Monday, December 8, 2014


GyreWorld by Eve and Robert Forward. 

Like Warpworld, this review also has a number of firsts, this will be the first web novel I've reviewed, the first unfinished work I've reviewed and the first work written by siblings.  Eve Forward has two novels (The Villains by Necessity which I hope to one day get a copy of and review and Animist which I know nothing about) and a number of animated episodes from shows like GI Joe (a great favorite of my childhood) and Biker Mice from Mars (which... I'm gonna be honest, I loathed).  Robert D.Forward has also written two novels and has an extensive list of writing work for various shows among them Transformers Beast Wars (which I also enjoyed), GI Joe and BraveStarr... Which most of you won't have heard of and I won't get into here.  I was around to watch both shows as a child though, which I am aware dates me. They are both the children of Robert Forward, a noted science fiction writer and physicist whose work I also hope to review here in the future.  Rest assured I will do at least some of the works that have been recommended to me first, especially given that the folks of SpaceBattles, Libarc and elsewhere have handed me a huge list of books.

But moving on!

GyreWorld is a fantasy story set in a fairly original world very unlike our own.   It's a world of moving gears and parts with 3 races of sapients settled in whatever parts can support life.  It's a harsh world in a lot of ways, but the inhabitants have managed to create civilizations and cities despite that.  While there are 3 races mentioned in the book, the story only focuses on two of them and so will this review.  The most important race in this story is that of the kin, a small race of fuzzy humanoids that live in the city with humanity but apart in their own area they call the warren.  The kin could have easily been another hobbit knock off race and I'll admit when I started the story, I had my doubts.  The Forwards however do a very good job at making them distinct and a touch alien.  None of the citizens of the Shire would fit in with these small, but at times, feral people. Their practices and outlook on life have been shaped by a long period of living in sparse, harsh environments and even centuries of easy city life haven't dimmed those cultural memories or erased the marks of that past.  What I like best about this though is this is never info-dumped to us but details are fed to us through the interactions and statements of the characters.  We are introduced to traditions and ideas that the Kin have by the Kin characters and left to come to our own understanding of this culture.  Which makes the anthropologist in me giddy and the reader tired of wading through giant paragraphs of "As You Know Bob" dialogue feeling liberated when writers do this.  There is one bit where a drunken ex-priest in jail begins to explain some social and political background to another character but I'm willing to spot a writer one chapter of "As You Know Bob" when you make a world this different and complex.

The story that takes us through Gyreworld is a simple one.  A band of thieves have stolen a very important holy relic from a local church.  I say important because with it missing, bad things are happening. Very lethal and dramatic bad things.  I can't say much more then that without giving up some big spoilers.  Suffice to say, our heroes have to find the relic and get it back to the church in question or the consequences will be dire. As in Oh God! Oh God! We're All Gonna Die!  The Forwards do a good job with showing us these consequences to, as things build up gradually but unavoidably and we the reading audience must logically agree that the damn relic has to go back!

Our main viewpoint character is an odd Kin, by the name of Tod Pottersfield.  Tod is a priest of the Kin god Badger and the Human Church Merciful and Inevitable. I think most of you have figured out that the Church concerns itself mainly with the dead and death.  In fact we meet Tod in the course of his day job....  Cutting out the organs of a dead woman for storage in jars.  Afterwards he'll cut away the flesh as well.  Burial rituals on GyreWorld are very involved.   Badger is a Kin god, a totemic force which also has a lot to do with death, dying and the here after. Tod is actually part of a thing in his culture where some Kin serve both Kin and Human religious organizations and it's made very clear that not all Kin (or all Humans for that matter) approve of this.  I'll talk more about the religions later but right now I want to focus on Tod.  

