Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Literary Draughts
Tonics for the Curious Reader
    Book Reviews by Tobias Buckell
January 2008

Dust by Elizabeth Bear

Rien is a household servant, and her entire life is about to change. The head of her house, Ariane, has severed the wings of the angel Perceval in single combat. Rien has been tasked with keeping Perceval alive until Ariane decides what to do with her. But everyone is expecting Ariane to devour the angel's memories and make them her own soon enough. Rien is horrified by this, and when Perceval calls Rien by name, and says that she is her sister, Rien helps Ariane escape and launches herself into an adventure that will take her on a trip through the heart of the world she lives on.

I say "on" because although the beginning of this book drips with a magical and almost medieval atmosphere, Bear is using one of Arthur C. Clarke's famous dictums: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. It doesn't take long for the reader to discover that Rien's world is enclosed, and artificial. It is a generation starship, built to take its inhabitants slowly from one star to another, over such lengths of time that people will live and die and create their own histories and legends as they and their descendants live between its walls. Rien's adventures as she flees Ariane take them through the disused and ancient corridors of the massive starship: of the massive starship: a starship fractured by many different parties, both human and artificial, who maintain control of its different sections and functions.

Rien is about to become the player in a large battle for control of this generation starship Jacob's Ladder. Her sister is part of a faction that seeks to challenge Ariane, and Perceval's capture may have been the first move in a war for control of all the Houses. Since these are powerful humans with nanotechnology in their blood that lets them survive limited exposure to vacuum and other such neat tricks, the war that will come promises to be vicious.

But there's another problem shaping up. The royalty, with their powerful weapons and layered intrigues leading to a massive confrontation, are not the only players in a game for control of this aged artificial world. Legendary and mysterious, the former artificial agents that once controlled the ship are getting involved as well. Creatures with names like Dust and Samael are sundered fragments of the ship's original whole guiding program. Now they are whole personalities with differing goals, memories, and areas of control over the ship. These entities are locked into a battle of the wills for control of everything as well, and for them there is the knowledge that time is limited, making the battle a more desperate one on their side.

Bear has really taken the generation starship idea and fully spun out an engaging and rich tale. The struggle between the human factions, and their almost mystical understanding of the advanced technologies and artificial intelligences around them makes the story easily accessible to both new genre readers and the experienced. While we've seen stories of people who inhabit the ruins of advanced technology before, the addition of the ship's fractured personalities to this game make the trope feel entirely fresh again, and Rien's quest to save her world completely engaging.

The Princes of the Golden Cage by Nathalie Mallet

Prince Amir lives in a harem. Well, not technically, but he and a hundred-plus of his brothers are locked away in the royal palace, guarded and prevented from leaving. It's a pretty interesting solution that this Ottoman Empire inspired fantasy novel posits: the Sultan keeps all the successors in one place, locked up, so that they can have an eye kept on them. It would make it harder for them to raise civil intrigues against the kingdom.

But life in the cage can be brutal. In both the actual harem and in the princes' cage, palace intrigues and plots take lives. Brothers fight brothers over who will be ranked highest in the list of succession (which is updated yearly based on how the brothers have caught their father's eye as well as his trusted advisor's). Amir chooses to dodge all this chaos by leading a mainly solitary life in a tower over the palace's library. There he pursues his studies of alchemy and being a bookworm, seeking as much knowledge as he can, while avoiding and hiding from the rest of all his brothers.

The strategy backfires on him, however. The book launches with the palace's discovery that one of the brothers, Hamed, has been killed by mystical means, choked to death by an invisible force. Sorcery is in the air, and everyone assumes it is Amir who is responsible.

Amir is a bit of a rationalist who has no interest in magic and sorcery. But he needs to prove this mysterious death wasn't his fault because even the Grand Vizier Jafar, the Sultan's right hand man, seems to assume that it's Amir behind all this.

