Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Shape of Now

Let's be honest, this century has been a cluster fuck so far. It's amazing how quickly things have gone from there being a glimmer of hope to, well, what? It feels a little as if the future has been snatched away, fear and uncertainty have become commonplace. The issues seems far more writ large than they were in the past, a growing juggernaut as the past does an ugly reach around and become the future.

The century is still going through its teething problems, as all centuries have, change feels as if it is happening on a colossal scale. As is the case of the last two centuries Britain is either involved in a war or gearing up for one and there are questions over rights and responsibilities. Also, hideously familiar is the widening gap between rich and poor, yawning ever wider as if we were truly returning to the bad old days of the past. We're seeing the idea of the state changing it's relationship with us as a people, drawing back with one hand, cutting services, making information harder to find, whilst at the same time becoming ever more invasive in a (futile?) quest to measure. As ever there's a tendency to play on human fears of the things in the dark, which again, as ever, leads to legislation that feels like someone things something has to be done... this is something to let's do it (and damn anyone who gets caught in the crossfire).

Politically, we've seen a 'professionalising' of the House of Commons. What I mean by that is that we've seen the ousting of most of the working class MPs and a growing number of middle class, Oxbridge graduates, many of them from the now infamous PPE programmes. We've also seen a change in the way candidates are selected, with future MPs being parachuted in to safe seats; the march of delegates by stealth. I cannot feel that Edmund Burke would have approved.  It's ironic that at a time when we have more women MPs and strong calls for all women short lists for seats we're losing the working class representatives and seeing a narrowing of the political experience in another way. I concede that class politics hasn't been sexy since the 1980s but all the same, do we really want to solve one inequality, only to foster another?

Political rhetoric has changed too, we now have responsibilities as well as rights, with these last being left quite vague. Personally beyond obeying the law, helping the Police with inquiries (in the unlikely event that that becomes necessary) and generally keeping my nose clean I don't see what other responsibilities I have. I live in fear of the day that I'm told I'm a bad citizen if I get fat or don't have children, though that situation seems to be something that could be frighteningly close. I half expect to see both of them in the next few years.

An interesting change seems to have stolen through the political process, the idea of democracy seems to have slowly transformed into 'you can vote' whilst the long slide towards political parties simply being different faces of various forces of capitalism (yes there's a slight amount of hyperbole there but it's not such a huge stretch when the people castigating the government for overspending aren't even the World Bank or International Monetary Fund as they were in the 1970s but apparently just jumped up loan sharks). It feels like the Houses of Parliament have become irrelevant in many ways and, judging from Belgium's experience politicians are fast becoming an optional extra; something that we can actually do without. The focus is almost always on the EU, with that being the UK's favourite scapegoat, but in truth British sovereignty is eroded from all sorts of angles, the USA and international financial markets must surely stand up and take a bow.

It feels as if we have the solutions to many of the problems out there in the world, things like global warming, but not the will to apply them. I don't know if that comes from politics, economics or a mixture of both and if its a fear that pushing through change will lead to rioting or a lack of capital moving around the system (see the way that as soon as the recession hit people stopped spending and a new air of panic was suddenly on display). We also seem to be in a stage where whatever solution is accepted, there's a knock on effect. Ethanol powered cars sound great, but not if growing crops to produce the ethanol drives food prices throught the roof. There's an air of opportunity cost about the whole thing, no matter which route we travel, something is going to be adversely affected.

Here too it feels as if we are being reduced to the status of children, or mere consumers. When six companies own everything it makes a mockery of the idea of the market, or choice in the first place. Sure you can go outside the system, but we've seen what happens when that happens, the system just buys the thing you're buying and subverts it (an old story, one that can be seen in every revolutionary movement from feminism to punk rock, no matter how hard you try, sooner or later someone sells out).

So situation normal: all fucked up.

The question becomes what do we do? We can analyse the problem all we like, but how do we reclaim our democracy, how do we shape our world? We have more communication devices at our disposal than ever but we seem to fob off things like contacting our MPs, assuming that whatever response we get will be a tissue of lies. We can see the affect of social media in mobilising people from the Arab Spring or successful Twitter campaigns but, again, we seem reluctant to engage with the process. There have been reports from places like Turkey of the incredulity that grip the people there as Britain undergoes swingeing cuts to services and the erosion of freedoms. Things that would bring other countries to a standstill with demos, campaigns and maybe even riots (which I'm not condoning or encouraging) are greeted here with a sad sigh and a shrug along with a lot of complaining on the internet.

