Books I Read In December 2012
The Ten Thousand – Paul Kearney
For some reason ancient history doesn’t seem to get much play in fantasy fiction, with the exception of the Romans. Otherwise, apart from occasional appearances from Greece and Egypt it’s medieval Western Europe more or less all the way; where are the Sumerians, the Hittites, the Akkadians? Anyway this novel revolves around the Macht, an island society of independent city-states known for their philosophers, democracy, and most of all their disciplined phalanxes of citizen-soldiers. A prince of Assuria, the enormous empire that rules over all the mainland, recruits a force of ten thousand Macht mercenaries to form the core of the army he is leading against his elder brother, the Great King. As you can tell from the title this book is a fantasy retelling of the Ancient Greek story of The Ten Thousand, with the Macht taking the place of the Greeks and the Assurians replacing the Persians. Everything seems, to my ignorant eyes at least, to be almost identical to the original Greek story; there are some fantasy elements such as the non-human Assurians, the magic black armour worn by Macht officers, and there’s an encounter with some Yeti-type things, but there’s no sign that the plot would have been any different if they’d been replaced with their mundane counterparts. Still, the original tale is a good one which is probably why it’s been adapted so many times before, if this version doesn’t diverge much that doesn’t stop it being compelling and atmospheric. The main thing that struck me was the way it portrays the battles; obviously there’s vast quantities of violence in fantasy fiction, but it’s almost always shown as an individual thing. Even if it takes place in a massive battle, combat is often shown in terms of individual heroes either duelling with each other or tearing through masses of lesser foes. Here it’s almost entirely from the perspective of men within the phalanxes, fighting mechanically whilst locked in formation with the men around them. It really gives a vivid impression of what it must have been like to fight in that kind of battle, where it’s not so much strength and individual courage that count but rather the discipline to hold together no matter what, to keep advancing slowly in formation knowing that some of you will die before ever reaching the enemy.
A Thousand Sons – Graham McNeill
Once more we descend into an age of betray, heresy, and tragedy in another instalment of the Horus Heresy sequence. This time round it’s the mighty sorcerers of the Thousand Sons who take centre stage in a tale of hubris, secrets, and inevitable doom. The way they fall from grace is interesting, they don’t turn away from the Emperor out of ambition or greed but rather they fall unwillingly, victims of their own hubris and the manipulations of enemies they don’t even perceive. This fits in with the epic, classical style of the Horus Heresy, with the legion who pride themselves on knowing everything being undone because they’ve been ignorant of the most fundamental knowledge of themselves. Knowing the ending isn’t really a problem, in fact in some ways it helps the story because it adds to the sense of tragic inevitability, and in any case plenty of interesting details are filled in along the way. In a more ‘meta’ way this novel is also the first to show what the Emperor was planning for humanity, though of course we only find out what it was after it’s been irreparably ruined. One of the highlights of an excellent series1.
Killing is Harmless – Brendan Keogh
Bit of an unusual one this – it’s a critical analysis of Spec Ops: The Line, which I played a couple of months ago and was blown away by. Spec Ops was a moderately successful, mid-budget series of generic tactical shooters from about a decade ago; last years reboot/unrelated sequel was a brilliantly atmospheric deconstruction of modern shooters, tackling the consequences of violence, the morality of interventionism, post-traumatic stress, and generally portraying the horror and madness of war in a way you wouldn’t expect from a 3rd-person Call of Duty rip-off. The book takes the form of a ‘close-reading’ of the game, with Keogh essentially playing through the game and detailing his take on what’s happening in detail, sometimes digressing from events to provide external context. I don’t totally agree with everything he says, I think partly because his definition of ‘madness’ differs slightly from mine, but I do basically agree with his argument. I’d like to see more of this sort of thing, obviously games that could profitably be analysed in this way are fairly few but they aren’t non-existent. I definitely recommend this to anyone with an interest in the more critical/analytical side of videogames, though if you’re likely to play the game at some point you should probably do that first.
