Bone Gap — Laura Ruby

Cover of Bone Gap

Bone Gap
Laura Ruby
345 pages
published in 2015

This is a book I wouldn’t have read if not for Tiemen tweet offering it as a review copy from ABC. I put my hand up because the cover looked interesting and I’m happy I did so. It’s always a risk committing to a book when you neither known what the book will about nor the author herself. I didn’t even realise this was supposed to be a Young Adult book, not that you could tell from the cover unless you already knew Balzer + Bray is a HarperCollins YA imprint.

Bone Gap is an old story, of a girl coming in the life of two brothers, then disappearing again. Kidnapped, according to the younger brother. Left just like their mother left them, according to everybody else in Bone Gap, a small town in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by corn fields and not much else. That Finn thinks Roza was kidnapped, yet couldn’t even give a good description of what her kidnapper looked like, well, he’s always been a dreamer, a moon gazer, sidetracked easily, not even able or willing to look people in the eyes. Not even his brother Sean believes him; easier to believe she left just like their mother left them. But of course Finn is right. Roza was abducted, by a man who wants her to love him and promises he won’t touch her until she wants to.

Squint a bit and Roza’s rich, powerful and mysterious kidnapper looks a lot like a fairy tale prince, riding out on a white horse to kiss strange girls awake from their coma without being asked. He takes her away from her humble home and installs her in a castle where her every whim can be catered too, gives her the best food to eat, the best dresses to wear, servants to clothe her and as he constantly assures her, his absolute conviction that she is the most beautiful woman in the world. In a fairy tale that sort of behaviour may be charming; here it’s creepy, even without the whole kidnapping aspect to things. The assumption that he knows what’s best for her while refusing to even consider her own desires, that’s the mark of the abuser.. Her kidnapper treats Roza like a thing, a possession, rather than a human being.

Because Bone Gap opens with Flynn as the viewpoint character, wandering around town being angry at not being believed about Roza’s kidnapping, I feared Roza herself would be only present as victim. Fortunately, this isn’t the case. Kept prisoner in a series of increasingly strange “homes”, she attempts to escape and fight back. She seems to be aware she’s in a fairy tale situation, as she’s careful not to eat or drink from the sumptuous food her kidnapper provides for her, consisting on bread and water. It’s also Roza who, in the climax to the story, comes up with the way to finally free herself, without making Flynn’s efforts unnecessary.

Flynn meanwhile doesn’t know he’s in a fairy tale. Angry as he is at not being believed about Roza’s kidnapping, there isn’t anything constructive he can let out his anger on, so instead he gets into fights with the Rudes, Bone Gap’s resident bullies, which isn’t helped by his inability to tell them apart. What also doesn’t help Flynn is the refusal of his brother to talk about Roza’s disappearance and the general disbelief of the people of Bone Gap, their view of him as nice but dimwitted, distracted, a dreamer.

Petey, the daughter of a local bee keeper, is somebody else who’s hemmed in by people’s perceptions of her. They call her strange, ugly and of course, as inevitable with every girl like that, “easy”. She’s abrasive and defensive, but despite this Flynn has always found her interesting and attractive. Over the course of the story they get drawn together, especially after strange things start happening to Flynn. Things like finding a strange horse in their barn, a horse that’s more than it seems to be. A horse that might hold the key to rescuing Roza. Petey is another viewpoint character, not just there to become Flynn’s girlfriend or prize, but somebody who helps solve one part of the puzzle, by realising what might cause Flynn’s inability to recognise people.

What I like about Bone Gap is that this is a fantastical story deeply embedded in, not standing outside of the overwhelming mundanity of life in Bone Gap. Roza’s kidnapper fore example is a fairy tale villain but also not that much different from other creeps she’s had had to deal with back home in Poland as well as in America and the story explicitly makes this connection. Just like Flynn’s “weirdness” and difference from everybody else in Bone Gap has a thoroughly mundane explanation as well as a more mystical one, without the one being the excuse for the other. What I also like is how Flynn, Roza and Petey all have their role to play in resolving the mystery of Roza’s kidnapping, that it isn’t just Flynn’s story, but theirs as well.