Tod is a howling zealot of a fanatic. Utterly and completely devoted in his belief and service to the divine force of death (divinity is not anthropomorphized in this story which makes it kinda like Roman religion before the Greek influences) to the point that it frankly unnerves even some of his religious superiors. It certainly unnerves me and I am religious!  Most stories would make someone like Tod a one note character but Gyreworld refuses to do so. Tod is a zealot. Tod is a fanatic. Tod is also a person with thoughts, emotions, ties and desires outside of his admittedly powerful religious devotion. He loves people such as his sister and other family/clan members. He's feels guilty about the way a past relationship ended. He struggles with the burden put on him by his now dead father Wey, who wanted him to work to bring the Kin and Human religions together. He desperately wants to live up to the goals given him and do the right thing.  Of course he has his vices as well, he tends towards self righteousness, can be rather tiresome about the whole death thing and... He's kind of a bigot. This really comes up in regards to our third main character. Tod's bigotry is however a product of his culture. Tod's position in this culture is complicated, what with his ties to a major human institution and his clan talent which leaves him in a distant position. See all the Kin are divided into clans and each clan has a special talent. Tod's clan talent is being able to tell when someone is going to die. This doesn't mean they can see the future, it's just that if you're terminal ill or if something especially lethal is going to happen soon, they can sense it. As you can guess most people don't take the news of "Hey my special mojo tells me you have 2 months to live." all that well. Add in Tod's withdrawn and somewhat downbeat personality and... He is not Mr. Popular with the Kin or humanity. Tod is also strangely divided at times. The division between Tod Pottersfield and Brother Tod, priest of Badger and fucking Death Itself is readily apparent. When given the responsibility for tracking down the thieves Tod becomes relentless and unstoppable. The Terminator would find Tod's gives no fuck and will not stop for shit attitude impressive as Tod is willing to fight, question or threaten anyone and everyone under the sun to complete his holy mission and if that means he got to run you over? So the much the worse for you! Meanwhile when not on church business Tod is passive, unwilling to do violence even in self defense (to the point that a band of teenage Kin punks rob him pretty much everyday) and frankly a push over. The reasons for this emerge over the story and are fairly interesting and make sense. What we see is a person who doesn't trust or care much for himself and is looking to be of service to what he sees as the best and greatest power he can serve. Unfortunately for him, that means he gonna get ass kicking after ass kicking.

Our next viewpoint character and only second to Tod himself is also a Kin named Jillick.  Jillick is in many ways Tod's equal and opposite.  She's a girl and not very religious.  He's conservative and very law abiding, Jillick likes to dabble in law breaking for the thrills.  Tod is a bigot, especially in regards to the third character.   Jillick had an licit relationship with him for shits and giggles and remains friends with him.  Jillick is a watchmaker and lockpicker.  Both of these things have alot to do with her clan the Pinchbecks whose talents has to do with machines.  Figuring out how they work, how to make them, how to take them apart all sorts of things.  It's frankly a more useful talents in many respects then the Potterfields' one and certainly has a lower social cost.  No one gets afraid of the guy who knows how to fix your watch (well... girl in this case).   But maybe they should because Jillick thinks your damn watch is boring and would rather take apart your locks and see if you have any cool stuff.  She is quiet a bit more worldly then Tod in a variety of ways as you've likely guessed by now. She's a very vibrant, fun loving character and rarely judgmental.  Most likely because she's aware that her metaphorical house is made of glass.  She's also fairly clever, which is good!  Because she's keeping a hell of a secret from Tod, who has recruited her to find the thieves who stole the priceless holy thingy bob.  Jillick is not as selfless as Tod nor prone to wide character swings.  She's fairly consistent throughout the story in mainly playing for what's best for herself and the people she personally cares about.  This really helps balance Tod out, as I think if Tod was surrounded by characters who reinforce his world view and actions he would quickly become insufferable as character.  On the flip side Tod also helps balance Jillick out, as her selfish streak could render her very unsympathetic without someone constantly pulling her towards working for a greater goal then breaking her boredom. What I really find interesting is despite her dabbling with corruption, is that Jillick enjoys greater status in Kin society.  Tod is something of an outsider despite (or maybe because of) his priestly status.  Jillick is a person in good standing in the both the respectable and disreputable layers of Kin society.  Which is a testament to her charisma I think. 

