Wednesday, September 18, 2019

The Dragon Republic - R.F. Kuang

The Dragon Republic is the sequel to R.F. Kuang’s much-acclaimed The Poppy War. The latter was one of our top ten novels of 2018, and so anticipation for the sequel has been rather high, to say the least. 

Happily, I can report that it’s been worth the wait. The Dragon Republic  is a fierce, searing and powerful story, filled with politics, brutal, bloody conflict, and complicated characters, many of whom are trying their hardest to kill each other. It’s also a story which isn’t afraid to explore the larger issues behind the curtain: colonialism, the morality of assassination, the difficulty of ascertaining what price is worth paying, if a goal is worth achieving. That extra layer of complexity is the crocodile in the reeds of each thrown knife, each smart-mouthed aside, each key player struggling with their doubts.

Don’t get me wrong, the story works on its own terms. If you want to watch Rin kick everyone’s arse (including her own), trying to set the world to rights – there’s something here for you. But there’s always things bubbling under the surface or, returning to the crocodile metaphor, waiting until you’re distracted to bite your metaphorical leg off.

At its heart, this is a personal story – Rin’s story. Rin is in something of a bad way as the story opens. 
She’s managed to get everything she wanted – won a war, punished those who broke her people. But the cost has been very high, and she’s done some (to put it mildly) extremely questionable things to get to where she is now. Rin is struggling with the consequences of what she’s done – to herself, and to everyone around her. While the latter is highlighted in interactions, the wider cost noted, it’s the inner struggle I’d like to highlight. The depression, the conflict, the spiral of shame, the poor decision-making. It’s an excruciating, razor-sharp portrayal of someone on the edge of an emotional precipice. Rin teeters, each decision or lack of decision a choice putting her nearer or further from the edge. It’s tough to read, and that’s a credit to the emotional honesty of the narrative, which isn’t afraid to shine lights in dark corners.  It’s grim, that emotional landscape, a mire which both we and Rin may have trouble escaping – but it’s one which has a raw intensity, and a truth about it. Rin’s struggle with herself is heady stuff, if not entirely pleasant.

While she’s working out what to do with herself, as someone perhaps best described as a living weapon (and there’s something of the child-soldier here, too), the world has to work out what to do with itself. The Empire that ended the Poppy War may not survive its conclusion. I won’t go into details here, for the sake of spoilers. But I will say this: you’ll see parts of the Empire with fresh eyes. 

The question of how to guide it, and how, is one that is hotly debated, to put it mildly. There are calm words here, and individuals struggling to implement what may be seen as different visions for a country which may not have a place for any of them. But it does, again, ask interesting questions. Do we accept ruthless methods in the service of laudable goals? Do we accept friendship in the guise of treachery, or treachery in the guise of friendship? In the battle of ideas, in the struggle to identify and have the power to choose the path for a nation – who decides which path is stepped down first? And what compromises will they take too get there?

Of course, the answer to more than one of those questions is answerable in carmine. In sharp knives in the dark. In betrayals and sudden reversals. It’s also answerable in magic, in walls of flame, and in the screaming torture and unutterable power which comes with making onself an avatar of the gods of a nation. The price, again, is high. But the battles are sweeping grand affairs whilst at the same time being unafraid of taking us into the fire and muck and blood. The stakes involved will get your blood pumping, but the vicious immediacy of the conflicts will keep your eyes on the page, determined to see what happens next, to see if the game is worth the cost.

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that The Dragon Republic is a great sequel, and a fantastic book in its own right. If you followed Rin this far, you should pick it up, and see where her story takes her next. The journey Rin’s on will seize your attention like a knife in the ribs; this part of her story is furious, compelling, terrifying, fantastic stuff, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.  

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

A Little Hatred - Joe Abercrombie

A Little Hatred is a new fantasy work from Joe Abercrombie, set in his First Law universe. The First Law sequence is a seminal work within the modern fantasy genre, and one of the central works within the ‘grimdark’ subgenre. We haven’t had a new First Law novel for seven years (though the short story collection was ace), so expectation and anticipation have been high.

So, first question is it actually any good?

Oh my yes.

