Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Fearsome Journeys - Jonathan Strahan (Ed.)

Fearsome Journeys is a fantasy anthology from Solaris, edited by the remarkably prolific Jonathan Strahan. I’ve enjoyed some of the other Solaris anthologies, and this one looked to have a good mix of authors I knew, and those I hadn’t previously heard of. As ever, I enjoyed some of the stories more than others – but I don’t think there was a bad one in the bunch.

There were several standouts. “The Effigy Engine” from Scott Lynch, combined his sharply charming prose with a vivid world. There’s a certain amount of humour here as well, as a small unit of wizards attempt to help win a seemingly unwinnable war. The banter is familiar for a close knit team, and their personalities are large enough that they step off the page. There’s pyrotechnic thaumaturgy, snark, and a whisper of something deeper. This is a space I’d quite happily explore more of.

I also really enjoyed K.J. Parker’s entry, “The Dragonslayer of Merebarton”. This is probably no surprise to long term readers, who know I’m a massive fan of Parker’s work. Still, the tone here is pitch perfect – a pragmatic, tired knight, a man well past the point of his previous glories, dealing with something unusual. Admittedly, dealing with it with a sort of put upon disappointment, and a fairly deserved expectation that everything will go horribly wrong. There’s some heroics here, of a sort, and meditations on mortality and the virtues of duty. It’s a multi-layered piece, and one with something of a sting in the tail.

Glen Cook’s Black Company short, “Shaggy Dog Bridge” is probably the other main event in this collection, and it’s really rather well done. This is Croaker and his gang of miscreants in their early days, on the run from the Lady and her Taken. It’s a grim story in some ways, with rogue wizards and otherworldy monstrosities. There’s the seeping tone of noir that infuses a lot of Cook’s work, and the troops-eye-view of epic events which has always been the Black Company trademark. It’s a good story, too – occasionally funny, often deadly serious, and always very compelling.

I could go on – as I say, each of the stories inside of the collection is enjoyable. I will say that it feels like there’s something here for everyone. Low fantasy. High fantasy. Grimdark. If it’s got a label, you could probably apply it to one of the stories available here. The diversity of material on offer is impressive – from Kate Eliot’s insightful, nuanced, fairytale-esque story, through Daniel Abraham’s darker tale of an undying king, a narrative in vignettes where the subtext is as valuable as what’s on the page. Elizabeth Bear’s “The Ghost Makers” gives us character driven fantasy, driven by an automaton and a dead man – both of whom stroll off the page, large as life, in between hunting a killer.

In any event, there’s something for everyone here – it’s a collection whose imaginative breadth is its soul. Every tale may not be for you, but they’re all interesting takes on imaginative worlds, and worth investing your time in. (At time of review, it was also all of 99p on Kindle - give it a try!)

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Court Of Broken Knives - Anna Smith Spark

The Court Of Broken Knives is a strong fantasy debut by Anna Smith Spark. It’s got absolute gads of cynicism, characters who range from the pragmatic through conflicted and into monstrous, and a world which encourages and rewards that sort of approach.

Speaking of the world – well, it’s complicated. There’s the remnants of a global empire – reminiscent of Rome in the late medieval period. They assert sovereignty over the world at large, and have a degree of social and cultural capital – but don’t control almost anything outside of their capital city. Still, that city is a monstrosity of wealth, still gilded by centuries of ruling the world. The street urchins dress in silk, and the decay is, whilst obvious, still masked by the urban grandeur. The mood of sorrowful decline is, I suspect, intentional – as is the feeling of self-inflicted wounds, of coiled vipers, of personal politics poisoning an imperial perspective. Of course, this is an empire in a desert, which doesn’t seem to have much of a sanding army – but does have a religion requiring the sacrifice of children. The cultural attitudes are expertly played here – saddened, but accepting of the necessity.
The empire is surrounded by its more vibrant successor states, which seem to have a more medieval mindset. There’s a fair amount of fortifications and stone walls – and a royal family put in place by a historical ruler who may also have been a demon. They’re prone to bouts of ecstatic madness, entwined with violence – and their people fear and love them for it. This is a tumultuous, often nihilistic world – but also one where there is potential for great beauty, and for the realisation of the better traits of humanity.

There’s a rough quartet of protagonists. Two of them sit within the remaining Imperial city. One is the High Priestess of their somewhat brutal god – a woman circumscribed by circumstance, with the potential to be more, restricted by her own power and position. She’s clever, observant, and, for someone who sacrifices children on a regular basis, surprisingly sane – but there’s twinges of visible damage there, and a recognition that perhaps the world isn’t limited to the walls of her temple. The contrast between her and one of the others, a hardened politician, a noble of the empire, is, I suspect, intentional. He’s wry, jaded, and not at all surprised by the worst in people – but at the same time, driven by the dream that was once his home, in an effort to sustain and create something better. There’s a vivid characterisation here, of a man in power, who has no interest in his wife sexually, but cares for her; who is prepared to enact horrors on old friends in the service of an ideal; who can be tormented by their own success, and justify it as failure being the worst option. Both of the imperials are vividly, cleverly portrayed – they certainly feel like people, if perhaps not people you would want to take out to dinner.

The others – well, I have great affection for Tobias. A mercenary squad leader, he’s thoughtful, always has an eye on the main chance, and is not at all afraid to turn his reflections into brutality if that’s what’s required. He’s ever-so-slightly conflicted, a everyman with more than an edge of darkness about him – surviving in a world which caters to and demands the use of his worst instincts. For all that he makes abhorrent choices, they are plausible, logical ones – and his tarnished view of the world is at once strange and familiar.

Then there’s another – one of Tobias’s band of mercenaries, he’s an enigma at first. Tormented by unknown demons, driven by unknown curses. If there’s a space here, it’s one of emotional distance or connection, switching from a need to escape the world to being bathed in it – usually in blood. This is a man who is sure of what he could be, but trying to escape it – through drugs, through drink, through murder. This last is one that is more difficult to sympathise with – but a complex, believable character, one whose emotional intensity and validity rises out of the prose, and makes it into something special.

The plot – well, there’s all sorts. Here are high politics, and low murder, often in one. Political assassinations as knife fights, gutters and blood, coarse language and red in the gutters. There’s also magic – explosive, typically, unpleasant, almost always. There’s plots, counterplots, and appallingly visceral battles. There’s something for everyone here, if you’re not squeamish about how you get it. The dialogue is typically snappy, with moments of emotional transcendence; the pacing is spot on, and I had to keep on turning pages to see what happens next. There are highs and lows here – the latter perhaps moving to contempt or to tears, the former transporting to joy.

I guess what I’m saying is, it’s good stuff. This is smart, self-aware fantasy. The characters make sense, are easy to invest in, and reward that investment. The world is complex and believable. I’m really looking forward to seeing where this series goes, and I urge you to give it a try.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Senlin Ascends - Josiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends is the first in Josiah Bancroft’s “Books of Babel”. If I had to summarise, I’d say it’s the novel of one man’s journey. That journey is, of course, geographical – he moves ever upward through the levels of the eponymous tower, being enveloped in the strange societies, cultures and politics which hold sway there. But it’s also personal. The Senlin who begins the journey up the tower – well, he changes, and grows as the narrative proceeds – and not always for the better.

Senlin Ascends has a baroque, imaginative world. Along with Senlin, I was often left somewhat flabbergasted by the people whom he encountered. There were the showmen and grifters at ground level, of course – small time thieves and hustlers, charmers and liars. They exist within the constantly stirring entrance of the Tower, a first level fuelled by tourists and victims. At the same time, there’s a sparkling, carnival atmosphere to it – one where the barkers have sharper teeth hidden behind their smiles. But things only get stranger the further up the tower one goes. Each step is increasingly surreal, each movement away from the base also a step further into the machinations, machineries, and villainies of the increasingly bizarre denizens. There’s a sense here of Alice in Wonderland, with a cutting edge. I can’t say much about the rest of the environs without touching on spoilers – but I will say this: the tower is a fresh, imaginative tapestry of diverse, colourful locales, and it successfully conveys a sense of energy and corruption in one word after another. This is a roaring, virile place, crackling with life – and at the same time, is shot through with rot, coiled serpents just waiting to fall upon the unwary visitor. In other words – it’s great.

