Friday, November 18, 2022

Alastair Reynolds' EVERSION

One of my favorite of Alastair Reynolds shorter works is a fiendishly gruesome little puzzler of a novella called Diamond Dogs. Set in his Revelation Space universe, it tells the story of a small party of mathematically inclined geniuses, two of whom are childhood friends who grew up at the highest strata of their society setting puzzles and traps for one another of greater difficulty than can even be imagined by us Earthbound, non-augmented humans of our own century. As adults, one's family makes an intriguing discovery on "the ragged edge of human space" where only one other human party has ever explored, only to die one by one of an unguessed-at number of various baroque and visceral "punishments" when they failed to solve a series of alien puzzles of increasing bizarre complexity. It's a compelling and memorable read, but not for its subtly drawn or complex or relatable characters. Those are found elsewhere in Reynolds' oeuvre (see especially his Poseidon's Children trilogy). But I always wondered what it would be like if Reynolds had held back the intense plot of Diamond Dogs for a longer work with more developed characters. 

Now I know. 

"The geometry..." he murmured. "The geometry! I think I can see it! Each quarter section is homeomorphic to a triangle!" He stared back to us, wide-eyed and uncomprehending of our own inability to visualize what was plain to him. "Can't you see it? It's beautiful! And hideous! It's... not right!"

Eversion, the master's latest, shows us not only what Diamond Dogs would be with better characters and actual stakes, but also takes another go at the intriguing ideas Reynolds explored in Terminal World, in which different levels of a city-state exist at different levels of technological development, those levels determined by the "resolution" at each level, i.e. how fine the grain of the very stuff of each level can get and what levels of precision it will allow. Except, again, the emotional and existential stakes turn out to be much higher in Eversion, for all that it, too, has a mathematical puzzle at its heart.

A ship called, just like the one that carried Dracula to England, the Demeter, has been engaged by a boorish Russian oligarch/magnate to follow up on a magnificent discovery at the edge of the known world. The magnate, Topolosky (wink), spared no expense on equipment but values secrecy over quality when it comes to the mode of transportation and the crew who will get him, his burly assistant Ramos, and his pet mathematics prodigy, Dupin, to where the mystery awaits. Meaning the captain and crew are competent but not spectacularly so, but, Topolosky thinks, are less likely to ask awkward questions or make unreasonable demands for things like advance warning of hazards to life and limb, etc. This is a nice and meaty beast of a plotline right here, but this is Alastair Reynolds hitting new heights of narrative brilliance, so of course there is a lot more going on.

For starters, Topolosky isn't our point of view character; the ship's medical man, Silas Coade, is. It's Silas' first voyage and he is a terrible lubber as it turns out, so he spends most of his time cooped up in his digs until he is called upon to save Ramos' life after a terrible accident, after which time he forms a friendship with the man as the Demeter nears its mysterious destination and various tall tales and outright lies on the part of Topolosky can no longer be denied. It's the Age of Sail and they're way north of Spitsbergen and approaching a cove and a hidden lagoon where a bizarre structure they call the Edifice awaits them. No, wait, it's the Age of Steam and they're tramping along the coast of Patagonia looking for a fissure that will admit them to the interior of a vast glacier concealing a mysterious Edifice. No, wait, they're aboard a state-of-the-art airship approaching the hole at the bottom of Antarctica that will admit them to the interior of the Hollow Earth where a mysterious Edifice clings to the ice and rock above the Void. No, wait, they're plying interstellar space on a ship that would make Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers proud and approaching a... oh, no, wait, they're on a spaceship, but it's just moving within our solar system, following up on an earlier effort to explore what's under the ice on the Jovian moon of Europa...

Each iteration of the story unfolds gracefully and reveals a little bit more of the true nature of the Demeter and its mission. Silas is an aspiring novelist in addition to being a doctor, and he's keeping the crew entertained with his futuristic imaginings of what a more advanced version of their mission might be like -- or are they retro ones? Along the way, the crew's lone female member, the lovely Ada Cossile, keeps nagging at him to do better, to try harder, to get it right, damn it, hinting that their situation is way more dire than it seems.

Each iteration also comes to concern itself with a deeply deranged and near-insolvable mathematical conundrum; the Edifice is not of any known human manufacture and seems to have deformed itself -- to have turned itself partly inside-out or everted, toward an unknown but probably sinister end. And Topolosky's great wish is to explore it first, claim credit for discovering its secrets and, of course, to profit from any applications might result from the study of the Edifice -- even if it costs a life or two.

The final layer of the mystery is as beautiful as it is heartbreaking, and every tear it jerks is earned in a way that only the more recent of Reynolds' work has accomplished (I'm thinking from Poseidon's Children through the great Revenger novels, of course), because these are fully imagined people whose dilemmas and danger have real emotional heft -- but none of Reynolds' trademark awe-inspiring and cosmic scale is sacrificed in the process. He really does just get better and better, you guys! I can't wait to see what he's got for us next, and he remains my number one buy-on-sight science fiction author. Tremendous stuff!

Monday, November 7, 2022


I thought I'd see a novel in which Phish's "Divided Sky" created the universe (because, well, it did) before I saw one in which David Bowie really and truly actually was the one and only thing that kept that universe together, but that was reckoning without yet another irresistible force in the universe: Cole Fucking Haddon.

This is another wild ride, friends. Buckle up. Or don't. You might prefer it in the alternate universe into which you get flung by weird forces you can't even perceive, let alone comprehend. I mean, you do you.

Haddon's debut in prose fiction* is pretty much what I had hoped Herve LeTellier's The Anomaly would be, and then some. Which means that yes, we're dealing with Simulation Theory again, but in a much cooler way that also encompasses the multiverse and time travel and I've already mentioned that David Bowie wrote the Music of the Spheres, right? David Bowie wrote the Music of the Spheres, you guys. And saved Ali from letting fear eat his soul just as a sort of side effect. Dammit, who's cutting onions in here?

I promise I'll settle down at some point. Maybe in the next review.

