Visions of Paradise

Saturday, August 30, 2008

One For Sorrow

Historical mysteries have become very popular in recent years, spurred partly by the success of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series. Such novels tend to fall into two types: those in which the historical setting is merely intended to give a bit of color to an otherwise ordinary mystery; and those which are true historical novels in which the mystery is merely another plot device. Not being a huge fan of genre mysteries, I gravitate towards the latter type, highlighted by Steven Saylor’s superb Rosa Sub Rosa mysteries. I rarely care about the solution to the mystery itself, so the book had better appeal to me as historical fiction if I am going to enjoy reading it at all.

Mary Reed and Eric Mayer’s John the Eunuch series is an example of the latter type of historical mystery, and One for Sorrow, the opening novel in the series, is as much concerned with establishing the city of Constantinople during the 6th century reign of Emperor Justinian as it is with the murder itself. Its first chapter sets the tone, a scene set in the Hippodrome which deftly show the similarities between Constantinople and Rome, the citizens even calling themselves “Romans”. With no lecturing or exposition, we are almost immediately immersed in the city with crowds cheering over cruelties and threats of blood-letting, pots of night soil dropped from windows, and threats of violence lurking in every shadowed alleyway. We are also introduced to a fascinating cast of characters:

• John, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, who is commonly known as “John the Eunuch” for obvious reasons;
• old soothsayer Ahasuerus to whom members of Justinian’s court go secretly for readings since fortune-telling is frowned upon by the Christian emperor;
• Cornelia, John’s lover from his pre-eunuch days, whom he has not seen since out of fear of what he has become;
• Europa, Cornelia’s daughter, who is revealed early in the book to be John’s daughter as well;
• Thomas, a knight emissary from the king of Britania who is seeking the Holy Grail in Constantinople;
• Isis, who runs a high-class brothel which services many members of the emperor’s court;
• Breta, the very young courtesan who attracts the interest of both Thomas and John’s friend Felix, but who very early in the book becomes the murderer’s second victim;
• Leukos, another member of Justinian’s inner circle who is a close friend of John and the murderer’s first victim.

The murders occur early in the novel, followed shortly by Justinian’s directive that John solve it, followed shortly afterwards by another directive for John to stop investigating. As any good detective does, John continues to investigate, leading the reader through the dark and dangerous streets of Constantinople where we encounter Isis’s brothel, an innkeeper and his shrewish wife, and the aging patriarch of Constantinople who has an inexplicable interest both in the solution of the murder and the soothsayer. We also meet the imperious emperor Justinian himself and his self-important wife. We learn in specific detail how and why John became a eunuch, perhaps the goriest scene in the book. We witness rituals of the religion of Mithra, which predated Christianity in the Roman Empire although sharing several important similarities, and which survives mostly through the beliefs of soldiers, since it is a male-only religion.

I thoroughly enjoyed the tour of Constantinople and its inhabitants, and look forward to seeing them again and learning more about them as the series continues. In truth, I was not enamored by the mystery itself whose solution seemed a bit contrived (but solutions to mysteries almost always seem contrived to me, so take that complaint with a grain of salt).

One for Sorrow is good historical fiction about a fascinating era in western history which is often overlooked in the modern fascination for the “dark ages” which gripped much, but not all, of Europe. It is recommended to fans of historical fiction.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Zima Blue

I do not believe there are absolutes in art, so it is not surprising there are several critically-acclaimed works of science fiction which do not appeal to me at all. William Gibson’s Neuromancer swept all the major awards its year of publication, yet I never particularly liked the book. In fact, I thought its successor Count Zero was much better. There are other examples as well. I did not like either of Vernor Vinge’s Hugo-winning Best Novels, and I only read one-sixth of Lord of the Rings before abandoning it.

