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Faren Miller reviews Keith Donohue

The Motion of Puppets, Keith Donohue (Picador 978-1-250-05718-1, $26.00, 332pp, hc) October 2016.

Keith Donahue’s The Motion of Puppets opens with a bold statement from the heroine’s perspective: ‘‘She fell in love with a puppet.’’ Kay Harper loves the ancient thing – body ‘‘hewn from a single piece of poplar,’’ simple limbs designed for lost connections, ‘‘pierced at the hands and feet’’ – not just for its beauty and rarity but ‘‘because he could not be hers.’’ Note those dueling pronouns: what would be it to most observers is he for both the woman and (less ardently) for the author of this novel where some objects are very much alive. Keith Donohue’s modern take on old myths and fairy tales brings sentient puppets closer than Kay could ever imagine, when she becomes one herself.

Though the metamorphosis was unintended, and doesn’t lead to Ovidian antics, it’s still a kind of betrayal, since she leaves a bewildered human husband, Theo. Their viewpoints alternate throughout the braided plotlines. The marriage is still new enough that there should be a lingering sense of honeymoon for these American visitors to Québec City, Canada, where twentysomething acrobat Kay has come to take a small part in a local cirque’s performances while her husband (an academic in his thirties) works on a book translation. If the supernatural had not moved her beyond easy recovery – first in an Old Town toy shop that never seems to be open, then on the road and elsewhere – love might persist. Without melodrama, Donohue hints at a continuing commitment on both sides while they’re apart.

Her disappearance prompts an investigation by a pair of Canadian detectives, with Theo as the object of suspicion and sympathy, but there’s no hope of finding Kay just through stubborn searching. So he returns to his teaching job, uncertain of her fate and further troubled by the work he’s been translating: a biography of the early photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Unusual in many ways beyond the name, this was a genuine historic figure whose studies of movement in animals and humans give The Motion of Puppets its title and (as Donohue extends them to fantasy) some compelling images. But the episode in Muybridge’s life that torments Theo most deeply involves passion, betrayal and revenge: when his wife ran off with her lover, the photographer went after them… and killed the guy.

Puppets here range from humans transformed as Kay was, to iconic figures from myth and folktale, yet all have a human essence that persists even while the world seems to change. (Their reactions to a sudden drastic shift in size vividly show what it’s like to be one of them.) When two friends, a French-Canadian dwarf who worked for the cirque and a professor of myth and ancient cultures at Theo’s university, go with him on a belated quest to track her down, it’s a fascinating process that leads to a compelling conclusion. Touched by the ancient tragedy cited in lines from a poem that precedes the narrative, ‘‘Euridyce’’ by H.D., the book ends with words that might (unlike Pandora’s Box) offer us hope.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Gary K. Wolfe reviews Connie Willis

Crosstalk, Connie Willis (Gollancz 978-1-473-20093-7, £14.99, 512pp, tp) September 2016. (Del Rey 978-0-345-54067-6, $28.00, 498pp,
hc
) October 2016.

Connie Willis’s love of old movies has been evident throughout her career (see the novella Remake, for example), and her skill at deploying the resources of screwball comedy – the ping-pong dialogue, eccentric secondary characters, missed connections, and endless exasperation – has been a recurring feature of her short fiction, often even showing up in her serious novels. With Crosstalk, her love of the old Preston Sturges/Howard Hawks comedies moves fully to center stage, but there’s a good deal more going on here than mere homage. For one thing, the humor harks back as far as Thurber (whose family in My Life and Hard Times, eccentric to the point of lunacy, is echoed in the main character Briddey Flannigan’s Irish-obsessed family), and is as current as Silicon Valley corporate satire (the company she works for, Commspan, is desperate to come up with a new smartphone gimmick before Apple releases its next iPhone). So while the characters and their relationships follow a familiar rom-com pattern, there’s also a fair amount of acerbic commentary on a society already overwired and overconnected, but which seems to want to get even more overwired and overconnected. The two SF elements crucial to this commentary, and in fact the only real SF elements in the book, are a new minor brain procedure called EED, which purportedly allows a couple already emotionally bonded to become super-empathetic with each other – and telepathy.

Telepathy is one of those ideas that SF seemed infatuated with 60 or 70 years ago, probably under the influence of J.B. Rhine’s dicey experiments at Duke (which are discussed and debunked in Crosstalk, along with an entertaining amount of other trivia about past reports of mindreading), and as a theme it produced its share of classic stories and novels. Since then, it’s largely fallen out of favor, and for good reason: as any sort of reasonable speculative science, it doesn’t work. Like time travel (another favorite Willis theme), it’s a convenient impossibility that nevertheless can generate terrific stories, and what Willis has figured out here is that few story types seem better suited to telepathic miscommunication than the screwball romantic comedy. She also reasons that telepathy might come with its own hazards, such as a constant cacophony of unwanted and often unpleasant voices that could lead to madness if not filtered out somehow – a problem also suggested in earlier stories by John Brunner, Lester del Rey, and others. But for Willis, it’s the least comic part of a novel that in most ways is one of the funniest SF novels in years.

The theme of overcommunication is evident in the novel’s opening sentence, as Briddey arrives at work to find 42 texts on her phone, not only from her epically annoying family, but from Commspan’s own internal gossip network. Almost everyone wants to know about her big date with her corporate-climbing boyfriend Trent, who – instead of proposing as expected, suggested they sign up for the EED procedure, which supposedly will improve their mutual empathy. Though Briddey hopes to keep the plan secret, she faces a storm of warnings, most vehemently from the company’s reclusive design genius C.B. Schwartz, whose disheveled basement office is so isolated it doesn’t even get cell reception. Meanwhile, Briddey (the name seems to allude to Bridey Murphy, whose famous fake reincarnation case also comes in for some discussion) has to deal with her sister Kathleen and Kathleen’s apocalyptically bad boyfriends; her Irelandobsessed Aunt Oona (who affects a B-movie brogue despite never having been to Ireland); her other sister Mary Clare, equally obsessed with her daughter Maeve’s online activity (which she sees as inevitably leading toward a nameless doom) and the precocious Maeve herself, who sees in Briddey an ally against the family nuttiness.

