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.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Godsgrave - Jay Kristoff

Godsgrave is the second in Jay Kristoff’s “Nevernight Chronicle” fantasy series. The series looks at the actions of Mia Corvere, a young woman with a thirst for revenge, a talent for assassination, and a companion who lives within her shadow. I really enjoyed the first outing in the series, which blended some sharp dialogue with a strong core narrative and solid characterisation, so this new entry was hotly anticipated. To get it out of the way: I enjoyed it. A lot of the same things that made the first book work are resent here, and there was enough new material that I kept on turning pages.

Kristoff has created a detailed and thoroughly convincing world, with flashes of renaissance Italy and strains of late Republican Rome. Those influences seep through in the text, which is largely centred around a series of gladiatorial games. There, slaves compete for the honour (and profit) of their masters, and one of the lucky competitors gets their freedom, and the chance to hobnob with some of the highest born and most well-protected members of the aristocracy. Which is handy if your revenge requires you to assassinate them. Thus does Mia Corvere end up infiltrating one of the gladiatorial houses, with nothing much between here and her vengeance except a small pile of other people’s bodies.

Mia is always a pleasure to read. At heart she’s a young woman who has been through severe trauma. But she’s not just that, being something of a multifaceted dark jewel. There’s a brutal pragmatism, with a charming indifference to body count. But that exists alongside a personality which longs for and fears connection and emotional intimacy. As those around her become friends and colleagues, and not just obstacles in the way of her goal, she struggles with the ruthlessness required to follow through on her goals. This is further emphasised in her travails in forming romantic attachments; watching the often surefooted Mia stumble through serious emotional entanglement is a terrifying delight. She is, as the saying goes, so sharp that she might just cut herself, and we’re left waiting to see what she does. The hard-skinned assassin is here, the ruthless killer – but also a lonely woman and the armour she’s placed over a traumatised young girl. At the end, Mia is a complex, troubled, troubling character – and the intricacies of her personality, and her own internal conflicts, make for a compelling protagonist.

In this she’s ably assisted by a strong supporting cast; if we see them through Mia’s eyes, they’re no less believable for all that. Really my only complaint is that we don’t see enough of them. That said, if Mia is possessed of conflicts, the same isn’t to be said of her closest compatriot – the mysterious creature that lives within and shapes itself around her shadow. The eponymous Mr. Kindly is sharp-witted, and has a dry, wry tongue like a razor, which is rather fitting really. There’s an acerbic, venomous humour to his chats with Mia which had me chuckling in appreciation every time he popped up. I’m still not sure what he gets out of his relationship with Mia, and am interested to find out as the series proceeds, but for now he’s just a lot of fun to read.

The footnotes laced through the text, placed there by our narrator, have a similarly waspish and cynically observant style; some may find them too much detail, or dislike the style, but I think they fit for the way the text is constructed. That they’re informative as well as often blackly humorous is a plus.

The world is as vivid as ever. There are moments when you can feel the crunch of sand beneath gladiatorial sandals, or see the tinge of blood on a knife. The pace is quick, and tends to end in blood, or violence of one sort or another. But if there’s more than enough action set-pieces to satiate the most blood-thirsty, there’s also heart-rending and surprisingly uplifting emotional beats. The world Mia inhabits is one filled with living, breathing humans – and the systems which they’ve created. The politics of the world are happening out of frame of the novel, but they’re still impacting it; as we become more aware of the intricacies of the social systems of the space, and the inequalities that exist within it, so does Mia, and that’s one of the more emotionally evocative arcs of her character.

I haven’t touched on everything here, but to sum up: the world continues to be a multi-layered gem, filled with both small, convincing details, and strangely familiar institutions. Mia is a sharply observed and complicated woman, and her vengeance is fast-paced, bloody, and a bloody good read. If you’re already a fan of the series, Godsgrave is a fantastic entry. If you’ve not started the series yet, I strongly advise you to start immediately. This is top stuff.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Dogs of War - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Dogs of War is a standalone sci-fi novel from Adrian Tchaikovsky (whose science-fiction credentials include the superlative Children of Time, which we looked at very favourably last year).

It’s a book which explores a lot of interesting ideas, including the role of artificial intelligence in society, exactly what we define as humanity, the ethics of conflict resolution and the manufacturing of sentient biological life. But it does all of this through a variety of different perspectives, from civilian medical personnel to military bioforms, offering a personal view as an immediate and emotional underpinning to its exploration of these big ideas. It is one of the finest sci-fi novels I’ve read this year, and if you’re looking for a new book to read in the genre, it should probably be this one.

