Some recent books

I cannot do answering comments lately. Please excuse: excessive amounts of being swamped going on in life.

Timothy Zahn, Star Wars: Scoundrels. Del Rey, 2013.

I have always loved Zahn’s Star Wars novels. Scoundrel is Star Wars meets Ocean’s 11, with Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian the only original trilogy characters really appearing – and with Han in the role of the man organising the Grand Heist. It takes place some time before the Battle for Hoth, between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back.

(A couple of my favourite extended universe characters – Kell and Winter – also appear here.)

It is a really well done heist narrative, with complications and recomplications, although I think one of the withholding-information tricks Zahn used in order to work another familiar character in did not, in final analysis, actually pay off.

Still really fun.

Martha Wells, Star Wars: Empire and Rebellion: Razor’s Edge. Del Rey, 2013.

Another novel set after A New Hope and before Empire Strikes Back. Wells is an excellent writer and tells a good story – but for a novel purporting to focus on Leia, her character carries nearly none of the story’s emotional freight. So that was a little disappointing.

Not disappointing at all, however, is how filled with interesting female characters Wells’ vision of Star Wars is.

Nalo Hopkinson, Sister Mine. Grand Central, 2013.

A delightful urban fantasy with weird gods and weirder family dynamics set in Toronto. Well recommended.

D.B. Jackson, Thieves’ Quarry. Tor, 2013.

Urban fantasy set in Boston in the 1770s. Entertaining, but not especially my cup of tea. Characters felt a bit flat, and the central mystery felt more People Running Around At Cross Purposes than actively compelling.

Diane Duane, Star Trek: The Wounded Sky. Titan, 1989.

Duane’s Star Trek novels are always interesting space opera.

Kelly McCullough, Blade Reforged. Ace, 2013.

Entertaining second-world urban fantasy with assassins and a coup and Deeply Laid Plots. Fourth in series. Recommended.

Jeanne Lin, The Sword Dancer. Ebook.

Romance set in historic China. A bit odd (but that is a function of it being a romance), at points a bit slow, but entertaining.

Helen Lowe, The Heir of Night and The Gathering of the Lost. Orbit, 2010-2012.

Oh dear sweet overblown Grand Epic Fantasy. These books have serious structural problems and occasional line of direction fail. And yet. I would have loved these when I was thirteen, and they still curled into the Fond Of Overblown Destiny and COOL SHIT corner of my heart.

Madeleine E. Robins, Sold For Endless Rue. Forge, 2013.

Historical novel based on the bones of a Rapunzel story. I am a sucker for female doctors and Salerno, but I don’t think the structure worked as well as it might have. Still, very good book.

Alex Bledsoe, The Hum and the Shiver and Wisp of a Thing. Tor, 2011-2013.

One of these is a very good book: The Hum and the Shiver is an excellent work of small-town fantasy, playing up its liminality and strangeness. It does not resolve all its threads, but it resolves many…

Wisp of a Thing, on the other hand, is full of manpain, has some dodgy SPECIALNESS, and resolves with an extra dodgy nod at a happy ending which SKEEVED ME THE FUCK OUT, okay. Thanks for ruining The Hum and the Shiver for me, Wisp of a Thing.

Andi Marquette, Friends in High Places, A Matter of Blood, and Edge of Rebellion. Ebooks.

Fun, pulpy, not excessively well-written (but on the other hand far from terrible) space opera. With lesbians. That is not a lesbian romance in terms of its focus. With a feel somewhere between Star Wars and Firefly.

Gaie Sebold, Babylon Steel and Dangerous Gifts. Solaris, 2011-2012.

I do not know how to talk about these books. I love them a lot: they are like a cross between noir and sword-and-sorcery in the Conan mould – except centering women. It is sword-and-sorcery for the girl who wanted to grow up to be Conan (except better), and I’m very happy with that.

Elizabeth Bear, Book of Iron. Subterranean Press, 2013.

A brilliant standalone novella in the same world as Bear’s Range of Ghosts and Bone and Jewel Creatures. Read it.

Robert Graves, The White Goddess. Review copy, 2013 reprint.

