Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti is a fucking beautiful book about a circus where to be a real performer you become more machine than human. The aerialists have their bones replaced with hollow copper so they are lighter. The music man is a head and hands built into an organ. There’s a strongman with a mechanical spine, his partner with clockwork lungs, the human trapezes and there was once a man with wings.
There’s all sorts of yearning in this book. Little George (as opposed to Big George, who is one of the human trapezes) is the barker and the character we’re closest to in the book. He wants to be a tumbler but Boss won’t do the surgeries on him yet. There are two acrobats who perform together beautifully in silence and desperate competition to be the next person to wear the wings.
We see a world that’s been struggling through a terrible war that’s ravaged cities far longer than most people have been alive. And we meet a government man who wants to push things forward, make things better for the people,and for that he just might need these people of the circus.
The book has something like 80 short chapters and they flicker around in time. There is a plot-line, a very simple one about the government man, but most of the book is spent learning about the different characters and their histories. We read the origin stories of how these people joined the circus and the nameless crew, and the aside from the plot the central question is about Alec, the man who had wings but fell. And died.
This is a book to read for its language because Genevieve Valentine’s language is beautiful. It’s fragmented and broken as the characters, but rebuilt into something magnificent. Mechanique is nominated for a 2011 Nebula, and it kills me that it’s up against Embassytown, which I also loved.
It’s so fucking good. Read it if you love language and complicated people.
Akata Witch is Nnedi Okorafor’s novel set in contemporary small-town Nigeria. It was nominated for a 2011 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy Book (one of the Nebula Awards).
Sunny, the young heroine, is an albino girl with a couple of brothers who’ve moved around a lot in their lifetimes. They’ve lived in the US and visited Europe but now they’re back in Nigeria. Where Sunny learns she’s a Leopard-person.
Leopard people are people in tune with magic and spirits and their true faces. Most leopard people are brought up by parents who are leopard people, but there are also some who are free agents, which is what happens to Sunny (her parents are Lambs – the equivalent of Muggles). As soon as she learns what she is, she’s bound to secrecy about it by her new Leopard peers and teachers.
It’s a good book, but way more interesting for the characters and setting than the plot. There’s a serial killer in their area and Sunny and her friends have to put an end to his nefariousness, but that only really becomes important in the last sixth of the book. Most of the book is about Sunny learning about this strange new world she’s found herself a part of. There’s a soccer match, and they watch a juju fight between experienced warriors, and they undergo a bunch of trials in which the protagonists could have died, but the difference in the stakes between those things never really come through. Even though Sunny is shocked at what the adults could have let happen, it’s hard to be really pulled into what turns into the big conflict. Too much time is spent with Sunny wanting things explained to her, but the rest of the characters feel it’s better to keep her (and the reader) in the dark.
But Sunny is a great character. The worldbuilding (of both the fantastical world and mundane Nigeria) is excellent. I loved the different languages that were used and how the cultures were differentiated. I loved that leopard people are supposed to shun worldly goods and power, but some of them don’t, but everyone has to deal with each other anyway. The politics around everything are nicely gray.
I’d gladly recommend the book for anyone who likes urban fantasy type things, but wants to see some characters and cultures that aren’t already filling the bookshelves.
China Mieville writes awesome books. Embassytown is his latest, and I think it’s his best. I’ve been going on about it on Twitter for the last several days. My girlfriend is sick of hearing about it (till she gets the chance to read it).
It takes place (mostly) on a planet where there is a small settlement of humans who live in an enclave of the alien city. The aliens, known as Hosts, have a very strange language. If humans want to be understood by Hosts they need two humans with great empathic understanding of each other speaking Language at the same time. The Hosts don’t understand the noises humans make. They don’t even recognize recorded Language. They need someone to speak to them.
In Embassytown the people who can speak Language are the Ambassadors. They are human pairs bred and brought up to think and speak as one mind in two bodies. CalVin is two bodies (doppels) but one person. Asking which body is Cal and which Vin is unconscionably rude. They are one being. They undertake ablutions every morning to eliminate any minor differences that might have crept in over the previous day.
The aliens are way weirder.
