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!