Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: The Raven's Shadow by Elspeth Cooper vs. Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald

We begin Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books with The Raven's Shadow by Elspeth Cooper taking on Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

The Raven's Shadow: Tor hardcover, March 2014, 567 pages, cover art by Dominic Harman. The Raven's Shadow is the third book in the high fantasy series The Wild Hunt, the first published work by British author Elspeth Cooper. The previous volumes were Songs of the Earth and Trinity Rising. Songs of the Earth competed in Amy's Battle of the Books Summer 2012 bracket. This version of The Raven's Shadow was preceded by the Gollancz UK edition, released August of last year.

The primary protagonist of the Wild Hunt series is Gair, a young man blessed or cursed with a connection to a type of magic called the "Song." He's been learning to use his power, but apparently with mixed results.

As The Raven's Shadow opens, Gair is licking his wounds from a battle he barely survived; he believes that a close friend was not so lucky. One suspects Gair will soon be off to seek vengeance, but in the first 25 pages he is too dazed yet to think about that. Meanwhile, other major characters——Masen, an apparently well-intended older magician; Savin, clearly an evil sorcerer; and Ytha, a power-hungry sorceress——are converging on the north, where further conflict looms.

Empress of the Sun: Pyr hardcover, February 2014, 280 pages, cover art by Larry Rostant. Empress of the Sun is the third volume in McDonald's Everness YA series, after Planesrunner and Be My Enemy. Be My Enemy competed in Battle of the Books Bracket Six, where it reached the semifinals before falling to Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey. But I liked it well enough that I ended up finishing it and also reading Planesrunner. Ian McDonald is a science fiction writer from Northern Island who has won the Hugo Award and many other awards and accolades. Because I am a fan of McDonald and enjoyed the first two Everness books, I named Empress of the Sun one of the "seeded" books in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books.

The Everness series involves travel between alternate universes, with steampunk elements thrown in for fun. Our teenaged protagonist Everett Singh is on the run from the authorities who control the ten known alternate Earths. They want Everett because he possesses the "Infundibulum," a computer program devised by his father, essentially a map of all the nearly infinite (I assume it's "nearly" infinte, because how you could have a map if it's infinite?) alternate Earths out there. Everett doesn't trust those powers, for good reason, so he's keeping the Infundibulum to himself while he searches for his lost father.

As Empress of the Sun opens, Everett has just used the Infundibulum to help his gypsy-like friends escape on their huge airship from an Earth dominated by out-of-control nanotechnology. Two problems. First, the escape didn't come off as well as he hoped, as the airship has promptly crashed on a lush, overgrown version of Earth. Everett feels blamed by his friends, who assume he made a miscalculation. Second, Everett M. Singh, an alternate version of Everett assigned to find the first Everett, followed him to the nanobot world and only managed to get away by promising the nano groupmind, the "Nahn," to help it escape its quarantined universe. He has carried a piece of the nanotechnology to the first Everett's home, where he thinks he has it trapped in a peanut butter jar. Uh huh.

The Battle: This battle features two books that are both third in a series, which would make for a fair contest, except that I've read the first two books in Ian McDonald's series (as well as plenty of his SF for adults), while I've never before read anything by Elspeth Cooper. But the Battle of the Books is nothing if not subjective and arbitrary, so let's proceed . . .

The first few pages of The Raven's Shadow read like fairly routine high fantasy. The characters recite the names of various locations in the north, giving me a sense of unease that the author will feel compelled to take us to each of them in turn. But the fact that the book defies high fantasy convention by not including a map of these places bodes well.

Where my reading glasses started to prick up was the introduction of the sorceress Ytha. Ytha does not come across as a nice person, but perhaps not an evil one either. Rather, she is an ambitious person, whose personality has been shaped by the rules in this realm, a place of ongoing power struggles in which women are not expected to participate. We see her manipulate the thick-skulled chief she ostensibly works for, and then lead a ceremony with seventeen women with magical potential:
Firethorn seared her skin and the force of the binding knocked all the breath from her lungs. She staggered, gasping as heat spread outwards from the hand-print, raced over her skin and lifted every hair on her scalp. It surged into her breasts, sank into her secret places. She was a woman seventeen times over and she knew it in every bone, every fibre, felt it the way the earth felt the quickening of spring. . . .

By the Eldest, this felt good. As good as the first time she'd ever wielded her power, against the fat herdmaster who'd wanted her to suck the juice from his root when she was ten, and laughed at her when she said she'd be a Speaker one day. As good as the day she'd taken the mantle from old Brynagh and, for the first time, saw a man kneel at her feet instead of the other way around. Better. With power like this, she would bow her head to no one.
That's a nicely written passage that makes me interested in this character's story. Through three chapters, however, I'm less interested in the main character Gair, who hasn't yet had the chance to do much of anything.

Turning to Empress of the Sun, it's a good idea at the start of the third book in a series to let readers know that this book won't be just a rehash of the prior books. Ian McDonald accomplishes that by immediately crashing the airship that has been Everett's safe haven into a jungle. Not only does this disrupt the story, putting Everett and his friends in danger and thwarting his plan to find his father, but it has a great impact on Everett emotionally:
Mchynlyth and Captain Anastasia were bent over the hatch. Everett ached with guilt.

"Is there something I can do . . ."

Mchynlyth and Captain Anastasia turned at the same time. The looks on their faces froze him solid. He died . . . there, then, in a clearing in an alien rainforest in a world that didn't make sense, in a parallel universe. Died in his heart. He stepped back.

He had never been hated before. It was an emotion as strong and pure as love, and as rare. It was the opposite of everything love felt, except the passion. He wanted to die.
This is the opening scene of the book, and it simultaneously draws me into the storyline and makes me feel sympathy for Everett. I don't feel any such sympathy for his double Everett M., however, since even for a teenager, helping the Nahn escape its universe is unforgivably irresponsible. It does make for a good story, though, putting not just the entire Earth but nine entire Earths in jeopardy.

The opening pages in the third book of a series are all about quickly offering new readers reasons to become interested while reminding returning readers what they liked about the previous books. In the opening pages of The Raven's Shadow and Empress of the Sun, Elspeth Cooper does that well, and Ian McDonald does it superbly.

THE WINNER: Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald

Empress of the Sun advances to the second round, to face either The Barrow by Mark Smylie or The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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