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On Books

by Peter Heck


by Lois McMaster Bujold
Baen, $25.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-9821-2429-8

Lois McMaster Bujold has been selected as the latest recipient of the Damon Knight Grand Master award by the Science Fiction Writers of America. It’s a choice with which this long-time reader enthusiastically agrees. Bujold has made her mark in both SF and fantasy, winning numerous awards—and many loyal fans—during her career. And she continues to produce engaging work on a regular basis, both in her trademark Vorkosigan Saga military SF series (though it’s a gross oversimplification to categorize it that narrowly) and in her World of Five Gods fantasy series.

This volume collects the first three novellas in Bujold’s Penric series. A subset of the World of Five Gods, these stories are set about a century before The Curse of Chalion. Penric’s Demon, Penric and the Shaman, and Penric’s Fox were all originally issued separately as ebooks or limited-edition hardcovers.

The series follows the career of Penric, a clever but inexperienced younger son of a provincial noble family, neither affluent nor important in the larger scheme of things. As the series begins, Penric is riding to the wedding his family has arranged for him with the daughter of a rich merchant. On the way, he comes across a party of riders, one of whom is an elderly woman who has been taken ill. He recognizes her as a divine, and offers his help—which she accepts—with unexpected consequences. She dies, and in so doing, transfers the demon that has given her sorcerous powers to him. The rest of the novella follows the beginning of Penric’s education as a cleric in the Order of the Bastard, one of the Five Gods, and his first steps in becoming a sorcerer in his own right—all of which are complicated by the fact that his demon is much older—and female.

In Penric and the Shaman, our young hero has spent a couple of years learning the extent of his powers and getting used to his demon—which has previously inhabited eight bodies, including a mare and a lioness. Now he is dispatched to help Oswyl, a traveling law officer, to track down Inglis, a shaman who has apparently committed a murder. The reader gets an interesting look at the hinterlands of the society, and the life of a rural community.

In Penric’s Fox, the protagonist—and his new friends Oswyl and Inglis—travel to the capital city, where they learn of the murder of a sorceress on a nearby estate. Again, Penric and his demon use their skills to work out what happened and why—and to find a solution to the complications that arise. The look at the upscale society of the capital is an added attraction of no small interest.

As these brief summaries suggest, the Penric stories tend to blend magical fantasy with elements of mystery—an approach that seems like the most natural combination in the world in Bujold’s hands. Add in Bujold’s deft hand with characterization and her considerable wit, and the result is thoroughly winning. Readers who enjoy this collection will be pleased to learn that the publisher has a second volume of three more Penric stories in the works—look for Penric’s Travels, which may well be in stores by the time this review sees print.

*   *   *

THE GRACE OF KINGS: Book One of the Dandelion Dynasty
by Ken Liu
Saga Press, $27.99 (hc)
ISBN: 978-1-4814-2427-1

Liu, known for translations from contemporary Chinese SF writers as well as his own distinctive short fiction, offers up an epic fantasy set in a fictional world with strong resemblances to the historical China shown in Wuxia novels like Jin Yong’s A Hero Born, which I reviewed in a recent column. While The Grace of Kings was first published in 2015, it caught my eye after reading Yong, as a work in the same tradition by a current writer.

Here, the tension is between two young men of about the same age who grow up in an empire controlled by a foreign invader. Both—because of their family circumstances—work to bring about a revolution. But their visions of the post-revolutionary world are radically different.

Kuni Garu is a farmer’s son, one who has shown considerable intelligence but little discipline. Expelled from an elite school, he finds his role as the leader of a street gang—a drinker, a brawler, a story-teller. His family tries to find him respectable work, but he and business-like thinking are destined never to meet. Then, a good deed brings him to the attention of Jia, the free-spirited daughter of a solid family. Despite everyone else’s misgivings, the two are married, and in spite of his past, Garu becomes mayor of his hometown—only to end up fleeing into the countryside when things begin to fall apart. There, he becomes a Robin Hood-like figure, leader of an outlaw band that fights against the evil occupying forces.

