Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Mongrel Mage - L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Mongrel Mage is the nineteenth in L.E. Modesitt Jr.’s ‘Saga of Recluce’ fantasy series. Yes, nineteenth. I think I picked up the first one in the mid-nineties, and since then, Recluce has always delivered. Modesitt is known for top-notch world building and solid, convincing characterisation wrapped in an interesting and entertaining plot – so I was looking forward to his latest entry in the series.

Recluce has developed a rich world history over the course of preceding books, looking at the rise and fall of kingdoms, empires and nation-states. We’ve seen the declining high technology of Cyador, the brutal mines of Hamor, and the city of chaos, Fairhaven, amongst others. This time we’re looking at a conflict between Spidlar and Gallos. The Spidlarians are mercantile, pragmatic, and if prone to bouts of greed, also somewhat socially progressive. The Prefect of Gallos, by contrast, seems calculatingly brutal – prepared to take control of as much of the continent as he can get away with. The conflict between them evokes some of the later wars of the medieval period – groups of professionals, backed by the general population, crawling through mud and fire in an effort to make their lords holdings a few feet larger.

Of course, in this case, the wars are backed by magic. Recluce has a highly systematised system of magic, or ‘Chaos and Order’. Order mages tend toward healing, invisibility and subtler, defensive arts, whilst Chaos mages lean more toward fireballs. There’s a balance between the forces – the more unused Chaos there is in the world, the more Order is available, and vice versa. Modesitt has put some serious thought into the way that the two types of magic work with each other, and if you’re a fan of logical systems for your magery, this one is for you.

Our protagonist here is Beltur, a young man being brought up as a user of Chaos. Beltur is thoughtful and has a talent for self-reflection, whilst also demonstrating a lack of practical experience. He lives under the shadow of his uncle, a powerful user of Chaos magic, His uncle clearly loves Beltur, but also clearly knows more than he’s saying, and feels convincingly disappointed by Beltur’s weak talents in the area of Chaos magic. The relationship between them is clearly a complex one, with mixed obligations, expectations and emotional freight; the prose works hard to make this initil conflict between Beltur and his uncle have meaning, and largely succeeds – the conflicts in their relationship feel genuine, as well as familiar.

Beltur isn’t defined by that conflict, though it does help shape him. Instead, he’s the portrait of a young man trying to work out who he is, and what he wants to do. Modesitt has always had a gift for putting us inside his character’s heads, and exercises it to the fullest here. Beltur’s inner voice is compassionate, occasionally mystified, and self-aware enough that the reader can go along for the ride, sharing and empathising with his trials and tribulations. Beltur’s journey of the self is convincingly portrayed -  and works as a coming of age tale, even without the addition of magic.

Beltur is joined by a very strong supporting cast. It’s difficult to get a handle on the antagonists; as-is, they seem to exist mostly to drive the plot. I would have liked to spend a little more time on their side of the fence, to give them a bit more depth. However, they serve perfectly well as insidious adversaries, and the more positive characters are complex, charming, and entirely believable as individuals. Modesitt has often produced strong characters, and I have to admit he’s done well here. All of Beltur’s acquaintances feel like they have lives of their own, which we happen to be casting an eye over. In some ways, they lack a passionate intensity, but the subtle, quiet moments fof emotional resonance which are scattered throughout the narrative make them compelling characters.

The plot…well, it’s one part coming-of-age, one part war story. There’s some romance, and it’s plausibly portrayed and not overwrought. There’s magical battles, with fireballs, cavalry charges, and cast-iron consequences. There’s also the story of Beltur, trying to work out who he is, and what he wants, in the crucible of war. It’s good stuff. Certain elements may seem familiar to readers of Modesitt’s other work, but the story is compelling enough that it probably won’t matter.

In the end, Mongrel Mage works as a way in to the larger Recluce series, as a stand-alone novel, and as a part of the series as a whole. Its well-crafted plot, convincing characters and imaginative world make it a firm recommendation from me.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Valiant Dust - Richard Baker

Valiant Dust is a military sci-fi novel, and the first of Richard Baker’s “Breaker of Empires” series.

Sikander North is a prince. Well, close enough. His family rules a world, and, as he at one point indicates, he’s the at least nominal suzerain of a continent. Sikander also has the slightly less glamorous job of being a Lieutenant in the space navy of another power. Because whilst Sikander is a prince, he’s a prince of a minor world in the scheme of things, one which is dependent on the patronage of greater powers to survive intact. In order to help maintain that patronage, he’s now serving as an officer on a ship largely crewed by his patrons.

