Friday, April 3, 2009

Review - Declare

by Tim Powers
Tied for 2001 World Fantasy Award winner for Best Novel

Stop me if you've heard this one. There's this kid with a mysterious powerful father that he doesn't know who is initiated into a shadowy world of people playing for high stakes. He becomes involved in things he shouldn't have meddled in during his youth and twenty years later is called back to the life he left behind and the mentor who abandoned him because the events that were set in motion two decades before are about to start again. A hand of poker where the pot contained things far more important than cash. Magic lurks behind the mundane and invisible enemies stalk our protagonist through the desert.

Last Call or Declare? You decide.

Okay, it's both. I can't fault the judges too much for this since I read Last Call only a few weeks before reading Declare. That made those similarities very obvious. However instead of mixing poker and magic Declare is about mixing espionage and magic.

Andrew Hale was born to a life in espionage. His childhood was guided by shadowy figures in high places who groomed him as an operative. His career collapsed when Operation: DECLARE went bad one dark night on Mount Ararat. Twenty years later he's called back in to an organization that should not exist and is told that the Soviets are moving on the mountain with the help of one of the most infamous traitors in British history. Hale is assigned to act as a double agent to infiltrate the new operation with little opportunity for preparation before being sent into the maw of danger.

That's a decent foundation for an espionage novel. Powers adds to his novel through flashbacks to Hales career where it is slowly revealed that his cold war is not simply a conflict between governments. Supernatural forces have taken a side in the great game and many factions wish to use them or destroy them.

One thing that Powers gets exactly right in Declare is the atmosphere of paranoia. How much can anyone be trusted? I was constantly guessing and second guessing at what could be really happening and Powers plays fair with the reader. There's no shadowy conspiracy that knows far more than it should; all sides are working with imperfect knowledge that they could have reasonably gathered and agents can't even be certain of how far they can trust their superiors.

Declare is also wonderfully paced. That's one of those things that are hard to appreciate in novels until you can see the difference between someone who has a deft handle on slowly dribbling out knowledge that changes the reader's perceptions and someone who plops infodumps on readers and moves the plot in a jagged fashion. Powers dumps out a jigsaw puzzle for the reader and fills in pieces at just the right point to pull you along. He drops hints and resolves them in a timely fashion; there's only a few things hinted at in the early chapters that the reader doesn't understand by the mid-point of the book but in those revelations new mysteries have been raised. Being able to structure a plot that smoothly is Powers's greatest skill.

Unfortunately I think the paranoid atmosphere and espionage structure harm characterization. When the reader can't trust any characters, even the narrator has to be suspect in this kind of book, it makes it more difficult to connect with them. I was interested in what they were doing but not in who they were.

So what we have in Declare is an interesting espionage novel attached to some not quite as interesting but still very well done fantasy elements. The overall effect I found to be good but your reaction is likely to be determined by your reaction to cold war novels. I recommend it since after this and Last Call I've added Powers to my list of authors who I want to read all of their output.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Review - Galveston

by Sean Stewart
Tied for 2001 World Fantasy Award winner for Best Novel

I used to live in the wastelands southeast of Houston. I was also close enough to Galveston that I went to the island town about twice a month. I used to know the city reasonably well and I can tell you that Stewart description of the setting did not grate against my memories. I can't promise you that if you're a current resident of the island that it'll match but then when has any author ever tried to get more than the general atmosphere of a town correct.

Magic has stormed back and overwhelmed the world causing innumerable deaths and toppling civilization. On Galveston however magic has been cordoned off; it runs free in an eternal night of carnival ruled over by a moon faced god while those who are not affected by magic work to maintain their isolated town. However the leader of the town who has kept it running for decades is now dying and her large breasted daughter turns to magic to save her life. This sets off a chain of events that will overthrow the stability of Galveston.

Sorry about the breasts thing; every other character in the novel mentions them repeatedly and I would have felt left out if I didn't.

I will give Stewart credit for wrapping up old stories in new concepts and making them feel fresh. Eternal parties, dichotomous societies, parental conflicts, and so on are old themes and Stewart's view of them in Galveston isn't bad. The problem is that when it comes to execution of those concepts he's seriously flawed.

For example, there's a theme in the novel of class conflict between one of the protagonists and those he lives among. It's vital to understanding the characters, their interactions, and ties into the divided society theme. Oh, and the first time it's mentioned is about two hundred pages into the novel in the middle of a trial. Since we never see this character interact with anyone other than his friends and family to that point there's no sign that these problems exist. Then they're forgotten about for a long time only to be suddenly raised again for a few paragraphs much later. Finally this gets an extensive conclusion at the end of the novel.