If you’re just here to see if Abercrombie dropped the ball, rest assured that he has not, that this is a book of fierce prose, framed by superlative worldbuilding and relatable, empathetic, detailed characterisation. Also there’s a fair bit of swearing, and more than a little blood. If you were already a fan, this one isn’t going to change your mind. Go and get a copy right now.

With that out of the way. This is the start of a new trilogy, albeit in the same world as the other First Law books. So, can you read it without having read any of the preceding books? Yes, I think so. Full disclosure, I have read all the preceding books, so I may be a little off, here. But while there are some lovely references, and extra layers of context and flavour to be gained from that larger background, they aren’t required for the story to make sense, nor for it to grip you by the throat until it’s done. You can read this on its own, and it’s still going to be a cracking story.

The world is as detailed as ever, and as vividly realised. Much of the action takes place in Angland, a rather cold, desolate place that has served as a somewhat dour battlefield between the forces of “civilisation”, fronted by the Empire of Adua, and the more rural, Viking-esque North, for several generations now. The peace is uneasy, as ever, and movers and shakers on both sides are ready to kick off and see what they can grab for themselves. The portrayal of a border region, laced through with the scars of old conflicts, is both affecting and effective. Old friends can become foes on the toss of a coin here, and people are struggling.

Part of that is because of progress. Because what cities Angland has, are experiencing a boom in productivity. They aren’t necessarily sharing that boo with all of their citizens, though. The aristocracy is getting very rich indeed, while doing the best it can to ignore the less fortunate now toiling away in mills and forges. Of course, it was ever thus – the world of the First Law isn’t known for being pleasant. But the widespread deprivation, the gradual boiling of social pressure, those are things that the reader can taste on the wind, even as characters wonder how to deal with it, or what might come next. One of the cities of Angland serves as a key location for much of the novel, and in its misery, its poverty, in its low expectations and lower returns, it is heart-piercing. Likewise its robber barons, in its governing class who serve the realm and serve themselves, feel strangely familiar. Even those who are doing as much as they feel they should are, looking down the scale, doing nowhere near enough. The frisson of class warfare simmers behind every interaction, behind every strike broken, behind every cold stare from a servant who knows exactly where the knives are kept.

This isn’t a story about a progressive society bringing peace and enlightenment to the masses. It’s a story of oppression, of rebellion, of revolution. Of the way in which a mob can turn on the hand which feeds it, the way order can be nothing more than institutionalised violence, and the way that disorder ca look surprisingly similar. It’s a story of a society on the cusp of something, trying to work out what, and making some very poor choices.

At the same time that Adua is trying to absorb these changes, and the rise of the noveau riche, there’s conflicts breaking out along the edge of the border with the North. Abercrombie’s always written beautifully crafted fight scenes, and these are no exception, both individually and en-masse. You can taste the adrenaline at the back of your throat, feel the fear the terror, the warm streak of piss running down a leg. It’s muddy, bloody, uncompromising work, which doesn’t flinch from the exhilaration of combat for some, but isn’t afraid to look at its aftereffects, at the price paid, and the ongoing costs. You may thrill to the surge of a cavalry charge, but cringe at the blood, at the screaming and the running, at the ambushes, at the way glory transmutes into a man trapped under a horse, begging for water. This isn’t a story about the glories of war, but about its realities, and about the people who live within it.

They, much like the urban-dwellers further into Angland, make some very poor choices.
I won’t dig too far into the characters, at least in part for spoiler reasons. But I will say this. Each of the cast has such a unique voice, There’s over a handful of viewpoint characters, and they each feel different, each feel like individuals Some of them feel like fairly unpleasant individuals, to be fair. But in their thoughts and feelings, in their reactions, in their internal monologues and external actions, you can see the faces, hearts and minds of real people. Scared people, often. Selfish? Absolutely. But not always. There are moments of hope, of humanity amongst utter madness, of joy and kindness. If the world is a dark place, and much of the time the folk in it aren’t especially nice, still, sometimes they have the capacity to surprise, the spark that draws in a breath at night.

Not all of them, of course. Some of them are right bastards.      
But that’s the thing. These aren’t people who are good, and bad, in an absolute way (well, mostly). They’re people pushed to the bring by the systems they inhabit, making the choices they think they have to. No monsters, no saints, just people. On that level, the characterisation is an absolute tour-de-force, as each of our protagonists is relatable, believable, each voice a unique note in the gathering storm.

