Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Grimdark-tagnan: Sebastian de Castell's Traitor's Blade

One of the reasons I'm a little hesitant to read fantasy these days is that I'm over familiar with the cliches. Sacred monarchy, prophecy, quests, missing heirs, evil dukes - it's hard to do something new with the same old materials. And the grittier end of modern fantasy tends to cynically upend the tropes and then not do anything interesting with the inversion, which is almost more annoying.

There are still contemporary novels in the genre that carry with them the shock of the new (City Of Stairs) or the thrill of the old (The Goblin Emperor). And sometimes I'll come across a craftsman like Stephen Erikson, squarely in the epic fantasy/my awesome DnD campaign tradition, where the forensic attention to worldbuilding enhances rather than detracts from the writing.

Occasionally, though, I'll come across books like Sebastian de Castell's Traitor's Blade, gleefully emitting fantasy tropes without a shred of repentance.

And you know what? I'll surprise myself by quite enjoying them.

De Castell is up for the nearly-but-not-quite-a-Hugo-Award that is the Campbell Award for New Writers.* And with four novels to his credit, he's included Traitor's Blade in the Hugo Voters' packet. 

This is the first in a four-part series of books about the Greatcoats: travelling magistrates and swordsmen dispensing the King's justice. At least, until the King was overthrown by corrupt and quarrelsome dukes and his men left to roam the land - hated, mistrusted and feared.

The backdrop - venal aristocrats versus enlightened monarchs, city-states, gunpowder weapons, poisoners and courtesans - gives off distinct Renaissance Europe vibes, as do the somewhat musketeer-eque Greatcoats. Although de Castell puts a desert one side of his kingdom and howling mountain barbarians on the other, because fantasy, people!

The plot sees chief-Greatcoat Falcio and his compadres Kest (master swordsman) and Brasti (master bowman) fallen on hard times, hunted and hired on as caravan guards to nobles of uncertain morals, all the while trading banter and trying to fulfil the last wishes of their beloved King.

Like all too many modern fantasies, their adventures come with a high on-stage body count and the odd bit of torture. But this is also a strangely high-minded form of grimdark, with de Castell not just concerned to show good (or at least 'good') triumphant and evil defeated but also to explain why. 
What this allows his characters to do is indulge his talent for dialogue as they ponder these ethical questions. In this sense his creation of an order of magistrates to focus the story on is well done indeed as it means the story always returns to matters of honour, power and justice.

Most of these conversations do end up segueing into one of his well-described if lengthy action scenes, but at least you'll know there'll have been some light discussion of legitimate authority in the early modern state beforehand. And at one point de Castell lets Falcio go full magistrate and pass judgement - it's a skillful bit of rhetoric and gives the book its undeniable punch-the-sky moment.

And I've just realised what Traitor's Blade reminds me of a little: grimdark David Eddings.** Slightly predictable and contrived plot, lots of well-used fantasy material, stock character types, villains being irredeemably villainous, the occasional misstep*** - all present and correct. And yet, something in de Castell's skill for narration and dialogue and the alchemy by which all the other elements are combined make the story very readable.

This novel, then is very effective at what it does. It doesn't make de Castell the best new writer of 2016 - or even necessarily the best writer on the Campbell Award shortlist - but it does mean he's likely to have a long and successful career and have time to get better. 

And it also suggests I might pick up the next book in the Greatcoats series at some point when I'm in the mood for this sort of thing.  


* De Castell was on the Rabid Puppy slate but as far as I can tell has no connection to the culture wars dimension of the whole thing. The selection of a fairly orthodox piece of fantasy certainly reflects some of the literary arguments when this happened for the 2015 Hugo's.

** Back in 2012 I looked back with some affection at David Eddings, but without rose-tinted spectacles, here and here.

*** There's a lot of cliche I'll forgive in a book like this, it seems, but one thing that did annoy me was the fridging of Falcio's wife. Surely de Castell could have found a better way of setting up his protagonist's motivation than this old and problematic saw?

Monday, May 30, 2016

Mindfulness over mental pinball

A quick notice of an upcoming series of posts as I try and an eight-week mindfulness programme, starting today, based on this book by Professsor Mark Williams and Danny Penman.

As I imagine many who know me well might agree, I do find it hard to 'switch off.' I also generate a fair amount of surplus thinking, which is one of the reasons why this blog exists, but can also be inconvenient when you just want to relax and be. 

