21 July 2017

Isra Isle

A review of Isra Isle: A Novel, by Nava Semel, translated by Jessica Cohen (Mandel Vilar Press, 2016)
Originally published in Interzone

This is a novel in three parts: part detective story, part speculation about a peculiar footnote in American and Jewish history, part alternate history based on that speculation. As the story progresses it constructs a fictional alternate homeland for the Jews in upstate New York.

Part 1, ‘Grand Island’, is the story of a manhunt set in New York state in early September 2001. Simon Teibele Lenox (aka White Raven), an experienced New York cop, is assigned to a Secret Service unit based in the Twin Towers. His task is to find an Israeli, Liam Emanuel, who has come to USA in search of an alternative promised land. The finality of his abandonment of Israel is symbolized by the fact that he left his shoes behind at Ben Gurion Airport (metaphorically shaking the dust of Israel off his feet). But the Israeli authorities want him found and quietly returned. Of course they do, ‘Emanuel’ means ‘God-with-us’, and the Zionist vision of Israel is meaningless if God has abandoned it.

In the course of his investigation, Lenox begins a relationship with a Jewish colleague, Jackie Winona Brendel, which forms an obsessive subtheme in his thoughts as his search for Emanuel takes him to Grand Island, NY. The author’s play with NY place names as Emanuel and Lenox head for Grand Island makes this a something of a second exodus.

This is where the historical footnote comes in. Grand Island was bought in 1825 by Mordecai Manuel Noah who intended to found a Jewish refuge there, to be called Ararat. In Semel’s version, Emanuel is Noah’s descendant and he has the title deeds to prove his ownership.

Having tracked down Emanuel on Grand Island and failed to persuade him to return, Lenox returns to New York on the morning of 11th September and goes to his office to write his report and resign . . . And the story ends with Jackie pinning up missing person fliers.

Part 2 takes us back to 1825. Noah has come to Buffalo to claim the island he has purchased. This is a first-person narrative written from the perspective of an Indian serving woman, Little Dove, in the household of Noah’s host, Lenox. She persuades Noah to visit the island, which in reality he never set foot on. While they are together on the island, they make love. Noah leaves; Little Dove remains, carrying his child – a fusion of Jew and Indian. And so the scene is set for the alternate history of Part 3.

Semel returns us to September 2001. Ararat rather than Israel has become the Jewish homeland. But the religion of Ararat is a strange fusion of Judaism and Native American traditions. A colour-blind gay black Indian (!) photographer, Simon, is in a relationship with Jake Brendel (aka DJ Teibele), a Jew who has exiled himself from Ararat. Simon is commissioned by newspaper magnate, Lenox, to follow the story of Ararat’s governor, Emanuella Winona Noah, as she makes her bid for the White House. Initially on the lookout for a scandal, Simon eventually meets the governor and is won over by her. Again there is a subtheme of Simon obsessing about his relationship with Jake. Part 3, and the novel as a whole, concludes with Simon returning by plane to New York. He is looking at the Twin Towers and for the first time in his life he sees a flash of red when the plane crashes (?). Then we segue to Greater Damascus (which is Israel in our universe) where Jake has gone to scatter Simon’s ashes.

That summary seems to be full of spoilers, but I don’t think that really matters. The storylines seem less important than the symbolism and the careful weaving together of names and ideas across the three parts of the novel. There is the recurring fusion of Jewish elements with elements representing other victim groups (specifically native Americans, blacks, and gays). And this is achieved by presenting us with characters of mixed heritage, describing sexual relationships that bring together the different victim groups, and by mixing and matching Jewish and American Indian names.

A recurring theme throughout the novel is the quest of oppressed people/exiles for a place they can call home. But they do not find what they are looking for. In the real world, the Zions they try to create fail to live up to their promise.

Did I enjoy the novel? No. Does that matter? Perhaps not in this case. I am left with a sense that I have only scratched the surface of the novel’s meaning(s). If you are looking for a gripping yarn to while away a few hours, this is definitely not the book for you. But if you want an intellectual challenge that will make you want to read and re-read until you have begun to make sense of its complexities, you could do far worse than tackle Isra Isle.

14 July 2017

Wolf in the Attic

A review of Wolf in the Attic by Paul Kearney (Solaris, 2016)
Originally published in Interzone

Paul Kearney is probably best known as a writer of epic fantasies. His series ‘The Monarchies of God’, ‘The Sea Beggars’, and ‘The Macht’ are all excellent examples of that genre. So this new book from his pen will be something of a surprise to readers who come to it expecting more of the same. Instead of another epic fantasy, he offers us a lyrical coming of age story set in Oxford at the end of the 1920s.

