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REVIEW: The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod


Title: The Night Sessions
Author: Ken MacLeod
Pub Date: April 3rd, 2012 (US reprint)
August 7th, 2008 (UK original)
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A near-future SF thriller with painstakingly-explained world-building that slows the pace significantly in its first half.

Science fictional world building is a double-handed balancing act. On the one hand, it teeters between the communication of relevant facts to the reader and the maintenance of the narrative’s forward momentum. On the other hand, it wobbles between the implausibility of the conceit and the effort the reader must make to accept it. When either of these two balancing acts tilts in any direction, it threatens to upend the other. And in Ken MacLeod’s hard SF thriller The Night Sessions, the string that ties them together is the year 2037, when the book is set.

The Night Sessions is a near-future police thriller: it has a crime (the murder of a Roman Catholic priest), and it stars an engaging though forgettable crime solver (DI Adam Ferguson), who uncovers a complicated conspiracy with extremely high stakes. What sets MacLeod’s thriller apart from the usual fare is its near-future science fictional world. The book is set in 2037, in a society that has managed to erect a pair of space elevators, developed ubiquitous self-aware robotics, and whose recent religious wars have led to the global primacy of political and cultural secularism/atheism.

It is an ambitious work that tries to marry the thriller’s frenetic pace with classic hard SF themes of robotic faith. And in this case, I found the marriage a bit rocky. Structurally, police thrillers count on their high-stakes action and non-stop pacing to keep the reader flipping pages. We get so wrapped up in the events of the story that we don’t have time to consider its plausibility, or to really examine the hero’s leaps in logic. Thrillers rely on the speed of the narrative train to keep us from counting its rivets. But in the case of The Night Sessions, MacLeod’s pacing gets swamped by world-building.

The book features a fascinating vision of a future Edinburgh (and to a lesser extent, a future New Zealand). The settings, and the characters’ interactions with them, make for a great extrapolation of contemporary technology trends (MacLeod’s conjectures about augmented reality and self-aware AI are particularly well-rendered). The sociological concept of people willingly abandoning religion, of faith becoming an embarrassing family secret, is the type of high-concept theme that brings to mind classics like Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, James Blish’s A Case of Conscience, Robert J. Sawyer’s Calculating God, or Anthony Boucher’s “The Quest for St Aquin”. It was the idea of exploring how such a society came about and what life in such a society might be like which first drew me to the book. Yet because the story is set in 2037 (which isn’t that far off), MacLeod bent over backwards to establish how our world gets from where we are today to where his fictional environment becomes possible, and in doing so slowed the book’s pace significantly.

World-building is a particular challenge for near-future SF. When we write a story set one, two, or even twenty years from now, we always run the risk that life will outpace fiction. Far-future SF, or SF that is utterly removed from our contemporary environment, ducks this problem by asking us to accept the fictional environment as-is. Larry Niven’s Ringworld, Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels, Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space stories, or Frank Herbert’s original Dune are great examples of this at work: the scientific, sociological, and cultural conceits that are needed to make the story possible are easily accepted because the setting is fundamentally divorced from our reality. In one sense, they are secondary world fantasies, however plausible the science in their construction. Yet when a story is set in the near-future and on our planet no less, it automatically asks the reader to consider how our world gets to become the fictional one.

It is a challenge that some authors, notably Ian McDonald (especially in The Dervish House, see my earlier review), Paulo Bacigalupi, William Gibson, or Cory Doctorow (particularly in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom) do very well. The trick, it seems to me, rests in avoiding history lessons. For example, in The Windup Girl, Bacigalupi wastes very little time on a high-level, abstract discussion of the ecological disaster that makes his fictional world possible. Instead, we see the near-future environment that his ecological disaster wrought filtered through the prism of his characters’ experiences. His characters know their world, live in their world, and we learn its dimensions and history through their perceptions of it. This technique is one which the New Wave’s sociological SF popularized in the ’70s, and which was further honed by the cyberpunk movement in the ’80s and ’90s. When done well, it takes a book’s themes and artfully expresses them through the story’s unfolding action, wasting no time (read: word count) on explanation when implication will suffice.

MacLeod, unfortunately, chose a different route. He painstakingly explains to us the history of his world’s Faith Wars (which he tells us began on September 11, 2011, and which were economically tied up with oil), and how they led to a (apparently global) rejection of religion, how global society grew disgusted the atrocities of war, and by society’s subsequent rejection of the faiths that spawned it. The book’s first half is essentially devoted to explaining this history and to establishing the characters’ relationships to it. This is a significant departure from a thriller or police procedural structure, and it is one which does the story no favors. Because so much of the book’s first half was explanatory, I found myself spending too much time questioning its conceits.

Even if I accept global disillusionment with faith, thirty years is an awfully short period of time for people to forget basic components of major global religions. MacLeod expects us to believe that his hero, who was raised in a society where religion was present, who served on the police force’s “God Squads” in persecuting religious citizens, has forgotten basic terminology associated with Christianity. I have difficulty believing that cultural concepts like the privacy of the confessional would be forgotten so quickly.