This is not the only plot thread that this occurs with. Stewart's story moves in jerks and spurts. Key elements are poorly established. They're picked up and discarded as the novel progresses. Characterization is whatever is necessary for the plot at that moment and once that moment has passed it can shift again on the reader.

A perfect example of this if the woman who goes to bargain with a god for the life of her mother. Now Stewart does introduce the complications that a person can only speak the truth in the god's presence and is terrifying enough that someone might not think straight. Still I would hope that a person bargaining with supernatural power would know that "I don't want to see her die" is the absolute worst possible way to word such a request. Even if they do phrase it that way the character, who the reader is constantly being told is smart, shouldn't go on thinking that they've gotten what they wanted from the bargain. It goes beyond simple the simple foolishness of most characters that make bad deals with supernatural beings to outright stupidity when she can't recognize the problem with her request.

All this adds up to a story that runs on authorial fiat; things happen with the obvious hand of the author pushing them that way instead of developing characterizations and situations which flow naturally. It makes for a frustrating reading experience.

Galveston is a good example of what I find flawed in so much fantasy and science fiction: a lot of good ideas that can sound interesting in summary with weak execution. High concept with low quality. Stewart isn't nearly as bad as some authors but that doesn't make Galveston a good book.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review - "Sailing to Byzantium", "Portraits of His Children", and "Out of All Them Bright Stars"

For the first time in a while the Nebula short fiction list completely disagreed with the Hugos. This doesn't become a common occurrence until the late 90's when suddenly years where at least one story was selected for both awards becomes rare. Looking back at the 1986 Hugo winners (the Nebulas are dated to the year of the eligibility period while Hugos are dated by the year the ceremony occurs in) I have to conclude that it was a very good year for short stories. The only Hugo winner I didn't care for was Fermi and Frost and I liked all three of the Nebula winners.

"Sailing to Byzantium"
by Robert Silverberg
1985 Nebula Winner for Best Novella

In a distant future the few humans on Earth live in a state of perpetual tourism. Ideal forms of cities from the past are revived for a few months at a time and they journey among them to see the sights. They live in decadence and seek out novelty. Traveling among them is a man from the mid-80's. The experience with the malleable world is giving him an existential crisis. This comes to a head when his traveling companion leaves him.

For a story about aimlessly drifting from city to city Silverberg puts together a tight package. It helps that the narrator recognizes the complexities and implications of his situation. This means he spends a lot of time brooding but when the time comes for him to confront reality he is able to seize it. His concerns mirror the reader's concerns about the stage scenery world he inhabits and at the same time is not so weighed down by them to stop living among the delights.

Silverberg confronts a lot of philosophical questions in "Sailing to Byzantium" but he never confronts the reader with most of them. The questions are there as part of the setting, unspoken implications of the narrator's concerns. They help texture the story and add one more layer to it.

The setting may only make sense from a metaphorical context and the characters might be more direct than is strictly necessary but this was a fairly good story. I was uncertain where Silverberg was going to take his ideas until it ended and even then I'm not certain where things will go. I enjoyed "Sailing to Byzantium" a lot and strongly recommend it.

"Portraits of His Children"
by George R. R. Martin
1985 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

An author who has found success by basing his characters on real people has driven his daughter away from him. She starts sending him portraits of some of those characters and after each arrives he is confronted by the character come to life.

Martin paints a portrait of his own in this story of an author who is one of the most dispicable characters I've ever encountered. A character who had a chance for one moment of redemption and bled it for his art. It's really easy to hate the protagonist.

And yet the situation is compelling. Is it a complex revenge? A attempt at reconciliation? An intervention? This is a text book example of how to take an unlikable character and make them the center of the story. I hated him and I still wanted to know what would happen to him in the end.

While I can't say much about it I also really appreciated the ending. There's a dramatic shift in tone about two-thirds of the way through the story and then one more twist at the end. The first not only goes to a place that the reader is probably expecting but takes it one step beyond that. The other throws the conclusion into ambiguity in just the right way to make it stick with you. All of that makes "Portraits of His Children" well worth seeking out.

"Out of All Them Bright Stars"
by Nancy Kress
1985 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

This was the weakest of the three Nebula winners for short fiction in 1985. On the other hand that still means it's really good.

Aliens have recently arrived on Earth and life goes on. One of them breaks from his handlers and wanders into a small town diner to order a meal on his own. The waitress serving him gets to observe first hand how things have changed.

Kress's story is a theme that was old even when she wrote it though she tells it very well. Our perspective on the universe may have changed but people are still people. That's the real heart of the tale: life goes on just as wonderful and terrible as it did before. What made Kress's spin on this interesting was that she captured the personality of that waitress trapped in a life of quiet desperation perfectly. That narrow human focus made the story greater than its peers and interesting to read.