I kind of liked this book, you guys. It has everything I like best in speculative fiction, including some things I haven't encountered before in speculative fiction before but now slightly resent that I hadn't, like amazing lady scientists making huge differences in multiple centuries, I Am My Own Grandpa type character arcs, interesting answers to questions like What If Elon Musk But Worse, villains that turn out to be more interesting than they seemed at first and at least one teenage antihero who is building bombs destined to explode in multiple centuries because a bunny rabbit he believes is Allah himself has been telling him to with terrible urgency and persuasiveness and you will not believe where this teenager ends up as your favorite character in the whole cast of battered babies and misfits getting ground through the gears of Haddon's many interwoven plots. Which plots both do and do not neatly resolve themselves offscreen and subtly and with enough ambiguity to keep even the most discerning alternate reality snob/comics guy happy.

A word of warning, though, to those like me who read pretty much entirely in ebook format these days (as readers of this blog know, I have extraordinary difficulty physically holding print books, let alone turning their pages, these days, and it's only gotten worse over the years): a great deal of the David Bowie-esque material takes place off screen and is told in the form of things like newspaper clippings, which are embedded as graphics files in the ebook version, meaning the print is very, very, very small and closely formatted to resemble the content they represent and even with my very best cheaters on I struggled to read these bits. Fortunately, there are only a few of these, because you absolutely don't want to skip them; they are expertly done and add a whole extra, wonderful layer to the storytelling of Psalms for the End of the World.

Now excuse me. I'm going to spend the rest of my life trying to find a way to break into the world where this book got all of the notice and acclaim and international translation attention that went to The Anomaly in this one. Who knows, maybe that's also the one where Gene Wolfe got a Nobel Prize.

*He is also an author of some kickass comic books, wrote a lot for Hollywood and even got to create a real live TV show for NBC starring the guy who played an alternate version of David Bowie in Velvet Goldmine. All of this and only then did he decide to publish a novel. Cuz why not?

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Christopher Ruocchio's KINGDOMS OF DEATH (Narr by Samuel Roukin)

We've come a long way with Sir Lord Hadrian Half-Mortal Demon in White Marlowe since he was a young sprat who wanted to be a Scholiast just like his dear old tutor and ran away from home when his father decided to make him a torturer-priest instead. 

 Along the way with Hadrian through Christopher Ruocchio's massive Sun Eater series, we've explored anarchic gatherings of extreme cyborg self-experimenters; battled and defeated two great princes of humanity's archenemy, the Cielcin; met an effectively immortal Saturn who prolongs his life by taking over his children's bodies and keeps a pet/slave artificial intelligence from the dawn of recorded time that renews itself with human body parts and human brains; learned mind-blowing secrets about the galaxy's history from before humans took to the stars; survived court politics that make those of Byzantium seem tame and dull; died at least once and resurrected' gained superpowers of incredible utility that are almost impossible to use when they're most needed; made friends that would die or kill for him; become the idol of at least one cult... and now, as we catch up with him in this fourth novel of the main sequence of the series, Kingdoms of Death, he's being pressed into service as a diplomat. His mission: to persuade the Lothrian Commonwealth to join forces with the Sollan Empire and its allies to defeat the Cielcin once and for all, before the Cielcin can defeat humanity and turn us all into livestock, both the kind that labors and the kind that gets eaten.

Buckle up. 

This fourth volume in the main series is both its most exciting and its most tedious. Some of Ruocchio's finest action set-pieces, including a truly heroic chase-cum-last stand, are paired with long chapters of crushing boredom and sameness that do almost too good a job of depicting life as a prisoner with no hope. Oh, and trigger warnings for torture, I guess, but, being the under-medicated chronic pain patient that I am, I found that most of our hero's agonizing experiences sounded pretty much like getting out of bed and trying to get dressed every day (at least until they started peeling his long muscles like fruit), so, your mileage may vary, etc.

As usual, there are two halves to this narrative, with the first bringing Hadrian and his enterage to a whole new-to-us society that is half Yvgeny Zamyatin and half Ascia (there's even an emphasis on Groups of Seventeen). The Lothrian Commonwealth is a totalitarian horror so complete that people don't even have names, live in cells in vast hive-like buildings under opaque domes (their planet not exactly being naturally hospitable to life, or much to look at) that function also as Faraday cages, the better to keep its population from ever organizing against the regime. And the very language of the Lothrians is downright Ascian, consisting only of aphorisms from its Black Book of doctrine and containing no personal pronouns at all.

Hadrian has been given yet another impossible task by his cousin, the Emperor, who still claims to be shielding Hadrian from the many forces at court who wish him ill, but whom Hadrian and his people still suspect is really trying to shield his power from Hadrian. What better way to get him out of the way for half a century or so than tell him to go convince this bizarre and depressing society to give military aid to humanity's existential struggle, preferably without completely upsetting the social order there, hmm?

The second half sees Hadrian alone and friendless and utterly in the power of the Cielcin Prince of Princes, Syriani Dorayica, who accords Hadrian a disorienting level of respect even to regarding Hadrian as the true "King of the Vermin" and insisting Hadrian participate in rituals meant only for the Cielcin elite -- while also mutilating, imprisoning and torturing Hadrian for, in the grand tradition of torturers through the ages, information that the Cielcin already has. And the Prince of Princes has even worse in store for Hadrian, for Hadrian's entire Red Company of 90,000 human souls has also fallen into Cielcin power.

And Christopher Ruocchio is definitely of the GRRM school of callous beloved character deaths. And told ol' George to hold his beer. Which means I'm a bit angry with him at the moment, but I can't say I didn't know this was coming. Hadrian's being in Doctor Who Jeopardy and being Palatine, with a life span far exceeding pretty much everybody else's, guaranteed that this was coming. But still, I bite my thumb at you, Ruocchio!

Now I have to wait like the rest of the plebs for the next volume, Ashes of Man, to come out in December. I could scratch my Sun Eating itch with some sidequels and novellas, but I dislike spending audible credits on such short reads and I insist on finishing these with Samuel Roukin's voice in my ear, so those will have to wait for the next sale-or-stupid-windfall, I think. Meanwhile, I have a library full of other stuff I've not listened to or read yet, but December sure can hurry the hell up. I'm ready to watch Hadrian eat the damned sun already.

Though that might be another novel yet?

Monday, October 10, 2022


I've been following Jen "Sennydreadful" Williams' career with more than casual interest since pretty much the dawn of Twitter, when she was still working up the guts to go for the glory and letting goober nobodies like me beta read her early novels (*cough* Ink for Thieves when? *cough*), including the entire Copper Cat Trilogy. It has been an experience I can only describe as extra to watch her bust out with an even more imaginative triple-threat follow-up, and then to branch out into whole different genres from epic fantasy. 

