Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Back soon!

 Schedule is going to be off for a few weeks as we're moving house and that is...exhausting and hectic. 

But we'll be back soon!

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Born For Trouble: The Further Adventures of Hap and Leonard - Joe. R. Lansdale



Born for Trouble is a collection of novellae and short stories in the universe of Hap and Leonard, issued from the pen of the prolific and always hugely entertaining Joe. R. Lansdale. Those of you who follow this blog on the regular will know that I’ve been a big fan of Hap and Leonard, and their various misadventures, for years. Getting another slice of East Texas mayhem and found-family affection is always a treat. And so it proves here!


I will say that if you’re a fan of the series, this is likely going to hit the spot for you. A newcomer will find it accessible and entertaining too, but might be advised to dig into the larger series as well. But either way, the crux of the thing: what is it, is it well written, do I want to spend money on it?


Lets start at the end. Yes. If you’re looking for more Hap & Leonard, this is going to meet your needs. Opening it up and reading through the stories, filled with warm banter, cold violence and a sense of place that you can feel in your bones…well. It’s like slipping into a pair of comfortable old shoes, which…may also happen to be a little bloodstained. 


The stories themselves are, well, delightful, in the way they blend the weird and the prosaic. The way they bring to life a Texan swamp jungle in one breath, filled with predatory animals and people, and in the next ask us to consider the mundane, intimate absurdity of tracking down a lost stuffed dog. Though that one does go somewhere rather unexpected, come to think of it. In any case, they’re the sort of stories I’ve come to these books to read. Filled with a low-key camaraderie from the leads, a kind of low-key simmering energy which makes their loyalties and joy in each other obvious, while also not being afraid to let them run their mouths and give each other crap in an endless game of fat-chewing. Filled with vivid descriptions that manage to ensure that particular neck of Texas feels alive to me, feels real  and is unflinching in showing off the horror and the death in it, but the beauty as well. 


And the plots have that blend to them as well. From a dead child in a bookmobile, to the aforementioned stuffed dog, to the stalking of a psychologist - there’s no turning away from the reality of crime, or the sordid nature of much of its motivations. But it’s never unfair - you always know as much as the protagonists do, and if you’re as baffled as they are, well, that’s probably just as well.And the stories themselves…well, they’re Lansdale in fine form. Smartly paced, they’ll keep you turning pages. But they’re also clever, twisty, a little dark, sometimes surprisingly poignant, and usually able to elicit some genuine laughter too. Because they’re looking at people, at Hap and Leonard, and also at all the folks around them, their family, their friends, and the psychology of the people and events they’re looking into. 


I don’t want to touch too much on the boys themselves here. I will say that Hap and Leonard’s genuine affection for each other, a friendship that seems to have long ago swerved into brotherhood, is palpable on the page. And it makes me happy to see that kind of relationship brought to the fore - two men working side by side, sharing hope and loss and dreams, and managing to do it without being appallingly toxic. They’re good lads, those two, and the heart of every story is the way they know each other. Which isn’t to say there isn’t some shit-talking and some very hurtful remarks about vanilla cookies. But still. It is worth noting that the boys themselves remark on their getting older, and Hap, at least, is starting to feel the effects of the pressure of their adventures - and it’s wonderful to see these stories look unflinchingly at depression, at trauma, at the costs of violence - and do so in a way which still feel real and human. 


Which isn’t to say it’s all doom and gloom. Far from it.in the end, these stories are fun. They’ll make you feel, though, and no shame in that, cry and laugh while you try and figure out what the heck is going on, and then nod knowingly when the criminals are revealed or comeuppances are issued. 


So, to circle back toi the point I drifted off of up there: what is it? It’s more Hap & Leonard. Is it well written? Yes, yes it is. Should you buy it? Abso-bloody-lutely. 


