Six Against the Stars is a two volume space opera adventure by Stephen Hunt, whose work I have reviewed many times before. Six Against the Stars has an unlikely crew of adventurers thrown together against their will to try and prevent a rebellion in a far future stellar confederation. The main character is a useless rocker from Earth, whose only interests are bedding women and preserving his own skin but who has been tricked by circumstance into meddling with interstellar political affairs. The other characters include a strange book-shaped robot, a mass murdering martian who is a member of a weird orientalist death cult, a brain-enhanced academic,  a kind of nice version of Novacks from Altered Carbon, and a spunky female clone assassin. The universe they adventure through is a recognizable cross between the universe of Firefly and the Culture, but the whole thing is imbued with Stephen Hunt’s consistent imagination for the slightly strange, the mystical and the chaotic. One of the alien races that vies with humans for control of the galaxy is a race of machines that slaughtered their makers; another race are centaur-like monsters; and at one point we are introduced to distant creatures that swim in gas giants, and were created by a mad king who aimed to forcibly re-engineer his entire population to be gas-living winged creatures. Earth is an isolationist clique of Gaiaists, who have redesigned their planet so that they never have to do any work – they just step outside and pluck medicines off a tree, and even their racing cars are sentient genetically-engineered animals. Just as in the Culture, ships are sentient AIs patterned on humans, and as is becoming increasingly common in many modern SF novels, sublimed races essentially equivalent to gods are commonplace in the universe.

It’s a fun galaxy to romp through, and the lead character is sufficiently open-minded and rumbunctious to be willing to take it all in and make the most of it. Hunt is also obviously having fun with the genre, playing around with silly and far-fetched ideas on many occasions and doing his best to make his galaxy fun enticing. To give a sense of the carnivalesque nature of his creation, I’d like to share a little section from one chapter, in which we learn the back story of a single, largely pointless character who is present for about three chapters of the entire two novels. This cyborg briefly shares a cell with our hero the bard, and has this story to tell about his origins on earth:

I was an officer in a war, a great war, although in the end I think I realised there was precious little greatness in it. Unfortunately for my future prospects, I discovered our war leader was receiving unholy advice from a terrible entity. With the prejudices of my age, I believed it to be a demon, though with hindsight I now believe it was a traveller from the future. When I investigated further, myself and a small group of army commanders uncovered a rival time traveller at work, a woman trying to oppose the madness worming its way through our society. We allied ourselves to her in an attempt to halt the war.

When asked whether they won, he tells our hero:

Hardly. We attempted to murder our leader, but to my shame we failed in the matter. The rival time traveller saved my life from a traitor’s death, if you can call what you see remaining before you saved. My family buried a corpse with no brain inside its skull, and I was secretly transported offworld on the ship of a species called the archivers. How the archivers had been bargained with by my time travelling ally, I do not claim to understand; they certainly made poor hosts. I lost everything that was dear to me when I was forced away from Earth: my son – my darling wife – my career and my name.

The finale of this conversation proceeds to the inevitable revelation of the cyborg’s name:

“We are brothers of Earth. You shall call me Erwin, my friend.”

“Erwin,” Horatio said the new name. “I think there is a world in the Stobb Clouds called Erwin’s Luck.”

“Perhaps,” said the cyborg.”But if so, it is not named in honour of my unhappy life. Never named after Erwin Rommel.”

So there you have it. A throwaway page of book 2 of the story, but it turns out that Hitler was a time traveller and Rommel spent the next 10 or so millenia trapped in a cyborg’s body, wandering the universe at the beck and call of a mysterious alien race known as the Archivers. Who knew?

I think for many people this carnivalesque style will be a disappointment – it certainly sets a very different tone to the gloomy seriousness of Iain M. Bank’s Against a Dark Background or the slightly over the top striving of Star Wars. But I enjoy the creativity and the playing with the genre – sci fi can be a tad too serious at times, and it’s nice to see space opera treated with a slightly lighter tone, without tripping over into Space Balls style puerility. It also has some really good ideas mixed in – for example, like everyone who writes space opera, Stephen Hunt has specific visions of hyperspace, and in this novel we’re treated to the Ebb, a strange area of the galaxy in which hyperspace travel slows down and becomes unpredictable – and where bandit civilizations flourish. He also has a fairly brutal conception of the colonization process, and some nice ideas about AIs and the relationship between human and machine which, though superficially sillier than Banks’s visions, are actually pretty cool.

As always, this novel falls down when we start to experience intervention by god-like creatures to help kick the plot along. I think I’ve read 6 or 8 Hunt novels now, and in all but two of them the plot has been dependent on divine intervention. I’m used to it and it often fits well within the story arc and the cultural framework, but it also leaves me with a slight feeling of disappointment. Fortunately his characters are excellent and his story-telling very pacy, as well as being thick with ideas, so it’s easy to overlook the Deus Ex Machina; but I do wish he would give it a miss occasionally. Otherwise I think that this might perhaps be his best work, though there’s a wide range of material to judge from and the comparisons are hard. But if you’re interested in a light-hearted space opera with cool characters, fast plot and a chaotic feeling, then this is the tale for you. And, once again, I would like to recommend Stephen Hunt’s entire corpus (or at least, everything I’ve read) to my reader(s). He is great!


What's the Chinese for "fail"?

Sliding Void is the first in a series of hard SF novels by Stephen Hunt, author of a series of steampunk novels that I really enjoyed: The Court of the Air, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, and The Rise of the Iron Moon. Hunt’s interest in space opera and SF was fairly clear in The Rise of the Iron Moon, so it’s no surprise to learn that he also writes hard SF, and although it’s also weird to read him in a completely new genre, the book was enjoyable and interesting – though not without its flaws.

The basic setting is a universe some thousands of years in the future, with the usual necessities of hard SF: hyperspace has been invented but travel is slow, there are many settled planets and terraforming and expansion is ongoing, the settled universe is divided into the core and the periphery, and the core is ruled by a shifty and sinister organization (in this case called “the Triple Alliance”) that maintains order at the expense of freedom and corruption. Of course, one can stay a step ahead of the alliance by working on the fringes of space, but not everything one does out here on the edge is entirely legal, etc. The outline of the setting probably seems to have a lot in common with Serenity/Firefly or Traveller:2300, including the importance of China in space exploration and the settling of planets on national lines (this is a German planet, that is a Chinese, etc). It’s pretty standard.

The story centres around one Captain Lana Fiveworlds and her oddball crew, who are running a free trader in classic Traveller style, tramp trading on the periphery. They need money in a hurry and get called in by an old contact to whom they owe a favour; he gives them the task of taking on a new crewman to help him escape from his arse-backwards mediaeval ice world, where he was a prince until he got a bit too arrogant and ran a war that got half the world chasing him. Unfortunately, there is something up with this new crewman and things rapidly go pear-shaped. That’s it! We then have to wait for book 2 to start finding out why things went wrong, and what they’re going to do about it.