The characters…well, they’re an odd bunch, that’s for sure. Senlin is the protagonist, and walks into the tower at least as baffled as the reader, if not more so. He’s a man who has been shaped by his circumstances – a teacher in a fishing village. In fact, the only teacher in the village. He’s intelligent, with an unconscious air of superiority. He cares about his pupils – though with a degree more enthusiasm for the intelligent ones. He feels like a prim, proper man, confined within his own expectations – a self-constrained avatar of social mores. Still, there’s a wit and an incisive intelligence there, and, it appears, a passion. Senlin is in love with his wife – and he’s a romantic and an idealist. His romance is one of the great backdrops to his life, a brilliant surprise he’s determined to hold onto with both hands. Here the flames of his personality peek out a little behind his enforced fa├žade. Senlin walks with the reader, a narrator in the tower – and his passion and his restraints on it serve to make him feel very human.

Indeed, as the text progresses, Senlin’s internal geography shifts along with the external. Events force him to decide what sort of man he is, and exactly what he will do to accomplish his goals. The man who enters the ground floor of the tower for a honeymoon – well, let’s just say he may not be quite the same man that nears the top.

There’s a delightful crowd of assorted misfits alongside Senlin as he travels. They’re not all entirely trustworthy, and some of the antagonists are downright unpleasant. Still, when they’re given the time to shine, they do – be that in impassioned speeches on the human conditions, or in the odd brutal murder. In each case though, they’re imaginatively, convincingly portrayed – strange to us, but perhaps not strangers, in the broader sense. As the journey continues, they don’t become any less strange – but also become more familiar; it’s cleverly done, and left each of the supporting cast feeling memorable as I turned the pages.

The plot – well. As ever, no spoilers. Senlin is working his way through the tower hunting his wife. Along the way he’s exposed to the best and worst that the tower has to offer, from beer fountains to sky-ships, from loving families to murderous lunatics. The story is in the journey, in how Senlin adapts and changes in the face of challenges thrown up to him on each floor of the tower. There’s shades of Moby Dick, the protagonist driven to fulfil his heart’s desire, even with the associated costs. In any event, it’s a cracking read – there’s betrayals, firm friendships, battles, banter, and even true love. It’s a charming, fascinating piece, and I highly recommend it. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Lock In - John Scalzi

Lock In is a near-future sci-fi mystery novel from John Scalzi. I’ve enjoyed Scalzi’s work for years, and he has a penchant for tightly plotted, compelling mysteries – as with this year’s excellent “The Dispatcher”.

The world of Lock In should be reasonably familiar. People are still bipeds. The political systems we’re familiar with are still holding sway. The US still has a President. People still drive from place to place. There’s still coffee, bars, and mega-corporations. Sure, the cars are now self-driving, and the coffee places have a well-targeted marketing mechanism, but the people are. In the end, still people.
But the world has also changed. A global epidemic has left a small significant proportion of the global population ‘locked in’; paralysed but cognisant, unable to communicate with the outside world. That’s where the sci-fi comes in. Scalzi gives us neural interfaces, virtual worlds, and bodies which the locked in can hop into. It’s a world where, at least in the US, there’s an awareness of a certain kind of disability, an amelioration, and a well portrayed cultural adaption to that fact. The locked in, by virtue of their numbers, have become a minority demographic – one that acts under assistance and prejudice in equal measure. There’s echoes of the civil rights struggle here, and stronger reverberations for the prejudice that the disabled face daily. This is a society which is handling seismic shift in how its population is structured – and stumbling, well meaning, toward an uncertain end goal. Quite what the status quo will be is not yet defined – and that liquidity, that lack of social definition, makes for an intriguing and compelling world.

The characters – well, our central duo are familiar in the tropes of the mystery genre – a rookie detective and his more experienced, emotionally wounded partner.

The former, Chris, is also locked-in. They’re relatively well off, earnest, and intellectually curious. There’s enough self-awareness of privilege there not to make Chris a chore to read, and their intelligence and focus means that the reader can follow along with their analysis easily enough. There’s some focus on getting through things by the book, a degree of caution at the start of the text, wrapped around a lack of confidence. What’s driving Chris, the need to be distinct from their family whilst also being a part of it, is sketches out in the emotional reactions within the text – the relationships are convincing, complicated, and occasionally startling – as with any family.

Chris’s partner is another matter. Older, a veteran of the FBI, she’s both familiar with how things work, and perhaps more than a little cynical about the fact that they work at all. She’s dry, wry, and obviously ferociously clever. That she’s also a survivor – well, that’s inherent in her attitude, from the first moment. Quite what experiences have transformed her – well, those we learn alongside Chris. But I can say that this is not a book which backs away from emotional heft for its characters. They have their issues, and those issues make sense within their own context – but they’re also raw and human.

There’s a slew of supporting cast of course, from Chris’s room-mates, to their family, from victims to suspects. What ties them together is that each gets enough depth to be convincing. We don’t see much of the room-mates say, or of the CEO of a large technology corporation – but when we do, their motives, their meanings, and their humanity are no less clear. The main cast have greater room to manoeuvre, but it’s nice to see the support given enough depth to be convincing.

The plot – well, no spoilers. It’s a techno-thriller, with additional sci-fi elements. It opens with a murder investigation, and suggests links to larger issues. The plotting is tight and convincing. If I wasn’t always a step ahead of our investigators, I was certainly looking at the evidence alongside of them. The central investigation is tense and well-paced – with sufficient evidence produced for the reader that they can work with the characters. There’s some marvellously explosive action as well, though it tends to come with undisguised consequences. Both the more explosive moments and the investigation work within the larger social tapestry of the world - with a consistent internal logic and a cracking conclusion.

If you’re in the market for an inventive, imaginative sci-fi mystery, then this is probably the book for you. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Schedule changes!

Morning all,

Due to circumstances outside this blog, we're moving to putting reviews out on a Wednesday. Mark your calendars for next week!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tyrant's Throne - Sebastien De Castell

Tyrant’s Throne is the fourth and final entry in Sebastien De Castell’s “Greatcoats” quartet. I’ve been a big fan of the series. It combines an energetic and adventurous buccaneering style with moments of great emotional intensity and honesty. I’m desperately sad to see the series end – but can safely say it went out in style.

Following the previous instalment, Falcio and his band of Greatcoats are getting ready to put Aline, the daughter of their murdered king, onto the throne of Tristia. It’s not an easy process. We’re shown the political factions which swarm around Tristia, most of them seemingly motivated by self-interest. None of them are particularly keen on Aline – but they’re coming around to holding their noses and accepting her, because the alternative is even more civil unrest in a country which has been tormented by uprisings and other chaos for years. Still, politics isn’t the natural battleground for Greatcoats – they have a tendency to stab and/or shoot arrows at things. The atmosphere is febrile, to say the least.
Fortunately, in between the deal-making, another threat has raised its head.  Those outside the borders of Tristia are eyeing up the real estate. There’s a whole world outside the nation we’ve spent three books in, and if we only get to see a little of it this time around, I can safely say that as a culture, it’s excellently crafted. The traditions and society of the outside world are sympathetically and plausibly drawn – they are not a thoughtless antagonist, but one where the conflict is drawn out from cultural differences, and the social changes that we’ve seen in previous books in the series. If you can’t sympathise with the potential threat, you can certainly empathise with them.

If the world is being thrown open to broader horizons, the characters are their well established selves. Brasti, who can’t stop running his mouth, even whilst putting arrows into people, and Kest, the laconic, nigh undefeatable shieldman are here, backing Falcio, our long running protagonist. The relationship between the trip remains an absolute joy. The banter is sometimes caustic, often hilarious, and occasionally exposes the raw trust which they each have in the others. The dialogue thus remains fresh, funny, but often surprisingly affecting – these are people who have known each other a long time, faced men and gods together, and, in the end, aren’t inclined to lie to each other or to themselves. There’s some final threads that get resolved here, which have vexed loyal readers for years (how *did* Falcio beat Kest and become First Cantor in the first place?); but there’s also some refreshing revelations as well. If the wit helps mask the raw intensity of the emotional payload, that make it no less real – and the prose gives it strength and surprising clarity. As Falcio and his oldest friends work out who they are and where they stand, I was wrenched between delighted laughter and utter heartbreak in every other line.

In honesty, this was a book whose dialogue and relationships gave me more than one belly laugh, and also left me in tears. I can’t give a stronger recommendation than that.

The plot – well, it starts slowly, with the aforementioned politicking. It’s interesting stuff, and the tension builds to keep you turning pages. But there’s a lot more going on here. Without spoilers, I’d suggest that the stakes have never been higher for Falcio and his band. There’s some effectively, terrifyingly drawn battles, and duels that left me with my heart in my mouth. This is a story of resilience, and of friendship, of love and trust – and the consequences of those things. There’ blood and steel, but in the end, this is about shaping the world, and perhaps more importantly, the people we care about within it.