When the EED procedure is finally performed, by a celebrity doctor who himself is a parody of media gurus, Briddey finds herself connected not to the ambitious Trent, but instead to that antisocial genius C.B., from whom she receives clear telepathic messages. The rom-com conventions begin to fall into a familiar pattern: the smart but put-upon professional woman faced with a choice between a starchy, self-absorbed boyfriend and a rumpled but good-hearted tech wizard, just like Katharine Hepburn in Desk Set (and it does help to think of Briddey as a sort of sharp-edged Katharine Hepburn, or otherwise her put-uponness could get on your nerves). But Crosstalk comes in at nearly 500 pages, far more than any rom-com requires, and it soon becomes apparent that Willis has plot developments in mind that complicate matters considerably, and that add weight to a narrative that otherwise might seem fluffy. As in her earlier novels, her research plays a significant role (and is presented at some length, mostly by C.B., who knows a lot about the history of telepathy), and characters who at first seem merely comic relief turn out to play crucial roles in a plot that unfolds to be a good deal less trivial than it initially seems. For all its shotgun comic invention (some of my favorite bits involve Briddey telepathically overhearing unwanted earworms from anonymous sources who can’t even get the lyrics right – like ‘‘Joy to the world, the Lord has gum’’), Crosstalk is a thoroughly plotted piece of work – hardly an advance in SFnal thinking about telepathy, but a thoroughly enjoyable example of what it’s really good for these days – as a way to tell a tale.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Mariko Koike

The Graveyard Apartment, by Mariko Koike (St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne 978-1250060549, $25.99, 336, hardcover) October 2016.

Based on available information, Mariko Koike appears to have had and continues to enjoy a remarkable and prestigious career in her native Japan, with her first novel appearing as far back as 1985. But for English-language readers, she remains an untranslated enigma. AbeBooks lists but one or two of her titles in English, long out of print. Luckily, that situation undergoes a partial reversal with the appearance of The Graveyard Apartment in an edition from a well-known and high-profile firm, unlike the earlier small-press English-language editions. And it proves to be a splendid introduction to this fine writer. The Graveyard Apartment is a classic ghost story or weird tale, along the lines of milestone work by Shirley Jackson or early Stephen King. You won’t encounter a postmodern, surreal New Weird puzzler here, as in something by Thomas Olde Heuvelt or Nathan Ballingrud. Instead, you will feel you are reading some mid-century-modern classic you never encountered before.

Originally issued in 1993 in Japan, the book takes place in a pre-internet era of 1987 (where the nonexistence of cellphones proves essential for suspense), a fact which I’m sure has something to do with the book’s feel of remote distance. In many ways, 1987 was closer to 1927 than it is to 2017. In fact, while reading Koike’s novel, you might hark back all the way to Victorian times, to such a tale as Rhonda Broughton’s “The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth,” about a haunted London flat.

We start out with some solid deft grounding work. In just the first few sentences, Koike swiftly and gracefully introduces us to the young Kano family: wife Misao, husband Teppei and kindergarten-age daughter Tamao. They have just moved into their dream apartment in a small high-rise in the Tokyo suburbs. The building’s only drawback is its proximity to a cemetery (and Buddhist temple and crematorium). But all the other conveniences easily outweigh the proximity of that slightly eerie neighbor. I mean, after all, easy-going family members still visit the crumbling graves on holidays, don’t they?

Despite the premonitory death of a pet bird on that first day of occupancy, all seems bright for the family. (We will experience life through the eyes of both husband and wife, but primarily the latter.) The comforting daily rituals of domesticity are lovingly catalogued by Koike, and of course many of the quotidian details are alluringly and delightfully different to Western readers.

But there is a worm at the heart of the family. Misao and Teppei had been conducting an illicit love affair that led to the suicide of Teppei’s first wife. They seem to have overcome this tainted beginning, but it has implicitly set them up for the horrors to come.

Not, I should hasten to add, that Koike’s tale is preachy or moralistic. There is no direct cause-and-effect relationship between any venial sins and the ire of the undead that is to follow. And we will see that other, presumably blameless parties suffer also from the catastrophes ahead. In fact, there is a certain amount of Lovecraftian impartial existential hostility of the cosmos at play in this book. Why do bad things happen to good people? Just because the universe is built that way.

Having introduced her small but effective cast—including Teppei’s brother and wife and other residents of the Central Plaza Mansion as well—Koike very deliberately begins to increment the weirdness—the bulk of it centered in the building’s basement—but in very gradual steps. The first major supernatural outburst does not occur until halfway through the novel. Even after that, she does not belabor or pile on the occult eruptions. But when they do occur, she renders them in minutely creepy fashion, as below:

Not long after that, the noises began. They were macabre, disturbing, and distinctly unpleasant. The unsettling cacophony included the whistling of a high wind, which seemed to be traveling along the electrical cables on the ceiling; a sort of discordant screech, as if an unmusical child were fooling around with a violin and bow, randomly scraping at the strings; a squishy slapping, as of a throng of giant reptiles thrashing around in the murky mire of a swamp; and the stealthy murmuration of an immense number of voices, whispering secretly among themselves. Teppei was standing perfectly still, his mouth hanging open in disbelief. His T-shirt was now completely untucked from the waistband of his jeans, and the icy wind lifted it into the air, exposing his slightly flabby midriff.

The book reaches a devastating climax in near-Ballardian fashion, winding up the interpersonal relations as well as the human-nonhuman interactions.

Koike’s deliberate, unaffected, almost bland treatment of the events and her troupe ultimately make for a novel that is far more effectively shocking than many a more-splatterpunk effort. The fact that all this happens in the midst of an otherwise ignorant and fully functioning Tokyo adds to the unease. Who know what else is going on in any big city while the majority of us blindly run in our little grooves and tracks? That’s the ultimate baleful message of this very good book.

Finally, a big round of applause to translator Deborah Boliver Boehm for a subtly acrobatic performance in rendering the English version.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Paul Di Filippo reviews Will McIntosh

Faller, Will McIntosh (Tor 978-0-7653-8355-6, $25.99, 352pp, hardcover) October 2016.

I have consistently praised Will McIntosh for the freshness of the novum in each of his books, the core speculative “what if” or “why not” concept that serves as the engine of the story. I think he and Adam Roberts are running neck and neck in this amiable contest to conceive of startling derangements or extensions of reality. And the inability or unwillingness of each man to repeat himself is almost as astonishing. They really have no peers in the SF field, so far as piquant novelty extends.

But of course, a lot more goes into making a great SF novel than just a highly original conceit. You have to add all the virtues of mimetic fiction and a heaping quantity of heart, soul and empathy. Luckily for us, McIntosh excels here as well.

Let’s see how he does it in his newest offering.

On the first page our hero awakes, laid out on a street, with a kind of widespread yet selective amnesia. He knows many things, but not his name nor his personal history nor the history of his world. There are other bewildered people in the same fix all around him. What he learns is this: his world is a mere fragment of urban landscape with definable edges, “nineteen thousand steps long and ten thousand steps wide.” Beyond and below the ragged edges of the floating island is naught but empty atmosphere. The sun, moon and stars remain fixed above. Our hero possesses a few clues to his past on his person: a scribbled enigmatic schematic, a photo of himself with a woman, and a toy solider with toy parachute.

