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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Betrayer by C J Cherryh

Betrayer by C J Cherryh (Spolier Alert!)
In my prior review of Deceiver I commented on how impossible it was to enter the series from that book because of the sheer weight of all that had gone before and how nobody should expect a writer to be able to do that. Then at the beginning of Betrayer, CJ Cherryh pretty much does so and makes it coherent and cogent with little evident effort. Drat.
Now that said, a summary is not a substitute for knowledge. If I told you War and Peace was essentially, “Napoleon invades Russia, goes badly” you’d have the essential plot, but so what? Even there you are starting with the information that most people, other than American college students know: Napoleon was French, Russia and France are countries and they fought a war with bright uniforms, tall hats, horses, cannons and a lot of snow. An SF writer has none of that built in and has to do all of that and not bore you. CJ succeeds though I still think a reader who had not read the earlier work will still be at sea, but maybe at least in sight of landfall.
Betrayer plunges us further into the battle to stabilize the Marid province and prevent most of the Atevi world from going up in a civil war that would threaten to destabilize the prospace, pro-human government of the Tabini and his human ally and lead diplomat, Bren Cameron. War among the Atevi is conducted within strict bounds as different groups of the Assassins Guild struggle against each other to carry out or prevent judicially approved Filings of Intent to Kill. The isolated human colony on its island of Mospheira is sitting this one out but in understandable nerves about anything that happens with the planet full of Atevi.
But the Guild itself has been split by the recent coup and counter coup against Tabini and many of the Pretender Murini’s Guild fled after Tabini’s return, to Marid province finding this nest of internecine family struggles, ripe fruit for the plucking. They insert themselves into existing plots and organize new ones, spreading conflict and unrest and having it blamed on Machigi the existing Marid clan chief, whose fall would allow them to essentially take over the clan from the inside. These Guild renegades would then own their own country.
Ilsidii, Tabini’s grandmother and power in her own right and ruthless cunning, believes Machigi is being set up. She had sent Cameron and his small but elite team of Guild guards into the Marid to settle the Deceiver Pauit in the first book and they now proceed to Mashcigi to establish relations with him. Cameron is Mashicigi and the Marid clan’s way out of the traps closing in on as the Guild frames Machigi for war crimes and the other Marid lords seek to replace him.
But the fires of conspiracy and rebellion outrace diplomatic efforts. Cameron and his team flee with Mashigi’s aid as a Guild-conducted purge of the rebel Guild explodes among conspirators and loyalists alike.
Isilidi and Cajeiri along with Barbara and Toby are besieged in Cameron’s home while Cameron must flee afoot through the badlands separating him from home and safety. Action and adventure abound in the second half of this book in sharp contrast to Deceiver.
My chief frustration remains how little we see of the love-interest (in itself the wrong word as the Atevi Jago has no word for love in her language) between Bren and Jago. There is a rich and unexplored field here. Bren and Jago are lovers, something of a scandal in itself. However we spend little time exploring this at all. Why would an Atevi woman begin this association (i.e. fall in love) with what to her is a Halfling? Jago is about eight and half feet tall, her father Bianchi seems to be about ten feet. You would think that the intimacies of relations between a giantess and a human might yield some moments of humor. Beyond that does anyone ever look askance at her for her relationship?
Imagine if you had a perfectly proportioned partner of another color who was still only three feet tall to your six foot or better? Would the world take so little notice or comment? Is she never embarrassed by it? In short, the difficulties inherent in an interracial relationship, much less an interspecies one seem glossed over. It doubtless helps if your girlfriend is a Guild assassin.
Another means of looking at this is the character of Barbara, Cameron’s ex-girlfriend and now his brother’s (an agent of the human government) girlfriend. Other than a tinge of jealously and contempt, Jago seems to have little reaction to her. How much more interesting could it have been if there were scenes between these two as they struggle to understand each other and Cameron.
Barbara as written is largely an emotional, grasping nuisance who seems somewhere between a stalker and normal jilted female character, but point is, she is a real human woman. She has love, affection, tears, kindness and on an instinctive level is the more rational choice for Bren, or could have been had she been expanded into three dimensions. Does Bren never long for a person who would understand him in a way no alien could? Never long for that comfort?
Don’t get me wrong. I am not dissing the character of Jago but rather wishing she had more of one and I had some access to it. She is the powerful ebony princess, always there and always at Cameron’s beck and call, for all that he defers to her in all matter of security. She is mysterious and deadly, but to me to the point of abstraction. Who are you, Jago? What do want and long for and why did it take the shape of Cameron? What does mother think of your new boyfriend? Do you ever dream of children? Will you know what to do if Cameron was crying by a graveside? What would you need from him if you stood over your father Bianchi’s grave and he was in there because he died protecting Cameron? All undiscovered country, but one that beckons.
Another area and this may just be the military geek in me, but when CJ does small unit actions, the running and gunning on the Guild level it is well done and plausible. There is a paucity of detail on the larger scale. Machigi for example comments that his people are a naval power. In a world that varies as wildly for levels of technology as does the Atevi one, I have no idea what that means: ironclads with steam power and Dahlgren guns yet still using sales, like the Abraham Lincoln in 20,000 leagues under the sea? Dreadnaughts of the WWI or II era? Or are we talking about armed fishing trawlers? It may seem odd with a space station and a starship above them but most Atevi live in the equivalent of our later 19th and very early 20th century.
Most of the fighting, which happens usually at the distance, is in deadly small unit scuffles between Guild. Occasionally one sees a mob of hunters or other militia. From the military point of view the war is rather confusing and devoid of detail. Do they have tanks, artillery? Do they operate in divisions, battalions or mere companies? The military of all sides again seems sketched rather than drawn.
Betrayer pumps up the action quotient and the fast cutting back and forth between Cameron’s point-of-view as he escapes Marid and Cajeiri as he juggles his deadly grandmother and his promise to Cameron to look after Barbara and Toby during the siege are compelling. When young Cajeiri ends up in combat for the first time, you are truly fearful for this brave little boy even if he is the size of Cameron and Toby.
Betrayer is a strong entry in this series, enjoyable in all respects. It features a well done Todd Lockwood cover, though not as good as the Whelan for Deceiver in my view. I would have enjoyed a more leisurely denouement with more scenes between the principals. Of course I also like the ending of the Lord of the Rings, so go figure. It’s probably a good thing that the ending leaves you wanting to see and hear a little more but in typical CJ fashion, when we wrap, we wrap damn fast.

