Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Quantum Magician - Derek Künsken

The Quantum Magician is the debut sci-fi novel from Derek Künsken. It’s a book nominally about a heist and a con, moving some impossibly precious things from one place to another without interacting with the intervening authorities. But it’s also a story about humanity and transhumanism; about the way people are willing to change themselves or others to adapt to an environment, and about the costs that are born out of that decision. It’s about old friendships and new alliances – the trust you can put into those who have never betrayed you, and in those who have hurt you before. It’s a human story – well, mostly. One about people, the way they interact with each other, what they’re willing to do, and what (or who) they’re willing to compromise to reach their goals. But there’s also a sweeping array of space battles, and a sprawling universe out there to explore between warhead splashes.

Belisarius is the centre of the story – part of a new species of human, one able to make astounding leaps of intellectual analysis by stepping away from their individuality. Belisarius is charming, thoughtful, and clearly off the map of standard humanity. He struggles with his own identity, with the sense of being himself. At the same time, he’s willing to disperse his consciousness for focus, to obviate the self for the sake of more mundane goals. There are some allusions to engineered individuals being focused on the broader concepts of the universe, unwilling to engage with the minutiae, with individuals who work within a cash economy and are willing to discourage disagreement through superior firepower. Belisarius isn’t one of these – he ties up to reality, and seems largely willing to accept its existence, despite his priorities being elsewhere. Some od that is just a desire to keep his mind engaged, to escape the cosmic unutterables of the universe and get down and dirty with the human. Bel is an intriguing creature, one struggling against a genetically engrained purpose. They are at once an endorsement of the individuality of consciousness, and a triumph, or warning, of the results of engineering.

Belisarius, delightful as they are, complex as they are, struggling, human as they are, is not the only individual on the page. There are some truly startling post-Sapiens individuals. These include an individual from the deep pressure divers – built to populate a liquid pressure environment far higher than normal, and survive, never comfortable, but unable to return to the world outside – and the Puppets. The puppets are a masterpiece. A populace created to experience awe under pheremonal cues, a subservient species of man, They overthrew their masters, not in revulsion to their genetic goals, but in their service – protecting their living deities by restricting access, by refusing to obey damaging commands, by taking the personal gods thy were given and breaking them on the wheel. The Puppets are breathtaking, a species of man which works within constrains but expands, horrifyingly and understandably, beyond them.

There are other characters of course. Belisarius is smart, funny, and can talk people into anything,  but that’s the con. He needs people. Puppets. Doctors. Monsters. Lunatics. Each makes the heart sing and hurt in equal measure. The individual in a tank, living for speed outside their pressure boundary, fighting and killing and willing to accept a creed of death before acquiescence shares a table with an ex-Marine whose enthusiasm for explosives may be a smidge out of hand. If t hey’re not as much there as Belisarius, still they carry the full freight of humanity on their shoulders, odd as it may be in some cases. This is a story about a con, to be sure, and it has the highly tense emotional weight to prove it, the payoff which rewards you for turning pages. But it’s a story about people, as well, about the larger unions – how a client state struggles against colonialism, how it tries to overthrow its masters – and about the individual, about the self-realisation of our actors.  

Admittedly that realisation if often backed by explosives.

If you’re not here for the imaginatively and evocatively realised universe, or the compellingly flawed characters that make up Belisarius’ flawed team of con artists and criminals, you might be here for the plot, and the wonder. It’s out there, in a larger universe, one of unexplained, ancient alien artefacts, manipulated by segments of humanity close enough to be recognisable, and odd enough to be alien. There’s immediate politics, too, backed by the kind of gunboat diplomacy that gets your attention. Then there are worlds teeming with the broken, the accepted the outcast, the strange and wonderful – and the text gives you environs which bring them to life. It’s a universe tied together by jump points, at least in part sustained by unutterably ancient and unknowable external actors. It’s an intriguing world, one which clearly has several further layers out of view, behind the transhuman cast, the foul-mouthed marines and frantic interstellar battles.

The atmosphere is one of a heist, that thin wire of tension drawing you from page to page, waiting for each other shoe to drop, each cunning stratagem to either unfurl or unravel. It’s handled with a stately precision, revealed to the reader like clockwork, giving us enough room to guess what’s coming, to hope and wonder and despair – and then to be blindsided by the result. Con games and heists are always hard to write – one like this, which comes out pitch perfect, wrapped in a nuanced and striking sci-fi narrative is, to say the least, a rarity.

In some ways this is a story about a con game – with segments of meticulous planning, with character analysis, with motivation a primary factor. In other ways it’s a space opera – with carefully analysed science, with high stakes and high yield munitions. In other ways it’s a character study of the ways man can rebuild man, and they way they can react. In all those ways, this is a book you want to read.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Dangerous To Know - K.T. Davies

Dangerous To Know is the first in a duo of fantasy novels by K.T. Davies. It follows the misadventures of the titular Breed, a misanthropic, magically engineered killing machine, as he tries to escape the attentions of his sociopathic mage of a mother, the curse of a demon, and a whole host of others that would like to kill him. Usually with cause. It’s got magic, history to go with it, as well as complex, evolving characters with a penchant for vicious banter, and steel-edged, page turning plot. It is, in short, a lot of fun.

As the title may indicate, Breed is the centrepiece of the text, and a rather dangerous one at that. Breed is a Warspawn – or at least, partially. These were monsters, bred for war in long ago battles against demons and hordes of darkness. Now they’re socially and politically suspect. Nobody likes a seven-foot lizard who can eviscerate them on a whim, after all. Especially when they’re a minority, and easy to blame. It does allow the text to quietly explore ideas of social and racial stereotyping, looking at the Warspawn as a group, looked down on and maligned by the majority of the population that they were originally built to help preserve.

Breed is a reaction to that. He’s smart, often sharp enough to cut himself. But he’s also got something of a temper, paired with an absolute refusal to take any crap. From the reader’s point of view, this is an absolute delight – watching Breed meet repression with a mixture of sarcasm and brutality never gets old. It does, however, tend to escalate, leading him into rather a lot of trouble. Breed is also reliably selfish. People haven’t been good to him, and his public face is one which rejects intimacy or even friendship, in favour of sticking knives into people and lifting their wallets from their still cooling corpses. Breed has been shaped by his environs, and it’snot a good look, to put it mildly. On the other hand, though he’s always willing to sacrifices a comrade if necessary, or take ruthless and brutal action when required, there’s still a lot of raw emotion floating round internally. Some of it is rage, lets be fair. Actually, rather a lot of it is rage. But if he doesn’t like the group of people he’s with, still he doesn’t find it in himself to throw them away. At least not often. Unless it’s necessary.

Breed’s journey here is one which isn’t deliberately of self discovery. Still, in achieving his goals, in tearing free from the enforced obligations which keep him inside the social constructs which have shaped and denigrated his people, Breed will get closer to understanding himself, and maybe making something of his own purpose.  In the meantime, however, he has to fend off the geas of a demon, and retrieve the weapon of one of humanity’s greatest heroes. In which quest, he has some help. That help, admittedly, consists of a quiet girl, a semi-senile, drug-addled geriatric, and a priest-magician with what Breed feels are far too many morals. The first two are sadly underutilised; where they’re in the frame, it’s often for last-second assistance, comic effect, or the odd bit of foreshadowing. I liked what I saw of them, but as it was infrequent and from Breed’s perspective, it felt like the surface over deeper seas. Still, when they were there, they were engaging; it would’ve been great if they had a little more to do. The priest, however, gets a little more room. An idealist, he’s striving to both prepare the world for what he foresees as a time of coming darkness, and to stop the population from blaming everything on the already looked-down on non-human population. Thankfully, that idealism is backed up by some serious magical firepower. The clash between this idealism and Breed’s hard-headed pragmatism leads to some excellent, if often unspoken, dialogue, and lets us contrast our protagonist with a person who, in a simpler book, would be the hero.

Together, this merry band of occasionally bloodthirsty lunatics set out to find an artefact and, coincidentally, save the world – or, at least, stop it from getting any worse. In order to do that, there’s quite a lot of flashy magic, combined with some kinetically charged and rather visceral fight scenes, both of which kept me turning the pages. They were helped along by Breed’s pragmatically selfish character, which came with enough raw emotion to make him feel like a person, behind the words. Possibly not a very nice person, but that wasn’t in the brief, after all. There’s also a fair amount of plots and byzantine villainous schemes, backed by some people who are Very Bad Indeed, and whose tearing up the page is an absolute delight.

