Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Brass God - K.M. McKinley

The Brass God is the third in K.M. McKinley’s ‘The Gates of the World’ fantasy series.  It’s a lavish production, one which spills over a vast geography which manages to contain both a sprawling cast and some complex, intriguing ideas.

We’ve seen aspects of McKinley’s world before, but are breaking new ground here. Specifically, we enter the land of the Modalmen. These individuals appear monstrosities – huge, four armed and also heavily armed, they’re terrors to strike fear in the hearts of any man, spectres that appear out of the dark of night, burn, pillage, and disappear. But they do, it seems, live somewhere – on the edges of civilisation. McKinley shows us these desolate barrens, stark winds hurrying through a land whose sterility hints at past atrocities. It evokes a sense of being a small part of a greater whole, a loneliness that lies beneath the camaraderie and tribalism of the Modalmen. Though they can be monstrous, they are not monsters – and looking at their world, at the trappings of technology and magic which bind them to their lives, that feeling of loneliness seeps off the page and gets under the skin.  The soaring, broken towers of the Modalmen, the pride and anguish of artifice gone awry, is by no means the only piece of the world on display, but it’s certainly the most startling, the bleakest, and the one which carries such a grandiose sense of wonder and ruin wrapped around it like a once-fine tattered shawl. As with the previous books though, there’s a lot more to see. There’s delightful sections centred on arctic exploration and survival, skating away from a larger threat. It’s a start contrast to the stony plains of the Modalmen, a sweeping vista of ice, where the real antagonist is cold and desolation. But there’s also thriving cityscapes, horrifying institutions, and much more.

It’s difficult to overstate the scope and scale of this work. It’s densely packed with different points of view, each bringing a unique perspective to their situations. But those characters are embedded in a sprawling, vividly imagined world. It is a world, as well. Towering citadels and urban slums exist alongside the wilderness, but you can feel the pull of geography between them. There’s a sense that the story is taking place across vast distances – and not always physically.

The same is true of the cast of characters. This is the third book in the series, so they’re all fairly familiar by now, but gosh, there are a lot of them. It’s to the author’s credit that, focusing on a large group of siblings from one family, each seems to have their own voice and agency, and be distinctive from the others. It helps, of course, that they’re embedded in their own plotlines of course – an arctic explorer carrying a different mindset to a social reformer. You can see the passions and fears which drive these people, and they do feel like people. Individual, distinct and in some cases not overly pleasant people, but still. That the focus is there doesn’t mean there aren’t others worthy of mention; I particularly enjoyed the forceful aristocratic lady who was also an unapologetic scientist and rake. If I have any complaint it’s that the mosaic of these characters and their stories on the quilt of the world are a lot to take in at once. Still, once you’re caught up on who’s doing what and why, the story absolutely powers along, with the sheer amount of characters and locales building an elaborate and fantastically plausible world.

The story – well, it’s the third part of a series, so no spoilers. But it begins with a slow burn, drawing the reader back into the mysteries and histories which sit at the core of the narrative. There’s a lot of the unrevealed and arcane about it, and that mystery and the slowly dawning sense of revelation kept me turning pages. That wasn’t all of course – there are gods, some seriously impressive and pyrotechnic magic, as well as some startling character revelations and kinetically explosive fight scenes. It is, in short, a book which will make you want to keep reading, to know what happens next, to delve into the detail and tease out the mysteries hidden behind the text. This is an impressively layered, thoughtful work, and one which is likely to reward more than one reading – but it does also reward that first reading, laying out high stakes for our protagonists, and giving them the sort of emotional depth which makes you care whether they win or lose.

I’d say if you’re coming to this fresh, go back and start at the beginning of the series; there’s some assumed knowledge here, and it would be easy to miss things if you’ve not read the rest of the series. That said, once you’re caught up, this is a worthy successor to previous volumes, and a genuinely epic work of fantasy.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Spinning Silver - Naomi Novik

Spinning Silver is a new standalone work of fantasy from Naomi Novik. It has something of the fairytale about it, in the rhythmic language, and in some of the narrative structural underpinnings – but, much like 2015’s ‘Uprooted’, there’s a lot more going on. In a sense, this is a fairy-tale for grown ups, but it’s not just that. It’s a story about power and the exercise thereof, and about agency – denying it, fighting for it, holding onto it. It’s a story about women and how they define themselves alongside or against social expectations. It’s a story about faith, and how that faith can hinder or help you. It is, in short, a book filled with interesting ideas, which it explores at the same time as being an absolutely cracking story of magic, strange creatures, and normal families doing their best to get by in extraordinary circumstances.

