“City Of Stairs” by Robert Jackson Bennett (2014)

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“‘I believe the question, then,’ says Vasily Yaroslav, ‘is one of intent.'”

Some books feel like spending time in the embrace of an old friend. Others feel as refreshing as diving into a swimming pool on a hot summer day. But there are always the ones that put you in mind of cloying, claggy swamps, where every step you take is prefaced by ten minutes of wiggling your leg out of the quagmire with that shlurp sound, only to find you’ve lost your shoe. Again. I emerge from City Of Stairs after over a week, muddy, sweaty and looking for somewhere with a power shower.

The first in a series, this novel takes place in the ancient city of Bulikov, central location on the vast Continent. The Continent was once ruled by six Divinities (i.e. gods), each of which had their own followers, belief system and powers. That is, until the nation of Saypur attacked as part of its plan to dominate the globe, and killed all the Divinities. In doing such, all the miracles and magic that they had performed immediately failed, and the Continent, Bulikov in particular, was ripped asunder. Climate changed in an instant, buildings collapsed into one another, and staircases and doors suddenly led nowhere.

After the suspicious death of Dr Efrem Pangyui, a diplomat researching the history of the Continent – a history that, under Saypuri rule, is never to be mentioned or acknowledged – a descendant of the man who killed the gods, Shara Komayd, makes her way into Bulikov under false pretenses to find out exactly what happened. Accompanied by her terrifyingly large bodyguard Sigrud, she soon takes command of the diplomatic mission and soon learns that something is going on beneath the surface. There are talks of an uprising, and if anyone finds out her true identity, there is sure to be hell to pay. And more urgently, it seems that someone has gained access to the Warehouse, where all miraculous items from before the Blink (the disappearance of the Divinities) are being stored. She has a week to get to the bottom of things, before her commanding officer – and aunt – pulls her back to Saypur.

A review on the back of the book notes similarities to three other authors, and I have to say that I can complete see where they’re coming from. SciFiNow notes that the talk of ancient gods seems reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin also seems relevant, both stories being full of scheming politicians and worlds that feel familiar but off-kilter. The one I was most strongly reminded of, though, was China Miéville’s The City & The City, featuring as it does a city that is uniquely damaged. I think the apparent instant similarity to his work that I felt when I plucked the book from the bookshop shelf last summer was what attracted me most to it. As it is, I prefer Miéville.

The novel’s primary redeeming feature is that while it’s set in a fictional world, it hasn’t gone for the old fantasy cliches that seem to require all fictional races are based on the Europeans. Saypur seems Arabic or Indian in its nature, while other cultures, Sigrud’s Dreyling identity, for example, feels Russian, or maybe even Icelandic. All the characters names have a foreign feel to an uncultured Englishman such as myself. The way the gods work is also fascinating. Because the Continent had conflicting beliefs on how it was formed, each creation myth was the truth in the area that that specific god ruled over. This is why everything fell apart so quickly when the gods died – there was no unified truth of reality. Frankly, it’s quite a clever piece of writing.

Unfortunately, it’s let down by the characters. I wasn’t particularly moved by any of them, nor especially interested. It’s refreshing that many of the central characters are women, and women of colour at that, but a lot of them seem to run to cliches in ways the world building doesn’t. The right characters make it through to the end, sure, and there doesn’t seem to be much that it has cost them to do so. The book ends on a note of hope, which I suppose is what you want in a book, but it didn’t inspire me to read on.

I’m not going to say it’s a bad book, because I don’t think it is. The mythology is interesting, the world is thorough and different, and there are some very interesting and creepy beasts to do battle with, but there’s definitely something missing. I never felt like any of the jeopardy they were going through was really all that bad, despite some of it really being quite horrific. I also never quite brought myself to care properly about any of the characters. It’s a world I could paddle in for a long time, but I never wanted to take the plunge.


“The Art Of Language Invention” by David J. Peterson (2015)

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“The first time I heard a language of mine spoken on-screen was at a cast and crew premiere event for the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones.”

I’m a native English speaker and sometimes I think that’s for the best. I’m not disparaging other languages by any means, or suggesting one is better than any other, but just take a look at this language. English is full of irregular verbs, strange grammatical quirks, silent letters, wonky pronunciations, unusual plurals, and words that have been pilfered fully-formed from other languages. I can’t imagine not having this as a first language and having to try and understand why “read” rhymes with “red” and “read” rhymes with “reed”, but “reed” and “red” don’t rhyme with each other.

