mind you, this isn't a complaint -- it's a well-motivated artistic choice in each case, I think. (For example, The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi is noticeably about a group of middle-aged people, a couple of whom are married, and a couple more do have love interests but those are just a small part of their depiction.)

So -- in summary, what do I think of these books -- how do I rank them? I'll state my prejudices first. As hinted above, I do prize ambition -- both literary ambition (I definitely give extra points for good prose) and thematic ambition -- asking difficult questions, and presenting intriguing and original ideas. Especially science fictional ideas: cool extrapolation, and the treatment of technologies or scientific ideas that raise interesting question or that throw light on broader ideas, such as, say,  what does it mean to be intelligent. I also concede that, for the Hugo, I will tend to favor Science Fiction over Fantasy. This isn't an absolute rule: a great enough Fantasy (Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, say) will get my vote over even very good SF, but it is my prejudice. Partly this is simply that I personally am more of an SF fan, and partly it is a feeling that there is a very prestigious award for Fantasy (the World Fantasy Award) and I think it would be OK if the Hugos took (or took back?) a similar role for SF. Having said that, I concede that Fantasy absolutely is eligible for Hugos, and I'm happy for anyone or everyone else to disagree with me and vote for all the Fantasy they want to! (And, too, I concede the difficulty of drawing a bright line between the two genres.)

So, here's my current ballot:

1. Translation State

2. The Saint of Bright Doors

3. The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi

4. Witch King

5. Some Desperate Glory

6. Starter Villain

An SF novel comes first, but then somehow the three Fantasies! I am already inconsistent. Though, frankly, it was Translation State's SFnal virtues that broke a tie between it and The Saint of Bright Doors. I simply felt that the flaws of the last two novels on the list were sufficient that I couldn't vote for them any higher -- Some Desperate Glory's artificiality, weak worldbuilding, and arbitrary (and manipulative) characterization hurt it, and Starter Villain's insubstantiality, basically, hurt it.

I thought the best written book was The Saint of Bright Doors. All three "veteran" writers do solid professional work, but in no case did their prose stand out for me; and honestly I thought the other two books would have benefitted from another pretty strict pass of line editing. Both the Chakraborty book and the Wells book were, for me, quite fun reads, really solid adventure fantasy, but not much beyond that. (They are also both first books in series, and while they do each conclude their central stories quite fairly -- the reader isn't cheated -- there are unanswered questions that won't be treated with until later volumes -- this isn't a fatal flaw but can serve as another tiebreaker.)

(I'll also caution that I might grade a bit harder for Hugo nominees -- I think that's fair, really.)

What was my nomination ballot? Here it is, again with links to my reviews:

1. Orbital, by Samantha Harvey

2. Terrace Story, by Hilary Leichter

3. The Terraformers, by Annalee Newitz

4. Shigidi and the Brass Head of Obalufon, by Wole Talabi

5. The Scarab Mission, by James L. Cambias (actually not on my nomination ballot because I read it too late)

Three SF novels, one odd borderline case (the Leichter) and one Fantasy. Talabi's novel is the only first novel on my list. The first three are very ambitious books, and the last two are more on the "entertainment" side but also do engage with interesting and important ideas. I will say that the Talabi and Cambias novels could have been replaced on my nomination list with the Leckie and Chandrasekera books -- I may well have ended up ranking them third and fourth if they'd been on the ballot but it would be close. As far as prose goes, Orbital is one of the most beautifully written books I've read in some time. Leichter's writing is quite different but also very effective. Newitz and Cambias fit in the "solid professional prose" category, and so too does Talabi though I think there are some first novel flaws in his book. 

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Hugo Nominee Review: Starter Villain, by John Scalzi

Hugo Nominee Review: Starter Villain, by John Scalzi

by Rich Horton

Here is the sixth and last of my reviews of the 2024 Hugo nominees for Best Novel

I don't think John Scalzi needs any introduction. Suffice it to say he has won three Hugos, including one for Best Novel (Redshirts, in 2013), and been nominated many more times. He's a very popular writer, and deservedly so -- I've enjoyed those of his novels I've read quite a lot.

Starter Villain is in many ways of a type with his other novels. It's told in his usual rather snarky voice. It's fast-moving and fun. I'm happy I read it (listened to it, I should say, as narrated by Wil Wheaton.)

