Wednesday, June 20, 2018

City Of Lies - Sam Hawke

City Of Lies is about a great many things: Poison, politics, the moral and ethical obligations a society ha to those working within it, the quality of friendships and, er, more poison. The slow-burn narrative captured by attention and didn’t let it go, and the world drawn showed a marvellous depth of imagination; given this is Sam Hawke’s debut, the series it begins is off to a very strong start.

The story explores themes of the dichotomy and conflict between the urban and country as well; much of the text takes place within a sprawling city regarded (at least by its rulers) as a centre of socio-cultural enlightenment. A council of well-heeled nobles rules, and dispenses justice and economic largesse to their populace. The people have access to education, and guilds exist to allow the talented to make something of themselves. Or so the story goes. Things are, as ever, not that simple. The governance, the beneficence, the economy, the  social inclusivity of a ruling elite from a different background to the remainder of their population – all are, at the very least, on tenuous ground. Perhaps the largest fib in City Of Lies is the city itself – or at least the ideals it’s founded upon. The story isn’t afraid to use its characters to explore flawed assumptions, to question the sacred cows which this society has built, and to deconstruct them, block by block. The occasional murder is thrown in, too.

The city is glorious, in its way, in the evocation of the ideals it tries to match, even where it falls short. And in being a thriving metropolis of broken walls and soaring bridges, a living proof that co-operation and harmony can have positive results. That this is, if not a lie, at least contemporaneously somewhat wishful thinking, doesn’t give this world any less of a heart. There’s so much social complexity at work here – agricultural workers struggling with urban rentiers, representatives trying to create new guilds to allow people to earn a living in different ways, armies on the march – it’s breathtaking. It’s a lot to take in, but it sneaks up on you. Over the course of the book, the city will get under your skin – much like the poisons described at the start of a chapter.

If the world is fascinating, the characters are equally compelling. The heart of the book is friendships, and family ties – between a young aristocrat with an important role in government, his equally aristocratic friend, whose duty it is to ‘proof’ substances as a protection from poison, and the proofer’s sister, who, chronically ill, carries affection for them both. They’re an odd lot, these three, but their unbending faith in each other is the pole star of the narrative, and once which makes it an absolute joy to read. While we’re looking at the deeper themes of the text, while we’re looking at social inequalities writ small and large, or the minutiae of politics, or actual poisonings, or duels, or battles, the emotional resonance of this triad glues the text together.

The relationship of the three protagonists carries the warmth and depth of genuine friendship, of duty embraced with mutual affection. It’s a delight to see such friendships celebrated, and the positive nature of the emotions in no way decries their honesty and the truthful heft that they lend to the story.  It’s what gives the book heart. This is helped, in some ways, by the villains – such as they are.  For the antagonist here is a mystery – sowing disruption and lethal toxins from the shadows. Each character is thus a challenge; each pampered aristocrat could be wearing a mask, each Order-Keeper patrolling the streets a potential quisling. 

To the author’s credit, each of the ensemble around our central group feels like an individual. Petty, spiteful individuals, sure. Duty-driven and socially suspect, absolutely. Acidic and unforgiving of the pride of the City? No question. But each has a distinct voice, and each carries a personal opacity which makes them more or less of a threat. Each smile may mask a villain – but of course, a scowl can too. If the City is founded on principles which may be undermined where they intersect with reality, the people withi the city are also cloaked in smaller, pettier lies – and in this, and in their efforts to be more or less than themselves, they’re thoroughly believable, and very human.

The plot is a complex web of mystery, focused, perhaps unsurprisingly, on lies, subterfuge, and poison. Each paragraph is a test of nerve, waiting to see if a silent murder has occurred. Each sentence carries a slow burning tension, perhaps akin to waiting for an antidote. I won’t get into it here, but suffice to say that City Of Lies has a lot going on. There’s enough byzantine factional politics for anyone, and if that’s not your jam, there’s more than a little swordplay and siegecraft as well. 

