the Little Red Reviewer

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City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett

published May 2017

where I got it: purchased new

 

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All artwork (other than the book’s cover art) in this post is by the very talented Chanh Quach. You can view the rest of her Divine Cities character portraits here.

 

This is the third book in a trilogy, and I’m a little jealous of people who will read City of Miracles as their first Divine Cities book.  How different would City of Stairs be if you already knew Sigrud’s secrets, if you already had Vinya’s backstory?  I imagine those early conversations would read much differently and have layers of subtext.

 

Picking up twenty years after the events in City of Stairs,  City of Miracles feels slower, more introspective, and less subtle than the previous installments in the trilogy.   The pace and quietness reflects Sigrud’s personality – he’s not slow by any means, but he’s self contained, doesn’t waste words, and comes to things on his own terms.  Still wanted by the government for his actions after his daughter’s death, he’s been living in hiding under an assumed name. At his age, he should be slowing down, but to Sigrud one day is timelessly much like the next – he patiently waits for Ashara Komayd to contact him, he keeps to himself, and if anyone suspects his identity, he disappears.  In the first two Divine Cities books, Sigrud stole every scene he was in, so it is nice to have an entire novel where he is the star of the show.

artwork by Chanh Quach

As with other Robert Jackson Bennett books, the world building in City of Miracles is fantastic. Gorgeously rendered city scapes,  barren hinterlands, everything in between, and more importantly everything has a history. When you close your eyes, you see it, you are there, you can hear the breeze through the trees, you can find someone nearby who can tell the story of those ruins.  In the twenty years since we first met Shara and Sigrud, the world has changed. A young industrial revolution, of sorts – more automobiles, a sky gondola contraption that goes over the mountains instead of through them, more telephones, etc.   As the younger generation is excited about these new technological developments, the older generation is still getting used to a changing world.

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Today I’m thrilled to have my friend Lesley Conner visit Little Red Reviewer. Lesley is an author, the Managing Editor of Apex Magazine, and all around amazing person. A wrangler of slush readers and girl scouts, Lesley somehow manages to find time to write her own fiction. Her debut novel, The Weight of Chains, comes out today from Sinister Grin Press.  A historical thriller of power, torture, and escape, The Weight of Chains is the story of Gilles de Rais and the woman who defied him.

Weight of CHains

Lesley was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about her new novel. Let’s get to the interview!

Little Red Reviewer: Congratulations on your forthcoming novel, The Weight of Chains!  What can you tell us about the novel?

Lesley Conner: Thank you! I’m extremely excited!

So what can I tell you about The Weight of Chains … I could go the old boring route and tell you it’s an alternative history horror novel inspired by the crimes of Gilles de Rais.

That’s true, but it doesn’t really get to the heart of it.

The Weight of Chains is about power and control. Gilles de Rais is nobleman who has absolute control over every aspect of his life. He’s also a killer with very dark desires, and he uses his status and power to make sure that he can play out his every fantasy. It is a novel full of torture and death. It’s also one that examines what happens to the people who get swept up in that world, who have no control and no choice, but have to fulfill their master’s wishes for safety and security, or just to make it through one more day. But what happens if Gilles’s control begins to slip? What if another power comes into play and the carefully constructed life that Gilles has built begins to crumble?

The Weight of Chains is full of murder, deceit, magic, desperation, a demon, and a little girl who wants to figure out how to do more than just survive. She wants to be happy.

lesley Coner

LRR: The novel takes place in medieval France. Tell us about some of the research you did to get the historical details just right.

LC: Gah! Research! By the time I was finished with the novel, I was to the point of telling any who would listen that if I EVER said I wanted to write another historical novel to smack me. And then I immediately got an idea for a novel heavily influenced by the 1920s New York speakeasy scene and fell right back down the research rabbit hole.

 

Researching a novel set in 1436, France was difficult to put it mildly. First, Gilles de Rais was a real person. I spent a lot of time reading about him, the crimes he committed, and the people who were involved. The facts of his life have been twisted – he really did hire a wizard named Prelati, but the real Prelati was very much a conman, whereas the one in my novel is a victim of Gilles cruelty – but anyone who knows about the historical figure will see little details that point to the real man.

Second, a major character in my novel is an eleven year old peasant girl. There is little detailed information about the peasantry at this time. So much what is out there seems to focus on nobility. Finding information about peasant children – girls in particular – was even harder. I wanted details like footwear and what they would eat to be as accurate as possible, so I ended up contacting some historical re-enactors. When all else fails, ask an expert! They were fantastic about answering my questions. Plus, they were always in character and would begin emails with “Dear fair lady,” which is kind of fun.

LRR: Without giving us any spoilers (if possible), what is your favorite scene in the novel?