In other words, this is one of those posts I've got to issue with a caveat: I have zero objectivity where this writer is concerned. 

For her Winnowing Flame Trilogy, consisting of The Ninth Rain, The Bitter Twins and The Poison Song, Williams has created a fascinating and deeply realized original fantasy setting... and then subjected it to centuries of periodic attacks by eldritch horrors from outer space that would give H.P. Lovecraft hives. And then hollow him out from the inside, the better to provide raw material for a horrifying green varnish with which the invaders intend eventually to coat and cover the whole world of Sarn.

Opposing the mysterious and terrifying invaders, the Jure'lia, are the progeny of a vast god-tree, Ygseril, which drops fruit-like pods each time the invasion resumes. The pods, in turn, hatch into war-beasts, giant beings, some familiar to fantasy fans like dragons and griffins, but also giant bats, giant flying cats and wolves and... whatever Helcate is. We'll get back to poor sweet Helcate later. Point is, these creatures are huge, big enough for people to ride them like the dragons of Pern, and they are intelligent, able to talk and plan and strategize and bond deeply with each other and their riders, who are traditionally Eborans, members of an elf-like (or, really, Melnibonéan) race who tend to the tree between invasions, or "rains" in their parlance, and in the periods between rains enjoy incredibly long lives (courtesy of Ygseril's sap) and a high degree of civilization and culture which sets them apart (or, if you ask them, above) the mere humans who live everywhere else on Sarn.

As The Ninth Rain opens, Sarn has long been at peace after the Eborans and their war-beasts defeated the Jure'lia and sent them retreating to... wherever they go after their asses have been kicked again, but the Eighth Rain was only ended at great cost: Ygseril has gone dormant, if not died outright, and stopped producing the life-extending sap the Eborans rely on to stay healthy and ready. Alas and alack! But this isn't the worst of it. 

A century or so before The Ninth Rain begins, the Eborans discovered a handy substitute for Ygseril's magical sap: human blood. And so occurred a reign of terror as the Eborans' new bloodlust made them a scourge almost as terrible as their ancient enemy as the Carrion Wars pitted them against the humans they'd always defended -- until it turned out that drinking human blood instead of Ygseril's sap produced a terrible and degenerating disease in the Eborans. Meaning that by the time we meet our handful of Eboran characters, there's only a handful of them left in the world.

Meanwhile, while only a small percentage of Sarn is covered in green alien varnish, other Jure'lian effluvia have had a mutating effect on the world's flora and fauna, making large swathes of the countryside dangerous and wild and full of bizarre monsters that barely resemble the ordinary wildlife from which they degenerated.

Oh, and there are also "Parasite Spirits" now, only approximately corporeal beings that turn living things inside out on contact.

Jen Williams sure do have an imagination on her. 

Against this backdrop, we meet a small and ragtag band of misfits who are soon going to have to try to perform the same tasks that the entire Eboran civilization barely managed in its prime. Hestilion, an Eboran noblewoman, has devoted her life to finding a way to revive Ygseril and has resorted to ever more desperate and depraved measures. Her brother, Tormalin the Oathless, has decided to chuck his Eboran birthright and become a sword for hire. Their cousin, Aldasair, has slowly lost his mind over the centuries and now just kind of sits there in his family apartments, barely even breathing.

Not very promising, eh? But wait, there's more. Like Noon, a young human woman with the ability to conjure a searingly hot green fire from her hands with the life energy she can absorb from others at a mere touch (this is the Winnowing Flame that gives the trilogy its name). More promising, right? Wrong. Noon, like nearly all the similarly gifted women of Sarn, was collected by The Winnowry, an institution dedicated to sealing such women away from the rest of humanity for humanity's good. Their "Fell-Witch" prisoners are kept in complete isolation, underfed and kept as weak as possible, except when they are periodically allowed to draw a small amount of energy from a member of staff for the purpose of cooking up a batch of a powerful drug with a high black market value. Sad trombone.

Elsewhere, there is Lady Vincenza de Grazon, of a wealthy human family in the sunny south of Sarn's prime winemaking country - hence her preferred nickname, Vintage. Vintage is a restless middle-aged soul still pining after a romantic youth spent exploring and studying Jure'lia relics and remains with her lover, the long disappeared Eboran Lady Nanthema. Vintage, whose family makes the best wine in Ebora because they use mutant grapes, occasionally still goes out adventuring, hoping to find a trace of Nanthema, and has hired a certain Eboran renegade to be her bodyguard-assistant; Tormalin (remember Tormalin?) will work for wine, so it's a cozy arrangement...

Until The Plot happens! The Ninth Rain eventually brings all of these characters together as they discover that another Rain is imminent, unravel a few mysteries with very unpleasant solutions, and, well, do actually manage to get Ygseril to poop out a few new war-beast pods for them, but at tremendous cost.

The Bitter Twins explores the immediate aftermath of the tiny victory won in The Ninth Rain; Sarn is again home to war-beasts, but only five have hatched and they are somewhat crippled by the weird circumstances of their rebirth. Where ordinarily war beasts re-emerge with the very souls and memories of all of their previous incarnations, only one, the beautiful white dragon Vostok, possesses this advantage. The rest are blank slates, only just able to employ the telepathic link they have with one another and with the Eborans -- and one human -- with whom they bond. Vostok is paired with Noon; a giant flying cat named Kirune*   pairs with Tormalin; a huge and feisty griffin, Sharrik, bonds with a character who barely figured in the first novel but comes into his own here, the human warrior Bern; a flying wolf, Jessen, bonds with a much-revived Aldasair, and the runt of the litter, Helcate (who, I never really got a mental grasp on what he looks like, but when he grows up he can spit acid) bonds with a young Eboran boy discovered orphaned in an outer settlement, Eri. Not a lot with which to save the world, but sometimes ya gotta make do.

Of course, since only Vostok has her memories, she assumes a leadership role that not all of the others, all of whom have war-beast pride if not war-beast collective memory, necessarily feel she deserves, and there is friction only increased by the Eborans' slight but undeniable discomfort that the human, Bern, is in their number, although if anybody deserves to ride a griffin, it is Bern. Bern is a prince of one of those loose collectives of tiny city-states near the coast that is still host to a whole lot of Ju'rellian ruins, ruins that began to stir unsettlingly in The Ninth Rain, sending Bern and a delegation of his countrymen to petition the Eborans for aid. Once the reality of the Eborans' situation was made plain, Bern set to work trying to set things right, repairing, restoring, replanting with his prodigious strength and kind heart. In the process, he also brought Aldasair out of his stupor, beginning a relationship that deepens in The Bitter Twins to the point where Bern gives Aldasair one of his two beloved axes, which he calls the Bitter Twins, to wield as his primary weapon. But Bern's axes aren't the only bitter twins in the novel.