This is a thoroughly entertaining, unconventional and imaginative fantasy adventure – and one it’s worth your while to read.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Poppy War - R.F. Kuang

The Poppy War is the debut fantasy novel from R.F. Kuang. It’s a thoughtful piece, looking at colonisation, cultural constructions, empire and authority, atrocities, and philosophies of violence. Mind you, it also has  snappy dialogue, explosive (often literally) magic, a world where the strange and the familiar intermingle, and characters which will make you laugh, cry, and scream – possibly all at once. It’s an incredibly impressive debut, one which explores some dark places, but does so with such honesty and imagination that it’s impossible to put down.

As you may be able to tell, I rather enjoyed it.

The world of The Poppy War is one shaped by empires. There’s the one in which we find ourselves, as an example. A sprawling creature, split into provinces governed by separate warlords, it still has a history. That history is one of violence. Originally separate kingdoms, bound together by strongmen into a nominally functional unit, it was broken apart by a colonising force. After years of warfare, it’s been reshaped to the current form, ruled by a survivor of three heroes that led the fight against the occupation. There’s a history here – one of assumed culutral superiority and arrogance, clashing with the reality of pulling out from under the hand of an occupier. That the occupation ended due to the intervention of a third party is the icing on the cake of identity. It’s a land with heroes, yes, and with a recent history of successful resistance through unification – but a far longer one of internecine conflict and division.

So there’s politics. There’s scheming and the need to decide who controls what, and always, hovering on the horizon, is the understanding that the historical occupying forces could be back this time tomorrow. It’s a space which is rich in history, but also rich in gods. Divinities, lore, magic, are all ideas floating at the edge of the cultural consciousness. They’re maligned, to be sure, considered folk stories and traditions, but they help the seamless, sparkling tapestry of the world leap into life.  If the larger world is one of wars, of realpolitik, of tax farmers, of drugs and swords and blood – there is a liminal space here, one in which fire and hope burn together. In a world of formal exams, maintained by and for the elite with a façade of meritocracy, in a world where drugs are forbidden and pervasive – in that world, if and when magic is real, it can shatter lives.

Kuang has constructed a geography which evokes tones from our world – the colonial adventures of the 1800’s, the sociocultural tensions of the Quing dynasty – but gives them a unique spin, one which adds a mixture of blood and sparkle. This is a world of potentially necessary horrors, and the monsters who builds them – but also one of wonders. Sometimes those are built by the same people.

Our protagonist, living in this space is Rin. Rin comes from nothing. Rin is not meant to be anything. 

But Rin is stubborn. Rin persists. Rin has fire and determination, and a bloody-minded desire to stick it to whoever has annoyed her. Rin is smart. Rin is cynical. Rin kicks serious arse. And Rin pays for it. In some ways, this is a hopeful book. Rin doesn’t have a thing. She’s trying to escape her dirt poor town, and its dirt poor prospects, by becoming something else, something , if not better, at least different. Rin, an orphan, struggles to define herself against the expectations of the world around her. 

She claws back every inch. In between confounding others expectations, she also manages to be better, rising from the social constraints of her upbringing to have a fighters control to go with her spirit. In her interactions with magic, Rin learns, to be sure, but she carries a kind of icy pragmatism, a banked rage and determination which binds some of her self-worth to success, however she defines that. But what she’s really looking for is identity – to either become what her unknown past inspires, or to be whatever she can make of herself.

Rin also makes some hard choices. I’m inclined to call them bad choices, but the texture of the book wouldn’t allow it. This isn’t a place with simple decisions. It’s one where using power has bloody, horrific consequences, mostly for others – and where not using power also has bloody, horrific consequences for others. These decisions sit on a razor edge, and Rin’s struggle with her own capacities, with her own choices and their consequences, helps to shape the book. I’m not sure I agreed with them all, but I understood them all – and both Rin and the reader will come to understand the price which she pays for each decision made. This begins as a story of a young woman growing into her power, but then sidles into a narrative about the consequences of using, or refusing to exercise, that power.

The plot – well, no spoilers. There’s a school, and it teaches martial arts. It teaches tactics and strategy. It may or may not teach the mystical. Rin finds herself there, in her journey to discover herself, and to pay the costs of doing so. But it’s not just a school story, Harry Potter with blod on knives. It’s also a story of war. Of battles. Of lives taken and lives broken. Of atrocities. Of hard decisions taken in despair, and bloody decisions taken in hope. There’s magic. There’s a lot of fabulously kinetic single combat fight scenes. There’s politics, there’s military infighting, there’s gods and magic and more than one hidden agenda. There’s a coming of age story with carmine blades and a whiff of the mystical extracting a price no-one should pay.

Is it any good? Absolutely. The book kicks arse, and I couldn’t put it down. It’s a cracking debut, and one I recommend without reservation.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Revenant Gun - Yoon Ha Lee

The Revenant Gun is the third and final entry in Yoon Ha Lee’s “Machineries of Empire” series. The first two books were imaginative work with cunningly crafted characters, desperately eldritch technologies, high stakes plot and some top-notch world building; to get it out of the way, this finale does not, in any of those categories, disappoint.

The world…well, the world has changed. The Hexarchate, that sprawling empire, ruled by elite castes, with exotic technologies that persist based on calendrical observances, is over. Politically, what was once the Hexarchate is split – between those holding to the old calendar, their technologies powered by pain and torture of dissidents and heretics, and those who say that observance is now a matter of choice. The external factors are still there – other political entities which are either alien, or have different enough views to be considered so – creeping around the edges of the Hexarchate borders, looking for an excuse to pull chunks off it. This is what keeps the factions from all out war – but space is an imbroglio of barely suppressed tensions, one swift trigger pull away from devastation.

There’s a lot of really clever social structures work here; the different castes – the militaristic Kel, constrained by their ingrained need to follow the orders of those above them, the fey Shuos, artists and intelligencers limited by their own need to scheme against each other…and all the others – feel distinct, and ever so slightly strange. They’re human enough to be sympathetic, with edges which feel strange and unfamiliar. That strangeness is backed by the exotic technologies which tie the galaxy together.  There’s weapons which work in non-Euclidean space, with descriptions which hint that detail might drive the reader mad, the servitors – near human creatures whose society and  culture is limited by the perception of those who see them and there’s the Moths, ships with internals which rearrange themselves dependent on who is inside,  the ability to leap distances and some seriously terrifying firepower.

It’s a strange, sharp edged, bloody world, once ensconced in systems which are often uncaring or broken. But it’s a fascinating universe, filled with the odd and the unknowable, a place where the liminal becomes the real, often painfully. It’s an often disturbing space, with a razor edge. But that’s counterbalanced by hope, in the form of its meticulously crafted characters.

Jedao, who we’ve seen a lot of in one way or another, is probably the most obvious of these. Jedao is whip smart, ready with a swift analysis and a smart mouth, letting his intelligence run the game for him. But here he’s also damaged, unsure of himself, trying to anchor to a sense of identity in a swirling morass of contradictions, some of which might end lethally. The mind behind the eyes is always three steps ahead, but always struggling against a lack of understanding. In contrast to the older, more focused Jedao, this is an individual with a sense of optimism. Often thwarted, often backed by a sarcastic remark or the odd bout of gunfire, but this Jedao isn’t ground down. That said, he carries a certain amount of baggage, both clear and subtextual. There are meditations on authority and consent here, as in previous novels, as Jedao struggles with to square his personal feelings with duty, and both with larger concerns of ethics. His is a love story, of a sort – just one which delves into the more occluded corners of the soul, and is unflinching in its exploration of those.

If those aren’t big enough issues, framed in personal relationships, there’s others. Brezan, for example, the Kel staffer-turned-general-turned-reluctant-revolutionary, shows his face again, trying to construct a political entity which will weather the storms of battle and time. I’ve always loved Brezan, for their combination of exhausted running-out-of-craps-to-give, and barely visible idealism. They’re determined to both look at the big picture and try to understand at least some of the minutiae, and are also smart enough to know that this may be impossible. Fortunately, they have Mikodez to help out; once a Hexarch one of the great powers in the universe, Mikodez now helps guide this universe toward a hopefully better future – but is rather fey about it. Clearly horrifiyingly intelligent, and a giver of small gifts to others, Mikodez’s backchat with other key players always makes me smile, and his emotional  undercurrents in discussions with Brezan are enough to make one weep.

