Sunday, August 9, 2015

Stairways To Heaven - Robert Jackson Bennett's City Of Stairs

After my surprising success with The Goblin Emperor, I thought I'd try some more modern fantasy, to see what condition the genre was in these days.

While Robert Jackson Bennett's City of Stairs doesn't quite hit the same bulls-eye, it's another indication that the genre is in ruder health than I'd expected. And that it can still provoke a little thought as well as entertain.

City of Stairs takes the Twilight of the Gods plot from the hands of Eddings et al and asks the very modern question of what happens after they have gone. What if your typical fantasy pantheon provided the everyday miracles to run a continent-spanning empire and then suddenly disappeared

Seventy years on from a deicidal rebellion on the island colony of Saypur, after plague, civil collapse and military occupation by their former subjects, the former imperials are still struggling to get back on their feet. And nowhere more so than in the former holy city of Bulikov. 

Formerly a place of divinely inspired feats of architecture, it's now a tumbledown place of ruins and making do. Where once were palaces and towers complete, the stairs of the title rise up into thin air.

[metaphor]stairways to heaven[/metaphor]

The story centres around Shara, an intelligence agent for the Saypurian Government, and Sigrud, her hulking Nordic bodyguard. Having come to Bulikov to investigate the murder of Shara's friend and colleague, a historian studying the old gods, they quickly find themselves at the centre of political and religious intrigue, as well as alarming signs that the age of miracles is not as over as was thought.

Bennett strikes me as a seat-of-the-pants writer than a meticulous plotter. Less a well-oiled machine of a novel than a mildly erratic gyroscope, City of Stairs gets where it needs to go, but not without telegraphing a few reveals in advance, venturing up a few blind alleys and letting stuff just happen, man. 

That doesn't stop it providing a great deal of fun along the way, not least due to Bennett's skill in characterisation. You know an author's got something when even the minor characters are memorable. Shara and Sigrud are characters I want to see more of, the latter in particular being not at all the one-dimensional meat shield you might expect. 

This being fantasy, both protagonists demand (and get) a crowning moment of awesome, one of which involves giant squid. Bonus points for furthering the tentacular cause there.

The book also smartly inverts a few lazy assumptions. For example, the militantly anti-theist Saypurians are people of colour, while the formerly devout continentals are European-ish in culture and appearance. 

Bennett is most certainly not a didactic author, presenting us with a range of sympathetic and unsympathetic characters on each side of his world's spiritual struggle. He's acute on the social construction of belief and the emotional appeal of magical thinking, yet also shows that modernity challenges but isn't necessarily antithetical to religious practice. And the fantasy/steampunk crossover world of City of Stairs lends itself well to running with these themes. 

All of this helps Bennett get off the hook of the main criticism I'd level at City - other than the occasionally free-form plotting - namely that the villains have a little of the straw fundamentalist about them. A really good book would, I think, have had the courage to let them make their case rather than just twirl their moustaches and get their comeuppance. Given that everything else works so well, however, I'm letting this one go.

In short - City of Stairs glitters. And even if it's not gold, it's certainly a valuable piece of work.


(not sorry)

Thursday, August 6, 2015

The difference between good and bad books

I've been reading out-of-genre in the last week or so, as a way of putting some clear blue water between myself and the Hugo shortlist. 

And I found myself unexpectedly enjoying Public Enemies - the published correspondence of author Michel Houellebecq (best known over here for Atomised) and intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy (best known to me for being a repeat target of phantom pie-flinger Noël Godin)

It's exactly as pretentious as you'd think - but it's never less than entertaining and there are some great moments.

Take BHL on the difference between good and bad books. 

"For someone who is interested [...] in the machinery of literature, its abysses, its chaos, and the complex of forces that allows it not to implode, the only question that needs to be asked about any writer is what is alive in their writing and what is dead. In a given text, which are the words that are already dead, those that have one foot in the grave, those that are still alive but for how long? Which are the phantom words, the ghosts?

The answer is clear.

It can be seen with the naked eye. Your ear will detect it. There's no need to be a great critic. Or rather, that is the principle of all criticism worthy of the name.

In the great writers, the ones that practically discourage us from writing in their wake, almost everything is alive. For a long time, a very long time after the words are written, the power of the drama that took shape through them lives on.

In the bad ones everything is dead. The ink is barely dry and already the words it formed are disappearing. These are the books without a footprint, books that leave no traces. It is sometimes said [...] that they are so bad they dirty your hands. But it's not that, its not even that, since the sign of their poverty is that they leave no trace at all."

Sunday, August 2, 2015

My Hugo ballot

As voting has now closed on the Hugo's as of this Friday, I thought I'd share how I cast my ballot. Where possible I ranked all nominees, but for the sake of brevity I've included only my preferred winner and any honourable mentions I cared to give.

When I started these reviews, I noted that the question of the nominees' quality was fundamental to the exercise. 

"Either we have neglected authors and works to acclaim. Or the literary debate dwindles, and we have something else."

Well, from my perspective, I'm afraid it looks more like 'something else'. 

I gave No Award a first preference in six (generally slate-dominated) categories, while nominees from the voting slates only got a first preference from me in one category. And that was The Lego Movie. :)

That doesn't mean that there wasn't competent work on the slates - or that I was politically down-voting - just that I didn't think that their nominees were outstanding enough to deserve a Hugo. This may of course be a question of taste, and the final results may of course paint a different picture, but it seems I'm not alone in drawing this conclusion.

What that 'something else' might be, I'm minded to leave fandom to work out for itself. So for now, that's all from me on the Hugo Awards.

But some good for me has come out of being glued to this soap opera over the past few months. Reviewing the nominees has given me renewed impetus to write about science-fiction and fantasy. There's certainly some zines and graphic novels on the shortlist that I want to review and celebrate regardless of whether they win. I may give the nominees for some other more drama-free awards a try too.

And it's also helped me to articulate what I think science-fiction and fantasy fiction is or can be, clarifying some recurring themes in my reviews over the past few years. 

It's even had me dusting off my own idle writing ambitions. Ahem.

But for now, here's how I voted.

Honourable Mention: The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu

Honourable mentions: The Plural of Helen of Troy, John C. Wright; Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Earth to Alluvium, Gray Rinehart; Totaled, Kary English

Best Related Work - No Award

Honourable mention - Letters From Gardner, Lou Antonelli

Best Graphic Story - Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal written by G. Willow Wilson, illustrated by Adrian Alphona and Jake Wyatt

Honourable mention - Saga Volume 3 written by Brian K. Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples

Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) - The Lego Movie

Honourable mention - Guardians Of The Galaxy

Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) - Abstention due to lack of knowledge
Best Professional Editor (Short Form) - Abstention due to same
Best Professional Editor (Long Form) - Abstention ditto

Best Professional Artist - Julie Dillon

Best Semiprozine - Strange Horizons

Honourable mention - Lightspeed Magazine

Best Fanzine - No Award

Honourable mention - Journey Planet

Best Fancast - No Award

Honourable mention - Tea And Jeopardy

Best Fan Writer - Laura J. Mixon

Best Fan Artist  - Spring Schoenhuth

Honourable mention - Ninni Aalto

John W. Campbell Award for new writers - Wesley Chu