Archive for the ‘Steampunk’ Category

 

Railhead-Philip-Reeve

This is a delightfully fun and engaging tale with all the confidence you’d expect of Phillip Reeve, returning to the steampunk genre, if in a very different world, of Mortal Engines.

Here, rather than walking cities, we have sentient trains and K-gates – wormholes or portals, taking trains and their passengers instantly to different worlds and different planets – androids who may or may not be sentient, AIs who may or may not be divine, street urchins and renegade consciousnesses and hive monks. It is a richly imagined and realised world, only a brief fragment of which we see but with enough detail and verve to make the rest imaginable. A word which exists but which ever impedes the cracking pace Reeve creates.

The story follows Zen Starling, the aforementioned street urchin, fulfilling every child’s fantasy role: a meagre existence, relying on his hard working sister and occasional thefts, is transformed when he meets Nova and her employer Raven who reveal that he is actually a lost scion of the ruling Noon family and employ him to infiltrate their train to steal a valuable item. As is not-unexpected, an item whose value is more than financial: a powerful and dangerous artefact within the world created by Reeve.

On the surface, this is a fairly traditional heist tale: various exploits by Zen and Nova lead to them infiltrating the train and they steal the artefact; when abandoned by Raven and learning more about it, they cobble together a revenge heist to steal it back.

There is however, a real humanity in this book and sympathy, albeit generally directed at the non-human characters: the beautiful and  tender trains bearing tags and art with pride and the motoriks, robots and droids with ore soul than R2-D2 or C3PO. And Phillip Reeve is not scared to give the reader shocks: the fate of the sentient trains destroyed (killed?) in the heist and the fate of Nova and, even more so, the tagger Flex were genuinely shocking and moving in a young adult book. 

Reeves gives a nod to a number of classic and popular examples of the science fiction genre from  Blade Runner to Dune to Stargate with touches of Arthur C. Clarke. 

I hear rumours that this is the first of a trilogy and I hope that’s true because it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and thrilling ride 

It being March, the CILIP Carnegie Medal Shortlist has been announced and I’m embarking on the ritual of trying to read them.

This year, the list is:

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I tend to have three books on the go simultaneously most of the time: an audiobook for the drive to and from work; a thoughtful, dare I say literary, book for when I’m at home; and a just-entertain-me book for when I don’t actually want to think too much.

We all need a just-entertain-me book to hand.

And Sanderson does that for me and does it well.

And that’s great. I’m under no illusion: the Mistborn books are not great literature. But that’s fine. It’s a detailed and fun magic system in a pretty original and fun universe and, on those times when you need to get your geek on, there’s apparently a whole interlocking Cosmere and multiple forms of Investiture to explore.

Anyway,  in brief, the novel picks up the tale of Waxillium Ladrian – lawman and errant nobleman – and Wayne – master of disguise, thief and sidekick – about six months after the end of the slightly disappointing Shadows of Self.

This time, our heroes are sent beyond the city of Elendel – which had become a slightly confining locale – into the wider world which was a distinctly good move. In fact into a much wider world: entire continents in fact. Which makes sense: the end of the original Mistborn trilogy remodelled the entire planet after all.

We also glimpse a reinterpretation of the Lord Ruler whose powerful magical repositories the book is named after. He becomes – in the mythology of a different race – the saviour of men whose lives are threatened by the remodelling of the planet which was so bountiful to the city of Elendel.

The usual stuff is here: some slightly over blown set piece battles, nefarious uncles and henchmen, turncoats, traitors and spies. There are a few scenes which don’t work terribly well, usually humourous ones, such as the party’s first night in the hotel which seems to simply be an excuse for each character to compete for who is the most extreme. Some parts were quite touching: the romance between Wayne and MeLann the kandra is quite sweet; as is War’s growing fondness for his fiancèe, Steris.

It is just a good romp with plenty of fun and action.

If that’s all you expect, it delivers!

And there may be a hint that Kelsier – the Survivor – may be alive somehow somewhere.

   

Okay. 

I’m going to ‘fess up here. 

This is no great work of fiction. This is not a literary masterpiece. It is neither lyrical, resonant or thought-provoking – those three adjectives appearing more and more regularly on my blog as praise-words for novels. It does not sparkle with intriguing new metaphors; its prose does not ring with the clarity of a bell; its characters rarely emerge beyond sketchy two-dimensionality. 