Would I recommend it? If you’ve not read the Greatcoats before now, I’d say you need to get on that first. If you’re wondering whether to finish it though, this is an unequivocal yes. Get on that. Get the book, read the book. It’s a conclusion which relies on what came before, but uses that emotional depth and connection to provide an absolutely brilliant payoff. Read it – you won’t be disappointed.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Galileo's Dream - Kim Stanley Robinson

The original conceit of this book - Galileo interacting with indivduals from far in the future - does not seem that impressive at first blush. Indeed, a brief office poll produced a great deal of derision. However, first impressions are sometimes deceiving, as they proved in this case.

The characters are well realised, including the epynonymous Galileo. Many authors might have hesitated to personify such a huge historicla figure, but the author does so smoothly, and generates a believably flawed character whom the reader can quickly come to empathise with. The medieval settings are extremely well detailed, and clearly the result of some solid research. While some commentators may be upset at the modern linguistic turns which invest the narrative of these medieval characters, I found that it made the text more accessible, and certainly more engaging.

The plot itself is convoluted, with enough little twists and turns to keep the reader turning pages, though on occasion (particularly earlier in the book), the cryptic goings on are not given enough depth to really pull on the reader's intrigue.

Surprisingly, I found that the main failing of this text was in the portrayal of the 'future', which was given as much, if not more depth than the historical past with which it intersected. However, despite this effort, it often seemed unreal, and the characters harder to understand or empathise with. On the other hand, this may have been intentional.

Overall, the text is an intriguing and evocative read, and one which I believe I will return to more than once, as I'm sure there are pieces of the puzzle that I missed. Well worth the wait, and well worth the read.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Darien - C.F. Iggulden

Darien is the start of a new series by C.F. Iggulden. Iggulden is perhaps better known for writing several series of well received historical fiction, but this is his first foray into fantasy.

Darien is a feudal city-state in a low-magic world. That world seems to share a certain amount of history with our own – there’s the occasional mention of Romans, for example. But there was a divergence – a grand empire, the Empire of Salt, formed and fell – and Darien is one of its successor states. Most of the world-building is focused on the contemporary, though there’s scattered mentions and inferences one can make about the history of Darien to this point. Currently, however, Darien is an unequal society. It’s ruled by twelve noble families, each with their own heritage and rivalries. They sit beneath a monarch – in this case, a relatively tractable one. The people are a swirling morass, trying to get through their day to day without notice from their social superiors. There’s evidence of a slowly burgeoning middle-class though – merchants thriving in the main streets of Darien, and those with the wages to purchase their wares.

It feels like an insular society, one which holds on to old feuds and older grudges. At the same time, it has a familiarity to it – the twisting alleys of Darien evoke those of the medieval period. Darien and its outlying environs do have some differences though – mostly in their magic. There’s old sorcery sitting with vicious quiet in ancient tombs, and powerful artifacts horded by families. Some people seem to have knacks, as well – peculiar skills and talents which may exceed or defy the norm.
I wanted to see more of Darien – of the people in it, f the customs and habits which defined them, and of the strange and familiar world in which they find themselves. What’s there is intriguing, suggestive, and builds a solid foundation, but left me hungry for more.

The characters – well, this is a narrative from multiple points of view. So we range from hunters to thieves, from martial troubleshooters to troubled duellists. The main cast get enough elbow room to differentiate themselves, though as with the world, I ended up wanting more. Standouts include Elias Post – a hunter, he begins the story as an unremarkable and pleasant man. As matters progress, though, he is offered some exceedingly difficult choices. The text doesn’t back away from this; in fact it embraces it, which is marvellous. Post grows quickly, and in different directions than we might otherwise have expected. There’s echoes of Monte Cristo there, as Post struggles to fulfil his overriding purpose, with no regard to the cost to himself – or what the struggle to reach his goals will turn him into.

I also thoroughly enjoyed following Tellius. An old soldier, and not from Darien, he has a sharp intelligence which made following his thoughts enjoyable and a wry cynicism which made me chuckle more than once. Tellius is a pragmatist, with some moral constraints. He’s learned to look out for number one, but struggles against that lesson. Tellius’ dry wit and focus made walking alongside him amusing. The hints of a complex past that were thrown out, and his own efforts to be something better, despite himself, made the journey a pleasure.

There were other points of view here for example the vulpine Vic Deeds, the ultimate guiltless problem solver, is charming and ruthless in equal measure, I won’t approach the others, for fear of spoilers – but I will say that even if I wanted more time with these characters, I still felt they had sufficient depth to encourage emotional investment, and to keep me turning pages alongside them.
The plot – well, there’s certainly a lot going on. There’s assassination attempts, some very fast-paced and visceral duels, and even a battle or two. Those are choreographed masterfully, and Iggulden brings the movements of large masses of troops, and the dangers and chaos which they face, to life brilliantly. In between the murders, the politicking and the struggles for the life of the city, there’s some touchingly genuine emotional moments as well. It’s epic fantasy at its most literal – the fate of empires settled with fire, sword and pistol shot. In this case, there’s some rather explosive magic thrown in as well.

Is it any good though? I’d say so. It approaches the form of epic fantasy with care, and constructs a story which kept me interested and unwilling to put the book down. I want to see more of the world and the people in it, but that’s less a criticism than a hope for future instalments. If you’re looking for something new to fill your next epic fantasy fix, then this will see you right. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Age of Swords - Michael J. Sullivan

Age of Swords is the second in Michael J. Sullivan’s “The Legends of the First Empire” series. It has a historical connection to his popular Riyria series, taking place in the same world, but seemingly several thousand years before. Here are the women and men who shaped the world that the other series is embedded in – and they’re up to their own adventures.

The world of Age of Swords is one of conflict, and also one of hope. The conflict – well, that exists between the species of men, and the Fhrey. The latter are long lived, and relatively technologically advanced. They see humanity as somewhere between pets and vermin. At the centre of Fhrey society are the Mirialith, sorcerers beyond compare. They can shatter bones with a thought, rip the earth asunder, or, less often, produce a rather nice bouquet of flowers. The other Fhrey respect the Miriliath, even as they fear them. It’s great to see some intra-cultural tension, as the Mirilaith begin thinking of themselves as the natural leaders of the Fhrey, or even as gods – as far above their brethren as above the rising tide of humanity. It’s interesting to explore how this long-lived people have set out to govern themselves, to prevent violence amongst each other. Their institutions are sometimes familiar – a council hall of governing consensus, overseen by an absolute ruler whose final word is law evokes the Roman senate, for example. At other times, they’re distinct and plausible – the border posts that some of the Fhrey guard prevent humanity from entering their lands; but those manning the walls are not allowed to return to the centre of their civilisation. Predictably, this breeds mistrust and resentment.

The Fhrey now contemplate a march to war, humans having done the unthinkable and actually killed several Fhrey. Theirs is a society in turmoil, social assumptions upended. That said, they’re dealing with a human society which is less than prepared for them.
In the society of humanity, there are echoes of our own bronze age. Groupings are familial, tribal, organised by clan. Bronze weapons are rare, the height of the science of war is the warrior charge. The gods are numerous, tied to places and clans. Though humanity thrives and outnumbers the Fhrey, they know better than to act against a people who are effectively immortal, well fed, and tactically trained. Still, like the Fhrey, this is a society on the cusp of something else. There’s a potential for consolidation, for groups coming together as part of a greater whole, under pressure from externalities.

In both cases, the societies constructed are clearly constructed on a sound footing. They’re plausible, carefully constructed, and presents a rich background for the characters to act within.
The first book was something of an ensemble piece, and that hasn’t changed here. There’s some standouts though. Suri, the young seeress, whose view of reality seems to be about forty-five degrees from everyone else, is one example. She begins with a certain naivety, but it’s tied to the ability to look outside or around limitations – and occasionally to set things on fire with her mind. As the text progresses though, she grows into something more, tying into her friends, being moulded externally as the plot rumbles on, but drawing her own personality together as she reacts to the trials and tribulations she endures.

Persephone is similar in this way – beginning as a part-time leader of one clan, already preparing to face the wrath of the Fhrey, Persephone is stubborn, loyal, clever, and reluctantly willing to make hard choices. It’s the latter which change her here, or at the least help to accentuate her dominant characteristics.

Raife, the God Killer is always an interesting read. He’s often angry, with an upbringing in hardship which his copmapnions may not quite understand. This predicates him away from people – so his gradual integration into the group is fascinating to watch. He remains as prickly as ever, but seems willing, perhaps, to accept others into his life.

