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Liz Williams - Nine Layers of SkyThis is an older review for Nine Layers of Sky, an SF story set in the former Soviet Union and permeated by Central Asian Myth by Liz Williams, which, despite of some gaps in the story and a ‘clunky’ ending, I was rather taken by.

Modern (aka Post-Soviet-Union) times, in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Elena Irinova, a former Astrophysicist on the Soviet Space Programme, is eking out a living by working as an office cleaner, dreaming of old space-faring glories in the past, and of a new live in Moscow, or Canada, in the future. When a strange, spherical, black object comes into her possession (by pure chance, it seems. Maybe.) her path crosses the one of Ilya Vladimirievitch Muryets, an 800 year old Bogatyr (Russian Hero. Son of the Sun. Down-and-out Heroin addict) who has a strange love/hate relationship with the fabled Rusalski (some kind of scary nature spirit, or that’s what children are told), who keep reviving/healing him, despite his desire to die.
A lot of people seem to be after the strange object in Elena’s possession – Rusalski, shady officials with all-black eyes (called the Volkh by Ilya), other Bogatyr. They call the sphere a ‘coil’, a key, as it appears to open, in the right hands, a gate into a parallel world called ‘Byelovodye’, ‘the heart of all the Russias, the hidden Republic’ – shaped as much by dreams as by its inhabitants.

The cast is varied – we have our heroine, Elena, who is Soviet, and thus completely lost in the post-soviet and post-soviet-space-programme world: “I lost my job, my self-respect, and my family is starting to fall apart. Even my country’s been abolished”.

Ilya is essentially Russian (or, to look at it from another angle, is part of Russia’s essence – a good old proper Russian Hero. Or, at least, he was one once…)
Manas is another Bogatyr, but he is Kyrgiz instead – a deadly enemy to Russia, a personal enemy to Ilya. He, like Tamarlane (look him up – another Bogatyr), are centred around Samarkand, where Tamarlane’s fabled tomb is, too (but is he dead? Bogatyri are nearly immortal)
Shadia Maranova Anikova is a Colonel in  the Pergama Provincial Military, First City, Byelovodye. She works with a Mechvor, a ‘dream-stealer’ (remember, Byelovodye runs on dreams!), another of the Volkh. She has her own dreams, not all in line with the (strict) political diktat.
There are many more – one that plays a big role are the Horse Clans, earlier (ie pre-Soviet) colonists to Byelovodie, and their leader, the Golden Warrior (look him up!), who take sides with the Rusalki, who want things ‘they way they used to be, the way they ought to be’.

I loved most of the concepts in the story, maybe mainly for being different and thus feeling fresh.
The idea of a parallel world, driven by dreams, with gates and cross traffic is nothing new or special these days. And the fights for the control over the world, its dreams, and the gates that control travel and migration are an intrinsic part of this scenario.
The parts based on Central Asian Myths are much more novel and thus fascinating: the Rusalky, according to their own legends wanderers from world to world, using a technology they’ve forgotten how it works now, and becoming ancient, non-human, forgotten, mythical. The half-bloods they bred (the Volkh, the Bogatyr) with the colonists, who have special powers, extremely long life, knowledge, but are few, and thus control the humans from the shadows.
Live in the post-USSR is a large part of the setting, and is described lividly, and is definitely non-fictional, if rather scary and unsettling.

Liz Williams can write Kazakh live so vividly because she used to live and work there, until the crashing post-soviet economy made her life and business unviable. The real-live experience shows. Since being back in the UK she has become a full time writer, with a number of novels and loads of short stories under her belt. She has been nominated for the Philip K Dick award, the Arthur C Clarke Award, the BSFA awards, but, so far, never struck it lucky.
The book itself is a highly enjoyable read, well written and with a lot of drive to the various story threads which wind around each other whilst following some of the protagonists. The Central Asian Myths that are woven into the story give it a new, different, and very enjoyable ‘flavour’, although you might have to do some research around the concepts and figures used.
The story itself has a good number of holes and logical gaps, and the ending feels distinctly clunky (ever seen the ending in ‘Wild at Heart’? Same feeling…). I think there would have been more live in the scenario, and the book would have benefited from a more thorough treatment, maybe as a series instead? The world she’s playing in definitely has the potential.
Overall a very enjoyable book with an unusual setting from one of the newer, fresh voices of UK SF, very much worth reading!

More Liz Williams

Title: Nine Layers of Sky
Subtitle: In a World Torn Asunder Hope Refuses to Die
Author: Liz Williams
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL:
Publisher:  Tor Books
Publisher URL:
Publication Date: 2004
Review Date: 1 Oct 2006
ISBN: 0330412493
Price: UKP7.99
Author URL:
Pages: 427
Format: Paperback
Topic: SF
Topic: Russian Mythology


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