“The Burning Stone” Kate Elliott

The Burning Stone is the third book in Kate Elliott’s seven book series, The Crown of Stars. As I finished the last one in the series at the end of December last year I was starting to think I should write the rest of them up in one post. But when I looked at my notes, I think I’ve enough to say about each one that I don’t want to miss out that it would end up a huge post and need splitting back into individual posts! So this post will remain a collection of thoughts about The Burning Stone. (Spoilery both forwards and backwards in the series, but it’s not new so I shan’t put spoiler tags.)

At the end of book 2 (The Prince of Dogs, post) the series could’ve stopped with a sense of a “happy ending” albeit not one with all loose ends tied up. Alain has been acknowledged his father’s son, legitimised, become heir and married a princess he actually loves. Liath and Sanglant are reunited, he’s free, she has a place amongst the Eagles, and they have declared their love to each other. And this book takes that potential happy ending and shows you what happens after the story “ends” – not the last time Elliott does that in this series.

Alain’s plotline is the working out of unintended consequences of good (and otherwise) deeds. At the end of the previous book Alain and Levastine had lead the army that defeated Bloodhand, ending the threat to the kingdom (which is what got them their rewards), a good and useful thing to do. But when they killed Bloodhand his curse on his killer was unleashed, and one by one five of the dogs and the Levastine himself succumb. Alain is now Count, but almost immediately his cousin (who would’ve inherited if Alain was not legitimised) brings a case against Alain saying that he’s not really Levastine’s son. At the hearing, everything rests on whether or not his wife will stick up for him. She carries enough clout, and this is a society where having family and kin matter, that she would turn the tide of opinion. But she not only doesn’t stand by him, she lets everyone know that their marriage isn’t really a marriage at all: it’s not consummated. And why isn’t is consummated? Alain was unwilling to rape her, instead he was wooing her and hoping one day she’d love him enough to want to sleep with him. And this now backfires on him, and leads to him ending up stripped of his countship and with his marriage annulled he’s sent to serve with the Lions (the king’s army). Of course, his wife (Tallia) doesn’t get what she wanted either … she naively thought that once single again she’d be sent back to her life as a cleric, whereas she actually gets married off to someone else that her mother wants an alliance with and her plotline in this book ends with her new husband doing what Alain would not, and raping her.

(It’s odd how my reaction to the Marion Zimmer Bradley books is omg-so-rapey, and my reaction to these isn’t despite there still being quite a bit of rape. I’m not sure why, so I’ll just note that and think about it a bit more.)

Tallia is one of the characters that Elliott uses to highlight Alain’s saintliness. I like how she does this – we’re not told that Alain is a saint, but we are shown how people who believe themselves to be saints behave and then that’s juxtaposed with Alain and his unfailing kindness and humility. Tallia has had a revelation about the nature of God, she’s got stigmata and is regarded (by herself and some others) as a pious saint. But Alain discovers the rusty nail she’s using to create the stigmata, and even without that smoking gun her behaviour is clearly that of a zealot and not a holy woman. Which is another way in which the religion in these books is realistically and interestingly messy & complicated – by the end of the series the heresy that Tallia is fanning the flames of becomes orthodox, and there’s an indication that it was the original orthodoxy that was lost over time (tho aren’t they always the “one true way”?). So she might’ve been a fraud but her ideas still took root.

Liath’s plotline in this book parallels Alain’s in many ways, both by being the same and by showing a contrast. The two marriages are the most obvious contrast – there are some similarities, after all Sanglant and Liath didn’t really know each other well before they married. But as compared to Alain and Tallia there is a mutual attraction and a mutual desire to make it work out despite the difficulties. Another of the themes that’s shared between Alain & Liath’s stories is about fathers – the blood relationship is what the world sees as most important but is that really what matters? Alain may’ve met Count Levastine in adolescence, but they form a bond nonetheless and Alain is sad to have that ripped away. Liath’s memories of her childhood are all about being on the run with her father – but she meets a woman in this book who claims to be her mother, and that her father was no such thing. Yet he’s still the man who brought her up and cared for her and loved her, all utterly alien concepts to this cold and severe mother she’s met. And both Alain and Liath end up … elsewhere. The next book shows that this is necessary for both of them in their different ways to learn the things they need to know, but at the end here it’s very much an involuntary severing of bonds.

And I’ve wittered on now for about a thousand words and I’ve only really talked about some of the things from this book. They’ve got great re-read potential for me, on this read through I was most interested in Alain, in Liath and in the magical plotline that’s just starting to take off in this book. But there’s a lot of other stuff going on, for instance the whole religious schism that I’ve only mentioned in passing.

“Prince of Dogs” Kate Elliott

Prince of Dogs is the second book in Kate Elliott’s seven book Crown of Stars series. The first was King’s Dragon (which I wrote about twice, most recently in this post). I know I’ve read Prince of Dogs before but that was a long time ago, probably in the early 00s, and I didn’t remember much about it when I started it this time. As with my post about King’s Dragon, this is not so much a review as a collection of thoughts.