Sikander is an individual of several facets. Perhaps the largest, from the point of view of the book, is his role as a naval officer. He’s smart, honourable, determined to make a good impression on his new colleagues. That he has unarmed combat training probably doesn’t hurt either. In his moral outlook, Sikander feels like an uncomplicated hero: a good man, struggling againt those with a less ethical view of the world. In some ways, it’s a relief to read about a straightforward good guy, doing the righ thing because he believes in it On the other hand, the antagonists feel a bit more nuanced, willing to cut deals, mislead and politick in order to achieve their goals.  It’d be nice to give Sikander a little more room in his character for this sort of thing. On the other hand, he does have some issues all his own, including some deep-rooted trauma explored in flashbacks. It’s not all sweetness and light for Sikander North – he bleeds, sweats and worries as much as the rest of us, which helps bring him a more attainable sense of humanity.

There’s a sense of the iceberg about Sikander – with a great deal going on beneath the surface. His supporting cast, including the officers and crew of the ship on which he serves, are given less time to shine on the page, which is a shame. Several have visible edges which would reward exploration; the officer who seems to struggle with reporting to Sikander after an incident in her past, for example, or the one with a prejudice against client kingdoms. These feel like spaces ripe for exploration; in the meantime, they serve as solid foils to Sikander, driving the plot whilst exposing more of his character to the reader.

The plot – well, I enjoyed it. The ship containing Sikander and crew is sent to a world which is also a client state, this time of another of the larger colonial powers. There’s unrest bubbling away under the surface, and they’re sent to keep a largely-disinterested eye on things. This lets the reader follow Sikander as an observer in another culture, looking at the legacy and effects of colonialism, as well as other social factors – religion and gender roles are both touched upon. That gives us a nuanced backdrop, and emotional investment in the world when everything (inevitably) kicks off.

When things kick into high gear, Baker shines. His space combat has enough of the abstract to let the reader grasp the strategy, whilst carrying enough visceral weight to let the (sometimes bloody) consequences feel real. The battles are both a ballet of radar lights and fast-acting kinetic weapons, and brutal, unflinching affairs where bulkheads blow out and lives are lost in an instant. It’s almost a poetry of war. The ground combats are more immediate, but have a grit and grace of their own; in both cases, the tension builds and cracks with equal intensity – and makes for a page-turning read.

In the end, is it worth reading? If you’re looking for something new in military sci-fi, I’d say yes.
The battles are elegantly done, but they’re wrapped in a world which carries greater depths (and explores them further) than might be the usual, and characters who can, given the chance, pour their feelings off the page.  It’s definitely a compelling story, and a fun read – and the series has a lot of potential.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Autonomous - Annalee Newitz

Autonomous is a stand-alone sci-fi novel by Annalee Newitz. The text explores the meaning of autonomy through several lenses. The first is more abstract – the intellectual. In a world where almost everything appears to be patented and under a corporate aegis, the sense that research can be enacted free of a business agenda is one severely under threat. On a more visceral level, the text also examines a system of indenture, which applies to artificial intelligences, forced to work for a company until they’ve recouped their manufacturing costs. That system is also pervasive in the non-AI community, with people willing (or at least needing) to sell themselves into years-long indenture contracts in order to settle debts, or simply to survive. This is a text which wants to look at notions of ownership, what they mean, and what effects they can have on an individual and social level.

Those are big questions, to be sure, and ones the book explores in a fairly nuanced manner; but while looking at the big questions, Autonomous also knows how to show a reader a good time. There are pirates. Actual pirates, with a submarine. There are combat robots and world weary, noir-esque agents of nebulous authority. There are combat robots with shield-wings who can shoot out your eyeball at a thousand yards, but also ruminate on how much of their responses is enforced by their programming and lack of autonomy. There’s a high stakes chase story in here, and an intimate, layered set of personal relationships which have the sort of raw emotional energy that makes them feel real.

