Liz Williams


The second book in a duology of dark SF books. The first is Darkland.

Publication year: 2007
Format: print
Page count: 292
Publisher: TOR

Bloodmind has four point-of-view characters who are all written in the first person. They are all women and on different planets. I think Vali is in her thirties but the other two are much older. So, I’d call this book quite a rarity among SF.

Vali Hallsdottir is on her home planet Muspell and her story starts right after Darkland ended. She’s just returned to the headquarters of Skald, the intelligence organization she works for. She’s a assassin for Skald. Someone has just brutally killed Idhunn, Vali’s closest friend and the leader of Skald. Then a Darkland organization called the Morrighanu conquers the Skald’s headquarters. Along with everyone else, Vali is taken prisoner. The Morrighanu probe her mind, essentially mind torturing her. With the help of the selk, Vali escapes. The selk take her to Darkland where the selk want Vali to team up with another Darklander whom we saw in the previous book. The Darklander has his own reasons for helping Vali but doesn’t tell them just yet. Vali agrees, reluctantly.

On Mondhile, an old warrior woman feels that she’s near death and so she leaves her clan for the wilderness. She’s hoping that she will find her long lost sister before she dies and she’s also visiting the Moon Moor. When she was young, she went to the Moon Moor and found a strange, high-tech cave underneath it. The Mondhile clans don’t know much technology and the clans ofter fight each other.

One point-of-view characters simply refers to herself as “I” and the chapter headings don’t give any clue to her identity. She thinks herself as a weapon.

On Nhem, men have genetically engineered their women to not be sentient. However, some women manage to awaken and escape their brutal live. They live away from the male dominated cities, in a small colony called the Edge and from time to time, other women manage to escape and travel there. Sedra is the oldest woman living there and the others treat her as their unofficial leader. She’s starting to feel her age because she can’t do anymore some of the things she used to do.

About four hundred women live in the old city. They don’t know who built it or why the builders left but the city is full of images which might depict tall women, and the current settlers call them the goddesses. They don’t have much technology or medicines and the land isn’t fertile, so living is hard.

The Nhemish women are all short, dark haired and dark eyed. One day, a woman with fair skin and hair comes to them. She has made the same dangerous trek as all the others. Sedra briefly fears that she might be a spy but she is still welcomed to the community.

The conditions that the women used to live in are horrific. Perhaps it’s just good that they can’t remember most of their lives before they became sentient and were able to escape. One woman tells that she remembers that the man of the house (called a House Father) killed his slave woman (you can hardly call her a wife) over a broken cup and the woman’s sons dragged her body out laughing. Some years back it was forbidden by law to give girl children names; now they are named for example Boy-Next-Time and Luck-To-Come. Frankly, if the whole book had been about Nhem I don’t think I could have finished it.

On the other hand, I was fascinated by the concept of people who are sentient only part of the time. With the women in Nhem, some of them can become sentient at some point but were apparently born without it. We get a couple of descriptions of awakening sentience and it doesn’t seem to be something the women themselves do. The women are illiterate and also don’t understand language that the men speak.

On Mondhile, things are somewhat similar. Children are born without sentiense and they are left in the wilderness to fend for themselves at six months old. Around 14, they become sentient by coming near a village and the village’s technological defences somehow trigger it. Also, the Mondhile people have an ability called the bloodmind during which they lose their sentience again for a brief time. This can happen in battle but happens also during a yearly event called the masque. Most of the people don’t have any control over it.

The third example is on planet Muspell. The selk, a sea dwelling people/animals, are sentient only part of the year.

I’m not sure I buy sentience being just an ability that can be turned on and off but it’s a fascinating thought. I’m also not sure that I buy that the women of Nhem can do household chores well without self-awareness. Cooking, for example, would have to be pretty basic and mending clothing would also require knowing what you’re doing. To be fair, what we see women doing is scrubbing floors, serving food, carrying things, and being prostituted.

The atmosphere of the book is somewhat different from the previous book, Darkland, which was a more intimate story of Vali confronting her past and Ruen confronting his present. In Bloodmind, on the other hand, the focus is on the future of several groups of peoples.

The pacing is quick, as is usual with Williams, with chapters alternating between pov characters. But Vali still has time to wonder about the motives of the other characters, not to mention her ancient ancestors who started this genetic experimentation.

The ending is somewhat depressing, for me at least.

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The first in a duology of dark SF books.

Publication year: 2006
Format: print
Page count: 424
Publisher: TOR

The book has only two POV characters and one of them is in the first person, Vali Hallsdottir. The chapters with POV characters alternate. It’s set in the far future where humans have colonized many planets and have done genetic engineering on both the alien plants and animals, and on themselves.