So, looking at it in detail, what’s it about? Well, the central character is Rex. Rex is a bioform, an artificially created life. We’re along for the ride in Rex’s head, and that head is one which marries sentience with different instincts to our own. Derived from canine stock, then bred for war and cybernetically integrated with weapon systems, Rex is extremely loyal to his Master, and extremely dangerous to those he’s told are the enemy. He works in a unit with other bioforms, each as weird, wonderful, and thoroughly deadly as the last. Perhaps the greatest triumph of the text is in giving the reader a great many non-human viewpoints to consider – from Rex’s canine loyalties and desire to help, to the combined consciousness of a cloud of weaponised bees, and the quietly murderous thoughts of a giant reptile. They’ve been given the ability to think, and to communicate with each other, within the bounds of their cybernetics, and each of them thinks differently, speaks differently, and reads differently on the page.

Unfortunately for Rex, his desire to do what his Master wants, indeed his almost inability to refuse, means that he may do some rather bad things. This throws up some exciting questions, first about the role that diminished actors could take in the commission of what might otherwise be war crimes, and about the responsibility and ethics that would come with the creation of new sentience. Actually, the lack of ethics is something more on the table here. At the same time, there’s an ongoing conversation about whether these bioforms, created in laboratories to fight others wars, are themselves actually people.  That particular thread rumbles in the background of the narrative; as a reader, it’s possible to walk alongside Rex as he begins to feel, if not more human, perhaps more independent – and as we begin to see him as something other than a weapon, as he is portrayed that way, so too does the wider context round bioform rights open up.

There’s a fair bit of action here, laced bloodily throughout the text. It’s never glorified, and the consequences are shown, with a stark light that lets the reader form their own opions on the conflict. At the same time, the combat periods are kinetic, fast paced scenes with real impact – and the moments which explore what’s left behind are thoughtful and affecting without being mawkish. I have to admit, Rex’s unit working together is an awesome sight – and also one which is terrible. Kudos to the story for giving glimpses of both.

There’s other stuff in here too; the narrative is layered through with complex questions. If Rex and his bioform colleagues are alive, what does that say about artificial intelligences, also in their infancy in this near-future world? If bioforms are awarded personhood, how does society deal with people who are always heavily armed or actively designed to kill? Seeing that the conflicts Rex has, to be someone, to decide whether he actually wants to be anything other than a follower of his Master’s voice – well, they’re beautifully, honestly portrayed, and a very difficult read. At the same time, they ring true, evoking the US civil rights movement, or the institutional struggles of South Africa. This is a book which is trying to look at big issues in a future context, and also tell us something about humanity, and I think it succeeds.

Rex’s personal story – well, by the end of the book, listening to his voice, his thoughts, his feelings, and knowing has sacrifices, I’d been moved to tears several times. Though the story approaches and explores these grand ideas, and does so with complexity and nuance, it’s not afraid to give us stakes in the game. This isn’t a dry, academic exploration of social changes. It’s raw and bloody and personal – and fantastic.

Once again: this is one of the best science fiction books I’ve read this year, perfectly blending larger themes and big ideas together with a personal, emotional story; it’s a feast for the mind at the same time that it wrings out the heart, and I can’t recommend it enough – go buy it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Shadowblack - Sebastien De Castell

Shadowblack is the second of Sebastien De Castell’s ‘Spellslinger’ series. The first, a cunning blend of coming of age tale, fantasy and weird western, was very enjoyable – so I had high hopes for this one too. Shadowblack re-emphasises a lot of the good things about the first volume, including the sharp banter, the well observed, convincing characterisation, and the world I wanted to see more of, then adds some new narrative spices of its own.

Where the first book was set in an oasis of magic users, and centred around Kellen, an adolescent coming rapidly to terms with the fact that he didn’t actually have any magic to speak of, we, along with Kellen, are now outside that oasis, thrust into the wider world and wondering what on earth happens next. Unfortunately, it turns out that the Badlands outside of the oasis are, well, not very nice. There’s radiating heat, scrubby brushland, and rather a lot of horse manure. It’s a barren land with a big sky; to me it evokes a start, Western-style vista. De Castell draws out the difficult beauty of these Badlands in the tribulations of his protagonist – struggling against an uncaring space, but one with a beauty of its own, means that geography helps shape character.

If the Badlands, and the fractured region of which they’re a part aren’t enough, then there’s the Academy. A thriving university town, with students from the richest and most influential of this world.  If it feels a little parochial in some ways, that just serves to provide a patina of authenticity to the experience.  If the Badlands feel like the edge of the world, then the thriving, hopeful town in which the Academy sits is its crowning jewel and greatest contrast. It’s to De Castell’s credit that he makes both environs feel alive.

The unlikely trio from the first book are back. I have to admit that for me the star of the show is always Reichis, the squirrel cat. He’s a few pounds of fur, sharp teeth and a sharper attitude. Reichis has a degree of focus which I suspect the other characters envy – he’s a fan of baubles, and of murdering small animals, and as long as nothing interferes with those cat-activities, he’s fairly happy. That said, he also enjoys trying to educate Kellen in the ways of the world, with a distinct lean toward solving problems by disembowelling them. Acerbic, he may be, but Reichis leaps off the page as a convincing portrayal of a person who isn’t also a human. Over the course of the text, he exhibits a bit of personal growth, bringing his team mates a little further into his heart. But in the meantime, his dialogue is sharp, witty, and often hilarious, and the action sequences he appears in are have a penchant for kinetically charged brutality which kept me turning pages.

