Saturday, January 14, 2006

SF Reviews

Jon Courtenay Grimwood has just reviewed the following for the Guardian.
Richard Paul Russo's Rosetta Codex
Jeff Vandermeer's Shriek
Naomi Novik's Temeraire
Fiona McIntosh's Bridge of Souls

Jan Mark enjoyed Hardinge's Fly By Night.

It all follows up nicely to the Ursula Le Guin interview that recently ran.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Breaking the Siege

New World Order by Ben Jeapes (Corgi, £5.99, pb)

Ben Jeapes's latest paperback, New World Order, is a counterfactual history set in the Civil War and yet it is more.

John Donder , a Holekhor general, arrives at the siege of Newbury to find the Parliamentarian side armed with machine guns. As he travels to find his son and friends from his earlier visit, he discovers the remnants of the opposing forces from the civil war on his own planet who are arming the troops with machine guns instead of flint lock rifles. In the break between the Wars the Holekhor launch a fullscale invasion of Earth, leasing a piece of England as their own, whilst King Charles is allowed to sit on the throne apparently in power. Donder's commander then initiates a full scale invasion through increasing settlers in the rest of England and allowing the Congregation to root out heretics. Whilst this invasion is happening, Oliver Cromwell launches a resistance to the invaders and the new technology.

New World Order uses its fractured history to comment upon the present. Rather than bending the natural order of facts, Jeapes merrily shatters them but in doing so delivers a wonderfully modern clash of cultures which asks the reader to think about their own position. There is a running commentary upon the nature of immigration and each cultures response to the other. He has his own position through with which he begins to rejoin the histories and he derides the extremist positions of both sides.

The thrust of his argument comes from the use of exegesis by parties on both sides. Both the Holekhor (especially for the Congregation) and Cromwell use their religious texts to justify their actions. Can one live one's life by this? Perhaps but one cannot justify important actions or events by religious text. In keeping with the rest of the book, Jeapes allows the reader to see the insanity of devoting an outlook merely to the text without navigating its meaning for onself. It is seen as dubly insane when the troops are given the weapons for the first time and decides, since they are using them, that are not evil, yet later in the book, they charge Daniel, Donder's son, with being in collusion with consorting with demons.

The title can apply in many situations and is a summation of where each culture lives but it resists simple Western or Orientalist readings. What really keeps this novel going is the spritely writing which weaves fictions amidst the facts. It is an exhilarating book that has fun in its seriousness.

A dragon to remember

Temeraire by Naomi Novik (Harper Collins, £12.99)

Temeraire is a novel of expectations, especially from the reader, as the hype has been building. As such it is a little difficult to come to this novel cold, without exectation.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Laurence captures an egg, which later hatches into the Dragon Temeraire, during a naval engagement with Napoleon's fleet. Laurence is then put in charge of the hatchling, loses his commission and moves to the training school in Scotland. In due course, they hear of Villeneuve's breakout acoss the Atlantic and give chase after the Dragons. In so doing, the truth about Temeraire – that he was a present for Napoleon himself from the Chinese.

Novik delivers a well-built world which enthralls the reader. It is reminsicent of Patrick O'Brian and Susanna Clarke but I do think that there are shades of C S Forester's Hornblower. Novik is obviously happy with the eighteenth century but once she is on sea though, Novik is most certainly at home and delivers some fantastic description and action. It seems thinner once on land and outside of social engagement. The dragon flying lessons remind me of Quidditch.

Does this mark a beginning to the notion of historical fantasy? Not really since authors like Stephen Lawhead use the Crusades quite adeptly as does Emma Bull and Stephen Brust's Freedom and Necessity the eighteenth century for some time. It does mark, by chance more than anything, use of the nineteenth century and the social contexts which afford the action as well. This seems to be gaining popularity in the US with writers such as Jacqueline Carey and Sarah Monette making good use of language as combat arena. This is definitely a plus side. It allows her room to develop Laurence and his supporting cast as real characters rather than cyphers. They have foibles and weaknesses as well as strengths and these are rarely lost sight of in the book. She takes her time in building each voice and giving it room to develop with promises of more.

The character of Temeraire though does present some problems. She explains how the dragon learns languages but it is never fully explained how he talks with Laurence. The dragons represent a different technology, a certain science, to the world and there is a whole raft of changes to the world which are never explained, in contrast to Clarke who offers some back story to her novel of revived magic. It asks the reader to believe implicitly in these creatures, yet nothing is offered to fully bind them to the century.

No doubt these will come up in the later novels in the series for this is the first in a trilogy. What she delivers is a fast-paced and largly thrilling book and the perfect start to a series. The plot is largely taken with developing the core relationships which suggests that we may be in this world for a while. If she can develop its a series of plots and linking narratives, we may be in for fun for some time to come.

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