I really need to get SF Mistressworks back up and running. I posted some reviews earlier this year, after a twelve month hiatus, and I’ve read plenty of eligible books – including two below – since I last posted a review there. It would be a shame to let it all lapse. Especially since I keep on seeing articles by people which more or less claim women writing science fiction is a recent phenomenon. Sigh.
And entirely coincidentally to the above, the half-dozen books here are all by women writers. I decided to knock off the Scott trilogy in quick succession, instead of one per month as originally planned; and, well, I’d been meaning to read the Gentle for years – I bought it when it was published… fifteen years ago! I have books I bought decades ago and have yet to read. I really ought to get that sorted.
Silence in Solitude, Melissa Scott (1986, USA). This is the second book of the trilogy following Silence Leigh, a pilot, and now mage, in a universe in which magic is used to travel FTL between worlds. Silence has been accepted as a candidate for training by the mages, despite the fact no woman has ever displayed, or been seen or acknowledged to display, any ability as a mage previously. But the hegemon is still after her because she broke his geas, and the Rose Worlders, guardians of the road to Earth, are also after her because she nearly broke past the siege engines they use to blockade the route to Earth. While researching routes to Earth – entirely ex-curricula and without permission – at the mages’ college, Silence discovers a reference to an ancient book of interstellar navigation, the portolan. And the only person likely to have a copy of this ancient text is the satrap of Inarime, who is fortunately a friend of Silence’s teacher, the mage Isambard. And, happily, the satrap does prove to own a portolan. Unhappily, there is a price for it. The hegemon has the satrap’s daughter in the Palace of Women, a strongly-guarded seraglio on the Hegemony’s capital planet. Silence must free the daughter in order to win the portolan. And that’s what this novel is about. Silence infiltrating the Palace of Women. Silence discovering what life is like in the Palace of Women. Silence plotting to escape the Palace of Women with the satrap’s daughter. It’s all good stuff. It goes without saying that Silence succeeds, with help from the daughter, although it’s a close-run thing. But then… Silence in Solitude jumps the shark. As part of the escape plan, the satrap’s fleet attacks the capital world as a diversion. But they run into the hegemon’s fleet and battle is joined. And the satrap’s side is losing. Until Silence does some magic stuff and re-tunes her ship’s keel so it sends out a note that destroys all the hegemon’s ships. And so the satrap becomes the new hegemon, and Silence is a heroine. The sections set in the Women’s Palace are good, as is the bit where Silence is taught magery… but her two husbands, Chase Mago and Balthasar, are still only sketched in, and even Isambard seems more like a stereotype than an actual character. But the satrap’s daughter, Aili, is quite good, the plot mostly romps along, and the background is pretty interesting. So far, this is proving to be a fun trilogy.
Irma Voth, Miriam Toews (2011, Canada). I bought this because it was inspired by Carlos Reygadas’s Stellet Licht (see here), which is set in a Mennonite community in Mexico. Toews plays a wife whose husband is having an affair with a younger woman. Toews used the experience of working on the film as a plot for a novel about a young woman who is hired to translate Mennonite Plattdeutsch for a critically-acclaimed Mexican director who is making a film in the Mennonite community. The title character and narrator of Irma Voth has been thrown out of her home after marrying a young Mexican man, and is living in a neighbouring house owned by her father. The film crew live in a third house owned by the father. Irma has a younger sister who still lives with their father, but wants to leave. The movie gets made, although it’s a somewhat chaotic production, and Irma and her sister end up running away to a nearby city. They live rough for a while, but then Irma gets a job as housemaid at a B&B, and the two settle down to a life free from their family and community. However, the real draw of Irma Voth is the prose, which is written in first person, without speech marks. This is the proper way to do a first-person narrative. It’s all about the world-view, it’s about filtering events through the narrator’s personality; and not the cheap and easy story-telling far too many first-person narratives prove to be. The movie described in Irma Voth doesn’t actually map onto Stellet Licht – and I would hope Toews’s director is not a true depiction of Reygadas. I will be watching more films by Reygadas, and I will be reading more books by Toews.
