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.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The House of Binding Thorns - Aliette De Bodard

The House of Binding Thorns is the sequel to Aliette De Bodard’s extremely well regarded debut, The House of Shattered Wings. The central conceit is that angels have fallen from heaven – short on memories, but filled with supernatural power.

Like its predecessor, the book is set in a Paris of the last century, of top hats, tailcoats, salons and oppression. But here, if there is a ruling class, it is those surviving fallen angels. They’re radiant, often charming creatures. Most seem to have a streak of cruelty running through them – and where that isn’t immediately the case, their power comes at a price. This is a broken world, as well. Factions of the Fallen waged war on each other for years before the current situation. As a result, Paris is devastated, broken into enclaves, islands of stability protected by Fallen magic. Between these Houses are magical landmines, absolute poverty, a poisoned river and other, darker threats. If the Fallen have blown apart the city, they are now the only safety from the results. That safety is, though, rather tenuous. There’s enclaves of another culture entirely lurking beneath the waters of the Seine.

 We had a brief glimpse of their environment in the previous book, but are immersed in it more fully here. It’s clearly a distinct culture, with a ritual and cadence unfamiliar to those above; it’s a vivid and thoughtfully crafted society, with its own customs and mores – but it has the same creeping corruption and decay as is occurring in the enclaves of the Fallen. The interaction between these two societies is fraught with opportunities for betrayal and misunderstanding, at least as much as for mutual benefit; watching characters from both societies try and cross the liminal barrier, the gaps in understanding, is intriguing.

The focus though, is on the House of Hawthorne, run by the razor edged, charming and utterly ruthless Asmodeus. I’ve got a lot of time for Asmodeus. He oozes a sort of chilly charisma, mixed with a willingness to embrace calculated brutality. There’s something about him that speaks of razorblades and blood spatter on dark nights. At the same time, he’s a ruler, with a laser-fine intelligence, and an eye for loyalty. All of these facets bob near the surface, and there’s a feeling that something far darker lurks beneath.  Asmodeus is a captivating character, effortlessly seizing control of any scene he’s in, and trying to work out what he was up to, why he was doing it, and what on earth he was going to do next was a great reason to keep turning pages.

Madeleine is a returning character from the previous story. She’s fragile, struggling to shake a dependence on a drug which (briefly) provides the user with the powers of the Fallen – and slowly rots out their lungs. She’s self-aware enough to understand her position, and there’s a patina of low-grade fear that pervades her interactions. She’s tied to Hawthorne and Asmodeus, a House filld with horrible memories, and a Head who may not despise her, but of whom she has a well deserved terror. Still, Madeleine is also smart, resourceful, and prone to doing the right thing – in contrast to Asmodeus and his realpolitik, she struggles to do what she things of as both ethical and best. That she may fail is due to the hard edges of the world the author has brought us – the despair of the character seamlessly blending into the society around her. Still, Madeleine shows that if the world is in a state of slow decline, there are still those willing to stand up and be counted, when they feel that they must.

They’re not the only cast of course, and I’m doing the rest of the characters a disservice by not approaching them in detail. But if the faces are different, the depth is the same. There’s one of the people of the Seine, slowly infiltrating and acclimatising to House life, and the housebound Fallen who has created a fortress from a cheap apartment, and wants to live to see her wife give birth to their child. There’s vicious killers, and supernatural monstrosities. This is humanity at its worst and best, and it’s mirrored back to the reader in the faces of the supernatural creatures striding the broken streets of Paris. These aren’t saints or monsters, but complicated people, making decisions for their own reasons, worming their terrible way off the page and into your heart.

The plot spins itself out gradually, luring the reader into the world with old feuds and magical mysteries. There’s a tension wrapped through the pages, as investigation gradually opens up possibilities – usually unpleasant ones. Quite what’s being done, and by whom, and indeed why – all begins extremely unclear. As investigators pick up leads, clash with each other, and follow their own agenda, the story clarifies – or would, but there’s red herrings and quirky actions aplenty. There’s shades here of Chandler and Hammett, as the protagonists dig into the dirty laundry of the past, with guile and magic masking their humanity (or otherwise) and their frailty. It’s a story which rewards close reading, and one which compelled me to keep turning pages; the climax was rewarding and impressive – and left me breathlessly hoping for more. 

