Silently and Very Fast is a brief little novella - 22,000-odd words - and it has many of Valente's hallmarks in: a concern for storytelling and mythology (it opens with the myth of Inanna, and is shot through with fairy-tales, folk tales, and other mythologies, as well as the Oedipal monomyth); beautiful, intelligent, complex language; emergent narrative, which comes together only over time, with things revealed slowly but surely; and characterisation that is vivid and powerful.

Silently and Very Fast feels, in many ways, like an offspring from the same tree as Ted Chiang's Lifecycle of Software Objects, but with an awareness of that Oedipal monomyth, developed from R.U.R. through Terminator, into The Matrix and the (appalling, unAsimovian) film I, Robot which has so permeated our cultural understanding of A.I.  There isn't a plot to the novella as such, because what we instead have is a character portrait, of Elefsis, an autobiography in fact.  Told through a combination of mythology - "Tell me a story about yourself, Elefsis" - and recollection, gradually this novella builds up a portrait of who Elefsis is, how she became who she is, how she thinks and feels.  That picture is a powerful and effective one in part because it is told in a circumlocutory manner, without focussing in hard and fast on Elefsis whilst never ever losing sight of her; it's also powerful and effective because, quite consciously, Valente uses imagery in Silently and Very Fast that is directly drawn from Grimm, and therefore our own cultural memories. The way this story is told, therefore, draws on a lot of cultural assumptions, but in such a way as to build up a matrix of reality; Elefsis isn't a character in a monolithic way, any more than Neva, the other main figure in the novella, is, but rather as a matrix of facets and elements, drawn together by the concept of "I".

One of the most winning elements of Silently and Very Fast is the writing style.  Valente isn't afraid of big words, of complex ideas, or of lyricism; and indeed, all of these play a role in creating the developing (maturing?) character of Elefsis, as well as in building up our own vocabulary of story and of this story.  The direct and clear imagery layers over subtler imagery, and there are layers and layers of meaning in much of what Valente says; there is also simple clarity and beautiful style, and factual statements.  The simple joy taken in language, at times, is in its own way telling of the character of Elefsis, whilst the powerful and evocative imagery of the novel, drawing from so many cultural roots, is deployed very effectively in the service of story and idea.  Because this is a deeply idea-driven novella, in the way the best science fiction is; beautiful writing, and effective characterisation, and thoughtfulness, would add up to a pretty little piece of art without what Valente presumably started with here.  And that is the idea, and to quote Stephen Baxter, "ideas [are] the whole point"; certainly, the idea - or rather ideas - at the heart of this novella are powerful, and without them as a structure and core, I'm not sure it would work as well; but, because of their slow development and the way they're revealed and explored over the course of the story, and the nature of that revelation is rather important to our response, I won't spoil them for you.

Catherynne M. Valente has been an author with whose work I have, in the past, had a slightly mixed relationship. Once again, however, as with Prester John, Silently and Very Fast has very much brought me on board, with interest; and, given that it is available for free through Clarkesworld (that takes you direct to Part One), there is no reason for you not to try out this wonderful novella, and experience Valente's brilliant, complex writing first hand.
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.
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!
Tricks of London and Seven for a Secret, taken together, give us the earliest and last tales of Abigail Irene Garrett, one of Bear's protagonists in the New Amsterdam world (previously noted in New Amsterdam and The White City); they're an interesting study in the woman, and how she changes... and stays the same.  Because they're so closely linked, I'm going to review them together, with one paragraph on characterisation, and one each on the plots.  Some spoilers may crop up for New Amsterdam.

Bear's characters, as previously, are handled very well; what stands out here is the pairing of Sebastian and Abigail Irene.  Whilst Sebastian doesn't appear in Tricks of London, he is developed in Seven for a Secret quite significantly; here, what Bear has been hinting at for some time - the pain of losing a companion to age - is brought out to the forefront as Abigail Irene is near her death.  This gives him a certain added pathos and pain, and alongside the pain of having lost Jack in New Amsterdam, makes him an incredibly human character; and the effects of his age are well-portrayed and fantastic.  Abigail Irene is a very different story; her age changes her very little, leaving her stubborn, intelligent, incisive, uncompromising and all round a wonderful character.  Whilst I would like to see her more centre-stage in Seven for a Secret, her age makes that impossible, and the whole of Tricks of London is pretty purely centred on her to make up for it.  Tricks of London also brings in Sean Cuan, a DS with the Met; he's an interesting, if slightly two-dimensional, character who has a hint of mystery around him without any real substance to back it up, and exists largely as a foil for Abigail Irene.  On the other hand Seven for a Secret shows us Ruth, who is a much more interesting character; she is torn between duty and love, and has to make the choice between the two, and her whole character is well-written, driven and powerful; the hint at the end of the novella gives me hope for future writing in this 'verse featuring her.

