19 December 2016

The O Antiphons

Just a few days to Christmas and in some Christian traditions it is time for the O Antiphons to be used in conjunction with the Magnificat at vespers/evensong.

Some years ago, I posted a blog series on the O Antiphons based on a quiet day I ran at St Aidan’s Clarkston. Here, for convenience, are the links to that series:

The quiet day and the posts derived from it made use of a series of sonnets written by the Cambridge-based priest and poet Malcolm Guite. As it happens, Malcolm has recently been posting those sonnets together with reflections on the O antiphons on his blog.

And for even more on the O antiphons, Daniel Horan’s reflections on them on his Dating God blog are well worth reading.

09 November 2016

The characteristics of fascism

Umberto Eco’s 1995 article ‘Ur-Fascism’ is worth reading. In it he identifies fourteen common characteristics of fascism. The following list is loosely based on his points (with a bit of help from Hannah Arendt and one or two others):
  • Harking back to a past golden age
  • Rejection of modernity (which one might extend to include contempt for ‘experts’)
  • Action for action’s sake
  • Disagreement is treason
  • Appeal to a frustrated middle class
  • Nationalism
  • Paranoia with respect to groups of sinister others (and a willingness to accept conspiracy theories relating to those others)
  • Contempt for weakness
  • Militarism
  • Machismo
  • Cynicism with respect to mainstream democratic politics
  • Use of an impoverished vocabulary and syntax
Does any of this sound familiar?

07 October 2016

Free VPN for lazy people, or another reason to love Opera

I think it is generally agreed (unless you are a government agency) that virtual private networks (VPNs) are ‘a good thing’. Essentially what they do is channel all your Internet communications via a proxy server, which can be on another continent. That makes it more difficult for websites you visit to identify you (unless of course you give them personal information). But more importantly, communication between your computer and the proxy server is encrypted so that the hacker at the table next to you in the internet café can’t eavesdrop on you and steal personal information. It also means that the data your Internet Service Provider will be required to collect for HM Government will be useless to them.

Unfortunately, until now VPNs have come in one of two flavours: pay a monthly subscription and get decent service, or opt for a free VPN which may be slower and is often a pain to set up properly. As a result, it is something I’ve meaning to do for at least a couple of years.

Enter my favourite web browser, Opera. It now comes with free VPN capability built in. All you have to do is go to the Settings page and switch it on. I’ve had it running for a couple of weeks now and it doesn’t seem to have slowed my system down at all.

One caveat: it is not a complete VPN solution because it only works within the browser. If you decide to run another browser or a separate email program, you won’t be protected.

29 August 2016

Ninefox Gambit

A review of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris, 2016)

I’m not really a fan of military science fiction, but the blurb for this novel caught my fancy and I was vaguely aware of the author’s reputation as a short story writer, so I decided to give his first novel a try.

The first thing to be said is that it is not an easy read. Lee begins in media res with his main character, Captain Kel Cheris, fighting for her life on an alien battlefield with no explanation of what is going on. But the very alienness of the situation makes for a gripping tale and the reader is swept along as Cheris is pulled out of that conflict and promoted: she has been selected to lead the response to a calendrical heresy that is threatening the Hexarchate. The full resources of the Hexarchate are put her disposal and she opts for the help of a long-dead Shuos general, Jedao, who was condemned as a mass murderer. With Jedao and a powerful task force, Cheris tackles the heresy head-on at what appears to be the focal point of the problem.

As you might expect, they succeed in defeating the heretics. But what is really interesting is the larger story that Lee has constructed around this straightforward narrative. We learn that the Hexarchate is not the benign institution Cheris believed it to be. We discover something of Jedao’s history and begin to get an idea of what might have driven him to mass murder. And by the end of the story, we discover that we are really only at the end of the first act of a much larger story.

Little details distinguish and bring to life the various cultures and castes under the power of the Hexarchate. For example, for some unexplained reason the Kel, the military caste of the Hexarchate, have a particular fondness for cabbage. But what I enjoyed most about Lee’s world building was his creation of an esoteric calendrical mathematics that underpins the technology and culture of the Hexarchate. This mathematics is never explained but somehow pervades the whole to create the impression that one is indeed eavesdropping on an alien culture. I have rarely come across such a successful depiction of the alien. (Too often SFF authors think that they can lift elements from Chinese or Japanese culture and that counts as alien!)

Lee’s characterization is as gripping as his world building. It is not often that readers will find themselves sympathizing with a character who freely admits to being a mass murderer!

This is easily the best work of science fiction I have read in 2016. My one frustration with it is that the next volume of the trilogy isn’t yet available!

26 August 2016

Coming soon to Android…

…Windows programs!

I discovered Crossover a few years ago when I was experimenting with Linux. Developed by Codeweavers, Crossover does a similar job to Wine, allowing (some) Windows programs to run in a Linux environment. They also do a version that allows Windows programs to run on Macs.

Now they have announced a new version of Crossover that will allow Windows programs to run on some Android systems, specifically those on Intel-based computers. Chromebooks are the obvious target for the new program, but hopefully it will also work on Android tablets with Intel chips.

You can sign up to try out a preview version of it. I have done so and I’m looking forward to seeing whether I can get Idealist to run on my tablet. Very sensibly, Codeweavers are making no promises about what Windows programs will run satisfactorily in the new environment. But I’m hopeful about getting Idealist to work because it ran well on Linux using Crossover.

10 August 2016

By their fruit shall ye know them

A couple of weeks ago, a leading evangelical theologian endorsed Donald Trump as ‘the candidate who is most likely to do the most good for the United States of America’. For some reason, I can’t help thinking of an event that had a formative effect on the theology of the young Karl Barth. In his own words,

One day in early August 1914 stands out in my personal memory as a black day. Ninety-three German intellectuals impressed public opinion by their proclamation in support of the war policy of Wilhelm II and his counselors. Among these intellectuals I discovered to my horror almost all of my theological teachers who I had greatly venerated. In despair over what this indicated about the signs of the time I suddenly realized that I could not any longer follow either their ethics and dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. For me at least 19th century theology no longer held any future. (The Humanity of God, p. 14)

08 August 2016

Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction

A review of Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction edited by Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson (Wesleyan University Press, 2014)

Green Planets is a collection of papers jointly edited by a professor of English literature, Gerry Canavan, and Kim Stanley Robinson, whose credentials as a SF writer should ensure the volume a readership outside the small world of academic literary studies. According to the back cover copy, it explores ‘the close relationship between science fiction, ecology, and environmentalism’ and ‘considers how science fiction writers have been working through this crisis’.

Canavan introduces the volume with a historical overview of environmentally conscious SF. He offers some explanation of terms that will be used and sets the scene for the structure of book, which is built around opposing understandings of utopia and dystopia in language appropriated by Samuel Delany from W.H. Auden.



Part 1 is entitled ‘Arcadias and New Jerusalems’ and contains four chapters exploring the long-standing opposition between pastoral and urban utopias. Christina Alt’s opening chapter offers a depressing comparison of two of H.G. Wells’s stories – depressing because one of the seminal figures of the genre first presents a pessimistic vision of the future of humanity in The War of the Worlds and then offers an eco-fascist vision of an earth cultivated to serve human interests in Men Like Gods. Michael Page illustrates the perennial struggle between evolutionary optimism and apocalyptic pessimism with the aid of Simak’s City and Stewart’s Earth Abides. Gib Prettyman explores the Taoist dimension in Ursula Le Guin’s utopian fiction (and en route convinced me that I should read her paraphrase of the Tao te Ching). Rob Latham concludes Part 1 with an examination of New Wave critiques of eco-imperialism in hard SF.

