Science Fiction and Fantasy

By Reviewed by Gwenda Bond
Sunday, February 18, 2007

Reinventing the epic in these epic-saturated times takes a writer with great ambition. We've already trekked to dozens of Mordors, sailed innumerable Aegeans, slain legions of monsters and saved the world countless times. Most often, we do these things in the company of a hero, experiencing the hero's story. But aren't the side trips and sidekicks often just as memorable? What about an epic where every character gets to be the hero of his own story, taking us along for the ride?

Catherynne M. Valente's first three novels earned her a reputation as a bold, skillful writer. Her latest, The Orphan's Tales, reaffirms that early acclaim. A young girl living secretly in a sultan's palace garden, her eyes inexplicably "inked" with an epic's worth of stories, narrates them to a young prince who comes upon her by chance and quickly joins the reader in falling under the spell of teller and tales alike.

Every character and trope you'd expect (or demand) is represented, but always remixed in a satisfying, interconnected blend of revision and tradition. The tale of the Black Papess seeking her revenge on the city that wronged her intersects with the one about four dog-men attempting her assassination, which gives way to a net-weaver discovering the Order of Saint Sigrid, a lady pirate, whose own tale is then told. Valente weaves an intricate, exquisite web that ultimately binds each story to the other.

While the obvious comparison is to One Thousand and One Nights, the spirit and artistry of these tales may be even closer to those of Angela Carter. These are fairy tales that bite and bleed. Every moment of lyricism is countered by one of clear-eyed honesty, and sometimes the moments combine, as in the tale of the monstrous Leucrotta: "For witches, there is but one King and one Palace -- the one who has wronged them, and the house in which he lives."

A welcome humor also pervades the book, helping imbue it with a sense of larger perspective while still allowing each persona a distinct voice. Says one of Sigrid's followers, "Stories are like prayers. It does not matter when you begin, or when you end, only that you bend a knee and say the words." Now we wait for Valente to bend her knee again and make more myths.

BLINDSIGHTBy Peter Watts Tor. 384 pp. $25.95

A misfit crew sent to space to investigate a signal from a strange, giant vessel that seems inhabited, with the future of humanity in the balance? Yawn, right?

Not in the case of Peter Watts's Blindsight. Here the crew is even more misfit than usual, including a pacifist military strategist, a linguist known as the Gang of Four because of her multiple personalities, and a vampire whose inbred "aversion to right angles" explains his race's historic fear of crucifixes. Their journey to the fringes of the solar system aboard Theseus, a spaceship controlled by an artificial intelligence, and their subsequent investigation of an alien craft rapidly expanding in size and complexity, are narrated by another misfit, the synthesist Siri Keeton. Missing half his brain after a childhood operation, Keeton translates the body language, relationships and actions of those around him to reveal a truth about human behavior that he himself can't consciously or emotionally understand.

Trained as a marine biologist, Watts is completely at ease using his richly developed characters to spin possibilities and theories on the cutting edge of science. His dense idea storms may slow some readers, but most will sail through the tech-heavy patches purely for the thrill of seeing what happens next.

HORIZONSBy Mary Rosenblum Tor. 316 pp. $24.95

Mary Rosenblum, who also writes mysteries as Mary Freeman, sets Horizons on a space colony called New York Up that orbits Earth. The empath Ahni Huang's complicated family relationships (the brother she thought dead isn't, though he is still their father's clone) come into play when she joins the fight for NYUp's independence. In quick order, Huang is introduced to behind-the-scenes orbital politics, to the specially gifted children who may represent the next stage in human evolution and to a new boyfriend, an NYUp insider named Dane Nilsson.

The lively twists of Huang's political maneuvering are definitely energetic, but her relationship with Nilsson, for whom she risks everything, is thinly developed. Rosenblum delivers a convincing view of what life in zero gravity might be like, but her characters' motivations lack complexity.

CARNIVALBy Elizabeth Bear Bantam Spectra. 392 pp. Paperback, $6.99

In Elizabeth Bear's Carnival, relationships and political intrigue make for an intricate puzzle on New Amazonia, a planet ruled by women who must always carry their "honor" at their hip in case of a duel. The authoritarian Old Earth Colonial Coalition, interested in obtaining the planet's alien source of clean power, has reunited former partners Michelangelo Kusanagi-Jones and Vincent Katherinessen for a supposed diplomatic visit to the planet. The New Amazonians accept the pair because they are "gentle," or gay, something for which their colonial masters separated them 20 years earlier. Their tough, Amazonian escort, Lesa Pretoria, is likewise juggling official duties and illicit, even illegal, desires. For her son, she wants a meaningful life -- an impossibility for non-gentle males on New Amazonia -- and, for herself, marriage to the "stud male" who fathered him.

During the raucous carnival celebration, New Amazonia reaches a dangerous flashpoint of unrest. Masks are put on and removed, by both the humans and "House," the seemingly beneficent face of the alien technology that powers the planet.

Bear has a gift for capturing both the pleasure and pain involved in loving someone else, particularly in the acid love story between Kusanagi-Jones and Katherinessen. While these double-crossed lovers bring the novel to a nail-biting conclusion, it is the complex interplay of political motives and personal desires that lends the novel its real substance. ยท

Gwenda Bond writes often about books at her blog, Shaken & Stirred, at gwendabond.typepad.com.


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