There’s also a lot more time spent with Kujen, the arch-mastermind of the Hexarchate. Kujen is, to put it mildly, odd. They seem to have an affection for Jedao, but it slithers gently around the borders of the acceptable. They also seem capable of all sorts of atrocities to achieve their goals. But there are hints of a different person there, one not yet dragged through the hedges of life, one who made the wrong choices for the right reasons. In my reading – and it’s a mark of how impressive the prose is that yours may differ – Kujen is an old, old monster. But also an indicator that any of the characters could become such a thing, given time and motivations. The abyss has looked back into Kujen, and it’s possible that all that separates them from the other characters is time, and appalling decisions.
It's a subtle book, one which approaches complex questions. There’s the politics of empire, to be sure. 

There’s an examination of authority, of love, and of trust and what that means. There’s love, and the different forms it takes. There’s duty, and what it drives us to do. There’s more time with the servitors, that minority group whose agenda is debatable, but whose segregation and marginalisation is not. All of this is wrapped in a story filled with laser fire, with pistols, ticking timers and bloodbaths. There’s some wonderfully esoteric space battles which also have all the immediacy of a punch in the face, and some emotionally fraught scenes which felt like I was being torn apart.

It’s thoughtful, character driven sci-fi in a highly original, terrifying universe, with a plot that kept me turning pages until far too early in the morning. If you’re not reading the series yet, go and give Ninefox Gambit a try. If you’re all caught up, then yes, this is  storming conclusion to an excellent sci-fi series.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Apocalypse Nyx - Kameron Hurley

Apocalypse Nyx is a selection of short stories starring the titular Nyx. Once a member of the Bel Dames, a brutally effective group of government assassins. Nyx is now a bounty hunter – though she’s lost none of her skillset. Or her attitude, as she guides her team of bounty hunters through the vicissitudes of life on a world wracked by war and magic.

Lets talk about that world for a minute. It’s one defined, at both the personal and macro levels, by conflict. Nyx’s nation has been waging war with one of its neighbours for what feels like generations. In pursuit of victory, they’ve used guns. Bombs. Espionage. Tailored viruses. Genetically engineered bugs. As have the enemy. All this has led to large portions of the country being uninhabitable. It’s also led to almost the entirety of the male population doing mandatory military service in fantastically lethal war zones, with a very low life expectancy. Socially, this is a world run by women, because all of the men are either fighting, or dead.

Of course, the world is broken, which makes everything a bit more difficult. It’s a world of faith – one where the call to prayer goes out on schedule, and where mullah’s are in competition for the attentions of the faithful. But also one which encourages a loss of that faith, in tragedy, in pain, in loss.

Then there’s the insects, and the magicians. The insects – well, they’re all over the place. This is a world which has embraced bio-mechanical and genetic engineering. Where the world as a whole is a tapestry of the waste of human potential, the sheer inventiveness here – of killer wasps, of spy-bugs which are actually, er…bugs, of ichor which can be used to build an arm – lets in a little creativity, a little humanity. Of course, that creativity is being used to create wasps big enough to be used as a swarm of guard dogs, but that’s Nyx’s home for you. There are these little sparks of ingenuity, of hope, of purpose, wrapped within an occluding sense that they’ve all been misused; that things are broken or decaying, systems and artefacts both, but only due to the hubris or neglect of people.

It's a vividly drawn world, to be sure. In its hopes for and expectations of humanity, it carries a raw emotional punch. Watching Nyx drive past an abandoned homestead, shattered by bio-bombs, or see a family struggling to survive in a desolate, dangerous landscape, caring for a war veteran now catatonic from the experience – it’s a punch in the gut. It may make you feel pain, sadness, or a bubbling frustrated rage, but it will definitely make you feel something.

What Nyx seems to feel, mostly, is a kind of quiet self-loathing, mixed with frustrated anger and pride. One of the ways this presents, both to her colleagues and to the reader, is by not taking any crap from anyone. Nyx is damaged, sure, but I don’t read her as broken. She’s aware – perhaps far too aware -of her flaws, digging into them, making a nest in her own refusal to engage, in a world which encourages that disengagement by, well, being terrible. Much of what we might see as emotional growth is in the subtext – as she cares for her team, whilst also being prepared, or indeed encouraging herself to abandon them. They, or she, are liabilities, failures and monsters with whom emotional connection can only end in disaster. Nyx constructs a wall around an emotional core, maybe out of fear, maybe out of awareness of her own lethal nature, maybe because she thinks she’s poison, or maybe because emotional vulnerability is so often met with cruelty. In between the drinks (and there are a lot of drinks), Nyx is smart, mad, bad, and dangerous to know. But she’s a complex character as well, not only an arse-kicking heroine, awesome as that is, but a complex individual, masking their thought and their hurt under something else.

You may be here to watch Nxy shoot some fool in the face with a shotgun, before disarming his two mates, breaking their necks, wiring a building to explode and stealing a priceless artefact under covering sniper fire. And you will not be disappointed. But you may be here for the quieter, sadder Nyx, who sees a relationship with one of her team as dangerous, who isn’t able to reach out, who matches affection and connection with abuse and frustration. Both are equally real, equally true.

I won’t get into the details of the stories in this collection, to avoid spoilers. But there’s a lot of great stuff here. There’s tense heists, to be sure. Then there’s comedy of errors, as Nyx’s team of badasses runs their own sense of competence up against reality. There’s moments that hint toward a larger agenda, and a lot of great background. If you’ve ever wondered how Nyx’s team got together, how they stayed together, then there are stories here to answer your questions. If you wanted to see more of the world, the bug bombs, the endless, society-breaking war, the glimpses of high technology wrapped in an enigma – there’s some of that, too. If you want to see Nyx and the gang kicking arse and taking names, painting the walls with blood, then drowning the memories in alcohol – this is one for you.

It’s fast paced sci-fi action, absolutely. It’s got enough blood and guts to satiate and satisfy, yes. But it’s also a thoughtful collection, one which gets us further into the characters heads, one which isn’t afraid to get the reader thinking about the way pain and hurt can make us act, and isn’t afraid to explore larger issues.

If you’re new to Nyx, this may be a good place to start, taking place before the current series of which she’s the star. If you’re already a fan, this adds some wonderfully bloody, emotionally sharp texture to an already intriguing world and characters – get on it.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Grey Sister - Mark Lawrence

Grey Sister’ is the sequel to Mark Lawrence’s acclaimed ‘Red Sister’, a book which I, for one, absolutely fell in love with. When I picked up Grey Sister, I did so with high expectations, and more than a little trepidation. Would it have the same precision and vivid worldbuilding of the original? Would the plot once again leave me turning pages late into the night (or early into the morning)? Would the characters be as weird, wonderful, and thoroughly human, with an emotional resonance that could equally crack a smile or wring out tears? The short answer, to save you some time, is yes. Grey Sister is a gem. Admittedly, it may be a gem found soaked in the blood of your enemies, but still.

** Warning - Potential minor spoilers below **

Part of the sparkle in that gem is Nona. After the events of Red Sister, Nona was inducted into the next class up – learning intrigue, perception, disguise and murder-by-stealth. It’s an opportunity to make new friends, but also, of course, to create a whole new set of exciting enemies. Nona still carries the same traits she had previously – she’s ferociously loyal to her friends, utterly heartbroken by betrayal, courageous, stubborn, and, at least initially, feels almost terminally straightforward. She’s never met a problem which she couldn’t punch in the face. Externally, Nona is absolutely fierce. She doesn’t have a shadow. Or irises. And she can probably break you in half with one hand behind her back. There’s an atmosphere of seething rage around her, and a sense that it’s held at bay entirely by willpower. Nona is emphatically not someone you want to mess around with. On the other hand, she carries a certain fragility – having almost built herself a personality by first principles, after childhood trauma, she looks for connection and warmth, for affection and loyalty, and mirrors those back in her friends.  She can break an attacker into teeny tiny pieces, but the betrayal of a friend would be a cruel wound, and the emotional damage is far more problematic than the physical.