Bone Gap is a novel about love, both romantic and otherwise, about growing up, about changing your own view of who you are, forcing yourself to grow beyond other people’s views of you. It’s not just the villain who attempts to force Roza into his view of her, who has to be defeated for her and flynn and Petey to be free. It’s a fantasy novel in mundane drag, with echoes of some very old myths running through it. It may have been published by a YA publisher, but there’s plenty of things for an adult reader to find interesting too.

The Fall of Chronopolis — Barrington J. Bayley

Cover of The Fall of Chronopolis

The Fall of Chronopolis
Barrington J. Bayley
175 pages
published in 1974

I’ve always been a sucker for time war novels, starting with Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity, Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time and Keith Laumer’s Imperium series. I like the grand scale on which these stories play out, the whole idea of the impermanence of time itself, something that undercuts our most basic of securities, the idea that the past we remember is the way that past has always been, making literal the idea Orwell put forth in 1984: he who controls the past, controls the future. Which explains why The Fall of Chronopolis was one of the first bought at Eastercon novels I finished, even before the convention itself was over, finishing it at the Dead Dog party on Monday.

In the The Fall of Chronopolis the time war rages between the Chronotic Empire, which has steadily increased its dominion over the centuries until it rule a thousand years of human history and its far future enemy, the Hegemony, existing futurewards beyond the Age of Desolation after the fall of the Chronotic Empire. For the most part this time war has been limited, consisting of limited raids on each other’s history, but the Chronotic Empire is raising a grand fleet of timeships to invade the Hegemony directly, while the latter had developed a time distorter which can warp history directly. But this is only the surface story; there’s a lot more going on

Bayley’s conception of time travel consists of a “temporal substratum” or strat that the time ships fly through, which would make any time traveller insane if they looked at it directly. The strat exists “below” orthogonal time, in which history is made, remade and unmade, entiry cites be cast into nonactual, merely potential time. Only within the strat can alterations of history be seen and remembered, at least for a time. From within the strat the warring parties could fight in a duel of moves and countermoves aimned at altering their opponent’s history to such an extent their time ships no longer had an orthogonal base of existence; they could still exist in the strat, for a while, until they faded out, sinking into what the Church calls the Gulf of Lost Souls.

What’s more, time is divided in nodes, as explained in a very traditional “as you know, Bob” classroom lecture at the start of the second chapter, nodes each roughly 150 years apart, as orthogonal time has a wave structure. Time travel is easiest from node to node, as it doesn’t cost a time traveller energy to remain in a node. Travel to points of time inbetween nodes does and the traveller needs to keep spending energy to keep in phase, or sink back into the substratum. This gives the empire its structure and stability, having expanded over seven such nodes.

Captain Aton commands one of the time destroyers in the empire’s fleet and during one battle with the Hegemony he falls foul of a sect of Traumatics, heretics split off from the true church and worshipping what they believe is the master of strat time, Hulmu. In a seperate plot line, a woman, Inpriss Sorce, is chosen at random by the same Traumatics sect to serve as a sacrifice for their service, but first they’ll get her to flee across the entire Chronatic Empire, to make the offer sweeter. Her and Aton’s paths will cross but seem to have no connection, until the very end.

Ultimately Bayley knots all these plots and subplots into one grand finale, in which in the grand tradition of time war stories, time is revealed as an eternal loop, already foreshadowed in the belief of the emperor as the soul as eternal in time, caught in a loop along its own time line.

A lot happens in 175 pages, helped a lot by the breezy, pulpy style Bayley tells his story, very old fashioned for a novel originally published in 1974. This must’ve been a deliberate choice to tell the story this way. Bayley after all was one of the New Worlds school of New Wave writers, people who took apart and reassembled traditional science fiction, injecting literary techniques from other genres in it. The time war subgenre is quintessential pulp science fiction, but also a genre that has lend itself well to experimention. I still maintain Asimov’s entry was the best novel he’d ever written, while Leiber’s was an exercise at greating the grandest possible canvas in the smallest possible setting. Bayley’s story fits in well with this tradition.