This book is quite short and well-told, but interestingly a large part of the story is set in a fantasy world. The crewman is from the planet of Hesperus, a failed colony world that slid into an ice age soon after it was colonized. It’s an interesting story: the colonists were refugees rescued from an interplanetary war by a well-meaning aid agency and packed across the galaxy in cryonic sleep, arriving on their colony with nothing but the resources in their ship and nowhere to return to, their world having been destroyed. Soon after they arrived their new planet, which had looked so promising, fell back into an ice age and the colony fell back into the bronze age, so that when we stumble on it the planet is more like a norse kingdom than a sci-fi setting. I really like this idea, I think it’s quite believable and a terraforming outcome I don’t think I’ve read in a long time (perhaps in Ursula le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest? I can’t recall…) Stephen Hunt does this part particularly well, and the way the rest of the universe treats this planet is a sure sign that we aren’t dealing with a particularly well-meaning Alliance. No Culture here, folks.

The rest of the story, though brief, is well-written. It’s got occasional hints of “realism” such as has started to creep into modern genre writing – swearing, “gritty” settings and the like – which is particularly jarring when you’re used to Hunt’s other, gentler, steampunkier works. Hunt’s vision of hyperspace is cute – it’s all mathematical and humans can’t handle it, because they get “addicted to the maths” – and means that humans are dependent on the help of an alien crab species who are religious in their mathematics, and believe that entering hyperspace gets them closer to their mysterious mathematical god. The rest of the SF world is fairly standard, though some of the information technology ideas are cute: the characters refer to a wiki to learn about Hesperus, and when their barbarian crewman needs to be oriented to the modern world he is given full-immersion entertainment packages that give him 6 months of real-time experience of someone else’s life in a couple of hours. This means that two days after he’s arrived on ship he has already lived several years of subjective life in the modern world, and is speaking like a mixture of policeman and starship crew. His adjustment is otherwise not handled so well though: his first experience of eating rice just flicks by without any mention of how he feels about this new experience, and there are a few other moments where we really could get a deeper sense of his disorientation in his new world. Having spent half the book establishing his barbarian credentials, we see them all washed away in a chapter, which is a bit weak. Given that the whole thing is quite short, a few more chapters to have him settle in – perhaps including a moment of craziness – would be nice.

Another thing about this book that really frustrated me and nearly had me give up on it was the massive Orientalism fail in the middle. When we first meet the Chinese engineer, Paopao, he orders Calder (the barbarian) to make his favourite food: Ochatsuke. He has a list of ingredients in his kitchen which includes dashi and jako. Stephen Hunt has carefully researched the recipe for a Japanese traditional food, complete with Japanese names, and had his chinese character act as if this is some Chinese food or spiritual rite of passage: the food labels are all written in Chinese (how do you write jako in Chinese?) and Paopao tells Calder that “A man who steams rice may be trusted with the care of antiproton storage ring.” The implication is that this traditional Japanese food is somehow of cultural significance to this Chinese engineer, who judges his staffs competence on their ability to make it. This is, I think a straight-out orientalism fail: either Hunt doesn’t care about the difference between China and Japan, doesn’t know (despite having careful knowledge of a Japanese food that is quite obscure outside of Japan), or knows nothing about China and figures his readers won’t notice the difference. He obviously couldn’t make the dominant Asian culture in space Japan because that doesn’t fit the current narrative about an ascendant China, but he couldn’t be bothered doing the basic research on China necessary to fit the character to the story. The same applies with the stupid way he writes Paopao’s language: I’ve met enough non-native speakers of English now to know that the way Paopao speaks is not the way it works. On the one hand he says

Only if you submit to them, Mister Fighting Fourth. Sometimes it beholdens man to remember

which is perfect lyrical English and very advanced, including careful omission of an article such as non-native speakers often get wrong. But then he says

Found it inside fortune cookied on station above Kunjing Four

dropping both the subject (which I think is a Japanese, not a Chinese, problem) and all the articles, and mangling a sentence which anyone who can say the former would surely be able to spout very quickly and easily. Now, I don’t think anyone can get language misuse right (it’s extremely hard) but stuffing this up to this extent, while also mangling the character’s cultural origins, is a pretty big level of fail. It’s disappointing, and sloppy. I understand that with the ascendance of Asia, and the recognition that the 21st century is going to be the Asian century, people want to fit Asia into their inter-galactic hegemonies, and not being Asian are likely going to screw it up somehow. But there’s still a minimum level of research that one could do, in this case as simple as buying a Chinese cookbook and visiting a good restaurant.

I think we’re going to see a lot more of this kind of sloppiness in the years to come …

Anyway, aside from the small orientalist unpleasantness, this story is enjoyable and worth giving a go if you like classic hard SF. It’s reasonably well crafted, moves fast, has a smooth and easy narrative style, and has some nice ideas to add to the genre. Stephen Hunt’s writing is sometimes a little jarring, as if he were occasionally slipping into a young adult novel style, and sometimes his genre-bending doesn’t work, but in this case he’s combined a low-tech fantasy world with a hi-tech spacefaring civilization very well. I wouldn’t say it’s ground breaking or stellar in its achievements, and I think Hunt has been more creative in his steampunk work, but I can still recommend it. Read this book if you want to see a small amount of genre-bending in an otherwise classic, easily readable hard SF, but give it a miss if you demand only classic tropes in your SF.

How does this work, anyway?

I recently finished reading Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor Chronicles, second in the Majipoor Series but easily readable in isolation. It is not a single novel but a series of short stories set throughout the history of the eponymous planet; some of these stories are directly connected to the events of the first book in the series, Lord Valentine’s Castle, but I think most are intended simply to offer historical and cultural background to that tale. The settings of the stories are separated by huge distances in space and time but are strung together through a cute conceit: a low-level functionary in the central government has found a way to sneak into a library of memories, and through accessing the library enters the memories of any individual he can choose. So, he calls up random (and sometimes deliberate) people from Majipoor’s past, usually connected with great events in the history of Majipoor, and views the events through their eyes.

This is an interesting trick, since it sets the flavour of the planet and the culture through the choice of protagonist, which in most cases is a person who is neither famous nor important, just a person connected to some great event. Where the functionary could have stolen access to the memories only of the great and the good, he instead chooses random nobodies: a woman living in the jungle when the alien settlers first began to come to Majipoor; a mid-ranking military officer involved on the fringes of the final battle to eliminate Majipoor’s indigenous people; a shop-keeper who ends up marrying a lord (but not the lord himself); a low-level official who discovers the technology of the King of Dreams (but not the King himself). As the functionary gets bolder in his theft he chooses more powerful and famous people to spy on, but through the first half of the story we are shown the history of Majipoor through the experiences of its basic citizens. This helps to set the tone for a kind of subdued utopian world, which while not free of conflict or strife seems to have largely eliminated murder, other forms of serious crime, war and major civil strife. It’s a world that has been going quietly about its business for thousands of years, and by setting the stories in the frame of the world’s very ordinary residents Silverberg has set this tone very nicely. These stories are also surprisingly free of any form of violence or militarism, though one story involves a murder and one story involves an attempt at genocide. But largely they depict a world at peace with itself, a future society that, though its environment is harsh, has largely moved beyond the problems that beset our own.

