The Rampart Trilogy by M.R. Carey, all published by Orbit: The Book of Koli (April 2020),
The Trials of Koli (September 2020), and the forthcoming The Fall of Koli (March 2021). Cover designs by Lisa Marie Pompilio
Post-apocalyptic reading doesn’t seem the best thing for these times of global pandemic and a presidential term that’s seen the US move backward on almost every progressive climate policy. And yet as I explained in my review of The Book of Koli, M. R. Carey has managed to create an enjoyable post-apocalyptic quest through the voice of his flawed, compelling, imminently likeable narrator, Koli. The Trials of Koli, released in September, picks up right where Book 1 left off, with Koli and his companions traveling across an ecologically transformed England in the wake of civilization to find the source of a signal that might mean a semblance of technology and government remaining in London.
Of course, a quest is only as good as those you travel with, and in this Koli is fortunate. Besides the traveling medicine woman Ursula, who carries some of the country’s last viable medical technology, and the sentient Dreamsleeve Mono, an advanced music player that has become Koli’s closest friend, the character who shines in this volume is Cup, a vagabond picked up as captive after a tussle with a cannibalistic cult at the end of the first volume. Cup becomes an ally and companion in this second volume, and with her character Carey is able to explore what life might be like for “crossed,” or transgendered, individuals in this new world.
Besides navigating the spectrum of hatred to acceptance that Cup elicits as they travel through various villages, Cup’s identity provides a point of conflict within the company. Ursula, with her access to medical technology, must decide if it’s ethical to give Cup the hormone-blocking treatment she wants to postpone the onset of puberty, even though the therapy for full gender transition is no longer available. This conflict isn’t a major plot point, but it’s integral to the heroes’ journey and a nuanced depiction of a transgendered character. Of course, at the same time our heroes are navigating this they’re also figuring out how to deal with the coming seed-fall of a forest full of carnivorous trees.
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A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians
Redhook (545 pages, $28 in hardcover/$14.99 digital, June 23 2020)
Covered designed by Lisa Marie Pompilio
Susanna Clarke’s monumental Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell created a believable history of English magic and interwove this history into the story of her main characters. In A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians, H. G. Parry attempts to do something similar. Whereas Clarke’s book was set during the Napoleonic Wars, Parry’s takes place in the decades leading up to this, chronicling the abolitionist movement in England, slave revolutions in the Caribbean, and the French Revolution. And whereas Clarke invented her own eponymous characters, Parry brings actual historical actors to life in her magical alternate history.
In 1779, the trade in African slaves flourishes. Besides the horror of kidnapping and the Middle Passage, in Parry’s history slaves are also force-fed alchemical substances that make it physically impossible for them to resist commands. They are imprisoned in their own bodies. In England, where only the aristocracy can use magic freely, the young member of parliament William Wilberforce is working with his close friend and eventual Prime Minister William Pitt to pass legislature outlawing the slave trade. In France, meanwhile, magic is even more tightly regulated, with commoner magicians forced to wear bracelets that burn when they illegally use their magic. (For commoners, this means any time they use their magic.) This system of control exists because of the Vampire Wars of the previous centuries, when vying vampire sovereigns used Europe as their personal chessboard. When the vampires were defeated, dark magic was banished outright and nations signed a concord to never use magic in war again.
This is the background against which Parry’s novel follows three main strands of revolution: a revolution of slaves in Haiti through the eyes of Fina, a former slave learning she has a unique magic; the French Revolution, triggered by the desire to give commoners the right to practice magic but quickly becoming something much darker; and the idealistic revolution for abolition Wilberforce and Pitt are pursuing in the halls of the British Parliament. The plot has the feel of a gathering storm, as our characters realized someone is pulling strings to plunge Europe back into war.
