The Class of 2010

Cheryl Morgan looks at some of the debut writers from last year.

Around this time of year I always end up thinking about the new novelists I have read in the preceding 12 months. There are nominations for the Campbell to be considered, of course, and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. I also occasionally get asked about other award- and best-of-related issues. Several of the newcomers have already been reviewed in these pages. I have been very impressed with the debut novels by N.K. Jemisin, Karen Lord and Hannu Rajaniemi. 2010 also saw the first novel by Mira Grant, but as she’s Seanan McGuire’s shadow self she doesn’t count as a debut. That, however, only scratches the surface. Publishers are very keen on the new these days. It seems that either you make it as a huge success, or after three books or so you go onto the scrapheap of literary history, only to be able to continue if you are reborn under a new name. There are, therefore, plenty of debut writers to consider. Here are just a few.

The Heir of Night - Helen Lowe

Given that Worldcon was in Australia this year I thought I would start at that end of the world. Helen Lowe is from New Zealand, and her Wall of Night series has been picked up by Eos in the USA. Orbit will be starting to bring it out in the UK in March. The first book is called The Heir of Night [Purchase]. Here’s the set up.

For hundreds of years the Derai warriors have defended the world of Haarth from the depredations of the Darkswarm. But in that time sloth and jealousy have eaten away at their ability and unity, while the resolve of the enemy remains firm. The Derai are divided into nine noble houses. None has authority over the others, but prophecy has it that if the House of Night should fall then all the other houses will fall with them. The fate of the world, therefore, will one day rest of the shoulders of Night’s heir, a teenage girl. Fortunately it seems that she has special powers.

Blah, blah… some of you are doubtless thinking. Yes, this is another fantasy series about a teenager with special powers fated to save the world. Such things are popular, so publishers keep buying them. But each new series has to have something new and distinct about it. What does Lowe have for us?

To start with, this is not your typical fantasy world. Listen:

“They are warlike and fierce,” one storyteller had said solemnly, while another recounted an even older story that claimed the Derai were not from Haarth at all, but had come from the stars long ago. They had, the teller said in hushed tones, built their great strongholds in a night and day while the world still reeled from their coming. The plains had been riven with earthquake and fire, every river and lake had boiled — and when the cataclysm was over the vast and terrible Wall of Night marched along the northern boundary of the world.

So the Derai are a star-faring race (elsewhere it is suggested that they arrived through a wormhole) powerful enough to throwing up a massive, fortress-studded wall of mountains, behind which the newly arrived Swarm were imprisoned, all in the space of a day. This caused a massive ecological disaster for the natives of the planet. The Derai don’t care. They are arrogant, and largely ignorant of the people on whose planet they have settled. Their only purpose is to fight the Swarm. But, as noted above, they are getting rather bad at it, and if our heroine, Malian, is to fulfill her destiny she will probably need the help of the locals to do so. A reminder: Lowe lives in New Zealand, issues of colonialism are very familiar to her.

I should note also that Malian’s father, Earl Tasarion, is not blind to the problems his people have. But he’s a politician. He knows that he can’t overthrow centuries of tradition, and cure centuries of racist contempt for the people of Haarth, simply by issuing an edict. He has to carry his people with him. What he lacks is the imagination to find a way to do this. First and foremost he’s a fighting man, and his solutions always tend to center around confronting the enemy, not persuasion.

Such a mix of science fiction and fantasy is very difficult to pull off. In reading the book you may well wonder what happened to all of the Derai’s star-faring technology. It also isn’t clear whether Lowe is doing the “sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” thing, or whether she’s aiming to create a genuine inter-stellar fantasy after the fashion of Patricia Kennealy. Hopefully this will become clearer in later volumes.

On the plus side, the idea of that sudden arrival does have a definite air of awe about it. Had it been me, I might have been tempted to start the novel with a prologue describing that event, and then opening the book proper “hundreds of years later..”, rather than starting with an introduction to our plucky teenage heroine, as actually happens. Then again, that may have put off the fantasy readers, of whom I am by no means typical.

Also, the gradual revelations of the backstory do give you an incentive to keep reading. That’s just as well, because a teenage heroine and her boy sidekick, who know nothing about the world and have not yet learned to wield their powers, are very much lacking in agency. Malian and her young friend Kalan spend an awful lot of the book being pushed around by adults, and by supernatural forces, and it is hard not to see the fateful finger of the author behind all this. That’s by no means unusual. Frodo and his Hobbit pals spend much of The Fellowship of the Ring being pushed around by Gandalf, Aragorn and Elrond. Later volumes will no doubt see Malian and Kalan come into their own. Hopefully they will also tell us more about the origins of the Derai, and their relations with the world of Haarth.

