Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Six, First Round :: Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald vs. Besieged by Rowena Cory Daniells

The final battle of the first round of Bracket Six of the Battle of the Books features Be My Enemy (Book Two of the Everness Series) by Ian McDonald versus Besieged (Book One of The Outcast Chronicles) by Rowena Cory Daniells. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Be My Enemy: Pyr hardcover, September 2012, 263 pages, cover art by John Picacio. Be My Enemy is the second volume in Ian McDonald's Everness young adult series, after Planesrunner, although so far it does not require familiarity with the previous book. Ian McDonald is one of the preeminent authors in the field of science fiction today. He has won or been nominated for nearly every award in the field, including winning a Hugo Award for his novelette "The Djinn's Wife," and being nominated for the Best Novel Hugo for River of Gods, Brasyl, and The Dervish House.

The two stars of Be My Enemy are teenager Everett Singh and teenager Everett Singh. The setting is multiple present-day Earths, after discovery of travel between alternate universes. One Everett Singh is aboard the airship Everness, which escaped a battle (presumably at the end of Planesrunner) into a barren, frozen Earth. Using his father's revolutionary discoveries about the multiverse, Everett is working on how to get the Everness out, while worrying about which universe his father has fallen into. Meanwhile, we meet a different Everett in a universe where humans have encountered a strange alien intelligence occupying the dark side of the moon. This Everett's father died in a traffic accident before reaching his breakthrough. Everett is given a mission to go into an alternate universe to find his alternate father's discoveries.

Besieged: Solaris paperback, July 2012, 670 pages, cover art by Clint Langley. Australian Rowena Cory Daniells has written three epic high fantasy trilogies, the T'En Trilogy (beginning with Broken Vows, under the name Cory Daniells), The Chronicles of King Rolen's Kin (beginning with The King's Bastard), and now The Outcast Chonicles, which begin with Besieged. She also writes paranormal mysteries under the name R.C. Daniells.

Besieged opens with the birth of the king's son, which the king is horrified to discover has six fingers on each hand, marking the child as a half-blood. It seems "True-men" humans fear and despise the magical, elf-like T'En, and so shun half-blood children with "wyrd" traits in common with the T'En. The king is inclined to kill the baby, but our protagonist High Priest Oskane persuades the king to allow him to take the child into exile. The first 25 pages end with a glimpse of a group of T'En warriors, one of whom is in childbirth herself.

The Battle: Through 25 pages, both of these books are written at a very high level, so I will have to try to nit-pick some possible justification to drop either one out of the Battle of the Books.

For Be My Enemy, I got nothin'——the opening pages of this novel are pretty near flawless. In the opening chapter, Everett Singh is hit by a car while running to catch a bus after playing in a soccer game. He wakes in a strange white room. After a few minutes, he realizes where he must be:
The cold rushed into him. The strength drained out of him. His knees buckled. He put out his hands to steady himself against the glass. And his arms and hands opened. Rectangular patches on the backs of his hands lifted up on plastic struts. Long hatches opened on his upper and lower forearms. The back of each first finger joint flipped up. There were things inside. There were things inside . . . moving. Things not his flesh. Things not quite living but not quite machine. Things unfolding and extending and changing shape. He saw dark empty spaces inside him full of aliens, pincers and grippers and manipulators and scanners reaching out of his body.

He screamed.
A little old woman appears and says, "Greetings, Everett M. Singh. It is the eighth day of Christmas and you are on the dark side of the Moon."

That is a bang-up opening chapter. Then we get a strong passage about the other Everett Singh, the one familiar from Planesrunner, who is working hard to get his shipmates out of a frozen alternate Earth. This passage reads smoothly by itself, but also has nice resonances with the first chapter, for example this Everett remembering the good old days when he used to have time to play soccer.

Chapter Three takes us back to the first Everett, who is instructed by government officials to work with "Madam Moon," the aliens' interface for interacting with humans, to find his alternate father's discovery about the multiverse. The officials are quite trusting of these aliens, but since the aliens have dedicated themselves to spreading through the galaxy, skeptical readers must be suspicious of their motives for wanting to better understand the multiverse.

There is a lot going on here, and a lot of reasons to want to keep reading.

The opening of Besieged is also strong, with a memorable initial scene, when King Charald realizes his son is tainted——he literally throws the child across the room. By his contrast with the king's other scheming advisors, High Priest Oskane instantly becomes a likeable character. The prejudices at work here make me interested in what will become of the child.

But forced to try to find something to complain about, I must say the writing in Besieged strikes me as a bit heavy-handed. Several small details did not ring true to me, for example this description: "He paced, his boots sinking into the sandy soil, crushing fallen pine needles; their tangy scent filled the clearing, mingling with the fresh smell of the sea." I have stepped on pine needles a great many times and never had the air suddenly fill with a new tangy scent.

More importantly, I had the same reaction as to important plot points. For instance, the king blames his young bride that their child is a half-blood. Oskane's rival Nitzel determines to take advantage of this by replacing the young queen with his own daughter. Since she is already married, he will have to kill his own son-in-law first. I can believe that he would do that, but it strikes me as entirely out of character for the brash, self-important king to accept his advisor's daughter as a bride, when she is already married and has born another man's children. But the author compels the king to do it, anxious to show how evil Nitzel is.

A few such moments of Daniells pulling her characters' strings a bit too obviously are a small quibble, but enough to decide this Battle of the Books, since I found the opening of Be My Enemy so impressive.

THE WINNER: Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald

Be My Enemy moves to the second round, where it will face No Peace for the Damned by Megan Powell. Incidentally, this completes a strong first-round showing by Pyr's YA hardcover series, which has gone 3-0 so far in Bracket #6.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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