For example, when the cat wakes you up at 5 in the morning and instead of getting back off to sleep - which the Meep of course manages effortlessly - you're playing mental pinball with this or that trivial question.

In short - I could do with a bit of mindful or meditative practice in my life.

Back in London, I used to get that with some amazing people at the Unitarian meeting house in Lewisham. But unfortunately where I am doesn't have a group or congregation, so at least for the short term I'll have to provide my own structure. 

Williams and Penman's book suggests one exercise per week, six times a week, with a recorded meditation to help guide you. Nothing too long or difficult. But this is what I need to get me started, I think. And reporting back here will give me some hypothetical reader to check in with, as well as allowing me to record any insights.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

If MetaFilter were filk-fixated: File 770

It's time to kick off the Hugo review season with a look at the nominees I'm already familiar with. And where better to start than with two linked contenders who serve as an excellent point of orientation for the newcomer: the blog/fanzine File 770 and its editor/publisher/ Mike Glyer.

The electronic side of the File 770 operation is much more prolific these days - with regular updates (or 'Pixel Scrolls') collating genre news and opinion from fandom, SF/fantasy writers, publishers, film, TV and more. Notwithstanding an understandably American slant, it's an excellent resource to skim and take the temperature of the scene at any given moment. 

Or to put it another way: imagine if MetaFilter were fixated on filking, the details of lawsuits against Star Trek fan films and voting systems for literary awards. There, that's File 770.

The zine, nearly forty years old now, can also be read on the site and comes out once or twice a year. Since it tends to focus on the US fan community, its conventions and its personalities, it's more for the hardcore. So it's mainly the blog I'm focussing on here, but probably the closest British equivalent of either is cult legend David Langford's similarly long-running Ansible, whose website and newsletter fulfil similar functions in the UK.
File 770 is no stranger to a Hugo Award - it's won six times since the 1980's for Best Fanzine (which nowadays also includes blogs) - while Glyer has snagged another three for Best Fan Writer. So ordinarily the fact that they've both been nominated again would cause mild eye-rolling and a disinclination to back them if other worthy contenders presented themselves.

But that would be to overlook the fact that File 770 has also perfomed an exemplary service to fandom and the global science-fiction and fantasy community by reporting on the Hugo controversies over the past year. For people like me who are interested in what's going on, it's been the go-to resource to educate ourselves.

It helps that - occasional op ed articles aside - the blog not only links back to the original stories but quotes liberally from the sources themselves. Glyer and other contributors usually confine themselves to introducing each item rather than responding to it, although occasionally a little mild frustration can be detected.

In short - if File 770 had an DnD alignment, it would be Lawful Neutral, or at least trying to live up to it. Which is really what you need from a news service.

The File 770 community, on the other hand, existing in a ecosystem of comments on individual blog posts, is all about opinions plural. Whether it's taking a position on the stories of the day, swapping book or recipe recommendations or engaging in an epic comic riff about what to say to the Balrog in Moria (archived here), the threads are always insightful. Occasionally a little hot-tempered, but by comparison to Twitter (say) they're a paragon of civility. :)

I nominated File 770 and Mike Glyer in my Hugo ballot mainly for the Pixel Scrolls, but also for enabling this rich and varied conversation among fans. As it turns out, both were on the Rabid Puppy slate that swept the shortlist, albeit in the 'didn't ask to be there, probably would have been on the shortlist anyway' category, so I see no reason to hold that against them.

The main criticism I could level at File 770 is inherent in the nature of the site - that news reporting, especially when couched mainly in quotes from other sites, doesn't lend itself to the kind of bravura, turn-on-a-sixpence writing that I usually feel drawn to. And the op-ed pieces are often too specifically focussed on US fandom to reel me in, too.

However, I still feel this is more than offset by the value that File 770 has provided both to fans and people like me in the peanut gallery. Without jumping the gun on how I'll vote, it certainly lays down a benchmark that anyone else in the Fanzine and Fan Writer categories will find tough to beat.

"Only and wholly what he must do"

Just came across this quote from Ursula Le Guin's A Wizard Of Earthsea, which reminds me of the book on Zen Buddhism I'm currently dipping into.

"You thought, my boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man's real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do."

