Thursday, June 06, 2013

Mini Review 1 - River of Stars, Son of Destruction, Masked Mosaic

As promised, this is the first of a somewhat regular series of mini book reviews. In this issue, we'll take a look at a trio of great reads:
River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay
Son of Destruction by Kit Reed
Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories edited by Claude Lalumiere and Camille Alexa

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 River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay

Inspired by the Mongol invasion of China, River of Stars is Guy Gavriel Kay's tale of individuals living in a time when their culture is threatened with utter destruction, the different ways some fight against the threat, others enable it, and the rest bear witness - while they live. This is the second novel set in Kay's fantasy world of the Kitan Empire, picking up 400 years after the civil war that was ignited at the end of the brilliant Under Heaven - a war, we learn, that has resulted in the loss of several northern territories (and a lot of pride) to hostile horsemen of the steppes. It's also left a weakened Kitai "protected" by an incompetent army, humiliated by protection payments to the northern tribes, and ruled by corrupt, in-fighting officials and an emperor more interested in art and his garden than the plight of his people. Amidst this, a young man from a country village, Ren Daiyan, uses his intelligence, education, and self-taught fighting skills to rise from being his family's second son without many prospects, to a Robin Hood-esque outlaw leader, to a general who may be the only hope to stop the northern invasion. Meanwhile, Lin Shan, ferociously intelligent, a gifted poet, and (gasp!) an educated and opinionated woman, fights to preserve their culture on another front, mastering verse, creating a new style of song, and collecting artifacts. More importantly, when her artistic abilities capture the attention of the artsy-fartsy emperor, she uses her poems and songs to imply that all is not well in Kitai, urging him to remember the glory and pride of their past in a bid to convince him to take action. Orbiting around them are a collection of poets, bureaucrats, soldiers and others swept along in the increasingly rough currents at court, in the countryside, and eventually on the field of battle.

River of Stars is another example of Kay's mastery of worldbuilding. As with its predecessor, he's created a sort-of-China that's so close to the original that when he describes the cities and countryside, you can taste and smell the grit of the real hills in the north outside of Beijing, or the oppressive humidity of the south near Hong Kong. His 12th Dynasty echoes the Northern Song Dynasty. The culture has the Confucian hierarchy and values of the real thing, and the myths include the fear of ghosts still felt today, and warnings about the perils of fox demon women. And yet, as similar as this world may be to China of the past, it is its own creature. One of the major differences (aside from people and place names): the ghosts are real, though not so prominent in River of Stars as they were in Under Heaven.

Kay also does excellent work developing his characters. Ren, Lin, and the rest are fully-fleshed and three-dimensional. You can believe they would have existed in this kind of culture, behaved the way they do, and come to similar fates. Ren is likable, but the life he's chosen means at time he does terrible things and is capable of cruelty and sacrificing others to get the job done. He's brilliant at leading others and winning battles, but for all his knowledge, he isn't quite able to grasp in time how easily other people can compromise themselves or the world around them - that others don't hold to his standards. For her part, Lin is able to confront poets, court officials, emperors, and would-be assassins in a way that few other women do, and yet she remains confined to the limitations of her culture (confines that she recognizes and sometimes laments, but remains within none-the-less), and in so doing remains believable.

The novel's pace also has an engaging ebb and flow, focussing on the principle characters for a time, then shifting to supporting cast, then farther out to the country as a whole, then back in, again and again, over time, with the narrative occasionally offering philosophical comments about the way of the world.

River of Stars isn't a quick read, but it's worth the time, and certainly worth spending extra to get a hard cover copy.

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Son of Destruction by Kit Reed

Who could take a common event like a person who wants to understand his past searching for a parent he never knew, season it with the greasy unspoken pressure on a group of people who don't want to acknowledge an ugly part of their collective past, drop the story into a banal setting like middle-upper class suburbia, and then toss in, oh, let's say, spontaneous human combustion - or is it some kind of deliberate pyrokinesis - and maybe an angry ghost? Kit Reed - that's who!

Reed is the queen of taking the banal and making it completely, utterly, disturbingly surreal, as she's demonstrated on many occasions with works like Thinner Than Thou, Enclave, and Magic Time (look for a review of this one in the coming weeks), and Son of Destruction doesn't disappoint. But don't think for an instant that this author's a one-trick pony relying on a gimmick like M. Night Shyamalan. Make that mistake, and her stories will bust you on your ass and leave you crying like an acidhead in a funhouse. Reed's stories are as much skillfully crafted character studies of people coming to grips with themselves and each other in situations that hit uncomfortably close to home, as they are tales of daring escape from real or metaphorical prisons. And then the spontaneous human combustion - or pyrokinesis! - happens.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Son of Destruction is the story of reporter Dan Carteret as he prowls around a sweltering middle-and-upper-class Florida suburb trying to reconstruct his dead mother's youth in an attempt to find out who his father is. To hide his purpose, Dan pretends to be working on a story about a series of mysterious deaths that have occurred there over the years, apparently involving spontaneous human combustion. But the story's also about Nenna, and Jessie, and Bobby, and the others who went to school with Dan's mom, and the lengths they'll go to to keep the details of their collective past more tightly wrapped and locked away than a corpse at the morgue - and people bursting into flames are the least of their concerns. Throw in Walker, who constantly dwells on his desire to be left alone, but can't help but come in from the fringes on a quest of his own. And then there's Nenna's teenaged daughter Steffy, who doesn't care much what the adults are up to, but inadvertently acts as observer, confidant, and spy, and ultimately sets the stage for her own play about the lengths people will go to to get what they want, and whether they can make different choices and change history (after a fashion).