The series is the sort where the books are really sections of one long story published separately so each one picks up pretty much immediately where the last one left off. And as such is both nearly impossible to talk about this one without spoilers for the first one, and the exact boundaries between the books are a little fuzzy in my head at times. In some ways this book is still setting up the epic fantasy “Save the World” plot that is going to come along in the later books – in fact, I’m not sure I realised there was going to be one at this point in the series. This is not in any sense a flaw. All the way through the series I was interested in the big epic plot because I wanted to see how these particular characters were going to deal with it.

The plot in this book is still strongly rooted in the intrigues and military matters of a medieval court under seige from without and within. The king’s bastard son – Sanglant – is presumed dead in battle against the Eika invaders. Liath has found a place for herself in the Eagles, but she still can’t tell who it’s wise to trust. Alain’s actually doing pretty well – he’s been acknowledged as son & heir to Count Levastine, which is an incredible change in status. And by the end of the book he’s even betrothed to the King’s neice – perhaps a dubious prize (particularly as she’s the daughter of the woman who had led the opposing side in the recent civil war) but nonetheless a mark of the King’s favour (and Alain even fancies the girl!).

One of the threads running through the book is the two linked pairs of characters. Liath and Sanglant don’t really realise they’re linked as such. But Liath dreams of Sanglant – dreams that as the reader we know are true; and Sanglant’s means of hanging on to sanity is daydreams of Liath. There’d been an attraction between them before his near death and capture, and it gets stronger through this book despite the distance. The other linked pair know they’re linked – Alain and Fifth Son (an Eika) have visions of what the other one is doing, and they know that what they see is real. Alain’s father even uses this when planning an attack on the city the Eika hold. Fifth Son, and the Eika in general, are one of the intriguing puzzles the series has. It’s clear in the first book that they’re a Viking analogue, and that they’re not precisely human. By this book we’re getting more intriguing hints about their biology and their society. In retrospect we also start to see how the link between Alain and Fifth Son is changing Fifth Son.

Another of the threads running through the book is dogs. The title, Prince of Dogs, has an obvious subject: the Prince, Sanglant, is chained up with the Eika dogs and has had to fight his way to being pack leader in order to survive. He’s a prince among dogs and a prince of the dogs. But after having finished the series I could see how it might also at least tangentially apply to Liath, Alain and Fifth Son. I think it’s clear by this book that the Eika dogs and the Eika are biologically closer than we’d expect – and so Fifth Son, as the son of the leader of this pack of Eika, is in some senses the Prince of Dogs. Alain’s status as Levastine’s son hinges round the fact that Levastine’s dogs will obey him – heir to a Count is not exactly a Prince, but nonetheless his high status is because of command of dogs. And as Liath’s heritage is gradually revealed over the series, her status also has links to this same dogs.

One thing that struck me after finishing this book is that it could’ve been wrapped up here as a “happy ending”. Obviously I knew it wasn’t the end as there are another five books – but I think even without that it’d be clear this must be the calm before the storm. Several of the characters have got what they think they want … and in the next book we’ll find out just how well that works out.

“King’s Dragon” Kate Elliott

I’ve read Kate Elliott’s “King’s Dragon” before – at least twice – and both times stalled out on the series before I got to the end, either because I couldn’t get the books at the library or because I hadn’t quite decided whether to buy or borrow them. Last time I read it I reviewed it in this blog too (post). So when I needed to think of some books to get on my kindle to take away with me (last spring!) this series came to mind as unfinished business. I finished reading this one in July 2015, and am writing it up (from notes made at the time) in January 2016 by which point I’ve finished the series, so this is not going to be the post you’d’ve got if I’d been more diligent about writing it! 🙂 It’s also not a review as such (and if you haven’t read the books my previous review gives a bit more detail about the set up and characters), and there will be spoilers ahead for the whole series even tho I’m concentrating on this book in this post.

One of the things I wrote about before, and remembered as particularly liking, is that this series starts out with a fairly familiar set of epic fantasy tropes which it then proceeds to do something more interesting with than what one might expect. Our main point of view characters are a couple of Chosen One archetypes who live in a version of medieval Europe. Alain is a farm boy of uncertain parentage, destined for the Church but yearning for adventure. Liath is on the run with her father, learning philosophy, astronomy and magic but unable to ever settle down for fear they’ll be killed by those who chase them. And the world around them has kings and princes, court intrigue, wars fought on horseback with swords, and a powerful Church. It isn’t, however, generic and nor are any of the characters. One of the things I appreciated about this whole series is that it felt like a real world, and like the implications of the world building had been thought through.

An example of this is the religion of this world – it’s flavoured with Christianity, although with many differences the key of which is that the orthodox opinion is that God is plural and they are both male and female. The senior officials of the Church, the biscops and the skopos (Pope equivalent), are all female. Mayors of towns are female. And there’s a reasonable amount of the sort of casual sexism you’d expect from the characters about how men are unsuited for such roles. But, women still have the biological vulnerabilities that they have in reality – and just because women are “in power” in some arenas doesn’t turn the society into something fluffy and peace loving. Which I appreciated, because every time I see someone say something about “if women ruled the world we wouldn’t have X injustice happening” I wince – women are people too, and setting us up as inherently superior to men is no more right than as inherently inferior. So it was nice to see a world where women did have power and yet the world wasn’t full of magical unicorns.

