Saturday, May 19, 2018

Happy Birthday, Rob Chilson

Today is Kansas City writer Rob Chilson's birthday. I felt like I ought to honor Rob, whom I know a bit from my regular visits to KC for ConQuesT, but, alas, he just missed the window for publishing Ace Doubles, and as it happens I've not read any of his novels. So I don't have a novel review to post. But I've read a lot of his short fiction, almost always with considerable enjoyment. So I thought I'd reproduce here a selection of the reviews I've done over the years of his short fiction, arranged in chronological order. I'd also like to mention one of my favorite Chilson stories, from a time before I was regularly reviewing: "This Side of Independence", from the February 1998 F&SF, and which was reprinted in both Gardner Dozois and David Hartwell's Best of the Year volumes.

From a piece I did for Black Gate a while back that discussed two issues of Analog from the very end of John W. Cambpell's editorial term and the very beginning of Ben Bova's term:

Robert Chilson, as it happens, is someone I know personally, though not terribly well -- he lives near Kansas City, and we’ve talked a few times at ConQuest, as well as shared the occasional panel. He began publishing in 1968, with "The Mind Reader" in Analog. He has published a great many short stories since then, with Analog and F&SF his primary markets.  He published as by "Robert Chilson" for about the first decade of his career, and mostly as "Rob Chilson" since then. He has also published some seven novels.

"Compulsion Worse Confounded" is about an IT person, as we’d say now. Raleigh is in charge of the "Archimage," a cluster of seven computers that does the processing for Wilder and Wilder, a food company. But the computer is acting up. For one thing, it wants to fire the secretary (who is, natch, beautiful, and who, natch, wants to get together with Raleigh -- this is Analog, after all). It also is ordering the company to acquire a rival -- but the rival seems to be doing something foolhardy. Is Wilder and Wilder’s computer behind that, as well? A fairly amusing story, turning on the computer’s inability to understand human desires, and its rather literal interpretation of orders.

From the April 2006 Locus:

The May issue of Analog does feature one very enjoyable and charming story that is very much pure Analog: Rob Chilson’s "Farmers in the Sky". The title signals a certain debt to Heinlein, as do the chapter headings. Shanda is a young woman from an asteroid farming family who has been studying on Earth, and has fallen in love with an Earthman. She returns home, convinced she’s lost her Earth boyfriend forever, but to her surprise he follows her Out. From this point the story could take a couple of obvious turns (there is also a local boy in the picture), but Chilson finds a kind of middle way that’s pretty satisfying, and that nicely illustrates the theme. And without making anyone a villain! Really, this shows many Analog characteristics very well: the space boosterism, the not terribly subtle explanation of the SFnal ideas by telling them to the visitor character, the hint of didacticism. Exaggerated, all these would be failings: in this story, they are handled pretty well, and for a long time SF fan like me the story is quite fun.

From the July 2012 Locus:

"The Conquest of the Air", by Rob Chilson (Analog 7/8/2012), takes on another fairly familiar idea -- aliens who live undersea -- but does so with some well done wrinkles. Humans are trying to mine the alien's planet -- because they don't know there are intelligent being  under the ocean; while the aliens are mostly skeptical, and fearful, of the idea of intelligent life on land, let alone from other planets. Naturally the story centers on a brave group of explorers who have designed a ship to "conquer the air". Effective and enjoyable work.

From the August 2015 Locus:

Probably my favorite this issue (Analog, 7/8/2015) is another story in an old-fashioned mode, this one reminding me of Jack Vance a bit: "The Tarn", by Rob Chilson, focusing on the Mayor of Firkle Fountain, a remote village known for nothing much, until a rumor spreads the treasure of an old philosophont (or wizard) can be found in a nearby pond. This brings a lot of visitors -- and chaos -- to the town, but the Mayor is convinced that it's all a fraud, and he has a prime suspect too. It's a bit meandering, but nicely told, and with some nice color and hints of an intriguing long history.

