It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Boxing, bugs, bounty hunters and bismillah: God’s War

When Kameron Hurley’s God’s War was published earlier this year, I took note of it, as I generally do of sf novels which feature Arabs or Arab-inspired backgrounds. I checked out the book’s website, and even read the first chapter, which was posted online. But I didn’t see anything there that made me want to buy and read the book immediately. At some point, yes, I’d probably pick up a copy, but nothing I saw encouraged me to do so there and then.

A few weeks later, Niall Harrison tweeted that God’s War was one of the best books published this year he’d read so far. He described it as “Gwyneth Jones meets Richard Morgan” – or words to that effect. And so, after a bit more conversation on Twitter, a group of people all bought copies at his urging. I was one of them.

I have now read God’s War.

Nyxnissa is a “bel dame” on the world of Umayma, which means she is a government assassin charged with killing deserters from the army. Because Nasheen has been at war with neighbouring state Chenja for generations – so long, in fact, that no one is really sure what they are fighting over. All Nasheenian men must fight at the front, and many women also volunteer. The end result of this is a female-dominated society at home, much like Britain during World War II.

But Nasheen is also an Islamic state – or rather, its state religion is one which appears to be descended from Islam. The Nasheenians have mosques and a holy book called the Kitab (which is Arabic for “book”; and, in Islam, members of the Abrahamic religions are known as “People of the Book”). There are further clues in the names of people and places – although a reference to the Kitab being written in a “the ancient language of prayer” (p 91) suggests that the Nasheenian language is not true Arabic. This may explain why some of the female characters have male names, such as Bashir, Husayn or Zubair. Or indeed why some of the place-names don’t entirely convince as Arabic – Chenja, for example: Arabic has no “ch” phoneme. And also Ras Tieg, another nation on Umayma: Arabic has a “j”, though it is pronounced as “g” in Egypt. (None of the nations’ name are entirely parsable either – ﻧﺶﺀ (nash) means “youth”, and -een could be the dual ending; Ras Tieg – ﺭﺍﺱ (ras) is “head” or “headland” but I can’t find anything close to “tieg”. But perhaps the names are not intended to mean anything.)

As muslims, the Nasheenians are moderates – possibly unsurprising, given that the society is matriarchal. Many of the teachings seem to be ignored, if not flouted – such as those prohibiting the consumption alcohol (Nyx drinks a lot of whisky during the story). Chenja, however, is far more orthodox. It practices polygamy, and its women wear the veil. One of the other characters, Rhys, is Chenjan, and while Nyx may be lapsed he certainly is not. He speaks a translation of bismillah ar-rahman ar-raheem (p 91), and also recites the ninety-nine names of God (p 80). Nyx further mocks him for “pounding [his] head on the pavement six times a day” (p 78). It is also implied that the Chenjans venerate saints, suggesting perhaps they are Shi’ites to the Nasheenian Sunni muslims. Though, according to Rhys, this cannot be the case as the two nations comprise “… believers from different moons, united in their belief of God and the Prophet and the promise of Umayma. For a thousand years, they had carved out some kind of tentative peace, maneuvered around a hundred holy wars … Chenjans would submit only to God, not his Prophet, let alone any monarch who wanted to sever God and government.” (p 78)

There are other nations on Umayma. The Mhorians, for example, are racially different to the Nasheenians, and are descended from refugees who were given permission to settle on the world hundreds of years earlier. Clues in the text – a reference to Saint Mhari, for example – suggest they may be Christian.

Hurley does an excellent job with her society-building, painting a picture of two nations with different approaches to a shared religion. The way she integrates the religion and its practice into the daily lives of the characters certainly resembles Islam in a way that Christianity does not. It is not, happily, just the mention of mullahs, burqas or the other trappings of Islam or the Arabic world. Having said that, the easy prevalence of acts and attitudes considered haram does render the end result a little less convincing.

Then there’s the technology in God’s War, which is almost entirely insect-based. Vehicles, called bakkies, are powered by a fuel generated by a sealed hive of cockroaches. People called magicians have some sort of unexplainable power over these insects – pheromonal, perhaps? – which allows them to control them. They even use them as, er, bugs – i.e., surveillance devices. Magicians are masters of biotechnology (I think they are all male), and so of advanced medicine too. Not everyone returns from the front in one piece – but the magicians patch them up, often using body parts from those who didn’t make it. Umayma’s sun is also stronger than ours – or the world’s atmosphere is thinner – and skin cancers are prevalent. Biological and chemical weaponry is used extensively in the war between Chenja and Nasheen, which in turn has its effect on the world’s population.

