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On Books

by Paul Di Filippo

Pillbug and Flea Butt

The debut adult fantasy novel by Betsy James, Roadsouls (Aqueduct Press, trade paper, $20.00, 400 pages, ISBN 978-1-61976-091-2), is a stellar performance, very touching in its intimate otherworldliness. Deeply conceived and fleshed out, exhibiting a primal simplicity of emotion and drama and language, yet not naïve nor unsophisticated, the tale will certainly appeal to any fans of Nicola Griffith or Morgan Llywelyn, Samuel Delany or Daniel Abraham (in his fantasist garb).

We are in a landscape of small villages employing simple technologies, not altogether isolated from each other thanks to a small circuit of trade, but with each habitation still clinging to many major differences of culture and dialect, despite being relatively close together (just days apart by wagon travel). In one village dwells the young woman named Duuni. Of no great status, she seems doomed to a life of servitude and moderate abuse, both mental and physical. Her nigh-magical talent for inscribing revelatory henna-like designs on the flesh of patrons does not seem great enough to lift her out of her morass.

In a nearby village resides a fellow slightly older than Duuni, named Raím. Once a virile, bold hunter, admired by all, he suffered an accident from hubris that left him blind. Now, half-mad due to the self-indulgent bitterness of his condition, he ekes out a living by weaving, always a male fallback option in his town. But the perceived insults and dissatisfactions of his daily life drive him to leave his safe niche and embark on a kind of pointless, almost suicidal hegira.

Soon, both Duuni and Raím are “adopted” against their wills by the Roadsouls, a band of traveling itinerants, living by their wits and chicanery and increasing their tribe by such kidnappings. Duuni gets dubbed Pillbug, for her initial almost catatonic attitude. Raím discovers that in the dialect of the Roadsoul folks, his name literally translates as “Flea Butt,” consonant with his unwashed madman’s state.

Duuni handles her transition more easily. Her skills at inscribing designs on people translate to a lucrative sideshow booth. But Raím’s self-disgust and unbalanced mentality make for a harder adjustment. James distributes her attentions fairly equally between both protagonists, but on the whole, just fractionally, I’d say this is Raím’s tale, the story of how he recovers his soul through love and tribulations, as he and Duuni come together, separate, then reunite. Raím’s journey might be said to resemble the tortured mad wanderings of the war-shattered lad in Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird.

James has much to offer on the topics of free will versus destiny, slavery versus freedom, hate versus love. The twists and turns of her plot are organically unpredictable, with no easy solutions in sight. Moreover, there are some killer dramatic moments, such as Raím’s ordeal underground. But she never lectures, instead embodying all her observations and lessons in beautiful, vivid moments experienced by unique characters. Here is an example of her descriptive powers, conveying a wrestling match:

In the locked bodies, a little shift, as when you lean your weight from one foot to the other. A howl from the crowd. The shape broke in two. One half stayed on the ground. The other rose away from it: Raím, staggering, wiping his face in the crook of his arm, the lion [tattoo] on him all mirked with dust.

*   *   *

Despite an absence of much overt supernaturalism, Roadsouls conjures up a landscape as fantastic as any Tolkienesque saga, yet more naturally linked to the everyday passions and fears of its readers.

*   *   *

Spivey at the Bat

Organized sports as a theme in fantastika has a circumscribed but rich heritage. From Rollerball to Jack Vance’s hussade contests, the notion of team competitions unfolding in exotic otherworldly settings forms a potent motif. Of all the sports, invented or traditional, baseball, once deemed the “Great American Pastime,” has fascinated fabulists the most, and a rich catalogue of books and stories could be compiled, from the film Damn Yankees through Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop., and onward to many of the works of Rick Wilber, who assembled the definitive anthology Field of Fantasies: Baseball Stories of the Strange and Supernatural.

