Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Top Ten SF&F novels of 2017

So it’s that time of year again; as the days get shorter and the temperature plunges, I find myself making a top ten list. It’s an endeavour fraught with peril, because 2017, for all its faults, has been a really good year in SF&F fiction. That said, these are my top picks from 2017, arranged in the order in which I read them (clicking on the titles will navigate to full reviews where available):

It’s probably no surprise to long term readers that I picked this one. I’ve been a fan of Lawrence’s work for years, and this, set in a new setting, with a new protagonist, is a very strong entry in his oeuvre. Nona Grey is a young girl, brought to a nunnery for an education in, amongst other things, magic and murder. In a setting glimmering with nifty ideas – murderous nuns, reshaped worlds, succession struggles, to name a few – it’s Nona’s relationship with her new Sisters which really sells this to me. If she springs into action, it’s to help her friends, struggling against her own emotional difficulties. This is a smart book, which demands due attention from the reader, but repays it with a high stakes, high reward narrative, with a brilliant blend of politics, battles, and emotional entanglement. 

Another author whose books turn up here regularly, Williams has started something innovative in her new series. It’s an ensemble piece, which includes fire-throwing witches, blood-drinking elves, and some genuinely unpleasant antagonists. The setting, a world broken by and recovering from relentless assaults from an implacable enemy, is an excellent backdrop to some captivating characters and a tightly crafted plot. The idea fo a world broken up by its saviours is one which has strong emotional resonance, and that's backed up by some sparkling characterisation of less than perfect characters. It's sharply observed, emotionally compelling fantasy, which explores the myths people tell themselves, and the importance of family and frienship, even if those lead into dark places. Also, it has giant bats. Which people ride. What’s not to love?

Blackwing,  McDonald’s debut, is, to steal a word, grim. To steal another, it’s a gem – albeit one soaked in carmine. The setting is focused around the aptly named Misery, a blasted waste that serves as a No Mans Land between the empires of two sets of supernatural entities. The story focuses on Galharrow, a bounty hunter, a man willing to do pretty much anything to achieve his goals. Galharrow evokes some of the protagonists of fities noir for me – hiding a thoughtful mind behind an uncaring façade which, honestly, may or may not be a façade. Galharrow finds himself hip deep in an investigation with very worrying implications and potentially fatal consequences. The plot is full of intriguing twists and turns, with some seriously explosive battles in between. This one may be worth picking up for the dialogue alone – Galharrow’s world weary cynicism is almost never disappointed, and he’s great to read alongside.

The Seven closes out Newman’s “The Vagrant” series with a bang. Well, several, actually. We get more backstory on the Seven, guardians of an empire which seems eternal, if sclerotic. We get to see more of the relationship between Vesper and her father, which remains one of the most honest, emotionally affecting relationships in fiction. Importantly, this is a book which is prepared to look at the happy ending, and then show us what happens after that, to explore and to revel in that. There’s a feeling of hope wrapped around the core of the story, and that helps make the conflicts between a diverse, broken humanity and the uniform forces of their opposition feel real. There’s goats, of course, and moments of quiet humour mixed in with those of desperation. There’s also magic swords, betrayals, victories – and families, coming together and falling apart. As a conclusion, it promises a lot and, to my eye, delivers with a nuanced, complex story. 

The sequel to the explosive Ninefox Gambit, The Raven Stratagem takes place in the same deeply weird science-ficton world. Here, the consensual nature of reality can be shaped and broken by numbers, by performing certain rituals on certain days, not on others. Here, society is stratified, with different houses holding different positions in a sprawling multi-system hierarchy. Here, enemies are quietly gathering, ready to rip holes in a society which is literally sacrificing its citizens to maintain conceptual stability. The whole universe is marvellous – plausibly petty oligarchs are mixed in with unknowable technology and space battles are decided by equations. It’s dazzlingly innovative stuff. 
Then we get the protagonist, Shuos Jedao, the Empire’s greatest tactician. They also happen to be dead. Also quite possibly insane. With an agenda which seems to span generations, Jedao is charming, witty, and emotionally present – with hidden edges on which an observer might cut themselves. I kept turning pages to see what they’d do next, and I have to admit, I was never disappointed. This one is sci-fi at its best, asking big questions whilst giving us great characters in an interesting setting. 