There’s a swathe more here, from the occasionally malevolent adolescent Fhrey prince, to the mysterious dwarf-ish types, through the collective leaders of the different human clans. Sometimes they felt like they had a basket of traits to hand to drive the plot, but typically this wasn’t the case; watching the conflicted Fhrey work through the implications of his actions, or the clan heads bicker over which of them should be in charge, the sense is of complex, flawed people in a demanding world. This is certainly true of the major actors, whose lives carry a convincing depth and a true complexity of sorrows and joys. Feeling their trials and tribulations as reality, no matter which ‘side’ of the narrative they were on, is indicative of the skilful characterisation and emotional weight that has been used here.

The plot – well, I won’t spoil it. I will say that there are several wonderful kinetic duels, the narrative evoking heart-in-mouth tension. There’s a swathe of epic magic as well, lightning from the sky being the very least of it. Politics is at play, if you like that sort of thin g- both humanity and the Fhrey attempting to organise themselves in a tumultuous time. There’s betrayal and love, and some electric dialogue which alternately tore a hole of sorrows into my gut, and left me shaking with laughter. There’s battles, and costs, triumphs and consequences. In summary, it’s a fast-paced, compelling read. So pick it up, if you enjoyed Age of Myth, and give it a try – you won’t regret it. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Wrath - John Gwynne

So, lets talk about Wrath. Wrath is the last in a series of doorstop fantasy novels by John Gwynne. I’m a bit late to the party on this series, having picked the first one up relatively recently – but it’s impressed me with a combination of subtle politics, genuine and complex personal dynamics, and, well, rather a lot of blood.

Each of the books has compounded on these themes, giving us a complex world, one where the alliances always felt fragile, and where hidden agendas always set the board for later betrayal. The nations of men have had a long history of greed, cruelty and turning on each other. Thematically, there’s always been an issue of individual good versus the larger, “greater good” as well. I think broadly the narrative backs the idea that the larger good can be compromised too easily, in that the desire to achieve it leads to self-justifying evil. That said, it’s also been a theme of the series – which continues in Wrath – that nobody thinks that they are the villain of the piece. If there is an army of darkness, and an army of light, then it’s still possible for each of the participants to argue that they are the latter. There’s a certain moral ambiguity, a sense of grey areas floating around the characters, even now.

That said, as the series moves toward a conclusion, there’s a sense of imminent closure. Some of my favourite characters finally met up, and I can’t say the meetings all went the way I’d thought they would. In some cases, there was well, rather a lot of blood. Wrath certainly doesn’t pull any punches – there’s more than one unexpected or well deserved demise, and I have to admit, some of them came with an emotional weight that hit like a blacksmiths hammer. Wrath is a book unflinching in its endings, and it shows, in the terse descriptive prose, in the decisions characters make, not expecting to survive, and in the brutal, final-feeling battles.

Speaking of the battles – the series has always waded in gore, though served appropriately. That’s still the case here. The combat is grim, daunting, and explicit – and that combination is what makes it feel real. You can feel the crunch of a war hammer against armour, the thundering synchronised march of a shield wall, the screams of the dying, and the silence of the dead. There’s a raw energy to the fighting as well, our viewpoints surging around the contesting armies, the individual combats given detail and room to grow – tension in duels so thick that the swords seem to cut through it.
The fighting is tied up with the character development; our protagonists seem to be settling into themselves, becoming, if not any more or less sure of their agendas, at least accepting of their positions. We’ve watched them grow and change, scarred by events and broken by the deaths of family and friends – and now they’re familiar, but different, even as they square off to end each other’s lives.

In the end, Wrath promises a great deal, and it delivers. The writing is smooth and draws out tension, leaving you turning page after page to see what happens next. The characters are those we’ve invested so much time in over the course of the series, and seeing their endings – or new beginnings – is heart-wrenching and bloody marvellous at once. The overarching plot, the epic war, the end of all things – well, Wrath wraps all this up with a bang. I’d say if you’re looking for a new series to try, one which approaches traditional fantasy tropes, and polishes them until they shine, then going back and starting with Malice is probably a good choice. If you’ve been on this ride for a while, and are wondering if it’s worth picking the book up to see how it comes out – then I can say yes, absolutely, this one’s worth the time. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Raven Stratagem - Yoon Ha Lee

Raven Stratagem is the second in Yoon Ha Lee’s “The Machineries of Empire” series. The first, Ninefox Gambit, was a really well done character piece, with some beautifully tense moments in an inventively imagined universe – so I was quite excited to get my hands on the sequel.

The universe will be very familiar to readers of the first book in the sequence. An interstellar polity rules what appears to be a fairly large segment of humanity. Government is shared across seven factions, including the militarised Kel and the terminally sneaky Shuos. Each of the groups fulfils a role within their society, having been engineered, to one extent or another, to fill their niche. The Shuos, for example, have a tendency to think several moves ahead, and indeed to play several games at once – whilst also having a tendency to promotion-by-assasination. The Kel, by contrast, are utterly loyal to their commanding officer, whoever that might be – and governed by a hive-mind of senior generals. This is a government which systematically oppresses its people; in fact, the existence of the polity depends upon it. This is a universe which holds exotic technologies, which seemingly defy the laws of physics – ghost terrain, cast around astral fortresses, or faster-than-light drives. Quite what some of these esoteric technologies do is difficult to say – indeed may be impossibe to describe within our vernacular. But this is a calendrical government – the technologies work because the populace keeps to a particular calendar, and there are regular rituals and observances embedded in that calendar to make sure the exotic tech keeps working. Unfortunately, these tend to involve the torture, murder or outright genocide of citizens within the polity. This is an empire which thrives on misery – and would be unable to exist without it.  

This polity struggles, not only internally, but with external foes as well. There’s other coalitions out there which make one with institutionalised calendrical torture look positively benign. If we don’t empathise with the society that Lee shows us, we can certainly see the pressures that shape it, in the unknown and unknowable craft which can sweep in from borders and devour worlds. This is a society on a war footing, and on a knife edge.

Into this whirling maelstrom steps Shuos Jedao. He featured heavily in the first book, and is back again as one of the protagonists for the sequel. Jedao is saturnine, charming, and obviously ferociously intelligent. He is also rather dead. Fortunately, as a result of events in the last book, he has a body to roam around in – or perhaps less fortunately, depending on how you look at it. The Shuos are typically several moves ahead of everyone else, with their penchant for intrigue and politicking. Jedao is talented, even for a Shuos, and has something of a military mind as well. Jedao scintillates on the page, and even if you don’t know what he’s doing, or exactly why, the force of personality is likely to keep you turning pages. Jedao is something of an inscrutable snake for those around him – talented, amiable, perhaps the best hope for defeating an incursion from another government – but also dangerous, irreverent, and known for a psychotic break which ended with everyone around him dead. Where all of these parts meet is a complex character, occluded from both the reader and the external audience. Perhaps even Jedao doesn’t know who he is. But the hints we get, the visible edges in the narrative, make for a fascinating read.

Jedao is the centrepiece of the narrative, I think – but ably backed by others. There’s Genera; Khiruev, for example. A Kel, she is fiercely loyal to her commanding officer – indeed, is genetically incapable of being otherwise. She’s also clearly an intelligent woman, able to read signs and portents, to decide what she wants from the situations in which she finds herself – and decide fi she’s willing to pay the price. Khiruev, with her own fierce sense of ethics and fiery cleverness, is an excellent foil to Jedao; more brusque, but feeling at least as real.

There’s others here as well – the leaders of the Empire make an appearance, as do some entities from outside of the Empire. There’s enforcers of doctrine, and Kel deciding where to strike, and where to abandon. There’s a sense here of an Empire, of a thriving, bustling society, even where I is caught up in atrocities. The people within it are similar – constrained by their systems, but recognisable as human, even beneath their layers of cultural and social change. This is an imaginative piece, and one where every facet has been polished beautifully to keep the reader engaged.

The plot – well, no spoilers, as ever. But lets say that whatever Jedao is planning it’s likely to be big. There’s grand space battles here, wrapped in the obfuscated language of the calendar, the exotic weaponry made even more so with its less than explicit uses. But the struggle is no less affecting for that. There’s political manoeuvring at the heart of the Empire, and some genuinely crackling dialogue. There’s personal instants, characters bearing their souls in genuinely moving moments. With the Empire on a knife edge, Jedao is willing to give it a shove, one way or the other – and it makes for an absolutely cracking read.

If you’ve not read the first in the series, I’d suggest going back and starting there. If you’ve been waiting on this sequel though – it’s definitely one to pick up.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Back next week!

Hello all
Just a note to say that due to a long weekend, we'll be back on Thursday next week.
Thanks for reading!

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Seven - Peter Newman

The Seven is the third in Peter Newman’s “Vagrant” series. I thought the first, “The Vagrant” was a great story, told in an interesting way, and the second was a great piece of fantasy in its own right. That meant that The Seven had some pretty big narrative boots to fill, as it moved the series toward its conclusion.

