Sunday, July 12, 2015

Paolo Bacigalupi's THE WATER KNIFE

This is maybe going to sound funny, but it was with a queer sense of relief that I learned the existence of, and then quickly read, The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi's dystopian look at the future of the American West when the water crisis its been denying for centuries finally can't be ignored anymore. I was relieved because this is a book I've long thought I was going to have to write (for reasons I'll get into in a bit) but wasn't sure I was ever going to be emotionally ready to write, or publish, or become known for having written it, etc. So I'm very glad Bacigalupi did. And hey, he probably did a better job than I would, anyway.

But so, I'm a fifth generation Wyomingite and a former elected official, yo. I've spent half my life dealing with the Western United States' deeply weird relationship with its most scarce and precious resource in one way or another. I've grown up canoeing and failing to water ski on gigantic reservoirs formed by dams meant to divert mighty rivers to feed thirsty cities states away. I've struggled to meet the needs of a small town whose water rights on the North Platte River are a cobbled-together mess, some senior to, some junior to those of surrounding ranches, and some of the "town's" rights were actually borrowed from an impossibly swanky nearby country club that currently owns more water than it needs but has the right to yank back that water at any time. Sometime after my tenure in office, the town decided to, as we say, take its hose out of the North Platte River (which joins up with the South Platte River to form the Platte, which flows into the Missouri River, which flows into the Mississippi River, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico, meaning that actually I'm not on the watershed affected by the strife of this story, but we've got our own problems, I assure you. Read up on Nebraska vs Wyoming sometime. Hoo dogie.). I read Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert: The American West and its Disappearing Water at least once a year, if not twice, just to keep the knowledge and history it imparts ever-fresh in my mind. Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting. Etc.

What I'm saying is, this story is pretty much a telling of half of the recurring nightmares that have plagued my life since the first time I asked the wrong guy why he hated Jimmy Carter so much in the 1970s (hint: nothing at all to do with the Iran hostage crisis). You don't want to know about the other half. But anyway.

The book's title refers to one of its main characters, as well as to a general way of life that has come to prevail in the American West of the not too distant future, a West that is destroying itself not because of any sudden cataclysm that abruptly undermined its grip on civilization, but because nobody ever took warnings like Cadillac Desert (a book referenced more than a few times in this novel) seriously. Meanwhile, every problem it detailed or predicted has come to pass. Aquifers that were being mined at the rate of five feet a year but nature could only recharge at the rate of maybe a half-inch a year have run dry. Dams are silting up. Cyclical drought and climate change have stricken the land HARD. And water has started to follow money, as it ever has, but now at an aggressive and highly accelerated rate, and usually at gunpoint.

Las Vegas is holding on no matter what, largely thanks to the efforts of an omnicompetent ice queen, one Catherine Case, the Queen of the Colorado, a warlord disguised as a water commissioner, who directs armies of engineers, lawyers, politicians, various flavors of military and paramilitary groups, and any other resource she needs, really, all in service of keeping the Belagio fountains foaming. Water that can't be bought or stolen by bureaucratic methods is taken by force even unto, as our story opens, a full-scale apache helicopter-and-missile attack on a municipal water treatment plant in Arizona.

The guy in charge of that operation, Angel, is her number one Water Knife, a guy who goes wherever she bids cutting off other people's water supplies with ruthless efficiency, by any means necessary. Coming off the success of the water plant destruction, he's sent to, where else, Phoenix, in this book a scene of disaster porn that exceeds even our own decade's weird fixation on the urban decay of Detroit. Phoenix should never have been there in the first place. This was known before it was established and allowed to grow. And grow. And grow. And now, aside from California, which is in a water war league of its very own, it is the last rival to Las Vegas, but it has no Catherine Case to run its show. It is thus doomed even if Case and Angel do not succeed in hastening its destruction.

Enter the novel's second protagonist, muckracking journalist Lucy, who has "gone native" in Phoenix despite being a daughter of the water-rich East Coast. A source of hers indicated to her that he was onto something that was going to change everything for Phoenix. An original and impossibly senior water right that couldn't be denied? An untapped aquifer? Who knows? Certainly not Lucy, because of course somebody tortures her contact to death.

