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Review: Marc Turner’s When The Heavens Fall, reviewed by Liz Bourke...

When The Heavens Fall by Marc Turner
(Tor US, ISBN 978-0-7653-3712-2, 544pp, $27.99/$32.50 CAN, HC) May 2015. Cover by Richard Anderson.
Reviewed by Liz Bourke

Epic fantasy is a broad field, and one that produce a great deal of argument. (What exactly does one mean by epic fantasy, after all?) The quality of literary production within this field is extremely variable. At its best, epic fantasy tells affecting stories with mythic resonance: it makes the reader both feel and think. At its worst, it descends into a morass of undigested tropes and unreadable prose.

Somewhere in the middle lies Marc Turner’s debut novel from Tor, When The Heavens Fall, billed as “The First Novel in the Chronicles of the Exile.” Not every book is for every reader, but from where I stand, When The Heavens Fall is definitely closer to the worst end of the bell curve than the best. Four words are fatal when a reader applies them to a book.

Those words are: “Why should I care?”

There is a man with a MacGuffin. The mage Mayot has acquired the artefact known as the Book of Lost Souls, a repository of necromantic power that can give its wielder power over the dead: enough power to threaten Shroud, the god of death. Mayot has made his lair in the Forest of Sighs and begun amassing an army of the undead, in order to challenge the death god himself. Destruction and death on a grand scale are inevitable with that kind of power at stake — especially when every other ambitious type on the continent, or possibly the world, wants to claim the book’s power for themselves.

When The Heavens Fall follows four separate viewpoint characters: Romany, priestess of a goddess known as the Spider; Ebon, a prince of Galitia and later its king; Parolla, a young woman with great power in terms of death magic who seeks vengeance on Shroud; and Luker, a Guardian — a kind of soldier-sorcerer. None of them know each other, nor do they encounter each other until well into the final hundred pages. (Romany, in fact, ends the novel without encountering or significantly affecting the other three at all.) All of them are in some way affected by Mayot’s possession of the Book of Lost Souls. Parolla senses its power and sets out towards it, hoping to find a portal through which she can pass to challenge the death god. Luker is summoned back into service by the leader of his order at the command of a corrupt emperor and sent with companions to reclaim the book from Mayot. Ebon finds his city under attack by Mayot’s army of undead and with uncertain allies, breaks free from the siege and sets out to try to stop the undead onslaught. And Romany is under orders from her goddess to assist Mayot against the agents of Shroud, until the time is ripe to betray him — and it strikes me as tone-deaf at best to name the plump, vain, backstabbing-scheming character “Romany.”

Apart from Romany, all three viewpoint characters spend the majority of the novel travelling, resting from travelling, and fighting things and people encountered while travelling. Romany spends the majority of the novel sitting in one place decoying powerful redshirts to their death and spying on Mayot, until she herself is killed. Her narrative thread exists essentially to give a viewpoint on Mayot, his confused goals, and several random redshirt encounters. She has no goals of her own, apart from those imparted by her goddess — whose instructions she obeys in a desultory fashion — and the narrative spends little time developing her arc in a meaningful fashion. One remains uncertain of her motivation for obeying her goddess in the first place.

Motivation and character development are not in general things to which When The Heavens Fall pays a great deal of attention. This is a novel that is more concerned with flashy set-piece fights and random encounters on the world map, with describing monsters and warriors, than with building solid character arcs and developing anything resembling a theme. In many ways, its approach to narrative and it shallow — and occasionally confused — attitude to characterisation and character motivation reminds me of a roleplaying game. At a cursory glance, it hangs together: look for very long, and the logic may well fall apart. Only one of the narrative threads — Luker’s — has anything like life and personality, but one of four can’t carry an entire novel.

The dialogue is generally clunky. One character speaks in ungrammatical Early Modern English — one supposes to indicate his ancient vintage. The prose is workmanlike, with a handful of striking descriptive turns. The climax is a chaotic mess, and the resolution is in no way earned.

Finishing When The Heavens Fall was a struggle, and not one I recommend.

Review: Kaleidoscope and Irregularity, reviewed by Liz Bourke...