Deceiver by C J Cherryh

Deceiver (Spoiler Alert!)
CJ Cherryh is the premier writer of what I think of as statecraft science-fiction. This is the stuff that occurs before the bullets start to fly that determines when they fly, how many of them fly and who they are aimed at. It’s what goes on before Seal Team Six is dispatched, though we do get to see some of the running and gunning, particularly when things go wrong or as John F Kennedy used to say, “Some dumb s.o.b doesn’t get the word.”
Deceiver is the 11th book of the Foreigner series that details the fate of a human colony after their ship becomes lost after a hyperspace jump. This isn’t the homogenous crew of the Enterprise but a divided crew that further divides when colonists seek to escape the grim life of the lost ship and the space station it created, literally parachuting to the world below. While the world is hospitable to human life, the local species the Atevi are less so. Not surprising, considering that humans literally tear the roof off their fairly stable high-medieval world.
Imagine the human colonists as Commodore Perry but with no backup, only the firepower at hand and divisions in their own forces and you have the situation. Conflict breaks out, more from misunderstanding than malice. The difference between how the species bond, humans with love and friendship, Atevi from man’chi, which seems a combination of “imprinting” and the desire to be associate upward to a powerful leader in a form of herd instinct.
Fast forward through the centuries to the present day, Bren Cameron is the Paidhi, the chief diplomat and advisor to the Tabini, the essential shogun of the fractious aishidi'tat that governs much of the planet. Humans hold their own continent island of Mosphiera and the Atevi hold the rest of the world. This apartheid has been arranged to preserve the Atevi culture, or at least slow down the rate of change to something they can handle and prevent further conflict which the outnumbered humans could lose.
The Atevi are humanoid aliens, far larger (I have seen reference material advising between 8 and 10 feet) and stronger than humans, with black skin and golden eyes. The cover art by the superb Michael Whelan conveys them very well, which is a relief as certain other covers made them look like large, angry Rastafarians. My personal preference is for the cover of Invader, which shows a more beautiful Jago and well illustrates the size discrepancy between her and Bren Cameron. Bren on the Deceiver cover is also well done, grimly determined and sharply dressed.
But it is in the alien mind that CJ works her differences. Atevi have no word for, "friend" or one for love as a human understands it. They are fascinated by numerology, sometimes to the point of superstition and live wrapped in layers of decorum and devious diplomacy suitable for the imperial court of ancient Japan, which in many ways their society resembles.
Over the series of books, Bren Cameron, like many a colonial official, becomes more and more drawn in to the world of the Atevi, frankly going native. He eventually ceases to work for the human government taking up Atevi titles, but always working for peace and better relations between the parties, backing the human-oriented Tabini, over traditionalists or those eager to get their hands on human technology for their own ends.
Bren is engaging personality, intelligent, loyal to his friends, even when some of them do not understand the word. In fact his loyalty downward to his guards is in their view a mild form of insanity, as their loyalties run primarily upwards in manichi. But Bren’s most likeable characteristic is that while in no means a warrior, he is often first in the charge and last in the retreat. Even if the charge is in the form of a diplomatic discussion, he is always personally on the line.
Bren is the focus, originally because he controls the flow of technology, but later through his relationships with the powers of the world: Tabini, his grandmother Ilisidi (a combination of Lucretia Borgia and Eleanor of Aquitaine) a host of other nobles and Tabini’s son Cajeiri, the most accessible of the Atevi characters, a precocious preteen.
Bren is kept alive in these struggles by his bodyguards from the Assassin’s Guild: Banichi and his daughter Jago, an infuriatingly impenetrable character who becomes Bren’s lover.
This cast of characters rolls through civil war, insurrection, assassination, the reappearance of the starship, the debut of the aetvie into space, the debut of new aliens, a coup and more plots than Game of Thrones on crack.
Holding onto your chair yet? Good, all of this happened before Deceiver opens. Therein lies one issue for the reader. Do not start reading this series with this book. Past a point in a series, especially if you are CJ Cherryh, you simply stop making each book its own complete tale because otherwise your prologue would essentially be a college course. That’s less of a joke with CJ then you might think. Don’t read these books when you are tired, or as a Twinkie. This is steak and taters with a Syrah to wash it down. Be sharp and pay attention.
A reader looking for action may find CJ’s work a little off-putting. There is a decorous pace to these books, especially Deceiver. Things like the colors of the new bus for the estate assume an importance that some readers might find trying, but like the English “plays of manners” things are done just so in the Atevi world. Displays of wit and political acumen dominate. Shots are fired when you miss a point and are revealed as stupid, or out of the loop.
