The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen’s calorie representative in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, he combs Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs long thought to be extinct. There he meets the windup girl – the beautiful and enigmatic Emiko – now abandoned to the slums. She is one of the New People, bred to suit the whims of the rich. Engineered as slaves, soldiers and toys, they are the new underclass in a chilling near future where oil has run out, calorie companies dominate nations and bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.

And as Lake becomes increasingly obsessed with Emiko, conspiracies breed in the heat and political tensions threaten to spiral out of control. Businessmen and ministry officials, wealthy foreigners and landless refugees all have their own agendas. But no one anticipates the devastating influence of the Windup Girl.

It’s not a nice future Bacigalupi’s biopunk story takes place in and it’s not an easy book to read.
Let me explain the second point first.
The Windup Girl is told from the viewpoints of four to five main characters, all deeply scarred from things in their pasts. Most of these characters aren’t really likable and have their own selfish agendas, often contrary to those of the other characters. Somehow you still cheer for most of them.
Having so many viewpoints to introduce and develop makes this a very slow story to start. It practically needs the whole book to gain momentum. So if you are looking for a lot of physical action and usually enjoy fast paced books, you won’t last long with this one. In addition to that the book is written in present tense, which has the tendency to throw me off from time to time.
What keeps you in is the extremely well built and detailed world Bacigalupi has created. It’s a dystopian future where nearly everything we should be concerned about right now went wrong.
The climate changed and the sea level rose high enough to drown most coastal cities. Bangkok, the setting of this book, is protected by huge dams and a pump system from the ever threatening ocean. There are next to no fossil fuels left and humanity has reverted to other, quite ineffective forms of energy. Spring-power (like in windup toys) for storing energy, treadles for computers, genetically modified elephant like creatures called Megadonts for powering factories, and so on. If there was an explanation why they didn’t use solar power or wind energy (besides using clippers), I missed it.

Huge agri-corporations, in everything but the name like Monsanto, have meddled a bit too much with nature, more or less accidentally releasing new plants, animals and plagues which completely messed up the food chains and the ecosystem of the whole planet. Only a fracture of normal plants and animals are left and humanity has to be really inventive to feed itself. Those agri-corporations control the whole food market, keeping everybody dependent on their food and making calories the only currency that counts. Wars are waged for precious seeds and Thailand, which managed to stay independent because of a policy of isolation and their seed bank, one of the only ones left in the world, are targeted by everybody.
The Windup Girl is full of political maneuvering and intrigue, where violence and sex are two popular ways to gain or exercise power. Both the violence and the sex, which is mostly violent and abusive too, are vivid and sometimes a bit more detailed than I would have liked. Especially Emiko, the Windup Girl the book is named after, has to endure a lot in a city that sees her as an abomination and not a human being. Cast aside like a toy and with a modified extra-smooth skin that is incompatible with the tropic heat of Thailand she has to sell her body and her dignity. 
Especially this aspect of the story reads like an homage to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,the book which became the movie Blade Runner.
In Bacigalupi’s novel you are wondering all the time how it will end. All characters are on opposing sides, with goals so different to each other that you don’t even know how you want this book to end. I’ll promise that the twist is so surprising that you won’t manage to foresee it. The Windup Girl is a complex book, which it needs to be to tell its story adequately. It is a book worth your time – while trying to convince you otherwise along the way. 

About the Reviewer: When Christian Abresch was fifteen, he stayed home to write a fantasy book instead of going with his parents and brother on vacation. More fantasy novels, poems and short stories followed in the years to come and since each was less crappy than the one before he hopes to get published someday. To keep his fingers on the pulse of fantasy, he loves browsing Fantasy-Faction with its articles, reviews and forums even though it caused an unnatural growing of his TBR, which worries him. Christian lives with his girlfriend and an imaginary cat in Berlin. Follow him on twitter: @xiaiswriting

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson

The Rithmatist is Brandon Sanderson’s newest YA book. Newest only in terms of publishing since he wrote it six or seven years ago. But then a tiny side project, aka finishing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, got in the way.