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Silver by Linda Nagata (Mythic Island Press, Nov 2019). Cover art by Sarah Anne Langton
Silver is the direct sequel to Edges, which is itself a continuation of Nagata’s Nanotech Succession series. In Edges, some of the heroes from Nagata’s earlier series decide to head back in from the frontier of human expansion in the Milky Way to the galactic region of Earth and its immediate environs. In this science fiction universe, the laws of physics are firm, and no one has figured out a way around the universal speed limit of light itself or the constraints of relativistic travel. This means distances and time spans are immense, and voyages are spread over centuries. It also means that as humanity spread itself into that emptiness, it became diffuse and attenuated and that the sharpest telescopes on the frontier give only clues but no answers about what has taken place in the intervening centuries on the cradle worlds of humanity.
Edges was the story of Urban’s ship and crew and what happened on their way home. As with most trips, things got complicated quickly. The expedition back to Earth ran afoul of an unwelcome passenger: Lezuri, a godlike intelligence that attempted to take over the ship and was only expelled at the apparent cost of Urban himself. Silver follows directly on the heels of this conflict. Urban has fled to a nearby world, to which Lezuri is bound as well. With limited resources, Urban has to find a way to both prepare for Lezuri’s eventual arrival and warn off his ship and crew, who assume he is dead.
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When I was younger I remember reading a short description of Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time when it was reissued for the Science Fiction Book Club and being fascinated by the idea of a time war. I still haven’t gotten around to reading Leiber’s exploration of that idea, so I can’t say for certain how closely Amal el-Mohtar and Max Gladstone were informed by it in their new co-authored novel, This is How You Lose the Time War.
The general idea of a time war though is fairly straightforward and has been a recurring science fiction trope since Leiber’s work. However, the execution of one (and writing a narrative that follows the agents waging one) is anything but. The theme works like this: assuming two sides have different desired and opposing outcomes for the future and that any future is the outcome of a millions accumulated events, waging a time war means sending agents or soldiers into the past to change the outcome of these events so history flows one way or another. This could be changing the outcome of a historic battle, causing the assassination of a specific individual, or even things more subtle like influencing a particular political leader as she develops her ideas.
Now overlay all this with a love story. That is what El-Mohtar and Gladstone are about in this very gorgeous book. The two sides in their eponymous time war are diametrically opposed: one pushing history toward a technological utopia with forces overseen by the cool, calculating Commandant and the other toward a future in which everything — even the stars themselves — has become part of a vast organic hive-mind called Garden. The Commandant’s best agent is Red, and her opposite for Garden is known as Blue. It’s difficult to classify either agent, who are the dual protagonists of the story, as human. Both have been synthetically created by their respective side with immense power, in addition to time travel (the mechanics of which are kept vague throughout). Both identify as female, and both fall very much in love.
The structure of the book is crafted around a series of letters between Red and Blue as they strike up a dangerous, flirtatious rivalry that quickly grows into much more. Each short chapter (which read almost like vignettes or carefully crafted prose poems) follows either Blue or Red in a different period from Earth’s past to the far future as the one’s missions are foiled or obstructed by the other. Each chapter ends with one finding a letter left by the other. The imagery throughout, especially in the letters, is striking, bringing each new landscape to life, and consistent enough it’s hard to tell where one author’s writing ends and the other’s begins.
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1984 Bantam paperback edition; cover by Yvonne Gilbert
Some authors create slender, nearly flawless works of fiction. Books like little jewels on the shelf — cut just right, gleaming, standing alone. Beagle managed this a few times: A Fine and Private Place, The Last Unicorn. Goldman turned his into a movie that was nearly as good: The Princess Bride. Swanwick and Wolfe have done it with literary science fiction: Stations of the Tide and The Fifth Head of Cerberus, respectively. The Deep is a book like this: finely wrought, chiseled, alien.
Is this tiny 1975 volume science fiction or fantasy? On the one hand, the book starts with the Visitor, a damaged android who arrives in the book’s world with no memory of what he is or his mission. But the world he’s in, the culture and factions of which his ignorance provides the perfect excuse for a narrator’s artful explanation, is purely fantasy: a kingdom riven by conflict between Reds and Blacks, with a city at its center and wild wastes surrounding, ringed on all sides by the Deep.