From the August 2017 Locus:

The highlights of the July-August Analog are a couple of stories whose protagonists live in relatively low-tech areas in far-future settings with plenty of exotic tech, which stretches a point to compare Maggie Clark‘s "Belly Up" and Rob Chilson‘s "Across the Steaming Sea". ... "Across the Steaming Sea" is the latest of a number of stories Chilson has published set on Earth in the very far future, in which a wide variety of "mankin" coexist among the remnants of some very exotic tech. Luro is the lowly youngest son of his village’s Asireman, and so he gets drafted to accompany one Kangahan on a dangerous trip to Melgol, where Kangahan claims he can find the Empyrean, a place of wonders, if only the Asireman will finance the trip. Luro’s greedy father is happy to lend the money and his son’s services, and Luro is happy enough to leave his home, especially when he meets the beautiful Zoritha. To no one’s surprise, though, Kangahan absconds with the money -- but Zoritha agrees to accompany Luro on an attempt to find the Empyrean anyway. So there’s good -- it seems the Empyrean might really exist -- and bad --Zoritha shows no interest in Luro, and the trip gets more and more dangerous. It’s all fun reading, with a nicely wrapped-up ending. Old fashioned stuff, sure enough, and sometimes that’s just the ticket.

(I see, by the way, that just as James Patrick Kelly used to always appear in the June issues of Asimov's, and Robert Reed and Albert Cowdrey used to always appear in, er, every single issue of F&SF <grin>, Rob Chilson seems to be appearing in most every July-August issue of Analog.)

Friday, May 18, 2018

Another Ace Double: The Water of Thought, by Fred Saberhagen/We, the Venusians, by John Rackham

Ace Double Reviews, 81: The Water of Thought, by Fred Saberhagen/We, the Venusians, by John Rackham (#M-127, 1965, 45 cents)

Here's an Ace Double from the recently deceased Fred Saberhagen [I wrote this review first in 2007], backed with one from regular John Rackham. Saberhagen wrote one other Ace Double half, The Golden People (1964), while Rackham was a regular under that name and his real name, John T. Phillifent, contributing 16 total "halves". The Water of Thought is about 44,000 words long, and We, the Venusians is some 53,000 words.
(Covers by Jerry Podwil and Jack Gaughan)

Fred Saberhagen was born on May 18, 1930, in Chicago (hence this reposting of the review), and died in 2007. After stints in the Air Force, at Motorola, and with the Encylopedia Britannica, he became a full-time writer in the mid-70s. He began publishing in 1961, and from very early in his career he was writing about the inimical machine intelligences called the Berserkers, which remain his most enduring contribution to SF. His post-apocalyptic fantasy-flavored novels beginning with the Empire of the East trilogy are also well regarded, and I quite enjoyed his singleton novel The Veils of Azlaroc. As ever, the Science Fiction Enyclopedia entry is very useful: here.

The Water of Thought is set on a world, Kappa, only tenuously colonized by humans, who live behind a forcefield. They have only limited, but generally benign, contact with the intelligent natives, called Kappans. The main character is a "planeteer", Boris Brazil, who is spending a brief vacation, in the company of a local girl named Brenda. He is called back to the colony for an emergency -- it seems another planeteer, Eddie Jones, has gone nuts and killed a Kappan and run off to the hinterlands.

So Boris, in the company of Brenda, heads to the interior to investigate. Their copter is sabotaged, and they are rounded up by Jones and his Kappan friends. They quickly learn that Jones believes that the humanlike Kappans are on the cusp of evolution to full sentience, and he hopes to guide them on the next step, with the help, perhaps, of "the water of thought", a druglike substance that has transformed his consciousness. Alas, it affects Boris differently -- makes him a slave to Jones's every command.

Boris and Brenda are taken to a Kappan village, eventually to be subjected to a brutal initiation ceremony. But Boris escapes, and begins to learn the true secrets behind things. The Kappans aren't the only sentients on the planet, for one thing. And the colonists aren't all so innocent, for another -- it seems the sometimes hallucinogenic properties of the "Water of Thought" have attracted the attention of interstellar druglords. The resolution involves a meeting with the "real" Kappans, a more primitive (supposedly) race ... complete with learning the (somewhat icky) true nature of the Water of Thought. Basically, it's not terrible work, but nothing very special either.