The narrator is Charlie Fitzer. He's a journalist who has lost his job due to the general troubles print journalism is experiencing, and is making do by substitute teaching. He is divorced, and had been living with his father for the past several years. But his father has died, and now he's living in his father's house, while his half-siblings pressure him to sell so they can get their chunk of the inheritance. His career plan is to buy the local pub, in Barrington, IL,* and keep it going, as he has many fond memories of it. He has a cat, and soon will get another. And now his uncle, Jake Baldwin, his mother's brother, has also died. He never really knew Jake, who had a falling out with Charlie's father when Charlie's mother died. But Jake was actually very rich, as the owner of a number of parking garages. Charlie's last contact with Jake was a wedding gift, in which Jake included a brief note that predicted to the month when Charlie's wife would leave  him.

So far -- so what? But then a mysterious woman shows up at Charlie's house. Mathilda Morrison had been Jake Baldwin's chief assistant, and she wants Charlie to stand up for Jake's funeral. Apparently no one else liked Jake, as evidenced by the extremely hostile audience at the funeral. And shortly thereafter, Charlie's house is blown up -- luckily while he (and his cats) are outside, though a Federal agent is inside -- which means that Charlie might be a suspect in a case of arson and murder. Fortunately, his cats lead him to a nearby house, and reveal that they are intelligent and can communicate via a special computer and keyboard. And Mathilda Morrison soon tells him that he has inherited Uncle Jake's entire fortune -- which turns out to comprise a great many businesses besides the parking garages.

Soon Charlie is at Uncle Jake's private island, which turns out to be something like a superhero lair, complete with satellite destroying weapons, intelligent dolphins that want to form a union, and a hidden storeroom containing treasures looted by the Nazis. Charlie learns that he is now a villain, in charge of Jake's array of companies, many of which are involved in secretly inventing disruptive technology. He also learns that there is an entire convocation of villains, engaged in similar enterprises, and that Jake was an enemy of that convocation ... and that he must soon visit them for their yearly convention at Lake Como.

Naturally, when a bunch of supervillains get together, there is a great deal of potential for violence, and backstabbing, and shady dealings. Charlie is thrown into this world, with his only help being Morrison and his cats. And so things go -- there are plenty of twists coming, lots of implausible events that are only partly explained by the final revelations, lots more snark, plus negotiations with the oppressed dolphins, etc. etc.

It's a fun novel to read -- Scalzi can do this sort of thing by reflex, it seems. But it's really pretty insubstantial. None of it makes much sense. The science is implausible (as you expect from supervillain stories.) The depictions of evil corporations and of the dolphins' labor-organizing efforts are profoundly unconvincing. (The Hugo Book Club does a better job than me in criticizing this here.) Charlie himself is kind of a thin character, and his eventual happy ending is very predictable and also not terribly convincing. It's decent light entertainment -- it's worth reading -- but in my book it's not worthy of a Hugo, nor even, really, a nomination.

*The novel depicts Barrington as a sort of typical modest suburb -- and I'm not saying the neighborhoods described don't exist. But I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and my internal image of Barrington (where Gene Wolfe lived, by the way) is of a quite affluent suburb, even more so than my hometown of Naperville. (And a recent visit to the environs of Barrington did not contradict that image!) This isn't a complaint, mind you -- I dare say that the parts of Barrington Scalzi describes are real. 

Monday, June 3, 2024

Hugo Nominee Review: Witch King, by Martha Wells

Hugo Nominee Review: Witch King, by Martha Wells

by Rich Horton

Here is the fifth of my reviews of the 2024 Hugo nominees for Best Novel. Martha Wells published her first novel, The Element of Fire, when she was 28, in 1993. It was well-received, getting a nomination for the Compton Crook Award for Best First Novel, and she went on to publish five novels and a half-dozen or so short stories in its series, collectively called Ile-Rien. She began another series, the Books of the Raksura, in 2011, and that too comprises five novels and some short fiction, and it was shortlisted for the 2018 Hugo for Best Series. All those stories are Fantasy, and until 2017 her only science fiction was some work in the Star Wars and Stargate franchises. But in 2017 she published All Systems Red, the first novella in her Murderbot series, which is definitely SF. It was an immediate sensation. I remember the buzz about Murderbot at the 2017 World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio, where Wells was the Toastmaster. The stories and novels have since won four Hugos: two for Best Novella, one for Best Novel, and one for Best Series. I think they are definitely deserving, for what that's worth. More recently, she has nobly taken to withdrawing Murderbot stories from award consideration, presumably feeling that they've received their fair share of recognition. This includes this year, in which she withdrew Nebula and Hugo nominations for the Murderbot novel System Collapse. But Witch King, the first in a new Fantasy series, is still on the ballot.