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Rise of the Iron Moon - Stephen Hunt

First, this book is part of a series, which is not immediately obvious from the product description, or the back of the book itself. Each book appears to have been written as a stand alone novel, and I managed to read the entire text happily enough, despite not having read the preceding two novels. Having said that, I believe a reader might benefit from the background I presume lurks in the previous novels, and where I struggled with quickly introduced background pieces, a long time reader would have adjusted more comfortably.

The world that has been created is a rich and diverse one, borrowing attitude and some cultural markers from the Napoleonic era, whilst also throwing in steampunk-eque elements - a fleet of airships serving as the only airforce, submarines with chased-lion brass torpedo tubes and elaborate figureheads. The diverse lands and cultures inhabiting the world are carefully drawn, each obviously given a history and life uniquely its own.

The characters are perhaps something of a let down - compared to the complex and elaborately crafted world they inhabit, I never got a clear sense of what many of them wanted, and what they were driven by. This was by no means the rule - some of the characters were strongly developed, and I certainly felt that (outside of the antagonists), none suffered from lacking detail. It is really only the comparison to the world itself that makes the characters suffer - and each is unique, interesting enough, and has a role to play.

This book is something of an adventure of the old school, with a foot firmly planted in the territory of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his `John Carter of Mars' series, the other wedged in `Sharpe' and `Hornblower'. Events happen quickly, and whilst the first chapters seem a little slow, it becomes clear that this is merely a `slow burn' prelude to the plot-packed sections that follow. Each scene is individually strong, and carries a very satisfactory sense of high adventure. The characters (and the reader) often have little time for introspection, simply because the next crisis is looming, and the reader is kept turning the pages to see how it all ends.

This is an excellent adventure novel, a great page-turner, and I heartily recommend it!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Saga (Volume One) - Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples

So, today I’m going to do something a little different, and talk about Saga. Or at least the first volume of Saga. For those of you, like me, who are new to the world of graphic novels, Saga is a sci-fi series, which looks at the trials and tribulations of a family whose worlds have been at war for, seemingly, forever.

The conflict between two worlds is one of the defining facets of the first volume of the series. Originally a local conflict between two species, it’s become a sprawling war across multiple planets, as the civilisations have evolved. There’s a casual racism on both sides, and hardened attitudes are clear – the divide between “us” and “them” is entrenched and toxic, even though both sides appear to have their fair share of heroes and villains. These super-states have pushed their antagonism out into smaller theatres; their own homes appear unthreatened by violence, even relatively peaceful – whilst war machines grind blood into mud on occupied or ‘liberated’ worlds.  As a social fabric, it feels like a call back to the Cold War and aftermath.

But if the setting encourages a degree of despair – winged and horned antagonists throwing their proxies into meatgrinders – the worlds on which this takes place are vividly, eldritch places. A forest of trees also serve as a rocketships. Ghosts erupt from the dark woods, and take up child-rearing duties. It’s a kaleidoscope of the imagination, each new idea slotting into the wider fabric – sometimes quirkily, but always blending into the existing world.  There’s a lot of imagination on display here, and a feeling of discovery on turning every page.

The duo at the centre of the text are rather charming; articulate, often aggravated with each other, a husband and wife from species at war. That conflict seethes around them, but their refusal to identify with it, to be anything other than what they want to be, rolls impressively off the page. Both seem to have their own strengths, but this is a couple which is believably complementary. They bicker and banter with an effervescent charm, but there’s moments of emotional honesty laced through the dialogue, and a feeling of loyalty and trust which is wonderfully genuine.

They’re joined by a superb supporting cast -  from the robot prince with a ruthless streak, determined to capture our heroes so he can get home to his wife, through the aforementioned babysitting ghost, to the brilliant ‘Lying Cat’, which interjects whenever anyone around it tells a lie. These characters don’t have as much time on the page, but they do feel like individuals, with their own oddities, agendas and quirks.

The plot is a journey, of sorts, as our heroes attempt to get off of the planet they’re trapped on, and find a new home for themselves and their soon-to-be-born child. It’s got the occasional moment of violence, but that’s wrapped up in the larger family story, the dialogue shaping a relationship for the reader. There’s a lot of fun stuff going on; the various hunters looking for our couple are tenacious, and have a tendency to walk into odd situations of their own. But this is a story about the characters and their journey across the world – and on that basis, it’s a compelling, perfectly formed narrative.