I have a lot of love for Spellslinger. A fantasy western (of sorts), blended with a coming of age tale. Kellen, the protagonist has just the right amount of naivety mixed in with being a bit of a smart arse. By the standards of his society he’s weak, a liability, not worth keeping alive. Kellen, of course, doesn’t really see it that way. The setting, a society built around magic, is interesting enough – insular and proud, rigidly unwilling to explore its own shortcomings. But watching Kellen grow up, a little, and realise some of his potential – to harm or help others – was what kept me coming back. That and the brilliant banter between Kellen and his ‘partners’, which always has the potential to wring the heart or generate a belly laugh, or (often_ both at the same time. It’s got gunslingers, mages and revolution – what more needs to be said?

Smith-Spark’s debut is a painfully brilliant read. It explores themes of power and violence, and then wraps them up in questions about control and personal integrity. It’s also a story about civilisations – making and breaking them. There’s byzantine court politics, including assassination attempts, betrayal, scheming and the odd bit of thuggery. There’s battles which evoke screams and blood, the tearing down of walls between men at the same time that they carve each other apart. There’s reflections on religion, and on sustaining that religion through death. It’s a multifaceted text, which I get something new out of each time. It also has a lot of heart (possibly because it ripped it from the chest of the reader) – the raw emotional intensity pours off the page. This is whip-smart fantasy, engaging, cunningly plotted, and bloody. 

I’m a big fan of Tchaikovsky’s work, and that trend continues here. This book explores a lot of big questions, looking through the eyes of Rex. Rex is a dog – sort of. He’s a dog given intelligence and bred for war. He’s a dog with cannons strapped to his sides, and a behavioural reinforcement chip in his brain. He’s a dog that will always follow orders, even if they’re the wrong ones. Rex acts as our eyes, in a future where corporations are building deniable living weapons. The story asks questions about sentience, about how we decide who and what makes up a person. It examines the future of AI, and the ethics of war. It does all that, and it’s also an absolutely cracking read. Rex’s journey starts in the trenches, following orders and destroying the enemies of his Master, in fast-paced gun-battles which seem as familiar as they do strange. As the story heats up, it’s not afraid to ask the reader to think on bigger questions of morality and self, within a fast-paced sci-fi wrapper. It’s a smart, occasionally painful, captivating read.

9. Ruin of Angels – Max Gladstone
The latest entry in Max Gladstone’s wonderfully weird Craft sequence is an unadulterated delight. In a world where soulstuff is used as currency, and mages run corporations, Kai Pohala arrives in Agdal Lex to do a little business, and revisit her past. That Agdal Lex is a city built on the bones of another, that it’s possible to dive from the city streets into a frozen, war-torn moment of that other world – to plunder or preserve the past, that the city authorities discourage this with violence and social conditioning – well, that’s all by the by. Except, of course, that it isn’t. The characters are really the heart of this world – quick thinking fast talkers, mages with, if not hearts of gold, at least aluminium, and adventurers plumbing the depths of the city for the adrenaline, and for the price artifacts will command – each comes off the page fully formed, and their emotional entanglements feel honestly, heartbreakingly human. This is a book which explores both the human condition and the societies which we’ve built to get where we are – and adds truth, romance and explosions over the top. It’s an absolutely cracking read (and one I must do a full review of next year!).

The finale of a trilogy, Siege Line has all the qualities which make Cole’s works so much fun. It’s a fast-paced, hard hitting thriller, with some interesting supernatural elements. The combat sequences have the patina of authenticity, which always helps when the protagonist’s opponents are wights with a penchant for human flesh. Jim Schweitzer, the protagonist of the first two books, is as charming as ever; living in his own corpse has to be hard on a guy, but the love and loyalty he feels for his family is something you can feel through the words on the page; he’s driven and focused, and a lot of fun to read. He’s joined by a marvellous ensemble cast, struggling to defeat a relentless antagonist before time runs out. This blend of military urban fantasy makes up a very tasty brew indeed.

