A weblog, mostly of book reviews, by Jim Henry

Home / Reviews index / Email me
Permanent review log URL: http://www.pobox.com/~jimhenry/review/log.htm

24 June 2007

Looking for Jake: Stories by China Miéville is a varied collection of fourteen fantasy and sf stories, including one short comic book story. All are good, and several at least are worth re-reading.

Plus eleven others.

The Roots of the Mountains by William Morris (1890) revolves around the impending conflict between a tribe that invaded Silverdale and enslaved its inhabitants a generation ago, and the people of Burgdale, who are the invaders' next target. A young woman of the exiled House of the Wolf, formerly of Silverdale, has a plan to ally her family with the men of Burgdale and instigate them to help reconquer Silverdale; she falls in love with Face-of-God of Burgdale, and he with her. Which is inconvenient, because he is already unofficially betrothed to a kinswoman in Burgdale, known as the Bride. Face-of-God is obliged to keep his acquaintance with the House of the Wolf and his beloved secret for a time, until they are ready to make make open alliance with the Burgdalers and declare war on the Dusky Men who have enslaved those men of Silverdale who did not escape at the end like the House of the Wolf.

Morris uses a beautiful archaic style, more or less purely Germanic English, without words of French or Latin origin. Here Face-of-God talks with his beloved, who hasn't yet told him her name:

She smiled kindly upon his solemn and troubled face, and her voice sounded strangely familiar to him coming from all that loveliness, as she said: 'Hail, Face-of-god! here am I left alone, although I deemed last night that I should be gone with the others. Therefore am I fain to show myself to thee in fairer array than yesternight; for though we dwell in the wild-wood, from the solace of folk, yet are we not of thralls' blood. But come now, I bid thee break thy fast and talk with me a little while; and then shalt thou depart in peace.'

Spake Face-of-god, and his voice trembled as he spake: 'What art thou? Last night I deemed at whiles once and again that thou wert of the Gods; and now that I behold thee thus, and it is broad daylight, and of those others is no more to be seen than if they had never lived, I cannot but deem that it is even so, and that thou comest from the City that shall never perish. Now if thou be a goddess, I have nought to pray thee, save to slay me speedily if thou hast a mind for my death. But if thou art a woman—'

She broke in: 'Gold-mane, stay thy prayer and hold thy peace for this time, lest thou repent when repentance availeth not. And this I say because I am none of the Gods nor akin to them, save far off through the generations, as art thou also, and all men of goodly kindred.

Tolkien is on record as having read and been influenced by The Roots of the Mountains, and aside from the general ambience, it's easy to see the character of Eowyn and her story as more or less consciously modeled on the unfortunate Bride in The Roots of the Mountains, disappointed in love and valiant in battle. This introduction to The Roots of the Mountains at the William Morris Internet Archive sees more detailed parallels with the story arcs of Aragorn, Arwen and Faramir, but I don't think those are as clear as the Bride/Eowyn parallelism.

This is one of Morris' earliest fantasies or his last historical romances; there are hints of magic, but nothing spectacular. The setting is vague, and could (based on internal evidence alone) be set in pre-Christian northern Europe like his earlier novels or in an imaginary world like his later ones. It's apparently a sequel of sorts to The House of the Wolfings, which I haven't read; but it stands quite well on its own. I would rank it as better than The Wood Beyond the World but not as good as The Sundering Flood; it's been too long since I've read Morris's other fantasy romances to compare them to this one.

23 June 2007

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik (2006) is published as fantasy, but I think a case can be made that it's alternate history sf. The conceit is that humans have shared the world with another intelligent species, dragons, throughout history; the story is set early in the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France, and begins with the capture of a French ship, and the dragon's egg it carries, by a British vessel. At first the captain, Will Laurence, and his crew are delighted at the thought of the generous bounty paid for capture of dragons' eggs; but then they realize that the egg is about to hatch. Unless one of them tames the dragon by harnessing it immediately after it's hatched,, it will go feral and they'll get no bounty at all. And whoever harnesses the dragon will be ipso facto drafted into the Aerial Corps; a fate all these Navy men dread, as there is a long, bitter rivalry between the Navy and Aerial Corps.

Captain Will Laurence harnesses the dragon, naming it "Temeraire" after the ship (he later discovers that this sets him apart among other dragons, who are traditionally given Latin names), and is duly transferred to the Aerial Corps. The story of his and Temeraire's training, the culture shock of entering the very differently run Aerial Corps, and the first few battles they participate in after their training is complete make a fun story. The subculture of the the dragons and their aviators is well done, and there are several interesting characters, especially Temeraire himself. But (leaving aside larger questions which I'll come back to directly) plausibility is strained in spots — the aerial corps has had female aviators for 200 years and managed to keep it secret from the other military branches and the general public the whole time?

That dragons of this size could fly seems at first to strain credulity just as much; Ms. Novik suggests that they have hydrogen or helium sacs which reduce their effective weight. I'm not biophysicist enough to say whether that makes them really science fictionally plausible, but they seem more plausible than the dragons of Pern (which can also teleport), which have generally been accepted as science fiction rather than fantasy. There is no hint of magic or of other mythological creatures from our world being real in Novik's world; and certainly creatures weighing many tons flying in Earth gravity and air pressure seems to strain credulity less than faster-than-light travel or time travel.

