Elizabeth Bear is a very prolific writer – it seems to me that, at this point, she's tried her hand at almost every subgenre the spectrum of SFF literature holds. Her latest novel, Karen Memory, is a foray into the steampunk genre, taking place in the fictitious Rapid City, a frontier town in a parallel nineteenth century where airships fly through the sky and various kinds of advanced mechanical augmentations are an everyday occurrence. Karen Memory, the book's protagonist, is a “seamstress” working at Madame Damnable's the Hôtel Mon Cheri – a lucrative brothel where the clientele is rich and well-mannered and the girls are well taken care of and kept safe by their imposing but maternal Madame and the tight-knit camaraderie they share among themselves. Not everyone is so well off, however – down by the docks, girls that have become victims of trafficking and bad circumstances are kept in cribs and forced to prostitute themselves for the gain of Peter Bantle, a greedy and cruel man who care nothing for their well-being or how they're treated by his customers.
The story begins when two bloody and bruised women barge in at the Hôtel Mon Cheri one uneventful evening – one of them is Merry Lee, a Chinese woman who has made herself infamous in town by busting out prostitutes from the cribs, and Pryia, the woman she was wounded rescuing. They are offered refuge at Madame Damnable's, but in doing so, Karen, the Hôtel and the rest of the girls immediately become targets for Bantle's malice. He has his eyes set on a position more powerful than that of a whoremonger and Priya's escape runs the risk of throwing a wrench in his plans. Shortly after the two women's arrival at the Hôtel, a prostitute is found gruesomely murdered just outside its door and the girls find an ally in Marshal Bass Reeves, who has been hunting the bloodthirsty killer all the way from Oklahoma.
Karen Memory is a wonderfully imagined steampunk-flavoured Wild West story centered around a well-crafted murder mystery that will definitely appeal to readers of Cherie Priest's The Clockwork Century novels – Ganymede in particular – as well as Gail Carriger's The Parasol Protectorate series. It's adventurous, exciting, and, above all, extremely addictive – I almost read the entire novel from start to finish, only stopping to save the last thirty or so pages for the following morning because I was so tired my eyes were literally falling shut as I read.
To me, the novel is also reminiscent of the recently, and unfairly, canceled Canadian tv-show Strange Empire, where a feminist retelling of the Wild West mythos shows how its lawlessness simultaneously functioned to put women at great risk for patriarchal violence while also allowing gender-related negotiations and transgressions that would have been almost impossible in 'civilized' society. In a similar manner, Bear deftly handles the issues and politics of gender, race and sexuality that ties in with the characterization and plot of Karen Memory. Particularly appealing, in my opinion, is the way Bear portrays Karen's fawning over Calamity Jane in the Wild West stories she reads and her developing feelings for the cross-dressing Priya in a display of lesbian desire all too rarely seen ever since the call for 'positive' images of queer femininity and female desire all but erased any trace of female masculinity from the equation of lesbian representation in popular culture.
All put together, Karen Memory is a fun, memorable read centered around an exhilarating, rollicking adventure, a great and nuanced cast of characters, and a beautifully rendered romance plot, and I highly recommend it.
Kameron Hurley is an author probably best known within the SFF community for her non-fiction essay "We Have Always Fought: Challenging the 'Women, Cattle and Slaves' Narrative" who won the Hugo for Best Related Work last year. The Mirror Empire, part one of the Worldbreaker Saga, is her fourth book, the beginning of a fantasy series following her debut trilogy, the science fictional Bel Dame Apocrypha. To anyone familiar with Hurley's previous work, whether fiction or non-fiction, the ambitious, detailed worldbuilding, the attention to complex gender politics, and the well-written, challenging female characters of The Mirror Empire will be well-known territory.
The Mirror Empire is a novel situated in the intersection of epic fantasy and grimdark that manages to bring the best out of both subgenres while simultaneously challenge the their most cliched, overwrought tropes. By now it's probably clear to readers of this blog that I prefer my reading to be of the feminist variety, and in my opinion, The Mirror Empire is an excellent example of what a nuanced take on gender politics can bring to the fantasy genre.
