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Robert Jackson Bennett – City of Miracles (2017) Review

City of Miracles is a truly excellent final part in what is an odd, unusual but compelling little series. Each entry has a different protagonist and this time it is the turn of everyone’s favourite northman: Sigrud. Some devastating stuff starts the story rolling and Sigrud ends his life of hiding to travel to Ahanashtan for some Rambo spy action.

This third novel is more front-loaded with action than the other two novels. City of Stairs felt more like a slow investigation and archeology novel, City of Blades moved closer to epic fantasy and this final novel is a thriller in dark alleys with elements of horror and new-weird fiction. It has guns and cars instead of temples and dreamworlds. It may also be the novel with the most heart, as Sigrud gets in touch with his former self for a revenge plot, and the characters have all grown so much on us over the course of the series that it is a delight to meet them again and to see where they end up.

An interesting thing about this series is the great time leaps between the novels. Another 13 years have passed and Sigrud, Shara and Mulaghesh have become that much older. We get to see how their lives change over the decades. This is also true for the world they live in. We started the series in a late 19th century level of development, but now we are decades later and the world starts to resemble the 20th century. Some of the action set pieces resemble those of James Bond movies. Unusual for a fantasy series, but interesting and satisfying in their own way.

Sigrud is at his best when teaming up with women, so here are two more female characters to join him: Shara’s adopted daughter Tatyana and Ivanya, Votrov’s rich widow. All characters in this series feel very real, very natural, but Sigrud is obviously an alpha male action hero, masculine and flawed, and the story does not accept other male challengers around him.

Some plot twists were telegraphed a bit too obviously ahead of time, so some chapters you’re just waiting for things to go wrong. And Sigrud, while he knows his spycraft, isn’t the cleverest guy at times and that can be a bit annoying. Bennett as a writer though is a lot cleverer than Sigrud and has plenty of interesting scenes to share with us.

City of Miracles is a thrilling mashup between Mission Impossible, Mughal India and The X-Men. In contrast to the first two novels, there are no slow moments. Introspective moments, yes, and bittersweet ones and inventive ones.  The story never sags, but stays strong throughout and has a spectacular final chapter. All in all, this novel adds a lot to the world of the divine cities, and the series as a whole is rounded off nicely as a very unique and satisfying series. It had enough potential to spawn a ten book mega series, I think. Perhaps it is for the best that Bennett moved on to new things and left the Divine Cities fresh in his wake.

8.5/10

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Roger Zelazny – This Immortal (1966) Review


This Immortal is one of Roger Zelazny’s best known books, but some may know it under the title of “… and Call me Conrad”.  Under that name it won the Hugo award of 1966, in a tied win with Frank Herbert’s Dune. It may not have gained the popularity of that other winner, and might even be regarded as largely forgotten now, but let’s see what made This Immortal so acclaimed at the time.

This Immortal starts with a lot of flimflam about a guy named Conrad having languid, teasing conversations with his girlfriend and his colleagues at tiresome cocktail parties. Slowly, though, the shape of the story and the world emerges: in the far future, Earth has been destroyed in war and only a few million humans still live on the planet, many with strange mutations. The surface of the planet is curated as a giant open air museum and Conrad is one of the curators. He has to function as a tourist guide for a visiting alien journalist from the star Vega, and doesn’t like that at all.

As one of the instigators of the New Wave period of SF writing, Zelazny wrote his stories in unconventional ways, using a slapdash, almost improvisational way to throw scenes together and sketching out the history of his characters and the future in throwaway lines. To me, it comes across as unfocused and his dialogues try too hard to be zany. Although, Conrad does have a funny deadpan humor. There are hints that he is much older than he looks and he’s emotionally detached and ready to be snarky.

Zelazny treats his themes in the same chaotic way; so on Conrad’s tour around the world, Conrad battles mutants to protect his alien tourist and also a secret society of revolutionaries who fear that the alien is there to buy Earth real estate. The hedonic Vegans come to Earth as tourists and set up luxury resorts and culturally appropriate the remains of our planet. On top of all of that, Zelazny throws in voodoo magic, telepathy and Greek mythology. The radioactive mutants, including Conrad himself, are all described as creatures from myth, nymphs and so on, and this feels like a dry run for Zelazny for his later novels Lord of Light (Indian religions) and Creatures of Light and Darkness (Egyptian mythology).

The most successful and enjoyable part of the novel is the rich aliens doing the ethno-tourism part. He really nails it, complete with alien intellectuals writing books about humanity and the casual arrogance of the tourist.

It is a feisty little novel and an intriguing travelogue, but it is also trying to achieve things that might have been cool in the 1960s, but leave me a bit cold. I didn’t understand the point of the Greek mythology angle and for most of the book the story didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Much of it depends on whether Conrad appeals to you as a character, and Zelazny has a tendency to give his main characters superhuman abilities and cheekiness, which annoys me a bit. In this sense, Conrad is a good prototype for Zelazny’s future characters Corwin and Jack of Shadows.

The end does tie things up nicely and the story is worth reading for the alien tourist theme.

7.5/10

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Some more drawings

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Ada Palmer – The Will To Battle (2017) Review

How did the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand lead to the cataclysm of the First World War? Fat history books have been written to explain the lead up to the war, explaining about all the various nations and individuals. The Will To Battle is the science fiction equivalent in Palmer’s future history. There are so many factions and powerful individuals in this series and Palmer made future society so strange, so other, that this makes for a fascinating story of increasing tensions. This is various versions of utopia consciously choosing to enter a world war.