Sunday, May 22, 2016

In the Lovecraftian mode, but not in the Lovecraftian mood: Stephen King's Revival

After sampling the early part of Stephen King's career last year with The Long Walk, I thought I'd see what he was up to these days.

As it turns out, I found Revival (2014) to be an entertaining but curious and mismatched beast of a book. King is trying his hand here at a story in the idiom of H P Lovecraft, slowly building up to full-on, drawing-back-the-cosmic-curtain, scientific horror. The kind of story which suggests that looking beyond the limits of what is knowable is a bad, bad idea, both for the protagonist and for humanity at large.

But this aim is a poor fit with King's usual strengths as a writer, particularly his investment in character, in everyday America and in the psychogeography of his home state of Maine. All of these are on lengthy display in Revival's early and middle sections. Many of the best scenes in the book come from the interaction between our narrator Jamie Morton and his friends, family and colleagues, as he meanders (like the text) through his life.

Even his friend and adversary, defrocked pastor Charlie Jacobs, is much more convincing as teacher or as grieving widower than the tragic scientist/occultist he eventually becomes.

This means that the shift in the later sections of the book to a Lovecraftian mode - although well foreshadowed - is somewhat jarring and does not bring with it a corresponding Lovecraftian mood. King's humanistic sensibilities, so well presented earlier, make it difficult for him to carry off the full-throated anti-humanism required for the exercise.

Anger at the unfairness of the world and unreasoning faith, and at the unwillingness of people to face up to this, King can do with knobs on. With spoilering you, Charlie Jacobs' so-called 'Terrible Sermon' - his resignation speech from the pulpit - is one of the best uses of dramatic monologue in modern genre fiction I can recall reading. 

But this comes from a place of anthropocentric outrage in a way that Lovecraftian coldness simply doesn't. And structurally, I suspect that the accumulation of human detail King provides in the build-up detracts from the inhuman horror of the climax. Would a short, sharp novella have been a better treatment of the core material? Perhaps.

Lest you think I'm damning Revival overmuch, let me say that it's never less than readable and parts of it are very good indeed. And the fact that SK is still trying to pull off work like this around forty years into his writing career, rather than resting on his laurels, speaks highly of his continued creativity. 

Monday, May 9, 2016

Captured by the game: In The Mood For Love and 2046

One more review found down the back of the Time Sofa, and it's a two-fer!

Wong Kar-wai's In The Mood For Love (2000) and 2046 (2004) constitute one acknowledged classic and its interesting but erratic sequel of sorts.

A bare summary of In The Mood For Love barely does justice to the film, but nonetheless: it is set in Hong Kong, primarily in the 1960's. It concerns the growing attraction between two neighbours - Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) and Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) who learn their partners are having an affair under the guise of overseas business. The discovery brings them closer together, and while their own temptation beckons, their love remains unconsummated and ultimately unfulfillled.

The appeal of Mood... for me is twofold. One, it's one of the most visually sumptuous films I've seen. The tracking shots of Cheung (who wears the most amazing cheongsam dresses in the film) as she descends from her apartment to the noodle stall, the arrangement of each tiny tableau in their homes, in the restaurant, in the rainy streets of Hong Kong. 

You could watch it with the sound turned down and it would still be pretty darn good. But the soundtrack of crooners and wistful classics is spot-on too. The whole aesthetic is a masterclass in capturing a sense of restrained, slow-burning passion, using nothing more overt than hand-holding and a final embrace between Cheung and Leung.

Second, I loved the idea of the two main characters - constrained by convention - slowly tricking themselves into a love they'd not believed themselves capable of, by imagining and replaying how their spouses might have conducted their affair. Becoming captured by the game. Or by playing it at a deeper level than they had consciously intended.

If Mood... is a near-perfect exercise in style which also has depth to spare, consider 2046 an intentionally jarring and incoherent commentary upon it.

2046 (a hotel room number or fictional train destination as well as a future date) follows Chow's return to Hong Kong a number of years later. He's a changed man, a jaded writer, and none of the affairs he has in the course of the film, chaste or unchaste, can replace the love he lost in Mood...

Like it's predecessor, it's another meditation on love and restraint, but much more slippery in its plot- and time-lines. The painterly approach to story familar from In The Mood For Love has become fragmented, more abstract here. 

