Friday, 17 May 2013

Against Nature on sale in North America

Cholula, Mexico.

For anyone to whom this makes a significant difference with regard to prohibitive shipping costs for books sent from Europe,
Against Nature now has a North American distributor - Who North America who presently have print copies on sale for $30, presumably plus postage. So buy now while stocks last etc. etc.

On a related but otherwise entirely different note, how tickled I am to receive the commentary of a virtual friend generally addressed as Urizen, Foremost of the Western, Hermas or one of a number of other names depending upon which part of the internet you happen to be standing in. We've known each other - in so much as one can really know anyone - on various forums and have corresponded on and off for a couple of years mostly regarding our shared appreciation of Faction Paradox novels and early cultures - he has a formidable understanding and appreciation of ancient Egypt, so we've sort of compared notes a few times, which I've always found illuminating.

Anyway, Urizen is another person upon whom I was concerned that Against Nature should make a favourable impression on the grounds that if he judged it to be crap, then it probably was. So with regards to the present girth of my ego, anybody reading this who knows me in person - I'd give it a couple of days if I were you.

It is, to say the least, an impressive work, not only in its intricate structures, but also that this is matched by warm-blooded characters, excellent prose style and an overall high readability - not an unputdownable, but then, that term is usually used of the likes of Dan Brown, so I shouldn't take that as a criticism. Indeed, the book almost requires gaps and spaces between readings to sift and think about the contents along the way. The most important thing, however, I think is that it manages the difficult task of being both impressive and actually readable - in this, I think, scoring highly over both This Town and Newtons Sleep, which were both rather like the famed black monolith: admirable, but fearsome and somewhat unapproachable too.

Equally impressive is the bringing to life of a dead culture, which I know too well is no mean feat, given the often scrappy and rather finessed remains that we are often left with, let alone their often quite alien and alienating concerns (the use of the calendar in Momacani's sections is in particular excellent, I think). That you managed this and then, on top of this, created the first truly interesting presentation of the Great Houses since The Book of the War (and before that, probably The Deadly Assassin, though I have ignored the audios in this consideration), is once again a huge plus for the book. In the end, Against Nature just works, and I can see precious little to criticise it, which is normally a good sign: the true mark of craftsmanship usually being that it looks far, far simpler than it is, and that the amount of work which went into it is invisible.

With that said, I do not feel I could offer thoughts on a book without offering some criticism - what, after all, would be the point without it? I can certainly see what the other reviewers of this book have meant about catching up with the Nahuatl terminology, though I have to admit this only afflicted me slightly, at some point over the halfway mark, and was not terribly severe - I had to flip to the back cover a couple of times to sort Xiuhtecuhtli from Goralschai's Nahuatl name.

What I found more difficult, however, were the various chambers of House Meddhoran, which I found difficult to envisage, partly because I found their functions quite difficult to work out. What is a nosocomion for, or an air gallery? Then again, this also heightened the oddity of the House, and seemed to fit well with the formlessness of the Netherweald. I also found it a little difficult to keep track of the inhabitants, beyond Rhodenet, Laethynrisa, Thraenrellis and Emiousha, partly because some cousins, particularly I think Rothis and Dorhira, only appear relatively late (unless I forgot their earlier appearances).

I also found the jumps between segments could be a little offputting, if I had become particularly in the mood for one segment, but I did insist on reading the book beginning to end rather than following individual strands, so that's entirely my own fault. These are all, however, rather trifling criticisms in the overall scheme of the book, which remains highly to be praised.

That's all I can think of right now, because I am going to need some time to digest the book - which is, again, something of a testament to its qualities. I do not think, at the moment, that it is a great book; it is, however, a very good book, and one close, I think, to the border between the two states. I wouldn't presume to rate the book, but I would presume to call it entertaining, witty, clever, charming, engrossing, sympathetic and emotionally engaging while avoiding sentimentality and mawkishness, and above all, enjoyable. I wish I'd written it.

Thanks again to Urizen for allowing me to reproduce what was written as private correspondence and was as such not originally intended for public view.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

The Obverse Book of Detectives

The theoretically final edition of the Obverse Quarterly is now available to buy or download (if that's how you roll) and this time as I mentioned a few weeks ago it's detective fiction, hence the title; albeit detective fiction in unorthodox settings, so I'm told. My contribution is called The Unwoken Princess and is set in Chalco and Xochimilco in the fifteenth century valley of Mexico (and so readers should be forewarned that its conspicuously lacking in characters with names like Gavin, Keith and Shirley).