An expanded version of The Water of Thought was published in 1981, but I have not seen that.

John Rackham's real name was John T. Phillifent (1916-1976). He also began publishing in the early '50s, though much less prolifically. He ended up producing something north of 20 novels as well as a fair amount of shorter work, under both the Rackham and Phillifent names.

I've rather enjoyed some John Rackham Ace Doubles, so I approached We, the Venusians with some optimism. And the opening is at least mildly promising. Brilliant pianist Anthony Taylor is approached by an influential Venusian colonist. He wants to take him, and a couple of other musical artists, to Venus, apparently to raise the cultural level of the colony. There is a small colony on the planet, but very rich, because they raise a plant, with the unwilling help of the subhuman local "greenies", that confers immortality and health on people.

Anthony Taylor has a secret, however, He is a half-Greenie himself, and takes "anti-tan" pills to hide this fact. So too does the Aussie singer Martha Merril who is also recruited to travel to Venus. But she is in denial. (The weird thing about all this is that it is taboo to take those pills, apparently because they would allow black people to "pass".) So -- an interesting setup, as they head to Venus, with the obviousl plot being the liberation of the Greenies.

Which is pretty much what happens, only somehow much less interestingly than I had hoped. For one thing, Taylor and Merril seem not necessarily to be half-breeds, but perhaps full Greenies, who were adopted by human parents. And the Greenies communicate mystically by telepathy ... not one of my favorite plot devices. And the whole Greenie society is a letdown -- particularly the bit about how they abandon their defectives, who turn out to be the slaves used to harvest the immortality bean ... All in all, a mess of a novel. (I was intrigued to note that this is one of at least two Rackham novels featuring beautiful and perfectly humanoid alien women with green skin -- the same trope turns up in Danger From Vega.)

Thursday, May 17, 2018

A Forgotten Ace Double: The Stars are Ours!, by Andre Norton/Three Faces of Time, by Sam Merwin, Jr.

Ace Double Reviews, 36: The Stars are Ours!, by Andre Norton/Three Faces of Time, by Sam Merwin, Jr. (#D-121, $0.35, 1955)

Rather a disappointing Ace Double, this one. Andre Norton's The Stars are Ours!, about 66,000 words long, was first published by World in 1954 -- presumably as a juvenile. Three Faces of Time was published, possibly in a shorter version, as "Journey to Misenum" in Startling Stories, August 1953. The Ace Double version is about 47,000 words.

Andre Norton published 15 Ace Double halves. Many of her early Ace Doubles were reprints of novels first published in hardcover and marketed to the "juvenile" segment (i.e., lots of library sales). This appears to be the case with The Stars are Ours!. The hero is a standard sort of hero for a juvenile SF book, a teenaged boy. There is no sex, not even a hint, not even a suggestion of interest. (That didn't stop Ace from featuring a gorgeous (or so I assume the artist intended) redhead on the cover -- this illustrates a scene that doesn't occur in the book, though it does semi-accurately reflect something that must have happened offstage -- a redheaded woman being awakened from a coldsleep chamber. As one of the women mentioned in the book is redheaded, and was in coldsleep -- well, she was awakened sometime!)

(Cover by Ed Valigursky)
The Stars are Ours! opens on Earth after a catastrophe, blamed incorrectly on a hereditary Scientist caste, has led to the remnants of the human population being ruled by thuggish fascist types, who are trying to root out all the remaining Scientists. Dard Nordis is our teenaged hero, and his lame many years older brother is a Scientist, trying to develop some mysterious formula. When their evil neighbor alerts the bad guys that something suspicious is going on, they are forced out, and Dard's brother is killed, but not before entrusting his secret to Dard. Dard and his very young niece must escape in the snow, but fortunately they are able to rendezvous with a representative of the one remaining settlement of Scientists.

