As en Parels

cover of As en Parels

The cover for Dutch fantasy author Sophia Drenth’s latest story, As en Parels, available soon from Smashwords. I like her approach to writing:

Ten years ago I gave up my writing career. All the power was with the big publishing houses. They all said I was talented, but that they’d rather publish an established author. Early in 2014 the writing vibe suddenly returned and from the start I was a lot more hopeful. Nowadays self publishing isn’t a one way ticket to disaster like it used to be. Social media gives everybody a chance to share their talents. The only thing you need is dedication and a lot of hard work and I’m not afraid to work hard for something in which I believe so strongly as my writing. So I’m very proud to say: my writing story continues.

You don’t terraform a thriving ecology.

Vice’s Motherboard just launched its own short sf stories subsite and went a bit overboard in its enthusiasm:

There are ​tons of ​great ​publishers of science fiction online—but still, it’s strange that there isn’t more fiction commingling with the newsy posts and personality quizzes and status updates tumbling down our feeds. We encourage the dissemination of information and storytelling in every conceivable way, be it listicles, data visualizations, video collages, tweetstorms, whatever. But when was the last time you saw a link to a short story shared on Facebook? The internet, it seems, doesn’t know what to do with the stuff.

A strange claim to make in a world with, Strange Horizons, Apex, Lightspeed, Uncanny etc. undsoweiter. We’re actually living in a new golden age of short science fiction, after decades of decline. Once again, we get new writers breaking through on the strength of their short fiction, rather than as novelists, something that had been rare in the past two decades. So why pretend that you’re the first ones doing it?

Especially as this project seems aimed at an audience not familiar with existing sf venues, lying about them is well dodgy. Be enthusiastic, big up your project by any means, but don’t diss the competition.

Broken Homes — Ben Aaronovitch

Cover of Broken Homes

Broken Homes
Ben Aaronovitch
357 pages
published in 2013

Peter Grant was a normal copper until he noticed he could talk to dead people in Rivers of London/Midnight Riot. Now he’s part of the Folly, the Metropolitian Police’s special unit for magic, which apart from him consists of one elderly but backwards aging survivor of the glory days of British wizardry before the war, as well as his colleague Lesley May, Toby the dog and Molly, the folly’s housekeeper of indefinitive species, currently experimenting with cooking from one of Jamie Oliver’s recipe books, to mixed results.

Broken Homes is the fourth novel in the Rivers of London series. There has been a mini boom in London based fantasy these past few years and Aaronovitch isn’t the only one either who has his protagonist working for the Met. There’s a sort of inevitability about the idea. London with its long history and dominant presence in the psyche of not just Britain, but arguably the world, just fits as a nexus of magic in a way that say Amsterdam wouldn’t. Of course the Met would have its own magical police force, some hangover from Victorian times, staffed with aging public schoolboys, into which the thoroughly modern London figure of police constable Peter Grant fits awkwardly. That tension between the gentlemanly tradition of magic and modern policing is part of the charm of the series.

The plot this latest installment is a bit messy. The first novel established the series background, which each successive novel has build up on, doing a tour of magical London, so to speak. In Moon over Soho a recurring menace was introduced, the Faceless Man, somebody who had found or inherited the magical abilities of an old time London gangster and who was ruthless in using it. In Broken Homes he returns, making this pretty much the middle volume of a fantasy series, oddly enough, with plot lines established but not quite resolved.

The establishing incident frex, that gets the whole plot rolling, is almost incidental to the rest of the book, up until the surprise at the very end. A traffic accident leads to a murder investigation which, because it involves one of the persons of interest on the Folly’s radar, gets Peter and Lesley involved. Their investigation also leads to a rare book offered for sale in a manner that suggested it had been stolen. That, in a roundabout way led on to the Skygarden, one of those modernist sixties monstrosities put up in the south of London back when tower blocks were still cool.

The Skygarden had been created by one Erik Stromberg, an expat German architect who had fled his home country after Hitler had risen to power in 1933. It soon turns out that Stromberg had some links to German magic circles and was interested in the industrialisation of magic. His Skygarden is not so much a machine for living, as a machine for gathering magic from everyday life…

There’s enough there for Peter and Lesley to go undercover as tenants, to see if they can find out whatever the Faceless Man’s interest in the Skygarden is. Complicating matters is the continued presence of the gods of the London rivers, also hanging around the estate. Things come to a head when the Faceless Man himself shows up and things end on a cliffhanger as something very surprising happens in the penultimate chapter. Something that came out of nowhere, without any setup, as surprising to the reader as it was to Peter.