This is a world which has a sense of pervasive ownership about it, and also one which is clearly a near-future of our own. Climate change has broken nation states, and left governments  in an uneasy and often subservient partnership with megacorporations. The businesses are, unsurprisingly, keen to own everything, and charge for everything – and if there’s a cultural pushback against this, a sense that not everything needs to live under the banner of what the market will bear – well, that pushback can be managed by tame governmental agencies, with private armies and a license to kill whilst protecting the rights of their corporate colleagues. It’s a world where nothing is entirely free, whilst also being a recognisable and innovative future. The reader can see the rise of AI in the robotic characters in the text – but the history of their struggle to own themselves, and the sense of ongoing oppression are delicately webbed in the narrative subtext, and plausible in the context of the advances of today. Similarly, the rise of consumer-grade designer drugs, to allow greater stamina, greater intelligence, greater focus – these are clear extrapolations from the modern world. That they’re used by corporations to eke more productivity from their workers, personal benefits secondary to the bottom line, is an equally plausible premise.

That’s the world which Newitz has drawn – one which takes our current state, and moves it forward a few steps. Some of those steps have dystopian accents, and others are reactions against that less-than ideal universe. In any event, this is a world which feels familiar, whilst carrying accents of the vividly weird. It’s also one which thoughtfully approaches the question of ownership – not just in calling for freedom, but in examining the pressures and roots of property and indenture in themselves. It’s a quietly clever book, one which asks the reader to pinder big uestions under its breath, in between the interrogations, gunfire and romance.

From a character standpoint – well, there’s several perspectives. I was particularly drawn to that of Paladin, a recently activated combat AI, struggling to understand their place in the world. Paladin ‘s struggle to understand themselves, humanity and the world around them is written with skill and panache; Paladin’s responses to their circumstances aren’t always even close to the ones the reader might make, but they are equally valid. Newitz has put some serious work in to give us a non-human perspective, and   largely succeeded. There’s a delightful conversation at one stage which calls out the danger of anthropomorphising for both AI and humanity, and it was a sharply observed and clever piece. Paladin struggles not just to be seen as a human, but to be seen as themselves. That they’re a heavily armored, gun-toting war machine as well as their other roles is another matter entirely. That what they feel they want and need may be circumscribed by programming designed to restrain and keep them happy, something else again.

Paladin is paired with Eliasz, an agent of a bureau which enforces intellectual property. Eliasz is a hard-edged professional, though he clearly has his own issues. If Paladin’s autonomy is ring-fenced by programming, Eliasz has his own limits, perhaps slightly less obvious. He’s a witty, intelligent interlocutor, a killed undercover operative, with a long streak of ruthlessness and an absolute willingness to engage in horrifying levels of violence in order to achieve his goals. Autonomous isn’t afraid to give us characters we can empathise with one minute, and be horrified by the next.

Perhaps more sympathetic is Jack, the intellectual property pirate. Jack has a wry cynicism, and an idealism which contrasts nicely with the violent pragmatism of Eliasz and Paladin. Jack works to break the monopoly of pharmaceutical companies, reverse engineering patented medicines in order to disperse them to those unable to afford corporate prices. Unsurprisingly, this puts her in the sights of Eliasz. But Jack has enough problems already. Her history with other researchers is complicated, and her radical views and willingness to break the law make her a mix between a folk hero and a pariah to her colleagues. There may also be a personal catharsis in what she does. Over the course of the book, we learn about the previous life and loves of Jack – and her energy, enthusiasm and raw determination leap out and seize control of every page that she’s on.

Between the agents hunting Jack and Jack herself are a far larger cast of reprobates . From body-modifying graduate students, to indentured servants, from AI that present as moths and have an interest in history, to recreational drug designers, the sheer diversity of individuals on display is dazzling. Each has enough room on the page to feel alive. In this they’re helped by the environs – lavishly described dome cities, tightly guarded military camps, and, yes, submarines.

Autonomous purports to be the story of how Jack investigates why one of her reverse engineered drugs has horrific side effects, and how Eliasz and Paladin attempt to track the notorious pirate down. But it’s not just about that. It’s a love story, as well, and a story about what people decide they should be, and how they may want to be free, and how that freedom expresses itself. There are foot-chases, interrogations steeped in violence and terror, there’s gunfire and redemption. It makes up a rather good thriller. But this is also a book which isn’t afraid to reflect on the big questions, and invite the reader to do the same. It’s an intelligent, thoughtful, multi-layered text, and also an absolutely cracking read. Give it a try!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Siege Line - Myke Cole

Siege Line is the third in Myke Cole’s ‘Reawakening’ trilogy. The first two books in the series looked at a world where magic was gradually returning, and in particular at an off-the-books government program which, as you might expect, picks up the magic, runs with it, and maybe takes it a bit too far.