Furthermore, the book focuses exclusively on the Judeo-Christian faiths, with some off-hand references to Islam. This is somewhat understandable considering that the book is primarily set in Edinborough, with its strong Presbyterian and Calvinist traditions. But with MacLeod’s painstaking explanation of his world’s history, the lack of reference to Hinduism, Buddhism, or any of the other non-Catholic/Protestant denominations of Christianity (Greek or Russian Orthodox, for example) was striking. I suppose that it is possible that I missed a glancing reference somewhere, but as far as I noticed, there was precious little discussion of any religion outside of the Christian worldview. Where were the world’s other major religions during the Faith Wars? Where are they in MacLeod’s 2037?

Second, thirty years is an incredibly short period of time for a war-ravaged society to develop self-aware artificial intelligences and deploy them ubiquitously throughout society. The technological concept is interesting, the way that the robots operate within MacLeod’s fictional society is insightful, and the thematic exploration of AI and faith is reasonably well-executed. But frankly, I thought it unlikely that in twenty-five short years we might be at that point…especially if – as MacLeod makes clear – the United States was ravaged by a second civil war after the Faith Wars. I might be willing to offer a pass on the advanced technology: the Faith Wars would likely have spawned a lot of frenetic technological development, and MacLeod makes clear that the AIs were initially military technology. But for such technology to get broad distribution throughout society (rich and poor alike) in so short a time period also struck me as somewhat implausible.

However, these issues really only affected the book’s first half. By the second half, the world-building is mostly out of the way and allows us to buckle up for an exciting thriller. Though there is a bit of deus ex machina in places, and the unmarked perspective shifts were a bit jarring, the second half is paced well enough to be fun and intellectually engaging. While the doubts I experienced about MacLeod’s world-building continued to flutter in the back of my mind, I was able to get past them to enjoy the overall story.

The themes of faith, ecology, economics, justice, and identity that MacLeod explores were all interesting, but I felt that they all got fairly short shrift. With so many interesting concepts raising so many compelling questions, the relatively short novel was spread too thin to adequately explore all of them. Thankfully, novel’s the central question of machine faith gets just enough attention to ultimately be satisfying.

To be clear, despite its weaknesses Night Sessions is an enjoyable book, and it is ambitious. But it is not without its problems. It would have benefited greatly, I felt, from more rigorous attention to the methods of world-building, and to their relationship with the book’s pacing.

Fans of hard science fiction who are looking for an intellectual, mind-game playing book will likely enjoy Night Sessions, though they may find some of its conjecture irregular and implausible. Readers looking for a science fictional thriller will likely be disappointed by the book’s slow-paced first half, but may find that the conclusion makes up for the first half’s weakness. But readers who enjoy near future SF, and in particular those who are willing to deal with the challenges endemic to that sub-genre in exchange for stimulating extrapolation of current technological/economic trends, will find a lot to enjoy in Night Sessions.

REVIEW: Planesrunner by Ian McDonald


Title: Planesrunner
Author: Ian McDonald
Pub Date: December 6th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
A fast-paced adventure story that reads more like adult science fiction than YA science fiction.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a huge fan of Ian McDonald’s adult science fiction. His complex, multi-layered plots and penchant for near-future science fiction set in non-western cultures (Africa, India, Brazil, Turkey, etc.) have always struck me as interesting, engaging, ambitious, and structurally complex. So when I heard that Pyr was going to be releasing a new YA novel by Ian McDonald entitled Planesrunner, I jumped at the chance to read it.

McDonald has earned a large, loyal, and very much deserved following for his adult fiction, I don’t know if the decision to market this particular story as YA lay with the author, his agent, or with his publishers, but it does make reviewing the book an interesting challenge. UPDATE: but his foray into MG/YA fiction represents an interesting critical challenge. The YA and SF genres have different (though overlapping) conventions which stem from both their respective histories and their divergent audiences, and it is unclear through which lens we should look at Planesrunner. What comes first: the science fiction, or the YA?

Planesrunner is told from the perspective of Everett Singh, the fourteen year old son of a quantum physicist involved in the development of doorways onto parallel worlds. Everett watches his father get kidnapped, and then finds that he alone has the clues and capabilities to rescue him.

Judged solely by the protagonist’s age, Planesrunner falls firmly into YA territory. Though the book opens in London, McDonald’s hero comes from a Punjabi background, and McDonald’s excellent ear for local cultures comes through in Everett’s voice. Particularly in the novel’s first third, McDonald paints Everett in solidly contemporary British colors, albeit filtered through his Punjabi background. Everett’s cultural background can likely best be compared to that of Jessminder “Jess” Bhamra in the excellent Bend It Like Beckham: to say that Everett is a soccer-loving British boy tells only half the story, while to say he is Punjabi does the same. This is a blend culture more accessible to western readers than the India McDonald took us to in his (adult) Cyderabad Days, but it is definitely not the whitebread England of Harry Potter. As always, I applaud McDonald’s presentation of cultural complexity.

The first third of the novel focuses on Everett’s reactions to his father’s kidnapping. From the high-powered opening, the story’s pace slows down significantly as we learn more about Everett’s family background (his parents have split up, he has a younger sister, etc.) and we get gradually introduced to our protagonist. We learn about Everett through his interactions with his mother, his soccer team buddy, the police, and his father’s co-workers. Throughout this process, we gradually learn more about the work his father does, and about the parallel worlds that he helped discover. This part of the book is written with McDonald’s typical skill, providing a good feel for Everett, his values, his cultural background, and his life. We grow to care about him, and get engaged in his desire to save his father. All of this is good, however by the standards of contemporary YA it happens rather slowly. Most contemporary YA that dives into the action the way this story does maintains and rapidly escalates the tension from page one. Here, the tension is maintained but its escalation unfolds more slowly. It is effective, but it has more of the feel of an adult novel than a typical YA story.

