Thursday, February 17, 2011

The City & The City

The City and The City (2009) by China Mieville was one of two novels that shared the hallowed Hugo Award for best science fiction novel in 2010 (due to a voting tie).  It also won a slew of other literary awards, including the World Fantasy Award.  Being a huge fan of Mieville and a Hugo Award fanboy, I was really looking forward to digging into this one!  The City and The City turns out to be an intriguing, thoughtful novel about how we are trained to view the world around us and what effects it can have.

The novel revolves around two fictional cities located somewhere in eastern Europe:  Beszel and Ul Qoma.  Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad is called to investigate the murder of a visiting foreign student found dead in the Beszel streets.  The novel follows his investigation as it unravels into something entirely more sinister than it at first seemed.  

So far, it sounds like it could be the beginning to just about any old detective novel, but here's the Mieville twist that makes it so brilliant:  Beszel and Ul Qoma actually share the same geographic space.  And it turns out that the two cities aren't exactly friendly toward each other.  In fact, the citizens of the two cities actively work to "unsee" people and places in the other city.  Unseeing is a mental process whereby people, places, and events in the other city are ignored.  The act is ingrained in every citizen from birth and held in place by threat of a mysterious force known as "breach" that actively works to ensure the two cities remain divided.  "Breaching," whereby a citizen of one city ignores the separation between the cities, is considered the most heinous of crimes and is dealt with harshly.

Their isolation from one another has led both cities to develop a distinct culture with differences in dress, language, and architecture despite overlapping in geographic space.  As a consequence, Beszel and Ul Qoma are divided into areas that are either total (completely in one city), alter (completely in the other city), or crosshatched (shared by both cities where active unseeing is necessary to avoid breach).  Citizens must be aware at all times of where they are and what they should be seeing.  Fascinating, huh?

I've said before that books that really make me consider the world around me or my place within it are those that I consider some of the best.  Well, to say that The City and The City is thought-provoking is, perhaps, an understatement.  In fact, I've come to think of it as Mieville's grand thought experiment.  It takes something that we all do (i.e. "tune out" parts of the world around us) to the logical extreme, and, in the process, asks us to consider the causes and consequences of our behavior.  Really great stuff!

(Look for a review of the other 2010 Hugo best novel winner, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, soon!)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Revelation (2008) is another historical mystery novel that comes recommended by way of my mother (Thanks, Mom!). Though it is fourth in a series of historical thrillers that follow the Mathew Shardlake character, it read very well as a standalone novel. With a compelling plot that unfolds in a richly realized Tudor England, Revelation is one of the better mysteries I've read!

Set during post-Reformation England, Revelation fairly drips with atmosphere. It is 1543, and King Henry VIII is in the twilight of his reign. After orchestrating the split of the Church of England from Rome a decade earlier, Henry is returning to more conservative religious views. This leaves two sides of the religious debate, Reformers and Conservatives, once again jockeying for power in England. This makes for a seriously muddy political and religious situation, and the man on the street must measure his words carefully depending on which way the wind is currently blowing. Else, he could easily find himself hanging from a rope for no more than some offhanded remark. This seething mix of religious fervor and paranoia are the perfect setting for Revelation's plot.

In the midst of this political and religious turmoil, we find Mathew Shardlake, a London lawyer who has in his previous exploits garnered more than his fair share of negative attention from those in power. Having sworn never to become involved in state matters again, he, of course, finds himself ensnared in just such a sinister plot at the opening of the novel.

Shardlake's close friend and associate is discovered dead, having been the victim of a most foul and very public murder. Shardlake vows to the victim's widow to track down the killer and with the help of his man, Jack Barak, proceeds to investigate the circumstances of the killing. Unfortunately for Shardlake, his friend is only one victim in a string of murders with religious undertones. Shardlake is drafted into the confidence of Archbishop Cramner and other powerful men with an interest in seeing the case wrapped up as quickly as possible.

The investigation proves to be anything but straightforward, as Shardlake realizes that each murder is imitating the calamities of the seven vials of God's wrath poured out by angels in the Book of Revelation. These vials are some truly Old Testament-style wrath: water turning to blood, the sun scorches the earth, total darkness covers the earth, etc. Sansom does a really clever job of turning his victims into living (or should I say deceased) embodiment of the seven trials. The investigation slowly builds to a climax as Shardlake desperately tries to close in on the killer before he unleashes the final plague upon London, described in Revelation 16:8 as "Then there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder and a severe earthquake. No earthquake like it has ever occurred since mankind has been on earth, so tremendous was the quake." It is quite a compelling race to the finish line!