Once upon a time, a great artist fashioned incredible tablets that were not only visual but also dream-memory records of the war-beasts in their prime in the Eighth Rain, as Vostok recalls. But when the blood disease began to wipe out Ebora, the artist, his twin sister, and a handful of followers sailed away to start a colony somewhere else, and were never heard from again. Soon Team Sarn forms the notion of having Noon/Vostok and Kirune/Tor set off on a mission to find the artist and/or his art in the hope that it might rekindle at least some of the war-beasts' lost memories.

Meanwhile, Vintage kind of takes over as the unofficial new ruler of Ebora, together with Aldasair, Bern and Eri, who continue trying to train and prepare for their historic responsibilities -- while the revived and returned enemy Jure'lia begin a program of regrouping and, soon, attacking Sarn anew with their terrifying combination of bizarre insectoid monsters**, and begin considering how best to exploit a turncoat and the resources the turncoat brought along for the nauseating, weird, destructive ride.

What the Away Team learns about the artist and his sister, and about the true nature of the Eboran people, leaves everybody shaken with perhaps less confidence than ever and things truly don't look great for Team Sarn as this middle chapter comes to a close, the way middle chapters should.

The extraordinary emotional intensity of the trilogy comes to an all-time high in The Poison Song, as the advantage seems to brutally see-saw between Team Sarn and its enemies (which now number more than just the seemingly infinite resources of the Jure'lia when some human kingdoms, still bitter at the memory of the Carrion Wars, seem poised to try to strike out on their own, or are conquered by traitor Fell-Witches, or are just finally playing the price for lifetimes of derring do and famous exploits). In this post-George R.R. Martin age, we can't assume that the beloved main heroes aren't going to die in emotionally gutting ways (as indeed the loss of one member of Team Sarn in The Bitter Twins motivates more than a little of what happens in this third volume), and Williams isn't above letting truly extraordinarily strange and cruel twists of fate remove crucial players from the board at crucial times to face their personal demons and buried past trauma instead of being there to help their friends in present battles, tuning the emotional pitch of this volume to a shriek that only, say, the flying wolf could hear. Like, almost unbearable amounts of tension, you guys.

As I finish this post, we have just had an announcement that Jen Williams is back on her fantasy bullshit after a very good sojourn into the straight up suspense genre, proving that she really can do pretty much anything. I, for one, ambivalent as I am about epic fantasy to this day, am pretty glad to see she's going back to her first love again for a while. Bring it, Senny!

 *That cover artist Patrick Insole rendered as a tiger but I imagined while reading as something more like a Sphinx cat. For much of the trilogy, Kirune is kind of bratty and uncooperative and standoffish and that also reads more weird housecat than tiger, but maybe that's just me.

**Which, get ready for these. If you have a serious insect phobia, you might find these a lot scarier than I did. As it was, well, I might have been rooting for them for a teeny bit, for a while, until the Jure'lia queen became a character instead of an abstraction.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Christopher Ruocchio's DEMON IN WHITE, Narr by Samuel Roukin

Two new characters introduced in the great sweep of the third novel in the main sequence of Christopher Ruocchio's Sun Eater series, Demon in White, give us an even greater idea of the enormous scope the author has imagined in imagining this universe. Both also quickly rose to prominence in my estimation, contending against protagonist-narrator Hadrian Marlowe and his beloved Dr. Valka Ondare* for the title of My Favorite Character so far. And one of them even survived the novel!

The first I want to discuss is Lorian Aristedes, a junior officer whose tremendous organizational talents and gift for strategy have been languishing unnoticed in a minor post in the Sollan Empire's legions for a long time because he is something the Empire abhors: a child of a member of the Palantine and some other caste. This isn't mere class snobbery, though; because Palantines, with their physical perfection, greater height and incredibly long life-spans, are as much the product of post-conception tinkering as of selective breeding to preserve the advantages originally bestowed by genetic engineering centuries ago; decanted as much as born, grown in vats to order. Hadrian himself is one such, and has several times had to face up to how this really makes him little different from the variously augmented (cybernetic, surgical and genetic) Extrasolarians he met in Howling Dark. Lorian had one such parent, but the other was not, meaning he's a sport, and all sorts of weird recessive traits that have lurked unexpressed in the Palantine genomes, removed by careful post-conception pruning in sanctioned children, have manifested in this man's body. He is short, has malproportioned limbs (much is made of how he needs what amount to ring splints to use his "too-long" fingers), is functionally almost an albino. He is, in other words, a living exhibit of how perfect the Palantines really aren't, and has had to struggle mightily all of his life to justify his very existence.

Miraculously, Lorian Aristedes does not exhibit much of a chip on his shoulder once Hadrian finds him and sweeps him into his orbit and gives him rank and responsibility in Hadrian's increasingly infamous Red Company. Most of the time he is quietly competent and matter-of-factly rescues his fellows' fat from the fire; occasionally he concocts brilliant strategies that combine with Hadrian's ever-expanding all-but-supernatural abilities (we'll get into that in a bit) to deliver successes that can only be described as miracles by the time word of them reaches the rest of the Sollan Empire, and never mind that it's going to be Hadrian, Valka, and the rest of their weirdly glamorous band of former gladiators, military misfits and exotic "homunculi" who both spread and share in Hadrian's growing legend.

My other favorite new guy is Udax, a member of one of those alien races humanity has conquered/colonized as we expanded into the galaxy to occupy billions of worlds. Unique (I think?) among these races so far, though, Udax's people presumably fought back, else how would the Sollan Empire come to recognize their martial prowess enough to be willing to incorporate units of them into its Legions? When Hadrian first meets Udax and his fellow colonial auxiliaries, the Not-Amarantin are finishing their training and are about to form the Empire's first non-human unit. Hadrian and his friends are fascinated to watch these raptor-like people at work, for yes, they have feathers and talons and huge wings that work; the Sollan Empire is about to gain a unit that combines infantry and air force! Or, as I kept thinking of them, Flying Sepoys. 

