Reviews: 2015

  1. Irregular Verbs and Other Stories by Matthew Johnson (AE)
  2. Unruly Places (Off the Map) by Alastair Bonnett
  3. Elements by Suzanne Church (AE)
  4. Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swafford
  5. My Real Children by Jo Walton (AE)
  6. The Martian by Andy Weir
  7. Beyond the Rift by Peter Watts (AE)
  8. Child of a Hidden Sea by A. M. Dellamonica
  9. The Just City and The Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton (AE)
  10. The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
  11. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (AE)
  12. Falling in Love with Hominids by Nalo Hopkinson (AE)
  13. Atlas of Cursed Places by Olivier Le Carrer
  14. Echopraxia by Peter Watts (AE)

Unruly Places (Off the Map) by Alastair Bonnett

unruly-placesAlastair Bonnett’s Unruly Places (first published in the U.K. as Off the Map) is a light, entertaining exploration of some of the world’s more unusual places. Bonnett, a social geography professor at Newcastle University, has written 47 short essays about locations that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t make any sense: the exceptions, the asterisks, the ink blots (in at least one case literally) on the map.

These range from the deeply frivolous to the profoundly injust: from bits and pieces of New York City transformed into environmental time capsules and art projects to places meaningful to the author; from rendition sites and pirate bases to Bedouin settlements in the Israeli Negev desert; from destroyed landscapes to Potemkin cities. The places often feel almost science-fictional; and in fact several of them evoked settings in existing science fiction works, like Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago and Maureen McHugh’s Nekropolis.

All in all, a pleasant diversion for the geographically minded, though I did have one quibble: the book calling latitude and longitude “Google Earth coordinates,” as though degrees are as proprietary as limited to the KML format.

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February 17, 2015


Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph by Jan Swafford

beethoven-swaffordI’ve read Beethoven biographies before, but Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) is in a different category altogether. For one thing, it’s a thousand pages long. But despite its length it maintains an analytical coherence that can mark the best biographies, regardless of their length, whereas the worst just muddle through anecdote after anecdote. Swafford, who’s also written about Brahms and Charles Ives, sketches two distinct threads — the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) and his precarious health — and examines how those two things had an impact on Beethoven and his work.

That examination benefits from the book’s length and Swafford’s perspective on Beethoven’s entire life (rather than a specific work, say the Ninth). Beethoven’s encroaching deafness is often related to his work with no real insight; he was, in fact, plagued with a number of illnesses, mostly due to lead poisoning and alcoholism. And it’s impossible to understand the political and philosophical core of the Ninth Symphony without understanding how Beethoven grew up in and related to the Aufklärung, the Napoleonic Wars, and the increasing political repression of Metternich-era Austria that led to the Biedermeier period.

Swafford is a composer himself and spends considerable time — whole chapters, for some pieces — analysing Beethoven’s music in considerable detail. If you’re not a musical sort you can skip past these sections, the way that a lot of readers might gloss over the songs and poetry in The Lord of the Rings, but I found his analyses quite illuminating when they covered a piece I’d studied and new very well.

More importantly, he’s better able to describe what the hell Beethoven was doing, particularly in relation to the trends of the time and his peers. It is, in other words, valuable to have a composer’s perspective, rather than a classical music devotee’s — all the difference between the perspective of an oenophile and a winemaker.

It makes the book much more about the music and less about the personality. Yes, it’s a biography, and as such has to be about the personality, but we wouldn’t be reading about a violent and unhygenic misanthrope if he wasn’t producing some of the best music in human history.

I’m not at all surprised it took Swafford twelve years to write this thing; he’s produced something very close to the authoritative biography on the man.

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April 5, 2015


The Martian by Andy Weir

the-martianJust finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir. Good Lord it’s a lot of fun.

During this year’s Hugo Awards foofaraw, there was some disappointment expressed that this book was not on the final ballot. That was not because Hugo voters were out to snub a book full of the good old stuff and lacking in social justice virtue, or whatever — it was simply ineligible. The Martian was first self-published electronically in 2011. But don’t weep overmuch for Andy Weir: after brisk online sales, both traditional publishing and Hollywood started paying attention. He got a six-figure advance for the hardcover edition, which came out in February 2014, and the movie adaptation comes out this November.

