Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Back in 2022!

 Hello friends!

It's been a long hard couple of years for all of us. 

Thanks for sticking with us this far, and I hope you've found something here that you enjoy, or something that makes you think. Or even something that made you smile, made you feel seen, made you feel not alone in this community of readers and writers exploring the idea of humanity through other lenses.

We're off to recharge our batteries until January; we'll see you all then. In the meantime, keep fighting, keep smiling, you got this.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Through Struggle, The Stars - John Lumpkin

Through Struggle, The Stars is the first part of a military-focued science fiction duology by John Lumpkin.

First up: is it good? I’m going to say yes. If you’re in the mood for a hit of mil-SF, this is going to hit a lot of good points for you. It has well thought out, well described space combat. It has kinetic, visceral ground engagements. The writer has clearly done their research, so there’s a lot of cool, plausibly defined tech on display. And we get to delve into a part of the military sphere that you see less often in the genre (Military Intelligence). There’s valour and duty and blood, hard actions and harder consequences. There’s a story that kept me interested and turning pages. That said, there’s some flaws, too. More on that in a minute.

Our protagonist, Neil, is a young graduate of the US military, in a world where the US is now a declining power in a space-diaspora universe, uncomfortably wedged below China and Japan in terms of political power. Still, the US is out there in a universe with systems connected by artificial wormhole,s colonising in the name of truth and democracy. Neil is a little introverted, perhaps, and a little unsure of himself, a man trying to shake off the trappings of his adolescence. This works pretty well most of the time - as Neil learns the ropes of his new role in the military, so do we. As he gets to know his commander and her officers, so do we. As he befriends his lower-decks colleagues, so do we. He’s an accessible everyman, with a precise, thoughtful intelligence which means that the reader is never that far ahead of him in uncovering mystery or considering consequences. I do find there’s a tendency to tell us about his insecurities, rather than letting internal dialogue or external circumstance highlight them; for me that felt a little narratively heavy handed, but its not a deal breaker, and you may prefer that style. Neil is smart, a little naive, a little rough-edged, pushed into a pond and trying to get his feet under him. 

In this he’s aided by both those above him, and some of his friends. The latter are a good bunch, and we do occasionally get to see things from their viewpoint as well as Neil’s. I think when we look at them in isolation, they work - having thoughts and feelings and needs enough of their own to feel rounded. Some of the interactions with neil feel a little flat, though; I was particularly flummoxed by a romance which seemed like it lacked chemistry, one where the characters on the page were wondering why they were bothering as much as I was as a reader. But the friendships, the banter, the camaraderie, the pivots from the small joys to the higher duties, these all ring true. 

If we diverge for a moment, we can talk about space battles. Occasionally, Neil, being part of the intel section of a ship of war, gets into some scrapes. And those are marvellously drawn. Well thought out, considered, but at the same time having a tension and a pressure to them that makes every kinetic strike at once a tragedy and a relief. It’s a ballet of equations and superior firepower. I can’t stress enough how much fun the battles are to read, how quickly you’re drawn in, and how real it feels. The conflict is marvellously done. 

I’m not sure the same is true of the central antagonist.  They’re, well, just a bit of a monster, really. Some of the secondary challenges that Neil and his ship face over the course of the story are people doing what they think is the right thing, but the central pillar is one of psite and malice and just, general awfulness. Which is fair enough, in its way, but it would be nice to see a more nuanced driver for some of the problems thrown in the path of our hero, beyond moustache-twirling baddie. That said, the villain is suitably entertainingly horribly villainous, so I can’t complain too much. 

The story is all military engagement, politics, mysteries and mayhem. And it’s no bad thing. You can chew on it happily, and have a good, action-packed time.I don’t want to spoil it, but I will say it’s entertaining, and an adventure, and that you’ll have a good time reading it. There’s all the duty and honour you can shake a stick at, some good heroics, and some skulduggery and realities of war mixed in there, too. It’s a clever, entertaining read, so if you’re looking for some Mil-SF, give it a try.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Penric's Demon - Lois McMaster Bujold

As many of you have probably figured out by now, I'm a big fan of Bujold's work. Her science fiction, at least. The Vorkosigan Saga, an intergenerational family drama blended with adventure, politics, romance and, well, a lot more, is to my mind one of the seminal work sin the field. But somehow, I've mostly not cast an eye over her fantasy work.