But, the Not-Amarantin are very, very touchy about being gaped at like carnival freaks or zoo animals and don't take too kindly to the Red Company's frank interest and Things Get Ugly, revealing, d'oh, yet another plot on Hadrian's life. Udax had been paid by, probably, a Chantry agent to pick a fight and try to kill Marlowe and as much of his entourage as possible! Their little mutiny is quickly put down and its hotheaded young ringleaders rounded up for disciplinary action straight out of the John Company's brutal past, but Hadrian decides that if he can talk Udax around, Udax might be worth sparing. This, of course, happens, and Udax and his fellow sepoys become a very important addition to the Red Company just in time for their next mission for "Earth and Emperor": to join the Imperial Fleet to help ward off a massive Cielcin attack threatening a strategically important system through which a great deal of commerce and military assets must frequently travel.

A good century or so has passed since the events of Howling Dark, and just as Hadrian and his friends have kept busy -- before the Not-Amarantin join the Red Company they have been on the Empire's library planet exploring Restricted Archives of Forbidden Knowledge up to and including meeting yet another leftover Artificial Intelligence left-over from the "Mericanii" whose machines enslaved almost all of humanity back when we just had the one planet and Hadrian's having another visionary encounter with the Ancient Aliens he calls "The Quiet" -- so have the Cielcin. Among other things, they've been trading with the Extrasolarians, whose scientists have happily accepted the challenge of building giant Cielcin cyborgs with extra limbs and Admantine exoskeletons and armor (Adamant being the only material that swords like Hadrian's light saber High Matter sword can't cut, and traditionally only used for space ship hulls). We learn that in events between Howling Dark and Demon in White, the Red Company encountered some early prototypes of these monsters and defeated them, and a second encounter with a better version of one opens Demon in White by way of showing us how much more badass the Red Company has gotten since Hadrian killed his first Cielcin prince and got his nickname of Half-Mortal, but they haven't seen anything yet!

The serious high drama and action of Demon in White takes place on the target system's planet, where the Red Company has been assigned to defend its chief city and its millions of inhabitants from the Cielcin provisioning runs that are sure to take place while the giant spaceships in orbit duke it out (remember: Cielcins eat humans with relish and poor table manners). Lorian and Udax both demonstrate their worthiness of my love, and Valka, who was literally fridged through a lot of the fighting in Howling Dark and hasn't stopped berating Hadrian for it, not only gets to fight but gets to prove her point that he would have taken a lot fewer losses if he'd let her fight last time; coming as she does from a culture with no taboos against implanting computer enhancements in human bodies, she has a head full of powerful circuitry that lets her hack the terrifying flying borers the Cielcin launch in combat to chew through enemy forces, armor and all. Which, good thing, because not only have the Cielcin cyborgs gotten even better since last they tangled with the Red Company, but also a whole lot bigger. Like 30 meters tall, with extra arms and implanted howitzer-type artillery and metal claws that let them do things like scale tall buildings, King Kong-style.

Fortunately, Hadrian has some new tricks up his sleeve as well, for "The Quiet", not content with outright resurrecting him in Howling Dark have now expanded Hadrian's very senses. He can now, when he concentrates properly, see all of the possible outcomes of an incident, choose the optimum and make it reality, all in a split second, allowing him to perform some feats that look impossible but are really just astronomically improbable, and are only really possible for someone with Hadrian's Palantine self-assurance and talent for melodrama. And yes, this marks him out as an even greater threat to the Chantry and to the Emperor (who wears the "whiter than white" color called Argent and could be taken for the Demon in White of the title, except ahh, Hadrian, whose close familial relationship as a cousin of the Emperor is also entitled to wear that color, is the one who gets the actual sobriquet) and his court (never get more popular than the boss), but he'll have to deal with that later! Because right now, his duty is ACKSHUN!!!!

What I'm saying is, these battle scenes kick all kinds of ass, once again enhanced by audio book narrator Samuel Roukin's bone-chilling rendition of the king hell cyborg's impossibly deep and hollow voice as it taunts Hadrian, and later that of the big bad Cielcin overlord who has been uniting the clans and introducing things like strategy and tactics to their formerly atomized and half-random attacks on human assets. I mean, the Cielcin overlord sounds a lot like Kharn Sagara, but Roukin's only one guy, you know? 

Meanwhile, in the big Sun Eater plot, more becomes clear to Hadrian and to us, through the same set of mind-bending revelations that have led to his new superpowers. The Quiet turn out to be even stranger and more unsettling than Hadrian had previously thought, and while he's previously proceeded on the assumption that what he calls The Quiet and the Cielcin call The Watchers are the same Ancient and Powerful Beings, much has thrown his assumptions into doubt. Ruocchio, through his ancient narrative persona of Old Man Hadrian who is recounting his centuries and centuries of life and warfare, does a magnificent job of balancing this overarching plot with the episodic natures of the individual novels, guaranteeing that I'm going to be very antsy after I finish Kingdoms of Death and have to wait for December and the new installment, Ashes of Man.

Space opera, guys. It sure is space opera.

*Once again, I hit that flaw that comes with enjoying these books as audio productions; I have to cast around the internet for other reviews or summaries in order to see how things are correctly spelled. I haven't found a proper spelling for Valka's last name, or for the bird-race to which Udax belongs, which is why I call them Not-Amarantin, referring to Alastair Reynolds similarly bird-like alien race from his Revelation Space universe. If pressed I would say the species name in Sun Eater is something like "Ektani"?

Monday, September 19, 2022

Christopher Ruocchio's HOWLING DARK (Narr by Samuel Roukin)

I could already tell, less than halfway through the second volume of Christopher Ruocchio's Sun Eater series, that it's going to be one I'll enjoy returning to, even if it doesn't have a conclusion as satisfying as I currently believe it will. I still watch the first three seasons of Battlestar Galactica, the first four of Babylon 5  (and hope ardently that we get to see its reboot/revival), after all. 

As always, here there be dragons, by which I mean spoilers, except maybe I actually mean dragons, hmmm? Of a kind? Waving lots of pale and grasping human hands in the dark?