It turns out the Scientists are building a starship. Dard's brother's secret is one of the last bits of information they need. Rather implausibly, Dard, despite his youth and unfamiliarity, is allowed to go on a dangerous mission to the bad guys' city to gather the last bit of information before the starship can launch. And so the first half of the novel ends with a last-second escape.

The second half occurs centuries later, when the starship at last arrives at a new planet, and it covers, rather less interestingly, their arrival and discoveries on this planet, which turns out to have a history in some ways reminiscent of Earth's.

I really don't think this is one of Norton's better efforts. The two part structure is not dramatically successful -- it's much more two linked stories than a single novel. Even granting that it's a 50s novel, some of the science is just too silly for me; and the action is just not very convincing.

(Cover by Earle Bergey)
Just recently at Black Gate John O'Neill featured the 1983 Ace Omnibus edition of Sam Merwin, Jr.'s The House of Many Worlds, which combines that short novel with its sequel, Three Faces of Time, as a Vintage Treasures feature. I told John that I'd enjoyed "The House of Many Worlds" in its Startling Stories appearance, but that I hadn't read the sequel. But I lied -- I had, in this Ace Double edition, which I'd completely forgotten.


(Cover by Walter Popp)
Sam Merwin, Jr. (1910-1996) was a relatively forgettable writer, but a significant and underappreciated editor in the SF field, particularly for his time at Startling Stories and its sister magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories, from 1945 through 1951. He also edited for brief periods Fantastic Universe and Satellite Science Fiction, among other publications. And his father was a fairly accomplished writer and editor as well, and I reviewed his novel The Road to Frontenac a while back on this blog, here.

Three Faces of Time is a sequel to a short novel called The House of Many Worlds, which I read a few months ago [as I first wrote this review]. The House of Many Worlds appeared, apparently in full, in Startling Stories for September 1951. The two stories have been collected together as The House of Many Worlds (Ace, 1983). I rather enjoyed The House of Many Worlds -- it's a parallel worlds story in which Elspeth Marriner and Mack Fraser, a magazine writer and photographer respectively, stumble into a mysterious organization that travels between multiple parallel worlds, trying to maintain peace. Elspeth and Mack (who turn out not to be from our world, in a classic trick of Parallel Worlds novels) enter a world slightly "behind" ours and theirs in development, and forestall danger from a more evil set of parallel world types.

The fact that I mildly enjoyed The House of Many Worlds is one reason I read this Ace Double, not otherwise of too much interest. I figured the sequel was worth a look. But it turns out to be a much lesser novel, much sillier, less interesting all around.
(Cover by Ed Valigursky)

To begin with, I just couldn't get over the stupidity of the main setup. A space cloud of some sort has retarded development on a newly discovered world, so that it is only at the level of First Century Rome. OK, I don't have a problem with that. BUT, somehow, this version of "First Century Rome", even though it's REALLY 20th Century, just technologically behind, somehow has the exact same set of historical personages as our history. Vespasian is the dying Emperor, Titus his successor, Berenice Agrippina is Titus's lover, Domitian is Titus's ambitious younger brother, Pliny the Elder is the "Resident Watcher". Also, it's the equivalent of 79 AD, a pretty important date for a certain nearby volcano ...

Elspeth, because of her classical education, is sent to this version of Rome to study the culture -- things like figuring out if anyone's school of Latin pronunciation was right. She's also to ferret out any suspicious anachronisms that might point to other bad guys from the "present day" operating. Sure enough, a slimy guy who is putting the moves on her drops in a few references to modern devices, and she ends up submitting to his advances (despite him being a little, er, short in a certain department, as Merwin allows a slave girl to rather frankly hint) in order to get clues. She also meets up with a hidden army her group has on hand, and learns that another parallel world, this one 2000 years in advance of our time, is fooling around in this Ancient world -- apparently to replenish their supply of uranium, which they have exhausted in blowing up their own world. This other world is a matriarchy -- leading inevitably to Elspeth meeting up with Mack again, who makes her jealous because he has (in the line of duty, of course) attracted the attentions of the beautiful redheaded Amazon leader of this "future" world. But this Amazon has better ideas still -- she hopes to seduce the Emperor-to-be, Titus, and take over the Ancient Rome world, as a springboard to a Parallel Worlds Empire.