I don’t dip into graphic novels often, but this one was a very pleasant surprise. I’ll be looking out for the later volumes.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Song of the Dead - Carrie Patel

The Song of the Dead is the third and final novel in Carrie Patel’s ‘Recoletta’ sequence. The first two have been great explorations of an enclosed society and its surroundings. Murders have been investigated and governments overthrown. In a series which has also looked to explore choices and, more particularly, their consequences, the conclusion was always going to have a lot of potential promise to fulfil. Happily, it manages to do so.

This time around, although we do get some time in the city of Recoletta, it’s not the only focus. Still, it’s great to go back to the underground city again. This is a claustrophobic space, one where history has been captured and maintained by the government, and where stasis has been an effective way of life for generations. Broken apart by successive coups, Recoletta is now on a knife edge between savagery and civility. The old order has been cast aside, but nobody is quite sure what will replace it.

But if we saw Recoletta in the first volume of the series, and the immediate environs in its sequel – well, this is the book that takes the characters (and the reader) into the wider world. There’s several new social constructions here – a cosmopolitan, close knit nation of travellers, their eyes turned inward is one, its acceptance of the wider world a stark contrast to the Recolettan paranoia, its lack of integration with other social groups depressingly familiar. Across the sea though, lurks something very different; here is a vast civilisation, one with a high degree of technical prowess, and a relatively open society. But it’s also a society defined with a fear of the Other, replacing the enforced isolation of Recoletta with something more ideological. Both of are internally consistent, sharply, vividly drawn social spaces – a pleasure, of sorts, to explore.

The characters – well, there’s some familiar faces returning. Liesl Malone returns, and she still has her dour, pragmatic charm.  She’s still an investigator at heart, a woman comfortable on the streets, in action, and with a blunt personal honesty which can pass as charisma in the right light.  If she’s changing, it’s in becoming more aware of the larger consequences of her actions, in a stronger will, and in a growing distaste for authority – in both assuming it and being controlled by it.  This latter trait she shares with Jane, once a laundress, and now a survivor of the turmoil of Recoletta’s recent months. Jane is quick, persuasive, and perfectly willing to lie through her teeth in order to achieve her goals. Where Malone works within the frameworks of society, driven to fix the problems she discovers, Jane is determined to change that society, or, at least, to escape from it. She’s a fiery counterpart to Malone’s stolid focus – and when they’re both on the page at once, it’s an absolute delight. The bickering, the low level distrust, the simmering dislike – all comes together to make an unlikely duo, whose exploits are both fantastic and ring true.

Though these two are the focus of the text, there’s a swathe of supporting characters here. Some are familiar from the previous books, others are new. The villains are sympathetic, their motivations somewhere between grey and genuinely good. If the reader finds their methods monstrous, it can be difficult to argue with the problems they identify, and the issues they’re struggling against. It’s nice to see this sort of ambiguity, our heroes not avatars, our villains not slavering fools – both instead sitting in the broad spectrum. This makes distinguishing “villains” rather difficult, which I think is something of a benefit. In any case, the antagonists our protagonists run across are certainly complex, convincing characters.

The plot – as ever, no spoilers. But it’s got something for everyone. There’s the great secret of the Catastrophe, which shattered the land above Recoletta. There’s air battles, train robberies, betrayals. A whiff of the romantic (as well as of romance) runs through the pages, and if Malone and Jane seem to plunge from the frying pan into the fire quite often – well, it certainly kept me turning pages. There’s some great character moments here, as well as some smartly written dialogue – and the plot runs along nicely. It kept me guessing and kept me reading late into the night. If you’re looking to start a new series, then it’s worth going back to The Buried Life and working your way through the series. If you’re looking for a conclusion to the story of Recoletta, then I can recommend this wholeheartedly.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Malice - Peter Newman

The Malice is the second book in Peter Newman’s “Vagrant” series. The first, the eponymous “The Vagrant” was one of my favourite books from 2015, so the sequel had rather a lot to live up to. In short, it delivers – a vivid world, some charming characters with believable development and emotional heft, and a plot which carries both choices and consequences.