The world, as different characters explain at different times, is a platter or a plate suspended on the Deep by a great pillar. And even when the android journeys to the edge of this world and meets the Leviathan who dwells there, when he learns the nature of the engineered conflict and how humans were first settled on the world, Crowley doesn’t ever default to pure science fiction. Even if the reader can credit a resettled humanity in the far future, reset to medieval technology with continual wars to control the population, the story still leaves you with a flat world upon the Deep. Somehow, this central oddity works; it keeps a surreal wrinkle in the heart of the world Crowley creates.
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The Fermi Paradox is relatively simple. It asks, considering the immense expanse of time, the apparent plentitude of planets in our galaxy, and thus the likelihood of intelligent life somewhere else — why don’t we see it? Why is the sky so resolutely silent? Answering this question has become something of a hobby among science fiction writers, with responses ranging from the transcendental to the sobering. Maybe life evolves quickly beyond the physical. Or maybe life is out there but quietly watching and waiting. Linda Nagata’s work offers a more straightforward answer: intelligent life is hunted.
In Nagata’s universe, Chenzeme coursers are living alien weapons: biomechanical vessels coated in hulls of intelligent “philosopher cells.” The ships are programmed to systematically hunt down technological civilizations and sterilize entire worlds. In her previous series, humanity’s spread into the frontier was halted by encounters with these vessels. The coursers were only one prong though in an ancient assault that had long outlasted the ship’s original creators. The other was an ancient virus, which bypassed the frontier worlds and affected the original core planets of humanity’s origins, including Earth, subsuming entire planetary populations into huge group-minds that went on to construct immense Dyson spheres enclosing their stars.
I fell into this universe through a paperback copy of the final book in her previous series, Vast (1998), and was immediately entranced (I reviewed Vast for Black Gate here). Nagata has a way of making the incredible distances, both in space and time, of galactic travel real. Humans are tenuous here, following divergent evolutionary roads, clinging to disparate worlds in the night. Vast followed an expedition from the planet Deception Well to find the source of the Chenzeme coursers and spun out from there into a stunning novel that was at its core a centuries-long chase sequence but managed to explore the characters and the biomechanical and technological realities of life aboard the exploratory ship.
All this to say I was thrilled when I learned that Nagata, after nearly two decades, was returning to this universe with a follow-up series called Inverted Frontier. The first book in this series, Edges, was released this spring and Nagata was kind enough to send me a pre-print for review.
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Gollancz edition (1990); cover by Bob Eggleton
I’ll get right to it: Linda Nagata’s Vast is everything you want epic sci-fi to be: a huge scope in time and space, a compelling look at the horizons of human and technological evolution, and a celebration of the wonder of the universe itself. Vast provides all this, with some truly beautiful descriptions of stellar evolution thrown in for good measure. On top of all this, this scale and big ideas are woven alongside excellent character formation and a plot that builds tension so effectively that long years of pursuit between vessels with slow relative velocities still feels sharp and urgent.
I liked this book. A lot.
Vast is set in the far future, after multiple waves of colonization have moved out from Earth (which has since itself been destroyed). Humanities’ settlements along the frontier have been ravaged by twin threats from an ancient lost race called the Chenzeme: automated, partially biological warships and an engineered virus that turns its hosts into carriers of a cult that enslaves entire populations. Humanity, it seems, is being squeezed between these two prongs of an incredibly ancient civil war with weapons lingering on even after the civilization that wages it is long gone.
But there’s a whole lot going on against this epic background. Vast is actually the concluding book in a series that includes three others (one of which is the Locus Award-winning Deception Well) but I didn’t realize this when I picked up the paperback edition this summer in a used bookstore when my vacation reading supply tanked. The plot picks up with four characters — Nikko, Lot, Urban, and Clementine, all human — on a starship called the Null Boundary heading into Chenzeme space. Starting with the final book means I missed all the details of how these characters originally met, how they learned Lot was a carrier of the cult virus, and how they ended up on the Null Boundary, but it didn’t decrease my enjoyment of the book. Sometimes it’s nice to be dropped in the middle of an unfamiliar universe to figure things out as you go. (I remember starting Gene Wolfe’s Long Sun quartet for the first time with the third book and being simultaneously confused and enthralled.)