If you’re looking for these things, you’ll not find them in this book and you’ll be disappointed. 

If, however, you’re looking for a good, rollicking, fun burst of inventiveness, you’ll be happy. 

This is the second of Hodder’s Burton and Swinburne series and cracks straight on from the first, The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack. The same alternate reality Albertian London re-appears; the same range of inventively steampunk mechanisms and genetically engineered swans, dogs and parakeets return to fill its streets, run messages and transport people. This time, they are added to by insect carcasses, grown to immense sizes, hollowed out, powered by steam and used as public and personal transport. The VW Beetle becomes very literal! We are also re-acquainted with the familiar historical cameos of Lord Palmerston, Oscar Wylde, Charles Babbage, Isembard Kingdom Brunel and Florence Nightingale. These are now supplemented with Burke and Hare in a less grave-robbing incarnation than you might expect and the philosopher Herbert Spencer. 

Hodder uses this second book to expand both the geography and mythology of his world: we see beyond London to the Tichborne estate; we learn of three giant black diamonds with mysterious and mystical powers. Fragments of these diamonds had been used in Spring-Heeled Jack’s time travelling suit in the first book; two are recovered through this one. The third book is clearly set up as a rescue mission to recover the third and final diamond. 

As to the core plot here, it revolves around the real legal scandal – for more details of which you can read here – in which a purportedly lost aristocrat returns to reclaim his title. Apparently, despite overwhelming evidence against him which led to both his claim failing and a criminal case for fraud against him, the affair roused popular opinions and the imposter received immense public support. 

Hodder develops a unique explanation for the support his version of the Claimant received. An explanation which involves mediums, wraiths, a horde of abjectly apologetic and verbose zombies as well as the black diamonds. 

The battle towards the end of the book where the “well dressed, debonair and faultlessly polite” walking dead – who are absent for most of the book – have their day, apologising all the while, is ridiculously fun. 

“I’m mortified,” one of them confessed as he jammed his fingers into a constable’s eye sockets. “This really is most despicable behaviour and I offer my sincerest apologies.”

Yes, the humour detracts from the tension in the climactic battle. But it’s fun!

Hodder’s imagination clearly steers towards the large-than-life and the grotesque – the Claimant himself is the obvious example. But he writes with enthusiasm and, I imagine, a broad grin. Is his dialogue convincing? No, not really. Is the description of Burton as “the famous explorer” too often repeated? Probably. Are his characters any more than over-drawn cardboard cutouts? Not particularly. Could you drive a horse and cart through plot holes? Probably, if you were so inclined. 

Does it matter in this case?

Not a jot!

It reminds me of The Avengers: over-the-top, very silly in places and hugely enjoyable. 

Miéville is one of my favourite authors: acutely political, wildly imaginative and linguistically sparkling.

I discovered him through Perdido Street Station and adored the sprawling city of New Crobuzon: mercantile, rapacious, brutal but utterly compelling. It is a city populated by renegade scientists, scarab-headed khepri, eagle faced garuda, the amphibian vodyanoi, the cactacae and brutally Remade criminals. And badgers. This entire melting pot of a city – which reminds me of the bastard child of Ankh-Morpork and William Blake’s London – is in the shadow of the towering ossified ribs of some unfathomable creature.

Since I read Perdido Street Station, I have delved into Miéville’s more real-world novels, The Kraken, The City and The City as well as the sublimely gorgeous (allegedly) Young Adult Railsea. I had however skipped the other two books in Miéville’s Bas-Lag Trilogy: The Scar and Iron Council.

The Scar is a sequel to Perdido Street Station only tangentially: the events take place in the same world and follow on chronologically but we have a completely different set of characters and setting. And races.

Save for a few interludes, we follow the novel through the eyes of Bellis Coldwine, a somewhat acerbic, chain smoking cynic, fleeing New Crobuzon for its distant colony Nova Esperia. That journey is interrupted, however, when Bellis and her fellow passengers and entire ship are taken by pirates and subsumed into the floating city of Armada.

Armada is a fabulous creation, nearly as puissant (a word you’ll be familiar with if you’ve read the book) in the imagination as New Crobuzon. A floating city. Composed of thousands of hijacked ships from a hundred cultures over hundreds of years. Lashed together. Re-configured. Broken apart and re-fitted. And despite its isolation in the oceans, it hums with life: factories, libraries, bars, farms and parklands all knitted into the carcasses of the stolen ships.