The heroine is one Anna Francis (or Sphrantzes), a twelve-year-old Greek refugee who survived the 1922 sack of Smyrna by the Turks. She is now living in Oxford with her father and is desperately unhappy. She has no friends of her own age and she misses her mother who was killed by the Turks. To make matters worse, in his despair over the loss of his home and family her father has turned to alcohol and become obsessed with campaigning for the repatriation of Greek refugees. Their life is increasingly impoverished, though he somehow finds the money to keep paying for her private education.

Anna’s story begins in fragmentary manner, reflecting her tutor’s complaints about her dragonfly mind. Snatches of narrative give us her impressions of Oxford and memories of their evacuation from Smyrna. The story is written largely in the first person and in the present tense, giving it a slow, dreamlike quality.

Anna takes refuge from her loneliness in books and daydreams and long walks around Oxford. One winter’s evening she slips out of their house in Jericho to escape yet another of her father’s interminable committee meetings. She finds her way to Port Meadow where she witnesses a killing, which marks the beginning of her descent into a living nightmare.

Her life has become linked with that of the killer, a young Romani boy named Luca. A few weeks later near midwinter, she encounters Luca and his family in Wytham Wood. Shortly afterwards, she helps Luca hide from the Roadmen, the ancient enemies of his people. And the next morning her father is found dead – apparently murdered by one or more individuals he had invited into the house.

Anna, now orphaned and disowned by the Greek exile community, is destined for the workhouse. Instead she runs away, intent on finding her way to Luca’s people. Her quest leads her into an ever stranger world – the Old World – of Romani and Roadmen, of skinchangers and an Oxfordshire farmer, Gabriel, who may also be some kind of native deity – a world in which she faces down the devil and avenges her father’s death. And at the end of it all she discovers what she thought she had lost for ever – home, the home of her heart – no longer in Smyrna but in rural Oxfordshire.

Strangely though, the novel does not feel as if this is the end of the story. She has come of age and she has attained her heart’s desire (albeit through great loss), but we have been given glimpses of her importance (and that of her relationship with Luca) to the Old World. And these glimpses point to another story beyond this one.

Also pointing beyond this story are her tantalizing encounters with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. They are portrayed sympathetically and both (but particularly Lewis) help her at crucial points early in the story. But that help could have been provided by others, so why drag them into it at all? And why play with the history of Lewis’s conversion to Christianity if his is no more than a walk-on part?

Then there is the farmer Gabriel. He feels too large a character to be limited to the supporting role he has here. Is this simple countryman in fact some kind of genius loci or tutelary deity? He reminded me of the kind of being Ransome becomes in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. What is his place in the age old struggle between the Romani and the Roadmen? And what does Anna’s come mean for him and for that ancient tension?

At the end of Wolf in the Attic, I was left with a slew of questions and a sense that Kearney had teased me glimpses of a mythical England about which I’d like to know a good deal more. But this should not be taken as criticism. I thought it was a superbly written book. His previous books have been enjoyable, action-packed fantastical romps. But this is quieter, deeper, more evocative – the kind of book that demands you re-read it as soon as you have reached the end. Wolf in the Attic is a book to savour. I just hope there is a sequel to answer some of my questions!

07 July 2017

Children of Earth and Sky

A review of Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016)
Originally published in Interzone

Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest is set in the same world as several of his previous novels. A generation has passed since the fall of Sarantium, which has been renamed Asharias by its conquerors. There is an uneasy stand-off between the victorious Asharites and the Holy Jaddite Empire to the west. The Grand Khalif in Asharias is intent on expanding his empire westwards but has so far been thwarted by the inhospitable lands of Sauradia that lie between his armies and Obravic, the current capital of the Jaddites. But year after year he sends armies west, keeping the Jaddites on the defensive and bleeding their coffers as they are forced to field armies in reply.

There are clear parallels between the world of Kay’s imagination and Renaissance Europe. Readers familiar with European history (or even just European cities) will immediately identify Sarantium/Asharias with Constantinople/Istanbul; likewise Seressa with Venice, Dubrava with Dubrovnik, and less obviously Obravic with Prague. Such similarities are I suspect an important part of what makes Kay’s world-building and his descriptions so powerful; they allow him to draw his readers into places that seem familiar to them through television, Internet, and other media.

