Mazes of Power, by Juliette Wade

(Originally published in The Very Slow Book Reviewer, February 4th, 2020)

One of the virtues of worldbuilding is to make your reader discover the universe you created in bits and pieces. Too much exposition at once seldom works (except for Kim Stanley Robinson, but let’s not go there). Mazes of Power, by Juliette Wade, is a very good example of well-crafted worldbuilding – starting with the epigraph. It’s very revealing, and gave me goosebumps: Varin is a place where humans have always lived on an alien world. It is also your home.519zU+JyOxL

This is a powerful statement, because it throws us headlong into a world in which not only the characters have always lived, but the readers too. This is an incredibly astute strategy to make us care more about the world. I caught myself along the reading musing where this planet would be. In what star system would it be located? Or – maybe it would be right here, and instead of Earth we would have Varin all the time.

This thought reminded me for a moment of Harry Turtledove’s A World of Difference, a cosmological alternate history, where Mars simply do not exist and we have a planet called Minerva in its place. But, even if this novel is interesting and action-packed, it didn’t do much to my sense of wonder. But (pardon the pun) there is a world of difference between that novel and Mazes of Power.

The story is the first volume in The Broken Trust series, and upon reaching the end of the book we can quite understand what is this trust and what happened for it to be broken. Even if I was going to give you spoilers (which I won’t), the process is much more important than the outcome, at least in this first novel.

Mazes of Power tells us the story of brothers Tagaret and Nekantor, teenage sons of the powerful Speaker of the Cabinet Garr, a scheming member of the First Family of Varin and a man who has the ears of the Heir to the throne. The boys, who doesn’t have anything in common with each other, must try to learn to trust each other and the people around them to survive and, eventually be selected to the throne themselves. At the same time, Aloran, a young men but who is soon to be indentured to Tagaret’s mother, Lady Tamelera – a relationship strained since the beginning, but that at some point might probably become more than that.

I read very carefully several passages because at the first moment I thought there was two different species on Varin. But this is not true: there are only humans there (as far as we know) inhabiting the underground in a huge cavern system. But there is a sort of caste system too, of which the two main ones are the Grobal (the ruling caste) and the Imbati (functionaries and servants) and that was the reason I thought of aliens – because the ruling caste tend to see their servants as if they were somehow less than human. So, for people like Tagaret to ascend socially, they must be slaves to a whole host of rules and rituals.

Virtually everyone in Varin is a slave to this system, which is obviously flawed. For instance, even if homosexuality is not exactly forbidden, it’s frowned upon and dismissed as mere play. And, if you have any claim to a modicum amount of power, for instance, you should not play – something that only adds stress to the tortured character of Nekantor. 

Maybe the harshest part for me is the description of a character with a neuroatypical condition. Being a father of an atypical girl, I admit I was very moved with Juliette’s description of Nekantor’s behaviour, which seems to be Asperger’s. I confess I felt a bit shaken by the fact that he (at least in this first volume) is a kind of villain in the narrative, and that reminded me on another SF classic. In Dune, Frank Herbert makes of Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (who is very fat, probably atypical and definitely gay) the villain, in opposition to all the other characters, which are all straight, thin and (on the surface at least) typical. Fortunately, Juliette is much more deft than Herbert, because she balances this with many other characters who are far from being straight. In fact, most of the men in Mazes of Power show at least a pronounced sensibility that is very refreshing and most welcome in our particular SFF universe.

What Juliette Wade has done here is another powerful statement, a political one. You know that everything is political (and if you don’t know that, you really should), and even the funniest space opera of yore that some of you enjoyed reading as children and teens (as I did) also issued statements, usually by absence – absence of people of color, of QUILTBAG characters, of female characters with any agency. When a new author enters the scene showing us a whole world with people of color (very few people in Varin are white according to the Caucasian color scheme, if any), she does justice to lots of awesome writers, like Ursula K. LeGuin and N.K.Jemisin, who gave us more representation, and therefore more real life to the fantasy of fiction. And I thank Juliette Wade very much for that.

