A City Dreaming

city-dreamingWhile I was reading Daniel Polansky’s latest, the novel A City Dreaming, I thought, I’ve never read something like this before. Episodic, dark and yet edged with a humour that makes you snort with laughter, the book is unlike anything I’ve come across recently in the SFF genre. Only later did I realize ‘Hey, isn’t this somewhat like Hitchhiker’s Guide meets The Magicians?’ That only served to raise my appreciation for the book. Being compared to Guide is, after all, a status that many authors would be proud to reach.

Set in New York City, A City Dreaming is easy enough to describe, in one sense. It follows the (mis)adventures of the mysterious M, a magician, or wizard, or…I’m not sure how he would describe himself, really. He’s in ‘good with the Management’, the mysterious forces that seem to regulate the ebb and flow of magic in this universe. He has a bunch of friends, from the gender bending Boy to Anglophile Pakistani Stockdale, all of whom are part of the same ‘Management’-friendly group. But rivalries divide the magicians, as can be expected in any fantasy book, with Manhattan ruled by the distant, beautiful-so-long-as-you-don’t-look-too-closely White Queen, Celisa, and Brooklyn overseen by the warm, maternal Red Queen, Abilene. While most magicians have to pick one side or the other, M somehow balances relations between the two, attending parties in a Park Avenue apartment while also tramping through the hipster neighbourhoods of Brooklyn. He’s a man about the town, our M, and he’d like to keep it that way, only the Queens, for whatever reason, seem to be trying to pin him down as they gear up for some sort of showdown.

This is urban fantasy at its best. Polansky conjures a dark, edgy New York, populating it with spectres and monsters and magical peoples, who flit in and out of the loosely strung together episodes of M’s time in the city, and yet leave an indelible impression on the reader. A character who shows up in Chapter 2 may not come back until three quarters of the way through the book, but something about the way Polansky writes makes sure you don’t forget him or her, or need refreshing. M seems to get into increasingly absurd adventures, from having to save a friend from ‘river pirates’, to getting high on a drug that puts a literal god in your body, to exorcising a ‘haunted’ house in a Brooklyn neihgbourhood, and though Polansky writes it all with the sort of ironic humour that Grossman commands so well in the Magicians trilogy, you can’t help but get sucked in. It’s a magical Portlandia, with M coming across people who might be well at home in a parody of a Humans of New York Facebook page, but here, despite that underlying humour, you can’t help but root for these characters, or wonder what they’re going to get up to.

It takes something to balance that seeming detachment along with intensive worldbuilding, and life-changing stakes, and the author’s own attitude is mirrored by his character, M. Though he’d seem to like nothing more than to disappear into a (preferably) calm and placid existence, maybe livened up by the odd woman or three, M is dragged time and again into the war zone, having to rescue friends from their own problems, or the City from the perils that routinely stalk it. He saves the world on more than one occasion in the book (that’s hardly a spoiler in fantasy, right?), and does so with a sort of ‘oh well, here we go again’ nonchalance that could have made him, int he hands of a lesser writer, an annoying or boring character. But despite his obvious skill and talent, you never stop caring about M, never write him or his friends off as people who will ‘always’ win; every time they face a trial, you care, despite the fact that everything about M seems to declare that you really shouldn’t, that this is just another day at the office for him.

I’d recommend A City Dreaming wholeheartedly. It’s deftly written, it’s hilarious, and it takes you on a journey through a crazy city, from its darkest basements to its glittering penthouses. There’s no doubt that Polansky loves the New York he’s built, and it shines forth, three (if not more) dimensional and so ‘real’, despite the magic and mysteries that bubble at its base. The writing is beautiful, the adventures original, the book as a whole a trippy, dreamy experience. Besides, how could you not want to read something in which the hero saves the world from a plague of artisanal coffee shops?

The Ghost Bride

There is a girl. She is beautiful and smart, though she doesn’t know about the former and has never had occasion to really test the latter. She is quiet and minds her own business, though she has a ‘powerful curiousity’ about the world, and has ‘always’ wanted to explore. She lives with her father, a rich man whose fortunes have gone to seed, and her once lavish home is haunted by the absence of her beautiful mother, whom she herself can barely remember.