We encounter new races: scabmettlers whose blood congeals immediately on contact with the air to form impenetrable armours; vampires, known as vampir or haemophages – haemophage what a great word! – who don’t stalk the benighted streets but who rule one of the city’s ridings openly in the shape of the Brucolac; the bloodsucking mosquito people or anophilii trapped on an island; the part crustacean cray people; and the grindylow who shadow the narrative from the opening pages but who don’t make an appearance until the final chapters.

I loved the grindylow who seem to occupy a space between the monstrous and justice. This is Miéville’s description of them once he introduces them into the story:

They jutted prognathous jaws, their bulging teeth frozen in meaningless grimaces, massive eyes absolutely dark and unblinking. Their arms and chests were humanoid, tightly ridged with muscles and stretched skin, grey-green and black, shiny as if with mucus. And, narrowing at the waist, the grindylow bodies extended like enormous eels, into flat tails several times longer than their bodies.
The grindylow swam in the air. They flickered, sending quick S-curves down the lengths of their extended tails, rippling them liquidly.

As is typical with Miéville there are a number of stories working simultaneously. The novel is about Bellis’ refusal to be assimilated into the city of Armada and her eventual resignation; it is about The Lovers – the most powerful leaders in the city – and their plan to raise a monstrous sea creature, the avanc, harness its strength to tow the city and reach the titular Scar, a break in reality, in order to mine possibility from it; it is about the machinations of Simon Fench and his attempts to be rescued from Armada; it dwells on Tanner Sack, a Remade convict freed by Armada, who embraces his new life and second chance with both arms – and both grafted-on tentacles.

Ahhh the avanc! There is something deliciously Lovecraftian in this vast inter dimensional sea creature, summoned, harnessed and docilely and implacably towing the city. The descriptions of it in seismic and geological terms are astoundingly beautiful and powerful. Does this creature echo something Melvillian too? The desperate quests, first for this massive leviathan and then the Scar itself, had something of Ahab in them.

Scars in the novel are as significant as you’d expect from a novel with this name! The Lovers cut and scar each other over and again to prove and mark their love for each other, freggios intended to claim a lover and mar their beauty to ensure their fidelity. Tanner Sack remakes his own Remade body to become amphibian. Floggings leave scars. One of the most moving depictions of scars may be Shekel (a teenage New Crobuzoner who forms a relationship with a Remade woman

She was Remade she was Remade (Remade scum), he knew it, he saw it, and still he felt incessantly what was inside him, and he felt a great scab of habit and prejudice split from him, part from his skin where his homeland had inscribed him deep.
Heal me, he thought…. There was a caustic pain as he peeled off. Clot of old life and exposed himself open and u sure to her, to new air. Breathing fast again. His feelings welled out and bled together (their festering ceased) and they began to resolve, to heal in a new form, to scar.

Once Tanner had re-Remade his body, the doctor informs him that he will scar but that scars “are not injuries…. A scar is a healing. After injury, a scar is what makes you whole.”

I also found that the passages in which Bellis translated particularly resonant with the sense that language was passing through her without the associations of meanings. My next Miéville book is going to be Embassytown, his foray into science fiction, which (I believe) will again explore the idea of interpretation, translation and the power of and our relationship with language.

This is one of those novels which, when you finish it, leaves you with the sense that you have only scratched the surface. The same feeling, in fact, which Bellis is left with. Who actually was in control of the city? Who or what was Uther Doul? What was his actual relationship with the Lovers who appeared to be his superiors; the Brucolac who haled from the same culture, albeit the Brucolac was an ab-dead vampir and Doul a living human; and with Bellis? Did Bellis come to accept that Armada could become her home?

Having cast as eye over a handful of other reviews of this book, I think Miéville’s had a bit of a pounding on sites like Goodreads. People have complained that he overuses certain phrases such as puissance for magical power or thaumaturgy for a steampunk mixture of magical and scientific force. I think they’re missing the point: Miéville is consciously eschewing or subverting typical cliched fantasy tropes and creating his own. Oddly, I did feel that his descriptions of the cactacae relied overly on the phrase “fibrous vegetable muscles”. However, having just searched for the word vegetable in my e-version of the book, I find that it occurs only four times. In over 500 pages.

