I have two copies of Clockwork Phoenix: Tales of Beauty and Strangeness for you to win. Edited by Mike Allen, the anthology contains fantasy stories by Catherynne Valente, John Grant, Cat Rambo, Laird Barron, Ekaterina Sedia, Cat Sparks, Tanith Lee, Marie Brenna, Vandana Singh, John C. Wright and others. To learn more about the anthology, visit http://www.clockworkphoenix.com/
The rules are the same as usual. You need to send an email at reviews@(no-spam)gryphonwood.net with the header "PHOENIX." Remember to remove the "no spam" thingy.
Second, your email must contain your full mailing address (that's snail mail!), otherwise your message will be deleted.
Lastly, multiple entries will disqualify whoever sends them. And please include your screen name and the message boards that you frequent using it, if you do hang out on a particular MB.
I should have known that things would go wrong at some point. It was to be expected. . . Losing a wager had never been this enjoyable, though I had to live with the fact that the Giants not only beat the Cowboys, but they added insult to injury by winning the Super Bowl. Early on, I was aware that I couldn't possibly like every book George R. R. Martin got to choose for me to review for losing that NFL bet. But I enjoyed both S. L. Farrell and Melinda Snodgrass' works, and I figured I couldn't go wrong with Jack Vance. After all, the Dying Earth novels are genre classics. The whole point of GRRM selecting books for me to read was to give exposure to older works which no longer get an opportunity to be in the limelight.
Unfortunately, the four volumes that comprise the omnibus Tales of the Dying Earth failed to do it for me on basically every level. A bet's a bet, and I always pay my debts. Otherwise, I would have quit midway through the second book, The Eyes of the Overworld. By the time I reached Cugel's Saga, I had lost all hope. It took everything I had in me just to finish the omnibus, and at some point I considered asking Martin to choose something else for me to read. Still, I'm a trooper and I pulled through. The last time I encountered a work so hard to finish was when I read David Bilsborough's The Wanderer's Tale. . .
Adam Whitehead recently did a spotlight on Jack Vance on his blog. I'll quote his outlines of the four Dying Earth volumes, for they are much better than anything I could ever hope to come up with:
The Dying Earth itself is a collection of six short stories, but these are connected by an interesting writing device. Each story focuses on a central character who meets the central figure of the subsequent story in his own adventure, so the narrative is passed almost like a baton to the next character. So the book opens with Turjan, a wizard of some power, encountering the artificial construct T'sais. In the next story he is imprisoned by the wizard Mazirian, who is defeated in turn by T'sain, T'sais' brother. Then the narrative switches to T'sais' adventures. And so on. It's an interesting device for a short story collection and the stories are bound closely together because of it. However, The Dying Earth's success is in its atmospheric depiction of a far-future, dying world under a shrunken red sun. The stories themselves are interesting, but not as compelling as the later books.
The Eyes of the Overworld introduces Cugel the Clever, a rogue and scoundrel always on the look-out for a profit. He is manipulated by a dubious rival, Fianosther, into attempting to rob the manse of Iucounu the Laughing Magician, who discovers this attempt and is not impressed. He offers Cugel a choice between being entombed 45 miles below the Earth's surface, or journeying to remote lands to seek a mystical 'eye of the overworld'. Cugel is thus exiled to the far ends of the world to seek the artifact and has to return home, having numerous adventures along the way. It's Cugel's constant misfortune, at times reaching ridiculous and farcical levels, that makes this part of the story both hilarious and breathlessly enjoyable. By this volume Vance's skills as a writer have grown tremendously and his command of the English language is a joy to behold, with its flowery, polite terminology used to disguise feelings of hatred and jealousy like a particularly demented take on medieval court language. At length, Cugel apparently succeeds in his mission and gains the upper hand...until misfortune once again befalls him and he is left on a cliffhanger.
Nineteen years later (a break in a series that would be unthinkable today), Vance resumed the story in Cugel's Saga. Once again banished to the ends of the Earth, Cugel once again sets out for home, but this time travels by a different route. Essentially a second picaresque travelogue, the story is similar in structure to the preceding volume but is possibly even better, with more polished writing and Cugel's ambiguous appeal remaining intact. If anything, this book is even more hilarious than the second, although some may feel the relatively happy ending is not entirely in keeping with Cugel's typical fortunes.
The final book, Rhialto the Marvellous, is also sadly the weakest. It is much more overtly fantastical than the first three, incorporating voyages through space, but the focus on less interesting protagonists than Cugel means it feels like an afterthought. That's not to say the stories here are unenjoyable, merely that they are of a different nature than Cugel's and less distinctive because of it.
Although the omnibus failed to captivate me, there is no doubt that Jack Vance is a master. Adam's claims that the author has a formidable grasp of language and a keen wit are right on the money. The rich and evocative language used both in the narrative and the dialogues is second to none. Moreover, Jack Vance's fertile imagination imbues each tale of humor and whimsy contained within the pages of the Dying Earth volumes. I thoroughly enjoyed these aspects of Vance's writing, though it wasn't enough for me.
My main problem was the fact that there is very little plot to speak of. Most storylines go nowhere and are just meant to be yet another funny misadventure that the characters must experience. It's my fault, no question, but I was expecting something a lot deeper, along the lines of works by other renowned SFF authors such as Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick. Hence, the humorous and often ridiculous tales of Cugel and Rhialto were a far cry from what I thought I was getting into.
I did laugh, mind you. It's impossible not to. Some of the plotlines are hilarious, to be sure. But I wanted more than humor and flowery language. I guess that's where I erred. With that mindset, I realize that it was well nigh impossible for me to get into Tale of the Dying Earth. But try as I might, I couldn't adapt.