Kaleidoscope, edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios, ISBN 9781922101112. Twelfth Planet Press, 2014.
Irregularity, edited by Jared Shurin, ISBN 9780992817213. Jurassic London, 2014.
Reviewed by Liz Bourke.

Reading Kaleidoscope and Irregularity back to back is an illuminating exercise. They’re both themed anthologies — Kaleidoscope as the result of a crowdfunding campaign to produce a collection of diverse short fiction; Irregularity to coincide with the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich’s Longitude Season — both produced by small presses, and both bear the imprint of decided editorial tastes. They have similarities: but in terms of overall quality, they are strikingly different. As a collection, Kaleidoscope is a stunning and successful achievement; Irregularity, on the other hand, is rather more of an interesting failure.

This may in part be due to the difference in lengths: Kaleidoscope contains twenty separate stories to Irregularity‘s fourteen. Irregularity‘s weaknesses thus fade less easily into the background, when compared with Kaleidoscope‘s. And yet there’s hardly a story in Kaleidoscope I didn’t enjoy reading, and some — like Tansy Rayner Roberts’ “Cookie Cutter Superhero,” Alena McNamara’s “The Day The God Died,” and Amal El-Mohtar’s “The Truth About Owls” — I found profoundly moving. While some, like Vylar Kaftan’s “Ordinary Things,” are only borderline SFF, on the whole they combine fantastical settings and conceits with real and vital human relationships. This is most pronounced in Ken Liu’s “The Seventh Day of the Seventh Moon,” when two soon-to-be-parted lovers find themselves face-to-face with a famous (and famously parted) couple from Chinese mythology, or in Hugo-Award-winning John Chu’s “Double Time,” where the focus is on a competitive ice skater’s fraught relationship with her mother. Chu’s “Double Time” ends on a disappointingly weak note, but this, the second-last story in the collection, is only the second time I felt a story had noticeably failed to live up to its promise (the first is Sean Eads’ “Celebration,” which tries to do too much with too little). As if to compensation for the surprising flatness of Chu’s ending, William Alexander’s elegiac “Welcome” closes out the anthology on a high.

Kaleidoscope‘s stories, true to the collection’s mission statement, feature a truly diverse array of protagonists: people with disabilities, people of colour, people of diverse sexualities, neurodiverse people, people who are some combination of these, or more. “The Truth About Owls,” a story to which I find myself returning, circles around problems of belonging and power and language and alienation, seen through the eyes of a young immigrant from the Lebanon and her relationship with the Scottish Owl Centre. “The Day The God Died” aches with loneliness. Other stories turn to less bittersweet endings, but throughout the collection, with the exception perhaps of “Celebration,” the protagonists’ difference from an assumed straight white ablebodied cisgender Anglophone “norm,” while vital and integral to the narrative, isn’t the point. These aren’t message stories — unless the message is: “We’re here.”

Irregularity‘s stories aren’t message stories either. The strongest of them concern themselves with knowledge — gaining it, failing with it, and its inevitable prices. Unfortunately, some of them barely seem to qualify as stories: one such example is M. Suddain’s “The Darkness,” which imagines Samuel Pepys in a steampunk version London being consumed by a Darkness whose spread, readers will recognise, mimics that of the Great Fire, told as a series of diary entries that appears to have no point beyond Steampunk Pepys And The Inexplicable Thing!

Others, meanwhile, take up an image or a conceit and never quite succeed in bringing it to a satisfactory emotional or narrative payoff. A story in this mode is Adam Roberts’ “The Assassination of Isaac Newton By The Coward Robert Boyle,” which is a fairly entertaining shaggy-dog story featuring a time-travelling Robert Boyle and his confrontation with Isaac Newton. It is enlivened by its similarity to a Socratic dialogue, its references both obscure and obvious, and Roberts’ own peculiar brand of humour, but it remains essentially a shaggy-dog story. Kim Curran’s “A Woman Out Of Time” posits inhuman forces bent on supporting patriarchal systems as a historic imperative… and leaves a sour pointless taste in the mouth. What are these forces? Why do they act as they do? They just do, and that’s the story.