In The Mirror Empire, Hurley constructs worlds and cultures vastly different from ours and shows what actual effects these varied conditions –whether it's functional magic, matriarchal societal structures, the existence of parallel universes, or the complete eradication of heteronormativity – have on material bodies and how these things shape lived experiences and identities. It makes for an endlessly fascinating and, above all, fresh read. A recurring problem in a lot of fantasy fiction is how heavy it relies on old, tired tropes, and a feminist re-imagining of those tropes and the genre as a whole is of course not the complete solution to the problem, but it is, as Hurley clearly shows here, one viable option.
That is not to say that the strength of Hurley's worldbuilding simply lies in construction non-patriarchal societies, however. The world(s) she creates in this novel are imaginative, fun and, above all, impressive in scope. As the story begins, a dark star is on the rise in the sky above the kingdoms of Grania in the Western Raisa, bringing with it wide-reaching ramifications for not only the world of the Western Raisa, where the bulk of the novel takes place, but also for the previously unknown universes beyond its boundaries. The closer Oma gets to its ascendant position in the sky, the thinner those boundaries grows and when the star finally reaches its peak, worlds will collide.
Magic use in these worlds function in accordance with the pattern of certain stars in the sky and the power of magic workers wax and wane with the same. Oma has not been seen in the sky for centuries and most have even forgotten about its existence until now, but the consequences of it's rising will come to serve as a forceful reminder of its power and possibilities.
The story of the novel focuses on Ahio who is rudely snatched away from his easy, comfortable life to take his dead sister's place as leader for the Dhai people and has to battle gendered prejuice all the way; Zezili, one of the most skilled and ruthless generals in the service of the Emperess of Dorinah, who might finally have been handed the one mission she won't have the stomach to fully carry out; and Lilia, for whom Oma's ascent means finally having a chance at attempting to keep the promise she made her mother all those years ago. And across the sea in Saidan, a strange and almost unstoppable army is invading, seemingly from nowhere.
Above all, I would say that the strength of Hurley's writing is her ability to keep the story interesting and the reader guessing throughout the book. The unexpected is a constant element in the plot and the development of the characters of The Mirror Empire, and that's what really made me keep turning the pages, unable to put the book down. That and, as I've said, the feminist aspects of the story. I keep coming back to that whenever I talk about this book simply because while most of what Hurley does in The Mirror Empire are things I've encountered before, she often takes it further than what I'm used to seeing.
Take for the example the role-reversal – there are several characters in the book, male as well as female, that have been cast in gender-reversed roles (the brutal, unrelenting Zezili and the relationship she has with her pretty and subdued husband Anavha is one example of many, but perhaps the most obvious) and this is nothing new, but what I like about how it's done here is that it doesn't shy away from truly taking the reversal, as well as its implications, seriously, like many such attempt do. Zezili and Anavha, and all other characters in the novel, are truly products of the society and the circumstances in which they live and neither of them mask any kind of 'true' gendered essence conformant with our ideas of what femininity and masculinity is supposed to be behind their behavior or identities. This is exactly where too many attempts at gendered role-reversal or characters set in non-patriarchal societies ultimately fail, in my opinion, and I'm glad to see that Hurley manages to avoid falling into that particular trap.
One issue Hurley does fail to tackle, however, is that of pronouns. Several of the societies in the novel gender bodies in a non-binary fashion – Dhai distinguishes between five genders, Saidan three – but for the most part, Hurley chooses to simply use binary gender pronouns. Writing about alien worlds that organize gender in a way that the English language is not suited to describe can naturally be tricky, but by opting to simply use male and female pronouns, our binary way of structuring gender that's supposed to hold no bearing in Dhai is reinforced rather than challenged.
With that said, The Mirror Empire is, all put together, a wonderful fantasy novel. I've spent the bulk of this review discussing its feminist themes but that's really only one of the things that makes this book so great. To name a few examples, Hurley approaches her often gloomy tale with a delightful kind of black humour and also has a particular knack for writing good, fast-paced action sequences that lack that awkward feel such scenes can often have in writing. The second book in the trilogy, The Empire Ascendant, will be out in October this year and I'm already awaiting it impatiently.
