Sailing away from Sarantium

Guy Gavriel Kay’s last three novels all share a common setting and timeframe: the Mediterranean in the 16th century, a couple of worlds removed from our own. Characters in Children of Earth and Sky appear in A Brightness Long Ago and All the Seas of the World, though at different stages in their life and removed from the main stage. These loose connections abound, but it’s not necessary to read the other books to understand any one novel; each one is self-contained. It will enrich your experience, though, to read the Sarantine Mosaic (consisting of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors) as a companion piece.

The Sarantine Mosaic takes place in Sarantium at its height, the analogue in the mirror universe of Kay’s books to the heart of the Byzantine Empire. Each of the more recent three books in some way contends with that empire’s ending. Sarantium falls to the Asharites in A Brightness Long Ago as Constantinople did to the Ottoman Empire, and though the books largely take place in Batiara, its antecedent being Renaissance Italy, the ripple effects have a deep impact on the characters, their lives, their families, and their sense of a place in the world.

From a structural standpoint, Kay’s project takes Mark Twain’s statement, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes” and expands out from there. That’s interesting enough from a historical perspective, but from a personal one, the books seem bent towards re-framing the Sarantine Mosaic in various ways. That duology is the one I see most often on people’s shelves; if it’s not Kay’s best-selling work it seems the most enduring. Children on Earth and Sky replays the broad strokes of the Sarantine Mosaic’s plot: a painter instead of a craftsman travels from Rhodias to then-Sarantium now-Asaharias to complete a great work, encounters mystical troubles along the way, gets involved in political troubles while there. A Brightness Long Ago meanwhile has no analogue of plot, but of incident: the great chariot race from Lord of Emperors transformed into a chaotic horse race with similar wide-ranging implications for the characters. Both, I think, rhyme too closely; it feels that beyond the quality of the prose, Kay is repeating more than reflecting, the echoes of characters and events are too close to reimagine both entirely.

All the Seas of the World, however, realizes the project completely, going back to what made the Sarantine Mosaic so strong: that while grand events play out around the characters, their own lives assert dominance in the end, the court intrigues fade before the drama of character relationships and people striving to live the best possible lives they can. The rivalry between the mercenary leaders in A Brightness Long Ago has finished, the glory days of Asharias in Children of Earth and Sky are only beginning. To this Kay brings in a motif from his more recent work: of people who touch off great turning-points in history when their own motivations are much smaller. The central character Nadia sets off what will eventually be a sea-spanning war from her part in an assassination that begins the book, but her motives then are simple revenge and pursuit of money, and she ends up finding peace outside either. Guy Gavriel Kay is at his best giving quiet, personal moments equal weight to the grand churn of history spinning around the characters, showing how seemingly inconsequential people can have an outsized consequence, yet never losing sight of their inner worlds. All the Seas of the World manages to pull these elements together admirably. Sarantium endures, in the people who left it and those it inspired; the world of the Sarantine Mosaic is now irrevocably lost,  but the aspirations and relationships we saw in those books will play out again and again.

I was wondering with Children of Earth and Sky and A Brightness Long Ago if Kay was returning to tired ground; both have their moment, but overall felt too close to the Sarantine Mosaic in set pieces and theme. It was with a little wariness that I saw he’d gone back to the same place and time period again. My trepidation was misplaced; All the Seas of the World managed to fill what the other two books lacked, taking Saratium as its starting-point but setting off on its own voyage. I can also, at last, appreciate what Kay was trying to build with this loose trilogy, and see those efforts come to fruition.

Episode 47 – An Episode for the Cybernetic Age

We triumphantly re-convene after over a year’s absence to talk about The Cyberiad by Stanisław Lem, a book of fairy tales for robots, by robots, about robots.

Download the Podcast (archive.org page)

Book Depository page for The Cyberiad

Marie’s website

Source of our theme song

My title character is a planet

earthsong cover

Earthsong is a Canadian webcomic by Crystal Yates that began in 2004 and ended in 2016. I was unaware of it when Yates was publishing to the web, and would not have heard of it had I not stumbled across the five self-published print versions at my local library.

There are markers of the early webcomics scene in Yates’s presentation: the comic has a very early digital art look, with blurred background and too-smooth gradients, that I think fare better when printed than on a screen. The story and dialogue, though, is much more controlled and consistent than I’ve come to expect from serialized work.