And soon enough more brothers are dropping dead. Erik, a strange brother who's half foreign and who relies entirely too much on his servant, Rami, turns out to be a helpful ally. Or is he? Amir just can't let go of the suspicion that he's being used by any brother who's slightly friendly (other than the two insane brothers that Amir has adopted and keeps in rooms by the entrance to his tower).

The ante gets upped when the brothers see that the Sultan looks near death and quite aged. Rumors fly that the Sultan might be using the life force of his sons to stay alive. Fights between the cooped up and frustrated males break out all

around. There is revolt in the air. And thanks to Erik's showing him the secret passages through the palace, Amir has found out that the Grand Vizier is really worried about the dark magics being used to bring them all down.

Even worse, Amir has met the love of his life: Eva. And she's someone a lowly prince, hardly even on the succession list like him, could never have.

It is refreshing to see a medieval fantasy novel of sorts that isn't grounded in the usual setting tropes. Mallett wafts a cool breeze reminiscent of 1001 Arabian Nights through the novel with her unique setting. On the other hand, the story struggles a bit with the limited environment. I'd bet that some readers might find themselves as frustrated as the princes at not being allowed to see the outer world. And at the start, the reclusive and somewhat hermit-like main character is not a natural protagonist.

And yet, the somewhat skittish, fearful character of Amir does become charming as he has to learn to trust people for the first time and come into his own, and the later stages of the book pick up as we are drawn into the intrigues of all the parties.

Devices and Desires by K.J. Parker

Speaking of fantasy novels that bring something slightly new to the setting table, here's a novel that really tweaks expectations, while living fully and glorying in many others. Devices and Desires begins with our hero being a fairly mild mannered engineer. Not usually a character that inhabits the mantle of hero in a large fantasy novel like this. But he's the hero from a technologically advanced civilization bringing knowledge and weapons to the backward locals who are being slowly economically and politically invaded by his civilization. The twist, the invaders are somewhat Mediterranean and brown-skinned, the ignorant locals are pale and live in the mountains.

And yet, this isn't the inversion of a simple colonial tale, with fantasy trappings. Parker is a lot more deft than that, and keeps mix and matching which tropes to toy with, and which to really wring the most interesting story out of. Our hero, Ziani, is a foreman at a weapons production facility in the city of Mezentia that makes large dart throwing machines that devastate barbarian armies. He's created a toy for his daughter that uses improvements that are not set down in the engineer's rule books. His society, though it thrives on trade, uses monopolies over its technology, as well as standardization that approaches religious ferocity. If a spring is well made, it is made that way from then on, with only slow and small changes suggested by an engineer toward the very end of their life.

Ziani's "improvements" brand him a dangerous engineer radical, and he's sentenced to death to make an example of the dangers of such thoughts. He escapes, running from his city out into the barbarian countryside, where he runs smack into the Army of Eremia that has just recently been devastated by the very weapons he oversees the manufacture of.

The city of Mezentia does not allow engineers to sell their knowledge of engineering lest it affect their knowledge monopoly. Knowing full well that he will be hunted, Ziana has only a short amount of time to try and figure out how to convince his new hosts to invest in building weapons of warfare that will be able to hold back an invasion by Mezentia to kill Ziani.

Not only is Ziani not going down easy, his wife and child remain in Mezentia. Further, Ziani is not entirely an ally of the Eremians, who have taken in him. He has a much larger goal in mind. He wants to destroy Mezentia and reunite with his wife, and to do that, he's going to have to figure out how to maneuver the men around him to do his bidding like machines as the march to war between two unequal combatants builds up.

It's a leisurely novel at times, but the trope of one person with the right knowledge uplifting a whole civilization is always inspiring. And rooting for the noble Eremians, the underdog feudalists, is a guilty pleasure that the novel delights in playing you around with as its factions and royalty engage in intrigues and struggle with the conflict between duty and love and honor, all highlighted against the calculating hero of Ziani, who just wants to get his family back. An engaging novel.

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