With The Rithmatist Sanderson has written an alternative world “gearpunk” detective story filled with a typical Sanderson-style, intricately crafted, unique and incredibly detailed magic system I’m used to expecting these from his books and, so far, haven’t been disappointed.

Is it a typical Sanderson novel? I haven’t read his Alcatraz books, but The Rithmatist certainly isn’t a novel like Elantris, Warbreaker, Mistbornor The Way of Kings. We have the unique magic system, but the events don’t happen on the same epic scale his high fantasy books do. If I had to compare it to another of Sanderson’s works, it’s closest to his novella Legion. In both books we get an unlikely set of characters who work together to solve a crime.

“Rithmatics”, as the magic system is called, is chalk and geometry based, which gives the reader the benefit that in addition to it being well-described, the book offers numerous drawings and sketches showing exactly how it works between the chapters.

It’s the beginning of the 20th century and instead of automobiles and fossil fuel we get springrail trains, coaches with clockwork engines and automatic, clockwork-powered horses. The events of the book take place mostly on the campus of the Armedicus University on the island of New Britannia, one of the 50+ isles the United Isles of America consist of.

Armedicus is one of only a few academies where, in addition to all the normal students, Rithmatists are taught. This is an immensely important thing, since Rithmatics is the only reason humans where able to populate the previously uninhabited United Isles at all. And to hold them.

A Rithmatist possesses the ability to use chalk to draw geometric lines and 2D creatures that will ward, protect or attack other chalk drawings and even humans. While Rithmatists often duel for fun, to settle arguments or just to hone their skills, there is a more serious reason for their work. The ominous Tower of Nebrask, located in the middle of the United Isles, is a sinister place spawning wild chalklings, chalk-drawn monsters, which are a permanent threat to all of America.

The story evolves around Joel, a normal student on the campus who’s biggest (and only) hobby is Rithmatics. Only he isn’t a Rithmatist and his chalk drawings will never come to life. When Rithmatic students start to disappear from their homes, leaving chalk drawings and blood, his usually boring summer holiday is bound to become a lot more interesting.

It’s easy to relate to Joel, who is intelligent and friendly but because of his poverty an outsider nevertheless. He doesn’t have friends, something he shares with the eccentric girl Melody, the worst Rithmatics student on campus. The interaction of those two is comedic and the way Sanderson makes them become friends is funny, heartwarming and authentic.

One of the few weak points of The Rithmatistwas, at least for me, that it didn’t evoke strong emotions. It’s certainly gripping, but I don’t remember laughing out loud or secretly wiping some tears from my eyes. If you love books where characters are severely punished for making bad decisions, you’ll be disappointed too (but knowing his main characters, that’s probably something that’ll change).

There is a lot going on in this world and Sanderson manages to make it a colorful and real-feeling place (Europe conquered by Asia a long time ago? All Scots displaced and living in American diaspora?) which you dearly want him to explore more. Add an ending that only resolves the main plot line but not all plot lines and you get a book where you’re glad that it had the three magic words in the end. To be continued.

About the Reviewer: When Christian Abresch was fifteen, he stayed home to write a fantasy book instead of going with his parents and brother on vacation. More fantasy novels, poems and short stories followed in the years to come and since each was less crappy than the one before he hopes to get published someday. To keep his fingers on the pulse of fantasy, he loves browsing Fantasy-Faction with its articles, reviews and forums even though it caused an unnatural growing of his TBR, which worries him. Christian lives with his girlfriend and an imaginary cat in Berlin. Follow him on twitter: @xiaiswriting.

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

The Malazan Empire simmers with discontent, bled dry by interminable warfare, bitter infighting and bloody confrontations. Even the imperial legions, long inured to the bloodshed, yearn for some respite. Yet Empress Laseen’s rule remains absolute, enforced by her dread Claw assassins.

For Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his squad of Bridgeburners, and for Tattersail, surviving cadre mage of the Second Legion, the aftermath of the siege of Pale should have been a time to mourn the many dead. But Darujhistan, last of the Free Cities of Genabackis, yet holds out. It is to this ancient citadel that Laseen turns her predatory gaze.