But there are important differences as well. While the Jaddites, Asharites, and Kindath (who are mentioned only in passing in this novel) are analogous with Christians, Muslims, and Jews respectively, their beliefs are quite different. And Kay plays with European history as well, distorting and compressing timelines, to further differentiate his imagined history from the real world. Furthermore, Kay’s imagined world is one with a subtle thread of magic woven through it. It is less obvious here than in some of the earlier novels. Of course he is now depicting an era on the cusp of the scientific revolution: alchemists are at work in Obravic and the Emperor is delighted by technological toys. But the magic is still present in a grandfather’s ghostly voice, in the skills of a village healer, in the song of a long dead singer heard only by those with the gift.

It is a richly portrayed tapestry. In the hands of a less-skilled artist the world and its history might have dominated the story and dragged the characters along in its wake. But Kay superimposes upon this grand sweep of history a cast of more or less ordinary characters whose lives we are invited to follow.

Danica Gradek wants revenge for the death of her family and the kidnapping of her brother at the hands of the Asharites. He wants only to serve his Khalif and rise in the ranks of the Djanni, the elite Asharite force made up mainly of men who were kidnapped from Jaddite territories as children.

Pero Villani knows that he has the potential to be a great artist, but poverty stands in his way until an unexpected request comes from the rulers of Seressa. If he does as they ask – and lives to tell the tale – his fortune will be made.

Leonora Valeri has been imprisoned in a convent and her lover butchered by her family. She has nothing left to lose, so when Seressa’s Council of Twelve offers her a new life as their spy in Dubrava she jumps at the chance.

Marin Djivo is the younger son of a leading merchant family in Dubrava. He is weary of his life of womanizing, feels it is time he settled down, perhaps married one of the eligible young women of the city, and took on more responsibility. Then his path crosses those of Danica, Pero, and Leonora. Thereafter their lives weave together and are impacted by larger events in Empire and Kaliphate, opening up new possibilities for them and taking them to places they would never previously have imagined.

Kay clearly loves every one of his characters because he manages to make each one unique and memorable. And that is true even of characters who appear for only a few pages. We are presented with a rich tapestry of lives, and Kay manages to convince the reader that each one is important in the unfolding story of his imagined world. They are all carefully crafted individuals with their own unique hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses, trying to live their lives as best they can in the face of whatever fate or the gods have thrown at them. He clearly cares about his characters . . . and therefore so does the reader.

If you have read any of his previous novels, you won’t need any more persuading. If you haven’t, you are in for a treat!

30 June 2017

Testament

A review of Testament by Hal Duncan (Eibonvale Press, 2015)
Originally published in Interzone

In a Glasgow tenement, Eli takes a scalpel to the pages of the Bible. He is cutting and pasting passages from the five Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Thomas) in order to create a single, coherent narrative. But this is no mere harmony of the Gospels, it is his personal testament. Between the extracts from the biblical story he inserts his own narrative and commentary as he attempts to clarify what Joshua really stood for.

Hal Duncan describes Testament as a ‘high-concept novel’, and it is certainly a very carefully structured book – down to the number of words in each part of the book. Eli tells us he has set himself the task of creating a testament ‘in seven parts, six chapters each part, four verses each chapter, six hundred words each verse’ (p. 43). And that does seem to be the structure of Testament (admittedly I only bothered to count the words in one verse, but there were indeed 600 of them). But that is only the formal aspect of Duncan’s latest work.

The reworked Gospel narrative is roughly chronological, with the seven parts (Jordan, Capernaum, Tabor, Sychar, Bethany, Gethsemane, and Golgotha) corresponding to seven phases of Joshua’s life and work. It is presented in a double column format reminiscent of the school Bibles of old. However, readers who are familiar with one or more of the major English translations of the Gospels are unlikely to recognize this version. Although Eli does speak at one point about cannibalizing a King James Bible, he also claims to be pinning both Greek and English texts to the walls of his tenement. And, where it seems appropriate, he is quite happy to insert quotations from other sources such as the Song of Songs. This has given Duncan the freedom to offer his own paraphrase of the text and to play with the vocabulary in imaginative and illuminating ways (e.g. God becomes ‘the Sublime’ or ‘the Worker’ depending on the context; demons and the Spirit both become ‘inspiration’, though of very different kinds – ‘fouled’ and ‘sacred’ respectively; the Pharisees become ‘the Select’ = the self-elect and so on).