The second part, ‘Brave New Worlds and Lands of the Flies’, consists of five chapters focused on the dystopias corresponding to the utopias of Part 1. It begins with Sabine Höhler’s study of Garrett Hardin’s Exploring New Ethics for Survival, which is perhaps slightly off-topic as Hardin was an ethicist rather than a SF writer and this book was really an apologetic for his right-wing ethical stance dressed up as SF for ease of reading. However, the chapter does make the interesting point that all arks are discriminatory. This is followed by Andrew Milner looking at an Australian example of climatic apocalypse, Adeline Johns-Putra analysing Maggie Gee’s The Ice People, and Elzette Steenkamp exploring ecological concerns in South African speculative fiction. Of these three chapters, I found Johns-Putra’s the most thought-provoking in that it uses SF to challenge gendered understandings of caring in environmentalism. Part 2 concludes with a piece in which Christopher Palmer looks at the effect of the ubiquity of apocalypse in recent literature.

Part 3, ‘Quiet Earths, Junk Cities, and the Cultures of the Afternoon’ is an attempt to explore the interstices between the utopias of Part 1 and their corresponding dystopias. Eric Otto looks at Paolo Bacigalupi’s strategic use of dystopias to commend their opposite. Brent Bellamy and Imre Szeman offer a study of what they call science faction – recent speculative extrapolations from current science to earthly life after the (near) extinction of the human race. Although such material is only tenuously connected with SF, I found this chapter the most thought-provoking in the book. Bellamy and Szeman demonstrate the inherent conservatism of these extrapolations: by highlighting the supposed ease with which with the environment would recover after the end of the human race, the books they analyse present ecocatastrophe as a mere mis-step, something that might be avoided by the appropriate technological fix. In Chapter 12, Timothy Morton uses Avatar as a peg on which to hang some rarefied thoughts on ecology and post-Enlightenment philosophy. To conclude the section, Melody Jue links Lem’s Solaris and Greg Egan’s ‘Oceanic’ to bring an ecological dimension to the surface/depth dichotomy in SF.

In addition to the essays that make up the bulk of the volume, there is an afterword in the form of a dialogue between Canavan and Robinson, which concludes on an upbeat note rejecting the charge of pessimism that is sometimes levelled at ecological SF. Last but not least, Canavan has compiled a fairly comprehensive annotated reading list for anyone who wants to pursue ideas raised by the volume.

Given the multi-author nature of the work, it was inevitable that the quality of contributions would vary. There are some dull and uninteresting contributions. Indeed, one or two are little more than extended book reports. But those are more than compensated for by the thought-provoking chapter, the ones that throw up ideas that you will want to develop in entirely different directions from those taken by the authors. In conclusion, the book certainly fills a gap in the market and offers an invaluable starting point upon which, hopefully, other scholars will build.

03 August 2016

Live Like Francis

A review of Live Like Francis by Leonard Foley and Jovian Weigel (Franciscan Media, 2016)

This little book began life over half a century ago as The Third Order Vocation. It was subsequently updated to harmonize with the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order approved by Pope John Paul II in 1978. In that form, it has been widely used by people exploring a call to living Franciscan ideals in the midst of daily life. This latest form of the book looks outwards to people beyond the SFO who might also wish to explore the Franciscan way.

It is structured as a spiritual workbook rather than something you would simply read through from cover to cover. Fifty-two chapters offer a year of weekly reflections covering every aspect of life as a Franciscan Tertiary in five parts. Part 1 (Foundation) goes to the heart of the Franciscan (and Christian) vocation – Jesus Christ. Part 2 (Conversion) explores the process of turning to follow Christ in terms of poverty, humility, chastity, and obedience. Part 3 looks at the life of prayer. The largest section of the book, Part 4, follows the Tertiary into the world and explores the Tertiary's role as one who seeks justice, peace, and the well-being of creation. And the brief concluding section touches on the Franciscan family.

Within those sections, each chapter follows a common pattern. It begins with a reading from St Francis (or from time to time the Rule of the SFO) and a meditation on that reading. This is followed by a number of questions intended to explore our response to the reading and meditation. There follows a related reading from the Bible and one from the wider Franciscan family in order to root our reflections in both Scripture and tradition. By way of conclusion, there are some questions/suggestions challenging us to apply our meditations to daily life and a concluding prayer.

So far I have only dipped into this book and read sections rather than working through it week by week in the manner intended. But what I have read convinces me that taking a year to work through these meditations would be a valuable exercise for any Tertiary (or indeed anyone who is serious about following Christ). I plan to use it that way myself and to recommend it very strongly to my fellow Anglican Tertiaries and to any novices and enquirers who cross my path.


01 August 2016

Silent Hall

A review of Silent Hall by N.S. Dolkart (Angry Robot, 2016)

Take five refugees from an act of divine judgement on their home; set them loose in the big, wide world; and have them stumble upon a dubious wizard. Throw in a prophecy which seems to refer to these five, conflict with elves who are the very antithesis of Tolkien’s noble elder race, and the need to free a long-imprisoned dragon. This certainly sounds like a recipe for an exciting new voice in epic fantasy.

Unfortunately, a satisfying dinner is much more than just an exciting recipe. The secret is in the cooking, and this particular effort can only be described as half-baked.

The plot is quite linear: they did this, and then they did that. Yes, we get several different perspectives but they are working together more or less as a team, discovering their unique gifts, gathering the artefacts the wizard wants them to find.

The characters are plot-driven rather than the plot being character-driven. A quarter of the way through the book I felt that none of the characters had yet shown any real agency. They seemed to be entirely at the mercy of the events that overtook them. Perhaps partly because of that, the characters also come across as fairly superficial – even the attempts to present the central characters as complex are superficial. And the minor characters are just ciphers, no better than the redshirts in Star Trek.

To cap it all, the world-building is at best rudimentary. There are clear ethnic differences between our heroes’ homeland of Tarphae and the mainland, but the author gives no hint of any cultural or linguistic differences in spite of the large distances involved. It simply beggars belief that disparate peoples in a pre-modern world all speak the same language, worship more or less the same gods, and share more or less the same myths – without any evidence that they had once been part of a single empire.

Now I admit that this book was up against stiff competition. I read it just after reading the latest from Guy Gavriel Kay and Paul Kearney. But this was not merely not in the same league, it was several divisions below them. Very disappointing.

25 July 2016

Retribution

A review of Retribution by Mark Charan Newton (Tor, 2014) – originally published in Interzone

Retribution is the second volume in a series of crime fantasies whose central character, Lucan Drakenfeld, is an agent of the Sun Chamber, which enforces law and maintains peace across the Vispasian Royal Union, a loose federation of diverse nation-states. Lucan is by no means a typical fantasy hero: he has no particular martial or occult skills, he suffers from epilepsy, and he is plagued with self-doubt. On the other hand, he is basically a decent human being and refreshingly optimistic in spite of his constant exposure to the darker side of human nature. To compensate for some of his weaknesses, Newton has given him an assistant, Leana, who is a skilled warrior. The first novel, Drakenfeld, combined this likeable central character with a plot in which good ultimately triumphs and the truth is revealed, which led me to hope that the series might be the beginning of the fight-back against the grimdark tendencies that have infected so much recent fantasy literature. So I have been eagerly awaiting this sequel.