Some of the stories — “The Last Escapement,” by James Smythe; “Footprint,” by Archie Black — achieve emotional force in a gothic manner: the power of the narrative is in the creeping sense of horror and unease that culminates in a permanent, and not positive, alteration to the narrator or their personal world. Others succeed in creating a powerful sense of place. Several include historical figures of the scientific Enlightenment, including Ada, Countess Lovelace, and a Charles Darwin (who doesn’t sound very much like the Darwin I recall from his The Voyage of the Beagle).

But Irregularity‘s three best, most effective stories are the first three in the Table of Contents: Nick Harkaway’s “Prologue: Irregularity,” a playful and irreverent short piece concerned with libraries and knowledge; Rose Biggins’ cunningly-told “A Game Proposition,” in which the reader only gradually realises what’s going on; and E.J. Swift’s “The Spiders of Stockholm,” in which knowledge — in this case, scientific knowledge about spiders — carries an unexpected price for the child protagonist.

It’s an interesting collection, but taken as a whole, nowhere near as successful as Kaleidoscope.

Review: Helen Marshall’s Gifts for the One Who Comes After, reviewed by Claire Humphrey...

Helen Marshall, Gifts for the One Who Comes After, ISBN 9781771483025, ChiZine Publications, Nov 2014. Reviewed by Claire Humphrey.

Helen Marshall’s second collection, following two years on from her acclaimed Hair Side, Flesh Side, is a skilled butcher’s knife, slipping under the reader’s skin and lifting it away, baring nerve endings to the sharp bite of air. Viscera are reeled out and read; shameful appetites are exposed. By the end of the collection we are all complicit: Marshall’s world is one in which all flesh is alive, and everyone must eat.

Gifts for the One Who Comes After: the title implies family legacies, and families do populate almost all of the stories. They’re refreshingly complicated and realistic families, trapped together in love and dislike, and calling their legacies “gifts” is a dark irony. The collection opens with “The Hanging Game”, in which the protagonist muses “about the things our parents leave us, the good and the bad, and whether a thing is ever truly over”. But the legacies don’t only pass from parent to child; some pass from wife to husband, from grandparent to grandchild, or even from child back to parent. Always, those who come after are full of resentment, grief, and fear for those who went before.

Marshall has mastered the rich central metaphor. In “The Slipway Grey”, a husband ponders his late wife’s wedding dress, moth-eaten to tatters that mirror his own damaged lungs. In “Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects” a child adopts a soup can as a proxy for her coming sibling; she, the soup can, the new baby, and the parents are all equally hollow, filled with things which, once consumed, cannot be restored. In “The Gallery of the Eliminated”, a boy gets to see a supernatural zoo of extinct animals, but only when his family is on the brink of its own small extinction. Yet Marshall also avoids letting her central metaphors drive the entire story; often, it is as if she leaves a window open to see what else might enter, and when something does, it breeds through the story like a wild ferment, changing the flavour entirely.

One of the longer stories in the collection, “Ship House”, unites all of the repeated themes–family, inheritance, blood prices, cannibalistic consumption, stillbirths, twins, secret places, traditional songs and legends—into a recursive fairy tale where several generations of a family work through a curse. They sacrifice themselves and each other for whatever they hold dearest, and the price is never fully paid, the interest always passed on to another debtor. The tangled relationships felt intensely true to me: several generations of mothers and daughters shuttle between tenderness, expectation, fury, disappointment, betrayal, selflessness, loss and love, all of them keeping secrets, sometimes to save each other pain and sometimes… not.

Sometimes, in the world of these stories, pain isn’t something from which to be saved; it’s something to be desired, a secret handshake, a badge of honour. “In the Year of Omens”, my favourite of the bunch, centres on a young woman coming of age just as everyone around her begins to sicken. She feels grief, she feels horror, she feels empathy—she isn’t at all cold—and that’s why it is so believable and poignant that she also feels envy.

About half of these stories have appeared elsewhere, in magazines, anthologies and online, and have already garnered Marshall an impressive amount of attention. The previously unpublished ones are every bit as good, both individually and as part of this intensely connected collection. Read them and come away raw, flayed, a little bit closer to the secrets in your blood.

13:3: Gemma Files’s We Will All Go Down Together, reviewed by Claire Humphrey...

We Will All Go Down Together, Gemma Files. ISBN 9781771482011, ChiZine Publications, Sept 2014. Reviewed by Claire Humphrey.

