by Peter Heck
ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY
By Charlie Jane Anders
Tor, $25.99 (hc)
From the editor of the online SF site io9, here’s a novel that plays with familiar SF and fantasy tropes and ends up feeling quite original.
Anders centers her plot around two young characters living in suburban Boston, in a world similar in many ways to ours. Patricia Delfine is a young witch who can talk to animals. Laurence Armstead, a budding science whiz, builds a two-second time machine in elementary school (he’s the youngest ever to do so). At first glance the two youngsters are opposites, but they have in common parents with unrealistic expectations and schoolmates who treat them as outcasts. Realizing they each can supply something the other lacks, they form a rough alliance. At this age, neither one has the slightest interest in romantic attachment, though of course everyone assumes they’re a couple.
And then they attract unwanted attention. Theodolphus Rose, a master assassin, has seen a vision foretelling that Patricia and Laurence are destined to bring the world to ruin in a war between magic and science. Even though his secret order forbids the killing of children, he knows he must prevent this from happening. A first attempt to attack them ends ludicrously. But he persists, and his continuing efforts drive much of the plot.
Anders puts Patricia and Laurence through the familiar gamut of trials a gifted, nonconforming child faces in our society: bullying, snubbing, false accusations, practical jokes, well-meaning parental discipline. The two spend as much time apart as together during their adolescent years, separated by mutual misunderstandings as much as by external circumstances. And the assassin stays on the trail, though he’s forced to use indirect methods because of his order’s opposition.
Eventually, the two end up in San Francisco, each working in their chosen fields—and inevitably they meet again. As it turns out, they are both trying to save the world in their different ways—and as Rose had foreseen, those ways are ultimately opposed. Anders does a fine job of bringing the conflict to a denouement, making good use of the alternate-future San Francisco setting for color.
The novel is in a way a more action-driven version of Jo Walton’s Among Others, which won the Hugo and Nebula for best novel a couple of years ago. It lovingly mixes SF and fantasy tropes and the two protagonists go through experiences many readers will remember from their own adolescent days. Its blend of wish fulfillment and reality is appealing, and the author’s sense of humor keeps the tone from getting self-important. At the same time, Anders addresses some of the bigger issues raised by her plot—the moral obligations of great power, whether scientific or magical, the dichotomy of the two ways of relating to the natural world, and whether the assassin’s vision justifies his actions.
This one’s well worth a read—I fully expect to see it on awards ballots next year.
* * *
SILVER ON THE ROAD
By Laura Anne Gilman
Saga Press. $26.99 (hc)
Gilman, who’s had success with urban fantasy and her ambitious “Vineart War” trilogy, begins a new series, “The Devil’s West” with this novel, a solid entry in the currently hot category of Weird West fiction.
The setting is the American West, sometime in the early years of the nineteenth century. As the story begins, we meet Izzy—short for Isobel—a young woman who has grown up working in a saloon in a town called Flood. But while the saloon appears on the surface to be a typical whiskey-and-gambling establishment, we learn early on that the owner is none other than the Devil, who essentially rules the entire Territory.
Izzy is faced with a choice. She has just turned sixteen, so her apprenticeship at the bar is over. She can leave and become whatever she wants, or she can stay on and work for the Devil in some capacity. She has already found a niche at the saloon, with a talent that lets her see into other people’s desires and motives and report them to the boss. But as the novel opens, she isn’t quite sure what she wants.
What the Devil has to offer is a job as his “left hand”—a sort of roaming enforcer whose job description includes “the quick knife in the darkness and the cold eye.” What qualifies a sixteen-year-old for this position? Well, she’s going to have a lot of on-the-job learning to do. And, as it happens, the Devil has chosen a tutor for her: a disillusioned lawyer named Gabriel, who has seen his fill of civilization back East and now rides the Territory taking care of whatever seems to need it. The two ride off into a series of adventures—and Gilman serves up a set of challenges worthy of the premise.
Along the way, Izzy and Gabriel travel through a cross section of Western history, encountering Native Americans, mountain men, mining towns, Spanish missionaries—all given enough of a fantastic twist to further the overall premise of Izzy’s mission to do the devil’s work. Not surprisingly, a lot of her energy goes toward counteracting chaotic supernatural intrusions into the milieu even as she is learning the ropes of her new job.
Gilman has created a fascinating world for her characters (and her readers) to explore. A lot of the fun comes from her twists on what look at first like familiar tropes from the mythos of the American West—saloons, mining towns, Native Americans, Spanish missionaries—all taking on a new meaning in the Devil’s West. It’ll be very interesting to see what else she has in store in this big, untamed landscape. Recommended.