There are root and branch changes that could be made, albeit at a higher level than the one most of us have access to. Punishing MPs for non attendance at the house, forcing governments to keep amendments put in to legislation by the Commons and Lords. But at the same time, it's not going to achieve anything apart from to make people even less likely to contribute to public life or stand for Parliament. There is a problem too that most of us dwell within our 'monkey spheres', we care only about our immediate situations, families and friends (our primate troupe nature coming out to play). Asking us to vote in elections is challenge to that enough but if we moved to a situation where voting was compulsory or MPs could be sacked for not fulfilling their obligations would probably present as many problems as not feeling as anything we do can change things (plus how do we get that sort of thing onto the the statute book anyway - it's effectively asking turkeys to vote for Christmas). I certainly suspect that general election participation would plummet and in marginal seats I can see tactics developing to oust MPs midterm and then get an opposing politician in. Basically any legislation allowing people to do this would have to be so carefully worded it might not be worth the paper its printed on.

My general thing when I find something I feel strongly about is to write to my MP and in general I've not been disappointed. I take the view that she works for me; my taxes pay for her wages, her travel. As a result part of my 'responsibilities' are to keep an eye on what she does and communicate when I have problems with what's going on in public life. I have to have faith that what I say is taken on board and acted upon, no matter how much of a sop the answers from the civil service sometimes seem to be.  It's not much but it's a start. Without that communication can democracy actually work? It's very English to say that I feel that the starting point is something we need to establish before we go further. The important thing to do is to keep things moving through pressure, be that in the form of petitions, campaigns or letter writing.

After that I'm not sure what we do? What do you think?

Review: Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman

The first novel of the Split Worlds series is the first book I bought off the back of going to Edge Lit and to say I enjoyed it is an understatement. I'd read 20 Years Later by the same author last year and whilst I enjoyed that, I would say that there's a marked improvement in Newman's writing style. Even with the consideration that the book's aimed at a different market the prose felt more confident and the characterisation more deft.

The plot is many layered, taking us into a world where there's a hidden world, the Nether, stuck between the human world and Exillium or if you prefer, Faerie. The protagonists come in the form of an ensorcelled man, a young girl on the run from her family, one of the stalwarts of the hidden world that serves the Faerie Lords, and an 'arbiter' investigating a strange case in London. Newman skillfully tangles the three together into a lovely plot that focuses on high society and low treachery. Perhaps more importantly she wastes none of them and touches on all their lives. Even if Cathy, the runaway, is the main focus for the novel's gaze, we learn about Sam's (the hapless mortal's) marital difficulties or the issues Max, the 'arbiter, has with having titanium in his leg. It must be said that pure id that is the gargoyle Max's soul animates, is wonderfully fresh, providing a real balance to the guarded natures of the other characters.

The action takes place all across the UK, with a particular focus on Bath and it's Nether reflection. Whilst London is important, it's nice to see a break from the frequently London centric content of urban fantasy novels (I get why London is frequently the centre for novels, everyone has a clue what it looks like but it's still nice to see other parts of the country getting some love). Within Bath (or Aquae Sulis if you prefer - the cities in the Nether take their names from the old Roman ones), we're introduced to the great families and their high society, which seems to be a mixture of Downton Abbey and the kind of society you see in many of the World of Darkness games from White Wolf. Here face is everything, honour is something to be defended and, frankly, women are there to be pretty and make babies. The world is very patriarchal and in part it feels as if this is being viewed quite harshly by the author; that facet of fantasy fiction that let us critically assess the world we live in comes into play.

The pacing is good, the Fae are creepy and suitably inhuman (one thing that threw me was their link to flowers, which echoed Tad Williams' War of the Flowers and left me wondering if it was an intentional homage). The mortal characters range from down to earth and level headed to almost as scary as the Fae (in fact in some respects scarier).

One thing I very much like about this world is its focus. Urban fantasy can often 'splash' too easily, dragging in vampires, werewolves, demons and who knows what else; a focus on the fae and their servant families as well as mortals who oppose them in an uneasy fashion, makes a welcome change to the 'throw it at the wall and see if it sticks', attitude of many authors. I suspect Newman's background as a gamer really helps at this time. I also suspect that it's one of the things that helps her flesh out the world so effectively.

