Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Wednesday Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Book 1 (The Inheritance Trilogy)


AUTHOR: N.K. Jemisin

Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother's death and her family's bloody history.

With the fate of the world hanging in the balance, Yeine will learn how perilous it can be when love and hate - and gods and mortals - are bound inseparably together.

 N.K. Jemisin's THE HUNDRED-THOUSAND KINGDOMS (Book 1 of The Inheritance Trilogy), is a good debut novel told in first person with the "finished" feel of a seasoned pro. To start with the cover is beautiful and compelling, which even though it shouldn't matter, is always a plus. The story is about, Yeine Darr, whose mother was the disowned daughter of Dakarta the ruler of the world, and Dakarta's choice to draw her into the contest to see which of his three (including Yeine) chosen relatives will be his heir. Yeine as a ruler of a small provincial kingdom seems outmatched by the cleverness of her sophisticated rivals form the capital city, not to mention unskilled in managing the enslaved gods that roam the corridors of the colossal Sky Palace--where nearly all of the story take place--gods who are subject to the will of anyone bearing Dakarta's bloodline, but  who dream and scheme to be free again.

The story hums along at a good pace as Yeine fends off the schemes of her rivals, while struggling  to unravel the mystery of her mother's life and death and to deal with her ever growing attraction to dark Nahadoth, the God of Chaos, and her love for Sieh, the Child-God. Soon she comes to learn the Gods, though enslaved now, were never meant to be, and no mortal mind can encompass their true desires.

For me the only weakness in the novel comes not in the novel itself, but in the expectation created by the title which. for me, conjured images of an epic "world at war" in line with Erikson & Esselmont's MALAZAN books or George R.R. Martin's A SONG OF FIRE AND ICE series. To be fair there is a war involved, but nearly all the story's action takes place in the Sky Palace itself and is conflict on a personal level rather than grand battles.

Incidentally, this novel is written by a women of color and the protagonist is a woman of color, which I point out as that is a rare twofer in the world of speculative fiction. I recommend this novel for those who enjoy Jacqueline Carey's KUSHIEL series, and "Epic" fantasy that is focused on personal relationships, romance, and intimate intrigues rather than warfare.

Reviewed by Carlyle Clark

Monday, May 26, 2014

Guest Post: Let's Talk About Language

Eric here, with a special guest. I've known Cara DiGirolamo for a few years now--we're both lucky to belong to a great local fiction writer'scritique group in Ithaca, New York. None of you are as lucky as me, as I've heard many of her works, including a fantastic fantasy novel called Princess Lib, all about a princess learning to come into her own by fighting ogres, saving friends, and even going to court. Cara's life is all about language, so let's let her pontificate regarding that topic and how we should all contemplate how people speak much more when it comes to scifi and fantasy.

Let’s talk about space. You know, the final frontier, with alien populations and cultures cropping up on every planet. A band of intrepid explorers arrives on this planet, on a Starfleet vessel, through a Stargate, by some means of something beginning with Star, and lo, the aliens all welcome them, or the aliens all try to kill them...and very handily they do this all in English.

Have we noticed the problem?

Language and culture are two things that can make a place come alive. They are highly related ideas. In this blog I want to talk about some of the really interesting ways you can look at language in fantasy and use it to bring the world to life.

Is this scary? It shouldn’t be. This is NOT about Conlanging.

(Conlanging – the act of building a CONstructed LANGuage, i.e. a conlang.)

Now, conlangs have a rich history in the world of fantasy, thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien and his obsession with Finnish and Welsh, but I know, from personal experience, that for some people constructing a language is possibly the most painfully boring and frustrating thing anyone can do. ConNaming, however, every writer has to do at some point, so it’s worth thinking about. But not now.

Instead, let’s imagine some worlds.

A vast empire, spanning mountains and seas. But a traveler from the capital has no difficulty communicating with the peoples of the hinterlands, perhaps they have a slight rustic accent, but nothing that impedes his path.