We are already in the future. In a future. A high-tech environment, in many ways different from every other earlier part of history. Of course, there were many possible futures, and we inhabit only one of them. Where are the moon bases, for example?
In Jo Walton's My Real Children Patricia Cowan lives in two futures, with two different pasts. The year is 2015, and she is old and confused. It's dementia, but it's also the weirdness and vertigo of two sets of memories of two very different lives. She has three children. Or she has four. There was a bomb over Europe. Or there wasn't.
Through her memories we get to follow these two developments. The point of divergence for her seems to be a certain decision, a bit like the missed train in Sliding Doors. Is it her choice, I wonder, that makes the worlds diverge in chaotic ways? Or is it some subtle variation already present that makes her choose differently?
This is a very human story, following Patricia and her families through the decades. It's one of those books I could give to almost anyone, also people who normally claim that they don't like SF/F.
Some parts, especially those about the dysfunctional marriage, made me think of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, a book I would also recommend without hesitation. Kate Atkinson's novel seems to be asking the question "what if I got to try again?". In that story we follow a girl and young woman, living parts of her life over and over again. It's a little bit like in the movie Run Lola Run, or in Groundhog Day although for a whole life and not just one single day.
Still, I don't like to compare the books too much. My Real Children does its own thing. Also, it is much more overtly and unapologetically science fiction. You cannot mistake it for anything else (although it has been nominated for a fantasy award – many readers are not so picky about genre boundaries). This is fundamentally a story about history and change, two alternate histories running in parallel.
The story focuses on Patricia's own life and her children, but in the background we glimpse her world – her worlds. I almost didn't notice while I was reading, because I worried and cared about the people in these stories. Still, it's the backdrop that makes me think, long after I put the book down.
I'm not really qualified to say anything very deep about how this story fits with other genre treatments of alternate history. Jo Walton herself could probably say a few clever things about that. She has a solid understanding of genre, and is much more well read than I will ever be.
If you feel like sharing a bit of Jo Walton's own thougts about – and joy of – reading, I would tell you to immediately get her What Makes This Book So Great. This collection of essays and personal reflections around the rereading of science fiction and fantasy belongs in every genre reader's reference library.
In 1844, the last remaining living pair of great auks – the "penguins of the north", as they have been called – were killed by three local fishermen on the small skerry Eldey, off the coast of Iceland. The skins were sold to collectors. Some two hundred years earlier, no one could have foreseen their extinction. In fact, the very existence of the extinction of species was heavily debated at the time. Great auks lived in colonies tens of thousands strong, scattered around remote islands in the north Atlantic. Whenever a boat-crew needed to stock up with some fresh meat, they anchored off one such island and simply caught and boiled hundreds of auks. Since all such islands were treeless, they even fueled the fires beneath the pots with the fatty birds themselves. The stench must have been awful.
Extinctions are quick events. The death of the last individual in a species can pass in half a minute – it's the prior death of all its conspecifics that takes time. Seen with an evolutionary perspective, extinctions tend to be fairly undramatic events, threatening only a small proportion of the species in existence at any one point in time. But there have been five remarkable exceptions: mass extinctions. It's as if long periods of ennui are occasionally interrupted by extreme panic. During these terrible periods, whole groups of once-dominant organisms can disappear or be relegated to secondary roles. Evolution lacking foresight of course, there is limited scope for organisms to guard themselves against such times, to preadapt. Mass extinctions strike hard and seemingly random.
But in a stroke of irony of global proportions, the relatively recent human discovery of mass extinctions in the history of life on earth coincides with what seems to be becoming the sixth mass extinction. And this time the blame is not on some hard-hitting heavyweight comet, giant volcanic eruption or unhappy configurations of continents. This time the blame is on us. Oh, the humanity. In her book The Sixth Extinction (Henry Holt, 2014), Elizabeth Kolbert reports from the front line of extinction on our planet, giving an account as personal and readable as it is scientifically correct and thoroughly documented.
This is not the first time Elizabeth Kolbert writes about big problems. In her 2006 book Field Notes from a Catastrophe, she reported on the cause and effect of climate change from various locations around the world. Her long experience of science journalism is evident in her punchy prose. As she puts it, "the notion that a sixth such event [mass extinction] would be taking place right now, more or less in front of our eyes, struck me as, to use the technical term, mind-boggling".