Perception can be a strange thing!

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You can’t go wrong with Pratchett: he never fails to offer up decent stories with a sparkle of wit, a smattering of engaging characters and a bucketload of humanity – in all its various forms and species!

And Raising Steam continues the pattern: here, Ankh-Morpork’s journey towards modernity is quite literally driven by the arrival of Dick Simnel and his new steam locomotive, Iron Girder. The timeline of the story is pretty lengthy: long enough to establish the railway from scratch, allow the scoundrel Moist Von Lipwig to negotiate numerous land rights (Coalition Government HS2, take notes please) and the railway to be built. The pace of the writing never lets up though as we follow Moist on various missions to further the railway with his goblin – sidekick seems too lowly – confederate? co-conspirator? – friend? – Of The Twilight The Darkness.

There is a secondary plot behind the drive to build the railway: Dwarvish fundamentalist grags rise up to attack the clacks towers (a Discworld equivalent of the Internet), the train and eventually overthrow their own King whilst he is abroad. The two plots then coincide as the train endeavours to return the King to his homeland as swiftly as possible over half finished tracks and impossibly weak bridges. Again, Moist Von Lipwig’s ingenuity and charm – unsurprisingly – succeed to return the King.

Moist is not my personal favourite character in the Discworld series: a little too arrogant, a little too smug; and a tad lacking in scoundrelliness personally. I find him to be a spin doctor rather than a cad or even a rogue. I like more rogue! Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great comic invention, just not my favourite as a protagonist.

However, there was a lovely counterpoint between Moist’s spin doctorishness and Dick Simnel: blunt, honest, disarming. Listening to this as an audiobook, the was a slightly northern slightly Yorkshire accent attributed to him which made him a little Wallace and Gromit which may not have been so apparent reading it. The moments with the press where Moist sees Dick pinned down by sly questioning and he rushes to intervene only to find that Dick was more than capable of both reading the subtext of the question, recognising the danger and turning it back on the questioner were lovely!

The main character here, however, is probably Iron Girder herself. The adoration that the people of Ankh-Morpork give her, the tinkering and polishing that Dick Simnel and his apprentices and goblins do to her and her constant upgradings give her a character of her own. Powered by what is referred to throughout as living steam, Iron Girder does become alive in Moist’s eyes to the point where he wonders what she thinks about Dick acquiring a girlfriend. An important question, really, as Iron Girder had previously defended herself from a saboteur dwarf by vaporising him with her steam!

As always with Pratchett, this book does question the whole idea of what life is and, fundamentally, celebrates life in all its forms.

A great, wry, hugely enjoyable read.

Some books are born great.

Some books achieve greatness.

Some books have greatness thrust upon them.

This book is not one of them. It’s not great. It’s not beautifully written. It’s not literary.

But it is immensely fun!

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Mark Hodder propels us into Victorian London: the search for the source of the Nile, Stanley, Livingstone, Sir Richard Francis Burton, Oscar Wilde and Algernon Swinburne, Darwin, Babbage and Isambard Kingdom Brunel; smog, hansom cabs, Penny Farthings. And giant, genetically engineered swans pulling kites in which people can sit.

Yes, giant swans. Yes, genetic engineering. Huge elephantine megadrays. Trained parakeets for delivering verbal messages – spiced with additional swear words of the parakeets’ own choice. Werewolves. Flying steam powered armchairs. Even the Penny Farthings are motorised.

There are two basic sects in Albertian London: Libertines who celebrate freedom, art, poetry and sexual experimentation and their slightly more extreme brethren the Rakes for whom every law is an undue limit on their freedom; and scientists who are split between Engineers and Eugenicists.

Hodder’s London is a steampunk alternate history world which gives Hodder plenty of opportunity to be playful and inventive. At times, I felt he was at risk of becoming somewhat self indulgent in his creativity and re-interpretation of Victoria’s London into Albert’s but there is a cracking yarn at the heart of the story which knots it together.

Our hero is Sir Richard Burton – soldier, explorer and linguist – scarred physically and mentally from expeditions in Africa and the debate with his friend John Speke over the source of the Nile – adrift in a world that seems to be turning its back on him. Until he is offered the position of King’s Agent with the brief to investigate the weird and unusual. Yes, there are weirder and more unusual things in the world than giant swans. Werewolves or loup-garou for example; and Spring-Heeled Jack.