This fragility, now masked somewhat, is backed by her relationships with friends and teachers. In this book, we do get to spend more time with Abbess Glass, the voice of the nunnery, and a woman who always seems to be twenty moves ahead of everyone else. Between cryptic plans, she appears invested in her nunnery, with pastoral care and tautly focused political advice running side-by-side with delightfully byzantine plots. Glass also serves as an occasional point-of-view character in the text, letting us have a broader socio-political understanding of events to run alongside Nona’s more limited (if more intense) perspective. There’s also the return of Nona’s gang of novices from the previous book. They’re a charming lot, and their banter and easy camaraderie really helps to ease the otherwise rather grim atmosphere.  

Then there’s Keot. Keot is – well, they say he’s a devil, but I’m not entirely sure what Keot is, and that’s alright. Practically, he’s a voice that lives in Nona’s head, a voice that urges her to rend, to kill, to strike back against an uncaring world with a boiling rage. Keot is not, it has to be said, very nice. Living inside Nona though, he has an interest in her safety – and so, somewhat begrudgingly, he helps her out from time to time, in between trying to get her to murder everyone.

What struck me about this relationship, and why I mention it specifically, is that both Keot and Nona are broken, in different ways. Nona struggles with her rage, but Keot embodies his own. Nona has built a life, with friends and enemies – Keot seems to lack a past, being more of a superheated id, tuned for aggression. Still, his relationship with Nona is fascinating, two beings with a certain remoteness about them, thrown together, for better or worse. I wanted to know more about Keot – what he was, where he came from, how he fits into a world of magic alongside the Path – and seeing his jagged edges grind up against Nona’s fragile control was a marvel; their dynamic may not be healthy, but it’s  close, taut and emotionally real – as well as absolutely riveting.

Against this are, of course, some absolutely delightful villains. These range in scale from schoolyard bullies with a penchant for control and verbal cruelty, through to deadly assassins. In between their nefarious efforts, there’s a sense that a few are working on the same level as the Abbess, looking at the bigger picture and trying to arrange it so that they come out on top. Those with a more limited focus also tend to be those whom we see more intimately – their pride, their smug verbal poison, their knives hidden between social smiles. It’s marvellous, seeing the rotten heart behind a golden visage, the raw and repugnant humanity on display.
All of this, of course, happens in a larger world. It’s a world enclosed in ice, where a thin strip of land encircling the globe keeps a population alive. It’s also a world where the ice creeps closer every year. This was alluded to in the previous book, but it’s more pronounced here. As the ice grinds unstoppably forward, cities are crushed beneath it. Farmland is lost. Resources decline.  War comes ever closer, and it seems we’re at a tipping point.

Alongside the murmurs of conflict, of encroaching ice, there are quieter facets of the world being explored. There’s the devils, like Keot – though who they are and what they want, even they may not be entirely sure of. There’s the Path, access to which seems to provide powers from the merely impressive to the downright superhuman – though always at a cost. There are mysterious devices, which flit between the mystical and the technological. There are hints of what came before, how the people on this world came to be there, and the price they paid to do so. It’s often in subtext, or in throwaway remarks, but there’s hints of so much history here, giving a sense not just of a world which is lived in, but one which has been lived in, broken, fixed and broken again, for a very long time. This is a world of legions, of duels and hard-faced politics. But it’s also one of magic, of twisting the strands of fate, of moving faster than the knives coming to gut you. Mostly though, it’s one where people live, a rich tapestry of joy and sorrow which, frankly, I can’t get enough of. As a setting, it’s vividly vital, and full of secrets to unearth.

The plot…well, as ever, no spoilers. Part of it is about Nona’s efforts to work through Grey class, and there are some marvellous magic-assassin-school shenanigans. Some beautifully constructed prose keeps the whole thing rolling along, school antics gaining the same kind of tension and gravitas usually reserved for a high-stakes heist. The internal ructions of the nunnery were a cracking read in Red Sister, and that quality persists here, as Nona drives herself forward, a stubbornly thrown rock in the tide of everyone else’s expectations. The wider world intrudes as well, and leave hard choices being made. There are betrayals, there’s blood and fire. There’s a young woman trying to work out who she is, and what she wants, while also kicking arse. There’s high politics, and some marvellously taut scheming. There’s secrets revealed, and struggles against repugnant villainy. Most of all, there’s a deep emotional resonance to Nona’s journey; as she struggles, so do we- there were moments where the prose seemed to reach out and tear holes in my heart, and parts where I was left shouting “Yes! Brilliant!” in an empty room. This book has sharp edges, and it will cut you if it can; and that emotional depth is what kept me turning the pages deep into the night (or early morning!), and it’s what makes me recommend it without reserve.

Grey Sister has real heart; its prose is compelling, the plot gripping. The characters are real, in all their bloody, broken glory. My expectations were high, and they were surpassed; it’s an absolutely storming sequel. Once you’ve finished Red Sister, this should be the very next book on your list.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Empire Of Silence - Christopher Ruocchio

In short, Empire of Silence is about a beginning, and about a boy becoming a man - the beginnings of a life of Hadrian Marlowe. Sun-killer. Hero. Villain. Collossus of his age. In this instance, however, a callow boy with a penchant for smart remarks and the ability to fall directly from the frying pan into the fire.

Marlowe lives in the Empire, a galaxy-spanning entity whose organisation holds more than a shade of the Roman Empire. Mostly-hereditary aristocracies, with gene complexes which keep them alive for centuries, rule over planets of serfs, their power counterbalanced by that of the Chantry, a religious organisation with a hostile attitude to other creeds and other species, and a tight hold over the exercise of most advanced technology. In this sprawling cultural hegemony of a thousand terraformed worlds, Marlowe is the scion of a minor aristocratic family, albeit one with connections.

He's smart, and dreams of exploring the universe outside of the known; but a sense of fairness and compassion sits uncomfortably with the sort of ruthlessness one needs to rule, or to kill. Things rather quickly go wrong, and we get to see what sort of man Had will become, as he rises from the ashes of his disappointments. He's an engaging character, to be sure, with an acidic sense of self-awareness which refuses to skip over his mistakes or failures, even the bloody ones. If things don't always go his way, Hadrian's efforts to be a better person are always on point, and empathising with his struggles against a family and a system which seeks to trap him in place, is easy. The prose which apparently rolls off his pen is a precision instrument - by turns humorous, razor-cut incisive, and thoughtful. There's some examination of what makes the nature of a man, digressions on Marcus Aurelius sandwiched between bloodied blades and baffling aliens.

Hadrian is backed on his journey by an ensemble cast; it’s them I’d like to see more of. We’re restricted to one view, by virtue of seeing through Hadrian’s eyes, but where Hadrian is complex, his views of others seem less so. His father is a ruthless tyrant, his brother, broadly, drawn to action, to violence. Quirks of compassion there hint at something more, and it’s something I’d like to see. His mother carries a certain subtlety in her, in motivations for helping and hurting, and if they’re implicit, they nonetheless give her a lioness roar in her appearances on the page. The companions Hadrian acquires on his journey, by contrast, don’t reveal enough of themselves, of their raw emotional state, to really come alive. There’s enough there to give them a spark, to make them believable foils for Hadrian and his escapades – but I would have loved to see more; that said, the book is hefty as it is.

The world-building is top-class. It owes a lot to classical structures, to be sure, but incorporates them into a more futuristic structure. What results is a galactic system of government, a vast, ungovernable extra-solar bureaucracy, with its own religion, social mores and expectations. There’s a sense of events happening, not only in the fictional history, but off to one side of the main thrust of the narrative as well. It’s a living, breathing space – one that comes alive as the reader turns the pages. It may not be the nicest place one might visit, but the grit and grime, the authority, the abuse, the sparks of compassion all speak to the vivid humanity on display.

This is a biography, nominally, the plot the story of Hadrian's rise (or fall, depending on how you look at it). But there's a lot going on in here. Friendships between social castes. Arena bouts to the death. Political struggles between government and church. Duels between men and monsters. Or possibly monsters and other monsters - it's hard to say. This is a book filled with grandeur and blood, binding the fate of empires into the struggle for one man's soul, as he tries to work out who he is, and what he wants.

All of this is a polite way of saying I really enjoyed Empire Of Silence; it's a sprawling epic, with the lens of one perspective to keep it focused; there's legions, there's cryptic xenoarchaeology, there's discussion of opression and systems which define and break the people within them. There's swords, and knights, and carnivorous aliens. Starships and romance, of a sort, ruminations on power and blood on knives; it's great fun, and I'm looking forward to hearing more from Hadrian Marlowe's adventures.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The City of Brass - S.A. Chakraborty

So, The City of Brass. It’s the story of a young girl who makes her living on the streets, grifting where she can, putting money away for an ambitious future she’s struggling to reach. It’s a story of djinn, those magical creatures at the edge of humanity’s vision, who perform startling deeds for both good and evil ends. It’s a story of giant birds, of fire and water, of hard-faced duels fought for love and honour. It begins in 18th century Cairo, and evokes that place and time wonderfully, cloaking its story in the myths and tales that float through that city’s air like smoke.