Wednesday, April 6, 2022

The Girl and the Moon - Mark Lawrence

Okay, so The Girl and the Moon. What is it? Well, it’s the concluding novel in Mark Lawrence’s The Book of the Ice trilogy. And it’s also bloody brilliant. 

That reaction probably isn’t a great surprise to most of you, who know I’ve been a fan of Mark’s work for quite a while now. But I want to emphasise it again, for those of you nodding along and saying “Yeah but you like everything he writes”. Yes. Yes I do. It’s intelligently written, with complex characterisation which builds complicated, human characters out of hardship, friendship, and the occasional bout of violence. It’s written with an eye to a world which makes sense, which is rich in detail, which has a history that we’d love to see mor e of, even as we soak up the grandeur, strangeness and similarities unrolling in front of us. And it has stories that make you want to keep reading. That last one, perhaps most of all. It blends together characters and world and story into a delightful narrative gumbo, one which it’s impossible to stop eating. I mean reading. 


And all of those traits are on display here. Yes.  But this one is a stunner, even by the usual high standard for Lawrence’s work. My initial review was just a line that said “I was up until one-thirty in the morning reading this, and I have no regrets”. That is still very true. And I have every expectation that if you’ve come along on the journey of Yaz and her friends, as they trudged through endless ice, through the subterranean husks of haunted worlds, and through the under currents of their own understanding…well, then you won’t have any regrets reading this, either. 


I will make one caveat: this is the final book in a trilogy. There is a summary of the previous two books at the front, so if you haven’t read the first two in a while, that’ll brush up your memory. And if you haven’t read either of them, you could probably use that summary to come in and not be entirely lost. But really, if you’re new to the series, go back to the start, you won’t regret it. 


Which is a whole lot of words just to say, this is a book that anyone invested in Yaz’s story, and the world of Abeth, should read. But you should. Go get a copy!


I don’t want to mine too deep, for fear of spoilers, but let’s talk a little bit about Abeth. It’s a world we’ve seen before (in the Red Sister series), but mostly the nicer, sunny bits, filled with politics, magic and murder. And then we’ve had The Book of the Ice, which has been filled with a lot of, well, if we’re honest, ice. And also some magic, and, yes, sometimes a murder. But we’ve seen characters moved out of their element, seen them adapt, work together, understand each other, and push forward together. Here, they’re doing something a little different - stepping into a climate that isn’t trying to kill them, and into a society which operates by different rules, and may well, in fact, try to kill them. The sense of personal connection and social disconnection is done beautifully, as our intrepid band rapidly find themselves out of their depth. They have each other to rely on, but they don’t know the rules, and they don’t know how to survive in a world which isn’t bounded by the necessity of subsistence survival. From a characterisation point of view, this is beautifully done - watching new bonds form, watching each of Yaz’s friends, and Yaz herself, struggle with the idea of abundance, in even a transient sense. Watching them try to understand what it is that drives people with so much to do some pretty awful things. And it also says to the reader, I think, that these strangers in a strange land, they’re not stupid, or bad, or wrong in their strangeness, they just operate in a different context. Something we could all stand to think about in our own lives, perhaps. 


It’s great to see Yaz taking the lead here, a woman who has really been growing into herself. Deciding who she is and what she actually wants has always been a struggle, and we’ve seen that before in the fragments of “devils” that she’s encountered, broken pieces of their former selves. But Yaz is taking hold of parts of herself and examining them, holding onto them, making her sense of self something she shapes, something not defined by the expectations of those around her. That’s a powerful message, and one that will resonate strongly with a lot of readers. And, to be fair to Yaz, she does this while also kicking some serious butt, getting an understanding of her own emotional vulnerabilities, planning to save the world, and making new friends. Basically, Yaz is awesome. And she’s backed by an amazing supporting cast, from nefarious unspeakable ancient evils, right through to the mechanised spirit of a teenage ancestor, and out the other side to familiar faces from the ice plains. And she’s going to meet more than a few new friends and enemies in this story, too (and there’s some connections into Lawrence’s other work, if you’re paying attention).


Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough. 


Yaz is great, a protagonist with a fascinating perspective, and with energy and resilience that makes her a pleasure to follow along with. Her fellow cast add excellent flavour to the stew - as does Abeth itself, a rich world with a diverse, multi-layered history which I’d love to explore further. And the story, as I said way back at the start of this review, was one that kept me up until waaaaay too late. It kept me turning pages, and it’ll do the same for you.


So we’re back to the top, and the big question is, should you read this? Yes, yes you should. As fast as you can! 


Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Eyes of the Void - Adrian Tchaikovsky


Eyes of the Void
 is the sequel to the excellent Shards of Earth, which we reviewed, well, far too long ago now. I think the sequel must have been held up by the pandemic. But in any case, it's going to be on shelves soon, so it's time to give it a look and see whether it's worth reading. .

Yes.

Just wanted to get that out of the way right off the bat. This is top quality space opera. It has characters you can sympathise with, and empathise with. It has some aliens that feel like people, but also feel different, with perspective soutside our experience. It has some humans that feel like aliens, too. Some because they've modified themselves in personal ways that change the way they present, some because of the way their society shaped them, and some just because their perspective has shifted out past the lens of common experience. This is one of Tchaikovsky's strenghts: giving us a vast array of different possibilities embodied in people. This is a universe steeped in the waters of conflict, one aware of the costs, but it's also a universe teetering on the ege of transhumanism, of defining, redefining and ignoring what different people think it means to be human. The breadth of imagination on display is stunning. From the technologically super-powered clams, whose dialogue is delphic enough it requires interpretation by human acolytes, through the society of tank-grown women, determined to save both the universe and themselves, to the shattered remnants of a grimy human polity, struggling to rebuild itself after an apocalyptic conflict, and beyond that into the truly unknown. Every few pages you're left thinking "Oh, that's pretty cool." In its depth and detail, grandeur and grime, there's a living, breathinng universe resting in the pages in front of you, and it always feels vibrant and real


The characters...well, in a way there's no surprises. You'll know the central cast of reprobates from the previous book. I still have every sympathy for Idris, a man brought out of time, both metaphorically and physically. A man crushed by the things that were done by and to him during a past war, now desperately trying to rebuild in peace - or at least, prevent atrocities from happenning again. And his crew of smart mouthed, feisty folk are as diverse, exciting and entertaining as ever. Watching a ships lawyer duel with swords as well as words (and sometimes both at once) will never not be fun. As is seeing a giant scorpion battlebot go on a rampage. But I digress. Idris is people. Sad, sometime slonely, feeling a little broken and displaced, but definitely people - and so are all the other folks around him, whether or not they're, well, human. Tchaikovsky shapes his characters with care, giving us people we can feel for, people we can forgive, people we can understand. Whose pain he draws so artfully you can feel it searing your own soul, and whose joy can leave you turning pages on a grey day with a smile.

Basically, to be a little less lyrical for a second, both our protagonists and their foils anre fully realised people in their own right, not ciphers on a page. They live and breathe and feel real, and as a consequence, we, the reader, feel alongside them. I know I've missed these folks, and I bet you have too. 

The plot - well, I won't spoil it. If nothing else, this is another brick thick story, so I'd probably struggle to spoil it if I wanted to, because there's just so much going on at any given ti,e. But somehow it all hangs together, the tightly woven strands of interweaving story and character drama coming together to make a narrative tapestry that is a thing of beauty. And also a thing that will leave you turning pages late into the night, wanting to know what's going toi happen next. I will say that there's some amazingly depicted space battles, some wonderfully byzantine politics, and a cavacalade of love and joy and sorrow and wrath and defeats and triumphs enough to go around. You're not going to be bored, that's for sure. 

