Sunday, August 23, 2015

Michael Moorcock's BYZANTIUM ENDURES

Mention Michael "Eternal Champion" Moorcock in pretty much any crowd you'd care to and I'm 100% sure that no one is going to mention mundane historical fiction. Or social fiction. Or Russian fiction.

But he wrote some, and it was damned convincing. Someone I'm too lazy to look up again has called Byzantium Endures the best 19th century Russian novel written by a 20th century Englishman there is. And so maybe there's not so much competition in this category, and so maybe this is damning the book with faint praise, but look, this is still quite possibly the weirdest thing Moorcock has written, for all that it lacks soul-sucking swords and beast-masked warriors and six-fingered prosthetic hands that can summon monsters.*

How it manages to be weird without these kinds of things comes down to, of course, its narrator. For this is the first of four volumes, what is called the Colonel Pyat Quartet, and it's told in Pyat's own voice.**

Pyat was, or claims to have been -- yes, another unreliable narrator -- born with the 20th century and so has seen and experienced an awful lot on his journey from genteel poverty in Ukraine to the seat next to you at the English pub where he holds forth at great obnoxious and pompous length every exhausting night about what he's seen and done in his eventful life, living through two world wars, revolutions, etc. and what have you done with your life, loser?

For quite the Renaissance polymath wunderkind secret author of everything is Pyat.*** The only reason you don't know his name is conspiracy has denied him credit for his great inventions, his strategic brilliance, his general thwarted awesomeness. Most of which he blames on the Jews, even though he is himself probably Jewish, a fact which he rantingly denies at every opportunity, often (unintentionally) hilariously. He is, in short, the last guy you want to be trapped having to listen to for any length of time, and here he's gone and "written" four volumes of autobiography, apparently, all of it loaded with his overblown claims. I know a hundred guys like this one. They're in every dive bar in the land. It's never their fault they're not ruling the world. Nor that lesser men are ruling it, and letting it go to pot because they have no standards. Democracy and socialism have teamed up to turn all to kipple. No, he never uses Philip K Dick's awesome word for the deteriorated detritus of civilization, but yes, one can imagine him doing so if only he'd gotten to learn of the word.

But so why on earth should one read these things? Because, if this first volume is anything to go on, they're brilliant, and not just because of the character(s) they so vividly realize. They are absolutely convincing works of pseudo-Russian literature, full of period detail and gorgeous descriptive passages and vivid evocations of the whole lotta history through which our man has lived.

And yes, obliquely they tie into the Eternal Champion stuff, despite their complete lack of fantastic elements, for Pyat is a close friend of Mrs. Cornelius, mother of Moorcock's swinging 60s version of the Champion, Jerry Cornelius, whose adventures I have not yet read because the last time I had them handy I was too young and teenagery to want to read anything of Moorcock's that didn't involve moody sword-swinging albino sorcerors or hunted one-eyed princes or guys with big black jewels embedded in their skulls. I'm going to rectify this soon, though it's going to take me a while since I'm going to have to mess with a dead tree book to do so, and I still have big trouble manipulating dead tree books due to chronic medical conditions that have left me not very dextrous. But I'm gonna.

But there's more than just that obvious link going on, here. Check out the title: Byzantium Endures. Here, Byzantium refers to the cultural heritage of Greece as preserved and transmitted via the Eastern Roman empire, aka Byzantium, and the Orthodox church it spawned, a church that dominated the cultural and spiritual life of Russia until the Revolution. Pyat spends a lot of time rhapsodizing about this, and bemoaning the culture's decline, a decline he helped, at least in a small way, to set in motion. He had to, to survive.

An ancient and sophisticated culture that degenerated until it was finally all but destroyed by its scions. How Melniboné. How Elric.

But this is the real world, where the forces of chaos and law are lower case and lack any supernatural force. Humans did it. Humans can undo it. Byzantium endures. Sort of.

*And it seems that no one in my circle has read it. When I was debating giving this book a try, I asked a few times on Twitter if anyone had an opinion and got nothing but cricket sounds. Which is a shame!

**There's a whole lot of faux preface and appendix material dealing with how Moorcock had to stitch the narrative together from a lifetime's accumulation of notebooks and scraps on which his narrator composed his memoirs, his manifestos, etc. The effect of reading this "material" is kind of like slogging through a Christopher Tolkien hodge-podge of J.R.R. Tolkien's ephemera. I got impatient with it and finally just skipped to the story proper. The stuff at the end, proported to be raw snippets from Pyat's notes, is somewhat more engaging but it's a tough slog, in many languages and next to no complete sentences. I found it blurring, then interesting, and finally tiresome. Your mileage may vary.