There is some magic floating around in the background, quietly understated, but it doesn’t feel like a focus for much of the book – that focus is on the characters, on our trio and on their efforts to investigate a mystery and thus hopefully not die trying. The gently bubbling, seeping tension left me turning pages late into the night, and the tightly woven relationship between the central characters kept me turning them until morning. With that in mind, I’d recommend City Of Lies. It’s a vividly imagined, cunningly crafted debut, and an excellent read.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Ravencry - Ed McDonald

Ravencry is the sequel to Ed McDonald’s absolutely storming debut, Blackwing. Ravencry takes place in the same bleak, hard-edged world as its predecessor, full of uncaring titans, mad magicians and a few people trying to do the right thing. Or at least not do the wrong thing. Most of the time. If the money’s good enough. If you’re here, chances are good you want to know if Ravencry lives up to its legacy – and the short version is yes. It’s brilliant - a tightly written, tautly plotted story of monsters, magic, betrayal and murder, with action that kept me turning pages, and schemes that left me wondering which of the unreliable characters I could trust.

A lot of Ravencry occurs in an urban environment, in Valengrad, bastion of all that is morally grey , standing at the border against the creeping horror of the Deep Kings. Valengrad is a pretty terrible place, one with rot sitting at its heart. The city thrums with life like maggots through a corpsecivilians moving between buildings in what seems like constant rain, ruled over by an oligarchy which seems to regard the seething mass of the populace as a mild inconvenience at best, and is outright repulsed by them at worst. It’s a city living in a noir nightmare, where the shadows seem long and constant, and are likely to hide a member of the state security apparatus. It’s a place desperately in need of hope, and fertile ground for something new – a semi-religious cult of the “Bright Lady”, which preaches egalitarianism and social reform, a ray of searing light in a world inclined more toward the darkness. It’s a change, but in a world where everything has a seedy underbelly, onr I forced to wonder whether a city as vibrantly, horrifyingly alive as Valengracan generate something as clean as hope.

We also get to see some more of the Misery, the blasted no-mans land between the Deep Kings an our less than polished heroes. It’s a Lovecraftian nightmare of shifting geography and altered perception, a space where the dead walk and talk, where the phantoms of your past are likely to pick up a rock and bash your head in. It’s a twisted, psychedelic place whose haunts are both revelatory and deadly. It has the capacity to break people, and if it doesn’t destroy them, is at least as likely to change them, to move a person closer to themselves, and closer to a monster.

Several of the characters sliding between city and Misery will be familiar as well. Galharrow, the gruff, pragmatic and brutal instrument of higher powers is still here. He’s got a shinier belt buckle, after the events of the last book, but is still the same man. That said, he’s now haunted by the spirit of lost love, a man stalking the half-world in search of truth.The man is now more driven, searching for something he feels has been lost. That loss has also informed the character - perhaps because a lost truth is worse than none at allGalharrow is still bitter, though with some of the edge filed off, but instead feels like a man on a quest – a tarnished knight seeking a grail of remembered affection, or at least emotional truth. This is a man being emotionally torn apart before our eyes. The raw passion at the heart of his dysfunction is terrifying in its honesty, and also in its effects. That said, Galharrow is still a man willing to kick arse and take names, or, preferably, shoot someone in the back whilst they’re asleep to solve his problems.

Galharrow is backed by an amazing supporting cast. The fabulous Nenn is his lieutenant, a hard-faced killer whose edges are softened a little by the possibilities of romance, now that the Blackwing are a more well-funded arm of the law. She’s still abrasive, delightfully sharp-tongued, and unwilling to take any crap – but there’s also a suggestion of emotional fragility under the armour which really 
gives the character some heart. Then there’s the rest of this found-family; the hyper-organised secretary, whose competence keeps the entire enterprise afloat, and the teenage refugee determined to follow her role model into the Blackwing service. Watching Galharrow struggle with his feelings and approaches for both of these women, both independent, prideful and willing to make their own decisions in spite of him, is a delight. That their ‘family’ is filled out by a semi-psychotic mage trapped in the undying body of a child – well, that’s just par for the course.

These are complicated, often broken characters, whose emotional responses are crippled or channelled by traumatic past experience, but also feel genuine, and feel human. They contrast interestingly with the villains, whose competence is matched by an effort at inhumanity which is too malevolent to be uncaring. Those who stand against the Blackwing are skin-crawlingly vile, and I shivered in visceral disgust more than once.

