Iain M. Banks' latest novel in the Culture series, Matter, is a humdinger that spans planets, peoples and societies with astonishing ease. Prince Ferbin of the Sarl is a horse-riding fool of a second son who never expected to come anywhere near the throne. However, after a battle, Ferbin witnesses his father's torture and murder at the hands of his most-trusted general. Ferbin's older brother has also been killed, and Ferbin (who is thought to have been killed himself) realizes his life expectancy has just dropped to zero. Ferbin's younger brother Oramen is now the Prince Regent, so Ferbin turns for help to his other surviving sibling, his sister Djan, now a Special Circumstances agent of the Culture. On Sarl, a nation-state approaching industrial revolution, boys are more valued than girls so Djan was seen as worthless. Now she has a wider perspective on her country and herself—she has even lived as a man for a year. On hearing her father and brother are dead, she heads home. Sarl is not just any backward planet; it is the eighth level of a Shellworld, an alien construction billions of years old which holds many different species besides humans. The Oct, aliens in charge of this Shellworld, believe they are descended from the Shellworld's long-vanished builders. The Oct's belief, combined with an unexpected discovery at an archaeological dig, make the stakes Djan and Ferbin are playing for much higher than Ferbin at least could ever have imagined. Matter is Banks in top form. His characters—whether human, alien or drone—are spiky, opinionated, diverse, occasionally short-sighted and tragically believable.
CROSSING NEW BRIDGES
Shadowbridge is Gregory Frost's incredibly imaginative first half of a new duology. Frost immediately pulls the reader into a world of stories within stories with the tale of Leodora. She has never been allowed to forget that the aunt and uncle who raised her are not her parents. Leodora is the daughter of the most famous shadow puppeteer of Shadowbridge, the late Bardsham. Her uncle and aunt don't want her to follow in his footsteps even though she neither belongs nor feels welcome in their village. Eventually, pushed to her breaking point, Leodora makes her escape. To her surprise she is helped by a friend of the family, her father's one-time manager, Soter—whom she has known mostly as a drunk who occasionally lets her practice with her father's puppets. Leodora and Soter travel the spans of Shadowbridge, a weird and fascinating world made up of bridges—spans—which connect different peoples and places. Due to some of the spans' prejudices, Leodora travels and performs as a man under the name Jax. They quickly pick up a third companion, Diverus, a god-touched boy who can turn his hand to any musical instrument and produce beautiful, captivating music. Their fame grows quickly but Soter continually takes them to new spans where they must repeat their journey out of obscurity. Shadowbridge ends somewhat abruptly (in a manner that will be familiar to the modern fantasy reader or moviegoer used to episodic storytelling) but the novel has enough strengths to whet the reader's appetite for the sequel due out in July.
A GRIM POST-APOCALYPTIC VISION
James Howard Kunstler's World Made By Hand offers a dark answer to an often-asked question—what will happen (to the U.S. specifically) when the oil runs out? Set a few decades from now in upper New York state, World Made By Hand posits a 19th-century future: Mass transit is nearly gone, as is central government, and electricity is infrequent and unreliable—and with it go TV, radio and the Internet. Robert Earle, previously a high-powered marketing executive, is a widowed carpenter in this transformed world. His town, Union Grove, has remained calm so far, but the town leaders have let their responsibilities slide. Change comes in the form of a religious group fleeing violence. Their leader, Brother Jobe, is a wheeler-dealer who quickly works his way into all aspects of the community, including a confrontation with a biker who leads a violent and semi-lawless community just outside the town. None of the characters here is particularly likeable and the future looks very much like the misogynistic past (Men are men! Women are . . . serfs.) making this well-conceived and sometimes beautifully written novel a depressing vision of a dying civilization.