Thursday, February 28, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Five, First Round :: Paradox Resolution by K.A. Bedford vs. Nightglass by Liane Merciel

We turn to the bottom half of Bracket Five of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books, beginning with Paradox Resolution by K.A. Bedford against Nightglass by Liane Merciel. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Paradox Resolution: Edge trade paperback, August 2012, 253 pages, cover art by Martin Pasco. K.A. Bedford is an Australian author who has published five novels with Candadian press Edge Publishing. Bedford's novel Eclipse won the Aurealis Award for best Australian science fiction novel of 2005. Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait, the prequel to Paradox Resolution, won Bedford a second Aurealis Award and was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award.

Paradox Resolution is the second novel featuring "Spider" Webb, an ordinary Australian bloke who is good with machinery. He keeps finding himself in strange situations, simply because the machines he's especially adept at repairing happen to be time machines. In the opening section of Paradox Resolution, Spider looks in the office refrigerator and find the severed head of his former boss, who was not so affectionately known as "Dickhead." Disconcertingly, the head speaks to Spider, pleading for help. Spider later learns from his policewoman friend Iris that the Dickhead mystery has attracted attention from the highest levels of government.

Nightglass: Paizo paperback, July 2012, 345 pages, cover art by Tyler Walpole. Liane Merciel is the author of the Ithelas fantasy series, consisting so far of The River Kings' Road and Heaven's Needle. My fellow middle-aged aspiring writers will be disgusted to know that Merciel (under the name Jennifer Andress) published a story in Lucy Snyder's Dark Planet webzine when she was still in high school. (If you don't remember Dark Planet, it also published writers like Kelly Link, Gary A. Braunbeck, Tim Waggoner, and Robert Boyczuk.) Merciel is a prosecutor in her copious free time.

Nightglass is a tie-in to the Pathfinder role-playing game. It's the second Pathfinder book to try its luck in the Battle of the Books——Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews (aka Matthew Hughes) made it to the second round of the Fall 2012 Battle. Nightglass takes place in Nidal, an especially foreboding area of the Pathfinder universe. In the prologue, the only survivor of a survey party into Nidal is nursed back to health by a fearful single mother. In chapter one, the mother's oldest son is due to be tested for magical abilities by the strange and malicious "shadowcallers." The boy, Isiem, pretends not to have any such powers, at first.

The Battle: I like the tone K.A. Bedford is going for in Paradox Resolution——Spider is just an ordinary joe who wishes all this weird crap would stop happening to him. But I think in the first 25 pages, Bedford overplays it just a bit. In particular, a good portion of the opening section focuses on Spider's impending divorce from a woman for whom he still carries a torch, but who doesn't seem to care a whit about him. This is meant to make Spider sympathetic to us, but to my tastes it shades too far into making him into a schmuck. Still, I like where Bedford is going with the character, and I am interested in the talking Dickhead mystery, even though we haven't seen any actual time travel yet. That should be enough to get Paradox Resolution past an RPG tie-in, right?

Except that through 25 pages, Nightglass has utterly failed to deliver the kind of routine, by-the-numbers story I snobbishly expected from a tie-in book. This is my second venture into a Pathfinder novel, and I am most impressed with the quality of this series. I wasn't so surprised that Song of the Serpent was good, because I know Matthew Hughes is an excellent writer. But I had never before read anything by Liane Merciel, and I am pleased to report that her writing so far is also extremely strong.

Nightglass is absorbing from the outset, without any need for prior familiarity with the Pathfinder game. I like that Merciel trusts her readers to make connections that are not explicitly stated; for example, nobody ever mentions Isiem's father, but the boy strongly resembles the pale and powerful shadowcallers. Merciel also does a nice job conveying her characters' emotions through their dialogue. Here, for instance, Isiem asks his mother why the group of shadowcallers, just arrived to test the village's children, laughed at the villager who stepped forward to tend their horses:
"Because their horses aren't real. They're shadow and magic; they never needed tending. In a few hours they'll vanish, and Belero will have fed and watered empty stalls."

"Does Belero know that?"


"Then why did he do it?"

"Because he knows, as we all do, that their contempt is what keeps this village safe. If we're stupid yokels who can't tell false horses from real ones, then surely we don't know enough to evade their other sorceries. Ignorance is safety." She pinched his chin, turning his head so that his eyes met hers. It hurt, but there was such intensity——such raw fear——on his mother's face that Isiem bit back his protest. "Do you understand me? Ignorance is safety. And nothing they offer you, nothing they promise, is real. It's all shadows and lies, like their horses."
From this, Isiem knows to feign no reaction when the shadowcallers later have him look into their magical "nightglass." But he is soon forced to give his own magical abilities away, in order to save a friend about to be killed by the nightglass. The chapter ends:
His mother was wrong, Isiem thought. Not everything they promised was shadows and lies. They promised death, too. And that was real.
When you end your first 25 pages on a note like that, it compels me to read more.

THE WINNER: Nightglass by Liane Merciel

Nightglass advances to the second round, to take on either The Devil's Nebula by Eric Brown or Deadfall Hotel by Steve Rasnic Tem.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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