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Original Essays | September 4, 2014

Edward E. Baptist: IMG The Two Bodies of The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism



My new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, is the story of two bodies. The first body was the new... Continue »
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All That Lives Must Die: Book Two of the Mortal Coils Series by Eric Nylund
All That Lives Must Die: Book Two of the Mortal Coils Series

Jvstin, December 24, 2010

In Mortal Coils, the first book in sequence, we are introduced to the teenaged twins Eliot and Fiona Post. Children of scions of opposing factions, the Immortal Audrey Post(aka Atropos) and the Infernal Louis Piper (aka Lucifer), they have an uneventful, if odd, homeschooled and shut in life, until both factions notice their existence and try to lure the twins to one side or the other. The first novel ended with an Infernal attempt to suborn the children defeated on the one hand, and the twins passing a deadly test set by the Immortals on the other.

Now, the twins have an even greater test: High School.

All That Lives Must Die is the story of Fiona and Eliot, as they grow into their newly discovered, and still developing abilities, in the context of a magical High School, Paxington Institute, that makes Hogwarts seem tame by comparison. The twins discover that there are many of their age with magical abilities, and the reader gets a sense that the Immortal/Infernal split explicated in the first book is really only the beginning of the story. The twins also fracture, as the pressures of school, and their social relations pull at Eliot and Fiona from completely different directions.

And, of course, both the Immortals and Infernals have their own ideas on the education and development of the children. In addition, both sides have become convinced that the children's existence herald that the long standing truce between the two camps is about to be over, and start to arm accordingly.

While the book has teenaged protagonists and even has a reader's guide at the end, the book does not feel like dumbed down YA fiction. Rather, it is in the vein of the better Potter novels, and the newer crop of fantasy and science fiction novels with teenagers in mind. The prose is intelligent, never talks down, and has additional layers that adult readers will enjoy. For example, the hinted identities of Eliot's "band" in Hell are clearly "credit cookies" meant for readers beyond teenagers. In other words, the book feels very much like the best of Pixar movies in that respect.

In addition, the novel continues Nylund's tradition of putting in footnotes as a way to expand the playground of the imagination. Careful reading of the footnotes, with their tone of having been written after the events in the books, provide hints and clues as to where this is all going, and at their best are as witty and urbane as the footnotes in the works of Jack Vance. He even manages to tie in his long-ago first novel in one particular entry.

Nylund is one of those authors who is not stingy on the creativity. From all of the mythological personae given new life and identities, to the vistas of the Paxington Institute, Hell and beyond, and the swirling, complexity of the factions gearing up for the inevitable conflict, Nylund enjoys spooling out his imagination for the reader. As said before, the text is well written but not dumbed down. I devoured this book.

Urban fantasy with a mythological bent. Who would ask for anything more? You won't want to start here--start with Mortal Coils. You'll thank me later.
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Ink and Steel: The Stratford Man, Volume I: A Novel of the Promethean Age by Elizabeth Bear
Ink and Steel: The Stratford Man, Volume I: A Novel of the Promethean Age

Jvstin, December 24, 2010

In her diptych, Blood and Iron and Whiskey and Water, Elizabeth Bear shows us the end of the story of the Promethean Age, when Faerie has been fighting a long war against technology, against Hell, and against those magicians, the Prometheans, who would still see it bound.

In the second volume of that series, when Christopher Marlowe, part of Lucifer's household, appears, he blazes across the page in such a way that I knew, then, that Bear had to write more of his story, and how he had gotten to be in Lucifer's household in the first place.

In Ink and Steel, the first of another diptych, Elizabeth Bear takes us back to the days when Christopher Marlowe is still alive (although not for long), and just as importantly, the early days of the career of one William Shakespeare, whose poetry and pose is as potent an armament as any Elf-knight's sword. For such poetry and pose are strong magic, magic that can be used for good, or for ill...

Shakespeare and his world is a popular choice for fantasy and SF authors. Ruled Britannia has him writing plays for a Spanish-installed Monarch. Sarah Hoyt's trilogy has Shakeapeare tangle with the land of Faerie. Neil Gaiman had Shakespeare meet one of the Endless. Poul Anderson's Midsummer's Tempest is a fine novel where Shakespeare's plays are fact. Bear is in good company here.

With chapters arranged like acts and scenes of a play, with florid, lush descriptions and prose, and the subject matter of Shakespeare and Elizabethan England and Elizabethan Faerie, the book, at least this half, reads and feels like a prose version of one of William Shakespeare's plays. Betrayals, forbidden and denied love, politics, unusual landscapes, engaging and multisided characters convince me that these are books that Bear not only enjoyed writing, but in a sense was born to write. This book (and I am sure, the second half, Hell and Earth) are the kind of books that an author has in mind when she decides to become a writer.