Mata Zyndu, for his part, is the sole surviving son of a famous military dynasty—a proud giant of a man determined to recover the legacy stolen from him by the invading empire. The death of the emperor, and a peasant rebellion in his home province, give him his chance. Almost single-handed, he slaughters enemy troops in an imperial garrison and calls his countrymen to join him in a rebel army. He quickly becomes the most effective general in the struggle to free the island kingdom of its oppressors

Eventually the two meet up and join forces to overcome the imperial occupiers—not an easy battle, for it takes up most of the book, with Kuni and Mata becoming close friends, each bringing his particular talents to the struggle against the superior might of the empire. Liu gives the reader a good look at the emperor—a young, somewhat frivolous man—and his advisors. He builds up a fascinating society with silk-draped airships and gliders adding a modern dimension to the combat. But inevitably, their different background lead Kuni and Mata in divergent directions, and the defeat of the empire becomes secondary to their conflict.

Big, sweeping battle scenes, an impressively diverse social panorama, and a rich background—made more interesting by its roots in traditional Chinese history—make this a truly compelling read. Liu continued the story in The Wall of Storms, which came out in 2017. A third volume, The Veiled Throne, is due in January 2021. If you enjoy The Grace of Kings as much as I did, you'll definitely want to seek them out.

*   *   *

by Cadwell Turnbull
Blackstone, $26.99
ISBN: 978-1-5385-8464-4

Turnbull’s debut novel, which follows a string of well-received short stories—many in this magazine—is set in the U.S. Virgin Islands, five years after the arrival of an advanced alien spaceship.

The Ynaa, as the invaders call themselves, have assumed the appearance of humans, though their real form is considerably more alien. They say they are on a research mission and have no long-term territorial claims; they restrict their presence primarily to a few islands near where their ship landed. But as the local people of St. Thomas quickly learn, the Ynaa are short-tempered and quick to avenge any perceived violence against them. As a result, those with the means to leave the islands have done so—meaning that most of those left are black and/or short of funds.

The ensemble cast includes Derrick, a young man who works for the Ynaa ambassador, Mera, who we learn has been on Earth for several centuries in the guise of a local woman, preparing the way. Most of the locals view Derrick as a traitor, especially in view of the fact that one of the Ynaa recently killed a boy in his sister’s school class who hit the alien with a stick. The resentments around this incident continue to rankle, and the threat of renewed violence is never far from the surface.

The novel also follows several of Derrick’s close friends, drawn from three families who were living on the island at the time of the Ynaa’s arrival and whose lives have taken their own directions since then. His younger sister Lee is still in school, taking care of their grandmother Henrietta after she gets home. His former girlfriend Patrice managed to escape to attend college in the States, but has since come home. Shawn is the brother of the boy who was killed by the Ynaa. All their lives have been profoundly affected by the arrival of the invaders, and it is the results of that arrival that drive the action of the novel.

It is also clear that on a very fundamental level, The Lesson is a novel about colonialism and the racism implicit in it. It’s not at all hard to see that the Ynaa—benevolent though many of their gifts and policies may be—almost instinctively see the humans under their control as inferior beings. But by disguising the racial/national conflicts under the guise of an alien invasion, Turnbull sets up the reader to identify with the victims of the Ynaa before the full meaning of his narrative becomes obvious. It’s a strategy used by a number of the satiric SF writers of the fifties—and a highly effective one.

Fred Pohl, whose name is practically synonymous with satirical SF, told me in an interview about thirty years ago that he found it hard to write satire any more because real life had become more outrageous than anything he could conjure up. Here, Turnbull shows that, in the hands of a new generation, SF can deliver hard-hitting social criticism as powerful as anything the masters of that earlier era ever wrote. I think Pohl would have both enjoyed and approved of The Lesson. Strongly recommended.