The plot pulls from noir -  a twisted, byzantine string of plots, counterplots, misdirected truth and outright lies. The central mystery is tightly plotted and compelling, and kept me turning pages far too late into the night. It’s got everything: bizarre magic. Treachery. Misunderstandings. Impressive displays of magic. Brutal murders. Stabbings. This is the bleeding edge of fantasy, one which you’ll feel leave a mark on you as you read it. It’s smart, and it will get under your skin, so that you want to know what happens next, then spend pages with heart in your mouth torn between trying to reach the end and not wanting it to end.

I guess that’s a quick way of saying, Ravencry is worth your money. It’s a sterling sequel to Blackwing, one I’ll be thinking about for a long time to come, and one I whole-heartedly recommend.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Traitor God - Cameron Johnston

The Traitor God is a debut fantasy from Cameron Johnston. It’s a cynical, dark, bloody tale, with flashes of hope, and some terrifying and spectacular magic, in a vivid, well realised world.

Speaking of the world: it’s a wonderfully strange, terrifying place.  Magic courses through the blood of a social elite, one which struggles to empathise with or indeed even think about the majority of the populace. The magicians have lifespans extended by their magic, and their powers extend from incinerating everything in a wide radius to control of water, or even superhuman strength and endurance. Those who can control magic are rulers, whose length of life leads them to slough off emotional attachment over time. As a consequence, they tend to be ruthless, pragmatic, and, broadly speaking, not overly nice people. It doesn’t help that using magic is addictive and comes with side-effects, driving practitioners further away from their humanity every time they exercise it.

These are the oligarchs of a failing empire, ensconced in power and privilege, and either unaffected by or unwilling to embrace a changing world. Still, their personal power is considerable, and if their empire no longer shapes the world, its capital is a thriving metropolis, seething with commerce and vice. The book isn’t shy about exploring the themes of power and accountability, examining the kind of decisions which can be made when absolute power is assured, and the compromises of judgment necessary to reach that level – and whether or not those compromises are justified. Anyway, this is a world of demons and creeping, corrosive magic, which is willing to provide great power in return for a slow and inevitable cost. There’s a lot being unpacked here – a city in decay, an empire indecline, an oligarchy in thrall to their own legend. There’s external factors too – murderous others, and hints of a geopolitical situation which is very far from under control.
This is a tightly written, believable world, one which will make you sit up and take notice. It’s not pretty, by any means, but it’ll seep off the page and into your pores.

Into this rather turbulent space steps Edrin Walker. Walker is a man with demons, both figuratively and rather more physically. Walker isn’t what one would generally think of as a hero. He’s quick witted, sure, but also bitter. This tends to manifest as scathing sarcasm and a penchant for running his mouth when he shouldn’t. The words are razors, and you can feel an edge lurking in everything Edrin says. That said, it’s hard not to feel for a man who speaks the unpalatable truth to power. It helps that despite (or perhaps because of) this tendency to talk big, Walker is also ruthless and pragmatic – willing to leave acquaintances behind if need be, or to threaten, to maim, to kill. That said, this bubbling spring of violence is channelled in service to his goals. Walker also realises his own flaws. Understanding his lack of compassion, knowing that magic has broken something inside of him, he struggles to hold on to his humanity, while being appalled at the actions and careless disdain of greater monsters than he. Walker is complicated. Walker is more than a little broken. Walker is scarred, emotionally  and physically, by his past – and  despite that, if he’s not trying to do the right thing, exactly, he’s at least not actively trying to do the wrong thing.

In this effort Walker is assisted by friends who are at least as strange as he is. From all walks of life, they seem to share a certain no-nonsense attitude to problem solving, and a more positive view of the protagonist than he has of himself. In his friendships we see facets of Walker less evident in the man we have before us – a more compassionate, friendlier individual (albeit one with a penchant for acerbic remarks), perhaps one with less to lose. This is Walker’s book, but the ensemble around him is built of well-rounded, believable characters, acting on their own agenda’s. I would have liked to see more of some of them, to be sure; for example, Walker’s oldest friend and her daughter make great foils for our lead, but seem to be straining at the seams of their scenes, trying to take over the stage. That said, they have a surfeit of competence and agency, and tightly written, believable and complex characterisation – so if I want to see more, it’s only a good thing.