Thanks also to Alexis C. Nixon, Juliette’s publicist, for making the eARC available to me via NetGalley.

Ahab’s Return, by Jeffrey Ford

(Originally published in The Very Slow Book Reviewer, September 5th, 2018)

In his book The Postmodern Condition, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard wrote that Postmodernity, among other things, meant the end of the grand narratives, or metanarratives. In his words, “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives”.

It was indeed a gross simplification, but nonetheless very useful as a starting point regarding books as Jeffrey Ford’s latest novel, Ahab’s Return.

As the title says, the story is a sort of sequel to Moby-Dick. This tickled my fancy big time. Moby-Dick is one of my all-time favorite epic narratives. It’s right on top with Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas (published in the US as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands – although Alison Entrekin is doing a new translation as I write this review) and Ulysses.

The reason Lyotard’s claim doesn’t bother me is twofold: first, I agree with him in that epic narratives (one of the possible meanings of the concept of metanarrative) are pretty much dead. Second, I’m not in the least upset by this, because the so-called small narratives are nowhere as small as they seem – most of the modern fantasy and science fiction stories fit this bill. Of course, I’m not talking about true epic fantasy, like Tolkien, or Stapledon’s Last and First Men, but the narratives exploring deeper aspects of life, and the role of humanity on this world, for instance. From the vast amount of narratives encompassing fantastika, only very few writers are doing what could be considered epic scope, such as David Zindell in his Requiem for the Homo Sapiens series, for example. But I digress.

Ahab’s Return is far from being epic, but it does a marvelous job of revealing the human psyche AND also give us a thrilling adventure such as Melville himself could have imagined (though I think his narrative owes more to Conrad or London, but I am not complaining).

Ford’s new novel explores not the sea, but the underworld of New York in the mid-1800, a few years after the adventure of the Pequod. The narrator is Harrow, a journalist who worked close to Ishmael when the sole survivor of the battle against the white whale decided to tell his story in his newspaper, the Gorgon’s Mirror. One day, a man appears claiming to be Ahab himself, returned from the dead. As in Mark Twain’s famous quote, his death had been greatly exaggerated by Ishmael, whose book he had read. He is looking for his wife and son, who moved from Nantucket to New York City after his supposed demise. Ahab, now a much changed, humbled man (and a bit obsessed, but maybe never as obsessed as Ishmael, that archetypical unreliable narrator, painted him), wants only to be reunited with his family again.

But, naturally, things won’t be easy for him. No spoilers here, though the subtitle (or, The Last Voyage) does bear a sense of finality to the whole thing: his path will lead him to many dangers and strange characters. In their search for his son, Ahab will also learn terrible things, such as a children gang that terrorizes the city, under the iron hand of Malbaster, a strange man with apparent telepathic abilities – and a manticore (as shown in the cover, by the way, so this is not technically a spoiler).

The best thing of the novel to me, however, is exactly what Lyotard wrote about: the metanarrative. Though not an epic, Ahab’s Return features a compelling defense of the metalinguistical with the introduction of a powerful character: Arabella Dromen, a writer who claims to be writing the very narrative in which Harrow, Ahab and all the rest of the dramatis personae are in. “It’s a tale told by the universe”, she explains to him. “I’m merely the conduit.”

The book is action-packed, but there is more than harpoons (!) and firearms (plus a scrivener-turned-zombie-turned-killer): there is the telling of stories, stories strong enough to change everything around them. As Arabella also says, “the mind is a reality engine”.

Now, being fond of alternate fictions, I lost myself several times along the novel thinking of possible endings to this narrative. I love Ford’s stories for the fact that he almost never resorts to the easiest alternative. (Maybe he does that in stories like the sadly prescient Blood Drive, but its awesomeness is due to the fact that you see a tragic ending coming and still wants to read it all the way, like a beautifully Ballardian car crash.) Highly recommended.

