Review of Charles Stross’s Empire Games

Empire Games
Charles Stross
London: Pan Macmillan, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-4472-4539-2
331 pp.

I first came across the work of Charles Stross through his Merchant Princes series, which postulated a parallel earth (and, subsequently, a number of different earths) and a small group of people who could travel between them by some sort of magic-like technology. The parallel earth is medieval in technology and society and its leaders want rapid economic development, largely so as to reinforce their own power. Consequently, they organize a large-scale organized trade in illegal drugs, which eventually brings about their downfall in a hail of nuclear bombs. All of this is revealed at the beginning of the current book so do not qualify as spoilers. It is the political and, particularly, the economic elements of the story that drew praise and support from Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman.

After the six episodes of the Merchant Princes, Stross moved on to other ideas. There were some one off space adventures, as I recall, which were OK and then the development of his Laundry series. This series combined Lovecraftian horror with British satire. Although it has been extremely popular, I never really took to it and, indeed, stopped buying the books some years ago. As a result, I hadn’t read any Stross for a number of years. So, it was a bit of a surprise to see Empire Games prominently displayed in Taipei’s Son Min bookshop and representing itself as a return to the Merchant Princes storyline and, also, a delight.

Considering the ending of the previous series and bearing in mind the author’s penchant for writing multi-novel storylines (unless it is the preference of the publisher or his agent), it is not surprising that this first novel does quite a lot to set up the series for development over the next few years. The book begins with an explanation of the world as we now know it, which means it would be possible to start the series without having read the previous one, although to do so would be a willful denial of pleasure. There are four main timelines presented. One of these is the nuked Gruinmarkt, which is unlikely to play a large part of the narrative for the foreseeable future. There is our own timeline, which of course has the history of the previous interactions with the Clan of world-walkers. The third timeline is the one discovered by Miriam, the principal protagonist of the first series but less significant so far here. That world sees confrontation between the British and French empires, which dominate the world. This is the place where the remnants of the Clan have taken refuge and from which Miriam is plotting a series of urgent technological great leaps forward to protect themselves from the inevitable discovery by the America of our world. Alas, we still have President Rumsfeld in charge and his USA contains all the dangerous poison of racism and intolerance that is evident under the real-life incumbent. A secret war between the two worlds has, in effect, been declared but the Americans are hampered by lack of world-walking ability. This is where our new principal protagonist, Rita, enters the scene. It is discovered by the Homeland Security spooks that Rita, daughter of a Miriam she has never known, can be made into their own stars and stripes world-walker. Hence, the action unfurls from these initial premises.

This is a great return to form, in my opinion. The character of Rita is engaging enough and the action scenes taut and gripping. The dialogue is as good as might be found in any fantasy or science fiction genre (the book could be placed in either of these sections in bookshops that distinguish books in this way). Above all, there is a sense of inherent doom in the fourth timeline, which is currently gripped by an ice age, where the mysterious forerunners have left behind powerful technologies, perhaps because of some terrible disaster.

Stross writes superior fiction because of his willingness to engage in the political implications of the worlds about which he writes. His revolutions are believable and his portrayal of the masses, who are given sufficient walk-on parts to make sure the reader is aware of their presence. The suspension of disbelief is so much easier to swallow as a result.

This is a very readable and enjoyable book and I look forward to reading the forthcoming episodes.

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Review of Three Moments of an Explosion

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Three Moments of an Explosion

China Miéville

China Miéville has established himself as a significant writer of weird fiction, to the extent that academic works about his stories have started to appear. However, when thinking about writing this review for his latest collection of short stories, it strikes me that he had not written many books recently. Chicking his bibliography online, I notice that the wonderful trilogy of Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council came out between 2000-4, while there was only Un Lun Dun until The City and the City (2009). The terrible Kraken came the following year and then there was Embassytown (2011) and Railsea (2012). It is now 2016 and still no new novel. I note that two novellas are scheduled to appear this year and there are some other works listed. Well, he is entitled to work at his own pace, of course, and I am aware of his other interests, including his political engagement with Left Unity and other organizations. His commitment to the representation of the working classes in literature and in life remains evident.

I mention all of this because of a faint sense of disappointment with Three Moments of an Explosion which prompted the thought that perhaps the novel was the form that saw his best work. That is not to say the book is no good – there are many stories of staggering vivacity and depth – yet overall it is not clear what themes have been expected. There is not the same cohesion of thought that was notable in Looking for Jake, which was a smaller but more powerful collection first published in 2005. The title, presumably, punningly refers to both time and space. The explosion is viewed at three distinct periods of time and, also, in its tendency to cause rotation around an axis. This is evident from The Condition of New Death, in which a global phenomenon sees all dead people (new death people, that is) become rigid, prone, with their feet always pointing toward the observer. Miéville’s understanding of the role of politics in everyday living is clear here: “Now, with the last verified Old Death having occurred six years ago, and the upgrading of all human death seemingly complete, we are inured enough to the scenes of countless New Dead left by drone strike, terrorist attack, landslide and pandemic that it can be hard to recall the shock occasioned by that first spectacle (p.25).” New Death is simultaneously objective and subjective in nature and this ‘epochal thanatological revolution’ has brought about profound epistemological changes in society, which are hinted at in the conclusion to a short but striking piece. The Rope Is the World is one of several stories that consider the notions of isolation and alienation in a degraded environment and their impact on people’s lives. Capitalism and its pathologies underlie the action but are rarely directly investigated, just as good fiction should follow the show don’t tell dictum. In another story, people at festivals are given the opportunity to wear animal heads and lead parades. Subsequently, some of the successful ones form an addictive attitude to the heads and leave society to live a kind of feral existence – it is difficult to be completely feral in contemporary Britain. Many of the stories are firmly rooted in Britain, mostly in England, as the characters travel from Thanet to Tooting to Maida Vale. At the centre, figuratively if not always geographically, is London, the great and ancient metropolis that has regularly appeared in Miéville’s fiction.