So, it's up to Elspeth and Mack to save the day, complete with a trip to the Silesian woods, a trip inside Mt. Vesuvius, and a somewhat abrupt, unconvincing, and unsatisfying ending. Really a slapdash piece of work all around.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

A Not Forgotten Recent Novel: A Virtuous Woman, by Kaye Gibbons

A Not Forgotten Recent Novel: A Virtuous Woman, by Kaye Gibbons

a review by Rich Horton

This novel doesn't really fit my blog's various viewpoints at all: it's not Old; it wasn't a Bestseller (though it sold pretty well, I imagine, after it became an Oprah Book Club Selection); it's not Forgotten (helped, again, by Oprah); and it's not Science Fiction. But I was looking for a bit of a change of pace as I was working my way through all the 2018 Hugo Nominees, etc., and when I came across this book at an estate sale I thought it looked intriguing. And indeed, I enjoyed the novel a great deal.

Kaye Gibbons was born May 5, 1960, so she's seven months to the day younger than me. (And, this post is a few days late to be a Birthday Review.) She was born and educated in North Carolina, and still lives there. She's probably best known for her first two novels, Ellen Foster and A Virtuous Woman.

A Virtuous Woman is a very short novel (perhaps just a bit over 30,000 words). It's told in two voices: that of Blinking Jack Stokes, who is mourning the death of his wife Ruby, aged only 45, and trying to figure out what he'll do with himself; and that of Ruby, in the last few months of her life, after she is diagnosed with lung cancer. Their voices are those of rural North Carolinians, colloquial, often funny, just avoiding bitterness.

Jack is twenty years older than Ruby, a poor tenant farmer, skinny and homely, but honest and sweet and not too bad a drinker. Ruby is the child of a somewhat wealthy farmer, and beautiful. But when she was 18 she ran away with a violent and abusive migrant worker, who beat her, and taught her to smoke, and was unfaithful and a terrible drinker. While working at the Hoover farm, where Jack lives and works for the Hoovers, Ruby's husband gets into trouble and is knifed in a bar fight, and dies. Jack has fallen hard for Ruby, whom he sees as way out of his league, but he asks her to marry him -- and Ruby, too ashamed to go home, and just wanting someone to care for her and treat her right, agrees.

Their narrations reveal both the bare few events of the months before and after Ruby's death, but also their back story. Ruby's upbringing and first marriage, of course, but also an outline of their life after their marriage. It is informed by their inability to have children (either Jack is unable to, or Ruby (perhaps due to some violence of her first husband's doing), or both); and by their love for Jack's friend Burr's daughter June, who was the younger child of Burr's horrible wife Tiny Fran, the daughter of Jack's boss Mr. Hoover, who married her off to the most convenient local man when she got pregnant. Their life is externally not terribly comfortable -- Jack never gets the land he wishes for, so they never have much money; Tiny Fran and her first son Roland are dreadful people, and so are others of their milieu; they are unbelievers in a Christian community -- but it's clear they love each other desperately (but quietly), and they find a way to be happy.

The novel is often funny (if gaspingly so), often very moving, and pretty harshly honest about rural poverty. I liked it a great deal. Perhaps every so often we see the author's hand on the scale a bit in favor of her protagonists. Perhaps some of the bad people -- Tiny Fran in particular -- are treated somewhat cruelly. On the other hand -- such people exist, both good, like Jack and Ruby, and bad, like Tiny Fran and Roland. In the end: I was both amused and very very moved. (The chapter in the middle, about their love for June, and their realization they won't have children, and their feelings for their dogs, is just devastating.) I recommend it.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Another Brunner Ace Double: Listen! The Stars! (backed with The Rebellers by Jane Roberts)

Ace Double Reviews, 52: Listen! The Stars!, by John Brunner/The Rebellers, by Jane Roberts (#F-215, 1963, $0.40)

Jane Roberts was born 8 May 1929, hence this reposted Ace Double review.