* * *
A SHADOW ALL OF LIGHT
By Fred Chappell
Tor, $27.99 (HC)
Chappell here chronicles the career of Falco, a young man from the country who apprentices himself to the most notorious shadow thief in the city of Tardocco.
The author is a former poet laureate of his home state, North Carolina, and he combines a poet’s way with memorable phrases and images with solid fantasy world-building and a cast of decidedly gray characters—most definitely including Falco and his master, Astolfo, an enigmatic connoisseur of the most ephemeral of commodities, shadows. Add to those qualities a dry humor reminiscent of Zelazny or Vance, and you have a winning formula for a fantasy that combines original elements with a familiar ambience.
Falco is an amusing character, a bit too sure of himself at first but capable of learning and possibly a bit too honorable to be a truly successful thief. We follow his career from his first fumbling efforts on behalf of Astolfo to a point where he is capable of a surprising range of exploits on his own initiative. He is abetted—and roughly tutored—by Astolfo’s more experienced sidekick, Mutano, whose lack of a voice gives him his name. It also leads to an amusing series of adventures involving the city’s cats toward the middle of the book.
The port city of Tardocco has a satisfactory mixture of aristocrats, merchants, artisans, and rogues, and a well-laid-out history and mythology. Chappell makes good use of all the different elements he introduces, effectively setting up bits that will play a role later on—especially in the final chapter, in which Astolfo and his two assistants are faced with a major threat to the very existence of the city.
Several of the sections of this novel were published separately, but they come together nicely—as noted, several themes hinted at early in the narrative come to fruition in the later parts. Fans of evocative fantasy that doesn’t depend on the standard furniture of the genre will find this one especially enjoyable.
* * *
A PALAZO IN THE STARS
By Paul Di Filippo
Wildside Press, $14.95 (TP)
The latest short story collection by Di Filippo, a fellow Asimov’s reviewer, brings the author’s trademark mix of interesting settings, keen observation, and humor.
There are seventeen stories here, including two versions of one—Di Filippo’s original draft and the published version, rewritten in response to the editor’s suggestions.
“Candle in a Chianti Bottle” is set in Greenwich Village in an era when jazz and folk music were the dominant musical forms. The protagonist, Nick Champion, works in one of the iconic music clubs of the era, the Village Gate, and tells his story in the slang of the era. It’s a fun story, with a surprisingly touching theme that emerges when a strange character shows up with a brand-new act that even Coltrane, Miles, and Monk want to get in on.
The title story, originally published in Italian, has a nice steampunk ambience, with a tip of the hat to H.G. Wells. The protagonist, an expatriate American artist, is taken in by a family of eccentric wealthy Italians who have discovered a way to launch their dwelling into space, and want the sympathetic artist along for the journey. It’s a nice period piece, and, as Di Filippo says in his introduction, it reminds us that the nineteenth century happened in places other than England and America.
“Sweet Spot” features a mischievous high school kid who accidentally figures out how to set off a Rube Goldberg-like chain of events beginning with a trivial action and resulting in a much-desired conclusion. Predictably, he starts out with the kind of thing you’d expect—connecting with girls, improving test grades, and so forth. But the plot has more in store for him—and Di Filippo gets an appropriate bang out of it.
The concluding story in the volume, “Yubba Vines,” was cowritten with Rudy Rucker and appeared in this magazine. It has fun with the terminally hip urbanite’s search for the newest eateries—with a sinister edge to it, leading to an amusing final twist.
Di Filippo shows a nice range of styles and modes, from the steampunk of “Palazo” to a noir detective story, “A Pocketful of Faces,” to “Karen Coxswain,” which starts with a direct quote from Mark Twain. There’s a straight-faced review of an imaginary book in the mode of Borges or Lem, while the opening story, “Galaxy of Mirrors,” is a homage to Jack Vance. It’s hard not to envy such versatility, especially combined with such a wealth of fresh ideas.
If you know di Filippo only through his reviews here (and elsewhere), you’ll likely find this look at his fiction an enjoyable revelation. Visit www.wildsidebooks.com to order a copy.
* * *
ON THE SHORES OF TITAN’S FARTHEST SEA
By Michael Carroll
Springer, $24.99 (tp)
Carroll’s first novel, subtitled “A Scientific Novel,” sets a detective story in a future where much of the Solar System is settled, and scientific teams are exploring the remaining, less desirable chunks of real estate.