Yates conveys a very complicated cosmology extremely effectively. The visual language of Earthsong is sometimes clumsy, especially in often hard-to-follow action scenes, but I never felt lost or over-loaded by worldbuilding, and it was only later that I came to realize how many moving pieces were entwined in the plot and the setting. The same goes for a very large cast of characters in what is not, going by page count alone, a very long comic series. Everyone felt like they got their due. While Yates focuses the story around the main character, Willow, there is actually an immense amount of stuff going on in any given chapter, but it’s never overwhelming.

So while I didn’t feel lost reading it, I do feel lost trying to summarize the plot beyond: a woman named Willow wakes up on a planet filled with creatures pulled from other realities and has a month to decide whether she will serve the planet’s avatar, Earthsong, in the fight against another planet whose list of grievances grows longer in each book.

There is a distinct amateurish quality to the beginning but I found my respect for the series grew as I read on: Yates has a talent for facial expressions, dialogue, and pacing. At the end, it was simply nice holding a complete story that never strayed from its initial aims in the way so many webcomics do. Nothing ever feels superfluous, and even through the technical flaws you could see a lot of planning and careful decision-making at work.

The bonus material in the print books includes sketches and notes on how Yates might have done things differently, but Earthsong falls into the category for me of a work that has strength in its uneven edges. Somehow the bumps in its creation just made the core themes and good parts shine brighter. More than anything, you can just tell how much affection Yates had for her characters and an ever-present joy in making this work that comes through on every page.

I enjoyed this far more than I expected, and its a good primer in the promise webcomics held at the beginning of the medium: of just having an idea and releasing it to the world, with no intermediary, and hoping something wonderful comes as a result.

Dancing by herself

Charles R. Saunders took a long break from writing after the 1980s, focusing on his career as a journalist. Returning to the craft late in life, he started out focusing on short stories and revising his long-trunked final Imaro novel. Dossouye: The Dancers of Mulukau was his first fresh novel in decades. Unlike his character Imaro, Dossouye’s tale hadn’t come to a definite ending.

The Dancers of Mulukau follows the short story collection Dossouye (which I reviewed here). The exiled woman-warrior Dossouye has crossed the vast rainforest bordering her homeland and has emerged on the other side and back to civilization. No one here has heard of the land of Abomey, or seen any creature like her war-bull Gbo. Absent from society for so long, Dossouye must adjust to being a permanent outsider, but finds acceptance among the Dancers of Mulukau, who hire her as a bodyguard.

The Dancers are all intersex, referred throughout as s/he and hir. While coming from various ethnicities, they have formed a culture of their own, and travel between kingdoms practicing powerful magic through dance. This has lent them favoured status, but not by the Walaq, who see them as an affront against nature. Dossouye happens to arrive at a tipping point where the leaders of the Walaq decide to move openly against the Dancers, even if it upsets the delicate alliances forged in the region.

Dossouye herself remains compelling and well-drawn; there is something arresting about the way Saunders writes about her. However, the nature of the story means we don’t get to stay with her for some portions and I really felt that absence. It’s not a bad problem to have, but The Dancers of Mulukau also suffers from following an impeccably-crafted short story collection. Many of the same things that made those short stories great is still here, but with a duller edge, the exploration of cultural practices overshadowed by a larger supernatural conflict that ends up grabbing ever larger aspects of the story.

The Dancers of Mulukau is thematically weaker than Dossouye, but that was also a hard book to live up to. The beginning and end of Dancers are still satisfying, but something is lost with the focus on earth-shattering battles and conflicts between deities when compared to the laser-focus on personal repercussions found in the short stories found before. We still get a bit of it in Dossouye’s conversations with a Dancer and love interest Ukenge, but not as much as I would have liked.

I still liked this novel a great deal, and it does close the loop on any lingering questions left by Dossouye about the woman herself. It’s a worthy ending for the character and I’m thankful that Saunders returned to writing about her one last time. 

Into the deep, dark woods

The stories in Charles R. Saunders’s Dossouye have more in common than the title character; each returns to a central theme that weaves the six pieces together. Each short story confronts an oppressive cultural practice and the structures of power that perpetuate them, and while Dossouye treks further away from civilization as she knows it, she find people act in similar fashion no matter how different their societies might appear on the surface.

