Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Strong Medicine
Books That Cure What Ails You
    by John Joseph Adams
August 2006

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
Bantam Spectra, 2006, $23.00

Locke Lamora is not your typical epic fantasy protagonist. He's not broad of chest. He does not wield astounding magical abilities. He's not good with a sword, or particularly heroic. In fact, he doesn't excel at most of what one might consider typical heroic activities. What he does excel at is the art of the con. He's a conman extraordinaire, and along with his gang of Gentleman Bastards, he robs from the rich, but before you go comparing him to Robin Hood, note that instead of giving the loot to the poor, he keeps it for himself. (Though if you do want to compare him to Robin Hood, it's fair to say that Locke does have his roguish charm.)

Although Locke was naturally drawn to thieving as a youth, his thieving was too much even for Camorr's thiefmaker, so Locke is sold to Father Chains, the Eyeless Priest of Perelandro; the thiefmaker says it was either that, or slit the boys throat and throw him in the bay. Thankfully for Locke (and the reader), Chains takes the boy in, and teaches him to steal in a more productive way: by conning people. If that might seem an odd thing for a priest to do, consider first that Chains is not really eyeless at all. The Temple of Perelandro is really nothing more than a front for criminal activities. The god is real enough to Camorr's citizens, though he is a sort of outsider god—the thirteenth member of a pantheon of twelve—and he is the patron of thieves and beggars.

The city of Camorr, which is said to have been built of "Elderglass" by a long forgotten race, is a vast, sprawling metropolis, riddled with canals and crime, quite reminiscent of ancient Venice, if ancient Venice were overrun by gangs and run by royalty, merchants, and criminals (actually, perhaps it's not so different). On the surface, Camorr appears to be ruled by a Duke, but in reality it is run by the crime boss, Capa Barsavi. But there's someone stalking the city—a man calling himself The Gray King—who thinks it's time for a regime change. Through a series of events, Locke finds himself matched against this man, who has been murdering Barsavi's garristas (or captains, if you're familiar with mob-parlance). And if Locke has any hope of coming out of his encounter with the Gray King alive, he's going to have make the most out of all his wits and cunning, for the Gray King is no easy mark.

Above I mentioned how Locke Lamora is not your typical epic fantasy protagonist. Well, in many ways, the novel itself is not your typical epic fantasy. The entire story takes place within the city of Camorr, and the entire world is not threatened by some evil malefactor. Also, there is very little in the novel, aside from its secondary world setting, that is actually fantastic. In fact, the first third of the novel or so is almost entirely devoid of fantasy elements, leaving aside mention of gods (which the people believe in, but don't manifest themselves in any way) and the use of various medicinal tinctures. The first third is also almost entirely character-driven, and it isn't until then that the plot truly gets moving. Once the plot begins in earnest, fantasy elements enter the story—a wicked Bondsmage in the employ of the Gray King wields some magic—but even then, the fantasy elements mostly stay in the background. Which is not to say that any of this is a flaw, quite the contrary; the minimal use of fantasy elements allows Lynch to focus on making his world seem like a very real place, and allows him to make his characters remain at the forefront of the novel, rather than relegating them as subservient to showy pyrotechnics (though of those, there are some).

The book starts with Locke as a young boy, still learning the ropes from Father Chains, and once Lynch shifts to Locke as an adult, he continues to weave in a series of interludes in which the reader gets to see more of Locke's past. And here's why the fact that the plot doesn't really get started until a third of the way through is not a flaw; I found most enjoyable the parts of the book detailing Locke's youth, and relished getting to each interlude to continue reading about him. Adult Locke is a lot of fun too, and he continues to be a compelling character, but there's something special about Locke's younger days. I can only hope that we continue to see more of these interludes in future installments in this series.

But that's not the only element of the book that can be further explored. Lynch's worldbuilding is truly outstanding, and even though he paints quite a vivid picture, there remain enough subtle hints and mentions throughout the book that leave him room to explore the world more fully as the series continues. For instance, the fact that Camorr is said to have been built of "Elderglass" by a long forgotten race is interesting, but who they are or where they've gone is never really covered. It's touches like this that lends the world an air of mystique, and fills the reader with curiosity for what will come next.

And speaking of future installments, it's worth pointing out that although The Lies of Locke Lamora is book one in a projected seven-book cycle, the novel stands alone remarkably well. There is a definite and complete story arc from first page to last. But here's where Lynch pulls off a extraordinary feat: although the book came to a satisfying conclusion, I found myself wanting to pick up book two immediately. Alas, I'll have to wait until June 2007

Many of Lynch's influences are clear—the first and obvious debt Locke Lamora owes is to Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories—but despite the fact that much of the style and tone of the novel is reminiscent of prior works, Lynch borrows (or perhaps pilfers would be a better term, considering the protagonist) with deft skill, taking inspirational bits from a variety of sources and melding them together into something that feels wholly original.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is a vibrant, engaging epic fantasy of the highest order. And to hear that coming from me is really saying something, because of all of the subgenres I read in, epic fantasy is perhaps the hardest to sell me on. Move over Robert Jordan and Terry Goodkind—here's a big fat fantasy that'll actually make you glad it's epic-length.

For excerpts, maps, and more information about the series, visit Lynch's website.