The Goblin Emperor — Katherine Addison

Cover of The Goblin Emperor

The Goblin Emperor
Katherine Addison
502 pages
published in 2014

One of the dirty little secrets of book reviewing is that the circumstances under which you read any given book can massively influence how you feel about it. Since I read the first half of The Goblin Emperor on a sunny Thursday afternoon while drinking a nice IPA sitting at an Amsterdam terrace and the other half sitting in my garden on the Friday afternoon following, drinking an even nicer IPA, it’s no wonder I feel quite mellow about it. But in this case I would’ve enjoyed it even had I read it during one of the grey, dull, wet afternoons that you normally get in Amsterdam in early April. This is a great novel and well deserves its Hugo nomination. It’s also the sort of novel you can’t help but read fast, a true page turner.

The Goblin Emperor at heart is a very traditional power fantasy, about the boy of humble origins who becomes emperor by happenstance and now has to very quickly learn how to survive in a world of political intrigue he’s completely unprepared for, filled with people who either want to manipulate him or replace him with a better figurehead. It’s one of those fantasy scenarios other writers can write multiple trilogies about to get to that point, but Katherine Addison has her goblin hero confirmed as the emperor within five pages, the rest of the novel being about him getting to grips with his new job, woefully inadequate though he feels.

Maia Drazhar is the youngest child of the ruling emperor of Elfland, the half goblin son of his fourth wife, who fell from disgrace almost immediately after Maia had been done, exiled to one of the emperor’s hunting lodges. After his mother died, Maia had been left in the tender cares of a disgraced aristocrat, Setheris, who has given him some of the education needed for an emperor’s child, but not nearly enough to prepare him properly for his role, even had he not been exiled far from court. Setheris has also been abusive at times, strengthening Maia’s natural diffidence. In normal circumstances this wouldn’t matter, as four older half brothers and a healthy and hale father meant he’s nowhere near the throne — until they all die in an airship accident that is.

Maia is shaken awake in the first sentence of the first page; by the second page he knows he’s the new emperor and by page ten he’s on his way to the court to deal with his Lord Chancellor somewhat obvious attempt to put him in his place by trying to pressure him into arranging his father’s funeral before his own coronation. That’s only the first crisis he has to deal with. Once he arrives at court he not only has to enforce his will on his Lord Chancellor, he also has to deal with the seemingly more low stake problems of setting up his own household, having come with nothing but the clothes on his back. All this on his first day at court, part of which he also feels obliged to spent at the funeral for the other victims of the crash, its crew.

It’s a bruising introduction to the responsibilities of being an emperor, yet most of these problems were relatively easy to solve. From the second part of the novel, Addison quickly ramps up both the scale and complexity of the challenges Maia finds himself dealing with, including potential coup attempts, the relationship between the emperor and his parliament, as well as the other power centres, not to mention just finding his way through the daily life at the court when he has been educated in etiquette, but has never had the chance to participate in court life itself.

Now I’m a sucker for this sort of court intrigue fantasy and the pace Addison sets and the hurdles she puts in Maia’s way make for tense, gripping reading. The Elfland Maia rules about has a sort of steampunky, 19th century technology level, with magic and the politics ruling Elfland are of roughly the same era. The emperor isn’t all powerful, kept in check both by the old aristocracy and some form of parliament and limited representation. There are tensions between the conservative, land owning east and a more mercantile, outward looking east, as well as racial tensions between elves and goblins, the latter mostly concentrated in the lower classes, but there’s also a goblin kingdom neighbouring Elfland powerful enough that his father felt compelled to enter in the marriage with to Maia’s goblin mother. Now that his half goblin son is on the throne, the relationships with that goblin country are bound to change. There’s a lot of realpolitics going on, which Maia needs to learn to master.

But at the same time and this is what makes it a power fantasy, there remains this idealistic core to Maia’s character, as shown in his attendance at the funeral of the crew killed in the airship accident that made him emperor. He’s desperate not to let his powers as emperor go to his head, to not revenge himself on Setharis for how he treated him during his childhood frex. Maia sometimes does seem too good to be true, is for the most part able to keep to his ideals while also keeping his throne and you may disagree on how realistic this is. But it is a better fantasy than the more common one of the humble peasant boy who becomes emperor who does revenge himself on his enemies.