Ferius is Kellen’s other mentor, a traveller with a set of alchemical pouches, cards that are both prophecies and weapons, and her own line in dry repartee. Where Reichis is the personification of the id, Ferius is calmer, more collected. She has her own goals, and a certain enigmatic magnetism. Quite what drives Ferius has remained unclear, but in the interim she serves as a solid counterpoint to Reichis, and as one of the few people around Kellen who seem prepared to let him realise his potential, rather than have him enact some scheme of theirs.

Having spoken about Reichis and Ferius, I just want to take a moment to say that the dialogue here is absolutely pitch perfect. The banter has that amiable edge to it, as colleagues and friends take swipes at each other. Where it’s more serious, the emotional payload is raw and convincing, and threats of violence come freighted with depth and weight that gives them serious menace. In either case (and indeed in the more standard everyday chit chat as the characters go about their business) the language absolutely scintillates, and the rhythm and texture of the dialogue goes a long way to keeping the pages turning. That it is (much like in De Castell’s Greatcoats series) by turns hysterical and genuinely emotional and honest is a great help too, of course.

Kellen is our protagonist again, and I have to admit, he feels spot on as a teen conflicted about his place in the world. The coming-of-age tale is in full flow here, as he steps into a world which is fairly confident that he isn’t special. Being on the run from his own people, and not entirely willing to share who he is with the world, Kellen is rather occupied trying to work out who he, well, is. Or rather, who he wants to be, now that he’s out from under the constraints of his society. There’s a part of Kellen which is a sulky, surly teen, but there’s a score of moral choice there as well, and the steel of adulthood slowly becoming visible beneath it all. Quite who Kellen is I’m not entirely sure, and he isn’t either, I suspect – but watching him try and work that out, deciding what his own principles and morals are, and what they’re worth, well, it makes for an intelligent, sometimes troubling, but always interesting read.

The plot – well, no spoilers here. I will say that it rumbles along at a reasonable pace though. There’s an assortment of trickery, thievery and fast talking. There’s even a little bit of magic, here and there. The stakes, as ever, are high, both personally and in a wider context, and there’s a tension and sense of consequence which ties up with the stellar characterisation and cracking dialogue to keep the pages turning. Is it worth reading? Oh yes. Our trio are always at their best when they’re in hot water, and they’re definitely there this time. This is a worthy successor to Spellslinger, and if you were wondering if the sequel could be as good, I’d say you can now stop wondering, and start reading. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The New Voices of Fantasy - Peter S. Beagle (Ed.)

The New Voices of Fantasy is a collection (edited by Peter S. Beagle) of some of the best short fiction from ‘up and coming’ fantasy authors. There’s some Nebula and Hugo award nominees and winners amongst these stories – and if awards aren’t the only indicator of quality, still they’re suggestive. The work as a whole is of a very good standard, and there’s some interesting themes explored, and questions asked – and, occasionally, answered.

There’s a range of stories here, from the hard-edged sentiment of Max Gladstone’s “A Kiss with Teeth”, where Vlad the Impaler struggles to relate both to the modern world, and to his family, to the lyrical modern mythology of Usman T. Malik’s “The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn”, or the quiet secrets and gentle romance of Amal El-Mohtar’s “Wing”. Given there are nineteen stories in the collection, there’s always going to be some that fit a particular reader more than others, but the overall quality is very high. I won’t go through them all, but there are definite highlights.

I have a lot of affection for Alyssa Wong’s “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” – a young woman who feeds off negative emotions is slowly drawn towards monstrous acts. Wong portrays a fragile, confused, powerful woman, unsure of who she is and wants to be – and the sacrifices she’s willing to make whilst working that out.

“Left the Century to Sit Unmoved” from Sarah Pinsker is a piece of fantasy in the modern day, exploring why people are prepared to take risks, to fall with and for each other. In this case, the fall is literal, as inhabitants of a town leap into a possibly bottomless pool. Not all of them return, but the exploration of why people would jump in the first place is compelling and emotionally evocative.

Ben Loory’s “The Duck” is a heartwarming piece, ostensibly about a duck who falls in love with a rock. The other ducks are perhaps less than supportive of this decision. The piece is a pleasant allegory, exploring what it means to fit in, or to deliberately not do so. It wants to examine what people are willing to do for each other, and for love, romantic and otherwise. It’s likely to raise both a chuckle and a smile or two.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s “The Tallest Doll in New York City” is an enjoyablu whimsical piece where the buildings of New York are both sentient and mobile. It’s a love story of architecture, with a thirties thread running through it. The protagonist, at least nominally, is a waiter in one of the buildings, who is also on the lookout for romance in this Valentines Day modern fable.