Also a perk: I felt compelled to read Melville again, both Moby-Dick and Bartleby in particular. I have yet to visit, though, another that seems a very interesting reading: Ahab’s Wife, written by Sena Jeter Naslund. Maybe soon, but I have a big TBR pile to take care of in the next few weeks.

Thanks to Erin Reback, of Harper Collins, for sending the eARC.

Time Was, by Ian McDonald

(Originally published in The Very Slow Book Reviewer, September 12th, 2018)

The novella format is my new favorite. I grew up reading novels, big novels: more science fiction than fantasy, even though the latter is well-known for its doorstoppers. A few remarkable ones include Eon, Neverness, DuneThe Boat of a Million Years, HyperionStranger in a Strange Land  – it’s a long list, the most recent one being Nick Harkaway’s Gnomon, which I reviewed here.

And yet, huge novels can be tiring now and then. Shorter formats, then, might come in handy to cleanse the palate between two novels. Or that’s what I used to do until recently. Not quite so anymore.

Under mostly the auspices of Tor.com, novellas now are big – and deservedly so. I’ve been reading lots of them since last year, all of them so good that somewhere along the way expectations were reversed – I started reading big novels to cleanse the palate between two novellas.

One of the best novellas I read so far in 2018 is Ian McDonald’s Time Was. After reading many good novels taking places in other countries such as India and Brazil (I should add that I translated Brasyl to Brazilian Portuguese a few years ago), Time Was was a very nice change of gear, both in space and in time.

The story starts in a dumpster behind a recently closed bookstore in Spitalfields, where the narrator, Emmett, is scavenging for rare editions. He finds out a small poetry chapbook titled Time Was, by an unknown author whose initials are E.L.

Dated from May 1937, the book has a letter hidden among its pages. The letter introduces us to Ben Seligman and Tom Chappell, two scientists who fall in love in the first years of World War II. The story will then alternate between other fragments of lovers’s discourse and the search of the now-obsessed Emmett for anything that can shed some light to these two starcrossed lovers and the poetry book.

One of these fragments is a letter from an Indian-Australian soldier, Amal, mentioning Tom and Ben. The things is, the letter was written from Gallipoli, during World War I.

Emmett will spend years in search of an answer to this mystery. Their plight might be related to alien abduction? Immortality, maybe? He will find further fragments from stranger places: Tom and Ben appear in a documentary on the war on Bosnia in the 1990s, for instance.

But the answer might be in other, more SFnal probability: time travel, of course. Ben is working with other boffins in a machine based on the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and its results may not be what they are expecting (after all, we’re talking uncertainty here).

I’m not revealing any big spoilers here: all of this happen until halfway through the story. The ending is not totally unexpected, but I loved the apparently simplicity of the final twist and how the clues were in the story since the beginning.

That’s why novellas should be more and more read and reviewed: for the sheer amount of information the author can put in the narrative and leaving plenty of space for building suspense and expectation. In other words, cutting the extra fat without the reader barely noticing it.

But a thing is certain: Time Was left me wanting more – but I was glad the book ended the way it did. It was a pleasing read and I couldn’t recommend it more.

Gnomon, by Nick Harkaway

(originally published in The Very Slow Book Reviewer, August 8th, 2018)

One of the hardest things to a reviewer these days is how to pen a good review without giving any spoilers. I won’t delve properly into this now (filing under Food for Thought to a later date, though), but let’s agree that you can’t properly write a review without describing (or disclosing) part of the plot. Sometimes, however, you find a novel so intricate, with so many relevant information, that the reviewer may find it hard to let scenes and situations unmentioned lest the story is revealed too easily to the potential readers.

That said, TL;DR: Gnomon is the best novel I read so far in 2018. Hands down.

Why is that?

First, few books have made me feel as happy as Gnomon – and smart too. In fact, I can only think right now of The Name of The Rose and 2666, two huge novels, both in number of pages and in scope. I stopped everything I was doing just to read them, savoring every page, marveling with the intricate plots, the beautiful use of language (or languages, particularly in Eco’s medieval detective novel) and the variety of alternating POVs and narratives. (Dune almost made the list, but I suspect one of the reasons it didn’t was the fact I read it originally in a translation with a number of serious problems.)

