The Outskirter’s Secret — Rosemary Kirstein

Cover of The Outskirter's Secret


The Outskirter’s Secret
Rosemary Kirstein
342 pages
published in 1992

The Outskirter’s Secret is the sequel to The Steerswoman, the second in what’s so far a four book, projected to be seven book series. Kirstein is one of those authors who’ve fallen between the cracks of the science fiction/fantasy field: incredibly loved by those who’ve read her books, but barely known outside that circle of aficionados. The trouble is, for all sort of reasons, she isn’t a fast writer; the first two books in the series were written in 1989 and 1992, the second two in 2003 and 2004, with the fifth scheduled for publishing next year. Perhaps. Which means that, because she’s never been the runaway bestseller kind of author, that her books slip out of print faster than they’re written and you have to luck into finding her books secondhand to be initiated into her cult once you’ve heard people like Jo Walton rave about her. Luckily these days there are ebooks.

The Steerswoman series is science fiction in what looks like a fantasy setting, complete with wizards, dragons and goblins, in which Rowan, the titular steerswoman through her curiosity and intelligence is driven to investigate the nature of her world. Steerswomen (as well as the occasional steerman) are members of what you may call a semi religious order bound to answer any question truthfully as long as in return their own questions are also answered in the same manner. In the first book, Rowan’s curiosity into a peculiar kind of worked blue stone she found made her into a target for a wizard conspiracy. She escaped and in The Outskirter’s Secret, together with her faithful companion Bel, an Outskirter herself, a member of one of the nomadic tribes living in the wildernesses beyond the civilised inner lands, sets out to track down the source of the blue stones, deep in the Outskirts.

Books read

On a Red Station, Drifting — Aliette de Bodard

Cover of On a Red Station, Drifting


On a Red Station, Drifting
Aliette de Bodard
116 pages
published in 2013

I wasn’t too impressed with the first story of Aliette de Bodard I read, when it was linked from Metafilter. I found the story, set in a Vietnamese or Vietnam inspired far future “too laboured, too trying to be interesting, but in the end it’s just another Orientalist allegory”. Which is somewhat ironic, as De Bodard is actually of Vietnamese descent… Can a writer be Orientalist if she’s actually writing from her own cultural background? That’s a question we’re going to come back to in discussing On a Red Station, Drifting as it’s at the heart of the problems I’ve had reading this book.

The reason I bought On a Red Station, Drifting, after that rough start I had with de Bodard was because she was nominated for the novelette Hugo and I discovered that her nominated story, The Waiting Stars, was “an excellent slice of Banksian space opera, a story of love, family and two incompatible views of the world”. On a Red Station, Drifting promised to be more of the same. It’s set in the same universe as The Waiting Stars, where the Dai Viet Empire ruling the stars makes a welcome retrieve from the usual Roman Empire model. At the time of this novel however it’s in trouble, with a weak emperor on the throne and rebel warlords springing up and taking over star systems.

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Ancillary Sword — Ann Leckie

Cover of Ancillary Sword


Ancillary Sword
Ann Leckie
356 pages
published in 2014

Ann Leckie’s debut novel, Ancillary Justice, won about every major science fiction award going: the BSFA, the Clarke, The Nebula and the Hugo, the first time any author won the four most important awards in the field with the same book, let alone with their debut novel. Anticipation has therefore been high for the sequel, not least on my part. Would Leckie been able to keep up the high standard of her debut? Would Ancillary Sword build up on it or be more of the same? Is Ann Leckie really the major new sf talent she seems to be or just a flash in the pan?

The main reason for Ancillary Justice‘s impact was Leckie’s use of gender. The Radchaai culture she created uses female pronouns exclusively, making no distinction between male and female in their language. but it goes further than just mere language. Leckie’s protagonist, Breq, struggles with establishing gender, has to consciously evaluate gender clues even when she does speak a gendered language. Possibly this is because she’s an ancillary — one of the meat puppet extensions of a ship AI — because from what we saw in the first novel other Radchaai had no such difficulties. Breq is also the last surviving part of her ship AI because her ship, The Justice of Toren was killed by the immortal ruler of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, at war with herself.

