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Dave Duncan, author of "When the Saints"
Dave Duncan, author of "When the Saints"

The Daily Review, Tue., March 27

Canada's strong speculative-fiction world produces three provocative, entertaining reads Add to ...

In the world of science fiction and fantasy, Canadian authors are currently punching well above their weight, with fine work being done by crossover mainstream authors like Margaret Atwood, and genre specialists like Nalo Hopkinson, with her uniquely Caribbean-inflected science fiction, and Guy Gavriel Kay with his intricate, compelling historical fantasies.

Even my own province, British Columbia, can boast some impressive contributions, with Spider Robinson regularly adding new works to his superlative comic series chronicling the adventures of the proprietors and customers at Callahan’s, a bar that caters to time travellers, talking dogs and other eccentrics; William Gibson’s dark, dystopian visions of the near future in works like Pattern Recognition and the seminal Neuromancer, often credited with single-handedly inventing the cyberpunk genre, continue to delight, alarm and amaze a broad audience.

Vancouver also serves, albeit in a far-future incarnation, as the setting for one of Canadian science fiction’s least known but most remarkable works, Crawford Killian’s strange and lyrical Eyas.

While perhaps not strong enough to displace any of the star performances cited above from the winner’s circle, the three books under review are all credible additions to the nation’s rich genre supply.

Dave Duncan’s When the Saints features enough magic and swordsmanship to satisfy his many fans. His latest book is a follow-up to 2010’s Speak to the Devil. Both are set in an imagined medieval Europe and feature the adventures of the Magnus brothers, a clan of warriors and magicians who serve the lords of Jogary, a realm as fictional as it is feudal. In this second instalment we follow the adventures of Wolfgang Magnus as he explores his talent as a Speaker, a kind of magician/seer who can fight with magic as well as edged weapons.

Battles are fought, bodices are ripped, evil churchmen are thwarted and magic is afoot as the plot thunders across the field like a somewhat overburdened warhorse. This is not a great book, by any means, but is a good read and will please many readers..

Karl Schroeder’s Ashes of Candesce is a more ambitious effort, an ornate and complicated hard science fiction work that imagines a distant future in which most of the universe is ruled by post-human virtual intelligences that have transcended the limits of human flesh and mortality. What remains of old-school humanity is apparently restricted to a miniature galaxy within Virga, an air-filled balloon with a 5,000-mile diameter. The balloon world is not only beleaguered by the cyber demons of Artificial Nature from without, but also limited in its own technological development by a mysterious field that restricts its inhabitants to 19th- and early-20th-century technology.

This is all pretty confusing, as are the intricate political and military conflicts among the micro states of Virga as they try to defend themselves against an impending invasion by Artificial Nature. Nevertheless, the action scenes are brisk and exciting, and all the space-opera elements are linked to remarkably sophisticated reflections on themes of embodiment, attachment and artificial intelligence. Think Buck Rogers meets Buckminster Fuller meets the Buddha. Despite its odd blend of elements, this is, in the end, a thought-provoking and oddly beautiful story, with enough charm to send me back to read the earlier books in the Virga series.

Robert Charles Wilson’s time-travel romance, A Bridge of Years, has itself accomplished some time travel, having originally been copyrighted in 1991 and now being re-issued by the prolific Tom Doherty Associates. The book’s main plot device is a “time tunnel” that connects a house in the Pacific Northwest in 1989 to New York in the early 1960s. The tunnel is an artifact created by a future civilization and is used by several other characters – including a future warrior literally addicted to his weapons – who complicate the author’s playful use of time travel conventions and paradoxes.

But while this book is sturdy, workmanlike hard science fiction, complete with nanotechnology and imagined twists in time travel, it is also a novel of character with several fully developed and believable figures. Like the other two books in this triune review, A Bridge of Years is solid, delightful genre fiction and will be good travel or vacation company. Recommended for the beach or the airport.

Tom Sandborn is a journalist, poet and social activist who has lived in Vancouver since 1967. He did not arrive there via magic, space ship or time travel, but he loves it just the same.

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