Set years after the end of the previous book, the world of The Seven is equal parts familiar and strange. In the north, the sclerotic empire of the Winged Eye is now resting under the somewhat benevolent hand of Vesper. An idealist, with a penchant for trusting people and making unlikely friends, Vesper is determined to shake things up in the Empire of the Eye. As the Empire is learning to live with the disintegration of its greatest threat, the Breach which spewed otherworldly influences into the more familiar realm, it’s in something of a state of flux. Vesper closed the breach. Vesper has the sword of one of the Seven, the divine leaders of the Empire, most of whom haven’t been seen for years. Newman shows us an Empire terrified of change, one which has been in stasis alongside its leaders, perhaps for too long – and now has no idea how to cope with change. The rituals and habits that have pushed society through millennia are taking a long time to change. Still, Vesper is making a go of it, using her assumed authority. It’s interesting to see the institutions of the Empire slowly drifting apart at the seams, as it copes with no longer having an external threat to define itself against.

At the same time, there’s still the issue of the Infernals, those otherworldy essences which arrived in the world before the closure of the Breach. They, and the half-breeds, a fusion of humanity and Infernal essence, are having to redefine themselves as well. Without the Breach as a constant source of reinforcements, they’re having to consider a longer term perspective. The half –breeds have formed communities, and they’re learning to live in the twisted version of land that’s available in the south, over the sea from the Empire of the Eye. This is no longer a world of eternal war, of expansion, defeat and conquest – but a world that exists afterwards, where the survivors have to learn how to live with each other.  As one might expect after years of conflict, this is…rather difficult. As with the Eye, the fragmented domains of the Infernals are under pressure to change, to adapt to their new situation. As with the Empire, there’s always the danger that they’ll self-immolate whilst doing so.

All parts of this world are beautifully detailed and inventively realised – the straight-backed legions of the eye, led by knights with singing swords are a stark contrast to the Infernals that can inhabit multiple bodies, or graft extra limbs to themselves, or the half-breeds whose brush with Infernals has left them fearsome giants. You can believe in the Eye, its searching, wavering gaze, and in the demons, with their energy and desire to exist, and the half-breeds and their plans to build better lives. They’re all internally consistent, cohesive, and rich with meaning.

As the world teeters on the brink between the hope of change and the old certainty of war, none of them are quite prepared for the Seven.

The characters – well, there’s a great many old favourites here, but the stars of the show are, I think, Vesper and the Vagrant, along with Vesper’s daughter, Reela.  Vesper is a little taller now than she was in The Malice, a leader struggling to work out how to draw people together, to get them to build something new, and put down old grudges. She’s given her own weaknesses – a need, in particular, to do everything she can, a refusal to make time for her own emotional connections in the sea of larger things. As ever, the consequences of these flaws are explored alongside the benefits that they bring; even as Vesper is building a newer, happier world, her own relationships have a sense of fragility about them, the energy that would sustain them pushed out into the world. Watching Vesper, whom we last saw as a child, struggling to speak with her own young daughter, is heartbreaking. She’s away for too long, and disconnected from her own life to the extent that her daughter is, if not afraid of her, then hurt by her, suffering the consequences of her absence.

Into that void steps The Vagrant, a father to Vesper and a figure to emulate for Reela (which causes some complex conflicts within the heart of her own father). The Vagrant is older than we may remember, but willing to put on armour and help his daughter change the world. Still silent, and like Vesper, still stubbornly unwilling to accept injustice, he moves through the narrative like a tide of obsidian – obdurate and unstoppable, with a sharp edge. Father and daughter together are a delight – their emotional connection obvious and their conflicts believable and human.  

Reela is the third of this tripod, and clearly idolises The Vagrant. Her feelings for Vesper are more complex; you can sense the anger at abandonment there in the prose, along with the yearning for acceptance and love that sits alongside it. This is a story about family, amongst other things, and this one – The Vagrant, Vesper and Reela – is under strain. That said, it’s also still clearly a family – occasionally fraught and argumentative, but tied together by bonds of affection nonetheless.
Other returning favourites include Samael – a man who became part of an Infernal knight, now struggling to determine who exactly he is, and what he’d like to be. Samael’s discussions with Vesper verge on the philosophical, and his stoic search for a sense of self is deeply compelling reading. In this search he’s matched by the mysterious First, an Infernal that holds its essence across multiple bodies, a distributed consciousness, which struggles to understand humanity and the world in which it exists. Their separate journeys toward understanding are fascinating.

Perhaps the characters who loom largest are the titular Seven, and their creator. We get some understanding of the drivers behind the creation of the Seven within flashbacks, watching a woman determined to save the world ruthlessly take the steps she feels are required to do so. The Seven are visible in both timelines – as the end product of the past, the long term wardens of the Empire of the Eye. In the present, they’re somewhat more complex. If the world is not to their liking, they have the capacity to unmake it, and hold in their hands an Empire which regards them as divinities. They’re mythical figures, as the book begins. Each becomes distinguishable from the others though, the stories of their pasts being revealed, and the decisions they make in the face of the present setting them apart from each other. The Seven are the ultimate authority for the older vision of the world, stepping into the new society which Vesper is struggling to construct. Seeing them as individuals, they seem complicated, driven, forbidding - and at least as strange as the Infernals they were meant to oppose. 

The main strand of the narrative is centred around Vesper’s efforts to create a new world in the aftermath of the old – but there’s a lot going on there. There’s some politics, as disparate factions are dragged together. There’s the social changes going on in the Empire and in the south. There’s some absolutely storming battle scenes, kinetically, gracefully, bloodily and uncompromisingly written. There’s scenes of love and affection to warm the heart, and some betrayals which threaten to break it.  This is a story of a world being brought together, and of different visions for the way that world will rebuild. It’s complicated, captivating stuff – but Newman’s liquid prose makes it a great read.

Also, and I feel I have to mention this – there’s a goat. Several goats, in fact.

If you’re new to Newman’s world, I’d suggest picking up The Vagrant and working forward from there. If, on the other hand, you were left on tenterhooks after The Malice, if you wanted to know what happened next, if you’ve wondered about The Seven, and the fates of Vesper, the Vagrant and their goats – then you owe it to yourself to pick up this absolutely excellent conclusion to the series.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Spellslinger - Sebastien De Castell

Spellslinger is the first in a new fantasy series from Sebastien De Castell, whose ongoing ‘Greatcoats’ series I’ve thoroughly enjoyed in the past.

The world of Spellslinger is something a bit different from DeCastell’s last work. In some ways, it has a high fantasy influence. There’s a society ruled by mages, those with the power to shape reality to their whim. Within that society, situated around an oasis, are others – the disenfranchised, those with no magic, the servants to those more than happy to set them on fire on a whim. This is a culture which feels both calcified and paranoid. There’s a central set of families, cloaked in magic, happy to eliminate outsiders to protect their privilege, and then stick the knife into the leaders next to them. The reader is embedded in this niche, following one of the sons of power, seeing privilege at work. That magic has the potential to bestow exceedingly long lifespans is another side-note, another ossification of existing power structures.

There are suggestions of other cultures outside of this one of course, beyond the reach of magic and paranoid insularity. There are some outspoken characters, swaggerers with their metaphorical (and sometimes literal) hat pulled over their eyes, unwilling to take any crap from wizards and their odd social expectations. If the oasis of magery can be likened to Victorian Britain – with all the inbreeding and plutocracy which that implies – its neighbours are something more of the wild west. There’s an energy there, in the small titbits we receive, an enthusiasm for grasping opportunities which the mage-lords seem to feel is beneath them. Still, the overarching society in the narrative, the one on which we focus our attention, is that of the mages – which is socially stratified, petrified and prone to responding to the potential for change with extreme thaumaturgical violence.

The protagonist is the teenage son of one of the pre-eminent mage clans, as yet unable to use his magic, and rather concerned about it. Those from the nobility who are not magic users are sent out into the servant class – no longer family, they may be trusted to serve an un-poisoned breakfast. Kellen is wry, with a burgeoning cynicism typical for his mid-teen age, and at least initially seems unconscious of the gilded had which fate has dealt him. He’s certainly clever, given to thinking (or perhaps overthinking) through his actions and their consequences. At the same time, he can be driven to impulsive moves under emotional strain. It’s interesting to watch Kellen’s journey over the course of the text – less one of maturity, and more realising the reality of the world in which he is embedded. 