The heart of the book is a triad of different women. Miryem, the daughter of a less than successful moneylender, is a force to be reckoned with. She has a firm eye on what needs to be done to make success out of adversity. Miryem is not received well in a village which is used to borrowing money and then not having to pay it back – her stubborn refusal to take no for an answer is backed by a cool ferocity and determination which lets her come straight off the page, sharp edges, strong will and all.

In Miryem’s efforts to make a profit and lift her family out of penury, she’s ably assisted by Wanda, who acts as her collections agent. Wanda has her own problems, though – a family on the edge of starvation, an abusive alcoholic father, and an unusual mother. Wanda’s efforts to make ends meet, and to make a life for herself not defined by the expectations of those around her are incredibly impressive and also terribly poignant. That Wanda and Miryem work side by side is one thing – but alternate points of view show us how each thinks of the other and how they see each other, a reminder that perspective is everything.

The third leg of that perspective is Irinushka. A duke’s daughter, she carries the material comforts that the other two decidedly do not. But while Miryem’s family is supportive and perhaps too kind, Irinushka’s father is cool, distant, calculating. To him she is nothing more than a bargaining chip – a perspective he shares with Wanda’s father, though the levels at which they operate are rather different. Like the other two women, Irinushka is desperate for something of her own, to escpae the straitjacket of conformity placed on her by family, politics and social convention. If her father doesn’t beat her, as Wanda’s does, still she has little in the way of support network –her only confidant being her aged childhood carer.

If there’s a thread tying these three together, its that they’re absolutely fierce. Miryem is an implacable iceberg, who is always prepared to break against a problem until she can resolve it. Wanda is quieter, perhaps more subtle, evading issues she can’t resolve, and trying to struggle out of a family history which prevents her from thinking of fighting back. Irinushka has the most material freedom, but is further locked into a cage of expectations. Each of them has their own voice, their own needs, their own differences. They share a desire to do things, to break the paradigms that lock them in place, to empower their own decision making – and a willingness to face the consequences. Seeing these three, from very different backgrounds, face their fears and the rage of others, to demand that they be allowed to be themselves, is at once heartbreaking and incredibly powerful; this is a story which carries an emotional kick like a mule, and it uses that kick often. And it hurts, but in a good way.

But anyway. These are women in a fairly tale, though not one where happy endings are guaranteed. There’s magic about, and creatures abroad which might not even loosely be described as friendly. Novik gives us a world almost recognisable in childhood memory, one where the stark white of the world is everywhere, and where the Tsar holds sway over his country, but doesn’t ask questions about what happens at its borders, seen or unseen. I’ve already mentioned the prose, but was delighted on a re-read to notice that the cadence is right for having the book read aloud; it may not be entirely child safe, but that linguistic effort gives the story some of its fairytale charm; there’s other familiar faces in here, too – elfin strangers, handsome princes, bad (and good) bargains –b ut here there’s a story under the story, a complexity which suggests that this, the book you’re reading, is the narrative that happens after the one you tell the children, or happens beside it, out of their sight.

This is a multi-layered text, one which is going to reward several readings. It has characters which have been built in such a complex, nuanced way that you may half expect them to come off the page and start talking to you. The world it inhabits will have you looking for the crisp crunch of snow underfoot, even in high summer – I found myself reading parts of the story during a recent heatwave in an effort to cool down! And the characters – I mean I’ve touched on the core trio, but they’re surrounded by an ensemble all with the same sense of inner life – from  Irinushka’s old nurse, remembering terrors long gone by, to Wanda’s supportive brothers, to her appalling, broken father, to the terrors out of the night who are both more and less terrible than they seem – they all feel alive, present, real.

Should you be reading this? Yes. It’s a true tour-de-force of fantasy, one which kept me turning pages to find out what happened next, but also challenged my expectations of the story and the characters within it. This is a book which will sit in your head for days afterwards, even as its one which you can’t put down late into the night.