A third strand in the novel's braid is a young girl, Maria, living a desperate life in a madman's walled fiefdom in what's left of suburban Phoenix. She, too, has had an encounter with someone suggesting that things are about to change in a big, big way. But what can she do about it? She's just a little water seller who is under constant pressure to give everything up for a career as a "bangbang girl" and earn her living on her back like all the other desperate refugees from Texas do. At least while they're young and pretty. I don't even want to think about the options left to middle aged or elderly women in this world. Especially since, of course, that is left to my imagination.

Maria, despite her status as cliche plucky survivor-victim, actually winds up being the most interesting character in the book, because she is the only one who is truly looking forward (well, except maybe Case, but she's not a character so much as a figurant or force, the power looming in the background). She has vivid memories of her father and his delusions that somehow, somewhere, matters can be returned to "normal", meaning to how they were (or how he believed they were, but of course Maria's present gives lie to a lot of her father's -- and our -- delusions about his past), has seen such fixations as detrimental to her survival, and so is focused every moment on adapting to what is. Angel is the title character, but he's the tool of people trying to preserve the old world for a new 1% at the expense of the new 99% (geographical rather than economic). Lucy is documenting what she can only see as collapse, and trying to make the rest of the world care enough to try to stop it. But Maria, Maria sees that change has already done changed stuff, is still changing stuff, and we'd best just get used to that since it's always been that way.

And thank goodness for that, because otherwise the message of this book is even more hopeless than that of Reisner's, for all of its having cloaked that message in big showy ACKSHUN scenes and large scale disaster porn. Conspiracy theorists and fighters of The Power have it all wrong. The people on top of the pyramid cracking the whips have no more idea of what they're doing than the rest of us. They can't be relied on to fix what's broken anymore than they could have been relief on to maintain it when it wasn't. Hierarchy is not the answer.

Random little people running around having ideas and sharing them probably is. The good ideas get copied and spread. Sometimes the bad ones do, too, but eventually we stop spreading magic salve on the blade that cut us and start spreading bread mold on the wound instead.

Maybe eventually we won't need Queens either.

Meanwhile, this novel. it's exciting enough not to feel like just a thinly disguised think piece. It's not too preachy. It's full of surprises. And it's got great characters. So I think even if you couldn't care less about its premise, you're going to enjoy the book. Warren Ellis is right to compare it to John Brunner. I'd throw in more than a few nods to J.G. Ballard, too. It'll make a great movie in a few years, if it stays out of certain hands.

Meanwhile, well, I'm thirsty. Time for a nice cold glass of slightly radioactive groundwater as filtered through my brand name pitcher. My dog could use some, too. Slurp.

Winston Graham's THE BLACK MOON: A NOVEL OF CORNWALL

George Warleggan finished the last novel of the original Poldark Quartet, Warleggan, feeling very much like his star was on the ascendant. He's married the girl of his lustful dreams, taken over the ancestral home of the nemesis of his dreams, and has a baby on the way. Er, well, his new wife, the former Elizabeth Poldark* has a baby on the way, anyway. But (mild spoilers for that novel ahoy!), while his book was called Warleggan, the baby coming is probably one who should have (cough) quite another, but very familiar, surname. Cough.

Whether or not there's a cuckoo in George's nest -- said maybe-cuckoo being born in the first chapter during a lunar eclipse, giving this novel, The Black Moon, its title -- he's got some trouble on his hands in this one, as his lively little Poldark stepson has discovered a delightfully hilarious way to irritate George (at least, by proxy) and just cannot stop doing so, even though it gets everyone else in trouble until someone gets caught in the act. D'oh!

And then there's the governess George has engaged for his wife's older son, Elizabeth's cousin Morwenna, who is nowhere near as pretty as Elizabeth (who is still considered a classic beauty nonpareil even after years of marriage and motherhood and household management) but still catches the eye of a man or two, one highly suitable by George's standards, one less so. Very less so. Because this is still a Poldark novel, and Ross is still part of the picture, and so is his wife Demelza, and Demelza comes from a poor family of miners, and her brothers have grown up to be big strapping handsome men, and her little brother Drake is the strappingest and handsomest of all.