We enter this world first through the city of Cairo – or at least partsof it. Not the especially nice parts, either. The slums are thriving places though, in their own way, with an energy and a buzz which leaps off the page. The divide between the rich and poor is here to be seen, as Ottoman rulers stride into darkened alleyways backed up by bands of bodyguards, and those they seek quail at the sight of them. It’s a baroque blend of absolute rule and poverty, mixed with a history of trade, resistance and revolution. As the protagonist cuts deals and navigates the narrow streets, the city comes alive – from the towering palaces, through the humble homes of workers and merchants, to the elaborate, decaying cemeteries gently smouldering in the midday sun.
The rest of the world, as it unfolds during the story, is imagined equally vividly. There’s a sense of the mythic pervading the text which mixes well with a sense of history invoked by some of the characters. This is a world sitting on a solid foundation, and it builds on the myths and legends of the period to create something new, something with wit and sparkle, backed by a sense of honesty in the relationships between the characters.

Which reminds me – the characters. Nahri, our protagonist, is a young woman treading on the poverty line on the streets of Cairo. Nahri is an absolute delight – smart, pragmatic, and unwilling to sacrifice her agency. Watching her play out a con game on her marks, her effortless charm backed with internal caution gave a marvellous perspective. Thrown headlong into a world of the fantastic and magical, she adapts well and swiftly. If out of her depth, she’s nonetheless effective, and determined – a thoroughly sympathetic, if occasionally amoral centrepiece for the text. In this she’s backed by a djinn with a past he’s keeping hidden – a warrior of superlative skill, scarred, enslaved and possibly broken by his experiences. The text gives a nuanced portrayal of a soul in pain, and of a person out of time, struggling to readjust their attitudes with contemporary mores. To be fair, he also hits things very hard with a sword, and occasional magical fire, so it’s not all emotional exploration. Then there’s a prince of this people, a member of the ruling class, wrapped in devotion, of a sort, but with a compassion at odds with the ruthlessness required of a ruling family. As a naïve younger son, with the intelligence and self-awareness to become something more, he’s a masterclass in characterisation, and in walking the delicate path between power and exile, evokes our sympathy along with some disquiet in the acceptance of social mores.

The plot – well, it’s snappy, and diverse. There’s a heck of a lot of political intrigue, and shadowy actions. Mysterious antagonists hunting Nahri down, that sort of thing. Power struggles in palaces, and disruption of established society. Then there’s the history, stories of epic wars in the past, ancestral grudges going back through generations. Personal stories, as Nahri and her entourage try and work out what they value – their goals, each other, or some portion of both. The heart in it is extraordinary – the ties that bind the unlikely groups together, and their reactions to loss, sympathy, victory and sacrifice are likely to bring a tear to the eye. But don’t worry – there’s epic magic and duels aplenty as well – fast paced, kinetic struggles for life and limb, lit by the flames of the occasional fireball. It’s breakneck stuff when the action threatens, laced with thoughtful, nuanced, vital portrayals of the characters which makes you are about them and the stakes – and keeps you turning every page.

On that basis – well drawn characters, original, intriguing world, punchy plot – I’d say this one’s worth a try.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Where Loyalties Lie - Rob J. Hayes

“Where Loyalties Lie” is the first in Rob J. Hayes’s ‘Best Laid Plans’ series of fantasy novels. It’s focused on the rise of a duo of pirates, in a world where divinities appear to be real, if distant, and magic is a known, if unusual, quantity.

That said, this is a book about pirates. There are, just to clear this up, a lot of things happening out on open water. Some of those things are murder, looting and, well, basically piracy. The world evokes our own age of pirates, in a way – as independent captians slip in and out of an archipelago, preying on shipping, taking what they want and bloodily murdering (or not) the crews of the ships that they capture. Some of those pirates inspire terror – the cold, vicious Tanner Black rules the islands with an iron fist, and a tightly focused brutality. Others are flagrantly self-interested, but charismatic and successful enough to carry their people along with them, like Drake Morass. Morass also has other ambitions – to shape the pirate isles into something more: a kingdom. This is the age of pirates in decline, as national navies get organised, and start breaking the tide of criminality which saps trade. It’s a complicated time, to be sure – and one we’re given a close up view of here, as various pirate crews attempt to deal with their increasing irrelevance in the larger world, as well as the more personal concerns for treasure and independence.

Morass is a good example. If not amoral, he’s still a man prepared to kill to achieve his goals.Quite what they are is a little amorphous, apart from the desire to take power over the pirate isles. Quite why he wants to do this, apart from for the sake of it, is a bit unclear. There are allusions to his longer term goals, and past events, and I suspect if I’d read the series prior to this one it might have been a bit clearer. On the other hand, Morass works just as he is. If his long term goals are nebulous, his methods are a fine line between compassionate and ruthless; he has an easy charm and charisma which leaps off the page, and a utilitarian view of people which leaves him feeling a little cold. In a similar vein, his penchant for trying to exercise his libido is entirely plausible from a narrative point of view, but leaves him with the equivalent of an oily sheen over his character.
That said, Morass is surrounded by an ensemble cast whose unifying trait is their refusal to buy into his myth. There’s the female witchhunter, attached to Morass if not unwillingly, certainly begrudgingly. Watching her kick arse and meet his lumbering advances with a swift quip and (occasionally) a swift kick is an absolute delight. Frankly, I’d read a book with her as the main character quite happily. That she has a few semi-magical abilities of her own is icing on the cake – horrifying as they may be.

Morass is backed up by others, of course – including more moral captains, struggling with their own desires. One of them is Keelin Stillwater, who seems determined to be as nice as you can whilst also taking other people’s ships and burning them to the waterline for a living. Both Morass and Stillwater are struggling with their own inner demons, and their entanglements with other parts of the buccaneering community. They’re both fast talking leaders of men, larger than life, with a weight that you can feel even when turning the page. I would like to have The naval warfare  more of their emotional journeys, but I suppose that would have cut into the pirating, plotting, and general mayhem.

Speaking of which, Hayes has really captured the essence of the buccaneering lifestyle. There’s a lot of complaints about grog, but there’s also some fast-paced, high impact battles, single combat and ship-to-ship. There is, to be honest, blood everywhere. Also treasure. But it’s wrapped around the personal stories of the characters, and those characters are, if not lovely people, certainly plausible in their pragmatism. This isn’t a story for heroes, but it is one of blood, gold, sailing ships, magic and cannon.

If that sounds like something that would appeal, I’d suggest giving this one a shot. I’ll certainly be reading the sequel!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

First Watch - Dale Lucas

First Watch is the debut fantasy work by Dale Lucas. It’s set in a dilapidated, sharp-edged urban environment, populated by a plethora of species and cultures. It follows a pair of mismatched guardsmen as they investigate murder, mayhem and conspiracy in the city. If I had to draw an analogy, I’d say it evokes the same sort of mood as the action movies of the eighties – with smart mouthed, bickering cops, unapologetic violence, and shades of noir flickering in the city lights.

The partnership between a rookie and a veteran guard is the beating heart of the text. Rem, the rookie, is a lapsed member of the nobility, quite, quite broke, and possibly a little too polite for a police force whose modus operandi is one short step above being a gang of legbreakers. Still, , he’s intelligent, and being new to the city, doesn’t carry the same preconceptions as some of his superiors, or some of the prejudices of his partner. Speaking of which – the other half of this dynamic duo is Torval. Torval’s a veteran – brusque, brutal, and with some rather unreconstructed opinions about Orcs. He’s a force of nature, to be sure, and set in his ways – an excellent counter to the more enthusiastic, more naïve Rem. Their conflicts, between ideals of what could be, and a more cynical acceptance of what currently is, define the text; as they work the case and grow closer thereby, the reader is drawn into the complex bounds of their unspoken discussions. In short, this relationship is a complex one, filled with hopes, broken promises, kept promises, large amounts of alcohol and, eventually, trust. It’s vivid, believable, and has resonance and depth which makes it entirely plausible. These two are wisecracking, slightly murderous, occasionally inept, well meaning, hard hearted po-lice, and a delight to read.