So, you’ve got a world that lives and breathes, and characters whose fate you’ll care for, whose actions will have heart in mouth, and hands desperately flipping pages to see what happens next.
As to what happens next? As to the story they have to tell? It’s fabulous. A gradual interweaving of threads across multiple strands of narrative, each as sharp and compelling as the others. Tension is built expertly, so that each turn of the page is done on tenterhooks. The story works. It has broader themes it wants to talk about – the futility (or otherwise) of war, the benefits (or otherwise) of progress, the necessity (or otherwise) of governance – and more. It asks big questions, and takes some steps in letting the reader find their own answers. But it’s also a blood-pumping story of revenge and madness and blood and family and truth and chaos.

A Little Hatred is Abercrombie at his best, and it’s a book you ought to go and get a copy of, right now.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The House Of Sacrifice - Anna Smith Spark

The House Of Sacrifice is the conclusion of the Empires of Dust trilogy. And not to give the game away, but Anna Smith Spark can write a bloody good ending.  This volume contains all the things I loved about the first two books.  It has lyrical, soaring prose which manages to create poetry out of blood spatter. It has characters who do monstrous things, but also live and laugh and love within their own insecurities as much as anyone else. It has a world that sweeps from wet, cold islands and weed-raddled coastlines, through deserts drawn still with a merciless heat, to great cities, whose decay is matched only by their vitality. It has all these things, and from them is woven the sort of story which takes your hand and doesn’t let go – possibly because it just drove a knife into your chest.

So what makes it so good then?

Well, for one thing, the characterisation. Marith has been one of the core figures in this story from the beginning. Demon king, lover, conqueror, he mixes casual brutality and a penchant for offhand murder with a sense of fragility, a need for connection and compassion, and a deep love for his wife. In some ways, this story is as much a close study of Marith’s psyche as it is anything else. Reacting with or against his own demons is what drives him forward, is what moves him to the battles edged with slaughter in which he partakes, with the reader over his shoulder. As each friendship carries within it a betrayal, as each decision steps further into a self-referential whirl of recrimination and retaliation, Marith is never quite willing to let go. Of course it helps that he’s leading a host of killers, themselves driven by his imprecations and charisma. The armies of the demon king won’t let go, won’t back down. Have found freedom and release in carmine and carnage. As reflections of his will, they are a marvel. From moment to moment, they seem no better or worse than any of us – thinking about sending money home to their families, grousing about terrible food. But they’re also unrelenting professional killers. The text invites comparison, and lets us wonder, not if we can be anything more, but if we are already something less. Monsters are people too, yes. But also, people are monsters too.

And Marith isn’t alone. What can we say about Thalia, about a character whose appearance on the page can wrench the heart (and guts) on quite so many directions at once? Thalia is a survivor. Pulled away from horror, from a life of blindness and ritual sacrifice and death, she seems to love Marith deeply. But Thalia is also not a stupid person. She knows what he is, and what he’s done. But then, she’s done a fair few things herself. In her struggle for self determination and self actualisation, Thalia is quite willing to set the world on fire. I can’t blame her really. And for all that, she’s a joy to read. Driven, thoughtful, self-aware and complicated. Thalia thinks ahead when Marith is immersed in his own id. She knows her position, of wealth and luxury, of a life without fear, is built on the backs and blood of others. But she’s also not willing to give it up, to be hunted down and broken by vengeance, or by history. Thalia is inspirational, in some ways – someone who saw a way to take what they wanted, and seized it. Someone who genuinely lives within their own great love story. It’s a shame she also has a history of doing terrible things.

