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


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.