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If you missed Erica Satifka’s Stay Crazy, her debut psychological thriller from a couple year back, not to worry. There’s a lot going on, all the time, and it happens to the best of us. But the fact that it won the British Fantasy Award for best newcomer is perhaps reason enough bring it to your attention. Satifka has crafted a tale of mental illness and weirdness set against the deeper malignancy of a post-industrial Midwest and despair, tied up nicely by some frustratingly relatable inter-dimensional entities.
There’s a long tradition in fiction and myth that those who are not entirely sane nonetheless have perceptions, resources, and even abilities beyond those of ordinary folk. Insanity is sometimes the price of vision. Characters of Philip K. Dick for instance, who’s work Satifka’s has been compared with, immediately spring to mind. There are similarly lots of authors who play with the idea of the unreliable narrator, something that Gene Wolfe does to great effect. How is the narrative itself subverted when the reader can’t trust the person telling the story, or the person telling the story can’t trust their own perceptions?
Satifka’s Stay Crazy plays into both these questions by building the narrative around Emma, an erstwhile college student whose schizophrenia has cost her the chance to escape a dying Midwestern town (on economic life-support by a giant Walmart-esque superstore called Savertown, USA). The reader joins Emma, who comes to herself in a mental hospital after a psychotic break, returning home, reconciling herself to her condition and trying to put her life back together with her mother and a Fundamentalist Christian younger sister.
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The Overneath by Peter S. Beagle (Tachyon Publications, 336 pages, $15.95 in trade paperback, November 14, 2017)
The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen (Tachyon Publications, 288 pages, $15.95 in trade paperback, $9.99 digital, November 14, 2017)
In 1900 Frank L. Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, arguably the first truly American fairy tale. Now, a century and counting along the Yellow Brick Road, what can be said about the current state of the fairy tale in America? We seem deep in the wilds of dystopias like Hunger Games and its darker cousin, The Walking Dead, captivated by the grim fantasies of American Gods and Game of Thrones. Is this the new reality for the American fable, for literary fantasy that aspires to be anything more than a Disney retelling?
Against this darker background, a pair of recent collections from San Francisco’s Tachyon Publications attempts to reestablish or at least reconfirm fantasy as something brighter, if no less compelling. The Overneath by Peter S. Beagle and The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen (both published November 2017) together provide a sample of American fantasy by two of its most enduring and cherished voices. Beagle and Yolen are both giants, with hundreds of publications and dozens of awards between them. They have won the highest accolades in the fields, and both now write from positions of something like legend. But do the unicorns of Beagle or the Arthurian retellings of Yolen have anything to give readers who have come to expect a heavy dose of grim realism or even grimmer apocalypse in their high fantasy?
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Edited by John Joseph Adams
Baen(320 pages, $15 trade/$7.99 paperback/$6.99 digital, March 3, 2015)
Cover by Dominic Harman
Operation Arcana is another collection by prolific editor John Joseph Adams, built of stories crafted around a theme that gives it a fairly unique flavor among recent speculative fiction anthologies. That theme is basically something like “soldiers and magic.”
On first blush, especially considering the cover image of modern soldiers using assault rifles against a rearing dragon, that might seem a bit of a cheesy juxtaposition. But it actually works quite well, and Adams has crafted an anthology of consistently compelling stories. There’s a wide spectrum of tales here, from alternate histories in which historical wars are fought with magical aid, to realistic slipstream in which modern soldiers encounter mythical creatures, to high fantasy focused on the gritty lives of campaigners.
More than just compelling stories though, there’s something about the juxtaposition of magic and warfare that seems to just really work. Why? I think the authors have stumbled onto something profound in their disparate tales, and I think it involves this fact: that magic is defined by rules. Even if the rules are strange or mysterious, stories involving magic are almost always faithful to the orderly structure of the magic that undergirds their imaginary universes. By contrast warfare — or at least battle — in the real world is inherently chaotic. At times the violence appears meaningless and the carnage random. So there’s something very appealing and attractive about stories that play with this sense of chaos on a backdrop of rule-structured magical systems.
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