The third member of the cast is a half Kin, half human named Spanghew.  He's considered an abomination by Kin society and human society isn't much kinder.  At first he seems something of a joke character.  Another obstacle to Tod in his inhuman pursuit of fulfilling his superiors commands.  But over chapter by chapter, we see more of him and realize what's going on.  His existance is a comfortable but tragic one.  Adopted by a wealthy but childless couple, he lives well but with no official legal rights.  He can't marry (being a hybrid he's sterile which means under the laws of the Church of life... No marriage for him).  He can't inherent.  He can't be considered a citizen and in many ways he's rather insane.  He's had many relationships with curious women of both Kin and Human background but all those relationships are fleeting ones  at best and he knows it.  Because of his half in and half out status in society all of his friends, lovers and so on eventually move on.  "They grow up" is how Spanghew puts it and you realize that he views his place in society as someone imprisoned in an external childhood.  He can never have the rights of an adult, he can never be allowed to fulfill the responsibilities of an adult, he will always be viewed as half a person at best.  So in public he adopts the role of the eternal teenager because why the fuck not?  Spanghew gets involved when one of the few friends he has who didn't leave him was murdered in his home. Tod realizes Spanghew is holding on to important evidence and Spanghew uses it blackmail his way into the investigation.  That said, Spanghew doesn't become a load around Tod's neck but instead is at times incredibly useful for reasons of his studies, money or use of the influence of his adoptive parents.  He also is amazingly polite and cheerful in the face of Tod's rather rampant assholery (Spanghew makes the point that almost everyone thinks what Tod's says but Tod has the honesty to just say it to his face).  It's not until much later in a scene set in a church run brothel (the church of life views sex as holy thing, because that's how you make more life, so you should have lots of sex) where a bribe is offered to him.  The church can make him able to sire children or as the priestess puts it "We can fix you."  Spanghew's response of screaming at the top of his lungs "I'M NOT BROKEN!" Pulls back the curtains of the hidden pain and rage that is in him.  We don't get to see this inner font often but when we do, we're reminded that Spanghew isn't a joke and his societies treatment of him as one has a cost.  

There are more characters here, from the thief that Tod is hunting who happens to be a famous adventurer (to be honest in a more standard fantasy novel this guy would be the protagonist).  The various clan members of both Jillick and Tod. Like the details of the cultures we deal with we are feed parts and pieces of these characters leaving us guessing at their roles in the story.  Are they allies?  foes?  Recurring individuals?  Walk on parts?  The mystery pulls you along as the Forwards refuse to make this a standard find the macguffin plot.  We are also shown the the consequences of the holy relic of stuff's disappearance long before we're told.  In fact when Spanghew finally digs it up in a Library, you're nodding along as it all makes sense with what  you've already seen.  

I also really enjoy the somewhat alien religions you deal with in Gyreworld, humans worship 9 divine forces (the Kin worship 3) that are very impersonal and focused.  The "gods" aren't anthropomorphized here, their these vast alien forces that a person cannot hope to understand but many are driven by emotion and reason to serve.  The sheer power that the priests and their devotees wield justify the political powers of the churches and you're never left wondering why these gods don't take a more direct hand in these things.  Again we're not told these things, we're shown.  Left to piece it together from things we hear and see while accompanying Tod, Jilliack and Spanghew in their quest.  Which is I think one of the better ways to do it.   

That said there are times when I want to scream at the Forwards to just get on with it.  There's a bit of wondering around I felt we could have done without which means the plot isn't a tight as it could be.  There are also several encounters which I felt were done mostly so the Forwards could show off this amazing world they built, not to tell a better story.  There are also conflicts I felt we could have done without (Tod and his superior Badger Priest for example).  That said it's hard to make that determination until the story is finished.  Which I believe we are close to, as it stands Gyreworld weights in at 167 chapters.