Burton is accompanied and assisted by Algernon Swinburne, the poet whose incarnation here is a libertine influenced by de Sade but small and childish he gives the infamous and deadly Burton something of a foil … and an opportunity to infiltrate the chimney sweeps of London. He was the weakest character in the book for me: he didn’t offer much and the humour he added was a tad puerile and focused on his sexual enjoyment of some of the beatings he received. Whereas the were elements of Holmes about Burton; Swinburne didn’t balance him the way Watson balances Holmes.

The explanation for Spring-Heeled Jack was one that I guessed pretty quickly but is, I guess, a spoiler. Perhaps it will suffice to say that 10th of June 1840 is the critical date in the novel: the day in (true) history when Edward Oxford attempted to assassinate Queen Victoria. It has to be true: its in Wikipedia! Imagine the effect of that assassination attempt on his descendants, the shame forever attached to the family. Imagine them wishing that he had never made that attempt…

As I said at the beginning, this was not a great book; it was a fun, well imagined, romp through a steampunk alternative universe. It is creative and well paced; it works as steampunk and it works as an action/thriller.

Good. Clean. Fun.

No real thinking required.

And there’s nothing wrong with that!

This is a debut novel and clearly – whilst self contained – anticipated to be part of a series: not all the antagonists are captured or disposed of and it is a rich world full of potential and two further books have been written The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man and Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon.

Worth a look?

Hell yeah!

Right, following on from seeing Philip Reeve in person – gabardine clad, animated and inspirational – and having had the question posed to me of how you could not read a book whose opening paragraph is

“It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea”

I thought I’d spend some part of my half term catching up on the admittedly great Mortal Engines.

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It is a brilliant book. And I’m about half way through but what struck me was the comparison with China Miéville’s sublime Railsea.

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Having looked at the opening lines of Mortal Engines, let’s do the same for Railsea.

“This is the story of a bloodstained boy.
There he stands, swaying as utterly as any wind blown sapling. He is quite, quite red.

See here for my earlier review of Railsea

Both books open with a chase: London chasing its mining town; the Medes – Miéville’s hunting train – pursuing a moldywarpe – a gigantic mole that lives beneath the earth on which the rails are embedded. We are thrust by both writer in medias res into an alien, fantastical world and left to fend for ourselves.

Both books open aboard a huge moving mechanical monster: the city and the train. Reeve pursues to personification – monstrofication? – of the city, extending the metaphor of Municipal Darwinism into the guts of the city.

In both books, the narrative focus shifts to a young boy who is unremarkable in every way: Tom the apprentice historian (third class); and Sham ap Shoorap, apprentice doctor. Both boys are orphans; both boys are familiar and recognisable, juggling teen hormones, boredom, frustration, resentment and an unlikely adventure.

In both tales, the boys listen to and feel the vibrations and movement and song of the city or the train. Sham listens to the shift “from shrashshaa to drag’ndragun” as the train’s acceleration is heard through his feet. And Tom “felt the telltale tremor in the metal floor… Dropping his brushes and dusters he pressed his hand to the walk, sensing the vibrations that came rippling up from the huge engine-rooms down in the Gut… boom, boom, boom like a big drum beating inside his bones.”

I’m not sure why I respond to this so strongly. Perhaps any writing which makes the effort to go beyond mere visual and auditory description appeals – Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, if I recall rightly, was very odorous. But the sensuality of touch is so evocative and compelling for me.

Both Reeve and Miéville are clearly deeply seated in this steampunk milieu, both of them delighting in the imaginative and linguistic possibilities… But let’s glance at them as characters themselves.

Philip Reeve has adopted the style and dress of the nineteenth century. Looking at him, one expects either a footprint of a monstrous hound to be discovered by him… Or a sinister promising wardrobe through which a lipn’s muffled roar could be heard.

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whereas China Miéville has adopted a style more reminiscent of the street, the football field, he is as (self-consciously?) urban as Reeve is urbane.

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And Miéville is already – and Reeve is quickly becoming – amongst my favourite writers! How fabulous would it be to get them both in the same room! Steampunk nirvana!

It’s odd where my brain drifts off to whilst digging on the allotment!