The new story begins just a few weeks after the events recounted in Drakenfeld. Lucan and Leana have been ordered to Kuvash, capital of the northern nation of Koton, to investigate a brutal murder. Two more murders that bear certain similarities to the first take place shortly after their arrival. In all cases, the victims were tortured before death, their bodies were mutilated and subsequently left to be found in public places. But what clinches the connection between the deaths is the fact that all the victims had possessed examples of an extremely unusual gemstone. As Lucan and Leana follow the trail of clues, it leads them to uncover a decades’ old conspiracy implicating leading members of society in human trafficking and a sinister religious cult. In addition to carrying out the duties that brought them to Kuvash, the Queen of Koton co-opts them to protect her daughter, and they succeed in foiling an assassination plot by a rival clan. Meanwhile, the precarious political situation in Lucan’s homeland, the neighbouring country of Detrata – a political situation brought about in part by their previous investigation – has degenerated to the point where an imperialist senate has gained power. At the end of Retribution, as Lucan and Leana leave Koton, Detratan legions are marching into the country.

Retribution is well plotted. Its story arcs are carefully woven together and equally carefully disentangled in the denouement. The story is also well paced with just the right amount of action to keep the reader’s attention. Nevertheless, I struggled to like this book. I was hoping for a departure from grimdark tendencies, but instead this volume is unremittingly grim. By the end of the novel, Drakenfeld’s decency and optimism are looking increasingly naive and his rejection of a gift with the potential to cure his epilepsy may well strike the reader as quixotic.

By comparison with its predecessor, the characterization in Retribution was disappointing. Some effort was clearly put into developing two new characters – Sulma Tan and Princess Nambu – but many of the others were stereotypical. Unfortunately, given that this story could otherwise stand on its own, Lucan and Leana were not as clearly characterized in this volume. We are given new insights into Leana’s background, but in spite of this she seems less likeable: gone is the clear-sighted observer of a strange culture who is easily able to match Lucan’s intelligence; here she comes across as cold and even psychopathic.

One of my irritations with Drakenfeld was an excess of unsubtle info-dumping, which I felt was exacerbated by the combination of a first-person perspective and a setting with which the central character was very familiar. I had hoped the foreign setting of Retribution would allow any necessary info-dumping to be handled more naturally. Unfortunately I still found the info-dumping distracting. Another irritation that has found its way into this volume is a tendency to overuse vague descriptive adjectives. In addition, at times I felt the language – particularly in some of the dialogue – was strangely formal. The result was that I was less able to enjoy the story because these issues kept forcing me to pay attention to the mechanics of the writing.

In conclusion, this is a well-constructed story, which more or less stands on its own (though I would recommend would-be readers to begin with Drakenfeld to get a better understanding of Lucan and Leana and, indeed, of the historical background to the Vispasian Union). Sadly I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it because of the aforementioned issues with the writing. However, anyone who enjoyed Drakenfeld will certainly want to read Retribution as the second act in a larger drama involving the future of the entire Vispasian Union.

18 July 2016

Son of the Morning

A review of Son of the Morning by Mark Alder (Gollancz, 2014) – originally published in Interzone

My initial reaction when this arrived in the post was trepidation: This is a very big book by an unknown author. In my experience, fantasies that can double as doorstops and/or sprawl over multiple volumes often sacrifice quality on the altar of quantity. On the other hand, the book has been enthusiastically endorsed by Robert Adams who is not known for his tolerance of bad writing.

Son of the Morning is a historical fantasy set at the beginning of the Hundred Years War. Alder has set himself the challenging task of telling ‘an accurate historical epic’ and superimposing upon it a mythology in which he reworks medieval Christian cosmology. In his take on the Hundred Years War, heaven and hell have entered the fray. France is defended not only by a large human army but also by several angels. Edward III is determined not to bow to Philip VI but he is reluctant to engage in direct conflict because the English angels have been notable by their absence since his father’s death. However, a possible alliance with the devils could tip the balance in England’s favour.

This is where Alder’s reworking of Christian theology becomes particularly interesting. He makes a distinction between devils and demons. The latter are powerful spiritual beings who have been supplanted by God. This divine usurper has imprisoned his rivals in hell, and the devils are God’s gaolers. With the demons safely out of the way, God has been able to exercise an iron rule over earth through the agency of his other servants, the angels.

However, the demons are fighting back. Led by Lucifer (who in this mythology is equated with Christ), they have carved out a free enclave within hell. Now they are seeking to regain a foothold on earth. For some time they have had human supporters but now their agent, Antichrist, has been born. The son of a human king and a fallen angel, he has the potential to transform this human conflict into a cosmic confrontation.

The publishers would have us compare this with the works of Bernard Cornwell and George Martin. Perhaps so, but for me, the obvious comparisons were Sarah Douglass’s Crucible trilogy, which operates from the remarkably similar premise of angels and demons interfering in the Hundred Years War (though she begins her series much later in the reign of Edward III), and Maurice Druon’s series Les Rois Maudits, which is a remarkable dramatization of events in France preceding the Hundred Years War (some of which are alluded to by characters in Son of the Morning).

Alder’s characterization is very impressive. The dramatis personae are all lovingly crafted individuals with their own distinctive voices. Not surprisingly, the dialogue is utterly convincing. As a result of this care, I found myself sympathizing with each character in turn, even with some who might simply be presented as one-dimensional villains in a less nuanced novel. This also has the effect of turning the novel into a complex network of stories interweaving into each other as we follow each of the main characters in turn.

Equally compelling is the descriptive dimension of the novel. He brings the period to life in a way that is rarely the case with historical fantasy. If anything, his handling of the supernatural elements of the story is even more striking. I particularly liked his approach to the angels, which are portrayed as surreal, otherworldly, but recognizably humanoid beings. As for his devils, they come straight out of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.

In summary, the quality of writing is remarkably (even suspiciously) assured for an unknown novelist. The reason for this became apparent as I was browsing the publishers’ website some time after finishing the novel. It appears that Mark Alder is a new pseudonym rather than a new writer. This is, in fact the work of M.D. Lachlan (aka Mark Barrowcliffe) of Wolfsangel fame (which I reviewed enthusiastically four years ago).

I must confess I am less enthusiastic about Son of the Morning than I was about Wolfsangel. Yes, the writing is excellent but I’m not convinced the storyline can bear its weight. As I worked my way through the latter half of the novel I became increasingly ambivalent: I wanted to luxuriate in the characterization and description but I became increasingly impatient to get to the end. This problem was compounded by the sheer expansiveness of the storyline: its takes place over the best part of a decade; it is composed as already mentioned of multiple storylines woven together to tell the larger story; and the parts don’t always hang together as well as they might.



I was left feeling that somehow the whole seemed less than the sum of the parts. Nevertheless, the whole is still a remarkably good read and a promising start to a new fantasy series. I look forward to the next volume.

17 July 2016

This is not a crucifix

This is the profession cross of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis. People receive it when they become professed members of the Order. For Tertiaries, it is roughly the equivalent of the habit worn by our First and Second Order brothers and sisters.

It is not a crucifix.

I know . . . first impressions. But in the West, crucifixes normally bear a three-dimensional image of Christ. Instead this cross bears a mere outline of Christ’s body, a silhouette if you like. When I look at it, I do not see a crucifix; I see an empty cross that has had etched into it a memory of crucifixion. And that is just as it should be: the empty cross bears witness to our Lord’s resurrection, but the shadow of crucifixion reminds us of his suffering on our behalf.

11 July 2016

Drakenfeld

A review of Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton (Tor, 2013) – originally published in Interzone

I have been looking forward to this novel since the author started dropping hints about it on his blog. He has made no secret of the fact that the story was inspired by his interest in Roman culture and by C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake novels (detective stories set in Tudor England). The result is part historical fantasy, part detective story, which for me is an irresistible combination.

