Sunday, February 27, 2011

Review - Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

Bitter Seeds is Ian Tregillis’ first novel, though a reader would never guess that. It is a dark, troubling, ambitious alternate history retelling of World War II. As alternate histories go, this era is perhaps more commonplace than any other. It is the fulcrum of modern history, and as such gets appropriate attention. And those greedy Germans make for perfect villains.

To his credit, Tregillis finds a way to stake an original claim on this period of history. His Germans a suitably villainous, though not the complete foil that so often appear. The English come off as at least as shifty and dislikable, since they are willing to do just about anything – pay any price – to avoid being taken by the Germans.

In this WWII, the Germans have scientifically-engineered a limited number of individuals with incredible talents – one individual is able to create (and clothe himself) in fire. A second can make himself essentially a ghost for limited periods of time with the ability to walk through walls and allow bullets to pass through him. The process by which this set of characters is created is left shadowy throughout, though we are led to know that the procedure is incredibly cruel.

By contrast, the English have discovered a way to fend off the almost-unstoppable German surge. Magic. A small subgroup of Englishmen has the ability to negotiate with a race of cosmic godlike creatures. This sounds strange, but it works within the construct of the story.

The story’s villain – one thinks, though we’re never entirely certain – is Gretel, one of the re-engineered Germans whose “gift” or superpower is an ability to see the future. She is an enigmatic character whose motives are always in doubt, and whose foreknowledge plays an intricate role in the unfolding of the plot. She is also an apparent sociopath with little or no concern for other lives, and often a blatant disregard for them.

The protagonists are two Brits; Raybould Marsh, a secret agent, and William Beauclerk, a friend of Marsh and a noble schooled in the secret arts of a warlock. When Marsh discovers the Germans’ secret weapons, he turns to his old friend as a way to counter the threat.

The British magic is, in its way, reminiscent of the magic in Susannah Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, though I don’t think it this novel ever achieves either the believability or potency of Clarke’s alternate England. Tregillis’ magic exacts a terrifying cost, though the ground rules for its use and the reasons for that cost are not well explained.

Marsh and Beauclerk, as protagonists, I found rather lacking. They certainly change throughout the novel – as anyone who endures their suffering would – but at no point do they truly strike me as human characters. Perhaps it is because the reader does so much skipping around through the various characters’ heads, but their transformation and decision-making rationale throughout the novel never seems fluid or well-defined.

Marsh, as the primary protagonist, should be understandable. Accessible to the reader. And somehow he never is. His grief, his regret, his pain. They are implied, but seldom felt. Beauclerk, at least, translates as a troubled and pain-ridden character, haunted by the things he’s done. Even by the novel’s end, Marsh is still an alien subject for me, and I’m left with only a vague distaste and repulsion.

That is the novel’s primary weakness.

For me, the most compelling of the novel’s characters was Klaus, one of the gifted superhuman Germans whose conscience and understanding slowly emerges throughout the course of the novel. He is the most realistically-drawn, the most relatable, of the novel’s characters. Gretel – the strange, sociopathic “precog” – is Klaus’s sister, and yet we realize that he understands her no better than we do. Perhaps less so.

Some aspects of the real WWII are notably missing, though whether this is through omission or Tregillis' alternative vision is unclear. Though we are constrained by viewpoints, the Final Solution to the Jewish Question – the pogroms and concentration camps and cattle-trains full of Jews – is scarcely mentioned. The Russian front – and how the Red Army succeeds against the invading Reich – is left hazy. Some answers are given, but they remain unsatisfactory. It remains to be seen why, if the war in the east was going so poorly, the Nazis did not employ their team of superhuman soldiers on that front. It seems likely that the Reich would use every weapon at its disposal to turn the tide of a war that had begun to go against them.

These are legitimate problems with the novel. Its strengths, however, are many. The prose is fluid and clear, at times excellent. The settings are vividly drawn and believable. Tregillis has done his research, and that gives this fantastic premise the ring of believability.

We are tragically drawn into the pain and loss of the war and the gut-wrenching decisions involved. Given a decision between two evils, what choice do you make? What price is too much? We are drawn back to Churchill’s dictum: Never, never, never, never give up. Sounds like great advice, in hindsight. What does that mean, when we examine it in more detail? When we put a human face, a human cost, on the balance?

This novel raises that question, but we are left to draw our own conclusions. As the first novel in a trio, perhaps the author’s stance will become clearer in later books. We are left instead with a pessimistic vacuum at the end of this novel, an unsettling ending that leaves an acrid flavor in the mouth, as the novel’s title suggests. There is very little human joy, little thought of redemption remaining. Only an echo of Babies. Monsters. caroming through my brain.

All the same, this is a novel worth reading. I’m afraid I haven’t done a suitable job of selling that conclusion, but it is the truth. I am interested in knowing where the next two novels are going, and I will be hitching along for the ride.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Review - The Innkeeper's Song by Peter S. Beagle

I finished this book a few weeks back but I’m just now getting around to the full review. I'll give the disclaimer that this was a re-read, not my first experience with the novel.