A Small and Remarkable Life by Nick DiChario
Robert J. Sawyer Books, 2006, $23.95

In the mid-to-late 19th Century, a trio of alien visitors came to our planet. Being of a malleable physical form, they did their best to mimic human features. One of the three, a newborn child, is orphaned shortly after his birth, when a passing hunter's dog savagely attacks the aliens. The orphan, who we come to know as Tink Puddah, manages a humanoid appearance, though he looks far from normal; his most glaring oddity is the bluish hue of his skin. Yet despite this, the hunter takes Tink into his home, and adopts him as a son. But Tink's life will not be an easy one; no, although the hunter at first seems compassionate, we soon learn that he has more in common with his bloodthirsty dogs than he does any saint, and it's not long before Tink again finds himself on his own.

The novel unfolds via two narrative threads: one, starting in 1845, in which we see Tink grow up, and struggle to find a place for himself in this strange-to-him world despite the hatred and fear around him; and in the other, starting in 1860, we learn of Tink's impending death—it was murder, it seems, by what the town assumes to be a passing stranger. Eventually, as Tink grows older, the two narrative threads catch up to each other, and when DiChario's done telling his story, the result is like the tapestry of a master weaver.

After Tink leaves his adoptive family, he finds himself exploring the rural region of Upstate New York in which he finds himself. For a while, he makes himself a hermit, living in the wilderness away from all humans, communiing instead with nature and her animal progeny. One day during his wanderings, he discovers some boys playing baseball. There, he experiences both more rejection, and for the first time true acceptance, but like most things in Tink's short life, it doesn't last, and it isn't long before he finds himself moving on once again.

When the story moves away from Tink, we have as point-of-view character the Preacher Jacob Piersol, the local religious type in the small town in which Tink eventually settles. Piersol never did get along with Tink, mainly due to his refusal to be converted to Christianity, and his insistence on debating the merits of Piersol's religion. After working hard all his life to make himself a home, however, Tink had won over the hearts and minds of nearly all the townsfolk. Sure, they still thought of him as strange—so they never do manage to fully get over their inherent distrust of outsiders—but he, in a sense, becomes one of them, and his death is a blow to their small community.

It's a shame that a major publisher didn't snap this book up and publish it for a larger audience, but kudos to Robert J. Sawyer for making this book available via his imprint at Red Deer Press. Books like this one remind us that the small press is of vital importance to the field, and remind us that it's up to us, the readers, to support them to ensure that someone will be around to publish the books that fall through the cracks.

A Small and Remarkable Life is at once beautiful, heartbreaking, and profound. It's a must-read for SF fans and non-genre readers alike. Like Tink Puddah, DiChario's novel is small (just 208 pages), but it is also just as remarkable.

For an excerpt and more information about the novel, visit DiChario's website.

Infoquake by David Louis Edelman
Pyr, 2006, $15.00

Imagine you could do to your body what you can do to a browser like Firefox—you can install plug-ins to make it do a variety of tasks that you (but not everyone) would find useful, and if there's something about the standard operating procedures that irritates you, you can just go in and tweak the code to make the offending annoyance stop. Tired? Don't down caffeine; just run a program to wake you up. Need to tell something private to your friend while in a room full of people? Don't leave the room; just use the ConfidentialWhisper program, which is essentially technological telepathy.

Natch is a entrepreneur working in bio/logics, which is what the above-mentioned technology is called, and what the novel defines as "the science of using programming code to extend the capabilities of the human body and mind." And if that isn't enough to make you want to read this book, then you might be reading in the wrong genre.

Infoquake follows Natch's career, starting with his gamble to win the top spot on Primo's (a sort of bio/logic stock index) and concluding with his venture into the bold new field of MultiReal. In between, we see Natch's childhood, and get to a look at how he came to be the ruthless, coldhearted, yet brilliant businessman he is in the present.

If all novels were as chockfull of ideas as Infoquake is, then science fiction would never have to worry about a shortage of sense of wonder. The author who Edelman reminds me most of is Charles Stross, for the sheer complexity of his ideas and his thrusting of the reader into a new and daringly different, yet plausible future. If anything, Edelman is like a more accessible Stross; whereas Stross's fiction is about as dense as it can get and still be readable, Edelman's style is more inviting, and, to me, more appealing.

David Louis Edelman's bio says that he's a web designer, programmer, and journalist. Well, if he can design and program as well as he can write, then I'd hire him to manage my company's website in a heartbeat. Few first novelists manage as assured a debut as Infoquake; almost all new authors stumble around a bit in their first novel, but Edelman comes off as a seasoned professional.

One detail that seemed off-kilter to me, however, is the fact that one of the primary characters—Horvil—is obese. In a society in where people are full of nanomachines which cure their ills and heal their wounds, wouldn't those same OCHRES also easily keep a person trim and fit? I'd think that would be one of the coolest things about the OCHRES and bio/logics—you could either run a program to ignore your hunger if you don't have time (or don't want) to eat; or conversely, if you want to pig out and stuff your face full of the most delectable but highly caloric desserts known to man, you'd be able to do so without paying the penalty.

Included with the novel are several appendices, which include a glossary, an historical timeline, and four essays which further explain bio/logics and some other aspects of Edelman's richly-imagined future. These are great, if, like me, you wanted to know more about the novel's cool concepts

"Hack the body, and the mind will follow." A simple statement with profound implications, and the perfect tagline for a novel that promises—and delivers—so many inventive and cool technological advances. So what are you waiting for? Download Infoquake into your brain. It's better than a bio/logics cure for boredom.

For excerpts, podcasts, supplementary material, and more information about the novel, visit Edelman's website.


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