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.

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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.

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James Nicoll’s Great Heinlein Juveniles Plus The Other Two Reread

With Podkaybe of Mars, does not end well:

Unlike Elsie, Jackie, or Peewee, poor Podkayne is cut off at the knees before her adventure begins. Podkayne can dream of commanding a space ship but she can never see that dream realized because her narrative purpose is to serve as a doleful lesson to readers. This is where misplaced female ambition can lead! Well, if not Podkayne’s misplaced ambition, then her mother’s. Where the classic Heinlein juveniles are about boys reaching for the stars, Podkayne of Mars is a hectoring lecture, telling women to stay in their place.

To be fair, it’s not just Podkayne of Mars James has problems with, as shown by the list of the other reviews, below. It’s abundantly clear that many of the problematic opinions Heinlein had in his later books towards the proper role of women, sex, incest and consent were not a product of his medical troubles nor a new development, but present already in his juveniles. For somebody lauded for being so forward looking, he sure is wedded to gender models already becoming obsolete at time of writing. With rare exceptions, women are there to be mothers or wives and while his heroes may often be overshadowed by their female companions, they still need to be satisfied with these roles once the story is over.

  • Rocket Ship Galileo (1947):
    “Depraved indifference” and “the uncle who used his relatives as living meat shields” are going to be book-ends for this series of reviews.
  • Space Cadet (1948):
    It’s entirely possible that Matt is part of a terrible machine and too naïve to realize but at least, unlike my memory of Starship Troopers, the Patrol has ambitions of being lawful good.
  • Red Planet (1949):
    By this point in his career, Heinlein was still sticking with the “girls are ick and moms are a drag” model; there’s a genially patronizing treatment of the female inability to handle math in a discussion of the air plants that made me idly wonder what that character’s throat would sound like if his wife stuck a knife in it in mid-sneer.
  • Farmer in the Sky (1950):
    It’s pretty clear to me that George’s Plan A was to ditch Bill on Earth so George could secretly marry Molly and emigrate to Ganymede; given the difficulty of communicating with Earth, it’s possible Bill might not have found out about George’s new family for years, if ever.
  • Between Planets (1951):
    I’ve never particularly noticed it before but there are parallels between the plot of this and the plot of Lord of Rings; Don is stuck with a ring of great importance and what he needs to do to save the day is get rid of it under the right circumstances.
  • The Rolling Stones (1952):
    Heinlein paid lip service to the idea that women could be professionals but all that had to stop as soon as he married one of them, even if it meant poverty for the Heinlein family.
  • Starman Jones (1953):
    This book stands out as possibly the first young adult novel I ever encountered that featured pretty transparent references to johns being rolled by prostitutes.
  • The Star Beast: (1954)
    Of all the Heinlein Girls in Charge, The Star Beast’s Betty Sorenson is the girl most in charge and in Mr. Kiku we find an extremely uncommon figure for SF, a sympathetic career bureaucrat.
  • Tunnel in the Sky (1955):
    Since the majority of Americans didn’t come to see mixed race marriages as acceptable until the mid-1990s, forty years after this book was written, that minor bit of business was pretty daring on Heinlein’s part.
  • Time for the Stars (1956):
    Given that telepathy completely breaks relativity, I don’t know that it makes any sense to discuss whether the way he telepathic communication is affected by relativistic star-flight is realistic.
  • Citizen of the Galaxy (1957):
    Purchased on an apparent whim by the beggar Baslim the Cripple, Thorby is rescued from a life of exploitation and abuse for one as the acolyte and adopted son of a man who is far more than he appears.
  • Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (1958):
    For me, the highlight of the book is young Peewee Reisfeld, twelve years old — almost — and willing to take on an alien invasion single-handed if she has to. Peewee might be the finest example of Heinlein’s girls in charge. Peewee is smarter than Kip, she is just as brave, she manages to escape (temporarily) from the wormfaces before she ever meets Kip, something she keeps up through the book, and she saves Kip on a number of occasions.
  • Starship Troopers (1959):
    The book opens as Juan Rico nerves himself to murder alien civilians, “Skinnies”, as he calls them. Heavily armed and armoured, Rico and his human confederates rampage through the Skinny city, destroying infrastructure and leaving a trail of bodies behind him (including what may be a substantial fraction of the congregation of a church).