 Gyreworld gets a B, which is as high as it can go until it is finished.  Once it is, I will revisit it and decide if the grade should be changed. 

This is a response from the author (well one of them) of Warpworld to my review.  I'd like to thank Mr. Simpson for letting me post this.

Wow, that's much nicer than I was anticipating.

Okay, to hit some points:

Don't look at me like that, it's tech that runs off the energy built up by belief and emotion, it's fucking magic! I don't have a problem with this in all honesty but a number of books these days attempt to tell me that the magic isn't magic, which I refuse to fall for! In fairness to the writers of warpworld, they don't try to sell me a potion of bullshit here, they get the characters to try to sell me a potion of bullshit.

Yeah, it's magic 'energy' Z that shows up in a lot of stories, and honestly I kind of cringe at calling it 'energy' in the first place because it doesn't have the characteristics of actual defined-by-physics energy. It's an entirely different state of, well, magic shit, the energetic equivalent of unobtanium. Explaining that it's not really 'energy' would make for too much exposition, so we leave it as 'emotional energy', a concept that the audience can readily relate to in terms of stuff like chi and other mystical concepts. So... guilty!

I don't know if the writers were trying to make the point that imperialism isn't very nice and is often a dirty, nasty business... But they did a good job of making that point without giving any lectures or rubbing your nose in it.

I don't consider myself a 'message' writer. Obviously a lot of my beliefs are going to bleed through, but I never set out with a story like this to tell people things, especially stuff that should be blindingly obvious to the average educated person. I tend to follow the David Drake model of just taking actual examples of our own world and adjusting them to differing circumstances. So I guess that worked in that depicted a scene without being preachy. Neato.

Seg's mentor Jarin, a cunning and crafty old man with his own mission and his own possibly shady past. He seems to have been in Seg's position before in a lot of ways and is trying to keep the kid from repeating his mistakes. Seg seems to feel that Jarin hasn't done him that many favors coming up, but considering the fact that someone with Seg's lack of connections and rather smart mouth is still breathing... I kinda think Jarin has spent a lot of time giving Seg cover.

And how. Jarin sees in Seg a model of the sort of revolutionary thinker that he feels they need to break the declining stagnancy of their own culture. They're losing their fight for survival, and they're too busy knifing each other in the back and fighting to keep the status quo.

The problem he has with Seg is that a revolutionary thinker is, well, revolutionary. Also Jarin's one of those guys who rarely comes out and just says what he means. He's using to being the puppetmaster, and that in and of itself is a source of much of their friction.

Viren was a bit of treat for me. He's sly, clever and irrelevant and completely refuses to take this shit seriously. He's no Han Solo but he is pretty fun.

I think you'll be satisfied with his role in the upcoming novels, then. He gets a lot of screentime.

The antagonists are the weakest part of the story. We don't get much of a sense of them, other then one member of the people being ambitious and petty and a law enforcer being an utter bastard for reasons unknown.

Guilty guilty guilty. Here's where I'll let you in on the dirty secret of the first book manuscript: Corrus and Dagga weren't in the original. Neither was Jul Akbas, for that matter. Or Adirante Fi Costk. There wasn't a single named villain in the entire thing, and it was a much more compact story. Akbas didn't actually show up in the original run of the series until the fourth book, Fi Costk got a cameo role in the second and third, while Corrus and Dagga were incorporated during our revisions on the original manuscript, so most of the material concerning them and responses to their actions were added in, which is why their characterization gets short shrift.

We do end up with some mustache-twirling on the parts of our villains in the series, something we've worked to chop back on. 