Once Everett deduces that his father has been taken to the parallel world of E3 and follows him through the gates, the book’s pace accelerates substantially. First, the alternate reality Everett crosses into is a vastly different London, where oil was never discovered. As a result, its 21st-century society runs on coal-powered electricity and has no access to technology we take for granted (e.g. plastics). It is a delightful and compelling steampunk world, complete with vast airship fleets. The concept of a 21st-century London where oil had never been discovered is an interesting one, and McDonald does an excellent job of rendering its technological development believably. But while he does a fine job of nailing the technological/scientific world-building, I am less sold on the cultural flavor of his alternate London, which blends contemporary and pseudo-Victorian sensibilities.

On the one hand, we see that the alternate world has values and a cultural background commensurate or at least compatible with those of our modern world. The villains in E3 are quite at home in skyscrapers, modern dress, and with modern weaponry. But they are set in opposition to a romantic rabble of airship sailors who dress, talk, and generally act like they stepped out of the Victorian era. Perhaps this disconnect is part of McDonald’s point, but upon reflection, I found myself doubtful. Nevertheless, it is a testament to McDonald’s skill at world-building that these quibbles only arose upon reflection: while reading the story, I found the world compelling, engaging, and believable.

Once in this new world, Everett quickly joins up with that staple of the steampunk sub-genre, a crew of airship pirates sailors. They are second-class citizens presented as a rough-around-the-edges but still lovable rabble, quasi-Romany in nature. The characters Everett runs into, in particular his fiesty love-interest Sen, her adoptive mother (the captain), and her Bible/Shakespeare-quoting crewman are all extremely distinct, very interesting, and very engaging. In portraying both this world and the harsh underbelly of its society, McDonald made an interesting authorial choice: most of these characters speak in polari, which IRL is a cant slang developed in the British theater community in the 17th and 18th centuries. McDonald portrays this dialect directly in dialog, making it hard to parse for the uninitiated. I found myself torn as to its effectiveness.

The strategic use of polari deepens the credibility of McDonald’s alternate world. Yet at the same time, it decreases the accessibility of that world. As an American whose only previous encounters with polari had been limited to a handful of phrases in a few episodes of Porridge while living in Europe, I found that it took real work to decode what characters in Planesrunner were saying. Interestingly, Everett had very little trouble doing so: it is possible that growing up in London, he would have had more exposure to polari than I have had growing up in the States. Readers as unfamiliar with it as I was might find that it takes a bit of effort to get through. Overall, this strategy marks an interesting choice, and one that in general McDonald pulls off effectively. However, it is a choice that I have rarely seen in YA. Experienced genre readers will probably just accept it and make use of the glossary at the end of the book, but I am less certain that YA readers will be willing to invest the same amount of effort.

The biggest weakness I found in Planesrunner was that once Everett stepped into the parallel world, it seemed as if he had entirely forgotten about the mother and younger sister he left behind. To some extent, this is a natural consequence of the plot’s focus on rescuing his father. Nevertheless, I had the impression that themes of Everett’s family introduced at the book’s opening remained unaddressed (let alone resolved) at the book’s end. Above all, it is this fact that makes the book feel more like an adult SF novel than a YA SF novel.

Themes of family, of choosing/balancing sides, and of cultural identity are all frequently explored in YA. One can argue (and I’ve done so on this blog before) that at some level all YA novels address the challenge of finding one’s place in a complex, multi-layered, and ambiguous world. McDonald sets these themes up fairly well in the opening of Planesrunner, but fails to follow through on them by its end. Themes of family get re-introduced, with the focus on Everett’s place within the airship’s “adopted family”, but it never ties back to the family he left at home. Perhaps as the series continues we will return to these themes and gain some closure. But stretching a single unresolved thematic arc across a series and without clear inflection points in each installment is something adult series may pull off, but flies in the face of typical YA conventions. It is one thing to end the plot of the first book on a cliffhanger as McDonald (more-or-less) does, but to leave thematic threads dangling (as opposed to tied, whether loosely or strongly) weakens the book’s emotional resonance.

Overall, Planesrunner is a solid adventure. Read as such, it is perfectly enjoyable. Fans of adult science fiction will find it especially satisfying, and will likely find it fast by the standards of the adult genre. Fans of YA science fiction will likely enjoy it as well, though I suspect that long-term it won’t be as memorable as more tightly themed YA novels. Readers of McDonald’s earlier work will enjoy Planesrunner for how it builds on McDonald’s strengths and how it diverges and expands on his previous patterns. However, readers looking for the thematic, structural, and sociological complexity of McDonald’s adult novels won’t find it here. That complexity may exist below the story’s surface, incorporated into the story’s world-building, but Planesrunner is a simpler, more adventure-focused story than McDonald’s earlier work. In general, I found Planesrunner a fun if only partially-satisfying read, but I am definitely invested enough to pick up the next book in the series when it comes out.

