I’ve been a big fan of Richard Morgan’s science fiction for a while now. When I heard about this (new in 2008), I was interested… and then I stopped being interested. It sounded too much like stock-standard fantasy: the down-and-out swordsman, the half-breed magician, and some barbarian. Really didn’t grab me.
I ought to have known better. I ought to have trusted Morgan’s sensibilities. I ought to have remembered what this man did with Takeshi Kovacs over the space of three novels, and realised that no way was this going to be some boring sword-n-sorcery weak-ass adventure.
I got the sequel, The Cold Commands, to review, and I figured if I was going to do it justice I should read the first book. So I sent my trusty sidekick to the library for it, and I opened it… and, of course, I fell right into this crazy world of ambiguous history and complicated characters.
There are three points of view presented turn-about, chapter by chapter, right up to the end where things finally come together. The down-and-out swordsman is Ringil, scion of an impressive family who are mortified by his homosexuality, while they ought to be bursting with pride because of his role in the recently-ended world-consuming war. The half-breed is Archeth, half-human and half-Kiriath, a race who have recently abandoned this world and taken most of their pretty technological toys with them; she too is homosexual, which adds (in the eyes of those around her) to her exotic, possibly dangerous nature and their disapproval. And finally there’s Egar, once mercenary for the sprawling and decadent Yhelteth Empire, now back home herding buffalo and sleeping with buxom young women of the tribe.
That paragraph highlights just some of the wonderful complexity and narrative twists Morgan places before the reader. It feels like one of those ten-years-later sequels, with its references to the war against the Scaled Folk (dragons, people, dragons; and Egar is known as Dragonbane) in which humanity was aided by the non-human Kiriath, with their technological mastery; now the Kiriath have left the human world, the alliance of disparate human empires and city-states is falling apart, and – of course – the veterans of that war are having to cope with a world that doesn’t necessarily appreciate their sacrifice or understand how they have changed. But it’s not – unless there have been short stories set in this world that I don’t know about, which is possible, this is a reader’s first introduction to it. It’s nice to be brought into a world that’s a complicated, messy place with seriously complicated history. It doesn’t always make sense, especially the somewhat complicated political situation, but Morgan writes with such finesse that I was quite confident it would all come together in the end. And it does… except for the bits that clearly pave the way for a sequel. And I can forgive that. Mostly.
So: the characters. Ringil is making ends meet in a village near his glorious last stand in the war against the dragons, getting pennies for telling stories, until his mother turns up to beg a favour in the form of tracking down a cousin who has been sold into slavery. This, naturally, turns out to be much harder than it sounds; in the first place it means going home and facing his father. And next, it brings him face to face (um… so to speak…) with something out of mythology. Archeth’s life is at the whim of the Yhelteth Emperor, Jhiral, being the left-behind Kiriath half-breed that she is. She goes where he wills if she knows what is good for her, which sees her in this case going to a harbour town where there has been a seriously weird sort-of invasion: sort of because someone/thing clearly came ashore and destroyed much of the city, but then… they went away. Archeth is very suspicious. The third protagonist, Egar, is on the face of it far less complicated than the other two. How complicated can herding buffalo be? … and then he insults the tribe’s shaman, and things go from bearable to fairly bad. With some supernatural prompting. (Seeing a pattern here?)
The plot barrels along at a brisk clip, moving neatly between characters and places, and the characters are captivating from the opening pages. Aside from those two aspects, the really intriguing part for me was the hint that perhaps this isn’t a straight-forward fantasy world at all. There are definite science fictional overtones, starting with the Kiriath and their obvious technological superiority, which is only regarded as sorcery by the clearly backward and superstitious; Archeth and others who fought with them are well aware that it is technology, created by creatures with superior ability, but not magic. Then there are the hints and allusions from various apparently-supernatural characters about other worlds, and travelling between worlds, and what that actually means. Consequently, I’m pretty wild to read the sequel, to see what Morgan does next.
Dear self: trust Richard Morgan. He knows what he’s doing.
I received this book to review for ASif! Published by Orion, 2009.
This novel is billed as an autobiography, “Konstantin Skvorecky’s memoir of the alien invasion of 1986.” Skvorecky had an established reputation as a science fiction writer in the USSR in the mid-1940s, when he and a number of other SF authors were called together by Stalin to write the story of a new enemy for the USSR, on the assumption that the defeat of capitalist America was nigh. Their task was to invent an alien nemesis that Stalin and the Communist Party could use as a focus for the hatred and fighting spirit of the people of the USSR. As quickly as this was all put together, though, it was shelved.
Skip forward to the mid-1980s, and Skvorecky is an old man, near-alcoholic and bitter. His writing career has largely been a bust, as has his personal life. All of a sudden, however, Powers That Be are taking notice of him once again – including some people whom he has not seen since those frantic weeks in the 1940s, creating Stalin’s new enemy. His (mis)adventures take him to Chernobyl, lead him to meet an intriguing American woman who is an ambassador for Scientology, and bring him into conflict with the KGB. All of this within the possible context of an actual alien invasion.
The above premise sounds delightfully intriguing. Even if these adventures were happening to an ordinary person, I would be anticipating at least an entertaining adventure, possibly with some discussion about the functioning of the USSR at this time. Add in the fact that the narrator is a science fiction author and Roberts appears to have all sorts of possibilities in front of him, of exploring how a science fiction mentality can influence perceptions of the world, or at least jokes about turning everything that happens to the character into a story.
Sadly, Roberts in no way lived up to my hopes. The opening section, with the SF writers comparing notes and striving to out-do each other in Stalin’s eyes, is a wonderful look at Stalin’s influence and the way that writers (sometimes) interact with each other. That’s 26 pages of 323. From there… Skvorecky was a soulless narrator, for whom I had little sympathy or time, not even a “I wonder what will happen to him next” car-crash fascination, largely thanks to the stilted dialogue. This problem may in part be attributed to wanting to sound like it has been translated from Russian, but that’s not enough of a reason to make me forgive it. More than that, Skvorecky is unpleasantly arrogant and boring. Events happen to him, and he is pushed around by them – which didn’t have to make him unappealing (just look at Arthur Dent), but added to dull dialogue and an overall frustrating plot, it just didn’t work .
Aliens being responsible for the Chernobyl disaster, as part of their invasion plans, and all sorts of possibly-crazy people – including a KGB officer – running around believing that there is an alien invasion underway: this has lots of potential for madcap adventure. It did not eventuate. It was not fast-paced enough to sustain my interest when the characters were unappealing; the diversions away from plot were not interesting discussions of life or politics or the writerly craft, which would also have mitigated the lack of pace, but were instead mostly boring discussions between characters about little of consequence.
This is not a book I can honestly recommend to anyone.
In case anyone other than Tansy and Terri care, I’ve decided to give the rest of Blake’s 7 a miss. The new Travis really doesn’t do it for me, and I was finding it all a bit slow going. I have read the Wikipedia entry for the series overview (sorry Tansy), and I’m impressed by some of the later ideas the writers introduced and how ambiguous they appear to have kept the tone of the show. It’s not quite enough to get me to watch it, though.