For me, the real heart of the book is Eli’s gloss/commentary (single column to distinguish it from the Gospel material). Here Duncan’s penchant for Moorcockian multiverse hopping comes to the fore. Eli seems to be preparing his testament in the present day. But it soon becomes clear that he is an eyewitness to the events he is revisiting in Testament. Nor is this simple reminiscence; different times and places seem to melt together. So first-century Capernaum is also a Hebridean fishing village in the 1970s. The Roman occupying forces are armed with all the accoutrements of modern ‘peacekeepers’. Joshua leads an Anonymous-style demo outside the Jerusalem temple. Eli’s father steps out of a 1930s’ Duesenberg and into a Roman men’s club for a meeting with Il Duce Pontius Pilate. Joshua, now wearing an orange jumpsuit, is tried by the House of Representatives in a chamber adorned with fascist symbols. Chancellor Tiberius issues dictats from the Oval Office.

An analogous melting and merging takes place with the viewpoint character, Eli. He is a rich young man when he first meets Joshua, but he also identifies himself as the Beloved Disciple, Lazarus, Barabbas, and a certain Judaean from Kerioth. And the picture he builds up of Joshua’s character is equally multifaceted: charismatic young rabbi, pot-smoking hippy, radical therapist/healer, dangerous subversive.

The overarching theme of Joshua’s life and work as seen through the eyes of Eli is the Empire never ended, the Empire must end, the Empire will end. By Empire is not meant just one particular historical manifestation, be it Rome, the Caliphate, the Third Reich, or the USA, but the entire spirit of Empire. Eli certainly buys into Joshua’s opposition to the spirit of Empire, but he doubts Joshua’s methods and fears the consequences of creating a faith that is so easily co-opted by the very thing it is intended to subvert.

This is not a book for everyone. It could have been written specifically to raise the hackles of the Sad Puppies (though it was already in the making long before the Sad Puppies were a twinkle in Larry Correia’s eye). So anyone looking for an action-packed SFF novel will have to look elsewhere. Nor is it likely to commend itself to conservative Christians. But if you are at all interested in a very well written piece of speculative fiction of breath-taking scope, which offers a weird new perspective on one of the formative narratives of Western culture, Hal Duncan’s Testament is a must-read.

23 June 2017

Chasing the Phoenix

A review of Chasing the Phoenix by Michael Swanwick (Tor Books, 2015)
Originally published in Interzone

Chasing the Phoenix is set in a post-apocalyptic future, which is littered with the detritus of its high-tech past. China, the geographical location of the events in the novel, has degenerated into a network of warring states.

Enter the central characters – a pair of con men (or more accurately one con man and a con dog). The man is Aubrey Darger, every inch the English gentleman, lover of Victoriana, and admirer of Churchill. His sidekick is Sir Blackthorpe Ravenscairn de Plus Precieux (Surplus to his friends), a bipedal genetically engineered dog possessed of human intelligence and canine senses. In spite of being thoroughly amoral, Darger and Surplus are a pair of likeable rogues on a par with Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen or Michael Chabon’s Zelikman and Amram.

The story begins with Surplus arriving in the city of Brocade, dressed as a Mongolian shaman, and carrying the corpse of his companion Darger on the back of a yak (later passed off as the sacred yak of Shiliin Bogd Mountain). He is seeking the Infallible Physician who alone can restore Darger to life. In Brocade, he falls in with Capable Servant who leads him to the home of Bright Pearl, granddaughter of the Infallible Physician. She, it seems, has inherited his library and much of his skill. After some persuasion, Darger is duly restored.

A few days later, Darger and Surplus are summoned to attend the Hidden King, monarch of the Abundant Kingdom and would-be emperor of a reunited China. Seeing the prospect of great wealth, they allow themselves to be pressed into service to aid the Hidden King reunite the warring states.

Darger renames himself the Perfect Strategist. In that guise, he masterminds a series of outrageous and increasingly improbable victories against superior forces. However, in order to placate hostile courtiers, he must attempt to satisfy their increasingly contradictory demands, mostly of a matchmaking nature.

Meanwhile Surplus takes on the persona of the Noble Dog Warrior and engages the services of a band of outlaws as a mercenary company under his command. With his Dog Pack and their varied nefarious skills, Surplus aids and abets Darger in his triumphs both on and off the battlefield.

As victory becomes more and more likely, it becomes apparent to our heroes that the Hidden King is quite mad. In fact, he is a pyromaniac intent upon destroying himself and the city of North (formerly Beijing) in a thermonuclear explosion. He apparently believes that his alchemical marriage to the weapon (his Phoenix Bride) in this fashion will result in his deification.