Canadian literature has a reputation for dourness, for tracking dysfunction down the generations of families, for using crop failure as a metaphor for miscarriage and vice versa. When current writers engage and transform these tropes, the results are sometimes unexpected. In We Will All Go Down Together, Gemma Files takes the CanLit family saga as the starting point of a delightful and horrifying genre mashup, and the resulting creation is at once strikingly new, and as Canadian as anything I’ve encountered.

This book is subtitled “Stories of the Five-Family Coven”. Roughly half of the pieces are brand new; others were previously published in anthologies. Here, regardless, they shine: what might have been throwaway hints in a standalone piece become, in this context, rewards for the attentive reader, tying together the five families’ many scions and their histories into a sprawling but coherent narrative.

The Five-Family Coven: the words sound immediately portentous, weighted with history, and indeed everything we learn of the Coven adds to that weight. From the moment we first meet Alizoun Rusk, Jonet Devize, and — most terrible — Euwphaim Glouwer, strolling up out of Dourvale arm in arm, we feel their power. And yet the Coven is no sooner met than fractured: the Druir and Roke families are landowners and lairds, unwilling to lose their temporal power to accusations of witchcraft, and they leave Alizoun, Jonet, and Euwphaim to burn. This is clearly not going to go as planned, for as Euwphaim says, “…in the Witches’ Book there is but one Commandment only, yet that one deemed unbreakable: Revenge yourselves, or die.”

In the moment, such is Euwphaim’s specific gravity, we almost want her to succeed, unrepentant baby-eater that she is. Maybe it’s because we are shown just how few ways to power she has; a scholar in later years reading Euwphaim’s dittay thinks, “These doomed, powerless women with their spells and their pacts, scrabbling for some sort of recompense, a voice to cry out in vain against this world that grinds them like corn, leaving them nowhere to stand but the scaffold.”

But of course, there are five families, and their descendants multiply, intermarry, love, learn, fail, make alliances, break commandments, and drag other folk into their entanglements. Many of the stories in this book function, in effect, as origin stories for the players in the final confrontation. By the time that confrontation comes, we’ve long since given up rooting for anyone’s victory over anyone else, and we’re more concerned with whether anyone at all will get out alive. This concern is a tribute to Files’ characters, each one vivid and convincing, multivalent, multicultural and sympathetic in spite of, or even because of, their flaws.

Files displays astonishing range both at the micro level–voicing everything from the dense, ominous poetics of Euwphaim’s confession of witchcraft to the intellectual, scatological ramblings of Jude Hark Chiu-Wai, present-day mage–and the macro, managing to pack warrior nuns, Templars, ghosts both hostile and tender, corrupt angels, and diverse other monsters into a richly grounded Toronto. And yet all this density still left me wanting more. If I had any complaint, it would be that the ending of the book turned on actions by some of the less-central characters, whose motivations weren’t entirely clear to me; but since these stories, though linked, are not a novel, I can’t say it’s fair of me to try to read them as one.

I can only hope for a followup; in the words of the prologue, another “legend strange things tell each other, a bedtime fable recited by monsters, to monsters.”

13:3: Antoine Rouaud’s The Path of Anger, reviewed by Liz Bourke...

The Path of Anger, Antoine Rouaud. ISBN 9780575130814, Gollancz, Nov 2013. Translated from the French by Tom Clegg. Reviewed by Liz Bourke.

Gollancz is one of the few publishers to have developed a regular sideline in publishing foreign fantasy in English. In addition to English translations of internationally best-selling Polish fantasy superstar Andrzej Sapkowski, their list includes the Cardinal’s Blades trilogy from French author Pierre Pevel. Now Pevel has been joined by his fellow countryman Antoine Rouaud, an epic fantasy writer whose debut, The Path of Anger, was no sooner translated than it was nominated for the David Gemmell Legend Award.

The Path of Anger is an odd but strangely compelling epic fantasy. It opens with a young historian, Viola, tracking down a broken old drunk called Dun in a tavern to ask him about a legendary sword: Eraëd, the sword of emperors, taken from the body of the dead emperor and hidden away.

