Friday, February 27, 2015

Operation Arcana Anthology

Rules of Enchantment by David Klecha & Tobias S Buckell
The Damned One Hundred by Jonathan Maberry
Blood, Ash, Braids by Genevieve Valentine
Mercenary’s Honour by Elizabeth Moon
The Guns of the Waste by Django Wexler
The Graphology of Hemorrhage by Yoon Ha Lee
American Golem by Weston Ochse
Weapons in the Earth by Myke Cole
Heavy Sulfer by Ari Marmell
Steel Ships by Tanya Huff
Seal Skin by Carrie Vaughn
Pathfinder by T.C McCarthy
Bomber’s Moon by Simon R Green
In Skeleton Leaves by Seanan McGuire
Bone Eaters by Glen Cook
The Way Home by Linda Nagata

This anthology is connected by 2 things: soldiers and speculative fiction. Which is a pretty broad remit which I think is probably the main flaw of this book. It isn’t a major flaw because there is a lot of overlap in the speculative fiction fandom, but the bringing of high fantasy, sci-fi and urban fantasy together with such little connection doesn’t make it that coherent but I don’t think that’s especially needed; though some of the stories seem a bit out of place. I think it also helped that there are only 16 stories in this anthology – I’ve read a few lately that have a truly immense number of stories that tend to leave me thoroughly sick of the book before I’m half way through (and the fact I say “only” with 16 tells you how long they’ve been).

I’ll be honest, I kind of expected lots of action scenes and little in the way of plot – short stories and big epic fights don’t leave much room for anything else. Yes, I had low expectations (and a little semi-guilty expectation of shameless epicy action which, yes, I like, I admit it) and they were countered – a lot of these stories are surprisingly deep with either very original settings or fascinating conflicts.

In terms of original setting, I’m most impressed by In Skeleton Leaves by Seanan McGuire. A truly dark and downright disturbing retelling of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys war against the pirates. It’s dark, draws on some excellent elements of the Fisher King and is wonderfully thematic and dark and just plain eerie and slightly horrifying. It also has a fascinating retake on Wendy and Pan, turning them into titles – with male Wendys and female Pan being possible. It’s creepy and wonderful and shuddery-awesome

The Graphology of Hemorrhage by Yoon Ha Lee isn’t exactly an original setting per se – but the magic style of calligraphy presented is the most original concept in the book and related to, but utterly unlike anything I’ve read before. The art of written magic, of literature and culture and writing all underpinning magic which, in turn, comes at a terrible price for the caster is eerie and original and beautiful and, ultimately, tragic. The ending is desperately sad and bleak in its power. The wizard is a woman as well – and the characters are all East Asian.

I think Rules of Enchantment by David Klecha & Tobias S Buckell is probably the story I’d most want to see develop into a full novel and full series. Earth with portals opening up to a High Fantasy world with trolls and orcs invading Earth and human soldiers having to make alliances with elves and battle against the invaders. What I really like about it is the interesting way magic and technology meet – from helicopter gunships shooting trolls to using magic to give a military squad a more unified viewpoint and almost a hive mind. What I absolutely hate about this story, though, is it is written in the second person. This never ever ever ever works – I’ve never liked it. We follow one squad which includes a female soldier (who uses her mind bond to keep wandering-eyed men to focus) and it has a latino character as well.

There were several stories in this book which drew on real world conflicts. We’ve said before repeatedly how bad this could go with lots of appropriation but in general it didn’t go there. These taking of real world wars didn’t assert that magic caused the war or the atrocities within it – it’s just taking our world, adding magic and seeing how the mechanics of war would differ by adding woo-woo while not actually have it change the personalities involved

The Guns of the Waste by Django Wexler is a close competitor – the setting is steampunk alternate world with a racially diverse cast (including a protagonist and most of the cast) with several capable female characters holding military rank and a range of religions and cultures being developed in a very wide world that is nicely touched upon in very elegant, sparse writing. We get a powerful sense of the different cultures without having to go into too much detail and bogging down the story. We have a dire threat which has a wonderful sinister sense and some of that lovely epic conflict I was looking for.

Mercenary’s Honour by Elizabeth Moon is a high fantasy story centring around mercenaries. It’s not my favourite but it has interesting musing on loyalty, honour and contracts – conflicting loyalties and, interesting, the idea of how much a commander actually owes their soldiers. It’s an interesting take on honour which often looks at honour towards your enemies or loyalty to your lord – but what about the men under your command? It also has an aspect of looking at what an elderly mercenary – and one with a disability – does as he ages.

Blood, Ash and Braids by Genevieve Valentine is a World War 2 story following a squad of Russian female pilots. The Night Witches – actually drawing on the history of the real Night Witches and mentioning several of these actual women including Marina Raskova, Yevdokia Bershanskaya and Nadezhda Popova. This works without being too dubious because there is very little woo-woo in the story. The woo-woo comes from one of the pilots being an actual witch – but the way it is written it could equally be a superstition as much as actual magic (it’s also a really fascinating magic system) making it more of a reality based tale of these women’s heroism than “how they did it because woo-woo”

Heavy Sulfer by Ari Marmell is a World War 1 story – the British forces on the western front only now we have wizards among the machine guns controlling clouds of mustard gas and demons summoned in the trenches. It’s a fascinatingly well done and it’s an amazing combination I really just revelled in.