Which, it turns out, is a shame, because it's a lot of fun!

Penric's Demon is the start of a series of novellae focused on the eponymous Penric. As the story begins, he's on his way to a wedding. Well, his wedding. One he doesn't seem overly enthused about, but which, as the dutiful younger son to a minor noble house, he feels obliged to go through with. Things take, well, lets call it a turn from there, and by the close, Penric's world has been changed forever. Possibly for the better!

The worldbuilding is, as you might expect from an author of Bujold's character, top notch. Given the form, she's clear and concise in her descriptions, getting you as much of a payload of "world" as possible in relatively few words. If there aren't any multi-page descriptions of food (sorry, GRRM fans!), there's context cluses and dialogue asides to keep us grounded in Penric's world, and enough description with tightly observed, precise details to make that world feel fleshed out and lived in. The story gives us enough context to play itself out; it wouls be churlish to want more. In a larger novel, I probably would, but here, what we have works wonderfully, building up enough of a framework of society, culture and environment that you can fill in the blanks yourself. 

Interestingly, these Penric stories take plac ein the same world as some of Bujold's other fantasy work; I certainly didn't need to have read them to get a lot of enjoyment out of this story and its world, though I might go and try those other novels out at some point, for the extra flavour. 

In terms of character, we see the same focus and precision given to Penric as we do to his world. In his actions, and in his internal dialogue, we find a young man in a rut, acting out of a sens eof family and duty, conscious of limited horizons, tolerating and chafing around their edges. He's a good lad, and an affable, likable protagonist. As things move along, he proves to have some hidden depths as well. I think the only flaw here is that the other characters, broadly, get less attention than I would like, and we don't see much of the motives of, for example, those antagonists whim Penric runs across. On the other hand, what we do have in this short space of narrative is very well done - Penric's family are, given a few traits on the page, people we can all identify with and have probably met in some form or other ourselves, and if the antagonists are mostly nasty pieces of work, still, they pull it off convincingly. There's certainly enough here to make you give a crap about the people on the page.

The story itself, well, I shan't spoil it, but it shifts along reasonably well. There's a certain amount of setup, as one might expect from the start of a series ("This is the protagonist.."). But once things get rolling, there's enough wit, banter, excitement, peril and chaos for anybody. This feels like a bite size read, in a good way; i found it hard to stop reading, and the short form encouraged me not to. I suppose my only real complaint is that though there's a complete story in here, I really wanted more. Which, well, fortunately there's another nine or ten of these stories, so that's not really a problem. This is a quick, entertaining tale that made me chuckle occasionally, and had some surprisingly effective emotional moments - it's a good time, a nifty adventure, and if you want a literary snack, this is definitely worth your time.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Jade Legacy - Fonda Lee

Jade Legacy is the final part of Fonda Lee’s Green Bone Saga. I had a great time with the first two parts of this series, which combines criminal enterprise, hands on politics, beautifully kinetic trans-natural martial arts, family drama, and discussions of identity, culture, and construction of the self. If that’s a bit of a mouthful, I’ve also described it as The Godfather meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, though that does this series a disservice. It has deep roots, asking thoughtful questions whilst also not being afraid to show us raw humanity, and get the reader to feel things. 

The tl;dr is that this is a great book. I didn’t want it to end. I found myself reading through the night, wanting to see what happens, but also not wanting to finish up. That’s always the mark of a great story. I suspect it’ll keep you all up late reading it as well!

This is a sublime family saga, filled with pain and joy in equal measure. Explosive, brutal, graceful violent action dovetails with raw emotional honesty, politics, crime and conspiracy. All ties to the lives and loves and hard choices and harder costs borne by a family we’ve followed for two books now. It’s a bloody, compelling, emotional story, and a fantastic finale to a cracking series.