What ensues immediately over the next several chapters is the kind of post-apocalypse devolution into barbarism scenario familiar from such classics as The Shape of Things to Come and The Day of the Triffids, modulated by the bizarre topographical circumstances. But while struggling to stay alive, our hero, naming himself “Faller,” also strives to puzzle out the existential nature of his predicament. And this quest is going to lead him down the rabbit hole, from island to island. (One can only hope that Roger Dean, the famous artist of such imagery, does not foolishly sue, as he did in the case of Avatar!)

After a good buildup of this venue and the characters, the narrative switches POV to a time that seems to be our near-future. Two scientists, Peter and Ugo, are striving to perfect “quantum cloning” via a laboratory-fashioned wormhole, while the political scene devolves into war and plagues around them. From this point on, our tale will move along these parallel tracks. In the inexplicable continuum, Faller, true to his name, eventually departs his Swiftian Laputa on the start of a long journey. And in that countdown to doomsday future, Peter and Ugo and the rest of their companions experience rivalries, scientific successes and failures, and eventual armageddon, for which the two men both bear some culpability.

I can’t legitimately detail as spoilers all of Faller’s adventures, nor all of the machinations of Peter and Ugo & Co. As any trained reader will expect, the events of the past era will be shown to lead directly to the reality of the Faller era. But precisely how this happened and what the exact outcome is must remain unrevealed here, in order for you to delight in McIntosh’s cleverness. Suffice it to say that the two timelines converge and dovetail elegantly and with precision and surprise.

Naturally, with Faller being foregrounded, our main sympathies are with his fate, and here McIntosh delivers superbly. He puts his stubbornly valiant and loyal hero through incredible excruciations, an almost constant barrage of challenges. Really, the poor guy barely gets a minute’s rest! His basic plight and quest (for self-knowledge, and eventually to rescue the world) reminded me a bit of one of my favorite Keith Laumer tales, “The Day Before Forever.” At his best, Laumer was, in my opinion, a writer capable of creating great propulsive suspense. His works today are underrated or, if recalled at all, lifted out of their proper hierarchy. McIntosh is a much more elegant master of prose, but I’d dare to praise him as something of a modern-day Laumer. In any case, this book races along to a highly rewarding ending, a blend of sacrifice and reward, despair and hope.

This kind of cosmological paradigm shift occurring on our own planet is hard to pull off, and consequently does not get a lot of play in the genre. (A more common and allied scenario is “strange alien environment,” such as that in Stephen Baxter’s Raft, Karl Schroeder’s Virga cycle, and Larry Niven’s The Integral Trees.) Classic examples include L. Sprague de Camp’s “The Isolinguals” and Jack Vance’s “The Men Return.” Michael Bishop’s “The Quickening” is another revolutionary concept, while Matthew Hughes has been playing in his Henghis Hapthorn series with a far future setting that is transitioning from a basis in physics to one in magic—the reverse of Larry Niven’s setup in The Magic Goes Away. And to bring up Adam Roberts once more, his Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea features a world of equal deracination and topological complexity. I even detect in McIntosh’s newest some flavors of Philip José Farmer, from the Riverworld and the World of Tiers series.

As for the scenario with Peter and Ugo, I wonder if McIntosh is not paying sly homage to Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table.

Whatever old classics may or may not have influenced McIntosh, the novel he produced is utterly state-of-the-art SF, with bold new ideas, old-school action, and characters whom you will root wholeheartedly for. Prepare to fall from great heights into unknown territory.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Another Day, Another Dinosaur: A Review of Shin Godzilla (aka Godzilla Resurgence)

by Gary Westfahl

Because the Japanese film Shin Godzilla (also known as Godzilla Resurgence) was unexpectedly given only a limited American release, beginning on October 11, it is inevitably a film that will take quite a while to achieve its full audience, as it gradually becomes more accessible via Netflix, cable television, DVDs, and network television; in this case, then, a promptly posted, day-after-release-date review did not seem important. Upon learning that this film was coming to American theatres, I hoped to report that, after American producers had for the second time abused Godzilla in a disastrously awful film (2014 film review here), Japan’s Toho Studios had triumphantly reclaimed its iconic character in a classic addition to a venerable franchise. Instead, however, they have merely produced what Japan has long been noted for, another mediocre Godzilla movie. Still, to recall Senator Roman Hruska’s immortal words, there is something to be said for films of mediocrity, as opposed to films that are atrocities.

In large part, directors Hideachi Anno and Shinji Higuchi have simply transplanted the story of the first Godzilla film to the contemporary world: an enormous, dinosaur-like creature appears and wreaks havoc on the nation of Japan, but after an ineffectual military response, scientists devise an ingenious way to defeat the menace. Anyone who considers that sentence a “spoiler” has been living in a cave for the last fifty years. Predictably, the filmmakers felt compelled to do some things differently, with generally unfortunate results. In the first place, pace Hugo Gernsback, Godzilla films have never been the sort of science fiction that offers a scientific education, but this film takes the scientific idiocy at the heart of the Godzilla mythos to a whole new level. Thus, we are told that, this version of Godzilla is an ancient marine creature transformed by nuclear waste into a living nuclear reactor, creating new elements unknown to science. The monster can also mutate into new forms to address its needs, so that after making itself a land creature to seek out a radioactive meal, its reactor overheats, requiring the monster to turn itself back into a sea creature to cool off underwater. Along with its traditional fire breath, this Godzilla has the power to shoot laser beams out of its fins; it is feared that it might single-handedly generate offspring, perhaps little Godzillas with wings that could spread throughout the world; and please don’t ask me to explain Godzilla’s “built-in radar.” Even Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, I think, would hesitate to attribute all of these miraculous abilities to a single dose of radiation.

One unfortunate consequence of these innovations is the consistently disappointing appearance of Godzilla. When the monster is first observed, it looks so unlike the traditional Godzilla that audiences will assume it is another monster being introduced to eventually become Godzilla’s opponent. Even when it finally mutates into the Godzilla we know and love, it often looks silly, with its skin periodically glowing in psychedelic colors and those ridiculous beams of light emerging from its back. It is also peculiarly unexpressive; while sometimes rendered ineptly, the Godzilla of earlier films always displayed emotions, as it was visibly annoyed by the attacks of rival monsters and gleefully celebratory after clobbering them. This Godzilla carries out its campaign of destruction with a visage of robotic indifference, as if it had been told to destroy Tokyo as a homework assignment. Finally, as if desperate to bring an aura of novelty to its visualization of Godzilla, the director consistently strives to film the creature from some extremely odd angles; thus, if you’ve ever wondered what Godzilla would look like if you were clinging to the back of its left ankle, this film provides the answer. Perhaps the intent was to show how a giant creature might actually appear to a viewer on the ground; but let’s face it, we all know that Godzilla is, or at least should be, a man in a rubber suit, and he should be filmed like any other human character. The strange camera angles merely make this Godzilla seem even more unappealing.