Majipoor itself is a fascinating world: vastly larger than Earth but much less dense, so with similar gravity, flora and fauna, it is recognizable as a classic sci-fi garden planet, though with noticeable differences: it has very few mineral resources and the distances people have to travel are huge, so it is actually quite poor, with many people living close to subsistence level. Furthermore even after thousands of years of settlement it remains mysterious, with huge areas unexplored and unsettled. One story of this potted history is set in the period when the planet first opened its arms to alien settlers, who were deemed necessary just to populate the world enough to make it socially functional. At the same time, even though the planet is vast and fertile, the human settlers come into continuing conflict with the indigenous people who lived there before them, and these indigenous people or the knowledge of what was done to them figure in the background to many of the stories. So in many ways Majipoor is an inter-galactic allegory for the settlement of America or Australia, with all their utopian promise, conflict with the original inhabitants, and opening up of frontiers and then of society to aliens. Also similar to the early histories of those settler nations, Majipoor seems to be cut off from its galactic neighbours, having little significant interchange with them and unable to rely on them for either industry or development. People and things come from the stars, and the cultural background is that of the sophisticated galactic travellers who originally settled Majipoor, as is much of its technology, but at the same time it seems to be separated from those peoples. Some of the technology is mysterious to the locals, or known only to a few, and it’s not clear that the locals are able to aspire to the technological skills of their forefathers. There is no sense of hi-tech or heavy industry in this strange world. Like early Australia, it is characterized very much as a rural utopia, full of freedom but lacking in wealth and too distant from its original society to be able to gain much practical value from its originating culture.

It’s interesting to see these themes in a sci-fi story, and to see the sensitivity and care with which some of them are explored. Particularly surprising was the importance of the indigenous peoples’ story to the narrative, because I can’t see any evidence that their history is itself relevant to the remainder of the series (though I could be wrong – I haven’t read them yet). Silverberg has written other work about indigenous people, and clearly has an interest in this topic, so perhaps he has deliberately created an allegory to the old American west, but it’s not heavy-handed and the depiction of post-genocide Majipooreans’ view of their history is probably too optimistic compared to the way Australians or Americans view those issues now – perhaps this is another aspect of the utopianism of the novel. In any case, this kind of topic is rare in the genre, and the moral ambiguity of Majipooreans’ views of the issue of indigenous dispossession very close to the way modern Australians (and I guess Americans) view their own history. It’s nice to see this approached so carefully in the genre.

This book is a nice combination of gentle cultural commentary, careful world building, classical SF-style speculative work, and mild utopianism. It’s also very well written, with a really accessible style and easy descriptions that leave you with a clear image of the setting you’re in without using burdensome prose. It’s also largely free of many of the tropes or language of the genre, which I see as a sign of superior writing style: if you can deliver a SF setting to a reader without using SF jargon, in a smooth and easy prose style, you’re doing well. One complaint I had about the story was the intermissions between chapters in which the low-level functionary describes his feelings about the memory he has just entered – they have too much of the tone of narrative authority, so that I felt the functionary’s perspective was being used to convey to us how Silverberg believes we should feel about the story we just experienced. Also, these intermissions have too much tell and not enough show. But they’re short – not even a page in many cases – and the tone changes as the book progresses. Another complaint I think other readers might have is that the stories are too disconnected, and there’s not enough common theme to warrant presenting them as a novel rather than a straight-out short story collection. In many ways it feels like you’re reading le Guin’s Orsinian Tales (a beautiful, beautiful book!) but that book is presented as short stories, whereas this seems to have been marketed as a novel, and the narrative continuity of the functionary’s role is surely intended to make it read this way, even though there is nothing else to connect the stories except the functionary’s curiosity. This didn’t bother me at all, but I’m sure it would frustrate many readers.

Overall, however, I found this an engaging, intriguing and really enjoyable book. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the kind of speculative social ideas that characterize the work of people like Ursula le Guin, Gene Wolfe or Samuel Delany (though it’s much more accessible than Delany). I don’t recommend it to people looking for hard SF, or SF full of conflict and combat. If you like unassuming social critique or practical utopia in your speculative SF, and you’re happy with SF/Fantasy mixed in, then this is definitely a good book for you.

The picture, incidentally, is by Jim Burns.

Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan is the first in a series of young adult steampunk novels, set in a very close parallel history of Edwardian Europe. They’re light-hearted, fast-paced and fun, and they have some nice new ideas for combining classic steam-tech with biotechnology. The basic setting is Austria and London on the eve of the first world war, with Europe locked into the exact same ludicrous stand-off as actually happened. The Austrian Empire – “clankers” in the common British parlance – bases its technology on steam power and heavy industry, while its main opponents, the British “Darwinists” have followed the old man’s lead into an industrial milieu based on bioengineering. Most of the action in the story revolves around two symbols of these two types of technology: an Austrian walker, very similar in essence to an ST Walker from Star Wars; and the British airship Leviathan, which is essentially a hydrogen blimp bioengineered from a massive whale. The technology on both sides is ludicrous and well beyond what one would imagine were possible in the time period, but it’s classic steam-based SF.

Each technological setting also comes with a character: the Austrian Alek, bastard teenage son of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who has to flee his home after the assassination of his family; and Deryn Sharp, a poor Scottish girl who has come to London with the crazy idea of disguising herself as a boy and entering the British Royal Air Force. Through a series of improbable accidents she finds herself onboard the Leviathan over Austria at the same time as Alek is fleeing across Europe, and so they end up meeting by chance. They then have to join forces to escape the Austrians chasing Alek, and thus the two of them are introduced into the scheming and plotting of European politics as the great powers plunge headlong into war. The first book ends at the point where we discover what they’ve become embroiled in; presumably we’ll explore more in later books.

This is a young adult novel, so it has some characteristics that I know many adult readers hate: hastily-sketched characters based on archetypes, simple and fast-flowing narrative style, sometimes awkward explanations of background and setting, and the frustrating phenomenon of children beating adults at their own game. But the fast-paced expositions and quick descriptions are a pleasant change from the bulky, unwieldy style of some modern SF and fantasy, and it’s nice to read a story with background nuance presented quickly and easily. The novel lacks the deep, thoughtful emotional engagement that characterizes the best young adult fiction (like, say, the works of Robert Westall or Maurice Gee) and it doesn’t have any of the coming-of-age intensity of much of the genre. I really like those aspects of good young adult fiction, and so in that sense this book is a little lightweight at times. But who cares? It’s fun, it has a cool giant floating whale armed with flechette bats (which have a cool name but are actually a bit of a stupid idea), and it has an alpine AT-AT chase between. What’s not to like? Also, I’m sensing strong hints of a dragon being involved somewhere in all this, and there’s definitely a kraken. The characters are a little shallow and stereotypical but engaging enough, and although both are a little super-human they are not insufferable prats such as one sometimes stumbles across in young adult fiction.

If you like steampunk and want to see such a setting leavened with carefully-imagined biotech, in a slightly later era than we usually associate with the genre, then this is a good book to pick up. It’s easy to read, fast-paced, and keeps the new ideas coming along at just the right pace to keep you interested. It also promises more depth – both emotional and political – in subsequent volumes. If you aren’t into young adult fiction, or like your stories slow-paced and thoughtful in the style of a classic fantasy trilogy, then you probably had best leave this one be. Overall, it’s a good effort and I’ll be persisting with the series.

Everything she can do, he can do better

I’ve started reading John Carter of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, in anticipation of what looks like a very fun movie, but I have to say that even though the story is interesting the writing is absolutely appalling. It’s classic Mary Sue, with a character who is just better than everyone else at everything and obviously already knows his way through the plot, as if he were in fact the writer of the story himself. It also uses the classic “tell, don’t show” error of teenage fanfiction. Reading it is a tedious exercise in admiration of a two-dimensional hero.