However, it would appear that the Empire is not alone in this great game. Sinister, shadowbound forces are gathering as the gods themselves prepare to play their hand . . .

I’ve been planning a review of this one for a long time.
Everything you’ve already heard about Gardens of the Moon and the wider series it belongs to, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, is pretty much true. It’s complex (oh my, is it complex), it’s vast in scope (a cast of thousands, a history that scales millennia and magic systems that make your brain hurt) and this first book really is a difficult beast. Steven Erikson drops you head first into a plot which has been ongoing for centuries. Unlike so many of his epic fantasy contemporaries, we don’t begin the series with a farmboy who sets off on a quest to save the world or one great evil that needs to be vanquished. Instead, Erikson decides to throw the reader into the middle of a vast plot that has spanned centuries on either side, with a whole host of characters on every side of the conflict, a series of magic systems which are never explained in great detail, and he even throws in some Gods for good measure. Oh, and some of the characters might actually be Gods, or the Gods may become characters, or Gods are linked to magic, and warrens, and, and…
All very confusing.
The first 200 pages of Gardens of the Moon feel a lot like attempting to read an epic fantasy series from the middle. It’s a bit like picking up A Storm of Swords first, or The Fires of Heaven – and having no prior knowledge of the series up to that point. Erikson’s choice of throwing you into the midst is what typically alienates the majority of readers to this series. It nearly did to me. But I persevered through all the point-of-view changes, endlessly confusing magic systems, different factions, floating mountains, Gods and Ascendants, and bizarre goings-on to which I had no real clue. I persevered because so many people rate this series so highly. It’s so often mentioned in the same breath as A Song of Ice and Fire and The Wheel of Time as one of the premiere epic fantasy behemoths, and even further than that – many rate it even higher.
But, the big question is: why? [Edit: Yes, I mentioned floating mountains above – what of it?]
Why, if it’s so obviously confusing and awkward to get a grasp of, would you keep reading? Well, after that 200 pages point, something happens. Not something that jumps into the story to explain everything that’s preceded it, but rather it all starts to just click. The magic system isn’t so much explained as put into very practical and very game-changing use; the floating mountain becomes involved; and most importantly, the characters suddenly become worth investing in.
Whether it’s Ganoes Paran, the de-facto “hero” of the story (to start with), Tattersail the kick-ass mage and her grand schemes, Anomander Rake and his ridiculously cool…well, everything or Whiskeyjack and his band of Bridgeburners – these characters take on the whole confusing (up to this point) jumble of Gardens of the Moon and run with it. Their storylines start to converge and the plot becomes much clearer. Around a third of the way through the book I was completely invested in every character’s story and constantly trying to piece together every piece of information I could.
Erikson’s style of “events and characters first, information second” becomes something which begins to delight, in the way that LOST used to do on TV. Piecing together all the parts of this vast puzzle becomes part of the fun – clearly a deliberate, if arguably dangerous (going on that befuddling first 200 pages) ploy on the part of the author. It’s clear by the end of Gardens of the Moon that The Malazan Book of The Fallen is an epic fantasy with layers and layers to strip away; mystery upon mystery, but Erikson keeps the reader entertained with a thrilling plot and a stunning climax, bringing together all of his individual threads to make a novel which is unputdownable, where once it was a genuine question of whether or not I would keep reading.

In Gardens of the Moon, Steven Erikson throws the reader in the deep-end with little to no time to learn how to swim in his epic cocktail of magic, war and a cast of thousands. It’s an awkward start and not everyone will wish to plough through the first couple of hundred pages to get to the good stuff.  Maybe it was a mistake for Erikson to structure his first Malazan novel in such a way, but with a world and story as complex as this, it would have been difficult to begin the story differently. Besides, this is a tale which takes place across 10 books (plus 3 prequels, 5 novels by Ian Cameron Esslemont, several novellas and possibly more) – if you’re going to invest the time in a story this big, be prepared for moments of confusion as you get to grips with the sheer vastness of the Malazan story. But this sort of thing isn’t for everyone.

Those readers are missing out. 

