Tuesday, February 28, 2017

An End of Winter Avalanche of Mini Book Reviews

As the dark days of winter draw to a close (at least, in theory — we've been hit with snowstorms twice this weekend, and this is supposed to be the Lower Mainland!), I've discovered in the course of reorganizing my library that my pile of books to be reviewed before they can be shelved has been, well, piling-up! To get them to the safety of the shelves, and to give you a few titles to think about if you're looking for something to read, I figured it was high time to sit down and babble a bit about what I've been devouring for the past several months.

In this edition of the Mini Book Reviews, we'll take a look at:

Wild Cards — High Stakes                 edited by George RR Martin & Melinda Snodgrass

Seveneves                                            by Neal Stephenson

A Desolate Splendor                           by John Jantunen

Last Year                                             by Robert Charles Wilson

The Goblin Emperor                           by Katherine Addison

Lovecraft Country                               by Matt Ruff

The Mongoliad — Book One               by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo,
                                                             ED deBirmingham, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey & Cooper Moo

The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk     edited by Sean Wallace

Clockwork Canada                              edited by Dominik Parisien

Mother of Eden                                    by Chris Beckett

As usual, spoilers ahead.


Wild Cards — High Stakes edited by George RR Martin & Melinda Snodgrass

This latest addition to the Wild Cards series explodes out of the gate right where its predecessor, Lowball, left off: a lethal underworld fightclub and gambling ring in Kazakhstan that's been kidnapping Jokers off the streets of New York has been busted open. Markus "The Infamous Black Tongue" Morgan, a snake-centaur vigilante who was taken for the games, is now on the run with a Russian woman he befriended while in captivity, looking to get home any way he can. Officer Francis Black, a normal human serving in New York's Jokertown police precinct, has also been caught overseas in the battle at the fightclub, and now finds himself in the strange position of having to team-up with the elderly Ace gangster who was running the operation just to try to stay safe as the city of Talas begins to erupt into horrific violence. With the end of the death matches, a strange force has spread throughout the city, driving people to kill each other, and transforming them into nightmare creatures. The chaos is being generated by a Lovecraftian entity forcing its way in from another dimension to spread its malevolence across our world. Back in New York, the UN's team of Ace peacekeepers, The Committee, gathers to go to Kazakhstan to make a stand against the darkness.

As with the rest of the series, High Stakes is immensely entertaining. The plot thunders along like an out-of-control freight train heading for a stalled school bus. The characters are well-rounded and interesting — even those who aren't likeable are still people who I couldn't take my eyes off and wanted to see more of. Each individual character arc was well-crafted and, while functioning perfectly independently, meshed with the others to form a cohesive and believable overall story. The real sign of the book's quality was the level of frustration it created at the end of each chapter: I wanted to stay with that chapter's character to find out what happened to him/her next, but at the same time I couldn't wait to find out what was happening to the next protagonist in the chapter ahead.

For all of the violence and depravity splashing through these pages, what's often most brutal is the impact of it on the minds and emotions of those who are forced to witness, battle, or endure it. Even with the help of a local wildcard-powered healer, no-one escapes unscathed. Not really. What was most surprising though, was that the authors pulled back a bit from the horror at the end. Which is not to say that I was surprised by the ultimate conclusion of the story, but rather that the plot seemed unavoidably pointed towards a truly awful sacrifice that would have had to be made to save the day, and then that didn't happen. Perhaps the authors stepped back from that brink because it would have been a pyrrhic victory, because it would have left the characters too soiled. And, you know, I'm okay with that.

If you haven't read it yet, go out and buy or borrow Wild Cards — High Stakes.


Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

I find myself shocked to say this about a Neal Stephenson book, but here goes: Seveneves is a novel that wants to be superb, but turns out to be merely adequate.

The story begins in the near future, when a mysterious object shatters the Earth's moon. With months before the debris field begins to rain down, scouring life from the surface of the Earth, the world unites to channel all of its resources into building a fleet of mini arks to join the International Space Station (now attached to a captured iron asteroid) in orbit to house as many young scientists as possible. The goal is to keep humanity alive in space for a few thousand years until the Earth can be made habitable again. But while "in space, no-one can hear you scream", it's also true that no-one can escape politics and the darker side of human nature. And these factors come into play again millennia down the road when it's time for the new species' descended from humanity to go home.