The film also contrives to transform one of the traditional strengths of the Japanese Godzilla films – their willingness to say something, in contrast to the relentlessly empty American films – into a weakness, as it pounds two messages into the ground and a considerable distance toward the center of the Earth. The first is that modern government bureaucracies are ill-equipped to deal with unanticipated problems, like huge monsters rampaging through cities. Thus, when an undersea Godzilla first manifests itself as steam and damage to a tunnel, the immediate response is the formation of a “disaster task force” that refuses to accept the monster’s existence until its tail emerges from the ocean. There is some hesitation about responding to Godzilla because, as one character notes, “We haven’t determined which agency” is responsible for dealing with monsters; providing assistance to victims is problematic because “Nothing in the first response manual applies here.” One character laments the fact that “Every action requires a meeting” and there is “so much red tape,” though another responds, “That’s the essence of democracy.” The prime minister initially cannot deploy Japan’s Self Defense Forces because Godzilla’s actions cannot be legally “interpreted as an armed attack”; instead, the official response to Godzilla is classified as “pest extermination.” When Godzilla briefly stops smashing buildings, the government must take the time to pass a “relief and recovery bill,” “Gojira bill,” and “security bill” to better address the crisis. After the prime minister is killed, there is concern about a “political vacuum,” and one character comments, “We need emergency legislation”; later, to allow for a planned American attack, Japan will “need a special law to bomb Tokyo.” One politician must remain behind instead of joining an operation against Godzilla because “A political decision may be needed.” When a viable way to defeat Godzilla begins to seem achievable, one character celebrates the fact that people are finally “working together,” with “no agency infighting.” In sum, just as Suicide Squad (2016) (review here) argued that modern governments would struggle to handle superheroes, this film argues that modern governments would struggle to handle monsters.

The problem is that, in order to demonstrate that governments move slowly and inefficiently in dealing with difficult situations, the film itself must move slowly and inefficiently; thus, viewers are obliged to keep watching meetings about Godzilla when they would rather be watching Godzilla – who, as in the 2014 film, appears far less frequently here than one would prefer. The only positive feature is that in the film, when characters keep on talking and talking, they are at least talking about Godzilla, instead of blubbering about lost loved ones or trying to rekindle an old romance, the sorts of time-wasting contrivances found in the American films. Here, the only personal drama observed is the slightest hint of a budding romance between the principal hero, Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Haasegawa), and American representative Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara).

The film’s second message – and clear evidence that an American release was not originally planned – is that Americans are bad people. After an early proposal to seek American help is decisively rejected, Patterson nevertheless appears to offer American “support,” and despite calls to mount an international effort against Godzilla, she announces that restricting operations to “just U.S.-Japan” will be a “win-win” situation. Efforts to conduct research on Godzilla are hampered because Americans “took the remaining samples,” and while it is not specified which nation engaged in the “unregulated dumping of nuclear material” in the Pacific Ocean that engendered Godzilla, one has to assume it was the Americans. There are complaints about “American pressure”; some “unilateral requests” are “typically American”; and one character wonders, “What does the U.S. want with Godzilla?” Eventually, the United States gets the United Nations Security Council to approve a U.S.-led military operation to drop a nuclear bomb on Godzilla, leading the new prime minister to comment that the U.S. “foists some crazy things on us.” And it is while pondering the American plans that a character muses, “Man is more frightening than Godzilla.”

Eventually, the film argues that Japan needs to resist the Americans and make its own decisions. Thus, after one character complains that a nuclear attack on Tokyo would be “worse than Godzilla,” another calls for preventing its detonation because “I won’t see a third bomb” – recalling the previous American bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some decisive action on Japan’s part is necessary because, the prime minister notes, “We don’t want to be viewed as timid overseas.” Ultimately, tired of being treated as a “tributary state,” Japan “must act unilaterally” and “do what it wants.” And if outside help is needed, Japan must look to Europe, not the United States; so it is that Germany provides access to its supercomputers to enable Japanese scientists to complete necessary calculations, and France gets the Security Council to postpone the American assault and give Japan time to deal with Godzilla in its own fashion. Still, when the American representative’s youth is noted, one character comments that the Americans “admirably value” abilities more than age – a rare compliment to the country – and in finally suggesting that Yaguchi may someday become Japan’s prime minister, and his friend Patterson may someday become America’s president, the film clings to hopes for a more harmonious relationship between Japan and the U.S. in the future.

More subtly, the film is criticizing one particular group of Americans – director Gareth Edwards and the others responsible for the 2014 Godzilla. In an essay republished in A Sense-of-Wonderful Century, I noted how the Japanese film Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999) lambasted the director of the 1998 Godzilla, Roland Emmerich, by having its evil monster engendered by a huge alien spaceship similar to the ones in Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996). Here, Anno and Higuchi upbraid Edwards by emphasizing Japan’s extreme concern for avoiding civilian casualties, in contrast to the American film’s blank indifference to widespread human suffering. The prime minister decides to “abort” the first military “attack” on Godzilla because there are “civilians present,” and a later attack “cannot continue” because the area is “not evacuated.” To explain the decision, a character states, “It’s our job to protect the people,” and the prime minister later says that he “can’t abandon citizens to save myself.” In contrast, the United States seems eager to drop a nuclear bomb on Godzilla, unconcerned about civilian casualties; tellingly, it is precisely the same stupid plan devised by the American generals in Edwards’s film. Fortunately, Japan forcefully insists upon a two-week delay to provide time to evacuate the city and employ its own, unannounced method to neutralize Godzilla.

Quite unintentionally, Shin Godzilla also rebukes both American films simply by putting Godzilla back where he belongs – in Japan. Certain iconic characters seem inextricably linked to certain settings, and despite efforts to transplant them to other locales, one feels that Sherlock Holmes should be on Baker Street, Tarzan should be in the jungles of Africa, and Philip Marlowe should be in Los Angeles. Similarly, Godzilla should always be in Japan; his job is to first attack, and then defend, Japan. It just doesn’t seem right to see him destroying the Chrysler Building or threatening the Golden Gate Bridge. And while one might accept the inevitability of the occasional American Godzilla film, it is naïve for producers to assume that they can only attract American audiences by placing Godzilla in a recognizable American city; for time and again, as long as there are a few American actors in the foreground, Americans have embraced films that take place in foreign countries. Even the original Godzilla (1954) became an American success by adding some scenes with American actor Raymond Burr. So, while research suggests that at least two more American Godzilla films are likely to appear, one hopes that their heroes, like Burr’s Steve Martin, will be Americans living in Japan.

Further, despite Godzilla’s size and destructive powers, I would argue that the character must also be treated with a strange sort of delicacy, which the most successful Japanese films provide; one thinks of the chorus of children that brought emotional depth to the first film, the miniature singers who always accompany the giant insect Mothra, or the singular conceit, in Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989), of literally combining Godzilla with a rose. This film’s most striking moment comes when scientists are struggling to interpret a deceased scientist’s enigmatic notes, convinced that they hold the key to defeating Godzilla. When one man suggests that perhaps the sheet of notes needs to be “folded,” another says “origami”; and sure enough, by artfully folding the notes, the scientists can finally make sense of them. True, Godzilla’s defeat did require soldiers, weapons, and massive amounts of equipment; but it also required the art of folding paper. It is something that American generals, eager to solve their problems by dropping atomic bombs, could never understand.