Facing reality can be hard. We humans tend to build a mental block against catastrophes.But major changes to the world's fauna are happening more or less under our noses right now. Here's one local example of a global problem concerning one of our few great groups of backboned animals. In a village in Peru, local people started asking visiting researchers in the nineties about what had happened to all their frogs. They could hardly fail to notice the great concert that the frogs used to give during their mating season. But they don't hear it anymore.
The seminal paper, "Are We in the Midst of the Sixth Mass Extinction? A View from the World of Amphibians" by Wake and Vredenburg did receive a lot of attention in the scientific world when it was published in 2008, and it's easy to understand why. Amphibians are among the planet's great survivors. Their first ancestors crawled out of the water 400 million years ago and the earliest representatives of amphibians as we know them today emerged some 250 million years ago – before mammals even existed. Their disappearance would be, to put it mildly, an event of historic magnitude. At this very moment more than one-third of the 6,300 known species of amphibians are threatened with extinction. Disease, pollution, introduced predators and habitat destruction seems to be the major causes for this drastic decline.
But are we humans always to blame when species go extinct? Concerning the extincion of the mammoth, the mastodont and other so-called mega-fauna of the ice-age, debate among scientists is ongoing. Kolbert, not unexpectedly, argues for humans as the ultimate cause of the extinction of the megafauna. Two Swedish researchers, Love Dahlén and Lars Werner at the Museum of Natural History in Stockholm would argue otherwise, but the co-occurrence of a massive die-off and the introduction of our own species is compelling evidence. Still, as scientists always say, correlation does not equal causation. I guess this debate might still roam back-and-forth for some time.
There is no single cause or mechanism explaining all the mass extinctions in the record, but changes in ocean chemistry seems to be a good predictor. If so, we're in trouble. The amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases present in the atmosphere today is, in fact, not extraordinary from a historical perspective. It is the speed at which it is released that is important. We humans are on the way to cause a cataclysmic event in the history of our planet. The coming centuries may see more ocean acidification than the past 300 million years.
It's hard to comprehend, and easy to stop easyreading about all the disasters that we seem to be piling up for the future. But Elizabeth Kolbert managed to keep me reading her book. She spiced more analytical scientific reportage with first-hand reports from all over the world in a way that gripped my attention, even when it was over thirty degrees outside and the biggest wild-fire in swedish history was turning trees to ash just a hundred kilometers away. That's good science writing!
This is the story of two women and two journeys, of passion and madness and longing for a lost mother. Meena leaves her home in India fleeing from a danger she is sure is coming for her. She tries to make her way over the sea to Djibouti, travelling along a wave power generator that stretches almost all the way. Mariam is also running, a child escaping from slavery and making her way across Africa to Ethiopia.
The Girl in the Road is clearly science fiction, but labelled and marketed as literary fiction. Perhaps this is intented to lure readers who could possibly be scared away by a genre tag. It is the kind of story that can appeal to a wide range of readers, because the story is focusing on realatively ordinary people inhabiting the future world without holding any of the keys to the large scale changes. They have to cope with living in a changing world, just as we are.
At the same time, these women are enigmatic and strange, both in their own ways. Their stories are told in first person, and both of them are quirky and unreliable. There are so many questions that they never ask themselves, about what they are doing and why, that follow the reader through the book. Who is the girl in the road?
The great science fiction elements are all in the background, but undeniably important to the story. Social change and climate change are affecting everything - the available life choices and the political struggles. The reader glimpses all of this as a backdrop, but mostly through the strong effects on the experiences of the protagonists. Technological change is visible in a grand way in the form of the huge wave power generator, but the small things are also important – like the compact survival gear Meena acquires before she sets out on her long journey.
To me, who is not personally acquainted with India or Africa, the near future settings seems very strong and believable. Real. Perhaps I'm missing clues that give depth to the story because I don't know enough about these parts of the world, but neither would I notice if there were any mistakes or errors in the details of geography and culture. It's weird to think that central Africa, for example, is more alien to people in our part of the world than perhaps fictive worlds like Tatooine. I hope to see that change radically in my lifetime.
