Cherie Priest, Fiddlehead

Tor, New York, 2013.

The fifth and last planned (so far) novel in Priest’s Clockwork Century series, Fiddlehead, like Dreadnought and Ganymede it removes the action from the poisoned city of Seattle, but much more successfully than either of them. Fiddlehead takes place in the centres of Union and Confederate power, and focuses around a calculating engine developed by former slave Gideon Bardsley – which has predicted that both Union and Confederacy will lose the war to the walking dead – and the plots of moneyed interests to keep the war going for the sake of profit in the face of ex-President Lincoln’s and current-President Grant’s attempts to bring the war to a close.

An aside: the scenes with Lincoln and Grant felt rather comic-book-esque – I mean these characters, larger-than-life, are canonised rather than problematised – which took away from the book for me.

The main characters are Grant, Bardsley, and retired-spy-turned-Pinkerton-agent Maria Boyd. Bardsley’s prickly arrogance-of-genius is interesting, as is his quite real desperation when Evil Money moves to discredit him by framing him for money. Grant is not, alas, very interesting – but Maria Boyd! I sometimes feel, particularly with the Clockwork Century series, that Priest is at her best when writing somewhat unconventional women, or women who make the best of situations in which they never expected to find themselves, and Boyd is a perfect example. Whether investigating leads or racing against time to stop a terrible weapon, she remains a fascinating character – although I may well be biased in her regard.

Although at points flawed and problematic, Fiddlehead is fast-paced, entertaining, engaging, and rather a lot of fun. The best series books make you want to go back and reread their predecessors, and Fiddlehead did exactly that.

Susan P. Mattern, The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire.

Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013.

Not commonly does one come across a work of scholarship that is an active pleasure to read: indeed, the pleasure most often won from reading history is a kind of grim satisfaction at having wrested some prize of new information from stolid, thickly-detailed prose. Mattern’s book is decidedly of the former rather than the latter sort: her mastery of her material is never in doubt, but her presentation, while never less than learned, is engagingly conversational.

Galen is a difficult topic for any scholar to address. He may well have written over 600 individual treatises – at least one list of known Galenic and Pseudo-Galen writings runs to 441 titles – of which more than 100 survive – over three million words. Kühn’s 19th century edition of Galen is still the most complete, and runs to 22 volumes. Though Galen wrote entirely in Greek, and there is no evidence that – despite dwelling at Rome much of his life – he ever learned another language, his work has been transmitted through various manuscript traditions, and to be a complete Galenist, one needs not only Greek, but also Latin, Syriac, and Classical Arabic. It’s a massive undertaking, and Mattern herself, as she says, when she refers to texts transmitted only through Arabic, is working from modern translations of the manuscripts.

Mattern has already written one book on Galen, Galen and the Rhetoric of Healing. This biography is revealing both about Galen and the world in which he lived, but Mattern never lets sympathy or enthusiasm lead her beyond the limits of the evidence: rather, she’s very clear about what isn’t known (a lot, including whether Galen ever had a spouse, children, students in a direct tradition, and whether he died aged seventy or aged eighty-seven – as the Arab tradition has it) compared to what is. Within the limits of that material, this is a surprisingly compelling biography.

And there is some really interesting incidental material – for example, about the fire in 192 that destroyed Galen’s library, including some of his own work not yet given out for circulation: it consumed the area around the Temple of Peace, in which area were important archives and expensive storerooms hired by wealthy men like Galen to keep their books and IOUs and some of their expensive positions.

(And it transpires Galen met Aelius Aristides – I had not known, previously, that their timelines aligned, but it seems they were acquainted in passing.)

It’s excellent history. Complete with animal vivisection. And plague. Well-recommended.

Pacific Rim: Man, Machines & Monsters: The Inner Workings of an Epic Film by David S. Cohen, with a foreword by Guillermo del Toro

Review copy provided by Titan Books.

The short version? Wow.

If you, like me, fell head-over-heels in love with del Toro’s grand, epic, gorgeous giant-robots-fighting-giant-monsters, co-operation-is-the-key-to-survival summer blockbuster Pacific Rim, this shiny, textured, large paean to its production is undoubtedly relevant to your interests – although at a recommended retail price of stg£29.99, its possession will probably for the most part be limited to those with deep pockets, deeper enthusiasm, or generous friends and relatives.