Fittingly given the title, legacy is a core theme here. he country of Kekon is a minor power with a unique resource, surrounded by global superpowers engaged in a long, slow, cold war. How Kekon navigates the geopolitical reefs will be decided by its clans, groupings of families and tributaries who are the heart and soul of politics and finance in Kekon. The clans run retail, they run manufacturing, they run housing. They have economic arms which look after their people, which buy factories and movie studios, and more martial arms, with one eye toward arms and drugs, and the other protecting the assets of their clan, and looking to seize the territory of others. We know the No Peak clan best of all from this series, and their rivalry with their closest contender, the Mountain, the conflict in ways that these entities want their country to work, is a core part of this book. Because the families at  the top of these clans, they can’t stand each other. Theirs is a decades long history of blood and violence. But it’s also becoming something else - because if the clans can’t stand together to the outside world, they’ll be ground on the uncaring edges of superpowers that only see them as pawns in service of larger games. 

We can see through the eyes of the higher echelons of No Peak as they attempt to navigate their personal feud, whilst preserving their country in the face of outside pressure. But also, they have to contend with a changing world, a world that is moving forward as it is in part because of their actions. A more connected world. A more tolerant one, perhaps. Or perhaps not. It’s a question, you see, of values.Hilo, the head of No Peak, is someone we’ve seen move from young, hotheaded killer to, well, something different. A leader who banks the fires of passion until needed, with a personable style, raw cunning and personal charisma - but Hilo is also aware that he’s shaping his country, and working out how that will work. And so are the rest of his family - mothers and sisters and sons, brothers, occasional cousins. Everyone has an agenda, and everyone is shaping the future. 

Hilo and his family, at the head of one of the largest socio-political engines of their nation, have to decide what sort of future that’s going to be, and how willing they are to fight for it

Of course, it’s not all council meetings, quiet bribery and blackmail. There’s simmering revolution out in the streets. There’s Kekonese immigrants in other countries, whose communities are under threat (and this nuanced ,thoughtful exploration of cultural identity in different contexts is a joy incidentally, one with deep roots), and whose sense of self is a little more fluid, out from under the thumb of centuries of cultural shaping; being able to decide who they want to be, though of course under the strictures of another culture entirely. 

And there’s questions of class, and the way that those who wear the jade, and are able to fight and kill with supernatural speed and pwoer, are also typically the power elite in Kekon. What does that mean for those that don’t, or can’t wear jade. What society do they live in? Is it the one we see between the cracks of the dream of the clans?

Which is all getting rather wooly. So let me put this out there, grounding, and an ending:

Jade Legacy is a brilliant book. It explores class and culture and identity through the personal lens of a family steeped in soci-opolitical power. But it also explores the personal stories of that family. Their loves and woes, triumphs and tragedies. The way they bounc eoff each other, and off those around them. It’s not all big questions. Some of it is intimate, emotional, parents working on marriages, children deciding who they’re going to become (and family trying to help them decide, with varying success!). There’s blood and sweat and tears here, but it’s laced right through with passion and friendship and love that comes off the pafe and seeps right through your fingers into the bone. 

This is a family story, a personal story, and that’s what will make you feel, what will make your heart break and your soul soar as the story errands. And it will, and it does. 

Go now, and read this book; it’s worth it.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Bone Ship's Wake - R.J. Barker

The Bone Ship’s Wake is the third and final part of R.J. Barker’s Tide Child trilogy. And, just to get this out of the way, it is very, very good. If you’ve read the previous two books in the series and are wondering whether or not you should pick this one up, the answer is a very strong yes. Pretty much put down this review, walk quickly to your nearest bookshop, and give them your money. Because you want to know how this series ends - and I can at least tell you that it ends with the same kind of wit, compassion, energy, imagination and raw humanity which made the first two books so bloody brilliant.

A lot of that is the characters. Joron in particular, is a top-flight protagonist. In part that’s because of how he has a blend of strength and fragility which makes him feel very much a person. Now leading a fleet of ships, preying on the shipping of his enemies, and trying to rescue his captain, Joron could be seen as a legend in his own lifetime. Indeed, the text explores the formation of legends in this way - both Joron and his captain, Lucky Meas, can be shaped and driven by the expectations of their crews. Reputation, and the power of story, is looked at as something between a strength and a potential weakness, a set of constraints and freedoms given out by the tale that those around us tell themselves. But Joron lives inside his own legend, struggling to live up to it, and knowing he can use it to realise his goals. Fighting his own insecurities and depression, Joron also struggles with the more physical aspects of a progressive disease which makes him doubt his own sanity.