Avice is the protagonist of the tale, and she’s not an ambassador (or even half of one). She was trained to go travelling through the Immer, which is the stuff that lets worlds connect, regardless of their universal location (something similar is used in the RPG Diaspora). She left and came back and this is her story. She’s also a simile in Language.
What makes Mieville so fucking good is how he makes you twist your brain into understanding these concepts, setting up this world and making it understandable, and then smashes the whole thing to pieces. Thinking back on it, this might be why Kraken was good but not Holy Shit good. He’s at his best when he’s not a conservative creator. His characters aren’t about protecting the status quo. Not just characters change in his stories, the world has to change.
This book is about colonialism and the capacity to change the way you think through language. I don’t think it’s as much of a mindfuck as The City & The City in terms of how the reader has to think to understand the world, but I think he’s telling a story that’s more compelling. It feels more universal as it buzzes your brain.
Five stars. Great book. Should win awards.
God’s War by Kameron Hurley wasn’t what I expected. I got the ebook for free to participate in io9′s book club (tomorrow), and had expected something sort of technothrillery with clumsy allegories about Islam and the terrorism and such. It was not that. It was fucking excellent.
The world in God’s War was colonized thousands of years ago. It’s lots of harsh desert and there are a few different nations, though you get the impression they’re all pretty small. Instead of running on fossil fuels and electricity most stuff is biological. Bugs are very important. Some people can control their pheromones to influence different bugs, so they use them as use them as communication devices, as weapons, drugs, self-repairing vehicle components, loads of stuff. This in itself is probably reason enough to read the book, just for the technology in use. There’s all sorts of cool biotech and people get new limbs and organs and just generally get rebuilt from scratch all the time if they can afford it/someone has an interest in them.
Another thing I love about the book is that Hurley doesn’t infodump anything on you. You piece shit together. This might be annoying if you like things to be settled in your mind quickly. I mean, here’s the very beginning of the book:
Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.
Drunk, but no longer bleeding, she pushed into a smoky cantina just after dark and ordered a pinch of morphine and a whiskey chaser. She bet all of her money on a boxer named Jaks, and lost it two rounds later when Jaks hit the floor like an antique harem girl.
Nyx lost every coin, a wad of opium, and the wine she’d gotten from the butchers as a bonus for her womb. But she did get Jaks into bed, and—loser or not—in the desert after dark, that was something.
The butchers, the price of that womb and the amount it was worth to be able to be blown through in an evening are all things that never get explicitly spelled out, but as the book progresses you build up your picture of what it all means. It’s really well done.
Also well done? The gender politics in the book. It’s not clear in that bit above, but Jaks is a woman. In one of the countries women go around bareheaded, give birth only in breeding compounds and generally treat men as fragile delicate stupid flowers (because every male of draft age gets called up to the war and if they come back they’re disfigured and damaged from all the terrible biological weapons being used). There’s a lot of sex (mostly with other women, though fucking men is to some women’s taste) and they’re seen as godless, though they follow the same book as the other nation. In the country they’re fighting the mullahs are in charge and women are all chadored up to become one of many wives to a man who isn’t fighting the war, and there are calls to prayer that people pay attention to. Still their young men who’re sent out to the front though. In the book we see both of these nations through the eyes of an insider and an outsider and they’re well-drawn.
But the story is also pretty badass. The main character, Nyx, is a bounty-hunter whose job is to bring back the heads of deserters. Stuff happens. Aliens (ie humans not from this world) get involved. There’s lots of death, religion and cussing. The two things I liked most about the story were that the first part takes place 6 years before the main plot. Hurley could have put it in as flashback or something and done the classic writing advice thing of “starting as late as possible” but she didn’t. I feel it works a lot better this way because as a reader you have a sense of history with the characters, that they didn’t just spring into being to undertake this one mission. The other thing I loved about the plot is the noirish aspect of nobody in the team being the best there is in their field, just the best Nyx could afford. They’re all mediocre, not supremely talented, weak schmucks. Badass, sure, but there is no Neo or Yoda or whoever here. Just a bunch of working stiffs who are outmatched, not just who say they feel outmatched and then proceed to be super-amazing.