Those are, of course, just a sample. There’s more here, from the wry, ironic and often darkly appalling “Here Be Dragons”, tracking a pair of con-men in a sword-and-sorcery world, now trying to fit back in to village life with their wives and children, to the travelogue-esque “My Time Among the Bridge Blowers”, a story which is putatively a description of a small mountain society, but which also explores the ideas around power, formation of narrative and colonialism.
As I say, there’s probably going to be some stories here which you find better than others, but the sheer diversity of work on display here, and the excellent overall quality, make this a collection that’s certainly worth exploring.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence - Michael Marshall Smith

Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence is a new standalone novel from Michael Marshall Smith. It’s something of a coming-of-age tale, as the young Hannah Green travels with her Grandfather and the Devil (yes, the actual Devil) in an effort to hold the seams of reality together, and help her parents work out their relationship.

Hannah is the young girl whose existence is apparently so mundane. She lives in a world of routine – of trips to other parts of the state, in the back of the car whilst her parents talk. Of school – lessons, bells, and so on. It’s a universe of certainty, where each day holds close to something of the previous. That routine is shattered when Hannah’s parents decide to stop living together. Smith manages to give Hannah a unique, persuasive voice. She’s only eleven, and so lacks some of the context that an older reader may get, as her parents relationship gently fails. But she’s bright, inquisitive, and not afraid to ask questions – and if there’s an innocence there, it never grates. There’s some great characters floating through this text, but Hannah is probably the most challenging, and the most convincing – a girl thrown into situations she doesn’t entirely understand, determined to make the best of them, to be treated as if her opinions matter, and do the right thing. 

Where Hannah is a gentle and amusing protagonist, her parents are something else entirely. Smith paints a picture of a relationship which isn’t in crisis, per se, but in slow decline. There’s an energy to it, a sense of individuals struggling to define their emotional connection to each other – or redefine it. If Hannah’s character is one of the highlights of the text, this relationship – febrile, built on memories and now in flux – is another. The silences, the justifications, the sense of drifting further apart, of quietly needing different things, is well-crafted and feels genuine. 

Then, of course, there’s the Devil. He is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not a nice person. Still, as Hannah and her family have layers, so does this personification of malice, whose efforts to work out why he’s no longer as powerful as he should be  are entangled with Hannah and her family. The Devil’s straightforward, politely expressed spite is a gem – each appearance mixes polished banter with an aura of lethality. The Devil is joined by an “Accident Imp”, also described as a talking mushroom, which attaches to people and gets them into, well, accidents. As a foil to the Devil’s polish, the imp is a gem – avuncular, chatty, aware of its low status in the Devil’s er…organisation – and prone to mishaps of its own. There’s a warm comic timing between the two, and the imp’s interactions with other people are equal parts hilarious and charming, inhabitant of Hell though he is.

Along with Hannah’s grandfather, a man with a penchant for machinery and mystery, this motley collective make up a thoroughly enjoyable cast. The frustration and emotional devastation of Hannah’s parents is palpable and real, at least as much as the whimsy and determination of Hannah herself, the Devil’s temper and penchant for overwhelming force, or the accident imp’s surprisingly insightful banter. 

That they operate, mostly, in the real world is helpful – the vistas of Nothern California are lovingly described when required, and the small town life which Hannah leads really does seem to come alive as one meanders through it alongside the story. From a multiplicity of coffee shops and forests, through to the environs of Hannah’s home, each environment feels both strange and familiar, coming off the page with vivacity and verve.

The plot – well, no spoilers, but I think it works rather well. Hannah’s journey is one which encompasses both an effort to save the world, and one to understand her family. Both these threads are fascinating in their own right, and where they wend and intersect with each other, it becomes impossible to stop turning pages. This is a story of a journey, and of a family, as much as it is one of demons, ancient pacts and talkative mushrooms. I’d have to say that these, and the sheer imagination deployed, make this book one that is very much worth picking up.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Back soon...

On holiday for a couple of weeks.
Normal service will resume on the 30th!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Infinity Wars - Jonathan Strahan (Ed.)

Infinity Wars is the sixth collection of short stories in Jonathan Strahan’s ‘Infinity’ series. I’ve read several of the others, and found they contained some good stories, so I was quite hopeful going into this one. There was a decent mix of authors who I was aware of and those I’d never read before, which always helps.

Infinity Wars is about the future of war. The scope ranges from alien invasions at interstellar distances, down to the human cost of pulling the trigger. In some ways the environs can be familiar – people wading through muck and blood, or in the cold darkness of outer space. In others though, they can be strange or alien – soldiers driven by their subconscious, or government agencies weaponising a climate grown more ferocious after global warming. The stories in this collection look at war across the scale – and provide an imaginative, inventive window into one of humanities oldest pursuits. 