And it’s not hard to see why. The book chronicles a lone astronaut’s struggle to survive on the Martian surface after an accident leaves him stranded there, and the attempts to rescue him. It’s chock-a-block with technical detail — Weir did a lot of research, and the Mars program in the book reflects a lot of the proposals I’ve seen — and MacGyveresque solutions to problems. It’s written in a light, breezy and entertaining (if not necessarily felicitous) manner. Characterization and prose quality are not among its virtues — it’s basically an Analog story without all the Analog baggage — but Weir manages to maintain real tension while interleaving it with some legitimately funny moments; in many ways it manages to out-Scalzi John Scalzi at his own game. It’s a fun book — just what I needed right now.

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May 18, 2015


Child of a Hidden Sea by A. M. Dellamonica

child-hidden-seaAlyx Dellamonica’s Child of a Hidden Sea (Tor Books, June 2014) is the kind of fantasy adventure novel you used to see a lot more of — not technically YA, but certainly something my 14- or 15-year-old self would have had no trouble reading. But do not make the mistake that this is some kind of throwback. It’s a delightful portal fantasy that brings the form up to date in several important ways.

Twenty-four-year-old Sophie Hansa, fresh off a difficult first contact with her birth mother, suddenly finds herself floating at sea, desperately trying to save the life of an aunt she’s just met. It turns out that she’s been swept away to Stormwrack, a richly developed fantasy world of island nations and dashing sailors. She is promptly sent back, but manages to return, bringing her brother Bram with her. Adventures naturally ensue.

There are many ways in which this take on portal fantasy is so refreshingly modern. As fantasies age, the real world acquires its own layer of strangeness: for modern readers, the Pevensies’ England is as uncanny as Narnia. Not so here. Sophie and Bram are normal adults who have natural and recognizable responses to their fantastic surroundings. Those responses are not sentimental or unquestioning: they actively interrogate Stormwrack, Bram trying to figure out its location, Sophie arriving with a truckload of modern technology and studying its biota.

Stormwrack too comes across as real: it has wildlife, and politics, and economics. People exist and have agency. (And sex.) Also, gay people exist (as does homophobia). It does not exist to be an adventurers’ playground, though adventures certainly occur.

Fantasy frequently separates children from their parents so that they may go on and have adventures without adult supervision. There are lots of orphans, children sent to the countryside, living with distracted uncles, unloving step-parents and so forth: reasons, in other words, for escape.

But such scenarios are also as uncanny as the Pevensies’ England; that’s not what we do with children nowadays. Sophie is adopted; her story is very much about encountering her birth parents — a very modern concern for adoptees. Jennifer, who devoured this book, is adopted as well; she cannot recall ever reading a book whose protagonist mirrors her own background. Of such small details are books made important.

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July 8, 2015


The House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard

house-of-shattered-wings-usAliette de Bodard’s new novel The House of Shattered Wings combines several elements of her past work that made it so interesting and her career worth following.

De Bodard first came to my notice with her trilogy of Aztec murder mystery fantasy novels: Servant of the Underworld (Angry Robot, 2010), Harbinger of the Storm (Angry Robot, 2011) and Master of the House of Darts (Angry Robot, 2011), now collected in an omnibus volume, Obsidian and Blood (Angry Robot, 2012). Set in a 15th-century Tenochtitlan where the Aztec religion is real (gods interact freely with mortals, and blood sacrifices are literally required to keep the sun in the sky and ensure the survival of life on earth), the novels follow the story of Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead, as he solves murders with spells and sacrifices and does his best to stave off a Mesoamerican Ragnarök that always seems just around the corner.

Critical attention for de Bodard came for her short fiction set in the Xuya universe. These include the Hugo- and Nebula-nominated novella On a Red Station, Drifting (Immersion Press, 2012), and the Nebula-winning short story “Immersion” (Clarkesworld 69, June 2012) — the former a science fictional take on Cao Xueqin’s Dream of the Red Chamber, where intricate and treacherous family dynamics play out against the backdrop of an interstellar empire that is equally intricate and treacherous, the latter a powerful and angry meditation on colonialism and the loss of identity.

