Flash fiction: New Rome

Against all probabilities, he had arrived in New Rome alive. Priscus had paused for a moment in the creaking corridor linking the starship to the elevator, grabbing a quick glimpse through the dirty window before the press of the shuffling men behind him forced him onward.

But he knew what it looked like, having seen the images all his life. The huge city, hub of the human universe, lay within a ring of countless towers, topped by the space elevators that exported its power to the stars. Immense ships departed for distant planets, carrying the weapons to subdue them, the soldiers to police them, the prefects to govern them. On their return, they discharged metals for New Rome’s industries, luxuries for its indulgences, slaves for its entertainment.

At New Rome’s precise centre lay the Colosseum, greater and better than the original, long lost in the mists of history. Scholars had dug through electronic archives, sifting through the myths and deliberate fiction, seeking to reproduce the old as much as possible, while bowing to the modern demands for comfort. Around it throbbed the largest and most vibrant city of the galaxy, consumed by its commerce and its pleasures. Priscus had dreamed all his life of coming to visit, perhaps even of coming to live.

He had never dreamed of coming to kill.

He stood now waiting in one of the air-conditioned passageways that led to the Colosseum’s vast floor, a bug-eyed, twin-plumed helmet that covered his entire head tucked under his right arm, his left hand resting lightly on the hilt of the primitive sword strapped to his side. He knew that in a twin passageway on the opposite side of the amphitheatre, another young man stood with a similar helmet under his arm and the same little rivulet of sweat snaking down his spine. When the great gong sounded, the grills before them would lift and they would stride out, meeting before the high seat, to pay their respects and to see their opponent’s face for the first and last time before they replaced their helmets over their heads. Only one of them, at best, would walk out. Priscus struggled to swallow and moisten his throat, but his parched mouth felt like sandpaper. It was always like this.

The assistant, the most attentive he had ever had, saw the movement of his throat and passed him a bottle filled with specially-formulated water. She patted his arm with a shy smile. Had his life gone differently, had he not encountered Calgurian slave traders on that ill-advised camping trip to the Boradran Asteroid Belt, he could have come here a free man. He would be inviting her out now to one of New Rome’s famous shusa restaurants, instead of meditating on how the New Romans coddled you with comfort before you died for their pleasure.

He wondered if his family had given up hope yet, if his mother cried herself to sleep, if his hothead older brother Verus had figured out where he had gone and come looking for him. Priscus wished he had, and hoped he hadn’t. It was bad enough that one of them had been stupid enough to dare the Belt. He reached for the water bottle again and rubbed the knuckles of the other hand into his eyes. Enough of that kind of thinking. That was the kind of thing that got a man killed. On the other hand, dying would almost be a relief. He had put a sword into too many bellies already.

She took the bottle back and ran her hand along his arm. “Of course I couldn’t have asked her out,” he thought incongruously. “Slaves aren’t allowed out on the town.” He twisted a broken smile in her direction.

The gong sounded. The grill slid up. He slipped the helmet over his head, hoisted the red-painted shield into place and stepped out. On the far side, his fellow combatant angled also toward the high seat where tonight’s guest of honour awaited them. Priscus matched the pace of the other, discreetly studying him for clues that would help him. Something about the man itched at him, like a melody that insists on staying just out of memory’s reach. As he drew closer, Priscus saw the nasty scar slanted across the man’s abdomen. How could he have survived a wound like that? He must have pivoted back so that the sword had slashed across without going deep. Quick on his feet then.

They converged before the high seat. In careful unison they leaned their shields against one leg, pulled their helmets off and raised their swords in salute to the woman seated there, whose name Priscus had already forgotten. The mayor? The prefect? She raised a limp hand in acknowledgement. They turned toward each other for the ritual pre-combat crossing of swords.

Priscus froze. The sword fell from his hand, narrowly missing his foot. He barely noticed.

The other’s eyes widened and he slumped down onto his knees with a long, drawn-out groan that made the hair rise on the back of Priscus’s neck. He staggered forward and wrapped his arms around the other.

“Verus! Great god, what are you doing here?”

His brother sobbed, rocking back and forth on his knees. Priscus babbled something, anything, to try to console him. Verus clutched at his arm.

Priscus raised an imploring face to the high seat. The woman leaned forward on one elbow.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” she said. “Get on with it.”

