Speculative fiction challenge 2012


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.

My newest review: Teresa Frohock’s Miserere.

This is an intense book sent in an alternate Earth. I gave it four and half stars from five and I’m looking forward to Frohock’s next book.

Chapters 1-4 are available for free on the author’s web site.

A stand-alone SF book which is part of the Alliance-Union universe.

Publication year: 1981
Format: print
Page count: 477
Publisher: Daw

Downbelow Station focuses on political machinations and the misery it brings to people. It has over ten point-of-view characters and unfortunately that makes it somewhat chaotic and fragmented. Several different sides are actively scheming and there are also several people who are just caught up in the changing times. Most of the book is set on Pell Station with quick scenes on Downbelow and various ships.

Pell station orbits the planet Downbelow. The planet has an advanced ecosystem and an intelligent native species, the hisa, also called the Downers. The hisa are a peaceful race but sometimes difficult to understand. The planet has several stations which the humans have built to grow crops and work. The humans have also recruited the hisa to work for them.

Pell belongs to Earth Company but it’s a long way from Earth so in reality it operates independently. Now, Union, which is in war with Earth, has taken over Mariner station and Russell’s Star which are stations very close to Pell, and so war has come to Pell. Mazian Fleet is bringing thousands of refugees to Pell from Mariner and Russell’s. Because of humanitarian reasons, Pell has to take them on but in order to do that, several sections of Pell has to be evacuated and turned into Quarantine zone. Most of the refugees have come without papers and are desperate, so the situation is chaotic. Angelo Konstantin and his sons Damon and Emilio are in effect running Pell, and they try to minimize the chaos.

Meanwhile, Angelo’s rival and brother-in-law Jon Lukas has been running the Downbelow dome for four years. Now, he’s unceremoniously called back and Emilio is sent down. Jon is convinced that this is yet another way to undermine his accomplishments. When he hears about the situation on Pell, he tries to take advantage of it.

Norway is the first warship out of the Mazian Fleet to arrive to Pell. In addition to the refugees, Captain Signy Mallory leaves a prisoner of war to Pell. Josh Talley is a Union operative who was caught in Russell’s and Mallory rescued him, sort of. Josh had been tortured by Russell’s security and then been at the mercy of the disciplined but cruel Norway crew and her captain. He doesn’t remember much of his past and requests Adjustment which would wipe his memory but allow him to continue with his life.

One of the point-of-view characters is Kressich who was a councilor at Mariner before Union invaded it. He’s lost his wife and child. A gang of thugs recruits him as their front man. On the face of it, they keep order on the Quarantine Zone, called Q, but also blackmail people and set up a black market. Kressich justifies this to himself that things would be worse without the gang.

These are about half of the point-of-view characters. Then we have a delegation from Earth who has arrived at a very unfortunate time to Pell and some people who deal with the Union side. I’m not entirely convinced all of these POVs were needed. In fact, until near the end I had no idea what Josh was supposed to do. He didn’t remember much of his past so he was a poor choice if the reason would have been giving the Union a human face.

The writing style is somewhat choppy with short sentences and sometimes a little hard to follow. For once, I would have wanted more details and more descriptions.

There’s an interesting difference in culture between the stationers and the merchanters. The merchanters identify themselves with their family name and the ship. When the ship comes to a station the crew can sleep with whomever they want without jealousy but the stationers don’t understand that. The merchanter ships seem to be somewhat reluctant to abandon Pell when the war escalates but they will do it, if needed. The stationers seem to want to grow roots to one place, a station, while the merchanters are happy to fly from one place to another. Damon Konstantin’s wife Elene is a merchanter who is trying out a life on a station. Unfortunately, we don’t hear much about how it would have worked because of the constant crisis situation.

Then there are the Mazianni, as the people in Mazian’s Fleet are called. The fleet doesn’t have much support from Earth anymore so it seems that they’ve started to raid the merchanters to get supplies. They forcibly take on people, too, whom they think are useful, much like Admiral Cain in the new Galactica (it would be interesting to know if the Galactica writers have read this). The warships are named after Earth countires and continents: Europe, Atlantic, Norway, Africa, Australia… The warships also have four raiders which aren’t capable of FTL jumps (again, like Raptors in Galactica). The warships are used to operating independently from each other, too.