There is a man. Wait, there are actually three men, one of whom is not, strictly speaking, a man at all. These men are all interested in the girl, for varying reasons. One of them is a handsome, hardworking heir to an immense fortune, and marriage to him will resolve the girl’s family’s debts. The second is a mysterious, sardonic ‘minor government official’, who intends to use the girl as a pawn in some dangerous investigation he is conducting. The third is a not-so-handsome, spoilt, one-time heir to an immense fortune, who wants to marry the girl as well. The problem is, this last man is dead.

ghostbridefinalrevYangsze Choo’s The Ghost Bride has all the elements of what has increasingly become a mainstream genre: the paranormal romance. Only, it’s set in colonial Malacca, Malaya in the 1800s, and the heroine, Li Lan, wants nothing to do with her paranormal suitor, the ghost of rich boy, Lim Tian Ching, the scion of the rich Lim family. The Lim family wants Li Lan to marry their deceased son for reasons that are, at first, unknown, and while she shudders at the idea of tying herself to a dead man who haunts her dreams, she is much less unwilling to anchor herself to his handsome cousin, Lim Tian Bai, a handsome Hong-Kong-returned doctor, who now oversees the business empire that would have been Tian Ching’s, had he not died under mysterious circumstances.

But when Tian Ching’s attentions make sleep near impossible, and Li Lan’s life gets clouded over with exhaustion and misery, and the heavy knowledge of her father’s debts to the Lim family, she seeks the help of a medium. One thing leads to another and she finds herself trapped in the hazy world of the Chinese afterlife, unable to rejoin her body thanks to the demonic guards Tian Ching has posted about her house. The only ‘man’ who can help her seems to be Er Lang, a mysterious figure who wears a large bamboo hat, unwilling to show his face, but more than willing to lead Li Lan on a dangerous quest that throws up answers to questions she didn’t even know she had.

The Ghost Bride is a lovely book, taking its readers (like me) who know nothing of Chinese mythology and legends into a world that is breathtaking in its detail and realization. The story is engaging, if not revolutionary, and the characters well etched, if a tad stereotypical. For instance, Li Lan, the heroine, falls into that trap that so many YA women find themselves in: she is beautiful, but doesn’t know it. She is smart, but we never really see why even though it’s hammered into us time and again by the author’s description. She reminded me a great deal of Maya from Roshni Chokshi’s The Star Touched Queen, both being motherless, ‘bookish’ in ways that their fellow upper class girls are not, and touched by a vague breath of scandal. Like Maya, Li Lan finds herself on the wrong side of death, seeking to right a wrong she didn’t intend to make. Unlike Maya, however, she has an ally in the figure of Er Lang, who conveniently appears to rescue her when the stakes are high.

The problem with so much YA is that it is so formulaic. There is nothing utterly new about this book, apart from the setting and the care with which it is detailed. The world of the Chinese afterlife is quite wonderfully evoked, and readers can see the ghostly lights trawling the streets of Malacca, the ox headed demons who police the resident spirits, feel the terror of those who cling to this semblance of life rather than go on to the courts and be judged before passing through to reincarnation. Choo’s strength lies in her worldbuilding, and it was chiefly this that kept me hooked. I wanted to know more about the Malacca she had built, both the world of the living, and that of the dead. Her characters are types rather than something original, and the placement of the tiles that constitute the plot rather laboured and formulaic, if not, at times, overly long drawn out, but journeying into the world itself—that’s well worth the journey.

The Wall of Storms

When I finished Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings, I felt as though I’d been on a long, satisfying journey. It had begun with that most reliable of fantasy openers: a seemingly invincible ‘evil’ empire, a heroic prince thirsting for vengeance, a cunning and street-smart nobody who knows better than most lords and ladies how to play a political game. But the reliability didn’t last for long, and through the course of its long and episodic length, Liu tweaked and pulled at expectations and conventions, landing up with a conclusion that was as spectacular as it had been, for me, unforeseen. I couldn’t imagine what he might follow this first serving with, and it’s a good thing I didn’t try, because The Wall of Storms will take almost every ‘settled’ notion or attitude you might hold, and shatter it as effectively as the ‘wall of storms’ in the book breaks apart the ships of those who dare to push beyond the boundaries of Dara.

wall-of-stormsThe second book in the Dandelion Dynasty begins shortly after the first leaves off, and in an almost comically similar manner. The royal children, Timu, Thera, Phyro and four-year-old Fara have sneaked out of the palace in Pan, and are enjoying a day of truancy in a tavern, listening to a storyteller spin tales of days past. Only, these are days we know about, if you’ve read Grace of Kings. The storyteller speaks of the dead Hegemon, Mata Zyndu, tperhaps the greatest figure from the uprising against Emperor Mapidere. Phyro, the more military-minded of Kuni’s sons, is quite the fanboy of the Hegemon, and the children are having a good time, until someone thinks to stir up trouble by proclaiming the storyteller is being treasonous by invoking the dead Zyndu in such an admiring spirit. After all, the Hegemon did try, multiple times, to kill Kuni Garu, the man who now rules Dara. A new character, a young woman looking to sit the Imperial Examinations, enters the fray, and her life and those of the royal children are never the same again.