REVIEW: Lightbringer by K.D. McEntire


Title: Lightbringer
Author: K.D. McEntire
Pub Date: November 15th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
Reasonably compelling characters, but the love triangle was wasted on me.

What is it with contemporary YA novels and love triangles? Maybe I wasn’t quite the lady’s man I thought I was in high school (I’m sure my ex-girlfriends and my wife are all laughing right now), but it seems like everywhere I turn in YA today, I come across a heroine torn between between two opposed romances. Team Gale vs Team Peeta. Team Edward vs Team Jacob. Clearly, I must have missed out on a defining characteristic of the teen years since I didn’t have multiple women competing for my affections. Wendy, the heroine of K.D. McEntire’s debut YA novel Lightbringer, does not have that problem. She’s got two guys fighting over her…and one of them has been dead for a long time.

Lightbringer is an interesting YA paranormal mystery. It’s got the standard love triangle (are there YA books today that don’t?) but that’s actually the least compelling facet of the book. Two entirely different facets caught my attention about Lightbringer: McEntire’s mundane, living characters, and her take on magic and death.

The book introduces us to Wendy, a teenager facing some tough times. Her mother is in a coma, her dad has to travel all the time for work, and she’s responsible for her two younger siblings. And she sees dead people, who she is duty-bound to help move out of limbo into the Light (whatever afterlife that might imply). It’s a lot for a teenager to deal with, on top of school and boys. The plot’s primary engine is Wendy’s quest to find her mother’s not-yet-dead soul, which she believes is lost somewhere in the Never, the limbo-like afterlife that certain stranded ghosts get stuck in. If ghosts stay too long in the Never, they will gradually lose their vitality and fade into Shades. If they don’t want to fade, then there’s a straightforward solution: eat the Lost, the souls of children who haven’t yet moved on. Yeah, it’s a bit dark. And McEntire’s depictions of the Walkers (the ravenous ghost-eating zombies) are chilling. A band of teenage ghosts try to protect the children from the Walkers, though they seem to be fighting a losing battle. The Never makes for a particularly compelling setting, an interesting ghost-eat-ghost parallel world that McEntire skillfully depicts. Her descriptions have an eery, ethereal quality except where the action comes hard and fast. That juxtaposition of misty language for place-setting, and concrete viscera (literally) is a highly effective combination.

Wendy, despite her ability to see the Never and send ghosts into the Light, is entirely unaware of the Never’s social complexities. For her, ghosts are ghosts. She is convinced that by sending them into the Light, she is helping them. That they might have different opinions, or that the Never’s population represents different moral choices, she is utterly unaware. All of this changes, as her quest to find her mother’s lost soul takes her deeper and more aggressively into the Never. There, she meets Piotr – one of the Riders who cares for the lost children. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything (the cover copy makes it clear) by saying that he’s one vertex of that love triangle. Of course, life and love are nothing if not complicated: he doesn’t realize that Wendy is the “Lightbringer” – a monster who destroys ghosts.

While Wendy is looking for her mother, Piotr is trying to find some of the Lost Children, who have presumably been kidnapped by the walkers. This represents a menacing divergence from the walkers’ normal behavior: typically they just eat the kids in question. But now they seem to be acting with tactics and guile, perhaps at the behest of a mysterious “White Lady”. With his experience in the Never, it is natural that Wendy should look to Piotr for help in finding her mother. As the book unfolds, their respective quests remain superficially parallel but separate. It is only through Wendy’s experiences in the living world, through her flashbacks to her relationship with her mother and her friendship with Eddie (Piotr’s rival for her affections) that the reader develops a sense of linkage between the two quests.

Much as I loved McEntire’s depiction of the Never, it was the living characters who carried the story. I wouldn’t expect a teenager who can see dead people and who is essentially duty-bound to kill them to be "normal". And she isn’t: she has issues, and how she responds to her family situation is heartrendingly believable. A grown-up might look at how she is described and shrug it off by saying that Wendy is “acting out”, but her actions are realistic, deftly handled, and most importantly – McEntire skillfully avoids any sense of authorial condescension. Wendy is engaging, and her voice rings true. Her friendship with Eddie, and their complex and shifting relationship both resonated for me in a way that the Wendy/Piotr hookup didn’t.

As a character, Piotr is quite frankly bland. His heart is in the right place, which I suppose counts for a lot, but for most of the book he felt like a placeholder character. All of the ghosts – Piotr included – are one-note characters who were removed from different time periods (one’s a Native American, one’s a flapper, we have no idea what time period Piotr’s from, etc.). Their speech patterns are peppered with dialog idiosyncrasies, which helps to make them distinct, but it does little to really flesh them out as characters. If the ghosts’ flat natures were by design, then this is some clever storytelling on McEntire’s part. It would be an interesting statement about the depth of characters who hang on, rather than move on with their after-lives. But I’m not certain that was the point McEntire was going for: the Wendy/Piotr romance undermines that point.

Wendy’s relationships with the living people in her life are much more fully realized. The scenes involving her younger siblings, who are both wrapped up in their own problems, are incredibly touching. I wanted to see more of those relationships, and to get a better understanding of how Wendy’s family dynamic worked. I really enjoyed the way Wendy’s relationship with her mother is gradually uncovered as the book progresses. The flashbacks that show Wendy learning how to use her gift, and the past/present family dynamics are all presented very well. McEntire does a good job of leaving vital truths unstated: they might get intimated, but it is up to us to make the connection. If we do, then the eventual reveal becomes that much more satisfying.

