Archives for posts with tag: Science-Fantasy

This week I’m recommending “Arcady” a poetic Science-Fantasy novel by American author Michael Williams, who is better known for his Dragonlance series. “Arcady”, which was published in 1996, is the first of two books which Williams wrote about the Hawken dynasty and their extraordinary family estates. The sequel is called “Allamanda” (1997). You can still find old paperback copies and both these novels are now available as ebooks, with covers which make them look more like standard Steampunk than they actually are.

As the story begins, Solomon Hawken is returning to his ancestral home, Arcady, for the first time in many years because of an urgent summons from his aunt, Morgana. He travels by balloon over the Alphside Forest where government and rebel forces are fighting each other. In this part of Urizen, the rebels are led by the Lady – Solomon’s fiery cousin, Artemis Hawken. She is reluctantly opposed by Solomon’s younger brother, Diego, who commands an incompetent troop of the Citizen’s Guard. Solomon and his young balloon pilot are shot at by both sides and crash-land near Arcady, where they have a perilous encounter with one of the sphinxes which prowl the grounds by night.

The mansion and estate of Arcady sit on the Borders, close to ruins from an ancient civilization and to “the whirling, devouring clouds” known as Absences. Now the Borders are shifting and Arcady is becoming a place of ghosts and shadows, where rooms can change and statues come alive, the dead may appear and the living disappear. Solomon’s little niece, Faith, has already vanished but her father, Endymion, does nothing but drink, argue with his pet phoenix, and build a model city. Aunt Morgana, who claims to see and hear angelic messengers, believes that  Absences are about to engulf the house and that only Solomon can save Arcady with the magic he has learned at the famous seminary in distant Lambeth.

The trouble is, Solomon doesn’t believe in magic. He was sent to Lambeth as a young man to study the sacred Text, “the first book found by the Forefathers”. This illustrated book prophesies a union between a mysterious Bard and Saint Milton who will return from the heavens to renew the world. Solomon was expected to train as a priest but a tragedy made him doubt the power of the Text so he became a teacher instead. When he is asked to use the Text against the Absences, Solomon’s initial response is to flee but a series of strange encounters imbue him with a new sense of purpose. He risks entering an Absence, a place “where the fabric of reality unravels”, but nobody who does that emerges unchanged. As the crisis deepens, Solomon’s two estranged brothers set out on their own journeys of discovery. Can the divided Hawken family come together to help Solomon save Arcady?

After this description you may be wondering why I have tagged “Arcady” as Science-Fantasy. Well it’s because this book is set in a future version of our world in the aftermath of some great catastrophe. As in many Post-Apocalypse stories, most people live in small rural communities avoiding the wastelands and the shattered remains of the ancient cities. Technology has reached, or regained, the level of muskets, balloons, steam-boats and velocipedes. So far, so Steampunk but two things make the world of “Arcady” distinctive. Firstly, the mysterious “Physics of the Borders” cause the creatures of the human imagination to come to life, so the Border-dwelling Hawkens have mermaids and dryads in their family tree. Secondly this is a society which derives its religious beliefs and cultural values from surviving fragments of English poetry. Fragments which are interpreted in ways their original authors never intended or imagined.

As in my last choice, “The Reader”, a unique book plays a central role in the story. Characters in the Hawken novels engage with the Text in many different ways. Border-dwellers use sentences from it as protective spells, rival sects argue over the interpretation of obscure passages, sophisticated scholars see the Text as a string of metaphors with no factual content but for many it is “the heart of faith, the Divine Word”. As quoted, the Text seems to range from ugly doggerel to insightful poetry. It mentions a mix of familiar (London, Lambeth) and unfamiliar (Bowlahoola, Golgonooza) place-names and has a cast of unusual angels, saints and deities, such as the Seven Angels of the Presence, Saint Ololon and the creator god, Los. You might well assume that Michael Williams had made all this up but instead the Text is largely taken from “Milton”, an epic poem written and illustrated by William Blake (1757-1827). There is one section of this poem which you probably know – the famous hymn “Jerusalem” (“And did those feet in ancient time, Walk upon England’s mountains green…”).  In “Arcady” part of the plot revolves around whether the government’s “dark Satanic Mills” are causing the Absences to destroy the “green and pleasant land”; an issue with plenty of contemporary relevance.