Howling Dark launches the story of Lord Hadrian Marlowe, renegade interstellar aristocrat, some 50 years into the future from where we left off in Empire of Silence. He's also a long way from the planet where he washed up after escaping his unwanted destiny as a cleric-cum-torturer for the repressive Chantry, the Sollan Empire's state religion. At the end of Empire Hadrian made contact with a small party of Cielcin, members of an alien race with which humanity has been at war for hundreds and hundreds of years. The Chantry and other local powers assumed these Cielcin had come as a vanguard to an invasion force, but Hadrian, the only person on the whole planet who had ever learned any of the Cielcin's language, discovered that they were actually there on a religious pilgrimage, to visit some intriguing ruins left by a long lost ancient civilization that long predated human or Cielcin exploration or conquest. And in so coming to understand that much, Hadrian saw a possibility to try for Peace. There's a being of some kind out in the dark who has a way to actually make contact with a leader of a major clan of the Cielcin (who are so predatory and warlike that they will prey and war on one another as soon as humanity) -- but that entity dwells on a mysterious and possibly only legendary planet!

And so Hadrian has embarked on a unique mission to try to find this entity, The Undying, on that planet, Vorgossos. With him are many of his friends from his gladiator days and one or two from his unpleasant time as a courtier on the backwater planet he's left behind - and a whole lot of new people, most of them military or mercenaries, representing not only the Sollan Empire but a few other human polities as well.

And here we're experiencing a few elements of the 21st century's revival of Doctor Who, and not just because we know that the Hadrian telling us his story is a Hadrian centuries old who has the guilt of genocide on his conscience; we also have elements specifically of Stephen Moffat's controversial habit of introducing new-to-us characters who have established long and deep relationships with our hero off-screen. For one thing, Hadrian has a lover, Jenan, who was originally part of a kind of pirate crew Hadrian's mission fleet tangled with, defeated and absorbed some time over the 50 years since Empire. And while Hadrian is nominally the Lord Commandant of the mission, it's really a career military officer, Bassander Lin, who is calling the shots. Their relationship is mostly cooperative and cordial, until Plot Things Start Happening!

But so, I found a sense of breathlessly having to catch up as Howling Dark opened, very similar to how I felt when I managed to read Malka Older's Centenal Cycle in the wrong order. I suspect that this will someday be an unusual experience, though; the Sun Eater series already has a few side-quels and it wouldn't surprise me a bit if a future novel or novella might be devoted to the early years of Hadrian's ragtag fleet. I would opine, though, that such would really not be necessary (but then, I'm also on Team Never Show Us Jim the Fish). The Sun Eater saga is wonderfully enriched by strong character relationships, but it's got a big looming plot question ahead, as the series' entire point is explaining to us how Hadrian Marlowe became the Sun Eater. How he unseated a tyrannical captain and recruited his crew isn't very important to the arc and these are all very long books already. 

I will say this, though: Ruocchio is way better than Moffat at this trick. I mean, Moffat just dropped the Paternoster Gang on us out of the blue and we never even really got to know much about how they met or why they were so fiercely loyal to the Doctor. Moffat just counted on the characters being too awesome for this to annoy us and just kept jingling the keys. Ruocchio made the new characters awesome and explained where they came from and why. And he did it well enough to make some early scenes of irrevocable parting between them feel earned and honestly affecting. Very affecting. No, you're the one who's crying.

Several unsavory encounters and gripping fight scenes and followings of clues later, Marlowe and his friends have found the legendary Vorgossos (orbiting a brown dwarf star!) and come under the jaundiced eye of its unnaturally immortal ruler, The Undying, whose name is Kharn Segara* (a figure of myth from the founding era of the Sollan Empire) and suddenly we're in yet another literary territory, once which I absolutely did not see coming even though our narrator is surnamed Marlowe! For the interlude on the lost planet whereat Hadrian seeks a contact through which to begin peace negotiations is straight outta Heart of Darkness, my friends, with Kharn Segara a 15,000-year-old Kurtz ruling a mad kingdom at the ass end of known space, and yes, my friends, it gets that dark. Actually, more so, because this heart of darkness is also a demented cyberpunk hell-hole where Kharn employs unspeakable means to prolong his own and his exclusive clients' lives and to satisfy the perversions common to bored playboys everywhere and I was bracing myself for this to get truly icky but Ruocchio is a tasteful writer as well as a talented one.

Unlike in Conrad's most famous tale, though, here Kurtz is only a first or warm-up boss; there is so much worse to come, even in his own realm, than Kharn Sagara, you guys!

Anyway, while we're in Kurtz Kharn's realm, we also get to watch Hadrian's relationship with a character I didn't mention last time, the enigmatic Valka, develop in a lot of interesting directions. Last novel, Valka seemed poised to be a love interest, if one whose levels of education and culture were dizzyingly above Hadrian's and then there's also the fact that she's from a civilization that doesn't share the Sollan Empire's maniacal Butlerian Jihad-esque distrust/hatred of computers and artificial intelligence. In many ways, Valka is straight out of a cyberpunk novel, with a headful of neural augmentations that make her that vital character in every Shadowrun game, the technomancer/hacker, but imagine that character who is also Indiana Jones because she is a xeno-archaeologist in the Dan Sylveste mode (though she wisely mostly stays out of politics). Or a (mostly) law-abiding River Song? Anyway, Valka rocks, and Marlowe knows he is nowhere near worthy of her but wants to try to be, even though he regards her with just enough superstitious dread to basically think of her as a witch -- and hey, she almost got burned as one near the end of Empire of Silence. She still hasn't forgiven him for fighting a duel to save her when she was well on her way to saving herself, of course. Anyway, they spend a lot of time alone in various flavors of guest quarters on Kharn's dark, weird planet trying to figure out the many mysteries of what Kharn is up to, how/if they're going to get what they want out of him, and what his intentions toward the Cielcin prisoner, called Tanaran, that he has stripped them of in the guise of entertaining their petition. Oops!

In an attempt to regain control of Tanaran and of their immobilized spaceship, Hadrian and Valka go exploring and Ruocchio explores a terrifying conjunction of ideas: what if the Vatic Fountain (Gene Wolfe) were a terrifying monster out of the deep past, and what if the Pattern Jugglers (Alastair Reynolds) gave swimmers the ability to See Through Time? Meaning Hadrian gets not one but two cryptic glimpses into his future in this novel, though the first was only really a preview of the second, into his metamorphosis from renegade nobleman/mercenary to figure of superstitious awe and dread? In a terrifying encounter made all the more intense by narrator Roukin's choices in how to voice a weird collective inhumanity waiting in the dark at the end of a cyborg-guarded labyrinth?