Their city is one drawn on racial lines, where the authority of the Guard falls beneath the heel of separate authorities. The elves, the orcs, the dwarves, they all have their own leaders, and they dispense their own justice. It’s a dirty town, where agreements are made and souls bartered for handfuls of coin. Where two guardsmen trying to sole a murder can get bound up in a web of intrigue and blood as easily as blinking. The city has a certain toxic life to it, once where segregation struggles against an economy that needs diversity, where racial tensions are exacerbated by socioeconomic factors. I’d like to see more of the city, to plumb its heights and depths. What we have is enough to provide a backdrop for the players; it would be marvellous to have more detail.

The plot is reminiscent of noir thrillers. There’s conspiracies, to be sure. Hidden agenda, from friends and enemies alike. The unspoken word is, in many cases, the most powerful one – and workig out what’s going on between the lines can be an exercise for the reader. Which is great – expecting the reader to pick up nuance, to follow along, to draw their own conclusions, false or otherwise, is marvellous. In between, there’s moments of genuine emotion, and a sense of friendship in between schemes and murder. It’s a buddy-cop movie with swords and sorcery, and a rather good one at that. 

I’d like to see more of the series as it matures, but this is an impressive debut; if the fusion of fantasy and mystery is of interest, then this is a book you’ll want to try out.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Bitter Twins - Jen Williams (Blog Tour review)

I'm delighted to say that we're part of the blog tour for the second in Jen William's "Winnowing Flame" trilogy. I've really enjoyed Jen's work over the years, so I'm absolutely delighted to say that this is another excellent addition to the series.

The full review is below, but there's a lot more about the book coming from several other great blogs over the coming days, so make sure to check those out as well!

The Bitter Twins is the second in Jen Williams’ “Winnowing Flame” trilogy. Its predecessor was one of the better works of fantasy I picked up last year, so I had hopes for this one. Fortunately, The Bitter Twins is a smart, emotionally charged and imaginative work, and a worthy follow up to the Ninth Rain.

Full disclosure. I really enjoyed The Bitter Twin, and I’ve spent a couple of weeks trying to work out what it was that resonated with me. Perhaps primarily, it’s because The Bitter Twins is a story about relationships. Between families. Between fragments of the same society. Between cultures. There’s all of these links tying people together, or breaking them apart, and that feels like a really strong theme in the narrative. For example, we spend more time with the Queen of the Jure’lia. The worm people. The enemy, those who have broken apart civilisations in their wake, whose desire to consume, to change, is near infinite. But the Queen is spending more time around people these days. 

Or at least around one person; Hestillion, one of the last of the Eborans, once the legendary defenders of the world against the Jure’lia, now a broken, dying people. Hestillion begins as a prisoner, of sorts. She is devastated by the current state of her people, and horrified to be present during the return of their greatest enemy, with no means to prevent utter destruction. But Hestillion is also a pragmatist, a hard-faced, ruthless woman, willing to do a lot to survive. In doing so, she bonds with the Queen, each a conduit into the alien mindset of the other. Hestillion discovering what drives the Jure’lia, and the Queen being somewhat humanised by her contact with Hestillion. I say somewhat, because the bridge between the two is vast; the Queen is wonderfully alien, a creature struggling to understand the ants which cry out as it raises its boot to crush them. Hestillion, by contrast, is fiery, damaged, cloaking pain in an agony of false confidence.

It's a fabulous and tortured pairing, one which lets you have insight into the antagonist, even as they’re making your skin crawl.  But the awkward bond between them may also be the first step in the road to peace.

Then there’s families, made by blood and choice. Though Hestillion’s relationship with her brother, Tor, is a key part of their journey together, it was the bonds of friendship that I thought brought out some marvellous and evocative flashes of narrative. Tor is, of course part time assistant and full tiem troublemaker for Vintage, archaeologist, derring-do-er and smartarse.  But the way they interact is more common to siblings – an exasperated warmth that you can feel radiating off the page, regardless of their cultural differences. Sure, one is a semi-immortal blood drinker, and one is a cranky Indiana Jones in late middle age, but they care for each other, and that care shows.
Tor, of course, is also intrinsically linked to Noon, the Fell-witch. She’s human, and therefore an excellent venue for both Tor’s charms and his occasional need for ichor. But she can also cause things to spontaneously combust. With her mind. I have a lot of time for the portrayal of Noon; she’s a woman who has come out of a hellish situation, fought her way clear, and is dealing with it – whilst also saving the world, and occasionally flirting with a blood-drinking immortal. Noon is alright.

Vintage, of course, remains Vintage – the only person in the main cast with any idea what’s going on. That is, of course, a rather strong presumption. Still, whilst Tor and Noon are squabbling like teenagers - she setting him on fire, him stabbing him, etc. – Vintage is the voice of exasperated reason. She is also, of course, the voice of youth, of a sort. The difficulty comes where Vintage is in a relationship – with a person older than hr, more experienced, more cynical, perhaps – but also physically, visibly younger. Vintage struggles with the conflict between hr earlier, juvenile memories of a relationship which shaped her life, and the more cynically exhausted expectations of her current age – and it rings true; the ache of remembered adolescent infatuation against the wisdom of age.

Anyway, the question you’re asking is: Is it any good? Yes. Yes it is. There’s a whole investigative adventure plot I haven’t touched on for spoiler reasons. Vintage and the beasts of war get to dig into the truth behind the Eborans, past and future. It’s a melancholy exploration of a people whoappear to have lost their purpose along with their strength – and also a great adventure of mystery, discovery, Poirot-esque exclamations and more than a little blood. The plumbing of the mysteries has a suitably creepy atmosphere, one which keeps the pages turning – and the final result is, to put it mildly, a revelation.  

Alongside this plot of secrets, lies and webs of deceit, there’s also one of dragons, heroics, and, dare I say it, love. It’s complicated and simple all at once – people realising who they are, engaging their affections, and occasionally trying to save the world. It’s heartfelt, inclusive, charming fantasy, backed by explosions, dragon-fire, and the warming, wrenching, entirely plausible emotions of the protagonists.

In the end, is this something you want to read? If you’re looking for a sequel to The Ninth Rain, yes, absolutely. If you’re looking for a story not afraid to expose human frailty and emotional honesty in the search for truth, absolutely. If you want mystery and ancient crimes as a backdrop, absolutely. If the idea of flying war-beasts and the end of the world interests you, absolutely. If you have, in the past, read a book, absolutely.

The Ninth Rain was a top pick from last year, and this is a worthy successor; read the original, then follow it up with this – because it’s awesome.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Good Guys - Steven Brust

Good Guys is a new urban fantasy novel from Steven Brust. Brust is the author of the long running Jhereg fantasy series. Urban fantasy is, thus, a slight departure for him, but I’m happy to report that it’ a rather fun read, and one which is willing and able to explore the ethical and moral dimensions of what are, in effect, magical powers.

The world is one familiar to any of us. Late-stage capitalism rules the roost. It’s our world, fast cars, skyscrapers and all. Except a few people in that world can do magic. Teleportation. Shielding from bullets. Precognition. Piecing together patterns from loose threads. These people are split into ideological camps. There are those who are prepared to use their skills to make money in less than ethical ways, and those who refuse to do so. A détente exists between the two ideologies, and both are  broadly more concerned with cleaning up the mess of accidental or untrained magic use than with fighting each other. That said, the camp of our protagonists feels more like an underfunded bureaucracy than a secret world of wizards. Everyone’s working for minimum wage, and there are expense claims to be put in after interdimensional travel. No-one has the time to do the job as well as they’d wish, and the group doesn’t have the funds to do as much as it would like to. For a secret organisation of magic users, its institutional underpinnings are delightfully mundane. The griping about claiming mileage after a magical duel, or filling out forms in triplicate to justify magical artefact use work to accentuate the strangeness of magical abilities, whilst grounding them in the modern world.

