Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton

Tooth and Claw is a clever and hilarious piece of fantasy fiction.  Jo Walton has created a world of manners and intrigue that Trollope or Austen would have easily recognised.

 

Dragons fulfil the aristocratic role in a rigid, often ruthless, society.  The family of Dignified Bon Agornin are not pleased with the distribution of his wealth among his family which ran counter to his will and deathbed wishes.  In Tiamath wealth is measured in land and gold and industry and in also in dragon flesh.  Avan, whose growth and influence was definitely inhibited by the way in which he was cheated, decides to bring a legal case against the greediest transgressor, Illustrious Daverak.  The results of this affect the health and well-being of the rest of his family, particularly the  prospects of his unmarried sisters.  The resultant twisted path of pink scales, dowries and marriage beds does, however, ultimately reach an imminently satisfactory Victorian conclusion.

Jo Walton dresses the heads of her dragon protagonists, in accordance with situation and status, elegantly and evocatively.  She reveals a world in which some dragons are bound by oaths and some by servitude.  A world where criminality, corruption and non-conformists seethe beneath the self-satisfied social order.  A world which shares an uneasy border with the ancestral enemy, the Yarge.

The naughty escapades of dragonets, Gerin and Wontas, are influential in Selendra finding wealth and love.  Haner embarks upon her fight for the well-being of poor, down-trodden dragons.  Sebeth is rescued from poverty and obscurity by a death bed repentance.

The light-hearted, rollicking plot and the attractive characters in Tooth and Claw are enough to like but the way in which the author plays with Victorian pretensions adds depth and laughter to the novel.  I am certainly going to keep this one on my bookshelf so that I can read it again.

 

The difficulty finding an engrossing book …..

I read for a variety of reasons: to learn, to keep up-to-date and to be challenged but primarily I read to be entertained and taken out of myself. Sometimes I like the well trodden tales, no surprises and healthy helpings of justice and ‘happy-ever-afters’ though increasingly I have to duck and dive around the stereotypes and social clangers.  Most of all I love being swept up into an imaginary existence by a great writer where I persuaded to know things differently.  Such writers are hard to find!

During the last couple of weeks I have read some competent authors.  I have reread a couple of stories written in the 1950s and found ye olde rip-roaring tales undermined by heroes with no graces who somehow secure love and loyalty.  I have read a R.A Salvatore written in 2013 and wished all over again that he had stopped after the first few terrific novels about Dizzet Do’Urden.  I have read Red Rising by Pierce Brown which is well-written but stuffed with violence.  I found the body metamorphoses of the hero, Darrow, ridiculous but despite this Pierce did manage to make his character credible.  The loyalty to a dead love, which motivated all of his efforts, was stretched to snapping point.  It is a clever use of Roman mythology and history but I have decided that I prefer to read them in their original setting and have no desire to read the rest in the series.  I read Brilliant and Forever by Kevin MacNeil a surreal book about competing writers, one of whom is an alpaca,  which initially thrilled me and then wearied me. I could not like wading through the long periods drab prose, however symbolic, for those flashes of brilliance.  I read The Witches of Eden by Kate Forsyth which is about how jolly nice witches resist the depredations of nasty magic types; a quick read but not engaging enough to make me want to finish this series either.

And then I struck gold – two great books in a row.  But they each deserve their own review.

 

Fallen Dragon by Peter E. Hamilton

 

Fallen Dragon was recommended to me as ‘hard’ science fiction which I was not what I expected from the title.  The reason for the title was an edgy mystery for most of the book, which is more than 800 pages long, but revelation of the ‘dragon’ was rather underwhelming.

But back to the hard science fiction component of the novel.  There is indeed a lot of futuristic technology here; acres of detail about such as cyrogenic fuel, gamma soak, landing pods, Skin and  interfacing with personal AI via bracelets or pearls. Sometimes it was as if I was reading a raft of operating manuals though the author was good enough to keep me reading.   The majority of the description hones in on ‘advanced’ weaponry and fighting techniques, whereupon I realised that I was not only reading hard science fiction but a ‘shoot ’em up!

Now I have read my way through a lot of ‘fighting’ novels; I am familiar with Roman and Viking fighting styles, and with that of the Visigoths, the Huns, the Crusaders, the Tudors and the Russian Tzars.  I have a pretty good idea of the weaponry and tactics used to implement Spanish, British and French Imperialism.  I have read one hundred Westerns.  I have read about battles in WWI and  WWII.  I have read about intense battles in imaginary places.  Fallen Dragon ended up being a story in the style of macho WWII/Vietnam type platoon engagement with more whizzy weapons.

What makes a ‘fighting book’ bearable and credible is having an interest in the characters that fight.  Hamilton has expended too many words on things and too few on people.  I found the sexism, thuggery and moral vacuum of the soldiers, the ‘grunts’,  handling superb weapons and asset stripping extra-ordinary planets depressing and uninspiring; they were kept one-dimensional by clunky dialogue, inexplicable ignorance and limited ambition.  I cared not a whit when they were, predictably, killed off.  The main characters are Lawrence, the tough intelligent sergeant with plans to escape (though the words traitor and deserter are never used) from the military life and return to the luxurious life he foolishly abandoned in huff, and Denise, the clever rebel enacting clever plans to overthrow the corrupt and cruel corporations permanently.  They have a history!