For these reasons, I do not approach best-of-the-year anthologies expecting them to live up to that title. While most editors have overlapping taste to my own, it is very unlikely we would have precisely the same taste in what stories deserve to be acclaimed as the very best in any given year. Thus, I approach best-of-the-year anthologies as I would a particularly superior issue of a prozine, and I usually find the stories in the volumes run the gamut from near-classics to disappointing.

Recently I read the 23rd volume of Gardner Dozois’ mammoth Year’s Best Science Fiction, and it fit my idea of a strong anthology very well. Of its 30 stories, at least half of them were better than average sf, especially:

Harry Turtledove’s alternate history “Audubon in Atlantis” in which Columbus reached Atlantis, a continent lying between Europe and America;
Ian McDonald’s “The Little Goddess,” a tale of a future India;
Robert Reed’s “Camouflage,” a mystery set on his Great Ship;
Bruce Sterling’s historical fantasy “The Blemmye’s Strategem”;
Gene Wolfe’s “Comber,” set on a world of floating cities;

Besides these and other fine stories, the book contained one bona fide masterpiece, Alastair Reynold’s “Zima Blue” which in a mere twenty pages examined the relationship of art versus craftmanship, the nature of memory, and whether it is possible to, paraphrasing Thomas Wolfe, ever truly go home. Keep in mind that “Zima” pushed my personal pleasure buttons with its basic premise of a journalist investigating an artist obsessed with his art, since stories of passionate people, whether artists or writers or scientists, are among my favorite type of stories. That being said, for me this was one of the finest stories of the entire decade, and should have been an award winner.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Observations on Hugo results

Some observations on the Hugo nominations and awards:

John Scalzi’s The Last Colony came in 4th in nominations for Best Novel but was a close runnerup for the Hugo itself. He also dominated both the nominations and the voting for the Best Fanwriter Hugo. I wonder which is the driving force in Scalzi’s case. Does his popularity as a blogger carry over to votes for Best Novel, or vice versa?

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was my favorite novel of 2007, and Michael Chabon is one of my favorite writers, so I was pleased that it backed up its Nebula win with a Hugo win.

Connie Willis’ “All Seated on the Ground” was not selected for any of the science fiction Best-of-the-Year anthologies. At first I thought it might have been a fantasy story, but its review at describes it as pure sf. I wonder if it deserved its Hugo Award for Best Novella or did it win based purely on Willis’ personal popularity?

Ted Chiang’s “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” and Elisabeth Bear’s “Tideline” dominated both the nominations and Hugo voting for Best Novelette and Best Short Story respectively. I guess that makes them the best 2 sf stories of 2007 (and I anxiously look forward to reading them in Gardner Dozois’ Year’s Best Science Fiction).

I was pleased that Brave New World: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction won Best Related Book for a purely selfish reason: I am mentioned in the book as the earliest known user of the word “sfnal”. I really do not recall whether I invented the word or saw it previously when I first used it nearly 30 years ago.

Gordon Van Geldor is a deserving winner of Best Editor–Short Form. I wish his personal popularity would translate into an increase in circulation for F&SF. I ashamedly admit that I do not subscribe to it since I do not have time to read monthly magazines. I do buy their annual double-issue though.

I have never heard of Mary Robinette Kowal, the winner of the John W. Campbell Award as Best New Writer. When I googled her name, I learned she is “a professional puppeteer who moonlights as a writer.” Her writing credits seem fairly skimpy, so I wonder whether she won the award for her writing or because the voters enjoyed her puppetry?

Saturday, August 09, 2008


Steven Saylor is one of my favorite writers. His Roma Sub Rosa series of historical are superb historical fiction mainly devoted to exploring various aspects of the Roman world during the era of Julius Caesar, with the mysteries themselves little more than excuses to examine such locales as Alexandria during Caesar’s famous dalliance with Cleopatra (The Judgment of Caesar) and the Greek city of Massilia (Last Seen in Massilia), later known as Marseilles.