Cover reveal for A Time to Speak

I have recently poked my nose into Nadine Brandes' debut novel, A Time to Die, and I have been favourably impressed, even if I haven't finished reading it yet. I recommend that you check her out yourself. Her second novel, A Time to Speak, will be coming out soon and she's running a giveaway contest to celebrate. In the meanwhile, here is a look at the new cover.

Click over to Nadine's contest.

Review: The Book of Strange New Things

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber packs a powerful emotional punch. Shortly after he started writing it, his wife was diagnosed with cancer and I can only believe that this contributed greatly to the powerful sense of impending loss that grows throughout the story. That Faber can bowl us over emotionally with such understated storytelling and such a relatively quiet plotline says a lot about his talent. When I finished, I had to close the book and just think about it for a while and deal with the emotions.

Peter Leigh is a pastor who is accepted as a missionary to the alien population of a planet (presumably the only planet) where mankind has set up a colony. The colony has been established by a wealthy corporation, USIC, for purposes that are not clear to Peter. He doesn't really care anyway. He is so thrilled to have this historic opportunity that he asks few questions. He regrets that they did not also accept to send his wife, but both of them take on this temporary separation in a spirit of sacrifice. When he arrives at the planet Oasis, he finds that the challenges facing him are entirely different than what he expected. And while he is there, the situation on Earth, which was bad when he left, deteriorates rapidly and his wife is left to handle it all on her own. She is not a fragile flower, but they have been a very close couple and the separation at a time of such great stress is very difficult for them.

Where Faber really excels is in depicting the interior life of Peter. I was quite honestly surprised. Faber makes no secret of his atheism, but both Peter and his faith are drawn sympathetically and plausibly. I think Faber missed the ultimate core of what faith is all about, but in all fairness, a lot of Christians do too, which is why they crumble under stress. I will resist the temptation to go any further into a theological analysis of the book – that's not what this blog is about – but it was an important part of my personal reaction to the story. I have been involved in missions, and I have also been separated from my husband for long periods of time, so I could relate to this story on a lot of levels. Faber gets the human side of this very, very right. Where he gets the faith part wrong is where a lot of people get it wrong, so it is a fair take.

An aspect I found very interesting which I have not seen mentioned in the reviews I have read is the culture shock that Peter experiences when he returns to the base. This is a common experience among missionaries. As they adapt to the culture they are working in, they feel increasingly out of synch with their own. We get a fascinating look at Peter's mindset gradually becoming alien. Faber went to considerable trouble to make the aliens genuinely foreign. Although roughly humanoid, their psychology and culture is quite different. Peter finds it very exasperating trying to get information out of them because their perceptions and preoccupations are so very different. But he settles into their way of thinking and living and becomes increasingly uncomfortable with humans.

I found the chapter titles a bit mystifying until I realized that each one was the last line of the chapter, giving us a brief flash of where this chapter might be heading. And the brief flash was invariably misleading, at least for me.  A rather intriguing way of doing things.

The normal science fiction enthusiasts might find this story a little too quiet for their liking. This is a story of Peter and his attempt to grow into a foreign culture without growing away from his wife, of him trying to maintain his faith – so central to his life – as it is buffeted by storm. So if you are looking for a rip-roaring, plot-driven story, go elsewhere. If you are looking for a beautiful and haunting portrait of a human soul, The Book of Strange New Things is for you.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Review: The Aurora Awards – Thirty Years of Canadian Science Fiction

I have a list of books I'm planning on reviewing. In order. But sometimes I can't help myself and I spontaneously reach for something else. This time it was a book that was part of my swag from Ottawa's Can-Con (The Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature). The Aurora Awards – Thirty Years of Canadian Science Fiction is a 2010 anthology of short fiction that had won Canada's national award for speculative fiction in the short form category. (One year an epic poem won the award. It unfortunately was not part of the anthology.) When I let myself get sidetracked like that, it is always worth it. I enjoyed myself immensely.

Science fiction, when done well, is incredibly imaginative and tends to set my brain fizzing in sheer delight. And most of the stories in this collection were well done, by my lights. The title is a bit misleading, as the collection also included alternate history, horror, and even a werewolf story I actually enjoyed. This is exceptional, so hats off to Douglas Smith.