But perhaps the strangest element of God’s War‘s world, and the least convincing to me, is the presence of “shifters”. These are people who can “shift” into other forms – an animal, and each person is, I think, limited to one other form. One character can transform into a dog, another into a dove, and yet another into a raven. How? Where does all that mass go? There’s a hand-wavey mention of “quantum effects”, and it is stated that shifters didn’t start to appear until the various peoples had colonised Umaymi… But. It just feels a bit unnecessary, a bit over-the-top.

Likewise the magicians’ gyms. For reasons not entirely clear, the magicians are fans of boxing. The sport may be a signifier for emancipation in God’s War, given that it is acceptable in Nasheen but underground in Chenja, and popular in both. The gyms are all interconnected, irrespective of the distance between them – as if the magicians had a secret, and instantaneous, travel network. I couldn’t quite work out the reason for this – it only seemed to impact the story peripherally.

The plot of God’s War is complex but also relatively straightforward. Nyx does something she shouldn’t have done, is booted out of the Sisterhood of bel dames and sentenced to prison. When she is released seven years later, she becomes a licenced bounty hunter. She hires a team – magician Rhys (who is a Chenjan deserter), Mhorian shifter Khos, gun-nut Anneke and comms expert Taite. When Queen Zainab hires Nyx and her team to recover an offworlder, Nikodem, who has gone missing, things get complicated very fast. The Sisterhood don’t want her to succeed. She tracks Nikodem to Chenja, which means infiltrating an enemy country. Meanwhile, Nyx’s sister, a biotech scientist, is murdered, and her work somehow seems linked to Nikodem’s disappearance…

God’s War is a brutal book. Nyx is a brutal protagonist. A lot of people are killed or maimed in the story. A lot of people who have been maimed appear in the story. The magicians’ medicine is sufficiently advanced that even the most severe injuries are survivable, although why this should result in such a low value being put on life is beyond me. There is a lot of violence, and it is graphically described. Umayma is dirty, primitive in many respects, and populated by physically and psychologically broken people. God’s War is a bleak novel, with a cast that are not far from being monsters. I think it was this, more than anything else, that made it hard for me to love God’s War. The world-building is superb, Nyx is a well-drawn protagonist, and the plot is pleasingly complex, but I still found it a little too bloodthirsty for my tastes.

I couldn’t quite see the Gwyneth Jones in God’s War, although there are some small similarities with Richard Morgan’s Black Man. I don’t think it’s the best book I’ve read so far this year, though it may prove to be the best book published in 2011 I read this year. I would not be unhappy if it appeared on a few shortlists next year. I will certainly be buying the sequel, Infidel, due to be published in October.

EDIT: I forgot to mention the mention of Deep Blue Something – is Hurley a fan of the group, perhaps? “Nyx pulled her burnous up and followed the dimly lit signs to room tres-bleu-chose.” (p 224)

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Books from my collection: Brooke & Brown

I’ve known both Keith Brooke and Eric Brown for a number of years – I may well have met them at the first convention I ever attended back in 1989. It’s been a long time, anyway. And throughout those many, many years I’ve also enjoyed their novels and short stories. My collection of both authors’ books is complete – except for their books for YA and younger readers.

Keith’s first three novels, published by Gollancz between 1990 and 1992. Head Shots (2001) is a collection, published by Cosmos Books, and one of the strongest short story collections I’ve read for a long time.

Lord of Stone is fantasy, published by Cosmos Books in 2001; it is very Orwellian and very good. Genetopia was published by Pyr in 2006. The Accord is Keith’s most recent novel from 2009, though he is currently working on a new one, alt.Human. Parallax View is a shared collection, with Eric Brown, of stories set on the same world. My edition is the Sarob Press one from 2000, although a revised edition was published by Immanion Press in 2007.

The Time-Lapsed Man is Eric’s first collection, and was originally published as a paperback in 1990 by Pan. The hardback edition was from Rog Peyton’s Drunken Dragon Press. (There was also a signed limited edition, but I don’t have it.) Deep Future (2001) and Blue Shifting (1995) are collections. Meridian Days (1992) was Eric’s first published novel. It was followed by Engineman (1994) and Penumbra (1999).

