Neal Asher, The Line of Polity (2003)

The Line of Polity

Author: Neal Asher

Title: The Line of Polity

Format: Paperback

Pages: 485

Series: Agent Cormac 2

This review was promised in our summary post for 2019, so I actually twisted my right arm with my left to sit down and write it in the middle of sunny summer ;).

Having reviewed both the first installment, Gridlinked, and the third installment, Brass Man, I’m in a bit of a pickle when it comes to choosing the content for this entry. Probably, it would be sufficient to say that The Line of Polity was the book that thoroughly and inevitably sold me on Asher’s Polity universe, and even if I don’t agree with all the political and ideological views of the author, I plan to remain a devoted fan.

Polity is not as pleasant and safe place as Banks’ Culture, nor is it as boring ;). The immense and mind-bogglingly diverse universe (..and I’m sure I could find another -verse fitting here :P) containing Polity, the human society ruled by nearly omniscient AIs, is a wonderful treat for all SF fans. But Asher goes further than just worldbuilding, however impeccable: he creates a world alive – rife with conflict, ambitions, and emotions, not only human, but also AI. And for a series featuring amazing battle sequences, both in the space and on the ground, Asher spends a lot of time considering the sentience. True, his AIs are very human, but reading Polity books I have a feeling they are this way by design, and not simple lack of thought or convenience. After all, they have been created by humans, influenced by the constant contact with humans, and, in a world where alien sentient races are considered more of a myth or a cautionary tale from the past than reality, AIs remain in a direct relation to humans. This relation can morph into a myriad different constellations: a mirror image, a role model, a dependent, spoiled child, a doted-upon prodigy, a master, an apprentice, a pest, a threat, a hobby… Asher deftly shows the variety of responses possible between sentient beings, each of which has something the other doesn’t possess, and subtly incorporates them into his tightly woven narrative.

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Bookish High Fives of 2019

As promised, a post highligting our best reading experiences of the past year 🙂 Though originally we wanted to limit the best to top five, it turned out to be more difficult than expected – so the title should be treated more metaphorically than literally 😉

Piotrek: I wanted to title the post “year in genre”, but I moved a bit from genre this year… our post summing up year 2019 grew too big, so we decided to split it and tell about our reading and watching in a separate one.

I will start, as in our previous post, with some stats, and Goodreads was kind enough to prepare a Piotr’s Year in Books presentation. 79 books read (it’s 81, actually, already, but the stats are not updating fast enough 😛 ) – not as many as in previous years, but, well, life happens. Still not a bad result, and what’s interesting is not the amount, but the composition. And there were some interesting changes in what books I was reading in 2019. Not a radical change, but a slight move in non-genre direction. I’ve read more non-genre lit and non-fiction than I tended to, this decade. Mostly Polish stuff, but it included this year’s Nobel Prize laureate, Olga Tokarczuk. Highly recommended, and there’s even a movie. Her Nobel Lecture is powerful, and beautiful, audio and text available here. Just one quote, but she touches many topics in a very interesting way…

I think we have a redefinition ahead of us of what we understand nowadays by the concept of realism, and a search for a new one that would allow us to go beyond the limits of our ego and penetrate the glass screen through which we see the world. Because these days the need for reality is served by the media, social networking sites, and indirect relationships on the internet. Perhaps what inevitably lies ahead of us is a sort of neo-surrealism, some rearranged points of view that won’t be afraid to stand up to a paradox, and will go against the grain when it comes to the simple order of cause-and-effect. Indeed, our reality has already become surreal. I am also sure that many stories require rewriting in our new intellectual contexts, taking their inspiration from new scientific theories. But I find it equally important to make constant reference to myth and to the entire human imaginarium. Returning to the compact structures of mythology could bring a sense of stability within the lack of specificity in which we are living nowadays. I believe that myths are the building material for our psyche, and we cannot possibly ignore them (at most we might be unaware of their influence).

I’m going to read more Tokarczuk in the future, that’s for sure! But well, that’s Tokarczuk, what about my reading in 2019? It’s been marked by the finishing of my great Discworld re-read. And then I’ve re-read The Trilogy (Tolkien). Both were, in different ways, as good as I remembered them. I’ve also re-read American Gods, while visiting America for work, and it was also a great experience. I will continue to re-read more, there are too many new books published all the time, I will not read them all anyway, and every encounter with my favourites brings so much joy and new observations!