The first two books were fast-paced thrillers, liberally mixing magical weirdness with entirely plausible tactical action and emotionally raw characters. Siege Line picks up on these narrative traits, and dials them up to eleven. The action takes place across suburban Virginia and the somewhat less populated Canadian Northwest Territories. Virginia we’ve seen before, though the various government offices do manage to carry the whiff of glacial bureaucracy about them. That they also carry the scent of smart people doing important and occasionally lethal work is a credit to Cole’s tight and evocative prose.

That prose gets a workout when it comes to dealing with the wilds of Canada. Cole brings the stark, pristine geography of the area to life. There’s a sense of the wilderness, of the potential for isolation, floating through the story at times, and it dovetails well with sime of the characterisation; our protagonist, Schweitzer, is increasingly isolated from his family, and from his humanity – and that social isolation is evoked and made more visible to the reader by placing it within a similarly lonely geography.

By contrast, the treatment of the people of the Territories is positive and sympathetic. Living alongside the wilderness, they’re a people dependent on their own skills, and on each other, to get through the day. When the day involves black-ops government agencies and magicians, even more so. This is a town of flawed people, to be sure, but they’re all prepared to hang together. That spirit, that energy, is clear on the page – and helps bring the characters within to life.
Speaking of the characters…well, for one, we’re back with Jim Schweitzer. Aside from having a name that’s fun to say, Schweitzer is an ex-SEAL, devoted to his family, and, well, dead. But he got better. Here, he’s a man with a mission – gutting the programme which brought him back from the dead. There’s a palpable sense of duty to Schweitzer, whose principled idealism works alongside his personal connections to his family to make him personable, and easy to empathise with. Of some interest is Schweitzer’s realisation that he’s increasingly disassociated from the things which have helped keep him human in the first two books – as he struggles to come to terms with his new un-life as a monster, and works to retain his essential humanity. As a hero, Schweitzer works well – and his internal conflicts both let him feel genuine and provide a great read.

Then there’s Wilma 'Mankiller' Plante, sherriff of a town out in the Northwest Territories. I have to admit, as the book went on, I found myself looking forward to Plante’s sections more and more. She’s smart, pithy, witty, and capable. In a series which has the potential to be full of super-powered monsters beating on each other, Plante is an example of a normal, competent person, doing their job under increasingly dire circumstances, and doing it well. Siege Line is a book full of solid, convincing characterisation, and I bought into Plante’s almost immediately; she has an intensity and focus that sit alongside an unflinching emotional honesty that make her escapades a joy to read. There’s a colourful supporting cast as well – from surprisingly-wise senators, through Operators old and new, to CIA bureaucrats. Each is distinguishable, and memorable, and their efforts (and occasional demise) have an impact.

The plot – as ever, we’ll try and stay spoiler free. But it’s a very well-paced book. There’s the building tension in the Canadian Territories, a sense of an unexpected storm coming in. Plante and her deputy walking the wilderness are our eyes on something which feels like it might get out of control. At the same time, Schweitzer is out there, trying to take on the Gemini Cell, bringing wrath and destruction down upon them. There’s the same kinetic gunplay and close quarters fighting which Cole encapsulated so well in his previous works, and here he once again writes some rock-solid, heart-pounding action scenes. The small unit tactics always seemed plausible to me as a reader, and it’s always nice to see characters acting thoughtfully about how to achieve their objective, military or otherwise. That the plausible action also has a cinematic edge, an artful sense of destructive space, a way of making it viscerally real – well, that’s great too. But whilst there really is a fair amount of fast-paced, stormingly good action here, it’s the quieter moments of character which make us care about the action. From Schweitzer’s meditations on who he wants or needs to be, through the thoughtful and considered treatment of First Nations culture and its impacts on Plante, to the emotionally charged, razor-sharp dialogue from Schweitzer and the mysterious Director of the Gemini Cell – there’s a  humanity, or lack of it in play here which both keeps the reader invested and also quietly invites them to think about who they are and what they value.