Something that struck me (and no, it wasn't a rogue chunk of the moon) during the opening act of Seveneves was how the destruction of the moon reminded me of the opening credits of the early 80s cartoon Thundarr the Barbarian — except there would be no lightsabers, wizards, or Wookiee ripoff Ookla the Mok when the dust settled. Not much of anything at all, in fact. It also reminded me of the scene in the first half of Simon Wells' 2002 remake of The Time Machine, where the moon is blown apart (by overzealous mining). The efforts of a (mostly) united world to pool resources to save humanity (one way or another) also harkens back to Firstborn, the third volume of Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter's Time Odyssey series.

On the positive side, Seveneves offers a cast of well-rounded characters who react in a believable way to the gigantic challenges they face, in terms of the construction project, personal relationships (especially having to deal with saying goodbye to loved ones who wouldn't be part of the offworld evacuation), politics, and survival. Stephenson also offers a (mostly — but I'll get to that in a sec) believable response to a crisis sparked by a mega-scale natural catastrophe. And the overall story is one that should be gripping, with moments of real tension. I also appreciated the fact that the book is as an argument for the plausibility of the space ark or generation ship, at a time when stories like Kim Stanley Robinson's Aurora (which, don't get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed) seek to label this old trope of sf as unworkable.

But Seveneves is dragged down by some significant faults. The first is infodump. I mean a shocking, brutal, unforgivable level of infodump. Now, I know there are hard science fiction fans out there who love, nay, insist on, stories deeply, strongly anchored in known scientific fact; who want to see the equations; who get off on detailed, jargon-heavy explanations of technical minutia — and they probably enjoyed the hell out of this book's tidal wave of hard science. I didn't. I don't mind some level of technical exposition, but what I'm really looking for in a story is a good story. Story is king. No. Story is god. And when the formulae or physics or chemical analysis or whatever gets in the way of the story, then the author hasn't done his/her job. And the technical details most certainly get in the way of the story here. There are countless pages — frequently consecutive pages — where Stephenson overexplains orbital mechanics and course calculations, to the point where opportunities for character and story development are ignored — no, smashed underfoot — and pacing is sacrificed bloodily on the alter of obsessive jargon. And nearly all of it is unnecessary. Single sentences could have summed up what it takes the author pages to do. It's technical masturbation. Seveneves is a book that's more than 850 pages long, but it probably could have been 600 or 700 pages — and much more intellectually and emotionally satisfying — if the infodump and other, occasional instances of repetition in the writing, had been hacked out. Yeah, Stephenson's known for writing door-stopper-sized tomes these days, but this one didn't have to be this big.

And speaking of unnecessarily big, Seveneves also should have been smaller because it should have been split into two books. The third act, set in the far future, is so completely different from the initial how-do-we-survive-a-meteor-shower-apocalypse-and-not-subsequently-kill-each-other-in-orbit story in terms of tone, type of plot, character interactions, and character goals (and lower levels of infodump), that it should have been flushed-out and made into a sequel.

Lastly, as much as I'll give Stephenson credit for being realistic in his portrayal of how inevitable human politics and personal greed, and instinct-level animal viciousness, can lead to projects started with the best intentions (like saving humanity) running into serious trouble; and as much as I'll give him credit for, as an American writer, making an American politician one of the prime causes of trouble in the story, I don't think the author gives the reader a broad enough look at the different ways governments and individuals would behave in the desperate scramble to survive in the face of extinction. Going back to Clarke & Baxter's Firstborn, we're told that even as most of humanity works to prepare to withstand the coming solar blast, some of the super-rich build their own luxury space stations in orbital safe spots to ride-out the disaster. While Stephenson tells us in Seveneves about one politician violating the evacuation rules, and of one family company's attempts to dig a deep shelter (which, admittedly, leaves the door open for others having done the same), what he doesn't get into (probably because he didn't leave room for plot while cramming the book with infodump) is the likelihood that various governments or powerful individuals would also have gone rogue to get into the orbital arklet swarm and take control, or built outward-bound colony ships, or dug deep shelters to emerge much sooner to establish a larger, stronger control over the surface before the orbital descendants could, well, descend in their re-colonization plan.

I wanted to love Seveneves. I really did. It had all the elements I want out of a story. But the infodump  and other failings killed it as surely as a bombardment of moon fragments.


A Desolate Splendor by John Jantunen

If you grabbed John Jantunen's A Desolate Splendor off the shelf and flipped to a random page, there's a good chance you'd think you'd found yourself in the middle of a typical CanLit pastoral. You might find yourself drifting along amidst the slow rhythm of life on the farm, interspersed with the occasional challenge from nature, but where, really, the biggest challenges are in the relationships between family members. But then you'd turn the page and find something very different. Maybe the adventures of a teenager exploring the wilderness on this own. Or the story of a teenaged girl finding her own path after escaping brutality. Or the story of two young First Nations men trying to make a name for themselves with a daring raid. Or the experiences of a small gang of former soldiers and other stragglers living hand-to-mouth, day by day, preying on whomever they come across and revelling in retelling their old war stories as some kind of way to hold onto a non-existent past and justify their continued existence. Or the account of a group of women looking for an opportunity to escape a bleak existence of rape and enslavement at the hands of a horde of mute, self-multilating, cannibalistic men —the Echoes — who exist solely to burn, kill, and destroy. And as you spiralled down this black hole of increasingly grim plot threads, you'd quickly realize that, far from being a naval-gazing pastoral or a pioneer-era frontier adventure, this is a hard tale about hard-scrabble life in a post-apocalyptic world.

Jantunen paints a picture of a future far enough down the road from its disaster that the old world (while remembered by some) is entirely irrelevant. The remains of a highway are a curiosity in the distance rather than a trade or travel route. A car is nothing more than a dusty, dead amusement in a barn. What concerns the people of this deceptive rural tranquility the most is having enough food to survive after they've paid-off the protection racket of the roving gangs. Their crops are threatened by flocks of ravenous birds, and even the rain. Farmers and their dogs have to fight off packs of huge, vicious bear-wolves. And sometimes the Echoes come avalanching through at night to take the women and kill, eat, and burn the rest. Civilization is gone, and it often looks like humanity — referring both to our species and to the ability of people to demonstrate kindness, mercy, and understanding to one-another — may not be far behind.

And yet, for all its horrors, the world of A Desolate Splendor is not so unremittingly bleak as that of Cormac McArthy's The Road, and this saves the book from corrupting the experience of reading into a form of torture. Here, strangers met in the wild are not automatically enemies — some help those in trouble. There's a chance for redemption and a moment of peace, to build new family units instead of just watching as they're torn apart. And there's room for hope. Because of this, the characters remain interesting. We get to see them grow as individuals, form new relationships, and experience the world in different ways.

But this is still the post-apocalypse. Even in the protagonists' moments of triumph, there's still the lingering, nagging, vague fear, like a scream bouncing off the walls of an enclosed room again and again, that the Echoes might still be out there and about to come sweeping in once more. As much as they are a literal menace in the story, the Echoes are a metaphorical representation of humanity's current, active, seemingly unthinking (or at least indifferent) embrace of behaviour that could leave the real world desolate. Perhaps even more frightening are the members of the soldiers' gang, who are every bit as predatory and brutal as the Echoes, but operate behind friendly smiles and chit-chat with the farmers under the thin venire of providing a necessary service. And so even as the story leaves us with the splendour of a new family unit growing together, and of two young people possibly making a future for themselves, neither the characters nor the reader can sit entirely comfortably.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should note that a copy of this book was sent to me by the author. But that doesn't affect my opinion at all. A Desolate Splendor is an absorbing, smart read and worth picking up.


Last Year by Robert Charles Wilson

Robert Charles Wilson's newest novel, Last Year, is the love child of Hell on Wheels and Escape from LA, midwifed by The Time Tunnel. And I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Set in the late 1800s, the story is about Jesse Cullum, a man born in a rough part of San Francisco, who's led a life as an itinerant worker across the American West, and is now a member of the security staff at the City of Futurity, a tourist resort for people of his era — and ours. He's also a man who just wants to own a good pair of Oakley sunglasses, a goal in life that's made more difficult when his current pair is broken while saving President Grant from a would-be assassin.

Futurity is the creation of a 21st-Century billionaire who's exploiting technology that can create gateways to the pasts of alternate timelines (not the past of his own specific timeline, thereby avoiding paradoxes). The facility only runs for a few years before it's closed down, and a new one is constructed to bridge to another, similar timeline. In addition to giving tourists from the present the chance to visit the Old West, tourists from the past are invited to pay to stay at the resort and see museums hinting at the wonders of the future, and take rides on helicopters. An important part of the business also involves selling cheap, supposedly harmless technology of the future to the locals in exchange for gold (a currency that's good in any timeline).