*   *   *

by Peter F. Hamilton
Del Rey, $32.00 (hc)
ISBN: 978-0-399-17885-6

The sequel to Hamilton’s Salvation, this sprawling space opera set in the twenty-third century continues the story of the conflict between humanity and the alien Olyix, who wish to convert humans to their millennial religion. As the novel opens, the human protagonists learn that the Olyix program is about to go into its final phase, in which as much of the human race as possible is to be “cocooned” so it can be delivered in the flesh to the gods at the long-anticipated end of the universe. Because their theology sees this as the divinely decreed destiny of all sentient beings, the only alternative the Olyix are willing to allow is immediate death.

Not surprisingly, the human protagonists of the novel are strongly opposed to this forced “conversion.” The plot follows several groups of humans who are caught up in the Olyix’s plan, either as opponents or as unwitting agents of the aliens. Aiding the resistance are several members of another alien race who have survived the Olyix’s conversion campaign—the Neana. Knowing that the plan to cocoon the entire population of Earth is well toward its final steps, they are preparing a two-fold plan: setting up defenses in the Solar System, and preparing to evacuate as much of the population as possible—with the rich and talented getting priority, of course.

On the other side, we meet the Southwark Legion—a nasty London criminal gang who have been hired by an Olyix agent to hamper opposition to the aliens’ plans. Street-wise toughs who deal drugs and other contraband, they don’t ask questions about what they’re supposed to be doing as long as the pay is good, and the only morality they understand is “an eye for an eye.” We follow their adventures in a London that’s falling apart as the Olyix plan builds momentum—and the Legion has no real clue what the actual endgame is to be.

Meanwhile, several centuries deeper into the novel’s time line, a group of humans and Neana are creating a simulated alien society on a distant planet, working to entrap an Olyix warship so they can turn the invaders’ tech against them. (As it turns out, the trap catches something else almost as valuable—but I’ll leave that for readers to find out.) This group is descended from a program designed to keep a significant human population out of the reach of the Olyix by colonizing distant planets that then send expeditions to find farther planets, staying a few steps ahead of the alien religious fanatics.

Hamilton orchestrates all these strands to a grim, but not yet hopeless, conclusion to the second volume of his projected “Salvation” sequence. There’s plenty of room for more surprises and reversals—I’ll be looking forward to them.

*   *   *

by Alex Shvartsman
UFO Publishing, $15.99 (tp)
ISBN: 978-0-9992690-1-5

Shvartsman, who has published numerous short stories and edited several anthologies, is probably best known for his humorous work. Here, in his debut novel, he shows a deeper, more serious dimension of his talents. The story starts off feeling like a “popcorn” fantasy, with likable, vulnerable young protagonists in a page-turning plot—and gradually turns darker.

As the book begins, Eridani is a young princess. She and her brother Danchu are at their tutor’s house for their morning lessons when they are interrupted by word that constables are looking for the two young people. It quickly becomes apparent that a coup is in progress. She and Danchu kill the men sent to apprehend them and, with their tutor’s help, begin to make their way to safety. Their situation becomes more desperate as they learn that their parents have been killed—now the two youngsters are on their own in a world where they have few allies—and many enemies.

The two are almost immediately caught up in the machinations of other powers who see the prince and princess as assets to their own ambitions. But immediate survival is even more critical, and they can’t be too choosy. Eridani visits a sorceress who is rumored to have the remedy for a poisoned wound Danchu has received in their escape, but the sorceress says she will only help if Eridani lets her read her future, so as to know whether she will become a useful ally. Eridani consents and is told that she will become powerful, but that she has potential for both good and evil. To pay for the remedy, she promises to grant the sorceress a favor at some point in the future—no matter what.

Eridani and Danchu, with a mercenary army provided by one of their noble allies, take to the field to attempt to recover their birthright. But after a promising start, things go wrong—and soon Eridani is on her own, leader of a ragtag band that has little chance of taking on any real military force. She gradually begins to build up a following and recoup some of her lost heritage—in the process, giving her loyal subjects relief from some of the burdens placed on them by the previous regime. But her enemies remain strong, and she must carry on the struggle. Luckily, she turns out to have a gift for military strategy—and for choosing the right allies.

