Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Fearsome Journeys - Jonathan Strahan (Ed.)

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

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

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

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

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

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




Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Court Of Broken Knives - Anna Smith Spark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Senlin Ascends - Josiah Bancroft

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

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

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

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

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

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