The Empress of Earth, Melissa Scott (1987 USA). And so we come to the third and final book of the Silence Leigh trilogy, and, well, the journey here was at least a lot of fun, but this is a disappointing end to the trilogy. Silence and her friends finally reach Earth, and Scott decides to riff off UFO mythology and treat their arrival like some sort of close encounter. But they, er, crash-land without discovery, and then must discover what is going on and why Earth has been blockaded by the Rose Worlds – which is never actually really explained. When Silence does a bit of magic, she’s hailed as “the empress of Earth”, although where the legend came from or what it means is all a bit of a mystery. It all feels somewhat over-familiar, which the previous two books did not, and the resolution is massively rushed. The plan to free Earth is discussed on page 315, and it’s all over, as is the book, by page 346. It’s as if there were a fourth book waiting, but Scott chose not, or was not contracted, to write it. Of course, it’s not the first time something like this has happened in science fiction. It’s a commercial genre, after all. And there have been plenty of sf writers happy to churn out yet another episode as long as an editor was willing to buy it. EC Tubb managed 31 books of the Dumarest saga before Donald A Wollheim died and his daughter chose not to continue the series. An unsatisfactory conclusion to the series was published by a small press in 1992 (in French; in 1997 in English). I don’t know that something like this happened with the Silence Leigh – or Roads to Heaven – series, although I understand this book has been extensively rewritten for its present Kindle publication. Which is annoying. Although I can understand why Scott took the opportunity to rewrite it. A disappointing end to what had been an interesting trilogy.
1610: Sundial in a Grave, Mary Gentle (2003, UK). As mentioned above, I bought this book fifteen years ago. And it has sat unread on my bookshelves ever since. Despite the fact I’m a big fan of Gentle’s fiction. But. She writes such big novels. 1610: Sundial in a Grave is 594pp! And my copy is the hardback edition. It must weigh about ten kilos. (Slight exaggeration.) I am a big fan of brevity (see the Apollo Quartet…), but I also recognise the appeal of longer works. And with Gentle you know you’re certainly getting your money’s worth. Her research is incredible. 1610: Sundial in a Grave is, like Ash: A Secret History, a series of nested narratives, with the innermost one providing the bulk of the contents. An “introduction” describes how the author (unnamed, but surely Gentle herself) was as a child a big fan of a particular (invented) Dumas-esque book, and was surprised to learn it was based on real historical figures. There then follows a fragment of a document by Robert Fludd, a Jacobean occult philosopher and mathematician (like the earlier Dr John Dee), which is described as one of several documents found with the memoirs of Rochefort. And it is Rochefort’s memoirs which form the main narrative of 1610: Sundial in a Grave. The disgraced son of the retired Marshal of France, Rochefort is responsible for the assassination of Henri IV, at the instigation of Henri’s wife Marie de Medici, although he had been blackmailed into it and had planned for it to fail as his master, the Duc de Sully, wanted… But Rochefort ends up fleeing France, knowing there are plenty of people who want his head. Including hothead duellist Dariole, who had been challenging Rochefort for months. All of which leads to Rochefort on a Normandy beach fighting Dariole, rescuing Saburo, the sole survivor of a Japanese mission to King James I, taking ship to England with both, becoming embroiled in the plot by Robert Fludd to assassinate James I, foiling that plot, and… It’s all about the mathematics invented by Bruno Giordano – a real historical figure who appears in, and inspired, Gentle’s White Crow novels – which is capable of predicting the future, especially a comet due to obliterate life on Earth in the twenty-first century (yes, please). As well as numerous events before that cataclysm. Rochefort and Dariole are great characters, not that much different from White Crow and Casaubon (and yes, Dariole’s secret was pretty obvious right from the start) inasmuch as they’re both almost too good to be true. There’s a unexpected strain of BDSM throughout the novel – the relationship between Rochefort and Dariole is predicated on it – but if anything it adds depth to their interactions. The historical detail is, unsurprisingly, hugely convincing. Gentle does historical filth and smells extremely well. At 594pp, 1610: Sundial in a Grave is not a short book, but it doesn’t feel like it overstays its welcome. Surprisingly, the book ends on a happy note, although there’s a cunning slingshot inasmuch as it suggests an origin, and a purpose, for the Rosicrucians, which ties into the whole occult mathematics mythos. I thought the book excellent, and I’m only sorry I didn’t read it sooner. And I really do need to read two other books by Gentle I own which I’ve yet to read.