Characterization, which is another important element when I review a novel, left a lot to be desired. There is no character growth to speak of, no elaboration regarding the characters' motivations, no depth. The beauty of the Dying Earth books, I'm told, is to simply let yourself be taken for a ride and follow the misadventures of Cugel and the others. Me, well I was always looking for something more. Something that obviously never came. Trouble was, I also quite despised Cugel. Almost, in fact, as much as I can't stand Kim Bauer in 24. That character pretty much killed it for me, and by then there was no turning back.
In the end, I fully understand what made these books the beloved classics they have become, and how they inspired an entire generation of SFF authors who came after. Having said that, I'm not sure the Dying Earth novels have aged all that well. Compared to the current crop of bestselling science fiction writers, it might be too disparate in style and form. Had I known that most of what I'm looking for when reading a novel was more or less absent in each of the Dying Earth installment, I probably would have passed on them. Indeed, in retrospect there was no way I could ever fully enjoy them. . .
Our winner will receive a full set of Stephen R. Donaldson's The Gap series, compliments of the cool folks at Gollancz!
The winner is:
- Karel Mika, from Melnik, Czech Republic
I consider Donaldson's The Gap series to be one of the best science fiction sagas ever written, and I encourage you to give it a shot if you haven't read it yet. It all begins in The Real Story (Canada, USA, Europe), which should be on your Christmas list! Used copies can be found for pennies. . .
- Without giving anything away, can you give us a taste of the story that is THE TEN THOUSAND?
Well, it’s the story of an army, a group of men who find themselves in almost impossible circumstances, and who can either lie down and die, or try and find a way home out of it. It’s about soldiers, the good and the bad in them, the way they react to the world.
- Doubtless, this one was heavily influenced by Xenophon's THE ANABASIS. Why this particular work?
It’s one of the great military adventures of all time – it’s battle, a road-trip, political and military intrigue, the clash of two worlds. It’s got it all – and the heart-lifting cry of ‘The Sea! The sea!’ at the end. I’ve always loved it.
- Given the fact that you had to come up with something new basically on the spot when Solaris took you in, can you tell us a little more about the road that saw this one go from manuscript form to finished novel?
I hammered my head against a wall for about a week, walked the dogs on the beach a lot, and stared into space for inordinate amounts of time, trying not to think of anything in particular – it’s then that the ideas come. If you sit at your desk staring at a blinking cursor, nothing good is ever going to arrive. It’s happenstance, luck, some form of peculiar mental alchemy. I don’t really know. I just know, that when I needed it, the idea arrived.
It was the first line – it popped into my head, and I liked it, and so wrote a paragraph. Then I had a couple of beers, thought about it, and wrote the whole first chapter at one sitting. Which is probably still the best chapter in the book. After that, the mental sluice gates were open, and I could get on with it.
- How happy are you with the way events unfolded? When I cross-posted a piece from your own forum last year, you appeared very close to quitting writing altogether. Then Mark Newton got in touch with you, and a few months later you have just released what could well be one of the best fantasy titles of 2008. Is there a lesson to take away from all this?
There are several obvious and banal lessons, mostly concerning fat ladies singing. I wasn’t going to quit writing because I couldn’t write, or didn’t want to. I just thought that, commercially speaking, I was through. At day’s end, I need to put food on the table, and if writing can’t do it, well, it’s going to be locked back in the closet until I find something that does. I’ve been doing this for seventeen years, and I have few illusions about the business of publishing. When it comes down to it, there is quite simply an immense amount of luck involved – it’s as simple and frightening as that.
- Will you be touring to promote THE TEN THOUSAND this fall? If so, are there any appearances you would like your fans and potential readers to know about?
No tours, no signings. I don’t think the budget stretches to it! Having said that, if anything shows up, I’ll nail it to the website.
- What's next for Paul Kearney?
Another Macht book. Plus some other stuff in the pipeline which I’ll keep under my hat for now. The Macht book will be another standalone, but Rictus will be in it.
- More so than a lot of authors, you seem to have had a lot of bad luck with publishers, and the conflict between marketing and art. Do you have any advice for other writers who find themselves in difficulty between what they want to write and what the publishers want to publish?
It’s not that the publishers didn’t want to publish my stuff. I’ve never yet had a synopsis turned down (he knocks on wood frantically). Editors love my work. Unfortunately, it would seem readers don’t. The average fantasy reader I feel doesn’t get me at all. I’m not into dragons and elves – I like to make the story about real people with real dilemmas. One Amazon review of The Ten Thousand said that it would have been a really great book if only there had been a few more non-humanoid monsters in it. WTF?
Publishing is a business, and to make your way in it, you have to shift copies off the shelves. It’s as simple as that. I write pretty decent books, but they haven’t sold, hence my peripatetic publishers. But hey, I’m still here…
- Way back, in an interview on the Malazan forums, you revealed you had an unpublished but complete military SF novel on file. Do you think you’ll ever publish this book?
Well, it’ll need an extensive rewrite. It’s basically The Ten Thousand in space – I only just realized that recently! It’s about the last true Terrans in the galaxy, who live on an enormous starship called the Laconia, and work as mercenaries for a bureaucratic federation intent on nannying every planet in existence. When the last enemy outpost falls, the Terran Division finds itself redundant, and dangerous, and the federation decides to destroy it. Epic battles – with tanks and dropships and battlecruisers. Great pulp. Great fun to write, too.
- Your fantasy novels seem closely based on real history, particularly THE TEN THOUSAND, whilst The Monarchies of God features some elements of horror (with the werewolves). Have you ever been temped to write an out-and-out historical novel? Or, further to the above, perhaps SF or an outright horror story?