All in all this is a strong novel, a lovely concept and a well written piece of fantasy that manages to be relevant even if it's drawing on a mode of society from 100 years ago (perhaps casting a warning to the people who are so nostalgic they'd wish away the last century in favour of the 19th). As such it succeeds, in my opinion as both a work of fiction and as a piece of social commentary. What's clear is that this is only the first of a series (or perhaps simply a trilogy), there are still questions to answer and mysteries to solve. Happily it also stands on its own, so I felt I got the best of both worlds there, truth be told.  Highly enjoyable and much recommended.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

More Review: Catching Fire and Mockingjay

Having read these books in a bit of blaze and a blur I thought I'd review them together.

The sequels to the Hunger Games, the two novels take the world and expand it. The first, Catching Fire, deals with the direct aftermath of the Games as Katniss and Peeta are forced to undertake a victory tour to remind the various sectors of the horror of that's waiting for them. Almost immediately the stakes are raised as the President himself turns up to threaten Katniss with a fate worse than death if she attempts to raise revolution against the Capitol, reflecting the defiance of the final act of the Hunger Games where the she and Peeta pull off a fake suicide pact live on camera. Taken as an act of rebellion by the already discontented districts, defiance and riots against the Peacekeepers (a wonderfully euphemistic name, but so cliched you might as well just call them bully boys or fascists) it's spreading and it seems as if everything she and Peeta do unwittingly fans the flames, even as they're haunted by nightmares of what they've done and seen (because apparently counselling, therapy and making sure your champions aren't likely to suffer Post Traumatic Stress Disorder aren't taken into account).  Things come to a head when the trouble leads to a new, harsher regime being installed in their home district and her friend Gale is caught bringing meat back from the forbidden zone (the area outside the fence where there are wild animals to kill for meat and plants to gather.

Honestly this first section of the book feels a little lost, its only when we come to the matter of the next year's games that things snap back into focus. Here, we find that it's a 'Quarter Quell', a special games to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Capitol's victory in the war. Each of these quarter games has had a special rule to inflict further misery, the first required people to vote on their 'tributes', the second doubled the number of participants. The one in Catching Fire sends the old victors back to the arena; you can almost hear the author's sigh of relief.

After this we're back into the whirl of the Games, of interviews and training and so on. The characters may be different, but the story feels fundamentally the same. The Games themselves are far more devious and brutal, despite the fact that many of the participants are scarcely able to defend themselves let alone do anything and there's a far more sadistic tone to the horrors that the Game Makers have concocted, from rains of blood to mockingjays with songs that sound like the distressed cries and screams of loved ones.

Eventually the contestants 'break' the games, finding a way to break the forcefield surrounding the arena, we fade to black and the next thing we know a rogue faction has rescued some of the champions and are taking them back to Sector 13 which is still alive after all this time. Sector 12, Katniss' home is gone, firebombed into oblivion and only a few people have survived and only thanks to an oversight where the Peacekeepers turned off the electric fence (why? That makes no sense at all).

Throughout this we have the relationship with Peeta and Katniss, fake, hollow but presented to the cameras at every turn as perfect. For the sake of the cameras they're presented as getting ready to get married and in the whirl of the pre-games' interviews Peeta pushes it further, 'revealing' that they're already married and that Katniss is pregnant. Their relationship and the lies he tells push through into the rest of the book, but it feels transparent, perhaps because of the point of view the stories are told from.

Catching Fire feels like a middle book, or film. It's arguably the weakest of the three volumes and the least convincing. It does an adequate job of setting things up for the third volume however.

The third book, Mockingjay, feels rushed in many respects. How can it not, when it packs an entire war in to 450 odd pages? There's a good job of establishing Sector 13 and explaining the history behind the deception that allowed them to hide for so long. I feel that the author establishes and interesting society here, almost Communist in some regards but also harking back to Sparta (which of course operated a form of Communism before Marx had even been thought of). Everything is very military, you have soldier citizens; most people seem to be in the army and chillingly military training seems to begin about the age of 14.

The book follows the course of the growing conflict and Katniss' role in it as the Mockingjay, a figurehead of the girl who defied the Capitol and who, in turn, defies Sector 13 by entering combat rather than being a mere puppet. Despite the apparent disparity between in tech levels we see in the books the war seems thoroughly modern, fought through TV and propaganda as much by boots on the ground. Peeta, captured by the Capitol at the end of book two is used a mouthpiece and transformed into a monster by use of a mutated venom which makes him see Katniss as a 'muttation'. Eventually the books leads us to the capture of the Capitol and the revelation that both sides are actually as bad as each other, something rammed home when the forces from Sector 13 kill a group of children, using the silver parachuted parcels so familiar from the Hunger Games themselves, to deliver bombs. As  if to rub salt into the wound, Katniss' sister Prim (the one she volunteers to replace in the Games in the first place) is killed during this event.

