Silverberg's The Last Song of Orpheus is a novella retelling the myth of Orpheus, briefly and in full.  As a Classics scholar, I've felt drawn to this work for some time, a similar draw as to that of works like The Sarantine Mosaic and The Dirge for Prester John, and as Subterranean Press have released an ebook version of the novel with the same lavish and beautiful illustrations as their limited hardback release, I snapped it up; and, despite the familiarity (to me) of the story told in the novella, it was a good decision!

The familiarity of the myth aside, this novella is essentially designed to give Orpheus a character; beyond the tragic lover and one of the heroes of the Argo, the myths - as with most of their characters - give him very little personality.  The Last Song of Orpheus, however, spends a long time giving Orpheus a character; and it's a very interesting, fatalistic one - integrating the myth of Eurydice's death and Orpheus' trip to Hades and the voyage of the Argo with an Egyptian mystical tradition common to ancient ideas of magic and the fatalistic traditions of Greek religion.  Indeed, there is also a tradition in the Orphic religions of reincarnation and the repetition of the fateful life of Orpheus is a strong part of the character of Orpheus; his denials of free will and his determination to tell the story, in its dark and grim form, focussed on him and on mysticism, create a dark and strange character who stands apart from humanity, and yet also a part of it.  It's a fantastic character portrait, and one that, whilst offputting at the start, makes the end of the novella - Orpheus telling us about being torn apart by the Maenads - all the more affecting.

The illustrations, whilst rare, are also fantastic; they aren't common but they are beautiful and, even in the black-and-white of a Kobo screen, they really do add something to the novel: a certain beautiful lushness, and - along with a flowing and poetic writing style - really evoke the power of Orpheus, even if not in verse form.  The building of Orpheus into an unreliable narrator, unwilling to ever confirm or deny anything at the start of The Last Song... but giving hints and then outright denying towards the end of the novel, really does create an interesting and well-written story without being clear about truth and not.

In sum, then, The Last Song of Orpheus is a beautifully written character study and retelling by Silverberg of a famous myth, interacting with other myths - such as that of Odysseus - as the demands of story call.  A beautiful, and effective, piece of work; I highly recommend it!
Swanwick's The Iron Dragon's Daughter has been recommended by some very prestigious left-wing authors as essential genre reading for socialists, and the messages of the novel certainly seem to fit with that recommendation - its nihilism aside, perhaps; the problem is that, as essential reading goes, it is actually a bad book poorly written, and that really does show through strongly.

Swanwick's novel has as confused a plot as any novel you are likely to have read.  Jane is a changeling working in a factory at the start of the novel, and wishes to escape; with the help of the iron dragon of the title, Melanchthon, she manages this and we explore parts of the world Swanwick has created through her eyes.  The biggest problem is the way in which we do this; a sex-obsessed, message-laden, chaotic, cyclical and above all poorly plotted out novel (when decisions have consequences, they need to have consequences, not just have brief consequences and then vanish despite the scenario appearing again in future; when you've set a theme, follow it through; when a character has learned something, they need to not forget it at opportune moments for purposes of plot). Indeed, those flaws rather run through the story of the novel; and are backed up by something worse - bad characters.  Jane is poorly written, simplistic, and rather more bounced around by others' than driven by her own desires and decisions, with the occasional brief exception which always fall apart rapidly after opportunities have been seized; and no other character has even as much three dimensionality as Jane, rather being simple and basic, designed as foils or friends or teaching aids for the changeling.

The problem becomes acute as we see, in different situations, the same scenarios explicitly repeat, with characters reappearing and (perhaps) resurrecting; the cosmology of The Iron Dragon's Daughter is never explained and just assumed, but in such a way that beggars understanding, as people keep popping up without any explanation or logic behind it, and sometimes in multiple forms simultaneously.  This is backed up by a world that is built to have different elements which both cannot and do co-exist; we see a world simultaneously pre-industrial, industrialising, and post-industrial, without any logical reason for the different elements and kinds of world to co-exists.  And the nihilism at the heart of the novel is just horribly overstated, and yet at the same time undermined, in no small part by the plot itself, and writing style Swanwick employs (that this novel did not win a Bad Sex Award is surprising; the sex is frequent, appalling written, and deeply voyeuristic, and the incoherence of the novel as a whole is reflected in individual elements of Swanwick's style).

In the end, I came to The Iron Dragon's Daughter with high expectations and a willingness to give Swanwick a lot of credit; but the credit was squandered and my expectations were not only quashed but completely destroyed.  A really disappointing read.
Thomas the Rhymer is mediaeval semi-fantasy; it builds on traditional tales and ballads, bringing in conceptions of the Faerie court, and some modern ideas (especially about women), to create a lyrical and beautiful fantasy which - in contrast with Jo Walton's piece on - contains (practically) no violence, but rather a good deal of thought and romance packed into this relatively brief piece.