Bravely, McEntire does not skirt the moral implications of Wendy’s actions. And by the end, the book avoids offering a prescriptive solution to her quandries. Which worked well for me: the dénoument does not tie off the story with a neat little bow. Whatever conclusions she will draw from her harrowing experiences will be unpacked over the course of years (likely years in therapy). There is nothing easy about that, neither in real life, nor in well-drawn fictional characters. And that sense comes through.

The weakest aspect of the book for me was the whole love triangle aspect of it. I admit, I’m inclined to believe that love triangles in YA fiction (in particular in YA paranormal fiction) are ubiquitous to the point of being overdone. But in this case, I don’t believe that the love triangle actually added much to the story. In fact, I felt that Wendy’s relationship with Piotr detracted from the relationships with her family and (living) friends. Perhaps I would feel differently about this if the love triangle had some sort of resolution. But instead of resolving it in some fashion, it ends with a plot hole that I was simply unable to leap across. Hopefully, that plot hole will get plugged/clarified in a sequel, but the lack of resolution in this one book weakened the experience for me quite significantly. If it weren’t for the fact that the love triangle fell apart without resolving, I would happily have given this book four stars on the basis of McEntire’s creative world-building, deft writing, and excellent characterization. It has all of those elements, but the love triangle just really didn’t work for me.

Overall, I think Lightbringer is solid YA paranormal romance/mystery. As this is publisher Pyr Books’ first foray into the YA market, I think it’s a fine title to start with. Artistically, their experiment is a reasonable success (though not a category-sweeper). Despite its one significant weakness, I enjoyed Lightbringer. While I might not recommend it for everyone, I think that folks who enjoy the YA paranormal romance category will find a lot to enjoy in this book. I’m looking forward to more books from K.D. McEntire (whether in the same world or not), and I’m curious to see how Pyr will develop their YA list in the future.

REVIEW: Blackdog by K. V. Johansen


Title: Blackdog
Author: K.V. Johansen
Pub Date: September 6th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
An interesting epic fantasy that narrowly focuses on characters while playing with epic fantasy tropes.

It is tough to write an epic fantasy that adheres to the sub-genre’s conventions while still offering something new and innovative. Different authors use different techniques: Sanderson’s Mistborn subverts the idea that the hero always wins, Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series expands the scope of epic fantasy (see my earlier review), and N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance trilogy undermines the trope of the perfect hero (see my earlier review). In her US adult debut Blackdog, K.V. Johansen builds a sense of narrow-focused hyper-locality embedded within a larger epic structure. By going small, Johansen is able to make her perspective characters, their struggles with madness and redemption, and the world they populate particularly compelling.

Blackdog opens from the perspective of Otakas, the protector of a remote mountain goddess named Attalissa. Otokas is an aging warrior, possessed by the mad spirit of the Blackdog. The Blackdog is crazy – utterly and implacably obsessed with protecting its goddess. It has gone centuries possessing one warrior after another, willing or not. From the opening pages we get the sense that Otokas and his predecessors walk a thin line between sanity and madness, constantly struggling against the Blackdog’s violent obsession.

Right away, we are given an interesting, compelling character whose perspective establishes the basics of Johansen’s world. In this world, gods are fundamentally tied to a particular place. Attalissa is not an all-powerful (or even moderately-powerful) goddess. While she may be the most powerful deity in her neighborhood, that neighborhood is still a backwater. Far away, there are empires and grand cities…but neither Otokas nor his goddess are interested in those places. They have one small corner of Johansen’s world, and the rest can go hang. Otokas’ mild irreverence and his dry, cynical sense of humor are put to good effect establishing this attitude. It immediately tells us that Blackdog is concerned with local matters, not the fate of the world. But while Attalissa and Otokas may be uninterested in the wider world, within the first chapter that world decides that it is interested in them. A warlord appears (literally) with an army on their doorstep, and Attalissa – an immortal goddess incarnated as a mortal child – and Otokas must flee to keep the goddess from being devoured. Otokas is able to get Attalissa out of her temple, but he is badly wounded. When he dies, the spirit of the Blackdog possesses Holla-Sayan, a foreign warrior traveling through Attalissa’s domain.

That first chapter is quite an action-packed opener, as within the first couple of pages we meet a compelling protagonist (Otokas), and right away find ourselves under siege. Despite the hard-hitting action, Johansen does an excellent job of keeping her world-building accessible, sliding it in between the arrows and sword fights. By adhering closely to her perspective character’s perception of the world, she gradually lays her world-building blocks. She manages this so subtly that the devices she utilizes are almost transparent: I had to look for them to find them hidden in the text. My first time through the book, I just got caught up in the adventure.

By the time we meet Holla-Sayan (and having read the back cover copy), I pretty much thought I knew what to expect from the plot: Holla-Sayan would be the hero, keep the goddess safe, wait for her to mature into her full power, try and organize some sort of resistance, come back and kick the warlord’s butt. And while in the loosest possible sense the book does follow this framework, the way in which Johansen executes it is particularly interesting.