I’ve attempted to read “Milton” but found it very heavy going (Sample lines – “For that portion nam’d the Elect : the Spectrous body of Milton: Redounding from my left foot into Los’s Mundane space..”). The phrase “from the sublime to the ridiculous” might have been coined to describe Blake’s work. Academics have struggled to make sense of Blake’s invented mythology and wild visions but Williams uses them creatively in ways which bring out both their absurdity and their profundity. “Arcady” is not as obscure and difficult as its source material but Williams isn’t the kind of author who explains everything as he goes along. You are plunged into a bizarre and baffling world and left to sink or swim. The narrative never develops into a typical Fantasy adventure and Solomon is more of a thinker than an action hero. The plot drifts back and forward in time and divides to follow all the main members of the Hawken family. I just wish that more page-space had been given to the female Hawkens, such as sculptor, Mina, who continues to work on a vital statue even while she is dying of a cruel disease and potter, Morgana, who has survived persecution for her belief in angels. “Spot the angel” becomes a vital element in the plot as both characters and readers are challenged to decide whether the mysterious voices which speak to the Hawkens are angelic or demonic.

“Arcady” has some appealing characters but it is the places in the story that I find most memorable – the dark, dryad-haunted forest beside the sacred river, Alph; the silvery misted air of the Absences where unseen machinery pounds and gnashes “the sound of the world being eaten away”; and Endymion’s teak, coral and wire city built inside a gin-bottle. Above all there is Arcady itself with its heady mix of danger and beauty; a house centred on the mausoleum of the founder of the Hawken dynasty, expanded by each generation and unpredictably altered by the movement of the Borders. This is a place where ghosts appear in mirrors and angels peer in through the windows. Arcady has sphinxes the way other houses have rats – bronze garden-statues that can suddenly turn into lion-women who smell “hot and acrid and feral” and know how to mesmerize their victims. Williams makes you see Arcady both an actual building and as a vision of the world which the Hawkens are striving to renew. It is a house well worth visiting. Until next time…

Geraldine

 

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

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How solid is the barrier between the genres of Fantasy and Science Fiction? I ask because novels which play games with genre divisions seem to be in fashion. In January I reviewed a book (Iain Pears’ “Arcadia”) which keeps readers guessing about whether it is Fantasy or Science Fiction. This week I’m recommending a novel in which the two leading characters seem to belong in different genres. “All the Birds in the Sky” by Charlie Jane Anders was first published in 2016 and is easy to get in paperback or as an ebook.

The story is set in an America in the near future and starts by describing the formative experiences of two unhappy kids who go to the same school. When six year old Patricia saves a wounded bird from her cruel sister, she discovers that she can understand the speech of birds and animals. The rescued bird takes Patricia to the Parliament of Birds which is held deep in the forest. At the Parliamentary Tree, Patricia is told that she is a witch and asked “the Endless Question” – which she fails to understand. Patricia is punished by her parents for wandering off and loses her ability to talk to animals. She soon wonders if the whole episode was a dream. Meanwhile, clever science-obsessed Laurence is getting bullied for being a nerd. One day Laurence goes off by himself to the MIT campus to watch a rocket-launch that he’s heard about. The launch is postponed but Laurence does get to meet a sympathetic rocket-scientist called Isobel and “maverick tech investor” Milton Dirth who is funding a new space programme. They tell Laurence to come back and see them when he is eighteen.

Patricia and Laurence are both picked on at school for being different and are persecuted by a guidance counselor who is not what he seems. They form a defensive alliance which is almost a friendship and confide in each other. Laurence secretly builds a sentient supercomputer called CH@NG3M3 and Patricia learns how to reawaken her magic. She finds Laurence an unreliable supporter. Even so, just before she is whisked off to attend a special school for the magically gifted, Patricia intervenes to help Laurence when his ambition to go to a science school is under threat.

The pair don’t see each other again until they are both grown up and living in San Francisco. Laurence has become a brilliant computer engineer and is working for Milton Dirth. He shares a house with Isobel and has a stunning girlfriend who builds “emotional robots”. He has got the life he wanted but Ecological catastrophes are mounting up and the whole world is under threat. Laurence and Patricia meet at a party and soon start confiding in each other again. She is in trouble with her group of witches for using her magic too often and breaking the rules about helping people. Laurence is working on a Doomsday Machine that could save humanity but the witches are dedicated to preserving the whole of nature. Patricia and Laurence find themselves on opposite sides in what could be the final conflict….

After the magical opening chapter, I found “All the Birds in the Sky” hard going for a while. Introverted Laurence and lonely Patricia are regarded as “losers” by their schoolmates at Canterbury Academy and it was painful to read about the physical and mental cruelty they are forced to endure. I do so hope that the hellish impression I get of American public schools from Fantasy novels, films and TV series is wildly unrealistic. I would rather take a bus trip through Mordor than spend a week at Canterbury Academy. The only place worse is the brutal Military Reform School that Laurence gets sent to by his inept parents. Anders deploys all the descriptive powers and depth of characterization of a top-notch literary novelist. Although their family and schoolmates are bizarrely awful, Patricia and Laurence seem intensely real – so you suffer along with them.