A pair of trilogies: the Virex trilogy of New York Nights (2000), New York Blues (2001) and New York Dreams (2004); and the Bengal Station trilogy of Necropath (2008), Xenopath (2009) and Cosmopath (2010). Annoyingly, the first two books of the Virex trilogy were issued in hardback, but the third wasn’t.

Bengal Station (2004), published by Five Star, is the novel on which the trilogy above was based. It didn’t sell many copies – probably because it was difficult to get hold of. Threshold Shift (2007) is a collection from Golden Gryphon. Kéthani (2008) is a fix-up, and one of Eric’s best books.

Some novellas from PS Publishing: A Writer’s Life (2001) is a supernatural story, rather than sf; The Extraordinary Voyage of Jules Verne (2005) and Gilbert and Edgar on Mars (2009) both feature famous writers as their protagonists.

Some more novellas: Approaching Omega (2005) is a sort of zombie cyborg generation ship story. Starship Summer (2007) and Starship Fall (2009) are set on the same world of Chalcedony and feature the same cast. There are, obviously, two more books to come in the series. Starship Winter is scheduled to appear from PS Publishing later this year.

The Fall of Tartarus (2005) is a another fix-up novel. Helix (2007) was Eric’s first novel for Solaris, and features a unique BDO. Engineman (2010) is a revised edition of the original novel, and also includes eight associated stories. I’ve yet to read Guardians of the Phoenix (2010) or The Kings of Eternity (2011), although Eric assures me the latter is the best thing he’s written.


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Battered books? Criminal!

On Monday, David Barnett wrote a paean to tatty paperbacks on the Guardian website here. He even included a photograph of one of his most treasured books, a battered copy of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It is, quite frankly, falling apart. I’m surprised it’s still readable.

I, on the other hand, hate battered books. Almost every book I own appears brand new. I have paperbacks I bought in the 1970s which look like they were published last week. Some of the books I’ve given away or sold – on eBay or Amazon marketplace – are in as good condition as those you’d find on the shelves of your local Waterstone’s, though they might be ten, twenty or thirty years old.

I have bought tatty books, of course. Some books that I want to read, but have no intention of keeping, I will buy irrespective of condition – usually from charity shops. And they’ll go back there once I’ve read them. Books that are going in the collection, however, have to be fine or near mint. But if I discover that I really like the book and want to keep it, and it’s pretty dog-eared – then I’ll go and buy a new copy of the book.

I have lent books to people and been seriously pissed off when they’ve returned them with broken spines and creases in the covers. When you borrow a book, it should be handed back in the same condition it was in when it was lent. You don’t borrow someone’s car and then return it with dents and scrapes and smashed headlights, after all. And yet, some books you really want people to read because you love them so much. Some books you will accept the possibility of damage because you want someone else to share your opinion of them.

It’s not just the condition of books. Genre fiction has a fondness for series. I admit to having inherited the “squirrel gene” from my father. (This doesn’t mean I’m half-man half-squirrel, it just means I collect things. Books, obviously, in my case.) Series are good for collecting. Except when publishers change the cover design halfway through the series. Or when two books of a trilogy are published in hardback, but the third is only published in paperback. I find that really annoying. I’ve been known to wait until a trilogy is complete so I can buy all three books with a matching cover design. I have also replaced books in a trilogy so I have them all in the same format, rather than one in trade paperback and two in A-format paperback.

Given that most of the books I buy are out-of-print and second-hand, you’d think I’d be a gibbering wreck most of the time. I find the book I’ve spent ages looking for on eBay, click on “Buy it Now”, and days later a parcel is shoved through my letter-box… Sellers on eBay tend to display a wide variance in their interpretation of terms such as “fine”, “very good” or “good” when relating to condition. It can make book-buying a bit of a lottery. I have returned books because they were not at all as described. But usually I tend to only buy from sellers who post a photograph of the book in which the condition is plain to see. As a result, I’ve not bought books I really want even though there are copies available. I’d sooner wait until I see a copy in a charity shop, second-hand book shop, or dealers’ room at a convention, where I can see in person whether or not the book’s condition is good enough.

There is probably a fancy Latin name for the above behaviour. I don’t care. What it means to me is that my books will last. I can return to them again and again, and not worry about pages falling out. After all, you can’t read a novel when it has pages missing.