The book closes with the leaders of both sides dead (one choked to death, the other shot with an arrow courtesy of our heroine), a final Hunger Games being fought, this time by the children of the Capitol and Katniss banished back home. Here, oddly, she finds peace of a sort and reunites with Peeta. Equally damaged by the world, they find solace in each other and their love affair becomes real.

Aside from the rushing speed of the book, Mockingjay is a stronger book with good character development across the board. We learn more about almost everyone, with Prim and the girls' mother being the startling exceptions. The ending feels a little strange, it seems odd that someone who was the fac eof the revolution would be allowed to fade away into obscurity.

All in all the series is strong, but obviously aimed at teenagers (as it should be). The world is interesting, the story strong if a little predictable. The author is obviously far more comfortable with certain parts of her narrative than she is with others but that's not necessarily a bad thing; I imagine most of the readers are more interested in the Games aspect of the books than anything else. As it stands I'd list this as a strong contender for a place in the grand tradition of American Post Apocalypse novels, despite the age group its aimed at.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Sample Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

It was Edge Lit at the weekend, a small, Derby based, convention that's in its second year. The panels were very good and the convention itself really boosted my determination to write and get more done.

 The other effect of conventions like this is that I come away with about a million more books I want to read. No more time, mark you, just a bigger list. This year I remembered something Meg Kingston mentioned at last year's Asylum, that with Kindle's you could get a download a sample and read that to see if you like the book - the ebook version of have a sneaky read in the bookshop, I suppose.

With that in mind I grabbed about eight or nine samples ranging from Neptune's Brood, the new Charles Stross to Tom Pollock's The City's Son (which I'd never heard of but sounds like it probably does the magical graffiti thing that's been running around my head for the past year, so boo and yay to that in equal measure).

The first sample I've tackled is The Lies of Locke Lamora, a book that I've wavered over a lot. I've heard good things but so much of fantasy fiction seems to be in a fat, homogeneous glut and so much of it is still trapped in Tolkien's Shadow that I have little enthusiasm for it these days. I feared the book would be the same stuff, even with what looked like a good blurb.

Boy, was I wrong.

If I had to put what I've read of this into a category, it would definitely be Swords and Sorcery, with a city that feels like a mixture of New Crozubon and Lankhmar than anything else. It has the same medieval feel as the latter but with the cynicism and edge that shoots through Mieville's writing.

The action detailed in the sample concerns two older men, the Thiefmaker, who takes orphans and moulds them into pickpockets and thieves, and Father Chains a priest who takes the castoffs the Thiefmaker wants nothing more to do with. They're discussing Locke Lamora, our hero. Though that description seems like a stretch,  there doesn't seem to be much that's heroic about him so far; 'devious little sod' might be closer.

What we get, as readers is how Locke came into the Thiefmaker's care and the details of some of his exploits and why he has a great future as a thief, if he survives long enough to have a future that is.

Judging from the sample, this is far more a crime story than a fantasy one, one told with beautifully descriptive language, though the Thiefmaker seems to channel his voice straight from Fagin in Oliver Twist.

This is definitely on the 'to buy' list, I'm looking forward to reading more of it and exploring the world more..

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Review: The Hunger Games

It's been a while since I wrote a review, and I haven't reviewed anything to do with the Post Apocalypse sub-genre since last year, for various reasons (mostly because I haven't actually read anything in the area since last year.

A sort out of my bookshelves has brought the Hunger Games Trilogy blinking into the light and I've got round to starting to read them as a result. Having just finished the first book (and started the second), it seems the right time to put down some thoughts.

The books are set in a near future dystopia, after a disaster reduces North America to a series of feuding nations that slowly is consolidated into an empire called Panem (which I take to be derived from Pan America - which doesn't matter but I find interesting) after a rebellious war that led to the rulers using weapons of mass destruction against the area east of the Andirondack Mountains; dubbed in the series the Thirteenth Sector. The price of defeat is the brutal Hunger Games, a contest to the death between lottery chosen 'tributes' from across the sectors. A boy and a girl are chosen from each area, giving twenty four warriors in total. In this case, our heroine, Katniss, volunteers when her twelve year old sister is selected, knowing that she will die if she goes into the Games.