Dossouye herself is a remarkable character. She begins as an Ahosi, a member of an all-woman army ceremonially wedded to their king. With her is her faithful companion Gbo, a mighty war-bull. The first story sets her up as a chosen one saviour, but the vindictiveness of a rival and the beliefs of her people means she must go into exile and spends the rest of the collection wandering through the vast forest to the east of her homeland of Abomey. There she comes across various peoples and the norms that bind them, no matter how terrible, and confronts these situations as a perpetual outsider— with often uneasy or unexpected conclusions.

The subject matter touched on these stories is often dark, but Saunders approaches them with a sensitivity and complexity that is (let’s face it) often lacking in the sword and sorcery genre. However, I’m not sure if the label of sword and sorcery holds several stories in; some were written for the Amazons and Sword and Sorceress anthologies, but they take on a flavour entirely their own, and becomes elegies more than adventures.

Dossouye is fundamentally different from Saunders’s more famous Imaro stories, and not simply because Dossouye is a woman. These feel more carefully-crafted, more resonant, the effect of events on the character more pronounced.

I recently had a discussion online about how rare it was to find fantasy and science fiction that takes the mode of tragedy. I think Saunders is a striking example of someone who chose to use that mode, first with Imaro and then this. The Dossouye stories are often about tragedies both big and small, but with a gleam of hope at the end, whether in the effect Dossouye has on the people she encounters, or changes in Dossouye herself.

Warrior at the world’s end

Imaro: The Naama War is an unexpected novel, for two reasons:

  1. While the third Imaro novel, Imaro III: The Trail of Bohu was first published in the 1980s, The Naama War didn’t see the light of day until 2009, though not through any fault by the author.
  2. The Naama War has a different structure and tone from where the series began. I never would have predicted it would end quite like this.

I can’t really go into The Naama War without turning to The Trail of Bohu first, since the two books are entwined in the way the two earlier books in the quartet are not. While the publication dates are far removed, Charles R. Saunders wrote The Naama War shortly after The Trail of Bohu, and no matter what revisions Saunders made before finally publishing it through Sword and Soul Media, it doesn’t account for the gap in time.

The Trail of Bohu begins five years after The Quest for Cush. Imaro is now a blacksmith, a husband and a father, though he feels uneasy with his domesticity. That tranquility is soon shattered when the Naaman sorcerer Bohu whisks into Cush and leaves behind the bloody corpses of Imaro’s wife and son, timing events so that Imaro stands accused of the crime. Imaro convinces the Kandisa, ruler of Cush, of his innocence, but his price is exile as he pursues Bohu to the southern reaches of Nyumbani.

The Quest for Cush was still an episodic set of adventures, though united with more of a through-line than the first Imaro volume. The Trail of Bohu is the first proper Imaro novel, with no detours, and Saunders embraced the longer form to give yet more depth to Imaro. Despite acting as a lead-in for continent-shaking events, The Trail of Bohu is a personal story structured around Imaro finding out his true heritage and the role marked from him in the world, no matter how unwilling he might be to accept it. That focus leaves the other questions behind; resisting the title, Imaro does not reach the end of his path of vengeance, and his true confrontation with Bohu is left until the next book.

The Naama War does not begin by centring Imaro, though it does end that way. The last book departs from the others by taking on multiple viewpoints to peek in on the apocalyptic conflict of the title, crossing the line from sword and sorcery into epic fantasy. There are large stretches of the book where Imaro doesn’t appear at all, since the stakes have moved beyond him. The evil sorcerers who rule Naama, the Erriten, have finally chosen to march across their borders and begin conquering of the rest of the continent of Nyumbani. This is only a first step before summoning the dark gods who supply their power to cross into Imaro’s world. Arrayed against the Erriten are the kingdom of Cush and their allies. Cush and company serve the Cloud Striders, gods who, while representing good, will lead to the destruction of the continent if they must make their own crossing to resist those dark gods.

The Erriten have made Bohu their chief instrument for spreading chaos, but he is unpredictable and holds the other sorcerers in contempt—he fulfills a similar role as Imaro does to the Cushites and the Cloud Striders, and likewise chafes against that imposed destiny. As the novel continues, the conflict between Imaro and Bohu looms ever larger, soon consuming everything and everyone else.