The fantasy world he has created is an interesting take on the late Roman Empire. Instead of an empire, his Vispasian Royal Union is a federation of equal kingdoms held together by shared economic interests rather than a central authority. You might expect such a federation to be very unstable, but Newton postulates a neutral peacekeeping force made up of the brightest, best and strongest of the member nations and large enough to keep individual nations in line. His central character, Lucan Drakenfeld is an agent of that force, the Sun Chamber.

The setting may be a fantastical take on Rome, but that is about as far as the fantasy element goes. At one point, Drakenfeld does encounter what might be a ghost. But, apart from that, there are none of the usual trappings of fantasy. In this respect, Mark’s approach to historical fantasy is reminiscent of that taken by Guy Gavriel Kay.

The detective element of the story is a straightforward locked room mystery. Drakenfeld has returned to his home city because of his father’s death. He receives a summons from the palace: Princess Lacanta has been found murdered inside a locked temple and there is no sign of a murder weapon. He may have a trusty assistant (Leana), but he is no Sherlock Holmes (and she is no Watson). There are no amazing feats of deduction, no brilliant intuitive leaps. Instead he systematically eliminates hidden exits and supernatural explanations and begins to suspect sleight of hand, which casts suspicion on all the courtiers who were present in the palace on the evening of the murder. As he pursues the investigation, the body count rises and the finger of suspicion points at a succession of highly placed individuals.

In addition to the central investigation, there are a couple of secondary stories. While dealing with his father’s affairs, Drakenfeld discovers that his father did not die of natural causes. Soon he has uncovered evidence of drug taking and large debts. Just what was his father involved in? Then there is the story of Drakenfeld’s relationship with Titiana, an ex-lover with whom he is reunited shortly after his return. Both of these secondary stories are neatly tied back into the central story in ways that seem perfectly natural.

Another aspect of the book that is perhaps more characteristic of detective stories than of fantasies is the first person viewpoint: the story is told entirely by Drakenfeld himself. Newton does a good job of developing Drakenfeld’s character, largely by means of his reflections on his relationships with Leana, his father, and Titiana. The result is more than a little reminiscent of Sansom’s Shardlake if you substitute the emotional crippling of growing up with an overbearing father for a physical deformity. Like Shardlake, Drakenfeld is conscious of his own inadequacies, uncomfortable with power (and the violence associated with wielding it), and dependent on his assistant to save him from dangerous situations.

I was less convinced by many of the secondary characters. Apart from Leana, they tended to be stereotypical. Leana, however, is a gem: a foreign woman who can match Drakenfeld for intelligence but who is also a very capable warrior. She enables Mark to indicate the racism and the sexism of the society he has created without being heavy-handed about it.

At 430 pages the story is long for a mystery and the action does flag from time to time (usually when Drakenfeld becomes introspective). But the storyline is strong enough to retain the reader’s interest through the odd slow patch.

The world-building in the novel is very good. Tryum is clearly inspired by imperial Rome, and Mark does a good job of evoking the darker side of the city: the violence, poverty, dingy bars and crumbling lodging houses are nicely juxtaposed against the opulence and conspicuous consumption of the royal precincts. I also like the way he gradually builds up the larger political picture and begins to set the scene for subsequent novels.

Unfortunately there is a certain amount of unsubtle info-dumping. He does try to use Leana’s foreign-ness as a pretext, but this is of limited use since a created world needs a lot of background information. The real problem here is the choice of a first person perspective combined with a central character who is very familiar with the society being described. I was also irritated by some of the writing, for example, redundancies such as ‘hurrying . . . in haste’ (p. 59); modern expressions like ‘narrative timeline’ (p. 69), which tended to disrupt my willing suspension of disbelief; and an overuse of vague adjectives (particularly lovely, beautiful and remarkable).

Those niggles apart, this is a really good read. If, like me, you are fed up with the ‘grimdark’ tendency in recent fantasy, you will welcome Drakenfeld as a satisfying antidote. I’m certainly looking forward to Drakenfeld’s next case.

Hide Me Among the Graves

A review of Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers (Corvus, 2012) – originally published in Interzone

Tim Powers has returned to the world of his 1989 novel The Stress of Her Regard, which was set in the early decades of the nineteenth century and involved Byron, Keats and Shelley. Hide Me Among the Graves is largely set in Victorian London between the years 1862 and 1877 and involves two main sets of characters, one fictional and the other historical. The main fictional characters are John Crawford, a veterinary surgeon and the son of one of the protagonists of the earlier novel, and an ex-prostitute Adelaide McKee. Their historical counterparts are Christina Rossetti, her siblings and some of their associates.

The book opens with the teenage Christina reawakening the spirit that had possessed her uncle and now resides in a statuette belonging to her father. She later admits this to her sister and together they attempt unsuccessfully to lay the spirit to rest. Thus the scene is set for a complex plot in which the protagonists struggle to rid London of these beings.

Powers has done a masterful job of reinventing the vampire myth with these creatures, which he identifies with the biblical Nephilim. These ‘vampires’ have some of the characteristics of the classical creative daimon: they draw on the vitality of their human victims, but in return they endow those victims with remarkable creativity.

As ever, he tells a gripping story, weaving the biographies of several historical characters into a romp around the underbelly of Victorian London. I particularly like the way he superimposes a secret supernatural history upon the public history we all know. The creativity of the Rossetti family and their friends and acquaintances as well as the tragedies they suffer are explained in terms of their interaction with the Nephilim. Powers has researched the Rossettis and their context meticulously and uses that research to bring both Victorian London and his secret history to life. I am fascinated by the way he takes apparently trivial details (e.g. Gabriel Rossetti’s pet name for his wife, Trelawny’s mysterious mistress Miss B) or carefully selected quotations from Christina and her circle and uses them to reinforce his secret history.

One of the great strengths of his writing is his characterization and the complexity of the characters he develops. Christina is torn between guilt over her teenage indiscretion and genuine love for the entity that once possessed her uncle. Similar points could be made about every one of the central characters. And even the secondary characters Trelawny and Swinburne are lovingly developed.

At times, Powers seems to play elaborate games for the sheer fun of it. For example, a nursery rhyme becomes a mnemonic for Latin phrases that placate the genii loci presiding over subterranean London.

I confess that I attempted (unsuccessfully) to pick holes in his construct. Perhaps a scholar of the period would have more luck. His attention to detail and his ability to manipulate those details to serve the story he is telling are quite amazing.

This is intelligent, literate supernatural storytelling at its very best, a Gothic novel for the twenty-first century.

04 July 2016

Warring States

A review of Warring States by Aidan Harte (Jo Fletcher Books, 2013) – originally published in Interzone

Warring States is the second volume of Aidan Harte’s Wave Trilogy. Its predecessor, Irenicon, was a very accomplished debut novel and for me one of the most memorable books of 2012. So, as you can imagine, I have been waiting impatiently for the next instalment.

Harte has not disappointed me. There are several important continuities between the volumes, which ensure that Warring States is as satisfying as Irenicon. For a start there is the same engaging prose. Then there is the complex world-building: he continues to develop his fascinating, and at times disturbing, riff on Renaissance Italy while adding into the mix his own take on Byzantium and the Kingdom of Acre. So with this second instalment a much bigger picture is gradually unfolding. And this bigger picture gives him a larger canvas for his vivid descriptions: there are new cities to explore, and the dangers of the Middle Sea and the Desert of Oltremare to be braved.