Technically, The Ten Thousand is sci-fi, since there is no magic in it, but it does happen on a planet with two moons, and there is inexplicable technology at work (the black armour). However, to market it as such would be commercial suicide – the sci-fi elements are pretty well hidden I have to admit. You could also say however that I’ve hidden very conventional fantasy elements in there though – no-one has yet remarked on the fact that the Juthan could be Dwarves, and the Kefren, elves…
And yes, I have been tempted to write historical fiction, and I’m pretty sure I could make a job of it, but damn it all, I need the freedom that fantasy gives me – the knowledge that I can, as a writer, do absolutely anything I want. What other genre gives you that freedom? Even in sci-fi, you’re constrained by physics. In fantasy, nothing is impossible. That’s why I keep coming back to it. I know people complain that there’s not enough fantasy in a lot of my books, but as a writer, there’s enough there to make it interesting for me – and I don’t know if I could write without it, and the possibilities it allows.
- In our last interview, I asked you about your strengths as a writer. What would be your weaknesses, or aspects of your craft you feel you need to work on?
Pacing. I often lose it a little in the last third of a book. I always take my time over the first half, but the second half I’m rattling along to find out what happens (and usually cruising close to a deadline – or over it), so I think I lose a little of the detachment an author needs to truly take a step back and critically examine where he’s going with his work.
- The fact that there is a website dedicated to your work is an indication that interaction with your readers is important to you as an author. How special is it to have the chance to interact directly with your fans?
It’s more essential than I ever would have dreamed ten years ago. The feedback is invaluable, as is the encouragement. At times when you think you can barely stir up the grey matter sufficiently to write a shopping list, you’ll sometimes get a fan e-mail, or an entry on the forum which will make you realize that you are not, in fact writing just for yourself. That’s a real shot in the arm.
- Cover art has become a very hot topic of late. What are your thoughts pertaining to that facet of a novel, and what do you think of the cover that graces THE TEN THOUSAND?
It is, quite simply, brilliant. At first I had my doubt about the pretty boy on the front – I thought he should have been wearing a helmet – but now I’ve come round. It grabs the gaze. When it comes to covers, Solaris are a bunch of geniuses. And I have to admit that even a hoary old veteran like me still has my attention grabbed by the cover first – that’s human nature. First the cover, then the blurb, then the first line of the first page. If those check out, you’re more than halfway to making a sale.
- More and more, authors/editors/publicists/agents are discovering the potential of all the SFF blogs/websites/message boards on the internet. Do you keep an eye on what's being discussed out there, especially if it concerns you? Or is it too much of a distraction?
I do and I don’t. I’ll google the book title of course (any author who says they don’t on a regular basic is an outright liar), just to see if there are any new reviews. But I don’t really get into the whys and wherefores of the current ‘scene’ to be honest. I’m old-fashioned about this I guess, but I’m a little afraid that if I know exactly what’s selling out there, it’ll somehow contaminate my idea of what I should be writing, and it should be the story alone which dictates that.
- THE TEN THOUSAND has gotten an enormous amount of positive press from the internet, generating a fair amount of word-of-mouth about the book before it came out. How important do you think is it for writers to reach out to the Internet as way of generating interest in their work?
I think it’s become massively important. For the publishers, it’s cheap publicity, let’s face it. It extends a global reach, and has a ginormous audience – it’s definitely The Shape of Things to Come, not just for bookselling, but for pretty much every artistic endeavor also. Of course, there’s more crap to wade through now before you chance across the nuggets of good stuff, but it’s there. On the other hand, as I said earlier, for writer it still has to translate in the end into people forking over cash to read what you’ve written, otherwise it’s just an exercise in navel-gazing.
- Last summer, you were involved in a minor online "scuffle" pertaining to Aidan Moher's "non-review" of THE TEN THOUSAND. In retrospect, what would you have done differently to address that situation?
Well, my curt one-liner certainly kicked up a lot of dust. I didn’t regret the sentiments therein, just the way I expressed them. I said that in a – what’s the word? – a clarification further down the line, because with that one line, I did come across as a bit of a twat, to be honest. After that, I got the hell out of Dodge and watched as the bloggers slogged it out. Boy, did they get serious.
- Finally, can we hopefully expect to see The Monarchies of God omnibuses next year?
God Almighty, yes. If we don’t, I’m going to visit Solaris with a petrol bomb and a chainsaw.
Our winner will get her hands on my extra ARC of Busted Flush by George R. R. Martin and company. Which means that she will have the opportunity to read it before almost everyone else! For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Kind of lame compared to the American and UK covers. . .
Put this novel on your Christmas list, for it will probably be one of the best fantasy books of 2009! I'm trying to convince Scott to grant me permission to post an excerpt, but he's a tough nut to crack!;-)
Just exchanged a couple of emails with Betsy Wollheim, the president of Daw Books, and I must sadly inform you that the eagerly anticipated sequel to The Name of the Wind has been postponed. Everyone involved is aware that the second volume must be even better than Patrick Rothfuss' debut to satisfy fans, so they're not taking any chances.
The author will turn in the first draft of the manuscript by the end of the year. The Wise Man's Fear is no longer on the 2009 Daw schedule, which means that we can expect the book in the fall of 2009, if everything goes according to plan.
Though his life changed dramatically since the publication of his fantasy debut, and though he spent a lot of time promoting the book, Patrick Rothfuss is hard at work, making sure that The Wise Man's Fear meets or even surpasses readers' expectations.