This is not a standard “savior returns” fantasy: our “hero” is concerned first with keeping his own sanity, and only secondly with a warlord who did him personally little harm. Instead of focusing on the warrior/mentor/hero dynamic, Johansen builds a believable assemblage of secondary perspective characters who all act under their own agency. Since it will take years for the goddess to mature into her powers, she will need some sort of nascent resistance organization in place. But with Holla-Sayan too busy struggling with the Blackdog, this task is told from the perspective of one of Attalissa’s warrior priestesses. Holla-Sayan and the goddess actually spend most of the book completely ignorant of the goddesses’ supporters back home.

Each of the book’s six or seven perspective characters – including the warlord Tamghat and the goddess Attalissa – has a dark history that they are (in one way or another) trying to get through. Holla-Sayan is the only relative innocent among the lot of them, though his innocence is pointedly juxtaposed against the Blackdog’s animal savagery. While dealing with the superficial objective of defeating Tamghat or capturing Attalissa, each of the book’s key characters has to come to terms with themselves and their past choices. Johansen handles this emotionally fraught territory skillfully, offering a distinct flavor and different resolution to each of their stories. Where the resolutions do not satisfy, it is solely because some true conclusions are by their very natures unsatisfying: that is their point.

If there were a cheap “How to Write Epic Fantasy” book out there (and I’m sure there is somewhere) I suspect it would have at least one chapter on the value of epigraphs for world-building. Epic fantasy titles routinely get mocked for starting each chapter with a fragment of epic poetry, or a legend, or a piece of a history book, etc. from the book’s universe. As a reader, I’m always a little leery of epigraphs. Sometimes, I find them useful and insightful, but mostly I find they just take up space and add little to either the world-building or the story. I admit, after reading the first or second epigraph in a book, I’ll usually just skip the rest until after I’ve read through the text at least once. K.V. Johansen, however, eschewed epigraphs in Blackdog. Instead, she concluded certain chapters (particularly the early chapters) with a brief paragraph from an old-fashioned storyteller’s tale.

At first glance, one might be tempted to ask who cares? But by placing her epigraphs at the end of her chapters, Johansen is able to more effectively manage her pacing and the reader’s insight into the plot. The early chapters of Blackdog were particularly fast-paced and action-packed, and the epigraph at the end of the chapter gave much needed breathing room, an opportunity to pause and absorb the preceding events before diving into the next frenetic chapter.

Furthermore, the epigraphs adequately serve the function Diana Wynne-Jones lampooned with her “Legends” entry in the The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: they take us out of the perspective character’s head, and provide the reader with a brief glimpse into omniscient perspective. By carefully controlling what information is disclosed, we can put a number of facts together before our perspective characters do, which makes it that much more satisfying when our heroes catch up to us and figure it out. It’s a tried-and-true device frequently found in epic fantasy, and executing it deftly requires a careful balancing act: too much information, and the book yields no surprises. Too little, and the epigraphs offer no value. Johansen’s epigraphs – which only appear at the start of the book – manage this tightrope very effectively.

Johansen also uses creative dialogue markers to support her storytelling. Many of the perspective characters wrestle with madness and possession, which means that they have a lot of conversations with themselves. For those characters who are deeper in the throes of madness, or when the lines between their personalities grow more blurry, internal dialogue shifts from conventional form to more of a European fashion: Roman (straight, non-italicized) text, preceded by em-dashes, and lacking any “he said / she said” markers. This is particularly effective in the latter half of the book, where it amplifies the blurred and swirling wash of personalities within some characters’ heads. The overall effect is one that allows the reader to enjoy the whirlwind of madness and identity while still keeping characters and their diverging personalities straight.

Of the book’s perspective characters, only Attalissa did not appeal to me: this is the book’s primary weakness, and the reason why I’m giving it three stars. The goddess is one of the book’s most central characters, yet she has the least agency of them all. At the beginning of the book, when she is a little child, this is understandable and acceptable. But as she grows up, she continues to be passive and let events happen to her rather than take charge of them. This is understandable, given the character’s psychological make-up and history, yet nonetheless, it noticeably slows the pacing significantly in the chapters told from her perspective. It is not until the book’s climax that she becomes an active force, at which point her chapters accelerate to match the rest of the book.

Barring this one weakness, I quite enjoyed Blackdog. I felt that all of the characters were competently executed, even if Attalissa’s passivity throughout the book’s middle third bothered me. The world-building and the textual devices employed particularly stood out as interesting and of noticeable quality in the story. I would recommend Blackdog to people who have been exposed to epic fantasy before: this is not as accessible as (for example) David & Leigh Eddings’ work for new epic fantasy readers, but it is much more accessible than a lot of the hardcore epic fantasy out there. I believe fans of Brandon Sanderson or Brent Weeks in particular will enjoy this book.

REVIEW: Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley


Title: Cowboy Angels
Author: Paul McAuley
Pub Date: January 11th, 2011
Chris’ Rating (5 possible): 1 point 1 point 1 point
An Attempt at Categorization If You Like… / You Might Like…
High-concept, hard SF alternate history with a spy-thriller edge.