He already has a sense for injustice, and a somewhat bewildered unwillingness to accept it in himself, his associates, or their society. Still, there’s room for argument here – how Kellen will conduct himself when the pressure is on, and what he actually believes in – well, that becomes clearer over the narrative. Watching him inch toward the person he has the potential to be – for good or ill – is delightful, and convincingly constructed.

In this he’s aided by the fantastically named Feruis Parfax, a woman from one of those far off lands. She’s a little mysterious, obviously clever, and has a tendency not to take any crap from self-entitled magelords. With a waistcoat, a hand of cards, and a penchant for drawling insults, Parfax puts me in mind of a cockier member of the Magnificent Seven. She has an energy and confidence that some of her antagonists’ lack – and also a kind of sorrowful, knowledgeable compassion, which contrasts with what the oasis society paints as necessary cruelties. Parfax is a lot of fun to watch – a sharp-eyed, sharp tongued drifter, with an intolerance for injustice, and willingness to do something about it. That she relies on wits and technology helps keep her approach fresh and interesting. That she’s often laugh-out-loud funny is a happy side-benefit.

The duo are thrown together initially, and watching the banter and cultural confusion as they acclimatise to each other – well, it’s entertaining, and often thought provoking. They do seem unable to keep out of trouble in one fashion or other, and that certainly kept me turning pages.

From a plot standpoint…well, as ever, I’ll try and avoid spoilers. It’s part coming of age story, and part magic-western. There’s some fantastic confrontations against the odds, and possibly the tensest, funniest magical duel I’ve ever read. There’s investigation of a burgeoning conspiracy, with red herrings and blind turns scattered about – at the same time as Kellen slowly comes to terms with who he wants to be, and quite what the society he is immersed in has become. . In short, it’s a compelling story, charmingly and grippingly told. It’ll make you chuckle, make you think, and quite possibly make you cry – and for that, I’d say it’s highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Dispatcher - John Scalzi

The Dispatcher is a new novella by John Scalzi. Seemingly unrelated to his other works, it sets out a mystery in a world where anyone deliberately killed will return to life.

The world that Scalzi’s built is, in some ways, familiar. There are hospitals, doctors, nurses. There are police struggling to enforce the law, and criminals working just as hard to evade it. The central conceit though, is this – that people removed from life by violence don’t, typically, die. They find themselves back in their homes, without their clothes – but definitely still alive. Nobody seems to know why this is now happening – but it’s a fact. A fact which has led to social change, and the creation of the Dispatcher – people whose job it is to eliminate people before they die naturally, in order to allow them to return to life. Dispatchers are a people approached with caution, somewhere between social pariah’s, a priesthood, and average government employees, struggling with paperwork.  It’s this change, the sense that death isn’t always forever, that defines the narrative – and it’s also an inventive core to spin that narrative around.

Our protagonist is Tony Valdez, who works as a Dispatcher. Valdez is cynical, ground down by life, and perhaps ever so slightly crooked. Having said that, he’s perceptive and clearly intelligent, and a rather keen eyed investigator. There’s a Sam Spade feel about Tony, as he reluctantly allows himself to be dragged into looking for a missing person; it’s less that his armour is no longer shiny, and more that he never had any to start with. That said, he seems to be a straightforward individual, neither hero nor monster – but projecting himself as a working man, simply trying to make enough to put food on the table. Of course he also kills people for a living.  It’s interesting to see a man work to remain reformed, to keep out of the sort of unfortunate deals which he would absolutely deny having taken part in before. It helps that he’s also a man with fairly firm ideas of friendship – where that doesn’t conflict with his understandable desire not to be killed himself.  Tony isn’t charming, but he is resourceful, smart and edgily witty – and rather interesting to follow around.

He’s backed up by a supporting cast with similarly noir undertones. There’s the Detective who strongarms him into helping with her investigation – unwilling to accept obvious explanations, always pushing and digging into vague answers. She’s a good foil for the laconic Valdez, and adds a sharp wit of her own to the story. The banter between the Dispatcher and the Detective ranges from philosophical, to dark, to laugh-out-loud funny, often over the course of a few sentences.

There’s other figures here as well – from organised criminals to decrepit millionaires. A couple are pitch perfect, their shrouded motivations wrapped in a familiar-seeming humanity. There’s a sense of ambiguity that pervades the cast, and it’s one that pays off over the course of the text.

The plot – well, no spoilers. But in a world where no-one dies of violence, Valdez is looking into the disappearance of a fellow Dispatcher, an old friend. The central mystery is rather clever – I was unwilling to stop turning pages, being dragged long on Tony’s investigation. There’s false leads, and red herrings, and some shockingly tense and emotional moments, with an ingenious central mystery under a stylistic layer of sci-fi noir. It’s rather fun, and if that sounds like your sort of thing, I’d recommend it. I’m certainly hoping to see more of Valdez and his world in the future.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Furthest Station - Ben Aaronovitch

The Furthest Station is a novella in David Aaronovitch’s “Peter Grant” series, centred around a young policeman who has to investigate supernatural crimes whilst getting a handle on his own magic.

In this instance, that means investigating the appearance of ghosts on the Tube. Aaronovitch has always had a good eye for environments, and the London he constructs is at once familiar and accented with the deeply strange. The Tube is its usual bustling space, filled with throngs of humanity, happy to overlook a line of police tape on a platform if they can get on with their commutes. There’s some lovely asides as well – such as a visit to a train depot, where the Tube trains are stored overnight. It feels dark, claustrophobic, and safety conscious – and real enough to serve as an insight into how the Tube system works.

There’s more here of course; worn suburban towns on the limits of the London network, their bucolic entropy a sharp contrast to the energy and enthusiasm coming from the nearby metropolis. But they’re familiar as well – larger houses, more space, torn between being something smaller or a “commuter barn”.  The casual asides which help identify these places – the lack of a coffee shop in the train station, for example – are both wryly humourous and devastatingly accurate.
This is all well and good, and it’s always enjoyable following Aaronovitch’s fluid prose as he exposes some interesting areas of London, but it helps that he can sell the supernatural as well. Sitting in the interstices of our reality are the strange, the troubled, and the dangerous. Previous books have given us magic-users who happen to be policemen, tasked to defend the populae and ensure the peace with little in the way of manpower or funding. They’re still there, and the fusion of the mystical with the humdrum-yet-compelling reality of modern policework is as delightful as ever. This time though, we’re exploring ghosts – what they are, how they work, and potentially, whether they can commit crimes. The supernatureal elements here felt natural, if that makes sense – they had their place in the narrative, and it seemed eminently sensible that a ghost might ride a Tube train, or that a dog might be able to track the echoes of magic that they give off.

In any event, Aaronovitch has done well here. This is a corner of London it now feels as if I’ve explored, despite never having ventured down the tracks of the Tube after dark, and his ghosts and monsters are vividly convincing.

Most of the focus here is on Peter Grant; he’s a policeman who happens to be a wizard, part of a large family originally from Sierra Leone, and his relationship with a river goddess can probably be described as ‘complicated’. Peter is pleasantly cynical, his wry, sharp observations on the small futilities and triumphs of life in the Metropolitan Police helping make the whole thing more convincing. He’s intelligent and incisive, but has an aura of the everyman, even this far into the series – and that helps draw the reader in, and get us to feel Peter’s struggles as our own.

In this instance, he’s joined by his boss, DCI Nightingale, a man who bored a hole through several inches of Tiger tank with a magical projectile. Nightingale is suave, old fashioned, and implacable. His mentoring of Peter is always enjoyable, the gentle student-teacher relationship surrounded by quips about Peter’s terrible Latin, and the occasional fireball.  I’m always happy to see Nightingale get some time on the page, and he’s still an absolutely fascinating character.

Peter’s teenage relative, Abigail, gets some time here too. She’s clearly intelligent, with a penchant for long-suffering looks when dealing with Peter’s apparent obtuseness. Their relationship almost mirrors Peter’s with Nightingale, though there’s some wonderfully entertaining banter injected as well. If Peter and Nithingale worry about letting Abigail into the magical world, she’s…well, she’s probably already there, critiquing old traditions, and trying not to get into too much trouble (or at least, trying not to end up having someone else bail her out). Abigail has turned up before now in minor scenes, but she grows on the page in this novella; there’s clearly hidden depths there, and it’s great to see her efforts, having decided what she wants to be a magic user, to grap her goal as quickly as possible. Where Peter is wiser, and occasionally more cautious, she’s likely to grasp the flaming, gravity defying nettle – which may or may not be a bad thing.

The plot – well, our protagonists spend a fair bit of time trying to work out why ghosts are appearing on the tube, and looking into possibly connected mundane crimes. The blend of the familiar and the bizarre works really well here; the central mystery is dark, worrying and intriguing – and would probably be so without the icing of magic. There’s some nice twists and turns here, and the investigation is tense and tightly written.  It’s a cracking mystery, one that let me brood over it for a while before an intriguing, if troubling, conclusion.