Peter Beagle’s The Innkeeper’s Song is not a new book. Far from it. It was initially published in 1993. I read it years ago and it has remained one of my favorite fantasy novels.

When my turn arrived to suggest a book for my fantasy reading group (a weighty responsibility) I considered and sorted through twenty-odd novels before settling, not without great trepidation, on The Innkeeper’s Song.

The problem with suggesting a favorite novel read in the past is that they often fail to measure up to your initial impression. Few novels that I read ten years ago or more retain the same charm they had upon their initial reading. We all grow more critical - more jaded in some ways - as we age.

Thankfully, this was not the issue with this novel. In fact, I found that it had grown upon me since my last reading. Beagle is a masterful stylist. I’d recently rediscovered much of Beagle’s short fiction due to an anthology titled Mirror Kingdoms released last year by Subterranean Press. So the high quality of the writing was no surprise to me. Full of wonderful, unexpected metaphors and a subtlety that relies upon the intelligent reader to make connections.

    Lilies, corpses, ghosts – if these are white, then there must be another word for that woman’s skin. It seemed to me, gaping in the road, that her color was the color of something inside her, some bright, fierce life thumping and burning away with no thought at all for her body, no care or pity for it at all.

His narrative style jumps from character to character, allowing us to see each individual chapter from a different character's viewpoint – a style that George RR Martin adopts in his Song of Ice & Fire series of books. Some points-of-view work better than others. The Fox – a shapeshifter – is marvelous throughout, one of my favorite characters in all of fantasy literature.

    Pigeons. Lift up my nose, no ceiling, no rafters between us. Close my eyes and see rumblysoft pigeon dark, juicy wing-beats filling the air with dust and grain, fluffy little under-feathers drift down. Much talking, much shifty-shuffly on their nests, restless with me. Close their pretty eyes like drops of blood, they see me, too.

The plot is not as strong as the prose itself. There is one long stretch of subplot involving two characters that is entirely unnecessary to the novel as a whole, other than to buy time and create some sort of quest adventure. It reminds me of a similar piece of unnecessary subplot in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind.

Some characters – most notably Tikat – come across a bit flat, or at least fail to entirely capture the reader’s imagination. Tikat is the first character we meet in the novel and it is assumed that he will be the primary protagonist. That is not the case. He is the least fleshed-out of the characters and the reader never really identifies with his motivation.

All that said, the novel overcomes its shortcomings so incredibly well because of Beagle’s skill with language. Chapters are given in first-person POV. Beagle flows effortlessly in and out of stream-of-consciousness. This gives the narrative a breathless, headlong speed – like a train rolling downhill – when it’s needed. In places, a fierce musicality. At other times the tone is slower, more reflective.

There were a number of instances I found myself - alone in my reading chair - whispering the words aloud to myself as if I were chanting a song. The song of the Fox, of the stable-boy Rosseth who is so charmingly and realistically drawn. The song of Lal-Alone, of Nyateneri and the Man Who Laughs. The innkeeper's song. My own.

I was asked several times during the course of the group discussion why I’d chosen that particular book. My answer was simple. Some books you love because they’re wonderful, magical, exciting, poetic, even all of the above. Some books you simply wish you’d written. This is one of those, for me.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Early February Writing Update

Hmm. I realized that I stated in my first post that this blog was going to be primarily about my writing. One month in…nothing. So, time for an update I suppose.

Current submission log = four stories. Three spec fiction stories and one literary story out right now. I’m feeling cautiously confident. One story, “Deerslayer” (not, incidentally, by James Fenimore Cooper, yuk), has been out to a major magazine for about sixty days. I received an email about twenty days in that my story had been shortlisted and sent forward to the primary fiction editor, who happens to be a well-known and fabulous writer. So, fingers still crossed on that one.

I like to think with each day that passes “Deerslayer” has survived another round of cullings. Probably not true, but I amuse myself in this way. It may be that upon receiving the manuscript the aforementioned editor immediately burned and spread its ashes on the four winds while cackling maniacally. It’s a distinct possibility (and a great image). But one I try not to dwell on.

My output for January? Meh. Two new short stories, the second of which bled into the first couple days of February. They are two stories I’m very happy with, however. They surprised me. Almost wrote themselves, once I started the snowball rolling. I love it when that happens, especially when things don’t go the way I plan them. I love to be surprised.

The first of them is making the rounds of the magazines. The second is “in utero” so to speak, receiving some first-reader feedback and undergoing preliminary edits. I’ve already made some major upgrades. Hopefully it will be ready for submission later this week.

The novel? Slow. I finished a few chapters during January. But it’s been hard-going, primarily because I want to have a better idea where things are going before I move too far ahead. When a short story takes you to unexpected places, its easy to adapt. When a novel does…major reconfiguration. There are many threads that have to knot together into a coherent whole. But I’m getting there. Just don’t wait up for me.