We jump from story to story - from Chow's relationship with another woman named Su, to his inability to return the affections of Zhang Ziyi's high-class call girl, to his writing of a science-fiction story about a train journey to a place where you recover lost memories, to an apparent immersion in the same story.

2046 is just as memorable as its predecessor in its visual thrills. And it is certainly trying to say something about the problem of repetition and the difficulty of transcending the past. It is however a more difficult film - not just because of its non-traditional narrative but because Chow's ageing libertine is not a particularly sympathetic character. 

Through the distorting prism of memory, it seems to me that both these things make 2046 less about him as protagonist, more about the damage he does to his relationships as a consequence of the events of In The Mood For Love.

Let me put it this way - I want to see In The Mood For Love again because I'm pretty sure I'll love it all over again. I want to see 2046 again because I want to make more sense of it second time around. 

PS - I've also belatedly discovered there's an earlier film in the same universe (Moodiverse?) called Days Of Being Wild I'll keep a look out for now too.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Oh no, not again! Preparing to read and review the Hugo nominations

“Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was 'Oh no, not again."

Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy

Douglas Adams' parable of unhappy recurrence seems a fitting enough way to begin some reflections on the announcement of the 2016 Hugo Award shortlist last week. 

There's been a whole lot of editorialising already on the news that (as with a similar case last year) the shortlisting process has effectively been gamed by block voting for a Rabid Puppy slate of nominations. 

The File 770 blog has produced a handy comparison of the slate versus the shortlist - but the short version is that if it was on the slate, it's probably on the shortlist.

And you can also see this Guardian article for reporting and context

I don't propose to add much to what's already been written. There's only so many times you can read that block voting may be within the letter of the Hugo Awards but it's against the spirit, that the vulnerabilty in the nominations process is hopefully being fixed in time for 2017, and that there's some problematic politics on display here. But I do want to set out for my own satisfaction what I will do as a reader and reviewer.

As a reader

First, I'm going to attempt to read everything in the voter's packet, which will probably be a more enjoyable exercise than you might think given the above. That's partly because anything that got onto the shortlist in spite of the block voting - Uprooted by Naomi Novik, say - is coming highly recommended by a lot of different people. 

Also - and such is the bizarro nature of the nominations this year - the Rabid Puppies slate itself contained a fair amount of work that might well have made the shortlist without it (permission was not sought before inclusion on the slate). Authors like Neil Gaiman, Lois McMaster Bujold, Alistair Reynolds or Brandon Sanderson, as well as those less known but well regarded, who will be well worth reading in their right. 

That does leave the remainder - a combination of work from the Rabid Puppy organiser's publishing press Castalia House and picks that are seemingly part of his Dada offensive in the American culture wars slash ongoing feud against the SF establishment. I don't have high hopes of this stuff based on last year's Hugo reading, but hey ho, I'll give it a go.

As a reviewer  

Second - I'm going to try and review as much of the shortlist as possible on this blog. Reviewing does help me work out my voting decisions, it's true, but it's also a way of exploring what science fiction and fantasy means to me and others.  

In reviewing the shortlist, we can't help but talk about and affirm what we value about the genre. We measure any given contender against the best from the past while looking at what it offers for the present. And I do hope you'll join me in this conversation too, as it rolls forward between now and August.

Inevitably, reviewing also means engaging with the intensely political nature of the Rabid Puppies. Given the inclusion of works on the shortlist like SJW's Always Lie - Taking Down The Thought Police - not to mention the rhetoric I see on the #hugoawards and #rabidpuppies hashtags - it would be a critical miss to review the culture war and Castalia House nominations shorn of this context.  

So reviewing has to include examining those politics - atttempting to understand them and where necessary subjecting them to critique - but avoiding the op-ed trap so common on the internet by starting from the work itself and moving outwards. Playing the ball, not the man, if you like.

But it's important not to lose sight of the fact that reviewing - and talking about what we value in the genre - is also contributing to a sorely-needed positive discourse around the Hugo Awards. Is it enough?  Probably not. But it might be part of a solution. And if other methods occur to me I'll add them here in the coming weeks. 

Helpful postscript - register to vote in the Hugos

You can help the Hugos work as well as is realistically possible in 2016 by buying a supporting membership and becoming a voter. The larger the electorate, the smaller the influence of any faction, the fairer the outcome. 

I'll be picking up my supporting membership in the coming days. And you can read my pitch for voting back in February here.