Well, I did soldier on to the end of this novel.  Hamilton writes well at times and the carefully plotted sabotages were very good.   He could do with cutting out half of the operating manuals, a few worlds and spend some time on making his particpants more rounded than 1950’s cartoon characters.

 

The Other Minds / The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life by P. Godfrey-Smith

I am very enthusiastic about this book, Other Minds.  

Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life ebook by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life ebook by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life ebook by Peter Godfrey-SmithOther Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life ebook by Peter Godfrey-Smith

I have read  the book a couple of times already and I will read it a couple times more.  The density of the material that Peter Godfrey-Smith is presenting is challenging but in a way that makes me feel like I am being lifted higher in understanding not left bewailing my ignorance.  I do realise that being a scuba diver for thirty years may contribute to my enthusiasm but the careful, joyful descriptions of octopuses and the nature of their intelligence, as compared to ours, is enthralling.

The book begins with a personal encounter with an octopus, ‘I swam down repeatedly’, which piques the curiosity of the author and he leads on his study of the animal that results in this book.  The story of his increasing fascination with the evolutionary development, the physical structure and the capabilities of the octopus is gripping.

There is so much in this book. He explores the link between the structure of the body, the interplay between nerve and brain, and the way in which this informs an organisms perception and interaction with the environment is just mind-boggling.  Then there is the discussion about the awakening of consciousness, a subjective understanding whereby ‘senses do their basic work in real time unconsciously’ but if the ‘sensory streams are brought together there arises a recognition of time and self’.  The application of this definition to an octopus is absorbing.  Peter Godfrey-Smith is persuaded that octopus have a subjective understanding of the world; that they are curious and adaptive though he is cautious about the extent to which the colour changes on the skin could be called a language.  I found the science of the ‘thin magic skin’ which involves muscles deliberately stretching the cell sacs to make a colour visible or relaxing it for the opposite effect difficult but satisfying. I have to reread the section on the ‘reflecting cells in the next level of dermis’.  Perhaps that is Peter Godfrey-Smith’s greatest achievement that he so carefully uses his words that which is hard to comprehend becomes accessible.

Peter Godfrey-Smith is clear that the process of understanding the octopus has been gained, and continues to be gained through the years and layers of scientific observation and expression.  I did find some of the experiments referred to made me feel squeamish.  The author has a nice sense of the dramatic.  The last chapters of the book are about the short life-span of the octopus and an on-going observations of an octopus settlement near scallop fields in shell-lined dens is just amazing.  I am in full sympathy with Godfrey-Smith’s appeal in his final chapter for more careful and considerate use of the finite resources of the sea.

I do recommend  reading this book.

 

 

Darwath Trilogy by Barbara Hambly and Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

The Darwath Triology and Robopocalypse might seem odd bedfellows but in many ways they follow a similar story line and they both exhibit the same problem regarding their villains and their finishes.

The series by Barbara Hambly was recommended to me by a friend.  It is a well-written fantasy which makes good use of swords, horses and defensive constructions.  I did enjoy the first Book, The Time of the Dark, because it used the conceit of parallel worlds in an entertaining and effective way. Gil and Rudy are American misfits who find heroic purpose fighting The Dark in Alketch through training, self-knowledge and commitment.  They are guided through this purpose by the flawed wizard, Ingold, whose understanding of the Void is the key to story.  They join an array of entertaining characters in the series of battles, mostly desperate and futile,  against The Dark which imperils independent human life on the world.

Robopocalypse was recommended to me by the blogger, The Critiquing Chemist, is science fiction and also generally a well-written story.  This novel, told through historical documents by survivor, Cormac “Bright Boy” Wallace, is set in a future where robots, present in every aspect of human life, begin to kill people under the guidance of Big Rob.  An array of entertaining characters, gritty, noble and innovative, engage in mostly futile and desperate battles to avoid annihilation and slavery using 21st century weapons, reclaimed robots and teamwork.

The similarity between these two novels is that both authors have created super-strong, intelligent, villainous oppositions which cruelly kill or enslave humans.  In fact the Dark and Big Rob’s robots are so empowered, not only in abilities but in numbers, that I am unconvinced in both novels when the humans prevail.  In fact the humans win in both cases through the intervention of a super being, Ingold, the wizard who uses his magical powers, and Nine Oh Two, the freebot with superior physical and moral worth.   Once again great starts have fallen away into not so wonderful, cartoon finishes.

Spell for Chameleon by Piers Anthony and Down Station by Simon Morden

The intention of fantasy/science fiction book group to which I belong is to read one ‘old’ text and one ‘new’.  Not only am I reading the current books selected by the group but I am considering options for my own suggestions. Quite by accident two of the novels I recently read fall into that arrangement, A Spell for a Chameleon by Piers Anthony and Down Station by Simon Morden

A Spell for Chameleon (Xanth #1)Down Station (Down Station, #1)

I went looking for a novel by Piers Anthony; I wanted to reread Orn.  I remembered elements of the story and remember being particularly fascinated by the eponymous character with his inherited memory.  We, of the OSFF book group, have quickly realised that a recommendation of an old favourite without a recent reassessment can be very embarrassing.  There is nothing that dates faster than science fiction and fantasy! Why is this so?  I have a lot of ideas; it is a topic I am pondering and will return to.