I don't get it. For some time now I’ve been working on a non-fiction book on the discoveries behind Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace’s theory of evolution. So I was intrigued to hear of a book - The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert - which covered much of the same ground, but within the framework of historical fiction.
And as a novel, it was enjoyable enough. But it really didn’t get the scientific parts of my brain to tick.
I waited in vain for a eureka moment in the novel. Yet in the storied lives of Darwin and Wallace, there were several. Can we share, at the remove of the ever increasing years, the excitement of Darwin unearthing giant fossils at the beach of Punta Alta in Argentina? Or of his receipt of the divergent, yet intimately related Galapagos finches from John Gould, and the great light they swung over his forming theory? Or of Alfred Russel Wallace realizing that the colouration of sand beetles tracked the very colour of the substrate on which they live - dark on volcanic sand and light on chalky sand from sea-shells and corals?
I believe that we can. But the juicy bits to be found in The Signature of All Things tend to be more about the discovery of personal sexuality than about scientific theory. The scientific speciality of Alma - the main protagonist - is mosses. While one can perhaps excuse the author for not personally finding mosses the most exhilarating of biological subjects, I would have appreciated some kind of perspective on Alma's scientific endeavours. As an experiment in historical fiction, the book exhibits an impressive depth of research and reconstructive imagination. But having gone to the trouble of embedding the story at the heart of Victorian intellectual life, it seems a pity not to better illuminate the ideas supposedly drive Alma's spirit of scientific discovery.
So what I had envisaged as a cross-pollination of fiction and non-fiction turned out to be somewhat more traditional, albeit well-written. I am still waiting for that book that manages to be as exciting and easily read as a novel, while remaining scientifically inspiring. Maybe I will have to write it myself, after all.
On the 30th of September Wonder Woman Lena Dunham’s long waiting autobiography “Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She's ’Learned’” will be released. I am so excited and as it always is with Dunham you don’t know what to expect at all except brilliance. Dunham is the talented brain behind the TV series “Girls” which has been a success all around the world. The series is about four girls living in NYC and trying as hard as they can to be successful: with their jobs, boyfriends and lifestyles. In a very humorous way Dunham is describing all the “do’s” and “don’ts” of womanhood and is really capturing the insanity of being able to live up to it all. I expect nothing less than the same humour and sharpness in her autobiography as the series.
While waiting with quite high expectations I have three fantastic autobiographies, written with the same brilliance, humour and sharpness as I believe Dunham’s book will be. They also describe the difficulty of womanhood and the paradoxes of trying to be everything at once in a really witty way.
This book got released in 2012 and like fire it spread all over the world as an answers to so many questions asked by women but also by men. The book begins with Moran’s first experience of her period and then continues to her first meeting with porn, the stupidity of high heels and her thoughts during her first pregnancy. You laugh and laugh and laugh and get some mind blowing new thought regarding sexuality and feminism. This is my perfect gift to anyone and everyone; I give it to everyone who is celebrating anything, man or woman, age doesn’t matter. I haven’t heard one negative word about Caitlin Moran as a person or as an author; people just seem to love her craziness.
“The Worst Date Ever: or How it Took a Comedy Writer to Expose Joseph Kony and Africa's Secret War” by Jane Bussmann
Jane Bussmann’s autobiography is about being really stupid, making insane choices and even though everything around you is flashing red to warn you, you follow your gut feeling and in the end you’ll make one of the biggest journalist scoops in an decade. This novel is hilarious from the start and Bussmann is going to do a lot of mistakes before she starts to write history. Bussmann is really ready tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth while entertaining the reader about her journey from the states, back to her origins in the UK to Africa where the real adventure begins. All this because of a beautiful politician with dark curls and a perfect smile. Bussmann I making a lot of jokes and is really entertaining but all of a sudden she entwines a very dark reality in the depth of Africa. This is a most-read!