The world is changed a little from that of the first book; then a southern continent seething with demonic forces and broken cities looked to overcome an empire in the north, sclerotic and hanging on to ancient high technology. Now, well, things are different. The Empire of the Winged Eye still holds a line, its people kept safe from mutations by hardened technology, repressive government, and slightly worrying social mores. The Empire sees the creatures that have entered this world as abominations – and the half breeds, those warped by the touch of the Infernal, as deficiencies to be cleansed.

But things have changed in the South. There, the monstrosities once united under the Usurper are intent on maintaining their own petty kingdoms. Each is a combination of horror and vitality. If the twisted monstrosities that rule them are petty and often cruel, those that survive within their fiefs have the energy and drive surely missing from the Empire of the Eye. Each of the surviving enclaves of demons has its own flavour – from the broken, slowly decaying sky-fortress of the Man Shape, to the distributed consciousness of the First. Each is repulsive, but carries its own strengths. The half-breeds have their own places too, carved out of the journey of the Vagrant in the previous book – struggling to hold together a hard-fought integration between mutants and those that feel more normal, trapped between the judgments of the Eye and the Infernal. This sort of integration, the gradual collapse of the Infernal into something recognisable in the realms of the human, is one of the avatars of theme running through the narrative – an enemy is not eternal, a foe can change, and if that mutability does not guarantee shared interests, still, it’s something to be recognised. In any event, the South is no longer the behemoth it was, and if it is less terrifying for it, it is perhaps somewhat safer.

Both the Infernal and the Eye are wonderfully drawn creations, societies with drastically different underpinnings that spin out in their interactions with each other at the macro and micro level. The soaring sky-ships of the eye are of a piece with their casual dismissal of the half-breeds as tainted, and the acceptance of the Infernal for all kinds is wrapped up inside their mercucrial cruelty. Neither seems like a particularly good place to live, but are living, even thriving social constructs. This is a world which can leap off the page, sink fangs into you, and never let go.

The characters – well, we’ve shifted generations now, from the mute soldier of The Vagrant. His daughter carries his sword now, the one which once belonged to one of the rulers of the Eye, now dead and broken. Barely out of childhood, she takes up the sword with a desire for action – and discovers that everything is rather more complicated than she might have liked. If the Vagrant was an avatar of stolidity, duty, movement, then his child is a figure of innocence, facing up to a world which disdains that quality, and demanding its respect. She’s charming to walk alongside, is Vesper – a person with a moral integrity, a sense for what is right, which contrasts with the more soiled figures who surround her. She has a friend, of sorts, a guardian – who, in the interests of spoilers I’ll only suggest is broken, both by the circumstances, and by their conception, and, of course, she has a goat. 

But Vesper is at the centre of the triad; this is partly a coming of age story, as she realises the duties and sacrifices she may have accidentally put on when she took up the sword. But it’s also a tale of exploration, a journey of discovery intermingled with horror and delight – and seeing Vesper grow, not into the role expected of her, but into the one she chooses – is marvellous.  There’s some absolutely marvellous villains here as well, of course – repulsive demons, shifty black marketeers, and more. There’s also a marvellous supporting cast; I’m particularly fond of the creature living within the shell of one of the Kinghts of Jade and Ash – no longer an elite unit of infernal killers, no longer yoked to the will of their commander. Instead, this individual is trying to work out what – and who – he is, and that journey is as compelling as Vesper’s – ash she moves to maturity, he wavers toward humanity, of a sort.

The plot – well, it’s a journey, as Vesper sets out with Gamma’s sword to close the Breach. To, in theory, seal off the Infernal from the world. It’s a story of her climb into adulthood, of sorts, and the story of a search for redemption. There’s exploration of the history of the Breach, of the creation of the Empire of the Winged Eye, and the sacrifices demanded thereby. There’s history here, and there’s sacrifices aplenty – personal demons fought and conquered, or succumbed to – and more literal demons likewise. This is a story of integration, and of consequences – and it’s a cracking read, as well. 

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Nothing today - Sick!

Sorry guys, nothing today, I'm rather ill.
I do have a review of Peter Newman's excellent The Malice almost ready to go, so that ought to be with you by Tuesday.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Dead Man's Steel - Luke Scull

Dead Man’s Steel is the final instalment in Luke Scull’s “Grim Company” series. The first two were unflinchingly grim, with an undercurrent of humour inside a vibrant, if unpleasant, world.