It also says something about Japan’s recent commitment to pacifism that, even as the monster is leveling Japanese cities, there is some resistance to the notion of killing Godzilla. When its existence is first established, it is noted that people in “academic circles” and “environmentalists” are insisting upon its “live capture”; we briefly observe a group of protesters crying out “Godzilla is God” and “Save Godzilla”; and at the end of the film, Yaguchi concludes that “Mankind must coexist with Gojira,” suggesting that if the monster comes back to life, Japan will strive to keep him alive.

For long-time fans of Godzilla, the emotional highlight of the film will be the moment when Godzilla first appears in his standard form, and one hears yet again the strident Godzilla theme music, first employed in the 1954 film, that has reverberated through the entire series. And this suggests, to me, one possible explanation for the stubborn persistence of this film franchise. In most respects, the original Godzilla was a typical science fiction film of the 1950s, with a simple story, shoddy science, terrible acting, and unimpressive special effects. Since that time, science fiction films have matured and greatly improved, which is definitely something to celebrate, but there remains something oddly endearing about the childish films of the 1950s, as demonstrated by fond homages ranging from Strange Invaders (1983) to Alien Trespass (2009) (review here). And for the most part, the Godzilla films have willfully failed to mature and improve. True, the later films have better special effects, and there are overlays of contemporary concerns, like this film’s foregrounding of ineffectual bureaucracies and pushy Americans, but they otherwise cling to the two basic story lines developed in the 1950s – Godzilla vs. the world, and Godzilla vs. other monsters – and the emphasis is on scenes of colorful destruction, interspersed with tedious exposition and character development. It’s all very ordinary, but that’s how it should be; the American films failed, perhaps, because they were striving to make their stories seem special. I earlier suggested that Shin Godzilla was merely a mediocre Godzilla film, not a “classic”; but from another perspective, a mediocre Godzilla film is also a classic Godzilla film. Despite all of its noted flaws, then, I am very glad that this film was made, and I hope it is followed by many more.

Gary Westfahl has published 25 books about science fiction and fantasy, including Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2005), The Spacesuit Film: A History, 1918-1969 (2012), A Sense-of-Wonderful Century: Explorations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Films (2012), and William Gibson (2013); excerpts from these and his other books are available at his World of Westfahl website. He has also published hundreds of articles, reviews, and contributions to reference books. His most recent books are the three-volume A Day in a Working Life: 300 Trades and Professions through History (2015) and An Alien Abroad: Science Fiction Columns from Interzone (2016), now available from Wildside Press.

Tim Pratt Reviews Nick Mamatas

I Am Providence, Nick Mamatas (Night Shade 978-1597808354, $15.99, 256pp, tp) August 2016.

In recent years Nick Mamatas has moved away from the horror, SF, and experimental fiction fields in order to write more crime fiction, including the 2013 novel Love Is the Law. I was afraid, if this trend continued, that I wouldn’t be able to justify reviewing his books for Locus anymore. That time may yet come, but fortunately, it hasn’t yet. His latest novel, I Am Providence, should be of particular interest to our readers for at least a couple of reasons. For one, it’s a murder mystery set at a genre convention: the Summer Tentacular, devoted to H.P, Lovecraft and his Mythos, held appropriately enough in Lovecraft’s hometown of Providence RI. (The book’s title is taken from Lovecraft’s famous epitaph.) Given how prevalent discussions of Lovecraft’s influence and his problematic qualities have been in our field lately, it’s an astonishingly timely book. If the convention angle doesn’t make it SFnal enough for you, there’s a bona fide speculative element: half the novel is narrated in first person by the murder victim as he lies cooling on a morgue slab.

The murder-mystery-at-a-convention is a venerable subgenre (think Isaac Asimov’s Murder at the ABA or Sharyn McCrumb’s Bimbos of the Death Sun). The best of them combine solid mystery stories anyone can enjoy with a dash of in-jokes, cameos, and thinly veiled versions of figures in the field to amuse those in the know. I Am Providence is among those best.

In an essay on John Scalzi’s blog Whatever, Mamatas explained the book’s origin:

It’s practically a stage of human psychological development: hit middle age and write a mystery novel about one’s workplace in which the most loathsome employee has been brutally murdered, and all one’s co-workers are suspects…. Novelists work alone, but fandom is pretty much a workplace for pros in the field of fantasy and horror.

The victim (and intermittent narrator) is Panos Panossian, Internet gadfly and author of The Catcher in R’lyeh, a mash-up of Lovecraft and J.D. Salinger that brings to mind Mamatas’s own debut Move Under Ground, which combined Lovecraft and Kerouac. (Panos isn’t as successful personally or professionally as Mamatas, and is Armenian-American rather than Greek-American, among other differences, but the inspiration is clear.) Panossian came to the Summer Tentacular intending to sell his copy of a mysterious book called Arkham, author unknown, that’s bound in human skin. Instead, someone kills Panossian, cuts his face off, and (presumably) steals the book.

Panossian tells us about the murder himself, though his memory is addled, possibly because he’s dead and his brain is decaying, a situation he finds just as unexpected and dismaying as any of us would. As the novel goes on, he fills us in on his life and career, and provides details about some of the most likely suspects at the convention.

Panossian wasn’t very well liked, and no one is too broken up about his murder, apart from his roommate, first-time convention goer and new writer Colleen Danzig, who only met Panossian in person shortly before his death. (She didn’t like him much, either, honestly, but she still wants to know who killed him.)

Colleen – a green-haired, vegan, outspoken feminist Mythos writer – is an engaging protagonist, and makes a compelling amateur sleuth. She has all the right qualities for the job, including ingenuity, doggedness, and a willingness to take part in ugly confrontations. She’s also fairly plausible as far as amateur detectives go, in that she isn’t some sort of hyperintelligent savant who keeps tripping over dead bodies every weekend, but just someone who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and becomes determined to needle and blunder her way to the truth.

In the course of her investigation-slash-meddling, Colleen questions members of the convention, annoys the police, and stumbles into jeopardy both legal and physical. Along the way she tangles with various figures of fandom: emotionally unstable fans, obsessive small press collectors, a self-styled Cthulhu cultist, a self-important Lovecraft scholar, a bloviating man who hijacks a panel (how prescient!), and assorted weirdos, racists, and malcontents. There are a few more sympathetic characters, too, most prominently one of the only other women at the con, writer and editor R.G. The characters are recognizable types, and sometimes not just types, but specifics; those familiar with the intimacies and intricacies of small press horror will recognize characters at least partly inspired by individuals in the field.

