Copyright 2014 by Paula S. Jordan
One of the things I love most about science fiction conventions is the discovery of new-to-me tasty reads. Thanks to several cons this spring, I have recently been spending time with the works of four good writers whom I had somehow previously missed.
I’ll take them in order of my reading, two now and the other two next week.
At RavenCon (Richmond, VA ) the new discovery was Author Guest of Honor Elizabeth Bear, a gifted writer both of fantasy and of what might be described as hard urban science fiction.
In the latter category I devoured all three books in her Jenny Casey Series (Scardown, Hammered, and Worldwired) in a couple of weeks. That’s lightning fast for me, but I just couldn’t put them down. Think near-future sf, set first (volume 1) in a battle-weary Canada and north-eastern US, then (volume 2) on an essentially untried space station, and finally (Volume 3) in near-Earth space in the company of two very different but equally-inscrutable alien spacecraft. The cast of tough, bold, capable, highly individual characters includes folks from three major nationalities, every gender, and every level of society and government bureaucracy, with significant issues of trans- post- and cybernetic-humanism. Wow. Just wow.
Bear’s fantasy duology (Book of Iron and Bone and Jewel Creatures) centers on Bijou, a gifted wizard-artificer and trusted associate of the crown prince of Messaline, an Arabic-flavored medieval environment. The first book entails adventure and intrigue in Bijou’s wildly creative young womanhood; the second, the climax of a life-long battle and the still-powerful, mature artistry of her late old age. Beautiful, imaginative, and deeply moving.
I have not met Catherynne M. Valente, but it was sometime during RavenCon, Balticon, or ConCarolinas that she was recommended to me for her vast descriptive powers and the beauty of her prose. The first book of her Dirge for Prester John series, The Habitation of the Blessed, did not disappoint. (The second book, The Folded World, is on my to-be-read-next list; the third, The Spindle of Necessity, is due out soon.)
The myth of Prester John, a Christian Priest and King of a mysterious oriental or African land, arose in the 12th century and influenced a number of European adventurers to seek him in various little-known corners of their world. This continued until 17th century orientalists finally disproved any connection between John or his realm with observable reality.
Valente has set her vibrant, intensely human retelling of his story in a lush realm of great riches, peopled with such oddities of medieval travel tales as monopods, dog-faced people, and people with their faces on their chests. She has further embellished the myth with a historically feasible origin for John, horrific and (as far as I can tell) completely original challenges met in his journey to that realm from Constantinople, and a detailed account of his slow and painful acceptance of the strangeness of life and kingship there.
Note that Valente’s printed books themselves give evidence of the beauty of her language and mythical world.
Next time, D.B. Jackson’s Thieftaker Chronicles and Gail Z. Martin’s Deadly Curiosities.
Sources for Prester John: