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The Spiral Labyrinth: A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn by Matthew Hughes
The Spiral Labyrinth: A Tale of Henghis Hapthorn

Jvstin, October 30, 2010

Matthew Hughes is an under-appreciated writer. For years he has been toiling in a mainly Jack Vancean sort of vein, turning out stories and novels set in a world where science is just about to turn over to magic, but not quite yet. Old Earth, with a baroque and dizzying array of ancient cultures, is a rich field for Hughes to explore. On an even larger scale, Old Earth is itself but one planet in "The Spray", Hughes's answer to Jack Vance's Oikumene. A dizzying array of planets of even more diversity than Earth itself, Hughes' fiction allows the reader to experience a full and inexhaustible range of cultures, environments and characters. His prose brings these environments and characters to life, transporting the reader to areas both familiar and absolutely alien for all of their humanity.

In the Spiral Labyrinth, we continue the adventures of Henghis Hapthorn, previously seen in a couple of short stories as well as Majestrum. As a freelance discriminator (private investigator) he is a late-age-of-Earth Sherlock Holmes, with a number of twists. Thanks to the results of previous adventures, his integrator, a semi-sentient computer, has been transformed from a device to a fruit-craving unique creature. Also, his sense of intuition, an invaluable compliment to his finely honed sense of reason and logic, is in fact now a full fledged sub personality within his brain that he can converse with, named Osk Rievor. Even with these handicaps (although he would insist they are advantages), Henghis is the foremost discriminator on Old Earth.

In the Spiral Labyrinth Henghis once again gets plunged into situations far beyond his ken, surviving by applications of luck, verve, reason and intuition. Hughes likes to put his characters through the wringer. The keystone event of Spiral Labyrinth, for example, has Henghis, thanks to the titular device, accidentally transported several centuries into the future--and past the point where the rules of the universe finally change from science and magic. Worse, he has been transported here without Osk Rievor (who knows a little theory of magic), and so he must survive on reason alone, in a land without reason.How does Henghis survive in a world of dragons and spells, and how he manages to get home are the meat and potatoes of the book.

And, like previous novels and stories, Spiral Labyrinth stands alone, but continues to build the life, career and nature of its main character. You certainly can start here, Hughes does a good job enfolding previous events into the narrative in an organic way. However, this does not mean the stories are episodic. I have no doubt that the adventures of this book, and their impact on Hapthorn, will continue to resonate through the next

If you are a Jack Vance fan, or simply enjoy picaresque adventures in a baroque series of settings with an engaging main character, the Henghis Hapthorn stories of Matthew Hughes, including the Spiral Labyrinth, are definitely for you.
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Jvstin, October 17, 2010

Sex. Pain. Grotesqueries. Salvation. Escape.

Palimpsest, especially as an audiobook, is a rich, sensual, baroque and lush descent into the lives of four otherwise ordinary individuals who discover a gateway into selected fragments of the eponymous city.

A Hugo nominee, the audiobook version takes the prose and transforms it into an exquisite aural experience. I think that the audiobook is a natural form for a novel which is, to be frank, a little short on plot, and very long on style and imagery. The intimate encounters of Oleg, November, Ludvoico and Sei come across, read, as borderline erotica. But while the sexual, erotic elements of the book are probably the most famous to those who have not read the book, the book also delves into the darkness and the grotesque as the four protagonists, bound together across space, each seek permanent passport to the city. No, I think this novel fits much more in the New Weird than anything else. Palimpsest is very much like Jeff Vandermeer's Ambergris, a city with echoes of our own, but plainly fantastic and impossible. The city is as much, or if I might be permitted to criticize, even more fully realized as a character than the four protagonists ever are. Valente's style and imagery brings that fifth character, the city of Palimpsest itself, to indelible and inescapable life.

I have heard Valente described as a modern-day Scheherezade. Certainly, listening to this book, rather than reading this book, reinforces that perception. Aasne Vigesaa certainly does an excellent job with characters both male and female, bringing them and that baroque prose to your ears in excellent fashion. In fact, speaking of Scheherezade, I would love to have Vigesaa read the Arabian Nights...

I don't recommend using this audiobook for a long drive across the country, the prose and the dulcet tones of the narrator are precisely the wrong things to try and listen to while concentrating on driving. On the other hand,listening to a portion of this book before sleeping is a ticket for your own esoteric and strange dream imagery. One might say that listening to this audiobook before sleeping is your own ticket, your own way into the mysterious and singular Palimpsest. It did for me.
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The Mermaid's Madness by Jim C. Hines
The Mermaid's Madness

Jvstin, September 11, 2010

In the Stepsister Scheme, Mr. Jim Hines came up with a clever fantasy conceit, reimagining Snow White and Sleeping Beauty as kick-butt action heroines that could stand toe to toe with the likes of Sarah Connor, River Tam, and Ripley. Princess Cinderella, Danielle Whiteshore, joins their duo in an effort to find her husband, the Prince, who has been kidnapped, with faerie magic aid, by her evil stepsisters.

In the Mermaid's Madness, we turn to the sea. The relationship between the island kingdom of Lorindar and the merfolk of the sea have necessarily been amicable for a long time. When the annual meeting turns deadly, the three princesses have to uncover old secrets, discover the truth of the Mermaid's Madness, and even save the life of their Queen. In the aftermath of the attack, her life, and her soul hang by the slenderest of threads.

And, as best they can, kick some butt.

Although the Stepsister Scheme was never as light and frothy as it seemed to be, the Mermaid's Madness does strongly rejigger the balance between lightness and more serious matters. The threat to the Queen comes across on the page as far more serious than the threat to Armand in the first novel. In addition, the revelations of how and why the Princess' antagonists are acting are much more complex than the relatively straightforward motivations of the first book. Snow White's mirror magic extends and evolves, Danielle learns what it means to step up and be a Princess, and Talia's secret, unrequited love is revealed. This is all good character development. I appreciate a series where the author avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of no character development on the one hand, or radical and unrealistic development on the other.

