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Originally published Sunday, July 13, 2014 at 6:17 AM

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Fantasy worlds get an upgrade with alternate technology

Nisi Shawl rounds up new works of fantasy, including Katherine Addison’s “The Goblin Emperor,” Rjurik Davidson’s “Unwrapped Sky” and Felix Gilman’s “The Revolutions.”

Special to The Seattle Times


Replacing the perpetually Medieval faux-Europes that fantasy readers are used to with imaginary Asias and Africas helps keep the genre fresh, but authors can also make the settings of their magical tales more interesting by updating their worlds’ technology.

Though the cover of Katherine Addison’s “The Goblin Emperor”(Tor Books, 432 pp., $25.99) features the typical many-towered castle and protagonist with pointy ears, there’s a dirigible floating in the background as well. Much of the novel’s plot concerns the engineering of a bridge. And as he investigates the industrial roots of the “accident” that killed his father and three half-brothers, the part-goblin, part-elf emperor of the book’s title also deals with changes within his realm tied to technological developments. Sorcerers and clockmakers vie for his favor; assassins attack, goblin ambassadors visit, and all are influenced by the power of invention and the newly-crowned Edrehasivar VII’s welcoming attitude toward progress.

Disarmingly self-effacing yet firmly committed to his own survival, Edrehasivar VII makes an amiable companion as readers explore with him the intricate formalities and brutal imperatives of court life. Focusing on her hero’s thoughts and emotions, Addison (recently revealed to be noted author Sarah Monette) renders his struggles with his ascendancy from outsider to emperor vividly intimate. He’s at the center of a truly fantastic landscape, one populated with machines that increase the story’s strangeness and plausibility while doing nothing to distract from the coming-of-age that is its real point.

The setting for Australian novelist Rjurik Davidson’s debut, “Unwrapped Sky”(Tor Books, 432 pp., $25.99), is a neo-Bronze Age city called Caeli-Amur. A decaying oligarchy perched uneasily atop the remains of a much more advanced civilization, Caeli-Amur is in the midst of a rebellion led by disaffected mechanics and murderers.

The rebels’ hideout is filled with arcane and dysfunctional machinery. The vengeful deities behind the city’s corrupt magical bureaucracy turn out to be the jaded recipients of a disgusting but scientifically-based immortality treatment while the gorgeous and mythically resonant minotaurs who periodically visit Caeli-Amur prove all too mortal, and are probably the results of genetic experiments conducted millennia ago.

Told from the viewpoints of a self-justifying bureaucrat, a cynical revolutionary and a killer-for-hire who comes to espouse the rebels’ cause, this novel is an arresting use of the “lost science devolving into superstition” trope. Davidson immerses readers in his blend of fantasy and science fiction via striking characters who rush headlong into chaotic and dangerous situations from which they belatedly realize they’re unable to extricate themselves — an approach analogous to one response to the lure of scientific progress.

The science leavening the fantasy elements in Felix Gilman’s new novel, “The Revolutions”(Tor Books, 413 pp., $26.99), is anything but anachronistic — though it may not fit our current definition of science.

The populations of late-19th century Europe and North America saw “spiritualism” as provable, forward-thinking, and entirely rational. Gilman’s story contrasts sharply with that contemporary view of spiritualism as science when Londoners Arthur Shaw and Josephine Bradman become caught up in a sorceror’s war during their journey among the spheres of Jupiter and Mars.

The book’s close-to-modern setting combines with its matter-of-fact depiction of the “aetheric” (etheric) nature of the universe to give readers a nicely ambiguous sense of its background and events. Do winged telepaths actually inhabit Mars satellite Phobos — perhaps in some dimension parallel to our own? There’s pleasure in being led to wonder.

Nisi Shawl reviews science fiction and fantasy for The Seattle Times.

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