It’s not all explosions and space battles. There’s some great character work going on as well. Nancy Kress gives us “Dear Sarah”, a letter sent home by a soldier now part of an unpopular military – which also touches on the issues of personal and cultural identity, on prejudice, and on the feeling of what is right. There’s a unique voice there, and a sense of personality which grips you as the pages keep turning. Or Indrapramit Das’s “The Moon is not a Battlefield”, which gives us a woman who was once a soldier on the moon, reliving the grace and beauty of her youth, and the dreams which shaped her as she returns to an earth which is less than forgiving. There’s soldiers as heroes, and as bureaucrats. Elizabeth Bear’s “The Perfect Gun” gives us a richly cynical mercenary, someone accustomed to making the amoral choices, whilst working within a ship powered by an AI. The latter becomes perhaps more personable as the tale unfolds. The former is charmingly unlikable, but entirely believable – a person out for themselves, unashamed and unafraid. If you’re looking for characters to shape these stories, then you’re in the right place. Warfare has always had the capacity to break or shape humanity – and the characters here have been exposed to the kind of pressure that moves them, shifts their centre, and lets us explore a raw humanity beneath. 

That isn’t to say there aren’t some storming plots as well. I absolutely love Garth Nix’s “Conversations with an Armory”, where several tired, scarred and wounded men try and talk their way past an Armory AI, in a putative effort to stop an alien invasion. It’s a delicate piece on the costs of war and what happens to those who remain – and also carries an urgency, a sense of the kinetic, a high-stakes story. There’s a race against time, and the consequences for failure are dire. It’s an absolute page turner, and also one with a serious emotional punch. Then there’s the creeping horror of Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Faceless Soldiers, Patchwork Ship”. Here our protagonist is asked to pay the cost to infiltrate an enemy craft and bring it down before it can cause incalculable harm. The risk, though, is assimilation into the collective of the enemy. It hits all the right beats – there’s an organic tension, the smell of something dead or alive in the air, and a growing awareness from the reader that our narrator could become what she’s set out to oppose. It’s a story about loyalty and hard choices – and that kept me turning the pages. 

In the end, this is another solid entry in Strahan’s “Infinity” series. It looks at the lies and truths of war, the mental and physical joys and costs. There’s plenty of humanity on display here – the darker, stranger parts, and the virtues we cling to when everything else is lost. There’s also the strange, the weird, the wonderful and horrifically alien. So if you’re looking to explore some new authors, or want to think about humanity and its conflicts of the future, then this collection is worth your time.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Imposters of Aventil - Marshall Ryan Maresca

The Imposters of Aventil is the third in Marshall Ryan Maresca’s “Maradaine” sequence of novels. The author has also written several other series in the same universe – and if you’ve been following those, there’s some crossover here.

Aventil is one of the districts in the city of Maradaine. In comparison to others that we’ve seen in previous books, it’s rather prosperous. There’s a university, packed out with a large number of well-heeled students – aspiring lawyers, magnates of tomorrow, and the occasional wizard. The streets are fairly clean, and if the money of the University is one reason, another in is because Aventil’s crime is organised, but also fractured. There are several different street gangs, all with their fingers in separate pieces of Aventil territory, and each with their own history and grudges with each other.  That said, they all deeply resent intrusion into that territory from the outside – and will band together to savage interlopers. They’re insulated by a police force which is more lethargic than actively corrupt –unwilling to rock the boat, start trouble, or indeed finish it.  Aventil is, in its way, thriving – money moves and everyone has an interest in a stable neighbourhood, and as a result it has a cosmopolitan and socially active feel. This is especially true of the University, which sees wonderfully insular, with its own politics and problems, looking out on the rest of the neighbourhood from a bubble of privilege you can almost see rising off the page.

The characters…well, there’s the infamous Thorn, of course, and his gang of merry followers. Then there’s Inspector’s Rainey and Welling, brought in to investigate murders, and trying to chase down the Thorn. Alongside them, there’s our connection to the Aventil street gangs, who also happens to be tied to the Thorn. Also a small horde of side characters. I think my only complaint here is that given the smorgasbord of characters present, we don’t get to spend a lot of time with all of them. It’s great seeing the crossover between different aspects of Maresca’s worlds, but I think we could have done with a text twice the size to give them all room to breathe.

Still, the characterisation is solid – especially for Minox and Welling, whose cool competence, and incisive intelligence mixes well with troubled consciences and icy pragmatism. Those two pretty much own any page that they’re on. The Thorn and his gang, on the other hand – well, I need to go back to the earlier books to really get the context of their relationships, I think. But coming to it fresh, there’s a sense of history missing; I was able to get a sense of what tied the characters together, and it all worked, but I suspect that the deeper context from previous books would have helped immensely. Still, they each get their moments to shine. There’s a sequence that felt reminiscent of fight club halfway through the book which really shaped one of the Thorn’s accomplices for me, for example – in their reaction to danger and courage in the face of adversity. They also have a sense of privilege which seems to gradually deflate as the story goes on – as the stakes rise, and they run afoul of meddling inspectors.