Some of which may sound frightfully depressing, but if Joron struggles, he also fights, fights to find Meas, and fights to find himself, to define who he is, both as part of and against his own legend. That energy, that courage, the victories being as honestly earned as the sorrow in defeats, gives the story a set of emotional stakes and catharsis that means you care. Well, I do anyway. Joron is real, in his doubts and in working past them, in his illness, struggling with it and through it. And, of course, there’s heroics and moments of dazzling courage mixed in there, physical and otherwise.

The world is, well, something special. A richly imagined tapestry of sea battles, dragons, piracy, politics, family, and the growth of legends. It’s obvious (to me, anyway) how much fun the author has working with the great ships, crafted from the bones of monsters. You can feel the wine-dark waves slapping against the bone hulls, the icy wind cutting through heavy coats, and the isolation, majesty and terror of the open sea. There are stern chases here, and a use of language which makes the world feel dependent on its seas, and those who sail them a society of their own. The rhythms of everyday life on a ship are wrapped around the core of the story, and the sea is the spine of the thing, the way people live in it, work with it, and let it become part of them. I will mention that there are, of course, some ship battles - they’re visceral, bloody, unflinching and real; including the grim tedium and tension of the longer chases, followed by moments of blood and fire. But even outside those times, the glowering skies, rolling waves and dangers of the deeps, make the story feel alive.

I won’t spoil the story - at least any more than I already have. But I will say that this is a wonderful conclusion to one of the best fantasy series I’ve read in the last few years. It provides a tale that will keep you turning pages, and the kind of emotional payoff that will leave you thinking about the ending for days. This is a book that delivers a fantastic ending to a brilliant series, and if you’ve made it this far, you should absolutely, one hundred percent go and pick a copy up.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

An Unintended Voyage - Marshall Ryan Maresca

An Unintended Voyage is a new novel in Marshall Ryan Maresca’s Maradaine sequence, which, if I’m honest, is something I always look forward to! And, just to start here: this is a damn fine book. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s human, it has real emotional stakes, a good heart, and you know what, it’ll make you turn the pages pretty quickly, too! It’s also a story that isn’t part of the many Maradaine subseries, but the start of something new  - so if you’ve been wanting to dip your toes into the water of this sprawling saga, this would be a great place to start.

At its heart, this is a fish out of water story (well, among other things). Corrie Welling is police. Willing and able to knock heads in order to serve the law, and, perhaps more importantly, to serve justice. She has a streak of duty a mile wide, a quick mind, and an ever so slightly quicker mouth, with a penchant for exotic insults. Corrie is young, and maybe a little idealistic, but her ideals are those that recognise the flaws in the world and want to make it a better one. She’s willing to stand up for her friends, and…well, anyone else she thinks isn’t getting a fair shake, actually. Corrie Welling is an engaging protagonist, one we can empathise and sympathise with, one with whom we can happily walk into the unknown.

Which is just as well, because Corrie Welling is having a very bad day. She’s been knocked on the head, and thrown into the belly of a ship travelling to who knows where, with a cargo of children, and nothing that suggests they’ll come to a good end.  Surprisingly, things can actually get worse from there. But Corrie has the resilience to weather it, and the mental and physical strength to refuse to back down from those looking to cause harm, and instead get right up in their faces. In a genre which can all too often Chosen Ones chasing their McGuffins, Corrie’s solid refusal to let Bad People do Bad Things is refreshing. She’s not here to save the world, but to find a place in it, to find something of herself. To learn and understand, and build communities. And, admittedly, occasionally to bust heads and yell at people. Corrie is a regular working woman, who just wants to go home already, and is very much tired of everyone else’s crap. That crap might involve deep magic, weird celestial events, indentured servitude, religious fanaticism, or (occasionally) coffee. But the weary attitude of an everywoman who is trying to make their way in the world and get things done is a tonic, an opportunity to see that heroines are made, not born. Corrie can change the world by doing the right thing, and she does that while standing square in a working class heritage of family, duty, service and friendship – and while doing that she shines.

Anyway. Yes. Corrie is a fantastic protagonist. She comes off the page at you with her energy, ferocity and kindness. And the places she goes, which, well, I shan’t spoil, have that life and crackle to them, that sense of depth and history that gives them context and reality. As Corrie wanders the strange and unknown, I was right beside her, as curious, as intrigued, as delighted and terrified as her. The Maradaine saga is known for its great worldbuilding, and if that’s your thing, you won’t be disappointed here.

The same is true of the story, which I really must not spoil. But it really did grab me and not let go. I picked the book up and didn’t put it down for hours, immersed in Corries’s world, in her story, and yes, I really couldn’t stop turning pages. This is compulsive reading right here, that you’ll pick up and not put down, and then lament when you’re finished that there isn’t any more. I, for one, am here for more adventures  like this, speaking to the dangers of fanaticism and selfishness , filled with the strength of community and friendship and trust, exploring what it means to be human with big questions behind a page turner of a tale.

So yes.  Anyway. This is a fun book, a great story, and one you should go and pick up right away – give it a try!


Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Elder Race - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Elder Race
is a sci-fi  novella from Adrian Tchaikovsky, who has recently been absolutely knocking it out of the park with high concept sci-fi which embraces the human factor. This story is, in that sense, no different. It’s smart, sometimes funny, and explores the human condition sympathetically, while asking some interesting questions. And, you know, also, it tells a heck of an adventure story, too.

The core of that story is Lynesse, and Nyr. Each is given alternating viewpoint chapters; which matters, because the social context, the way in which they see things, is so different.

Lynesse is the unlikely heroine of a fantasy story. She’s thetrailing daughter of the ruling house of a kingdom in the medieval mould, ruled by her mother, who has a will of iron and a thick streak of pragmatism. Lynesse is the wild daughter, the one paying out rope behind her as she prepares to leap over a cliff to see what’s at the bottom. But Lynesse is also the thoughtful one, the compassionate one. The one willing to do what needs to be done, fuelled by tales of ancestral heroism. Willing to stride out into the darkness, sword in hand, and master whatever monster is causing her kingdom grief. But she needs help And so Lynesse is going to find the last of the Elders, a powerful sorcerer, who could turn the tide, a mythical creature from a forgotten age, who promised aid to Lynesse’s family, should they ever call.

So she is going to call, and then go forth and righteously kick arse.

Nyr is, well, the last of the Elders, a powerful sorcerer, who could turn the tide, a mythical creature from a forgotten age, who promised aid to Lynesse’s family, should they ever call. Except..he isn’t. Nyr is a junior anthropologist from a space-faring earth, here to keep an eye on the development of this offshoot of humanity. But the rest of his team left centuries ago, and Nyr I s dipping in and out of stasis, spanning centuries in the blink of an eye, and getting worse and worse at the whole “non-interference” thing. Nur is fragile, depressed, living a loneliness that spans centuries, surviving on a cocktail of smart-drugs and an eroding sense of duty. He is not the hero that Lynesse wants. That said, he has access to satellite surveillance nets, orbital strikes, drones, ad a panoply of technological knowhow that would make your garden-variety sorcerer rather nervous.

I think what I like about the two is that they complement each other so well. Their different views describe the same thing in more-or less modern, more or less scientific terms. Demons of air and darkness are malfunctioning drones, cursed forests are laced with old radiation, and so on. The tale weaves wonderfully between the two, letting us have sword and sorcery and solid science fiction in the same few pages. And in both cases, the story works. Each character brings their own truth to the world, their own struggles – their self doubt, their depression are depicted with razor clarity, with empathy and understanding. They’re people, these two, as different as can be, but in holding each other up, and those they run across, they embody what makes humanity rise. They are enough alike that they too, can be heroes.

Anyway. No spoilers for the story, but it’s a journey of discovery, for both the characters in metaphor, and quite literally, as our team try to solve the mystery of what undermines Lynesse’s kingdom before it’s too late. And that story make me laugh, wrenched my heart, and damn sure kept me turning pages far too late in the night.

Which is to repeat myself; Tchaikovsky has crafted a gem here, something clever and human, a beautiful and compelling read. Give it a try!