The basic story is simple: John Carter, ex-slave owner and “Southern Gentleman,” finds himself accidentally on Mars, where he is thrown into the middle of the ongoing conflict between two races who have been reduced to hard scrabble in a failing environment. Mars (or “Barsoom,” as the locals call it), used to be the home of a great race of human-like peoples, who slowly fell into decay as the environment of Mars failed. Another race appears to have decided to live communally on the land and, as commies are wont to do, degenerated into barbarism and cruelty. The descendants of the great race – red skinned humanoids – have great technology and are trying to save the planet, while the savages – weird buggish freaks – run around being cruel and nasty. John Carter lands amongst the savages, but immediately impresses them with his prowess at everything, and though a captive of these savages manages to get himself appointed a chieftain (through combat, of course) and is given wardenship of one of their prisoners, who of course is an extremely important member of the red-skinned people. He is also given a couple of women to look after him, and one of these just happens to be the only kind and thoughtful savage on Barsoom.

So, having accidentally disappeared from his own world, with its rich 19th century culture of slave-holding and subjugated women, where he is a much-admired and respected man, Carter finds himself on a completely alien world with different culture and language, but within a couple of seconds finds himself much-admired and respected, and lording it over a small collection of women – purely by dint of his talents, of course.

This could be a fun read, I suppose, like a kind of sexless version of Gor, but for the fact that John Carter is a tedious, insufferable braggart who is good at everything and never makes an error. And oh, how we are constantly reminded of his talents. For example:

To be held paralzyed … seems to me the last word in fearsome predicaments for a man who had ever been used to fighting for his life with all the energy of a powerful physique


I do not believe that I am made of the stuff which constitutes heroes, because, in all of the hundreds of instances that my voluntary acts have placed me face to face with death, I cannot recall a single one where any alternative step to that I took occurred to me until many hours later … I have never regretted that cowardice is not optional with me

and following this up:

Fear is a relative term … but I can say without shame that if the sensations I endured during the next few minutes were fear, then may God help the coward, for cowardice is of a surety its own punishment

In case you hadn’t noticed, John Carter is a robust fighter who never feels fear and acts automatically out of a sense of duty. These quotes are from the first few chapters but Burroughs isn’t tardy about letting us all know that John Carter is the best, y’all: his manifold perfections are outlined in a foreword. But just in case you thought Carter might just be the 19th century equivalent of a great sportsman, we are also reminded that he is a consummate warrior, and a genius to boot. In training with the savages weapons, we find:

I was not yet proficient with all the weapons, but my great familiarity with similar earthly weapons made me an unusually apt pupil, and I progressed in a very satisfactory manner

Oh! The modesty! Also, within a few days of joining the savages, John Carter has befriended his watchdog in a way that no martian has ever done before, and has taught the martians better ways of managing their own mounts, and mounted combat, so that they are both better able to manage their mounts and better able to fight en masse. This despite the fact that he is unfamiliar with martian gravity and doesn’t speak their language. Not that the latter bothers him much:

in a week I could make all my wants known and understand nearly everything that was said to me. Likewise, under Sola’s tutelage, I developed my telepathic powers so that I shortly could sense practically everything that went on around me.

This, incidentally, is the entirety of the coverage that the existence of telepathy gets in this work for the first 8 or so chapters. We’ve had more sentences devoted to the production of the milk Carter drinks than to the telepathy he learns. It’s not, however, the last time that Carter gets a chance to remind us that he is a genius:

I nearly drove Sola distracted by my importunities to hasten on my education and within a few more days I had mastered the Martian tongue sufficiently well to enable me to carry on a passable conversation and to fully understand practically all that I heard

Here is an example of a conversation he could understand “within a few more days”:

In our day we have progressed to a point where such sentiments mark weakness and atavism. It will not be well for you to permit Tars Tarkas that you hold such degenerate sentiments, as I doubt that he would care to entrust such as you with the grave responsibilities of maternity

So, one week to learn how to say “I need to take a leak,” another few more days to get to the point of understanding an overheard conversation about “atavism.” Also, telepathy in one sentence. And nowhere in this time period is there a hint, even a single hint, of homesickness, or any kind of emotional trauma at having teleported out of a cave in Arizona to a field on Mars. Do you feel small yet? Or are you, more likely, bored stiff with this character who can do everything and anything?

In addition to being a robust Southern Gentleman who can learn martian in a day, Carter also seems to have remarkable luck to take exactly the right path in any situation. He hears someone behind him, so instead of attacking, he jumps, which impressed his attackers rather than getting him killed; he gives his horse its head in the darkness, which is just as well because it leads him up just the right path to escape the Indians; he makes a guess about the best way to impress the natives and – lo! – it was the right guess. Within about a chapter of the start of the adventure it has been well-impressed upon the reader that, no matter what, Carter is not at risk of significant injury, failure or death. As the reader, you have nothing invested in the story at all – it’s not like Carter is going to ever have to overcome a failing or character flaw (he has none), there’s no sense in which his plight is the same as yours would be if you ended up on Mars, and there’s never a feeling that he will make a bad choice, even by accident.

This apathy is further entrenched by the narrative flow, in which Burroughs tells us everything we need to know about the society, environment and structure of Mars long before Carter himself finds out the details. Rather than discovering the mysteries of Mars in the flow of the adventure, we’re told everything about a setting, person, circumstance or technology as soon as we encounter it. The phrase “As I later learned,” or “as I was to discover,” appears constantly in the text – maybe a couple of times every chapter, and always expounds on things we could quite happily find out ourselves with a bit of time. Thus, we only know we are somewhere mysterious because we are told we are on Mars: from the very moment of his arrival there, Carter’s narrative breaks the mystery of the planet with constant references to things that neither he nor the reader know. We even get a lesson in Martian demographics in the second chapter of his encounter with the savages, something that really could have waited to be revealed to us later in a conversation with someone.

This kind of adventure writing is so tedious as to be almost unbearable. The plot itself is interesting – I want to find out about Mars and the society Burroughs has created, and I want to see where the story goes. It’s a really good idea that, in the hands of a decent writer, would make a really cool story. I’m guessing, then, that the movie is going to be good. But the book – thoroughly forgettable so far. It reminds me of John Wyndham’s pompous academic Mary Sues, who always take a young woman under their wing and teach her the harsh realities of the world, while she constantly thanks them in breathless wonder at their wisdom; or the later books of Dune, after whats-his-face becomes a god and surmounts every challenge by simply being himself. No challenge, no threat, no sympathy with a human character, no need for character development and no sense that the character will ever grow as a person through adversity. Of course, this may change later, but at the moment it’s looking like the writing is going to be drier than the surface of Mars.

So, unless you’re feeling really patient, I can’t recommend John Carter of Mars. Is the rest of Burroughs’s work this badly written?


I read this in response to a request from its author, James Hutchings. The book is self-published, I think, and can be obtained through Amazon or from James’s blog, Teleli, where the second post down explains the giveaway. I’m a nice chap, so I bought it at Amazon.