Inevitably, each of Eridani’s successes leads to further challenges—which become increasingly difficult to meet without sacrificing some of her earlier principles. Shvartzman carries the reader through the saga of her growing power and her mutating character, each step an adventure in its own right. From a beginning in an almost mundane medieval world, he builds up fantastic elements to keep the challenges commensurate with his protagonist’s progress. And the tone of the story darkens with each step further along the way.

An impressive expansion of range from Schvartzman. Worth looking for.

*   *   *

SHADOWS IN THE STONE: A Book of Transformations
by Jack Dann
IFWG Publishing Australia, $18.99 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-925956-25-2

Dann’s latest is set in Renaissance Italy, with side excursions to Palestine and (briefly) Civil War-era America. The characters include angels, archangels, demons, Popes, alchemists, assassins, and more or less ordinary people, both historical and imaginary—plus a couple of lions. Dann has described this as a sort of sequel to his novel The Memory Cathedral, which was a bestseller in Europe and Australia.

The story begins in the neighborhood of the Dead Sea, where Lucian, a young Jewish boy, is taken by his father to a cave high on a nearby cliffside to read ancient scrolls in the keeping of their sect. But as he is reading one especially rare scroll, he becomes aware of a viper in the cave. As he shrinks back in terror, the snake disappears—and the angel Gabriel appears to him. The angel says that the snake is his creature, and that it will sustain Lucian against attempts by his adversary—the demiurge—to bring an end to the world. And Lucian’s destiny is perhaps to become the last maskil, keeper and guardian of the scrolls that will sustain the world against the demiurge’s scheme.

No sooner does Lucian learn this than an agent of the demiurge arrives at their village and demands to see the scrolls. When Lucian’s father refuses, the family is killed—with Lucian rescued at the last minute. He ends up in Florence, the apprentice of Pico Della Mirandola—a historical nobleman and philosopher who is considered one of the founding thinkers of the Renaissance. Pico owns a powerful magical crystal that lets him view realms beyond the mundane world of human affairs, and Lucian is drawn to spy on Pico as he conducts his experiments.

It soon turns out that Florence is the target of a vast conspiracy by hostile aeons—the equivalent of archangels or powerful demons—to bring about the demiurge’s plans. Dann sets loose an incredibly complex string of encounters, both in Florence and across Italy—and in realms not of this Earth. And the story is embellished with the speculations of mystics of all eras, and illustrated with images from an 1827 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost. It’s a thinking reader’s excursion into alternate history, as if reflected in a baroque fun-house mirror. (It does help if the reader has some basic familiarity with Renaissance history and philosophy.)

Dann has always been willing to color outside the accepted lines of genre fiction, while drawing on a stunning range of source material to ground his visions. If you’re in the market for something completely different—in the best possible way—Shadows in the Stone fills the bill.

*   *   *

by Bob Proehl
Del Rey, $27.00
ISBN: 978-1-5247-9895-6

Proehl, author of A Hundred Thousand Worlds, posits a near future in which abilities like those of comic book superheroes have become active in a significant portion of the population. How would it affect the lives of those who receive the powers? And how would the rest of society respond to the knowledge of their existence? The answers aren’t pretty.

The story begins with a freelance reporter, Avi Hirsch, who lost a leg during his coverage in a war zone. When he gets a lead on what looks at first like a vicious hate crime, he is reluctant to cover it because his wife Kay, also a writer, is uncomfortable with the possible effect on their mixed-race daughter, Emeline. But Avi’s source, a senior Homeland Security official, presses him to dig into the story—and he learns that the details of the crime appear to involve something like the complete annihilation of matter, a physical impossibility. But there are few real clues as to who has done it.

Shortly thereafter, Avi is contacted by Kevin Bishop, who operates a school for young people with superpowers—and who tells Avi that Emmeline is one of them. While it sounds like something from a comic book, Avi is convinced by what Bishop shows him of the school, its staff, and its students. Bishop encourages Avi and Kay to enroll Emmeline—not just to help her learn what her powers can do, but to protect her from a society that isn’t ready to deal with people who challenge its preconceptions about anyone who doesn’t fit the standard pattern.

