1) The Bird of The River, by Kage Baker: I feel bad about this one. I received this book as part of the Ranting Dragon Locus Challenge, but did not finish the book in time. But I did both vote in the Locus Poll and now, present the review! The book itself is a nice hardback edition but the cover is a bit irritating, since it portrays a scene that does not actually occur in the novel, and shows the title river ship as being some little pleasure craft or something, when in truth it is a huge vessel and a community unto itself. Do not let the cover fool you: there are no orc-like creatures in this book, and no heroines with their. . . capes?. . . blowing in the wind as they look heedlessly forward. Eliss would never miss someone boarding her home like that!
The novel is a combination of secondary-world fantasy and a mystery within a gently-tweaked bildungsroman. The central character is Eliss, a teenage woman who is trying to keep her drug-addicted mother alive and care for her younger brother, Alder, who is of mixed heritage. She helps secure her mother a job on one of the large trading ships that sail the river, but tragically her mother dies soon after that, and Eliss is forced to find a way to make herself useful on the ship. She quickly finds out that her talent for perception and her sharp mind make her a valuable asset for The Bird of the River as it makes its way up the perilous river. As the ship journeys to river's end, she helps a shipmate investigate a suspicious death and struggles to adapt and thrive as she enters adulthood.
The plot of the novel is nothing new, and while the prose is very clean and straightforward it is not especially evocative. The world that Baker has created has some interesting flourishes but is neither of epic scale nor of great ethnographic depth. The humans, known as the Children of the Sun, live and sometimes fight with the Yendri, the green-skinned folk who live in the wilderness and are merchants and healers,, and the "demons," feral humanoids who seem to primarily be bandits. The god known only as the Blacksmith is the "father" of the Children of the Sun, who have surnames such as Ingot and Riveter, but religion is a peripheral concern in the novel. The world is not particularly rich, and the story not of great complexity.
But Baker uses these as a backdrop for excellent characters and for situations that test them. What is distinctive here is that Baker creates a story of a young woman's maturation that you empathize with, frequently surprising you by not going for the melodramatic or grim outcome. Eliss does not have an easy life, but she is no Chosen One, no victim, and an active participant in her own future. Eliss' choices matter, and she makes many of those choices with intelligence and discernment. She is still a child in some ways, but her keen eyes and mind serve her well as she navigates the hazards of the river and of life. Tragic things happen, but she is never devastated by them, and learns how to move on and continue making a life for herself. The Bird of the River is heartening without platitudes, engrossing not because of flashy magic (which there is very little of in the book) or epic conflicts, but because you come to care for Eliss and her world and thus feel some empathy for her situation, reveling in her triumphs and wincing at her missteps, but feeling that she, and you, are two humans on a journey together.
This is not a novel of high adventure, of vast philosophical discourses, or of searing emotional trauma. People go about their lives quite normally for the most part, and while this is a fantasy world, and there is a mystery, what grabs you is the lived feeling of the story, small details of people's lives, their quirks and satisfactions. Beside Eliss my favorite character was the boy Wolkin, who is one of the most believable and spirited young boys I have encountered in a fantasy novel. He is funny, dorky, sometimes a bit dim, and full of life. Although few of the characters are fully developed, even those in supporting roles feel like people, with quirks and histories. Baker deftly creates a lived-in world without a lot of marvels, but with a lot of ambiance and earthiness.
The novel's progress is slow and easy, although also brief. The prose brings you along at a leisurely pace, slowly adding details and rhythms to the life of the characters that provides more weight to the world than long discourses or descriptions could. You understand how things work with subdued aplomb, and that allows the reader to engage the characters more fully. While not a character study, it is a novel that is about people, and about how the little choices in life can eventually create a major shift, or open up a new path. Eliss' development from desperate opportunist to reliable ship hand and friend is a pleasure to watch, and you feel emotionally rewarded in the process. Although the ending is a little forced and involves a form of deus ex machina, what matters in the end is that Eliss has grown up and changed her future. The ending perturbed me somewhat, but I greatly enjoyed the journey that I took with Eliss and her shipmates.
2) Open Your Eyes, by Paul Jessup (Full disclosure: Paul and I exchange ideas and bon mots frequently online, and he sent me a copy of his book to read). Let me disclosure something further: Open Your Eyes is a careening, lunatic carousel of space opera, surrealism, and ontological instability. Alternately sublime, ghastly, astonishing, and occasionally awkward, this is a bold short novel with heaps of inventiveness and lots of risk-taking. Jessup's embellishments and contortions of story and image don't always work, but there are no dull moments in this work and it constantly strives to surprise and provoke the reader.
This is also a book whose story is not elaborate but, unlike Baker's plain prose Jessup's writing intentionally disturbs our perspective, play with our minds, and disassembles anything we might take for granted. But this is not just textual acrobatics or trickery; Jessup's novel plays with ideas of identity, action, and desire by both interfering with reality and upending our expectations. From the ecstatic opening scene to the surprising sudden ending, the reader must navigate a dizzying world of starships made of bone and duty, wax-fingered doll constructs, infectious languages, and conniving AIs, a startling milieu that is absurd and sensual, delirious and harsh; a world where every character has secret longings and feelings of disconnection, and is in a constant struggle to not be overwhelmed or destroyed by the forces around them or their fellow-travelers.
Open Your Eyes is not a story about connection; it is a story about dissonance, about how trust, expectations, and longing can undo us. It is about how our yearnings can blind us, trip us up, and open us up to a message of lethal conformity. When the alien language (represented by a nonsensical mantra) overtakes a character, it annihilates them, not bodily, but intellectually, emotionally. Submission to the language, which seduces with its repetitiveness, removes everything a person is from their body. And characters do not become infected accidentally; they open themselves to it, often unwittingly, in their myopic pursuit of some petty or unattainable goal. For all of the strangeness and bewilderment in the novel, it has an underlying substance to it, a point that arises again and again as the characters betray themselves.
It has overtones of despair and echoes of nihilism, but the story is propelled along not just by the characters fumbling after their desires, but by sheer human tenacity, which is set in constant struggle with both the viral language and the inevitable failure that death will bring to all of their quests for fulfillment. The characters struggle to live, to not just achieve some goal or dream but to arrive at a moment of completion, of reunion with something that they cherish, that they hope will restore them. All of them fail except one, who only transforms when she gives up her desires and allows something new to take hold and illuminate the world. This transformation ends up setting the world right in some sense, but only by allowing the unexpected to flourish.
There are some uncertain moments in the novel, partly due to vagaries in the prose, but more often due to the flaws and inconsistencies of the characters. They are unreliable actors, as we all are, and their shortsightedness, their obsessive focus on what they cannot have, creates most of the conflict in the novel. Sometimes it is unclear what is happening, and there are a few moments that I wish were more clearly presented, but what emerges in this novel is a profound message: that regardless of how unlimited technology, possibility, and potential may be, unless people are willing to expand their vision, to appreciate and understand the wonders around them, they will only succeed in facilitating their obliteration. When you refuse to engage the world around you, see circumstances for what they are, or appreciate that your desires do not trump all other contingencies, you ontologically keep your eyes closed, and miss what your life can truly be.