Surely one of the core novels in this sub-sub-genre was Michael Bishop’s Brittle Innings, which vibrantly depicted America during the early 1940s as we followed the fortunes of a team that fielded Frankenstein’s Monster as its star player. Now, doing something a tad similar, comes Harry Turtledove’s The House of Daniel (Tor, hardcover, $24.99, 332 pages, ISBN 978-0-7653-8000-5). The book is set in the year 1934, in a USA in the middle of an economic crisis. But the landscape is counterfactual—Turtledove’s specialty, natch—a country where magic is woven into the more homely tapestry in an integral, natural fashion. The novel has the feel of a classic tale from Unknown magazine, something de Camp might have written, with grace notes from Howard Waldrop or Andy Duncan. I am also reminded of a resonant overlooked minor classic, Archangel by Mike Conner, which I reviewed in these very pages over twenty years ago!

Our hero and narrator is one Jack Spivey, minor-league ballplayer and an equally minor-league tough guy in his small-town milieu of Enid, Oklahoma. The latter occupation is mainly a distasteful way of keeping body and soul together in these hard times. But when Spivey agrees to perform a roughing-up at the behest of a local crime boss, then can’t deliver, he finds himself fleeing his hometown as the newest member of the traveling ball team dubbed the House of Daniel. Once on the road, he forgets his immediate past in the welter of new sensations and experiences. But of course, his old biography is bound to catch up—in good ways as well as bad.

Turtledove has set himself a fourfold mission in this book, and he ably satisfies each imperative. First, he has to evoke with mimetic grace and clarity a period setting, as in a historical novel: a simpler, less-technological America. Second, he has to integrate the counterfactual, supernatural bits. Third, he has to convey the pleasures and thrills of baseball. And finally, he has to deliver the usual rewards of an appealing and suspenseful plot.

For the first aspect, Turtledove gives us a vivid succession of hot roads, cheap rooming houses, oil-field workers, cowboys, city dwellers, and small town culture, arrayed across the South and Northwest and Western parts of the country. The robust, salty, variegated personalities of Spivey’s teammates also contribute to the verisimilitude. On the second front, the magicalness of this continuum is always lurking but never dominant, in a way that ensures its believability. For instance, having one’s sleep interrupted by a vampire at your second-story window seeking permission to enter is just another nuisance in this world, like a noisy truck. And subtle moments, such as when the ball team’s bus is passing a forest, and Spivey notices dryads among the trees, are frequent.

The third feature of the book, the chronicling of a season of minor league baseball and the moments of the individual games that constitute it, is the dominant one. We are smack-dab in the middle of all the action, thanks to the first-person narration, and we get to watch Spivey mature from a callow fellow into a honed pro, making the most of his limited natural gifts. Lastly, the plot of the novel, while satisfactory, is not the be-all and end-all of Turtledove’s accomplishments here. It’s not a high-octane tale, but rather a meandering, languorous story, a picaresque. True, there is a big surprise event in Denver, and a family reunion that touches us. But on the whole, the book is content with assembling small vignettes.

Surprisingly, for an author like Turtledove who is famous for juggling the savage fate of nations in his novels, this tender, gentle, wistful book is more like something Ray Bradbury would have been proud to produce. Play ball!

*   *   *

Big Black Marble

Allow me to quote at some length from the Science Fiction Encyclopedia: “In his important early work of SF theory, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre (1979), Yugoslav-born Professor Darko Suvin situated SF as a literary form as marked by two unusual devices: cognitive estrangement and the novum. The former is distinctive in creating and understanding the imagined world as different from our own, by means of scientific observation, theorizing, and empirical experiment. Such new textual worlds are set off from ours chiefly by means of a drastic disruption, an anomalous breach in accepted verities; in short, an intrusive novelty so strange, and at first inexplicable, that it deserves a category of its own: the novum.”

