|Tonics for the Curious Reader|
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
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
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
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
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
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