They’re joined by our eyes in the gangs. This one was easier to come to without the context, really – a lone actor, of sorts. He’s a man struggling with old loyalties and old curses; an internal monologue turns these over for the reader, with a genuine voice, and a tone that seems tired of the life that’s led this far. There’s loyalty and bravery there as well, and a sense that the centre can not hold. It’s a stark contrast to the Inspector’s view of the criminal fraternity of Aventil as thugs and menaces – noting that there are costs and consequences, that gang work is violent and sometimes ugly, but not stripping away the essential humanity beneath. This is one whom I’d follow again – to see where he ends up, if nothing else

All of these characters are thrown together in a melting pot, as the Thorn appears to go on something of a murder spree. Execept of course that he hasn’t, as far as he knows. Maresca has form in this area – a slow burning plot, with investigations, discoveries, false leads and revelations, leading to an explosive conclusion. He doesn’t disappoint this time either. I was turning pages to work out exactly what was going on, trying to understand what drove the murders, who was behind them and why – and then, as that started to gel together, kept turning pages to see what would happen next. It’s a sharply observed investigative thriller, this one, in a mature and well crafted fantasy world.

Is it worth reading? I suspect if you’re new to Maradaine, you might want to go back to the start of this series, or to the start of Rainey and Welling’s adventures; it works as a standalone, but definitely benefits from exposure to the rest of the series. If you’re already a follower of the Thorn, I’d say pick this one up. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Artemis - Andy Weir

Artemis. It’s a new stand alone from Andy Weir, whose first novel, The Martian, was a masterclass in producing an engaging and accessible work of sci-fi whilst also getting the science bit right. It later got made into a rather good film with Matt Damon. So Artemis has some rather large shoes to fill.

So, what is Artemis? It’s…a few things, actually. The top of which is, it’s heist story. On the moon. It’s not just that, of course. The protagonist, Jasmine (“Jazz”) Bashara is being offered an opportunity to change her life – and we’ll get on to that shortly. What I’m saying is that, though this is a heist story, one where careful planning and unexpected reversals are the order of the day, it’s also a story about a woman looking to make something of herself, and the book is as much about character and personality as it is about chases through vacuum and dubious law enforcement.

The world – well, it’s in some ways familiar, in others…less so. The moon is a harsh place, at least externally. It’s cold, dead, and the slightest mistake could kill you. There’s a certain sterile beauty to it, to be fair – but Weir has built a moon which can kill, and emphasises the fragility of life in that environment. The larger part of the world, though, is in the city which humanity has settled. It has a certain retro vibe to it – domes rising out of the moonrock, habitable areas underground as well as above. Relatively small, the cultural cadences of science and technology are interspersed throughout – this is a people who make up for their lack of numbers with intellectual capital and skill. The city bustles and thrives, and the industry around it – aluminium, for example – helps sustain it; it certainly feels both alive, and familiar – and at the same time, ever so slightly strange.

Character-wise – well, the main focus is on Jasmine. I have a lot of affection for Jazz, as she’s known – a smart-mouthed young woman, with a laser-like intelligence and an impressive facility for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, or otherwise putting her proverbial foot in it. Still, she has a sharp tone, and a degree of hustle and charm which it’s a lot of fun to read along with. We pick up some of her history through the text. This lets us explore wider issues as well, like how parenting, or nationality work on the moon, or the role of currency in the context of moon-living. Jazz is energetic and cheerfully self-serving, and if there’s hints of larger issues there – guilt, issues with authority, family difficulties – then they help make a more nuanced character.

Jazz is backed up by a fairly large ensemble cast – from snide EVA instructors who also happen to be ex-boyfriends, to seemingly baffled scientists. Jazz’s father, a man seemingly confounded by his daughter’s ability to do absolutely anything other than apply herself, steals every scene that he’s in, with a combination of pragmatic competence and an obvious love for his daughter that pours off the page. There’s others of course – engineers in life support, and a particularly persistent lawman. I think my only complaint is that we don’t see enough of them. They’re there, and serve the plot rather well, and give Jazz the contrasts and banter in her life that we need to see – but I’d love to have seen them in more depth.

The plot…well, as usual, no spoilers. But it’s a lot of fun. In some ways it’s a slow burn, as facets of a plan come together. But there’s enough going on at every stage to keep you turning the pages. When things do kick off, then there’s heart-in-mouth moments aplenty, tension broken with chases, brawls, and the occasional explosion. It’s a journey in exuberant prose, which is taking joy in both the science and discovery of it all, and in the personal dramas, the horrible mistakes, the bare-knuckle recoveries and the personal triumphs.