Plenty of fine SF uses old novums—if such an oxymoron may be permitted—ringing the changes on familiar themes like time travel and aliens in pleasant and endearing fashion. But there are some writers who have a gift for creating fresh new novums (a tautology, if my earlier construction was an oxymoron) that really illustrate how weird SF can be, as it offers radical revisionings of consensus reality. I would put Adam Roberts at the top of such folks working today. Every one of his books is organized around some strange new occurrence or phenomenon.

Will McIntosh is another such writer, with every book full of scintillating new visions, and in his latest novel—his first for young adults—he comes forward with a great instance that might have come from the Strugatsky Brothers (I’m thinking Roadside Picnic).

In Burning Midnight (Delacorte Press, hardcover, $17.99, 312 pages, ISBN 978-0-553-53410-8), we are a few years into the future—the world is 90 percent recognizable, with lots of familiar cultural touchstones—but after a pivotal, paradigm-shifting event. One day, without apparent cause or explanation, the whole world was seeded with small mysterious spheres of various colorations. People soon learned that any two matching spheres, touched to the finder’s skin in tandem—the “burn”—would confer a unique gift, some enhancement or new power. Naturally, the search for the concealed spheres, finders-keepers-style, exploded. When our book opens, a whole economy and status system has already been built around these unnatural alien objects.

Our hero is Sully, a humble, bright, underprivileged teen who deals in these valuable marbles on a small scale. He once had a world-famous run-in with Alex Holliday, a global power in the sale of spheres, and Holliday continues to taunt and plague him. But when Sully encounters the prickly young woman dubbed Hunter, who has an intuition for finding spheres, his life is spun upside-down. With pals Mandy and Dom, Sully and Hunter make the biggest strike in sphere-bounty history. But in a twisty development, their score brings only chaos and trouble—for them, and eventually the whole planet.

McIntosh reveals a flair for evoking what, to these ancient eyes, at least, seem like authentic young folks, full of bravado and fears, wonderment and cynicism, hopes and fatalisms. The reader will empathize with the whole multiplex cast, with each member of the troupe covering a different bit of the adolescent spectrum.

On the plotting front, McIntosh whipsaws the reader through a variety of meticulously limned situations, from small and intimate through huge and widescreen. Admirers of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One will experience allied thrills here. And no one will predict his ultimate surprises. And his stefnal rigor—the way he integrates his novum into society—is exemplary.

I suspect that McIntosh has burned a few spheres himself to acquire his impressive array of talents.

*   *   *

Inner-Space Archaeology

on Several Moons

Matthew De Abaitua’s note at the end of his new novel, The Destructives (Angry Robot, mass-market paperback, $7.99, 412 pages, ISBN 978-0-85766-475-4), reveals that the book shares the same future history as his previous two. I myself have read only the one immediately previous to this, the marvelous and startling If Then. But I can attest that the feel and remit of the new book is vigorously independent, and requires no grounding other than a sense of wonder. What we have here is J. G. Ballard does John Varley, or David Marusek by way of M. John Harrison, with frostings of Philip K. Dick and Peter Watts.

De Abaitua’s novel is a post-Singularity tale, a form once deemed theoretically inconceivable. How could a mere human brain possibly imagine and portray life after the techno-Rapture? Well, to paraphrase Clarke’s First Law: “Whenever a literary critic says some kind of fiction is impossible, he will usually be proven wrong.” In his backstory, De Abaitua has hustled all his AI super-intelligences, his “emergences,” into a segregated realm known as the University of the Sun. Thus they are mostly offstage, allowing the human survivors of the “Seizure” to live their radically modified but comprehensible lives. One AI remains in touch with the mortals, however: Dr. Easy, currently inhabiting a robot avatar by uplink to the University of the Sun. Dr. Easy is the constant companion of our hero, Theodore Drown, who is the doctor’s one field of study. By quantifying Drown’s single unique life, from birth to death, the AIs will come to fully understand humanity.