There are some great set pieces, notably a ritual to bring Cthulhu to life (spoiler: it fails) and an expedition by members of the convention to try to dig up Lovecraft’s dead cat – you know, the one with a name I’ll decline to print here.

Mamatas plays fair with the mystery elements, offering up reasonable red herrings and a few easy-to-overlook clues about who the real perpetrator or perpetrators are. The stakes keep rising, too, with further crimes committed, and pressure mounting on Colleen (from both her fellow convention-goers and the cops) to drop her investigation, and it all builds toward a satisfying conclusion. Mythos fans, mystery fans, and convention-goers (some of us are all three!) will all find plenty to like here.

Mamatas may be more of a crime writer than a horror or SF writer these days, but he’s still hanging out in the same bars and parties with us.

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Carolyn Cushman Reviews Lackey, Meadows, Nielsen, Novik, Ribar

Mercedes Lackey, Elite (Disney/Hyperion 978-1-4847-0785-2, $17.99, 360pp, hc) September 2016. Cover by Shane Rebenschied.

Joy, now a member of the Elite Hunter unit, faces ever more dangerous Othersider attacks in this second book in the young-adult dystopian Hunter series. It’s nearly non-stop action this time, with new monsters outside and intrigue inside to deal with. The Elite don’t even bother hitting up the clubs to improve their popularity rankings; they’re beyond such things. When they’re not fighting armies of monsters outside the city, Joy and her large pack of Hounds get assigned to solo duty patrolling the sewers, where some monsters have been able to get through the barriers somehow, a seriously disturbing new development. Worse, Joy finds human bodies down there – Psimons, members of the powerful Psi Corps – their deaths quickly covered up. Then Ace, the ex-Hunter who tried to kill Joy, escapes to join the enemy. Joy’s a refreshingly smart protagonist who thinks ahead, figuring out new ways to fight even against overwhelming odds, which provides some thrilling encounters. Even so, the unending combat gets wearing after a while. Only towards the end does Joy make a discovery that offers some hope. As a middle novel in a series, it could be much worse – kids who love non-stop action will probably eat it up – but I’m looking forward to changes in the next volume.

Foz Meadows, An Accident of Stars (Angry Robot US 978-0-85766-585-0, $7.99, 491pp, pb) August 2016. Cover by Julie Dillon.

This first book in the Manifold Worlds series introduces a portal fantasy for adults with a very contemporary attitude towards women and sex roles. Saffron’s having a bad day at school, being sexually harrassed by a crude boy, when she meets a strange woman and on impulse follows her through a rip in space to another world. The woman, Gwen, is a long-time worldwalker who got involved in this world’s politics in the country of Kena, and ended up backing the wrong man for ruler. Now she’s scheming to undo her mistake with the help of female-dominated Vekshi exiles. Saffron, meanwhile, has to cope with being in a strange, differently violent world, and finds herself unwittingly caught up in the intrigue. She’s in way over her head at first, but she’s smart and learns quickly. It’s an interesting world, particularly when it comes to sex roles; among other things, families (even the royals) are generally polyamorous and there are no taboos against homosexuality or casual sex. The effort to remove the tyrant provides the bulk of the plot, with plenty of action, but learning about this colorfully complex world keeps things interesting.

Jennifer A. Nielsen, The Scourge (Scholastic Press 978-0-545-68245-9, $16.99, 353pp, hc) September 2016.

Plague has rarely been so much fun as in this middle-grade dystopian adventure novel, which is only fantasy in that it’s set in an imaginary world, though it has much of the feel of historical fantasy. Young Ani Mells is shocked to test positive for the Scourge plague, and get sent to a quarantine colony along with her best friend Weevil. They both belong to the River People, a group despised by most of the people of Keldan, but their members don’t usually get the plague. Ani immediately begins to suspect something isn’t right. When she gets to the prison isle, she finds more evidence that things aren’t what people have been told. Finding out what’s really going on takes some serious ingenuity, but Ani’s up to the task. Banter between Ani and Weevil keeps things amusing, despite their horrible situation. Ani’s also got tons of spunk, grit, and determination, not to mention a real talent for getting into trouble, which keeps things lively. Some developments struck me in retrospect as a bit unlikely, but the plot breezes past for a fun adventure for readers of all ages.

Naomi Novik, League of Dragons (Del Rey 978-0-345-52292-4, $28.00, 380pp, hc) June 2016. Cover by Craig Howell.

The ninth and final book in the Temeraire series finds the war against Napoleon a misery during the winter retreat from Moscow. The allied forces hope to catch up with Bonaparte and stop the war, but it’s not working; they have little or no food, and Napoleon may be on the run, but he’s still brilliant, and manages to evade capture. The miserable journey west just drags on, and eventually Napoleon manages to find ways to build up his troops. He even proposes a code for the treatment of dragons that would unite dragons worldwide, give them land and laws – an idea that could lure more dragons to his side. Of course, Laurence and Temeraire work hard to keep their dragons in line. Ultimately, as in our world, Napoleon loses, but this isn’t the grand finale the series deserved; maybe that would have been too unrealistic. Instead, the somewhat downbeat conclusion at least offers some amusing hints that the new ideas for dragons should have some interesting, lasting repercussions for Britain that might make a return to this world at a later point in its history worthwhile.

Lindsay Ribar, Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies (Dawson 978-0-525-42868-8, $17.99, 323pp, hc) June 2016.

Aspen Quick’s family members have a special power that they use to protect Three Peaks from a dangerous cliff looming over the town. However, that power involves ‘‘stealing’’ from people – taking away emotions, memories, character traits, or physical bits like moles or pain. Even aside from using the things the family steals to repair the cliff, Aspen tries to use his abilities to fix things and help people, but he’s not really thinking about how his victims would feel about it, if they knew – and his idea of fixing things can be very self-centered. Then things start going wrong and his first idea is to use his powers to set things right. He starts to question what he’s been told all his life, but still uses his powers on the people around him. It’s really hard to like a character as morally bankrupt as he seems, even understanding he’s had the power all his life and was raised to feel entitled. It takes some really horrible mistakes to finally get through to him. The result is an emotionally powerful portrait of a young man with great power, revealed gradually in both flashbacks and the ongoing story, with some painfully intense moments along the way.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Carolyn Cushman Reviews Armstrong, Black & Clare, Durst, Elliott, Evans

Michael A. Armstrong, Truck Stop Earth (Perseid Press 978-0-9975310-1-5, $25.20, 275pp, tp) July 2016.