I felt that family was one of the dominant themes of the book (and series). People didn’t just introduce themselves by name, but also by lineage. Legitimacy or otherwise is also important – bastards don’t inherit, which is one of the key factors in Sanglant’s story. And even though we see the action primarily via Alain and Liath, Sanglant is one of the key characters – the book is named after him, and his relationship with his father is critical to the politics. If his father didn’t love him so much, then a lot of the events throughout the series wouldn’t’ve happened. Returning to the theme of family – Liath and Alain are both set apart by their lack of claimable family. Liath doesn’t know who her parents are related to, and Alain doesn’t even know who his parents are for sure. Liath’s family relationships become one of the linchpins of the entire series, precisely who she is matters more to the world (both everyday and magical) than she realises at this point.

Another thing I really liked about this world was that the religion and the magic felt as solidly real as the politics. I mentioned above about the differences in the Church affecting the society around it, but I also liked that the Church is not a monolith and not stocked solely with either pious clergy or scheming fraudsters. There are differences of opinion on what the scriptures mean and on precisely what people believe in (and a heresy touched on in this book and will have repercussions throughout the series). The clergy are people – some are devout, some are not; some are in their positions because of their secular rank, some are not. And those are two separate axes. It’s a complicated mess of an institution, as you’d expect for a religion that’s a few centuries old.

Magic is officially regarded as evil by the church (as in our world) but it actually works (unlike our world). It’s a very medieval sort of magic – alchemy rather than abracadabra. Liath is learning the theory, and she is learning from books and constructing her own memory palace in her mind where she can walk through to retrieve facts. She’s also learning astronomy, mathematics and so on, which is all linked just like alchemists thought it would be in our world. It’s a magical system based on knowing or intuiting the secrets and fundamental principles of the universe. It’s also not without limitations & flaws. For instance, in practical terms one of the more useful pieces of magic we see is the ability to see through fire for a vision of what’s happening elsewhere to someone. And it’s limited by what you see (literally) when you look – if someone is passed out cold on the floor somewhere with wounds all over him, you’ll probably think he’s dead. So this provides a way of getting more information about far off events more quickly than you can by mundane methods, but it can also provide disinformation.

I’m glad I finally got round to getting the whole series – there’s definitely re-read potential here, just looking stuff up for this post I’ve remembered a few things I thought were background at this point that turn out to be much more important later on.

The Merchant Princes Trilogy, Charles Stross

When I first read The Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross (of which the first trilogy is currently published) several years ago they were advertised as fantasy rather than as a science fiction/techno thriller and were published as six books. I’d been getting them out of the library then but stalled out on the third or fourth of the books as the library didn’t have the next one. So when I realised the books had been revised and re-released as 3 books it seemed the perfect time to pick them up and finally find out what happened. These three are The Bloodline Feud, The Traders’ War and The Revolution Trade

The story opens with Miriam Beckstein getting herself fired from her job as a biotech journalist by being just a little bit too good at following where the dodgy looking funding deals are coming from. Turns out that if your employer’s owner is involved he might not be so keen on having you break the story … When she visits her adoptive mother for sympathy she brings home a box of heirlooms/trinkets, one of which is a locket with an intricate design on it. Examining it more closely she ends up somewhere else, with a splitting headache. And nothing will ever be the same again … for her, or either (any!) of the worlds. It turns out that Miriam is, in fact, a princess of sorts – her family in the other world might be nouveau riche but as they and they alone have the ability to walk between the worlds they have political power and wealth that the better bred aristocracy of that world can only dream about.

When Miriam first stumbles into her heritage the Family make their money and generate their power in fairly simple ways. Their own world is technologically less advanced than ours so communication and transport across the landmass of the Americas is very slow, and they make their money by transporting goods and information very quickly via our world. In our world they make their money by transporting drugs very slowly but utterly securely in their own world (as well as growing their own heroin to sell). A pretty medieval way of doing business, and to Miriam’s mind it’s about time it was dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. She’s hampered in that goal by many of the other medieval aspects of this new world … the status of women, for instance, and the Machiavellian political situation. And it turns out that these are not the only worlds, and they are not quite the only people who can walk between them.

They’re pretty hard books to give a summary of even the jumping off point – I’ve written those two paragraphs and feel like I’ve barely touched on the elements that are in the books. It starts out as a fairly straightforward portal fantasy/wish fulfilment fantasy trope: adopted girl finds out that she’s a princess in another world. And then Stross takes a good look at the ramifications of that. What would it really be like as a 30-something 21st Century American woman to suddenly become a medieval/early modern noblewoman? Answer: It would suck. And not just in the obvious ways, Miriam also doesn’t have the cultural toolkit necessary to navigate such a hierarchical world where honour and losing face matter – it’s not like she was particularly good at it even in her own world, just look at how she gets herself fired.

And it’s not just the ramifications of that fantasy. For instance: once deciding to do business by transporting drugs (such an obvious step), the Family are then embroiled in the rest of the drug trade in the US … and the law enforcement agencies, the government etc etc. As the series progresses the ways in which the two worlds’ political, military and security establishments are tangled together get more clear, and the consequences of the events set in motion by Miriam get ever more severe.