But of course, Drown must endure his life first, and his current lonely role is that of a somewhat bland and unaspiring academic at the University of the Moon (after a nihilistic stint in his youth as a drug addict, a “destructive”). Drown is brought onboard a unique project: to inhabit a kind of multi-sensory, interactive, virtual-reality environment, archived from Pre-Seizure times. The recorded scenario, the Horbo household, at first appears innocent. But it soon unfolds to have world-shattering implications.

The Ballardian quotient in this novel stems from Drown’s profession: analyst of Pre-Seizure lifestyles. “What Theodore enjoyed most about Pre-Seizure culture was the ease in which people accepted the paradox of using mass-produced objects to express their individuality. It must have taken generations of acceleration to instill such instinctive compliance . . .” A plethora of such tart observations renders a piercing X-ray of our world. But neither does De Abaitua stint on brilliant stefnal conceits, such as a giant arcology functioning as an “asylum mall” and “muscular containment sheets” that can enwrap and shrink objects. Taken all in all, De Abaitua’s novel gives us a portrait of an utterly foreign yet believable future.

If this ingenious and emotion-twanging book is not a strong contender for the PKD Award this year, I shall feel as dismayed as Theodore Drown felt when, on the moon of Europa, he had to choose between his power-mad wife Patricia and the rebel woman named Reckon who was carrying his unborn child, with the fate of both humans and emergences hinging on his decision.

*   *   *

Touring the Story Zoo

There are some story collections in the history of our genre that have manifested as essential landmarks, integral to the shelves of any respectable library of fantastika, almost since the moment of their publication. Heinlein’s The Past Through Tomorrow. Asimov’s I, Robot. Delany’s Driftglass. Tiptree’s Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home. Cordwainer Smith’s You Will Never Be the Same. Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others. Shepard’s The Jaguar Hunter. (Note how only the surnames of these landmark authors are necessary for easy identification, a testament to their stature.) I might be jumping the gun by a hair, but I feel pretty safe in nominating Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories (Saga Press, hardcover, $24.99, 450 pages, ISBN 978-1-4814-4254-1) as the latest entry in this honor roll.

Liu’s name should already be well known to all inveterate genre readers. He began his short fiction career only in 2002, but has since then, according to ISFDB, accrued nearly one hundred tales. His first novel, The Grace of Kings, deservedly received fine press clippings. And his translation work on the books of Cixin Liu brought further praise. This volume of some fifteen stories will only burnish that reputation.

Liu’s stories exhibit some common themes and tropes, while still displaying an admirable range. The opener, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” is the kind of mock-scholarly piece refined by Joanna Russ in “Useful Phrases for the Tourist.” Liu ventures into allied territory with “An Advanced Readers’ Picture Book of Comparative Cognition.” “The Literomancer” and “All the Flavors” inhabit historical eras with fidelity and power. Generation starships propel both “The Waves” and “Mono No Aware.” Technological disruptors inform both “Simulacrum” and “The Regular.” And permeating most tales is a judicious and authentic leavening of Liu’s Asian heritage, in myth and contemporary attitudes toward difference and diversity.

Liu’s meticulous, sharp-edged prose tends toward the magisterial, exhibiting a calm gravitas not unmediated by sensitivity toward beauty. His umwelt and vision are not characteristic of a joyous or comic universe. Most of his tales revolve around sufferings and disappointments and misunderstandings. But his stories always depict moments of grace and salvation. Consider the imagery of the animated origami from the title story, and how it redeems the future of the protagonist after much trouble.

If you could bear to rip out the pages of this book and construct a paper creature, I am sure Liu’s words would make those constructs come alive.