I had mixed feelings about K. J. Parker's Devices and Desires when I read it last year, so I was in no real hurry to give The Company a shot. Yet decidedly underwhelmed by Jack Vance's Tales of the Dying Earth, I desperately needed something different to get my mind off Cugel. And every time I perused my book piles for a stand-alone to read, Parker's latest inevitably returned to haunt me for some reason.
I'm certainly glad I elected to give it a chance, for The Company turned out to be an unanticipated pleasure. Indeed, the novel is a sure candidate for my "Unexpected Surprise of the Year" Award. The funny thing is that if you break down this book and put its various components under the microscope, each characteristic is nothing spectacular. No, it's in the execution that Parker truly shines and comes up with something unique and special.
The overall premise is nothing to write home about. Hoping for a better life following a bloody war, five veterans leave everything behind to colonize an island. But can their enduring friendship keep them together? As you can see, it's not the sort of story arc which immediately captures the imagination. And yet, The Company is like a drug. The more you read, the more you have to read in order to discover what happens next.
In terms of style, the novel is a compelling cross between L. E. Modesitt, jr. and Neil Gaiman. As was the case with The Engineer Trilogy, technical details and realism are integral parts of the tale. Don't expect any fireworks, or action-packed sequences. The Company is an intelligent yet low profile sort of book. Adroit storytelling and witty humor keep the narrative flowing, and before you know it you'll have reached the end. The author's eye for details adds a nice touch to the overall quality of the work.
The most impressive aspect of The Company is the characterization. I found that the characters in Devices and Desires left more than a little to be desired in that department, so I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the men and women populating this one possessed much more depth. Kunessin, Aidi, Kudei, Muri, and Fly are an interesting and endearing bunch, the more so because they each have a back story that fleshes them out even more. A number of secondary characters manage to shine as well, chief among those Dorun, but it's the veterans' story from start to finish.
The pace is good throughout the book. No spectacular plot twists keep you on the edge of your seat, though, à la George R. R. Martin, there are a number of unexpected surprises. I have a feeling that The Company is the kind of novel that could well fly under the radar of many readers. Which would be a pity, as it's an original and well-crafted tale that should appeal to many disparate fantasy aficionados.
If you are looking for something smart, something different, K. J. Parker's The Company could be right up your alley.
Okay, so this is the fourth excerpt in the last little while. . .
Though I would love to have the opportunity to bring you more of these, the truth is that such sample chapters will appear more or less sporadically on the Hotlist. So enjoy them while they last!
Many thanks to both Alastair Reynolds and the folks at Subterranean Press for granting me permission to post this latest excerpt from the author's forthcoming novella, The Six Directions of Space (Canada, USA, Europe, and http://www.subterraneanpress.com/.)
From the Subpress website:
What if Genghis Khan got his wish, and brought the entire planet under the control of the Mongols? Where would he have gone next?
A thousand years after Khan's death, Yellow Dog is the codename of a female spy working for a vast Mongol-dominated galactic empire. When she learns of anomalous events happening on the edge of civilised space -- phantom ships appearing in the faster-than-light transit system which binds the empire together -- Yellow Dog puts herself forward for the most hazardous assignment of her career. In deep cover, she must penetrate the autonomous zone where the anomalies are most frequent, and determine whether the empire is really under attack, and if so by who or what. Yellow Dog's problems, however, are only just beginning. For the autonomous zone is under the heel of Qilian, a thuggish local tyrant with no love for central government and a reputation for extreme brutality. Qilian already knows more about the anomalies than Yellow Dog does. If she is going to learn more, she will have to earn his confidence -- even if that means working for him, rather than against him.
So begins a deadly game of subterfuge and double-cross -- while the anomalies increase...
We had been riding for two hours when I tugged sharply on the reins to bring my pony to a halt. Tenger, my escort, rode on for a few paces before glancing back irritatedly. He muttered something in annoyance—a phrase that contained the words “stupid” and “dyke”—before steering his horse back alongside mine.
“Another sight-seeing stop?” he asked, as the two mismatched animals chewed their bits, flared their nostrils, and flicked their heads up in mutual impatience.
I said nothing, damned if I was going to give him the pleasure of an excuse. I only wanted to take in the view: the deeply-shadowed valley below, the rising hills beyond (curving ever upwards, like a tidal wave formed from rock and soil and grass), and the little patch of light down in the darkness, the square formation of the still-moving caravan.
“If you really want to make that appointment…” Tenger continued.
Tenger sniffed, dug into a leather flap on his belt, and popped something into his mouth.
“On your own head be it, Yellow Dog. It certainly won’t be my neck on the line, keeping the old man waiting.”
I held both reins in one hand so that I could cup the other against my ear. I turned the side of my head in the direction of the caravan and closed my eyes. After a few moments, I convinced myself that I could hear it. It was a sound almost on the edge of audibility, but which would become thunderous, calamitous, world-destroying, as they drew nearer. The sound of thousands of riders, hundreds of wheeled tents, dozens of monstrous siege engines. A sound very much like the end of the world itself, it must have seemed, when the caravan approached.
“We can go now,” I told Tenger.
He dug his spurs in, almost drawing blood, his horse pounding away so quickly that it kicked dirt into my eyes. Goyo snorted and gave chase. We raced down into the valley, sending skylarks and snipe barrelling into the air.
“Just going by the rules, Yellow Dog,” the guard said, apologising for making me show him my passport. We were standing on the wheeled platform of the imperial ger. The guard wore a knee length blue sash-tied coat, long black hair cascading from the dome of his helmet. “We’re on high alert as it is. Three plausible threats in the last week.”
“Usual nut-jobs?” I said, casting a wary glance at Tenger, who was attending to Goyo with a bad-tempered expression. I had beaten him to the caravan and he did not like that.