The New Death and Others is a collection of short stories, many of which are set in the city of Telleli or perhaps in its associated world. The world of Telleli is a slightly bizarre or carnivalesque version of a swords and sorcery setting, like a kind of irreverent Lankhmar, and the gods feature prominently in Telleli life. Many of the short stories in this book feature those gods, or humans or other beings of Telleli attempting to communicate with or challenge those gods. The gods are clearly capricious and not entirely intelligent, and not particularly interested in the affairs of humans – they seem to be caught up often in their own silly little dramas, and the consequences of these dramas for humans do not really get much consideration. There are also a few stories in other fantasy or near-fantasy settings, and at times the stories cross from fantasy into a vaguely fantasy-realism kind of setting. The stories are often irreverent about both the fantasy genre and the gods they describe, and a few of them are straight-out comedy, with humorous footnotes and a punchline. Examples of the kinds of stories in the book are:

  • How the Isle of Cats Got Its Name: A story about a sorceress in the town of Telelee who has learnt all the magic known to humans, and begins to seek out the secret knowledge of the gods. This puts her into a collision course with the cats of Telelee, and the results are unexpected for both sorceress and reader alike. This is a well-constructed short story, combining two stories (the sorceress and the cats) in a very concise and tightly-worked structure. Weaving the plot and characters from two separate storylines into a single arc, with a twist, in the space of a couple of pages is no mean feat; making the story work and evoking a sense of the town that the tale is set in, the mythology of its world, and the particular character of both the cats and the sorceress deserves, in my opinion, a fair bit of respect. This is a nicely done story
  • The Face in the Hill: This is an extremely short story about a politician seeking answers to a significant quandary his society is facing, and manages to fit a neat moral message into a very small space, delivering a powerful ending and a nice description of the key conflicts facing the society in question all within the context of the politician’s journey to consult a particular oracle. In this same five pages we also find out the ultimate results of his decision. It’s a well-balanced and entertaining tale, though perhaps a little heavy-handed.
  • Everlasting Fire: one of the directly comedic stories, this story tells the tale of a demon named Lily, working in hell, and her tragic love affair with one of her underlings. It includes several bad puns, footnotes that add to the self-referential humour, and a lot of cute jokes about hell. It’s also stuffed full of management speech and bullshit bingo, so successfully conjures the image of hell as just another workplace. The ending of the love affair is a little bit 1984, and the asides describing hell are just exactly what it would be like in a really cheap christian morality play (the sort that we all poke fun at, but that has never really been written). This kind of humour isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but it’s well done and funny.

A lot of the short stories in this collection are good examples of the craft of short story writing: pithy, quick to establish characterization and setting without falling back on cheap stereotypes, and often delivering an unexpected ending that keeps you guessing and engaged right through the book. If I have any complaint about them, it’s a complaint common to Australian art: the continuous irreverence and refusal to take the work seriously can, in my opinion, undermine fantasy and sci-fi settings, and I wish Australians would do it less. It’s like Australians are scared to just sit down and write a serious genre novel, or create a serious genre film; this is why Buffy or Star Wars would never be made in Australia.  But on the flipside, this kind of irreverence is refreshing if you don’t read too much of it, and I don’t, so I can’t complain specifically about this book. It’s a general gripe about the production of culture in Australia. My main gripe about this book is that it contained quite a bit of poetry and most of it I didn’t like (If My Life Was Filmed and untitled I really liked). I skipped most of the other poems after a couple of verses. But I don’t know if that’s a commentary on the quality of the poetry or on me – I’m pretty tough on poetry generally, and even tougher on theatre (which is, in general, shit).

One other minor complaint I had about this book is that in many of the stories I got the sense that the author was constructing a certain atmosphere and level of irreverence, but sometimes let down the story by overdoing the irreverence or overdoing the setting. This is a hard line to tread in writing semi-humourous or irreverent genre stuff: you need to be sure that your jokes don’t cross a certain poorly defined line, and you also need to make sure that your setting has the right level of seriousness and authenticity to match the tone of the tale. I found that occasionally Hutchings would fall afoul of these traps, and a joke would be out of place or the setting would suddenly become too heavy. I guess that this is a common problem for a new writer, and given the difficulty of maintaining tone and style in an endeavour like this I can’t really fault him.

Overall, I think this work is an excellent first book, a fine contribution to a small field of irreverent-but-serious genre writing, and a collection of tightly-constructed and entertaining short stories. For $0.99 it’s a bargain! In fact, my main question is how work like this can be not picked up by a serious publisher, while the book I read afterwards (review to come) was. But there’s no point in dwelling on injustices: buy the book and give James Hutchings less than his just reward for the work.

Postmodernism and Panties

After a work- and laziness-induced hiatus, I’ve returned to reading this series, about the detective/university student, Yakumo, and his friend Haruka. Yakumo can see ghosts, and works as a private detective in the ghost world; Haruka (pictured, in a rage) is his friend, and a university student as well, who becomes embroiled in his cases after initially inviting his help with a friend. At the end of Part 2, the pair – along with a rough and bullying private investigator called Gotoh – thought they had cracked the case of a child murderer, who had died in a car crash but managed to take possession of a by-stander in the moments before his death.

In this episode, we meet Yakumo’s uncle, a Buddhist priest, who helps them to deceive the ghost of the child murderer and trick it into possessing the body of a rat, thus freeing the girl it had possessed and dooming it to a life of cheese and over-sized testicles. Unfortunately, they were wrong about the culprit for the murders – a fourth victim is discovered just hours after they consign the supposed murderer to a life of medical experiments. There must have been two murderers, and they have only caught one. So, they are back on the hunt for the murderer and, as might be expected, through the development of sympathy with a related character and the decision to act kindly towards someone else, Haruka becomes the potential fifth victim. Yakumo, Goto and Goto’s long-suffering side-kick Ishii arrive just in time to save her from a horrible death, and the identity of the real criminal, as well as his twisted motives, are revealed. As seems to be typical of many putatively evil people in manga, we come to understand and sympathize with his motives, and someone is able to forgive him (though he still goes to prison, which is going to mean the death penalty).

This episode is reasonably light on investigative stuff and is primarily focussed on revealing more about our heroes. Haruka is forced to confront the ghosts of her past (having literally done so in the previous episode), and has a long and difficult conversation with her mother about her feelings of guilt over the death of her sister. This is quite a sweetly done conversation, and in fact much of this episode seems to be about deepening our understanding and appreciation of Haruka. Haruka is a very kind, very considerate and genuinely nice person but she’s also very feisty, open-minded, and quite tough when it comes to expressing her feelings or acting on something she thinks is right. This combination of traits seems to be very dangerous when you’re part of Yakumo’s world. In fact, I would go so far as to say that although this series is titled Psychic Detective Yakumo, the central character is really Haruka and it should be renamed Haruka’s Adventures with Ghosts and a Cold-hearted Bastard (would that be 冷たいあいつと幽霊を出会う春香の冒険?), because although we are learning to understand his history and motives, Yakumo really isn’t very nice to Haruka. He teases her and is always cold and rough.