In the first Imaro stories, there was every indication he was a straightforward sword and sorcery hero who through his mighty will and physique would triumph over his adversaries, and perhaps end up as king like so many of his predecessors in the genre. However, as this series goes on, Saunders steadily complicates the traditional hero’s arc bit by bit, exploring how Imaro’s life of ever-increasing violence impacts his ability to have meaningful relationships with other people. In The Naama War, Saunders sets this struggle against the wider conflict and against his interactions with Bohu, elegantly having each mirror the others.

Far from ending in triumph, the last book is structured as a tragedy. Every victory over the Erriten comes at a great personal cost to Imaro. The world may be better off for those victories, but Imaro is not.

Saunders’s growth as a writer shines through this series, and he was not afraid to interrogate his earlier work. While following pulp fantasy conventions, he became skilled at sliding in ever more depth. There’s risk in doing that: The Naama War, as I said, is not the novel I expected, even though signs were there in The Trail of Bohu. But it’s also more rewarding. I ended up thinking about the ending for days after reading The Naama War. (I’m still thinking about it). Saunders managed to re-frame what he established in the earlier books into a much richer work, and I’m glad he took that path.

At rest in Cush

When Charles R. Saunders passed away in 2020, I didn’t have the heart to write about it here. I’ve been thinking about this CBC piece about his life ever since then and its implications. Saunders was a pioneering African-Canadian fantasy author who deserves recognition for his contributions to the field, but that recognition largely eluded him in his lifetime. He wrote African-inspired fantasy from the 1970s on, but time and time again people who declared they sought broader cultural settings for fantasy would act surprised if someone mentioned him. I have consistently pushed his work where I could, but in online spaces the exact communities that theoretically should have been most receptive to his style of fantasy, who made diversity a publishing brand, seemed to pass him by.

It’s hard for me to reconcile why this happened, why the Imaro series was dropped by two publishers on separate occasions, why he hasn’t already received a “fantasy masterworks”-style reprint when his influence is so striking, and why his later literary career was limited to micro-presses and self publishing.

I know, before the news broke of his death, that he’s someone I wanted to meet one day from my limited interactions with him online, that he was extraordinarily kind to his fans to a degree that’s rare for an author.

I’m bringing this up because at the beginning of the year I read Imaro II: The Quest for Cush and the book reminded me once again of his talent. Yes, Saunders wrote sword and sorcery, but unlike the stories in the first Imaro collection, other characters come into his life, and his own personality is complicated by that companionship in a way most sword and sorcery, to be honest, doesn’t attempt.

Saunders seemed at home transitioning into longer-form fiction than his initial outing in short stories. The Quest for Cush is still episodic but there’s more room in each adventure for conversation and quiet introspection. The overall narrative is more complex and inward-focused than the romps of Imaro’s previous outings. There is action, of course, and it’s masterfully done—Saunders was a boxer, and it shows in how precisely and elegantly he describes fights throughout—but it interweaves and supports a broader theme of Imaro rediscovering his humanity after a life of hardship through the support of his lover Tanisha and his scholarly friend Pomphis.

Not all has aged well since the 1980s. There is a section where Imaro encounters the descendants from a cursed kingdom that has unsettling descriptions of disability, but there is a note of compassion at the end of the adventure that speaks to Saunders’s own. It’s not perfect as a recompense, mind you, but the thrust of the lesson there is that the curse lies in the inhabitants’ internalizing the doom of their ancestors into self-hatred, and not in their physical appearance.

This is as far as the Nightshade Books reprints/rewrites get. Saunders had the misfortune of signing up with a publisher that was, behind the scenes, falling apart, and so the story leaves Imaro in Cush willing to try his hand at a new life and leave his lone wanderer days behind him. As far as I’ve found, the next two of this four book series are only available through a print on demand service.   

He was a great author who never got the break he needed from publishers or a larger audience, even when all indications were that his work should have had a renaissance in the past 20 years. I will keep pushing his books, and his importance, but I wish he’d had the opportunity to write more, and enjoyed more recognition for what he’d done. His was a powerful voice in Canadian fantasy.