In the end, you're probably here to know if you should reaad this. If you're in the market for a vital, intriguing, fascinating, explosively entertaining space opera, then yes, yes you should. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Back soon!

We’re moving house this week, so nothing new until we’re back online!

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

The Justice of Kings - Richard Swan


Sir Konrad Vonvalt is an Emperor's Justice. That means he rides the length and breadth of an empire, bringing the promise of truth, and law, to a fractious and diverse populace. It means investigating murder, it means dabbling in dark powers, and sometimes, just sometimes, it means digging into the truth behind treason. Vonvalt is someone willing to serve the law, to dive into those depths, to follow a trail of evidence wherever it might lead, confident in himself, his team, and the primacy of the law. 

Vonvalt isn't the voice we hear from here though; It's his clerk, Helena, looking back on events with an eye on future triumphs and tragedies, judging herself, her employer, and his associates, through the more jaded lens of history. The Justice of Kings is one part fantasy, one part political intrigue, one part murder investigaiton, and laced through with loss, tragedy, and shared humanity. It is, in sum, a wonderfully well crafted work, and one I want to recommend before diving into some of the detail. 

The world that Vonvalt seeks to keep in order is an unstable one. An Empire slowly being bound together over generations, but still at the stage where those most recently conquered are quickly pressed into conquering their neighbours. It's a patchwork of people who, a few years before, were burning each other's cities to the ground, reaching out and finding the next people ot incorporate. An expansionist machine, with a human cost. And it's an engine of religious orthodoxy, cycling in existing religions and superstitions, and capturing them in its own insitutions, for its own ends. It's driving forward a single cutlure at the point of a sword, and calling it peace.

But it's also, well, peace. Inside the borders, trade goes forward, life goes on, and people don't seme to kill each other, well, not in large numbers, usually. Religions are absorbed, not destroyed, cultures synthesised rather than obliterated. Small comfort to the recently conquered, but they can have a bath and sometimes a functional sewage system for their trouble, and be fairly sure that nobody's going to steal their things at swordpoint. At least not without a trial. 

In the end, the Empire is a fascinating, complex place, a world balanced on precarious politics and progressive but troubling policies. It carries shades of early Imperial Rome in its ancestry, and shades of Rome's successors in the possibility of its decline. Still, for now, the Empire stands tall - a scintillatingly imagined tapestry of a million lights. Or, perhaps more fittingly, a rich gumbo, each flavour something new. 

And swimming in that gumbo are Vonvalt and his team. Helena we come to know well. Young, incisive, with a past that's less troubled and more horrific, she provides the lens through which we see the others. But her older self, looking back, is willing to probe at her own mistakes and victories, at the trail of decisions that leads forward into her now. Helena is passionate, thoughtful, perhaps unsure of herself and who dhe wants to be. Guarded, wrapped in her own emotional armour, and not quite sure how to extricate herself from it - but also able to look through clouds of smoke to the heart of a case, or see what must be done. 

Then there's Bressinger, a veteran of the wars (well, aren't they all, in one way or another), Vonvalt's hard right arm and body-man. At first glance, someone living a long life of slow decline, an attack dog occasionally let off the chain - but Bressinger's loyalties, and history, are more complex than one might expect (though I shan't spoil them here). 

And of course, Vonvalt. A man who, like Bressinger, survived occupation and went on to perpetuate it. A man with a keen sword arm and a keener mind. A man with a zealotry for the law, and the intelligence to exercise that law finely. A man given absolute power of life and death, the power to issue judgments in the Emperor's name - and the ability to use other, less savoury, less natural powers to make sure those judgments are correct. Vonvalt is cultured, clever, morose, difficult, and genuinely entertaining to read. All of their choices matter, but his, perhaps, are the most impactful - as he struggles to make the law work in a society which isn't always ready to accept it, or is in fact actively hostile to the idea of anything other than naked power backed by a blade. Vonvalt has drive, and focus and determination, and a certain flexibility within his bounds, but is perhaps ill placed to believe in any serious shifts to the social order. 