While all of this has been going on, the Sollan Empire has not been sitting idle, of course; nor have the Cielcin. We learn late in Howling Dark that the number of star systems the Empire has lost to Cielcin incursion has come to exceed 900, with billions and billions of human beings dead (and eaten!) (most of them) or brutally enslaved and mutilated (in a manner chillingly reminiscent of the fate of Father Sandoz in Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, which, yikes).

And of course the conflict between the Empire and the Cielcin follows Hadrian to Kharn Segara's creepy dark planet, first according to Hadrian's design, because he can't start peace talks with the Cielcin without eventually meeting some Cielcin who aren't his prisoners, and then very much not according to Hadrian's design, and this is where Ruocchio goes bigger than big. And also displays a talent for manipulating reader emotions that I almost resent because of the devastating use he made of it here, leading us from baroque horror to tense diplomatic drama to huge boffo combat scenes to almost unbearable character drama (Hey, Hadrian has been warning us from the start that he has often been accused of having a taste and talent for melodrama!).

I suppose the game of spot-the-reference (and hey, we haven't even gotten to what amounts to Hadrian's possessing a light saber, which Ruocchio has managed to make even cooler than the Star Wars version by concocting a plausible-sounding pseudoscientific explanation for how the weapon works and, more importantly, what its limitations are) that I've played here makes it sound like the author has just cherry picked his favorite bits from other novels, is just a kid playing with a mismatched set of action figures and telling his babysitter the story as she indulgently smiles or blatantly ignores his babbling, but that's the least deserved criticism that could be leveled on these books. Ruocchio, who's had a pretty good career as a genre fiction editor, has impeccable taste in science fiction bits and bobs and wields them all with tremendous skill, maturity, intelligence and passion. Even the bits that seem to have no business appearing together are made to feel organically joined and earnestly communicated through Hadrian Marlowe's insightful, frank, erudite and compelling narrative voice. Hadrian is as complicated and well-rounded as a Dorothy Dunnet hero, enacting a Gene Wolfe plot (and occasionally using Wolfean vocabulary**)
through a Mary Doria Russell moral and Alastair Reynolds physical universe. I have, as the kids used to say, no choice but to stan.

Seriously, friends, don't sleep on these. Hadrian's story is already epic AF (and we've gotten the barest taste of how epic it's going to get by the revelation in this novel of why he bears the sobriquet of "Hadrian Half-Mortal) and it's only going to get more so. A fifth volume in the main narrative is coming out in December. There's plenty of time yet to catch up on the series in time to plunge into that with me and Ruocchio's other, too few by my lights, fans. Yeah, they're big fat books but they never get dull and never stop provoking thoughts and ideas and feelings and, well, what the hell do we read novels for if not to have those?

As for me, I've already started listening to Demon in White. And Ruocchio has already made me cry at least once.

*Whose name I was mentally spelling as "Khan" because narrator Samuel Roukin -- still absolutely perfectly cast as our protagonist-narrator, and if these books ever get adapted for the screen I hope it's soon so Roukin is still young enough to play Hadrian -- is very, very British.

**My favorite of Ruocchio's pseudo-Wolfean terms so far is "Xenobite," which Hadrian uses to refer to aliens the way Severian uses "Cacogens", though "Xenobite" is a more accessible and evocative word, employing the "xeno-" prefix to denote otherness while rhyming with "cenobite," which is more than just a name for the monstrous powers of Hellraiser fame. It also denotes monasticism, and those to whom Hadrian generally refers with the word are the Cielcin, whose social structure is fanatically hierarchical and to be a Cielcin's subordinate is by definition to be its (and that is the pronoun; the Cielcin are an asexual race) slave. Interesting, no?

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Christopher Ruocchio's EMPIRE OF SILENCE (Narr by Samuel Roukin)

Christopher Ruocchio cannot be reckoned an unambitious writer, if his debut novel, Empire of Silence, is anything to go by. Combining elements of space opera and epic fantasy (and yes, that includes neo-feudalism, never my favorite, but I'm setting that particular gripe of mine aside for the moment, though I'm sure it will come up plenty as I explore the half-billion planet spanning galaxy of the Sun Eater saga) as it does, it immediately invites comparisons with works like Frank Herbert's Dune and its dizzying array of prequels and sequels, certainly, but I first learned of Ruocchio and the Sun Eater series in a Twitter discussion about genre fiction series that might be worthy of being talked about, if not in the same breath, at least in the same general conversation with, one Gene Wolfe and his Solar Cycle. Buckle up. 

Empire of Silence definitely shares DNA with the works I mention here. The biggest political union in the thoroughly human-settled galaxy (our good old Milky Way) is an Empire that House Corrino would find familiar, complete with a Landsraad of aristocratic families, some of ancient lineage (we learn in the appendix to EoS that our hero's family claims descent from the British royal family we 21st century types know and thumb our noses at), some gotten up robber baron types who bought their way into the nobility by time honored atrocities like slave trading, and planetary populations enjoying various levels of material comfort on terraformed worlds of varying quality. And yes, there is a coveted and vital substance that holds the Sollan Empire and its neighboring republics and federations together in a plural galactic civilization, but it's nothing we 21st century types would regard as exotic or semi-magical, it's just good old Uranium.

So, nobody is going to metamorphose into a giant worm or anything, nor is anyone exhibiting supernatural or superhuman abilities like prophecy or telepathy. The highest class, the Palatinate (lots of echoes of the Roman Empire in the Sollan) has benefited from millennia genetic engineering and breeding and enjoy extraordinary attractiveness, health, height and life-spans, but it's just science. 

Our hero, Hadrian Marlowe, is the elder son of a mid-level planetary noble and the grandson of that planet's hereditary ruler, but as we get to know him on his home world of Delos, we see that he's neither his father's favorite to succeed nor is he exceptionally interested in doing so; he's more inclined to scholarship than politics or diplomacy, and only undertakes the rest of his training out of a sense of duty to the people who would otherwise someday be ruled by Hadrian's younger brother, who exhibits the martial temperament and bloody-mindedness that people expect of a ruler but has a cruel streak and a seeming disinterest in anything that isn't fighting or fucking.*

But when Hadrian takes a diplomatic matter somewhat into his own hands, unbidden, and makes a hash of it, his father decides to ship him off to the Chantry, the rigid religious order that generally seems to exercise greater power in the Sollan Empire than the Emperor and nobility do, and name Hadrian's brother as heir. 