LC: There is a scene where Jeanetta is serving Christophe a bowl of soup. It doesn’t seem like much, but something happens that makes her realize that life could be good, it could be more than the drudgery of moving through each day doing what needed to be done so she and her family could survive, she could be happy. It’s a very small moment and isn’t incredibly flashy, but it is integral to Jeanetta having the will and the strength she needs at the end of the novel. I don’t know that it’s my favorite scene (can a writer really pick a favorite?) but it always makes me smile because it’s a sweet moment, and I’ll be honest, there aren’t a whole lot of sweet moments in The Weight of Chains.

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the adjacentThe Adjacent, by Christopher Priest

published 2013

where I got it: borrowed from a friend

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I enjoyed reading The Adjacent, and I’d be lying if I said a large portion of the book didn’t have me on the edge of my seat. But still, I can’t tell you what this book is about. That’s not because i don’t want to spoil things for you, it’s because I simply have no idea what the book was about.

 

I borrowed this book from a friend, who described it as “a mental mind f*ck””, which is as apt a description as any.  The few sentences on the back of the book mention two characters who have similar names but otherwise shouldn’t have anything in common, and a physicist who discovers a weaponizable secret. How is all this might be related is an understandable and expected question.

 

The story opens with photographer Tibor Trent, recently returned to England after his wife Melanie was killed in the Anatolian field hospital they both worked in.  This near-future England isn’t anything you or I would recognize. Much of the land is burnt to slag, the face of the ruling government isn’t what most people would expect, and Tibor is kept oddly isolated, often guarded or greeted by people who refuse to speak to him. It’s not so much post-apocalyptic as it is post shock-and-awe. Tibor is waiting for his debriefing appointment, to explain to someone the enemy weapon that killed his wife, that left nothing behind but a blackened perfect triangle.

 

Elsewhen, stage magician Tommy Trent is on his way to the Western Front. What could the muddied trenches possibly need a stage entertainer for?  When Tommy learns of the true reason he’s been called to the front, he realizes he’s in far too deep. Told in first person, Tommy tells the reader he is a professional misleader. He also gives an early and helpful definition of how adjacency is applied to the art of stage magic:

 

“The magician places two objects close to each other, or connects them in some way, but one is made to be more interesting (or intriguing, or amusing) to the audience. It might have an odd ot suggestive shape, or it appears to have something inside it, or it suddenly starts doing something the magician seems not to have noticed. The actual set-up is unimportant – what matters most is that the audience, however briefly, should become interested and look away in the wrong direction”

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city_of_stairs-cover1City of Stairs, by Robert Jackson Bennett

published Sept 2014

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks!)

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Where to start with City of Stairs? To say this book has everything sounds so cliche, doesn’t it?  To say it is funny and subtle and daring and fascinating would also sound cliche. But I’m going to say all of those things anyways, because this is one of those comes-a-long-once-a-decade books that transcends. It’s like one of those Hubble images where scale is all but impossible, where you can zoom in or out, and continually find new structures that your mind tells you shouldn’t exist. That shiver you feel? It’s your worldview expanding.

 

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Hubble image of the Pillars of Creation, taken in 1995. click here for more info on this image.

City of Stairs is a sort of political book that’s got nothing to do with politics, it’s a fantasy where there are miracles but not exactly magic, it’s got romance that’s not traditionally romantic, not to mention culture and beliefs and history and archaeology being treated as if they are living things sitting right next to you waiting for the right moment to tell you their secrets. Like I said, it’s got everything.

 

I was recently listening to a podcast about Cordwainer Smith, and one of the Karens mentioned something about how Smith had come out of nowhere, that he wasn’t building on what other writers had done, and it was as if he was reinventing science fiction. Robert Jackson Bennett is a modern day Cordwainer Smith in a similar fashion. But, if forced to make a connection comparison (because we all like those!), to say “this book is like this other book”, the only one that comes to my mind is The Scar, by China Mieville, and only because of the depth of secrecy involved and the ultimate and intimately personal goals of some of the characters.

 

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City of Stairs starts with a courtroom ruling, followed by a train arriving in the middle of the night.

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STP_Fall2013-425x561

Wow, it’s been a while since I reviewed Hugo stuff! Moving in the Novelette category, I’m going to start with Ted Chiang’s “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling”.  You can read this story over at the Subterranean Magazine site.

What should you follow? facts, or your feelings? It’s not a matter of which is better, it’’ a matter of which will make the world around you better.

Over his lifetime, the narrator has seen drastic changes in how people communicate, and how people record what happened to them. Everything from hand written journals and photography of his youth to the assistive software and subvocalization his daughter uses when she wants to “write” something. That is in italics because he doesn’t view what she does as writing. There’s no paper, there’s no pen, her hands aren’t moving. To him, it’s not writing. In this near future story there are also “lifelogs”, a googleglass meets blog thing, where you can record important moments of your life for the purpose of playing them back later. Some people record their entire lives, thus the market for a product called Remem, that helps you sift through your lifelog to find the moment you’re looking for.