Hey, it wouldn't be a Poldark novel without a pair of star-crossed lovers, would it? Verity and Andrew. Caroline and Dwight (though their course of not-smooth true love still hasn't gotten them to the altar as of this book; Dwight went for sailoring last novel, remember,  and in this one has gotten himself both shipwrecked and captured by some very cranky villagers in the middle of Revolutionary France. Oops), meet Morwenna and Drake. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

Meanwhile, Ross Poldark, now happily married through four novels and then some, with a growing son and a new baby daughter and a wife he loves dearly, with a prospering mine and money to spend on fixing up his house, can't stand contentment. When he learns of Dwight's plight in France, and that Caroline has managed to persuade the government to do something about it (sort of), well of course Ross has to get involved. Even though it's dangerous. Or perhaps because it's dangerous. Because Ross Poldark. Duh.

And then there is one more Poldark, who until this volume has barely been a figurant but roars forward for key moments in this book: Agatha. Agatha is Ross' great-aunt, an old maid who has seen six generations of her family living out their lives in the house that is now George's. She's been good for an excuse for Ross to visit and for moments of comic relief here and there, but now she's finally a character. And what a character she is. And her little cat, too. Vale, Miss Poldark. Your last barb hit home.

Interestingly, The Black Moon was written a good 20+ years after the previous book. Winston Graham apparently got tired of his career as a highly successful and beloved author of historical fiction and turned his hand to mainstream work for a while. Of course he was good at this too (Marnie, anyone?), but he was eventually persuaded to return to this beloved world of miners and fishermen and barely-making-it-landed gentry in 18th Century Cornwall. I would say he didn't miss a beat, but really, I do detect slight differences in his prose in this later Poldark book. The quality is still first rate, but it's a bit more economical, more precise, less wild. He's grown as a writer, we see, but sometimes miss his excesses. Or at least I do.

But still, it's a Poldark novel, a novel of Cornwall, full of scenery porn, resource drama, borderline class warfare, and ROMANCE. One can't help but love it, and be glad there are still several more to go.

*First love of Ross Poldark, wife of the late Francis Poldark, mother of Geoffrey Charles Poldark, etc.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Amanda Downum's DREAMS OF SHREDS & TATTERS

It's not in any way a secret that Dreams of Shreds & Tatters is meant as author Amanda Downum's extension of the Yellow King/Carcosa mythos developed by Robert W. Chambers and played with by the likes of Machen and Lovecraft. Just look at the cover. Indeed, I entered into this worried that it might all be a bit too on-the-nose and in-your-ribs. But I trusted the people who recommended this to me and kept going, and found it all no more unsubtle than the first season of True Detective in that regard.

I won't say that Downum has achieved a perfect modernization of Chambers weird oeuvre, for all its concern with artists and galleries and the new Europe of Canada, but rather that Downum has achieved something I find actually quite more satisfying; she's tackled the Yellow King as Tim Powers would, bringing the weird and the uncanny and the unholy and the numinous squarely into a plausible modern setting, peopled with sympathetically sketched modern characters who are themselves dealing with modern issues. All while extending the touchstone mythos just enough, and blending it beautifully with "real" mythology, chiefly the stories of Orpheus and the Maenads.

Downham's King is thoroughly part of the Yellow Book tradition. As one of the other archetypal figures we encounter describes him: "The King fancies himself a patron of the arts but he'll take anyone he can, anyone talented and foolish enough to find this place. He offers them visions. If they survive that he gives them power. In exchange for service."

The first to succumb to the King in Yellow's blandishments is Blake, a promising young artist who followed a lover and the prospect of greater recognition for his talents to Vancouver, where he has fallen in with a gallery owner, Rainer, who is more than he seems. But it's only when Liz, the best friend he left behind, follows her nightmares as to his fate across the continent to that city that we even begin to see Blake's true predicament: under Rainer's guidance, he has created a work of art that bridges the gap between the world of the King in Yellow and our own. By the time Liz catches up with Blake, his lover is dead and he's in a coma. And Rainer and girlfriend Antje are not being super forthcoming about all that.