It’s impossible to fully communicate the sheer range of events that take place within the covers of Liu’s latest book. There’s the slow, boiling politics of discontent that were hinted at towards the close of Grace, with the court splitting slowly between the more militaristic mindset of Gin Mazoti, Marshal of Dara, and the bureaucratic organisation watched over by Empress Jia, a conflict that finds new pawns in the persons of bookish Timu and adventurous Phyro, both of whom are sent off to test their skills in governing their father’s empire. There’s the inevitable fallouts and rebellions that take place between old allies, a result of misunderstandings and the all too human failings of pride and ambition. There’s the meddling of the gods, the same unpredictable figures we met in Grace, each of whom has a stake in the events that unfold, and a pawn to help make their ends come to pass—though some of these gods have a more obvious and kinder agendas than others.

But the event that really rocks the crumbling empire arrives only about a third of the way through the book: a force from outside the islands, intent on crushing the world Kuni and his peers, his allies and enemies, and all his subjects, live in. The Lyucu, a strange and ‘barbaric’ people, have done what none in living memory have managed to do: pass through the ‘wall of storms’ that barricades the seas of sea from the rest of the world, and their certainly don’t come in peace.

The Wall of Storms is a huge book, and I mean that not just in terms of volume. The sheer amount of action and events packed into its pages is stunning, and it amazes me time and again how Liu, with just a few strokes of a pen, conjures into being worlds and characters, has them move through events that would, in the hands of a less deft writer, take chapters, if not whole novels, to recount. In the space of a few paragraphs, Liu paints the complete portrait of a character, giving you a reason to love them, root for them, fear for them as they move through inhuman trials and come face to face with the gods themselves. I will always envy this talent, and admire him for it. He proves that to be a truly ‘epic’ writer, you need not lose yourself in long-drawn out descriptions and conversations; a few well placed words, some quick exchanges and pointed comparisons, and your readers can gain as good an understanding of your world and the people who dwell in it as any companion encyclopaedia might give you.

But what makes Wall of Storms great is the manner in which Liu handles his themes. In Grace, Liu allowed his comic spirit to roam free, and while kingdoms and an empire rose and fell, there was never an overwhelming sense of darkness or dismay. Sure, readers felt sadness when Mata Zyndu died, but it was a bittersweet feeling; we knew he had no place in the world that Kuni had built, and he went out in a matter worthy of his mythic status: falling in combat, and being whisked away by the gods. The world was a more stable place for his absence, and that was a price Liu makes you think worth paying.

But there is no such palliative here. Storms has much more brutal themes running through it, most obviously (and perhaps importantly) the question of who has a ‘right’ to a land, who can claim a territory as their ‘own’. The Lyucu come in force, and they strike hard, forcing the inhabitants of Dasu (the site of their landing) into servitude, slaughtering thousands, and unleashing their garinafins—dragon-like creatures—upon peaceful towns. Honestly, the chapters detailing their arrival, and all that precedes it (for Liu, brilliant storyteller that he is, makes sure you know about their background, and refuses to paint the Lyucu as purely evil) are quite difficult to read, but it is precisely his delicate handling of such thorny issues that cemented, for me, Liu as a master novelist. He writes without ever becoming preachy, without clumping you over the head with morals and easy dismissals of characters and their goals; like Martin, he makes you appreciate each and every person in his universe, god or mortal, Lyucu or Daran, as a being capable of both ‘good’ and ‘evil’. ‘The individual is the intersection of multiple spheres of identity,’ he once commented to me in an interview; he bears that out in the stories in Paper Menagerie, and even in the fantasy world of Dara, he ensures that it holds true.

I cannot stress it enough: read The Wall of Storms. All the old favourites are back, Kuni, Jia, Luan (my personal favourite), Gin. Then there is the new, younger batch, coming into their own: Phyro and Timu, the clever Princess Thera and the ambitious, idealistic Zomi Kidosu. There are fun capers, incredibly detailed worldbuilding, surfacing crubens and swooping garinafins, supernatural encounters and ‘silkpunk’ science fiction devices that (sometimes) save the day. There’s an ending that makes you realise that sometimes, the old world has no choice but to be swept away completely to make way for a new, exciting one, and that’s not entirely a bad thing. Sometimes, change is a risk worth taking; just ask Luan Zya, or his divine mentor, Lutho, God of Wisdom.

Or better yet, don’t ask; just read Liu’s saga, and see for yourself.