He begins this episode by backtracking to tell the back stories of Torbidda, a low class Concordian boy who rises to become First Apprentice of Concord in the wake of the events in Irenicon, and Leto, Torbidda’s ally who becomes the head of Concord’s armed forces. Harte’s ability to develop complex and convincing characters is worth mentioning here. With Torbidda, he has achieved the very difficult feat of depicting how Concord’s education system turns him into a cold-blooded murderer while portraying him in such a way that reader still finds him sympathetic. Part II picks up the story of Sofia Scaligeri, the central character of Irenicon, and traces her flight from Rasenna as she seeks a place of safety for birth of her child. Parts III and IV follow Sofia as she goes first to Ariminum (Harte’s version of Venice) and eventually reaches what she hopes will be the safe haven of Akka. At the same time, he weaves into Sofia’s story the parallel story of Torbidda’s struggles to retain control of Concord, to understand the truth of the Molè, the sinister building designed by Girolamo Bernoulli that dominates Concord, and to resist the Molè’s efforts to manipulate and possess him.

Harte also begins to develop hints from Irenicon that this is part of a much bigger cosmological conflict. It appears that Sofia’s unborn son has a messianic role to play and that the child’s ancient adversary is also seeking to be reborn and is manipulating world events to achieve final victory. The volume concludes with a cliff-hanger, namely, the reappearance in Concord of the messianic child’s ancient enemy.

Having said that Harte’s new volume did not disappoint me, I should mention that I have one or two caveats. This is very much the second volume of a trilogy: Irenicon is essential reading if you wish to understand what is going on. More of a problem is that I felt Warring States to be inconclusive: the story arcs that Harte has created are left hanging in mid-air rather than being given any kind of interim resolution. Taken together with the cliff-hanger ending, I found this more than a little annoying. Unusually, I am prepared to forgive this and give the book a qualified recommendation because of Harte’s accomplished use of language, his clever and complex world-building, and his very satisfying characterization.

In sum, if you haven’t read Irenicon, you should look at it first. If you enjoyed Irenicon, you will certainly want to read Warring States.

27 June 2016

Dangerous Gifts

A review of Dangerous Gifts by Gaie Sebold (Solaris, 2013) – originally published in Interzone

Dangerous Gifts is the sequel to Gaie Sebold’s first novel, Babylon Steel. Not only does it carry on in the same tone as its predecessor – a fast-paced fantasy adventure written in the first person from the perspective of her central character, Babylon Steel – but it continues more or less where the first novel leaves off.

Babylon was once the avatar of Babaska, a goddess of war and lust. Now she is the madam of the best brothel in the city of Scalentine having previously spent some years working as a mercenary. In the first novel, due to financial embarrassments, she allowed herself to be hired by Scalentine’s shadowy Diplomatic Section to find and protect Enthemerlee, a young visitor from the world of Incandress.

Incandress is inhabited by two apparently distinct races: the dominant, humanoid Gudain and their servants, the reptilian Ikinchli. However, Enthemerlee is living proof that that the two races are in fact one. For some generations the Gudain have been declining in numbers while the Ikinchli have been increasing. Enthemerlee’s return to Incandress promises the emancipation of the Ikinchli and a possible answer to the barrenness of the Gudain. Inevitably, vested interests would prefer to maintain the status quo by assassinating her. So, Babylon is persuaded to act as her bodyguard at least until she has undergone the rites that will set in motion the changes so desperately needed by her people.

Babylon’s task is complicated by the intervention of a group of xenophobes from Scalentine who are conspiring with conservatives among the Gudain. To make matters worse, the conspiracy is being manipulated by a very nasty capitalist who wants to use Enthemerlee’s assassination as a part of a plan to make a financial killing. On top of all this, Babylon is distracted by the knowledge that most of her brothel’s money is tied up in a silk shipment currently on its way to Scalentine via Incandress and she is anxious about her relationship with Hargur, Chief of Scalentine’s City Militia.

It has to be said that Dangerous Gifts is very much a sequel. Much of the character development has already been done in the first novel, so while this novel could certainly be read on its own, the reader would get a fuller idea of the main characters and their relationships by reading Babylon Steel first. Having said that, Sebold has not allowed her story to suffer the fate of many mid-series novels. There is a clear and satisfying resolution of the story lines that were posited at the beginning of the novel.

At the same time, there is promise of more to come. Scalentine’s Diplomatic Section clearly have their claws into Babylon now, and it seems unlikely that they will leave her alone. In both novels, Sebold has teased us with intriguing hints about the abilities of Darask Fain, the Section’s representative; there is certainly scope for her to expand on those hints. Babaska clearly believes she has unfinished business with Babylon. And Babylon’s friend the mad magician Mokraine is giving her cryptic warnings of arcane dangers that lie ahead.

I enjoyed this novel almost as much as its predecessor. Gaie Sebold continues to offer us well-paced action and vivid descriptions. And Babylon Steel is a very engaging narrator who lightens the story with amusing one-liners about the characters and situations she finds herself involved with. In summary, Dangerous Gifts is an enjoyable and satisfying read.

26 June 2016

EU Referendum: How should Christians respond?

I deliberately refrained from blogging on the EU Referendum during the campaign, partly because I didn’t have anything to add to the many helpful blogs on the subject and partly because I didn’t want to get caught up in the anger the subject has managed to generate. But now it seems appropriate to publish a few remarks on how Christians should respond to the outcome of the Referendum.

First, the context of my remarks: I voted for the UK to remain in the EU and I am deeply disappointed by the result of the vote. While I recognize that the EU is a deeply flawed institution, I judged that continued membership was the lesser evil, and I stand by that judgement. So, how should Christians (whether they voted ‘remain’ or ‘leave’) respond?

Not by name calling.  David Robertson has accused some pro-remain Christian bloggers of responding in a manner that is bitter, cynical and full of contempt and fear’ and of dismissing those who voted for Brexit as ignorant working-class racists. I must admit I haven’t seen anything of the sort in the various Christian blogs I subscribe to. Perhaps we just follow completely different blogs. But, there can be no excuse for such attitudes in blogs that presume to describe themselves as Christian.

Remembering that God is sovereign. The starting point for any Christian response to world events (particularly events we deplore) is to remember that ultimately God is sovereign. This does not mean we accept that the event was somehow God’s will; we are not fatalists who believe that God micro-manages every aspect of the created order down to the level of quarks, bosons, and gluons. God may number the hairs on your head, but he is not responsible when one of them falls out. Rather, divine sovereignty means that however badly the human race messes up, God is working to bring about his reign of peace.

Prayer. Recognizing the sovereignty (and responsiveness) of God, the first resort of Christians should be prayer. And there is plenty to pray about in the wake of the vote to leave the EU:
  • The deep divisions within British society that have been revealed by the voting patterns – between young and old, between Scotland and England, between an urban elite and working people (not the old working/middle/upper class division).
  • The uncertain futures facing EU nationals living in the UK, UK nationals living on the Continent, and anyone whose job may be relocated to the Continent in the wake of an exit from the single market.
  • The fear that the outcome might lead to growing racist violence. Already fascist groups in England have hailed the outcome as an initial victory and have called on their members to ‘continue the battle against immigrants and Islamization’. We need to pray for the safety of immigrant communities across the UK.
  • For calm leadership from politicians, religious leaders and community leaders. David Cameron clearly has no desire to lead the country into Brexit, and the spokespeople of the Leave campaign have shown no indication that they have a programme to deal with their success.
  • For speedy resolution of the present uncertainty so that it might not lead to financial, political, or social instability.

Righteous action. If our first response is to pray, our second response (the corollary to prayer) is to heed God’s call to us to work for the peace of the city (Jeremiah 29:7). For those of us who voted to remain in the EU, this implies that we have to accept and live with the situation we now find ourselves in. The command to work for the peace of the city was originally issued to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. If God could reasonably expect the oppressed to actively seek the well-being of their oppressors, how much more does he expect us to seek the well-being of those who (we believe) have merely taken us in the wrong direction.