By contrast with Haruka’s story, in this episode we mainly find out functional details about Yakumo, and particularly we discover that he has some kind of nemesis who has the same powers as him and was involved in setting the murderer onto Haruka. They have some historical connection, and he’s obviously going to be the chief enemy of future episodes because in the final scene, when Haruka is enjoying the cherry blossoms with Yakumo, they are given a note by a child that simply says “See you again soon.” This is an ominous sign for their future: cherry blossoms are a sign of the passing of things, and if they get this note while they’re walking through falling cherry blossoms then it probably means the end of their happy life so far (if being coolly treated by someone you clearly have a crush on and nearly murdered twice counts as a “happy life,” but Haruka doesn’t seem to be complaining). The fourth episode looms …

A brief aside concerning panties, and styles of representation

In the above frame, Haruka has just finished her conversation with her mother, and her mother asks her “Haruka, your readers could see your panties, you know …” And in fact we could. For the first time in 3 episodes, and only at this moment when Haruka is opening up to her mother about her feelings of guilt, we get several quite direct views of Haruka’s panties. This is interesting because there are lots of other times – going up railway station stairs, sitting on chairs, exploring mysterious houses – where we could have been accidentally exposed to this most hideous of sights; and of course the writer has complete control of the field of view, and Haruka isn’t exactly excessive in her use of leg-covering material, so we could regularly witness this sight, but we never have up until now. It could be fan service, but I don’t think so. I think that it is intended to emphasize her emotional vulnerability in this conversation – unlike when she is being beaten, drowned, tied up and about to die, at which points we never see her undies. So I’m wondering if actually the “panty-shot” so maligned by western critics of anime is actually a representational ploy to show someone’s naivete, childlike position, or vulnerability. I’ll be exploring this and other aspects of representational styles in manga in a future post.


This episode of Psychic Detective Yakumo gave us a complex and challenging crime, some more details of the workings of the ghostworld and its interactions with the human, and a deeper insight into Haruka, who is developing as a stand-out character. It has also set us up for a plot involving some dark nemesis, which promises to be a lot of fun but threatens to turn silly. The story is a page-turner and the characters, though still a little stereotypical – especially Gotoh san – and with sometimes somewhat too archetypical relationships (Haruka and Yakumo’s friendship/unrecognized love affair is as old as Japanese drama, I think), are sympathetic and generally enjoyable to read about. I’ve got another book to attend to now, but I’ll be getting back to number four soon. The series is certainly popular here, and is definitely good enough to hold one’s interest. Stay tuned for more adventures in ghost-detection, manga-style.

This is a novel about a magician-policeman set in modern London. The policeman, Peter Grant, is drafted from the normal police service to work for a special investigations department that consists of a single policeman, Inspector Nightingale, and takes on all the investigations into things that no one else believes are real. In order to work in this department, Grant must also become the apprentice to Inspector Nightingale, and thus also begins learning the rudiments of “modern” magic – that is, magic as systematized by Sir Isaac Newton back in the day.

In essence, then, this is a kind of Harry Dresden story, but set in London rather than Chicago, and featuring a policeman rather than a private investigator. It’s the first, apparently, of a series. I hope no one from Chicago will be displeased with or misinterpret me when I say that London is a much more romantic and interesting setting for a novel of this kind than Chicago, and this is not the first novel to use London’s historical complexity and its modern multicultural mish-mash as a setting for the bizarre or the unusual: Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Mieville’s UnLunDun are two other good examples of stories in this field, and both draw heavily on London’s peculiar synthesis of the historical and the modern to lend their tale an additional edge of romance that more uniformly modern cities cannot get. It’s particularly well-suited to a magical policeman story because, well, because London is a city full of crime and trouble. It has a violent and depressing history, and a violent and depressing present, which makes it a bad place to live but a very good place to set a fantastic story of this kind – especially since in novels all the little irritations of London life can be ignored, and the picture can be painted using the broad brushstrokes of history, crime, modernity and multiculturalism.

Which is what we get in this book. Something is up in London, and Grant has to investigate a spate of murders connected to it. The something-that-is-up is connected to a violent grudge that has passed down through history, and is being played out in the very modern setting of post-2007 Covent Garden. There is also a conflict between the different rivers of London – whose spirits are personified in some amusing human forms, and appear to have come to an “arrangement” with the various departments and authorities of the British government. Grant is investigating all this while also studying magic as a new apprentice, trying to get laid, and trying to enjoy his new life as a freshly-graduated police constable. Much of the context of the story is very ordinary and very real – he goes to pubs I’ve walked past, in streets I’ve frequented, and talks of real very recent events that we’re all familiar with. The author also appears to be familiar with police culture and language, and we get a lot of very British policing attitudes coming through. Also interestingly for a novel from London, the author is very aware of London’s overcrowded and multiracial culture, and this is very smoothly worked through the story so that, for those of us who have lived in London, it really does feel like the London we know rather than the sanitized all-cockney-all-the-time London that, say, the Imperial War Museum likes to present. The lead character is himself mixed-race, his mother West African and his father British, and grew up on a council estate in Peckham. Witness reports are particularly amusing because they present us with such a classic hodge-podge of London life as it is now. There’s a classic report of two hare krishnas beating up their troop leader: one is a New Zealander and the other is from Hemel Hampstead. It’s so mundane, and so spot on in its mundanity, and I think this mundane realism serves to ground the magic and mystery of the story very well, so that you really can believe that someone like Peter Grant can learn to use magic and see ghosts and work for the Metropolitan Police Force.

The book also shares with the Dresden Files a well-constructed (so far) theory of and structure for the magic Grant uses. It’s very different to Dresden, and a nice attempt to imagine how magic might feel when you work it – he talks of forms, that you can feel in your mind and have to learn to understand like music. There’s also the first exposition that I’ve ever heard of why magic might need to use language to be cast, and why it must be latin at that. On top of that, the book also attempts to explain magic’s bad effect on modern technology, and Grant of course begins experimenting on this issue as soon as he discovers it, so that not only can we generate a working theory of why the problem happens but he can use it as an investigative tool, and find ways to safeguard his stuff. This is how I imagine a modern wizard would work, and it’s very well done in the story. His depiction of ghosts in modern terms, and his attempts to understand all of magic in terms of the language of computers and science that he grew up with, is also very interesting and I think a quite new take on the genre.

The book is well written and overall the flow of the story is good, though I thought Grant’s first case was a trifle too complex near the end and I’m not sure I understood the relationship between the rivers of London and the case Grant was working on – maybe that will come later. The characters are good and believable and the setting very powerfully like the London I know, but the author has weaved into it all the powerful romance of the city we see in the history books, so that while you always feel like you’re in modern London you don’t forget that this is a London built on layers of history and rich with magic and power. I think in this use of setting the book is definitely superior to a Dresden novel (and, on balance, better written too), and gives a richer and more nuanced vision of a modern magician than Dresden does.

Other comparisons to the Dresden Files also fascinated me while reading this book. The Rivers of London is to the Dresden Files like Coronation Street is to Beverly Hills 90210. In the Dresden Files, the creatures of faerie are always supernaturally beautiful and amazing, and they and the bad guys live in enormous wealthy villas. Dresden gets his girl and is constantly being offered sex by crazed sex goddess super girls, and when he gets a dog it’s a great big supernatural hound of a thing that is more dangerous than most monsters. Finally, of course, there is a lot of heavy weaponry. In The Rives of London, the spirits live in quite mundane buildings – one of the spirits of the river is a traveller – and the characters’ homes are nothing special. Grant doesn’t get his girl and is either warned off the spirit girls, or gets an erection around them while they completely ignore him. He also inherits a dog as a by-blow of a crime scene, but it’s a stupid little ordinary lap dog that doesn’t have any special powers and is a bit overweight and not very helpful. And the only gun that appears in the story is fired once and then disappears, no one can find it and its appearance is frankly shocking because people in London – even criminals – just don’t use guns. I’ve no doubt that things will get more upmarket as the books go on, but it’s an interesting contrast between the artistic styles of the two countries: just like in soaps and dramas, this story conveys that sense of humility and shame-faced shuffling it’s-not-quite-good-enough-is-it?, frayed-carpet and slightly daggy cardigan atmosphere that the British are willing to put into presentations of their own culture. In short, it lacks the brashness of a similar American story. Usually I’m inclined to prefer the brash and the beautiful in American stories to the grotty and mundane in British ones, but in this case I think I like the ordinariness that bleeds out of the pages of this book. I think it helps me to understand Grant as a newly-minted wizard cop better than I understood Harry Dresden.