For sheer originality, it is hard to beat Julie Czerneda's “Left Foot on a Blind Man” which opens with the sentence: “For the record, I became self-aware as the left foot on a blind man.” The tone is cheeky and entertaining right up to the end, but we become increasingly and uncomfortably aware of an underlying darkness. A masterful piece of work.

Both of the first two stories “Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Blood Stream” by James Alan Gardner, and “When the Morning Stars Sing Together” by Isaac Szpindel, dealt with the relationship between science and religion, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they both put a much more nuanced and complex spin on the idea than I am accustomed to finding in science fiction.

“Readers of the Lost Art, a Love Story” by Elisabeth Vonarburg, although beautifully written, was too brutal for me and was the only story I chose not to read through to the end.

“Hockey's Night in Canada” was a little piece of alternate history I found disappointing, holding little else than a cute idea. “The Toy Mill” also left me indifferent, partly because it was horror, which is a genre I am allergic to. It has to be exceptionally well written to overcome that prejudice, and this one didn't cut it there.

“Light Remembered” by Daniel Sernine, squeaks in as fantasy, although it seems to me to be more of a meditation on life and immortality. It is haunting, and even in translation, the writing shines.

Hayden Trenholm's “Like Water in the Desert” deals with a Depression-era hobo who is clearly much more than he first seems to be. We are given hints as to his identity, but never more than that. I think this one would make a fantastic Twilight Zone episode or something of the sort.

There were some strange type-setting issues with a couple of the older stories, presumably because the original texts were scanned in with text-recognition software that wasn't quite up to the job. Human eyes really should have taken a second look at these.

Still and all, I was left feeling satisfied, my brain buzzing with possibilities.

I have not been able to find the book for sale anywhere online, but Derek Künsken, the chair of Can-Con 2014, informs me that they still have some copies available. Contact http://can-con.org/ to request a copy. I didn't negotiate prices. ;o) 

Interview: Edward Willett

How do you not love an author who has a blog called Hasenpfeffer? I first met Ed Willett somewhere in cyberspace so long ago I can't remember where. Blogs? MySpace? Following links? Who knows? But he had a blog called Hasenpfeffer. And he grew up in Saskatchewan. (As did I. You get extra points if you know where that is.) And he wrote speculative fiction. It was clear I had to take a closer look...

You are such a prolific writer, it makes my head spin. Fiction, non-fiction, YA, adult, science fiction, fantasy, Edward Willett, E.C. Blake, Lee Arthur Chane... Am I missing anything? Plus you act and sing. How do you keep all these balls in the air?

I think you’ve covered the bases. Except for the volunteer work. (I’m on the board of The Golden Apple Theatre, a professional theatre company, and I also do a lot of desktop publishing for it and other theatre organizations.) And the driving-daughter-to-dance-and-theatre work...

I actually feel like I’m way too lazy and could accomplish much more if I didn’t waste so much time on the Internet. I don’t really have any words of wisdom regarding how I manage to do so many different types of things. To me it’s all one thing. Yes, writing a YA fantasy novel isn’t the same as writing, say, the annual report of Chief Electoral Officer (as I did last year) or a short 32-page book written at an early-reader level about the Milky Way…and yet, it is. It’s all about using words, about communicating—telling a story, whether one I’ve made up or one that’s true. Acting and singing, too, are really just forms of telling stories. So that’s what I really am: a storyteller. In ancient times I’d have been the old guy by the fire spinning tales. Good thing, too, since with my eyesight I’d either have had to be a shaman or I’d have been sabertooth bait…


May I be blessed with equally productive laziness.

Tell us about your most recent novel. (Yeah, I'm always more interested in the fiction. Sorry.) And how many novels does that make now, while we're at it?

Actually, I’ll tell you about my two most recent novels, since they’ve come out so close together. Both are the second books in series, as it happens!

Shadows, which came out August 4 from DAW Books, is Book 2 in The Masks of Aygrima, a trilogy that began with Masks last fall and will wrap up with Faces next summer. It’s a fantasy novel set in a land where everyone is forced to don a magical Mask at the age of 15, a Mask that tells the dreaded Watchers who might pose a threat to the rule of the Autarch, so no rebellion is possible or can even be contemplated. The main character is a 15-year-old girl, Mara Holdfast, who is the daughter of the Master Maskmaker and also has a rare and powerful form of the magical Gift that only a small number of citizens possess. When her Masking unexpectedly fails, she is sent into exile, rescued by the unMasked Army, and flung into the effort to overthrow the Autarch…all the while trying to learn to control her Gift, which is not only powerful but dangerous, and threatens to turn her into a monster worse than the Autarch she is working against.