Broken Homes was a quick, entertaining read, like the other installments in the Rivers of London series. Aaronovitch is a witty writer and while this isn’t really a demanding read, there’s an art to writing a good pop fiction story and Aaronovitch has mastered it.

A History of the Vandals — Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen

Cover of A History of the Vandals

A History of the Vandals
Torsten Cumberland Jacobsen
360 pages, including index
published in 2012

Of all the Germanic tribes invading the Roman Empire, the Vandals have the worst reputation for reasons that have little to do with what they actually did. Mostly this is of course due to the simple fact that they lent their name to vandalism, coined in the wake of the French Revolution to describe the destruction of religious artworks by revolutionairies by equating it to the infamous sack of Rome in 455 CE, which in itself had already been exagerrated by pro-Roman historians for various political reasons. The Vandals then have never had an even break, always been the bogeyman to an Europe much more inclined to identify itself with the grandeur of Rome than with the ‘barbarians’ that ended its reign.

This attitude perhaps explains why books about the Vandals are rare in English, with A History of the Vandals being the first general history of them in English. Then again it could also be because unlike the Franks or Lombards or Goths, the Vandals had their largest impact outside of Europe, in the empire they created in North Africa and hence can’t be used as semi-mythical ancestor tribe for a modern European nation. This, as well as the fact that for a century they were the most successfull of the ‘barbarian’ successor states to the Roman Empire could also explain why they and not those Goths or Huns were used and abused as the villains in the Fall of the Roman Empire.

My knowledge of the Vandals had been limited to what I’ve read about them in the context of more generalist works about Late Antiquity. I knew them as one of the Germanic tribes that managed to cross over into the Roman Empire in the wake of the Gothic invasions of the late fourth century CE, that like many other tribes pressure from more aggressive neighbours like the Hunas had forced them to move. From there, continueous pressure from neighbouring tribes and Romans alike kept them on the move until they settled in Spain, where they were threatened by Visigoth aggression and allied themselves with the Alans. In a brilliant move their great leader, Genseric, found the perfect solution to their problems: invade Roman North Africa and found an empire there. A desperate gamble, but it paid off.

A History of the Vandals doesn’t change this general outline but it does fill in the details of the Vandals’story. Jacobsen starts with the best guesses of where the Vandals actually came from and what they looked like before they invaded the Empire, which is of course the most speculative part of their story, as there are no written sources for it, theirs being a pre-literate society. Like the other Germanic tribes, their entry in written history starts when they first come into contact with the Romans and of course the sources we have from then on are mostly written from a Roman point of view. What we know of Vandal existence before that, has to come through archeaology and there the main difficulty is in matching the cultural remains found with what we know or think we know of the Vandals through later sources. It’s one of the reasons why many modern historians consider invading peoples like the Vandals to have only been created by their entry into the Roman Empire, rather than have existed as a coherent nation before. Certainly the idea of the invading Germanic peoples as readily distinct tribes has long been abandoned.

For the Vandals perhaps the moment they became a distinct nation could be said to be just before the leap to North Africa, when the Visigoths threatened to overrun them. Such an undertaking is difficult to imagine being done without having at least a coherent shared identity as well as a strong leader. Genseric was that leader ad he got the Vandals not only safe in North Africa, but established as the dominant power in the western Roman Empire by the time of his death. The Vandals not only took over the richest provinces in North Africa, provinces which until then had been spared most of the damage done by the ‘barbarian” invasions, but also Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearics. His successors would have trouble holding onto the full extent of his conquest, but until the end the Vandal kingdom was considered the strongest post-Roman state in the western Meditterraean.

When the conquest of North Africa changed the Vandals from an insignificant also ran tribe into a major power, it also changed Vandal history. Under Genseric it transformed itself from a typical Germanic tribe where the king was just one of the nobles into a centrally led kingdom where the nobility no longer had the power to challenge the king. No longer would kings be elected, but rather the kingdom would be inherited by the oldest living male relative of the current king. That latest wrinkle would ensure that Genseric’s succesors would become king at a late age, as well as lead to frequent conflict as candidates fought out who would be king and reigning kings made sure their preferred heir would be the only living candidate…

Jacobsen describes how Vandal society in North Africa was reconstituted as that of a small elite atop a largely Roman population, with most functions of government still done by Romans, save for the army. The Vandals distinguished themselves mainly through their religion Arian Christianity as opposed to orthodox Catholicism and religious conflicts would be frequent to the very end of Vandal rule. North Africa has always been staunchly Catholic, with a great many theologians coming from its provinces. It’s no wonder therefore that the imposition of Arianism on it would lead to conflict and would be used as one of the justifications for the Byzantine reconquest of North Africa.