The setting is largely familiar from the earlier books. There’s the outright terrifying city of the White Lady, for example – where the population are relatively safe, relatively happy, and not exactly oppressed. They even have a ruler who appears to care about their wellbeing. On the other hand, they have law enforcement composed of the snake-like, silent and disturbing constructs of the Lady, and they also have some rather worrying gaps in their memories. Then there’s the forested areas to the north, nominally run by the Shaman, a Magelord who believes in allowing strength to define what is right. Conveniently for his philosophy, he’s the strongest person in a large area. But the north is riven by war, one side backed by dark magic and demons. If the other is better by comparison, they’re still no charmers - their ranks split by blood feuds, their leaders disunited.

There’s some less familiar areas as well; the broken city of Dorminia, for example. It’s been the home for our heroes since the first book, but now it’s a shattered remnant of what it was, populated by feral urchins and wild dogs. It’s also populated by a mysterious and powerful force, which seems determined to wreak havoc on the denizens of the city – and indeed the rest of humanity. We also get to journey into the mountains – which mixes the delights of cold, clear air and all the space you might want with, well, all the demonic entities that you could want. This is a world teetering on the edge of destruction – torn apart by the death of gods, and the rise of Magelords who are, at their best, rather unpleasant, and, at their worst, downright natural disasters. The atmosphere suggests the presence of a precipice, a point of no return inching closer with every page.

Our protagonists, at least, are familiar – though many have progressed since their initial appearances. Davarus Cole, for example, is no longer a brash young man determined to do great deeds. Now he’s a tormented, damaged individual – a man who has done great deeds, and discovered their cost. His relationship with Brodar Kayne, the old, tired Sword of the North, remains a delight; even though the two aren’t often on the page together, seeing Cole earn his way into some of Kayne’s weary cynicism makes for a great read. Kayne himself is still exhausted, broken down by his own age, and the need to defend himself against his past reputation. As we go into this final part of the narrative, he’s coming to grips with the idea that he may not have made the best choices up until now – and trying to work out both what he wants, and how to achieve it without an old enemy stabbing him in the back, a new enemy stabbing him in the front, or a demon biting his face off.

There’s also the redoubtable Eremul the Halfmage, whose tone has always got a smile from me. He’s ferociously intelligent, viciously sarcastic, and although wary of those in power, prone to saying exactly what he thinks. Usually with some wonderfully colourful phrasing. Eremul is struggling to decide whether people are all terrible; as a man struggling without legs, a terrible reputation as a traitor, and a small amount of magical power, he’s prone to seeing people at their worst. Watching him struggle to understand kindness, and possibly love – well, it’s an experience. An eminently believable one, layered in personal conflicts and tensions.

There’s other members of the cast of course; I particularly enjoyed the return of Eremul’s manservant Isaac, now in something of a different role. The villains are variable – the demons seem rather flat in their malevolence, without much to make them anything other than the forces of darkness. By comparison though, both the leader of the aggression against the Shaman in the north, and the new occupiers of Dorminia in the south are complex, well-realised individuals. If their goals are to be regarded with horror and suspicion, their self-knowledge and the logic that led to those goals are not. There’s grey areas here, a certain complexity which means that even if the enemy aren’t to be rooted for, they can be understood.

The plot – well, it’s the last in the series, so I’ll avoid spoilers. But there’s more than the standard soupcon of resolution here. There’s several stormingly epic battles, kinetic, driven things where it’s difficult to put the book down, in case you miss someone getting an inch of steel in their eye. There’s duels – elaborate, byzantine, bloody things, with all the technique of world-class ballet, and all the heft of a battle axe in the face. The fate of the world is thrown up in the air more than once, and quite who will catch it as it comes back down is open to question. This is a world where everyone is vulnerable, and where the systems that shape the world are personal ones. It’s a fast-paced story, and one which rewards careful reading with excellent characterisation and solid worldbuilding to go with the battles, the sacrifices, the moments of heroism and the acts of villainy.