It’s not The Martian, but that’s a good thing. Artemis is strong enough to stand on its own. It’s clever, fast-paced, tense, and carries moments of sparkling humour and emotional weight. If you were a fan of The Martian, then yes, you should give this one a read. If you’re coming to Weir’s work for the first time – this is very much worth the time. 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Witchwood Crown - Tad Williams

The Witchwood Crown is the first in a new series of fantasy novels from Tad Williams. I say a new series – it’s a follow up to his existing “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn” series, the last of which came out in the early nineties. That series was thematically complex, and littered with memorable characters. Fans have been clamouring for a return since the original series wrapped up and here, at last, they have it.

Actually, a prequel novel (which we reviewed here) came out earlier this year, which was a direct follow up to the events of “Memory, Sorrow and Thorn”, and set the stage for this new series. I’d say it isn’t necessary to have read that in order to enjoy this new series, but it does provide some valuable context, and an introduction to some characters which turn up again in The Witchwood Crown.

This is a book which deals with the cost of endings, and the price of new beginnings. Which sounds portentous, but isn’t always. This is Osten Ard after the final battle, after the defeat of the Storm King and his minions – usually the point in the movie where the credits roll and the triumphant orchestral music plays. But here we are forty years later. The High Ward of Osten Ard has rumbled on since the wars, and since a kitchen boy married the Princess and took the throne. If things have been quiet, there are still rumblings of discontent. The Hernystiri, old allies of the kingdom, have a new leader of their own, and he seems less than impressed to be living under legends. To the south, the Nabbani, whose empire was quietly subsumed into the Ward before the original series, are indulging in inter-family squabbles and complex scheming that would make a Borgia shudder. To the north, Duke Isgrimnur, the man who drove the Norns back to their mountain fastness, is unwell. The Sithi, immortal survivors of several cataclysms, and related to the Norns, are mysteriously silent. The kingdom feels perhaps a little complacent, busy with internal politics over external concerns. Williams’ prose is as vividly clear as ever, and quickly brings the world of the Hayholt, the icy regions of the north and other environs back to life.

Most interestingly, it also brings us the Norns. In the original series, they were largely faceless demons, a force antithetical to humanity. In the High Ward, there’s a mixture of the strange and the familiar – odl heroes and new blood, straining against the constraints of a familiar paradigm. The Niorns though, they’re something else. Where some of their interactions are familiar, their affection for family, and for their home – it’s often overshadowed by an uncanny feeling. They live in the bowels of a mountain, servants to the seemingly immortal queen who survived the destruction of their semi-mythical homeland, and is their surviving link to it. This has bred a society with a strict sense of duty, a degree of ancestor worship, and a need for control. For each moment of connection with the Norn, there was something else –a quirk of speech, an assumption of superiority, an emotional distance – which successfully marked them as being alike, but other. If the Norn of the past were monsters, these ones are evocatively alien – and no less terrifying for it. Williams has brought an extraordinary and extraordinarily terrible society to life.

 The heroes of the original trilogy now occupy the higher echelons of the kingdom(s) in one capacity or another, but forty years on, they’re older, perhaps wiser, and surrounded by a younger generation looking to make its own mark on the world. Readers of the original series will no doubt be delighted to see Simon, Miriamele and the rest of the gang again. If some of those figures – Binabik the troll shaman, Tiamak the swamplander – seem almost unchanged, still there’s the suggestion of years having passed. To new readers, I imagine Simon the high king, the commoner-king, may be a noble if conflicted figure, his patience worn down over years of fighting the same battles, his reactions to his grandson and granddaughter those of love mixed with frustration. In the context of the original series, it’s like seeing a man box with himself. The grandson, Prince Morgan carries the younger Simon’s impulsive and restless nature, and a sense of frustrated purpose – and that feeling is very familiar to those who watched Semoan grow up way back when.

Speaking of Prince Morgan – this one is an absolute joy to read. There’s so much going on. The prince is feckless, yes, and something of a rake – more interested in wine and warm beds than in deciding the fate of kingdoms. But he’s also obviously intelligent, and, given the opportunity to do some good, is likely to do so. There’s hints of darker nuances in his relationship with his father, Simon’s son. But what really struck me was the frustration of growing within the shadow of a great man, being defined in a relationship to someone else, rather than for yourself. The story asks what it would be like to be related to the man who saved the world, and extrapolates from there. Morgan lives within the constraints of his family, and if not desperate to do something more, would still rather be doing something. His relationship with Simon and Miriamele seems to be one of frustrated ambition on all sides (as an aside, watching Simon deal with someone with his own temper was a special delight), but it presents that frustration as part of a layered, complex relationship, a shared history which shapes all parties. It helps that in between all his drinking, Morgan is a sharp, witty individual, and his concerns are often valid, if poorly expressed. I’m really looking forward to seeing what he does next.

The plot – well, there’s rather a lot of world building. It’s necessary, and an interesting read. It helps establish the stakes, I think, when we see the high Ward at peace. But like a pot on the boil, simmering bubbles of conflict begin to appear. In many ways this feels like a book of groundwork, of foundation. It’s fascinating stuff, and there’s riots, murders and mysteries aplenty. The last hundred pages or so really steps up the pace, as the metaphorical pot starts to boil over.  I’m struggling to describe things without spoilers, but I’ll say this – if there’s a lot of up-front build up to the narrative, then the payoff by its close is absolutely worth hanging around for.