The Franz Ferdinand of this story, the wonderfully strange J.E.D.D. Mason, is simultaneously a messiah figure who went through death and resurrection, that last thing being a gift by or a message from the God of This Universe. What the intentions are for humankind remains unclear – perhaps humanity is part of the message – but God’s messenger has also undergone a transformation to a famous historical and mythical figure to teach humanity again how to fight and solve war. Of course, Mycroft the errant boy is at his side to accompany him to all the world leaders.

Right from the start, I am completely enthralled by the heavy drama that is so theatrically written down by Mycroft the narrator, and by the deep intelligence that peeks through the text. Palmer suffuses her writing with ideas from enlightenment era philosophers and classical references, which some might find pretentious, but I think it gives the story and narration a delicious gravitas. She’s intelligent enough to tackle all the subtleties of politics and philosophy, to the point that these novels could only be written by someone who has made it a serious study in their life.

While those qualities are constantly present in the writing, The Will To Battle is a novel that asks for some more patience from the readers. The war between the Hyves, with which we have been teased with from the very first novel, is still not breaking out and instead Palmer adds more layers of worldbuilding during the slow build-up of tension. She dives into the political and legalistic consequences of everything that happened in Seven Surrenders.

While the politics are a bit tough to get through, the plot is impressively intricate. The series has a large cast of very distinctive characters and Mycroft is dragged from one situation to the next so that all these people have their moments in the spotlight. The story is like a shawl of intertwining threads, which are all the motivations and actions of this diverse group of people and, impressively, Palmer keeps it all clear and consistent.

Meanwhile, Mycroft’s narration nearly goes overboard in its whimsy. Mycroft imagines himself to be in conversation with us, the reader, and an imagined Thomas Hobbes, who is a philosopher who had things to say about war. They all comment on the telling of the story in numerous asides, while Mycroft tries his hand at some Homeric writing. The Will To Prattle, more like.

But I am really not interested in expressing any more second-hand embarrassment for this series’ addictive oddness and narrative indulgences. I want to raise it up on a pedestal instead.

For me, the central conflict of this series is one of cynicism and nihilism (personified by Madame Faust, Thisbe Saneer and others) versus genuine love and concern for humanity, its accomplishments and dreams, and the people who choose to sacrifice for these dreams. The main players are honest and deep feeling in their motivations to the point of theatricality. But among those players lives the difficult question of whether you would destroy this world, to create a better one. There is just something so bright-eyed and refreshing about it, and the whole series is so deeply considered and skillfully written.

9/10

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A drawing I made

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Alastair Reynolds – Elysium Fire (2018) Review


At this point, a newcomer to Alastair Reynolds’ novels would be totally confused on the order and chronology of the novels and which belong to what series. Elysium Fire is sold as the sequel to the novel Aurora Rising, which is a renaming of a novel that was originally published as The Prefect back in 2007. Now, The Prefect, thus the novel that you should be reading before starting on Elysium Fire, is itself a prequel to the Revelation Space series. The Prefect could be read as an entry novel, but then you would miss the very important knowledge that there are things going to happen in this world of which we already know the consequences in the Revelation Space novels.

To make it all more concrete, the Revelation Space series is set in a nihilistic dark space age, and one of the main locations is the Rust Belt, a ring of dead space habitats orbiting around the planet Yellowstone. Both the Rust Belt and the cities on Yellowstone fell to the so-called Melding Plague. In The Prefect (Aurora Rising), set before Revelation Space, this ring is known as the Glitter Band. That already tells us a lot. Elysium Fire, then, is set at that moment before the shit hit the fan.

It’s a good idea to reread The Prefect in any case, because all the same characters return: the stoic detective Tom Dreyfuss and his deputies Thalia Ng and the hyperpig Sparver. They collect and freeze the heads of civilians who died because their brain implants melted through unknown cause, and try to figure out what is going on. It’s good to be back with these characters and the rich, fascinating place of the Glitter Band and the Panoply organization. Reynolds’ writing is also at his best in mystery writing.

And while the outbreak of the Melding Plague is certainly a good excuse, or I should say provides a worthy enough premise, to expand this universe in a new novel, the question is whether Reynolds gives us a new and exiting story that is worthy of his own earlier work.

And here I have my doubts. It is almost by definition a lesser novel than The Prefect because it hardly introduces any new ideas, while The Prefect set everything up for the first time. Most of the story is a standard, slow moving investigation, with a primary and secondary plot that both lack some excitement. They follow the same beats as in the previous novel, with Thalia being cut off from the rest of the force and stranded on a habitat. There are more hints that some inspiration was missing. There is something off about his writing. I see clunky turns of phrase; elaborate technical wording when a warmer voice would have been better. I see parents talking to children as if they are dictating a policy document and main characters without real defining characteristics.

Other than that, it is a perfectly decent story. It has some nice twists and turns towards the end and it ties well into the known history of the Revelation Space series. The story is one of democracy under attack by a demagogue, of swept-up crowds and that villain having a dark past. All very topical in these times. There isn’t much mystery to it. Also, it’s a story that doesn’t really change the universe it is set in. When all is said and done, little has changed in the Glitter Band, and so many more books could be written just like it.

Should Reynolds continue with his Prefect Dreyfus series, hopefully the stories would become more ambitious. He could dive deeper into the Melding Plague apocalypse, for instance. As it is, Elysium Fire works well for fans of The Prefect and I’d recommend them to give it a shot, but it is not as innovative or ambitious as his RS series once was. 

7/10

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