The problem is, someone on the inside has been selling dangerous technology — like Glock handguns — to the locals. Worse, the culprit has been sharing details about civil rights advances of the future, offending the stodgy beliefs of the people of the past and throwing the country into chaos, and putting Futurity itself at risk. Having proven his toughness and reliability, Cullum is partnered with Elizabeth DePaul, a security officer and military veteran from the future, and sent to investigate the technological and historical leaks. Over the course of their assignments together, Cullum comes to the realization that just doing his job and owning a pair of Oakleys might not be enough in life, and that finding your place in the world sometimes means changing worlds entirely.

If you read enough of Wilson's work, you soon learn that he likes to switch back and forth between stories about big, galaxy-spanning, high-concept philosophical material exploring man's place in the universe (if humanity even has a place amidst the grand workings of things ancient and unfathomable), and smaller, more intimate stories about individuals trying to figure out their place in their own lives. And he does both very well. Last Year is one the latter types of stories. It's not about time travel or paradoxes, or the mysteries of where this technology comes from. Even the question of the ethics of the use of the time gate technology by the owner of Futurity is very much on the sidelines. This is an in-depth exploration of a person figuring out what's most important to him, realizing that he wants to go through life with someone who he cares about and who cares about him, rather than just going through the motions alone, and deciding what he has to do to have important relationships with other people. He transforms from being just another commodity that Futurity has at its disposal to a full person who takes an active role in what he's going to do and what happens around him. Which makes it more interesting that throughout the story, two worlds — the past and the future — revolve around Cullum, but in the end, he takes the position of "the world be damned". He really doesn't care what happens to his own world (the past) or the ramifications of Futurity's collapse on the future, as long as he's able to be with Elizabeth and ensure the safety of his sister. Which ultimately puts the reader in the same position: by the end of the novel, it doesn't matter what happens to the owner of Futurity or his daughter, or what the company will do next either in the 21st Century or the past of any alternate timeline, or what the mystery of the time-travel technology is really all about; all the matters is that Cullum's shot at finding happiness.

Make some time to go out and read Last Year.


The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Try to recall everything you've read about goblins and elves. Now forget it. That's your homework before reading Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor.

You'll find no sweeping medieval-style battles between armies of light and soldiers of darkness over the fate of the world. There's a total absence of conjuring of fae magic in glades under the stars. And there won't be any torchlit monstrous blood rites sating the hungers of old gods in the stygian darkness of deep caverns. No, this is a book about courtly manners, the occasional bit of intrigue, and municipal infrastructure proposals. Which makes The Goblin Emperor wholly refreshing.

Set in a fantasy world that's advanced to a Regency or Victorian era equivalent of technology and society, the story follows Maia, the exiled son of the elven emperor's fourth wife — a goblin princess — who finds himself catapulted to the throne and ultimate power after an airship crash kills his father and older brothers. Taken to the imperial capital, Maia must establish his authority over headstrong members of the bureaucracy and his extended family, learn to conduct himself like a cultured noble and good ruler, avoid overthrow and assassination, and, perhaps most challenging of all, find a wife. Then there's the matter of whether to approve the construction of a bridge. And that's pretty much it.

On one hand, I enjoyed all of the ways that Addison has bucked the usual fantasy trends when writing stories about elves or goblins. As much as I like tales in medieval-analogous settings, there's always a point when I wonder about the apparent technological and social stagnation that's present in these worlds, and wish that authors could show us what it would be like if they evolved towards something more modern. The Goblin Emperor does that, giving us airships right off the bat, and a large elven nation that has a modern type of diplomatic relationship with its goblin neighbour, focussed on maintaining peace and profitable commerce. Another difference is the approach to appearance and behaviour. Normally, we're presented with pointy-eared beauties (although Addison's elves are pointy-eared and never described as average-looking or ugly) and twisted monsters locked in unrelenting hatred and coming together only to slaughter one-another in an eternal holy war. This time, the elves and goblins are described as being kindred species physically, or, more likely, simply different ethnicities of the same race, with differences in skin tone and hair and eye colour. And, as the varieties of skin tone and eye colour in the imperial palace demonstrate, intermarriage at all levels of society is not uncommon. These elves and goblins may be hobbled socially by varying degrees of racism, differences in customs, and distrust no doubt founded in disputes or wars of the past, but they enjoy some of the same activities, like dancing and horse breeding and riding, and, ultimately, want the same things out of life. Like humans, they're more alike than not. And the decision to centre the story around life at court, instead of a grand adventure abroad to save the world, was a nice change of pace.