Languages change over time, and physical separation can create mutual unintelligibility. It’s very likely that an empire would span over cultures with differing native languages. But is this world then deeply flawed? No! This is an opportunity. A powerful and well-organized Empire would likely have a policy of everyone learning the language of the conquerors. Rebels might still speak their local tongues, and suffer punishment if they were caught. An emperor who brought prosperity might also bring a sense of pride and prestige in speaking his language. Young people who intend to go to the cities to look for work would learn the metropolitan language, while their elders grumble in the corners in the old tongue. Rather than having an unbelievable world, we now have more depth and complexity, and a way of showing whether the empire is cruel or benevolent, just by the locals’ attitudes towards language.
A world of many diverse cultures, a traveler visiting each one, and though being thrown by local customs, having little trouble buying his dinner.
First question to ask: is the traveler likely to know many languages? This is where being an American skews one’s ideas a bit. In most places, it’s totally reasonable to grow up speaking and understanding multiple languages. Although this can happen through formal education, usually it happens because the languages are all around. Did the traveler grow up in court society with ambassador’s children? Did he have a nurse from one place and a cook from another? Did his family speak a different language from the town? Does the village a mile into the wood speak the language of their homeland? Did he grow up on the docks or in a trading outpost where people from all over came together to interact?

If not, perhaps his interpreter did. Or, even, if not, perhaps there’s a lingua franca, a language used for trade and communication of ideas on a supra-national level. Knowing the trade language means there are always a few people he’ll be able to speak to. He’ll have a way of functioning, even if no one is using their native language.
A foreign land with complex systems of kowtowing before royalty, appreciating your elders, and never asking directly for anything, in which your rustic hero enters, and with his cheerful good-naturedness wins over the local populace who are secretly sick of all this stiffness.
Problems! The ways people use language is an intrinsic part of a community. Methods of politeness can vary from context to context inside a society. But if someone violates those norms, it’s very unlikely that people are going to just smile and like him the better for it. If someone came up to you and violated your politeness norms, you’d probably think he was pretty rude, right? This is the same.

Now there are a couple of ways to think about being polite. Two common ones are negative face vs. positive face. When you think about negative face, think about a courtier, someone who needs to get people to do things for him without making them feel like he’s imposing. He does not expect people to like him, in fact, he doesn’t even always expect them to be able to figure out who he is. Although he could try to jolly everyone along, make them think that they want what he wants, that isn’t usually the way of things in court society. Usually, he tries to make the imposition as small as possible. He says, “Well, if you wouldn’t mind,” or “If it isn’t any trouble,” to people more powerful than he is. He never talks about how important it is to him, just because it would reveal that they have power over him.

Positive face is the opposite, where you try your best to be charming and friendly, and tell people just how much you need their help, and make them feel good and connected with you, so that your wants become their wants. Now, it’s obvious to do something like having the court be all negative face, long sentences, hiding your personal interests, and having the pub be positive face, all about making friends and getting them to take your side. But what if you switched them? What if there was a court that ran entirely on positive face mechanisms, with a surrounding town where negative face was the way to go? How could that happen? What would it be like?

Your rustic hero becomes king. Perhaps he slays a dragon, or has the royal birthmark on his behind. And then he’s king, right? He can suddenly talk the talk of the king and walk the walk of the king, no problem.

Oh there’s definitely a problem. What happens after your farm boy becomes monarch? How does he learn to speak like a king? Does he have tutors training him in court language and city accents? Is he powerful enough so people try and speak like him, and suddenly the rural hickish accent is stylish and popular and everyone is trying to adopt it? Does he try and fail to change his accent? Do people mock him behind his back for how he says his Vs? Do his supporters pick up his accent and his rivals reject it? What about a suspicious sycophant? How would he try to ingratiate himself with the king by adopting his accent? Would the king find that humiliating? There are a thousand possibilities, each one more interesting than the last.

Essentially, here’s the truth of it: questioning your expectations about language and playing with them can put life into your characters. Women/Men/Workers/Hicks, we all think we know how they speak. But those expectations are derived from our own culture. If we are building a new world, we need to break out of our own expectations, surprise ourselves and our readers. Or just really think it through!

Language: a danger and an opportunity. What’s that, now? You want to try ConLanging?

