Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Battle of the Books, Winter 2012, Second Semifinal :: And Blue Skies from Pain by Stina Leicht vs. Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

And Blue Skies from PainRange of Ghosts
Our second Battle of the Books semifinal matches And Blue Skies from Pain by Stina Leicht against Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear. Whichever book I most want to continue reading after the first 100 pages will advance to the championship round.

And Blue Skies from Pain: Night Shade trade paperback, March 2012, 359 pages, cover art by Min Yum. And Blue Skies from Pain got here with wins in the first round over Kristine Kathryn Rusch's Boneyards and in the second round over Ari Marmell's Thief's Covenant.

In And Blue Skies from Pain (title from Pink Floyd) and its prequel, Of Blood and Honey, the Catholic Church has been engaged in a centuries-long battle with fallen angels and other supernatural creatures. In Northern Ireland in the 1970's, our characters are working to forge a peace between the Church and the shapeshifting Fianna. In the first 50 pages, our protagonist Liam, the son of a mortal and one of the Fianna, agreed to be tested to help the Catholic warrior-priests determine if he has a soul. But in the next 50 pages, things go awry, as a group of the priest-warriors beat Liam senseless for no apparent reason. Liam's friend, Father Murray, believes the soldiers were under the influence of the Fallen, and he tries to persuade Liam not to abandon the peace process.

Range of Ghosts: Tor hardcover, March 2012, 334 pages. Range of Ghosts reached the semifinals by defeating Jack of Ravens by Mark Chadbourn in the first round and The Pillars of Hercules by David Constantine (aka David J. Williams?) in the second round.

Range of Ghosts is epic fantasy in a setting inspired by the ancient Mongol Empire. The first 50 pages introduced us to our hero Temur, who barely survived the fighting in a war of succession that Temur's late brother lost to their uncle. Temur has gone into exile, befriending some of the other survivors of the fighting, but he is pursued by ghosts summoned by a powerful sorcerer in his uncle's employ. In the next 50 pages, we see much more of another key character, Samarkar, a woman who has willingly undergone surgery leaving her barren, in order to train as a sorcerer, if she proves to have the requisite magical ability. Meanwhile, Temur has survived the fight with the ghosts, but they have abducted his young lover, and he undertakes a quest to rescue her from the mountainous region called the Range of Ghosts. (Thankfully, it doesn't take him many pages to get there -- this is not a travelogue quest fantasy.)

The Battle: Stina Leicht is a new author who finds herself in the Battle of the Books semifinals with three heavyweights of the genre: Elizabeth Bear, Charles de Lint, and Orson Scott Card. But she acquits herself very nicely with And Blue Skies from Pain. I am highly impressed with her confidence in telling this story. This is a book about werewolf-like creatures that she manages to make feel very fresh, a story with a protagonist who is rough around the edges and yet most sympathetic, a story convincingly set in Ireland even though Leicht is an American living in Texas.

On the strength of these 100 pages, I'll be nominating Stina Leicht for the Campbell Award for best new author, and if you have a ballot you should too. (As an aside, there are many interesting new writers in the field today, and I strongly encourage more people to nominate for the Campbell. Start with Stina Leicht, and then name four other new writers who have impressed you. If you can't think of four others, then check out the Writertopia list of Campbell-eligible authors. And if you happen to notice that I'm also on that list, under my pretentious full name Van Aaron Hughes, well, that's cool too.)

The bad news for Leicht is she has run into a juggernaut in Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear. This book combines fantasy storytelling at the level of George R.R. Martin with an Eastern flavor that puts me in mind of Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven. The plotting and characterization is first-rate, and then you add to that the setpieces, which remind you why you first became a fantasy reader, for that sense of the magical. Here, for instance, is a monk with failing eyesight, tending to the numberless dead from the war of succession that triggered our story:
But he was not so blind yet that he could not see the color and motion as another butterfly flitted past--this one brilliant orange--then another, and another, and one more, until they filled the air with a tumult of wings so thick one could hear them whispering and smell their dusty scent. His fingertips crept to his lips and pressed there, as if to hold the exclamation in.

The butterflies swirled around him, shimmering changeable colors like rare jewels: blues and golds and greens and vermilions, pearl-whites, purples verging on blacks, reds like the heartsblood that twined slender vines up the steppe grass to wave above it, throwing its bright heads high into the ceaseless wind. He felt the brush of their wings. He breathed between his fingers so as not to inhale one.

If the monk had been able to see from the perspective of a falcon or one of the black birds to which he commended the dead, he would have known that each butterfly flitted into existence over the lips of a dead man or boy or occasional woman. That each one then beat wings to gain altitude and joined the general migration.
I know this kind of beautiful yet tragic imagery will stay with me long after I put this book down.


Range of Ghosts proceeds to the championship round, to take on Eyes Like Leaves by Charles de Lint.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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