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March/April 2016
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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

An Ancient Peace: Peacekeeper 1, by Tanya Huff, DAW, 2015, $24.95.

An Inheritance of Ashes, by Leah Bobet, Clarion Books, 2015, $17.99.

Slade House, by David Mitchell, Random House, 2015, $26.

The Vagrant, by Peter Newman, Harper Voyager, 2016, $16.99.

Arkwright, by Allen Steele, Tor, 2016, $26.99.

AN ANCIENT Peace is the first book in a trilogy about Torin Kerr's post-army life. She's ex-Gunnery Sergeant Kerr. Which doesn't mean that her life as the galaxy's most famed Gunnery Sergeant is either irrelevant or over. Torin Kerr is one of nature's sergeants. Removing herself from the rank doesn't change her essential nature: She's a woman whose entire life has been about getting the job done and keeping as many of the people under her command as possible alive. When she fails—and she does consider it a failure on some visceral level—she brings their remains home.

But where's home?

The only planets she's seen have involved military action and reaction. If her life has been violent—and it has—it's the life she knows.

But she's not a Gunnery Sergeant anymore. She's a freelance operative, a hidden tendril of the Justice Department, a civilian. When there's a job that needs doing, it's Torin and her crew the JD sends. Werst, Ressk, Binti Mashona, Craig, and the very damaged Alamber are that crew now.

The book opens on one of these missions, in which Kerr, Mashona, and Craig have infiltrated a xenophobic organization headed by a former actor, called Human's First (sic). It's a quick chapter, establishing the ex-military Kerr as…not very removed from her military self. It goes smoothly, she meets up with the parts of her crew who can't pass for human—because they're not—and she's funneled into the mission which will take up the rest of the book.

Namely: stop grave-robbers, without letting anyone else in the federation—including their normal employers—know anything about it.

Although this takes place in a universe in which five previous novels have been written, it's not a bad place to jump on. The Galactic federation is made up of the Elder Races—races that have grown out of war (in theory) and have become peaceful because their civilizations managed to survive the "growing out of" stage with the loss of a few planets and billions of lives.

The Younger Races are of course considered primitive in comparison, and the Confederate army is composed almost entirely of the Younger Races: the humans, the Di'Taykan, the Krai. Huff does a good job of making the differences between these races clear, but always with a somewhat practical eye. What Torin Kerr sees, she works with.

The H'san are the first among equals of the Elder Races. Their wars were technologically devastating, but in the end, they turned their back on war, burying their weapons on a planet that serves as a monument to their prior history.

And of course space grave-robbers are quite eager to find and exploit that prior history, because H'san tech appears to function pretty much forever. And if they find the weapons, that's war. Again.

This book can be read as a straight-up adventure (with obvious nods to Indiana Jones along the way), and on that level it's very entertaining. But there's more to it, if you pause to consider. An ex-Gunnery Sergeant who isn't used to being a civilian is trying to make adjustments. The war—the resolution of war—has left her somewhat shattered, and because she's Torin, she's holding herself together. But there are cracks, and they come to light when she's forced to recognize that all of her instincts were honed in battle—and battle is not what she's going to find on the city streets of planets that have never seen the war that killed so many of her friends and comrades.

She has to learn how to think like a civilian would think through the lens of the experience of Torin Kerr. I'm really looking forward to seeing where the next book goes. I think Torin Kerr has become my favorite of Huff's characters, which is saying something.


*   *   *


Leah Bobet's An Inheritance of Ashes starts out as a much smaller, quieter book, with vastly less tech and vastly lower stakes. And yet, it makes the small and quiet matter, gives the daily chores of a struggling farm, and the daily arguments—so many quiet and unvoiced—of the two sisters who own deed to that farm, a painful urgency.

Hallie is the younger of the two. She is sixteen years old. Her sister, Marthe, is older by ten years, and she's pregnant with the child of Thom, her husband, who was swept away by the call to war.

The war, when the book opens—the larger, distant war—is over. But Thom hasn't returned. Some of the men have, in particular the neighbor's sons. They bear scars or injuries in silence. They don't talk about the war at all.

But there are many different types of conflicts, and Hallie and Marthe, on the opposite sides of their own fortifications, don't talk about their own battles, either. They don't talk about their father, now dead. They don't talk about their life with him. They don't really talk to each other; too many barbs, too many stings, too much pain and resentment.