The plot? Well, it’s a story of blood, betrayal and despair. It’s also a mystery, as Walker tries to piece together exactly why so many people are trying to kill him. I mean, some of it is because he has a habit of smarting off to authority, but not all of it. There’s a strong strand of noir running through the narrative, and thematically some strong beats on love, friendship and loss which hit like a punch in the gut. It’s emotionally riveting, complex work, a story that ties its character’s reconstruction to the slow revelation of the mysteries at the heart of the plot. It’s…also got a lot of demons, mad wizards, thoroughly explosive magic, and smart-arse remarks. There’s banter, the occasional stabbing, chases, dramatic betrayals…really, something for everyone. It snappy, tautly written prose kept me turning pages until far too late in the night.

 It’s a cracking debut, and if you want a well done dose of fantasy-noir, this one’s for you.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Adrift - Rob Boffard

Adrift is the latest sci-fi novel from Rob Boffard, also known for his rather good ‘Outer Earth’ series.

The premise is an intriguing on. Following an attack by an unknown force, a small personnel shuttle is cast loose with a group of passengers inside. Damaged and alone, the passengers have no obvious way home, no way to signal for help, and only each other to rely on. That tension, the sense of being in a fragile bubble when the environment is actively hostile, is masterfully evoked. Survival has always been an interesting genre in narrative  - from The Thing to Cast Away, as humanity struggles against their world and themselves. Adrift takes that basic concept and dials it up to eleven. Space is big. Really big. Space is also cold, uncaring, and willing to punish the slightest lapse in judgment with fatal consequences. This is a book which wants the reader to know that space is dangerous, a stark, lonely, beautiful and deadly place.

Alongside the environment, there are more active threats. The shuttle is the main setting of Adrift, a broken-down tourist hauler.  Old, battered, poorly supplied, this is not where anyone would want to spend their last hours. It flies, sure, but there are deft touches in the story to let us know that this isn’t a luxury craft – rations are short, safety equipment neglected, and food supplies worryingly uniform. It’s described with the sort of nuanced and evocative prose that left me with a firm picture of a ship which has seen better days, plugging along despite institutionalised neglect. As the majority of the story happens here, the grit, the grime and the stark realism of the environment really help sell the text – and as this unstable raft is floating in a vacuum sea, its deficiencies bring tension to bear even further. Each misplaced can of soda or leaking hydraulic line is one inch closer to disaster, and one more opportunity for every-day heroism.

There’s more to the world – the edges of a post-war, higher-level political settlement are there to be examined; this is a universe which has known conflict, victories and defeats – but the heart of the story is this one ship, floating alone in the void, and the people inside it.

Speaking of the characters, they’re a motley ensemble. There’s a pensioned-off mining engineer, and a tour guide working her first job. Holidaymakers, broken-down journalists, and a pragmatic but distant pilot. There’s a mixture there of old and young, a melange of humanity. They don’t seem like a group that is going to save the world. Honestly, they don’t really feel like a group which can be trusted to go to the cinema together without coming to blows. But they do feel like people, staggering under the weight of extraordinary events, thrown  into a high pressure situation not of their making, then left to sink or swim. The inter-personal dynamics are delightful. The rage, the pettiness, the moments of startling compassion and of self-justification. The whole gamut of human experience is being sweated out in the closed environment of a tourist-shuttle.

It's this pressure cooker environment which kept me turning the pages. Knowing that this group of strangers would have to pull together to survive, seeing their internecine squabbles and bickering was painful, but wonderfully human. Similarly, the moments when one was able to rise above themselves, to act for the whole, to do the right thing, even if they weren’t sure what that was – well, that felt human too. The characters are each unique, with flaws and secrets from themselves and each other, and if some react well or badly, if they leap into action, or consensus, or despair, then it felt right, for them. And in the background of this maelstrom of emotion, the air supply is ticking down, and the outside is patiently waiting.

This is a story about people, about how they interact – how they bounce off each other, how other people’s actions shape us, and how our actions shape the world. It’s about surviving in high pressure situations, how that changes you, and how you remain the same. It’s a story about people, and those people are living, breathing, lovingly crafted and awfully flawed – which makes them a pleasure to read about.