Then there's Rae, sort of this book's Dondi Snayheever, a young goth-ish woman who has gotten hooked on it substance called Mania, which brings its users to the parallel and horrible world of Carcosa, here imagined as a city on a doomed planet orbiting the red giant star Aldebaran. It's in describing Rae's experiences that Downum really goes batty with the prose (which, really, you're going to read this novel for the prose and imagery more than for anything else):
"A shudder wracked her, strong enough to bring her to her knees, doubled over on the cold floorboards. Darkness spread through her veins, blue - black worms squirming under the skin of her wrists. Her teeth tingled and her mouth tasted of copper.* Her jaw ached with the effort of holding back a wild bacchanal cry."
No one escapes unscathed, including the reader. If, like many left hankering for more of his Yellow Majesty after last year's televisual exploration, or if you're getting antsy waiting for Tim Powers to crank out something new, check this one out. It'll take the edge off those cravings for a bit. It worked for me!

*These people taste copper a lot, by the way.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Mark Lawrence's THE LIAR'S KEY


The first book in this second/concurrent Broken Empire series, Prince of Fools, confounded my expectations a bit, presenting us in Prince Jal with a hero way more likeable than the sort-of-psychopath Jorg Ancrath of the original series and showing us a completely different part of these princes' shared post-apocalyptic fantasy universe -- a latter day Scandanavia teeming with nu-Vikings and necromancers and other monstrous delights, oh my. So it was quite a delightful read.

So, I'm happy to say, is this second volume. The Liar's Key is named for an artifact that Jal's bound-by-magic traveling companion and sort-of friend, Snorri, wrested from enemies at the end of the Prince of Fools. The titular key, ostensibly created by Loki, yes, that Loki, the god of mischief/evil/etc, can open any door, anywhere, even the doorway to the land of the dead. Where Snorri very much wants to visit, since he wants to pull an Orpheus and get back his dead wife -- and children, including an unborn son that died when his wife was killed. To mix mythologies a bit, as one does.

As we might imagine (shades of that fantastic miniseries The Lost Room), lots of entities want that key, including the Big Baddie from the original trilogy, the Dead King (and no, it's not Marius Helles, though wouldn't that be fun?). So now Jal and Snorri and the last surviving member of Snorri's Viking clan, the marvelously un-stereotypical Tuttugu, are on the run even as they follow a trail of clues that purport to lead them to death's door.

But... this is the middle volume of a trilogy, and so Lawrence is still more interested in deepening, rather than explaining/solving his mysteries. And mysteries do abound, as Jal and company leave Scandinavia and head south and east to Jal's homeland and beyond, with everybody chasing them, Hallelujah Trail-like, and setting traps for them.

In the process, we learn more about Hal as he learns more about himself -- literally -- through the magical efforts of one of his new traveling companions, Kara.* Anytime he tastes his own blood (which is fairly often, what with all the fighting he and his little crew get up to), he either flashes back to forgotten-but-shocking events from his own childhood (he witnessed his mother's murder when he was seven! And he knows the guy who killed her! It's very fishy that he forgot this!), or from his grandmother's, the Red Queen's, and that of her uncanny siblings, Garyus and the Silent Sister. The Silent Sister being the witch who's spell bound Jal to Snorri in the first place...

So, like Jorg before him, Jal is even more complicated than he seemed. Like Jorg before him, Jal's mind has been tampered with. Another unreliable narrator, another red herring of a story. Because it looks like all of what we've been watching in both Broken Empire series has really been a distraction. Don't look at the mages in the corners. Look at the princes, Psycho and Chickenshit. Aren't they fascinating? Pay no attention to the creepy half-blind woman behind the curtain...

And hurry up with the next volume please, Mr. Lawrence!

*The other is a fierce little red-haired Viking orphan boy, Hennan, who serves as this novel's hook into this hero's conscience. Mark Lawrence always thinks of the children.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Patrick E. McLean's THE MERCHANT ADVENTURER

We've all played those fantasy games. The ones where we loot every corpse in sight (because why not, it's not like we can smell them, or feel the slimy grossness), break into every provisions barrel, crack open every chest, perform every quest in the promise of loot, glorious loot, as much as we can carry, LOOOOOOOOOOT.

But then we get overburdened. We start having to pass up some loot, or to get rid of loot to pick up better loot. And we don't have any place to store our loot because we're still saving up for a house. A house we must buy for gold.

So what we need to do is, we need to turn that loot into gold. And for that we need to visit the Store.