Does this mean these books aren’t worth reading? Not entirely; certainly the best of the bunch like Citizen of the Galaxy have charms that make their flaws easier to overlook, but the overwhelming sexism does sour a lot of the fun in these.

If you like these reviews, you can commission your own review from James.

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.

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Ethan of Athos — Lois McMaster Bujold

Cover of Ethan of Athos

Ethan of Athos
Lois McMaster Bujold
237 pages
published in 1986

Ethan of Athos is the third published book in Bujold’s Vorkosigan series and the third published in 1986. Whereas Shards of Honor told the story of how Miles Vorkosigan’s parents met and The Warrior’s Apprentice showed his first adventure, this is a spinoff not featuring any of the main characters in the series. In fact, at first it barely seems to take place in the same universe.

It all starts on the all male planet of Athos (named after the all-male Greek monastry on mount Athos, natch) where Ethan’s greatest worry is how to take his relationship a stage further and get his boyfriend to be more responsible. His dayjob is as a obstetrician. On a planet full of men natural child birth is of course impossible so uterine replicators using female gene cultures taken along by the original colonists are used instead. Recently these cultures have started to deteriorate however, showing their age and new cultures have been ordered from Jackson’s Whole. Unfortunately, once they show up, these turn out to be unusable thrash. Despite their desire to remain cut off from the rest of the Galaxy, the people of Athos have no choice but to send somebody out into the darkness, somebody pure who can handle the temptations of women, somebody like, well, Ethan.

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The Dreamblood Duology — N. K. Jemisin

Cover of The Killing Moon

The Killing Moon & The Shadowed Sun
N. K. Jemisin
415/504 pages
published in 2012

Have you ever reached that point where you’ve read twothirds of a fantasy trilogy, quite like the writer but don’t want to read the last novel because it would mean rereading the first two? Yeah, that happened to me with N. K. Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy, so instead I read her new series, The Dreamblood duology. Both The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun were published in 2012 and can be read as standalones, though you’ll miss a lot of the background if you only read The Shadowed Sun.

One of my ongoing frustrations with fantasy in general is how few novels take their inspiration from anything but medieval Europe. Medievaloid worlds as filtered through Tolkien and his imitators — where you can find pipe smoking peasants eating potoes with their turkey but few people of colour –are a dime a dozen, but books with Egypt as a source of worldbuilding are rare. In fact, The Dreamblood duology is the first series I can remember reading with Egypt as the inspiration for its setting, polytheism, annual flooding river surrounded by desert, powersharing between the priesthood and nominal god-king and all. What’s more, Jemisin was also inspired by Egypt’s historical relationship with Kush, the kingdom to the south of it in what’s now Sudan, who shared its culture and at times actually ruled it. In short, this is one fantasy in which pale Northern European heroes are in short supply.

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Styx — Bavo Dhooge

Cover of Styx

Bavo Dhooge
295 pages
published in 2014

I hadn’t heard of Bavo Dhooge before I saw this book spotlighted in the Amsterdam public Library in their new additions section, near to where you hand in your borrowed books. It was the cover blurb saying that this was going to published in America that drew me to it and the back cover blurb that sold me on it. Raphaël Styx, a corrupt and aggressive chief inspector in the Oostende police, is chasing a notorious serial killer, the Stuffer, who murders young women, takes out their organs and stuffs the bodies full of sand. So far, so predictable, but then it comes to a confrontation between Styx and the Stuffer and Styx is killed … only to raise the next day as a zombie cop. Now he has to trust his successor, the Congolese-Belgium dandy Joachim Delacroix, to help him bring the Stuffer to justice.

Zombie cop taking revenge on his killer is not a concept I’d seen before, though John Meaney’s Bone Song is set up along similar lines. That on it’s own was good enough to take a punt on, with the icing on the cake being the setting. Oostende is one of Belgium’s grand old seaside resorts, being the favourite haunts of its first two kings, but having declined a lot in the second half of the 20th century. It also was the centre of Belgian surrealism, something that turns out to be important in Styx.