After this the book evolves as you'd expect and there are few surprises in store; though that may be my being a bit older than the target audience with a greater reading experience. This isn't to diminish the story, there are some great set pieces and it remains entertaining throughout, albeit a little strange in places; I was unsure towards the end if the Games took place in an arena that gets outfitted every year or if they are held out in a different part of Panem completely. I initially thought it was the latter but my certainty slipped throughout the novel, I think because of the proximity of the Capitol to the where the Games were held. Even with science that unpicks scars to return skin to a smooth, virginal state (how undignified), it stretched my suspension of disbelief that Peeta, the principle love interest and her fellow tribute from Sector 12, apparently at death's door, survives the trip back to the Capitol if it was any great distance away, even with souped up sci-fi transport.

Despite this confusion the action involved is well delivered and thought out. The section with the supplies is particularly well conceived and it was heartening to read a book by a female author, with a female protagonist, that actually has her fight and suffer injuries without a back up plan or a get out of jail free card. As a slight aside, one of my bugbears about a lot of SF and fantasy fiction is where female protagonists are actually 'Mary Sues' suffering a malady that in the end is nothing of the sort. The fact that Katniss goes through so much pain, actually makes her struggle that much realer.

The prose is simple but effective and the characterisation is strong; in fact most of the characters carry the book well and have clear voices, though its a shame that so few of the other tributes receive proper development. In particular the 'Career Tributes' from the richer sectors are reduced to caricatures, defined almost solely by arrogance and a desire for vengeance.

In addition, whilst I can understand why the story remains so focused on Katniss, I would have liked some cut away scenes to show how the rest of her team coped with the Games, or even a separate strand to show the effect of it on the general populace. The route the author takes reinforces the loneliness and isolation of the Games for the contestant but it being told that people in the Capitol were 'excited' and 'betting' on the outcome became quite old, quite quickly without anything to reinforce it.

World Building

The world that Collins has built is an intriguing one, if a little obvious. You can see the truth of her statement that it grew out the discrepancies between reality TV and footage of child soldiers from the very beginning. She draws a clear line between the rich but artificial Capitol, who use science to live in the lap of luxury, and the purposefully impoverished and uneducated people of the various Sectors, who even have to keep ways of boosting their meagre survival rations secret for fear of punishment if hunting or foraging becomes common knowledge. It is interesting to note how differently the occupying (I can think of no other way of describing them) troops operate in the two sectors where the reader gets a description of ordinary life; with the Peacekeepers being far more brutal in the agricultural Sector 11 than they are in Katniss' Sector 12. Despite this it seems odd that the break between past and present has been so complete and that there are no pieces of machinery lying around waiting to be fixed, for example.

Within the story, the reality TV angle is the one that really caught my attention, as it felt like the fresher part; although it's also the part which catches the story as a product of the 2000s and I suspect runs the risk of dating the story quite quickly, especially if the fashion for that kind of show ends. Nonetheless it provides a fascinating snapshot of where we are now, both media and image obsessed, cruising on cheap sentimentality and schmaltz. The fact that this ends up working in our characters' favour really says nothing more than the fact that humans like a hard luck story and a good romance, no matter how fake it is.

Given that the capital of Panem lies west of the Rockies, I find some of the geographical placement very interesting; the majority of the subject sectors lie between two mountain ranges (it also suggests that the rulers in the Capitol are aware that the mountains will block most of whatever weapon they used as an object lesson, lessening the effect it would have on their own lives and the people they wanted to cow into submission. Whilst I haven't got too far into Catching Fire yet, I really hope that the story will show us the remains of Sector 13, as it seems like a natural development for the story to go there.


I think there's a certain inevitability in the comparisons with Battle Royale, the Japanese film which similarly maroons children and puts them on an island full of weapons. I think it misses the greater part of the reasons for the contests in each case, seeing only the 'kids killing each other' aspect (in which case you might as well rope Lord of the Flies in and make a menage a trois, especially as all three works use violence to explore the wider world in a microcosm.

Taken on its own Hunger Games is an enjoyable read, a good piece of young adult fiction and whilst its a shame it doesn't go further than that, it might be for the best that it doesn't. It has good characters, a decent plot and doesn't flinch from the horror implicit in the story. It's a strong piece of post apocalyptic fiction that raises enough questions to make me want to read its sequels. Honestly I don't think I can ask for much more.