This Ace Double backs a decent, if rather short, John Brunner novel with one of the worst novels I have ever read. Brunner's Listen! The Stars! is about 28,000 words, Jane Roberts's The Rebellers is about 51,000 words.

(Covers by Jack Gaughan and Ed Emshwiller)
I've said many times recently that early John Brunner is reliably fun -- and usually pretty thoughtful too. Listen! The Stars! is fairly satisfying on both counts -- though it's not quite as purely fun as other Brunner. It was first published in a shorter version (about 20,000 words) as the cover story of the July 1962 Analog, under the same title. A later version was published under the title The Stardroppers, and I believe this version was expanded even further. The Ace Double version, about 8000 words longer than the Analog story, does not contain a single extra scene. The additions are words here and there, often an additional sentence or two, occasionally a couple of paragraphs -- but they are pervasive. It's hard for me to say which version is better -- I read the Analog story then quickly skimmed the Ace Double. The additions don't read like padding, I will say, but I can't really comment on how the pacing was affected. I have no idea if Brunner cut his original story for the Analog appearance, or if he expanded it to be long enough for an Ace Double half.

Dan Cross comes to London to investigate a strange, perhaps ominous, new phenomenon, stardropping. He represents a mysterious organization, but he is pretending to be a new enthusiast. Apparently stardropping is much more popular in England, where it was invented, than in the US. What is it? Well, with some simple electronics it seems one can tune into mysterious signals -- information theory shows they are real signals and not noise. The signals are oddly attractive. Some people get addicted, some people go mad, and there are rumours that some people even disappear.

Cross is able to meet with a local cop, with a young girl addict, with the proprietor of a store selling the equipment, and even with the inventor of the effect, whose son is one of the people who seems to have disappeared. Cross himself tries stardropping, with little effect. But he gets closer and closer to an explanation ... The explanation turns out to be neat enough, with some reasonably well thought out geopolitical implications. The story is just a bit thin, however -- and in a way it seems to end just as the real action should be starting.

Jane Roberts (full name Jane Roberts Butts), published a few short stories, mostly in F&SF, between 1956 and 1964. The Rebellers was her first novel (not counting a "complete novel" in F&SF that was novella length). Her only other novels, according to the ISFDB, were a trilogy about "Oversoul 7", between 1973 and 1984, and a juvenile. She died in 1984, aged only 55. I had never read anything by her. Some of her short fiction seems well regarded, and she was the first woman to attend the Milford Conference of SF writers.

However, she became far more famous in another context. She claimed to have received messages from a supernatural being called Seth, and published a series of books about Seth, perhaps most notably Seth Speaks. These were bestsellers in the 1970s, as I recall, and apparently they remain influential in New Age circles. I will be honest -- at the time, and to this day, I considered these books of a piece with much other spiritualist and New Age stuff -- that is, either completely fraudulent, or possibly a sincere (but silly) result of a mental breakdown. I know others take this seriously, and so be it.

Perhaps my current feelings are partly a result of my reaction to this novel. The Rebellers is set in a grossly overpopulated, plague-ridden, future. Gary Fitch is an artist -- he has lived his life confined in a high-rise in Elmira, New York, part of the Contopolis, making copies of old paintings. This art is deemed important in motivating the workers to help produce the food everyone eats. But Gary is convinced the system is failing, and he dreams of escape.

When rioters attack his building, he takes his chance. After a scary encounter with a government "Doctor" who is ready to put him in suspended animation, he is rescued and taken to the Rebellers -- people who live underground and who are convinced that the system is bad and ought to be changed. But the charismatic Rebeller leader's ideas don't seem just right to Gary either -- and soon he is back in the city, trying to promote a more sensible political organization -- but all seems lost when a newly virulent plague strain breaks out.

Oh, I can't go on. The entire story makes no sense at all. The extrapolation is idiotic. The prose is indifferent. The characters change randomly depending on the needs of the plot. Nothing holds together -- it's economically cockeyed, politically moronic, psychologically silly. And it's boring.