Farewell to 2021

December already. As I predicted in my 2020 year-end roundup, this blog has been very quiet this year, seeing just a few podcast episodes and a lukewarm book review. That’s not to say the year hasn’t been eventful for me, just not in a way that made me run to posting things here.

Within the world of science fiction and fantasy, I was surprised (very pleasantly, mind) but the appearance of khōréō magazine, dedicated to stories from an immigrant perspective. Their about page mission statement reflects some things I’ve written on this blog in the past about the unique compatibility of immigrant identity with imaginative literature. I longed to submit something since before the first issue, but the words didn’t come. Perhaps one day they will.

Here are some other things I found noteworthy this year.

Books

After some effusive enthusiasm from a friend, I took the plunge and bought the 10-volume e-book omnibus of Glen Cook’s Black Company series. I’d heard of it on the edges of fantasy circles, but underestimated its influence; much of the DNA of current fantasy series trace back here. That being said, Cook skirts around the raw cynicism of his acolytes: while the series indulges in shocking violence, it comes as little shock to the characters, who live through what all accounts is an awful period of history in their world and therefore the story doesn’t over-indulge itself in descriptions of misery.

Here we follow the Black Company, a band of mercenaries who plied their trade for centuries, as they are unwittingly drafted into the current Dark Lord’s army and, being bound to honour their contract, do her bidding. Things grow steadily more complicated after this simple but elegant premise. Cook also has a knack for writing about terrible people who nevertheless spark off chaotic situations that makes them fun to tag along with. This is a rare talent for an author, as I find unpleasant characters are easy to make flat, tiresome, or hard to stomach, but Cook will find some core quality that makes them sympathetic in some way. I have just finished the sixth novel and am happy to go on, where so many series in this vein have made me abandon ship with the first book.

I re-read Don Quixote this year, this time the Edith Grossman translation. Miguel de Cervantes, writing in the 17th century, still manages a depth and warmth that has largely been unmatched. Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza are of course an iconic pair. They attempt to live Chivalric romances in an era where Spain had long since moved on from chivalry, but its in the encounters with everyday life rubbing against a man out of time that the novel shines with an almost transcendent sense of humour.

There’s a theme of great characters this year: Martha Wells’s first Murderbot novel (following a series of novellas), Network Effect, digs a bit deeper into its awakened AI. The Murderbot’s voice is among the strongest to come out of science fiction: puzzled by humans, wanting contact, too awkward to approach the subject. Wells has always been good at banter but the dialogue here felt like a grand achievement. Great fun, but thoughtful too.

Finally, The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk took a few chapters to win me over, but I ended up getting swept into this regency romance with magic. There is a danger of the interplay between nobles feeling trivial, but Polk manages to tease out genuine feeling through character relationships and evokes the suffocating nature of social structures. This eventually brings real stakes to Beatrice’s attempts to became a female magic user in a land that doesn’t want them. The ending is too neatly resolved, perhaps, but it’s hard not to forgive it.

Comics

I stumbled upon a lot of great webcomics this year; Tigress Queen by Allie Shaw was undoubtedly the most delightful. Kizarasunga travels to the enemy nation of Jaez to broker peace, but the tough warlord finds that peace requires her to marry the pampered prince Jintu. Both parties are strongly against this, but as these things go, only at first.

What could be just a gender-swapped version of a setup we’ve seen countless times before ended up consistently overturning my expectations. Instead of letting misunderstandings spin out of control, characters confront each other, effectively short-circuiting the usual motifs. The romance instead becomes built around the growth of mutual trust. The art is just as strong as the writing, showcasing bright colour palettes, fabulous hair, and people who express emotions with their whole bodies. I can’t stop raving about it.

Movies

Somehow I had never seen Goodfellas before this year. I can’t really add anything to the conversations around this Martin Scorsese classic beyond it being downright weird to see Ray Liotta give a great performance in a movie when up to this point, I’d only seen him in, shall we say, lesser works. An incredible bit of cinema.