A more serious issue with science-fictional suspension of disbelief is the alternate history divergence and its effects, or lack thereof. This world diverged from ours millions of years ago, and there have been domesticated dragons in China through all of recorded history and in the West since the Roman empire — yet the world's history is just the same as ours but with dragons involved in each major battle. The existence of another intelligent species doesn't seem to have had much effect on society outside the isolated subculture of aviators — indeed, most people outside the Corps seem to regard dragons as mere animals, not realizing they're sentient. To my mind, these implausibilities of the alternate history are the only thing that might make His Majesty's Dragon fantasy rather than sf. And therefore, this is arguably the first Hugo novel ballot since 1999 where all nominees are sf and none fantasy. [To be clear: I don't think this is a specially good thing or a bad thing; I know very well that the Hugo is for both sf and fantasy, and there have been several years when I ranked a fantasy novel (such as The Scar by China Miéville) at the top of my Hugo ballot. I just think it's interesting.]

That said, though I enjoyed His Majesty's Dragon and may well read it again eventually, I'm ranking it at the bottom of my Hugo ballot. Fun though it is, it's the least ambitious and interesting novel on the ballot.


Memories of the Future
Being memoirs of the years 1915-1972
Written in the Year of Grace 1988
by Opal, Lady Porstock

"edited" by Ronald Knox (1923) is a satirical novel that nowadays might be called sociological science fiction. Knox has great fun lampooning by extrapolation various then-current trends and fads in education, psychology, and politics, as well as exploring, through his fairly convincing female protagonist-autobiographer, trends and issues in feminism and the role of women in business and politics.

The early chapters, about Opal's childhood and youth, mostly satirize fads in education, and the same theme recurs in a later chapter when she talks about the education of her sons. Here she talks about how her parents were obliged to send her to school after their fortunes took a downturn:

To understand their reluctance, you have to remember that at the time of which I write no privilege of the governing classes was more tenaciously preserved than their exemption from education. The same instinct of struggle which bade the poor keep away from the workhouse bade the rich keep their children from school.

By the time she was sent to school, the government had started subsidizing education in the most direct way, by paying children to go to school (and paying university students per lecture attended):

.....These regulations where enforced by a system of punishments which would, nowadays, be condemned as brutalizing. In proportion to the magnitude of the offence, the offender used to receive a quarter of an hour's, or half an hour's, or an hour's "talking to" by Miss Montrose herself. She would make you sit down in a comfortable chair while she sat opposite you in a stiff one, and so would lecture you, by the clock, unmercifully. She would point out that the mistresses, who gave their services in the cause of education for nothing or next to nothing, ought to be treated with admiration and respect; that you yourself, since you were taking pay from the country to learn as much as you could, ought to obey the rules of the institution which made this possible for you. ..... I never knew one of my school-fellows get through one of these interviews without scalding tears. It was not, I believe, till the fifties that anything was done to curb the severity of such punishments.

At St. Lucy's College, Oxford, she not only studied Geography and Byzantine Architecture, but joined a good many clubs; here she describes some of them:

The Dynamiters had one custom which was, I suppose, unique, At each meeting, one of the members was chosen by lot to murder the Vice-Chancellor, and had to report at the next meeting on the attempt made and the reasons for its failure. .....The x+1's were, I must admit, a more interesting Society. .....The most characteristic note of the Society was its repudiation of all the courtesies of debate. The President always opened the proceedings by saying that it was his unpleasant duty to allow Mr. So-and-so to read his paper, on the hackneyed subject of So-and-so; he could only hope that it would be as brief as possible.

After her graduation she obtained a travelling scholarship and toured Europe, writing a monograph for the Royal Geographical Society on "the then quite new country of Mittel-Europa". This union of central European countries was organized on the basis of tourism:

...Thus, the religious question, which had been acute in several of the old states, gave no further trouble when it was understood that the state would pay for the upkeep of all Church buildings by a pro rata grant, proportional to the number of foreign travellers who had visited each in the course of the last census period. The old political divisions of the whole area were obliterated, and replaced by a new division based on railway facilities; when exception was taken to the use of the word 'cantons', as implying that the Swiss system had overrun its natural boundaries, it was decided that these new geographical units should go by the name of 'coupons'. Once it was realized that the whole nation had only a single aim, viz. the exploitation of the foreigner, all democratic institutions speedily disappeared, and the present Senate was set up, consisting of the proprietors of those hotels which are marked with a star in Baedeker's Guide.

There's too much good stuff to quote as she works in her father's business, travels in America and marries an American peer (Britain finally settled its war debt by creating hundred of American peerages), and is elected to Parliament. This is probably the funniest book I've read since A Hand-Book of Volapük.

<< # St. Blog's Parish ? >>

Home / Reviews index / Email me
Permanent review log URL: http://www.pobox.com/~jimhenry/review/log.htm