Thursday, June 29, 2023

Invader by CJ Cherryh (Foreigner, #2)

I know I'm ambitious. This is book two of more than 20 books in a series, but I've decided that I'm committing to reading CJ Cherryh's entire Foreigner series because the first book made such a big impact on me when I was in my mid-teens. And as suspected, many of the nuances went way over teen Nerine's head. Invader, picks up hard on the heels of Foreigner, and we see poor old paidhi (diplomat) Bren Cameron hurried directly from his hospital bed in human-governed Mospheira back to the continent to serve Taibini, the aiji (ruler). 

And Bren has much on his plate. While he was MIA, the human government sent his rival and successor, Deana Hanks, to serve in his stead. But while Deanna is technically brilliant, she lacks the aptitude for languages and nuance that Bren has. Not only that, but the political faction that backs her is incredibly conservative and human-centric – a stance the humans can ill afford. The problem is, they're too thick-skulled to see it. And Taibini wants nothing to do with her, which is a Very Big Problem. And now that a third power has arrived – the human space ship that went AWOL for nearly two centuries is back, and the entire planet is scrambling. Alliances are strained and the cracks are showing. How is the arrival of the technologically advanced by under-resourced ship going to affect the planet's socio-economic balance?

I really felt for Bren in book two. He spends most of his time going from one awkward situation to the next. Actions that he takes in good faith backfire on him, and his attempts to repair bridges with Deana – which is crucial to the overall peace on this world – are rebuffed. His work is incredibly trying, which is not helped at all that his health is not what it should be – what with a broken collarbone and all that. Dancing on eggshells doesn't even begin to describe what he does every day.

In typical Cherryh fashion, the novel goes from slightly pedestrian to nerve-wrangling tense at a moment's notice, and you never really get an opportunity to relax. There's a not-so-subtle discussion going on here about differences in conservative and liberal thinking, with the pitfalls in both potentially causing much strife. And who knows what the local atevi population think. Every time Bren believes he has them figured out – it's his job, as paidhi to do so – something happens to pull that figurative rug from beneath his feet.

I don't think this sort of SF novel is for everyone, but I'm sure as heck loving the gradually unfolding, Machiavellian tensions. Plus Cherryh's world-building is, as always, simply primo. She is deservedly one of the stalwarts of contemporary SF, and I know that whenever I crack open one of her books, I'm going to be in for one heck of a ride.

Saturday, June 24, 2023

Shadowblade by Anna Kashina

Shadowblade by Anna Kashina starts off with all the elements that I know I'll love. We meet Naia, a young orphan with astounding martial skills, who is trained up in an order of assassins. We have shadowy puppet masters who are angling to topple an imperial despot. We have a mystery surrounding Naia's birth that is absolutely delicious when she is tasked with taking on a role in a conspiracy to challenge the succession. Machiavellian skullduggery meets fast-paced action. I should have been in my happy place.

I'd say that this book *almost* nails it, but the pacing is just that little bit off. I was deeply invested in seeing Naia as she undergoes her training, yet part of this feels glossed over to where we get her embarking on her first, important mission. A too-obvious, too-easy romance liaison gets tossed in, with repercussions I called the moment we first hit the bedroom, but perhaps the thing that kinda made the entire novel fall a little flat for me was when the antagonist's identity was revealed far too early. And that, for me, made me feel as if we missed out on much of the tension. Not once did I fear that my protagonists would succeed – and I would have liked to have had more of a sense of impending doom.

The setting, in the second half of the novel, that takes place in an imperial palace, is a stage set that is ripe for a more complex treatment – especially if we could see the introduction of more opposing factions, but I feel that this last part of the story gets rushed. I feel with a little careful planning, this could easily have been a very satisfying duology or trilogy, as there is so much material to mine in the setting. Is this still an entertaining read? I'd say yes. This is not the first of Kashina's novels that I've enjoyed, but this one's just not quite the five-star read I was hoping for. But it's still good. It has its moments, and what Kashina does well is write excellent fight scenes involving characters who are likeable and relatable.

Monday, June 12, 2023

A New History of Life by Stuart Sutherland, The Great Courses

If you ever want to come to grips with a true understanding of exactly how puny the existence of the human race is, A New History of Life – a series of lectures given by Professor Stuart Sutherland (Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at The University of British Columbia) will set you right. Brought out by The Great Courses, this series takes you on a journey right from the theoretical origin of our solar system all the way to our current rather catastrophic Anthropocene Age – a subset of the Holocene. 