In Roma, Saylor has undertaken a massive task: an epic novel of the entire history of the Roman Republic without using the crutch of a mystery. The book contains 11 novelette-length chapters, the first of which is set in 1000 B.C. before Rome was even a trading village, and the last in 1B.C. after the assassination of Julius Caesar.

Saylor’s intent in the early chapters seems to be threefold: showing the origins of various Roman legends; showing the development of Roman rituals and traditions; and describing life at various points in Rome’s history.

The opening portion “A Demigod Passes Through” involves a traveler who saves the traders living in the area of the Seven Hills from a monster who has been preying on their animals and children. The traveler is believed to be the famous Greek demigod Hercules, who becomes the first and greatest hero of the Roman people.

“The Twins” takes place as the trading site is slowly becoming the city of Roma. The two twin boys Romulus and Remus are foundlings discovered by a swineherd whose wife is viciously referred to as a she-wolf behind her back. They become the most powerful men in Roma after leading a group of malcontents against a neighboring village of Alba, after which Romulus takes the deposed king’s crown and names himself the first king of Roma.

In subsequent chapters, Saylor shows us the rebellion of Coriolanus, the Decemvirs writing the Twelve Tables (including the disgrace of Appius Claudius), the occupation of Roma by the Goths in the 4th century B.C., the building of the Appian Way, the defeat of Hannibal by Scipio Africanus, the rise and fall of the Brothers Gracchi, the brutal reign of the dictator Sulla, and the rise to power of Gaius Julius Caesar.

Although Rome’s history was filled with violence, very little of it is actually portrayed in the book. Rather events are filtered through the eyes and prejudices of Roman citizens in the city itself. Much emphasis is placed on the power struggle between the patricians, Senate and consul on one hand versus the plebians and tribunes on the other, with both religion and violence never far beneath the surface of Roman life.

Each chapter is an individual story with characters who reflect the attitudes of their time and class with no attempts to reflect 21st century standards. At in his mysteries, Saylor’s history remains authentic while showing creative foundations for many of Roma’s myths and legends. The individual stories are as strong as Saylor’s mysteries, and their novelette length are both a strength (allowing Saylor to concentrate on his intended events without the need for numerous sub-plots or extraneous mysteries) and a weakness (since there is so much that can be shown in each Roman era, but not sufficient room in a novelette to do so).

Roma is a very strong book which encourages me to find even more of Saylor’s historical mysteries.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

I was impressed with Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a coming-of-age novel about two girls in 19th century China. The novel revealed a lot about Chinese culture and history, as well as the rigidity of Chinese society, including the roles of both women and men and their relationships with parents, older siblings, younger siblings, spouses and in-laws. Lily, the book’s narrator, was born into a working class farming family, while Snow Flower came from a richer family. Still they became laotong, special friends for life, a very formal relationship which is actually much closer than even husband-and-wife. Their lives are intertwined from then on. They undergo footbinding together (which is particularly gruesome in its details), engagement, and marriage, the latter which changes both their lives and their relationship. Lily, partly because of her perfect feet, marries into a rich and powerful family where she eventually becomes Lady Lu, the most important woman in an entire village. Snow Flower, however, is forced to marry a butcher, a particularly lowly profession which is considerably below Lily’s new status.

The novel follows their pregnancies and births–of boys, if possible, since they are precious while girls are useless and good only for marrying out. As is typical of historical Chinese novels, the happiness is intertwined with tribulations such as a county-wide typhoid plague which kills many people, including Lily’s and Snow Flower’s own family members, and also the evacuation of entire villages into the mountains during the Taiping Rebellion, where the villagers huddle in the snow and cold with little food for three months, many people dying during this ordeal.

While the novel’s focus is on the entire Chinese society in the 19th century from the point of view of its women, much of it is narrowed upon the relationship between Lily and Snow Flower, who struggle to maintain their special relationship their entire lives in spite of the forces pulling them apart. Snow Flower is a moving novel which I recommend highly.