Languages and linguistics are very interesting topics, and this book comes from a man who knows a thing or two about them. David J. Peterson has a job that seems ridiculous on the surface – he is a conlanger; someone who invents languages (conlang comes from “constructed” and “language”). But if you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, or Defiance, then you will have heard his work. Thrones is probably his best-known project, for which he invented the languages Dothraki and High Valryian. I don’t watch the show, but I looked up some clips of these being spoken, and you have to admit that they sound very realistic.

Inventing a language is more than just substituting the symbols of the English alphabet for new ones and putting in too many x’s where they don’t belong. In this book, Peterson introduces the reader to the basics required if someone is wanting to make their own language. Not only do you have to work out what words are important to these people, you also have to get to grip with verb tenses, possessive pronouns, compound works, locative words, and even the basic biology of the species you’re writing for. If this is an alien species with an extra pair of lungs, or no tongue, how would that impact what sounds they’d be able to make? And then once you’ve got the sounds down, you need to decide what they’ll look like written down, or how they work together.

Although the topic has the capacity to be insanely dry, in Peterson’s hands, it is interesting and engaging. He writes with humour (stopping mid-paragraph at one point to emphasise how much he hates onions) and skill. This is a man who knows his craft, and really cares about it, which is such an important factor in writing good non-fiction. It’s also a great lesson in linguistics, although I don’t think even now I could rightly explain the difference between the ablative and partitive case. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to read about how languages and writing evolved, and to see examples from other languages that seem daunting but must be easy to master, or they would’ve died out by now. For me, I’ll stick with English and Spanish, but I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in language, as well as anyone who writes fantasy or science fiction and needs a few pointers on what makes a language look realistic.

And if you take nothing else from this book, you will at least finally understand the correct way to use “who” and “whom”.

Fonas chek!

“The Islanders” by Christopher Priest (2011)

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The Islanders

No man is an island. Except the Isle of Man.

“I find it ironic that I should be invited to write a few introductory words to this book, as I know as little about the subject as it is possible to know.”

I am not a traveller. I do not have the wanderlust that appears to pervade every cell of every member of my generation. Australia, America, Egypt – they look nice, but I have no real hurried desire to go to them. As such, travel memoirs and guidebooks are foreign fare for me. It was therefore with some trepidation that I picked up The Islanders, which is both and neither a memoir and a guidebook.

The book presents itself as a guidebook to the fictional Dream Archipelago, a huge collection of islands on an alternate planet. The number of islands has never been officially worked out as they tend to have different names in different languages, are almost impossible to navigate and there are no maps of the entire area. As such, the experts of the world simply say that there are “a great many islands” and leave it at that.

The first couple of chapters set you up, going into detail on the first islands, explaining their vague location, their climate and infrastructure, imports and exports, notable features, currency, some of their folklore and other things you’d expect from a guidebook beside. And then it all gets a bit odd.

The next chapter is more about a single expedition onto an island where the deadly thryme insect has made its home. Then there are chapters where you are given the life and times of a famous resident, or one that is a court transcript, or one that’s merely letters from a new writer to her favourite author. Once you notice that the same names keep popping up and that there appears to be an unexplained murder of a mime in several of the islands biographies, you begin to realise that this book is not at all what it seems.

Never clearly explaining at what point in history each story is set, it throws together several characters whose influence spread across the entire island, including reclusive author Chaster Kammeston, celebrated mime artist Akal Drester Commissah, tunneller Jordenn Yo, intrepid journalist Dant Willer and the mysterious, worshipped figure known only as Caurer. Their stories begin to trip over one another as they meet and avoid one another, each story shedding new light on old ones, and adding more questions to the tapestry.

Each island is unique, maybe famed for its culture, architecture, wine, or the fact it has been carved out into a huge musical instrument, and the story, such as it is, is captivating and keeps you asking questions, whether or not they’re the right ones.

I’ve never read Priest before, although in doing research on this book, I discovered that he actually set a few earlier novels within the Dream Archipelago. I don’t know if reading these will expand on the characters or locations featured, but as an individual text, it still works. The guidebook premise is interesting, but it becomes clear that the narrator has an agenda that he or she wants you to follow. After all, the Dream Archipelago is said to contain thousands upon thousands of islands of all shapes and sizes, and yet no more than fifty of them are discussed here.

Why are these ones so important?

What is going on in those towers on Seevl?

Who tried to destroy Lorna and Bradd’s boat?

The blurb on the book itself describes it as a “chinese puzzle of a novel where nothing is quite what it seems” and that is pretty much accurate. So hop around the archipelago by all means, but you’re unlikely to come out of it the same person that went in.