Ah, the Store, whereat arcane algorithmic calculations of varying complexity (depending on the game) and fairness calculate how many pieces of gold each piece of loot is worth. And we sell and trade and unencumber ourselves. Maybe we improve our equipment a bit. Maybe we get rid of a weapon or piece of armor or object that we can't use because we're the wrong class or don't have high enough stats or whatever.

Ever thought about what happens to the stuff we sell and trade after that? Ever wonder what the NPC behind the counter does when we're not haggling with him?

Patrick McLean did, and he decided he'd find out, and thus we have The Merchant Adventurer, a novel that celebrates all of the silly approximations we play through in fantasy games but sends out a fat old man with a Bag of Holding full of all of the best stuff from his store, on a quest of his very own!

Boltec, our titular hero, reminds me more than a little bit of another fat old man hero whom I loved a lot, Adoulla from Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon. In his youth, he was as starry-eyed and keen to be a hero as Relan, the eager young farmboy he has sort of backed into befriending; now he is tired and cynical and keen on nothing but his wealth -- or almost nothing.

Turns out, and he's as surprised as anyone, he also loves one Asarah, the supremely confident, competent, and beautiful in that "mature" way owner and operator of the tavern across the street from his shop.*

The tavern that gets burned down when an evil wizard and his orc army sack the village and make of with Asarah, not for prurient purposes, but because the wizard needs somebody on staff who can make 
a decent sandwich.

Don't worry, it gets addressed.

But lest you think this is going to be a story involving a lot of training and work to recover lost fighting skills, or to train up a new generation... Nah! Boltac knows his skill set. Boltac is going to use his skill set. Boltac is going to make a deal.

Along the way we encounter lots of other amusing archetypes from the fantasy game world, including a shifty thief and the aforementioned wizard (who has really had it with all of these adventurers interrupting his studies to try and steal his stuff), but there is also, of all things, a sympathetic orc character, Samga.

I kind of love Samga almost as much as I love Boltac, you guys.

The resulting novel is a fun little romp (though yes, it could maybe have used one more whack from the Claymore of Copy-Editing) , one that was obviously even more fun for MacLean to write than for us to read. Fun for everybody!

Except maybe that poor troll trapped under the Mace of Encumbrance. Poor fella. So confused when his dinner offered him a big shiny toy to hold for a moment.

Hee hee!

*So, yes, cast Alex Kingston as Asarah and be done with it. Maybe Ian MacNiece as Boltac while you're at it.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Winston Graham's WARLEGGAN: A NOVEL OF CORNWALL


Lordy, I do love me some tempestuous, romantic historical fiction now and then, and it doesn't get much more tempestuous, romantic or historical than Winston Graham's wonderful Poldark novels, of which Warleggan is the fourth. And possibly the most tempestuous, if not the most romantic.

Though it's quite the soap opera, is Warleggan. The title, of course, referring to the family name of those dastardly anti-Poldarks, the gotten-up and unscrupulous nouveau riche Warleggans, whose scion, George, grew up with the cousins Poldark but never quite gained their acceptance because his family was so very, very declasse.

But here he is, getting a novel named for him! Do the Poldarks finally admit him to their charmed-not-really-charmed circle? Do they finally see that he's not the villain of their tale but merely a different kind of hero? Does he get a happy ending?

Well. Sort of. Yes and no. Um.

This most soap-operatic yet of Graham's wonderful Novels of Cornwall doesn't feature George Warleggan all that much (though certainly more than did the prior novel, Jeremy Poldark, feature that boy, who spent almost all of that book in his mommy's tummy). He looms over events somewhat, yes, and it is certainly a carefully executed action of his that is the most important development in the overall Poldark plot, but...

But it is the affairs of yet another pair of star-crossed lovers that hog most of the reader's attention. Lovers and the Poldark who abets them, but this time it is mostly Ross playing cupid rather than Demelza, for one of the lovers is his friend Dr. Dwight Enys (he of the prior tragic live affair in assign earlier novel).

Meanwhile, Ross and Demelza are not themselves the picture of wedded bliss, because Ross's first love, Elizabeth, who jilted him while he was away in America getting his rakish facial scar, is still a big part of their lives. She jilted Ross to marry his cousin Francis, meaning she is both family and neighbor, and then [REDACTED TRAGEDY] strikes and suddenly she becomes an even bigger problem...