Dun (pronounced, as the text makes sure to tell us, Deune) is actually Dun-Cadal of Daermon, once a famous knight and general of the Empire. But the Empire broke apart in general rebellion and revolution, and a Republic rose to take its place. The novel is divided into two halves. In Part One, the narrative alternates between the frame story in the present – Viola convincing Dun-Cadal to tell her about his history – and the meatier part of the story in the past, in which we see the course of the revolution from Dun-Cadal’s perspective, as he acquires a protégé (the boy Frog), fights, and utterly fails to realise that the forces determined to break the Empire aren’t just in the countryside but in the heart of the imperial court. In Part Two, the frame story widens to become a fully-fledged narrative strand full of intrigue and action in its own right, while the past narrative thread switches perspective. Now it’s told from Frog’s point of view, and we learn that what Dun-Cadal saw and what Frog saw are in important ways at odds – not least because Frog was never quite who Dun-Cadal thought he was.

The climax of the novel hinges on the sword Dun-Cadal took from the emperor’s body, the reconciliation of Dun-Cadal’s and Frog’s perspectives, and the revelation that the Republic itself is in danger from the same forces that helped manipulate the downfall of the empire.

Reviewing a translation is a peculiar exercise. The rhythms of the prose remain French, and the translator – Tom Clegg, who did an excellent job with Pierre Pevel’s trilogy – has faithfully reproduced some stylistic oddities and what appear to be puns that don’t quite work in English. Whether or not these would read more smoothly – and be more funny – in the original French I can’t say, not being fluent enough in that language for real literary appreciation. But here they are distracting – particularly Rouaud’s trick of inter-cutting of lines of italicised dialogue from the past narrative into the present one, or vice versa.

Thematically, it’s a novel concerned with the relationship between perception and truth, with a strong dash of father-son mirroring thrown in. But the theme isn’t presented strongly, in a unified way, throughout, and it is this lack of robust thematic coherence combined with a structural sloppiness – past and present narrative threads don’t support and reinforce their tensions to the fullest possible extent, and indeed sometimes act at cross-purposes to each other – that makes The Path of Anger more of an ambitious failure than a narrative success.

That, and the way in which the world of the novel is only barely sketched: there’s an Empire, succeeded by a Republic in a fashion that clearly evokes the French Revolution (and the Saltmarsh with its peasant rebellion brings to mind the marshes of the Vendée and the brutal suppression of the revolt there during the years of the Revolution), although the technology is decidedly medieval. But the lands of the Empire exist in a void for all the attention The Path of Anger pays to the world outside its borders – and indeed, we never get a sense for any internal differentiation with the lands of the Empire, nor any real cultural differences more subtle than that between nobility and peasantry. Compared to the worlds created by Katherine Addison or Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie or N.K. Jemisin – to say nothing of Elizabeth Bear or Kate Elliott – The Path of Anger takes place in a culturally barren world indeed.

A world with only three named women, all of whom are problematic in relation to the main characters. Viola is least problematic of these: although she exists to be exposited at, at least she seems to have a personality. Mildrel, the aging courtesan whose role in relation to Dun-Cadal combines the figures of mother and lover, doesn’t even have that much. She is his caretaker, whose only point of complaint about him – even when he’s filthy, broke-down drunk and good for nothing, and she’s still letting him sleep in her bed – seems to be that he never was able to sire a child with her. (She also seems to be supporting him on her earnings, because he certainly doesn’t seem to be earning anything on his own in the present-time strand of the narrative.) The third woman, Esyld, exists as an unobtainable love object – and I use the word object advisedly – for Frog. He loves his idea of her, and while she does get to make her own choices, he fails to acknowledge them as legitimate, because they don’t fit his idea of how things should be. He’s barely stopped from murdering her husband at least twice in the final hundred pages.

There are many, many, many named male characters in this novel. Surely one or two or three of the countless nobles and knights and the odd inventor or monk could’ve been a woman, or had women who were important to them visibly in their lives? This rendering-invisible of women as a class is not uncommon in epic fantasy, and it’s really rather tiring.

This might make it sound as though I thoroughly disliked The Path of Anger. Not so, although I like it less in retrospect than while I was reading. It’s definitely a flawed debut, but it has a certain compelling readability. If I have time when the sequel comes out, I may well pick it up.

Just to see what happens next.

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