If you’re coming to this after catching up on Peter Grant novels, it’s more of what you’ve probably enjoyed up to now – magic, mystery and mayhem, with a side order of cynicism, social observation and pitch-perfect British charm. If you’ve never read one of the Peter Grant series before, this is a decent entry point, and gets across the central themes of the world very well – though I’d still advise you start back at the beginning.

Either way, I had a lot of fun reading this; it’s thoroughly enjoyable, and thoroughly recommended.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Mightier Than The Sword - K.J. Parker

Regular readers of this blog may already know that I’m a big fan of K.J. Parker. As such, I’ve been really looking forward to “Mightier ThanThe Sword”, his latest novella.

The world may be familiar to several readers – it shares a geography, if not a time period, with the currently ongoing “Two of Swords” serial, which has certain similarities to the East and Western Roman Empire(s). It’d a space where there are religious entities, which control knowledge – or at least the physical artifacts of knowledge. Books, the chains that attach them to shelves, and, seemingly, the education to go with them, all have a focus on monasteries. There’s an entire culture at work here, sketched in reader presumptions with a few high notes – so we see the protagonist speak with the Empress, and discuss the raiders coming out of the seas and targeting institutions of knowledge. It’s a small geography, but skilfully constructed, and the thematic notes are familiar if you’re aware of the wall of the Roman west.There’s a sense of decay at work here as well – or at least of entropy, as roads and institutions constructed in other times are no longer of the expected quality, slowly falling into the morass of mud amongst the deconstruction of the systems which support them. Parker has always been happy to show how governments are complex systems which allow people to survive – and equally happy to show how the disintegration of those forms is inevitable. Still, this is a space where, if the fringes of the central polity are decaying, the political core is still both active and heavily armed.  This is a world that reeks of mud, deserts and religion, one where governmental authority is centralised across a distributed system, and one where there is a defined cultural border between those inside and, well, others.

Our protagonist is the nephew of the reigning emperor. As with quite a few Parker protagonists, he has a wry self-awareness that’s a joy to read. There’s shades of Wodehouse in his abject refusal to accept responsibility or intelligence as his own qualities, striving instead for a sort of aggressive mediocrity. Still, he’s clearly both privileged and intelligent, taking the reader along on a series of investigations into raids on monasteries; his thinking is lucid and easily explicable, and makes sense when you read it – that he refuses to think of this as anything more than standard is both a compliment for and an indictment of the society he exists within. Our protagonist is an impulsive charmer, with an intelligence which is diffuse, but keen if focused. As ever, with Parker’s protagonists, he feels about as smart of the reader, at least until he’s not.  He’s also a man with a degree f laziness and, if not political conviction, a grasp of reality, enforced by his position – relative of an Emperor. I wouldn’t say his character moves toward clarity over the course of the tex, as much as it is revealed to the reader. But across it all, we have a narrator who is clever, charming, and makes logical sense in a world which, as discussed, is becoming increasingly illogical.

The plot – well, it’s part high politics, part blood-and-guts, and part personal drama. The battles are baffling, kinetic, and carry the sort of sense of risk and consequences one might expect. This is a world where everything is accepted as a business of sorts, and everything has a cost – be it in gold or blood. There’s some serious army action here, and if the blood spatter isn’t close at hand, the futility and random nature of conflict certainly is. The politics operates further beneath the surface, informing the stabbing and flights of arrows – but I requires a bit of thought to follow exactly what’s going on, and who is doing what to whom – and why The personal stories impact on both, particularly those of our protagonist, whose actions are rather likely to have geopolitical connotations. As ever though, the skill is in tying all of the threads together. Whilst I wasn’t entirely surprised by the close of the narrative, there were certain aspects I didn’t see coming.

If you’re already a fan of Parker’s, then this is an excellent addition to your collection – incisive, erudite and vicious. If you’re looking for something new, this is a great introduction to the tone and focus of his work. In either case, I’d argue that the style and tone are spot on, the plot compelling, and the narrator convincing. Pick this one up, and give it a read.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Star Reckoner's Lot - Darrell Drake

A Star Reckoner’s Lot is a fantasy novel by Darrell Drake. It’s set in Sasanian Iran, imbuing it with a mythic feel. This is assisted by the use of astronomy as functional magic, and the appearance of a great many seemingly supernatural monstrosities.

The world feels like a hard-edged version of the Thousand and One Nights. The supernatural is a pervasive and accepted part of life. There’s a strong dualism at play, between servants of the Truth, and servants of the Lie. The former are typically the authorities of humanity – kings, noblemen, driven by a desire to bring peace and order. The latter are a diverse group of murderous supernatural creatures, generally referred to as “Divs”. They range from murderous snake-women, to insect-like soul feeders, and forty-armed titans, bent on the destruction of humanity. This is a world where the sword and spear have a place, and martial virtue is prized – but it runs alongside a strand of morality which prizes order against chaos. This is a world where the border between the real and the unreal is tenuous at best, where dreams and illusions are likely to carry truths and to bite back. There’s a sense of the familiar here, wrapped around the close friendships and affections that people share – but accented by the strange – marriages between siblings, or the ability to draw on the alignment of the stars to wreak devastation upon ones enemies. It’s certainly in a unique epoch, and its blend of the familiar and an unfamiliar culture makes for an intriguing read.

The protagonist is Ashtadukht (henceforth Ashta), the titular star-reckoner. Ashta isn’t a particularly good star-reckoner. She draws on the power and wisdom of the stars, and sometimes it works perfectly – she might reveal a murdered; often at the same time, it may not work as expected – the revelation may be made by a tunnel of fire which plows through a wall before incinerating the culprit. There’s power there, and she struggles with its unpredictable nature. She’s driven in her quest to defeat the div who killed her brother. The emotions that propel her down this path are seldom visible, but lurk like icebergs in the conversations and observations that she makes to her travelling companions. She’s also notably merciful; a star-reckoner’s job is to exterminate divs and half-divs, servants of the Lie. Ashta has a tendency to slap them around and send them packing, but has a capacity for forgiveness which is uncommon. Watching her try and square this circle, a desire to do right by the divs and her own quest for vengeance, wrapped in the emotions she has for her departed brother, surrounded by an unpredictable power – well, she’s certainly full of surprises. Sometimes it’s difficult to work out exactly what she’s feeling – but a lot of the time, it doesn’t seem like she’s entirely sure either.

She’s joined by her companions – her straight-laced cousin, who bears her some affection, and Waray, a half-div and general murderous lunatic. The former is led by duty, and cares for Ashta as family. He’s the foil for AShta’s slightly divergent opinions, and a brook against Waray’s excesses. The half-div, by contrast, is a mystery, of sorts. She speaks cryptically, or at least vaguely, and seems unable to provide a straight answer to most questions. She’s also given to utterly appalling (though for the reader, often hilarious) pranks. There’s a suggestion at the start of the text that something isn’t quite as it seems in the life of Waray – or indeed that many things aren’t – and this is one of the character mysteries that drive the narrative.

The plot moves across the years, blending seamlessly between chapters. It can be tricky to tell how much time has passed, but that actually fits into the mythic tone of the story. But it follows Ashta and her companions as they journey around Iran, seeking out divs causing trouble and trying to prevent it – whilst keeping an eye out for the one which ended Ashta’s brother. There’s a lot of opportunity for reflection in here, and some great bantering character sections. But there’s also some truly impressive magic, and debates around truth and morality. These are, though, mixed in with duels, the occasional siege, and a non-zero amount of derring-so. It’s a complicated story, this one, with depths that deserve to be plumbed in a second or third reading. But it’s also an adventure, a tale of heroism and villainy, battle and betrayal. It’s a fresh voice, and one which deserves to be heard. Give it a shot. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Tyranny of Queens - Foz Meadows

A Tyranny of Queens is the second in Foz Meadow’s “Manifold Worlds” series. I took a look at its predecessor, “An Accident of Stars” last year, and was quite impressed with its particular blend of portal fantasy. I’ve been looking forward to seeing where the story goes on this one.

The story begins back in what we think of as our world. Saffron, one of the protagonists of the previous volume, has found herself back home after her otherworldy jaunts. Unfortunately, she’s also found herself scarred, emotionally and physically, and reticent to explain exactly how these changes came about. Facing a social worker and a concerned family, she goes back to school. There’s a slow tension building up, permeating the school – at least there is for Saffron. She seems out of her element, struggling to adapt to the petty daily realities. The structured lessons, the ambivalent authorities and the skin-crawling social environment are all carefully constructed, and carry an immediacy and an honesty which make them feel genuine, if not pleasant to read about.