Roadstead Farm is theirs, but they're two young people, the farm is too large, and it's not doing well. Thom hasn't come home. The soldiers are trickling back, in ones and twos. One soldier stops at Roadstead farm, looking for a place to work; he's been on the road for a long time, but winter's going to make the road much, much harder.

Hallie knows they need the help. Or she knows she does. And she takes a chance on the stranger, Heron. But he comes bearing a secret, a weapon, and the shadows of that war are more intimately entwined with him than they are for anyone else.

There is a quiet, shining beauty in this book, made of plain small things, like perfect stitches executed to create something wondrous out of something flat and even banal. Even the hints of strangeness, the things that mark the difference between our world in history and the world of Hallie and Marthe, are subtle to start.

It's the small details that make these characters real. People talk a lot about flawed characters—and the characters are flawed. They're struggling against the environment, against each other, but mostly against their own impulses and insecurities. Bobet's gift here is that in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, I really cared about the characters. Not because they accept the things that are eating away at their life, but because they struggle against them all: the Twisted Things, the people who they feel keep them down, and their own selves. All the things they fear.

It's about imperfect solutions. It's about the stories we tell ourselves, and the ways in which honesty has layers, harsh truths and simpler truths existing atop each other. It's about family, the hard parts and the good parts. It's about home, and what home means, and identity, and what that means when we're formed in our own minds out of the expectations others have for us.

And it is quietly, sparely, gorgeously written. I loved it.


*   *   *


Slade House is a slim book. I picked it up because it seemed like a haunted house story, and I often like those. Like many Mitchell novels, this one is a collection of shorter pieces, woven together in small ways. The book opens with the Bishops—Nathan and his mother, Rita—searching for the titular house. Lady Norah Grayer has invited Rita Bishop to a musical soiree, but has insisted that Rita bring her son, Nathan, who is obviously on the autism spectrum. It is the last Saturday in October, of the year 1979, and Nathan is the narrator.

I laughed out loud half a dozen times before the Bishops managed to find the small iron door described in the invitation in a very narrow lane called Slade Alley. The door leads to a magnificent garden, and an equally impressive house, and Nathan is left with Lady Norah's son, Jonah. They play in the garden together, until Jonah suggest a game of "fox and hounds" (Nathan points out that it should be "hound" as there's only one of each of them.)

Because this is a haunted house story, things don't work out well. I'm hesitant to say more.

What I can safely say is that the parts that comprise the book occur at intervals of nine years; that the narrators of each section are different; and that Norah and Jonah are continuing characters throughout the book. Mitchell is clever, inventive, and it feels, reading the book, that he's actually having fun with it. But it's not exactly a ghost story—or perhaps it is, but not in the usual sense. The tone and atmosphere isn't set by the house; it's set by the people who visit it. Mitchell makes each visitor and their various concerns shine.

Each iterative trip to the house offers more and more information about what the house is, how it works, and who its owners are. The presence of ghosts accrete until the end of section four. There are two things I want to say about this. If the individual pieces are bleak—and they are—the struggles of these ghosts, these people who are lost and have lost, make a difference, albeit not one that is immediately seen or felt. I feel that it balances out the bleakness, the sense of loss.

The efforts—even when not immediately successful—have a cumulative effect. Mitchell's narrative seems to imply, at least to this reader, that the small efforts are never completely pointless, even if they don't result in instant salvation for the person who makes them; that the small struggles or acts of caution or kindness count in ways that are not immediately clear. Which in turn implies that they are worth making, that their ripples, small and pathetic as they might seem, continue outward.

The only segment that didn't quite work for me was the final one, oddly enough. It was the one that made me hit the internet to find out that, yes, this book is a companion piece to The Bone Clocks. All of Mitchell's work seems to exist in one known space, with small nods to his other novels—but the end of this one seems to be wed to the contents of The Bone Clocks, and I think anyone who's read that book (I haven't, yet) will understand instantly what's to happen the minute the final character, in 2015, visits Slade House, because they'll recognize the name.

Regardless, this was surprising. It's a fantasy novel; it's grounded in the more structural fantasy world-building than the tenuous hauntings of the usual haunted houses. Mitchell is clever—but there are two kinds of writing clever, it seems to me. One delights in clever, revels in it, is ebullient with it. And one is impressed by its own cleverness, seeking approval; there is less joy in it. Mitchell is clearly enjoying himself here.