There were. of course, other abbsolutely storming reads this year; these are just a sample of the tid of excellent fiction we've been inundated with. That said, f you want to get a flavour of SF&F in 2017, these books are probably a good place to start.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Elysium Fire - Alastair Reynolds

Elysium Fire is the second in Alastair Reynold’s ‘Prefect Dreyfus’ sequence – itself part of his ‘Revelation Space’ universe. It’s been ten years since the first of the sequence introduced us to Dreyfus, in a stellar blend of sci-fi and noir, so I was quite excited to see where this sequel took us.

Where it takes us first of all, is the Glitter Band, an orbital ring of high-tech habitats orbiting the planet Yellowstone. The Glitter Band is perhaps humanity’s finest achievement. It’s effectively a post-scarcity economy, with no starving masses yearning to be free. In part, this is because of its unique political system. Each citizen of the Band is able to vote on issues in real time, using neural implants. It’s a society that is run, basically, by the people within it. Each habitat in the Band is able to set up its own society, and its own rules. Some of these societies are downright odd – like the habitats where everyone is perpetually wired into virtual reality with their body on ice, or where all the citizens have entered a voluntary coma. Others are considerably more toxic – “voluntary tyrannies” for example.

But the one core right of the Glitter Band is the vote. No matter your society, you can vote. It’s at the core of the Band’s social structure. When there are irregularities in the voting, that’s when the Prefects are called in. They’re what passes for law enforcement in a world which has largely eschewed crime. Negotiators, a quick reaction force, investigators, analysts – the Prefects do it all, with limited resources. Following the events of the previous book, which involved considerable loss of life and property damage, they find their institution eyed with increasing scepticism by the citizenry. There’s an antiauthoritarian trend here, and sparks of demagoguery and secession movements are starting to fly. The Band is a delicate structure, always dancing on a tightrope between the needs of the citizenry, the increasingly constrained and beleaguered authority of the Prefects, and the risk of catastrophic incidents in a world which is incredibly tightly coupled.  It’s an entirely plausible, complicated, sharply realised society, one which showcases its complexity and provides a living, breathing world for the characters to work within.

Speaking of characters. Inspector Dreyfus, unsurprisingly, returns for this book. The duty-bound inspector was always a joy to read. He has a clear affection for the high-tech utopia around him, and an awareness of its vulnerabilities. That’s matched with a similar incisiveness into both his own condition and those of his subordinates and suspects. Dreyfus is, of course, troubled – still carrying the physical and mental scars from the previous emergency, and from decisions he took decades earlier. Here is a man with the capacity to cut through the wood of false trails one so sharp he might actually cut himself.It’s nice to see that he’s as gruff with his team as ever, a layer sat over a deeper affection.

Dreyfus is backed by Sparver and Ng, the duo who served as his team in the previous book. Sparver is perhaps the more emotional, the one more prone to action over analysis. Where Dreyfus navigates through the wood to find the trees, Sparver is probably off somewhere arranging for a chainsaw delivery. Ng is the more technical, quieter, less authoritative, at least within the team. Like Sparver, she’s insightful, and a wizard with technology – but more prone to analysis, and less prone to reach for a weapon. Between them, the hyper-pig and the tech make a great backup for Dreyfus, a man in whom they’re prepared to invest their trust. Together, they make a compelling triad – laced with flaws, as all families are, but with an emotional depth that resonates off the page.

They’re surrounded by a cast of other characters of course, from the terrifyingly intelligent Jane Aumonier, head of the Prefects, for whom Dreyfus is an excellent button-man, and the more martial Prefects trying to run the organisation, to stern faced, damaged orbital construction workers, and open-faced, virulently persuasive demagogues. It’s a pleasure to seem some familiar faces in the background, their faces and views tracking from the previous book. This new emergency carries new heroes and villains of course, though the cunningly crafted narrative often left me wondering which was which.