“Two Islamist sects, one bunch of Nestorians,” the guard answered. “Not that I’m saying that the old man has anything to fear from you, of course, but we have to follow protocol.”
“I understand fully.”
“Frankly, we were beginning to wonder if you were ever coming back.” He looked at me solicitously. “Some of us were beginning to wonder if you’d been disavowed.”
I smiled. “Disavowed? I don’t think so.”
“Just saying, we’re all assuming you’ve got something suitably juicy, after all this time.”
I reached up to tie back my hair. “Juicy’s not exactly the word I’d use. But it’s definitely something he has to hear about.”
The guard touched a finger to the pearl on his collar.
“Better go inside, in that case.”
I did as I was invited.
My audience with the khan was neither as private nor as lengthy as I might have wished, but, in all other respects, it was a success. One of his wives was there, as well as Minister Chiledu, the national security adviser, and the khan was notoriously busy during this ceremonial restaging of the war caravan. I thought, not for the first time, of how old he looked: much older than the young man who had been elected to this office seven years earlier, brimming with plans and promises. Now he was greying and tired, worn down by disappointing polls and the pressures of managing an empire that was beginning to fray at the edges. The caravan was supposed to be an antidote to all that. In this, the nine hundred and ninety ninth year since the death of the Founder (we would celebrate this birthday, but no one knows when it happened), a special effort had been made to create the largest caravan in decades, with almost every local system commander in attendance.
As I stepped off the ger to collect Goyo and begin my mission, I felt something perilously close to elation. The data I had presented to the khan—the troubling signs I had detected concerning the functioning and security of the Infrastructure—had been taken seriously. The khan could have waved aside my concerns as an issue for his successor, but—to his credit, I think—he had not. I had been given license and funds to gather more information, even if that meant voyaging to the Kuchlug Special Administrative Volume and operating under the nose of Qilian, one of the men who had been making life difficult for the khan these last few years.
And yet my mood of elation was short lived.
I had no sooner set my feet on the ground than I spied Tenger. He was bullying Goyo, jerking hard on his bridle, kicking a boot against his hocks. He was so preoccupied with his business that he did not see me approaching from behind his back. I took hold of a good, thick clump of his hair and snapped his head back as far it would go. He released the bridle, staggering back under the pressure I was applying.
I whispered in his ear. “No one hurts my horse, you ignorant piece of shit.”
Then I spun him around, the hair tearing out in my fist, and kneed him hard in the groin, so that he coughed out a groan of pain and nausea and bent double, like a man about to vomit.
Some say that it is Heaven’s Mandate that we should have the stars, just as it was the will of Heaven that our armies should bring the squabbling lands of Greater Mongolia under one system of governance, a polity so civilised that a woman could ride naked from the western shores of Europe to the eastern edge of China without once being molested. I say that it is simply the case that we—call us Mongols, call us humans, it scarcely matters now—have always made the best of what we are given.
Take the nexus in Gansu system, for instance. It was a medium-sized moon that had been hollowed out nearly all the way to its middle, leaving a shell barely a hundred li thick, with a small round kernel buttressed to the shell by ninety nine golden spokes. Local traffic entered and departed the nexus via apertures at the northern and southern poles. Not that there was much local traffic to speak of: Gansu, with its miserly red sun—only just large enough to sustain fusion—and handful of desolate, volatile-poor, and radiation-lashed rocky worlds, was neither a financial nor military hub, nor a place that figured prominently in tourist itineraries. As was often the case, it was something of a puzzle why the wormlike khorkoi had built the nexus in such a miserable location to begin with.
Unpromising material, but in the five hundred years since we first reopened a portal into the Infrastructure, we had made a glittering bauble out of it. Five major trunk routes converged on Gansu, including a high-capacity branch of the Kherlen Corridor, the busiest path in the entire network. In addition, the moon offered portals to a dozen secondary routes, four of which had been rated stable enough to allow passage by juggernaut-class ships. Most of those secondary routes led to stellar population centres of some economic importance, including the Kiriltuk, Tatatunga, and Chilagun administrative volumes, each of which encompassed more than fifty settled systems and around a thousand habitable worlds. Even the routes which led to nowhere of particular importance were well-travelled by prospectors and adventurers, hoping to find khorkoi relics, or, that fever dream of all chancers, an unmapped nexus.
We did not know the function of the ninety nine spokes, or of the core they buttressed. No matter; the core made a useful foundation, a place upon which to build. From the vantage point of the rising shuttle, it was a scribble of luminous neon, packed tight as a migraine. I could not distinguish the lights of individual buildings, only the larger glowing demarkations of the precincts between city-sized districts. Pressurised horseways a whole li wide were thin, snaking scratches. The human presence had even begun to climb up the golden spokes, pushing tendrils of light out to the moon’s inner surface. Commercial slogans spelled themselves out in letters ten li high. On Founder’s Day, drink only Temujin Brand Airag. Sorkan-Shira rental ponies have low mileage, excellent stamina, and good temperament. Treat your favorite wife: buy her only Zarnuk Silks. During hunting season, safeguard your assets with New Far Samarkand Mutual Insurance. Think you’re a real man? Then you should be drinking Death Worm Airag: the one with a sting at both ends!
I had spent only one night in Gansu, arranging a eunuch and waiting for the smaller ship that would carry us the rest of the way to Kuchlug. Now Goyo, the eunuch, and I were being conveyed to the Burkhan Khaldun, a vessel that was even smaller than the Black Heart Mountain that had brought me to Gansu. The BK was only one li from end to end, less than a quarter of that across the bow. The hull was a multicoloured quilt of patch repairs, with many scratches, craters, and scorches yet to be attended to. The lateral stabilisation vanes had the slightly buckled look of something that had been badly bent and then hammered back into shape, while the yaw-dampeners appeared to have originated from a completely different ship, fixed on with silvery fillets of recent welding work. A whole line of windows had been plated over.