Ola: As a Goodreads non-user, I base my stats on an old good Excel file – which doesn’t show all the nice pics, but is just as reliable (meaning – ultimately only as reliable as my own entries ;)). So, in the end, I know my list is not complete, as I tend to omit the less memorable comics, and usually forget to include audiobooks (there aren’t many of them, only 3 or 4 a year, and I did my best to count them here ;)). All in all, I have managed to read (and record that I have indeed read) 92 books this year, and started but haven’t finished, 2 more. With all the comics I haven’t included, I’ve probably reached the magic number 100.

Of the books I have read this year, 10 were non-fiction, 5 – literary fiction, 4 – re-reads, and 18 – comic books, two of which were beautiful hardcover Hellboy omnibuses (no, I don’t own them, the library does, but oh, I do wish I did!). No books by Polish authors, though – and only four translated to Polish. The price of living abroad, I guess – I got out of sync with Polish literature. Nevertheless, my copy of Tokarczuk’s Księgi Jakubowe will be with me soon  😉

Piotrek: I will limit myself to books read in 2019 for the first time. My top 5 – favourite novels, not ranked, as they are too different for direct comparisons, and a few words about my non-fiction readings.

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Joe Abercrombie, Red Country (2012)

red-country

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Title: Red Country

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 451

Series: First Law World #6

Abercrombie’s Red Country is in many aspects a continuation of the First Law Trilogy, the review of which was incidentally one of our first Two-shots. After all, Logen Ninefingers, known in the North as Bloody-Nine, is one of the main protagonists of this bloody fantasy western. And if that comes as a spoiler… Well, it’s on the back of the freaking cover, so we don’t count it as a spoiler – though probably some of the book characters would disagree 😀

In many other aspects, however, it’s as standalone as Abercrombie’s novels go: it takes place in a fundamentally different part of the First Law world, on the very frontier of the Western continent, Far Country. This part of the world is no more peaceful than Angland or Styria: torn by gold fever, hostile encounters with elusive aboriginal people called Ghosts, and inhabited by the shattered dreams of people who ran away from their past, hoping for a new opening, Far Country only seems serene from far away. But its biggest selling point, especially for the Lamb, was the pronounced lack of Bayaz.

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James Lovegrove, Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon (2019)

Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon

Author: James Lovegrove

Title: Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 384

Series: Sherlock Holmes (Titan Books)

Right on time for the fast-approaching Christmas season, a new Sherlock Holmes novel hit the shelves this October. It is quite an eye-candy: a wonderfully bright and festive cover draws the eye and at the first glance invokes the spirit of Yuletide, and the interior is equally lovingly arranged. A nice gift for any bookworm, and especially for all those Sherlock Holmes fans out there 🙂

As for the content, well… 🙂 I must admit, I am always a bit wary of books utilizing characters created by someone else – especially characters like Sherlock Holmes, arguably the world’s most famous detective, whose existence is irrevocably and undeniably bound with that of his creator, sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Books about such renowned characters, written by other authors, always seem to me slightly too close to fan fiction for my liking. In that context, Gaiman’s and Albuquerque’s A Study in Emerald is a notable exception here, offering a very welcome and impeccably executed twist on the Holmesian (or should it rather be Sherlockian?) lore, masterfully intertwined with Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos. But in case of Sherlock Holmes and the Christmas Demon, I didn’t mind the fanfic associations in the slightest: the author was respectful but not overly fawning over its source material, managing to strike a nice balance between the spirit of original Sherlock Holmes novels and his own voice and delivering a pleasant new storyline to the ever-growing Holmesian. Plus, the book came with recommendation from Aaron at Swords and Spectres, and I learned to trust his tastes (…well, in most cases! :D).

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Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons (2013)

A Natural History of Dragons

Author: Marie Brennan

Title: A Natural History of Dragons

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 335

Series: Memoirs of Lady Trent, 1

An American folklorist and anthropologist turned writer, Marie Brennan aka Bryn Neuenschwander is an author known to many in the blogosphere for her entertaining and quite educational – if in the tongue in cheek style – series titled Memoirs of Lady Trent. For example, you can read the enthusiastic review by Bookforager here 🙂 Written from a first person perspective it grants us a rather unique narrative; for Lady Trent is an elderly and eccentric personage, whose old age coupled with enormous experience, accomplishments in the field of natural science, considerable wealth and status as well as an aristocratic background, free her entirely from fears of the sanctimonious outrage and possible sanctions of her society. This perspective lends the novels an air of unforced entertainment; a light, gossipy feel to what otherwise might have been a bit too heavy imitation of travel chronicles and taxonomy efforts of the nineteenth century naturalists and anthropologists. But most importantly – and incidentally it is where Brennan truly excels – the series is in essence a long, superbly meandering and convoluted love letter to dragons, envisioned as a family of species not unlike dolphins or apes: possessed of intelligence and – possibly – sentience, with their own rituals and traditions, and what at a first glance resembles the beginnings of a culture.