This is an excellent story, overall, and if this series improves as it goes along (which most series like this do, I think) then it’s well worth getting into. I heartily recommend this tale!

Not Marion Zimmer Bradley

The Warlord Chronicles are a low fantasy Arthurian reinterpretation by Bernard Cornwell, author of the famous Sharpe series. They’re also an attempt at a historical novel, setting the Arthurian legend in a gritty, realistic depiction of Britain during the 5th century AD and based on the few historical accounts of the time that mention Arthur and/or the wars he may have been involved in. This is an excellent and challenging project, because Britain in 500AD was a nasty, poor place that doesn’t much resemble the settings of high fantasy at all, and of course it’s difficult to write an Arthurian story with a solid historical base and also incorporate the fantasy elements of swords in stones, druidic magic and ladies in the lake. Cornwell treads a nice line here, and negotiates a lot of complex story elements very well.

The story is narrated by the orphan Derfel, raised by Merlin and uniquely blessed because he survived a druid’s death pit when he was a child. Derfel goes from strength to strength over the three books and becomes a friend, ally and confidante of Arthur, who in this story is Uther Pendragon’s spurned bastard son. Derfel is writing the story from the vantage point of old age, and is simultaneously sad, cynical and romantic. He describes an epic set against three major political conflicts, and driven by the personal conflict Arthur suffers for his whole life. The political conflicts are the war with the Saxons, who are arriving in boats on the eastern shores of England at a high rate, and every year attempt to capture land from the British; the conflict between the British kings over petty issues of land, wealth and old grudges; and the conflict between pagans and Christians within England. The latter two conflicts are undermining the former, until Arthur takes charge and tries to unite all of Britain against the saxons. Unfortunately Arthur himself is riven with conflict: he wants peace, but he values oaths over personal ambition and will not betray the oath he made to Uther Pendragon to respect Uther’s son Mordred as king of all Britain. The conflict between Arthur’s different oaths, his own unwillingness to take the throne, and his personal demons is best described by Guinevere: she characterizes Arthur as a wagon led by the twin horses of ambition and conscience, and they won’t pull together. Thus the whole tragedy of Arthurian Britain is the story of Arthur’s attempts to navigate these three political conflicts while struggling with his own personal problems. In this sense it can seem like a classic exposition of the “great man” theory of history, but on another level it’s easy to see that almost none of Arthur’s decisions, ultimately, make much difference : he’s constantly negotiating the minefield of his allies’ and followers’ personal ambitions, their foolish mistakes and cunning schemes, and a variety of external disasters. This makes for a very rich and complex historical drama.

The problem of druidic magic and the conflict between druids and christians is also handled very nicely in the story. We repeatedly see situations where Merlin or his acolyte Nimue use magic, and we’re expected to believe it’s real and its effects are genuine; but at the same time it’s also clear that Merlin is a famous trickster, and many of the effects of magic either depend on the imagination of the targets, or could have occurred by luck. Merlin and Nimue’s greatest enchantments can easily be explained away through natural phenomena, but from the perspective of a 5th century warrior they are clearly powerful magic. This is a very cool trick, and Cornwell carries it off well through the central imaginative achievement of his book: he really gets you to believe that you reading about 5th century warriors. With the possible exception of Arthur and Derfel (see below), you really do feel like the characters you’re reading are superstitious, ignorant pagans, and their belief system and ideals, though radically different from ours, so you really get a strong impression of reading about a different world. This is a hard thing to achieve, since it means that at times Cornwell must have had to ruthlessly stamp out his own conscience and desire to feel sympathy with his characters, because from a modern perspective the people of 5th century Britain are a generally repulsive lot, and the world they have created is harsh and cruel. In making us believe this world, Cornwell had to be hard on his characters, but the result is a cultural milieu that is believably pagan, barbaric and superstitious, so that when Nimue enchants a badgers head and points it at her enemies you can really believe that it affects them, even if the magic is not real.

But this construction of an alternative world is also perhaps the biggest flaw of the book, for two reasons: the world itself is unpalatable, and I don’t believe Cornwell was able to extend it to include the narrator and the key character. I have complained elsewhere about the rape and violence in these “gritty,” “realistic” worlds and Cornwell’s world has this in spades. Essentially the practice of war is as follows: when you win a battle you kill all your enemy’s soldiers, then when you capture their families you rape all the women and anyone you don’t want to enslave you immediately kill. Before battle you must ritually insult and provoke your enemies, and a routine part of this process is a series of inventive promises about what you’re going to do to your enemies’ women. Throughout the story this process is repeated, and the threat of what will happen is constantly being raised in strategic discussion. Cornwell doesn’t handle this in some kind of salacious or erotic way: it’s a background fact of war, handled in planning (families are sent away, and battle tactics are designed to preserve them), accepted by all and sundry as a terrible thing but seen as the right of victors, always avenged when the chance presents itself, and not really sexualized at all. Also, as far as I could tell rape is not seen as a man’s right with strangers in peacetime, and there was no time when the threat of rape entered the story outside of battle, except in the issue of arranged marriages (there are many jokes, often cynical, about the fate of young women engaged to older men; but again it is seen as a sad fact of life and not eroticized). The overall effect of this is to build a very believable image of a world with completely different morals to our own, and it’s also clear that there are strong environmental pressures forcing some of this brutality: like lions, these primitive peoples don’t have the security of food supply that enables them to show mercy to the vanquished, and they have to murder their enemies if they want to guarantee that they can feed themselves. But regardless of realism and believability, it’s not nice, and for those of us who like to read stories for escapism and fun, reading a book that’s full of the constant threat of rape in war may not be your idea of a good way to spend a few hours of your downtime.

The other problem with this process is that, like most writers, Cornwell can’t extend this barbarity to his two main characters. In fact Arthur is very much a man out of time and place: he doesn’t believe in the gods, he sees all religious dispute as wasted energy, and he just wants peace. He is a renaissance man in the dark ages, and although this is as good an impetus as any for him to rise above the petty chieftains who surround him, it’s also kind of unbelievable. The same applies to Derfel: Arthur and Derfel are probably the only men in all of Britain who never raped a vanquished enemy’s wife and kids, and never cheated on their partners. Isn’t that convenient? After all, if they behaved like some of the men around them we probably wouldn’t want them to succeed, and wouldn’t be able to understand why they risked what they risked. I’m happy with this from a narrative perspective, but from the point of view of realism it’s a bit of a cop out. When, oh when, will someone tackle a realistic depiction of Arthur himself, in which he behaves worse than all his petty chieftains precisely because he’s an egomaniacal tyrant who united Britain only because he wanted to rule as many people as possible? When hell freezes over, I guess is the answer to that rhetorical question: no one would want to read about such an objectionable and unpleasant chap. When I think about things in this light I then start thinking that, well, if you could exempt our main characters from brutality, maybe you could have sanitized the rest of the world without losing anything…? In this case the world is so well constructed, and the brutality and bigotry and the hard-scrabble poverty serves so well to establish the backdrop to the superstition and the political chicaneries of the novel, that I am happy to read it and glad that Cornwell had the decency to elevate the narrator and Arthur above it – I consider it to be careful crafting. But the same process in the hands of a lesser author would lead to a novel that was simultaneously horrible to read, with completely unbelievable and fantastic lead characters. Well done Bernard Cornwell.