Cara DiGirolamo is a professional linguist and amateur novelist. As a linguist she is most famous for herarticle on the systems underlying blended fandom !ship names (along the linesof ‘Brangelina’). As a novelist she is most famous for waving her hands around wildly and going into an excessive amount of detail about why pronouns are confusing, and how, if we all spoke Middle Welsh, we wouldn’t have these problems. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

WEDNESDAY REVIEW: Irenicon: Book 1 of the Wave Trilogy by Aidan Harte

Irenicon: Book 1 of the Wave Trilogy
By: Aidan Harte
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books

The river Irenicon is a feat of ancient Concordian engineering. Blasted through the middle of Rasenna in 1347, using Wave technology, it divided the only city strong enough to defeat the Concordian Empire. But no one could have predicted the river would become sentient—and hostile. Sofia Scaligeri, the soon-to-be Contessa of Rasenna, has inherited a city tearing itself apart from the inside. And try as she might, she can see no way of stopping the culture of vendetta that has the city in its grasp. Until a Concordian engineer arrives to build a bridge over the Irenicon, clarifying everything: the feuding factions of Rasenna can either continue to fight each other or they can unite against their shared enemy. And they will surely need to stand together—for Concord is about to unleash the Wave again.
Irenicon is set an alternate history renaissance Italy where Rome was destroyed and the Concord Empire rules through its mastery of Science, which comes across as a cool mix of steampunk and alchemy. Although there is something of Christianity it’s very different as in this world as Herod succeeded in killing baby Christ and now Science holds preeminence above church and nobles, its  power embodied by the mysterious and powerful First, Second, and Third Apprentices.

The novel begins with a mysterious prologue done in the manner I enjoy, which is to say you’re a fly on the wall listening to powerful people whose relationships, judging from the dialogue, seem out of kilter with what you would expect. The people are doing something, in this case having a conversation and issuing directives, that you don’t have the context  to truly understand what’s going on though you can get a general idea, rather than the sort of prologue where the writer does prosaical gymnastics solely to keep you from figuring what’s happening.

We quickly move on to Sofia Contessa (Countess)  is few months  from inheriting the the title of Contessa (Countess) and rulership of the city-state of Rasenna. She is, like every fifteen year old, chafing under the restraints of her parental unit(s) in this case her foster father Doc, who is the power behind the scenes in Rasenna. Unlike most fifteen-year-olds she has trained to fight since she could walk in a style of martial arts that uses flags and is the preeminent fighter in the city.

I really-liked-borderline-loved Irenicon because pretty much everything but the action is subtle to the point where you could miss out on a lot if you are not looking, like James Enge’s Morlock novels. The depth is there if you look, otherwise it’s a light novel. On a side note the the attention paid to engineering was eerily reminiscent of nearly every one of K.J. Parker’s novels. The thing about Irenicon is that it is one of the novels I thoroughly enjoyed that I can understand how someone would not like it all. In the first half  the author does not include description in every scene, though there is a general description you have to fill in the rest with your imagination. There’s much more description in the second half, but that may be due to a change that I won’t reveal as it would be a spoiler. But looking at other reviews it seems most readers greatly preferred either the first or second half while I enjoyed both.

Now on to the odd stuff.

The first third of the Irenicon had me concerned because of two things. The first, which cleared itself up nicely, was that Sofia seemed to be just one of the several interesting characters, not the lead, but as the novel went on she became more prominent until she was dominating the book, and the time spent with the other characters added the depth of understanding needed to explain their actions later in the novel.

The second thing was downright eerie. Other than Sofia, to the best of my recollection in the first third of the novel, there was only one other female in one scene, and this is in a large city. And I don’t mean there were just no other major female characters, nor do I mean there were merely no major or secondary female characters. I don’t even mean the only females were the requisite tavern wenches/prostitutes/sisters/mothers/daughters props. I mean other than Sofia and one other woman in one scene there were no women. Not even a passing mention of a female as I recall. It became so prominent in my mind that I was wondering if the Wave had done something to them all. And since there was not talk or referenc to amke it a culture where the women were repressed and seperated and not one character had a gender based issue with Sofia it was all the more strange. Anyway, a few more female characters pop us as we go along but not many. Good news those few and Sofia more than capably carried the weight of their entire gender in my opinion.

I am giving Irenicon a high recommendation with the caveat that you should download and read the free sample before deciding to  take the plunge because this novel strikes me as one the relies heavily on the personal taste of the reader. Also, just enjoying the sample won't mean you'll enjoy the second half of the as it takes  a significant change of tact in the middle.

Review by Carlyle Clark for Heroines of Fantasy