Is it worth reading? If you’re coming to the series for the first time, I’d say stop, and go read The Grim Company first. On the other hand, if you’ve come this war with our mismatched band of adventurers, then yes – this is a cracking conclusion to a series that you’ll want to see through to the end.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Megan O'Keefe - Inherit the Flame

Inherit the Flame is the third and final volume in Megan O’Keefe’s ‘Scorched Continent’ trilogy.

The first two books were a buccaneering adventure, with airships, magic banter, and even some personal growth. They were a lot of fun to read, so I came into this conclusive part of the trilogy hoping that it was going to pay off.

The centre of the text is Hond Steading, the home of the charming and at least modestly tormented Detan, one of the main cast of previous books. The Steading, built into the side of a dormant volcano, is the centre of power for the continent, now trapped in politics and geography between a resurgent Empire, and their rebellious commodore, a woman with an iron will, and an agenda of conquest. The Steading is a thriving place, and seems, in comparison to the frontier settlements and prisons we’ve seen previously, positively metropolitan. The populace are opinionated, and have an interest in the arts. There’s public meetings in a new civic forum, where anyone can speak should they desire. But there’s a sense of fragility here as well – the Steading is a soap bubble, waiting for one of those that covet it to risk the wrath of the other, and that time I fast approaching.

Still, there’s an elaborate palace, where Detan’s family has ruled for generations, and the population has a dynamism and an energy not seen to such effect elsewhere. There’s hints of the broader picture as well; the Empire is in an abruptly expansionist phase, and if nobody is entirely certain why, the hints of what is moving that larger body politic into warfare maintains the pressure which helps drive the narrative forward. In amongst all the politics and occasional stabbing, there’s also time to look at the sensitivity to the ‘sel’ substance which produces the magical effects that we’ve seen in the world – from thundering explosions to shapeshifting. Sel is something of a mystery, to both the world of the text and the reader, but it’s one whose depths will be plumbed here.

Most of the characters are fairly familiar from their previous outings. It was lovely to see Ripka, once head of law enforcement in another city, try to get used to being a civilian again. Then there’s Detan himself, whose efforts to avoid causing calamity have moved past fear into acceptance. His desperate and often despairing attempts to gain control of himself before he destroys anyone he loves are fraught and poignant. That they’re often masked by banter which can often raise a chuckle is a benefit – even as it reveals a character papering over their own mental cracks.
We do get a little more understanding of previous antagonists here as well. There’s the Commodore, sometimes known as Throatslitter, a woman who has spent the last two books as a force of nature, capturing cities and towns for a design of her own devising. But she has her own pains and motives, and in discovering what they are, there’s the chance to grow some sympathy, as she moves into a more morally grey area. But there’s other villains here, cold-eyed pragmatists and terrible zealots – and all of them make the blood run cold.

The plot – well, it hits a few different beats, often rather well. There’s the suspenseful  journey that Ripka makes as she attempts to pin down and eliminate whatever scheme the Commodore is plotting to take over Hond Steading. There’s Detan’s struggles with his power, the responsibility which comes with it, and the need to put himself in the thrall of his enemies to learn control. But there’s also the overarching narrative of conflict and control, as the Steading tries to remain whole in the face of two irresistible forces. There’s some great chases, explosive, horrifyingly grand uses of magic and cracking dialogue too.

Is it worth reading? If you’re new to the Scorched, I’d say go back to the first book in the series and give it a go. If you’re already a fan though, this is a worthy conclusion to the series, though ti may leave you wanting more. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Joe R. Lansdale - Hap and Leonard: Blood and Lemonade

Hap and Leonard: Blood and Lemonade is the latest in Joe R. Lansdale’s long running “Hap and Leonard” series. It’s a mosaic novel – a collection of short stories, with a framing story wrapped around them to provide context.

This is Hap and Leonard, the early years. The Texas here is owes far more to the forties and fifties than the sixties. Racial and gender discrimination are in rude health, and those with power and privilege are as anxious to preserve them as ever. The framing device – a day of Hap and Leonard training, driving around, chewing the fat and telling tales, has a gentleness to it, a relative security which comes backed by their history together. The prose lets you feel that comfort, though – the warmth between the two leads is undeniable, if somewhat prickly; sort of like two porcupines mating.