Another excellent aspect of Cornwell’s creation of this brutal and backward world is that, although he makes it clear that women are subjugated in this world, he doesn’t write them as second rate characters and he doesn’t rest on simple gendered caricatures when assigning women roles in his story. He even rescues Guinevere from the petty “yoko ono broke up the band” type of sexist depiction that is so tempting in this type of story, by grounding her reasons for her behavior in the sexism of her time. Sure, she’s the devious snake behind the throne, but we’re given to understand why she did this in the context of the choices available to a woman of her time, and to understand that actually her devious snake-iness would have worked for Britain if Arthur had not been so stupidly obsessed with his “man’s oath” to Uther. This sort of complex characterization enables us to enter a world of violence and misogyny and on the one hand to view the actions and choices of the people of the time from a modern perspective, without condoning them or interfering in the tapestry of the story; and on the other hand, to retain the classic elements of the story without investing them with their classic sexist theme. In his depiction of Guinevere, Nimue, Morgan, Ceinwyn and even Igraine (a bit part at best) we see women set firmly within the social confines of their time and place, but portrayed for the reader in a way that enables us to understand them through our modern sensitivities; the fabric of the story is not disrupted, but we’re able to interpret it with respect to our own morals as well as those of the time. This in my view is some very, very fine story crafting and saves the books from being a two dimensional neckbeard’s imagination of how  great it would be if all women were subjugated.

I have two other minor quibbles about this book. Sometimes Cornwell’s writing is a little clumsy, particularly his description of things and places, which can follow this kind of pattern: “he went to the [insert place], which was a [insert description] over the [insert second place] that swept down towards the [geographical feature] where [description of animals doing something] by the tower that was white.” A little pause in there somewhere would be nice! But in other parts of the novel (especially battles and conversations) the writing is really good, so it’s fine. My second quibble is an epidemiologist’s pedantry: Cornwell repeatedly falls for the fallacy of believing that a life expectancy in the ’40s means that people aged over 40 are rare, i.e. he confuses life expectancy and life span. A low life expectancy is usually driven by high infant mortality, and anyone who survives past their 5th birthday can be fairly confident of reaching their 60th, so people over 40 are not uncommon. But to his credit, Cornwell makes a point of mentioning infant and maternal mortality and working it into the background of the world, so that we fully understand how harsh the world is for women both environmentally and socially. Truly, when you enter his world you are submerged in it, and it is developed to such a fine level of detail that you really do understand the pressures and challenges of the 5th century setting.

Overall this series of books is very impressive: well written, beautifully crafted, tense, exciting and action packed, and accessible at multiple levels of interpretation. A must read for anyone who’s into low fantasy, Arthurian legend, or gritty fantasy, and an excellent introduction to Cornwell – I certainly aim to read a lot more of his work.

This book offers a masterclass in “gritty,” “dark” fantasy to its more modern proponents. Written in the ’80s by Glen Cook, the blurb claims that it “changed the face of modern fantasy,” but I had never heard of it. Nonetheless, I am tempted to support the claim. It is a work of dark fantasy that- unlike the over-inflated claims of some of the sub-genre’s more modern authors – genuinely does play with the standard ideas of the fantasy genre, and in my opinion presents a much more nuanced version of a fantasy world based on “realism.”

The chronicles are a trilogy of books about the eponymous thousand-year-old mercenary company, famous across the majority of the known world for it’s fighting prowess, brutality and amorality. The company has been in a long period of decline but is still much sought-after and much feared, but at the start of the tale finds itself facing a terminal situation. The company exits its contract through treachery, a very rare event in it’s history, and enters the employ of an undead wizard called Soulcatcher, who is one of a mysterious and evil group called The Ten who were Taken. These ten had been buried under the earth along with their leader, the Lady, for a thousand years until some fool freed them, and have taken over a Northern empire, where they are fighting a bitter civil war against a group of wizards who want the Taken reburied. It is into this war that the Company is thrown, on the side of the Taken, and we follow their actions in the war through the writing of their physician, Croaker, who shares his medical duties with the role of Annalist, recording the history of the Company.

This means that we are reading a story about an amoral mercenary in the employ of the great evil force that fantasy heroes usually find themselves destined to destroy. It’s certainly fine material for gritty fantasy and offers a lot of opportunities for an undisciplined author to indulge their vicious and misogynist fantasies, like a fantasy-trilogy Quentin Tarantino[1]. But to his credit Cook rises above this cheap schlock, and offers us instead a nuanced attempt to understand the morality of ordinary soldiers on the wrong side of a moral divide. He also avoids the trap modern writers seem to have fallen into, of letting their own sexist fantasies run riot against the backdrop of a world rife with gender inequality, or failing to consider how gender roles might change in a world where magic is real. This world is also not static, so we see magic developed as a technique of war over the decade or so in which the novels are set. The Company itself has three wizards, none of them particularly powerful or clever, and uses them cunningly in ways that make them far more valuable than their raw power would imply. The book has some resonances with recent opinions I have posted here about both post-scarcity fantasy and misogyny in modern fantasy, and I will try and write some separate posts on both these topics.

The novels are well-written and easy to read, with neither the overblown prose and melodrama of high fantasy nor the swearing and gutter language of modern “dark” fantasy. The first book, especially, also manages to eschew casual contemporary speech without becoming stilted, though the last two become a little more casual and at times too modern for my tastes. The settings are majestic and fantastic but still within the bounds of classic settings (except the plains of the last book) and the battles range from minor skirmishes to a monumental siege in which a quarter of a million people die. The later stages of the story are over-shadowed by the possible return of the Lady’s husband and supposed master, the Dominator, and the dual threat of his return and her ascendancy sees our heroes making much more complex moral choices than we are used to seeing in fantasy.

The characters are also well-developed and subtle, and even the nasty ones get a sympathetic description. We see subtle insights into the reasons why they have chosen the crooked path, and ultimately the evil characters are not so easy to judge, nor the good characters so easy to acclaim.

For this reason I can recommend this book to both readers of fantasy in general, and admirers of “realism” in fantasy. For those who think that the George Martins of the world have rewritten the genre or – worse still – shown fantasy worlds as they really would be, I recommend revising your judgments in light of this book. I think some people may claim it started this particular sub-genre, though I am not sure about this claim, but certainly it offers those authors a lesson in how to depict the complexities of realism in fantasy, and how to rewrite the conventions of high fantasy without being obnoxious. It’s also an excellent story, that is a lot of fun to read.

fn1: shudder