It’s of course also a conservative sort of fantasy, as it assumes that the difference between an oppressive empire and an benevolent one depends on the character of the emperor, rather than on the system as a whole. One does wonder how Maia’s reign looks like from the point of view of the lower classes, those not represented in court, or whether common goblins profit much from having a half goblin emperor. The Goblin Emperor accepts the system that can propel a half educated, ill prepared outcast to the position of ultimate power, but that’s why it’s a fantasy.

And certainly it’s frank about the realities of this system even for the man at the top. In fact, it reminded me of nothing so much as two videogames that tackle the same subject, the incomparable Crusader Kings II, the game of medieval realpolitics and dynasty building and the deceptively simple but hard to master Long Live the Queen, in which you roleplay a young princess in an attempt to make it safely to her coronation, but in which mastery of court etiquette or animal husbandry may turn out to be just as crucial in saving your reign as being a military strategy genius. Both games have that same in over your head feeling as Addison makes Maia suffer through.

In case you didn’t know, Katherine Addison isn’t an entirely new author, but a new pen name of Sarah Monette, who has been writing fantasy for some time now. She’s one of those authors I’ve know of, but never read anything by, until the buzz for this book got too strong to ignore. I’m not quite sure why she’s taken a new name, but it’s probably because her earlier work has put her in a niche this new identity is an attempt to break out of. For me, she has succeeded. I’m curious to read more of her work, wouldn’t say no to a sequel to The Goblin Emperor, because this was one of the best, most addictive novels I’ve read in a long time. It’s just a pity that this year’s Hugo Awards have been tarred by the Sad Puppy brush, making a potential win by Addison, even though she would deserve it, somewhat less …glorious… than it could’ve been.

A History of Future Cities — Daniel Brook

Cover of A History of Future Cities

A History of Future Cities
Daniel Brook
457 pages including index
published in 2013

I took the title more literally than it was intended when I took it out of the library, thinking this was some sort of futuristic look at how cities were likely to evolve in the twentyfirst century and beyond. Instead it turned out to be a cultural history and comparison between four cities explicitly founded and developed to provide a vision of the future for their respective countries: St. Petersburg, Shanghai, Bombay/Mumbai and Dubai. This looked just as interesting so I kept reading despite the initial disappointment.

The problems with any comparative history book like this is that it’s easy to get lost in the historical narrative of each city and to a certain extent this happened here, as Brook tells the story of each of these four cities in a chronological order, with most chapters focusing on a single city. There is however a certain theme to these stories, one that tells of how modernity is introduced by authoritarian regimes of one stripe or another with the intention to limit its reach to those sectors of society it thinks needs modernising, only to have the city’s influence reach beyond it, for which it is punished, only to ultimately triumph. It’s a very western, neoliberal view of the world, as culminating in the slightly sycophantic look at Dubai.

So, to recap: St. Petersburg was born out of the desire of czar Peter to make Russia into a modern, European military power, deliberately emulating the city of Amsterdam, populated with imported crafts people from Holland and other western European countries. With them and the ideas they brought also came unwelcome imports about things like how serfdom isn’t cool and czarism a drag, which were harshly surpressed but never quite disappeared. As czarist Russia became the stalinist USSR, now Leningrad was downgraded because the totalitarian rulers could never quite trust it.

Meanwhile, Bombay/Mumbai and later Shanghai were cities created out of a coloniser’s need for trade ports, with the British ruling India directly while Shanghai was created into an international free city open to all Europeans but not so much Chinese. In both cases, the cities evolved into a modern, mixed population metropolis of great economic importance, but their respective roles during their countries’ colonial eras meant that those too were shackled by India and China’s new rulers, their values incompatible with those in favour in the rest of the country.

Dubai meanwhile is the post-modern equivalent of these cities, an attempt to emulate them and provide its country with a modern financial and business capital that can maintain its value long after Dubai’s relatively modest oil wealth would run out. The youngest of the four, it’s also the city Brook pays the least attention to.