A terrible, terrible, novel.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Hugo Ballot Review: The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin



The Stone Sky, by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit, 978-0-316-22924-1, $16.99, tpb, 416 pages) August 2017

A review by Rich Horton

As I noted in my recent review, I was quite late to the party in getting to the first book in the Broken Earth Trilogy, The Fifth Season, which won the 2016 Hugo for Best Novel. I was very impressed by that book, most particularly by the prodigious imagination displayed, by the world-building. I certainly agree that it deserved its Hugo. But my lateness in getting to the first book meant I was even later in getting to The Stone Sky, the concluding volume of the trilogy. (The second volume, The Obelisk Gate, probably the weakest of the three (which is not to say it's a bad book at all) also won the Hugo, last year.)


The Stone Sky is still a very impressive book. But I have to say that for a couple of reasons I didn’t enjoy it as much as The Fifth Season. Part of this is common to series – the bulk of the cool ideas are introduced in the first book, so the later books are less fresh. That said, there are new revelations in each book of the series, a continually deepening understanding of how the Earth (the living and angry Earth, we now understand) got to its current state, and likewise how human society got to its state (and we learn much more about that state as of thousands of years previously). So really that’s OK. However, oddly, as things go on the books – which from the start read as poised on that fractious border between SF and Fantasy – gain more and more of a Science Fictional rationale. We can read them as true SF – what we don’t understand, what we (and the characters) call magic seems to have some variety of rational explanation, even though we mere humans (including the books’ characters) don’t understand that. That’s OK, in fact it’s kind of cool, but it also caused my suspension of disbelief to fracture dangerously at times, particularly when faced with people being literally carried through the center of the Earth, through stone (and magma). And in a matter of hours. The other issue I had in enjoying the book – though I think this aspect was unavoidable (and correct) – the main characters are really rather unpleasant. As who wouldn’t be, having gone through what they did! But it did make it harder, in a way, to spend the whole book with them. And the resolution, while fairly sensible and honest, fell maybe just a bit flat to me.

The book it told in three threads. One follows Essun, the main character of the whole trilogy, as she accompanies her new comm, Castrima, in searching for a new place to live, all the while planning to leave and find her daughter Nassun. The second thread follows Nassun, who has been living in a new kind of Fulcrum (orogene training facility) called Found Moon. Her part opens with her killing her father in self-defense (her father, in the first book, killed her brother and ran away with Nassun). She and two allies of sorts – the Stone Eater Steel and her beloved personal Guardian Schaffa (who has escaped the control that makes Guardians abuse orogenes) also kill two other Guardians and leave Found Moon, to head to Corepoint, on the other side of the world, and wait for the Moon’s return, access the Obelisk Gate and destroy the world. The third thread – in many ways the most interesting – concerns a “tuner” called Houwha, in Syl Anagist, which we gather eventually is the civilization, thousands of years in the past, which created the obelisks but which was destroyed, leading to the creation of the supercontinent called the Stillness, and to the Fifth Seasons, and eventually the Yumenes empire. Houwha and her fellow “tuners” are, in the course of the narration, shown the reason for their creation, the fact of their oppression, and the multiple wrongs at the core of this sometimes utopian seeming civilization. These wrongs parallel, to some degree, the treatment of orogenes in the “present” as of The Fifth Season. Houwha’s mission is to activate “geoarcanity”, which will harvest the Earth’s power to permanently maintain Syl Anagist – but at great cost, to tuners, their quasi-ancestral race, the Niess, and to the living Earth itself.

The narrative strategy is striking, and ultimately wholly successful: the novel is narrated in second person, from Houwha (or what Houwha has become) to Essun, so that Essun’s sections are pure second person, Nassun’s third person in the form of a tale told to Essun, and Houwha’s pure first person. At first this seems a bit of a stunt, but once the reader realizes what’s going on, it comes together to make perfect sense.