Of course, it should not be forgotten that the divine call to seek the well-being of the city (particularly when seen in the light of the New Testament) is profoundly subversive of worldly views of well-being. It is not, for example, merely or even primarily about economic prosperity. It is, rather, a reminder that as Christians we are called to work for the coming of the kingdom of God. We are called to do whatever we can to create foreshadowings of genuine biblical shalom – to work towards a society that is more compassionate, more tolerant of diversity, more open to immigrants, more responsible in its treatment of the environment, less unequal, less tolerant of any form of exploitation. But what might this mean in practical terms?

  • As individuals, we should practise loving our neighbours as ourselves as far as possible expressing the fruit of the Spirit in all our relationships.
  • While we should be hospitable, welcoming, and supportive in all our relationships, this is particularly applicable to our relationships with those who are not UK citizens.
  • We could actively get to know our non-British neighbours.
  • More generally, are there opportunities for us to support immigrants in our communities? Through drop-in centres, food banks, language classes, etc.
  • Instead of moaning from the sidelines about decline in moral standards or the influence of militant secularism or the fragmentation of contemporary society or the obscenity of extreme inequality, more Christians should be actively involved in the political process. At the very least we should regard voting as a solemn duty. But more Christians should also be engaged in party politics at local and national level. Most local party organizations are actually very small (smaller than many Christian congregations) and even at a national level party membership is smaller than membership of Christian denominations (e.g. the Scottish Episcopal Church, one of the smaller Scottish denominations, has three times as many members as the Scottish Labour Party). It would not take many Christians actively engaged at a grassroots level to exert real influence.
Christians should set themselves the task of working together with other people of goodwill to create the kind of society that will cause the leaders of the Leave Campaign to say, twenty years from now, ‘We told you so, we told you Britain could be great again . . . but we honestly didn’t expect greatness to look like this!’.

23 June 2016

A meditation for the EU Referendum

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

20 June 2016

Babylon Steel

A review of Babylon Steel by Gaie Sebold (Solaris, 2012) – originally published in Interzone

At first glance Gaie Sebold’s debut novel is a piece of traditional fantasy. It certainly has many of the trappings of high fantasy: strange, magical creatures; swords and sorcery (though the latter is somewhat limited in Scalentine, the city/world at the heart of the novel); gods and demons. However, she is not averse to shaking things up a little. For example, the best chef in Scalentine is a large green troll-like creature by the name of Flower.

The novel is very much about its central character, Babylon Steel, a whore with a heart of gold (a trope with tremendous potential for cliché that Sebold nimbly manages to avoid) who runs a high-class brothel in the city of Scalentine. She also happens to be an ex-mercenary and, in another world, was once the avatar of a goddess of whores and common soldiers.

Sebold actually presents us with several interlocking stories in this volume. It opens with Babylon facing financial difficulties. She has a large tax bill to pay and a religious sect is frightening away her clients. So when the mysterious Darask Fain offers to pay her to look for an aristocratic runaway from another world she can’t say no. Meanwhile a serial killer has started targeting prostitutes in the city. As if things couldn’t get any worse, Babylon’s past catches up with her, and she is eventually forced to deal with certain things she has been running away from.

Babylon’s past plays an important part in the structure of the novel. In fact, her life up to the point where she escapes from her home world of Tiresana is summarized in a series of flashbacks that break up the main storyline. That could have been irritating, but Sebold handles the material deftly (which is more than can be said for Solaris’s decision to format the flashbacks in italics).

Having said that Babylon Steel looks and feels like high fantasy, it could equally well be described as urban fantasy. The city of Scalentine is far more than a mere backdrop to Babylon’s activities. In a sense, the city is an additional character in the novel. And that character is vividly drawn: to my mind, it came across as a strangely convincing conflation of the London of Dickens and Dodge City! It is believably gritty, a rough trading centre with streets that are most definitely not paved with gold.

Sebold’s world-building skills are impressive. In addition to her very believable city, I particularly like the way the cosmos she has created consists of many different worlds locked together by portals. Another interesting aspect of her world-building is the part played by religion. At one level, thanks to Babylon’s very clear antipathy to religious practitioners, Sebold presents religion as an oppressive fraud. But, at another level, there is something real behind it: the force that ultimately helps Babylon overcome the avatars.

Given that the story is about an ex-mercenary engaged in some freelance detective work and facing up to the darker side of her own past, it is not surprising to find that there is plenty of action, some with swords, rather less with sorcery. And, since Babylon runs a brothel, there are the inevitable sex scenes. These prove to be surprisingly tasteful; they are not smutty, nor are they particularly erotic; they simply form an essential part of the story given what we know of its central character.



I found this a very satisfying read. It may be a first novel, but it is a very assured piece of work. Gaie Sebold is definitely a name to watch in future.

17 June 2016

Dumbing down

For the past few years I have been struggling to love my smartphone, but I have finally admitted failure. Over that time, I have gradually amassed the following list of pet hates about them:

  • Poor battery life: I want a phone that can stay on standby for days, not just a few hours.
  • Ludicrously small virtual keyboards: OK, I suppose I could dealt with this by getting a bigger phone, but for me one of the important features of a mobile phone is its mobility.
  • Unnecessary duplication: If I want to take photographs, I’ll use my DSLR. I have no need for a camera on my phone. And, come to think of it, all the apps I might consider running on a smartphone run better and are easier to use on my mini-tablet.
  • Slow . . . slow . . . slow: I want to be able to press a button and be ready to make a phone call. I don’t appreciate having to wait several minutes while the phone wakes up from standby; and I despise keyboards that can’t keep up with my typing.

I could have addressed three out of my four pet hates by throwing money at the problem and investing in the latest top-of-the-range smartphone. But I’m perfectly happy with my existing tablet, so why should I effectively buy a new tablet with the added extra of a built-in phone? So, instead I have downgraded my smartphone to a brand new dumbphone, a Doro PhoneEasy 508. Look at what my new toy can do:

  • It can stay on standby for a fortnight between charges.
  • It is instantly ready to make phone calls.
  • It has a real numerical keypad that doesn’t lag when I type in a number.
  • It makes phone calls and allows me to send text messages. It does not attempt to do things that my laptop, tablet, and DSLR can do better.

15 June 2016

Oracles of Science

A review of Oracles of Science: Celebrity Scientists versus God and Religion by Karl Giberson and Mariano Artigas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)

In this collaboration the physicist Karl Giberson and the late Mariano Artigas (a priest with doctorates in physics and philosophy) survey six men they describe as ‘oracles of science’. This phrase is shorthand for the fact that, in addition to being eminent in their own fields, these men are also gifted communicators and popularizers who have had a significant impact on the public perception of science and scientists; furthermore, they have all used their status as scientists as a platform for addressing wider issues of culture and religion.

The six scientists selected for this treatment are Richard Dawkins, Stephen Jay Gould, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Steven Weinberg and Edward O. Wilson: three physical scientists and three life scientists, four Americans and two British. Giberson and Artigas suggest that if their popular writings are taken together as a representative portrayal of science, then it can be inferred that (i) science is mainly about questions of origins, (ii) scientists are by and large atheist or agnostic, and (iii) science and religion are incompatible. But, argue the authors, none of these assertions is true.

The oracles are treated alphabetically and the chapters are independent of each other, so there is no need to read them in any particular order. In terms of structure, each chapter consists of a short biographical section, followed by a survey of each man’s scientific work and an analysis of their view of religion. The tone of the writing is consistently gracious and objective, so these chapters would serve as useful introductions to the life and works of the men surveyed.