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Ter Ziele — Esther Scherpenisse

Cover of Ter Ziele

Ter Ziele
Esther Scherpenisse
93 pages
published in 2014

Esther Scherpenisse is an up and coming Dutch fantasy writer, whose debut “Het prismaproject” in 2005 won the Paul Harland Prize in the best new writer category. Last year she managed to win the Paul Harland Prize again, but now for overall best story with “Ter Ziele”. For those unfamiliar with it, the Paul Harland Prize is an annual open competition for Dutch language science fiction, fantasy and horror stories; past winners include Thomas Olde Heuvelt, who went on to get two Hugo nominations this year and last. That last story is now available electronically as a chapbook, together with another of her short stories, “In de Mist”. That’s one of the advantages of ebooks, that you can publish chapbooks for a reasonable price rather than as expensive collectables, ideal to sample a new author.

Which is why I bought it yesterday after Esther tweeted that it was available. I’m still finding my way through the Dutch fantastika landscape after decades of not paying anything that didn’t come out in English. When I started investigating, Esther was one of the writers who had a critical buzz going for them and judging by the two stories here, that buzz is justified. These are well written stories that are as good as any published in English and I hope these will be translated sooner rather than later.

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Books read October

October was a fruitful month for me, with twelve books read in total.

The Zero Stone — Andre Norton
A great, fast paced space opera adventure story made somewhat weird by the conspicuous lack of female characters.

Ordeal in Otherwhere — Andre Norton
This instead had an actual female protagonist and was a good coming of age/first contact story.

Exiles of the Stars — Andre Norton
Sequel to a novel I haven’t read, but readable enough on its own.

Between Giants — Prit Buttar
The story of the Baltic states (Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia) in World War II caught between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Not a happy story.

Storm over Warlock — Andre Norton
What turned out to be the novel I should’ve read before Ordeal in Otherwhere. When the Throg attack the survey camp on Warlock, the sole survivor, Shann Lantee, has to keep himself alive as well as find some way to take revenge…

Judgement on Janus — Andre Norton
A young man sells himself as indentured labourer on a forest world, then catches a mysterious illness that transforms him into one of the planet’s long died out natives. From there his troubles begin…

Victory on Janus — Andre Norton
Andre Norton goes Lovecraftian in the sequel

Ancillary Sword — Ann Leckie
Highly anticipated sequel to Ancillary Justice which didn’t disappoint.

The Stone Boatmen — Sarah Tolmie
I think I found my number one pick for the Hugo Awards.

The Lost Steersman — Rosemary Kirstein
The third volume in the Steerswoman is as brilliant if not better than the first two novels.

Orlando — Virginia Woolf
Orlando starts out a young noble man at the time of Elizabeth I, becomes a young noble woman while an ambassador from Charless II in Constantinople and merrily lives through the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries as such.

A Night in the Lonesome October — Roger Zelazny
There’s an ancient tradition in sf fandom (where ancient tradition equals something done twice) to read A Night in the Lonesome October in October, one day at a time. So I did. Perhaps Zelazny’s last great novel.

The Defiant Agents — Andre Norton

Cover of The Defiant Agents

The Defiant Agents
Andre Norton
222 pages
published in 1962

The danger with relying on Project Gutenberg for your reading is that you end up missing things, like in this case, where the first novel in a series, The Time Traders was available, but the sequel wasn’t and I only noticed once I had started to read this, the third in the series. Luckily the first chapter is all setup and infodumping, explaining how in Galactic Derelict time travel led to the discovery of a fully functioning alien spaceship, from the same aliens as see in the first novel and that in turn led to a warehouse full of navigation tapes. Those tapes were divided by lot ver various countries, including Soviet Russia and of course with the Cold War raging between the West and the USSR, spying is rife. As The Defiant Agents opens, one Soviet plant has manages to get his hands on the navigation tape for one of the most promising planets the west has in its possession, which means a crash expedition has to be launched to colonise it before the Russians do.

That crash expedition becomes literal when it turns out the Soviets are already there and have hunter/killer satellites in orbit, shooting down the expedition’s spaceship. Thanks to a bit of luck and a bit of skill the ship, though damaged, still manages to crash land on Topaz in such a way that their enemies think they’re dead. With the crew dead, the colonists, now less than forty, all volunteers from an Apache tribe, have to build a new home on a world with not just hostile nature to contend with, but also hostile humans as the Soviets who have poached the planet are still there. And it’s up to Travis Fox, once Time Travel Agent, to guide his people.

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