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O Canada! Travels in Canadian Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror

As I mentioned last week, I’m off on my honeymoon at the moment. What I don’t think I mentioned is the fact that I’m honeymooning in the United States’ neighbor to the north. When the Professor and I mentioned honeymooning in Canada to most people, their reaction was usually one of considerate bewilderment: why not go someplace with warm, sandy beaches and fizzy drinks with little umbrellas? Well, both of us like rocky coastlines, lighthouses, cabins in the middle of nowhere, and tons of wonderful used bookstores. All this makes Nova Scotia pretty ideal.

And with a couple of days spent wandering through the stacks of some great used bookstores in Halifax, I thought I might give a shout-out to some of the Canadian genre creators who I’ve enjoyed:

Author Comments Good Titles to Start On
Margaret Atwood Putting aside Atwood’s semantic quibbles as to the definition of science fiction versus speculative fiction, her novels tend to be solid sociological treatises reminiscent of the 1970’s New Wave in science fiction. Her writing often reminds me Ursula K. Le Guin’s, although with a more starkly dystopic sensibility.

William Gibson Gibson’s name is synonymous with the cyberpunk sub-genre, and he is often hailed as one of the luminaries of early steampunk. His cyberpunk novels combine noir storytelling techniques with an often-prophetic depiction of near-future technologies, with his more recent works relying more heavily on prescient sociology sensitivity.

Guy Gavriel Kay Kay is an excellent fantasist who models his secondary worlds on real-world historical settings. Whether it is medieval Spain, Italy, Byzantium, or 8th century China, Kay’s depictions of settings and character paint a vibrant picture of times and cultures that most of us only know from history books.

Claude Lalumière Lalumière tends to produce dark fantasy short fiction notable for eliciting a quiet sense of unease. Language and characters are put to deft – though dark – use. His most recent novella (The Door to Lost Pages) stands out as particularly compelling.

Robert J. Sawyer Sawyer is a prolific science fiction author whose novels utilize hard science to probe more humanist concerns. His work tends to deal with the relationship between science and religion, as well as focusing on issues of self-identity. His books are fun, fast-paced reads whose seriousness sneaks up on you (at least they did on me when I first discovered his work some fifteen odd years ago).

Karl Schroeder A hard science fiction author who – for whatever reason – is grouped in my mind with Robert J. Sawyer and Robert Charles Wilson, Schroeder writes action-packed, fast-paced novels which rely on hard scientific conjecture for their settings and underlying premises.

Peter Watts Watts is a hard-SF author whose particular passion seems to be the biological sciences. If “genepunk” were a subgenre (and I think it damn well should be), then I would argue Watts for its doyen. His novels tend to be fairly dark and hard-hitting, and while they are not light on the science, they still manage to play effectively with the tropes of related genres (horror in particular).

Robert Charles Wilson Most of Wilson’s work is hard SF, though his earlier works veer towards the softer side of hard. My particular favorites are some of his earlier novels which play delightfully with concepts of time travel and most importantly reader expectations.

So without having the benefit of browsing through my bookshelves, that’s a list of fun Canadian genre authors I thought I’d share with all of you. Anyone have any others they’d like to recommend? Since I’m in Canada at the moment, I’d love to hear of any Canadian authors whose work has yet to appear in the United States. Does anyone have any suggestions?

REVIEW: Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

Title: Under Heaven
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Pub Date: April 27, 2010
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Fairly literary, slight fantasy and probably appropriate for young adult and up.

Under Heaven is a very good fantasy, heavily-inspired by 9th century (T’ang Dynasty) China. Its plot is solid, interesting, and the pacing moves well. The characters are complex, richly drawn and wrestle through questions of loyalty to family, self, and country. The setting is painstakingly crafted, and easily one of the most compelling elements of the story: for me, half of the fun lies in puzzling out what “real” things have been co-opted into Kay’s analog world.

I loved Kay’s earlier works, especially other history-based fantasies like A Song for Arbonne or The Lions of al-Rassan, until I abandoned the Sarantine Mosaic half-way through the second book (I rarely do this). I found that his Byzantium-inspired series moved very slowly with a plethora of uninteresting characters. Since then, I had avoided his work until picking up Under Heaven in a Boston bookstore. The cover drew my eye, and I thought “I might as well give him another shot.”

I’m very glad that I did.

You will like this book if you enjoy other well-written fantasies set in well-researched historical settings/cultures. Consider looking into books like On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers (pirates + magic, carefully researched), Latro in the Mist by Gene Wolfe (ancient Greece), or Liam Hearn’s Tales of the Otori series.

If you’re looking for more of a China fix and you enjoyed Under Heaven, then I can strongly recommend Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was.

Under Heaven follows Shen Tai, the second son of a respected general. When we meet Shen Tai, he is nearing the end of an obligatory two years in mourning for his father. He has been living in a remote mountain valley, site of one of his father’s greatest battles, quietly burying the bones of the thousands who died there. For his piety, he receives a gift worthy of an emperor: two-hundred fifty Sardian (Persian) horses. Considering that a handful of these horse is a princely gift, two hundred fifty represent unheard of riches. This unwanted bargaining chip thrusts him into the dynastic politics of Kitai, and makes him the target of assassins, military governors, and civil servants vying for control of the nation’s wealth and future.

The story is told in close third-person, primarily from Shen Tai’s perspective. The writing is crisp and the insight into Shen Tai’s own thought processes gives us a delightful glimpse into his character. Practically from the first page, I found myself caring about Shen Tai and wanting to see how things worked out for him. Excellent job.

However, there was one weakness that made me give this book four stars rather than five. At the end of the book, I felt like there was little character growth on the part of Shen Tai. Generally the Shen Tai at the end of the book was pretty similar to the Shen Tai at the start of the book. There was some growth, don’t get me wrong: just less than I would have hoped for. Other characters change – often significantly – but our hero stays steady. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: I stayed engaged in the book and continued to care deeply about the hero because I still liked him. But some more evolution would have been nice.

I had only one stylistic quibble throughout the book. I admit, it’s a quibble: it might just be me. But Kay chose to write the narrative told from Shen Tai’s perspective in past tense, and side-plots told from women’s perspectives in present tense. I don’t know why. Just to differentiate them? I think the voices were distinct enough without that, and I found the tense shift jarring when first encountered (I thought it was a typo). This might just be my idiosyncrasy, but it did stand out as I was reading the book.

On the whole, I’m very pleased that I picked this book up. Kay’s writing style and technique are great, and the pacing is flawless. I was turning pages well into the night, and recommend this book for any lover of history.

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