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Judgement on Janus — Andre Norton

Cover of Judgement on Janus


Judgement on Janus
Andre Norton
188 pages
published in 1963

It’s a miracle: I actually managed to start an Andre Norton series in the right order: Judgement on Janus is the first of a duology, together with Victory on Janus. Another minor miracle is the fact that my copy lasted long enough for me to read it as the cover was flaking off something fierce. Normally Ace paperbacks hold up better. This is actually one of the first Norton novels I’d bought, years ago, but had never read so far.

Naill Renfro is a young man who, caught up in the slums of the Dipple, sells himself as indentured labour (just like Charis Nordholm) in order to have enough money to give his mother a dignified death. He ends up on the planet Janus, where dour religious fanatics fight a never ending battle against the primeval forests covering the planet. These forests they consider a source of evil, as they do many things, especially the alien relics or treasures occassionally found. These are supposed to be reported and destroyed immediately. Those who don’t report it and try to keep them for themselves are punished by god with the green sick and left in the forest to die. Three guesses what happens to Naill.

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Exiles of the Stars — Andre Norton

Cover of Exiles of the Stars


Exiles of the Stars
Andre Norton
249 pages
published in 1971

It was clear from the first page that Exiles to the Stars was a sequel and a quick trip to Librarything confirmed that this was a sequel to Moon of Three Rings, which I’ve never read. It’s neither the first nor likely the last time I’ll read a sequel before the original novel and in Norts on’s case, since she wrote before the rise of the epic fantasy series, her novels always tell complete stories, with anything you need to know from earlier books neatly explained. In Exiles of the Stars the things that need explaining are the protagonists, Krip Vorlund and his companion Maelen. Both are not what they seem. Krip outwardly looks like a Thassa, a humanoid alien race, but his midn is human, having taken over the thassa body when his original was destroyed. The same thing happened to Maelen, now inhabiting the form of a glasssa, a small four footed hunting animal where she once had been a woman and priestess on a planet where the priesthood was adept at body switching. All this of course the result of the action from the previous novel.

Their prediciment shows up the important role psi powers and mind control play in Norton’s space opera, as it does here. Many of her heroes either encounter ESP or discover their own talents during their adventures. It can feel a bit old fashioned, on a par with the navigation tapes used to steer the spaceships. But in this case it also shows how large and strange Norton’s universe is, where her heroes are lucky to survive, let alone thriumph. Occasionally in the wrong body.

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Books read September

Guess what? I actually read some non-fiction this month, in the shape of a history of the 1953 Iranian coup. Apart from that, I’ve also dipped my toes in the troubled waters of Dutch science fiction and fantasy, thoroughly enjoyed Kameron Hurley’s new novel but was slightly dissappointed to still have only read six books in total this month. UPDATE: seven actually, as I completely forgot I’d read The Secret Feminist Cabal this month too.

Zwarte Sterren — Roelof Goudriaan (Ed.)
An anthology of Dutch science fiction I got from the library to find Dutch authors worth reading.

The Mirror Empire — Kameron Hurley
One of the biggest sf&f books of 2014 and it lived up to its hype.

Otherbound — Corinne Duyvis
A Dutch author writing in English, this is Duyvis’ first novel, a well written YA fantasy with one of the more original ideas I’ve seen in fantasy behind it.

The Secret Feminist Cabal — Helen Merrick
A cultural history of feminism in science fiction, science fiction fandom and academic research into science fiction. This is essential reading for anybody interested in the history of science fiction and women in science fiction.

All the Shah’s Men — Stephen Kinzer
An overview of the 1953 coup that ended democracy in Iran and the role the British and Americans played in it. Comes close to victim blaming at points.

The Outskirter’s Secret — Rosemary Kirstein
The second novel in the Steerswoman series of science fiction disguised as fantasy.

Roadside Picnic — Boris & Arkady Strugatsky
A classic of Russian science fiction and the inspiration for the 1979 movie Stalker as well as the more recent S.T.A.L.K.E.R. video horror games.