But a story focussed entirely on the minutia of courtly manners, broken only by the occasional kidnapping and threat of usurpation and death, is of limited appeal. There's also no real depth to the writing — it's not a story with especially juicy metaphors to decipher; or where a reader can pay attention to different aspects and learn new things on a second or third pass; or fun enough to go on the reread rollercoaster again. And speaking of writing, the frequent use of quasi-antiquated language like "canst do nothing for thyself" is clumsy and distracting. As a worldbuilding technique designed to illustrate the difference in the elvish culture from ours, or the language and culture of the imperial court from that of the common citizens, it's over-the-top, unnecessary (given the lavish descriptions of court customs, dress, etc), and distances the reader from the story.

I didn't dislike The Goblin Emperor, I just can't see any reason to read it again.


Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

It's no stretch to say that HP Lovecraft and his works have been the subject of a lot of the conversation in the world of speculative fiction in recent years. Check out the sf shelves in any bookstore and you'll see novels and collections of short stories both inspired by (and sometimes drawing directly from his characters or worlds) and reacting to his work. Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country is one of the latest comments in that conversations, and one that's definitely worth paying attention to.

The novel is a mosaic of interconnected stories focusing on former soldier Atticus Turner and the members of his extended family and their friends. As if being African-American in the racism-plagued US of the 1950s wasn't hard enough, the family is dragged into the schemes of a group of cultists trying to draw on the dark powers of a Lovecraftian netherworld to increase its members' wealth and influence. Again and again, the cultists use blackmail and other tricks to try to force the family members to become their tools, though sometimes they run afoul of the group simply through sheer bad luck. Through their love for and loyalty to one-another, determination, intelligence, and courage, the family members survive everything from encounters with ghosts, trips to other worlds, missions to recover arcane objects, and ceremonies to tap ancient godlike power. In fact, they do more than survive: they triumph.

I've read a few Lovecraft stories over the years, and while I'm not a fan of his work, I am a fan of Matt Ruff's, and it only took a couple of pages to make me a big fan of Lovecraft Country. Each character is well-crafted: three dimensional and believable. Each has their own strengths and weaknesses. Some are people you'd love to hang out with; others aren't that likeable. Either way, you get a good understanding of why they do what they do, and see how each grows throughout their experiences. Each of the stories is well put together too — as unique in their own ways as the characters are, whether they're action-oriented, or leaning more towards quieter journeys of self-discovery. Each is both frightening and inspiring. And all of them fit together perfectly, like the members of the family, to form a greater whole.

In terms of what the novel as a whole, is saying, it's obviously a critique of America — both for the racism of its past (where Jim Crow laws in the South made life for blacks into Russian Roulette, and tacitly accepted discrimination and violence frequently made other parts of the country not much better), and for the fact that despite some social advances, the legacy of that racism remains today.

Ruff is also using the novel to hold Lovecraft and his writing to account on a number of levels. In terms of the mechanics of storytelling and the patterns of the plots, Lovecraft's tales are universally bleak, frequently involve powers and entities beyond human comprehension, and end in death, or at least the loss of one's mind or part of one's soul. And yet here, confronted by similar situations, we see that the forces involved are, in fact, pretty comprehensible to our protagonists. The members of the family are smart people who quickly grasp the situations their faced with, the stakes, the tools, and the implications, and they then move on to deciding how best to survive what's happening, and possibly counteract the people who seek to exploit them. Rather than bleakness, as bad as things get, the family tenaciously hangs on to hope — hope that they'll be reunited with each other, that they'll be free of the machinations of the cult, that their businesses will thrive, that they'll have good lives, and that America will change to become a nation of truly equal people. Far from losing things like their lives, sanity, or souls, the protagonists save each other's lives, and gain everything from new homes to stronger family bonds and a better understanding of one-another.

The Lovecraft stories that I've read also tend to lack any real action: someone goes someplace old and evil and just kind of hangs out, they feel a terrible presence, and death ensues, or sanity or souls are lost. In Ruff's story(ies) though, there's a lot of action: detailed descriptions of searches for missing family members, escapes from race riots, attempts to recover arcane objects from booby-trapped rooms that might exist in other dimensions, researching safe travel tips for African-Americans, and sometimes they take a break from dealing with the forces of evil to have fun at parties. While these stories do take their time for the protagonists to think about what's happening, or to discuss things with other characters, the plots are never slow for long.