In any event – the world Lansdale shows us is one we may not be proud of. The casual racism, segregation, homophobia and sexism rise off the page like sewer stench. It’s unpleasant, but vividly realised stuff. This just (or indeed mainly) a book about social issues, however, even if they do permeate the world. It’s also one exploring the lifestyle of East Texas in that period – from the bare-knuckle fights under the blazing shadows of a tire fire, to school shootings after high school abuse. In some cases, the social issues are the core – in one story there are consequences when a couple of (white) veterans stand up for a (black) fellow veteran in the face of bigotry. This is a place where there’s enough space to spread your arms and run free – but also one where everyone is constrained by society, and where conformity to expected social norms is backed with the potential for violence.

Into this rather regimented space step Hap and Leonard – younger, yes, but no less prone to smarting off. They’re still working up to the comfort level of their later relationship, but the banter is still sharp and on point. There’s a wry humour worked through the dialogue between the two – all casual insults and slight edges are here, building the quality we see later in their personal timeline. The dialogue is pitch perfect too – well paced, sometimes charming, often belly-laugh funny. But much like the world that Hap and Leonard inhabit, there’s darkness shifting around in here, razor-edge smiles mixed with a savage poignancy.

If Hap and Leonard are the antibodies to their environment, there’s more than enough other characters sharing the stage with rather fewer scruples. Small town boys with racial epithets to hand, and full blown bayou drug smugglers are perhaps the least of it. Each has the small, sordid ordinariness that defines their villainy and makes it real. They help make the small Texas towns feel alive, reluctantly dragging their feet into the future we inhabit.

The stories themselves are great fun, a mixture of quiet moments of humanity, thoughts on the world and Hap and Leonard’s place in it – and outbursts of violence. The blood and Lemonade of the title is here in the stories – the best and worst of people’s lives thrown open for our enjoyment. It’s stellar stuff – and makes for a compulsive read. I read it before looking at the Hap and Leonard novels, with passing familiarity of a few short stories; coming back to it after getting some context gave the collection some extra depth, but wasn’t required to enjoy the stories for what they were – tales of family, brotherhood, death and happiness, humanity our common factor with the past. So yes, this is a great collection – thoughtful, rather clever, and with enough bullets and banter to satisfy the most demanding reader. Give it a try.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Brother's Ruin - Emma Newman

Brother’s Ruin is a short novel by Emma Newman, set in an alternate period London, where the Royal Society is stocked with wizards, and attendance for those with magical prowess is mandatory.

The world is a cunning blend of the strange and the nominally familiar.  This is a London with the sort of social attitudes seen before in Austen or Dickens. Women are social inferiors, to be cared for by men – husbands, brothers, fathers. There’s a monarchy here, with a penchant for Empire and adventurism lurking in the background of every interaction. The prose has something of the Regency period about it as well – a cadenced lilt of refinement permeating each word on the page.

There’s a sense of gentility here, and a style of emotional restraint that wouldn’t be out of place in an Austen-esque romance. That said, between the terraced homes and the toiling poor, the nouveau riche and the social climbers…in the gap between them all is the Royal Society. These are men and women who can do something others cannot. They’re a parallel aristocracy, people who can move objects with their mind, power fine machinery or, perhaps, set things on fire. The Society has the power to draft anyone showing their talents, and deal with any who attempt to hide their magical light under a bushel. Theoretically a progressive institution in a somewhat constrained society – they’re as obdurate a power centre as any other, and filled with their own conspiracies and more than one hidden agenda.

The central character is Charlotte Gunn; she fills many roles fiancĂ©e, childrens book illustrator, dutiful daughter, loving sister – and, apparently potential magic user. She’s a quick thinker, somewhat constrained by the expectations have placed on her, but willing to sbvert them if she wants to – for example when becoming an artist. The society has no allure for someone wanting to retain their independence, to shape who they are to their own desires, and not to the institutions which surround them, be it matrimony or the Society. Charlotte also has a deep affection for her brother, who appears to have both a weak constitution and a similarly weak ability to do magic himself. If Charlotte is a strong-willed individual, shaping herself within the storm of circumstance, then her brother may be thought of as swept away by that storm – each effort to do better ending in a return to the family home. Andrew is an excellent contrast to Charlotte – quiet, sufficiently reflective to see the impact his illness has on his family, with an edge of bitterness. But the two siblings form an effective duo when they work together, even if we see more of Charlotte’s focued and driven temperament.