Culture shock and the misunderstandings when one culture meets another are a theme across the series. This is most obvious in Miriam’s reaction to the new world she finds herself in. But it also comes across in how the politics between the worlds plays out – assumptions made about how “of course they won’t do X so we can do Y” don’t always turn out the way the people involved expect. And it’s present through all the small stuff too – Miriam constantly mis-steps because her cultural values aren’t the same as her new family’s and vice versa.

The science fiction aspect of them takes a while to show up, but one of the big things is that the “stare at this pattern and travel” ability isn’t magic. And one of the threads of this trilogy that I most want to see where it’s going in the next books is the exploration of both the worlds they can get to and where the ability comes from.

I could do with re-reading these, even fairly soon – to see how knowing the big reveals ahead of time changes what I think of the earlier sections. Also because I’m not sure I followed all the twists & turns of the Machiavellian politics and that might be easier the second time round.

Definitely a series worth reading 🙂

The Rai-Kirah Trilogy by Carol Berg

As I continue to (slowly!) read through the fiction on my shelves I’ve got to two books by Carol Berg – they are the first two of her trilogy The Rai-Kirah. The books are called Transformation and Revelation. I never bought the third one, and it’s things like that that’ve made me taken on this project – did I not buy it because I didn’t fancy it? Did I not buy it because I never got round to it? Should I buy it? It’s definitely not the only series where I’ve got a couple then not the rest.

The protagonist of the story is Seyonne, an Ezzarian who has been a slave in the Derhzi Empire for 16 long and brutal years when the story opens. In the first chapter he is bought by the heir to the Empire, Prince Aleksander, branded on the orders of one of he Prince’s companions (as a form of revenge on the Prince) and forced to brand said companion by the Prince. Aleksander is spoilt, cruel and doesn’t see why he shouldn’t destroy people when it takes his fancy. Seyonne once had magical powers before they were tortured out of him by the Derzhi, and the very fact of his slavery has made him outcast and unclean in the eyes of his own people – he’s just going through the motions of life until he dies. It doesn’t exactly seem like the start of a promising relationship – but there’s more to Aleksander than meets the eye at first, and Seyonne is drawn into not only caring about the Prince but also joining forces with the Prince to save him & the world from the Rai-Kirah demons he was trained to fight in his homeland.

As I read the first book I was assuming that I hadn’t finished buying the trilogy because I’d just forgotten to pick up the third book. The story sucked me in and carried me along. Whilst there were things I wasn’t keen on when I finished it and thought about them, there were other parts I liked. The setting was interesting – not a faux-Europe, instead something with desert flavours. The Derzhi were once nomads in the desert, and this came through in the ways their empire was set up and how their aristocrats interacted. For instance, hospitality rules (sharing food and drink) are still important despite their change of lifestyle, which was plot relevant. I also found the magic interesting. The Rai-Kirah demons come through from another world and set up residence in human souls – the Ezzarians have learnt ways to enter the victim’s soul and fight to drive out the demon. That was Seyonne’s role in his society before his capture. I also like the relationship between Seyonne and Aleksander. I feel it did go too quickly from the very low point at which it started to trust and liking, even with the help of Seyonne’s mystical sense that Aleksander is worth protecting. But still, I didn’t notice that until I’d finished the book, if you see what I mean – I was hooked into it while I was reading it.

Sadly I didn’t really buy any of the interpersonal relationships except the building friendship between Seyonne and Aleksander. Particularly not the relationships between Seyonne and the women in the novel. And that was one of my problems with the second book in the trilogy. I was much less keen on the series after reading it, and I am now intending to give these to charity rather than complete the series.

The second book takes what we know about the world so far, and makes us – and Seyonne – doubt it. Are the Rai-Kirah really just rapacious demons trying to conquer the world? Where did the Ezzarian’s abilities come from? And why is Seyonne’s heavily pregnant wife now not pregnant and pretending she never was? This last is the driving force of the plot for the beginning of the book, which was a shame as it made me cranky every time that bit of the plot came up. I didn’t buy into Seyonne and Ysanne’s relationship, their utter lack of trust in each other and inability to just have an honest conversation made me unable to believe they’d ever been in love ever. And yes, it’s not supposed to be idyllic (far from it), and Seyonne is supposed to be being an idiot, and Ysanne isn’t supposed to have his best interests at heart and I don’t think she’s supposed to’ve been in love with him. But even knowing all of that didn’t make me any more interested in reading about it. And having spent the first few chapters gritting my teeth and rolling my eyes at the characters I wasn’t inclined to be charitable about the rest of it. I suspect if that plot line hadn’t existed I’d’ve enjoyed the rest rather more, but it does exist.

Another problem I had with both the books was the sheer level of physical & mental abuse that Seyonne absorbs. I’m not sure I believe that he could be either alive or sane by the beginning of book 1 (given the backstory we see later) … and certainly not by the time that Berg has finished gleefully torturing him over the two books I read.

So my overall verdict is that Berg has some interesting world building and ideas, but ultimately I found the execution too flawed.