The hisa are an interesting alien species. Apparently, they don’t have the concept of violence until humans came to their planet. They still don’t use violence themselves. We are told that they have strange religious practices but aren’t shown them. They don’t really have technology and they seem to worship the Sun. One of the hisa, Satin, is a point-of-view character but we don’t see much of their culture through her, either. They also don’t speak English very well. In fact, it’s very hard to understand them sometimes. I’m also rather surprised that they don’t have the concept of wife (and presumably husband) but they seem to be pair-bonders. (At least there’s no indication that Satin has more than one mate and there’s even non-violent rivalry between two males over her.)

The mood of the book is quite somber. It’s not a light read. Still, I think that the people trying to take advantage of the situation are very realistic. That’s what you do, when your whole life is threatened.

It was interesting to read Downbelow Station after reading Cyteen because here the Union is seen as the bogeyman who must be fought at any cost. Or if you deal with the Union, it’s the deal with the devil.

My newest review: Sarah Jane Stratford’s Moonlight Brigade.
It’s a vampire novel set during the Second World War and just loads of fun.

I gave it four stars of five.

A fantasy Inuit/Wild West book. Despite the name, it’s not steampunk.

Publication year: 2010
Format: print
Page count: 341 plus the author’s interview
Publisher: Orbit

The book ends in a way that makes it clearly the first in a series but there’s no information about a sequel. Hopefully, it will be released at some point. Secondly, I feel that the name is misleading because this is not steampunk. There are guns and a railway in the book but they aren’t steam powered.

Sjennonirk is a young ankago to her people, the Aniw who live in the frozen North. An ankago has with herself, or himself as the previous ankago was Sjennonirk’s father, the spirit of the Dog who is an ancestor to the tribe. The ankago can manifest her Dog physically but during that time her body is helplessly in a trance and she will need another ankago’s help to get the spirit back to her body. The ankago might remember what the spirit did. The ankago also see spirits in their dreams and receive instructions from them.

The Kabliw, the people from the south, have come to the Aniw tribes for years trading and bringing priests who sometimes want to know about the Aniw way of life and teach about their own gods. However, now the Kabliw have brought war and guns. One of the soldiers comes armed to Sjennonirk’s family’s house and Sjennonirk kills him. She’s caught and sent to south on a ship.

However, the book’s true main character is Captain Jannett Fawle. He’s out with his group of soldiers tracking abos who have been attacking nearby settlements. But in the middle of the night, he’s attacked magically by something he doesn’t want to believe in. Then, his father the great General calls him back home. Jannett is not on good terms with his domineering father but has to obey. The General shows him a captured Aniw girl who can bring forth a big silvery wolf. General Fawle commands the girl Sjenn to teach Jannett to do the same. At first Sjenn says that it can’t be done but then, to Jannett’s horror, Sjenn says that Jannett has a spirit inside him, too.

I was looking forward to reading a fantasy set in an Inuit culture but to my mild disappointment, after a few scenes in the North, the book moved firmly to much southern setting. However, I was still interested in the fantasy Wild West and found the world building interesting. Apparently, Fawle’s people have come from another continent and are now battling the local people, called abos, whom the newcomers find savage and impossible to comprehend. Some of the native tribes work with the newcomers and even battle the other tribes, just like the Native Americans did when the Europeans came to America. The locals are said to have witches whom can use magic, but Jannett doesn’t believe that.

The newcomers, the Ciracusans after the first town they settled, seem to be much like the European settlers with stone buildings and tall fences. They have dark skinned people as servants. Their religion is the Church of the Seven Deities and a few of them are mentioned in passing. However, Jannett isn’t a believer and we aren’t told much about them. The Ciracusans also seem to be fighting two wars; one against the local tribes and another against their earlier homeland, Sairland.

The plot was quite slow in the middle of the book and most of it centered around Jannett’s disbelief in any magic, even after he’s witnessed it several times. He’s also very bitter towards his father and distrustful of pretty much anyone who isn’t a brother soldier. He doesn’t want anything to do with Sjenn and is afraid of her Dog. Also, I wasn’t convinced of the General’s plan because what magic we see don’t seem to be very useful in battle.