***See also Philip K. Dick's CONFESSIONS OF A CRAP ARTIST.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Margaret Atwood's MADDADDAM

As my readers are aware, I've had decidedly mixed reactions to Margaret Atwood's idiocratic MaddAddam trilogy so far, and I was annoyed enough with the second volume to be at best lukewarm about taking up the third, MaddAddam.

But then I got my hands on the audiobook (bit of a mistake, although with the importance the oral storytelling tradition plays in this series, an audiobook version seemed like a naturally good fit, except, well, the narrators. Oh, the narrators*) and decided this would be good enough for pre-sleepytime ingestion and finally gave it a go.

But so I... I don't know where to begin with this one. Atwood has been crippling what should be a fascinating double-dystopia with soap opera melodrama from the start, but in this closing volume... well, it's almost all soap opera, right down to a major character spending misty of the narrative unconscious/comatose. Yep. Oh, and the badass heroine of the prior novel, Toby, gets all her teeth pulled and instead of being smart and resourceful and tough, spends most of her time simmering with jealousy of the younger, prettier women whom she suspects of having designs on her man (who is admittedly a bit of a tomcat but whatever). Seriously. Did I miss a bodysnatching?

So yeah, I mostly wound up just glad it was over. It didn't help that the audio book featured two very annoying narrators, but even had I been reading the text myself I'm pretty sure I'd have felt that way.

I will say this, though: The narrative voices are distinct and masterful, the world-building is still great, and all of the narrative threads were pulled tight. Atwood is a total pro.

Just, someone take her TV away during the daylight hours? Please? Because DAMN.

*The narrators seriously drove me nuts on this one. Narrators, plural, because there is a female narrator for the Toby-centric bits (which also include most of the Crakker dialogue), and a male for Toby's boyfriend Zeb's bits-as-told-to-Toby. The female sounds like she's voicing cartoon characters most of the time (but especially so when she has Crakker dialogue); the male is an annoying cross between Dramatic Action Movie Trailer Guy and William Shatner, though he is funny on the songs. There is a third male narrator voicing a whole new character in the last few chapters of the books that's just fine, though. Why not just let him tell the whole story? Certainly it would also have made the production a lot less gimmicky, as well.


So, here's me, tucking into the third volume of Ian Tregillis' Milkweed Triptych after having thought for two volumes that I was reading a trilogy of cool Lovecraft-flavored alternative history where bio-mechanically engineered Nazi uberpeople were pitted against heroic British warlocks, only to finally, finally penetrate the fact that what I've really been reading this whole time is the ultimate Phildickian exploration of what it would really mean to the world as a whole if an actual honest-to-Yog pre-cognitive had surfaced in our midst, by whatever means, ca the early 20th Century. Well, that and a little time travel thrown in, so said pre-cog can correct some things she missed the first pre-time pre-around. As it were.

Gretel, Gretel, Gretel. The Romany girl who was warped into being able to see all of time, but was so warped by the very people who were busily exterminating entire races of people, including her own, so developed an extreme instinct for self-protection and so searched every possibility in all of World War II for the best possible outcome for her except WHOOPS there was one WORLD ENDING WHOOPS end result that she hadn't really seen (or hadn't really taken seriously) and so for her last trick she manipulates another of our main characters, poor old Raybould Marsh, into making HIS last trick a trip into a whole new universe that... Look, I'm spoiling bits of the first two books here, but like the warning on the very top of this blog says, WARE SPOILERS.

Anyway, suffice it to say that in this new universe, it is World War II all over again, and, in this universe, there are now two Marshes, the one "born" in this universe and the much older, spectacularly scarred, embittered, sad, lonely and really kind of hopeless Marsh that survived Bitter Seeds and The Coldest War. To assist the reader, sad old Marsh's passages are told in the first person, while era-approriate Marsh stays in the third person. But to further twist the reader's brain, we get long passages from Gretel's multiplied points of view -- a difficult narrative feat that Tregillis pulls off very well, which is good because otherwise this book would just be a hot mess instead of a satisfying conclusion to this series.

What really sells me on this last book is that this brave new world is pretty much exactly our world, as far as historical events go. In Gretel's and Old Marsh's world, for instance, the Little Ships never happened, and Britain lost an entire army at and around Dunkirk. Which means that we really are seeing that the world Gretel couldn't mess with is the "real" world*. I dig this. I dig this right to the hot melty bits.

*Except there are still warlocks and Enochian and Eidolons and stuff in it. They've just been circumvented by, uh, [REDACTED]. He.

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.


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


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.

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