“The Sea Thy Mistress” Elizabeth Bear

The Sea Thy Mistress is the third book in Elizabeth Bear’s The Edda of Burdens series, following on from the end of both of the preceding books (All the Windwracked Stars (post) and By the Mountain Bound (post)). It’s pretty much impossible to talk about this book without some spoilers for the other two, so be warned there are spoilers ahead even for this one.

Both the previous books are stories about the end of the world, whether it be by a bang (BtMB) or a long drawn out whimper (AtWS). The Sea Thy Mistress is about a new beginning, and the tension comes from the vulnerability of the newborn world. At the end of All the Windwracked Stars Muire willing took up the role of Bearer of Burdens and brought life back to the world. But the Lady Heythe has ridden out of the first ending of the world into this new beginning. The world changed while she wasn’t there but she only aims to finish the job she started in By the Mountain Bound.

This story is also Cathoair’s story. With Strifbjorn’s soul but not Strifbjorn’s memories he’s an apt central character for this part of the trilogy. He (and the world) are at root the same as the previous man (world) but he (and the world) is also distinct and his (its) own individual self (world). And I hadn’t thought about it till writing this, but I think there’s a similar resonance for the world & the protagonist of each of the previous books. Muire & the world didn’t quietly give up & die in All the Windwracked Stars, instead they kept on going and even appearing to live despite the despair and/or dying that was concealed inside. I find it harder to articulate how the Wolf and the world match in By the Mountain Bound, but I still feel they do – something about being broken by someone using their very nature against them.

This story might take place a few decades after the end of All the Windwracked Stars, but it’s still a direct sequel. Cathoair hasn’t got over the traumatic events of the end that story. Muire is still gone, Astrid is still dead by his hand. He’s an immortal now – a new angel for a new world, and as such has a purpose and is alive. But he’s not really alive, more going through the motions. That starts to change when he becomes responsible for bringing up his son – Muire was pregnant by Cathoair when she made her sacrifice and the babe has been born and sent back to the living world (the Bearer of Burdens is presumably not a role that meshes well with bringing up even an immortal child).

And it is into this new life that Heythe walks. Of course the reader knows more than the protagonists do about Heythe – except the Wolf, but the Wolf is not trusted by Cathoair. And so Heythe has the cracks and flaws in Cathoair & the world that she needs to drive her wedges in and try to prise it all apart again. But this book is not a tragedy, and this new world is not as fragile as it first seems – there’s genuine hope at the end that the wounds of the last world are healed.

This has been one of my favourite of Bear’s series that I’ve read. I like what she’s done with Norse mythology, and I like the world & the people she’s created to inhabit it. I left it a bit long to write up this book, so I think I’ve forgotten some of the things I wanted to say about it, which is a shame. But I’m sure I’ll re-read it some day 🙂

“By the Mountain Bound” Elizabeth Bear

By the Mountain Bound is the second book in Elizabeth Bear’s The Edda of Burdens series. It is set before the events of All the Windracked Stars (post) so you could read them in either order, but I think it works best as I’ve done it this time (tho obviously as this is my first read of this book I haven’t tried out the other way round yet!).

The three protagonists of the story are the Wolf (Mingan), the Historian (Muire) and the Warrior (Strifbjorn) – the same three as in All the Windracked Stars, although Strifbjorn is reborn as the mortal Cathoair in that book. Muire was central in the first book, this book is the Wolf’s. Strifbjorn and Muire are both immortal Children of the Light, waelcyrge. (Immortal in the un-ageing sense – they can still be killed, for instance in battle.) The Wolf is … not quite the same as them, he is also a survivor from the world before there’s, and was already there when the Children first came into being. When the story opens superficially all is well in the world – we see where the cracks are but there’s nothing threatening about them. The opening chapters establish the world with a wedding between two waelcyrge, where we learn (amongst other things) that Strifbjorn is their war leader and they have no Cynge and no Lady despite setting chairs out for both. Into this good-enough world comes Heythe, who quickly establishes herself as the Lady returned. All is, of course, not quite what it seems and Heythe is soon manipulating the warlcyrge into their seemingly inevitable slide towards apocalypse.

The waelcyrge are not just warriors and avengers of mortals, they are also beings with loves of their own. And this story is also about loving unwisely or too well, and the consequences of that. When waelcyrge marry they share a part of their soul with their spouse via a kiss, but of course you don’t have to be married to kiss the one you love. Yet social pressure keeps most from risking such a thing pre-marriage – after all, if something changes and then you marry someone else then that someone else will discover they are sharing their soul not just with their spouse but their spouse’s previous lover. It’s the idea of pre-marital sex “tainting” those who do it, but applied rather more even-handedly. It’s clear that this attitude is to be seen as one of the flaws of waelcyrge society which Heythe exploits rather than a good thing. Waelcyrge are not terribly fertile, so marrying and having children to replace those who die are exalted to an almost sacred duty – Strifbjorn as war leader is under a lot of pressure to do so to set a good example. And there is no shortage of waelcyrge women who would marry him – some, like Muire, because they are in love with him, some because of the prestige being his wife would bring them. But unknown to the other waelcyrge Strifbjorn and Mingan are not just lovers, but have shared the kiss. And so the world of the waelcyrge is not as robust as it looks on the surface.