From a plot standpoint – well, this is a mystery novel, so no spoilers. There are mysterious deaths occurring throughout the Glitter Band, and their pace appears to be escalating. Dreyfus and his team have to track down the cause, before even more people die. There’s a lot to love in the plot – the investigation is snappily paced, slowing down to give you a view on Dreyfus’s thoughts, and the reactions of those around him, letting you draw your conclusions alongside the Prefects; but it’s quite happy to ramp up for some vividly drawn and snappily paced action scenes, which wrap around the emotional core of the story and keep the stakes high and the adrenaline going. This is a story willing to look at social change and consequences in the micro and macro levels, to explore the ways that new technologies would impact people – but also wants to show you that the participants are, at heart, people. The central mystery is thoughtfully crafted and left me scratching my head trying to work it out as I went along; the world, as always with Reynolds, is beautifully drawn, and the characters seem to stroll off the page, bringing wry remarks and the streets of the Glitter Band with them.

If you’re new to Reyonold’s work, I’d say go back and start with the first in this series (“The Prefect”/”Aurora Rising”) – there’s some back story which it’s worth knowing before you take the plunge here. But as a returning reader, Reynolds has brough back Dreyfus and the Glitter Band in high style; if you’re looking for a cracking sci-fi mystery, pick this one up.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Too Like The Lightning - Ada Palmer

Too Like The Lightning is the first in a duology by Ada Palmer. In a world which looks, at first glance, to be a utopian society, this is a narrative from a somewhat unreliable narrator, picking at the seams of that society. The prose has a charmingly eighteenth century feel to it, a baroque style which, whilst dense, packs in a lot of detail, and helps evoke a regency atmosphere, somewhat appropriate to a post-scarcity world.

Speaking of which, the world. It’s one in which it appears the needs of the bulk of humanity have been met. Most people are part of one of the large social groupings, or ‘hives’, which have distinct high level ideologies and backgrounds. These semi-utopian institutions are backed by the ability to travel anywhere on the globe, seemingly very quickly. Of course, the utopia has its own issues. There’s the implication that violence is still a familiar tool of humanity, and if no-one is starving, there’s still plenty of room for ego, for conflicts based on social status. There’s other quirks as well – like the Servitors. Those who commit crimes are simply left loose, but required to perform tasks for other citizens in payment for food. Though this is a world where murder is almost unknown, it’s one in which the darker impulses of humanity still percolate. The servitors feel a lot like indentured servants, for example. Further, in a world which has actively banned the teaching of religions outside of reservations, there’s a feeling that theology is seen as a black market indulgence.

In all instances, this is a world which takes its background seriously, and spins out a plausible society based on that. It’s a society which is prepared to challenge the preconceptions of the modern reader, and to lay out consistent philosophical approaches to defend its structure. This allows the world to have a feeling of depth to it, and a vivacity and charm matched with a gentle corruption  which make this future seem very real.

In this semi-ideal future, our interlocutor is Mycroft. Made a servitor for an unknown crime, Mycroft is a prodigy. Quick thinking, erudite and clearly rather damaged, his liquid prose makes  for easy reading. Mycroft, a broken intellectual, is just one of a great many weird and wonderful characters. There’s the twins that manage the world transport network, wired entirely into the grid, never having seen the sun, and quite happy that way. There’s the mysterious J.E.D.D. Mason, whose gaze seems to compel truth from those around him. There’s Bridger, the young boy who may have unusual capacities of his own, and Ganymede, the European prince in an egalitarian world. The cast is sprawling, but given enough room on the page to become themselves, each a unique entity.  Some characters carry layers of personality, exposing themselves as the story continues – and not everyone is entirely who you, or they, think they are.