Said reconquest happened a lot quicker than anybody expected; several earlier attempts had been soundly defeated and the Vandal kingdom was supposed to be the dominant power in the west. However, its strength had been undermined through internal conflicts as well as border skirmishes with the Moors, who had taken over parts of the kingdom. Combined with a much less aggressive foreign policy after the death of Genseric, this meant the Vandal army was much less strong than assumed. Furthermore, the relatively small size of the Vandal elite meant that any serious defeat would probably mean the collapse of Vandal rule. As it turned out, the failure of the Vandal fleet to prevent the landing of the Byzantines meant the Vandals had to come into pitched battle and to their credit, they did. Jacobsen shows that their strategy was right and their fighting spirit was always high, but in the end the Byzantine armies were too strong.

As with a lot of histories of ‘barbarian’ tribes, A History of the Vandals is coloured by its reliance on Roman sources; histories written from a Vandal point of view are, almost non-existent. This means that by definition this isn’t the definitive history of the Vandals, as reflected in the title. Nevertheless, this is a good introduction and overview of their history, readable for anybody interested in Late Antiquity, highlighting one of the era’s lesser known but important powers.

A Night in the Lonesome October — Roger Zelazny

Cover of A Night in the Lonesome October

A Night in the Lonesome October
Roger Zelazny
280 pages
published in 1993

A Night in the Lonesome October took me all of October to read, not because it was such a long or difficult book, but because I read each chapter on the day it took place. This has been an ancient tradition in online fandom, or at least it was when I was hanging around rec.arts.sf.written in the late nineties (and I see Andrew Wheeler at least remembers this tradition too). It’s an interesting way to read a novel you’d otherwise read in a day or so. It also constituted my (semi) annual allowed read of a new Zelazny novel; I ration my reading of a “new” Zelazny as he’s one of my favourite authors and the supply is after all limited.

A Night in the Lonesome October in fact is the last solo novel he completed before his death two years later. Sadly to say, it’s also one of his few late novels that’s any good, unlike say his collaborations with Robert Sheckley. Like so many other grandmasters Zelazny had declined somewhat in his later years, for a variety of reasons, but A Night in the Lonesome October was a return to form. Witty, well written and with the characteristic inventiveness of Zelazny’s best work; it’s no wonder it became a cult favourite.

The inventiveness starts with the narrator, Snuff, the canine familiar of a man named Jack, who stalks the streets of London with his master, occassionally running into the Great Detective with his companion, possibly another player in the Game. Snuff tells his story in the present tense, each day setting down the events of the day, starting at October the first and ending of course on Halloween, October 31st.

As the days pass, the other players in the Game slowly gather with Jack in a small village near London and the contours of the Game slowly become visible to the reader. It’s seems there’s a ritual at the right night in October, in which there are Openers and Closers, with Jack being a Closer. So far the Closers have won the Game each time, but the Openers need to win only once to change the world forever.

Apart from Jack and the Good Detective, who may or may not be involved, there’s the mad witch Jill and her cat Graymalkin, the mad monk and his familiar, the snake Quicklime, the Count with his bat, the Doctor, his assistant and the giant man they bring to life who loves kitties, as well as some other strange characters not necessarily part of proceedings. There’s Larry Talbot, who unlike Jack, is able to talk to Snuff at any time, not just after midnight, as well as the local vicar, who seems very handy with a crossbow.

All these characters, when not pastiches of certain well known characters, are of course equally well known horror archetypes and A Night in the Lonesome October takes these archetypes and puts them into a Lovecraftian story, making it one of the few Lovecraft inspired stories that is actually comforting rather than unsettling. The Game and its participants show all the signs of being a long established ritual, with the various parties having adopted somewhat of a comradedly bond between them, not unlike rival Cold War spies thrown together in some godforsaken outpost.

This then is a cozy Lovecraft story, though there certainly is an air of menace behind the geniality. Zelazny is great at handling these switches from comfort to disquiet. His writing in general sparkles here. It was a great pleasure reading a chapter each day on the way to work, then put the book away and read something else.

It’s also of course, quite literally, a shaggy dog story.