23 July 2010

Choir Boats

Just a quick mention of a book I discovered yesterday. The Choir Boats by Daniel Rabuzzi is a dark fantasy set in Napoleonic London. This is what the blurb has to say about it:
What would you give to make good on the sins of your past? For merchant Barnabas McDoon, the answer is: everything.
When emissaries from a world called Yount offer Barnabas a chance to redeem himself, he accepts their price—to voyage to Yount with the key that only he can use to unlock the door to their prison. But bleak forces seek to stop him: Yount's jailer, a once-human wizard who craves his own salvation, kidnaps Barnabas's nephew. A fallen angel—a monstrous owl with eyes of fire—will unleash Hell if Yount is freed. And, meanwhile, Barnabas's niece, Sally, and a mysterious pauper named Maggie seek with dream-songs to wake the sleeping goddess who may be the only hope for Yount and Earth alike.
I have only read the first couple of chapters so far, but my first impression is that it is very good indeed. I am certainly enjoying it more than Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Even better, until the end of the month you can download a free copy of it from Wowio.

22 July 2010

Climate Justice

This is the longer version of a review I have just written for Alban Books’ Facebook page:

James B. Martin-Schramm, Climate Justice: Ethics, Energy, and Public Policy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

Climate change is now very well documented, and its apparent connection with the combustion of fossil fuels and certain land use practices raises important ethical questions. In this important new book Martin-Schramm grapples with these issues at a public policy level, looking particularly at the ethical responsibility of industrialized countries, especially the United States.

In his opening chapter, he proposes an ethic of ecological justice based on the moral norms of sustainability, sufficiency, participation and solidarity. These norms are complemented by a series of twelve guidelines – equity, efficiency, adequacy, renewability, appropriateness, risk, peace, cost, employment, flexibility, timely decision-making and aesthetics – to create a toolbox of ethical resources that he applies to the issue of climate justice in the subsequent chapters.

Chapters 2 and 3 offer an optimistic survey of the range of energy options currently available to the United States. The first deals with so-called conventional energy options – coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power – and the second with alternative/renewable sources of energy – solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, marine. He mentions the concept of peak oil but does not dwell on its implications, opting for the relatively optimistic view that global oil production will not peak until about 2026. He is similarly optimistic about uranium supplies. However, he proposes that we should shift from conventional to renewable energy for environmental (and security) reasons and seems to believe this is a feasible (if difficult) way forward.

Chapter 4 explores international climate policy just prior to the Copenhagen summit at the end of 2009. Viewed in the light of the ethical toolbox developed in chapter 1, he commends the Greenhouse Development Rights Framework proposed by the Stockholm Environmental Institute.

His fifth chapter focusing on US climate policy paints a bleak picture of fine words unmatched by effective action. He concludes that “Failure to take aggressive action now to reduce emissions will perpetuate current rates of GHG emissions and condemn future generations to a rate and degree of warming unprecedented in human civilization’ (p. 158).

He concludes with a case study, examining greenhouse gas reduction strategies implemented by Luther College, Decorah, Iowa. This concluding chapter demonstrates how individual institutions and communities can implement energy policies that meet the ethical criteria spelled out at the beginning of the book.

As indicated above, my main reservation is that I think he is unduly optimistic about continuing conventional energy supplies and our capacity to move seamlessly from conventional to renewables. An increasing number of authorities believe that global oil production has already peaked. As for uranium, which he suggests is good for another 80 years or so, other estimates suggest that if there is a significant rise in civilian use production could peak within the decade. That reservation apart, Martin-Schramm has produced a very helpful practical survey of climate justice issues for anyone involved in the development of energy policies whether at community, company or national government level.

Avoiding rail fare rip-offs

I needed to buy a train ticket to Alnmouth this morning. When I checked on-line, I was told that the cheapest fare from my local station was £62. This seemed a bit excessive, so I checked the cheapest fare from Glasgow Queen Street instead: £43.20. Adding single fares between home and Glasgow, that comes to a total of just£46.80!

Moral of the story: If you are buying a train ticket on-line, always check the fare from your nearest mainline station to your destination.