Perfect factual memory, it’s the invention we’ve been waiting forever for, right? You could finally find out who laughed at you at your high school cheerleading audition, or if it was you or your spouse who forgot to lock the front door. This is the epitome of personal record keeping. The narrator is excited to use this new technology to repair his relationship with his daughter. He can go back and review their conversations and fights, see where everything went wrong. Is a perfect memory a gift? or a curse?

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long hidden anthologyLong Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older

published May 2014

where I got it: Received review copy from the publisher. (Thanks Crossed Genres!)

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I’ve tried for a few days to write an introduction to this anthology that beats around the bush, that avoids the politics. Beating around the bush has proved impossible in the short span of time i give myself to write reviews.

 

So I will be blunt.

 

Unless you live under a rock, you know that historically the vast majority of speculative fiction published in the English speaking world has been written by straight white dudes, and what they wrote and published reflected their worldview.  I have nothing against their worldview, it’s just that I know there are about a billion other (six billion, working on seven, actually) worldviews out there, including my own.  I’d like to hear those voices too.  We (and by we, I mean me, and people like me: white, midwestern, don’t know any language but English) are getting points of view we have never seen before. Our eyes are being opened, and there is a blinding rainbow to be seen.

 

And I couldn’t be happier.  The world’s cultural  history doesn’t belong to just one group, so why should our speculative fiction?  Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History offers over two dozen diverse stories about those who have been brushed aside, marginalized, been told that people aren’t interested in their stories, in too many cases been told to go away and shut up. Well, I might be a white girl from the midwest who led the easiest life you can imagine, but damnit, I am interested in these stories.

 

Yes, this is speculative fiction, but it is also historical fiction. Along with beautiful and sometimes haunting artwork,  each story in Long Hidden is subtitled by a place and a year, connecting and cementing everything that happens in this book with events that shaped history, many of which circle around colonialism, exploitation, slavery, and institutionalized dehumanization. Geographically, the stories range from India to Denmark, to China and Guatemala, and everywhere inbetween, offering a literal planetary scope of points of view. Dazzling prose, fascinating characters, and nearly everything I read had me running to the internet, Google, Google Maps, Wikipedia, typing in places, dates, names, and events. The internet isn’t an ideal source to be sure, but a collection of stories that has me asking myself “what was happening around this story? What is the context, why are these people so afraid, what else is happening here?” and instantly wanting to know more of the non-fiction that the fiction pointed to, that certainly that had to be one of the many purposes of this collection. I hope that you too will be interesting in doing further reading on your own, to further understand the contexts of these stories.  Because without context? it’s just a story. And nothing in Long Hidden is just a story. And that’s the point.

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For those of you who guessed Luray Caverns, congrats! You figured out where I was! if you have no idea what I’m talking about, go check out my photos from last week.

Hubby is a History Guy, so our next stops included Winchester VA, Harper’s Ferry, and Antietam.  We drove up and down lots of mountains.  Even you’re not into history, if you live anywhere near Shenandoah Valley, you should visit. It really is the most beautiful place on Earth.

Why don’t you enjoy these photos while I go finish piles and piles of laundry?

Winchester, VA.  Geographically important during the Civil War, the town changed hands more than 70 times.  The Courthouse served as a hospital and prison during the Civil War, and much of the graffiti has been preserved. It’s now a very small museum. Winchester has got to be the nicest town in America. Every time we pulled out our tourist map, some local walked up to us and asked if we needed directions anywhere, if we needed help with anything. Everyone was so friendly and polite!

It was used as a Courthouse and Hospital during the Civil War. The front area was gated in and was used as a prison. It's a museum now, and you can ring the bell!

It was used as a Courthouse and Hospital during the Civil War. The front area was gated in and was used as a prison. It’s a museum now, and you can ring the bell!

Masonic Temple in Winchester. What an amazing facade!

Masonic Temple in Winchester. What an amazing facade!

This is the public library. the PUBLIC LIBRARY of Winchester!!!!

This is the public library. the PUBLIC LIBRARY of Winchester!!!!

Next stop was Harper’s Ferry. It’s built into a mountain side, and the entire village is hills, hills, and more hills. I suggest leaving your car at the Visitor Center and taking the shuttle in, as there is very little parking in the town itself. We spent so much time at the Armory Historical area, that by the time we decided to shop a bit, most of the stores were closing. We also went during the week, which meant half the shops weren’t open.  There are staircases and steep alleyways everywhere. I can’t imagine trying to get up those uneven steps in bad weather.  Another very friendly town, someplace I’d love to spend more time in.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.