Understandably, any attempt to frame Earth's history in easy-to-digest chunks is, ahem, a mammoth task. But Sutherland is lovely. Not only does he break down the super-technical terms in plain language for mere mortals like you and me to understand, but he does so in an often funny, very informative manner as he takes us on a journey through the ages. Actually, he's not just lovely, he's frigging adorable, because he often stumbles over his own words in his enthusiasm, which just makes his talks all the more delightful. 

I walked away from this series feeling like I've gained an even greater perspective of and better appreciation for the centuries of work scientists have put into figuring out how it all fits together. This knowledge has also hammered home how incredibly fragile life is, and how exceptional it is that life as we know it has even come into being on this ball of water and dirt with its molten core in the first place. If you possess even an ounce of interest in our origins as Earthlings, then dig into this series.

Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit, Wraeththu #1 by Storm Constantine

I won't lie. I miss Storm Constantine something fierce. She was an incredible and largely underrated force as an author, editor, and publisher, and it was an incredible experience for me to have been able to work with her on many stories for her Wraeththu mythos. (The only thing that would top this for me is if I could embark on a spot of necromancy and raise JRR Tolkien from the dead, or if I ever had the chance to work with Neil Gaiman.) I miss talking to Storm about writing, about her worlds, and miss the insights she had in my own, and I guess that's why I've picked up the Wraeththu books again, specifically because I've yet to reread the ones that she revised since she initially published them after their rights reverted to her. I wish I could talk to her again, so revisiting her writing is the only way I'll be able to have any form of dialogue with her again.

The Enchantments of Flesh and Spirit
is the first book in her Wraeththu mythos, and for those who are new to the setting, I'll give the *very* brief introduction: Humanity has failed and a new species is rising out of its demise – the androgynous Wraeththu, who combine both male and female traits in one body, are completely gender-fluid, and who unlike humans, can wield magic. In that regards, the story, when it first came out in 1987, was ahead of its time if we consider some of the fantasy that we see today.

We start book one with Pell, who is a very human young man, working on his family's farm somewhere on the American continent. His world is narrow and sheltered, and while he's aware that things are not so great beyond the fields where he works, and that the Wraeththu stalking the ruined cities are something to fear, he is much loved. 

And perhaps, if Cal – one of the fabled Wraeththu – had not stumbled upon Pell's home when he did, it would have been another Wraeththu. Perhaps one not quite as kind as Cal. Though calling Cal kind is a bit of a stretch – he has ulterior motives and can be rather self-centred. So, in a tale as old as time, Pell runs away with the fey creature, and discovers what it is like to be incepted into the Wraeththu, who divide themselves into tribes, and whose development as individuals is arranged along a caste system as they become more magically adept.

We discover a world made anew out of the bones of the old, and the Wraeththu are still trying to figure things out – some more successfully than others, who appear to be doomed to repeat the same mistakes humankind made. With an edgy, almost punk-ish, post-apocalyptic and trans-human flavour, this tale is divided into two sections. I won't go into too much detail to spare you the spoilers, suffice to say that the first half is more travelogue and origin story for Pell's coming into being, while the second is a somewhat bitter acceptance of an inescapable fate caught up in another's machinations. So very much a bildungsroman for Pell and a suitable introduction to the setting for those with the stamina to tackle further books. 

I'll be honest. The Wraeththu mythos is not for everyone. I've always maintained that Storm is more an author concerned with painting mood, texture, and atmosphere rather than meticulously plotting and executing a perfect story. If you are looking for stock-standard romances, rather look elsewhere. Yes, there is sensuality at times, and love often fierce, but sentimentality has no place here. This story is about Storm exploring her world and the characters who populate it – so in that regard her work does bear a passing similarity to JRR Tolkien's in terms of motivation for writing. But knowing her as I do, she'd probably be a bit annoyed by the comparison to Tolkien's Middle-Earth.

I love Storm's writing for the moods she evokes, the often otherworldly, ethereal landscapes she paints, and the lush, often narcotic descriptions that add substance to her tales that underpin a keen understanding of magic and the mythologies that often underpin it.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Of Human Bondage by W Somerset Maugham

My mom tried, unsuccessfully, to get me to read W Somerset Maugham in all the years that I was a teenager living under her roof. Teenagers are stubborn dears. That being said, I don't think teenaged Nerine would have gotten half as much out of reading Of Human Bondage as middle-aged Nerine has. The audiobook was part of my Audible subscription, but when it timed out, I absolutely had to know how the story panned out, and I have zero regrets purchasing it with one of my credits. 

