My reading remains a little bit all over the place. I’ve been keeping an eye on the Kindle daily deals, and picking up books that look interesting when they’re going cheap. I’ve even bought a few I’ve read previously and have in storage back in the UK. I’ve had the Kindle now for two years, and it has 200 books on it already. Which, when I think about it, is certainly less than I used to buy when I lived in the UK and bought paperbacks and hardbacks from all manner of places, online and IRL. Even better, I’ve read about 70% of the books I have here, although there are still half a dozen or so I brought with me two years ago that are still unread…
The Master & Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1966, Russia). This is a book that’s mentioned often, sometimes in genre conversations given its fantastical content. In brief, the devil visits Moscow and involves himself – with the help of a personal assistant and a very large cat, that talks and walks upright – with various people, who suffer as a consequence. I’m not a big reader of Russian fiction – in translation, obviously – War and Peace many years ago, a couple of novels by the Strugatsky brothers, some Solzhenitsyn, We last year, and now this. I remember enjoying War and Peace, and the Solzhenitsyns were good, but the translations of the Strugatskys’ novels into idiomatic American English didn’t do them any favours… But I can’t say I thought either We or The Master & Margarita particularly good books or enjoyable reads. The story leaps all over the place, and it’s all very excitable. Some parts consist of one character telling another character what happened to them. Other parts seem to make little sense or directly contradict themselves. On the plus-side, it’s all very Russian and the culture in which the novel is set comes through on every page – which is more than could be said for the Strugatskys novels I read. The Master & Margarita is on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list, and while it’s preferable to yet another literary novel about a college professor suffering a mid-life crisis, is it really the best mid-twentieth-century Soviet literature could produce? Or is it chiefly revered because it’s critical of the USSR? Some of the best Soviet films are pretty much propaganda – being anti-USSR does not make a Russian novel, or film, good in and of itself. The US spent almost a century so worried its proletariat would see through its structural inequality, it demonised communism to the extent half of the population still believe social healthcare is evil, and most of them can’t see that Putin,. ie capitalist Russia, is far more dangerous than the USSR ever was. Sigh.
By Force Alone, Lavie Tidhar (2020, Israel). I’d say the last thing the Matter of Britain needs is another interpretation, but King Arthur has been reinvented a number of times, and it does seem somewhat fitting given the nature of the myth – a hero for a time when he’s needed. Except, of course, most retellings of the Matter of Britain aren’t actually about the time of the retelling, and are usually no more than badly-faked historical stories distorted by the lens of the present. Which is also true of By Force Alone. But here it’s deliberate, very much so. In typical Tidhar fashion, By Force Alone makes heavy play with present-day cultural references. Arthur’s early years, and the formation of the Round Table, read like a cross between The Sopranos and a Guy Ritchie movie. But, Tidhar being a genre author, the novel features a weird mix of fantasy and science fiction tropes. It’s very much a book of two halves; and in the second half, a meteor impacts in Scotland, thought by all to be a dragon, and the area around the impact site is heavily poisoned, but also generates strange magical effects. Tidhar manages to graft the Grail Quest onto this, including rivalry among the Fae over the champions they have chosen. By Force Alone hits the main beats of the legend, but it’s a singular interpretation of it, one which, unlike most Matter of Britain stories, neither romanticises nor valorises Arthur and his knights, nor presents them as avatars of English exceptionalism (they weren’t, of course, English; assuming they ever existed, that is). I didn’t need another spin on King Arthur, but Tidhar delivered one and I find myself glad he did. If there’s any justice, this novel will kill the Arthuriana genre stone dead. And Guy Ritchie’s career.
Devil’s Road, Gary Gibson (2020, UK). I think this novella is set in a world explored in other works by Gibson – a novel, I believe, or perhaps more than one. I’ve not read his last few books, so I’m not sure. In the world of Devil’s Road, an experiment gone horribly wrong opened a portal to other dimensions in an invented island nation in the Far East, and out of this portal came various kaiju – ie, monsters. They’re confined to the island by an international blockade, and once a year because reasons a handful of people are allowed to race around the island for prize money. Dutch McGuire, the only person to have survived repeated races, is broken out of a Russian prison to compete once more. But this time she’s to help an industrialist get hold of some alien tech discovered on the island by a rival corporation. I didn’t think people still wrote science fiction like this. The whole ersatz cyberpunk kick-ass heroine thing is pure 1990s, although the kaiju add a twenty-first century spin. I really like Gibson’s space opera series, but this novella did nothing for me. But then I’m the sort of person who loves the films of Ishiro Honda but thought Pacific Rim was rubbish.