This book is a tragedy, not just in the modern sense of ending with dead people but in the original Greek sense too – it’s the inevitable working out of the flaws of the characters & society. The reason I think the ordering of these books works best this way round is that right from the beginning of this book you know where it ends. It ends with the end of the world, in blood and in ice. With Muire, the Wolf and Kasimir the only survivors of an apocalyptic battle pitting waelcyrge against waelcyrge and killing nearly all of them. So even the moments of hope and partial triumph are against a backdrop of watching the world end. It’s not depressing though – in part because for all the world ends in that battle, we also know from the first book that it’s not totally over and that there is yet hope.

In a nice touch this book ends almost exactly where the first one begins. We see some of the same scenes (not word for word, I think, but close enough to resonate), interspersed (and followed) with new information. But the repeated scenes have completely different emotional weight this time. At the beginning of the first book it’s just back story & characterisation – ticking little boxes for who these people are: “Muire, waelcyrge, survivor’s guilt” etc. This time tho, these are people we know and have come to care about over the course of the book and watching them die is heartbreakingly poignant (yet tragically inevitable).

Thoroughly recommended, and at time of writing I’m halfway through the next one & trying to make it last so that my time in this world with these characters won’t be over so soon.

“All the Windwracked Stars” Elizabeth Bear

The next book in my project of re-reading all the fiction I own (that is still on the shelves) is All the Windwracked Stars, by Elizabeth Bear. I actually replaced it with a Kindle version before re-reading it, along with buying the next two in the series (the series as a whole is called The Edda of Burdens). I know I’ve read this before, as I at least recognised the names of the protagonists and something of the world it is set in, but I remembered very little of the actual story so I might as well’ve been reading it for the first time.

We open with the end of the world in the aftermath of an apocalyptic battle, with the survivors – Kasimir, valraven steed of a slain waelcyrge; Muire, child of the Light, one of the wardens of Valdyrgard, poet, historian, metalworker; the Wolf, older than the world itself and has played his part in the ending of it. And after a chapter that establishes the characters (particularly Muire) the story jumps forward nearly two & a half thousand years to the aftermath of another apocalypse. As the book puts it:

Worlds, like gods, are a long time dying, and the deathblow dealt the children of the Light did not stop a civilization of mortal men from rising in their place, inventing medicine and philosophy, metallurgy and space flight.

Until they in turn fell, two-hundred-odd years ago, in a Desolation that left all Valdyrgard a salted garden. All of it, that is, except the two cities – Freimarc and Eiledon – that lingered. Life is tenacious. Even on the brink of death, it holds the battlements and snarls.

And in this end of the world, Muire, Kasimir and the Wolf still live among the shattered remnants of the human civilisation. It’s a world of both technology and magic – where at one moment there are recognisable computing devices, and at another we’re meeting a modified catwoman created from a cat, sorcery and a relic of the past or a modified ratman mage-engineer. The story is primarily Muire’s, although parts are from other points of view. But she’s the central figure, and we follow her from grief-stricken survivor’s guilt through to a realisation that perhaps the world can be reborn (albeit at great cost to herself).

Muire is the linchpin round which the story turns, but I think there are two other legs the plot rests on – the Grey Wolf and Cathoair. The Wolf I’ve already mentioned, he starts in the position of an antagonist – and where Muire feels she should not have survived but somehow can’t help but keep surviving, the Wolf is looking for death and not finding it. He’s been drawn to Eiledon by a sense that a piece of his past is being misused by the mortal ruler of the city, and although he’s no longer part of the company of the children of the Light he’s still not willing to let such things be misused.

Cathoair is a different sort of character – at first sight less mythic, more everyday survivor. He’s one of the mortal inhabitants of Eiledon, living in the slums and making a living in the fighting ring and as a prostitute. But his soul is that of one of Muire’s brothers, returned to life at another ending of the world (although Cathoair never knows about his past life). He gets caught up in the conflict between Muire and the Grey Wolf, as they’re both irresistibly drawn to the presence of someone they had both loved in the past. But he quickly becomes important in his own right, as even ordinary people can make a difference particularly when the world is ending.

The story takes place in a secondary world that is thoroughly steeped in Scandinavian mythology – as is presumably obvious just from the names of people and of things that I’ve mentioned in this review so far. The prose style also has something of that feel to it – recognising the subject matter as Norse in origin predisposes me to think this, but it often feels like some other language’s poetry translated into English prose. Not all of it by any means, but bits like this do:

The song still burns through his mind, scourging, polishing. Stripping him clean.

Madness is nothing. Madness is an old friend, a comfort to him. He is the son of a god and a giantess. He is a god-monster. He is the Sun-eater. He was born to destruction, to mayhem, to wrath. The world is full of things that want destroying, and also full of those who do not covet destruction. So he was chained to the end of the world. There was a poem that was also a prophecy, and he lived it. The wolf, till world’s end.

And now he is a wolf driven by the goad and the hunt, crazed by the cage and the chain. He is the wolf run mad —

One thing I particularly like about the world it’s set in is that magic and technology aren’t mutually exclusive. The bulk of the story is set in the remnants of a world that’s at least as technologically advanced as ours, if not more so. But it also has working magic, and some of (all of?) the technology is magic based – magic doesn’t replace the need for tech, nor vice versa. Which I think grows out of the Norse underpinnings of the world building – magic here is based on the word (runes, poetry, song) and also on metalworking. Muire as poet, historian, smith is also a mage, in a way that seems to go without saying. Some workings require music, some require working at the forge.