However, “All the Birds in the Sky” is not a conventional “coming of age” novel. Anders constantly takes the story off in surprising directions. For example, when Patricia and Laurence take turns to guess who people on an escalator are “based just on their footwear” it seems a perceptive account of the way childish imaginations work. Then on the next page, one of Patricia’s wildest guesses – that a man in “black slippers and worn gray socks” is “a member of a secret society of trained killers” – turns out to be true. Anders also catches you out with sudden shifts of tone. Some parts of “All the Birds in the Sky” are sharply funny; others achingly sad. Many elements of the story are treated in unexpected ways. Thus the assassin subplot is played for laughs, the natural disasters largely happen off-stage rather than being used to generate big dramatic scenes, Laurence’s potentially farcical relationships with woman are sensitively examined, and the inset story of CH@NG3M3, a computer with its own agenda, turns out to be more heart-warming than sinister.

Is it possible to please both Science Fiction and Fantasy fans in one novel? In “All the Birds in the Sky” Anders takes numerous popular plot motifs from both genres  and uses them in her own distinctive way. From Science Fiction there is a Time Machine (but one that only takes Laurence two seconds into the future), an Artificial Intelligence which starts to act independently of its human creator, a vault to store humanity’s scientific knowledge, creepy high-tech devices which seem to be controlling people’s lives, a world threatened by man-made disasters, an increasingly urgent mission to find a new planet for the human race to settle and a machine which might tear the earth apart. I suspect that some lovers of Hard SF will think Anders approach to these serious topics too playful and quirky for their tastes. I found it refreshing.

Among the Fantasy motifs included in “All the Birds in the Sky” are talking animals,the riddle which must be solved, the magical place that is hard to find again, the school for training witches and wizards, the spell that exacts a terrible price, the prophecy of doom and the witch who breaks the rules. Fantasy readers may feel that the magical part of the narrative isn’t given enough page time. We only learn about Patricia’s training in flashbacks, which is a pity because her dual-campus school sounds interesting. Students spend part of their time studying formal magic in Eltisley Hall and part experiencing a more intuitive magic in The Maze, where you can do whatever you like but learn through random ordeals. Patricia’s fellow witches in San Francisco are an intriguing bunch too, especially Ernesto who cannot leave his bookstore home and must not be touched and Dorothea who looks like a harmless old woman but can kill people with her whispered stories. I wish we saw more of them.

As I read “All the Birds in the Sky” I kept thinking that it couldn’t work because Anders was putting in things that should have been left out and leaving out things that should have been put in. Strangely, when I got to the end I realized that the novel had worked for me. I’d been charmed by Anders’ style and won over by her characters. The evolving relationship between Patricia and Laurence is one of the most convincing love stories I’ve ever read. Initially all they have in common is being outsiders. Laurence is embarrassed by Patricia and she feels crushed by his intellect but they go through a lot together. Both of them want to change the world for the better but fear that they may only make things worse. As an adult, Laurence realizes that he feels secure with Patricia because she has already seen him at his worst and Patricia comes to believe that Laurence is the one person who has earned her complete trust. They belong to opposing groups with very different visions of the future but together they have the strength to look for a less extreme third way. This isn’t a novel which argues that one side is right and the other is wrong. “All the Birds in the Sky” offers the hope that different philosophies and beliefs can be reconciled and that everyone can join together to do amazing things. This happens in the story in a most extraordinary fashion. To find out how, you’ll have to read this endearing novel. Until three weeks time….

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk

 

 

It is about time that I recommended something by the great Roger Zelazny (1937-1995). Isn’t Zelazny the most perfect surname for a writer who inhabited the borderlands between Fantasy and Science Fiction? The novel I’ve chosen, “Jack of Shadows” (1971), is set in a world divided between a magical darkside and a scientific lightside. There are plenty of old paperback copies around but don’t go for the 1974 Corgi edition which I have – its ghastly bat-dominated cover makes “Jack of Shadows” look like the tackiest of Horror stories. The novel was reissued in 2016 in the “Rediscovered Classics” series with a good introduction by Joe Haldeman.