There’s some rather fun secondary characters here as well – the Gunn parents have more than a splash of Thomas Hardy about them, and their efforts to do right by their children are charming even if ineffectual. The lords of the Royal Society are in some ways appropriately strange – defying gravity or shifting watch gears, and in others more what we may be accustomed to. I particularly enjoyed the bluff Mage-Lord who ran a milling concern in the North! There’s some appropriately unpleasant low-level villainy going on as well – I would have liked to explore these more thoroughly, but the antagonists that existed were appropriately vile.

The plot is something of a coming-of-age tale, as Charlotte attempts to care for her brother, resolve the financial travails of her family, and avoid bringing up her own talents and sacrificing her independence on the altar of Empire. It’s an entertaining story, which carefully guides the reader to familiarity with the world, whilst throwing up enough conflict and alarums to keep the pages turning. There’s a relative paucity of duels, explosions, or demonstrative wizardry – but there’s careful investigation, and a steadily climbing tension which make the book rather difficult to put down. On that basis, and brief as the story is, I’d say this blend of period drama and magic is worth picking up – I for one am looking forward to further instalments.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Of The Year (Volume Eleven) - Jonathan Strahan (ed.)

This is the eleventh annual collection of SF&F curated by Jonathan Strahan. Previous entries in the series have included some absolutely stellar work, and the opportunity to explore some great new authors, so I had high hopes for this one – and, generally speaking, they were met.

Much like the last couple of years, this is a very diverse collection of material. There’s sharp, punchy , grimy fantasy from Joe Abercrombie – bringing us a dynamic duo, a thief and a fighter, and unleashing them on the world with acerbic humour, and a low tolerance for mistakes. There’s the creeping body horror wrapped around modernity of Sam Miller’s “Things with Beards”. There’s sweeping epic fantasy, new worlds defined alongside personal triumphs, and more often personal tragedies – like Seth Dickinson’s “Laws of Night and Silk”, and there’s fantasy like folk tales, pulling on half remembered truths to shape something new.

There’s big questions on display throughout the collection, though their answers differ. “The Great Detective”, for example tackles the idea of what it means to be sentient, cloaking the query in a delightful blend of steampunk and Holmesian period drama. The mystery is intriguing, and the protagonist charming, and we rattle through the streets of a London laced with ghosts and clockwork mechanicals whilst pondering the meaning of their existence. Then there’s Yoon Ha Lee’s “Foxfire Foxfire” – where worryingly intelligent animals cut deals with gods and men, examining who they are and who they wish to be, and occasionally cutting the odd throat. This feels like another strand – a narrative with the feel of a legend, mixed with something new. The chatacters claw their way off the page, compelling, often dark, sometimes deadly. There’s stories here which can be disquieting – watching three friends and a new arrival sit around a table and tell stories, reveal something of themselves, their vulnerabilities in Alice Sola Kim’s “Successor, Usurper, Replacement” feels like teetering on the edge of a cliff, unable to warn someone stepping off.

Then there’s N.K. Jemisin’s “Red Dirt Witch”, a meditation on class, race and family, with a supernatural twist to it. The prose is evocative, bringing a small town of the American South to life, as we watch Emmaline, single mother, only occasionally supernatural, try and preserve her family from otherworldly influences. The supernatural here accentuates the questions of class, race and family that Jemisin explores, and makes for a very powerful story. On the other hand, it’s notll serious - there’s the wry comedy of “Even the Crumbs Were Delicious”, a story somewhat reminiscent of Phillip K. Dick – watching the well meaning, bumbling protagonist try and hunt down the parents of two lost teenagers is entertaining and rather sweet; that they’re high as kites on 3d-printed designer drugs is an added bonus, and often rather funny.

As with last year, there’s always going to be some stories you like better than others. That said, the range on display here means there’s something for everyone, and the aggregate level of quality continues to be very high. There’s a lot going on here – stories that challenge, that delight, tradgedies and comedies, broken worlds, aliens and fairy tales, all inside an extremely imaginative package.  On that basis, I’ve no hesitation in recommending it to lovers of sci-fi and fantasy–and also to everyone else. It’s packed with imaginative, ingenious stories, and is very, very difficult to put down. Thoroughly recommended.