I think, too, that Bear hits it out of the park. I personally know that Elizabethan England is something that Bear knows a fair amount about, and that knowledge flows out onto the page. From the minutae of the changes in the courtiers and servants to Queen Elizabeth, all the way down to what a trip through the streets of London feels like, that knowledge is not dumped on the page, but, rather, flows into that previously mentioned lush text. And then there is Faerie, and even a trip into Hell. Bear is not afraid to make things happen and deliver on the page, consistently, for the reader.

This IS the first novel of two, and so the story does not end here, which may frustrate some readers. I suspect others may object to some characterizations of Shakespeare and Marlowe, but one might consider that Bear almost certainly knows more about the subject than me or you.

I look forward to finishing the Statford Man sequence in Hell and Earth and see just how Bear finishes off the story.
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The Cardinal's Blades by Pierre Pevel
The Cardinal's Blades

Jvstin, December 9, 2010

The ring of swords. The clash of steel. Action. Adventure. Swashbuckling. Romance.
Even in this modern age, there is a irresistible romance to swordplay, musketeers and the derring-do of a long lost age. Captured by Alexandre Dumas in his 19th century novels, the world of the musketeers has extended into many movie adaptations (and yet more to come). As a seminal influence, the Three Musketeers are one of the principal inspirations for both the sword and sorcery and sword and sandal genres in fantasy and historical fiction.

Similarly, dragons are an extremely popular sub-genre in fantasy today. While dragons have been around in fantasy fiction since the time of Smaug, and the transformed Eustace, and McCaffrey’s Pern are replete with them, in the last few years dragons have commonly cropped up both in modern day tales as well as the alternate Napoleonic War novels of Naomi Novik.
The Cardinal’s Blades, the English language debut of French author Pierre Pavel, might be thought of as the marriage of these two streams of culture. Grounded in an alternate-history 17th century France, the Cardinal’s Blades is the story of the titular characters, a disgraced secret force of Cardinal Richelieu brought back into service for one more mission against France’s major adversary—Spain and its Court of Dragons, and more to the point, its secret society trying to operate in France, the Black Claw.

In Pavel’s alternate world, while history has mostly gone on as it has in our world (I did catch at least one major change that makes this alternate history, not just our-history-with-dragons), there are dragons of all sizes in society. Dragonets are pets for the rich and powerful (such as the good Cardinal himself). Wyverns, in perhaps a nod to Novik, are used by aviators as couriers. There are half-dragons (matings between transformed dragons and humans) and brutish dracs (humanoid dragon offspring) as well. Actual dragons are rare and devoted to their own inscrutable purposes. For the most part, they are offstage, manipulating the action rather than, say, taking to the skies and raking Paris with gouts of fire.
This is also true of the other fantastic draconic elements I just mentioned. For the most part, the dragonets, and wyverns are only there for color, a splash of fantasy paint on the historical bones of the book. The Cardinal’s Blades’ focus is directed on the historical sword-and-sandal elements and milieu.

Characterization development, is another disappointment in this novel. Pavel seems to have reserved most of his characterization for the captain of the Cardinal’s Blades, La Fargue, and has fallen to stereotypes and somewhat thinner character development for the rest of the cast . The Womanizing rogue, the Serious one, the Woman in a man’s world. Once these traits are set, they do not seem to change or grow.

On the bright side, every one of the Cardinal’s Blades does get individual attention and screen time, especially when La Fargue gets the band back together, and when the members head out in a Diaspora to accomplish various pieces of the problem of opposing the Black Claw and its plans. The villains are somewhat more well drawn, and as in the case in many of these books, are as interesting as the characters.

A fair criticism of this review might ask—given my criticisms thus far, well what DOES work in this book?
Well, the Historical perspective. As I have said earlier, this is an alternate history. I am not so familiar with French history to be aware of other divergences, but there is one. It is not at all clear that the fantasy elements are responsible for the point of divergence, and it does seem to be again, mostly for color. The writing does effectively convey the backdrop of 17th century France, perhaps more so because I kept mentally filling in memories of various Musketeers movies. What I mean by this is, nothing in the book jarred with those visions, helping to establish an effective mise-en-scene for the events of the novel.

The swashbuckling action and adventure, too, is one of the best reasons to read this book. Action and adventure this novel has in plenty and Pavel seems to be at his best and most effective as a writer when things get interesting. To the point, there are very effective “set-piece” encounters and battles that are exciting, well written, and helped draw me through the book. For all of the weaknesses mentioned above, Pavel knows how to write effective, engaging and exciting encounters between the protagonists and their foes.

Another thing that works is the complexity of the plot. It’s not too convoluted, but things are not quite as they seem, and the motivations of the bigger players on the board are suitably complex and multisided. There is a lot going on in Pavel’s world, much more than meets the eye, and there plenty of material here that future volumes in this world could explore.