(All this is to say nothing of the several side plots also unfolding in Revelation. Each is skillfully constructed to reveal more about Shardlake himself and the character of the setting.)

Revelation was really an excellent read. It has just the right mix of atmosphere, characterization, and plot. Usually when reading mystery novels, I'm completely clueless as to the identity of the bad guy (maybe that says more about me than the quality of the book though). There were several times during Revelation when I was sure that I had everything figured out. Of course, it turns out that I was off target, but I think it speaks to Sansom's skill at setting up a believably complex plot.

Any lover of a good mystery (or just a good book in general) should certainly treat themselves to Revelation. I certainly look forward to reading more Matthew Shardlake mysteries in the near future!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Memories of Ice

Memories of Ice (2001) is the third volume in the Malazan Book of the Fallen (MBotF) series.  It is a serious whopper of a book with the paperback weighing in at a cool 1,187 pages.  While not as good as its predecessor, MoI carries the main plotline forward in an interesting, if not completely gripping, manner.

MoI is the direct sequel to the first novel in the series, Gardens of the Moon, and the events within happen concurrently with those of Deadhouse Gates.  See?  It is already getting complicated, and I haven't even tried to summarize the plot yet.

We once again join the fellows of Whiskeyjack's company in the Malazan army which now finds itself threatened by the Pannion Domin, a powerful army rising out of the south.  It soon becomes clear that there is something altogether sinister with the power behind the Pannion Domin.  As this tide sweeps ever closer to the Malazans, a desperate plan is hatched to forge an alliance with old enemies.

The majority of the novel describes the desperate struggle to hold Capustan from the Domin and is told from both the perspective of soldiers trapped within the city and the Malazan army racing across the continent to relieve the seige.  The climactic struggle for Capustan is really the high watermark of the novel--I've not read many fictional battle scenes described as vividly (or as well) as here.  Erickson does an excellent job of keeping the mood tense and desperate throughout this section of the novel.

Of course, it wouldn't be the MBotF if this action on the prime material plane wasn't part of some grand, cosmic scheming of the gods.  There is plenty of divine, magical intrigue to add to the plot arc that has been building since the first novel.

Memories of Ice definitely has its high points, but, on the whole, I prefer its predecessor more.  The climactic battle scenes were epic, but, boy, did it take a lot of slogging to get there.  Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if it had been broken up into two shorter novels (in fact, there was a perfect place to do just that).  Nevertheless, I still find myself intrigued by the Malazan world and will read on to (hopefully) find some resolution to the main storyline.

Also:  please don't get me started on the cover art--I would rank it as one of the cheeziest covers I've ever seen.  I was actively embarrassed to be seen reading the book in public.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Mouse Guard: Winter 1152

Mouse Guard: Winter 1152 (2008) is the second collection of David Petersen's Mouse Guard comic books.  It collects the six-issue mini series that covers the time immediately following the events of Fall 1152.

Winter has set in and, in the aftermath of the failed uprising put down in the fall, the Guard is scrambling to lay in stores of food, medicine, and sundries in Lockhaven before the roads between settlements become impassable.  Groups of guardmice have been sent out to collect supplies from remote mouse villages and to invite their leaders to a gathering where the issues that contributed to the unrest of the autumn before will be discussed.  The series follows the adventures of a group of these mice as they struggle in the face of the weather and various other dangers to return safely to Lockhaven.

I thought the story itself was somewhat weaker than the previous series.  It seems like Petersen's creativity is being constrained by the need to tell stories in six-issue bursts, particularly given his fairly voluminous art style.  I would really like to see him given the pages to tell a more epic adventure story.  This being said, I'm happy that he spent some time building upon each mouse's personal story.

As in the previous issue, the art is absolutely gorgeous.  It was great getting to see some more exotic locations in the Mouse Guard world as well as different denizens of the surrounding forests.  Here's a small sample of the rich texturing and attention to deal that characterizes Petersen's art:

As with the first volume, the art more than makes up for anything that the story lacks.  Petersen's next series, entitled The Black Axe, is just making its way into comic form now.  I look forward to picking up his next collection when it becomes available!