Friday, April 20, 2018

Short Book Reviews: Two Delights from Kevin Hearne

In which I review two quite different pieces by versatile author Kevin Hearne

The Squirrel on the Train, by Kevin Hearne (Subterranean Press)

My introduction to Kevin Hearne’s work was Iron Druid, so I was delighted to discover that the dogs belonging to Druid Atticus O’Sullivan, or perhaps the other way around, he belonging to them, have their own adventures. This one begins with a train trip to Portland, during which the dogs are terribly upset because there is a squirrel (die, evil squirrel!) on top of the train. Atticus explains that the wind shear will cause the squirrel to jump off and when they arrive, squirrel in place, of course the dogs conclude that all natural order, including the laws of physics, will now be overturned. Their fears are confirmed when an Atticus look-alike is murdered, and so the chase is afoot. A-four paws, that is.

This utterly charming novella showcases Hearne’s skill at whimsical humor and his versatility as an author.

A Plague of Giants, by Kevin Hearne (Del Rey, 2017).

At some time in the past of this fantasy world, the balance of trade and power has been overturned through not one but two invasions of oversized warriors; one race being known to the others, quasi-Viking fire-wielders driven from their lands by a volcanic eruption. The second, strangers from over the sea, are mysterious and even more lethal. How these upheavals came about and were responded to is related in the present time through a bardic storyteller who assumes the likeness of various participants along the time line. In the present, we know that the giants have been defeated at a terrible cost, yet wounds remain unhealed and intrigues abound, threatening chaos.

This is a long, slowly-paced book that incorporates the stories of a large cast of characters from different cultures, much of it channeled through the central storyteller, with past and present timelines looping back on themselves. The world-building is amazing in itself, rich and complex, with each culture possessing its own form of magical gift (“kenning”) acquired through near-lethal trials. The individual stories are marvelous, the characters clearly distinct. My favorite is Abhinava Khose, born into a clan of plains hunters and unable to tell his family that not only does he never want to kill animals, but he is gay. He’s sensitive, compassionate, a natural leader, and unexpectedly courageous. The inner conflicts reflect and intensify the outer drama in his tale.

Read at a leisurely pace to savor the adventures of each person, the book is a delight. It’s not a tale to skim for “what happens next.” The ending is already established. However, that slowness, when combined with the length and complexity of the timelines, means it’s easy to get lost in the story of the moment and forget the multitude of details that have come before, to keep track of the cast of thousands and the sheer number of place names, group names, and so forth. In the ebook version I read, there are no maps or helpful lists, but there are series of charming portraits of important characters. Add to this the revelation that A Plague of Giants is only the first in a series means either loving the world so much you never want to leave it, or not experiencing the satisfaction of a complete story arc.

Kevin Hearne is an immensely capable author. A Plague of Giants and its subsequent volumes represents a highly ambitious project that I have no doubt he will carry on in a brilliant fashion. Besides the difficulties presented by the length and complexity of the book, I would have liked to spend more consecutive time with my favorite characters, each of whom surely deserves an entire book of his or her own.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Crossroads of Darkover Author Interview: Pat MacEwen

Coming in May, an all-new Darkover anthology featuring tales of decisions, turning points, love lost and found, all in the beloved world of the Bloody Sun. Stories by Jenna Rhodes, Pat MacEwen, Gabrielle Harbowy, Evey Brett, Rosemary and India Edghill, Diana L. Paxson, and more!  Order yours today at: iBookKindleKoboNookTable of Contents is here.

Deborah J. Ross: Tell us about your introduction to Darkover.
Pat MacEwen: My introduction to science fiction happened in the back of a station wagon on a cross-country road trip when I was 13. An older cousin took pity on me, and gave me a box full of paperbacks to help me pass the time. That’s where I met up with Asimov, Doc Smith, Poul Anderson, Heinlein and more. Once home again, I began to explore the genre, and was delighted to encounter female authors as well, and books with strong female characters and story lines.

DJR: What about the world drew you in?
PE: Darkover was a rarity then – a complicated world with a long history where women mattered quite as much as men, and which often explored nonbinary questions of sex and gender and family and inheritance, and of course laran. Like most writers, I was something of a misfit in high school, but here was a place where I could see myself fitting in, one way or another. I’m also strongly attracted to moral questions in story-telling and tales of Darkover often focus on intricate problems concerning what’s right and wrong in this setting, compared to Terran mores.

DJR: What do you see as the future of Darkover? How has its readership changed over the decades? What book would you recommend for someone new to Darkover?

PE: When I look at the various maps of Darkover, I have to wonder how so many different species of sapient and semi-sapient species developed within what is really very limited space. Then I think about laran, and the ancient strengths of the chieri, and wonder if it was always that way. Whether it will stay that way. Between Terran geoengineering and long-lost arts in controlling laran, what if there are sunken continents or ice-covered regions that were once inhabited and might be rediscovered? What secrets might be hidden by water and ice? Where did the Catmen and the Ya-men really come from? Are the chieri all done with their genetic engineering projects? Are they quietly reshaping humans? Toward what ends? What about those four moons? Are they really moons? All of them? Are there more chieri elsewhere?

As for an introduction to Darkover, my personal favorites are The Shattered Chain and Thendara House, but there’s a lot to be said for Stormqueen too, and Heritage of Hastur, The Alton Gift, and Sharra’s Exile.

DJR: What inspired your story in Crossroads of Darkover? How did you balance writing in someone else’s world and being true to your own creative imagination?

PR: I have a background in forensics and physical anthropology, having worked as a CSI for a California police department, and for the International Criminal Tribunal during war crimes investigations in the Balkans. I do independent research on genocide, and one of the aspects I’ve studied is the occurrence of certain crimes and atrocities during genocidal campaigns that are not expressly forbidden by law. They are acts almost never encountered in the course of “normal” warfare, no matter how savage. They are not committed by ordinary criminals, or even by serial killers. In many cases, they are so rare that no one keeps statistics on their occurrence, making research on the topic rather difficult. We don’t bother to even keep track of these acts because we don’t make laws against the things people simply don’t do. But on Darkover, thanks to laran and certain environmental cues, like the Ghost Wind, there are some kinds of assault and of murder that can be committed, and aren’t on the books. So how do you investigate them? How do you even prove they’ve been committed, let alone who did it? Even when you’ve made your case, how can you obtain justice?

Friday, April 13, 2018

Short Book Reviews: Another Novella Gem from Lois McMaster Bujold

Penric's Fox, by Lois McMaster Bujold (Subterranean Press)

I’ve loved Lois McMaster Bujold’s World of the Five Gods ever since I picked up a copy of The Curse of Chalion. This novella follows the adventures of a sorcerer-scholar (Penric) and his resident chaos demon (Desdemona) as they encounter a murder mystery. In this world, chaos demons bestow various powers upon their hosts and carry the personalities of those hosts as they shift from one to the other when each host dies. 

The mystery centers of the death of a sorceress and the absence of any trace of her demon, since no other human was nearby at the time of her passing. Where has the demon gone? Who killed the woman, and why? Where has the demon gone? (Yes, I know I asked that, but it's really, really important to not have a chaos demon either floating around or destroyed because it can't leap to a new host.)

Throw in a handful of utterly charming shamans, as well as other nicely depicted secondary characters, and the result is a delightful novella, just the right length to both savor the world and move the plot along nicely. When’s the next one coming out?

The usual disclaimer: This review arose from the gift of a complimentary review copy and nobody paid me to love the author's work because I already did. Are you happy, FCC?