Vali is a spy and assassin for the Skald, an intelligence organization of (mostly) women on the planet Muspell. Vali’s from the North and she’s a tracker in addition to the skills the Skald taught her. At the start of the book, she’s on an undercover mission on the planet Nhem. Nhemish society centers on a religion which states that women are animals and filth. They also have a breeding program and genetic engineering program which are trying to make women not sentient. Meanwhile, the women have to wear covering clothing and men can’t even address them directly in public, or private presumably. Therefore, a woman is the prefect choice to assassinate Nhem’s sadistic leader, the Hierolath. Vali has to endure a rape to get to the Hierolath but she kills him. After that, the problems start. She came to the planet with a male partner but he’s not in the agreed upon place and her pick-up ride is also late. She barely makes it off the planet. Then, she hears that the male partner was not who she thought he was; he’s Fray, Vali’s former lover and mentor but, disguised in such a way that she didn’t recognize him.

Vali had a bad childhood; her brother raped her and her family refused to talk about it. When she was working as a tracker, Fray engaged her as his apprentice, and his lover. Unfortunately, he also broke her mentally and it has taken Vali a long time to heal. Now, she has to confront Fray again.

Meanwhile, on planet Mondhile a young man Ruan hears a human cry from the forest and decides to investigate. He finds a mysterious and seductive young woman. She visits his room one night and has sex with him, although it seems that she does it more out of desire to control Ruan than any desire. Afterwards, Ruan is determined to find her again even though the clan elder warns him to stay away. Ruan is injured but the mysterious woman and her brother rescue him and bring him to a tower built in the middle of a pool of dark energy. He knows that he should leave the tower and the woman but he just can’t.

Darkland has clashing societies and ponders the use of sex as a weapon. The societies are quite different from each other. On the planet Muspell, there are actually two societies which seem polar opposites of each other. Darkland, on the southern hemisphere, seems to be a society based on oppression with men holding the power. Vali’s homeland seems to be more equal and their intelligence service is run mostly by women. The Skald also seem spiritual; through meditation they are able to control an inner power called the seith through which they can sense others and have mental shields. The Darkland agents we see seems to use genetic engineering to get their powers to persuade and affect other people.

In contrast, Ruan’s culture seems quite primitive; they are hunters and keep herd animals. At first the culture doesn’t seem very different from a hunter/herder society (although that seems a bit weird for a spacefaring society) but then we find out that it is different. Very. It’s also a more gender equal society where women appear to be the primary hunters.

Vali used to be a confident woman before she met Fray. Now, she sometimes doubts herself especially with anything to do with Fray. However, she’s determined to get past Fray and live as she wants to. She has also lost one eye and has deep scars because a fenris attacked her. She’s convinced that no man will ever want her because of the scars.

Idhunn is Vali’s mentor in the Skald. Idhunn is a older woman whom Vali can confide in and talk matters over with. I really enjoyed their friendship which is pretty rare in books, let alone in SF.

This is an intense, if dark, book with damaged main characters who try to deal with their mental and physical wounds. There’s rape and torture but it’s not gratuitous.

There are a few dangling plot lines but except for the epilogue, this could be read as a stand-alone.

A stand-alone SF book set in a post-Soviet Union Russia with a healthy dose of Russian myths.

Publication year: 2003
Format: print
Page count: 427
Publisher: TOR

Elena Irinovna is an astrophysicist and she used to work in the U.S.S.R.’s space program. After the collapse of the Soviet government, the space program was ruthlessly cut down and Elena was one of the people who ended up unemployed. Like most people, she’s trying to survive as best she can. She and her family live in Kazakhstan. She managed to get a job as a cleaner and smuggles stolen goods in order to get so much money that she, her mother, and her sister can move to Canada. On a run to Uzbekistan to sell clothing, her ride is stopped at the border and she runs into a corpse which has a curious, small object in his hand. Elena takes it.

In St. Petersburg, Ilya Muromyets is again near death but like all other times before, a rusalka appears and heals him. Ilya was born 800 years ago and is one of the legendary Russian Sons of the Sun, a bogatyr. However, in recent years he’s been very depressed and looking for death. Only heroin has given him a little solace. Then, a strange man called Kovalin appears in his apartment. Kovalin claims that he knows what Ilya is and he might even help Ilya – if Ilya helps Kovalin first. Ilya agrees to find a strange object Kovalin is looking for.

The book has nine parts and each part has at least one chapter set in a world called Byelovodye where Colonel Anikova and her team are looking for a small object. Anikova’s team includes a Mechvor who can look into other people’s thoughts and dreams.