So one might say that the Mermaid's Madness is a more mature book than the previous one. The writing still is strong, and the episodes of humor and levity do not clash against that darker, mature tone that I mentioned. And its damned entertaining. The central concept of the first book, of Disney Princesses as heroines that take charge, still is in full flower. Oh, and I love how the story of Ariel is transmogrified into something as tragic as the original Hans Christian Andersen story, and yet has unique elements to Hines' universe as well.

I look forward to reading the third and final book in the series.
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Merchant Princes #06: The Trade of Queens by Charles Stross
Merchant Princes #06: The Trade of Queens

Jvstin, September 11, 2010

Six books in, the Merchant Princes series has come to an end.

For those of you just joining us, Miriam Beckstein, journalist from Boston, discovered that she really is the scion of a family with a secret--with the aid of special clockwork knots, they can transport themselves between our world, and the primitive feudal world of their birth. They have used this power to amass wealth and power by through the lucrative trade of drug smuggling, using the Gruinmarkt as a way to get around the DEA. Miriam has been married, widowed, discovered a *third* history where a autocratic British empire runs North America and is on the cusp of revolution, and has learned there are more worlds still out there.

Now, things come to a head.

The Clan sends a message to the United States by using their worldwalking powers to explode a few stolen backpack nuclear weapons. This, frankly, leads to no good end, as President Cheney (President Bush is killed by one of the bombs) decides on a murderous course of revenge which is perfected by HIS successor. Cheney's revelation of worldwalking to the world leads to tensions between nations, including...well, that would be telling.

And in the middle of it all, Miriam is just trying to find a place, a world, for herself and her people to survive. The Trade of Queens indeed...

I got the sense, reading this, that Stross felt he wanted to be done with this universe. There is a weariness to the text and to the plot that I didn't detect in earlier volumes. There is some lovely speculation on why the worlds have different amounts of technology, but this speculation is sadly stillborn. The novel also suffers by ending Miriam's plot long before the end of the book, and she does not appear afterwards.

A few glitches and typos (the inconsistent use of code names in and out of public) mar the text a bit as well. It felt unprofessional and sloppy. I know that this is not fair to the writer, but I am responding to the text as much as the talented Mr. Stross.

This is not to say that its all bad. Stross' strong points hold here. His worlds show harsh contrasts and he follows the implications of worldwalking technology and its revelation to its terrible, stark conclusions. Even though I winced at the actions of the U.S. and other nations, I cannot deny that they are anything but extremely plausible. I suspect that if these novels had been written before Sept 11,2001, the tone would have been different, but in the post 9/11 world, things really are different.

Looking back, I am glad to have read the series, but this volume definitely ends it on a bit of a whimper. It doesn't quite fulfill the enormous promise of the first novel. I think Mr. Stross, as talented as he is, still has things to learn about writing a full blown series. I look forward to seeing him try.
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Shadows of the Apt #01: Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Shadows of the Apt #01: Empire in Black and Gold

Jvstin, August 8, 2010

It's an audacious idea that you might laugh at if I describe it in print. Here goes.

On a parallel world, giant insects grew to enormous size, threatening mammals, reptiles, and primitive humans in the process. In order to adapt to this threat, tribes of humans form mystical alliances with these giant insects, taking on their traits and abilities even while remaining human.

Thus is Shadows of the Apt, the start of a new series by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

This world is moving slowly into an age of science, as the apt (technologically able) varieties of the Kinden, the Beetle, Ant and Wasps have become ascendant over the magic and superstitious Mantis and Moth Kinden. So ascendant in fact, that the Wasp Empire has decided to conquer the world, with flying soldiers that can both fight well and use magical bursts of energy to attack (think Janet Van Dyne from the Marvel comics universe). The Wasps are intent on subjugating all of the Kinden, of every variety, to their yoke.

Opposing the Wasps, recognizing the threat for what it is, is an old Beetle college teacher who doubles as a spymaster, who has gathered and trained a diverse set of Kinden with the goal of using them to build a resistance to the city-state gobbling Wasps.

But the Wasps are onto Stenwold, and his young charges find themselves facing the might and danger that the Wasps represent far sooner than they expected...

I probably would not have picked up this book, with this gonzo (but brilliant premise) if I didn't trust the publisher. Prometheus/Pyr books has a reputation for a strong hand on the tiller, and if he was willing to bring the novel over from Britain to America and publish it, that gave me hope it was worthwhile. I am glad I picked it up on that basis.

Its hard to classify this novel. It's clearly fantasy, given the powers of the Kinden, but the burgeoning of rapidly developing technology (trains and even better, AIRSHIPS) give a steampunkish feel to this universe. And there is apparently fading but real magic in this world, too, as exemplified by the Moth Kinden.

More than the background stuff. The characters really shine. Human with insect like traits and proclivities, they are in the end still human, with human failings, foibles, motivations and personalities. From Stenwold Maker, college teacher and spymaster, to his coterie of family and proteges, and those they interact with in trying to oppose the Wasps, each character is well developed, has a story arc, and develops over the course of the story. And, the sign of a very good writer, Tchaikovsky manages to humanize the evil Wasps as well, providing characters on their side of the conflict with recognizable motivations and personalities, rather than faceless adversaries.

The novel simply works on a number of levels. Magic, technology, interesting characters and at the core--an original idea. We see a number of Kinden, and get mentions of several more. Characters embody, and transcend, those Kinden stereotypes.

I will pick up Dragonfly Falling, and continue to read of the Kinden.
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