Death Most Definite - Trent Jamieson

Moving on to Australia, Trent Jamieson has been picked up by Orbit worldwide (and has just sold a separate series to Angry Robot). His debut novel is Death Most Definite [Purchase], and if you are looking for a subgenre in which to pigeonhole him urban fantasy is the one you will most often see used. That, however, covers a multitude of sins, and we can refine it more by invoking Mike Carey’s magnificent Felix Castor novels. Of course Jamieson isn’t doing exactly what Carey does, but his hero, Steven de Selby does, like Castor, spend a lot of time talking to ghosts, drinking and getting beaten up, so that’s a good starting point.

Now for the differences, and one of the most obvious is that while Carey’s books are set primarily in London, Jamieson’s are set in Brisbane. That’s a refreshing change right there, though reading about Brisbane suffering a zombie apocalypse while the real city suffers a watery one is a disturbing experience (See here for how you can donate to the flood relief operation and sample some great Australian writers). Also, while Felix Castor talks to ghosts in order to solve crimes, Steven de Selby talks to them because it is his job to get rid of them. He’s a hunter of the undead, not a detective. Finally, and perhaps most crucially, Carey’s backup monsters are demons who appear infrequently and are very nasty indeed; Jamieson’s book has zombies, and it is in the nature of zombies to get everywhere.

It is a difference in style we are dealing with here. Carey’s demons are a lingering, lurking menace. Actual encounters with them are rare, and are moments of great drama. Death, when it happens, is a shock to the reader. You can’t do that with zombies. Their menace lies in their ubiquity, and their very nature requires a rapidly escalating body count. A hundred pages into Jamieson’s novel, just about everyone de Selby knows is dead. Personally I much prefer Carey’s style of horror.

Another problem I had with the book is the character of de Selby himself. Ghost hunting runs in the family, because the ability to send the dead on their way is inherited. So Steven works for the family firm, and loafs his way through life because his father is also his boss. He’d like to have a girl, but because he’s incapable of working at a relationship they keep dumping him, presumably for someone who is interested in more than beer and football (which in Brisbane probably means rugby league). In the book Steven teams up with a ghost girl called Lissa, but goodness only knows what she sees in him. They can’t get up to much, because she’s immaterial, and anyway if he touches her she’ll be banished just like any other ghost he handles. So they have this interesting sort of Randall and Hopkirk relationship with added sexual tension, which Jamieson then throws away so that his boy can finally get into the girl’s pants. Yes, I know, I’m being boring and feminist here. Your mileage may vary.

On the plus side, Jamieson spins a fast-paced yarn full of rushing around and zombie action. There’s plenty going on, and a nice rise in tension towards the climax. Also of interest is the fact that many of the main characters read science fiction, and talk about it. Lissa apparently has a crush on Cory Doctorow, which is a darn sight more sensible than trailing round after de Selby.

I probably won’t be picking up any more books in this series, because with anything like this you need to care about the characters in order to want to keep reading about them. However, Jamieson writes well enough that I’ll probably take a look at the steampunk books he had sold to Angry Robot. Those of you who enjoy a good zombie romp will probably enjoy this book much more than I did.

The Loving Dead - Amelia Beamer

Zombies, as you might have guessed, are not really my sort of thing. I loved Mira Grant’s Feed, but I loved it because it was a great political thriller that happened to use zombies as a means of generating a genuine, believable security crisis. My good friend Amelia Beamer has also written an unusual zombie novel, but The Loving Dead [Purchase] is not a political thriller, it is an erotic comedy, with bite. It took me a long time to get around to reading this book, but I’m glad I did.

The story is set in the San Francisco Bay Area and features a group of young friends who work together at Trader Joe’s, an up-market grocery chain. The plot is, I gather, classic George Romero stuff. The zombie apocalypse happens, and our heroes have to survive by whatever means they can find. Unlike in Jamieson’s book, there’s nothing fantastical going on here. Zombiehood is caused by a virus of some sort. It spreads through bodily fluids such as saliva and blood. The best way to pass it on is with a bite, but a kiss will do. The cunning virus, which only wants to breed after all, has developed the knack of enhancing the sexual appetites of its human hosts. Typically this kicks in when the victim is infected but has not yet turned. Oh dear.

There’s lots of sex in this book, much of it lesbian (we are in the Bay Area, after all). It is also quite funny in places, because let’s face it the whole idea of the zombie apocalypse is pretty ridiculous. When our heroine, Kate, phones her parents to try to warn them they assume that she’s joking or tripping and keep changing the subject to talk about their new puppy.