The narrative then focuses on Bishop and his senior staff, all of whom have superpowers of their own. They are all, on the surface, ordinary people, but their powers have set them apart—and made them targets in a society that is growing steadily more xenophobic. The author emphasizes this point by making several of them “other” in various ways—for example, Fahima Deeb, who has experienced discrimination on account of her Muslim faith. We get to see how Emmeline begins to fit into the school, making friends whose stories further illustrate the point of society’s intolerance of “freaks”—and the various ways the “freaks” have found to make a life for themselves despite it all.

But while all this is going on, the perpetrator of the hate crime Avi was investigating at the beginning of the book is still alive, and he’s as determined as ever to carry on his crusade. Kay gets a hint to what’s going on as she follows up a story of her own. And events in the larger world are converging to put Bishop’s school and everyone connected with it in immediate danger. Even the government, now in the hands of a conservative faction, has begun to look at ways to deal with what it perceives as a dangerous alien presence in American society. Proehl brings all these strands together in an apocalyptic climax, with no pulled punches.

A thought-provoking book that brings together comic book themes, coming-of-age stories, and unfortunately plausible extrapolations from some of the less laudable currents in present-day society. This is one you can probably give to friends who don’t read a lot of SF, but who are open to well-written narratives that explore big ideas. And of course enjoy it yourself, as a strong near-future SF novel.

*   *   *

by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Del Rey, $26.00
ISBN: 978-0-525-62075-4

Here’s a historical fantasy set in the 1920s in Mexico, when ancient Mayan gods make an attempt to recover their former dominion over the mortal world. The protagonist is Casiopeia Tun, a young woman of Mayan descent. As the story begins, she is living in her grandfather’s house, where she is treated as an unpaid servant—especially by her cousin Martin, a prototypical spoiled rich boy. But as the story develops, she learns that her grandfather’s prosperity is the result of a bargain with the gods—and that those gods are about to emerge into the modern mundane world to pursue their goals.

The plot takes off when Casiopeia discovers a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and to her surprise, releases Hun-Kamé, the Mayan god of death. Hun-Kamé has been imprisoned in the box by his twin brother, Vucub-Kamé, who has usurped his underground realm, Xibalba, and spread parts of Hun’s body across Mexico to prevent his return. Now Hun drafts Casiopeia to join him on a trek to recover the missing parts—and eventually to retain his rightful domain.

Casiopeia, unsurprisingly, has only a scant knowledge of the Mayan gods, though she is aware that most of them see humans about as benignly as cats see mice. Still, she recognizes that this may be the only chance she has to escape the near-enslavement of her village life and to see the real world—and the god has ensured her obedience by a spell that will kill her if she tries to escape. So she sets out with Hun-Kamé—and in so doing, takes the reader on a tour of both modern Mexico and the Mayan mythological universe. We meet devils, sorcerers, and plenty of ordinary Mexicans of all classes. And, along with the reader, Casiopeia begins to learn what her heritage is all about.

The journey is complicated by Vucub-Kamé’s discovery of his brother’s escape. Knowing that Hun-Kamé is surely intent on recovering his rightful place in the underworld, Vucub-Kamé enlists a human travel guide of his own—Casiopeia’s cousin Martin. And of course, he has a number of adherents in the mortal world, many of whom he long ago enlisted in a design to entrap Hun in the event of his escape. Ultimately, these plans culminate in a race between Casiopeia and Martin along the obstacle-strewn Black Road leading through Xitalba to the gods’ palace.

For anyone looking for a fantasy that isn’t just another run through a mildly disguised version of European folk tradition, this one is well worth a look. Moreno-Garcia is an engaging story-teller, with a sure eye for the Mexico that tourists won’t see. By all means, add this one to your must-read list.

*   *   *

by John Birmingham
Del Rey, $28.00
ISBN: 978-0-399-59331-4

The latest by Birmingham is set in a future where the human race fought a desperate war against the Sturm, a fanatical splinter group that opposed any form of genetic or cybernetic modification of the basic human form. The Sturm was eventually defeated, and its remnants retreated into the far reaches of the galaxy—but the victors know they must remain on guard against its probable return.