* * *

Boris the Gene Doc, Mama Jones the Shebeen Owner, and Carmel the Shambleau

In his quietly enthralling and subtly ingenious Central Station (Tachyon Publications, trade paperback, $15.95, 288 pages, ISBN 978-1616962142), Lavie Tidhar has grabbed ahold of one of SF’s more potent tropes to power his narrative, and it’s a vibrant motif that has gone somewhat underused of late: the doings at a thriving, exotic spaceport or starport. Once the well-known setting for many an adventure—at least in part, perhaps constituting merely a scene or two in a larger context—the spaceport has always served as the nexus, both real and symbolical, where many races and imperatives could mix and contend. Warren Ellis recently tapped into this allure in his graphic novel Ignition City. Tidhar’s inspiration has been to foreground this venue and make it—well, not mundane or quotidian, for his place is bizarre and full of eccentric and colorful beings—but rather deeply inhabited in a naturalistic fashion, imparting a sense of day-to-day continuity—something of the feel of M. John Harrison’s sophisticated space operas. The author is intent on vividly limning the “Mrs. Brown” aspects of the spaceport (to employ Le Guin’s metonymic term for the average citizen so often slighted in SF that focuses on exceptional figures). With many retro touches and reverential allusions, as well as unique cutting-edge visions, Tidhar has reinvigorated this trope, producing a work that could appear only in our current stage of genre development.

Central Station is an enormous structure—not quite a space elevator, for it goes up only into the stratosphere—perched in a district of Tel Aviv, several centuries in our future. The whole environment, city, and tower, have a touch of that patina’d feel of Gene Wolfe’s New Sun series. Lots of legends and history and backstory, even akin to Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality cycle (a textual reference to “St. C’Mell” confirms this.) Tidhar will give us a slice of life of this venue through the eyes of several linked characters. First comes Mama Jones, modest proprietor of a local bar. In her care is a young artificial boy named Kranki, who exhibits almost supernatural powers. When Mama Jones encounters the return of her old lover Boris Chong, far-traveling geneticist, and Kranki’s “father” of sorts, her old routines are upended. Especially since in Boris’s wake comes a vampiric woman named Carmel, one of the shambleau (the name being an homage to C. L. Moore, of course.) Orbiting this central configuration are a dozen other beautifully rendered personages, such as the star-crossed lovers Motl (a failing cyber-soldier) and his human paramour Isobel, virtuality maven; the robot priest R. Patch-It; and the bibliophile brother of Mama Jones, Achimwene, who takes up with Carmel despite her dangerousness.

A lot happens in the tale, rendered in juicy neologistic language, plenty to keep us interested, and personal arcs reach satisfying climaxes. But I still would call the whole novel “plotless” in the sense that no master narrative—especially nothing with cosmic consequences—dominates. In this sense, the book recalls a few other similar genre experiences, such as Disch’s 334 and maybe some slice-of-life portions from Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, as well as the Brian Aldiss story “Working in the Spaceship Yards.”

Larded with Easter eggs to Simak and Dick, William Burroughs and Frank Herbert, Futurama and Miéville, this quietly extravagant tale charts small-scale but impactful affairs of the hearts, minds and souls of its cast with tender empathy.

*   *   *

There Will Be Weird War

Since his first short story appearance in 1999 (“The Hundredth Question”), Yoon Ha Lee has amassed a fair-sized catalogue of well-received and well-crafted tales without gracing our field with a novel. This exemplifies the old-school career path that was once de rigueur for everyone. (Or else a personal Bradburyian preference for the quick narrative hit over the long opus slog.) Perfect your skills in the short form, then graduate to novel-length productions. Of course nowadays, with the diminished centrality of magazines to the field, many, if not the majority, of writers leap straight to books. But I still believe there’s a lot to be said for the old ways.

Certainly, Lee’s first novel, Ninefox Gambit (Solaris Books, trade paper, $9.99, 384 pages, ISBN 978-1781084496), shows an assurance and grace uncommon to many debuts. Perhaps seventeen years was a bit of a wait for his loyal fans, but the result is worth it. We get a cutting-edge mil-spec space opera that conjures up comparisons to the work of Iain Banks and Frank Herbert, Greg Egan and C. J. Cherryh. Rich with an Asian-flavored culture and sensibility, the book is droll, thrilling, subversive, and surprising.