Twist of the Blade, which I just got copies of yesterday, is Book 2 in The Shards of Excalibur, a five-book young adult fantasy series being published by Coteau Books here in Regina. It’s the sequel to Song of the Sword, which came out in the spring. Book 3, The Lake in the Clouds, will be out in the spring of 2015. In Book 1, Song of the Sword, the Lady of the Lake showed up in Regina’s Wascana Lake and informed Ariane Forsythe, a 15-year-old girl who’s been in and out of foster homes since her mother mysteriously disappeared, that she is the heir to the Lady’s power, and must stop Merlin, in his modern-day guise as Bill Gates-like computer magnate Rex Major, from finding the scattered shards of Excalibur and reuniting them. If he does, he will use the sword’s power to take over the world and attack his own world of Faerie. Ariane and her sidekick, 14-year-old Wally Knight, successfully gained the first shard in Book 1, but in Book 2 Wally begins having doubts after Ariane used her power to hurt his sister, Felicia (a rather nasty bully). The story takes Wally and Ariane to the south of France, and tests their new relationship to the limits.

How many novels? Um…(counting on fingers)…twelve traditionally published and three self-published. So far.

 

Arthurian legend in Regina. I like it.

Now I would like to know about your writing process. Outline? Improvise? Bit of both? Do you write better in silence? To music? In public places? (We'll pretend that's only one question. Ahem.)

I outline and then improvise. Most books start as a five- or six-page synopsis, which I only rarely refer to once I’m actually writing. Major plot points don’t usually change, but new ideas come out of nowhere as i write, or as characters, in the middle of a scene, say something or do something that takes things in a different direction than I originally envisioned. The outline is kind of like a roadmap on which the destinations of a planned trip have been highlighted, and perhaps the major highways that will be taken to get to them. The writing is the journey itself, full of side trips and detours and scenic routes. Occasionally even the destinations change. On more than one book I’ve had to pause and replot in order to get to the final destination because of choices made during the actual writing that invalidated my original synopsis.

I rarely write in my office. I prefer to write on my laptop either inside the house or, more often, in a public place like a coffee shop or bar. If I’m writing at home, I write in silence. If I’m writing in a public place, I listen to music—what music hardly matters: it’s just a way to shut out conversation. A general roar of background noise doesn’t bother me, but any actual conversation where I can make out what’s being said is incredibly distracting. Especially if it’s a conversation about something I have a strong opinion about and the idiots talking don’t share my opinion. :) As I write this I’m listening to some random mix of ‘70s hits on Radio…

 

I can really relate to the conversation problem. And now, finally, which authors have particularly influenced you? Do any of them attain the status of role model?

My biggest influences are undoubtedly the authors I read as a kid, the ones who turned me into a science fiction and fantasy reader and, very soon, writer. Robert A. Heinlein is, of course, the father of us all in science fiction. His “juvenile” novels in particular were a huge influence on me. Isaac Asimov, particularly the robot stories. Andre Norton was another big influence on me as a young reader. Zenna Henderson was another, and of course J.R.R. Tolkien.

But role models? Only in that it was their stories, which I loved so much, which convinced me that I wanted to tell stories that other people would enjoy as much as I had enjoyed theirs.

Because ultimately, that’s what I am: a storyteller. I make up stories, I tell them to other people, and hopefully they’re entertained. If I’m thought-provoking or inspirational or anything else, that’s great: but as long as I’m entertaining, I’m content.

Thanks so much, Ed.

I reviewed Ed's Lost in Translation here.

And his website is here.

And here for E.C. Blake

And here for Lee Arthur Chane

Flashback review: Empire

I'm doing it again. I've dived into my archives for an older book review. I am also breaking one of my normal rules: this is a negative one. I don't like to discourage authors, so I just don't review most books I don't like. I make exceptions for well-established authors who are probably wise enough not to read their reviews, and doing well enough that I can't make much difference. So you might see me throwing rocks at the occasional mega-bestseller, but that's about it. And now, without any further ado...