Available Dark, Elizabeth Hand (2012, USA). This is the second of a trilogy, preceded by Generation Loss and followed by Hard Light. I’ve not read the first – the paperback is already out of print in the UK. Available Dark does refer to the events of Generation Loss, but it’s not necessary to have read it. Briefly, in the first book cult photographer Cassie Neary was involved in the murder of another photographer, close enough that she’d be behind bars if her true role were known. At least, that’s how Available Dark presents the events of Generation Loss. Neary has been in an artistic slump for years and is best known for a single book published years earlier. Neary specialises in photographs of dead people – the story throws around names like Joel-Peter Witkin and WeeGee – and it’s because of that she’s offered a job by a shady Norwegian character. He wants her to go to Helsinki to view a series of six photos by a famous Finnish fashion photographer. The Finnish photographer was once also into death photography, and the series depicts victims in bizarre murders. Coincidentally, Neary has received a mysterious message from a past lover she had thought long dead. And he’s in Reykjavík. After telling the Norwegian the photos are worth buying, Neary heads to Iceland to track down her old boyfriend. Then the Finnish photographer and his assistant are brutally murdered, and it’s all to do with the Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, grim Icelandic troll-like figures who were used to scare children, Nordic black metal in the 1990s, the member of one of those bands called Galdur who now lives out in the Icelandic wilderness, his band’s only, and incredibly rare, album, and events in Oslo back in the 1990s at the aforementioned Norwegian’s metal club. And, of course, the series of six photographs. An ignorant puff on the back of the book confuses black metal and death metal – they’re different genres – but Hand has a good, er, handle on the music. Neary, however, is a little too good to be true, a little too much of the sort of unkillable drug addict hard case you’d find in an urban fantasy rather than a realistic crime novel. The Reykjavík of 2012 also apparently bears little resemblance to the Reykjavík I visited in 2016, or even in 2018 (though, to be fair, I saw a number of changes between my two visits). Available Dark started out well enough, a slightly off-kilter thriller about death photography and Norwegian black metal, but the character of Neary sort of ruined it. She was too good to be true, too tough to be realistic. And it all hung on a series of murders from the 1990s that seemed unlikely to have gone undetected. I’ve always preferred novels about female detectives to those about male ones, but Available Dark, while structured like a crime novel, felt more like an urban fantasy.
Author’s Choice Monthly 14: Legacy of Fire, Nina Kiriki Hoffman (1990, USA). I know Hoffman’s name, but I don’t think I’d read anything by her before reading this, except perhaps a story in an anthology – although none spring to mind. Which is a shame, as the contents of this short collection are actually pretty damned good. Hoffman’s approach to fiction is probably epitomised by ‘Savage Breasts’, in which a woman sends off for an exerciser after seeing an ad for “Charlotte Atlas”, but her new-found bustiness proves her undoing when her breasts demonstrate they have a life of their own. This is one of the most, er, savagely feminist stories I’ve ever read, and I’m surprised it didn’t appear in Sisters of the Revolution (although, weirdly, it was reprinted in an anthology of comic fantasy, Smart Dragons, Foolish Elves, edited by Alan Dean Foster and Martin H Greenberg, which looks best avoided). The other stories in Author’s Choice Monthly 14: Legacy of Fire don’t match ‘Savage Breasts’, but they’re well-written, with a slightly-sideways approach so they sit somewhere between mainstream and genre. The title story, for example, has a stranger visit a very small town in middle America, and offer an enigmatic choice to the narrator, who happens to be a person of short stature. That’s the only story that isn’t about women, although the a woman joins the narrator is accepting the stranger’s challenge. I think perhaps I should try some more Hoffman.