A major secondary character is Keeley, a native man who has the General’s trust and is ordered to help Sjenn teach Jannett. Keeley is a scout and belongs to tribe which is hostile to the tribes that the Ciracusans are fighting against. Jannett finds it strange that his father can trust a native man. Even the major bad guy, General Fawle, becomes understandable once we know more about the situation. He’s looking for a way to win two wars and is getting desperate.

Sjennonirk is an interesting heroine but unfortunately for much of the book she’s imprisoned and when the Dog is out and roaming, she’s unconscious. Still, she struggles to find out whom she can trust, if anyone, and to please the General so much that he allows her to return home. She yearns for wide open spaces and finds the jails horrible. She even finds the houses, where the Ciracusans live in, too confining and the clothes too lights and strange. But she tries her best.

The end feels like a set up of for the next book and doesn’t really resolve things. The mood of the book is quite somber. Both Sjenn and Jannett feel trapped by their circumstances and they can’t really trust anyone. The book’s theme of conquest and colonization is also quite dark.

This is a collection of six fantasy short stories. Part of the Lean Times in Lankhmar collection.

Publication year: 1996, 1947-1968 for the stories
Format: print
Page count: 143
Publisher: White Wolf Publishing

The third collection that chronicles Fafhrd’s and the Grey Mouser’s further adventures.

In “The Cloud of Hate” (1963) the worshipers at the Temple of Hates manage to conjure a mist which is the Hate given physical form. The mist billows around Lankhmar looking for suitable people to kill or corrupt. Then it meets our adventurous duo, down on their luck.

At the start of “Lean Times in Lankhmar” (1959) the twain are separated because of lack of money. There are several amusing theories why this happened but none of them are confirmed. The Mouser ends up as an enforcer to Pulg who extorts money from small time priests while Fafhrd gets a religious awakening and becomes the only acolyte of Issek of the Jug. Fafhrd uses his skills as a skald to invent interesting adventures to the minor god and lots of people start to follow Issek’s pacifist ways. Of course, that means conflict with Pulg and his chief enforcer.

“Their Mistress, the Sea” (1968) is a very short story, only a couple of pages, where the duo recuperate from their previous adventures by doing a spot of pirating.

In “When the Sea-King’s Away” (1960) Fafhrd and the Mouser have been on the sea for a long time when Fafhrd starts to babble about the Sea-King’s wives and concubines who are lonely and looking for mortal lovers when the King himself is away. At first the Mouser thinks that his northern companion has lost his mind because of too long in the sun but then a passageway into the sea opens underneath their boat. The Mouser is hesitant to enter it but Fafhrd descends, looking for women and treasures. The Mouser has no choice but to follow his friend.

“The Wrong Branch” (1968): After their underwater adventure, the friends are convinced that the Sea-King has put a curse on them and they decide to consult Ningauble of the Seven Eyes for a cure. However, they find themselves in a whole new world: the Ancient Earth.

“Adept’s Gambit” (1947): The duo are quite at home in the new world, in Tyre. However, they are plagued by a new curse: when Fafhrd kisses a girl, she’s transformed into a sow. At first Fafhrd suspects the Mouser is playing a horrible prank. But then almost all of the girls the Mouser kisses are turned into slugs and they decided to consult Ningauble. The Gossiper of Gods tells them, after beating around the bush, that an adept is targeting them, and in order to fight the adept the duo will need various items. While lots of modern writers would have made an entire book out of each item, Leiber takes just a funny paragraph or two, and then the actual adventure begins. The story starts out funny but soon feels more like horror. The Elder Gods are mentioned a couple of times.
All of these stories are funny with lots of witty but long sentences. When the Sea-King’s Away especially has great descriptions. The second story makes fun of religions.

I found it a bit strange that Leiber brought the duo to Earth but then didn’t involve them in any historical or mythic stuff. There are a few references to myths created by deeds they had done, for example, Fafhrd and the Mouser supposedly defended a city against Alexander the Great, but they were actually a bit frustrating to me. I’d have preferred to read that story!

Still, the stories are funny and entertaining, especially the second one which pits Fafhrd and the Mouser against each other, sort of. And makes a point about the gods in Lankhmar and the gods of Lankhmar (you just don’t piss off the latter).

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