This is a very rewarding and enjoyable collection that repays careful reading and consideration. The characters struggle against difficult environments on the edge of total collapse and live their lives accordingly. Often, we the readers know why what has gone wrong has done so but the characters do not, which again returns to the politics of everyday living. Having now reflected on the collection, I could now return to the beginning and recast the review to focus on this politics as the central theme or, at least, one thematic approach within a diverse compendium.

Goblin Emperor

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The Goblin Emperor

Katherine Addison

An apparent accident with an airship has led to the death of powerful elven emperor and his immediate successors – these elves apparently do not follow the British tradition that says that monarch and heir or similar combinations should not travel by air together. Suddenly, then, to his own great surprise and the outrage of most of the remainder of the court, a young half-goblin called Maia, the only child of the tragic fourth wife of the previous emperor, ascends to the throne. Having been held in little regard by the court (there is also a suggestion of discrimination which is not outwardly mentioned in a world of glacial, deeply bourgeois manners and mannerisms), the new emperor is utterly unprepared for this change of lifestyle. He had been raised in an abusive household with an unloved and unlovely guardian and lacked basic knowledge about the empire, not to mention the poise and ability to converse with his subjects that might have been expected of him. Learning how to acquire this burnish, savoir faire and ability to survive in what turns out to be quite a dangerous environment forms the main content of this thoroughly entertaining novel. Presumably, this being the fantasy genre, the author is planning a series of such books and, if so, I would be happy to read more of them.

The elven empire is based quite strongly on the historical Chinese empire of about the Sung dynasty in vintage, albeit with the addition of some steampunk-like technology, mostly in the field of communications. Gender relations in the aristocracy, for example, are comparable, although in China Maia would have been considered something of a late-starter and his father would have been expected to have an extensive harem of wives in various categories and additional concubines. The nature of the imperial household and the work that was expected of the emperor also rings true, more or less. There are some delightful additions drawn from the elfishness of things, such as the telltale signs of emotion given away by twitching of the ears. Formal names are also pleasing, since they contain an apparent wealth of meaning (although they are not explained). For example, the previous emperor was known as Varenchibel, while Maia takes the regnal name Edrehasivar VII Drazhar and occupies the court Untheileneise. It is there that he entertains the Great Avar of Barizhan, who is the leader of the Xi Xia to Maia’s China. I would anticipate seeing more of him and his people in the future. Presumably, having established himself as the legitimate emperor, Maia will be required to look outside of the court and deal with foreign relations, warfare and natural disasters and so forth.

The writing of the prose is consistently done and has a certain poetry to it, particularly the dialogue, although I would have liked to have seen more of the discourse and conversation informed by cultural phenomena (e.g. poetry, legends) as would have been engineered by the great Dorothy Dunnett. Tastes would vary in this regard, since many readers would find the text forbidding as a result. There is also a slight issue, to my mind, as to how Maia arrives at the epiphanies that help him navigate the court, since these seem quite easily come by without sufficient suffering or intellectual struggle. However, this is a minor issue and the book itself I can heartily recommend.

Review of Esslemont’s Assail

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I have been reading books about the Malazan empire for more than a decade now and was a little surprised when, half way through reading this one, noticed on the cover that it was to be the last. There were ten or a dozen novels in the original series by Steven Erikson, at least one prequel and a couple of books of short stories (which are adjacent to rather than part of the same universe) and several by Erikson’s partner Esslemont. Each of these books has been, like most fantasy novels seem to be these days, fairly weighty works of many hundreds of pages. So I have been reading this series for more hours than I care to imagine.

Read the full review here.

Review of Esslemont’s Blood and Bone

 

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This is another of a long series of books about the Malazan Empire written by the current author, Ian C Esslemont, and the senior partner in the writing team Steven Erikson. The novels have various stylistic and content issues in common, not least the use of multiple perspectives and the lengthy list of characters. The central concept is the march of the armies of the Malazan Empire around the different countries of this world; the sympathy given to the soldiers, which is in many ways admirable, tends to lend an air of support to the underlying imperialism of the basic concept which is occasionally irritating.

Read the full review here.

 

Review of Martin’s A Storm of Swords

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This is the third of George R.R. Martin’s wildly successful series of fantasy novels known as the Game of Thrones. It has been raised to an entirely new level of popularity by being screened as a series of high-budget and rather spectacular television programmes. In fact, it is thanks to the TV version that I decided to carry on reading this series: I have read and reviewed the first two books elsewhere on this site and was rather underwhelmed – there did not seem to be a full and believable world for the characters to inhabit, the language and particularly the dialogue is too often stilted and it probably did not help that so many of the protagonists are children – each of the books (the first three, anyway) is divided into chapters and each one takes the first person perspective of one of the protagonists and, frankly, children (especially other people’s children) are just not that interesting.

Read the full review here.

Review of Erikson’s Forge of Darkness

Steven Erikson made his reputation with the ten volume series on the Malazan Empire and, since that is some three million words long, all of which I have read, not to mention several collections of short fiction, it seems I have read more by him than I have read of any other author. That I then immediately bought and began reading this current book, which starts a trilogy set a quarter of a million years before the action starts in the main series, indicates that I am one of Erikson’s many fans.

Read the full review here.