The story? Well, it starts gently, exploring the world, and looking at the potential impact of Bridger, a child with potential. The pace is a languid one, allowing for exploration of some of the ideas on the page, giving the reader room to get accustomed to the characters and their society. It does, however, gradually pick up momentum – by the end of the text, the plot is an unstoppable juggernaut, one which is almost impossible to put down. There’s some good stuff in here – for example. questions about the way we structure societies, what sacrifices were willing to make. They’re tied up with thefts, deaths, and some extremely tense verbal sparring. Without spoilers, I’ll say that though it takes a while to build up a head of steam, the narrative payoff, when it arrives, is totally worth it.

This is an elaborate, inventive, intriguing piece of sci-fi. It’s probably not for everyone, but it’s a thoughtful exploration of humanity and our future, and if you’re in the right mood, absolutely worth a read.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Deadhouse Landing - Ian C. Esslemont

Deadhouse Landing is the second in Ian C. Esslemont’s ‘Path to Ascendancy’ series. Set within the larger universe of Malazan, the series serves as a prequel of sorts. It follows the adventures of Dancer and Wu, a nefarious, lethal and frightfully amusing pair of schemers. Readers of other stories in the Malazan universe may recognise both characters as playing larger roles later in the chronology. The first book in this sequence, Dancer’s Lament, was smart, tightly plotted, and thoroughly enjoyable – so I’ve been looking forward to this sequel immensely.

Wu remains as Machiavellian and downright strange as ever. He seems to drift from encounter to encounter, things falling into his hands almost despite his rather cavalier attitude. He’s also clearly got an incisive, probing intelligence. Quite how much of the incidental madness which seems to surround him is planned or part of the image, and how much is any, er, actual madness, remains to be seen. It’s great to have a character who is both clearly playing for deeper staes and presents something of a facile façade. Wu is fun to read, because you’re not only always wondering what happens next, but also how or if it fits into the deeper plan, or if it’s just another amusing misadventure.

Personally I like to think that Wu is slowly growing in power and influence almost entirely by accident, but your mileage may vary.

Dancer is something else again. He’s a man slowly being pushed into the boundaries fo responsibility, accepting loyalties and proffering his in return. He feels older, perhaps more experienced, in this volume than the last, which is all to the good. Dancer’s wry scepticism and intolerance for Wu’s general chaos-mongering means he serves as a spectacular straight-man. It helps that he’s self-aware enough to view his colleague somewhat askance, and accept his own shifting role. If Wu brings the comedy and the longer-playing game, Dancer is less inscrutable, the reader’s way into the schemes. There are moments in this book which carry a lot of emotional freight, and Dancer is the one who reaches out and sells that to the reader – his own commitment, hurt and adrenaline splashed across the page.

They’re joined by a veritable who’s who of the Malazan series so far I won’t spoil it, but really, the chances of running into your favourite character from the wider series is quite high. I suppose this makes sense in the narrative context – Malazan as a whole deals with a band broken apart, so the early history would bring them all together – though ti can be a bit overwhelming. Still, it’s great to see the ‘twenty years earlier’ version of some series favourites, and if only some get enough time on the page, I’m hopeful we’ll see more of others later.

The world – well, we’ve moved on now to Malaz, the dour, ensorcelled island which gives the Malazan series its name. There’s a sense of decline here, of something not quite ready. It’s an island ruled by a pirate king and his mistress, trying to turn a small fleet of ships and some stone walls into political leverage. The atmosphere is fraught with both decay and a growing sense of purpose. The island, with its mysterious mists and sorcerous seas is almost a character in its own right. Mock’s broken-down Hold is pitch perfect – moss on the walls, and drunkards and charlatans within. There’s also some wider story time spent on surrounding nations, which helps provide a broader context for the intimate portrayal of the world in our current view. In any event, this is a vivid, detailed and convincing world.

The plot…well, suffice to say that it’s complicated. There’s crosses. There’s double crosses. There may or may not be further crosses thereafter. Quite who is doing what, and for whom, can be a bit opaque at times, but this feels like it’s by design. The whip-crack dialogue and the adrenaline-fuelled action scenes help carry the plot when you want to stop working things out and have someone hit something – and the larger narrative threads all tie together and pay off throughout the text.