The novel follows several characters: a young officer on one of the ships patrolling an area where the Sturm might invade, a retired admiral working as an archaeologist at the site of a crashed Sturm battleship, a prisoner scheduled for execution, a young princess, a pirate and her crew, and the commander of the Sturm invasion fleet—which of course shows up shortly after the beginning of the novel.

The invaders strike hard, eliminating much of the resistance at the first blow. Their attack is diabolically double-edged, crippling the computers that calculate tactics and strategy for the defending fleets, and unleashing a brain-eating virus that turns the cybernetically enhanced elite of the defenders into murderous zombies. The survivors—true to the Sturm’s beliefs, those who for whatever reason have not received enhancements—are left to try to organize some sort of resistance before the Sturm can consolidate their initial gains.

But while the overall scenario is grim, Birmingham’s characters are anything but. Commander Lucinda Hardy is a young officer from a working-class family who has won her way onto the bridge of a capital warship by her courage and commitment. Admiral Frazer McLennan is a retired veteran who has no use for the pampered aristocrats who visit the archaeological site he has made his retirement work. Sephina L’trel is an outlaw with few loyalties beyond her own crew, and no compunction about breaking anybody’s laws or taboos. But all bring a sharp eye and ready wit to the suddenly altered world they are living in. In contrast, young princess Alessia, orphaned and captured by the enemy, brings a more innocent perspective to the events of the war, which have no parallel in her previous experience.

The plot develops logically, with the action seen from numerous viewpoints that give a sense of the scope of the conflict, and the major characters end up working in parallel, if not necessarily together. Birmingham gives the story a verve and momentum that carries the reader along by sheer force, without slowing down to point out the clear parallels with current political movements implicit in his main premise. And to judge from the concluding chapters, this one is the first in a series. Fans of contemporary space opera will find this book a welcome addition to their library shelves. Definitely recommended.

*   *   *

ACROSS THE UNIVERSE: Tales of Alternative Beatles
Edited by Michael A. Ventrella and Andrandee Dawn
Fantastic Books, $15.99 (tp)
ISBN: 978-1-5154-2396-5

Here’s a collection of eighteen stories built around the most influential group in the history of pop music. The publisher raised the advance money with a Kickstarter campaign, proving that the idea has wide appeal among potential readers. But of course; who’s not a Beatles fan?

Not surprisingly, the authors—a list including such notables as Gregory Benford, Pat Cadigan, Brenda Clough, David Gerrold, Spider Robinson, Allen Steele, and Lawrence Watt-Evans—are clearly having a lot of fun creating worlds in which John, Paul, George, and Ringo have radically different careers than they did in ours. And “fun” is pretty much the operative word to describe this anthology. The stories, with only a few exceptions, are clever and cute, with nothing really deep or disturbing. Beth Patterson’s “Cayenne” turns the Fab Four into Cajun musicians dealing with a loup-garoux. Allen Steele’s “Come Together” sends them on an interplanetary voyage. And Gregory Frost’s “A Hard Day’s Night at the Opera” puts the band—or their near relatives—into a Marx Brothers comedy. And that’s just a quick sample.

A few reach for something a little bit more than just fun. Spider Robinson’s “Rubber Soul,” which leads off the volume, brings John back from the dead to discover the world of the future. In Sally Wiener Grotta’s “The Truth Within,” George goes to the White House to try to convert Richard Nixon to transcendental meditation—with unhappy results. And Benford’s “Doing Lennon” takes a look at how an impostor might take on the persona of John Lennon years after his death.

Most of the writers are well up on their Beatles trivia, with loads of in-jokes and references to obscure song lyrics and other bits of lore salted throughout almost every story. You’re likely to find yourself humming bits of fifty-year-old songs at various points while reading. And of course, the band was as much a cultural phenomenon as a musical act, with an impact on everything from clothing styles to politics and religion. If the Beatles and their music meant anything at all to you, give this one a look—you’ll be glad you did.


Copyright © 2020 Peter Heck

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