Elena’s and Ilya’s lives have become bleak and desperate. Elena still dreams about stars but she doesn’t believe that she can return to anything like her old job, even in Canada. At the same time, she’s lucky because she has a job and can even save money. The book portrays the brutal reality of the modern Russians and parts of it are really depressing to read. Elena’s sister was a lawyer and now she’s a waitress and resorts to prostitution, too. Elena wants to protect her family but that’s not easy.

Ilya is a figure from Russian legends and we get to see a few more of the centuries old Russian heroes. For a long time, Ilya tried to live up to the legend but ended up as a soldier in various wars. He became bitter and disillusioned, and now longs for death. However, he still has the instincts to protect others from the rusalki, the female monsters from mythology.

Byelovodye is a fascinating place and also from Russian myths. It’s said to be another world where dreams can come true. The question is, whose dreams?

The plot is slow at times, when our protagonists travel around, and furious at other times. There aren’t many fight scenes but they’re fast. Once again, people (and others) are usually not what they appear at first glance.

I liked the ideas more than the characters and I would have loved to see more of the Byelovodye’s side.

A stand-alone SF book.

Publication year: 2003
Format: print
Page count: 358
Publisher: TOR

The Poison Master begins in 1547 when Doctor John Dee is trying to convince Sir John Cheke that Dee’s large mechanical bee can be made to fly – with ropes and pulleys. Dee is a mathematician and dreams of calculating astronomical journeys. We follow his experiments throughout the years. The book has twelve parts with two to five short chapters, and each part begins with a chapter about John Dee.

But the main character of the book is Alchemical Apothecary Alivet Dee whose twin sister has been Enbonded to the Lords of Night. Alivet is trying to make enough money that she can buy her sister free. She’s even moved to the fringes of the city of Levanah because the rent is lower and she can save more money that way. As an apothecary, Alivet makes drugs and perfumes, and her biggest employer is Genever Thant who arranges for new experiences for the jaded rich. On her free time, Alivet takes part in the Search where the humans are put under a trance and search their subconscious for information about their origin. The Unpriests, who serve the Lords of Night, have made the Search illegal so it’s done is secret.

But then everything goes wrong. During an experience orchestrated by Thant, one of Thant’s clients dies. Thant flees and so does Alivet who suspects that Thant will blame her. To Alivet’s surprise, a man from another planet contacts Alivet and wants her help in overthrowing the Lords. In exchange, the man will help Alivet free her twin. Alivet agrees.

The red-eyed man from the planet Hathes is Arieth Ghairen, the Poison Master. Alivet can’t trust him and yet she’s attracted to him. Ghairen takes Alivet through a portal and into a starship and then to his world, where she can start to work on an alchemical poison which could defeat the Lords of Night.

I really enjoyed the world building. The book has two distinct worlds. Alivet’s home is Latent Emanations, where a large group of humans live, essentially enslaved by the Lords of Night and to their Unpriests. The Unpriests use high technology which is forbidden from the rest of the population. The world has also a native species, the anubes, whose passion seems to be traveling and brining other people to their destination. They seem quite independent from the humans. Ghairen’s world Hathes has high technology which seems to be available to all. Hathes has also a native population which seems to be enslaved by the humans. They work as servants and live is squalor.

The people who live in Latent Emanation know that the Lords of Night have brought them there, but they don’t know from where they have come and they don’t seem to remember much of their previous culture. For example, Alivet has a locket her grandmother gave her. It has a carving of a crucified man but Alivet doesn’t know who he is or why he’s depicted that way. The Lords take men and women to their palaces from time to time, and they aren’t seen after that. The Unpriests are feared and they seem to sort of keep up law, but in an unpredictable way which make the population scared of them. Both men and woman are Unpriests.

Also, the drugs Alivet use are somehow alive. They have souls and Alivet can communicate with them when she’s in a trance.

Alivet is a very active protagonist. She’s determined to get her sister back and willing to do whatever it takes. If that means having to work with a Poison Master, so be it. Even though Alivet is attracted to Ghairen, she doesn’t trust him, and he’s very close mouthed about his past and motives. Alivet is also curious and wants to solve mysteries. While she’s attracted to Ghairen, she’s determined to get business done with before she even thinks about him more, so this isn’t a romance.

John Dee is greatly interested in mathematics. He’s a religious man and he thinks that he’s just using the brain that his God gave him, even though religious authorities call his work heresy. We follow his life through decades and as far as I can tell, most of it is accurate, except that in this book he sees angels and communicates with them.