Denis Villeneuve adapted half of Dune for the screen this year. On social media I largely saw people sniping at it and declaring the superiority of David Lynch’s 1984 version, to which I can only say—I vehemently disagree (largely because I think Dune ‘84 is trash). The approach Villeneuve took is a very deliberate one, choosing not to explain anything not directly related to the story at hand, and instead dropping you into an alien future. Between the production design, music and sound, I was completely absorbed. But as a coherent whole…it isn’t one, not yet, and there is the inherent weakness in adaptation: a novel can be as long as the author wants it to be and present as a single work. A movie is bound to how long an audience member can sit there before having to go pee, and with a story the size of Dune, achieving the thematic effect using this immersive style means a two year wait before these films can encompass a fraction of what the book did.

It’s still a hell of a first half, though.

TV

The first season of Foundation is just barely an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s original fix-up novel. Yet I also don’t see how it could have been faithful and worked as seasonal TV; the individual stories that make up the Foundation trilogy span large breadths of time and mostly aren’t of inherent interest in of themselves, with their interchangeable shuffle of characters moving about marionette-like in service of an absurdly ambitious, centuries-spanning story.

The best parts of Foundation don’t have anything to Asimov at all. Lee Pace as 1/3 of the galactic tripartite emperor has a lot of screen time for good reason: he exudes an aura that demands attention, and it would have been a waste not to use him. Most of the acting, in fact, is very good, and it was easy to latch onto the cast…but once again, besides Hari Seldon, almost none of these characters are in the source material. The scope and the attention to detail in the production design are what carry over. I did not particularly want an adaptation of these books, but they did a great job here.

An unexpected hit for 2021 was Arcane, which few people seemed to have high expectations for before its release. While taking place in the setting of the video game League of Legends, it succeeds by not adapting any story out of that game but instead playing around in that world on its own terms. The striking animation style certainly helps, and the angry women punching each other part of the plot really captured me.

Unfortunately, there’s a whole other strand to the story that isn’t executed so well: a political council-members-jockeying-for-power element that falters along and features characters who make decisions for the sake of connecting dots instead of anything you could trace to their own personalities. The story, too, can feel dragged down by its setting, which is just a hodgepodge of cool looking stuff without much rhyme or reason behind it. The show is pulled in too many directions, I feel; the parts I liked are very strong and managed to more or less keep things centred, but I don’t know if I’m confident in future seasons maintaining the same amount of drive.

Computer games

Role-playing games are time commitments, Japanese role-playing games (JRPGs) even more so with their focus on long, intricate (some would say over-stuffed) plots. I never played a game in the Tales series before and most sources indicate Tales of Berseria was the wrong place to start, only for dedicated fans of JRPGs. But it was on sale, and I remembered seeing the trailer once and finding it intriguing, so I took the plunge, and had a grand old time. The conceit here is that you play a character who would normally be a villain: she’s hell-bent to take revenge on the heroes of the world for their founder murdering her brother so he could attain the power needed to fight a demonic invasion, and she proceeds to do terrible things to achieve her goal. On the way, she gathers a merry band of misfits, which are the real draw of the game—their personalities play off each other very well, and the game rewards you with extensive conversations between the main cast of strong personalities and superb voice acting. While the story is a meandering collection of adventures where the “heroes” eventually end up saving the world despite everyone hating them, I found I got really attached to my party. There are several elements that will be definite turn-offs for a lot of people, the clothing choices and wild shifts in tone being a couple of them, but I ended up sinking a lot of hours into this one.

I am also now about halfway through Tales of Symphonia, which is overall a better game but much more standard in its characters and overall tone.

I finally played Portal II this year. I played the first Portal when I was still in university. Portal II isn’t as elegant as the first game, but does a lot of things right for a sequel, and I found myself having a bit more fun. Clever puzzles now pair with a much twistier narrative diving into the backstory of Aperture Science and offering up a couple of more characters from the sparse cast of the original. The jokes mostly land, the portal gun is still an excellent concept to build a game around, and the ending song is just as catchy as the first one. All in all, a fantastic experience.

Notable, but perhaps not praiseworthy

I guess I’m the one Millennial who did not wholeheartedly fall in love with Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir. The writing is, in fact, painfully Millennial in nature, but Muir manages to largely balance the raw juxtaposition of an operatic space necromancer setting with a mid-2000s teen soap opera for maximum effect. I enjoyed myself until the last 100 pages of this 400-some page book, when the plot asserts and injects itself when up to that point there wasn’t much of one. Asking for emotional investment in the narrative after 300 pages of (admittedly amusing) faffing about was a step too far for me. 