Overall, this is a taut survival thriller and a top-notch character piece. If you enjoyed Boffard’s other work, this one’s worth a look. If you’re new to him, then Adrift would be a great place to start.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Redemption’s Blade: After the War - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Redemption’s Blade: After the War is a fantasy novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s also a novel about consequences. About the stark human costs of conflict, and of choices made by those on all sides of that conflict. It’s a story where the great battle of an age has bee fought and won, the bodies of heroes left discarded in the fields. The great enemy is defeated, but smaller ones remain. It’s a story about how we’re shaped by war, or perhaps let it shape us. Even a victory has costs, and restitution.

Don’t get me wrong. In between the larger themes, there’s a lot of other cool stuff in here. A sword which can cut through anything. Moral dilemma’s. Demi-gods striding the earth. Duels that carry the clash of steel, and a narrative which makes that steel sing. But this is a book about people, about attitude and, yes, about consequences.

Our view into this world is that of Celestaine. Celestaine is a Hero, at least as far as the world is concerned. She killed a dragon. She helped kill the archenemy who would throw the world under his twisted, raging boot. Some time later, Celestaine is asking questions. Not about whether removing the enemy was the right thing to do, but the follow-up. The land is shattered by war; many of the old social cohesions have broken down. The armies of the Dark Lord are broken and contained, but still around, and nobody seems quite sure what to do about them. There’s a tide of populism and intolerance, as religions of the vanished gods try and keep control, struggling to justify their existence in the absence of the objects of their faith. If the war was an epic struggle filled with great martial deeds, this is a land in need of something quieter, a heroism which heals. 

Celestaine is making an effort to be that hero. Ridden by survivor’s guilt, she’s looking for a purpose, a way to help fix a land which she takes some blame for having broken. For all of the lost friends and lost potential, and the dream of a land which once was – for all of those things and more, Celestaine takes the blame. That said, if she’s emotionally damaged, wrung out and exhausted by the reconstruction reality after the glory has passed, she’s still kicking serious arse. With a sword that cuts through anything and a low tolerance for other people’s crap, she’s a force to be reckoned with. Celestaine is a real pleasure to read, because with all of her baggage, she doesn’t consider herself a hero – but striving alongside that baggage, doing the right thing in spite of it, putting in an effort to make things right, to earn her own survival – it gives her the potential to do heroic things, for the right reasons. Suffering from combat fatigue and stress, alongside her emotional trauma, sometimes Celestaine is a tough read – but she feels like a person. One that has seen and done some pretty terrible things, now trying to keep on doing the right thing.

There are others of course – from cowardly godlings to comically scheming collectors of arcane artifacts. From ex-servants of a great enemy, now making their own way in the world, to old companions(and old enemies) gone astray. I hold a special place in my heart for theex-soldiersof the enemy. Discriminated against and eyed with something between hostility and suspicion by the populace, they’re setting out to make their dreams real, and perhaps to integrate further into the larger world. Its in their nature to fight, and they’re determined to build instead. That they’re charming, funny, and can pick up a person and club them with nearby scenery are all added benefits. I guess what I’m saying is, the characterisation is top notch. Each character brings their own unique perspective to the whole, and they also carry emotional weight – of survival, of slavery, of performing atrocities, or being victims of one. Some of the villains, as it were, are sympathetic, their actions driven by what they think of as necessity, heroes in their own story. Others are just out and out nasty, which makes their appearance on the page a shudderingly terrible delight.

The plot? Well, it’s a quest, of sorts. In one way, it’s a simple thing, finding a magical artefact, a Macguffin to right wrongs. But in another, it’s a personal journey – for Celestaine, as well as her friends and enemies. Moving from place to place they see the consequences and costs of conflict, and learn about themselves along with the world. This is an incredibly thoughtful work, beneath the swords, questing and heroism. It looks beneath those things, at the price, at the human cost, at the sleepless nights, at the efforts to re-raise a razed village, or to maintain faith in a world now inimical to it. That said, there’s also a lot of absolutely pitch perfect dialogue, some properly explosive magic, and even the odd sword fight. There’s blades, magic and quips in plenty, and those will keep you turning pages – but the deeper themes, of struggle, loss, survival, rebuilding and, yes, redemption, will mean you can’t put the book down until the very end. It’s hard, it’s emotional. It’s funny and grand and rather human – and all of that makes it a brilliant book, which I recommend without hesitation.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Quantum Magician - Derek K√ľnsken

The Quantum Magician is the debut sci-fi novel from Derek K√ľnsken. 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.