A concluding chapter seeks to highlight some of the similarities and differences between the oracles. Unsurprisingly, all six portraits reveal men who are unusually ambitious: their scientific ambitions have led them to undertake grand projects, which they have pursued obsessively, and they have correspondingly grand visions of power of science to explain the world in which we live. But are they as hostile to religion as is often inferred? In fact, only two of the six are openly hostile. For Steven Weinberg (many of whose family died in the Nazi Holocaust) the problem of evil is an insuperable barrier. Richard Dawkins writes with the evangelical zeal of a convert from one religion to another (in this case, scientism). In the case of Edward Wilson, the idea of conversion is even stronger: evolution has become a substitute for the Southern Baptist religion of his youth. Stephen Hawking’s position is more difficult to fathom; his utterances on religion tend to be cryptic and unclear. Finally Sagan sees no necessary conflict between science and religion, while Gould is prepared to admit their potential compatibility.

Giberson and Artigas ask whether and to what extent the religious views of these men have derived from their science. With Wilson the connection is fairly clear: he sees evolutionary science as a valid basis for ethics (a position that Dawkins firmly rejects). In this context, I can’t help feeling that they take Hawking’s comments on knowing the mind of God a bit too seriously (to my mind, this is less a theological statement and more an affectionate allusion to Einstein). The authors complain that the oracles fail to achieve anything like a consistent humanism on the basis of their faith in science. But this is hardly surprising given that there is no consensus between them on what constitutes scientific truth. All this really shows is that science is no more monolithic than religion.

So what have Giberson and Artigas managed to show in relation to the three inferences cited above? Their account of the diverse scientific achievements of these men does demonstrate that science is about a good deal more than questions of origins. The clear disagreement between the oracles on the incompatibility of science and religion indicates that a case has not been made for a necessary hostility between them. However, the format of the book means that the authors have been unable to argue for the compatibility of science and religion. Instead, they have to content themselves with passing references to eminent scientists who are also Christians.

As already noted, the format of the book limits what the authors have been able do. Nevertheless, it remains a useful addition to the library shelves. It is an invaluable introduction to six of the most important shapers of the public perception of science at the end of the twentieth century. As such it provides a good deal of useful raw material for Christian engagement with the scientific dimension of contemporary culture.

13 June 2016

Helix Wars

A review of Helix Wars by Eric Brown (Solaris Books, 2012) – originally published in Interzone

Helix Wars is the sequel to Eric Brown’s 2007 novel Helix, which described the arrival of humans on the Helix, a vast artificial environment created by a mysterious race of benevolent aliens known as the Builders as a refuge for intelligent races that have been threatened by extinction on their home worlds. The new story is set some 200 years later; human beings are now well-established on the Helix and have been appointed by the Builders to the largely diplomatic role of peacekeeping.

The central character, Jeff Ellis, is a shuttle pilot who regularly transports peacekeepers to other worlds of the Helix. However, on this occasion, his shuttle crashes on Phandra (a world occupied by tiny empathetic humanoids), killing his passengers and leaving Jeff himself seriously injured.

He is rescued by some Phandrans and restored to health by Calla, a Phandran healer. It transpires that he was shot down by the Sporelli, an aggressive authoritarian race who have invaded Phandra in order to gain access to the natural resources on another world further along the Helix. As soon as he is well enough, Jeff sets out with Calla to get news of this invasion back to the peacekeepers on New Earth. However, the Sporelli, having realized that he survived, pursue and capture them.

Fortunately for Jeff his crash has come to the attention of Kranda, a member of the warlike Mahkani (the Helix’s engineers), whose life he once saved. Because of their code of honour, she is now bound to rescue him and duly does so with the aid of some highly advanced Builder technology. Jeff then insists on rescuing Calla and in the process they save the Helix from an alien invasion.

Interwoven into this storyline is a secondary story about Jeff’s marital difficulties. Since the death of their son, he and his wife Maria have grown apart. This secondary story traces the denouement of Maria’s affair with her boss and Jeff’s clumsy efforts, based on advice from Calla, to seek reconciliation.

After some spectacular twists in the story, the storylines merge, Jeff is made an offer he can’t refuse by the Builders and they all live happily ever after.

The novel is driven by the well-paced action of the main storyline, while the secondary storyline serves to add depth to the central character, Jeff. However, Jeff apart, I was disappointed by the characterization in this novel. Most of the minor characters, particularly the aliens, are little more than two-dimensional stereotypes.

By contrast with the poor characterization, his description of alien technologies is very imaginative. The wind-powered mass transport system on Phandra is refreshingly novel, while the glimpses of the technology underlying the Helix itself are mind-blowing. Unfortunately he allows the technology to become a deus ex machina by providing Jeff and Kranda with nearly invulnerable Builder-designed exo-skeletons that all too easily enable them to overcome the challenges that face them.

In spite of my reservations, I enjoyed Helix Wars. It may not be Eric Brown at his best, but it is still imaginative, well-paced and easy to read.

08 June 2016

Creation’s Diversity

A review of Creation’s Diversity: Voices from Theology and Science, edited by Willem B. Drees, Hubert Meisinger and Taede A. Smedes (London: T&T Clark, 2008)
This volume contains a selection of papers from the 2006 ESSSAT meeting in Romania. As the title suggests, the editors have chosen them to offer the reader a variety of perspectives on the diversity of creation. After two introductory chapters, the papers are organized into two sections of six chapters each: ‘A Diversity of Visions of Creation’ and ‘Sustaining Creation’s Diversity’.

The first introductory chapter, by Willem Drees, simply offers an overview of the book itself. Its companion piece, by Patriarch Daniel Ciobotea of the Romanian Orthodox Church, is an interesting call for dialogue between science and religion. Unlike many similar calls, this one is rooted in Eastern Orthodoxy and specifically the theology of Dumitru Staniloae (whose work deserves to be much more widely known among Western Christians).

‘A Diversity of Visions’ offers six quite disparate perspectives on creation/nature. First we are offered a Gaian perspective of the biosphere by the feminist theologian Anne Primavesi. While I am sympathetic to the holistic view of the environment she presents, I was disturbed that there was no acknowledgement of the potential for ecofascism in this approach. In contrast to Primavesi’s focus on the history of nature, Regine Kather offers a philosophical exploration of humans as the products of nature, concluding that value is intrinsic to nature. David Goodin offers a fascinating Eastern Orthodox perspective on the Leviathan passages of the Old Testament from which he gleans a timely ecological message about the intrinsic value of creation. With his chapter, Christopher Southgate draws our attention to suffering within the evolutionary process. He revisits the concept of kenosis to suggest how the suffering of creatures might be reconciled with the notion of a benevolent creator. Alfred Kracher explores the popular myth that technology and nature are in opposition. The section ends with an article by Tony Watkins on new cosmologies and sacred stories, which calls for a re-imagining of our relationship with the environment by means of metaphors drawn largely from deep ecology and a new transcultural creation myth based on evolution.

The second section focuses on ‘Sustaining Creation’s Diversity’. Again it consists of six chapters from a variety of perspectives. It begins with Sam Berry objecting to the concept of ‘sustaining diversity’, which appears in much of the current literature to suggest the maintenance of a status quo. He prefers to speak of ‘developing sustainably’. Unfortunately, this concept also has a track record in the literature. Perhaps we should be speaking instead of nurturing diversity. In the next chapter current threats to biodiversity are picked up and explored in some detail by Jan Boersema. Having been presented with a call to nurture diversity and dire warnings about threatened loss of the same, there follows a short paper in which Chris Wiltsher plays devil’s advocate. He argues, contrary to popular opinion among environmentally minded theologians, that nurturing the diversity of creation is not a clear theological virtue. Peter Kirschenmann explores the more general question of whether there are moral principles that would oblige us to maintain biodiversity. His conclusion is that such ‘sustainable development’ has to be rooted in an ethic of responsibility. Zbigniew Liana shifts the emphasis from biodiversity to cultural diversity. He proposes a Popperian approach to pluralism, which would allow an acceptance of the kind of philosophical and religious diversity apparent in this volume without descending into relativism or scepticism. Finally Dirk Evers draws the book to a close by examining the nurturing of diversity as a theological task in a climate of religious pluralism.