An interesting parallel between the two Dees is that in John’s chapters, all the people are male, except for the brief appearances of Dee’s wife and Queen Elizabeth, while in Alivet’s chapters most of the characters are women. In John’s time it’s because the people who had the leisure and power to engage in alchemy and mathematics, were male. With Alivet, the people closest to her are her sister and aunt. Later, the people she meets are mostly women. I don’t know if this is a conscious parallel.

The plot advances at a good pace but the ending is somewhat abrupt.

A stand-alone science fiction book.

Publication year: 2002
Format: print
Page count: 422
Publisher: TOR

Jayachanda Nihalani, Jaya, is the daughter of a conjurer, a scam artist who preyed on the gullibility of the poor and desperate people around him. He claimed that his magical powers came for the gods and the people wanted to believe him. However, Jaya could really hear voices from someone or something outside herself and her father made use of that, too, and Jaya became known as Jaya Devi. Then Jaya got involved in a civil war, supporting the side who didn’t want the old Indian caste system to come back. Her side lost.

Now, years after her father’s death Jaya is suffering from a debilitating disease called Selengue and a creature appears whom Jaya at first thinks is a goddess but it claims to be a rakasha, a demon. However, it turns out that the creature is neither, but an alien who has come to Earth to make the planet part of a vaster interstellar empire. The empire seeded the Earth long ago and now considers the planet and the people its property. Jaya is the first Receiver who is able to hear the alien depth ship in orbit. The alien Ir Yth doesn’t seem to care about Earth or the cultures on the planet. However, then another alien arrives, Sirru, who might be more interested on Earth. Jaya hopes that the aliens might be able to cure the disease but don’t know if she can trust them.

Jaya’s country, India in 2030, has suffered under various conquerors and Jaya is very skeptical about the aliens. She knows that colonizers bring disease and suffering. Her caste, the untouchables, are already suffering from the Selenge which even the Westerners can’t cure.

In this near future story, India has brought back the caste system. People who have been used to having lives and careers are suddenly unemployable, and of course not happy about it. The alien ìrRas empire has also a rigid caste system but one where it’s possible for a person born in one caste to improve his or her whole caste’s position. One of the castes is apsara: a courtesan-translator. The aliens claim to use sex as means of communication rather than for pleasure and procreation. However, we only see this communication aspect used once and I’m not entirely sure how it would work or why it would be needed on their own planet.

The aliens use living technology; even their houses are alive and it’s difficult for the aliens to grasp of living in a place which has never been alive. They seem to be empathic; they can project their feelings and thoughts to each other, and communicate more through them and through controlled pheromones than words. They also have implants which control their emotions and devices, which are technically illegal, which control what emotions they are projecting.

There are some satirical elements in the story: the Westerners are not happy that the aliens didn’t land in US and many of the Indian people aren’t happy that their representative is from the untouchable caste. From the alien side of things, they aren’t evil conquerors or monsters, but more like bureaucrats doing their paperwork about Earth and how it will fit into the Empire. I also got the feeling that they aren’t terribly competent. Also, a movie is being made from Jaya’s life and the lead actress decides that she’s more important the Jaya.

This isn’t an action/adventure tale but focused on scheming. Jaya isn’t sure who she can trust, if anyone. There’s a strong sub plot set in the center planet of the empire where Sirru’s lover gets mixed up in politics. The story explores also colonization and alien use of diseases.

The ending leaves many things unanswered and feels to me more like a first book in a series. I would be happy to read more about this world.

The fifth book in the Detective Inspector Chen series set in Singapore Three.

Publication year: 2010
Format: print
Page count: 317 plus a short story The Lesson
Publisher: Morrigan Books

Omi is a young Japanese warrior who comes from a line of warriors. He has been charged with the slaying of the Iron Khan, a cruel and bloodthirsty warrior and a magican who plans to rule the world with his ifriits. He’s also immortal and ancient. Omi is just one man but he’s doing his best with the help of his grandfather’s ghost.

The new Emperor of Heaven, Mhara, has called Detective Inspector Chen to Heaven. The Book of Heaven, one of the most ancient sentient beings in the universe and its creator, is missing. The Book is capable of rewriting the world, so Mhara wants it back and wants to know how it could have gone. The only way seems to be that the Book itself wanted to leave which isn’t reassuring.

Meanwhile, Chen’s demon wife Inari and her familiar the Earth spirit badger are entertaining the Celestial Warrior Miss Qi in Chen’s house boat. Unfortunately, the trio is caught up in a strange typhoon that whisks them away from Earth and to the Sea of Night which is between Heaven and Earth. And the former Empress of Heaven, who is now quite insane and very powerful, is imprisoned there.