As old as the BK might have been, it had taken more than just age and neglect to bring her to that state. The Parvan Tract was a notoriously rough passage, quickly taking its toll on even a new ship. If the Kherlen Corridor was a wide, stately river which could almost be navigated blindfold, then the Tract was a series of narrow rapids whose treacherous properties varied from trip to trip, requiring not just expert input from the crew, but passengers with the constitution to tolerate a heavy crossing.
Once I had checked into my rooms and satisfied myself that Goyo was being taken care of, I made my way back to the passenger area. I bought a glass of Temujin airag and made my way to the forward viewing platform, with its wide sweep of curved window—scratched and scuffed in places, worryingly starred in others—and leaned hard against the protective railing. The last shuttle had already detached, and the BK was accelerating towards the portal, its great human-made doors irising open at the last possible moment, so that the interior of Gansu was protected from the Parvan Tract’s unpredictable energy surges. Even though the Infrastructure shaft stretched impossibly far into the distance, my mind kept insisting that we were about to punch through the thin skin of the moon.
The ship surged forward, the sluggish artificial gravity generators struggling to maintain the local vertical. We passed through the door, into the superluminal machinery of the Infrastructure. The tunnel walls were many li away, but they felt closer—as they raced by at increasing speed, velocity traced by the luminous squiggly patterns that had been inscribed on the wall for inscrutable reasons by the khorkoi builders, I had the impression that the shaft was constricting, tightening down on our fragile little ship. Yet nothing seemed to disconcert or even arouse the interest of my fellow passengers. In ones and twos, they drifted away from the gallery, leaving me alone with my eunuch, observing from a discreet distance. I drank the airag very slowly, looking down the racing shaft, wondering if it would be my fortune to see a phantom with my own eyes. Phantoms, after all, were what had brought me here.
Well, if the Cowboys play this poorly against one of the worst teams in the NFL, then I may as well free three slots in my 2009 reading schedule, because GRRM will be selecting novels for me to read and reviews, no matter how good or bad the Giants are playing.
Last spring, I received a few emails from Pat, Rick, and Thomas, Hotlist fans hoping to put together their own SFF sandbox. Nothing special about that, as Pat's Fantasy Hotlist inspired more than a few bloggers out there, and people like Graeme, Robert, Aidan, and others all got in touch with me to ask for some advice when they started out.
Never heard back from them until this morning, when they sent me a message to let me know that their blog had been created and things were looking up. To my surprise, they elected to forgo the immensely lucrative field of SFF book-reviewing for another online venture. One that was supposedly inspired by my raving about the beauty of those Polish girls last summer!
I laughed out loud when I clicked on the link they supplied and found myself at Dream Girlzzz: A site dedicated to the beauty of the female body. You can see it here: www.dreamgirlzzz.blogspot.com.
The guys (there are now six of them, apparently) went on to thank me for running such a cool blog, and said they hoped to live up to the quality of the Hotlist.
Well, all I can say is, "Best of luck to you guys!" You probably won't get free books and ARCs, but I get the feeling that you will make a lot more money than any of us poor SFF bloggers!
Ah, what a source of inspiration I'm turning out to be. . .:-)
Thanks to the Dabel Brothers, our three winners will each get their hands on a limited edition copy of the upcoming A Song of Ice and Fire 2009 Calendar, autographed by George R. R. Martin himself. How cool is that!?!
Please note that you can now pre-order the "regular" edition of the ASOIAF calendar here.
The winners are:
- Karin Gorham, from Kingston, Ontario, Canada
- Holli Thompson, from Franklin, North Carolina, USA
Many thanks to Modesitt for being kind enough to allow us to catch a glimpse of his newest installment in the Corean Chronicles, The Lord-Protector's Daughter (Canada, USA, Europe), which will be published by Tor Books in a few short weeks.
Duadi was not that much better than Lundi, because, try as she might, Mykella had been unable to discover any reason within the Finance ledgers why tariff revenues were declining. She had hoped that the decline had been the result of poor accounting, but that hope had vanished by the time she had closed the last ledger that afternoon. With what she had learned from the portmaster, revenues should have been higher.
Dinner was quiet, and in the family quarters, because her father and her uncle had been to a banquet held by the Seltyrs and High Factors to the celebrate the end of a successful fall trading season. Mykella read in the family sitting room until her eyes tired of the poor light cast by the oil lamps, and she had retired to her own chambers – where sleep had been a long time coming.
From somewhere, the faintest of greenish lights suffused the dark of Mykella’s chamber, rousing her from an uneasy slumber. Green? She squinted, but discovered she was looking away from the window and toward her wardrobe. She turned over, keeping the comforter tight around her, conscious of just how chill the air was, even inside the palace. The green illumination was not coming from the window, but from the gauzy-winged and shimmering small who hovered above the foot of her bed.
She just stared at the soarer, then slowly sat up, gathering the comforter around her. “You can’t be real,” she murmured in a voice so low that no one could have heard her words.
The soarer eased toward her, then bent forward, a graceful arm reaching out toward Mykella.
Mykella was half-frightened, but also so bemused and intrigued that she did not move, not until the fingertip of a small hand brushed Mykella’s forehead. At that moment, a tingle ran through her body.
If you would save your land and your world, go to the Table and find your talent.
There was no sound at all in the room, yet the soarer’s words were as clear as if she had spoken them loudly and distinctly. Then, the soarer floated toward the outside wall… and was gone, as if she had never been there.