My last recommendation is a story I haven’t read literary but I’ve listen to the audio book read by Tine Fey herself. She is such a talented screenwriter, actor, comedian and producer I don’t know what, and listening to her telling her own story is a delight! She is trying to make a really good point and the autobiography’s got a nice moral to it. This is a more traditional autobiography in the way it is told, however, the points it make are controversial and hilarious! As it says “Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we've all suspected: you're no one until someone calls you bossy.”
This book’s been a ”talker” all around the world and now the Swedish audience is bubbling up about it too. “Tell the Wolves I’m Home” is a masterpiece, it is also a fascination book to debut with. The book is set in New York City during the 80’s and the books protagonist is a 14-year-old girl called June with a vast imagination and great love for the Medieval times. Her best friend and uncle Finn is her everything, a man who’s shown her so much of what she knows about art, history and even her favourite song. When we meet June her beloved uncle’s got aids and he soon dies, a death that breaks June’s heart. Finn was her everything and when a man called Toby appears and seem to be the man Finn’s been living with in secret for ten years Junes world that’s she’s been building around and with Finn falls apart. However, the two of them, lonely and sad, might actually share more than they think even though the stubbornness of them both seem to pull them even more apart.
The plot might seem to be a heavy one but it is actually filled with an almost floating feeling of promise and a strong feeling of strength in June. This novel is about sorrow and envy, but also about hope and love. Someone once said “there are as many forms of love are there are moments in time” and this novel is about love in so many ways: forbidden love, lost love, strong love, sisterly love and the love you feel in secret when you are alone in your room behind a closed door.
June’s voice in the book is a sweet and independent one, and her reality is making the book move in a calm pace, which make every page a story itself. This is a book you can read four pages at a time from and feel something for every page. The language in the book is brilliant and smart, with wonderful sentences that form small thoughts and ideas and really capture the honesty of a 14-year-old.
The most beautiful part in the book is the love-and-hate relationship between June and her two years older sister Greta. Before June got her very strong bound to Finn she had another strong bound to her sister. Greta would do anything for June, they were inseparable and strong together. Now, at the age of 14 and 16, Greta is envious of June and her relationship with Finn. The same amount of strong self esteem June’s got her sister Greta’s got in self-confidence. However, the loneliness Greta feels in the world even though she is very popular at school makes her mad and angry with her sister. She thinks June left her and the one hope she’s got is that when Finn is leaving Earth, he is leaving her sister too. This terrible thought is haunting Greta and she hates herself for having it. Reading about the events of the two sisters in the book is like watching two planets circling around each other with their own realities. They are bound to each other but not able to reach out for one another, a feeling many siblings might recognize from their teens. Even though this is June’s story we are able to see the characters so clear, almost naked at some times which is why I fall in love with the book.
Summer is a good time for reading fantasy. Fantasy books, at least of the epic variety, tends to be novels of the thick and lengthy kind, which makes them perfectly suited for marathon reading sessions during hot and lazy days. The Queen of Tearling by Erika Johansen and Age of Iron are indeed both of them classic epic fantasy novels, for better or worse.
The Queen of Tearling is at first glance set in a variation of the usual secondary, quasi-medieval world, but as one reads on, it is revealed that the world is, in fact, a postapocalyptic one where something vaguely referred to as “the Crossing” has occurred and launched the entire world into an era that is best described as, well, quasi-medieval. Even so, the novel is built around one of the most well-known staples of classic fantasy: our protagonist is a young orphan, the nineteen years old Kelsea, who has to reclaim her birthright as Queen of Tearling and mend her broken country.
The most engaging part of the novel is without a doubt Kelsea's struggle to get Tearling back on its feet - due to having been ruled by a largely corrupt government for a long while and still suffering from the invasion by the neighboring empire Mortmesne some years back, Tearling is a nation down on its knees. As part of the peace treaty, Tearling has to send hundreds of slaves to Mortmesne every month and Kelsea's very first order of business as queen is to stop the shipment of slaves. Her decision is necessary to ensure the safety of her people, but it also invites war to her doorstep. Kelsea is stuck in an impossible situation - no matter what she does, Tearling will eventually suffer from it, one way or another. Every decision holds terrible weight and seeing Kelsea stepping into her role as queen knowing she has to make them and trying to figure out how makes for an interesting read.