07 July 2010

Writing on writing

Back in April Mark Newton was blogging about writing manuals. He makes it fairly clear that he doesn’t like them. I tend to agree with him about the kind of books on writing that imply that the reader has only to follow their instructions carefully to create a bestseller. Mark describes them as exploitative, which seems a very measured assessment. I would be tempted to say that some of them come close to being fraudulent (and the software packages that claim to be able to help you write a bestseller by following a formula are even worse). But there are three categories of books on writing I would exempt from this criticism:
  1. There are the books on the nuts and bolts of the writing craft. I’m thinking here of things like Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. David Crystal’s Rediscover Grammar and Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves also fall into this category.
  2. There are some very good books of analysis written by first-rate practitioners of the craft. Samuel Delany’s About Writing is a good example, as is Ursula Le Guin’s The Language of the Night. I have recently started reading Robert Silverberg’s Science Fiction 101: Where to Start Reading and Writing Science Fiction, which also falls into this category being a collection of what he regards as the most important SF short stories together with analytical essays explaining what makes them important.
  3. Finally, there is a unique book: Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer. It sounds like another ‘how to’ manual, but it is a very different kind of ‘how to’ manual. Brande focuses instead on the psychology of writing and offers the would-be writer a series of exercises designed to get the creative juices flowing and to turn writing into a habit. Instead of helping you to develop your technique, the raison d’etre of this book is helping you to develop the habit of writing something, anything, every day without fail.

06 July 2010

Wolfsangel

Another, more recent, review for Interzone:

Wolfsangel by M.D. Lachlan (Gollancz, 2010)

Wolfsangel (German = ‘wolf’s hook’): A symbol found in German heraldic devices perhaps originating from a mason’s mark. In the twentieth century it was adopted by various Nazi and neo-Nazi bodies. The symbol is said to represent a stylized wolf trap and is sometimes used to symbolize the werewolf.

M.D. Lachlan’s fantasy debut has all the essential elements of a rollicking historical fantasy: action aplenty, vivid description and strong characterization. The setting is unmistakably that of ninth-century Scandinavia; Lachlan has obviously researched the period with some care and lovingly re-creates both the heroism and the barbarity of the Viking way of life. There is a lot to like about his descriptions, but if I had to single out one thing in particular it would be his vivid portrayal of berserkers as drug-crazed psychopaths.

The novel begins with a night-time raid on a Saxon village. Childless Viking chief Authun has been told by the witch queen of the birth of a miraculous child among the Saxons, and he has determined to make the child his heir. But when he reaches the place of the prophecy he finds not one child but twins. He decides to return with both, and the novel is an account of what happens as a result of that decision.

Authun adopts one of the twins, Vali, and hands the other, Feileg, over to the witch queen. In time, the twins will be reunited and both of them will love the same woman, Adisla. At one level, the story is about the tragic consequences of their love.

However, the love triangle of Vali, Feileg and Adisla is only the first layer of the novel. At a second level, it is the tale of a life-long conflict between the witch queen and a northern shaman. Each sees the other as the epitome of evil and as a very real threat to their way of life. Each views the twins as an apt weapon to use against the other. And each is prepared to sacrifice all they hold dear to prevail in the struggle.

But there is yet another level to the story. Behind the warring magicians, we find warring gods. The witch queen and the shaman are merely proxies for Odin and Loki (though which is proxy for which remains to be seen). And at this level of the story, Vali and Feileg are to be instrumental in the incarnation of Loki’s son Fenrisulfr, the great wolf who is destined to destroy Odin.

I enjoyed Lachlan’s very distinctive approach to magic. In the world Lachlan has created access to magic is by way of suffering. The witches wrest knowledge of runic magic from the unconscious by suffering to the point of madness or even death. Judging by the ravages wrought upon the shaman’s body, he too must suffer in order to wield power. What I particularly like is that Lachlan has taken the trouble to root his magical systems firmly in Norse mythology (with the paradigm of Odin sacrificing himself on the world tree to gain knowledge) so that they have the ring of truth to them.

And what is the significance of the Wolfsangel? This new rune is revealed to the witches when they first divine the birth of the twins. Seen from one perspective it signifies ‘thunderbolt’, from other perspectives ‘werewolf’, ‘Protector’ and ‘wolf trap’. And in various ways in the course of the novel, one or other of the twins could be said to fulfil aspects of that prophecy. However, it too has another dimension, which points forwards to future novels in the series. Near the end of the story, in a final act of hope, Adisla steps off the edge of a precipice bearing the body of her beloved . . . and some time later hunters find a feral child in an old wolf’s den.