But the novel is more than just a who-dunnit or what-the-hell-really-happened yarn. It's also probably one of the most brutally incisive and accurate examinations of the machinations, self-delusions, fears, failures, aspirations, compromises, and possible redemptions of middle-and-upper-class society players since William Thackeray's Vanity Fair or George Eliot's Middlemarch. Every nasty nuance of a ladies' gossip group whose members oh-so-politely jockey for dominance over one-another; the quiet moments of impotent desperation of men who've peaked and slid into irrelevance or failure as they watch peers of lesser moral worth continue to ascend; the dirty not-so-secrets that are protected simply because shame for one at the hands of outsiders would be embarrassment for all; and the incomprehensible lengths people will go to support - or appear to provide support - for former friends who have (though no-one wants to publicly admit it) long since drifted away as they went along other paths in life or who are downright disliked (with the attendant realization that maybe they never really were friends), merely out of the clinging ghost of a sense of duty - all of this is captured in Reed's unflinching psychological and sociological analysis.

Add to that a tight writing style and relentless pace to the plot as it builds to its explosive conclusion, and Son of Destruction is definitely worth buying in hardcover and moving to the top of your to-read list.

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Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories edited by Claude Lalumiere and Camille Alexa

As we crash into a summer of superhero movies, how could we not talk about Claude Lalumiere and Camille Alexa's long-overdue blizzard of tales about metahumans and their adventures across Canada? I say "long-overdue" because Canadians have a grand tradition of superhero storytelling - from Joe Shuster's groundbreaking Superman, to Cory Doctorow's "The Super Man and the Bugout,"to the worlds and characters of Minister Faust's Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad and From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, to the legion of authors whose stories are jam-packed into this newest addition to the genre (not to mention the historic milestones listed in Mark Shainblum's opening essay for the book). It's a wonder a lab experiment gone wrong, strangely radioactive meteorite, or genetic mutation hasn't caused this anthology to bound onto bookstore shelves before!

The volume contains stories by authors from across the country, featuring characters from Canada and around the world having adventures here in the Great White North. Where other editors might have been tempted to take a shared-world approach like George R.R. Martin's venerable Wild Cards series, or the superhero worlds of the Marvel or DC comic franchises, Lalumiere and Alexa have elected to go with diversity - each author writing unique adventures in his or her own universe. And that's appropriate for a collection about Canadian superheroes. For a country with so many different regions and voices, it makes sense to have a collection of stories that have different tones and paces and histories and political viewpoints and types of characters, which somehow flow from one to another quite comfortably, which almost seem to form a cultural conversation with one-another and the reader, and, taken collectively, make for one hell of a good read. This book is Canada - if people could fly. Which would be awesome.

My favourites among the bunch were E.L Chen's grim lead to the collection, "Nocturne," about a hoodied (yes, hoodied, as in kangaroo jacketed) hero in Toronto; Kristi Charish's funny "Canadian Blood Diamonds," about a super villain's attempts to make a profit, avoid arrest, and meet the right guy;  the ass-kicking "The Secret History of the Intrepids" by D.K. Latta, putting a Canuck spin on the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen mashup idea; Mike Rimar's super villain origin story "A Bunny Hug for Karl"; Michael S. Chong's creepy "The Creep"; and Jason S. Ridler's take on antiheroes in "Revenge of the Iron Shadow". In fact, in the whole anthology, I'd say there was only one story that I didn't enjoy: "The Shield Maiden" by Alyxandra Harvey, which wasn't terrible, rather just longer than I felt it needed to be.

The only real downside to the book is the type of paper Tyche Books went with for the covers. At least with the first print run (yes, I ordered early, and got a copy with a mistake in the accent over Lalumiere's name - which makes it a collectable! Woohoo!), there's something vaguely and unpleasantly waxy about the texture of the cover. And within a day of bringing it home - even before I'd had a chance to open it and flip through - the covers had curled back quite significantly.

That said, the contents of the book are what's most important, and, whether you're a Canadian or not, if you're a fan of first-rate superhero tales, get yourself a copy of Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories as soon as you can - whether you have to walk to your local bookstore, order online, or leap a few tall buildings in a single bound.

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