My original concept and the reason for no named villains is because ultimately what Seg and Ama were fighting and will continue to fight throughout the series is not so much people as systems. If Dagga and Corrus weren't wandering around being nasty and throwing their weight around, it'd just be another pair of thugs with badges. The same goes for the CWA baddies- they're the product of a corrupt institutional ethos, and the real enemy is the system that produces them. Which isn't to say the Guild are the 'good guys' because as the next few books will show the Guild is basically a giant egotistical clusterfuck. Again this is a personal belief shining through in the way I write, but it comes back to my belief that institutions cannot have honor and without good people to steer them away from bad things, they'll inevitably get nastier and nastier in the name of expediency. 

I'm left wondering why the CMC (the People's organization that is opposed to the Cultural Theorist Guild) is so dead set on wrecking Seg's raid when he can provide grand amounts of the the very energy they're so desperately hungry for.

To clarify from the story, the CWA is trying to usurp the Guild's role in raids. For centuries since the two institutions were founded, they've existed in an uneasy balance of power, with one side or the other tending to have a slight dominance. The Guild has carefully protected its formulas and methodology so that you can't kick off a raid and expect to have a good amount of success without employing a Theorist to do the scouting. On the other side, the CWA is the central vita bank of the world, and thus holds a tremendous amount of economic power.

After the disastrous Lannit raid some forty years before, the Guild took a big hit in the PR department and the relationship (which had been leaning heavily toward the Guild at that time) took a heavy turn backward. Going along with that, the CWA had been steadily implementing a policy of incremental gain- they were taking on the debts of cash-strapped Houses/raider units and absorbing them into a growing coalition.

So as mentioned in the story, the CWA has been developing their own version of the Guild in-house, with an eye toward eventually replacing the Guild altogether. Because the Guild's primary function by far is scouting and plotting raids, once that's gone they're fucked. 

The weakness of the Guild is that by and large it's a collection of fractured political cliques with little to no coherent long-term policy. After all, they've survived for centuries and why won't they just keep on surviving? The irony being that people who've studied the history and cultures of literally hundreds of worlds have been in many ways blind to their institutional decline, pointing at somebody else's house while their own is on fire.

The CWA, on the other hand, has a reasonably coherent pair of missions: protect the World from the Storm, and knock out the Guild. Even though they're full of bureaucractic knife fights, they have that much going for them and at this point of the story it's doing pretty damned well. 

As for why they're willing to dick themselves out of a load of vita, that's just taking a long-term gain over a short-term loss. They're accountants by the nature of their institution. 

And if you have to write several paragraphs after the fact to explain an important plot point, you obviously didn't communicate it well enough in-story. My bad.

And now, as a DVD extra!

The original, never-before-released-anywhere original short concept story I wrote that spawned this monstrosity.

Heh, never edited, either. I just spotted a major goof-up there, but whatever, here's the raw.

"Cultural Theorists are the very backbone of our society," Segkel said, taking a sip of water before turning away from the window toward his pupils. Behind him, the dark clouds of an afternoon storm whipped across the landscape, heat lightning shimmering as it struck in rapid, strobing pulses. His acute eye could see the tiny forms of scrabbling surface scavs darting through the dusty surface, seeking shelter or trying to pull in that last bit of precious salvage. He put his glass down on the mantle, then turn to take a slice of fruit from a proffered tray. "Cultural Theorem divides us from any number of primitive raiding societies and barbarians. Without it," he gestured toward the window. "We'd all be out there until the gates burned the planet lifeless. There would be no caj, no luxury, ultimately no survival."

The three students sat quietly, making no comment or question. Questions, of course, would come afterward, submitted in written form. Segkel actually felt that tradition to be obsolete and counterproductive, but he'd caused enough issues of Non-Orthodoxy for any two careers and really needed to occasionally demonstrate a willingness to work within the accepted bounds of the Guild. Besides, he was going to have to fail one of these seekers, and her family was likely to cause him no small amount of pain in consequence. 

He turned back toward the window as the light darkened, the storm finally arriving. The faint pattering sound of drops against the armored glass belied the driving force of the impacts as the water began sheeting down. He loved the storm, the power and the sheer chaos of it. It was much like storming through a gateway with an armored legion, pouring forth into an unsuspecting world to capture and pillage their fortresses, citadels, and cities. 