Michael Armstrong’s latest novel set in Alaska is science fiction – at least if you believe the narrator, who could just be extremely unreliable. James Ignatius Malachi Obadiah Osborne (call me Jimmo) is hitching ever further north when he finally ends up in Della AK. The residents there are interestingly strange, what Jimmo calls GETS (genuinely, truly strange) – the ones that aren’t alien Grays in disguise. Jimmo has been abducted, chipped in both butt and brain, and needs psychiatric drugs, though he claims they have no real effect, they’re just part of his cover as a member of the Resistance fighting the invaders and the Alien Occupation Government. He’s ex-military, and certainly has some interesting skills. He’s been avoiding the aliens, but it turns out that Della has a huge alien base hidden just outside town, and Jimmo keeps encountering aliens pretending (with mixed success) to be human. They also keep trying to kill him, but Jimmo’s decided to make a stand here in Della, though it takes him a while to figure out what to do. Meanwhile, we get lots of fascinating details about Della, meeting a lot of interesting people including a sculptor, some odd musicians, and a beachcombing writer named Max, a thinly disguised Michael A. Armstrong. (All names have been changed to protect the town, apparently.) Supposedly, Jimmo told the story to Armstrong, who said he’d ‘‘fix it up and make it semi-literate,’’ which says a lot about the story’s style. Jimmo’s quite a character; he’s not just focused on the Greys, but also spends a lot of time commenting on his erections and sexual encounters with various women. Fortunately, he’s got an amusing way of looking at things, and that keeps the story entertaining. The ultimate encounter when Jimmo kicks the aliens’ asses was a bit of a letdown, but overall this is a great, goofy tale with some delightful local color.

Holly Black & Cassandra Clare, The Bronze Key (Scholastic Press 978-0-545-52231-1, $17.99, 249pp, hc) August 2016. Cover by Alexandre Chaudret.

The third book in the middle-grade Magisterium series finds Callum and Aaron at the end of summer, about to be honored as heroes for defeating Constantine Madden, AKA the Enemy of Death. (He’d been dead for years, but no one knew that until Call brought back his severed head.) It’s still a secret that Constantine’s soul is inside Call; only his closest friends know. But at the ceremony honoring the boys, it starts to look like someone is trying to kill Call. Back in school for the youngsters’ third year, the adults are trying to figure out who the assassin/spy might be, but Call, Aaron, and their buddy Tamara are not convinced the teachers are doing enough. Of course, the kids get into trouble when they try to investigate for themselves, and none of their efforts get useful results. At the very end, things go terribly wrong, which at least promises some interesting developments in the next book. For the most part, though, the current volume just marks time with a series of unproductive little adventures until the final confrontation and revelations.

Sarah Beth Durst, The Queen of Blood (Harper Voyager US 978-0-06-241334-5, $19.99, 350pp, hc) September 2016. Cover by Stephan Martiniere.

The first book in the Queens of Renthia series introduces a fascinating world where spirits co-exist unwillingly with humans, their vicious tendencies held in check only by the human queen’s order to ‘‘Do no harm.’’ The spirits – of water, fire, ice, air, earth, and trees – are tricky, so children are taught early to avoid attracting their attention. The land of Aratay is supposed to be as safe as any place can be, but somehow ten-year-old Daleina’s village is destroyed, her family among the very few survivors, saved when Daleina unexpectedly shows the affinity: the ability to influence spirits. She starts training to use the ability with a local hedgewitch, then, when older, heads to Northeast Academy, always aware her control over spirits isn’t the best, but wanting to help prevent further deaths. Meanwhile, a disgraced champion is traveling the country, trying to find out why the occasional slaughter occurs, and stop it. The story mixes a ‘‘magic school’’ environment – not as fun as Harry Potter, but at least we get to know the girls who might be the next queen – with lots of action. Training with spirits gets tense, and the storytelling’s taut; I’d have appreciated a little comic relief to balance Daleina’s struggles and self-doubt. Regardless, the story is powerful right up to the ending, which came as a huge surprise, leaving even more interesting times to come in the next installment.

Kate Elliott, Poisoned Blade (Little, Brown 978-0-316-34437-1, $17.99, 468pp, hc) August 2016.

Non-stop danger keeps things moving in this second book in the Court of Fives series. Jessamy hates Lord Gargaron, who owns the ‘‘stable’’ where she trains to compete in the Court of Fives. He destroyed her family so her father, a brilliant general, would leave the Efean mother of his daughters and instead marry Gargaron’s niece – who has some dark secrets of her own, Jessamy learns. The country is currently being invaded, so Jessamy’s father and the prince Jessamy’s attracted to are both off to war. Meanwhile, Lord Gargaron is heading off on a tour of his properties, and he takes Jessamy and others from his stable to show off their talents along the road. But the war is getting closer than expected, and treachery, treason, and rebellion are brewing. The intrigue and threats never let up, and Jessamy is constantly doing things that ought to get her or her family in great trouble. Since this is a middle novel in a series, it’s to be expected that things get steadily worse, and at least by the end there are hints this might be the chance the long-suppressed Efeans need to take their country back.

Sandra Evans, This Is Not a Werewolf Story (Atheneum 978-1-4814-4480-4, $16.99, 336pp, hc) July 2016. Cover by Maike Plenzke.

Despite the title, this intriguing first novel really is a sort of werewolf story for middle-grade readers. It starts out with a bang as a humorous boarding school tale, with a wild new boy facing off against Coach Tuffman, the sort of coach you love to hate. Pretty soon, though, a sense of threat develops. The focus of the story is the narrator, Raul, a quiet kid who keeps an eye on things at the school. The school only boards kids during the week, but his dad has stopped coming to pick him up over the weekends, so Raul pretends to walk out to meet his dad, then spends his weekend in the nearby woods – as a wolf. But other predators are turning up, and Coach Tuffman is acting oddly towards Raul, alternately threatening and strangely friendly. The new kid acts strange, too. Raul has some odd ideas about what’s going on, and he gets into some serious trouble before he can figure out exactly what it is, and what to do about it all. It’s a quirky tale, based loosely on Marie de France’s medieval story ‘‘Bisclavret’’, occasionally a bit confusing but rewarding in the end.

Read more! This is one of many reviews from recent issues of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe.

Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Christopher Priest

The Gradual, Christopher Priest (Titan 978-1-78565-303-2, $24.99, 400pp, hc) September 2016.

In the three and a half decades in which Christopher Priest has been inviting us along to his colorful but shifty Dream Archipelago – including an extensive if inconclusive gazetteer with The Islanders in 2011 – he has mostly confined his viewpoints to those of the archipelago’s inhabitants, though we are given to understand that an endless and vicious war is being carried out by superpowers on the world’s major continents, and that an Antarctica-like southern continent serves as a kind of staging ground for the warfare. He’s also often featured artists of various kinds as his protagonists; in The Islanders alone we meet a novelist, a painter, a conceptual artist, even a mime and a magician. With The Gradual – which is a far more linear narrative than we had with The Islanders – we get to see what life is like in one of those bellicose societies on the continents, a gloomy dystopia called Glaund, that reads like a thoroughly unpleasant amalgam of North Korea and Orwell’s Airstrip One. But Priest’s focus on art and artists is more detailed than ever: his protagonist is a brilliant composer named Alesandro Sussken, who tells us that music and bombing ‘‘were the two main events of my childhood,’’ because of the constant hazard of the recurrent air raids on his coastal hometown of Errest. Susskind narrates his life in the straightforward manner of a Künstlerroman – this is the most formally traditional novel we’ve seen from Priest since The Extremes – and his descriptions of Susskind’s compositions are technically impressive, if a bit soulless (with one remarkable exception when, later in life, he manages to musically channel a volcano).