This story begins in the Twilight Lands during the Hellgames. Many powerful beings are competing for the Hellflame trophy but the thief known as Jack of Shadows plans to steal it for the father of the woman he loves. Jack is difficult to defeat because if any shadows are present he can escape into them but he is betrayed by two darksiders who serve the Lord of Bats and beheaded. Jack is annoyed at “having to lose one of his lives on a sloppy job”, especially as this means a very long walk back from the Dung Pits of Glyve. During his perilous journey through the horrid realm of Drekkheim he meets a Wise Woman called Rosalie whom he once seduced with promises of taking her to live in his possibly non-existent castle of Shadow Guard. She warns him against letting hatred lead him to “the machine that thinks like a man.”

Jack’s hatred for his enemies does increase when he discovers that his beloved Evene now seems to be the bride of the sorcerer known as the Lord of Bats. After escaping from a cruel imprisonment, Jack visits his only friend, the chained fallen angel, Morningstar, who tells him about the great machine at the heart of the world. Jack breaks the rules by crossing over into the human lightside, where he gets a college-job lecturing on anthropology. He is soon pursued by a terrifying darkside monster known as the Borshin and forced to flee but he already has the information he needs to overpower his enemies. Jack will have his vengeance, even if it costs him his soul. Can anyone stop him destroying the world?

“Jack of Shadows” is a mish-mash of a book which shouldn’t really work and yet this story has fascinated me for years. The plot moves extremely fast and all manner of ideas are crammed into this short novel (only 157 pages). The opening chapters read as humorous Dark Fantasy, rather similar to Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth” stories (see my Post of June 2012) or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser series (see my Post of July 2014). Initially, nothing is taken very seriously. When the Lord of Bats appears, he’s described as though he was a vampire out of a junk Horror movie and he lives in the absurdly named fortress of High Dudgeon. These jokes make the ensuing psychological duel between Jack and his arch-enemy all the more shocking. When Jack is masquerading as Dr Shade in the science-oriented human world, the story resembles a Crime Thriller before morphing into Horror again as a monster haunts the campus. Once Jack is back among his shadows, the tone darkens even further. There are deliberate echoes of Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Christopher Marlow’s version of the Faustus legend, not to mention “The Count of Monte Cristo”. The more successful Jack is in wreaking revenge, the more tragic his story becomes.

I think it would be fair to say that all of Zelazny’s novels are dominated by variations of the same hero/anti-hero. To begin with, Jack seems a typical Zelazny hero – a threatened loner with unusual powers who is willing to question and shatter the rules of his world. What makes Jack distinctive is how close he gets to becoming not just an anti-hero but the villain of the piece. In the early chapters, most readers will like this amusing trickster but we soon get to see Jack’s ruthless side. The more he is denounced as a selfish liar and fantasist, the more Jack is determined to validate his self-image, even if that means forcing everyone else to fit in with his own version of reality.

Zelazny’s female characters aren’t usually memorable but the ones in this book are something of an exception. Sad-eyed Evene becomes a haunting figure as Jack changes from devoted lover to implacable stalker. Rosalie is the human love whom Jack simply forgot to go back for. She has become an old woman while her shadow-Jack has not aged at all. Rosalie has cause to be bitter and vengeful but she chooses forgiveness and acts as the guardian of Jack’s soul and the voice of his conscience.

Jack’s respect for Rosalie and his strange friendship with the angel/demon Morningstar are the two elements which made me want to stay with Jack on his journey through his own personal hells. Morningstar is an unforgettable creation, with his “great, lightning-scarred visage” and his lidless eyes always looking towards a sunrise that never comes. The poetic conversations between Jack and Morningstar are the heart of the novel. Jack is told that, “Everything that lives changes or dies” and that “Each of you colors reality in keeping with your means of controlling it.” Morningstar’s explanations deconstruct Zelazny’s own genre of Science-Fantasy in a disturbing way, so it is fitting that there is a massive apocalypse at the climax of the novel. Many authors would have set a whole series in this complex double world but Zelazny always refused to write a sequel to “Jack of Shadows”. I’m glad that he didn’t because the enigmatic ending allows each reader to finish Jack’s story in her or his own way. Do try it and see which ending you choose.

While writing this post I realized that a book which contains two stories of failed love might not be the most appropriate choice for Valentine’s Week, so here is a quick bonus recommendation. If you are still in a romantic mood (or need cheering up after reading “Jack of Shadows”) you couldn’t do better than Garth Nix’s charming Regency Romance “Newt’s Emerald” (2015). This is now at the top of my list of Georgette Heyer- inspired Fantasy. On her eighteenth birthday, Lady Truthful Newington (Newt) is shown the magical emerald which is her birthright. When the emerald is stolen, Newt disguises herself as a boy and embarks on adventure which will bring her danger and romance. Enjoy. Until next time…

Geraldine

http://www.chalcedon.co.uk