Far in the future exists a galactic empire known as the Hexarchate. The citizens of this realm are distributed among six tribes or clans or families, each with its totemic icon: the Shous and their ninefox; the Kel with their ashhawk; Andan, kniferose; Vidona, stingray; Rahal, scrywolf; and Nirai, voidmoth. Duties and traits differ from tribe to tribe in a kind of engineered caste system. Our hero is a member of the Kel, one Captain Cheris, a supremely accomplished military commander. We witness her first on the battlefield, in a somewhat screwed-up-from-above mission, from which she still manages to extract the maximum possible victory. This introduction is a clever move on the part of Lee, as he hooks us with vivid action sequences while also deftly illuminating the character of his heroine. But he also uses this time to lay down the outline of his stimulating novum.

Besides its other duties typical of all governments, the Hexarchate is devoted to maintaining its own version of “calendrical mechanics,” which are the actual physics-derived paradigms of their universe. Apparently, unlike our conception of cosmology, these essential cosmic standards are mutable, and different events and technologies can flourish under different calendars. (“Invariant” technology and materials exist under all calendars.) Rebels have taken the pivotal Fortress of Scattered Needles and installed their own calendar there. The disturbance has the potential to spread, thus undermining the entire Hexarchate.

After her frustrating battle, Captain Cheris is tapped by members of the Machiavellian Shous class to take back the Fortress. Given access to incredible special armories, she nominates as her one desired weapon a fellow soldier named Jedao, an infamous genocidal warrior from the past, long kept in suspended animation against just such a day of future need. Jedao is reawakened, but not in material form. Instead, he becomes a grafted personality implanted in Cheris: a ghost, albeit with some strange manipulative interfaces to the physical world beyond her body’s traditional capacities.

A fleet of fabled voidmoth warships and soldiers is assembled. But unfortunately, not all the ship captains, nominally loyal and obedient, trust or understand or honor Cheris. And Cheris still has to deal continuously with the possibly misdirected assistance and advice from her implanted suicidal ghost. The fleet arrives at the fortress, and the resulting extended battle is one that combines physics with metaphysics, blood with magical words, resulting in a radical repurposing of the lives of the survivors, and an impending confrontation with the Hexarchate in any sequels. (After all, this novel is subtitled “Machineries of Empire Book 1.”)

My allusion to the work of Cherryh inheres in the density of Lee’s depiction of the different clans and their relationships with each other. There are many elaborate protocols and much politesse at play here. In fact, the first half of the book is devoted in large part to such matters, with arrival at the Fortress and the engagement with the rebels occurring only in Chapter Ten (out of twenty-four chapters). Then, the final three chapters are devoted to a long surreal fugue resolving the Jendao problem. So the ultimate feel of the book is far from conventional. I was reminded a bit of Michael Cobley’s recent Ancestral Machines: both authors trying to deconstruct the traditional space warfare mode.

In any case, Lee evokes an almost Steve-Aylett blizzard of Rimbaudian derangement of the senses and intellect. Consider such passages as these two:

“There is one useful thing we know about the amputation guns. They have to be deployed in formation. The heretical calendar occupies a phase basin that is, unusually, not servitor-neutral. If servitors can be covertly landed, we can use you to construct grand formations and take the heretics by surprise.”

“The winnower made sounds like a furnace exploding, like wine glasses singing shattered [sic], like bells slamming from side to side. It didn’t give off light, but spewed the kind of wind you would get if you twisted a world’s worth of clouds into a spindle and let go after a hundred years.”

This kind of linguistic cognitive estrangement builds a fascinatingly foreign future more solidly than a hundred blueprints.

Nor does Lee neglect the human dimensions of his tale. Brevet General Cheris, as she is nominated for this mission, is of course at the center of the tale, and her mental fencing with Jendao forms a complex psychological ballet. And the realpolitik of the Hexarchate is richly limned as well.