The full line up comprises The Sorcerous Dogsnatchers of Fishwife Lane by Chantelle Messier, The Bog-Man Of Bond Street by Thomas H. Pugh, The Crimson Dagger by Jamie Hailstone, The Witchfinder by Paul Hiscock, Exit Stage Left by Mark Manley, and my thing.

The print edition can be purchased here, the electronic version here, and seeing as I already posted Julia Andersson's lovely cover as part of the previous entry concerning The Obverse Book of Detectives, here's a picture of me smoking a fag in a boat in Xochimilco taken by Rob Colson back in September 2005 before everything went down the toilet.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Against Nature: Four Stars on Goodreads

Well, I was bored...

And another review of
Against Nature, this time as posted on Goodreads on the 30th April by Philip Purser-Hallard, himself a genuinely exceptional author whose own entry into the Faction Paradox canon, Of the City of the Saved... would easily rate amongst my all-time top ten science-fiction novels were I ever to attempt to pin down such a grouping. Whilst it would be untrue to suggest that I might have packed in writing to become a pole dancer had Phil given my novel the thumbs down, it would have nevertheless been a dark day, so this feels somewhat akin to Henry Rollins telling me my band rocks (conditional to some scenario in which I actually have a band):

There are some issues with the use of language in this novel: Lawrence Burton's knowledge of Mexica culture is rich and detailed and his research is meticulous, but Against Nature doesn't work with the reader to allow them to understand it as well as he does. In some ways that's admirable - as a reader I'm always willing to put in some work to understand a book rather than having its meanings handed to me on a plate - but despite the culture's inherent fascinations, the sheer profusion of unfamiliar terms did become a little alienating.

However, it's exactly the same approach taken to the material set among the inhabitants of the Great Houses, which I found much more comprehensible, and indeed to the contemporary US scenes - we're so immersed in the viewpoint of the current primary character that what they see is presented to us with no more explanation than they themselves would need. I'm confident that an early sixteenth-century Mexica cleric or a Homeworlder, if they were somehow able to read the book, would find exactly as much that was baffling about the contemporary sections.

As I say, I don't mind putting in the work to understand a story - it’s a common expectation in SF (see such books as Neuromancer or A Clockwork Orange), and one becomes used to it - but it’s not exactly restful to read. Couple that with the fivefold alternation between what for much of the book are separate plot strands, and a family life which means that I mostly get to read when I'm already tired, and I quite often picked up the book and found that I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I found it quite slow going.

Much of that is to do with my reading habits, though - I'm sure a younger, more intellectually agile reader would have had no issues with it. The one place where I thought this approach seriously compromised the book was in the suggestion that the actions of the various time-active participants had altered the mythology of the Mexica people, since without a comprehensive knowledge of said mythology it was impossible to detect which aspects of the myths depicted had been culturally imperialised.

That's it for the negatives, though. In a more general way, I loved the use of Aztec myth, religion and ritual, and the descriptive tours of Tenochtitlan and its environs, as well as its modern-day counterpart and the connections between the two. The bruja Ultima, with her matter-of-fact approach to ritual magic, was a particularly fine character, but Momacani (the Mexica cleric whose passages are naturally the most steeped in Nahuatl vocabulary) was also reassuringly sympathetic. The play with alternative timelines was fun - not just the revelation about Todd's relationship to Primo, but also the fractured present-day USA in which the former apparently finds himself about halfway through the book.

The book is crammed full of fascinating ideas, in fact, and its plot is wonderfully twisty, yielding up unexpected linkages between its apparently disparate strands, and building up to a climax whose ill-defined, partial and ambiguous nature is entirely in keeping with the book's presentation of the numinous and sacred. The biggest question of all - Goralschai's true intent - is ultimately unanswerable without an insight into the Ordnance-Tetrarch's thought processes which the book denies us, and I felt it was all the more satisfying that way.

I loved the House Meddhoran sections of the book, and their depiction of an alien but codified world being invaded by the weird, irrational and macabre. (From a smugly personal point of view, I was gratified to see that the Great Houses' vocabulary now includes a couple of my own coinages, specifically archemathics and childe.) The eventual humanisation of these childrene whom the Houses have rejected was touchingly done.

It's difficult for me to rank Against Nature in quality with the six previous Faction Paradox novels from Mad Norwegian and Random Static, even leaving my own horse out of the race... but as the first full-length novel Obverse Books have published, it's suitably impressive, and gives me a great deal of confidence in the quality of the range to come.