In the end, this is a smart, precision-crafted military thriller. It has great characterisation, solid worldbuilding and explosive action, and as such, I’m inclined to recommend it to fans of the series, without reservation. If you’re already invested in the adventures of Jim Schweitzer, then this is a book you owe it to yourself to read. If you’re coming to it fresh, I’d say it could work as a stand-alone, but you’ll get far more emotional context and investment if you go back and start at the beginning with “Gemini Cell” – trust me, it’s worth it. 

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Bastard Legion - Gavin Smith

The Bastard Legion is the first in a military sci-fi series from Gavin Smith. Why is it awesome? Well, it’s about a penal legion. Our protagonist has hijacked a prison ship, attached explosive collars to all of the prisoners in stasis, and now plans to use them as her own private mercenary force. That, that is why it’s awesome.

This is a universe where humanity has had a diaspora. We’ve reached out to the stars at last, and found them welcoming. On the downside, we’re still people, still as messed up as we’ve always been. National governments began the space-race, but now they’re in it alongside mega-corporations and colony worlds that have their own agenda – and their own private armies. Space is seething with opportunity for those with the right skillset, and enough of a ruthless bent. This is a universe which seems familiar; its struggles between semi-accountable governments and corporations that are the size of governments is likely to resonate. It’s a time when humanity is reaching out to the stars, with, one hopes, It’s also a universe where labour problems (or unionisation) can be met with deadly force. The blend of these strands of hope and despair gives us a context we can recognise, a well realised projection into our own futures. It helps, of course, that the projection includes power armoured mechs and space travel alongside its convincing corporate dystopia.

Into this space steps Miska. She’s smart, ruthless, and willing to kill. Which is just as well really, because she’s stolen a maximum security prison ship. We spend the book following Miska, and it can get rather…explosive. She’s in mourning for her recently deceased father, and that grief bubbles away silently between the lines, occasionally arcing out of the page. Miska usually feels calm, in control, but the raw nature of her grief has an honesty to it which helps make her feel more human. Miska also has something of a troubled relationship with the rest of her family – including a particularly nasty case of sibling rivalry, whose visceral emotions are entirely on display, and have a genuine fire to them.

If Miska’s grief is part of what makes us able to sympathise or empathise with her, part of that is that it feeds her rage. Goal oriented, she’s got no qualms about kicking the living crap out of someone if they’re in the way, or pushing the button on the explosives strapped to all of her putative recruits. She’s harsh, hard, and willing to be lethal – which makes a great contrast to the other emotions she’s experiencing. She’s also a badass, and her kicking butt and taking names is great fun to read, both for the emotional catharsis and because the fight scenes are fast paced, kinetic, and bloody.

She’s joined by a cast of…well, mostly prisoners. A few of them get enough time on the page to suggest that we’ll be seeing more of them later, though they mostly seem to serve as a combination of sounding board and meat shield for Miska. Still, those we see the most of are distinctive and in some cases sympathetic; our emotional attachment to them grows alongside Miska’s. If they’re merely tools and ciphers at the start, by the close of the text, some of them have become people. Though in some cases, terrible, terrible people.

The story…well, it’s a fast-paced hard hitter, and no mistake. Smith shines writing his battle scenes; I can’t speak for their accuracy, but the rest kept me turning pages – small arms fire, giant stompy robots, hard choices, tension, blood. The characterisation wrapped around the battles is enjoyable, convincing, and puts emotional stakes into the fights. At the end of the day, this is a well crafted piece of military sci-fi, with enough genuine characters to make it feel real, and enough convincing battles to keep the pages turning. 

If you’re on the look out for something like that, then this may be for you.


Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Ironclads - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Ironclads is a near future sci-fi piece by Adrian Tchaikovsky; it's been a good month for Tchaikovsky - his Dogs of War was absolutely brilliant. So this short, near-future novel had some very big shoes to fill. In that, it largely succeeds.

In a near future Europe, run in large part by corporations and their super-rich members (‘Scions’), one of those members has gone missing. This is a bit of a problem, because he was wearing a suit of allegedy impenetrable armour at the time. This makes his relatives, and others who rely on their invulnerability to supplement their economic control, rather nervous. If a Scion in a suit can be disappeared, it’s always possible that they’re not as invulnerable as they thought.