How it will all pan out, I don’t rightly know – yet, I might add – as I’ve only read two books so far. But I can already say with certainty that Brennan’s treatment of dragons, while fully indebted to Darwin, owes an equally great deal to Jane Goodall. The overwhelming sense of kinship with a family of species so different to ours is something I truly treasure here, particularly because Isabella Trent’s feisty and inquisitive nature easily lends herself to seeing the world around as a whole, all life irrevocably intertwined and interdependent.

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Gene Wolfe, The Wizard Knight (2004)

Gene Wolfe was (he died this year) a prolific and acknowledged American fantasy writer. His short stories (I have one anthology, but it’s still waiting its turn), and novels have many admirers, among them Le Guin, Gaiman and Ellison. His signature? Unreliable narrators, selling you their version of very complicated stories. It’s not his invention, but I have to agree I really have to pay attention when reading Wolfe, not to get totally lost. I find it impossible not to get lost a bit 😉

IMG_20191128_173506

My first encounter with Wolfe, though, was when I read his Soldier of the Mist, a novel (part of a trilogy, but I only have volumes one and two, the third part was published years later) about a young Greek mercenary who, after suffering a head wound, is only able to remember event of a current day. Not knowing who he is and pretty little about the world around him, he couldn’t be a reliable narrator if he tried to 😉 Fantasy element is added when he discovers he’s able to communicate with gods and other supernatural beings. I liked it, but couldn’t find any of Wolfe’s other works. A few years later, The Book of the New Sun was recommended to me, and these tomes I devoured with great taste. Story of Severian, young (Wolfe’s heroes do have a few things in common, and not only their youth 😉 ) torturer (!) exiled for showing mercy – and wondering the dying Earth of far future. Quite soon after that I ordered a cheap, used copy of The Wizard Knight, for when I have a fancy to read more Wolfe. I finally read it earlier this year and with a great pleasure, although with a feeling it’s mostly more of the same.

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Giles Kristian, Lancelot (2018)

Lancelot

Author: Giles Kristian

Title: Lancelot

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 500

I will start with an honest admission, as befits a review of the retelling of Arthurian mythos. Arthurian myths are very important to me – as are Greek and Norse, Slavic and Celtic, Sumerian and Egyptian myths, which all together form a still incredibly significant foundation of European culture. And within the wide realm of Arthurian myths, rooted in Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which in itself was a reworking of earlier tales, I have pledged my allegiance to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. I don’t care it’s misogynist. I don’t mind that parts of it are not on par with the rest (I’m looking at you, The Book of Merlyn!). I fully believe it’s the most beautiful and heartfelt retelling of the Arthurian mythos, full of passion – and compassion – and understanding of human nature.

And so I approached Kristian’s recent retelling, Lancelot, with no small amount of trepidation. Armed with a glowing recommendation from Aaron at the Swords and Spectres I hastened to read it, but remembering our previous differences of opinion, O gentle friend, I remained wary. And indeed, it took me some time to warm up to this reimagined Lancelot, from his difficult, heart-breaking childhood to his equally troubled adolescent years on Karrek Loos yn Koos, the island of Lady Nimue. For Kristian spins the story in the one direction that had been relatively less explored before – Lancelot’s past. We see him as a child cruelly and early bereft of childhood, only barely escaping the fate of his family – with an angry hunting bird and a promise of revenge as his sole possessions. We see him as a wild teenager, stubborn and prideful, separate from others and self-unaware to the point of naivety. We see him grow, and learn, and as we do, we begin to see the promise in him, the seed of the future first knight of Britain and the leader of men. We see him triumphant, we see him defeated, but to the end unbroken. What we see most clearly, however, is the unwavering love and loyalty that had become a staple of this paradoxical knight – and in this, Kristian’s retelling is as faithful to the spirit of Arthurian myths as it only could be.

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