|Tonics for the Curious Reader|
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
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
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.