Brook sees all four cities as sort of precursors for the modern, cosmopolitan, globalised twentyfirst century world, which he largely sees as positive. And to be honest, there is much to be admired in those cities, even a city like Shanghai, which I’d always seen as the quintessential example of western arrogance with regards to China, had its good side. It would actually make for a great model to nick for a space opera setting. A breezy read, as long as you don’t take everything Brook tells you as gospel, this is interesting enough to take a punt on.

Wolfhound Century — Peter Higgins

Cover of Wolfhound Century

Wolfhound Century
Peter Higgins
303 pages
published in 2013

Despite buying more books than’s probably good for me, I still keep a library membership and thanks to that I still end up finding science fiction or fantasy writers and books I wouldn’t encounter otherwise. Case in point: Peter Higgins Wolfhound Century, which I saw lying on the pile of new fiction books near the entrance and whose cover drew my attention. Reading the back cover blurb and the first few pages was enough to take a punt on it. They confirmed what the cover artwork seemed to suggest, that this was a fantasy novel inspired by Soviet Russia, not a setting you see much in fantasy.

The protagonist, investigator Vissation Lom, is the classic honest cop in a totalitarian system and his honesty has of course made him enemies. Nevertheless he’s one of the best investigators in Vlast, which is why he has been summoned to the capital Mirgorod by the head of the secret police. He is to stop and catch Josef Kantor, a terrorist protected by powerful forces from within the Vlast security apparatus itself. Without ties to any of the political factions in the capital or the security services, Lom is hoped to have a better chance at getting Kantor.

So far Wolfhound Century could’ve just as well been set in historical Russia, rather than in a fantasy version of it, but before long it becomes clear more is going on than just some sort of power play within the ruling elites. Kantor hears the voice of a fallen angel, one of the mysterious beings that occassionally rain down on the earth, which centuries ago broke the moon and made possible the very rise of Vlast as a totalitarian empire. Normally those “angels” are dead before they reach the ground, but not this one. This one is imprisoned within the wild forest beyond Vlast’s borders, captured within the earth and making plans to set himself free, plans which Kantor is an essential part of.

Vlast is not a static fantasy empire, though it does portray itself as unchanging, but remnants of its past, both pre- and post founding can be found even in Mirgorod. Within living memory frex the state turned on its own aristocracy. It’s also a state in crisis, losing a war abroad and suffering dissent and resistance at home. Its elites are divided about the need to end the war, while the seemingly senseless violence of Kantor is driving it to a breaking point.

Meanwhile there’s also the matter of Kantor’s supposed daughter Maroussia, whose mother is a forest witch, somebody with ties to the old forest magic, driven mad by it. Maroussia seems to have inherited this talent, much against her will and through it we get glimpses of the Pollandore, “world within a world” and possible key to a different future than the course the fallen angel is setting for Vlast. And not just a different future, but an alternate present and past are hinted at too, in the photographs Lom’s artist friend Vishnik makes of non-existant buildings and streets in the capital.

There is than, at the heart of Wolfhound Century, the outline of a struggle visible, between the totalitarian, Orwellian vision of the Angel, a glorious, fixed future (and past?) in which the earth becomes a launching pad for an universe wide crusade and that of the Pollandore, multiple, flexible pasts, presents and futures, available in essence if not in reality. Yet.

For the most part this vision however is hidden behind the familiar mechanics of the thriller, as Lom and Maroussia have to escape from Kantor’s attentions and the villains make their moves. This all moves along nicely, but isn’t much different from a dozen similar books. What makes it is Higgins’ obvious love for the setting and his writing, as well as those glimpses of the meta plot. I can forgive a writer a lot when he has such pleasure in the journey as well as the destination.

With regards to the setting, there is the problem that, if like Nina Allan at Strange Horizons, you’re familiar with Russian history and literature, you may find Higgins wears his influences on his sleeve, perhaps a tad too much so. For me, though some things were obvious, this wasn’t a problem.

All in all this is an intriguing novel by a writer I wouldn’t mind reading more off. A good case for visiting my library more.