Harkaway is different, though, because Gnomon has a very particular flavor. He’s neither as high-brow as Eco, nor as convolute as Bolaño; in fact, we could say that Gnomon is comparatively much simpler in structure; but the plot compensates this handsomely, filling the reader with expectation. Which it delivers.

To read this novel, you’re not required to know anything more than the English language (it’s not the case with The Name of The Rose, where you should have some knowledge of Latin to appreciate it better). Maybe it’s better if you don’t master any of the subjects explored in this novel (which includes, but is not restricted to, sharks, stock market, art, game design, and ancient history); you might be in for a surprise.

The main plot is rather simple: London, sometime in the near-ish future, where each and every one of its citizens is watched 24/7 by The Witness, the state AI. It’s an Orwellian nightmare, but normalized, so the citizens find this total surveillance state a normal, even desired, thing (not as different as what happens in our world, I’m afraid). Its inspectors are authorized to take whatever measures necessary in order to arrest and interrogate anyone who might subvert established order.

The opening narrative is of such a person, during a very uncommon interrogatory: her brain is being scanned with state-of-the-art medical technology that’s probing her very thoughts, and the monologue of the person (a woman called Diana Hunter) is something of a Joycean riverrun, not as dense in rhetoric, but with the same love for language. This first scene gets you by the throat like an angry, rabid pitbull and won’t let go – but you find yourself loving it. And that, obviously, is just the beginning.

But the proceeding doesn’t go quite as expected. And it’s up to Mielliki Neith, Inspector of the Witness, to find out what exactly happened and why; also, who might be responsible for it.

Now, I have a theory that every text is an origami in reverse: you can unfold it and find hidden meanings, or a hidden structure. In Gnomon’s case, the main plot unfolds in at least three others: the story of a young Greek mathematician-turned-stock broker and his obsession with sharks, after having almost being eaten by one, an alchemist in 4th Century Rome, and an Ethiopian Pop Art painter-turned-revolutionary-turned-game designer. Three narratives without an apparent link to each other and to Diana Hunter’s story.

Neith will have to solve the puzzle, and she will do it by taking a deep dive into these three narratives, which she can easily do via an implant which allows her to see everything the characters/narrators saw and lived. Echoes of many stories here (I was particularly reminded of Strange Days), but this is not bad when the author knows her or his craft; and Harkaway certainly does. There is no Dickian plot device where the person using the implants starts confusing fantasy and real world – or at least not in the beginning, and certainly (and fortunately) not as a smartass wink to the readers.

What does happen is that Inspector Neith finds less and less objective facts as the investigation goes on, to the point of not knowing even if Diana Hunter really existed, and why, if that’s true, should anyone make the effort to create such an elaborate prank. The plot also involves a house built like a Faraday cage, a genderless, corpselike-white person who looks extremely like an androgynous Adolf Hitler – and might prove very deadly indeed.

Gnomon also reminded me a little of Thomas Pynchon. But the difference between Pynchon and Harkaway is that Pynchon usually write tales of deep irony and apparent random acts. Harkaway creates – no, he weaves a text, in the crudest sense of the word. Keep in mind that the word text comes from the Latin word textus, or weave; hence textiles, for instance. In Portuguese this is made clearer to the reader because of other words related to the act of writing. Take trama, for instance; trama is the equivalent of the English word plot. But, while the latter can be also linked to land (a plot of land, for example), the former can also be translated as “warp and weft”. A story has it; so does a fabric.

And Harkaway does a fine job of weaving it: Gnomon is the book where he honed his skills to a precision level as big as the information retrieval method used by the Witness. The ending is not particularly surprising (to be honest, I could see it coming the minute I entered the second half of the novel), but it still makes you want to read it all in one sitting. Gnomon is a exquisite pleasure to read. It’s one of those novels that need to be revisited from time to time, and I intend to do that.