These two are at the heart of the story, but they’re not all of it. Orhan still sits in the decaying remains of Sorlost, nominally the greatest city in the world. His plans in disarray, Orhan is discovering both that everything can be lost, and what he may wbe willing to sacrifice to prevent it. And Sorlost – ah, alright, I always want to talk about Sorlost. This is a city with walls that are one winding ribbon of bronze, feet high. A city that nominally runs the greatest empire known to humanity – at least on paper. A city that has rested on its own laurels for so long that they’re starting to stink. But oh, when you see the energy behind it, in the soaring spires and in the dusty statue in the Court of Broken Knives…it feels like a living, breathing place. Riddled with corruption, of course. Ossified, yes. But still a humming metropolitan engine, which may surprise us all and shake of its torpor.As Marith marches on, laying waste to everything around him (sometimes more than once), Sorlost is always there – a jewelled band laced with thorns, waiting for a conqueror to seize it. Orhan embodies Sorlost, strives to save it, and in that struggle, gives room to let the reader feel both hope and tragedy.

Thankfully, there’s always Tobias. In a story which does give us a lot of grand themes, of armies on the march, of regal politics – even when those things are brought into the realm of the personal through blood and sex and death - , Tobias is the voice of the everyman. He’s feeling old, and tired, and not really willing to put up with anyone’s crap, What Tobias is, is good at staying alive. But he’s also a great mix of blunt and incisive, a professional who knows his work, and isn’t wiolling to take any guff from management, even when his work is killing people. Tobias grounds the story for me, helps keep it real, between the soaring dragons, the explosive, watercolour magic, and the death-metal romance of Marith and Thalia. Between all those things is Tobias, asking where the next meal is going to come from, and trying to avoid getting stabbed in the gut.

It’s this humanity, from everyone involved, that beats behind the ribs of the story. The sense that even awful, awful people are people, that they do what they can (or sometimes what they must), as much as anyone else. This is a story of terrible decisions, for sure, as much as it’s a story of shining spears, and blood painted on walls. But it’s also a story which is unflinching in letting you into who its characters are, and into the world they inhabit. That isn’t a comforting experience, but one which can sear the soul. Which may sound a bit dramatic. But this is a dramatic book, too. It’s prepared to let you revel in the chaos, the destruction, the nihilist drives that it dishes out – and then quietly points out the horrors that sit behind them. I was thinking about the end of The House Of Sacrifice for days afterwards, trying to decide what it had persuaded me to feel, and what I thought of it all. It’s a triumph of layered narrative – and if a lot of those layers are trauma, death, struggle, death, defeat, death , victory and, er, death…not all of them are. There’s hope among the embers, maybe, and if not 
that, then a sense of commonality, a sense of community – even if it is that of an army on the march, willing and eager to burn everything down.

So yeah. This is a great book. It will, as said previously, grab you and refuse to let go until it’s done. It has heart, and soul, and it has rather a lot of blood. It’s an unforgettable story, and one which ends on its own terms, and ends very well indeed.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Jade War - Fonda Lee

First things first: Jade War is a great book. If you’re coming here after reading Jade City, and trying to decide if the next one is up to snuff, I say this to you: Yes. It is really very good. Please go now, to the nearest bookshop, buy a copy, and read it.

Alright, so you’re not immediately convinced? Fair enough. As a sequel, Jade War carries all the things that made its predecessor so great: the complex, driven, vividly characterised cast. The personal politics, between personalities so strong that they throw sparks being in the same room. The fast paced, brutal action, which manages to cut into the reader just as much as the participants. The broader questions about colonialism, nationalism, and the place of a country in a world which is rapidly getting a lot bigger. It’s all there. There’s some kick arse martial arts, and there’s quiet emotional moments which are just as gutting as the knife that just opened someone’s chest.

Everything I loved about Jade City is in here, and it’s been turned up to eleven.

I really love the way that the story interweaves the family dynamic of the No Peak clan, a family dynasty managing a less than entirely legitimate business empire, with the broader politics. A lot of the focus here is on No Peak’s actions, its rivalry with another clan who effectively run the other half of their nascent nation. So we see turf wars in action, and long-held grudges boiling over. But there are also pragmatic power sharing arrangements, as both clans have to deal with third parties trying to impinge on their business during conflict. And there are moments when edged words in a sharply cut suit can turn into a confrontation with a blade. The world of No Peak is a world always on the edge of violence. Stepping back from the brink, yes, absolutely. Prepared to accept partnership[p? Or defeat? Perhaps. But the virtues of a warrior code - of honour, of boundaries to the acceptable – are rubbing up against a modernity which has less use for a warrior aristocracy, and more use for those who can make enormous amounts of money. Kekon, the nation of the clans, is a small place with a crucial resource, sat between far larger powers, trying to avoid being sucked into their feuds. But as a relatively new nation, Kekon is still trying to decide what sort of place it will be. That struggle is played out in the high chambers of the law, and in bodies found floating by the docks at midnight, and in the hearts and minds of all the characters. This is a story of a country looking to become…well, a nation.

But if that’s one of the larger ideas, it floats at the back, in the liminal spaces, in the pauses while characters decide how to react. More directly, we see Anden, one of the central characters from the previous book, packed off to another country in an effort to both hide him away, and give him time to sort himself out. It’s a curiously touching, self-reflective journey that Anden is on, balanced by his slowly growing relationship with a group of Kekon refugees, second or third generation children of those who escaped before Kekon’s independence. There’s some wonderful culture clash here, and some wry commentary on how these expatriates feel like they need to be more Kekon than the Kekonese – and Anden can see the fierce joy they bring to their adopted home, and to their own half-remembered culture, even as he struggles to map their experience to his own.

Which all sounds very complicated and worthy – but it’s beautifully written, the larger issues living in harmony with Anden’s personal journey, and with his desire to help out his friends, and maybe prove that he can be a good person without having to match family expectations.

Which applies to Shae, too. Having been dragged back into family politics in the previous book, Shae is now a woman at the top of her game. She’s ruthless, sure, to her enemies. But also has great love for her family, perhaps matched only by her frustration with them. Shae is a woman filled with passionate intensity, but also with the sort of hard-edged calculation that the modern No Peak needs. Shae’s a leader, there’s no doubt of that. One who thinks fast, and backs up fine words with impressive strategy and sharp blades. Shae’s journey is perhaps one of re-integration, to match Anden’s transition. But Shae isn’t  afraid to say what she things, and to back it up. She also has her own personal struggle, trying to find time and space for personal matters while running the core competencies of a corporation crossed with a crime syndicate. It’s not fragility, as much as a recognition that she’s human, and that family connection isn’t the only thing that people need to get through their day. That said, if Shae’s personal conflicts let her have some vulnerability, it only emphasises the face she puts on outside the walls of family, the face with the knife-edge smile.

Basically, she kicks arse. More please.

Of course there’s Hilo too, the man who now leads the clan. The man who never wanted to do so, the man who has found himself in a cold peace after a hot war. Hilo struggles with his own feelings of inadequacy, I think, and with grief. His is the most traditional role, and in fairness, it’s wonderful to see him in it – both on the streets, with blood on his hands, and in the boardroom, trying to fathom the intricacies of a deal. Hilo is out of his depth, a man taken from the role he was born to play into something else. His efforts to surface from the emotional and political waters slowly rising over his head are an  art of joy and sorrow.

Anyway. They’re backed by an expansive and expanding cast; there are so many minor characters I wanted to see more of. A special shout out to the head of the rival clan, whose machinations are an utter delight to uncover. For the reader, that is, less so for our heroes. In a different series, this hard-edged woman might be the hero. As it is, she’s a razor cut in every page. But they’re all wonderful. Anden’s foster family is by turns welcoming and practical, and the efforts by other clan family members to get involved in affairs are a pure delight in precision plotting and top-notch characterisation.

I won’t give the game away on the plot. It’s too much fun for that, filled with victories, tragedies, and enough reversals that you’re never sure when one is going to turn into the other. There’s more than a little of the (literally) arse-kicking martial arts action you’ve been pining for, and it’s leavened with some richly-lived family drama, a soupcon of geo-politics, and a narrative with a  nuanced, thoughtful approach to the larger themes of family, colonialism, nationalism, global integration, resource management and economic diversity, put through the lens of the personal stories of people we care about.

So, we’re back where we started. It’s a great book. I’ve definitely not done it justice here, so take that one away with you: it’s a great book. If you’ve read Jade City, you need to get on this to see what happens next. If you haven’t, do that first – and then go pick this one up.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The Bone Ships - R.J. Barker

The Bone Ships, then. A story of found family, of ships crafted from bones and magic skimming over icy waves. A story of honour and blood. A story of heroism, if not of heroes. Of sacrifices, hard truths, and a song of salt winds and dark waters.

Sorry to wax lyrical, but in more prosaic terms: this is a very, very good book.
As the title suggests, rather a lot of the story takes place on the sea. Specifically, on ships. More specifically, on ships crafted from the bones of dragons. Lets just take a moment to appreciate how cool that idea is. The dragonboats of this world are literally dragon-boats. The ships are crewed by reavers, hard men and women who go out into the world in search of battles and treasure. Well, mostly. The crew of our story are a little different. But I’ll come back to that. For now, it’s enough to imagine a ship crafted from the bones of a dead leviathan crashing through frigid deeps. The society these people come from is driven by scarcity and conflict. It sits in an ocean seemingly at the edge of nothingness – a cold, hard place. Farming is difficult. Keeping children alive, more so. The land is poisoned and poisonous – and as a result, the society that clings to these rocks is led by those with a proven ability to bear living children. And the women with that power, they are no less surgical, no less vicious, no less ruthless than anyone else would be. They keep a court of fertile men, and send the rest out to fight and die and live, however they can – seizing victory and glory on the tides. It’s a fragile world, one underpinned by loss and sacrifice. This is a stark, often brutal world, sure enough – but it’s one where you can feel the wind knife across your face on the spired isles, just as much as feel the blade in your back from the political manoeuvrings of the political elite. It’s a vividly imagined, detailed and entirely believable culture, one you can live and breathe while turning the pages.

Alongside this culture, one which is wrapped in constant war with its neighbours, we have the smaller, more intimate world of a ship and its crew. Here the personalities are important, the Captain, of course, but also those who manage the decks, the navigator, the lookouts, the brawlers. There’s a vitality to a good crew, and a febrile fragility to one that isn’t holding together. In both cases, the emotional tenor is here, and it comes out of the page in dialogue, in sarcastic asides, in banter, in orders given and obeyed (or not). The power dynamics of the enclosed space are implicit and complex, and here, in this story, you can live and breathe those dynamics, and see them play out. If the wider society is twisted upon itself, dependent on the ships and reliant on conflict – the ships themselves are something else. Even the worst are, if not families, the worst because they don’t have the bonds accepted by the best.

Really what I’m saying is, this is a really well-drawn, sharply observed world. It may not always be a very pleasant one, but you’ll find yourself lost in its intricacies, nonetheless.
Onto this stage step the crew of the Tide Child. When we first meet our interlocutor, Joron, he’s the captain of the ship. Of course, he’s also constantly drunk, scared of his own crew, and determined to drink himself to death on a beach before ever getting back on the ship. And the crew are disparate, cruel, lost. It doesn’t help, of course, that they’re on a so called “black ship”, all sentenced to death, with service taken as an alternative to execution. They are not, it must be said, a happy bunch. As the narrative moves, Joron’s relationship with the crew evolves, as does the man himself. As our eyes on this world, Joron is reflective, thoughtful, aware of his own fragilities and weaknesses – perhaps too much so. But that fragility also gives him a much needed humanity, when matched with the other central force of the story, Lucky Meas.

In another version of this story, Meas is the centre of attention. She’s smart, funny, lethal. She inspires courage, she inspires friendship she inspires her crews as heroes. A disgraced leader of fleets, a woman who would happily kick down the door to perdition if her goals lay beyond it. And don’t get me wrong, watching her stride across the page, taking absolutely no crap, is an absolute delight. But living it via Joron gives us a perspective, a detachment, a more grounded understanding. Meas is a force of nature, that’s true. But if she understands herself and her purposes, Joron does not – at least, not entirely. This helps maintain the narrative mystery, and also helps in keeping Meas human; Joron is not always entirely happy with the appearance of such a force of nature into his life, and his opinions help shape the way we see things.

The two of them, the phlegmatic Joron and the fiery Meas, will take the broken crew of the Tide Child into the path of matters of great portent. I won’t spoil those, but will say this – they do have a tendency to get bloody. But there are also startling moments of grace scattered through the pages, where a well-turned word or an indrawn breath can pierce the heart of the reader as sharply as any blade. Suffice to say that somewhere between the two lies our story, and it had be turning pages in that state where I desperately wanted to know what happened next, but also didn’t want the book to end. It’s a tale of found family, and of sacrifices and of challenges, and of friendship, blood and death. A story of trying to change the world, and a story about people, and what happens when they try to change the world.

It’s compulsive, compelling reading. I’m absolutely desperate to see more of the Tide Child, and I think once you’ve finished this book, you will be too. Go out and pick this one up right away.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

To Be Taught, If Fortunate - Becky Chambers

To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a sci-fi novella from Becky Chambers, whose Wanderers sequence met widespread acclaim. This novella, though, is something new. And, not to give the game away, it’s rather good. It has a lot of the elements I’ve come to associate with Chambers’ writing: complicated characters with both believable issues and an undeniable warmth. A detailed, vividly imagined world. A story that wants to explore things, to look at both what’s in the universe, and what place humanity has within it.  All of that and more help to make this novella a singular experience.

Part of that is the places the story wants to take us. In a not-overly distant future, humanity has reached out for the stars. Their instruments, volunteer search teams willing to go into cold storage, to go to the ends of space, through time, to see things that have never been seen before, and to report it all back to a world that is now nothing but a distant memory.  And what stars they’ll see. Each is something unique, and the thrill of discovery for our interlocutors is one that seeps viscerally off the page and into your bones. Each new biome is an adventure, a discovery, something truly new. That isn’t to say it’s always nice, that each instant is one of rare beauty – but each moment is definitely singular. And these worlds – well, the prose is lively, the descriptions sparkling and imaginative. Each of these worlds is somewhere entirely new, and that feeling never fades. I did appreciate that these worlds, their mystery and possibility,  are shown to us in parallel with thoughts on our own Earth, whose news remains as interminably unpleasant as ever – and for whom, as ever, hope is never entirely lost. The people exploring the edges of our known space are human enough to want to go home, and human enough to want to keep on going into the dark.

Speaking of which; the text centres around one survey team, as they move from planet to planet, dipping into and out of time like cranes on a lake. In between the descriptions of new worlds, and the surprisingly compelling scientific rigour it takes to explore them, we sit beside these people, and see them at their worst, as well as their best. They are people though. In between their professionalism are under(and over) currents of friendship, the sort of banter that evolves between four people who’ve worked together in close quarters for a long time. There’s wit and sass by the barrel-load, and I found myself chuckling more than once at a particularly clever remark. But these aren’t ciphers either 
They’re emotionally present, and if not always entirely honest with themselves about their baggage, at least trying to be. There’s a warmth and strength in the group dynamic, in a small team with a shared purpose trying to do a good job, and also be healthy, and be there for each other. There’s a transhuman element as well, exploring the changes these people have had to make in order to explore strange new worlds; but that sits alongside the human element, and accentuates it. No matter what these people look like, or sound like, or how they feel, or who they feel it for, they’re always people. 
That’s a positive message coming out of the text, and one that’s interwoven cleverly through each line of the text. These are people; in their diversity, they find strength, and humanity – and that strength, that humanity, helps keep these people feeling like people as we share their troubles and triumphs across the universe.

I won’t go into the plot, past the exploration of worlds that I’ve already alluded to. But the story is there, between the interactions of the characters, and the new places they set out to discover. It’s in each line of dialogue, each new variety of fauna. There’s stories here about people and acceptance and difficulty and crisis, and each of them feels real. There’s ethical problems and small worries and world-changing choices. There’s some dark moments and choices that have to be faced, and there’s the sort of optimism and hope that makes you want to build In short: it' a space programme all of your own for these people. It’s not a story that relies n explosions and one-liners to get your attention, but it’s a story that will keep your attention by being honest, and by  having interesting things to say. In short, it’s a damn good read.

Should you read it? I think so. It’s saying interesting things, asking interesting questions, and doing so with characters I quickly came to care about, in a world that feels very real.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Last Astronaut - David Wellington

The Last Astronaut is a lot of things. Let’s start form the top. It’s a near future sci-fi novel, in a world where, after a Mars mission ends in Challenger-esque tragedy, NASA has ceased human space exploration. Decades later, however, the commander of that doomed mission has been pressed into service, to investigate an alien object falling into our solar system. Things, as you may expect, do not go entirely to plan.

Though this is an ensemble story, I want to say up front that the standout for me was Sally Jansen, the commander whose catastrophic mission to Mars ended government-funded human spaceflight decades before the story takes place. The Jansen we have before us is someone struggling with themselves. With their own guilt, of course. But also with failure, with having come close to living a dream, of embodying her own goals, and then seeing those taken away. Not only that, but seeing that failure cascade, and strip away not only her dream of going to Mars, but everyone else’s. Jansen is outwardly still a woman at the top of her game, even if the game is over. A leader, who can make hard decisions, think fast and act fast when she has to. And all of that is true. She absolutely kicks arse, and it is a sight to see. The story isn’t afraid to let her off the leash, to let her show her expertise, to let her drive her own story.

But she’s also walking on thin ice. There are cracks in the façade that we can see in her narration. The need to save others. To take the weight of the shame and guilt for those she couldn’t save. The wish for redemption. And its to the text’s credit that we can root for Jansen, even as we recognise that the pressures that have shaped her may have been catastrophic; that she is, internally, treading on thin ice. To her credit though, Jansen is smart, resilient, and willing to pick herself up off the mat – both physically and mentally. The mixture here is just right – giving us a protagonist we can believe was a hero, with more than enough of the flaws that make us human.

Jansen is aided, of course, by a delightful ensemble cast, including her new crew, some of who have secrets of their own.. There’s the secretive military man, of course, but there’s also an effervescent scientist, whose discovery of the object, and dream of going into space has catapulted him into the big leagues. And the naïve researcher into xeno-bilogy with an intellect so razor sharp she might just cut herself on it. They’re an odd crew, and they definitely have their quirks, their mysteries, their moments of difficulty. But along with the ground control team, they’re our emissaries to whatever is heading toward us.

Of course, that relies on them being able to get there first.

The text has an interesting narrative style; parts are written from the viewpoints of the characters in the moment, and the visceral immediacy of those sections hit like a freight train. Smaller sections are apparently produced ex post facto, written or recorded as an after action report for an event which looks set to change humanity forever.  The contrast in tone, the implacable dry bureaucracy of the reports, blended with the intimate horrors of the larger chapters, not only kept my attention, but left me wondering what happened next – looking for the reality under the formality of the reports and recordings, looking for the indescribable in the layers beneath the  formal reality.
This works really well for the earlier portions of the text, as both we and our characters are brought up to speed. Trying to guess what happened before it does, trying to understand what the after action reports, the video transcripts, the scattered future artefacts are telling us.We, and the characters, are caught up in the challenge, in the desire and dream of space, of seeing what’s out there. Of touching down on something truly alien. Of understanding, perhaps, that we’re not alone, and what that means. It’s energetic and optimistic and an absolute pleasure to read, as everyone works together to see what they can find outside the surly bonds of earth.

I won’t spoil anything here, but I’ll say this. The world drawn here is top-notch. The sections in corporate America, and the government facilities of Nasa, will send a tremor of familiarity through anyone who’s ever been to either .The clinical construction of a mission, mixed with the spirit of adventure and attitude that makes it work. You can see the people striding forward, torch in hand, and you can see the world around them – ours. Once they reach the object, things change. Again, no spoilers. But here the strange, the unusual is what stands out, alongside the familiar. It shocks at the same time that it seems tantalisingly within our grasp. The atmosphere is electric, and the object is tantalisingly alien. Jansen and her team are somewhere strange, where the rules don’t apply – less a frontier than a different frame of reference. 

In sum, I’m saying this: the characters are very human, and the object is absolutely, vividly not. What happens when the two meet, is something else entirely.

This is a book about discovery. About heroism in dark, dark places. About doing what you have to, in order to survive, about courage, and about duty. It’s about loss, as well, and love, and the things that make us the same and different. The intimate horrors that we share with each other, and the triumphs that get us through the day. It’s a very human story, and one that, once it has you in its grip, isn’t going to let you go until it’s done.

If you’re looking for some hard sci-fi, blended with the best of humanity as well as downright, primeval horror, then this is the book for you.