The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks (1977, USA). It was on offer, okay? TThe Sword of Shannara was also the first of the high fantasy best-sellers, and since I’m in the middle of a (partial) reread of the Wheel of Time series, I thought it might be worth seeing what this novel was like. I shouldn’t have bothered. It’s fucking dreadful. A “Valeman” on his way home one night is scared by some giant flappy thing in the sky, and then waylaid by a scary man over seven foot tall with a goatee. Except the scary man is well-known to the Valemen (they live in a vale, see), although he is very mysterious. Cue info-dump. The Valeman’s adopted brother is half-elvish, and is actually the only surviving relative of an ancient elvish king. Because of this, he’s the only person who can wield the Sword of Shannara, an ancient, er, sword, and defeat the Warlock Lord, an evil sorcerer who is about to invade the Four Lands and kill everyone. Or maybe just enslave them. It’s not clear. There’s the good guys – one of which is a dwarf, and another is Boromir in all but name – and they have to make their way to Druid’s Keep to retrieve the sword before the evil gnome army. But the gnomes get there first, and Shea (the naming is absolutely terrible in this book), the half-elf half-not-a-hobbit-honestly, is separated from the others and ends up travelling into absolutely-not-Mordor chasing after the titular sword. Meanwhile, the others are involved in defending Tyrsis – which is definitely not Minas Tirith – against a huge army of gnomes and rock trolls… This was the first of the big-selling Tolkien rip-offs, and I can’t honestly see what its appeal is. Did people just want another LotR with the serial numbers filed off? And were they so desperate for it, they’d accept this sub-literate crap? Even now, fantasy fans still recommend this book – and then they do that thing, which is absolutely fucking stupid, of explaining that the first few books are not very good but “it gets a lot better around book four or five”. Seriously, fuck off. I’m not going to read half a dozen shit 700-page novels to reach one which is “better”, especially since as a fan of the series, the person recommending it clearly has no idea what a good book actually is. Books like this should no longer be in print. They do the genre a disservice, they do its readers a disservice.
Settling the World, M John Harrison (2020, UK). Harrison is a writer whose works I admire more than I like. I do indeed like some of Harrison’s novels a great deal, but they’re the more explicitly genre works, and the sort of liminal fantasy he usually writes doesn’t appeal to me all that much. Settling the World is a career retrospective of sorts, so it includes both the stuff I like and the stuff that does little for me. Although all of it, of course, is beautifully written. The early works are those sort of mannered, very English, almost a pastiche of 1940s and 1950s English prose, stories, but twisted through a genre sensibility. Well-written, but there’s little here to stand out. True, there’s a strange imagination at work, which lifts even those sorts of stories above others of the same type. The title story is a case in point – the narrator is a very English agent of some unidentified bureaucratic service, who is tasked with spying on “God’s Highway”, a stretch of alien road that appeared on UK soil after God – a giant insect – was discovered on the far side of the Moon (only in the UK, apparently, which is also typical of this sort of fiction). The final line of the story is not the kicker it may have been when the story was published, but then the story is nearly half a century old. But the title story is not the collection, and what Harrison wrote in the early 1970s is not what he wrote in later decades. And is still writing. As I mentioned before, I find the liminal stuff doesn’t work as well for me, but even in those stories Harrison has a real genius for dropping in snippets of conversation that sound like parts of actual real conversations. And even if the individual story doesn’t seem to quite gel, there’s more than enough good writing to carry the reader through. At a time when publishers seem to want us to read only debuts, we need to support those writers who have had careers lasting several decades. It might sound like heresy, but a new novel by someone whose debut was twenty years ago is likely to be a better novel than someone whose debut novel was last month. We need to support a rich ecosystem of genre writers, so they have careers stretching decades, so they improve, the genre improves, our appreciation and enjoyment improves. Chasing the shiny new is a mug’s game, and just means readers are buying into the publishers’ desperate scramble for quick profit.
Walking to Aldebaran, Adrian Tchaikovsky (2020, UK). Some time around 2028 or 2030, British science fiction will consist only of books published by Adrian Tchaikovsky. But there will still be several hundred such books published each year. I’ve no idea how he manages to write so much. True, Walking to Aldebaran is a novella and, it has to be said, clearly written quickly. I’ve not read much of Tchaikovsky’s fiction, but certainly the other works I’ve read were quite huge novels with much better prose than this. Walking to Aldebaran is narrated by Gary Rendell, an astronaut who was part of a mission to explore an alien object discovered in the Oort Cloud. A team is landed in an opening in the artefact, and it becomes clear it’s some sort of space/time gateway that provides access, via tunnels and corridors and chambers, to an uncountable number of planets scattered throughout the galaxy. The novella is told in alternating chapters, in which Rendell describes how the mission to the artefact, called the Crypts, came together, and his experiences since the mission landed on/in the Crypts. Unfortunately, Walking to Aldebaran reads like someone wandering through a dungeon – the tunnels are apparently made of stone, which makes no sense… until you realise it’s just a dungeon. The final twist – that the narrator has become a dungeon monster themself – really does little to redeem a dungeon-exploration story layered onto a fairly standard Big Dumb Object. This is a series of well-used fantasy RPG tropes given a science-fictional spin, with no real resolution. Expect it to appear on an award shortlist or two next year.