Tricks of London is a relatively simple Jack the Ripper inspired crime drama; it introduces Abigail Irene in her youth and shows us things we have never seen before, but doesn't really do much surprising plot-wise - it's relatively pedestrian, although Bear's writing style makes the pacing work fantastically, with a definite movement and sense of impending something that really does add a huge amount to the suspense of the novellette.  Seven for a Secret, on the other hand, has a much better plot; it focuses on the possibility of a kind of pseudo-Nazi werewolf being developed by the Prussians after the invasion of Britain (yes, really). Sebastian and Abigail Irene are out to use this against the Prussians, whilst Ruth herself is one of these werewolves.  The story takes in all sorts of elements, from the Holocaust (not treated lightly, thankfully) to historical myths of the werewolf; it delves into the alternate-past of London in this 'verse, as well as giving us a well-paced and, in a way Tricks of London wasn't, deeply human story.

Overall, then, whilst Tricks of London  - probably in part due to its short length - was not quite up to what I've come to expect from Bear, Seven for a Secret was absolutely fantastic, and a very readable little novella.  Very enjoyable.
This historical urban fantasy is beautifully written and intelligently wrought, as I've come to expect from Elizabeth Bear's work.  The White City's combination of urban fantasy tropes, beautiful descriptions of its world, and strong characters combine to create a novella that is beautiful and wonderful, even whilst its small scope allows for a compactness that a novel might lose out on.

It's been a shocking length of time since I last read some Bear, and this is a refreshing blast of her typical characterisation: Vivid, vivacious, sexual, intensely human, and intensely real, even the wampyr characters are portrayed so brilliantly, in their cynicism, their age, their eternal outlook, that the story works brilliantly.  Our large(ish) and varied cast are really brilliant - Sebastian at the core of the novel, with Phoebe, Jack, Abby Irene, Inspector Dyachenko et al. - with different outlooks, viewpoints, ideas, voices (Bear's broken English of Irina as she is learning the language, and of Jack, translated from the Russian, works really well, especially); that each character has such an individual personality and we can see why each of them thinks the way they do is stunningly well executed on Bear's part.

The White City is also blessed with a beautifully realised setting; Moskva is a real, beautiful, stunning city from Bear's descriptions, rather than the pastiche of onion-domes and grime that it often becomes in fiction.  Whilst Bear skips around neither of these, The White City merges them and creates from the potential pastiche a rounded, vital, interesting, and indeed living city; this skill is a deeply impressive one, on every level, and Bear deserves a lot of praise for how she sidesteps and incorporates clichéd images into something so new-feeling.

Finally, the Holmes-like plot is really well realised.  The mixture of elements - radicalism, romance, art, longevity of the wampyrs, murder, investigation and corruption - is really well handled, with different plotlines in different timelines coming together to give a resolution to each, in somewhat different ways, which creates an incredibly beautiful, sensuous reading experience, with plot-twists and sudden changes of pace being really well executed, like an expert racing driver taking a curve on a track he knows well smoothly, and the action (both romantic and violent, or at least as violent as it ever gets) is excellently portrayed, taking the reader's breath away.

The White City is, all in all, a tour-de-force, and a real incentive for me to get re-acquainted with Elizabeth Bear's work.
Whilst these are three novellas, the extent to which they form an overarching plot and a narrative arm (which by no means tends to justice...) means I will review Blood Follows, The Lees of Laughter's End and The Healthy Dead together.  Set in the world of Malazan, the first novel of which is Gardens of the Moon, these three gore-stained, blood-drenched and debauched amoral novellas follow the necromantic partners Bauchelain and Korbal Broach and their manservant Emancipor "Mancy" Reese on a set of travels, each more disturbing than the last.

The characters and mixed; whilst I do rather like Bauchelain's straightforward amorality and darkness, with his selfishness and lust for knowledge so well portrayed, and whilst the confusedly naive Mancy is a brilliant piece of characterwork on Erikson's part, the horrifically violent and straightforwardly twisted and evil Broach appears to be so purely because he is a eunuch.  This seems to play into and on a number of stereotypes and tropes without, as with Bauchelain and Mancy, and indeed the plots of the novellas, challenging or playing with those tropes; Broach is a disturbingly judgemental portrayal of the castrated.  The background characters are variable; those who take more major roles - Sergeant Guld in Blood Follows, and Imid Factallo and Elas Sil in The Healthy Dead - are rounded characters who are actually interesting, whilst the rest tend to be two-dimensional charicatures, a problem especially hounding the cast of The Lees of Laughter's End.