The characters of Thomas the Rhymer are by far its strongest point; Kushner's ability to write sympathetic, kind, interesting characters really shines through here powerfully, as each of the human characters are not only rounded and changing over the course of the novel, but also characters who are human and to whom we can connect.  Indeed, if there's a criticism we can lay at the door of Kushner's story, it's that the fey also have these qualities - qualities which, according to Kushner's world, they can't have.  Thomas himself, as the central figure in the narrative, comes across most clearly, as a wanderlust-infected fame-inspired boy who grows into his skills and role in the world as one of its most influential minstrels; and that's where Kushner places him, in the role of the supreme balladeer, which fits with the historical Thomas' reputation.  He's an interesting figure, who grows into his humanity over the course of the novel, especially the time he spends in Elfland, learning what it is to be human.  The other human characters are less developed, in part because of the time they spend offscreen whilst Thomas is in Elfland, but they are still interesting, rounded figures; Gavin, Meg and Elspeth are all more... mundane, in their way, without the romance and mysticism of Thomas himself, but that grounded humanity is also more relatable in many ways, and more deeply human than anything Thomas can achieve, as they're connected to the world around them and to other people in a way Thomas never truly is.  That grounding really does provide an interesting, and powerfully effective, contrast that is well worth considering.

The problem with Kushner's characterisation comes with the Fey.  Unlike Bear's Faeries, Kushner is very explicit in Thomas The Rhymer that faeries cannot love or change; and yet, over the course of the novel, various faerie characters do in fact change and alter, not simply in terms of how Thomas sees them, but in terms of their actual actions.  This is especially true of the Elf Queen, who is most prominent; her emotional and mental state changes a lot through contact with Thomas, despite the apparent impossibility of this, which is a deeply problematic state that throws a lot of Kushner's writing into question here.

There are also problems with the plot, which don't end with the Faerie characters.  Whilst Thomas the Rhymer is told in a lyrical way, and rather akin to a fairy tale, meaning we can expect the happy ending right from the very start (it really isn't hidden), a lot of the actions of various characters don't fit with how those characters are shown to think; this is true especially of Elspeth and Thomas.  It's most jarring on Thomas' return from Elfland; we see their reconciliation from Meg's point of view, and it happens not only very quickly, but also without any actual form of reconciliation other than "suddenly, she forgives him".  However, other subplots are rather more effectively portrayed; whilst the solving of Hunter's riddle is rather contrived, the plot which it forms a part of is complex, thoughtful, and resolved ambiguously but effectively, and with some really nice references beyond the scope of the story, something which much of the novel has, in asides or just mentions.

In the end, despite the occasional problems, Ellen Kushner is a brilliant character-artist and lyrical, beautiful writer in Thomas the Rhymer; it's an enjoyable little novel, despite the imperfections.
Hines' feminist YA take on a number of traditional fairy tales is, whilst an interesting and quick read, lighter than one might expect; there's a little interrogation of some of the tales themselves, but largely it's following on from those with less feminist critique and more women-doing-traditionally-male-things.  The Stepsister Scheme feels that flaw hard, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have value.

The characters are an odd bunch.  The Stepsister Scheme attempts to win feminist credibility by having female characters in traditionally male roles, thus Talia as weapons-master and (effectively) ninja, and Snow as powerful magus; but at that point they start to play into stereotypes, with Snow as flirty and petulant, and Talia as damaged, stand-offish and aloof (although the latter is rather akin to the warrior-trope of all high-fantasy).  Whilst those are reasonable character traits, they don't strike me as an entirely unmixed contribution to the admittedly too-small cadre of female heroes.  Danielle, the heroine of the novel and its protagonist, is also very traditional - she can talk to animals, and whilst she does use her intelligence, she doesn't use it all that much, and there are inconsistencies in her writing which make it occasionally really hard to like her.  She's also a traditionally soft touch of a character - fitting straight into the mould of a generic high fantasy protagonist with their role thrust upon them.

The plot is similarly a straightforward inversion of the traditional tropes in fantasy: rather than the prince rescuing the princess, Armand is rescued by the three princesses Snow (as in Snow White), Talia (Sleeping Beauty) and Danielle, his wife (Cinderella).  The plot also looks a little at the fae, and the backstories of Snow and Talia, which are stronger, more interesting feminist reconstructions of the myths drawing on older, more traditional tellings of the stories as well as Hines' own imaginative critiques.  The plot is relatively simplistic and at times relies on wilful stupidity and inaction from some of the characters who are otherwise intelligent, but it keeps the novel moving well, and allows us a good introduction to the world.