If you would save your land and your world, go to the Table and find your talent. What had the soarer meant? What table? Certainly not a banquet table…
Abruptly, Mykella shuddered. The Table beneath the palace. It had to be the stone table in the chamber in the lowest level of the palace, and there was little doubt that the small winged woman was a soarer – one of the Ancients featured in so many folk tales.
Rumors and tales, tales and rumors. Still, she could not deny that she had seen and heard a soarer –twice now – and some tales even held that the legendary Mykel, the first Lord-Protector, had been directed to Tempre by a soarer after the Great Cataclysm. Now… she had been directed to go to the Table. Could she do any less than her ancestor?
She sat huddled in her comforter for several moments longer. Then she threw it off and padded to the armoire, pulling out garments until she had a tunic, trousers, and boots, all of which she donned hurriedly in the darkness. Was she being foolish? She shook her head, knowing she was trying to convince herself.
Then she slipped out of her chamber and out of the family quarters.
The guards patrolling the corridor outside looked at her as she neared, once, then twice.
“I’m going down to the lower level,” was all she said.
Neither guard said a word, whatever they might have thought, since, as the Lord-Protector’s daughter who also fulfilled some of the functions of his consort, she had the keys to all the locks and access to any place in the palace.
In the dimness, she hurried down the central staircase to the ground level, then down the west corridor. She did not go so far as the rear door to the gardens, but stopped in front of another locked door – one that looked more like a closet or storeroom door. It wasn’t either, but the door to another staircase, the one that led down to the lowest levels of the palace. During the day, it was guarded, but at night, when the palace was locked, the guard was shifted to the garden door, since he could watch both doors easily.
From the door to the garden, the guard inquired, “Mistress Mykella?”
“It’s me, Noult. I shouldn’t be long.” Mykella finished unlocking the door and opened it. Should she lock it behind her? She decided against that and merely closed it.
Her bootsteps echoed dully in the narrow stairwell as she descended the stone staircase to the lowest level of the Lord-Protector’s Palace. When she reached the small foyer at the bottom, she paused and glanced around. The ancient light-torch in its bronze wall bracket illuminated the precisely cut stones of the wall and floor with the same tired amber light as it always had – ever since she could remember. Seeing it brought to mind, once again, the thought that it was indeed a miracle that so many of the ancient devices still functioned.
Why was she down in the seldom-visited depths? Had it just been a dream? Had she actually seen the soarer?
She looked through the archway separating the staircase foyer from the long subterranean hallway that extended the entire length of the palace. The dimly-lit passageway was empty, as it should have been.
She’d never quite figured out the reason for the box-like design of the Lord-Protector’s palace, with all the rooms set along the corridors that formed an interior rectangle on each level. The upper level remained reserved for the family and the official studies of the highest ministers of Lanachrona, but there was only one main staircase, of gray stone, and certainly undeserving of the appellation of “grand staircase,” only one modest great dining chamber, and but a single long and narrow ballroom, not that she cared that much for dancing. More intriguing were the facts that the stones of the outer walls looked as if they had been cut and quarried but a few years earlier and that there were no chambers truly befitting the ruler of Lanachrona.
Mykella walked briskly down the underground corridor toward the door set in the middle of the wall closest to the outside foundation on the north side of the palace. Once there, she stopped and studied it, as if for the first time. The door itself was of ancient oak, with an antique lever handle. Yet that lever, old as it had to be, seemed newer than the hinges. The stones of the door casement were also of a shade just slightly darker than the stones of the corridor wall. Several of the stones bordering the casement were also darker, almost as if they and the casement had been partly replaced in the past.
After a moment, Mykella tossed her head impatiently, hardly disarranging short-cut black locks, then reached out and depressed the lever. The hinges creaked slightly as she pushed the door open, and she made a mental note to tell the steward. Doors in the Lord-Protector’s Palace should not squeak. That was unacceptable.
She stepped into the Table chamber, closed the door behind her, and paused. At first glance, it looked as it always had, a windowless stone-walled space some five yards by seven, without furnishings except for a single black wooden chest and the Table itself – a block of blackish stone set into the floor whose flat and mirrored surface was level with her waist – or perhaps slightly higher, she had to admit, if only to herself. She was the shortest of the Lord-Protector’s offspring, even if she did happen to be the eldest. But she was a daughter who would be married off to some heir or another, most probably the Landarch-heir of Deforya, a cold and dark land, she’d heard, scoured by chill winds sweeping down from the Aerlal Plateau. She had seen the Plateau once, from more than thirty vingts away while accompanying her father on an inspection trip of the upper reaches of the River Vedra. Yet even from that distance, the Plateau’s sheer stone sides had towered into the clouds that enshrouded its seldom-glimpsed top.
Her thoughts of the Plateau and Deforya dropped away as she realized that there was another source of illumination in the chamber besides the dim glow of the ancient light-torches. From the Table itself oozed a faint purplish hue.
The massive stone block returned to the lifeless darkness she’d always seen before on the infrequent occasions when she had accompanied her father and her brother Jeraxylt to see the Table.
“Because it is part of our heritage,” had invariably been what her father had said when she had asked the purpose of beholding a block of stone that had done nothing but squat in the dimness for generations.
Jeraxylt had been more forthright. “I’m going to be the one who masters the Table. That’s what you have to do if you want to be a real Lord-Protector.” Needless to say, Jeraxylt hadn’t said those words anywhere near their father, not when no Lord-Protector in generations had been able to fathom the Table.