I first came across Paul McAuley’s work sometime in the mid-to-late ’90s with his genetic cyberpunk (genepunk? I’ve always thought this should be a term) masterpiece Fairyland. Since then, I’ve always kept my eyes open for new McAuley novels and have found far more hits than misses among them. While his books span a variety of sub-genres (space opera, alternate history, genepunk, etc.), they share that high-concept imagination that underpins the best in science fiction. It was that same high-concept approach to alternate history which attracted me to his new novel, Cowboy Angels.

Books employing the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics are a dime-a-dozen, and so that on its own isn’t really enough to grab me. However, in Cowboy Angels, McAuley asks a question: what if the United States had found a way to travel between alternate versions of Earth at the height of the Cold War? In our real history, the Cold War was characterized by the domino theory, containment, détente, and proxy wars fought all over the world (Central America, Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, South Asia, etc.). A downright fascinating time period in history, with the all-too-real primacy of the CIA, KGB, Mossad and other espionage agencies. McAuley’s brilliant concept is to introduce parallel worlds as a new front in this Cold War, which to my history-loving mind made me sit up and say: “Right on, this is going to be awesome!”

Cowboy Angels follows one Adam Stone, a retired special operations agent for the CIG (Central Intelligence Group). He has made his career as a spy working to spread US-style democracy across alternate versions of America. We first meet Adam Stone at the end of an era: American policy is changing with the election of the “peacenik” President Carter, and the nature of the Company’s missions is evolving. Adam Stone is comfortable with this change, having grown disillusioned by the manifest destiny ideology that had put him in moral quandaries in alternate Americas. But not all of his fellow agents are as comfortable with their country’s shifting values, and the book’s plot explores the lengths some people will go to in service of their ideology.

The novel’s plot is structured like a spy thriller, with Stone being called out of retirement to track down his friend and former partner, Tom Waverly. Waverly has gone on a killing spree across multiple alternate realities – killing the exact same woman over and over again. Neither the local authorities in those realities nor the Company know why. And so Stone gets reactivated to try and bring his friend in. What follows is a spy-thriller, but rather than have us jet off to exotic locales, McAuley takes us to exotic versions of the United States. Stone’s hunt for Waverly takes us to a kleptocratic New York decimated by nuclear war, to a United States that had been leveled in an apocalyptic World War III, and to a version of history very much like our own.

This is not a James Bond-style spy caper, where our hero gets to enjoy the good life in sunny Macao, Monaco, or other fancy places that begin with the letter “M”. While some of the alternate realities our hero visits seem bucolic, even pastoral “untouched” realities have their gritty undersides. And McAuley artfully exposes us to that, using blood and sinew to temper the novel’s escapism.

In terms of general concept, Cowboy Angels gets ten out of ten points for me. The idea of Kennedy-era expansionist/messianical foreign policy applying across alternate worlds practically begs to be written. Once again, McAuley’s ability to identify and execute on a particular concept is compelling.

However, for me, the book relied too heavily on this (admittedly awesome) concept to carry it. There were three weaknesses that detracted from my enjoyment of the book. Successful execution of both the novel’s concept as well as its spy-thriller plot structure requires distinctive settings, and the concept enables for some fascinating alternate versions of our world. While we get tantalizing glances into some fascinating settings (Nuclear Winter America, an American government-in-exile in Cuba, etc.), the majority of the book takes place in settings only slightly different from what we know. The settings we explore are different enough to remain distinct, but I think there was a wasted opportunity to explore some really interesting alternate versions of America. With so much of the book’s backstory dealing with the Cold War and the fight against Communism, it struck me as particularly odd that at no time did our hero venture into a Communist version of the USA.

The second, less significant, issue I found lay in some aspects of McAuley’s characterization. In particular, Stone’s romantic interest (which serves as a significant motivator through much of the book) struck me as particularly under-developed. Overall, I bought the character: I felt Stone was believable, and engaging. But I was unable to shake that arms-length disconnect and engage enough with the character enough to lose myself in his world(s). It was close – almost nailed just right – but I found that I just didn’t feel enough of Stone’s motivation. The solid plotting and awesome concept were enough to carry me over this weakness, but I wasn’t close enough to the character for McAuley’s gears and cogs at work to disappear.

The third, and least significant, problem I came across lay in the book’s pacing. Please don’t get me wrong, this is a fast-paced book, and it reads very quickly. However, the pacing is relatively unvaried throughout the text. This is an issue I often find in spy-thrillers: too often, I suspect their authors and editors believe readers equate escalating, no-respite events with being a page-turner. This leads to a go-go-go pacing which can be tiring if not offset and balanced against the emotional arc of the story. Just yesterday, Ursula K. Le Guin posted a great essay on this very subject. By giving his character – and the reader – room to catch one’s breath, McAuley could have deepened my emotional connection to the character and the story. By slowing down the story in a couple of places, the overall result would have been more emotionally powerful.

Cowboy Angels Cover by Sparth

Cowboy Angels Cover by Sparth

Visually, the novel is attractive and stands out nicely. The cover was designed by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke and features an illustration by Sparth (aka nicolas bouvier). The cover really communicates the novel’s feel, contrasting futuristic Turing Gates against the decidedly-less-futuristic trains emerging from them.

Much as I enjoyed Stone’s adventure, my own personal tastes would likely have preferred to see the book’s backstory moved to the front. The transition from “manifest destiny” to “peace and reconciliation” and how that transition unfolds amongst the Company’s agents would be a really fascinating story, and one particularly relevant in today’s geopolitical environment. McAuley has set up a fascinating universe with infinite potential for clever, high-concept, and emotionally powerful stories. I would love to see a prequel set in this same universe exploring the Church Committee’s investigations into the Company’s clandestine operations.