The editors have certainly succeeded in representing the diversity of opinions as to how to relate environmental engagement in the context of religious convictions. The contributors are certainly not of one mind, nor do their papers direct the reader to a particular set of conclusions. But this lack of an overarching argument does have the virtue that the book allows a view into an ongoing discussion. Sadly there is little evidence of interaction between the chapters. I think the book could have been made more useful by allowing the authors to write short responses to each other’s papers.

My main reservation about the book is that it doesn’t really live up to the title. The emphasis is all on diversity, but judging by the content of these papers most of the authors seem blithely unaware that ‘creation’ is not merely a synonym for ‘nature’. For a book of this kind to ignore the very real theological distinction between the two is a major shortcoming. However, in spite of that reservation, this book remains a useful contribution to the continuing dialogue between theologies and the sciences on environmental issues.

06 June 2016

Irenicon

A review of Irenicon by Aidan Harte (Jo Fletcher Books, 2012) – originally published in Interzone

Irenicon is the debut novel of Aidan Harte, a Dublin-based sculptor, and the first volume in a projected trilogy of novels set in Etruria, an alternate medieval Italy. A ragtag of warring city states is steadily falling to the technological superiority of the Concordian Empire. All that stands in the way of Concordian ambitions is a river of their own making, a divided city, and a small mercenary army. The river in question is the Irenicon of the title and it literally divides Etruria in two. It also divides the city of Rasenna in two: The northern half is controlled by the Bardini family, while their rivals the Morellos govern the southern half. Only 16-year-old Sofia Scaligeri, heir to the title contessa of Rasenna, can hope to unite the warring factions. When the story opens, she is the ward of the head of the Bardini family and has a love-hate relationship with Gaetano, son of the head of the Morello family.

Into this unstable mix steps Giovanni, a young Concordian engineer. He has been sent to build a bridge across the Irenicon to further Concordian ambitions in the south. But he sees it as a chance to gain redemption for his part in certain Concordian atrocities. And to some of the people of Rasenna, the bridge comes as an opportunity to reunite their divided city.

This is a fantastic piece of world-building by someone with a real feel for renaissance Italy. The world and its inhabitants are lovingly described, as is the divided society of Rasenna.

The most obvious fantastical element in the novel is the river Irenicon. It was created by the arcane engineering of the Concordian Empire to divide Rasenna, destroying its ability to act as a focus of resistance to Concord. That the river is quite unnatural is highlighted by two things: it flows uphill, and it is home to sentient elemental spirits called buio. (By the way, the name of the river is a nice piece of irony since an irenicon is a message of peace.)

Another important element in the story is the author’s adaptation of Christianity. In this world, Jesus died in the massacre of the innocents. Instead of medieval Catholicism we have a religion in which the grieving Madonna is the central figure.

Harte has also invented a couple of engaging martial arts. There is the very public Art Banderia of which the ruling families of Rasenna are masters. Essentially he has taken the Italian art of flag tossing and turned it into a martial art. But there is also a shadowy and far more deadly martial art, the Water Style, practised by an order of nuns and the rulers of Concordia. This is much more like a traditional oriental martial art, and I must admit I was not convinced by its appearance in a version of medieval Italy.

Harte’s characters are very engaging. All the major characters in his large cast have their own distinctive voices, and many of the minor characters are also memorable. One thing that did concern me at first was the dialogue: Harte has adopted the recent practice of imposing modern dialogue on a medieval setting. Usually I find this kind of anachronism irritating, but the storytelling, characterization, and world-building are so good that I soon forgot about this issue.

There is no lack of action once the story gets going. However, he does begin at a fairly leisurely pace, carefully sketching in the details of the world in which the action will be set. It is very much a novel of two parts: Part I focuses more on the world-building, while Part II feels much more like a martial arts action story superimposed upon a medieval setting.

To sum up: Harte is a brilliant new voice in historical fantasy, and this is quite simply the best piece of fantasy that I have read so far this year.

30 May 2016

White Tiger

A review of White Tiger by Kylie Chan (Harper Voyager, 2011) – originally published in Interzone

White Tiger is Kylie Chan’s first novel. Originally published in Australia in 2006, HarperCollins has now decided to make it more widely available.

It is a contemporary fantasy novel written in the first person. The protagonist, Emma Donahoe, is an Australian English teacher working at a kindergarten in Hong Kong. The novel begins with her giving up her job at the kindergarten to become the nanny of four-year-old Simone (an unnaturally well-behaved and intelligent child). Simone’s father is John Chen, a wealthy and very attractive Hong Kong businessman. However, it is not long before Emma discovers that Chen is really an incognito Chinese god. To be precise, he is Xuan Wu, one of the senior deities of the Taoist pantheon and a god closely associated with Chinese martial arts. The fourth major character in the novel is Leo, an Afro-American martial arts expert and John Chen’s bodyguard. Leo also happens to be stereotypically gay (to the point of choosing clothes for Emma and John!).

All is not well with John Chen. He is trapped in human form and seriously weakened. The demons have already killed his wife, and the king of the demons has offered a reward for his head. Of course, that makes everyone close to him a potential target, so Emma finds herself on the receiving end of a crash course in martial arts and their esoteric counterparts.

There is a lot of potential in this novel. New voices in urban fantasy are always welcome, and the use of Chinese mythology (in which the author is seemingly well-versed) makes a very welcome change from the usual rehashed Eurocentric mythologies that tend to dominate this genre. Add to that the promise of lots of martial arts action and the stage seems to be set for something really exciting.

Sadly her descriptions of the martial arts involved are surprisingly vague given their importance in the story. Strangely, for an author who has put a lot of emphasis on her knowledge of Chinese culture and mythology, Kylie Chan uses the Japanese term ‘kata’ when referring to the various martial art forms rather than the more authentic ‘taolu’. I must confess that I was quite unimpressed by many of the fight descriptions: her numerical rating of demons and the fact that they explode into black goo when they are defeated made them seem like something out of a computer game!

But my main complaint about the novel is that it seems bloated. There is lots of action of the ‘one damn thing after another’ variety, but there are also various subplots that don’t seem to drive the story forward at all. For example, Emma’s former employer, the slightly sinister Kitty Kwok, keeps trying to contact her. And we are treated to regular conversations over lunch with her girlfriends, April and Louise, in which we hear a good deal more than we really need to about April’s relationship with a minor Hong Kong gangster. Perhaps she is laying the groundwork for important events in later volumes, but if so a little more foreshadowing might have been in order.

And, after nearly 550 pages, surprisingly little seems to have been resolved. Our heroes have survived a major demonic assault; Emma seems uncannily adept at martial arts and something unspecified about her frightens the king of the demons; she has become John Chen’s consort but for various reasons they must remain celibate; and, in the event of something happening to John Chen, she will become Simone’s guardian.

Perhaps the lack of resolution relates to the fact that White Tiger is the first volume of a trilogy. Perhaps she is working on a really large scale and the loose ends and unresolved issues will all work together into a satisfactory conclusion in another 1000 pages. But I’m not sure I have the patience to wade through those pages, particularly if they involve much more girl talk over dim sum!