The first, most striking thing about Man, Machines & Monsters (apart from the unfortunate incidental sexism of the alliterative title) is how beautiful it is. I want to pet it while humming preeeettttty, for the same visual intelligence that made Pacific Rim such an impressively satisfying spectacle is evident here: not just in the stills and concept art, as might be expected, but in layout and design.

The images. They leap off the page. You feel as though you should be able to reach into the book and touch what they depict. So pretty. So many gorgeous stills and concept art. Not enough pictures of the Russians, alas, but plenty of Idris Elba. There are some detachable items: Jaeger badge stickers, copies of pages from del Toro’s notebooks, Jaeger designs and Kaiju sketches, but me, I wouldn’t like to remove them – they’re plenty fine where they are, and compared to the rest of the book, the quality of paper they’re printed on is somewhat lacking.

As for words? There are four sections, integrated with the art. “Monsters in the Mist,” about the script and story and characters. “The Cray Kids in the Submarine,” about the art and design process, particularly designing the Jaegers. “Doing It For Real,” which talks about production and special effects, and makes the point that del Toro built as many sets as the budget could bear – including the inside of the Jaegers, which were mounted on airbags and gimbals to simulate movement. And “Simulating the Apocalypse,” which talks about the visual effects and the sound design, and the process of designing the Kaiju.

Visually stunning. Lovely. Pretty. Pretty. Pretty.

*pets it*

Walking Wounded

Visi, the Younger Cat

Presently in need of fussing over, and bathing with Dettol and warm water, and treating with Sudacrem, and careful watching. Oh, cats.

Katharine Kerr, License to Ensorcell

There’s something ineluctably old-fashioned about Katharine Kerr’s License to Ensorcell, as though this urban fantasy – ostensibly set in contemporary San Francisco – aside from the existence of mobile phones, could belong to a world two decades and more in the past. The main character, Nola O’Grady, is a psychic agent for a secret government agency dedicated to maintaining the balance between the (reified) forces of Chaos and Order.

The novel’s old-fashioned sensibility becomes apparent early on, when it is revealed that Nola’s cover identity in San Francisco is as secretary to the non-existent boss of a fake marketing and market research firm. Leading to two issues: a) if the boss doesn’t exist, why shouldn’t Nola be her own boss? and b) market research is Big Business, and that business seems to be dominated by giants, their subsidiary offices, and a whole lot of people working freelance – a two-person office, unless it’s particularly specialised, seems a touch out of place. How Nola thinks about herself, her world, and her oddly-talented family, too, doesn’t seem quite right for a person from about my generation, American or otherwise. To take an example: she thinks of her body and her figure in terms of staying fashionable – be a mate and let me know if anyone under forty still thinks in those terms?

There are other markers of an old-fashioned sensibility. Most of them rather problematic.

Her Agency – which the text regards without even the hint of the possibility of cynicism over the American government having oversight of an agency filled with people who can mess with other people’s minds – sends her an Israeli Interpol agent, one Ari Nathan, on the trail of a murderer, with orders to assist him. The string of murders turns out to have included Nola’s deceased brother Patrick, a very religious werewolf – and then things get complicated when her youngest brother disappears.

Nathan is clearly intended to be the novel’s love interest. The text regards this as perfectly natural. But his relationship with Nola is littered with ignored boundaries: he bullies her about her eating habits, insists on staying in her apartment in order to “protect” her – and takes her keys while she sleeps, locks her in, and gets his own copies cut, but that’s just fine because he’s pretty and he has good intentions. (He also assumes she’s going to move to Tel Aviv and live with him, once they’ve slept together once.) It’s basically the Asshole Werewolf Boyfriend dynamic, except that Nola doesn’t seem to see much wrong with it, and Ari Nathan is a normal human man, so it’s your bog-standard Controlling Asshole Potential Abuser flashing-light signs. (Run away! Run away!)

The rest of the book might be mildly interesting, but I can’t get past that. I really, really can’t.