So, while I don’t think that Pavel’s The Cardinal’s Blades is an heir to, say, Brust’s The Phoenix Guards and Five Hundred Years Later, I think it is good enough that I would read a sequel, especially given the twist ending that begs for explanation in a future volume. I hope that forthcoming books will keep Pavel’s strengths and shore up some of the weaknesses and would love to see what he does, given an opportunity to grow into this universe.

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The Evolutionary Void by Peter F Hamilton
The Evolutionary Void

Jvstin, December 4, 2010

The fate of an entire galaxy and the two universes that very uneasily co-exist within it comes to a head in the third and final volume of Peter F Hamilton's Void trilogy, the Evolutionary Void. In addition, this book serves as a capstone to the previous two books set in the universe, the Pandora's Star/Judas Unchained diptych, as some of the most important and memorable characters from those volumes influence matters as well.

A summary of events in the book would not make much sense, and so I am forced to speak in generalities. In this final volume, many of the secrets and mysteries of the first two books are revealed, sometimes on a grand scale, such as the nature of the Void, and why it acts as it does, and sometimes on more intimate scales, such as the reason why Rah and the colonists were able to
found the culture of Makkathran inside the Void in the first place. Hamilton, like in Judas Unchained, finishes up the current plotlines, resolves the major obstacle, and sets the stage for, if he wishes for future books set in the future. I don't think its a spoiler to tell you that the attempts to keep the Void from devouring the galaxy are successful. The rub is in the doing, and in the characters that he sets on the stage.

There are numerous callbacks, references and appearances by characters from all four of the previous books in the universe, sometimes in the most unexpected places. This is a book that Hamilton has written, in some senses, for readers of the previous four books. I think this is a weakness in a way, people who do not intimately remember details from those books are going to at best miss some "cookies" for faithful readers, and at worst, be confused when conflicts and events resurrected from the past spill out and take over the narrative.

The format changes too, breaking the pattern of the last two novels. We get much more of the space opera, and less of Eddard's backstory inside of the Void. Also, Eddard's story is not told completely and comprehensively, and more so than in the first two novels, we hear about events from Inigo and others, and then get to read what really happened. This complexity and experimentation, I think, don't always work, but they work well enough. In addition, there are touching and moving passages, such as the last dream that Inigo withheld for so long (and why he walked away from his religion). All of this shows Hamilton's depth and growth as a writer.

This is heady space opera of the highest order. Let me correct that. This is heady science fiction of the highest order. Hamilton has only improved as an epic science fiction novelist. I think he is too enamoured of piling every character he can into his climaxes and final pages, but the ending of this one felt much less of a deus ex machina that some of his previous books seem to have suffered from.

It's difficult not to imagine anyone who has read Temporal Void would not want to pick up this volume. For everyone else, start with Pandora's Star, and when you get to this volume, you will have experienced five volumes of space opera science fiction that only get better as the books progress.

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Template - A Novel of the Archonate by Matthew Hughes
Template - A Novel of the Archonate

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 Template, Matthew Hughes starts us far away from Old Earth, on a backward part of the Spray. Conn Labro has been raised from an orphaned birth to be a gaming duelist. Indentured to a Gaming House, his life is mostly duels and fighting for his employer. When his one link to a life outside Horder's Gaming Emporium, a mysterious old man who is his only friend, is murdered, events sweep up Labro into an intrigue of double-dealing and an even more unusual inheritance that Labro never expected to be heir to. Along with a showgirl tied to his murdered friend, Labro makes a journey toward Old Earth, and beyond, to uncover the mystery of something even greater than a inheritance or his old friend's death.

His own origin.

Unlike many of the other stories Hughes has written in the Archonate, Template starts us far away from Old Earth, and Old Earth is only a waypoint (albeit a major one) in the rambling journey of the protagonist. Template appears to be Hughes' interpretation and riff on the themes and ideas of Jack Vance's Demon King novels. Labro is a lens that allows us to see a wide variety of worlds and characters. Labro's own provincial attitudes are the barometer by which other (and there are many in this book!) cultures are judged.

Admittedly, Jenore, the aforementioned showgirl, is more of a plot device than a completely fully formed character, and I didn't quite buy the romance between the characters.This is perhaps the weakest part of the book for me. Perhaps had the book been longer, this weakness might have been addressed.

Still, even given these weaknesses, the writing is strong and bright, and dense. It might be among the strongest writing that I have read from Matthew Hughes, perhaps because we get to see corners of the Spray from the eyes of characters who are new to Hughes, and thus have the contrast of being something different for him. Labro and Mordene are not his usual type of characters to explore and use as focal points. The structure of the plot almost follows Van Vogt's maxim that plot twists and plot advancement should occur at a breakneck pace. Combine that with a dizzying array A slim and slight volume, I devoured Template rapidly. Fans of Jack Vance, or Matthew Hughes' prior work, will appreciate Template.
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