Which brings me (finally) to The House of Shattered Wings, an urban fantasy that has nothing to do with pre-Columbian Mesoamerica or far-future interstellar empires, but all the same manages to carry over many of the same themes from de Bodard’s earlier work. The House of Shattered Wings is set in Paris, and as a (lapsed) French historian I have some familiarity with that city’s topography and history, but this is not any Paris you or I may know. It’s a post-apocalyptic city distorted by deadly magic and the presence of the Fallen. These are fallen angels: magical beings, both powerful and at risk (their potent body parts are worth a fortune on the black market), who have assembled themselves and their mortal allies into Great Houses headquartered across the city. An earlier war between the Houses has blasted Paris into ruin; an uneasy truce has been maintained since then.

house-of-shattered-wings-ukIt’s an implicitly Christian angelology: the most powerful of the Fallen, Morningstar, the founder and former head of the House that bears his name, is soon revealed to be Lucifer himself. But it’s not exclusively so: into this mixture comes Philippe (as we first know him), a Vietnamese man (or so we perceive him) brought from the French colonies to fight the Great War (as so many were taken from the colonies to fight in World War I), now scrabbling to survive on the streets of Paris. Captured and brought to House Morningstar after an encounter with a new Fallen, Philippe quickly finds himself at the centre of a mystery: House agents are turning up dead, Philippe is implicated, and the other Houses are blaming House Morningstar. But as it becomes clear, Philippe isn’t exactly mortal — and the Fallen aren’t the only supernatural beings at work in Paris.

So we have the murder mystery and ground-level, quotidian interaction with the divine (or at least angelic) that characterized the Acatl novels, the intrigue of On a Red Station, Drifting, and the colonialist critique of “Immersion.” All to the good. The characters, beautifully and vividly drawn, and the intrigue, intricately and deviously plotted, come at some expense of setting. We see very little of Paris itself: most of the action takes place on the Île-de-la-Cité, where House Morningstar is headquartered; the Paris of The House of Shattered Wings is difficult to perceive, a blurred bokeh background in de Bodard’s fast-lens camerawork. While reading this book I tried my best to place de Bodard’s Paris in time: there are omnibuses but no Metro, yet de Bodard uses “nuked” to describe what happened to the city. This may be impossible to resolve; this may also be deliberate. In any event, this book seems to be the first volume of a series, so I hold out hope that I may get my wish for a clearer look at her ruined Paris in a future volume.

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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August 11, 2015


Atlas of Cursed Places by Olivier Le Carrer

atlas-cursedThe first thing to keep in mind about Olivier Le Carrer’s Atlas of Cursed Places is that it’s not an atlas. Rather, it’s a collection of brief essays about a series of unique places around the world. In that I suspect it’s much like Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands or Aude de Tocqueville’s Atlas of Lost Cities (English translation forthcoming next year). All of these books shared a publisher in France; all of them appear to have been conceived under the influence of Calvino.

The Atlas of Cursed Places’s essays are about places in the world that are, for one reason or another, particularly horrible, by dint of their history or geography. There are navigational hazards and environmental disasters, and sites of old horrors that were entirely human-made. Ghost towns, war zones, slums and mausoleums. Animal infestations. Each are engrossing, but the essays barely get started on their subjects: turn the page expecting more and you find yourself already on the next one. Each essay is an act of cruelty (very meta given the subject matter), whetting readers’ appetites but denying us the feast.

In the end this is an exercise in curation: the choices are fascinating, but the essays are affective rather than substantive. In that sense this book is an even lighter read than Alastair Bonnett’s Unruly Places (which seems to have much less Calvino in its book DNA).

(While not an atlas proper, this book does have a lot of maps illustrating each essay. But their effect is disorienting: each cursed place is indicated by a star on an old and out-of-date map, usually a plate from a century-old atlas.)

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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October 11, 2015