I recently learned a totally amazing word. “Vellichor” was invented by John Koenig to mean “the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time…” I am sure many of you have experienced this even if you didn’t have the word for it. I have been away from the United States for a year now, I am definitely in used bookstore withdrawal. I miss going on my little treasure hunts for science fiction and fantasy books, and of course, Steampunk books in particular. It seems an especially apt word for today’s review of a book that is also focused on the passage of time (or in fact, times).
I managed to pick up a yellowing copy of The Warlord of the Air just before I left America, and I have been carting it around from country to country. I finally got a chance to read it on a long day of travel as I was leaving Sofia, Bulgaria and it was well worth the wait. This is the first in Michael Moorcock’s A Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy, which were published between 1971 and 1981.
The tale is framed as a story that was told to Moorcock’s fictional grandfather of the same name, who recorded Bastable’s adventure while on holiday on a tiny island in 1903. He sees Bastable for the first time when he is forcibly ejected from a ship where he had stowed away, and is left to fend for himself. As much out of boredom as charity, “Moorcock Sr.” takes the stranger under his wing and invites him to come back to his hotel for a meal. After some coaxing, Bastable starts to tell him about his life, and they end up locked in the room for three days while the story is recorded.
At the outset, Bastable is on a peace-keeping mission for the British army in 1902. He and a few other officers are invited into the sacred city of Teku Banga to negotiate with the king who reigned over this millennia-old society. They are led into the labyrinthine Palace of the Future Buddha and drugged by their host. When Bastable realizes the trick, and the others flee the chamber where they are eating with the king, and soon become lost in the tunnels under the palace. Something happens to him in the pitch-blackness and he loses consciousness.
When he awakes, he simply believes that there has been an earthquake, but the truth is far stranger than he could have imagined. The city around him lies in ruins, but this is old destruction and his clothes hang off him in aged tatters. Eventually, he finds out that he was been somehow transported to the year 1973, but no 1973 that you or I might recognize. The British Empire has continued to grow and flourish in the absence of WWI, spreading “civilization” throughout the globe. But as Bastable finds after joining the Airship police, the peace is only surface-deep and in many places terrorists and rebels are trying to throw off the yolk of oppression.
Alternate histories are some of my absolute favorite stories to read, and this one did not disappoint. It was fairly short, but also very insightful, which is an excellent combination. Moorcock has a unique perspective on history, both real and invented, and I definitely recommend that you give his work a try. I recently started reading a new compilation of short stories called The Time Traveler’s Almanac, and I was also thoroughly delighted by Moorcock’s Pale Roses. I look forward to getting back to the States in a few months, where I can resume my hunt for the rest of Moorcock’s books in the series.
Have you ever read anything by Moorcock? What did you think?
When I started writing For Whom The Gear Turns I thought maybe, just maybe, someday a literary agent would contact me and offer me a free book to read and review. You can imagine my surprise when after only blogging for 6 months it happened! I worried a little that this would color my view of The Iron Jackal (Book 3 of The Tales of the Ketty Jay), especially after the giddy rush I got from opening the package when it arrived. But in the end, it gave me a giddy rush all on its own.
Chris Wooding has been writing the Tales of the Ketty Jay for several years, he is all the way through Book 5 in the UK. But, it was his US agent who contacted me, and told me that they were going to start with Book 3 for the American release on June 1. I was a bit skeptical about starting in the middle of a series, but it meant being dropped into a fully formed and complex world that was a joy to explore and made me even more interested to go back and read the earlier books. There are airship pirates, complicated relationships, daemon-imbued walkie talkies and multi-faceted cultural and political systems that overlap and contradict in a very realistic way. What’s NOT to like?
This tale focuses on the captain of Ketty Jay, Frey, but the story is told through the eyes of the entire crew as they take turns enriching the story with their insights and foibles. It all starts when this rag-tag band is enlisted by Frey’s “its complicated,” Trinica the pirate queen, to steal an artifact of unknown origin and purpose off of a moving train. It reminded me a little of one of my all-time favorite episodes of Firefly, only I really doubt that Frey would ever return the goods like Malcolm Reynolds no matter what they are. In this case, the artifact turns out to be a weapon that seems both ancient and futuristic at the same time, but when Frey lets his ego get the best of him and lifts it from its case the real adventure begins. The weapon pricks his palm and leaves behind the most dreaded of pirate iconography, “the black spot.”
As scary as the Kraken is, I think the daemon that pursues the bearer of the spot in Wooding’s world is even more terrifying. The Iron Jackal is a sinister amalgamation of flesh, machine and the bearer’s darkest secrets and most painful regrets. Frey is haunted by the voice of a man he left to die and the eyes of the woman he abandoned to pursue his life of piracy. But even with his dark past, his loyal crew will stop at nothing to help their captain return the artifact to its resting place to save his life and the family they have built aboard the Ketty Jay. If only they knew where that resting place was…
I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a fun read, but doesn’t mind some moral ambiguity. Frey is by no means a “good guy” by nature, but his Archer-like humor and quest for redemption in Trinica’s eyes make him a very compelling hero. The rest of the crew also gets to be fully-formed people with loves, losses and secrets all their own, so in the end it is really an ensemble piece rather than a story just about Frey. There are some nuances of the political issues that I am sure that I have missed because of not reading the earlier books, but it still definitely holds together as a stand-alone novel and a great place to start exploring Wooding’s work.