Is it any good then? Absolutely. If you’re a long term fan coming back for a new look at Osten Ard, you won’t be disappointed. The complex themes, the layered relationships, and the cool magic and swords are all still there, and there’s enough of the old faces mixed in with the new to make it interesting. If you’re coming to the series fresh – well, I’d suggest going back and reading the original first, but I don’t think that you have to; it remains an intriguing, cunningly worked fantasy, and one which will reward a deep reading. In either case, I’d give this one a wholehearted recommendation. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Tomorrow's Kin - Nancy Kress

Tomorrow’s Kin is the first in a new sci-fi series by Nancy Kress. It opens with a mystery, of sorts – an alien spaceship sat at anchor near the United Nations. But there’s more than first contact at stake.

The world as we know it has changed. Well, a little, anyway. At the start of Tomorrow’s Kin, the social geography feels familiar. New York is still New York – a thriving city of millions, going about its business in a way that the reader is broadly acquainted with. Kress does show us snippets of urban life – there are quiet moments in city parks, and brash, gritty diners. These are contrasted neatly with the quieter, more remote rural areas. Again, this feels like the calm before the storm – the world is one we recognise instantly, and the concerns are similar, if sometimes a little esoteric – damage to the environment, debates over immigration and sovereignty, economic downturns, and who’s going to win the Superbowl. It’s all mostly in the background, but this is our world, the lives we live, and in that context, it’s very convincing.

Of course, in this case, there’s also aliens. Quite what they’re up to, why they’ll only talk to the United Nations, and even what they look like – it’s all something of a mystery. I was reminded of Clarke’s Childhood’s End; the aura of mystery and creeping concern is similar. But these aliens – whatever they may be – are a catalyst for exploring larger ideas. The text follows one family, that of Dr. Marianne Jenner.  Jenner is brought to speak with the aliens after making an unusual genetic discovery – and everything unravels thereafter. Marianne herself is an interesting protagonist – a sharp, smart professional, who is self-aware enough to be confident in her competence but not feel egotistically brilliant. Her two drivers appear to be professional progress, and, perhaps more importantly, her family. She’s convincing as the logical, perhaps slightly frosty scientist; but her internal monologue gives her a vulnerability in thoughts of her family which is equally substantial.

That family is multi-generational – children and grand children – and more than a little troubled. A daughter is a forceful immigration agent, given room to discuss immigration, the economy, and other bĂȘte noir. This usually leads to a clash with one of Marianne’s sons – an ecologist, concerned with invasive plant species, rather than with the movement of people. They’re both given the room to be opinionated, their arguments crashing together between the pages. This isn’t a political tract, mind you – but the discussions are engaging, and help indicate both the personalities of the characters, and the state of the world around them (or at least, those parts of it which they’re concerned with). Marianne does have another son, Noah – a wanderer, a wastrel, a man who feels the need to take drugs in an effort to define an identity for himself, lost in the shadow of his siblings.
This is a book which tries to meld the drama of one family – their smaller squabbles and relationships and concerns – into the larger narrative themes it’s wielding. It actually works rather well, letting the broader themes be illustrated in the effects on individual lives. As the story hots up, the focus draws tighter around Marianne, tracking her through decades of discovery, and charting her family and world at the same time.

It’s surprisingly difficult to talk about Tomorrow’s Kin without spoilers, as you can probably tell from the above. But it pulls together some excellent science-fiction threads: it has a big idea, and it follows that idea to a logical conclusion. The story approaches its concepts logically and plausibly – and the trials and tribulations of the characters work, both because they make sense in context, and because we’re drawn into caring about the characters.  Alongside the big idea (or two), there’s a multigenerational family story, one with arcs of personal discovery to match the science happening elsewhere on the page, and with the ability to relate facets of larger debates into a smaller scale, convincingly and in such a way as to make for an interesting read.

It’s not perfect – it feels in some cases that the conceptual stuff, the clever ideas, the “sci-fi” bit, if you like, takes up the page at the expense of further depth of character, especially for some of Marianne’s family. This isn’t an entirely bad thing – the concepts on display are cool, and a lot of fun to read. I guess what I really wanted was a little more; we can care for Marianne, and sympathise with her tribulations, but it feels like there’s room here to tell more stories about her family, and give them a little more room to breathe.

That said, this is an undertaking of impressive scope – a mixture of multigenerational saga and hard science fiction, across geography and time periods, able to talk around some of the big issues of the day, and throw its own ideas into the mix. On those terms, it’s also a successful one – I kept turning pages to see where the story would take me next, and the ambitious and compelling narrative held up to the end. If you’re looking for a solid piece of hard SF, this looks like the start of an exciting new series.