Our protagonist, Donovan, is a fixer, working for the Foundation, one of the “Good guys”. Along with his team, he investigates unauthorised or dangerous uses of magic. This time, though, they’re investigating a murder. Donovan is focused, perhaps a little curt, and trying very hard to  remain a professional. His team consists of Susan, an athlete with a penchant for martial arts, and Marci, whose lack of experience is more than made up for by her enthusiasm. They’re a tight knit group, with a closeness born of horrific circumstance and their own unique powers. They’re backed by a diverse and convincing ensemble cast – from the tightly focused researcher down to the broke-but-thoughtful mercenary. There’s some deeply eerie people on display here too, and, given the title, some antagonists who, perhaps, don’t entirely see themselves as bad people. This is a book prepared to believe that everyone is the hero of their own story, and unflinchingly explores that moral vein.

The plot is one part murder mystery, one part buddy-cop movie, and one part supernatural magical explosions. The investigation is tense, and the leads, blinds and red herrings the group goes down are plausible, whilst the eventual denouement carries a degree of catharsis. There’s a thoughtful exploration of our heroes moral basis for what they do – tracking down rogue magic users and, euphemistically, dealing with them. In between the investigating and the hard thinking, there’s the occasional shootout, there’s time stops, and people spontaneously catch fire. This is a book which embraces and dives deep into the question of rightful force, and into the ambiguity of a team which does what it thinks is right, at personal cost and at a cost to those they interact with. Above all though, it’s fun. This is a text which challenges preconceptions, and makes you think – and then blows up the building. Where interrogations are largely polite, but when deaths do occur, they’re appalling. The tightly focused mystery is what kept me turning the pages, and the top-notch characterisation gave me the emotional stakes to make the story feel real.

As an entry in urban, contemporary fantasy, this is an intelligent work, which challenges genre preconceptions and those of the reader, but also isn’t afraid to have fun. Gie it a try, you won’t regret it.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Lady Henterman's Wardrobe - Marshall Ryan Maresca

Lady Henterman’s Wardrobe is the second in Marshall Ryan Maresca’s “The Streets of Maradaine” sequence, the first of which I thoroughly enjoyed reading last year. There’s a larger Maradaine universe being explored in other sequences, including youthful and magical vigilantes, and Holmesian mage-detectives, but this sequence focuses on the Rynax brothers, who have a penchant for elaborate heists, a number of slightly strange friends with specialist skills, and a serious desire to find out who burnt down their neighbourhood, in order to express their disapproval.

The city of Maradaine has always seemed like another character in these books, putting different aspects of itself on display, depending on which characters were looking at it. Here, we see both the more run down, un-examined parts of the city, where law enforcement treads quietly, carefully, or in large numbers – and parts prone to the roaring revels of the wealthy, where private guards make sure that nobody who isn’t there to cause the correct kind of trouble is let through the door. 

The first of these is epitomised in the lively neighbourhood where the Rynax brothers make their home. It has several excellent craftspeople, and a sense of community. There’s a history there, across generations, and a sense of people looking out for each other. If the law is far away, the local criminal element operates within rules, operates with respect, and knows where to push and put its boundaries. It’s a place where being an outsider could get you a knife in the kindeys, sure, and one where a moments inattention might lead to a broken head, but where reputation is everything, good and bad.

By contrast, the opulent manors of the rich are a baroque haven, full of enough glinting gild to satiate even the most demanding magpie. These are people happy to stand on the shoulders of others to get where they are – or, if necessary, hold the heads of others under water. Security’s tight, and the spaces are vast – if not overly populated by anyone with much sense of responsibility. That said, the owners are at the top of the socio-economic heap, and they’re certainly willing to keep it that way.

Which brings us to the characters. The Rynax boys are still as wonderfully drawn and complex as ever. One suffering the after effects of a covert operation gone wrong, the other happy to try and build a respectable life and a respectable family – but both determined to track down the cause of their woes. It’s great to see the edges here – there’s someone who might have been an action/anti-hero in another story, struggling with life after being shattered and rebuilt. Then there’s his brother, who is genuinely happy not being the hero of the week, and just wants to settle down, make interesting mechanisms, and have a quiet life with his family. They’re not stereotypical heroes, but they do act as very relatable people, shaped by their experiences, and living with the consequences of their choices.

They’re joined by a thoroughly enjoyable cast of other reprobates. I particularly enjoy the hard-edged markswoman with a penchant for precision and a small crush on the married Rynax, and the street girl who has started to take the children of the streets and make them her own, lending them her own strength when necessary, and pushing forward in an effort to be something more.

There’s a delightful bevy of dubious coves as well. The eponymous Lady Henterman is smooth and cold as ice, definitely someone worth watching. There’s the mysterious gang leader moving in o n the formerly safe territory occupied by the Rynax twins, with his programme of extortion and brutality. There’s Lord Henterman, a man almost frighteningly vague. And, of course, there’s the police – no fan of people they consider nuisances at best, and outright dangerous at worst. Whether some of these erstwhile antagonists are actually bad people is open to debate, which is a nice change – they may just be working their own agenda, without the necessity of malevolence. But there’s some wonderful diversity and personality on display here, and watching them face off against our protagonists was always delightful.

Plot-wise – well, I won’t say much, for fear of spoilers. The Rynax brothers are known for their heists, and this is definitely a story of a plan which needs split second precision, and the ability to react properly when…er..I mean if…it all goes wrong. There’s some wonderful moments where your expectations are subverted, and some wonderful duels, the kind where wit and blade matter as much as each other. There’s some reasl emotional heft in the dialogue between the Rynax gang, and a sense that they’re starting to look forward, and out of their current circumstances. There’s also the white knuckle, every-second-counts high-wire tension, of course, and some revelations that will hit hard, down in the gut. It’s a heist story, an adventure story. A story about family, about friendship, about betrayal, murder, and making a heap of money. 

It’s fast paced, it’s smart, it made me laugh aloud more than once, and it also kicked me right in the feels more than once. This is kick-arse fantasy, and if you’ve been waiting to find out what the Rynax brothers did next, or you’ve always wondered how a fantasy heist would go down, this one’s worth checking out.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Kings of the Wyld - Nicholas Eames

Kings of the Wyld is the debut fantasy novel from Nicholas Eames. In a world ravaged by monsters, the mercenary bands who combat them are treated like rock stars. Some of them do it for the money. Others do it for the fame. And a band which rocked the foundations of the world is being drawn back together for one last gig.

The world s one split between the urban and rural. In the urban we have walled cities, towering monuments to ingenuity and skill. That they have rather thick walls is surely incidental. This is a civilisation based on the ruins of others – a near immortal race of bunny-eared savants put down the roots of the modern society, before their brutal annihilation in mysterious conflicts of the distant past. Their artefacts are as powerful as they are mysterious – which is to say, very. Still, it’s a land almost at peace. The vast and monstrous hordes of decades past have been broken by bands of mercenaries, mixing magic, swagger and violence together in an intoxicating blend that is almost, but not quite, heroism. This is a land not fit for heroes. But something is stirring, and this precision-crafted world provides a vivid and detailed backdrop for the machinations of the characters.

The band are a diverse bunch. They’re a mix of sociopaths restrained by their better natures, and/or those who use monster-hunting as an outlet for their violent urges, glory-seekers, money-grubbers and those who might be charitably described as a little unstable. They’re also experienced, or, if one is feeling less polite, middle aged. This band of hardened killers has stories written about them, and once shook the world – but they’ve broken up, settled down, and found their own causes; their reputation maintained by an audience which is now itself older, while newer, cooler bands capture the hearts of the young. Somewhere in there is a commentary on playing to large arenas for the love of the crowd, as opposed to the older craft of trudging around the country and working smaller venues in your murder of monstrosities. In any event, The Band are not, in a lot of ways, nice people. But mellowed, or possibly even broken, by their age and having survived everything that life threw at them, they’re amazing to read about. Gabe, the charismatic, subversive face of the band, if not the leader, is a wreck held together by love for his daughter. Their rogue is deadly with knives and lockpicks, but also suffers from having everything he’s ever wanted. The shield-man, our protagonist, manages to restrain his own penchant for brutal violence with the totem of his family, and his love of the rest of the band. This is a group of tired individuals, gone somewhat to seed; but if their past is now behind them, they still have the energy, the raw potential, to make things change. The chemistry between them is palpable, and the relationships they construct, or the histories that they carry with them are subtle, human things, which put wounds, scars and faces to the characters, and give them a certain depth and heart.