I am still reading the comic Monstress, mostly thanks to getting access to the Hoopla app through my public library. The art by Sana Takeda remains spectacular, but the writing by Marjorie Liu grows steadily worse. By The Vow (vol. 6) it appears that the narrative will never meaningfully challenge Maika Halfwolf’s attitude or actions, even after she threatens to slaughter civilians on her own side in volume 5. Strong artwork can’t save everything else.

Both of the above works have something to recommend about them. Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters really doesn’t, and falls into the “books I regret ever finishing” bin. This novel about an America where slavery never ended, centring on an escaped slave who now works to catch escaped slaves, is remarkably tone-deaf. It’s written exclusively by and for a white middle class audience. I’ve concluded that Winters has a talent for cranking out TV pilot pitches which he then strains through bland, formulaic plots, and this one only stands out by how unsuited the author was to handle this material.    

Final

Sorry for ending on a downer note, but it’s only to signal for brighter things to come. That’s it for 2021. Happy New Year when it comes, and I wish you a wonderful 2022.

It’s Axiomatic

Science fiction publishing, for all its dedication to bringing you futures, was slow to recognize the massive audience that potential authors have garnered on YouTube. Lindsay Ellis commands a huge viewership on that platform and her novel was very likely to end up a bestseller as a result. Yet, as one of her videos detailed with refreshing honesty, the road to publication was still a 10-year process. That doesn’t change that, in the end, the final push that got her noticed by an agent was still her YouTube presence.

Despite all that, I wanted to separate Ellis-the-author and Ellis-the-video-essayist when I read her novel Axiom’s End (2020). There are plenty of YouTubers who have promoted their almost-always self-published novels to the point of creating a stigma around the whole thing; however, Ellis has through her video essays and other work shown that she has a deep connection to science fiction and fantasy as a reader, and was a Hugo Award finalist for a (very good) documentary on The Hobbit films to boot. I was cautiously optimistic.

After finishing Axiom’s End, I’m sorry to report I couldn’t make the separation.

There were too many issues with the prose and structure for me to take the book on its own terms and approach it the same way I would an unknown author’s debut. If Axiom’s End had been the latter, I probably wouldn’t have finished it. I did, and I’m glad I read to the end, but Ellis had the benefit of being someone I’ve watched for about a decade. Frankly, that’s a detriment to Ellis-the-author.

Axiom’s End centres on Cora, a character painfully Millennial in her situation and outlook, who becomes an interpreter for an alien dubbed Ampersand. It’s a first contact story, but a limited one; for most of the narrative the rest of the world is unaware that contact was even made besides conspiracy theories fueled by Cora’s estranged father. Axiom’s End is an easy read and the setup is compelling, with a lot of thought put into depicting an alien intelligence that humans can almost but not quite relate to.

However, between flat, repetitive prose, some jarring pop culture references, and much less compelling characters, Axiom’s End gets off to a bumpy start. There is a clear theme, but it takes too long to get there through the clunky turnings of the plot. The story sticks closely to Cora, and she just isn’t very well defined through a good chunk of the novel besides family resentment and the clear sense that she’s a beset-upon screw-up at the very beginning. Then the aliens enter the story and she’s just propelled along without much chance to grow or have introspection as she’s flung from one panic-inducing situation to the next.

It’s not until the second half that things take on more weight and we get glimpses of a much better story: Cora and Ampersand have their “two creatures of different backgrounds going across the ice” segment best exemplified by The Left Hand of Darkness. I have a weak spot for depictions of intercultural friendship and Ellis handles it well. Of course, it’s no surprise that a novel about inter-species communication would shine best when exploring these interactions on a personal level, and these were the most positive aspects of the book.

That’s not enough, coming as late as it does, to save a profoundly uneven work.

There are intriguing elements about alien civilizations and relating to otherness that the author could have cultivated and grown into a much stronger novel, but here, they are embedded in a framework that suffocates them instead.

Axiom’s End has promise, but it’s not the kind of promise that makes me want to continue through this series—the sequel comes out this year. I can’t help but feel this was a necessary book for the author to get out of the way on the steps to writing something better, but which should have stayed in the trunk.