Cowboy Angels is a very enjoyable book. The underlying concept is strong enough to overcome the minor weaknesses in setting, characterization, and pacing. That concept was enough to get my imagination firing, and often that’s exactly what I look for in SF. If you enjoy a good spy thriller, or get a kick out of playing with alternate histories, this book is definitely worth your time.

Representing Genres at BookExpoAmerica 2011


So last week was pretty fun, what with BEA 2011 and the Book Bloggers Convention (BBC) both taking place in New York. This was my second year attending BEA, although my first as a blogger. While I did manage to post some brief thoughts last week, I wanted to take a little time to discuss a disconnect I noticed during both events.

Genre, Genre Everywhere…

Everywhere I turned at BEA and at the BBC, genre was plainly visible. Whether it was mystery, thrillers, horror, science fiction, fantasy, paranormal romance, steampunk – every major publisher was promoting the heck out of genre titles. Even those who traditionally keep their toes out of genre waters seemed to dabbling, with “magical realism” or “magical romance” offerings.

Particularly noticeable was the degree to which young adult and middle-grade publishers were aligning their publicity machines with speculative sensibilities. While there are few YA/MG publishers who specialize within science fiction, fantasy, or horror, almost all of the galleys handed out at BEA had some fantastical element – however sleight. Many of these galleys were riding the post-apocalyptic/dystopian wave currently cresting, but nonetheless it was clear that publishers feel that kids read books about monsters, fairies, and ghosts.

…and Not a Home for It

Despite the ubiquity of science fiction, fantasy, and horror titles, there was a noticeable absence of niche booths. The major publishers had consolidated their imprints’ such that niche-market imprints were exhibited under their corporate umbrella. This trend was universal across the major publishers, and I would argue that it failed to serve the niche imprints well. As a general rule, it made it harder (though not impossible) to find people at the booths who could cogently discuss either the galleys being handed out, or the niche imprint’s other speculative titles. Don’t get me wrong – the Javitz floor was full of niche imprint editors, publicists, salespeople, and authors. But they had other things to do there than man their imprints’ booths, and so the folks stuck “back at base” ended up getting mobbed.

There are – of course – notable exceptions. Prometheus Books in particular stands out for how they handled their PYR imprint. Not only was the PYR side of the booth well-supported, but even PYR’s non-fiction cousins were well-prepared to talk about PYR’s list. That ability to cross-promote books across imprint lines was unique on the Javitz floor, at least from what I could see.

A Lack of Genre Programming…

Equally startling – from my perspective – was the lack of science fiction, fantasy, and horror programming. While there were some “author buzz” sessions, outside of the YA and middle-grade segment, there was a startling lack of BEA sessions devoted to discussing trends in SF/F/H. Instead, just about every session focused on one aspect or another of digital publishing.

Are booksellers and librarians no longer interested in learning about trends in particular genres? Or has BEA gone astray by focusing too heavily on promoting individual books and particular authors? I for one suspect the latter: while it’s great to hear about author X and their new genre book Y, there is clearly a place for a discussion of the aisles that by some counts, are the most frequented in any bookstore/library. Is BEA that place? Judged by the conversations on the floor with booksellers and librarians: certainly. Judged by the programming set up by BEA’s organizers? Not so much.

…Especially at the Book Blogger Convention

Even more startling was the paucity of niche programming at the second-annual Book Blogger Convention. Don’t get me wrong, this was an excellent event – and one which I cannot recommend strongly enough to anyone who wishes to attend next year. As a relative newcomer to the world of book blogging, I walked away from the one-day BBC with insights and relationships just as valuable as those I developed during the four-day BEA. But the genres represented at the BBC both within the audience and on the BBC’s programming were surprising.

First, the BBC’s audience struck me as primarily focused on romance and YA. That probably shouldn’t come as a big surprise, considering the size of the romance and kidlit blogospheres respectively. And while my own speculative predilections might bias me, I think the SF/F/H genres generally don’t slouch when it comes to online representation. Heck, just a couple of weeks ago I mentioned the awesome list of SF/F review blogs curated by Grasping for the Wind. Were so few speculative bloggers able to attend BBC? For whatever reason, we were thin on the ground in the audience on Friday. Perhaps as a consequence of this skewing of the BBC’s audience, speculative fiction didn’t get much representation in the programming. For example, the “niche blogging” panel had one speculative fiction representative, compared to four YA bloggers. And during the (incredibly valuable) publicist panels, only mainstream or YA publishers were represented.

Representing Speculative Fiction at BEA and the BBC

Despite all of this, both BEA and the BBC were useful for different reasons. BEA remains a great place to get new galleys and chat with industry professionals about books and the industry. Plus, it’s always fun to meet authors and get books signed. The BBC was useful because it allowed me to learn more about book blogging, to share techniques and best practices with other book bloggers who’ve been at it for longer than I have. Would both events have been better for more speculative programming? Overall, yes. Consolidating for cost purposes makes sense, but ultimately it’s a balancing act between being penny wise and pound foolish. Hopefully, they’ll nail the balancing act next year.

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