So, once again, should you be reading this? Yes. It’s fantastic, in all sense of the word. Give it a try.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Death Of A Clone - Alex Thomson

Death Of A Clone is the debut from Alex Thomson; it’s a rarity – a nuanced science-fiction story, with a weather eye fixed on the traditions of the ‘cozy’ mystery genre. It blends the patterns of Poirot and Marple with thoughtful questions about humanity and its future.

The location for all of this is Hell. Well, not literally, but close enough. Hell is the name of an asteroid plummeting through the edges of the outer solar system. It’s cold, dark, and lacks an atmosphere. It is not, to put it mildly, a fun place. It does, however, have one thing going for it – it’s rich in metals. A mining crew is settled on the asteroid, their lives defined by a rota, which tells them who should be where and when in order to meet their quota. They’re isolated in the tumbling black…and they’re all clones.

Well, almost all, anyway.

The clones exist in ‘families’, each with a defined role. Some do the heavy lifting. Others the sorting and classification of ore. Others do more agile work. Each family carries traits – be they stolidity and a certain refusal to rock the boat, or a wry cynicism – Within the families, they’re aware of each other, but telling each identical member from the others is something of a task. The clone families are also not the only people on Hell. They’re supervised by three men, who are not clones themselves. These Overseer’s are responsible for production, for maintaining the velocity of their work crews. This is a closed system, and its also an emotional hothouse. The authority of an Overseer is backed by weaponry, and by the promise that after enough time has passed, everyone on the rock will get to go back to Earth – a home that none of the clones have ever seen.

There’s issues here around identity and power, of course. The Overseers carry nominal authority, but are significantly outmanned by the clones which they oversee. The clones, in turn, fight to meet their mining quota in the pursuit of a dream – as the alternative is an eternity on a desolate rock. In this instance, Hell is both a desolate rock and other people. Because the interpersonal dynamics of the clone families are always shifting; certain families are engineered to be attacted to the others, and there’s a question here of volition, of the amount that genetics make up reasoning, and on how far outside the bounds people are willing to push themselves.

On which note: whilst Hell is a wonderfully realised backdrop, a stark wasteland which carries horror in its very prosaic drudgery, it’s the characters which steal the show. Well, one, anyway. Leila is our protagonist, one of a pair remaining from a clone family cut short by accident. What she knows is life on Hell, but what she dreams of is Earth – an Earth spoken of in stories from an Overseer’s books – of village greens, red post-boxes, and murders which get solved in time for tea. Leila is sympathetic; she’s prone to self-examination, and in looking at herself and others, we see the collective power structure which persists – the clones working under their overseers, the overseers constrained by the number of clones and the necessity of meeting a quota. But we also see the relationships binding Hell together, and Leila’s eyes let us see the simmering feuds and resentments which are quietly frothing under longstanding social norms. How one group doesn’t trust another not to cause trouble. How one group keeps to themselves, with accusations of a hidden agenda. How the Overseers are flawed individuals – not authority figures as much as men given authority and let loose.  Hell is a pressure cooker, and the story draws out these pressures, throws them under a light, and lets us explore them – but with the awareness that more are hidden away, still, that there are currents which have yet to be fully explored. 

Given that the clones are meant to be identical, it’ delightful that each we see in detail has such a unique voice; Leila in particular is incisive, introspective, and prepared to make hard decisions in pursuit of truth. Her contrast to the bullish members of one ‘family’ and the manipulations of another is stark, but clean – these are people, the text declaims. Even if they’re stamped out of a die, their individuality, their struggle, is unique and to be appreciated. This is true from the simplest – those who try and break up their similarities with props or facial hair – to the more complex, those who keep their individuality locked within their emotional core.

In any event, each of the clones and their three overseers lives, truly; and in plumbing the depths of mystery, we get to know a great deal more about many of them. I was delighted by the delicate, complex power dynamics of the story, something which works because each of the characters we’re shown has something different about them, an individuality at conflict with the bald faced dehumanisation of cloning. In any event, these are well-drawn, complex, humanised characters – and ones for whom I felt, by the end, a full measure of empathy and sympathy.

The plot – well, more than usual, that would be telling. It is, not to give anything away, a murder mystery. That said, it both appropriates and subverts the tropes one might expect from that, gleefully playing into the comparisons with Christie whilst keeping a stream of fresh ideas running through. 