As a child, Susskind catches a glimpse of nearby Archipelago islands from the loft of his home, which begin to haunt his imagination. A musical prodigy, he lives in fear not only of the drones and rockets, but of the universal military draft which has already taken his older brother for an indefinite term of service. As his success as a composer grows, he comes to be viewed as a cultural asset, and even discovers that a rock/jazz musician somewhere in the Archipelago has begun plagiarizing his work. He meets and marries a violinist named Alynna, and eventually is invited to participate, as a senior composer, in a grand orchestral tour of several islands in the Archipelago. The nine-week tour not only introduces Susskind to the variety of societies in the Archipelago – and to new notions of freedom – but also to the disorienting time distortions called the gradual, which vary from island to island and can only be tracked by markings on a passport-like baton which he is issued, without explanation, at the beginning of the journey. Throughout his travels, he keeps an eye out for the plagiarist who adapted his work, and for any news of his brother, who by now has been missing for decades. When he returns home, he comes to realize the cumulative effects of the gradual; even though his tour has been only nine weeks, more than two years have passed in Glaund. His parents have died, and Alynna has long since moved out. But he also draws the attention of the feared and ruthless Glaundian dictator, or Generalissima, who commissions him – with a generous advance – to write a piece of kitsch propaganda music for her council’s tenth anniversary. Recognizing that such a bludgeoning composition would ruin his reputation, he flees again to the Archipelago. And we’re still only halfway through the novel.

Susskind may be a marginally more reliable narrator than we’re used to seeing from Priest, but he’s also a badly misinformed and sometimes obtuse one, and at a number of points we can see the wiring of the narrative before he does. But that doesn’t mean The Gradual lacks surprises: Susskind does find out some things about his brother and his plagiarist, but because of the unpredictable time shifts of the gradual, we can never quite be certain we have the last word on these figures. In effect, what Priest has done – and he did much the same thing in The Islanders – is to literalize not just a metaphor (as we keep hearing about in SF), but to literalize an entire narrative technique involving the management of time. Even mainstream authors have all sorts of ways of shifting the reader back and forth in time, revealing characters from different perspectives and at different points in their histories, but Priest literally puts his narrator through such time shifts, and the effect is both dizzying and firmly grounded, even as it leads toward a conclusion which is, if a bit more conventional than we’ve come to expect from Priest, thoroughly satisfying.

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Liz Bourke Reviews Fran Wilde

Cloudbound, Fran Wilde (Tor 978-0765377852, $25.99, 400pp, hc) September 2016.

Fran Wilde, the mind behind the podcast Cooking the Books, burst onto science fiction and fantasy bookshelves last year with her debut novel Updraft. And not just onto bookshelves: nominated for a Nebula, winner of the Andre Norton Award, winner of the Compton Crook Award, Updraft has been making quite a few waves. (It is, to my knowledge, the only debut novel ever to be nominated for the Nebula and the Andre Norton in the same year.)

Now here comes Cloudbound, Wilde’s second novel, set in the same world as Updraft and following on directly from its events, but told from the point of view of a different character. Where Updraft was narrated by Kirit, whose talents and inclinations made her a catalyst for conflict between the Singers – a central authority in her society – and everyone else, and one of the fulcrums around which that conflict turned, Cloudbound is narrated by Nat, Kirit’s childhood friend. Nat, like Kirit, is still not 20 yet, but he’s been catapulted into a leadership role as the junior councillor for Densira tower. His inexperience with politics leaves him open to manipulation, and he realises only slowly that other ambitious people are, at least in part, stage-managing the threats to and division within his society – but once he realises, he is compelled to act.

Cloudbound builds on the foundations that Updraft established. They are both, in their way, novels about coming of age. Wilde has pulled off a neat trick to give us in Nat a character very different from Kirit, but one equally compelling, to show us the characters of the first novel from a different perspective, and yet have them all remain recognisable and consistent. And to introduce new characters, all of them distinct and deftly characterised, so that Cloudbound feels both more crowded and yet more lively than its predecessor. From Nat’s fellow members of an apparent (low-key) romantic triad, Ceetcee and Beliak, to the scavenger-fighter Aliati and the crippled scientist Djonn, the politicians Doran and Hiroli, Kirit and Wyk, and the young teenagers Ciel and Moc – and the rest of a cast who come alive in its pages – one of Cloudbound’s delights is its people, and their very human combinations of selfishness and selflessness, judgment and generosity, loyalty and self-interested treachery.

After the disruptions of Updraft, the aerial society of the bone towers – where people use human-made wings to travel from place to place, where life is precarious, and where monsters lurk in the clouds below – is on edge. Stability is precarious, and everyone is looking for someone to blame for the continuing problems. The discredited Singers are a useful scapegoat, and Nat is initially supportive of the idea that the solution to the unrest is to execute all the surviving adult Singers.

Fortunately for the narrative, he comes around to a less ethically challenged way of thinking, when he begins to discover that multiple political factions – but one in particular – are contributing to the unrest in order to gather power into their own hands. First accident, then investigation, leads Nat and his allies into the clouds: a hazardous realm filled with monsters, secrets, and the remnants of the past. Pursued by dangerous enemies, the need to survive drives him and his family and allies – some more reluctant than others – deeper than anyone has been in years. There, they make a discovery that has the potential to shake the foundations of their world.

Wilde’s worldbuilding remains one of Cloudbound’s delights. The revelation at the novel’s conclusion – which I will not spoil, because it’s worth coming to in its own good time – of what the bone towers actually are is a perfect example. But throughout Nat’s sojourn in the clouds, the slow revelation of the world below the clear air of tower society comes with a damp and atmospheric logic, a lowering sense of threat and claustrophobia, that adds immeasurably to the novel’s tension.

And, damn, does this novel have tension. In terms of pace, style, structure, and sheer flair? Cloudbound represents the opposite of a sophomore slump. It’s that rare bird, the follow-up to a highly praised first novel that doesn’t just equal its predecessor’s accomplishments, but exceeds them. I felt Updraft was a promising debut effort; Cloudbound sees much of that promise realised, with hints of more to come.

I could laud Cloudbound further, but the only thing I disliked about it is that it ends on something of a cliffhanger. What happens next?

I don’t know – but I do know I really want to stick around to find out.

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