In the end, Hines has made it obvious what he's trying to do with The Stepsister Scheme, and it is an admirable aim; it is just an unfortunate fact that, whilst a fun and light read, and accessible to a YA audience, there are still a number of uninterrogated problems in the narrative from the feminist perspective Hines is working towards, which might not have stood out so much had Hines been less obvious in his feminist intentions.  I would, however, still recommend The Stepsister Scheme as an antidote to the all-too-male fantasy field that is out there, especially for teens!
Rothfuss is best known for his epic fantasy, namely the Kingkiller Chronicle (spoilers for Name of the Wind).  The Adventures... is most assuredly not, as the sticker that comes with it, and I repeat, not, a kids' book.  Or rather, if you read to the first of the three endings, it is; if you continue to the second, or third, endings, it gets much darker and more twisted.

The fact is that this book is jointly terrifying and hilarious; page 16 (if you own a copy, turn to it. If you don't INSTANTLY devolve into a giggling hysterical fit, I don't know if you are really human) is a standout on the second point - the illustration being the most sublimely subtle, brilliant, hilarious and fitting piece of art I have ever seen.  The whole book manages to continue with a sense of innocence and sweetness, however dark the story itself becomes; this makes it even more twisted and strange, and horrific, because the light moments and the dark moments have exactly the same fairy tale style.

This is, however, a fairy tale in the old mode: blood and horror.  Rothfuss paces his story excellently, keeping the reader invested without having to do much character building, and with the illustrations by Nate Taylor building so much additional background and detail into the story; it rewards at least a second reading, with subtle elements coming to the fore that both Rothfuss and Taylor have really built into the story from the beginning.  The twisted horror of the final ending is so beautifully done, with the same innocence and explaining so many quiet elements, that it is hard to reread the rest of the story without a dark awe...

Overall? Buy this book. Read it to your children - one ending at a time, as they grow up; it'll grow up with them.  Read it to yourself - and turn to page 16 over, and over, and over again.  The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle is a far better story and book than I had expected; rewarding, funny, brilliant and beautifully written, Rothfuss has done it again.
Chadbourn's novel is in the same sort of vein as Dan Abnett's Triumff, which I've been trying to get more than 10 pages into for a while now, and Elizabeth Bear's Ink and Steel, sharing the character of Marlowe with the latter; that is, Chadbourn has written an Elizabethan spy thriller with hints of James Bond and with the Fae as a central element.  Yes, really.

Set in 1788, the year of the Armada, Chadbourn's constructed England and Spain are as true to history as the inclusion of the Fae and of his characters can allow it to remain; indeed, we see a strong continuance of what happened to the Armada, with certain elements rejigged, certain characters' roles altered, but overall, Elizabeth, Walsingham, Drake, Dee et al. play their real roles in the events that unfold, with additional roles on top of those.  The world we are thrown into is vividly and honestly realised - with the language of the Elizabethan period not used to such an extent that it becomes a barrier to the reader, but nor so little used that we're jolted out of the historical aspect of the novel.

The characters are really well realised.  They are, in many ways, straight out of a spy thriller, with Swyfte being the true James Bond figure - known to all, and yet still somehow able to engage in covert operations.  However, Swyfte is a much deeper figure than that, with torn motivations and a strong sense of personal, as well as national, duty; his every action seems to come at some cost to him, and whilst sometimes we see things very much out of character from him, they still seem right in the situation.  The people around him - Carpenter and Nathaniel especially - are also characters with very much real and rounded emotions and personalities, both the historical figures like Walsingham and the invented ones like Grace (although her character seems much weaker than that of anyone else, far less developed... since she's the only female character, this is a major loss).

The plot is, of course, brilliantly convoluted and full of both secrets and moral shades of grey; despite the overwhelming sense of black and white we have at the start of the novel, by the end of it humanity doesn't look that much better than the Fae, and this is played with really well in how Chadbourn developes the plot and deals with the various characters on both the English and Spanish side.  Indeed, the style with which Chadbourn interweaves international intrigue with fantastical fairy story and turns the pair into a magic-laced thriller is brilliant and almost unparalleled, and the consummate skill and ease he displays in his writing, which is fast-paced and really well woven together, keep the reader guessing throughout the novel as to how things will turn out.