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A writer’s life is not for me

Or so says Steph Swainston in a feature in Sunday’s Independent here. Coincidentally, I’d just read her first novel, The Year of Our War (see here), and as a result decided to track down its sequels. To date, there are three more books in the series: No Present Like Time, The Modern World and Above the Snowline. Swainston says there may well be more, but she’s asked her agent to negotiate her out of her current two-book contract, so who knows.

And the reasons she gives? Too much stress. The stress of producing a book a year. The stress of fans discussing her books on the internet. The stress of isolation. They are, to be honest, fixable problems. Actually giving up writing seems a somewhat drastic solution.

Different people write at different speeds, though publishers – and readers – do prefer a book per year. Publishing is, after  all, a business. But see George RR Martin, Scott Lynch or Patrick Rothfuss – each of whom have multi-year gaps between volumes in their fantasy series. (Having said that, they probably had robust enough sales for publishers and fans to wait out those long delays.) Charles Stross was, at one, point, writing three books a year – though he has said, never again.

Different writers have different levels of engagement with the internet. Some are actively involved – with blogs or live journals, twitter accounts, forums, etc. Swainston appears to have almost no online presence. But then any level is sure to draw some sort of fire from some quarters. Not everyone on the internet is approving. The medium itself seems to rob many people of tact. Or intelligence. But being ignored is, I would have thought, more stressful. To not know what people think to your story can be disheartening – even a negative review means someone has at least engaged with your fiction. Of course, they may not be very nice about it in that negative review, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Not everyone hides themselves away to write. Some write in their local coffee shop. Several writers I follow on twitter tweet from their local Costa Coffee or Caffè Nero. Others need total seclusion in order to write. I have, for instance, seen several conversations online regarding music and/or distractions when writing (not to be confused with displacement activites). Personally, I find extreme metal is the best music for me when I’m writing. Also, many published writers still have day jobs, and only write early in the morning, in the evenings, and on weekends. The issue for them is finding the time to write. Some writers have part-time jobs, giving them at least a a couple of days at home to focus on their fiction.

Then, of course, there’s the social side to genre writing. The conventions, the book launches, the parties… Not that these in any way characterise the life of a writer. But they do happen. I don’t believe Swainston is a con-goer, though she is Guest of Honour at next year’s Eastercon. Not every published writer engages with fandom in person, but many genre writers were actively involved in fandom before becoming writers and they haven’t withdrawn from it since turning professional.

In other words, there are lots of different aspects to the writer’s life, and lots of different ways of approaching those aspects. Swainston has chosen her solution. I don’t necesserarily agree with her choice, but it’s her choice to make. I still plan to read her books, and I do hope that she does continue to work on her Castle series – at whatever pace she feels comfortable. It’s always a shame when a talented genre writer turns away from writing. Swainston has a singular vision, and I think fantasy will be poorer for its loss – which is not something I can say of several writers of fantasy…


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Women in sf reading challenge #6: The Year of Our War, Steph Swainston

This post is a bit late because I had to reschedule my reading. I decided several weeks ago to make July a month of reading only women writers. But then I was sent three novels by men for review, with a deadline of the end of July. So I moved them to the top of the reading pile so I could finish them in June and not break my promise for July. Anyway, I managed to finish them in time, and so the first book of July was…

When I picked The Year of Our War for my reading challenge at the beginning of this year, I’d heard it argued that the book could be read as sf even though it was marketed as fantasy. I’d also heard it described as “New Weird”, although quite what that means no one seems really sure. But never mind: I wanted to read it, so I bent the rules a little. And, now that I have read it, I have to be honest and say that to me The Year of Our War seems very much a fantasy novel.

Jant Shira is half-Rhydanne and half-Awian. The Rhydanne live high in the mountainous region of Fourlands, are very much used to the cold, and are extremely quick. Awians are very much like normal humans except they possess small wings on their back. Because Jant has the Rhydanne speed and build, and the Awian wings, he can fly. He is the only person who can do this.

He is also immortal.

Two thousand years before, god left Fourlands. He put San, the Emperor, in charge and made him immortal. And in the years since then San has gifted fifty exceptional people with immortality. They form the Circle, and all have superhero-like names – Jant, for example, is Comet. Another member of the Circle is Lightning, a superlative archer, and one of the first people to be made immortal.

Around the same time god left, the Insects invaded Fourlands. These are pony-size ant-like creatures, and they have overwhelmed the northern quarter of the continent. But, after centuries of stalemate, more and more of them are now appearing and encroaching on human-inhabited lands.