Mykella doubted that anyone had done so since the Cataclysm, even the great Mykel, but she wasn’t about to say so. Before the Cataclysm, the Alectors and even the great Mykel had been reputed to be able to travel from Table to Table. Another wishful folk tale, thought Mykella. No one could travel instantly from one place to another. Yet all of Corus had been ruled from the vanished cities of Elcien and Ludar, and there were the eternal and indestructible highways, and the Great Piers and the green towers.
She shook her head. So much had been lost. Could the Tables once truly have transported Alectors? How was that possible?
Yet… once more, the Table glowed purple, and she stared at it. But when she did, the glow vanished. She looked away, and then back. There was no glow… or was there?
She studied the Table once more, but her eyes saw only dark stone. Yet she could feel or sense purple. Abruptly, she realized that the purplish light was strangely like the soarer’s words, perceived inside her head in some fashion, rather than through her eyes.
She shivered, then drew herself up, concentrating on the Table. What did it mean? How could sensing a purple light that wasn’t there be a talent? And why had soarer appeared to Mykella, and not to her father or to Jeraxylt? And what was threatening her land? Or her world? And what exactly did the Table have to do with it all? The questions raised by the appearance of the soarer and her simple sentence seemed endless.
Slowly, Mykella walked around the Table, looking at it intently, yet also trying to feel or sense what might be there, all too conscious that she was in the lowest level of the palace in the middle of the night – and alone.
At the western end of the Table, she could feel something, but it was as though what she sensed lay within the stone of the Table. She stopped, turned, and extended her fingers, too short and stubby for a Lord-Protector’s daughter, to touch the stone. Was it warmer? She walked to the wall and touched it, then nodded.
After a moment, she moved back to the Table, where she peered at the mirror-like black surface, trying to feel or sense more of what might lie beneath. For a moment, all she saw in the dimness was her own image – black hair, broad forehead, green eyes, straight nose, shoulders too broad for a woman her size. At least, she had fair clear skin.
Even as she watched, her reflection faded, and the silvery-black gave way to swirling silvery-white mists. Then, an image appeared in the center of the mists – that of a man, except no man she had ever seen. He had skin as white as the infrequent snows that fell on Tempre, eyes of brilliant and piercing violet, and short-cut jet-black hair.
He looked up from the Table at Mykella as though she were the lowest of the palace drudges. He spoke, if words in her mind were speech. She understood not a single word or phrase, yet she felt that she should, as though he were speaking words she knew in an unfamiliar cadence and with an accent she did not recognize. He paused, and a cruel smile crossed his narrow lips. She did understand the last words he uttered before the swirling mists replaced his image.
“…useless except as cattle to build lifeforce.”
Cattle? He was calling her a cow? Mykella seethed, and the Table mists swirled more violently.
The Table could allow people to talk across distances? Why had no one mentioned that? There was nothing of that in the archives. But then, the archives did not mention anything about the Table except for its existence. Could it be that no one knew? If they had, wouldn’t her father have know? And where was the strange-looking man? Certainly not within the sunken ruins of Elcien. Could he be in far Alustre, so far to the east that even with the eternal ancient roads of Corus few traders made that journey and fewer still returned?
Alustre? What was Alustre like?
The swirling mists subsided into a moving border around a circular image – that of a city of white buildings, viewed from a height. Mykella swallowed, and the scene vanished. After a moment, so did the mists.
The strange man – could he have been an Alector? Hadn’t they all perished in the Cataclysm? Mykella didn’t know what to think. Still… she had thought of Alustre and something had appeared. Could she view people?
She concentrated her thoughts on her father. The mirror surface turned into a swirl of mists, revealing in the center Lord Feranyt lying on the wide bed of the Lord-Protector, looking upward, his eyes open. Beside him, asleep, lay Eranya, his dark-haired mistress. After the death of Mykella’s mother, her father had refused to marry again, claiming that to do so would merely cause more problems. Mykella had never questioned that, but seeing Eranya beside her father, she wondered what kind of problems he had meant. As she thought about that, Mykella felt strange looking at her father, clearly visible in darkness.
Quickly, she turned her thoughts to Jeraxylt. Her brother was in his own chamber, but he was far from asleep, nor was he alone. Flushing in the darkness, and yet somehow both irritated and disgusted, Mykella quickly thought about their summer villa in the hills to the northeast of Tempre.
The mist swirled, and then an image of white columns appeared, barely visible in the dark above the low walls that enclosed the front garden.
Next she tried calling up an image of the Great Piers, and those appeared in the mirror-like surface of the Table, dark, but clearer than they would have appeared to her eyes had she actually been standing on the eternastone surface and looking west at the short river wharves and the dark water beyond.
After that, she tried to call up the barracks of the Southern Guards, located a vingt east of the palace. The large square structure appeared before her. In turn, she tried calling up images of other places in Tempre – the market square, the public gardens, and the front of Lord Joramyl’s mansion, to the southeast of the Southern Guards, situated on a low rise. All appeared clearer in the mirrored surface of the Table than they would have to her eyes – yet they were clearly showing things as they were in the night.
What about Dereka?
An image appeared, and she looked down on a city where dark-eternastone and gold glimmering stone mixed, where faint lines of green appeared as well, and where a massive aqueduct split the city.
She’d been to Vyan, and she thought of it. Obligingly, the city square appeared, as did the square in Krost, but even the mists vanished when she tried to see Soupat or Lyterna. Finally, she stepped back from the Table. It still glowed with the unworldly purple sheen, but she could now distinguish between what she saw with her eyes and what she sensed.
She shivered. Telling herself that it was merely the chill from the cold stone of the lower levels, she eased back out of the Table chamber, carefully glancing around before closing the door behind her. Once she had climbed the two flights of stairs and returned to her own simple room, Mykella sat on the edge of the bed.