Nicola Griffith, Hild

What is there to say about Hild that Amal El-Mohtar hasn’t already said better?

Griffith herself says:

So history is a story. And story is a kind of magic. So is it possible for historical fiction to be anything other than fantasy?

When I set out to write Hild I had so many competing needs that thought the whole project might be impossible. Ranged against my need for bone-hard realism was my hope for the seventh-century landscape to be alive with a kind of wild magic—an sfnal sense of wonder without gods or monsters. I was set on writing a novel of character but on an epic canvas.

It is an astonishing book. And one filled with beauty and power. Griffith’s prose is spare, but her eye for line and rhythm, the perfect turn of a phrase, is hard to match. The world she depicts feels real, textured, nuanced: full of patterns, complicated relationships, violence, love, need. Hild herself is a fantastic character, and Griffith explores the loneliness to which her pattern-seeing, bright, sharp mind and adamantine will subjects her with grace, and power, and elegant brutality.

I began reading it at around ten o’clock of the evening, and did not – could not – stop until I was done, at four in the morning.

Read it. Read it. Read it.

Mark Charan Newton, Drakenfeld

A locked room murder-mystery involving a king’s dead sister.

Lucan Drakenfeld is a Sun Chamber officer in the Royal Vispasian Union, a federation of kingdoms which looks and acts a lot like a cross between the European Union and the Roman Empire. The Sun Chamber is charged with investigating crime and enforcing the law across the Union, although it is never quite specified to whom the Chamber answers, except itself. (An oversight which left me with a niggling irritation once it became clear that Drakenfeld was going to operate in rarefied political circles: where does his authority come from and why does everyone accept it as legitimate?) Summoned home after his father’s unexpected death – ruled natural causes, but Drakenfeld comes to suspect there’s more to the matter – Drakenfeld and his bodyguard/friend Leana end up investigating the murder of the king’s sister.

Complicated as it first appears, it turns out to be even more complicated by the end.

Newton is no prose stylist, which leads to the characters here coming across a little flat. The resolution of the mystery, too, feels as though it comes a bit from out of the blue. On the other hand, I do like mysteries, Newton’s worldbuilding is plenty interesting, and it’s quite a relief to have a main character who doesn’t enjoy (and isn’t particularly good at) the personal application of violence. I look forward to seeing a sequel. Or, preferably, several.

Sleeps With Monsters: Thinking About Reading, Writing, and Radicalisation

Over at – and I’ve been very slack about linking to my posts there consistently – I’m joined by two fellow reviewers for a conversation:

RENAY: “It’s not just me and my biases, my internalized habits of valuing men’s voices more, but the industry culture itself doing a pretty effective job with marketing… Where we gets our recommendations matters.”

STEFAN: “I ended up peering at my stack of potentially-to-be-reviewed books for that month and realizing that I had about 15 titles by male authors waiting for me, and 2 by female authors. That’s not me requesting certain books or discarding others; it’s just a basic sample of what I was getting in the mail.”

Mira Grant, Parasite

This book has been preying on my mind since I finished it. For the most part I agree with Stefan at Far Beyond Reality: it’s a novel that falls apart in the middle, one whose interesting premise is marred by execution that is at best uneven and at worst seriously flawed. The similarities to Grant’s Feed are marked, especially in the way that crucial information is presented to the reader – but unlike Feed this infodumping never really feels smoothly integrated into the rest of the narrative. And the assumptions made about health and healthcare systems, globally, are fundamentally American: I’m not sure I see Parasite‘s miracle tapeworm passing muster on a global scale. Grant’s interest in zombie apocalypses here pushes the bounds of the believable: suspension of disbelief is often challenged.

In ways I cannot quite articulate, it reminds me of John Scalzi’s Redshirts: it’s not the same one-trick punchline, but something in the airport-blockbuster quality of the writing, the breezy confidence overlain over shallow characterisation, the lack of depth even as the prose carries one irresistibly along, annoys me in very similar ways. It will probably appeal to readers of Michael Crichton, and I expect Grant will certainly find a wide audience – but we can safely say that audience doesn’t really include me.