I didn’t find Orn so I read A Spell for a Chameleon which I had not read before; unlike my brother I have not read all of Piers Anthony’s books.  And I am so glad that I did!  It is a romp of a book.  The magical land of Xanthe is quirky, vivid and magical. Bink’s journey, in search of his elusive magical talent, or face exile to Mundania, allows Anthony to create a madcap series of adventures with mythical creatures and monstrous dangers.  Yet, despite the derring-do style of hero and is friends the novel has some interesting insights to offer on the use and abuse of power, corruption, ambition, personal growth and societal development.

At times this book is at times pretentious with Bink’s, and I presume Anthony’s, pronouncements on ideal  woman though the humour keeps this from getting too grating.  The similar tale has been told by Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath.  This part of the book reads like prose version of the songs ‘I’m a Bitch’ by Meredith Brooks and Shelly Peikin  and ‘Always a Woman to Me’ by Billy Joel.  I note with interest that Billy Joel’s song was written in the same year as A Spell for a Chameleon 1977.

I did think that the middle sagged a bit with the excess of the wondrous beasties, marvellous escapes and hammering the motif of loyalty, though it weathers forty years very well being clever and well-written.  There are a raft of further Xanthe novels but I will count myself lucky to have read just this one.

Down Station by Simon Morden was written in 2016 is also set in a magical world where the ability to transform is a central theme, however, in this novel the degree to which the super-ego controls the id affects the nature of the transformation.  I found the beginning of this novel enthralling.  I loved the concept of slipping through a door into a primeval world to escape inevitable death when there is fire in London’s Underground.  I loved the characters Morden has created in Dalip and Stanislav though I was always a bit doubtful about Mary.  The process by which foul-mouthed Mary moves from raging self-interest to magnificent loyalty, from vindictiveness to mercy, is unconvincing especially as the person most likely to evoke that feeling in the circumstances, Mama, is sidelined in favour of the moral Dalip.

The battles let this novel down as the reasoning for why they arose was often weak.  The last battle of the novel was not credible even within the permitted bounds of a fantasy novel.  Dalip, who is the most captivating character, failed to rescue the sense of Down Station with his inexplicable sympathy for a leader who had orchestrated slavery, torture and the disembowelment of a guard.  I have no interest in accompanying these characters through sequels as they head for the Crystal City and seek the meaning of maps.  With the loss of Stanislav the novel lurched from coherent to fantastic though I accept that Dalip may still save the day and the story.

Once Upon A Time by Marina Warner

 

I loved this little book, Once Upon A Time A short history of the fairy tale, by Marina Warner.  I love the dense way in which it has been written, the beautiful black and white illustrations, the breadth of the knowledge and delightful way the small hardback book can be held in my hand.  This book not only discusses the elements and variety of fairy tales but in its form  echo the fairy tales about which Marina Warner is writing.

I have learnt such a lot about reading fairy tales and that this translates into reading fantasy fiction.  Indeed, according to Warner, ‘fairy tales have grown out’ of being considered children’s literature and ‘have gained a new stature over the last twenty years, both as inspiration for literature , and for mass lucrative entertainment.’  In this small volume she refers to a huge range of fairy tales, considers their provenance, the collectors, the commentators and creators of the current fairy tales. In the beginning of Once Upon A Time she cites Tolkien’s essay, ‘On Fairy-Stories’ which says ‘the Cauldron of Story (especially of fairy-stories) has always been boiling, and to which have continually been added new bits, dainty and undainty.’  Towards the end she assesses the stunning effect the cinematic version of fairy tales. She refers to how ‘Ariel, Disney’s flame-haired Little Mermaid , has eclipsed her wispy and poignant predecessors, conjured chiefly by the word’s of Anderson’s story.’

I think that I enjoyed the latter part of the book most.  In the chapters ‘On the Couch’ and ‘Double Vision’ Warner discusses the way that fantastic stories propagate certain cultural bias.  This leads people, such as feminists or anti-colonialists, to talk back at fairy tales; Angela Carter emancipates the female in the fairy tale, Kafka answers with even darker fables and Voltaire utilises marvels to mock society.  They are cleaned up and watered down.  Warner considers how the fairy tales were altered to express the value of the collectors and illustrators.  She even claims that fairy tales provide camouflage for political rebellion.

She bewails the tendency of the current fairy tale to follow the dark paths and overthrow the creation of that alternative world where there is a happy ending.

The extensive list of references to other scholars writing about fairy tales and fantasy alone makes this book a little gem.  Warner strives to distill the characteristics of fairy tales and in so doing makes us realise how many other forms of artistic expression including ballet and opera draw upon these elements.  But it is her sentence about how ‘the helplessness of humans in the grip of chance count as the sharpest message of fairy tales’ that resonates most strongly with me.