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.