The Sword of Albion is a fantastic novel, overall, well-written and well-crafted with a strong dose of action and adventure and wonderful characters; Chadbourn has written a fantastic novel, one which I would recommend strongly.
Whiskey and Water is the sequel to Blood and Iron, and also to the (later-written) Ink and Steel/Hell and Earth duology (The Stratford Man).  Elizabeth Bear's consistent command of politics, sex, power, magic, story and character is really well played with here, perhaps most strongly out of any of the four novels of the sequence of the Promethean Age, appropriately so as we reach the climax of the subplots of various characters.

Our massive cast of characters is perhaps the least wieldy I have ever seen in a novel on first glance - especially given the multiple roles most of them have, revealed over the course of the novel, the gender-bending some of them do, the various odd subplots involved, and the Christian and pagan mythologies so mingled.  That many (though hardly all!) of the characters have been introduced before - and Kit makes a wonderful return, which pleases me no end, as I'm a fan of the poet - doesn't make it less hard to get a grip on at times, with double-dealings, confusions, interlocked plots, and strange betrayals interweaved so tightly it's hard to work out who the characters really are on occasion.  However, we still get wonderful characters out of this; from what could have been a morass of confusion Bear forms clear characters and individuals, with only a few exceptions, each person with their own style and mannerisms (most obviously Kit, a man out of his time by half a millenium!)

The plot is even more complex than the above makes it sound, because in reality there is less a single plot than a number of interlinked subplots; all come together in a set of duels at the climax of the novel, but the various things going on - like a set of dominoes, knocked over by flicking the first - seem so chaotic until the end, so disconnected, so strange and utterly unentangled, that the novel as a whole seems a little disorganised.  The fact that so many characters are involved with so many plots is a weakness, I find, as - especially with characters involved in more than one plot, and plots being unclear from the start, with mysteries and redundancies in various schemes - the novel is incredibly hard to follow on occasion, with characters even seeming to work directly against their own interests.  However, the themes which tie the stories together, and the climax which does demonstrate how everything was originated and seems to have worked, do lend a little coherence - if retrospective - to the novel, with some brilliant Christian imagery; Bear, who (as far as I can tell) is not a Christian, has written one of the best and most sensuous Christian parables I've ever read.

Overall, then, whilst a Byzantine novel to read at times, with a cast of characters to rival George R. R. Martin (in far fewer pages!), Whiskey and Water is a fitting end to Bear's Promethean Age sequence, well written and worked out, and beautiful to read.  I'd recommend taking time over it, as it will reward the investment... and as it will help clear up some of the complexities of the plot, but I would definitely recommend the whole Promethean Age to any reader.
 Blood & Iron is the first novel in Bear's Promethean Age cycle, of which I have previously read The Stratford Man - Ink & Steel and Hell & Earth.  As I said in reviewing White City, I plan to reacquaint myself with Bear's work, and that starts here; and an appropriate place to start, in some ways, with a novel showcasing many of the hallmarks of Bear's work in typical style and beauty.

The cast of Blood & Iron is large - with a little crossover with Ink & Steel, as Morgan, the Mebd, and Murchaud all feature; but largely we see a new cast (or perhaps they're old cast returning, as whilst Blood & Iron is set nearly half a millennium later, it was also first to be published...).  That new cast is really well fleshed out and developed, with great personalities and, despite their Fae (or Fey. Or Faerie. I think all of the above are used at difference times) nature in most cases, very human emotions; Elaine, Keith, Carel, Whiskey, Matthew Magus and (relatively minor as a character, but really cool) Kadiska are great individuals, trapped by necessity, circumstance and the machinations of others.  Each is betrayed and betrayer, and each has some really unique elements - they've got different priorities, styles, thoughts, actions, and personalities, to the point that the reader does feel it when one seems to be going to die or be betrayed (oh, the betrayals...).  Bear's characters really live and breathe, and Blood & Iron has a strength in its characters that is rare.

Bear's plot is deeply complex and confusing at first, but actually straightens out even as twists and tangles become more apparent.  Blood & Iron is a novel of conflicting loyalties and emotions, conflicted actions and reasons, and those play out through the plot.  Bear, of course, has no clear right and wrong, no good and evil - we have characters on both sides of this war, and one neutral to it, and even the side of the Devil is painted as more about love ("What does he [Lucifer] want?" "What we all want. The love of a just and generous deity. Not to be cast out of heaven, and the sight of God.") than anything else; yet this love creates violence.  The ties of prophecy are strong in this novel, yet nothing plays out as one might expect - Bear tends to resist straightforward interpretation or action, although she does seem heavily influenced by Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol.

All in all, the world Bear creates and the characters that people the pages of Blood & Iron are beautiful and terrible, grim and wonderful; I heartily recommend the book, if you're willing to emotionally invest in it.  It's an investment that Bear really does reward.


Squeaking of the GrimSqueaker....

February 2012

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