Lachlan manages to weave the different levels of the story together to create the most powerful and original fantasy I have read for some time. My only complaint is that now I must wait for the sequel. Definitely a ‘must read’ for 2010.

05 July 2010

Naamah’s Kiss

Here is a review I did for Interzone some time ago:

Naamah’s Kiss by Jacqueline Carey (Gollancz, January 2010)

With Naamah’s Kiss Jacqueline Carey returns to the world of her Kushiel’s Legacy series. It is the first volume of a new trilogy, which will follow the fortunes of Moirin as she comes to terms with her magical powers and her connection with the deities of Terre d’Ange.

The story in this volume falls naturally into three parts. The first part introduces Moirin and outlines her childhood on the island of Alba. Gradually she discovers her magical gifts and her connection with the gods of her father’s people. Her first love affair ends in tragedy. Soon after that she undergoes a coming of age ritual, during which she is accepted as a true child of the Maghuinn Dhonn (the bear goddess of her mother’s people) but at the same time effectively exiled.

Knowing that her destiny lies overseas, Moirin leaves Alba to seek her father in Terre d’Ange. On arrival she is rapidly accepted into Angeline society becoming the mistress of Raphael de Mereliot – the Queen’s favourite – and then the lover of Queen Jehanne herself. Here she meets the man destined to become her teacher, the Ch’in sage Lo Feng. Through Raphael she meets a group of occultists and becomes involved in their attempts to summon fallen angels.

In the third part, Lo Feng is recalled to Ch’in to heal a princess and avert a civil war. Moirin goes with him and plays a crucial role in that enterprise – helping to free the dragon trapped within the princess and using her magic to suppress knowledge that could spell disaster worldwide. At the same time, she becomes involved in two more love affairs, with the princess and Lo Feng’s assistant, Bao. Her separation from Bao at the end of the novel provides the departure point for the next volume in the trilogy.

In the previous Kushiel novels, Carey created a complex alternative medieval earth centred on Terre d’Ange. Riffing on the Judaeo-Christian tradition, she has envisaged a world in which a group of angels have become the gods and goddesses of Terre d’Ange. Naamah’s Kiss adds a pagan/druidic element in the Alba section and a faux Chinese background for the Ch’in section. Perhaps inevitably, these suffer by comparison with the much more developed mythology of the central Angeline section.

Like the earlier novels, this is a first person narrative – in this case, written entirely from Moirin’s perspective. Moirin is an engaging character but on my second reading I became irritated with her indecisiveness. She can’t give up her first love; exile is forced upon her. In Terre d’Ange she allows herself to manipulated by Raphael into more than one life-threatening situation and only Jehanne’s intervention saves her. Throughout the novel she comes across as more reactive than active. I can only hope that her quest to be reunited with Bao will lead to greater decisiveness in the next volume.

Since Moirin has a connection with Naamah, the goddess of desire, the novel contains a fair number of explicit sex scenes. Like much else in the novel they are well-written. However, I did feel they were rather too frequent. On more than one occasion when I wanted the plot to move on, Moirin jumped into bed instead.

Carey’s writing is generally clear and attractive. However, I was occasionally annoyed by the overuse of certain words and phrases. For example, in one sample of 20 pages the adjective ‘nice’ is used to describe everything from food and drink to jewellery and sex! I was also irritated by the way she scatters random archaisms (e.g. ‘betimes’, ‘mayhap’, ‘wroth’) through the text. In sum, this is a well written fantasy of a fairly traditional kind (apart from the sex) – young woman of humble origins but with remarkable gifts is raised to a position of great influence and goes on a quest during which she helps to save the world. In spite of its connections with the previous novels, it can be read and enjoyed without first having read its predecessors. A good book for a long journey or a lazy holiday.

04 July 2010

On personal space

Some thirty inches from my nose
The frontier of my person goes,
And all the untilled air between
Is private pagus or demesne.
Stranger unless, with bedroom eyes,
I beckon you to fraternise,
Beware of rudely crossing it:
I have no gun, but I can spit. (W.H. Auden)