The Year of Our War is, I believe, the first book in a series. Certainly, the novel does not resolve the bigger questions its plot asks. A possible source for the Insects is mooted, but not confirmed – and no explanation of that source is offered. Why god left is certainly never revealed. In fact, much of the story of The Year of Our War revolves around a fight for supremacy between a pair of immortals: Mist, the Sailor, and his wife.

There’s much to like in The Year of Our War. The story is narrated by Jant, who is a junkie, and he gives an interesting perspective on the plot. In fact, the entire cast are extremely well-handled. The prose is polished and very readable, although there’s a tendency in the first half of the book to describe everything everyone is wearing, often using unfamiliar and archaic terms. There’s a feeling of depth to the world of the story, as if the author has spent a great many years building it.

But.

Swainston names M John Harrison as an inspiration, and there’s certainly a little of Viriconium in Fourlands. There’s also that same refusal to be ruled by the “clomping foot of nerdism”. Which unfortunately manifests as gaps in rigour. Towards the end of the novel, for example, a famous sword appears and is described as a “katana”. But there’s a lot of cultural baggage that goes with such a weapon, and none of that is present in The Year of Our War. There’s a sense that Fourlands is built from magpie-like borrowings from the real world, but without the history and culture which underpins those borrowings.

The Year of Our War is a not a novel which makes immersion easy – there are too many details which throw the reader out of the world. Sometimes the characters respond in ways which rely on knowledge of the real world, not on knowledge of the world of Fourlands – in other words, they don’t always react like characters in a fantasy novel.The names of people and places seem… odd, as if there are no languages behind them, they’re just random conglomerations of letters. Also not helping is the story’s refusal to provide neat answers – or indeed, provide neat puzzles requiring answers. The concept of god leaving Fourlands, for example, and putting an immortal in charge is extremely cool – there’s an entire novel series just in that – but here it’s merely background. The presentation of the immortals as a sort of superhero team also feels slightly out-of-place in a fantasy world.

As I read The Year of Our War, I concluded I’d be unlikely to ever try its sequels. But as I drew nearer to the end I started to change my mind. And not simply because I wanted to find out what happens. The lack of rigour which had annoyed me no longer seemed to matter. Thing is, I’m not a big fan of fantasy. I’ve read my fair share, but I’ve found little to admire in much of that I’ve read. When reading KJ Parker’s Colours in the Steel last year (see here), I had a similar response to that I was having with Swainston’s novel. That book was a great shambolic monster of a story, which seemed to spend more time on world-building than it did plot. But the engine of its story was driven by such an innovative power-source (and I’m mixing metaphors here, but never mind) that I found myself liking the book more and more as I drew closer to the end. The Year of Our War is less inventive plot-wise than Colours in the Steel, but it does present an interesting – and perhaps even opposed – approach to its world-building. And that, I think, is enough to warrant further exploration.


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Results: Best Science Fiction/Fantasy Books by Women Writers

Back in 21 June, I asked people to nominate their five favourite fantasy or science fiction novels by women writers. And yes, I’m doing what everyone else does in these sorts of polls and conflating “favourite” and “best”. Well, it is a sort of popularity contest type poll…

Anyway, some twenty-nine people left comments. And I have now counted up the results…

Best/Favourite Novel
1 The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin (7 votes)
2 The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin (4 votes)
3= Ash: A Secret History, Mary Gentle; Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones; The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood; The Many-Coloured Land, Julian May; To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis; Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy (3 votes each)

A broad selection tying for third place there, though the first and second positions don’t really come as much of a surprise.

Best/Favourite Writer
1 Ursula K Le Guin (14 votes)
2 CJ Cherryh (7 votes)
3= Diana Wynne Jones, Gwyneth Jones, Joanna Russ, Margaret Atwood, Tricia Sullivan (4 votes each)

Le Guin’s success is not really a surprise. Most of her books are still in print, she consistently appears on best of the genre lists, and she has written highly-regarded sf and fantasy. Cherryh’s books seemed almost ubiquitous during the 1980s and much of the 1990s, but are less visible these days – which is a shame. In total, 58 authors were named.

Books by year

  1810s 2
  1920s 1
  1960s 8
  1970s 21
  1980s 33
  1990s 29
  2000s 21
  2010s 3

This probably says more about the age of those who voted than it does the success of women writers during those particular decades.

Given a wider pool of voters, the results might have looked different. But even so, this poll is as valid as any other genre list you might find on the internet.