Zhu Irzh and his fiancée Jhai Tserai are visiting Vrumchi and then later the Gobi Desert. Zhu Irzh is a demon from the Chinese Hell and Jhai is a tiger demoness from an Indian Hell. Jhai is also extremely rich and the head of her own company. She’s come to scout locations for her new chemical plant. The plant will likely poison the earth around it but when it’s built in a desert, it won’t bother anyone, right? Their evening at the hotel is interrupted when a reanimated mummy attacks. Later, Zhu Irzh wanders out to the desert and stumbles upon a village. There he meets a ghost of a Russian philopher, magican, and painter, Nicholas Roerich.

The plot takes our heroes to an epic journey though time and alternate history.

Like the other Chen books, the Iron Khan has several plot lines and point-of-view characters. Many of the secondary characters are quite quirky. Roerich is a calm and rational man who reminds Zhu Irzh of Chen. Roerich acts as a sort of quide to the demon. Zhu Irzh himself muses about how much he has changed recentely; developing a conscience and wanting to stay loyal to Jhai. He thinks it’s part of growing up. Inari has also grown less timid over time. She and Miss Qi make up quite an effective team in this book. Even though they are kidnapped several times, they don’t wait for anyone else to rescue them. The cast of characters has grown to very large but the book doesn’t feel crowded to me and the new characters fit in well.

This time the main villain, the Khan, isn’t a point-of-view character and that’s probably a good thing because he seems to be quite psychotic. However, he also remains a rather distant character.

The universe went through a major change in the previous book, the Shadow Pavilion, and it’s still changing. Mhara, the new Emperor of Heaven, wants Heaven to have more contact with Earth and to help people. Mhara’s father decreed that everyone in Heaven must agree with his opinions and Mhara reversed that command. Some of Heaven’s denizens aren’t happy about either of these changes; now they have to have their own opinion and make their own decisions. This can be quite a chore for those who aren’t used to it. It’s likely that we will see more about this in the next book.

This book also expands the universe, again. The plot sends the characters through space and time, and into the steppes. I really enjoy this expansions and changes in both the characters and the world. It’s a very good continuation to the series. A few historical people show up in the book. And a floating mythical city!

Oh and Inari is pregnant. Human/demon pregnancies are apparently not common at all and can be dangerous, too. There are a few tantalizing clues about their child-to-be. Apparently, it will be a warrior in a great war and possibly a reincarnation of a former foe. Inari isn’t happy about it.

The fourth book in the Detective Inspector Chen series set in the mythical city of Singapore Three. I read this as soon as I got my hands on it!

Publication year: 2009
Page count: 346 plus a teaser from the Iron Khan
Format: print
Publisher: Night Shade Press

Singapore Three, Hell, and even Heaven have gone through some changes since the first book. And so has Detective Inspector Chen; he’s still married to Inari, who is a demon with her own badger familiar who changes into a tea kettle, but his partner and best friend, Zhu Irzh, is a demon and yet he’s on good terms with Heaven.

However, Zhu Irzh has disappeared and so has Inari’s familiar. Meanwhile, the Lord Lady Seijin is an otherworldly assassin who has been hired to take out the Heavenly Emperor himself. Also, Lara, a very popular Bollywood actress, has been extremely difficult lately. Her manager wants to send her back to Hell from where he summoned the literally devilishly good looking tigress demon. Chen has his hands full.

Like in the previous book, this one has several point-of-view characters; the assassin, the tigress demon’s manager, Inari, and Zhu Irzh among them. I was particularly delighted with the badger’s POV. He’s an Earth elemental who was bound to the service of a demonic house but he has grown to love his mistress and serves her loyally. He doesn’t have a name and he uses scent much more than sight. He and Zhu Irzh reach some sort of camaraderie which was nice. Inari plays a larger part than in the previous books and she gets to show her courage which was great.

The Lord Lady Seijin was another very interesting character. He/she has two gender selves to talk to each other in the character’s head. Williams was very careful not to use a gendered pronoun with Seijin. Seijin is the owner of the Shadow Pavilion, which is in an ethereal plain, and s/he collects the souls of the people s/he has killed. Seijin is motivated mostly by curiosity and challenge. S/he is very old and the challenge of killing the Celestial Emperor intrigues.

This time we see (briefly) the afterlives of other religions rather than just the Chinese Heaven and Hell. I liked them but I must confess that I don’t know much about them.

The plot moved along quickly with short chapters and quick POV changes. I really liked the humor in this book, especially around, or aimed at, Zhu Irzh.

I loved this book as much as I’ve loved the rest of the series. But please, don’t start with this one. Start with the Snake Agent, the first in the series.

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