The primary action takes place on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, at Mayda Outpost, a research station where scientists from several different disciplines are studying the Kraken Mare, a large methane lake on the surface of the moon. The main character is Abigail Marco, an atmosphere researcher at Mayda.
As the novel begins, one of the scientists from Mayda, exploring the surface, meets a group of strangers—and is summarily killed. The rest of the plot involves Abigail and several of her colleagues attempting to find out what happened to him, and why.
As it turns out, the murder is part of a complicated plot involving an interplanetary terrorist—one of his previous crimes is a mass murder that included Abigail’s parents among its victims. Carroll spins a thriller plot that makes good use of current scientific knowledge about Titan.
Springer is primarily a publisher of scientific books, so it should be no surprise that this novel focuses heavily on the science behind the fiction—with twenty-one pages devoted to detailing the astronomical and geological underpinnings of the setting. This book is one of several that SF readers may find of interest—check out the publisher’s website at www.springer.com for more in the same vein.
* * *
BREAKING THE CHAINS OF GRAVITY:
The Story of Space Flight Before NASA
By Amy Shira Teitel
Bloomsbury Sigma, $27.00 (hc)
As readers of a certain age will remember, there was an American space program some years before President John Kennedy’s famous 1961 pledge to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. In fact, as Amy Teitel documents in this well-researched history, there were several such programs—one for each of the three branches of the U.S. armed services. And the idea of space flight had its origins years before World War II, although it was the war effort that made possible the hardware to turn the idea into a reality.
Science journalist Teitel is aware of the work of rocket pioneers Robert Goddard and Konstantin Tsiolkovski, but she chooses here to start with the work of a group of rocket enthusiasts from Germany in the 1920s. Many of their names are known to space buffs. Inspired by Jules Verne’s science fiction, Romanian Hermann Oberth came out of World War I to write a doctoral dissertation on liquid-fueled rockets in 1922. When it was rejected, he published a small press edition a year later—and found a fan in Max Valier, an avid German rocketeer who was one of the founders, a few years later, of the Verein fur Raumschiffart—the Space Travel Society. Valier was a reckless experimenter but a good PR man who managed to get the VfR noticed by the likes of filmmaker Fritz Lang.
After Valier’s death in a rocket explosion and Oberth’s return to Romania in 1930, the VfR was in the hands of a younger group, including Wernher von Braun, an engineering student. At the same time, its activities had come to the attention of the German army, which was seeking ways to rebuild its strength without blatantly violating the Treaty of Versailles’ ban on the manufacture of artillery and advanced weapons research. The treaty said nothing about rockets, which had played little role in warfare since the early 1800s—and so the generals were interested. The rocket fans were soon caught up in the secret arms race, and by the time World War II broke out, von Braun was in charge of a major weapons program—the V-2 rocket (and its various spinoffs), designed to drop bombs on distant targets that had no defense against such rockets.
When it became obvious that Germany was about to be defeated, von Braun and his top team members surrendered to the Americans, who he hoped would give him the chance to keep working on rockets despite his ties to the Nazis. As it turned out, he had guessed right; von Braun went on to become the top U.S. rocket scientist in the post-war years, using V-2 parts left over from the German war effort to build an American program and applying his expertise to the development of new rockets.
With the war ending in 1945, Teitel expands her scope to follow not just von Braun’s career, but the 1950s exploits of American test pilots such as Chuck Yeager, who broke the sound barrier and pushed the altitude record to new heights. She also gives the reader a look inside the high-altitude balloon programs that tested high-atmosphere conditions before there were rockets capable of taking a pilot aboard. And she details the inter-service squabbling that preceded President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1958 decision to create a single agency—NASA—to conduct space research.
Along the way, there’s the shock to America’s self-esteem in October 1957, when the Soviet satellite Sputnik achieved Earth orbit while U.S. policy makers were still making their way to the starting line. Teitel does a good job of capturing some of the personalities and the behind-the-scenes stories of the early space race. It’s especially interesting to see some of the material from the 1950s—such as von Braun’s series of articles in Collier’s magazine, subsequently expanded by a Walt Disney TV series. That imaginative look forward laid the foundations for how a generation expected the conquest of space to look, including the iconic toroid space station that figures prominently in the film 2001.
The blow-by-blow account of bureaucratic infighting gets a bit sticky at points, but this one’s a must-read for space enthusiasts.
Copyright © 2016 Peter Heck