Lovecraft also wasn't known for including women in his stories. Here, female protagonists headline many of the stories, and loom strongly in the background of those lead by the men.

Lovecraft Country is also a response to HPL's racism. All of the protagonists here are African-American. All are educated, strong, hard-working, self-determining people. Some run businesses, all support their family, friends, and community, and preserve their history as they openly work to make a better future. And, as noted above, all come out on top when faced by challenges, whether they're supernatural or man-made racism or greed. By contrast, it's the rich, well-connected, white cultists and their minions who are ultimately brought down — destroyed when their arcane experiments go awry, or disempowered (literally, one of the prime manipulators loses his magical powers, as well as his influence within the cult), and their group is broken-up (though the cult never really had much cohesion, as its members seemed to always be scheming against each other one way or another). The cultists are always operating in secret — even keeping secrets from one-another. They come in from a position of having lost their history, and finish the story having lost their future, both as individuals with power, and as a group able to engineer grand projects and schemes.

In the end, I found myself asking a dangerous question: Is Lovecraft Country better than the real America of the 1950s? I know that, as a white Canadian, I'm treading on thin ice exploring this train of thought, and could very well be missing perspective important to interpreting this book. But it seems to me that for all the supernatural horror present in the fictional world of the novel, at least the odds are somewhat evened: the intelligence, loyalty, and determination of the Turners and their family and friends gives them an advantage in dealing with said supernatural horrors that the white cultists, for all their monetary and political/social advantages, don't have. In Lovecraft Country, when it comes to overcoming supernatural horrors, it's the African-American protagonists who come out on top, and do so immediately — they don't have to labour for years to get on an equal footing. In the America of the real world, on the other hand, that equal footing would be decades of hard work and sacrifice away, and some might argue that it still hasn't arrived.

Next time you're in the bookstore or library, take a trip to Lovecraft Country.


The Mongoliad — Book One, by Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, ED deBirmingham, Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey and Cooper Moo

In the middle of 13th Century, the Mongols are preparing for an invasion of Europe. As he waits for the right moment to attack, the general in charge of the invasion stages a medieval version of Mortal Kombat, inviting warriors from across the known world to come and battle one-another in death matches to show off their prowess. But these gladiatorial games are more than just entertainment: they're a means for the general to evaluate the abilities of his potential enemies, a political diversion to lull the leaders of Europe into thinking they have more time than they actually do, and a way to show off the strength of his own forces. A group of knights from the monastic Ordo Militum Vindicis Intactae, otherwise known as the Shield Brethren, are on their way to the tournament, but the event is a diversion tactic for them as well. While they try to draw the Mongols' attention to themselves at the games, another contingent of Shield Brethren, aided by the female scout Cnan, makes its way east on a secret mission: to assassinate Ogedei, the Khan of Khans. Meanwhile, in the Mongol capital of Karakorum, a young warrior, Gansukh, is sent to the imperial court to protect Ogedei. But Gansukh soon learns that the great khan may need to be protected from himself more than assassins — suffering from increasing depression  as he chafes at administrative life rather than being in the saddle at war or hunting, Ogedei has become a drunk who behaves erratically. If dealing with a temperamental khan and palace intrigues weren't enough, Gansukh faces the challenge of learning the manners and customs of the court from Lian, a Chinese slave, to become a political operator himself.

As much as I should have enjoyed The Mongoliad, with its melees, descriptions of varied medieval European and Asian fighting styles, court intrigues, and cultural details, the whole thing just felt flat. None of the characters were particularly interesting, the plot seemed to drag, and even the action sequences failed to have any real emotional impact. Maybe it's a case of too many chefs spoiling the sauce. I don't know.

I'll give the authors credit: they've done an excellent job of researching the arms and armour, fighting styles, cultures and dress of the period. But none of it was enough to make me want to see the series through.


The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk edited by Sean Wallace

If you're looking for a one-stop introduction to dieselpunk (sf set between the end of the First World War and the end of World War II, or on worlds with an analogous level of technology and set of cultures) that examines this sub-genre from a variety of perspectives, The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk is for you.