In the end it’s a strong book that, as I said, I respect a great deal, but don’t quite love. It’s an effective conclusion to a very strong trilogy. I think it will end up second or third on my ballot, behind Raven Stratagem and possibly New York 2140 (I won’t know until I finish reading that!). I still think, strongly, that Ka and Spoonbenders and The Moon and the Other deserved nominations (and would still rank 1,2,3 on my ballot had they gotten them), but The Stone Sky is a worthy nominee, if not quite the book I hope wins. (I will admit that to an extent this is because of a feeling that two Hugos are enough for this series – which may not be entirely fair, but there you are.)

Review: The Orphan's Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, by Catherynne M. Valente


The Orphan’s Tales, Volume II: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, by Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam Spectra, 978-0-553-38404-8, $14, 528pp, tpb) November 2007.

A review by Rich Horton

Today is Catherynne M. Valente's birthday, so I'm taking the opportunity to post this review I wrote for Locus. It appeared in the November 2007 issue.

This is a book (or pair of books) written on an old model: The Thousand Nights and a Night. Yet I found it as original, and delightful, as any book I’ve read in years. It consists of fairy tales, yes, but not retold fairly tales. Rather, entirely new tales, abundantly imaginative, gorgeously written, and stunningly and intricately framed.
(Cover by Michael Komarck)

The outer frame is set in the garden of a Sultan’s estate. The Sultan’s daughter is about to be married. The Sultan’s son has befriended the orphan girl who lives in the garden. She tells him stories written on the inside of her eyelids (and eventually he tells her the stories written on the outside). The Arabesque setting of this frame immediately suggests The Thousand Nights and a Night, and so too does the way the stories do not come to immediate conclusions. But Valente’s design is more complex than Scheherazade’s: instead of simply ending stories in the middle and completing them the next day, these stories encounter other stories in their midst. So the character in one story will meet a new character with their own story to tell, and the first story will pause as the subsequent tale is recounted … and so on.

The book is divided in two main parts, “The Book of the Storm” and “The Book of the Scald”; each dominated, to an extent, by one story. “The Tale of the Crossing”, in the first part, concerns a one armed boy crossing a lake in the company of a ferryman in search of the girl who has been his companion during a terrible childhood. The lake is clearly enough analogous to the Styx, and the ferryman to Charon … but of course he has his own story. In the second part we read “The Tale of the Waste”, about a Djinn imprisoned in a cage, and her story concerns her position as one of the Queens of the Djinni, and the attack she is ordered to lead on the city of Ajanabh.

As the subtitle suggests, much of the focus is on a couple of colorful cities, both in terrible decline. The city of coin is Marrow, and their coins are most horrifying created. The city of spice is Ajanabh, but, as we learn, the spices are all dead. Despite the current state of decline of these cities, The Orphan’s Tales is packed with wonders. We read of living Stars, of mechanical women, of manticores, of a giant who is the gate of a city, of courteous kappas (and what happens when a kappa bows), of repentant sirens, of edible gems… Valente’s imagination is prodigious, and she weaves lovely new patterns with existing mythical threads, and she finds gorgeous new fabric as well. And all knitted together with poetic prose.

The stories are not just intertwined structurally, but thematically as well. And characters from one story will sneakily pop up later from a different angle. Time is rather fluidly treated – the book seems to cover perhaps the entire history of its exotic world. (I can imagine an annotated version attempting to arrange the events chronologically.) One repeated theme is marriage, and for the most part (though not entirely) the marriages treated in the book are sad. (Which seems to bode ill for the Sultan’s daughter’s wedding.) But perhaps more central to the book’s theme is Story – the way in which the stories change depending on the teller, or on the focus, or on the outcome, is fascinating. As to is the way Valente toys with our expectations for Story – the way in which familiar patterns are altered.

The first volume of The Orphan’s Tales, In the Night Garden, is on the World Fantasy Award  shortlist. I haven’t read it yet, but if it is as good as In the Cities of Coin and Spice, it would be a worthy winner. And so too this book – not really a novel, nor a collection of short stories, but something different – should be looked for on next year’s award shortlists.