And then there is Warleggan. Remember Warleggan? This is a book named for Warleggan. When I watched the original BBC adaptation as a  tween, I gnashed my teeth at him, I bit my thumb at him, I spit at the mention of his name. As an adult better attuned to problems of class and economics, though, I kind of feel for him. His family's success has thrown him into social circles that his family's background has not prepared him to navigate well. He has decent enough instincts for how to behave, has learned what fork to use and all that rot, but he is not to the classy (and somewhat impoverished but still one has FORBEARS) manor born. If the cousins Poldark had been nicer to him as young'uns they might all have been friends, or at least business partners. But nope.

But so, can we blame him for seizing the opportunity he does? Sure, he's kind of a jerk about it, but he has feelings, too, and he didn't just one day decide a chip on his shoulder would set off his slightly coarse good looks, right?

And anyway, he might not entirely be getting what he wants. Hur hur hur. He might only have given his NAME to his son, IYKWIM.

The first four Poldark books are often regarded as a quartet, and to a degree things are decently enough rapped up here, but I find there are eight more "novels of Cornwall", some yet with Poldark in the title, so I'll keep on reading them.

And yes, I had a cheeky peek at the first episode of the new adaptation, but promised my mom I'd wait and watch the rest with her when it airs on PBS here in the states later this year. I see it's got a more lavish budget than the original, and lots more scenery pork, but I don't find the cast to be any improvement on Robin Ellis, Angharad Rees et al. But they might grow on me, these new actors, and I know Ellis has a small part in NuPoldark. We shall see.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Howard of Warwick's THE HERETICS OF DE'ATH

You may recall last fall when my book-crazy mother, fan of all things with even a hint of medieval mystery fiction, turned me on to Howard of Warwick and his truly side-splitting historical farce, The Domesday Book, No Not That One. I was doubled over, I was in tears, I was gasping for air. I took many months to recover from teh funneh.

Then I finally attempted another of Mr. Of Warwick's books, and while I did not have quite the same life-threatening experiences, I did have a pretty good time getting to know one Brother Hermitage, who made a cameo appearance in Domesday but whose true character awaited discovery.

His true character being sort of an idiot savant Brother William of Baskerville, or a very sheltered Sherlock Holmes. And yes, he has an Adso/Watson of sorts in the redoubtable person of one Wat the Weaver, purveyor of pornographic tapestries, in other words, a perfect wordly foil to the decidedly unworldly Hermitage.*

In this first novel of his chronicles, Hermitage finds himself in a situation somewhat similar to that which made Brother William famous**, namely, a murder in a monastery.***Or at least a death, one which seems perfectly natural at first, but the innocent-seeming narrative of which is quickly seized on by powers greater than Hermitage as a way to further decidedly un-innocent ends.

How great those powers are, what is their scheme, and how it all relates to an exceedingly obscure and farcically pointless theological argument (did Jesus get sand in his shoes while enduring his 40 days in the wilderness?) (No, really, that's the point of contention) is kept secret until the denouement, when an entire novel's worth of bizarre and maddening tension is released as rapidly -- and perhaps with much the same sound -- as a balloon that has been inflated, but not tied off, flies around a room.

Or, in other words, this time around, the belly laughs are saved up for a big gasping mess at the end, like, say, verbs in a German sentence. As described by my mom, anyway.****

Speaking of the ending, it also sets up the most ridiculous conspiracy theory, maybe ever, concerning a certain very famous event in English history.

Now, if I can just figure out what a Dingle is. It can't be what my inner twelve-year-old thinks it is.

Great stuff. My compliments to the scribe.

*Whose name, we learn, was bestowed on him early in his monastic career, when his fellow monks realized his nature as a big ol' dork even by monk standards, and suggested strongly the he consider a life of contemplative solitude. And silence.

**I'm talking about Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, which every reasonably civilized person should at least watch in cinema form if they're not up to reading its very dense and allusive and erudite pages. But you'd be cheating yourself, however wonderful the film is (which is very).

***An edifice which rejoices in the name of De'Ath's Dingle. Um.

****I don't know much German.

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