The Zero Stone — Andre Norton

Cover of The Zero Stone


The Zero Stone
Andre Norton
221 pages
published in 1968

You can’t accuse Andre Norton from starting her stories slowly. When The Zero Stone opens, its protagonist, Murdoc Jern is fleeing through a primitive town on an alien planet, barely one step ahead of a mob of religious fanatics wanting to kill him. They already killed his boss when the priests of a local cult indicated the both of them for their next ritual victims, but Murdoc managed to escape. He finally manages to reach the dubious safety of a free trader ship, where his only friend is the ship’s cat, but when it falls pregnant after ingesting a strange stone on the traders’ first stopover and he himself falls ill of a strange plague once the cat gives birth, he learns not only that the trader’s crew plan to abandon him on an airless moon, but also that they had been hired to kidnap him. Luckily for him, the cat’s mutant offspring turns out to be a mysterious and powerful alien intelligence who calls himself Eet and who sets out to save Murdoc from his predicament.

The reason for Murdoc’s continuing bad luck turns out to be the old memento that was the only thing he’d taken from his adopted father’s home, who had been not just a gem trader but also a retired crime Guild boss. This memento is a ring too large to be worn and containing a dull, lifeless stone; it was found on a corpse drifting in space but Murdoc’s father could never find out anything more about it, which is why he called it the zero stone. As you’d expect in a story like this, his son has more success in finding out at least some of the story behind the stone, if only by being dragged behind it in a series of increasingly desparate escapes from danger, aided and abetted by his alien companion.

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All the Shah’s Men — Stephen Kinzer

All the Shah's Men


All the Shah’s Men
Stephen Kinzer
258 pages including index
published in 2003

If you read the name Roosevelt, you probably think of the American president during World War II, or perhaps his predecesor Theodore Roosevelt, who gave his name to the teddy bear. But there’s another Roosevelt who has been of some influence in world history, a grandson of Theodore, Kermit Roosevelt, Jr., the man behind the coup against the democratically elected government of Iran in 1953. That was the coup that overthrew a government nominally an ally of the United States, on the behest of a British oil company to install a dictator whose father had had nazi sympathies, who himself would be overthrown a quarter century later in the Islamic revolution of 1979, when Americans were baffled to realise most of Iran hated them, a ahtred that had its roots in 1953.

That 1953 coup is one of those monumental changes in history that are far less well known than they should be. Though not exactly a secret, the American involvement and leadership of the coup is even less known, or at least that was the case when this book was published, in the year the US would invade another former client state, Iraq. These days the sad and sordid story of American meddling in the Middle East is well known, at least to those who paid attention to what happened after 9/11. I’m not sure how much Stephen Kinzer’s book contributed to this though.

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Get the complete Bold as Love series for under 12 pounds

Moving on from yesterday’s post, the bad news is that Gwyneth Jones had to self publish The Grasshopper’s Child, the sixth novel in her Bold as Love series as an ebook. The good news is that her entire series is available as ebooks on Amazon.co.uk for less than 2 pounds per book. That’s a little under 12 pounds, way less than a normal priced hardback for what is one of the most important, if much less well known than it should be, British sf series.

(My review of Bold As Love.)

Otherbound — Corinne Duyvis

Cover of Otherbound


Otherbound
Corinne Duyvis
387 pages
published in 2014

It was thanks to The SKiffy and Fanty Show that I got to know about Dutch author Corinne Duyvis and her début novel Otherbound, when they had an interview with her about her book. This interview intrigued me enough to buy the ebook and start reading it immediately, because Duyvis was saying smart things about diversity and disability; it also helped that in the Dutch SF round table was raving about this book. And they were right to. This is a smart, well written fantasy novel with a clever, original idea at the heart of it that deserves to be a huge success.

Nolan would be just a normal high school kid, where it not for his crippling epileptic seizures. Amara is a servant girl, her only job to keep the fugitive princess Cilla safe, functioning as the lightning rod for the princess’ curse. Any drop of her blood spilled will attract the world’s vengeance on her, so instead Amara has to draw the curse to her, because she has a healing power that will allow the curse to do its worst and still leave her alive. As a side effect of her “gift”, Nolan was dragged into her world, her mind, seeing and experiencing Amara’s life every time he closes his eyes, every time he blinks. So when Cilla’s protector and Amara’s overseer, Jorn, punishes Amara for her neglicence by thrusting her arms into a fire, Nolan feels the pain alongside her. It’s this what’s really behind his epilepsy, this loss of control as he’s sucked into Amara’s world and can’t pay attention to his own.

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