For people who love the Bay Area, of which I am definitely one, there are plenty of local references to keep you interested. Occasionally these are very sharp. This one in particular is sadly true:

The Bay Bridge itself was constantly under repair; hardly big enough for the amount of traffic it saw every day. The only reason the bridge had two levels was because the bottom one used to be for trains. He didn’t know when it had been changed over for cars. But it made sense; people going to San Francisco got the top view of clouds and ocean. People going to Oakland, on the bottom, got the hemmed-in Morlock view. The bridge toll was four dollars, not that he had any money. He hoped Jordan did, or Gracie. You had to pay to get into San Francisco. It was free to come back.

For the general reader, however, there are two good reasons to recommend this book above and beyond the sex and zombies. The first is that Beamer doesn’t forget that what zombies do is in fact horrible. Yes, the shambling and moaning is risible, but every so often a zombie gets to eat someone, and when it happens it is done with an emotional punch that completely blindsides you because you haven’t been taking things seriously enough.

The other thing about The Loving Dead is that it has a fabulous twist ending. For much of the book it is fun and sexy and doubtless far more entertaining if you have seen as many zombie movies as Amelia has. But then you read the final chapter and you discover that the book isn’t really about zombies at all. That’s just a set-up to allow the last chapter to happen. I’d love to say more, but I want you to experience it for yourselves.

The Dream of Perpetual Motion - Dexter Palmer

My final book for this month is The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer [Purchase]. This is a novel you will see described as steampunk, because it has a mad inventor and a zeppelin in it. When you have read the book, you will see just how ridiculous this makes the whole genre categorization business, because this is a book that is very much opposed to much of what steampunk stands for. There will also be people who will swear that this book is “not science fiction” because it is too literate, too serious (the author has a PhD in English Literature from Princeton focusing on the work of James Joyce, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon). But it is also, I submit, a book that could not be written as anything other than science fiction.

I’ll explain all of this in a little while, but first you need some idea of what the book is about. It is narrated by one Harold Winslow, a writer of greeting card slogans. When he was 10 years old little Harold, thanks in no small part to the unhappiness of his life, became one of a select group of children to attend a very special birthday party. The party was staged by the great inventor, Prospero Taligent, for his daughter, Miranda. At the party Prospero promises to give each of the invited children his or her heart’s desire. To help him do so he asks them what they want from life. Little Harold says that he wants to be a storyteller. You should be able to guess, from the names of the characters, that this is not going to end well.

So the book opens with Harold on board the zeppelin, Chrysalis. He has just murdered Prospero Taligent, who now resides in a state of cryogenic suspension waiting to be reborn. Miranda is somewhere on board the airship, but Harold can’t find her. So instead he busies himself telling us the story of his life, and how he and the other characters came to be where we find them. His ambition is achieved, but that is not the heart’s desire that Taligent had planned for him.

I said that the book is opposed to much of what steampunk stands for, and that’s because while it most certainly contains a mad scientist, it is science, or rather technology, that is the villain of the novel. The argument being advanced is not so much anti-science but anti-engineering. Science is all about finding things out; engineering is all about doing things. In order to do things you have to have control, and to have control you need the knowledge that science brings.

Early on in the book Harold’s father talks about how the age if miracles has passed. In time gone by there were real angels and demons, and they were amazing. Now Taligent Industries can make mechanical angels and demons, and Prospero at least knows exactly how they work. Thanks to Taligent, there is no mystery in the world anymore. Unfortunately, not everyone knows how these things work, all that they know is that someone else knows, and that someone must therefore have power over them. Hopefully it is obvious that in order to write about such issues you have to write about technology, hence a book that looks very like science fiction.

Control over nature, however, is only the start. What people really want is control over lives. Prospero desperately wants control over Miranda. He wants her to be a perfect virgin princess. Sadly, she grows up to be a woman, and this drives her father mad. He can, however, control others. In particular, Harold proves to be pathetically easy to manipulate.

I spent much of the book struggling to work out what Palmer was trying to say with it. Of course I can’t know that, and even if I did that wouldn’t matter much. It is not my job to act as an Authority and tell you what the book means. All I can do is tell you what I got out of it. Here goes.

We humans love to see ourselves as the heroes in the stories of our lives. The media and politicians exploit this ruthlessly. But real life is not heroic. We don’t deserve to have everything we want; those who appear to be preventing us from getting everything we want are not Evil. For the most part, life is quite dull. Occasionally is it full of surprises, and that is a good thing. If we do want to be heroes, we will only end up being characters in a story written by someone else.