The characterisation isn’t bad… but kind of nothing new even with a nice twist at the end. They do include a female officer, her magic making her valuable and it’s clear that women are welcome in the arm because woo-woo isn’t limited to gender

Pathfinder by T.C McCarthy takes on the Korean war and, again, sensibly keeps the supernatural somewhat away from the conflict. War, with its brutality, its loss and the devastating pain as well as complex loyalties is all there in its human horror. The woo-woo is peripheral, there is a supernatural conflict using the war as a setting, covered by the war but not actually causing, affecting or being affected by the war; it’s one of the ways you can use these settings without appropriating it or lessening the scope of them and it’s well done. Our protagonist is a Korean woman, most of the cast is Korean  and it seems to draw heavily from Korean beliefs. Her role as comfort and guide for the dying makes for a tragic yet bittersweet story and one where woo-woo doesn’t cure everything, but does make everything more bearable and understood.

American Golem by Weston Ochse is a little more fraught, being based in current conflicts in the Middle East and American soldiers fighting insurgents with a dash of Israel mixed in for more “oh gods this is going be bad” factor. And there were several moments when I thought it was going to bad places – but it doesn’t and it really pulls it back. Instead we have a tale of how, basically, just about everyone is awful and the cycle of revenge being ultimately something to transcend. Simplistic, perhaps, but surprisingly respectful and subtle compared to what I expected. The character is a golem and clearly Jewish – we also have some Navajo involvement in Golem creation as well which I don’t quite understand.

Bomber’s Moon by Simon R Green is the closest to the edge of any of the real world war stories. It is set in World War 2 and follows British forces – only this World War 2 is one in which actual angels and demons are taking part (angels on the sides of the allies, demons being summoned by the Third Reich). It does not, in any way, paint angels and demons being behind the war – but demons being what Hitler turned to when he was losing and the angels intervened on the other side because, well, demons. As far as wars go, the second world war is generally one we view with the fewest shades of grey in our collective consciousness and is one of the few wars in modern western society you can tell as good vs evil in simplistic terms without causing too much rejection. Especially since, again, the demons didn’t instigate the war and nor is it a matter of angelic outrage (both of which would have been deeply problematic). It does have any an interesting conflict as an actual religious leader cannot accept an angel as a weapon of war against innocents

Of course, being an anthology there are some stories that just didn’t work for me quite so well.

Steel Ships by Tanya Huff is a fairly interesting military mission. I like that it’s taken a High Fantasy setting and been a little more original about how things like Selkies would be used in war – and the naval conflict is especially different. There’s also an nice concept with these shapeshifters being family so the Royal Navy is like a large related clan as much as a military unit which makes the losses all the more impactful… except it doesn’t because there are SO MANY NAMES and I didn’t recognise half of them or even who died and lived – I certainly didn’t care too much.

I am not even sure what to think about Weapons in the Earth by Myke Cole. It’s interesting to take a story that uses goblins as all the characters when they’re normally just interchangeable monsters to slaughter it’s also interesting to make them disparate with different cultures and ways of life. So often non-humans in High Fantasy are just one big monolithic culture which makes little sense. It’s a story of enduring terrible adversity and pain and loss and it’s very predictable and rather clich├ęd. It’s well written and moving but it’s kind of a retelling of what I’ve seen before but with extra goblins.

The Damned One Hundred by Jonathan Maberry has some touches of tragedy and desperation and making terrible decisions when your back is against the wall; but in general it felt flat. It didn’t invest me enough in the characters, their religion or their world setting for me to be particularly moved by their sacrifice/betrayal of their principles. Losing everything doesn’t mean much when you’re not that interested in that everything. There are some demonic female characters who are either hags or ridiculously unnecessarily sexualised.

Seal Skin by Carrie Vaughn didn’t work for me at all – it was a pretty dull and very predictable story, no diversity and nothing really original there. Its stories about conflict and family were simple basic and it all felt very phoned in.

I really didn’t like The Way Home by Linda Nagata. Perhaps because it was the last story in the book and I was ready for it to end but I didn’t find any of it particularly thrilling. Soldiers, in hell for convoluted reasons, turning on each other in desperation. The setting was moot, it could have easily have been soldiers fighting over the last ticket out of a war zone, or depleted food supplies – there was an escape from a terrible situation and we saw how far they would go. But the characters were pretty obvious and broadcasting their intentions pretty early on – both the ruthlessly selfish and the self-sacrificing martyrs, making it predictable and not tense. There’s also a problem with a short story relying on emotion coming from connection with the characters – betrayal, loss etc and not having time to develop that connection.

Bone Eaters by Glen Cook was the worst for me. It had potential with a racially diverse cast (3 Black people), an interesting and gritty High Fantasy world and a disabled character (she is Deaf) who is capable, powerful and a highly respected member of the band – even a leader. It has powerful women who are crafty and dangerous.

But it also have a ridiculous number of named characters to keep track of, a desperate attempt to force grimdark that doesn’t work, some highly dubious mystical woo-woo with all the Black characters and a frankly appalling writing style which seems to involve switching between the third and first person without a POV switch for reasons that completely escape me but managed to make the whole story unnecessarily confusing.

On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised by the anthology. There’s far more depth in these military settings than mere conflict and a whole lot of nuance more than once. While the odd story completely lost me, most of them had me hooked and I enjoyed them immensely.

I was also impressed by a lot of the diversity, two of the stories had disabled characters who were more than victims. Most of the stories had female characters – and far too often we erase women from stories of war except as victims – and six of them had female protagonists. Again racial diversity was common through most of the books including POC protagonists; there’s also a few stories with non-western or western-influenced settings as well making is surprisingly broad. There is a glaring hole in the complete lack of any LGBT characters in any of these 16 stories