There are, though, other worlds than these – and their vibrant colour and energy stands in sharp contrast to the institutional drudgery to which Saffron has initially resigned herself.  We’re also visiting the world of Kenans and the Veksh, cultures firmly established in the previous book. The story takes a hard, unflinching look at borders and history. It’s interested in exploring the divergent cultures available in this alternate world, and starts laying out a little more of the history that has led to the current state of affairs. This exploration of how and why peoples have settled into their current cultural structures is absolutely fascinating. It’s also done cleanly, a gradual process of reader discovery matching others in the narrative, rather than a massive infodump, which was very much appreciated. If the world was a mystery before, it may become less of one over the course of the text. I appreciated the opportunity to share in the excitement and worry of discovery, and thought this was particularly well done.

This also feels like a more political text than its predecessor. There are intrigues aplenty, and more than a few moments where characters are trying to work out what they can say, and who they can trust. In a world which allows for the sharing of skills and memories, issues of trust are paramount – and exploring the erosion of that trust, or its restoration, is another facet of the narrative. It’s well done, and there were more than a few moments where I was more than startled.

This is an example I think of the way that the world building has clearly been done with great care. Each of the cultures presented has their own mores and expectations, and they still clash gently (or less than gently) from time to time. But everything is internally consistent within a culture, which means that although we may not get all the details, we can see enough of them to make each nation, with its different ethics and values, feel alive. Admittedly, it still feels like there’s too many linguistic terms and cultural titles thrown around, but I got used to it after a while, and the prose flows along quickly enough that I didn’t stumble over the terminology too badly.

The characters, now. I always rather liked Saffron, the quietly desperate protagonist from earth. After her experiences in the first book, she’s back, albeit somewhat feistier. This is by no means a bad thing. Watching Saffron get a firmer handle on who she is, what she wants, and how she’s going to achieve it is fantastic. There’s still doubt there, and a certain frailty, which helps keep her human – but her burgeoning confidence, and growing refusal to take ownership of other people’s crap helps make her a heroine it’s a pleasure to turn the pages with.

She’s ably assisted by the supporting cast of Kenans and Vekshi of course. A surrogate family of sorts, they’ve got an unforced enthusiasm for life, and an energy which makes them charming company. There’s enough arguments, discussions and human frailties in there as well that they feel like people, rather than constructs – and their support for Saffron and each other is unforced and a rather lovely read.

The villains though – the villains are where this shines. I won’t add spoilers here, but it’s great to see Kadeja again. She was the focused, driven, self-justifying and generally appalling antagonist of the last book, and her rather vile dynamism is guaranteed to make her steal a scene if she’s in it, one way or another. In contrast to Kadeja’s iron certitude, the conflicted Leodan is somewhat more mysterious – a man who stole a throne, paying a long game, a man wearing more than one face – he’s something of a cypher; the longer he was on the page however, the more intriguing he became. Kadeja owns a room when she walks into it; Leodan appears more sympathetic, more personable – despite his actions in the previous text. They’re both, if not charming, certainly compelling – I found it difficult to put the book down, trying to discover what scheme they’d started rolling at the conclusion of the previous book.

Speaking of which: I won’t spoil the plot, but this is a book that promises answers. There’s more than a few of those scattered through the pages, alongside red herrings, betrayals, and the occasional murder. At the end of the day though, this is a story which embraces the sense of discovery, and of looking for the best in humanity. I mean, there’s magic, and more than a few revelations which made me stop for a moment to recover, and far more that made me stop and think. It’s got well-paced prose, and some truly explosive moments running alongside a fascinating discussion of humanity, and the decisions that people make – a wider story, wrapped around the journey of Saffron and her friends and family.

Is it any good? Well, I rather enjoyed it. I’d say you can just about read this without the first volume, but I’d suggest starting there. The context provided is invaluable. If you’re coming to this after reading the first book – then this is a worthy successor, a clever and innovative piece.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Blackwing - Ed McDonald

Blackwing is the first in a new fantasy series by Ed McDonald. It’s got a certain kind of noir style. Some of that’s the world – a republic that exists by the sufferance of its leaders, magicians so powerful and remote they may as well be gods, its people used as a shield against an encroaching Empire. Part of it is the characters – like Galharrow, hard-bitten, hard-edged, seemingly mercenary. A man with a keen intelligence, an even keener sense of cynicism, and the pragmatism to do whatever needs to be done – an extremely tarnished knight errant. There’s buckets of gore mixed in with emotional honesty, and glorious and terrible magic sits side by side with some nuanced character moments. Coming into this with no expectations, I can say I was very pleasantly surprised – it’s great stuff. 

The world – well, I don’t want to overuse the word grim, but it’s certainly not a very pleasant one. The narrative is set at the edge of a border zone. On one side sits a republic, of sorts – governed by a small group of voting ‘Princes’, whose social and economic control is immense, a noble class beneath them serves as landowners, with everyone else lurking somewhere beneath. But above the Princes, sit the Nameless. These eldritch creatures are, if not omnipotent, effectively so from ground level. They fade in and out of society, following their own inscrutable agenda’s, passing on esoteric warnings, and engaging in a grinding war with the other side of the border.

As an example of the tone of the text, the Nameless don’t seem to demand the reverence of those in the land they inhabit, presumably for the same reason that the boot makes no such demands of an ant. The Nameless are horrors, to be sure – less actively malevolent than obscure and alien. Their opposite numbers across the border are rather less pleasant. The Nameless have created a physical border, a zone of ghosts and horrors, where directions never quite lead you where you need to go – and the fear that they could do so again is what holds their enemies in check. This is a world of gods and monsters, where the expectation is that they’re one and the same. There’s a grining poverty, a society of inequality and an expectation that life will be nasty, brutish and short. But there’s beauty trickling through as well. A percentage of the population is able to work or store magical energy; some of this is used to power cities, some for rather more military purposes – like large explosions. But the description of a spinner weaving in the moonlight is entrancing, and the moons themselves, setting over the twisting monstrosities of the border – the Misery – almost flow off the page. 

Into this world steps our protagonist, Galharrow. As alluded to earlier, he is, to be delicate, not a particularly nice man. He’s ruthless, selfish, and more than happy to kick a fallen opponent when they’re down. I think he’d probably prefer it if he could stab them in the back, whilst they were asleep. He has a loyalty to a few long term associates, but seems callously indifferent to the fates of pretty much everyone else. On the other hand, his sense of cynicism is precise, and accentuates rather than masks a ferocious intelligence. Galharrow is smart, perceptive, and his observations, if vicious, are typically pithy, valid, and amusing. I was driven to outright laughter by a few particularly on-point pieces of internal monologue. He has enough humanity to be sympathetic in such a broken world, and enough pragmatic energy that he’s a joy to follow around; watching his struggles with his own humanity, especially when it runs into the obdurately awful world, is captivating.

In this he’s backed by an able supporting cast. There’s his able lieutenants, one of whom, Nene is surprisingly sympathetic for a blunt, blood-fuelled killer. The other, an altogether gentler creature, helps navigate the team across The Misery. His gentle vitality and good humour serve in stark contrast to both Galharrow and Nenn. But there’s others here as well. There’s the horrifyingly alien yet curiously compelling Nameless, and their simply terrifying opposition, the Deep Kings. There’s heroic generals, and cowering incompetents, arch-mages and broken peasantry. This is the pageant of life on display in the awful strangeness of The Misery, and Galharrow is our lens into it all. In that regard, he’s perfect – a man determined to be who he seems to be, but not quite fitting into the mould he’s made for himself. He’s not a tortured antihero, but someone broken, making the best decisions they feel that they can – and each turn of the page makes him more alive. 

The plot begins with a bounty hunt, but it definitely doesn’t end there. Galharrow investigates conspiracies, and acts as the servant of the Nameless, which largely means getting his hands dirty. His investigations are the central core of the text, each thread he pulls on leading toward an explosive conclusion. But there’s red herrings to be worked through first. There’s betrayals and duels, monsters and mages to be fought. Still, if Galharrow isn’t shy of chopping up the occasional monstrosity, it’s his incisive mind driving the plot, trying to tie everything together. This is a story about solving a mystery; it is, of course, also one which doesn’t shy away from an awe-inspiring battle or two, and some wonderfully kinetic and gory sword-fights. There’s enough weird and appalling magic for anyone. By the time I finished the book, I didn’t want it to end – and I’m already keen to see where this series goes next. It’s an impressive work of fantasy, and one I thik we’ll be hearing more about. Highly recommended.