The foundation of the world of the Scions is distressingly familiar. Large corporations control vast amounts of capital. With the creation of suits of impenetrable armour which only they can afford, the corporate class are working to merge corporatism with feudalism. If the invention of gunpowder democratised war, allowing the poor to hold the chivalric types to account, then the invention of the Scion suit reverses the trend. With their fingers in a lot of pies, the corporations can also restrict access to anything which would be able to crack a Scion suit – and so hold onto their effective monopoly of violence. There’s some interesting undercurrents there as well – the US government is implied to be hard-libertarian, and sceptical of rights for women, workers or, well, anyone who doesn’t run a multinational. By contrast, European governments re more sceptical, but the same hierarchy runs through them as well.

The conflict between these two philosophies has led to an actual war, the US marching into Sweden, and using its armed forces as cannon fodder, backed by the rich men in invulnerable suits who will see the benefit of any success. Looking at this from one angle, it’s a suggestion of where a world increasingly in thrall to a corporate vision will go; from another, it’s rather depressing. This is a world where the rich are going to stay on top, and everyone else is going to bleed, one way or another.
Our insights into the world are given by a squad of US grunts, sent after the missing Scion suit. They’re a diverse set, and that emphasises their humanity alongside their low status. There’s the corporate worker, now a drone operator. There’s the giant who believes firmly in the truth of libertarianism, and has the fire of religion to sustain him; then there’s his opposite, the near-socialist who can’t seem to keep his mouth shut, cynically pointing out the way everyone is getting ripped off, but unable to offer the hope of something better. They’re all under a Sergeant willing to do quite a lot for them, the everyman – smart enough to acknowledge the cynicism put forward by one of his squad mates, but also smart enough to reign it in, to look at the world from a smaller, more immediate perspective – and so survive firefights.  It’s to Tchaikovsky’s credit that though we’re with the squad a relatively short amount of time, they feel like people. Troubled, wry, and rather aware that they’re not expected to survive, their resilience in the face of great events mixes with their awareness that there’s nothing spectacular about them – they’re  the everyman, and that makes them easier for the reader to identify with.

There’s a lot of cool stuff here – marches through parts of occupied Sweden are cold, stark, and bleak – whilst also offering up the essential humanity of both sides of the war. That they also include tripod-esque drones, enormous helicopter gunships and the occasional power-armoured death match is icing on the cake. There’s a fair bit of blood on the deck, but this is a book which helps show off the futility of war, the crass motives behind it, and the way in which the costs are borne, wrapped in rhetoric. In that sense, it’s not a positive book, but it does feel like one which is true. There’s a fair amount of high-octane firefights, carefully, lethally described, which will keep you turning pages to see who survives (if anyone does). But these scenes bookend a more nuanced story about how the little man can work within the confines of his situation to do something better, and how even if the deck is stacked against you, it’s possible to hope, and to be human.


Ironclads is a book which throws an interesting political reality together, extrapolated plausibly from the present. It adds nifty technology – drones, cyberwarfare, bio-weapons – to the mix, and then stirs in a soupcon of war, and a healthy measure of humanity, up to its eyeballs in chaos and just trying to make the best of it. It’s a smart book, with an interesting, unflinching message – and that makes it a very good read.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

A Time Of Dread - John Gwynne

A Time of Dread is the first in a new series of fantasy by John Gwynne, whose ‘Wrath’ I reviewed earlier in the year. Gwynne has a reputation for producing high quality epic fantasy, with some compelling characterisation and…rather a lot of blood. I can safely say that in A Time of Dread, that reputation is burnished further. 

The book is a follow-up of sorts to his earlier series, taking place a century after the climatic battles and social changes of ‘Wrath’. Though a century feels like a long time, the longevity of some of the world’s inhabitants – giants, semi-divine seraphim and their nemeses - suggests the possibility of the return of a few familiar faces. But having read the previous series isn’t necessary; though there were a few times when it added extra depth to some interactions, the shift in time means that this is designed to work as a stand-alone series from the get-go, and at that, I suspect it succeeds. 

The land is, at least nominally, at peace. A large swathe of it is ruled by the winged Ben-Elim, apparently servants of an absent god, who followed their enemies back into the world to hunt them down. The Ben-Elim have a cultural advantage as rulers – their legend has been put out before them, and the malign nature of their enemy isn’t really in question. They flatly state that they were the servants of a god, and propound and propagate his lore. They’re also, broadly speaking, fair – they’re encouraging people to live safe, peaceful lives, which helps prevent the abuses of nobility against the common man. Mostly though, they’re doing this for their own reasons – a peaceful dominion allows them access to people and resources, to continue prosecuting their ongoing war against their less friendly kin. The Ben-Elim are goal oriented, and that has its own problems. They’re prone to rigidity, and to being prepared to sacrifice anything and anyone (else) if they feel it will help them achieve their aim. After all, defeating the more unpleasant flying monstrosities will lead to a safer humanity – so in the meantime, a bit of impressment or the occasional massacre is for the greater good. 