I want those hours of my life back.

nonfiction

Charlotte Delbo, Auschwitz and After.

Which I spoke of previously.

Pál Engel, The Realm of St. Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary 895-1526. English translation by Andrew Ayton. I.B. Tauris, 2005.

Which I also spoke of previously.

Daniela Dueck, Hugh Lindsay, and Sarah Pothecary, Strabo’s Cultural Geography: the making of a kolossourgia. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

An interesting collection of papers on Strabo’s work.

Pál Engel, The Realm of St. Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary 895-1526 and some thoughts about fantasy and Parts East

Pál Engel, The Realm of St. Stephen: A History of Medieval Hungary 895-1526. English translation by Andrew Ayton. I.B. Tauris, 2005.

For a change of pace, I like to have at least one history book on the go that has nothing to do with what I’m supposed to be reading. For several months between spring and late August, this 400-pages-plus tome by Pál Engel, alleged to be the standard introductory work in English on medieval Hungary, was the history in question.

Its twenty chapters present a chronological progression from the pre-Christian Hungary of the 8th century through to the Jagiellonian kings at the end of the Middle Ages and the kingdom of Hungary’s eventual division between the Holy Roman and Ottoman Empires. Accounts of political events are interleaved with chapters which focus more thoroughly on the social and economic background. Its level of detail increases as it progresses forward in time, but Engel does – to my eye, at least – a decent job of laying out the problems, silences, and biases of the sources. Bear in mind, however, that while my impression is one of good faith history, I can’t speak to its accuracy, since it is very far from those periods on which I’ve done any serious reading.

Europe east of Vienna and north of Byzantium is the disregarded younger sibling of European medieval history. (Or, perhaps, the disregarded great-aunt you forget lives in the attic until she thumps the floor and the ceiling-plaster in the living-room cracks.) Only when one begins to investigate it does one realise how little do the Balkans, the Carpathian basin, or the Polish plains influence our view of the European medieval world. Even though, for example, the kingdom of Hungary was a major exporter of gold and horseflesh, and the Hungarian crown was at times deeply involved in the politics and succession disputes not only of its neighbours, but of kingdoms further afield as well. The feudal organisation of the medieval Hungarian kingdom looks rather different to the English or French model, for example. It’s eye-opening to see a different sort of hierarchy, when it comes to the gradations in status between people not part of the “magnate” class of nobility.

It’s a good, well-structured overview, and I can see why it would be offered up as the standard introduction on the topic.


From here let me segue to a brief excursus on history, Europe’s Pannonian Plain, and fantasy. It has troubled me for a while that Parts East of Vienna seem to be fair game for invented nations (Sherwood Smith, this year’s Gene Wolfe novel, others), but something that’s prodded my mind as a particular cause of unease recently is the Lackey/Flint/Freer alt-hist fantasy collaboration The Shadow of the Lion. Set in Venice, it’s pretty much a coming-of-age fantasy with a whole bunch of youthful protagonists doing their coming-of-age among intrigue and magic and danger.

Which would be fair enough, but I went to reread it lately – I hadn’t, I don’t think, read it since 2003 or 2004 – only to be confronted with a baffling and rather offensive piece of worldbuilding and characterisation. For one of the princes of Europe is inhumanly, demonically evil, where all the others are merely humanly flawed. This ruler is not a Spaniard or a Frank or an Englishman, nor even an Italian or a German or a Greek; rather it is one Jagiellon, Grand Duke of Poland and Lithuania.

Is it the bias of my sources? Or is it that when deciding upon villains, a writer is that much more inclined to portray people from the lands beyond the former Iron Curtain, or from the “barbaric” (cough), “fierce” (cough cough), “inscrutable” (choke), “exotic” (choke choke), “decadent” (cough) [check as applies] East, as wicked beyond reason or redemption?

When it comes to the eastern bits of Europe and their apparent fantasy counterparts, it is American writers who do this par excellence. And I’m just a little pissed about it.

(The historical Jagiellonowie rulers of Poland were interesting. They deserve better than to be cast as incarnate devils.)