This world has less wars, or what humans would recognize as wars, than does our world. Battles are usually fought between differing sections of the Assassin’s Guild. Everyone has them and they stay loyal (usually) to the party they are attached to. So war on this world is more a struggle of elite security forces than what we are used to.
Still, I find the actual military struggles vague as to detail and confusing. Even when actual battle breaks out and, as happens a number of times, Bren and his companions are caught in it, it’s sometimes hard to figure out what is happening. I understand that these are not Dickson’s Dorsai, nor "Hammers Slammers" yet sometimes it would be nice to get some level of detail. Two cruisers of TF 58 pummeled a costal defense battleship, the 1st of the 72nd’s tank destroyers cleared enemy armor off the road block, for example, but such is not to be. The combats are scuffles of cracked shots from unseen enemies with little information on the forces, arms and tactics. This is a book on grand strategy.
So while we get the details of how households work, and why it was important that someone didn’t indicate in their periodic reports that members of a certain clan were seen in a certain household, action is sparse.
Young Cajeiri is a very useful device for explaining the Atevi to us. He has been raised on the voyaging starship for a considerable period, to preserve him from the convulsions of the coup against his father. The child is learning to be an Atevi under the tutelage of his traditional-minded grandmother Ilsidii. But the humans and the ships and gadgets fascinated him and he quickly establishes foothold in worlds, human and Atevi. Like most young people he wonders why they world is the way it is, allowing the author to explain without making it feel like an info dump.
Another area I would have liked to have seen developed is the relationship between Bren and Jago his eight foot and better bodyguard. It’s a little like having one of the warrior elf-queens fall for a hobbit I suppose. She admires him for his intelligence and courage and develops a manichi for him, which is to say the functional equivalent of love; for all that they often do not understand each other. Once, in a prior book, she slaps him because he tried to lead enemy forces away from his household staff. For a human, this is personal merit in self-sacrifice, the mutuality of led and leader (to be a king in Narnia is to be first in the charge, last in the retreat) to an aetevi, this is insanity. Atevi run toward their leader when in danger and they do not expose their leader for anything, no more than samurai would.
There are not enough scenes between these two for me and I wanted to see more of WHY they are together. It’s not mere sexual attraction, especially on her part. Something deeper operates, but I never feel that I get more than a glimpse of it, nor do I understand its depths or limitations. Tabini gifted Jago and her father’s services to Bren. What happens to her if Bren turns on Tabini or Tabini on him? At what point does species loyalty come up for her, or does it at all? I would understand the subtext of a human relationship (think of the scene in Wall Street when Darryl Hannah bails on Marty Sheen. He is no longer a player; she is the woman of a player, so she is no longer his, regardless of what came before.) However between Bren and Jago the subtext is indecipherable.
Deceiver culminates in sudden move by Bren and his small team of guards to move into the home of the Deceiver, Pairuti, a rather muted villain who has been manipulating events and destabilizing the local and nation governments with his machinations. There is a brief blaze of action that determines the outcome. But was the Deceiver the puppet-master, or just another puppet? Stay tuned for Betrayer…
If Deceiver has a fault it’s that like most middle books, it’s the road and not the destination and it very much feels that way. Interesting though the journey is and however amicable the company, you do sort of feel that it ends with less fanfare than one would hope. Pairuti seems a pallid villain for all that he almost ends Cameron’s career in the final pages. This is in part because as we only have Cameron and Cajeiri’s viewpoints, we see very little of what is going on, having to think our way through what we hear. Often the principals do not meet, or even communicate. Compare that with the earlier Downbelow Station with its multiple viewpoints set close to the prime movers of the drama and one can occasionally wish we had access to a few more heads.
In sum, if you like CJ Cherryh’s dense, political, plays of manners, you will jump at the change in Deceiver to spend more time with these Bren, Jago and Ilsidii, even if you sometimes don’t feel that you know some of them any better than when you first met them. It’s is a milieu story where the layers of relationships are the milieu and who owns what old house or even apartment tells you who will fight where for what. Admire the machinations and the manipulations. Try to see the next move as if you were Hercule Poirot in an alien world. Expect to work and to think.
These are not the easiest reads, but I think you will find a satisfaction at the end, similar to that found in reading Clavell’s Shogun, when you realize that the prime mover in the whole book was Mariko. You spent the whole time watching and you didn’t realize it till near the end that everyone was dancing to her tune. Same thing here, watch for the puppeteer.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Happy Manic Monday,