That makes them a great, conflicted set of characters to root for. They’re definitely fighting against an absolute, horrifying evil. But their efforts to end that fight are horrifying I their own way. The humans they’ve brought in around them are similarly conflicted. Some question the rigidity of Ben-Elim rule, and others, drawn from cultures being drawn under the benevolent boot of Ben-Elim rule, wonder why they let these monsters be in charge in the first place It’s a complex situation, and one which Gwynne portrays with sympathy and an unflinching eye for the consequences of “the greater good”. 

There’s also a politically separate group of humanity, out on their own and causing trouble. They feel like the Big Damn Heroes of the operation, without oversight from the Ben-Elim, living free and disrupting the bad guys that they and the Ben-Elim have in common. They suffer from a lack of resource and direction, seemingly, but they make a strong contrast in the forces of ‘good’. I’d like to see their fissures as much as those of their putative allies, but hopefully we’ll see that they’re not a united front either.

The bad guys are…well, they’re bad. The antithesis to the Ben-Elim, they’re full-on cultist-acquiring, scheming, plotting, indiscriminate slaughter bad guys. If the Ben-Elim are the perils of good intentions and an overly-taught system, their opponents are evidence of why that system exists, and they’re not nice people at all. If I have a complaint, it’s here – the bad guys are bad. Sure, the good guy have different strands of discussion over which brand of goodness they’re going to follow, in the authoritarian/libertarian mode, but their enemies represent a unifying threat – they’re so genuinely appalling, I haven’t worked out yet how they get their cultists to sign up. It’d be nice to see the same level of complexity that we see amongst the Ben-Elim in their direct opposition. 

Character-wise, there’s some interesting people in play. I’d have liked to see more of their internal monologue. Some may be familiar from the earlier series, but some – like the Drem, a trapper youth in the far wilds of the empty area known as the Desolation – are entirely new. Gwynne has a firm grasp of characterisation – Drem, for example, has mannerisms and an internal monologue which make him feel awkward and a bit confused by social nicety, whilst also explaining to the reader how his viewpoint is constructed, and letting us sympathise with it. Others, like Riv, a trainee under the Ben-Elim, give us an insight into their culture, and a degree of empathy to that culture by way of what they’re going through. Riv is smart, funny, articulate – and given to the occasional blind rage. It’s to Gwynne’s credit that he can craft characters like this sympathetically, and make the reader feel alongside them, and understand the travails which they go through. 
There’s some nifty character work here, especially as it opens up for longer term arcs in follow up books; I’m looking forward to seeing both how our protagonists from this volume interact with each other, and with any new characters in the next book. In the meantime, they’re convincing as people, with the sort of small troubles familiar to anyone, and the sort of larger causes and ideals which make them feel more heroic. Once again though, it’d be lovely to see something from the eyes of our putative villains – the book doesn’t suffer from the lack, mind you, but I’d love to get an understanding of their ideology. 

The plot…well, it’s solid. There’s a slow ramp up as we’re introduced to the world and to the stakes. By the end, there’s sword fights, dread cultists, raids, blood everywhere, a little bit of magic – and, on a broader level, the suggestion that the world is about to change, not necessarily for the better. There’s some great emotional payoffs, not just at the close, but spaced through the text. They, along with the kinetic and vivid combats, and the closely observed characters, kept me turning pages long after I should have stopped for, you know, food. 

In the end, this is a precursor to other volumes – and I imagine that the time of dread will open into something more sprawling and ominous. It’s a great start though, giving us high stakes action, believable characters, and a world which carries some of the complexities and shades of grey of our own, whilst still feeling fresh and imaginative. 

If you’re coming to this series off the back of Gwynne’s last one, I’d say this will fit your expectations – smart and well-crafted epic fantasy. If you’re coming in without the benefit of that series, don’t panic. It still works on its own, and is still a great read. In either case, it’s a rewarding read.