While the novel kicks off with the very young Philip Carey, newly orphaned, who goes to live with his uncle and aunt, who don't have children themselves. It's pretty clear from the get go that they have zero idea how to handle a little one in the house. But if we consider that the novel (by my estimation) takes place before World War I in England, I would hazard to say that this was an era where raising children meant putting them in situations were they were rarely seen and heard even less.

So poor little Philip, with his club foot (he really hasn't lucked out) really has a rough time of things growing up.

As the title suggests, this is a story about the bonds between people – bonds of love and hate, of obligation and responsibility. We watch Philip grow from being a sarcastic yet timid child to a deeply insecure adult, who is struggling to find his place in the world. As a youth, he rebels against the notions of what is expected of him, and yet in his attempts to establish himself – first completing his studies in Germany, then while trying a range of rather diverse careers – he still isn't satisfied with what the world offers and becomes the author of his own downfall. (Which savvy readers could have predicted early on.)

Added to the mix is one incredibly awful complication of unrequited love, that is so full of cringe that I found myself muttering along with the narrator, with an "Oh god, Philip. No, Philip. Don't do it, Philip. Choose life, Philip."

Throughout this, Maugham's observations of the people around Philip are sharp and biting. We see the best juxtaposed against the worst, expressed with incredible pathos. Everyone is morally grey, with both good and bad, and Maugham discusses many philosophies framed within Philip's journey, as he starts from a position of childlike faith until he hits a profound passive nihilistic nadir before he manages to attain ecstatic existential release, and in a way freedom through acceptance of the basic absurdity of the human condition. Watching Philip navigate many of the admittedly self-imposed obstacles he places in his own path is a thing of beauty that I don't often see, and when I do, I relish.

This novel also exists as a sort of time capsule, capturing the essence of a particular era of European culture and history, that reflects the tragedies of being human as well as those sweet moments of pure joy. Read by Steven Crossley, this Audible edition is well worth the investment, and I'm definitely adding Steven Crossley to my list of narrators worth stalking.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Notes on Falling by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen

Every once in a while, I encounter a literary work that is best described in terms of imagery, tones, and textures, and Notes on Falling by Bronwyn Law-Viljoen is one such work. We start the story with photographer Thalia, who has grown up motherless and raised by her father, who has done his best for her, but who has also never shared anything about her absent mother until quite late in her life. We learn that Thalia's mother left the country, left the baby Thalia in the father's arms, and that's about all we know – and this nagging absence perhaps does manifest itself in Thalia's life by her hunger to capture and quantify the world around her. If she can describe her world, lend it some form of permanence as a still image, perhaps she can control it in some way. Or at least these are my thoughts on the matter.

Thalia herself is a photographer, her entire life framed by how she works with light, objectifies and tries to understand her surroundings – and in that degree, Law-Viljoen paints with words in the same way a good photographer will paint with light, shadow, and subject matter. The reality that we are given is often naked, unforgiving, made up of sharp planes and angles that slice. A great photo will foreground details, open them up for analysis and understanding.

In this layered tale, we deal not only with the discomfort of the present, but we sift through memories encapsulated in stark imagery, be it 1990s South Africa and New York, and then also take a step even further back, to a New York of the 1970s, to catch a glimpse of a creative zeitgeist as ephemeral as its participants and instigators. Somehow, all these snapshots are tied together in Thalia's search for a mother who was willing to abandon her for a dream. 

Through Thalia, we encounter Robert, whose own search during New York of the 1970s, is intrinsically linked to Thalia's journey – though for fear of spoilers, I won't say how. What Law-Viljoen does well, is show how an individual can frame their lives in a search for meaning, not only of their innermost selves, but also in how they fit into the larger picture – even when the world is like an unstoppable train that continues hurtling through space and time with or without your presence. This is very much an existential novel, that does not have the neat, tidy hallmarks of a happy tale – much like real life, in that regards – that will leave readers with much to ponder on these seemingly isolated yet intrinsically linked themes expressed within the story. 

And as someone who majored in photography at university, it was a real treat for me to read a novel that spoke a language that I understand well. This is a beautiful, if disquieting and uncomfortable book.