*   *   *


Newman's The Vagrant seems to be a standalone novel. It's science fantasy, which is to say, it has both the trappings of fantasy—the Breach, the demons that crawl out of it, the world they ended—and science fiction, like the tech that appears later in the novel and the cities that rely on it.

The Vagrant is a silent man. He speaks exactly one word in the entire book. He carries two burdens as he treks his way across a landscape that's been devastated and tainted by the demonic impurities that have crawled out of the Breach: a sword and a baby.

I will own up now: the reason I picked up this book is because the back cover made me think of an ancient anime, Angel's Egg. Although it's clear that the Vagrant carries a baby, no mention of it is made on the back cover blurb, but I started this book in a very particular frame of mind, and the book itself did nothing to change that. I think it would make an excellent anime. I'd love to see it.

The Vagrant is slowly making his way to the North from the tainted and war-ravaged remnants of the South, in which the demons and the half-demons and the overlords who deal with them have a post-apocalyptic lifestyle. He has coins that hark back to happier and less tainted times, and they still have value, but he spends them on medicine, among other things, as he makes his way from place to place.

He is recognized by the weapon he carries as a Seraph Knight.

The Seraph Knights were numerous at one point, and in interludes that interleave the past of eight years ago with the present wanderings, the fall of the lands is chronicled, as is the rise of the forces that seek to rule it: the Usurper, the Green Sun, responsible for the death of one of the Seven, Gamma. Gamma's sword wounded the Usurper before Gamma herself fell, and it is imperative that the sword make its way to the North, to the seat of the Seven, the Shining City.

But the Vagrant isn't one of the Seven. He's clearly human, clearly haunted by loss, despair and duty. He meets—and loses—people, some of whom try to help him and some of whom try to cheat or even kill him. People are desperate to survive, and survival is its own imperative.

I expected that this would be something grimdark, and that doesn't always work for me. But it wasn't. It's bleak, yes, but it's more than that. The Vagrant, who remains without a name, has seen too much to judge others harshly, and some spark of what he might once have been, some hint of the early ideals, causes him to take chances that would have once been unwise, unthinkable.

And some of them simply don't work.

But others have surprising results.

This isn't a book about good and evil, although it starts out wearing that facade; it's about how living changes you, for good or ill or possibly both. There are no real absolutes, no real answers, nothing that is all of one thing or all of the other, and nothing that can be judged entirely as if it is.

Also: friendship and a goat.


*   *   *


Arkwright started life as a novella, and the first section of the book is a retooling of "The Legion of Tomorrow," which originally appeared in Asimov's. It's not so much an alternate history as a fictionalized one: It starts in the early days of sf fandom. Well, no, it starts with a young woman, Kate, a science journalist who has just found out that her rather well-known sf-writer grandfather, Nathan Arkwright, has passed away. She's not best pleased to discover this from reading a paper, but her mother didn't think it worth mentioning, because her mother hasn't spoken to her father for years. Not since the day her grandmother died.

Kate heads to the funeral. She's not expecting anything, although her grandfather was very well off, and initially she's not even sure why she chooses to go to the funeral. But she meets her grandfather's agent—the eighty-year-old Maggie, who is still intimidating and competent, and two of his oldest friends, another writer who never made it as big as Nathan Arkwright, and a scientist. Maggie gives Kate the unfinished manuscript that her grandfather was writing—a biography.

It's short, and it leads her to talk to all three of her grandfather's friends, after which she knows more about her grandfather and has learned a few things about herself. She is asked to join the Arkwright Foundation—a foundation that was created to fund space colonization, by a man who had never given up that dream.

If you have zero interest in the history of sf fandom, I'm not sure you're going to enjoy the beginning of the book. The rest of the book derives from the beginning, but it leaves that part of its roots behind.

Steele then charts the course of Nathan Arkwright's dream, as the various descendants of the original "Legion of Tomorrow"—Maggie, Nathan, Harry, and George—step into place to continue the foundation's work, following the generations in discrete, episodic ways. There are highs and lows as the public interest in space ebbs and flows.

I read this in part because Steele is known for hard sf, and I wanted some sense of what he thought actual colonization might look like, and how it might come to pass. In that sense, I wasn't disappointed, but I found the book curiously flat in places; it did nothing that surprised me until the last fifth of the book. It had a stately, almost fictional-biography feel until that point; it felt like sf from then on.

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