The plots are also mixed; whilst those of Blood Follows and The Healthy Dead mix sinister horror, amusement and interesting concepts together into a really nice whole, which move at a fast pace and draw together a number of strands in beautiful harmony, The Lees... is disappointingly bland and straightforward; indeed, it seems to be little other than an excuse for Erikson to be as graphic and horrific as he can.  It's got a fantastic concept and some wonderfully appaling, amorphous horrors, but overall it's a little bit... pointless and light, I suppose; gore for gore's sake, perhaps.

That does sum up my problem with the style of the whole thing.  Erikson creates some interesting dilemmas - there's a moment of really interesting questioning about rape in The Lees... but it, like most of these moments, is brushed aside in favour of simple blood-drenched, gory graphic ugliness.  The fact that the characters are really quite well portrayed, and that the descriptive style is so lavish, at these times work against it; Lees... becomes a comedy of horror, rather than having any actual power to move or horrify, and The Healthy Dead turns into a massive joke (albeit with a little underlying politics).  That takes so much of the joy out of reading these stories that it becomes a real problem; whilst gore, done well, can serve a purpose, Erikson's just gone overboard.

So, as a vaguely funny set of utterly graphically gory tales, The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach works reasonably well, but as a serious piece of swords and sorcery fantasy, I'd recommend Erikson's Goats of Glory - and the rest of Swords and Dark Magic - instead.
Baker's two stories, released by Subterranean Press in one volume, still available in trade paperback form.  I would advise you to follow that link after reading this review and buy yourself a copy; Baker's tale of whores, intrigue, espionage and Victoriana is absolutely brilliant, and Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy is one of the most amusing, well-written stories I've read in a long time.

Baker's characters are not straightforward; Lady Beatrice, the spy-whore at the centre of both stories, is a complex, brilliant and capable woman, locked out of respectable society through no fault of her own, and indeed it is a well-portrayed fall and background she has (the original scarlet lady!).  Mrs. Corvey is similarly brilliant, with her prosthetics and sense of self, combined with acting ability to fool her marks; she combines the mercenary instincts of a procurer with a care for her whores which is really touching.  Finally, the character of Ludbridge is that of a capable, skilled operative; he's also relatively good-humoured and well-drawn, despite the short length of the stories.

The plots of each story are relatively similar - technological wonders need to be acquired for the Gentlemen's Speculative Society, and Nell Gwynne's women are required for the job.  However, the plots of each do also have significant diversions; whilst being built on the same model, one is an espionage tale that draws on Fleming and then delves into whodunnit, whilst the other is a simpler tale of investigation, sexual wiles and betrayal.  Each of them is fast-paced and moves really well, delving into Victorian elements like fascination with the Classical world and modernity in combination; indeed, Baker's got a really good command of the language of the time as well, combining it with modern English to make it really readable and yet recognisably Victorian at the same time.

Once more, then, I urge you to buy yourselves a copy of Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy, and I intend to discover more of Kage Baker's work, especially her Company novels, myself.
This is an incredible little novella from Subterranean Press, quite stunningly up to - if not exceeding - the standards set by Ted Chiang in Stories of Your Lives. Thoughts on artificial intelligence, the development of emotion and indeed maturity, the raising and education of children - human or otherwise, and on love are wonderfully put across; and yet, the intellectual content never overwhelms but instead compliments the joy of the essentially human characters (the "digients" as much as the homo sapiens).

Chiang's novella, rather like his short stories, is really about the characters.  All of them - especially Ana, Jax, Derek, Marco and Polo - are wonderfully portrayed; we see them through the eyes, mostly, of Ana and Derek, and through them a whole host of other characters are introduced to the reader and we learn about their inter-relations through the interactions of Ana, Derek, and the digients mostly.  Chiang's story is incredibly well written; despite never seeing other characters, we really get a strong sense of them, and their effects on others - it's beautifully human.

The setting is also wonderful; it's very believable - a sort of Second Life taken further, not the cyberpunk of (for instance) William Gibson but a more idealised setting, though nothing like Star Trek either. The technology is believable and well-dealt with, and the corporations are still very corporate (with some exceptions, which seem to have more cares for people than others).  It's never described in immense detail, but as an extension of modern virtual worlds - World of Warcraft especially - it's a nicely done one.