Determined not to be vaporized alongside their employer, Darger and Surplus hatch a plot to assassinate the Hidden King and replace him with Capable Servant. As they put their plan into action, the plot begins to twist in a dramatic way. But Swanwick has not simply introduced a deus ex machina, nor is it merely a last-minute plot device to cut the Gordian knot created by Darger’s increasingly complicated and desperate machinations. Rather, with the benefit of hindsight, it becomes clear that from the outset our heroes have been manipulated by forces that have long worked behind the scenes for the reunification of China.

The warring states are successfully reunited. Darger and Surplus are lavishly thanked for their contribution to this outcome. They are then less than lavishly rewarded and unceremoniously deported. And the novel ends with them wondering about their destination (and presumably their next scam).

I was intrigued by Swanwick’s use of language in the novel, particularly his dialogue. In sharp contrast to a lot of recent science fiction and fantasy, at times there is a studied formality about it. Elevated is the only word to describe the language of a mechanic who speaks of ‘chastising’ an apprentice. And yet, the characters can at times slip into much less formal mode as if they are briefly setting aside a public role.

The impression that most of the characters in the novel are playing a public role is reinforced by the naming convention used in this post-apocalyptic China. Everyone apart from Darger and Surplus uses a ‘descriptive’ name sometimes describing a person’s function or character, sometimes seemingly more aspirational, sometimes even contradicting or subverting what the story seems to tell us about them. So, for example, we have Capable Servant, Powerful Locomotive, Terrible Nuisance, and Vicious Brute.

All good SFF novels should have shiny things in them, and Chasing the Phoenix is well supplied from the riches of Swanwick’s imagination. We have surreal ancient technologies (crushing wheels, war spiders) and bizarre GM animals (e.g. the ‘mountain horses’ of Surplus’s Dog Pack). I particularly liked the idea of tutelary cheroots: You want to learn something? Just smoke the appropriate fag! And then there are the sinister ghostly AIs, which populate a substory within the novel. Implacable enemies of humankind, they live a ghostly existence in the remains of the Internet. They appear to bear a personal animosity against Darger and are possibly responsible for the Hidden King’s madness.

I also enjoyed the way Swanwick peppered the story with a variety of well-hidden cultural references including a paraphrase of a famous line from The Mikado and a passage in which Heraclitus meets Benjamin Franklin.

To sum up, Chasing the Phoenix is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through the far future, which should appeal to lovers of both fantasy and science fiction.

03 March 2017

A new (old) laptop

I recently decided it was time to upgrade my laptop, so I am now the proud owner of a refurbished Lenovo Thinkpad X230. This is a slightly newer model than my old machine (an X220, also refurbished, which I’ve had for four years), but it is sufficiently similar that the transition process was more or less painless.

The most noticeable differences are the chiclet keyboard, which replaces the wonderful mechanical keyboard that used to set Lenovo laptops apart. I miss the embedded numeric keyboard, but this is still a very good keyboard. The screen is, I think, marginally better, and this model has a fingerprint reader. Importantly, it seems as solidly built as its predecessors (which is why I have been using Thinkpads since the days of the IBM Thinkpad X40).

This laptop came with Windows 10 Professional already installed (its predecessor was gradually upgraded from XP to Win7 to Win10), but without the usual Lenovo add-ons. As a result, it seems to boot up much more smoothly than the old machine. This also gave me the opportunity to think about what I really needed to instal. So one or two legacy programs which have been with me since the days of XP have bitten the dust,  in particular Launchy and Ultramon (both seem to be adequately replaced by commands using the Win key).

Of course there were one or two ancient programs that I absolutely needed to have, specifically Quicken 2004 (a handy personal accounts program; I would upgrade it but for some reason Intuit don’t sell its more recent versions in the UK) and Idealist 3 (which I have mentioned more than once).

Installing Quicken 2004 on Windows 10

You will need the installation disk and a copy of the Quicken directory from your old computer.

(1) Run the installation disk in the usual way. This will instal Quicken, but it won’t work because of missing dlls.

(2) Copy the old (working) Quicken directory to the location of Quicken on your new laptop.


And that should be that.

Installing Blackwell/Bekon Idealist 3 on Windows 10

The installation program won’t work on 64-bit systems. But installing it is very simple:

Copy the Idealist directory from your old system and paste it into an appropriate place on the new system. Create a shortcut and (importantly) set compatibility in the Properties folder to something like Win95 or Win98.