Double Review: Legion and The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

How does a man known for his 400,000 word behemoths contain himself to a mere novella? How does he condense his runaway mind into a fraction of the size? In this dual review I’ll take a look at his two novellas to try and figure out how he managed it, and if he was successful.

Shai is a Forger, a foreigner who can flawlessly copy and re-create any item by rewriting its history with skillful magic. Though condemned to death after trying to steal the emperor’s sceptre, she is given one opportunity to save herself. Despite the fact that her skill as a Forger is considered an abomination by her captors, Shai will attempt to create a new soul for the emperor, who is almost dead from the attack of assassins.

Skillfully deducing the machinations of her captors, Shai needs a perfect plan to escape. The fate of the empire lies in one impossible task. Is it possible to create a forgery of a soul so convincing that it is better than the soul itself?

Well, if the Hugo nominations are anything to go by, then The Emperor’s Soul certainly was. I know this will come as a shock, but it had a very cool, new magic system. It had all the laws and boundaries that we’ve come to expect from Sanderson, and as cool and interesting as it is this was my main problem with the story. At times it read like an instruction manual in Forgery with little practical application of the magic. The story wouldn’t have suffered, indeed it may have benefited, if some of the details of the magic were omitted and the reader was left to fill in the blanks. I realise that anyone who’s read any of Sanderson’s novels will be chortling to themselves thinking “Silly reviewer type person, that isn’t possible for our Brandon,” but that is exactly what he did with Legion. Sure, he explains it well, but he doesn’t go into his normal amount of detail and there is enough grey around the edges for you to imagine what else could be possible. This may be because there isn’t a magic system which he has created, but a mental illness that cannot be as rigid or rule-bound as he would like.

Stephen Leeds, AKA ‘Legion’, is a man whose unique mental condition allows him to generate a multitude of personae: hallucinatory entities with a wide variety of personal characteristics and a vast array of highly specialised skills. As the story begins, Leeds and his ‘aspects’ are drawn into the search for the missing Balubal Razon, inventor of a camera whose astonishing properties could alter our understanding of human history and change the very structure of society.

I found Legion to be a much tighter, more enjoyable read. It was quite funny in some places, and the idea of the various aspects (the hallucinations, if you will) was really good. The pace is spot on, going from witty introduction, establishing the plot to the culmination. There wasn’t any wasted effort and the different segments each had the right amount or time spent on them. In The Emperor’s Soul, the introduction is over fairly quickly and then the main character is just in one room for the majority of the story. All the tension and danger comes from her thoughts and introspection and she is never really at risk until the end, which is rather abrupt and overly happy. 

So, what does this tell us (me)? Well, I think it shows that Sanderson is epic fantasy through and

through. To do his version of magic, to follow his magic system rules, needs much more space and time, and above all, a higher word count. The story of The Emperor’s Soul relied on the magic system for its motivation and its theme and, for me, it got bound up on that. Legion, without a magic system, had time to concentrate on the story and humour and was stronger for it. I don’t think it a coincidence that The Emperor’s Soul is the longer of the two novellas. For the record, I am a massive fan of Sanderson’s magic systems, particularly Allomancy (Mistborn), and I love the detail that he gives us. I just think you need time to drip feed it in.

Fans of Sanderson will gobble both of these up, and rightly so. Both are very enjoyable and obviously quick reads. There are Easter eggs in The Emperor’s Soul which relate to his Cosmere so and it is set in the same world as Elantris, which I enjoyed very much.

I would really like to read more of Legion, and I think it is in Sanderson’s plans to write more of them so I am eagerly anticipating their release. If this was the last we read of Shai and the Forgers I wouldn’t overly miss them. Please, tell us what you think!


About the reviewer:
Alex can be found in the rolling hills of Oxfordshire, splitting his time unevenly between fighting crime and raising two little boys (which is surprisingly similar). When he does find a spare moment he crams it full of fantasy or basketball, and due to rapidly ageing knees it’s mostly fantasy these days. He’s trying to learn the writing craft through sheer bloody mindedness and dreams of the day he has to do nothing else. If you’re so inclined you can watch him stalk writers on Twitter – @shep5377