Finally, the plot; there's two plots, really - the struggle of the humans in preserving their digients (artificial intelligences with cute, childlike avatars) and the raising of those digients themselves.  The two come together to form a sort of third plot of the relationship between Ana and Derek, which is interesting and very heartfelt; Chiang makes the three plots work incredibly well, and makes the reader believe that the author could have been through it all - as either Derek or Ana.  The last moments of the story are incredibly heartbreaking, and it builds up to a powerful, awful end.

All in all, Chiang has kept to his incredible standards with an amazing, wonderful novella.  Absolutely unbelievably brilliant. I recommend it widely.
The Dying Earth
This is less a single novella than a set of loosely connected short stories, each a chapter long, in the same setting, some with overlapping characters, others not. Like Lyonesse, there is a feeling of fairytale; and like Lyonesse, a feeling of folklore. However, this is set in the far future – a failing sun, an Earth (our Earth) dying as the sun does. Somehow magic has entered the world (Vance doesn’t explain, except to imply that magic is a result of mathematics and science) and this gives a set of tales some consistency. A good set of stories, in a rather older and now-unused style.
The Eyes of the Overworld
This is, unlike The Dying Earth, a single continuous novella, following Cugel’s mission across Vance’s Dying Earth. Whilst the first novella introduced us to the world, Cugel takes us on a tour of a huge section of it, encountering magic, gods, cults, wizards and pilgrims as he goes, amongst other things; it gives us all sorts of different fantasy cultures and concepts. Cugel is a scoundrel – and not a likeable one – and his mission is a punishment for a crime; at the end we see his idea of justice subverted by his over-self-confidence, and the set up for the next novella is achieved. This is a great piece, typical of Vance, amusing and dramatic by turns, always with a strong hint of unreal and never forgetting the essential fact of the setting: the Earth is dying, and everyone knows it. A great piece.
Cugel’s Saga
Like The Eyes of the Overworld, this is an extended novella – indeed, novel-length – following Cugel’s travels through the dying Earth. Again we see him sent to the furthest ends and, travelling through various lands, by mishap and bad luck and stupidity and criminality, he eventually ends up back in Amery despite it all. The story is, perhaps, a little too long and not terribly engaging; it is also incredibly similar to The Eyes of the Overworld. Not a bad novella, but what with the other works in the volume it doesn’t stand out and is not – even within Vance’s own opus – original.
Rhialto the Marvellous
This is quite a fun tale, about a character somewhat unlike Cugel or those of The Dying Earth; Rhialto is a powerful and clever magician, albeit with a degree of vanity similar to Cugel’s. His adventures are those of a quick-witted man with quick-witted enemies, rather than Cugel’s tale of self-inflicted misfortune; they are also the adventures of a man of power, as Rhialto is better equipped to deal with problems than Cugel. Rhialto is, however, very much arrogant and vain, which gives him a human touch; it seems to be a failing common to many of Vance’s Dying Earth characters. Really, this is the best piece of work in the volume, I think – immensely fun and readable.

All these novellas, then, give us a tour of both Vance's ideas of humanity, and of a setting unlike any other before it (and oft-imitated after it).  Vance has, through this and Lyonesse, earned his place as a masterworker of fantasy.
This is the first in the Oswald Bastable sequence and makes me want to seek out the rest of the series.  It follows the adventures of Oswald Bastable in an alternate future to his own time-stream, which is in 1902 (the future is 1972-3); it's a wonderful novella, combining elements of steampunk, alternate history, the true history, and little hints or references to what truly occurred.

Bastable himself is the narrator of the story, and he's a strange chap - a chap indeed, though.  Very much a character from the turn of the century, he has progressive-for-the-time views on race, but there is some shocking vocabulary in the novel; and he's also a British nationalist in a way that simply doesn't exist any more.  He's also a fantastic character, who arouses sympathy and interest in the viewer as being incredibly human and believable.  This applies to every character - whilst they're flawed, and Moorcock won't hesitate to point out and highlight these flaws - such as Bastable's occasional violence and his tendency to naivete, and other characters have similar issues.

The plot's a good one, as Bastable discovers the world of 1972, and how different it is to his own - and to Moorcock's; the differences are indeed stark and incredible, in a way that almost defies the imagination.  However, Moorcock is also an author who can make it believable; the differences don't seem to bear no relation to each other, and they aren't ridiculous - in some cases strange, and in others they change what we think of as inevitables, but overall the changes make a good deal of sense.  His plot is also a nice piece of China Mieville-style revolution-building; both making the characters and the readers revolutionaries, and yet avoiding the revolution itself, in a manner most typified by China Mieville's Iron Council.

This is an impressive novel, and a really good piece of steampunk; I really want to pick up more of Moorcock's work in this series, although - sadly - it seems to be out of print. A great piece.


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