Having forgotten most of the story, I’d also forgotten how much I liked this book. I’m not sure why I didn’t get round to buying the other two in the series till now, but at halfway through the next one I’m pleased I finally got round to it 🙂

Eternal Sky Trilogy, Elizabeth Bear

My main present this Christmas was a Kindle – I’ve finally entered the 21st Century 😉 And as part of the present I got three new ebooks to start me off, I chose Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy which I’ve had on my to-buy list for a while. The three books are Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars and Steles of the Sky and they are fantasy, set in a world that is not our own with a strong Asian flavour.

The series opens in the aftermath of a battle. Temur, who is one of the protagonists of the story, is one of the defeated side and lucky to be alive – surviving mostly because he looked dead already. The battle was part of a civil war: Temur’s people are very Mongol-like and this is a succession war that breaks out after the Khagan has died between his successors (much like after Genghis Khan’s death in the real world). Temur is now one of the few claimants left alive. At first he’s not concerned with that, he joins with some of the refugees and seems almost content to settle into anonymity. But it becomes clear that there is more going on than first meets the eye. Edene, the girl Temur is falling in love with, is stolen away from the refugee camp by blood ghosts called up from the dead of the battle by a sorcerer allied with the other side of the civil war. He sets off to rescue her and along the way discovers the sorcerer’s schemes will have a wider impact than just on his own family and his own country, and resolves to stop him.

And so far, that sounds very bog standard epic fantasy – chosen one (male) goes off to rescue girl, take back throne and stop the evil sorcerer. But that’s really not what this series is like. For starters, it’s much more of an ensemble cast than the paragraph above makes it sound and a lot of the ensemble are women. For instance rescuing Edene might be Temur’s initial motivation to set off – but Edene isn’t just a pretty damsel in distress who waits in the fortress for Temur’s arrival. She takes action herself to escape, and she’s very definitely the hero of her own story – even tho at first she is playing into the antagonist’s schemes. Another member of the cast is Hrahima, a female Cho-tse – a sentient tiger (which is a bit like calling a human a sentient monkey). The antagonist is also not just one evil man with minions although I suspect he’d like to think he is – but the “minions” are people who again are the heroes of their own stories.

The other primary protagonist (alongside Temur & Edene) is the wizard Samarkar – she is a Once-Princess of Rasa who has chosen to become part of an order of wizards where the price for power is sterilisation. For men this is a relatively easy operation, but for women it’s at the limits of the medical technology of the day – so we first meet Samarkar as she is discovering she will live and recover from the operation. And it’s only after you pay the price that you discover if you will gain power – one of the other supporting cast is a wizard who never gained her power (but nonetheless she’s still respected as one of the best theoreticians of the order). She meets (and rescues) Temur near the beginning of his journey to find Edene. The wizards are very curious about the world in a scientific way – knowledge is power, knowing how things work lets you figure out how to manipulate them. When Temur swears a blood-vow Samarkar realises no-one has recorded the progress of one of these through from the very start, and so she decides to travel with Temur. Quickly she moves to be a participant rather than merely an observer, as she & Temur become first friends and then more.

As I said at the beginning of this review this is Asian flavoured fantasy. By that I mean it uses the cultures and mythology of various parts of Asia as the underpinnings of the story in the same way that a lot of fantasy uses a sort of medieval European “lords, ladies, castles, knights, damsels” bedrock as its foundation. But it’s not an indistinct mishmash of pseudo-Asian culture – there are several countries in the world and they have distinct cultures which are recognisably riffing off distinct cultures in our world. For instance as I’ve already mentioned Temur’s people are akin to the Mongols – I recognised a China analogue (of the right era) and a very obvious analogue of the Islamic Caliphate (in the same way that pseudo-Euro fantasy often has a religion that is Christianity-in-all-but-name here we have an Islam). I think the Rasa might be Tibetan analogues but I don’t know enough about Tibet’s history to be sure.

The world, however, is not just a thinly veiled version of our own. It’s not just that magic works, the sky is also very different. What sky you see reflects the ruler of the land you’re in. When a regime changes so does the sky, when you cross a country’s borders the sky changes, Although there are mentions of this being over-ruled sometime by the ideology of the people (rather than their ruler) if it’s deep-seated enough. It’s not necessarily just a change in colour or something petty like that – the sun might rise in a different direction, or be much much brighter. And the night sky will also change. In the land ruled by the Khagan of Temur’s people you see a moon for every potential heir to the throne – as each is born a new moon is also born. As any of them die then their moon dies with them. Which means in the first part of the first book Temur is able to track the progress of the civil war even after he’s left for dead on the battlefield – by counting moons. And obviously so can the other side …

I’ve often read defences of the lack of women with agency in epic fantasy that boil down to “well, it’s a medieval world, women aren’t able to do anything in that sort of society”. And this series demonstrates very well just how much bollocks that is. The vast majority of the societies in the world of the Eternal Sky are patriarchal and the roles women are permitted to fulfil are limited and mostly decorative. In theory. But in practice the women in this story drive a lot of the plot along whether they act openly in their own interests or more indirectly. Even the slave-poetess who is literally inside a box for large chunks of the time she’s present in the story is not just sitting there waiting to be done to, she’s doing.

A criticism I’d make is that the antagonists are from the Islamic analogue culture, and that doesn’t sit well with me. I think I can see why it ended up like that – the whole set up is a sort of mirror of the standard Euro-fantasy with the Asian cultures occupying the role that Western cultures normally do. There’s even mentions in passing of exotic white skinned people from the West in the same way one might find mentions of exotic people from the East. And if you reflect around the centre then the Caliphate will end up playing the same role in both cases. I just don’t like that it plays into the current political demonisation of the Muslim world.

I thoroughly recommend the books (other than that one criticism) – I’ve talked about them all at once because I read them back to back and finished all three within four days, they were very engrossing 🙂 I think they’ll also reward re-reading, and there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t mention in this review about themes & patterns that might well be even clearer on a re-read.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Film)

The third and final part of the film adaptation of The Hobbit was out over Christmas and we managed to get to the last 3D showing in Ipswich before it went 2D only. Normally I’m a fan of watching films in 3D where possible (not that I see many films …) but in this case I think I might rather’ve seen it in 2D. There were several scenes (including some right near the beginning) where the action seemed to be moving too fast for the projection to keep up – particularly apparent when there were close-up shots panning across lots of people rushing around. And some of the subtitles felt out of focus. So that was a shame. I’m not sure if that was Ipswich Cineworld being crap or a fault of the film itself though.

I’m not going to put a spoiler cut – I think it’s been out for long enough by the time I’m writing, and I suspect by the time this post goes live it won’t even be on at the cinema any more. So this is your warning not to read on if you want to avoid spoilers. The rest of this post is not so much a review but a collection of thoughts about the film.

I continue to think they’ve done a pretty good job with these adaptations. I suspect I might not be quite so in favour if I’d read the book more recently, or more often when I was a kid, but to me it feels like they have the overall plot that I remember plus a flavour of the Lord of the Rings films and so it works for me even when they’ve made changes. The most obvious change that even I notice are that there are some speaking parts for female characters. It’s a shame that Tauriel was mostly there to be the love interest, but at least she also got to kick ass 🙂 In fact there was a bit of a sub-theme of “never piss off an elfwoman” in this film, when you think about Tauriel & Galadriel’s scenes.

I really liked the way they portrayed Thorin’s slide into gold-sickness and madness, particularly the reusing of lines that Smaug had also used. And the way the other dwarves are so visibly caught between knowing he’s off his rocker, but still feeling loyalty and duty towards him as both King and friend. Also good were the few quieter moments where you felt like Bilbo might almost be able to talk him out of it – which means his epiphany about his behaviour later doesn’t come out of nowhere. All those scenes also showed how much Bilbo had changed – whilst he always had a moral compass, you can’t quite imagine the fussy, somewhat prissy hobbit we first met would put himself in danger like that for the sake of doing the right thing. I mean, he’d still’ve known what the right thing was but he’d’ve had some rationale for why someone else needed to do it.

I really liked the way they did the compare and contrast between the dwarves and the elves, I thought there was a real sense that despite their differences there are a lot of similarities between the two races. Like the two juxtaposed scenes of the leaders losing their mount and attacking the surrounding orcs, where there’s a lot of similarity except that Thranduil moves like he’s dancing and Dain headbutts his opponents. (I’d forgotten Billy Connolly was cast as Dain so that was an entertaining surprise.) The film also emphasises that their differences complement each other making them a good team if only either side would see it. Like when the orcs first attack and the dwarves form their shield wall and the elves come charging over to take the orcs by surprise.

I guess the elves/dwarves at loggerheads thing is part of a general theme running through all the films (and perhaps the books too, it’s been a while since I’ve read them): true evil works together towards the common goal (presumably because of coercion) but those who oppose it not. Free will means not everyone is going to choose to do the right thing, but it wouldn’t mean so much if it wasn’t something one had to choose? Not sure I’m articulating that well, but hopefully the idea comes across 🙂

On that sort of note – I saw pointed out elsewhere that one of the threads running through this film is people standing up to their (respected) leaders when they were doing the wrong thing. In stories it’s easy to show people as heroic by making them face off against “the bad guy doing the bad things”, but several of the moments of heroism here are someone going to someone they like and respect and saying “no, this time I think you’ve got it wrong” instead of giving them a pass because they’re normally right.

For the ending – I knew Thorin died from my memory of the book, but I wonder how many people who hadn’t read the book (recently enough) got faked out by the bit where the orc is under the ice? I’d forgotten Fili & Kili died though, so that took me by surprise. I felt a bit sorry for Fili – the other two got a proper death scene with at least one person mourning, Fili just gets chucked off the tower & forgotten.

Kinda sad there’s not going to be any more films (or at least I’m assuming that’s extremely unlikely!). But then again, there’s going to be new Star Wars films soon, so that probably fills in my “one film a year” slot 😉