Charles Harness famously said that in the writing of his classic Flight into Yesterday, he inserted every idea he had over the course of the book’s composition. Ninefox Gambit reads a bit like the rich overflow from Lee’s accumulated seventeen years of short-story telling, with more overstuffed bounty to come.

*   *   *

The Last of the Dragons

Three or four years ago, depending on when you encounter this review, I was lucky enough to sit down and read the first eight books of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series back-to-back, in preparation for an article on the then-newest, Blood of Tyrants. That piece is still available for your perusal at the archives of The Barnes & Noble Review, and so I am spared the necessity of repeating everything here. Nonetheless, I will quote myself just twice, as we begin to look at this final installment of the saga.

First, on Novik’s unique use of dragons:

“[Her] dragons assume a purely naturalistic role, neither inherently moral nor immoral, and certainly not occult. In a way, Novik is concerned with the technic of dragons, examining how the beasts function as an instrumentality of human ingenuity, namely in the pursuit of war. And, like McCaffrey, she endows her dragons with full human-quality sentience, and—there’s no way around it—the capability to form attachments of friendship and even platonic romance with their human ‘Captains.’”

And second, on what we as readers can expect:

“Novik has been crafting one massive architecturally consistent story all along, spanning eight years of Will Laurence’s life so far. . . . Even at this late stage, Novik continues to do new things. . . . But really in a series like this, what counts is continued delivery of the established pleasures. . . .”

It take artistic integrity and self-abnegation to shut down a best-selling series according to the guidance of the writer’s esthetic vision rather than marketplace dictates And given that Novik’s Uprooted, a standalone published between volumes eight and nine of Temeraire, jumped onto award ballots and has been optioned by Hollywood, Novik seems fully justified, practically speaking, in her decision.

Now we shall see, in League of Dragons (Del Rey, hardcover, $28.00, 400 pages ISBN 978-0345522924), if she can wrap it all up with a neat bow! Spoilers to be minimized, naturally.

We open stirringly, in media res, with Laurence and Temeraire and comrades pursuing Napoleon as he flees his defeat in Russia. It’s a galloping first chapter, full of vivid hardships and moral calculus. Napoleon escapes, a duel is fought, and then arrives old pal Tenzing Tharkay, with dire news. The egg conceived between Temeraire and his mate Iskierka has been stolen from its refuge in China and is now in Europe. Thus ends Part One.

Part Two includes capture by the French, a bout of hospitality from Emperor Napoleon himself (and his Incan Empress), and eventual escape. Part Three finds our heroes, scaly and otherwise, back in England, recuperating and planning. In Part Four, we return with fresh military might to the Continent to prosecute war once more, with the future of the civilized world yet to be decided. A lovely quiet coda ends the saga.

Throughout all this intensely complicated plotting, Novik does indeed supply the goodies we have come to expect from the series. Her incidents of counterfactual cleverness flesh out the utterly convincing timeline. The military strategies and tactics supply battlefield thrills. The culture of the dragons, differing across many nationalities of the beasts, is limned as wonderfully “other.” (Don’t Novik’s dragons sometimes sound like hobbits, with their fascination with food and hearthside?) And when we get to eavesdrop on Temeraire and Iskierka when they are separate from the humans, this quality of alienness really comes across. Meanwhile, the human-dragon dynamics resonate with both joy and sorrow, duties and pleasures. The quotidian styles and manners of the early 1800s are heartily evoked.

And perhaps above all, the long biography of Captain William Laurance comes to a solid climax. Consider what he is at the end of this book—battered, weary, wise, somewhat scarred—and compare that man to somewhat callow fellow we first encountered in His Majesty’s Dragon. It’s a dense character portrait all too rarely attempted in the field, and yet merely the cherry atop so much more. This ninth installment forms a solid capstone on an impressive cathedral of dragondom. 

Copyright © 2016 Paul Di Filippo

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