Algazarra, by Santiago Santos

(originally published in The Very Slow Book Reviewer, September 18th, 2018)

I’ve been writing reviews in English for a decade now. And, though I’ve written on occasion about Brazilian science fiction (most notably the Steampunk movement in Brazil, which is still going strong as I write this), I don’t think I’ve ever wrote a review in English about an untranslated Brazilian SFF book. So this is a first, I guess.

The reason why I chose Santiago Santos’s Algazarra to begin this (hopefully constant from now on) trend is that this is a fucking good book.

No, really. I curse like a sailor in meatspace, but when I do it online, is for a very good reason. And this flash fiction collection is one of the best things I’ve read in Portuguese recently.

In my last post, I wrote of my newfound love for novellas, and how I tend to read more stories in this format than big novels today. I don’t tend to read story collections in one sitting, though; I like browsing them and picking stories more or less randomly (for instance: someone mentioned Gene Wolfe to me just the other day on Facebook, a propos of nothing particularly relevant, and I suddenly had the urge to re-read a few of my favorite short stories by him. Last night I read Seven American Nights again after a few years).

But I couldn’t do it in this case. Algazarra gripped me right from the start.

What does the word Algazarra means? It comes from the Arabic Al-gazarâ, meaning abundance, but also a huge, almost unbearable noise; in Portuguese it means mostly tumult, hullaballoo. This collection is all of the above.

There are fifty stories in the book, almost all of them within the 1k limit of the flash fiction category. The bigger one is Mascate (Peddler), which opens the book, with 1070 words, and the shortest is Olhos Emprestados (Borrowed Eyes) with 250 words.

This is not just an SF collection; there are stories for all tastes here. Fantasy, Suspense, Noir, Superheroes, Western, you name it. One of my favorites, Broesd, is heavily influenced by Fritz Leiber, one of Santos’s favorite writers. But the reader will also identify tributes to Borges, Bioy Casares, Calvino. There are many homages to a lot of Brazilian writers, like Graciliano Ramos, Dalton Trevisan, and José J. Veiga, absolute masters of the trade. But Santos is way more eclectic: one of his stories, Percepção Extra-Sensorial Inerciática (Inertiatic ESP) was heavily influenced by a song of The Mars Volta, while others got their juice by way of Cormac McCarthy and Flann O’Brien. But Santos acknowledges that most of the stories featured in Algazarra owe their existence to Alan Moore’s works, such as the impressive Arqui-inimigo (Arch-Enemy) and A Morte do Toupeira (The Death of the Moleman), both super-heroical, but owing more to Tom Strong than to regular stories of superbeing wearing capes and their undies outside their pants.

Curiously, Santos had never read Fredric Brown, one of the greatest flash fiction writers of all time (when stories of this length were called just short short stories). Even though he had a small volume of his fiction, he didn’t have any of his really short ones. I borrowed him a book a few weeks ago.

An obvious disclaimer: Santiago is a good friend of mine, and I’m between the many friends he thanks in the Acknowledgments of his collection. But my friends know how harsh I can be regarding quality, especially Santiago; we had lots of talks, sometimes over beer, but mostly coffee, for me, and sometimes tereré, a maté brew typical of his region, for him), and not all of these conversations ended in agreement about one or another finer point of literature in general, and science fiction and fantasy in particular. I’ve been following his ongoing struggle with the written word for a few years, and I couldn’t be happier for him now, with the publication of Algazarra.

I wish you could read his stories. In fact, I wish it happens soon – and who knows? Santiago has been translating a few of them for some time now, and submitting them to magazines. Meanwhile, if you want to have a taste of his output, just go to flashfiction.com.br – most of the stories are there. Google Translator is far from good, but maybe it will give you an idea of what he aims at with his stories. I’d love to have a feedback from the Anglo-American readers. Santiago Santos is a name to remember.