Only Hadrian wouldn't be a monk so much as... a torturer; the Chantry enforces orthodoxy the nasty, Inquisitional way. And like I said, Hadrian is more of a scholar than a religious zealot.

The main plot of Empire of Silence, then, is what happens after Hadrian, his tutor and his mother hatch a plot to escape this fate, and what goes spectacularly and fascinatingly wrong with their plans. 

The galaxy we begin to explore with Hardrian proves to have a bit more diversity than we ever saw in the Herbertverse; in addition to human societies who owe no allegiance to the Empire, there are other species, though only one of them has attained space flight and reached out into the cosmos. More about them in a bit. The rest of the species humanity has encountered have been less technologically and (apparently, presumably) culturally advanced and you can probably guess what that has meant for them; colonization and, usually, enslavement. Thus a mysterious alien race native to the backwater planet where Hadrian winds up for most of this novel are reduced to manual labor and subservience and are considered by most to be little more than animals, though a few scientists have continued to study them, their unique modes of consciousness, and their means of communication. But these scientists are not Sollan Empire citizens and are themselves regarded with suspicion and hostility by their hosts, who all adhere to the rigid doctrines of the Chantry, which, OK, let's talk about the Chantry, for it is where the Sun Eater series most differentiates itself from the Herbertverse or the Solar Cycle.

The state religion of the Sollan Empire feels extremely and uncomfortably familiar because it's basically the settler-colonialist mentality as holy writ. Humanity has a Manifest Destiny to own and control the entire galaxy, maybe eventually the entire universe; any other races it encounters must be subjugated for their own good (and, of course, the good of their human masters). All the stars and all the planets and all the rocks and cosmic dust in between are there for humanity's use. Refreshingly, though, there is no messiah figure or religious narrative (at least not as appearing in this first novel); the object of worship is nothing more, nothing less, than the mother planet, Earth, which we've lost track of in our rush to expand and expand. Maybe it's a myth? But don't say that aloud, because the Chantry will get you and punish you as a heretic. Oh, and the Chantry has elements of Dune's Butlerian Jihad, too: cybernetic implants, artificial intelligence, etc are absolutely banned. Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind, etc.

So yes, there is a lot of world-building going on in this first novel, but, refreshingly, it never feels like the reader is getting info-dumped upon. Hadrian is a fine narrator of his experience and incorporates all of this exposition very naturally into his story -- and he hooks us in right away by revealing, right at the very beginning of the book, that his long, long life (spanning thousands of years, though he's only something like 18 years old when he leaves Delos) has made him famous to some, infamous to others. In pursuing peace with an enemy I haven't mentioned yet, he has been forced by circumstances we're not going to get to know much about in this first novel to destroy an entire inhabited star system. Hadrian is the Sun Eater of this series' title.

Lordy do I love a villain-hero, almost as much as I love an unreliable narrator, though I'm not sure that Hadrian is the latter. His narrative voice is introspective, honest about his faults and failures, anxious about his shortcomings, guilt-ridden, self-critical, all the things that the genre reader's favorite unreliable narrator, Severian, much more concerned about justifying himself and persuading us that he is a really good guy and irresistible to women, etc. is not. Hadrian doesn't care what we think of him; indeed, is resigned to never being able to improve or alter the opinion of him his imagined readership is understood to have already. Sun Eater is no apology, nor is it a parable. To diminish it a little, I could compare it as justifiably with something like Piers Anthony's Bio of a Space Tyrant as with Dune or Book of the New Sun. It's big and sprawling and ambitious as hell, but it's not set before us as a puzzle to solve or a tractate on What is Humanity; it's just a great big story of great big events with lots of action, emotion and satisfying character relationships. And a few mysteries, starting with pretty much everything about the only other spacefaring race in the galaxy, the Cielcin, with whom humanity has come into armed conflict over territory, and what, if any, the Cielcin's and some of the other subjugated species relationship might be to a dead civilization that has left mysterious and sophisticated ruins on many of the worlds to which Humanity is the Johnny-Come-Lately.

I haven't even gotten into the other characters sharing Hadrian's journey but this is getting long and my hands are seizing up (I can't use Dragon Naturally Speaking very well in the summer because the only way my attic office is bearable is with a loud old swamp cooler noisily rattling day and night, so I'm actually having to type this!). But there are some wonderful ones, a beggar girl who rescues and befriends Hadrian when he washes up on the backwater planet of Emesh instead of the planet-sized university analogue he thought he was traveling to, friends beside whom Hadrian fights as a gladiator, courtiers in the palace of the parvenu nobility who eventually yank Hadrian out of the arena, and the aforementioned foreign scientists from other polities who don't truck with hereditary nobility or Manifest Destiny or banning cybernetic implants and who expand Hadrian's mind. 

And, by the way, these are men and women and there don't seem to be gender roles as such in Sollan society? A gladiator or a planetary ruler or a Grand Inquisitor or a scientist can be either, and it's no big deal. And at least one of the alien species seems not to have sex or gender at all that we can determine so far, and that's also no big deal except occasionally grammatically as Hadrian tries to wrap his head around their not-quite-language to better understand them. And it's these elements as much as anything that make me not mind the neo-feudalism, and want to continue through this whole series and its several sidequels, which I will continue to enjoy in audio form because the narrator (who seems to be in for the entire run), Samuel Roukin, simply is Hadrian. I first encountered him in the American Revolutionary War TV drama Turn, in which he played the insufferable redcoat villain Simcoe, and it's impossible not to imagine Roukin as Hadrian himself in the movie in my head. Roukin gives Hadrian just the right combination of aristocratic self-assurance, self-criticism and wonder, though I wish he'd cut back on the Shatnerian pauses in the middle of phrases, which are not merely annoying but at times interfere with comprehension because Ruocchio is not a great user of dialogue tags, meaning that sometimes what starts of sounding like mere narration is actually someone's dialogue and not necessarily Hadrian's. But I quibble. As I said, Roukin is Hadrian, and I'm already diving into the direct sequel to EoS, Howling Dark. The title alone is irresistible and makes me think, of course, of Alastair Reynolds and his Inhibitors. Arooooo!

*We get hints that there might be more to this brother than we or Hadrian give him credit for, and he gets a spin-off novel that I'll have a look at when I'm through the main series.