The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain & Korbal Broach – Steven Erikson
I’ve read the first four of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen, and I’ve occasionally meant to return to the series but the prospect of six brick-sized, densely-written novels is enough to quail even me. This volume is rather more manageable, consisting of three novellas/longer short stories following the exploits of a pair of morally-flexible necromancers and their staggeringly unlucky manservant. I’m guessing that these stories were written as a deliberate contrast to the main stories; rather than sprawling epics with huge casts of characters and world-changing consequences, they’re small, comedic tales of handfuls of eccentrics in out-of-the-way places. To be honest I’m not sure Erikson is playing to his strengths here, these stories aren’t bad but aside from the second one I wasn’t particularly taken with them. The comedy element didn’t really work for me, it jarred with what I knew of the setting and most of it just didn’t seem that funny, like a barely-adequate Discworld pastiche. Still, they passed the time I guess and they did make me think about maybe reading the main series again so it wasn’t a complete waste of time.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers
Not totally sure what to call this, sort of a fourth-wall breaking memoir? Eggers’ parents both died when he was in his early twenties, leaving him to bring up his teenage brother; the narrative starts here and follows the two of them as they freewheel around California, with the author becoming involved in the then-cutting edge ‘Generation X’ subculture. The book plays around a lot with the idea of ‘truth’ in autobiographies, there are numerous occasions when people break the fourth wall and start to talk about the fact that they are characters in a book, often in a way that comments on the author’s motives. There’s also an appendix and numerous footnotes which serve to highlight things which have been changed, which of course serves only to throw even less light on the subjects. I think I wanted to like this book more than I really did, it’s beautifully written in places and parts of it I found genuinely moving, but something about the tone put me off. The ‘meta’ elements don’t bother me, but I found the constantly self-criticising authorial voice seriously grating. There’s a constant circle of ‘I’m flawed, but I know I’m flawed, but I know that acknowledging my flaws doesn’t make up for them, but I know that saying this is a way of showing off my self-awareness, don’t hold it against me’. I feel like all it does is make him seem arrogant, like he’s criticising himself in order to show-off how humble and self-aware he is. Honestly I’m not really sure what my problem is with this book, objectively it’s good but subjectively I just plain didn’t like it. Perhaps it’s just me.
Embassytown – China Mieville
It depends on how you look at it, but I’m pretty sure this is China Mieville’s first ‘straight’ science fiction novel, or at least as straight as he ever gets. His fascination with languages and wordplay is brought to the fore, with the philosophy of linguistics being central to the plot. The other main theme is that of colonialism and imperialism, in the real senses of the words rather than the usual sci-fi ‘space colony rebels because space colonies always rebel’2. All that and a variation on the zombie apocalypse too, in this case one affecting an alien race and caused by the effects of semantic innovation. This is an absolutely fantastic book, it’s as rich in ideas as all his other works though perhaps handled in a more measured, thoughtful way. It feels like a very confident book, like the author knows exactly what he’s doing. I don’t think it’s my favourite book of his3, but it’s probably his best.
Dare Me – Megan Abbott
Addy is a high school cheerleader in a small, blandly anonymous Mid-Western town. She’s spent pretty much her whole life as sidekick and second-in-command to Beth, the cruel and manipulative Squad Captain. But then they get a new coach who turns the squad around and starts making changes, until everything starts to spin out of control. I’ve not read any of Megan Abbott’s other novels4, but apparently she’s known for hard-edged noir centred around female characters; this book is a (very successful) attempt to transplant that noir sensibility into a high school environment. The plot is essentially a love triangle, with Addy being torn between Coach and Beth, all the while beginning to realise her own influence. Beth is an incredible character, the ‘mean head cheerleader’ is hardly an original concept but she doesn’t seem like a cliché at all, she seems genuinely unpredictable and threatening. The contempt she has for other people is palpable, and the way she manipulates them with sly whispers and text messages makes her far more like a femme fatale than a mean girl. Everything in this book feels empty; the town is so generic and boring it’s barely there at all, several major events happen in an almost-empty apartment building, and the main characters all seem to have a hollowness to them. They’re desperately trying to fill the emptiness inside but they don’t know how so they end up hurting themselves and the people around them. There’s a kind of hard, shiny clarity to the writing, things feel sharp and brittle. I was absolutely blown away by this book, it’s so very intense and utterly merciless, it might look on the surface like some silly teen girl thing but nothing could be further from the truth. Very highly recommended.
1 Though it still doesn’t answer my question of what the singular term is for a member of the legion; a Thousand Son? That doesn’t sound right.
2 There often seems to be the unstated assumption in science fiction that the colonisation of space will be the same as it was with America, only with laser guns.
3 Probably either The Scar or The City & The City
4 But based on this, I’m going to.