The clues are there. The body is there. Thecriminal? Also there. Hell is a very, very large locked room, which challenges us to think in terms of means, motive and opportunity. It has enough red herrings to keep you guessing, and enough complexity and truth within it to make revelations a delight. But it’s not just a whodunit – though it is a good one. This is also a sci-fi story, and if it explores a murder, it does so through a lens of power, of agency, and of a future where individuality may be suppressed, but not denied. There’s enough mystery here to keep you turning pages, and enough pathos and other emotional weight to make you feel each revelation like a kick in the gut.

This is a story which has power, I say. One which will explore the best and worst of what we have within us, and wrings out its reader emotionally whilst showing that to them. It’s clever, both in the stories it hides, and the story it tells – a multi-faceted jewel in the literary ore. If you’re looking for something new, something which will challenge you to think, and also challenge the way in which you think, this one’s for you. I’s a page turner, one which will keep you up into the night – but also a story which wants to ask the big questions, then waits to see what your answers are. Give it a try.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Master Assassins - Robert V.S. Redick

Master Assassins is the start of a fantasy series by Robert V.S. Redick. There’s a lot of heart in it – bloody, raw, messy story, one which rewards in depth investigation, but also provides the visceral impact of fire, blood and high-stakes terror.

The centre of the story are a pair of half-siblings, Kandri and Mektu. Kandri acts as the narrator, and our eye into the world. He is thoughtful, conflicted, and a romantic. As a man struggling with the results of his first great love, and with an ongoing rivalry with Mektu, the fault lines in his character are clear. Those lined are blurred by Kandris’ clear affection for his sibling, the shared experience, the shared pain which brings them together. Kandri is analytical, often afraid, but still someone to act opportunistically when required. Mektu, his half-brother, is something else. There is an individual who can talk. An extrovert without limits. Willing to chat the hind legs off of a donkey, or the sword out of someone’s hand before he cracks them over the head. But that gab is balanced by an impulsiveness, a desire to say the funny thing, rather than the smart thing. Mektu carries a one which rocks the boat, which accepts the restrains of authority only reluctantly. Mektu is the imp of the perverse, a man designed to outrage, who doesn’t always think far enough ahead to see the consequences of his choices. It's a complex pairing, a head-and-heart duo, whose relationship is often more than a little fraught. They’re tied together by a complex bond of blood and loyalty, and of past shared experiences which are slowly unfurled over the course of the text.

In this they’re assisted by an ensemble cast – ranging from their distant, mysterious father, through the quietly menacing and clearly barking mad Prophet who has led their people out of slavery, through a young soldier struggling with her experiences of violence, to the fanatical warriors of the Prohet’s religion, and the cold-hearted pragmatists fighting against them. As in reality, no-one here is just one thing, just vile, just a saint. No, they’re a swirling mass of contradictions, large and small, each a nuanced portrayal of an individual.

That’s helped by the world, of course. Redick shows us a continent wrapped in dysfunction  and conflict after being quarantined by the rest of the world. It’s inward looking by necessity, a seething cauldron of political relationships, warfare and blood. We gain a sense of history too, of the old wrongs that shaped this world into its current, rather terrible state. And while religious wars play out, there’s a great many wonders on display around them. There’s a shattered salt pan of a desert, made when the sea which used to inhabit it was ‘stolen’. The winds ripping through the dunes, and the towering, twisted spires which once were islands are sights to inspire and awe. Then there’s the city on the edge of the sea, a broken-down metropolis run by an autocrat. This is a world whose sights feel real, where military camps and small farming communities and sweeping deserts are all realised with the same vivid intensity, in a world which manages to feel viscerally alive.

The story – well, that would be telling. But watching the dynamic duo as they scrabble to escape the many, many people who want them dead is a delight. The story begins as a bit of a slow burn, but catches fire by the halfway mark, leaving me rapidly turning pages trying to work out what happened next. There’s some great stuff in here; the exploration of the brother’s relationship is thoughtful, nuanced and sometimes raw and painful, but feels genuine. The splashes of magic and the supernatural scattered throughout add some sparkle, and their rarity increases their impact. There’s a not-small order of battles and some seriously well-crafted and kinetic fight scenes as well.

Overall, this is a work of intelligent, layered fantasy which will likely reward multiple reads; definitely worth a look.

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.