Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

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

The Sword Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe

Not too long ago I was standing in front of a room full of aspiring writers talking about genre clichés and tropes. The idea of the class was to teach them ways to make old tropes fresh again, and avoid writing clichés. By the end of class I'd given them a list of ways to keep things fresh, and they'd come up with quite a few of their own: one of the joys of Socratic dialogue. One of the methods I suggested was to take two well-known tropes and slap them together. The dissonance between the two quite often provides some healthy idea generation, and maybe even some fun. For example, I suggested, one could take the well-known trope of a generation starship, and the trope of a burnt-out private eye, and see where it led them.

I've always found a special guilty delight in the world-weary private investigator. From Dashiell Hammet to Raymond Chandler, there is nothing better than this tired old hand of the mystery scene. Alex Bledsoe's The Sword Edged Blond features just a hero: Eddie LaCrosse. But Eddie's world isn't the noir of a faux 1940s world. Eddie is a burnt out swordsman-for-hire in a sword and sorcery landscape. If Conan the Barbarian had to hire someone to shadow his wife to see if she was cheating on him with Kull of Atlantis, Eddie'd be the man he would find in an office above a tavern to hire. Alex has written a novel that slaps the tropes of noir and high fantasy together, and this novel is the result.

But does it work?

I think it does. And I think the reason is because Alex doesn't play the dissonance of jamming two very different tropes together just for laughs, but gives his characters a depth that stays true to its noir roots. Eddie LaCrosse begins this novel's journey a hard-boiled swordsman in the town of Neceda. He's hired to find a Princess Lila, who has either been kidnapped by, or absconded with, ruffians. Her father, King Felix, needs her found, and Eddie takes on a retainer, buckles up his trusty sword (Fireblade three footer), and sets out to find her.

But it's never that simple, is it? Princess Lila isn't who we think she is. King Felix is an abusive stepdad, and Lila's run away with her real father after one hit too many. And her new entourage isn't about to let Eddie go back and tell King Felix where she is. They quickly draw their swords on Eddie, who's saved by the well-timed appearance of Mike Anders.

Anders, a chatty, sociable secret agent for the kingdom of Arentia, has come to bring Eddie back to his home country. King Philip of Arentia needs Eddie. The queen of Arentia has been found near the bloody remains of her son, and she can't remember what happened. Or at least, she refuses to say. And King Philip isn't just any random king hiring someone to figure out what happened. Philip and Eddie go way back, twenty years back. They used to be best friends back before their lives took very separate paths. And Eddie recognizes the queen of Arentia: she's certainly not telling her husband everything about her own complicated past.

Now Eddie has to figure out what has happened before his childhood friend, and the kingdom he runs, falls apart. But while Eddie is digging for truth, he's also digging up some skeletons from his own past. Because a noir hero is never really a hero, but someone trying to overcome their own terrific flaws. And that is what makes this combinatory genre piece so compelling: it is wonderful characters doing the best with the situations they've been handed. Alex Bledsoe really lets them come alive in a way that makes this book just a great deal of fun to read.

Snake Agent: A Detective Inspector Chen Novel by Liz Williams

I always suspected that hell had a bureaucracy, and apparently so does Liz Williams. Detective Inspector Chen is an expert on the supernatural, and works in Singapore on mysteries involving the mystical. In Snake Agent, the ghost of Pearl Tang has escaped hell, and the demon Zhu Irzh has been tasked by one of the divisions of hell to go get her back, and without too much fuss. Chen, topside, is also trying to find Pearl: she's mixed up in some sort of devious plot that seems to involve the souls of young, prurient girls.

Chen and Zhu Irzh have to work together to find Pearl, but they have very different destinies in mind for the poor, lost soul. And Zhu is finding out pretty quickly that the various competing offices of hell are engaged in a power struggle that may leave both Chen and Zhu caught in the middle of a world-shaking battle.

Somehow I've missed the previous Detective Inspector Chen novels, but I suspect I may not in the future. Most of the urban fantasy novels I've started of late have really failed to hook me. But Liz caught my attention with a classic opening chapter that shows Detective Inspector Chen hanging upside down while waiting for an alchemist to come back and kill him. Chen asks the demon hanging upside down next to him, Tso, to toss him his rosary so that he can use it to make a mistake. But Tso fails to do it in time, and the chapter ends on a cliffhanger.