The plot – well, at base, it’s a journey. Physically, yes, as the band reforms and marches across the world in service to a larger goal. And that’s a rip-roaring adventure for sure, with political machinations, horrific monstrosities, kinetic combat and an emotional heart which hasthe potential to rip you open at the same time as it promises cathartic resolution. It’s gloriously bloody, honest stuff, which has a core of humanity which makes it affecting and real. But that’s the thing – alongside the physical journey, the swordfights, the daring escapes, the complaints about old injuries, there’s the personal journey as well. This is a band not entirely prone to self reflection, coming to terms with their own past, and the realisation that the tarnished images they built for themselves in their youth have been largely forgotten, feet of clay and all. This is a journey which challenges assumptions, and explores the ties that bind a group together – loyalty, truth, and the desire to make a lot of money.

It's an absolutely cracking debut, and one I recommend unreservedly. Give it a try. 

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Blood of Assasins - R.J. Barker

Blood of Assassins is the second in R.J. Barker’s “The Wounded Kingdom” series. It follows Girton, sometime trainee assassin, sometime artiste, and occasional killer, as he investigates treachery, mendacity, magic, and the occasional murder, in a land broken by malevolent sorcery and internecine warfare.

The Girton of this story is one scarred by war. He’s spent the last few years out on the borders, fighting for pay. We last saw him as a damaged youth, but this is a man who has internalised his own wounds, then coated them over with armour, both metaphorical and physical. The agile sweeps of an assassin’s knives have been put away, and a Warhammer taken up instead. It’s a brute thing, an engine of war which breaks what it touches – and in that choice, the reader can see some of the struggle that Girton has internalised. There’s a rage bubbling up in there, and a sense of the cost of both fighting and running away. He travels with the woman who raised him, his Master, a woman whose unspeakable lethality is matched by a closely held affection for Girton. Their relationship has weathered storms, and the warmth of the complex bond between the two is a joy to behold. That Girton may feel a certain possessiveness makes sense; this relationship, almost parent-and-child, is the one point of stability in a life of disguise, double-bluff and murder. But the text lets him face up to the ugliness of that possessiveness, and isn’t afraid to explore the emotional landscape of the boy-becoming a man. In a life seemingly lacking much non-mentor affection, Girton is emotionally vulnerable, no matter the armour he wears, physical and mental. The loyalty and love Girton has for his master is the emotional heart of the text – or at least one of the lungs; the other is Girton’s relationship to Rufra, perhaps the only friend he has, now a king fighting a war for the throne.

Rufra and Girton work well together because of their history. They’re two boys who fought their way out of something terrible, and have grown into men trying to do the same. Rufra struggles with the demands of kingship – with being a good and just king, with the harsh realities of statecraft, and with balancing those against his own needs. Girton’s return, a reminder of a simpler time, may help him claw back some of the sense of self which being a leader, being a figurehead, takes away. The dialogue between the two, from angry words through to silent affirmations of friendship, is pitch perfect, and emotional depths are quietly and breathtakingly plumbed. This is a book which carries the weight of hurt and fire white hot rage in its prose, and leavens it with an intimacy and humanity which makes it impossible to put down.

Girton is, of course, drawn into the madness of the struggle for the kingdom of Maniyadoc,  land already broken and poisoned by sorcery. The atmosphere is one of conflict, of broken bodies and broken promises, where the social bonds that keep everything together have begun to fray – or, in some cases, been deliberately snapped. Maniyadoc continues to fascinate, as the social hierarchy - set in stone by the apparent death of their divinities – begins to disintegrate. The upheaval is not just political, but social, and you can see that in every common soldier starting to think that maybe the knights up on their horses don’t have any idea how to lead. Or in the new wave of priests quietly preaching the ideas of change. Or in the way the Landsmen, killers of magic users, willing to use their blood to return a land to life, will stand aside whilst the political uncertainties wear themselves out. This is a land in flux and crisis, without question, and one where the battles, where the knives in the dark and the swords on the field all come within the wider tapestry of compelling world-building.

The plot? Well, it’s intriguing stuff. Girton investigates a plot to kill a king, and win a throne. There’s espionage. Counter espionage. Betrayals. There’s love, for family and romantically thrown into the mix. There’s a lot of assumptions that get put on display and torn down, as the world rearranges itself over the course of the story. This is a story of mystery and murder, more than a whiff of LeCarré mixed into the cavalry charges and politicking. There’s blood, for sure, and sacrifice, and a feeling of costs and consequences for every inch of progress – and there’s some wonderfully human moments in the mix, and opportunities to grasp a little light and hope in the maelstrom. The scheming is suitably byzantine, the stakes both immediate and personal -the story, spellbinding. If you’ve made it this far, and you want to know if this sequel is worth it, take away an emphatic yes. It’s definitely worth picking this one up.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Kin - Snorri Kristjansson

Kin, from Snorri Kristjansson is a story of family, and what ties them together. Old grudges and old wounds, for certain, and if they’re bound by blood, that blood can also be spilled. It’s a detective story set in the era of Viking raiders, one where a glowering sky enfolds a group as much in bloody thrall to their pasts as enraptured by family affection. If the combination of Vikings, mystery and murder sound good, then this is the book for you.

This is a starker world, one where a household is one of the core units, where what can be farmed is the limit of one’s landholding. Kristjansson evokes the atmosphere of the period with remarkable skill. The crystal blue skies, the sense of isolation, the mixture of self-reliance and reliance on the settlement group. The farmland sits in a wider landscape with a stark beauty, giving a unique blend of humanity and wilderness at a time when that demarcation wasn’t yet fully realised. There’s a wonderful liminality to the setting as well; the Gods of the Norse have a presence here which is almost physical, their existence felt and accepted, if never entirely seen. The role of religion, of faith, is expored somewhat here as well – as a driver for peoples motivations, as a means of social control, and in its own purity and simplicity. Whether or not the Gods are real, this is a world which accepts that they are, and that acceptance permeates the thoughts and actions of the characters.

And what characters they are. Our focus is Helga Finnsdottir, the incisive ward of the Reginsson family. Helga is clever, certainly, but also capable of being smoothly charming and acting quickly. She carries some insecurities around her own position in the family, and those facets of self doubt are ones the text doesn’t shy away from. But she’s a solid investigator, one with an interest in the truth, even as she starts digging into family secrets. If Helga isn’t all sweetness and light, she’s certainly forceful enough to carry the reader along with her, and her own weaknesses are ones it’s easy to empathise with. One of the strands explored in the text is that of agency – as women, Helga and her female relatives could have been seen as marginalised, but here they’re a very active part of the family; while Helga carries some of the aura of an outsider, not tied to the family by bonds of blood, her adopted mother is a force of nature, one always able to achieve her goals through putting the right word in the right ear, through shared history or careful construction of narrative. That soft power is backed up by Reginsson, an ex-raider, now aging but still powerful in his own raw physicality. The Reginsson partnership is one of the highlights of the text – a match which clearly has decades of affection behind it, alongside a clarity born of experience, and a ruthlessness likewise.

But there’s a swarm of other characters here as well, as the Reginsson family comes together. The raiding son, with an eye for wine and another for women. The second son, a tower of a man with old wounds from his brother. The third son, a farmer, who may be carrying his own demons. The daughter, a vicious fighter with schemes of her own (and a husband from as far away as Sweden!). The Reginsson children are a complex bunch of marauders, and there’s always a sense - in the dialogue, in the way they pass each other mead, in who goes to do chores with whom  -  that they have their own agendas at play. Once the initial barrage of names is over, they swiftly grow their own personalities, sympathetic and otherwise, stepping out of our cultural preconceptions of the period to become living, breathing, scheming, stabbing, screaming, plotting, charming, friendly, murderous people.

To be honest, I would have been happy with Kin if it had just been a memoir of the Norse. The family dynamics, the close knit, often tense, occasionally poisonous relationships wrapped inside bonds of blood and affection make this an absolutely cracking family drama. But it’s a murder mystery too. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t say any more – but the mystery is carefully constructed and plausible, and the resolution reasonable, with a solid emotional payoff. It’s the relationships between characters which make the stakes, and make the situation feel real – and they’re top-notch. Somewhere in the dizzying spirals of ties between families is a killer, but quite who it is – in a world where violence floats close to the surface – is another question.

Anyway, Kin. Do you want to read it? The pagan Norse period may not be for everyone, but here it’s given surpassing depth and integrity. The characters are complex and believable, and the central mystery one which rewards careful reading – and working it out alongside Helga was great fun. If you’re in a Scandi-noir mood, and willing to leap back through the centuries, then this is a book which will reward a reading; I, for one, look forward to the further adventures of Helga Finnsdottir.