Is it worth reading? If you’ve an interest in the early days of the Malazan series, absolutely. There’s lots of familiar faces, there’s more than a few surprises and revelations, and it’s all wrapped up in a cracking story. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

From a Certain Point of View - Elizabeth Schaefer (Ed.)

“From a Certain Point of View” is an anthology of forty short stories set in the Star Wars universe during the events of “A New Hope”. The title refers to the suggestion that the truth is a matter of points of view – and indicates the diversity of perspectives that become clear from their associated stories. That some of those stories may conflict, with each other or with other works in the Star Wars universe – well, we can put that down to the subjectivity of truth, and just accept that each of these stories is true – from a certain point of view.

There are a multiplicity of views on display here – from the crew chief doing paperwork on star destroyer guns, through the Tusken raider with dreams of a different life, to old favourites like cantina band The Modal Nodes and mysterious spy Long Snoot. These are the people in the background of the Star Wars cinematic story, beavering away and getting things done whilst the heroes captured our attention. Perhaps the most important lesson the collection teaches is that each of those background players was someone in their own right, with their own hopes, their own enemies, their own betrayals, their own dreams.

One of the positives of the sheer number of stories is that there’s something for all tastes in here. There’s wry pieces like Ken Liu’s ‘The Sith of Datawork’about the necessity of filling in a vast amount of paperwork every time you shoot down an escape pod. There’s pieces like Pierce Brown’s ‘Desert Son’ which explore the emotional intensity of rebellion, and the love of friends for one another. There’s pieces like ‘Grounded’, where a maintenance chief waits on the ground at Yavin to see if her pilots survive, which blend flat-out action with the kind of emotional weight that might catch you by surprise. Then there’s pieces that are blaster fire, lightsabers and chases. Whichever you’re in the mood for, there’s a story somewhere in this collection which will fit. Some of them will work better than others  for any given reader, of course – given the number of tales in the volume, that’s going to be inevitable. But I think they’re all interesting entries into the Star Wars genre.

The breadth of narrative also includes the scope. There’s sweeping, horrifyingly grand events here, like the eyewitness account of the destruction of Alderaan. Of course, the story which gives us that also provides a close character study of a woman torn between concern and pride in her daughter, worry for her husband, and the pressure of her own duties. There’s more intimate portrayals too, like Contingency Plan, following Mon Mothma as she prepared for the possibility that the Death Star won’t be destroyed. Here we get a tightly plotted examination of Mothma. Her internal voice is intelligent, wracked with a complex welter of emotions behind a calm façade; it’s a spy story, with only the protagonist’s internal dialogue to guide the reader through (it’s also fantastic).

We also get to see some experiments in narrative style and structure. The multiple viewpoints of ‘The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper’ combine with a noir atmosphere to make something unique, mixing gentle comedy, emotional truth and  something a little edgier. The metatextual ‘Whills’ is a comic homage to fans of the franchise, whilst ‘An Incident Report’ , in the clipped formal tone of Imperial correspondence, gives a unique perspective on the way Darth Vader handles his udnerlings.

This is a strong collection; the sheer volume of stories means there’s always something to pick up, read and enjoy. But alongside that, another strength is its sheer heart. You can feel the affection for Star Wars rolling off of each page in the volume, and the effort that each writer put into building a Star Wars story of their own. There’s a few quirks – everyone in the Cantina seems to know Han Solo! – but they’re forgivable. If some of the stories didn’t work so well for me this time, I imagine they might when I’m in a different mood – and the overall quality is rock-solid. 

Is it worth reading? If you’re a Star Wars fan, new or old, absolutely. I’d even say if you’re not, this might be a good way into the franchise. There’s small revelations scattered here and there, but what this book celebrates is Star Wars, in all its warmth, energy, humour and diversity, and it does that extremely well. 

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.