For some readers that may seem a bit too blatant, but the old tricks are still good ones, and there is nothing wrong with a cliffhanger. And like Bledsoe above, Liz Williams is also playing a bit with the hardboiled character. The cliffhanger beginning, and then flashing back to how it all started, is a classic structure for that atmospheric story.

But the world here is a lot grittier, and Liz is taking us through a world where hell is accessible via email and lots of paperwork, not just the old-fashioned way. This confluence of high technology, detective novel, and supernatural urban fantasy that takes its cues from Eastern mythology makes for a unique reading experience. The demons and goddesses come from a background that may be somewhat unfamiliar to many readers, but make for a colorful and rich world. Weave in the dark hard-boiled elements, and you end up with demons that harvest human souls recently arrived in hell for all manner of perverse habits, many of which leak their way back up to Singapore in semi-regulated black markets.

And yet it isn't all bleak. Chen's wife, Inari, has fled hell to try and make something of a life with her love. Zhu has a wry sense of humor. And Chen's on-again off-again relationship with his protector goddess give us a glimpse at the brighter side of life in this syncretic Singapore that Liz Williams has crafted. Chen sees the darker side of the world, but that's because he's another in a long line of hardboiled detectives who've seen a lot of the world. And I'm looking forward to seeing more of his world in upcoming books.

Queen of Candesce by Karl Schroeder

In a recent article here on IGMS, Carol Pinchefsky interviewed a number of authors, interviewers and editors and wondered if there was an ongoing problem of nepotism in the field of science fiction and fantasy. It's a small enough field that many of its practitioners are bound to know each other, and so I have to give you a heads up about this review: not only am I a fan of Karl Schroeder's work, I also happen to call him a close friend.

A couple of years ago I remember Karl explaining that he was working on a new series of books set in a fullerene bubble that was thousands of miles wide and filled with air in which a vast array of civilizations and exotic locations competed with each other for access to sunlight provided by a number of miniature fusion suns. This was the backdrop for his currently ongoing Virga series, beginning with Sun of Suns, and continuing on with Queen of Candesce. I was intrigued when he told me about it then, and just as intrigued and fascinated once I got my hands on the first book, and I'm still loving the concept now that I've finished the second.

Venera Fanning, falling through the sky at the end of Sun of Suns after a vast naval confrontation, has deorbited into the decrepit outer layer of the giant spinning cylinder of Spyre and luckily lived to survive. Not so luckily, she's stuck on Spyre, as no one is allowed to leave. The giant artificial world of Spyre holds the last objects that came from old Earth, like cherry trees, and some animals. They jealously guard their imports and exports. In locking itself down, Spyre has become hidebound and ossified. Tiny micro-states of hundreds of people fight over corridors, recalling things like 'the Pantry War' fought years in the past. Its aristocracy is stacked with devious plotters, all scheming to advance their interests in a world where resources are very finite.

But Spyre has yet to encounter someone as ruthlessly Machiavellian as Venera. With the assistance of Garth Diamandis, Venera helps reboot a vanquished micro-state that disappeared when a large chunk of outer Spyre fell off the spinning world, a sign of how decrepit the entire structure is. From this position Venera fights her way into the aristocracy of Spyre. She's determined not only to leave Spyre, but to recover the key she had on her that can control Candesce, the immense artificial sun that lies at the heart of everything. It was stolen from her when she landed on Spyre.

Even as she's doing this, however, Venera is working with Spyre resistance fighters. Inspired by information that comes from outside of this entire structure of ballooned air and worldlets Schroeder has envisioned is something called "artificial nature." The resistance has been given a way to create emergent democracy, which they want to introduce into Spyre, something that Venera, who comes from an aristocratic past, may not really be interested in. She just needs the resistance fighters to cause chaos, which Venera operates all too well in. Before her time on Spyre is out, Venera may well bring the entire world to its knees with her quest to regain the key to Candesce.

Karl Schroeder is a world-builder extraordinaire. One of the elements that bring many to reading and loving science fiction is a sense of wonder. Taking a tour of any part of Virga is a sense of wonder journey as you get to see giant crumbling cylinders, artificial suns, weightless fleets, and wooden towns, rotating slowly to provide their own feeble gravity. It's science fiction at its best, and books like this remind me what I love about this genre.


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