Jan. 5th, 2012

Brightness Falls From The Air is one of Tiptree's few full-length novels; it's also a strong demonstration of the tragedy of that scarcity.  A space opera with both a beauty and horror implicit across the whole novel, and with a series of interlinked plots happening in the same place at the same time (in a well-worked manner, thankfully) and some thoughtful science fictional concepts, this is a speculative novel that really does dare to dream.

The plot of Brightness Falls From The Air concerns the planet Daimiem, and the three humans who stay there to protect the Daimeii (beautiful, winged insect-descended humanoids); at the start of the novel, a ship offloads a number of tourists onto the planet in order to watch the aftermath of an exploding star wash over the planet: a shell from a supernova, whose electromagnetic effects are visible in their impact on the atmosphere, and have a strange other effect too... but not all the travellers are what they seem, and Daimiem has been the sight of a very lucrative and vile criminal smuggling operation in the past, and some seem to want to restart that enterprise.  The plot seems complex - and, indeed, it is complex; but it's told straightforwardly, start to finish, with other elements of plot and with backstory integrated really well, and the use of multiple character viewpoints builds the plot slowly; the one major problem is that there are a number of points where characters appear to be wilfully or purposefully blind purely in order to advance the plot, rather than for character-related reasons.

The second greatest strength of Brightness Falls From The Air is the cast; whilst their actions do occasionally let the novel down, they themselves don't.  Each character breathes with a life of their own, and the large cast - there are fourteen major players in the novel! - is handled so well and so effectively that they're not only easily distinguishable, and not only understandable on their own terms, but even individually and separately interesting and empathetic (with a couple of notable, intentional exceptions up towards the end).  That each character has time to grow and move in their own world, and act on their own terms to show off their strengths, is wonderful; and that all of them are so powerfully and evocatively written, without anyone being a superhero but rather every figure a really believable person, is an incredible achievement.

However, the greatest achievement in Tiptree's novel is the style that she brings to bear in her writing.  Brightness Falls From The Air is a beautiful, evocative and powerful novel; throughout, there are major aesthetic considerations to be taken into effect, and Tiptree really does have a strong eye for the beauty of those aesthetics, and a vivid imaginative landscape to create a world that lives and breathes to the point where we can imagine it, and the creatures in it.  Equally, she seeds tragedy throughout the novel; whilst there is bravery and happy endings for some, Brightness Falls From The Air is also a tragedy, and a tragedy of human making.  Tiptree's vision of human nature is not a happy one, and the darkness throughout this novel is so well worked in and so beautiful as darkness that it really does take the whole thing to another level.

I really do highly recommend this as beautiful, well-plotted and well-charactered science fiction, but more than anything I would recommend Brightness Falls From The Air as a stunningly well-written, and moving, tragedy of human nature...
Stalking Tender Prey is Storm Constantine's attempt, as far as I can tell as a reader, to bring all sorts of new-age woo together into one novel, including ideas drawn from sources as diverse, and ridiculous, as Erich von Däniken's Chariots of the Gods? and other such places, alongside epics like Paradise Lost (thematically, if nothing else).  The problem is that the novel ends up incorporating the ridiculousness of Däniken, and the themes but not the epic scope or the characterisation of  Milton...

The plot of Stalking Tender Prey is rather messy, and perhaps even impossible to explain; we follow various characters, mostly Grigori (not fallen angels, but it's never remotely clear who they actually are, other than part-human with special powers), in a sort of mystical quest that's slow, messily told, and to no small extent seems to be an excuse to write sex scenes of all sorts (although the attitude to homosexuality leaves a lot to be desired, I have to say - it's treated very oddly!).  It's building, perhaps, on Paradise Lost - the idea of the fall and possibility of redemption, but it's also got all sorts of strange things to say about human nature; especially the whole idea of sex-vampirism...  What really doesn't help is the slowness of the plot; there does seem to be a huge extent to which Constantine draws all the events of the novel out beyond all real use or need, leading to fluff like repetitious interactions between characters, pointless introspection leading nowhere and adding nothing, and even extended scenes which just go nowhere and fail to add anything, even tension, to the novel.

The characters aren't much better; in part because Constantine uses them as props to advance her ideas, but also because a lot of them are so deeply inconsistent.  Every character, even including the one who is supposed to stand above it all unaffected (Peverel Othman), changes across the course of the novel, but not naturally; instead they change jerkily and strangely, in such a way that they stop being recognisable, and become different, worse characters.  Often enough, Stalking Tender Prey gets around problems in the plot with character-changes which are induced by mind-control; or alternatively, by the idea that love is infatuation, and infatuation is instant and complete and thoughtless - a deus ex machina way to allow the plot to advance that really does strip the humanity, likeability and empathy away from characters.

All in all, Stalking Tender Prey feels like a book in need of an editor: at about half the length and with consistent characters, it might have worked as an interesting story, but as it is, it's more like a mess of words...
Clementine is another installment in Priest's alternate-history Clockwork Century series, and an excellent one at that; a novella available from Subterranean Press in ebook format, it's a story that ticks the boxes that the Clockwork Century series has as its hallmarks: well-written female hero, extended Civil War setting, steampunk mainstays like dirigibles, and the language of the times - one of our main characters here is black, and the attitude to Croggon Hainey is what we might expect. However, the best addition to Clementine is the obvious steampunk one: airship pirates!

The plot of Clementine is an effective, tight and fast-paced one.  We follow Maria Boyd, an ex-Confederate spy now employed by the Pinkerton Agency, in her hunt to prevent Capt. Hainey recapturing his stolen airship the Free Crow (renamed, by the man who stole it, the Clementine); and in the other strand, converging about half-way through the novel, we follow Hainey himself in his attempts to recapture his ship.  The plotting is fast-paced, and the incorporation as the story progresses of other elements and complications to the novel (such as the Union secret weapon, a vital component of which is being delivered in the stolen Free Crow) add a sense of building tension as well as some rogue elements - Boyd feels loyal, still, to the Confederacy - and the book's set-piece scenes are so well written and racey without being wild or confusing that the plot does move along at a fair lick, without leaving the reader behind or throwing out ideas too fast.

The characters are a less strong point, but Clementine still has a solid cast.  Boyd is a well-written and interesting character, albeit suffering a little from the "greatest ever" problem (up front and repeatedly throughout we're told Boyd was one of, if not the, best of the Confederate spies; her actual actions, however, really don't back that up).  Otherwise, though, Boyd is a character who really does bring the reader in; she doesn't like how she's treated as a woman, and doesn't like how she's been treated by her country but still feels loyal to them; there's also the extent to which she uses various tactics, rather than just being able to use her sex to her advantage, and to which she's a character who thinks about things, and is able to adjust to the situation as necessary.  Hainey's a very different character; obsessional, especially about recapturing the Free Crow, he's also got a chip on his shoulder about his treatment as a black man (or, as the novel repeatedly says, driving the point home, a Negro).  That combines with his somewhat chivalrous nature to create a really interesting, thoughtful character who is not only well-written but interesting; we don't see him undamaged by his time as a slave, but at the same time he's not defined by it, which is a fantastic combination.

All in all, Clementine is one of the best installments so far of the Clockwork Century; Priest's writing here is fantastic and fast-paced, and the characterisation excellent across the ball, meaning we're really - for the short length of this novel - seeing some amazing steampunk. With airship pirates.

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