Manic Monday: Dawn Binkley and Edward McKeown
Happy Manic Monday,

Monday is the day to share advice to unpublished and struggling writers. This Monday I wanted to share advice that Edward McKeown gave during our interview last Tuesday. It was simple, yet profound. I never thought of it quite like that before…

Editor: We have a special place for unpublished writers in our hearts, here at Hellfire Publishing. So what advice would you give to an unpublished writer?

Ed: The difference between the amateur and the professional is that the amateur gave up and went away. So true. Remember that the thing that makes you a writer is WRITING, not being published. You’re on a roll :) You have your own voice; write for those that are willing to hear and to read. That’s exactly right; it’s not about fame. It’s about telling the story, giving some freedom to all that creativity in your head. My writing has not reached astronomical proportions. I am not sure it’s even reached nominal proportions yet, LOL but I am more than satisfied with my words being out there, anywhere, than having millions in my pocket. Find a good writing group, not a therapy group (sometimes they look the same) and get criticized in a civilized manner. Be careful with writing groups, some of them are run by authors at the same level as you’re at. You want someone that has been there to give you advice. Not to mention, we are only human so sometimes petty jealousy pops up or another writer will like you and they will go on about how great you are and overlook blaring mistakes. I would never say don’t join a writers group, just be careful, because like anything else, there are good ones and bad ones. No one who uses the word “sucks” in any context is worth listening to. I won’t even go down that road; there is not enough bandwidth for my opinion on people like that. The more criticism that you expose yourself to the stronger the work will be. Yes, let me clarify how that works. You take the jumble of advice, as I did, years ago. First take the pellets of good will that you received the most, then take that and go over it, research and then go with your gut. Always consider the source, to thy own muse by true or why go through all of this? God knows it ain’t for the money or fame. That’s exactly what I was saying.

Also writers, write. Some people are in love with the idea of writing yet seldom set pen to paper. Ok, I just dated myself there…set finger to keyboard.

He’s so right here, too. Don’t let those ‘hot air’ people as I call them, discourage you. Sometimes I let them get to me. I feel like if that idiot can write, then my career doesn’t mean anything, it’s nothing special. But 9 ½ times out of 10, upon further investigation you find out that they have never written a thing.

You know how I can spot a real writer? They don’t mention being a writer at all and then quietly slip you their card at the end of the conversation. If you have written a novel, you are very humble, lol. It’s true, because sitting down to write a novel is a scary, humbling experience. And if it wasn’t, maybe you didn’t do it right.

I also leave you with this suggestion, you should want to aspire to be more like Edward, he is not only a great writer, he has it all down—technical and creativity. Any writer that comments will get a free download of the Liar of the Lesbian Love Goddess, to see what I mean. Also, he’s always polite and treats me (his publisher), his editor (Julanne) and the rest of the Hellfire staff with the utmost respect. I believe you can learn from him. But most important…the writer that is going to go places and take their work further than anyone could have ever imagined is the one that never stops learning.

Good luck to all of you, if you need any further help or advice, please feel free to contact me

Next week…

Building a fan base

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Hellfire Herald: Table Talk Tuesday

The Hellfire Herald: Table Talk Tuesday: Interview between Hellfire Publishing executive editor, Dawn Binkley and Edward McKeown Editor: How are you doing today? ED: As usual I ...