In any event, they are all fascinating characters, and my simple summary does them a disservice; as readers, we gain a view on all their richly textured lives a the story progresses. But at least go in knowing that these, your cor eprotagonists, are not ciphers. if they are not always likable, then nor are people. if they are prone to sympathy and empathy, blind rage and revenge, that makes them all the more human, the more like us. They are the angels and demons on their own shoulders. 

The story - well, I won't spoil it. But there's a murder investigation to dig your teeth into, one that is fair to the reader in what it reveals and when. perhaps you'll guess how things happenned before it comes onto the page, but perhaps not - I was always a few delighted steps behind the revelations. There's some cracking twists and turns there, enough to keep you intrigued. Then there's the dense, low fantasy politics, with knights on the march, and questions of canon law versus secular authority, and a sense of things fraying at the edges. Where we see the less-than-normal, it has a n impact; snd ewhere we do not, the politics are still dleightfully byzantine whilst also making clear the high stakes in the game. There's blood and death aplenty if that's your thing, breakneck chases, sweeping battles that end in blood and fire, and queit moments of reflection in the eye of the storm. The story, I think, sometimes wants to show us more than it has time for, but what it does give us is an excellent read.

That's a good note to end on actually: this is an excellent read, thoroughly enjoyable, and I suggest you give it a try.


Wednesday, February 16, 2022

A Practical Guide to Conquering the World - K.J. Parker


I'm going to open with, this is an excellent K.J. parker book. If you're already a fan, then you'll know what you're getting here. Cynicism, witty banter, a lot of wry humour, and politics, scheming, and people whose motives are less than clear. It's maybe a little less dark than some of their other work, but still not afraid to explore the truth of what people are actually like, behind the stories that they write for themselves. 

Actually, that's one of the central themes here. The protagonist is trying to make the best of the situation from the preceding two books in the series - the destruction of the Empire he called home. At least until it was burnt ot the ground. Now he's living on charity and trying to work out where ot go from here. Saving his skin leads to consequneces that escalate his visibility, which leads to more actions, well, in line with the story title. 

Felix, the protagonist, is wonderfully drawn, and fits the mode of other Parker leads. He's introverted, intelligent, has a deep affection for books and knowledge, and mostly wants to be left alone. His narrative is self deprecating, sharp edged and unforgiving, but it also cloaks a lot of his motivations. Why Felix does what he does is a bit of a mystery, not just to the reader, but to himself. There are always reasons privuded, both to him and us, and the joy is that they're always sensible, plausible reasons. But it often turns out that they were also bullshit. Or they were true, but in service to a different goal. Parker is a star turn at creaitng characters with multi-layered motivaitons, and that's not changed here. 

The story is one I don't want to go into great depth on, because its evolution is par tof what make sit so conmpelling. But the progression from lowly translator sleeping on the floor, to someone conquering the world, and afterwards, is artfully paced, and the world is one which is filled with detail and vividly realised. There's a lot of politics and talking, and a lot of careful planning of battles, and seeing how that actually goes - and the epxloration of expectaiton and reality in military matters is compelling enough to keep you turning pages, and it certainly serves to build tension. 

In the end, this is, well, it's K.J. Parker. This is an author interested in history, in the lies we tell the world and outselves. In digging into things which are true and hidden, and working out if there actually is a nugget of truth under all the nonsense. Or if we are driven to do what we do by the winds of circumstance and historicla chance. There's whip-smart characterisation, a story whose pacing is set up perfectly to ratchet tension and keep you turning pages, and some rock solid worldbuilding. It's a story that's an absolute pleasure to read, and one I'd recommend to existing fans; it does also work as a standalone for neophytes, but the extra textural details you get from the preceding books are great fun, so maybe read this last.

Anyway, overall, a highly entertaining read, and one I do not hesitate to recommend.