Unfortunately, the rest of the story can best be described as bland. The plot feels like it never quite kicks off and most of the characters, apart from Kelsea, are to too a large extent completely uninteresting. Furthermore, like much fantasy, the novel suffers from an abundance of male characters: apart from Kelsea and her opponent the Red Queen, ruler of Mortmesne, the female characters are few and far between. The Queen of Tearling has been marketed as “Game of Thrones for women” and while I find that a problematic designation for many reasons, I would at least have expected the novel to actually seek to represent the group of people it is ostensibly for.
Age of Iron by Angus Watson is another classic work of fantasy, set in Britain during the titular age of iron where the threat of Roman invasion looms over the many, splintered kingdoms and throws the entire isle in a state of unrest. “Legends are not born. They are forged,” the front cover proclaims and the legends-in-making of the story are Dug, and old Warrior who has seen his fair share of battles and is considering leaving the glory and the gore behind and retire, and Lowa Flynn, a brilliant archer out seeking retribution against a king commanding an army of thousands. It's a suicide mission, really, but the two of them and a mysterious girl called Spring decide to band together and give it a try anyway.
Age of Iron is, if nothing else, a fun novel. It's fast-paced and action-packed and feels much shorter than its five hundred pages. The label grimdark would not be misplaced - the novel is brimming with mud, misery, and grim, roughened warriors, the dialogue packed with swears. Depressingly enough, it is also all but saturated with the male gaze - I don't think a single female character was introduced without an lengthy description of her physical attributes, and the purpose of half of the male characters point of view-chapters seemed to be to express how much they want to fuck the female protagonist (or, in some cases, any woman at all, really). Also, I'm not an expert on iron age clothing, but I have a hard time imaging that leather miniskirts used to be such a big hit with women as the novel makes it out be.
Sans the sexism, Age of Iron could have been an entertaining grimdark novel with an engaging, if somewhat overused, plot and lots of fun and well-written action scenes. As it is, I mostly found it trite. Not describing the ass of every female character in the novel in vivid detail is, in fact, not that difficult to do.
At the moment, the shelves are all but overflowing with novels of epic fantasy and neither The Queen of Tearling nor Age of Iron really brings anything new to the table. They are decent and entertaining, if occasionally frustrating, reads, but there are really much more accomplished works out there and I'd recommend reading them instead.
"I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread,” a famous fantasy character once said, and that quote neatly sums up the feeling I get from Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins as I read.
A blurb by Richard Morgan on the cover compares Higgins to China Miéville which naturally set my expectations dangerously high to begin with. It is not only because of too high expectations that Wolfhound Century failed to deliver, however – apart from great and original world building, the novel does feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.
The novel is not very long, but even so the plot seems terribly drawn out. Wolfhound Century is the first book in a series, so perhaps it simply suffers from having act as an introduction to both the world and the larger, overarching story. The world of Wolfhound Century is a sort of alternate, or perhaps parallel (the details are somewhat unclear), version of Russia where Inspector Vissarion Lom is called to Mirgorod and ordered to track down a dangerous terrorist. But the state and its secret police have long since become corrupt, and as a consequence Lom's seemingly straightforward mission is not as uncomplicated as it may seem to begin with. Lom is a familiar character - the good, honest policeman in a morally bankrupt force with a dark past – and the rest of the characters are unfortunately just as insubstantial and formulaic.
Wolfhound Century certainly has its occasional glimpses of greatness. I have already mentioned the world building, that is indeed reminiscent of Miéville, especially his Bas-Lag novels. Higgin's world is one of golems and extra-terrestrial angels and where a forest filled with strange creatures looms outside the city, its hidden secrets threatening the very order of the whole country. Furthermore, Higgins has a blunt but at the same time evocative way of writing and the entire book seems saturated with unfulfilled potential. Of course, it may be my limited knowledge of Russian history that causes me to miss out on a certain dimension of the novel and makes it seem flat to me, but I think that the largest issue I have with Wolfhound Century is that it feels too much like the opening chapter to a bigger, more cohesive narrative. Further down the road, that story may indeed fulfill what Wolfhound Century occasionally hints at, but I am unsure if it has convinced me to read on.