"These thoughts are first cycle training," he said. "I repeat them to drive home their vitality. The level of responsibility assumed by the CTG is enormous, crushing. Corinse, what percentage of raids bring back enough vita to justify the cost of expedition?"

She answered quickly. "Fifty-seven percent." Facts and figures were no challenges to the young woman. It was understanding the nuances of her desired profession and a basic lack of social proficiency that failed her. He nodded at her, then looked to the woman next to her.

"Usalln, what percentage of raids bring in enough vita to meet goal?" 

"Thirteen percent, mentor." This one was more promising. Sharp, incisive. Should she survive the next stage of training, she could well go far.

"Gelen, what percentage fails to return entirely?" This was something of a trick question, another of his motions to draw his final and most enigmatic pupil out. Gelen seemed to have the necessary attributes, but balanced this with a seeming dispassion for the work. He often seemed... bored. 

"Seven percent failure," the final pupil answered. "For actual complete loss of mission force. Fifteen percent recovers no vita." He offered a small smirk at having evaded the trap inherent in the question. Segkel nodded, granting him the small victory. Dispassionate but arrogant. Marks of a prodigy, as he'd thought. He'd make double sure to grind on the little bastard. Either Gelen would break, or he'd find enough challenge to get up and start actually applying himself.

"So, upon the weight of thirteen percent rests forty-three percent of failure, with twenty-two percent being abject. Non-goal expeditions bear some slack, but are still a form of failure. It is imperative that we maximize every trip through the gates. Every trip. Every trip."


"Did we evolve here, or did we immigrate by some happenstance in the distant past? Who knows? Our myths and stories contain tales of fantasy and exodus, but then so do the myths and tales of nearly every world we encounter. The irony is that we'll laboriously sift through those foreign myths to learn their ways and isolate their centers of vita, while essentially ignoring our own. This brings us to the assignment of the week- a level one survey of our own society. What are our centers of vita?"


"So when I'm finished with these three neophytes, my exile will be finished?" Sekgel paced impatiently as he fired off the question.

"Seg, you're one of the few I've ever met who regarded a home assignment as exile," his old mentor answered. "The answer lies, as always, with the Council." Jarin shook his head. "Twenty years and you're still as pig-headed and willful as ever. I tried to break you of that."

Sekgel snorted derisively. "I should apply some of your methods to the current crop. I'm sure a bit of pain-stim would work wonders. I'm going to down the Haslit neo. She'll make the Guild a good accountant."

"And when the Haslits call for your head?" Jarin drummed his fingers on the desk.

"I'll point out to the Council that we already have enough half-qualified morons running about carrying Guild badges and remind them that this training rotation was their idea. I have a job and a responsibility to the Guild, and I'll discharge it to the best of my ability." He settled into the overstuffed armchair across from Jarin.

"So what is the current assignment?" Jarin asked.

"Locate our centers of vita," Sekgel said, waving a dismissive hand. 

"Evil," Jarin said. "They'll waste the entire week tearing their hair out over that."

"Not the boy. He'll make a conclusion one way or another inside of three days. If he makes the correct assumption, he'll spend the rest of the week drinking and fucking caj. Usalln likewise may figure it out, though she'll proceed to thoroughly and exhaustively test her hypothesis, then agonize over her answer until presentation. The Haslit will probably give me a coordinate list of arenas and brothels."

"That is where we've got what little vita left, of course."

"Of course, but the point of the exercise is to demonstrate that we live in an utterly barren wasteland that wouldn't be worth raiding. The larger issue being that we're in a terminal arc of decay that is only being braked by the actions of the Guild, which is why we can't let idiots like the Haslit girl be guiding expeditions into dumps like this one."

"You've been drinking, Seg,"

"Of course I have. Why haven't you?"