This door-stopper of a collection roars to a start with Jay Lake and Shannon Page's butt-stompingly fun "Rolling Steel: A Pre-Apocalyptic Love Story" and, for the most part, keeps up the smokey, greasy noir-era coolness all the way through. Along the way, it shifts gears from time to time, slowing down for stories like Jeremiah Tolbert's "Instead of a Loving Heart" or AC Wise's "The Double Blind", before hitting the gas again for an entry like Dan Rabarts' "Floodgate".

Sometimes the anthology's engine sputters, or the thing blows a tire: not every story is good. One or two would have done just as well on the scrap heap. But that's to be expected in a collection of this size, and overall the thing is shiny and rolls along nicely.


Clockwork Canada edited by Dominik Parisien

I've been waiting for a Canadian-centred steampunk anthology for a long time. While the country's history is much older than Queen Victoria's era, stretching back thousands of years to the time when First Nations people came over from Siberia, to several hundred years ago when the first Europeans, Africans, and Asians began arriving, and while some of the key moments in our history predate her as well (such as the British victory over France in the Seven Years' War, or the successful driving-back of American invaders in the War of 1812) and others wouldn't come until decades after she was gone, the British North American colonies did get their official start as a country under old Vicky's watch. And personally, spending the first half of my childhood in south-western Ontario, the legacy of the Victorian era was all around me: many neighbourhoods were still graced with its big red brick homes, those homes were filled with furniture and other antiques from those days, and people gathered in parks on chilly May nights for Victoria Day fireworks displays. Canada is a country that's perfect to celebrate this past — and to hold it accountable — and there's no better form of literature to do that than speculative fiction. Which brings us to Clockwork Canada, edited by Dominik Parisien.

Like the various regions of Canada, the stories in this anthology are very much a matter of personal taste. Taken together, they form a workable tapestry that showcases the many different interpretations of who we are. Individually, they're very hit and miss, depending on what you're looking for. I enjoyed Holly Shofield's "East Wind in Carrall Street" with its clockwork lion and two kids trying to bridge their cultures, Brent Nichols' steampunk superhero yarn "The Harpoonist", and the female-James-Bond-esque Klondike adventure "Strange Things Done" by Michal Wojcik. While some of the other stories could have used some work, or could have been replaced with better fare, overall, Clockwork Canada is a collection worth reading.


Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett

Eden is a planet with no light other than the bioluminescence of its plants and animals. The thousands of humans who live there are descended from just two survivors of a spaceshipwreck many generations before. They've now spread across their world, founding a number of different cultures, each based on the specific beliefs, stories, and teachings of some of the people involved in a violent schism generations before. Starlight Brooking — a member of a peaceful, isolated island commune following the tenants of Jeff, a crippled inventor and dreamer — takes part in a trading expedition to a town on the mainland (founded by followers of a brutal thug who took control of the original Eden society, in part prompting the great schism) where she meets Greenstone Johnson, a young prince from a subterranean settlement on a continent on the other side of the ocean (founded by supporters of John, the strong-willed young hunter and inventor who was also partly responsible for the split in the original society). The two are attracted to each other, and Starlight goes with him across the sea, where they're married and she is given the role of Mother, or spiritual leader, of his people. Starlight quickly sees inequalities in her new culture, and begins using her influence to push through changes. But some of the nobles feel threatened by this new, more gentle way of doing things, and Starlight and Greenstone find themselves facing a revolution.

Mother of Eden is the sequel to Chris Beckett's magnificently-crafted Dark Eden, and, while it's a fundamentally different story, it's every bit as good as its predecessor.  There's a clear biblical allusion running through the series, with the first novel being a mixture of Genesis and Exodus, casting John as a combination Cain and Moses, while Mother of Eden casts Starlight as a New Testament-style messiah — minus the divinity and miracles. Like the original, the protagonists and supporting characters of MOE are well-rounded and believable, each possessing their share of flaws.

The various cultures that have evolved from the schism are also believable, with each having its own variation on the original tribe's hybrid founder-worship and cargo-cult religion, its own laws and politics, styles of clothing, levels of technological achievement, manner of speaking, and rivalries with and tolerances for the other nations.

The plot moves along briskly and yet leaves time for characters to process what's happening to them, and at the end of each chapter I was torn between wanting more of that section's character, while being eager to see what the protagonist occupying the next segment was doing.

While Mother of Eden was wholly satisfying on its own, I can't wait to see what Chris Beckett has in store for readers in the third book.


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