Empire is easily the worst thing I've ever read by Orson Scott Card, and the worst book I've read in some time, period. I honestly didn't think he was capable of such clunky prose, wooden dialogue, and cardboard characters. The thriller sections weren't thrilling and I often had to push myself to finish. There was actually dialogue along the lines of "Seeing as we're both in such excellent physical shape, there's no need to park too close." This is just plain sloppy writing. And he was so desperate to deliver his message, large chunks of it read like rant. I much preferred the Afterword, when he laid out his social concerns in a straightforward and much more readable manner. His attempts to work these concerns into the dialogue and expositions were done with all the subtlety of a novice (which Card isn't) and gave my eyes a good workout from frequent rolling. He was working on a schedule and running late and boy, does it ever show.

It is a shame. OSC, as he is known to his fans, is capable of much better. I've read a number of his books and they were either brilliant (Ender's Game, most notably) or at least a darn good read (Enchantment). Also, the questions he raises in the book are worthy of a better treatment. The polarization of American political culture into two camps of mutual loathing is one I've blogged on before. It's toxic, and this book shows us what such toxicity could theoretically lead to. The whole question of the United States as an empire or empire-to-be is also worthy of some serious thought. I wish he had handled it as deftly as he did with such large issues in the Ender series.

And I would also dearly love to see a female character who is not a carbon copy of all his others. All his main female characters have the same persona: engaging, witty, highly intelligent, unconventional. I would dearly love to meet his wife, who is supposedly the template for them, and who is obviously well worth knowing, but I wish he could summon up another female character he is capable of liking.

 

OSC's website

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Flashback Review: Lost in Translation

No. Not the movie. The book, by Saskatchewan author Edward Willett. I actually wrote this review almost eight years ago (I can hardly believe it!) and decided to haul it out of mothballs. This blog has been woefully short of science fiction offerings. I hope you enjoy it.

*****

OK, you can come out of heck now, Edward Willett. You have redeemed yourself.

The cardboard-wrapped Lost in Translation turned up in my mailbox yesterday afternoon and I successfully refrained from cracking it open until after supper. Those who know me realize that bibliophile is too weak a word for me. Biblioholic would be closer to the mark. Which makes that much restraint, little as it was, rather remarkable. Proof that I can, on occasion, behave like a responsible adult.

Maybe the cover art helped. It was, quite frankly, dreadful. It fell into the trap the author didn't, that of cutesy sentimentality. The artist probably hadn't read the book at all, or if so, with remarkably little attention. Not that this is unusual, cover art often seems to have little regard for what actually lies between the covers. The paperback, due out in October, has a much more promising cover, conveying much more effectively the menacing appearance of Jarrikk, one of the two main characters, contrasted with the blond fragility of Kathryn, his human counterpart.

The contrast between the two main characters is one of the driving forces behind this science fiction novel. Jarrick and Kathryn, S'sinn and human, have every reason, both racial and personal, to hate and mistrust the other as the two translators are thrown into negotiations which each side fervently hopes will fail, thus allowing them to wage the war they ardently desire.

Translation, in this far off future, is accomplished by forming a profound empathetic relationship between two translators, by means of a genetically engineered link. Seldom had there been two more unwilling participants. But the privileged understanding of each other created by the translators' link creates a radical shift in their attitudes and births an unlikely alliance.

Willett very effectively makes us share this empathy. The S'sinn, predators rather like panthers with bat wings, are not natural candidates for our understanding, but understand them we do. The obvious analogies to understanding between human races can be drawn, but the author never falls into the trap of preaching it in any way, which would have weakened the book considerably.

The characterizations are, for the most part well handled, with most of the characters in book presented in a believable and usually sympathetic manner. One or two of the secondary characters would have benefitted from a more complete fleshing out. Jim, in particular, is hard to get a handle on. Willett would undoubtedly argue that this is deliberate, indeed, that his inscrutability is essential, but I think he pushed it a wee bit too far. This character never really comes alive for me.

Which in no way prevented me from turning pages. Until the very end. Seeing as I read fast and the book was not unduly long, that didn't keep me up too terribly late. Given a decent dead spot, I would have put it down for the night, but I didn't really get one. The plot twists and turns through personal intrigues, political intrigues, spatiopolitical intrigues...

All in all, a good entertaining read with substance to it. So Edward Willett can come out of heck, because I don't regret buying the hardcover edition. You've really got to hand it to an author who can make you rather like a creature with tentacles around his beaked face who engages in Realpolitik.