I have only read a couple of Wells' fantasy short stories (which were quite good) -- the only longer works I've read by her until now are Murderbot stories. So Witch King is an introduction of sorts, for me, to this important aspect of her oeuvre. I will add that according to the Amazon listing, the book is the first in the Rising World trilogy, but it works quite well as a standalone novel. (That said, there is plenty of room for more stories in this world.)

The novel is told on two threads. The main character is Kai, a demon prince who is called the Witch King. The novel opens as he wakes from some form of imprisonment underwater. It turns out he has been wakened by an expositor -- some form of magic worker -- who planned to make him a familiar to increase his power. This doesn't go well for him. Kai ends up freeing his friend Ziede, a witch (an actual witch -- not a demon called Witch King!) They escape, and realize quickly that while they were gone Ziede's wife Tahren Stargard, an Immortal Blessed, has also been captured and imprisoned -- an action that threatens the stability of the treaties maintaining the Rising World, a new polity that emerged after the Hierachs' War, some 60 years earlier. 

Lots of questions already! What are demons? What are witches? What are Immortal Blessed? What are expositors? What are Hierarchs? We learn the answers over time. (In essence, all are different sorts of magic users. This world also has mortals, some of whom can become magic users such as expositors.) Each type of magic is different, with limits and costs. The other question is -- what happened 60 years ago? And for that, we get the other thread.

This thread also involves Kai, Ziede, and Tahren (after all, they are all immortal to some degree or other.) Kai is now (then) Kai-Enna, a demon who has taken the body of a dead member of the Saredi people, according the the terms of a treaty Kai's (human) grandmother established, whereby demons can come from the Underearth to the surface to live among the Saredi -- but only by occupying the body of a dead human. We see Kai-Enna as an adolescent -- but war is coming, as the mysterious Hierarchs advance, using their tremendous magical weapons to obliterate all in their path. The Immortal Blessed have allied with the Hierrachs, but one, Tahren Stargard, has rebelled and tries to help the mortals resist the Hierarchs. Kai, having taken another body after Enna's death, ends up imprisoned. But with the help of a brilliant mortal Prince-heir, Bashasa, he and the witch Ziede and Tahren manage to kill two of the Hierarchs -- something thought impossible. But in the process Kai takes over the body of a living expositor -- a terrible betrayal of the agreement the demons had made. This alienates some demons, but Kai and Bashasa and company are more concerned with taking the battle to the Hierarchs.

Meanwhile, in the more recent thread, Kai, Ziede, and a growing band of allies (a street child they rescued from the expositor, some soldiers another expositor had enslaved, Tahren's brother Dahin, and more) journey to recover a "finding stone" that may lead them to Tahren, while being chased by what appear to be members of a conspiracy to disrupt the Rising World. 

I don't want to say much more. The plot is well executed, and both threads are great fun. The magic is effectively portrayed and in context convincing. The political questions are worthwhile. There are deep mysteries in this world that may provide material for further books. The gender background is intriguing if kind of understated -- for example, Kai is a demon who strongly identifies as male, but he occupies both female and male bodies without stress or change in his personal identification. Tahren and Ziede are both female and are married, and Ziede has a child, but it's not clear (to me, perhaps I'm obtuse) who the father is or if Tahren is even though she's female. The battles are well described, the geography is interesting. 

It's a good, fun, novel. But is it a Hugo winner? I'm not so sure. For one thing, it's -- well, it's in many ways a typical fantasy novel. A well done fantasy novel, to be sure, but while it rings some interesting changes on some of the tropes it plays with, it doesn't really do anything spectacularly new. I liked it. I'm glad I read it. I'll read more in the series as they come. But, for my Hugo votes, I want something at another level.