Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Upright Women Wanted - Sarah Gailey

Upright Women Wanted is a thoughtful, provocative work. Sometimes poignant, often wryly, grimly funny, and always incisive, cutting at the heart of the way we see ourselves, the way society shapes us, and the capacity of people to re-imagine themselves. It really is all those things. And they help make it a great book. What also makes it a great book, is it being a dystopian western, where gender-queer spies and six-shooter-toting revolutionaries trickle around the edges of a nation at war. It’s a story which isn’t afraid to grab your attention by kicking arse, and uses the moments when you’re looking to draw breath as an opportunity to ask the bigger questions.  

What I’m saying is, this one was a lot of fun to read.  

In a sense, the world is a familiar one. You can see the badlands, the cracked gravel trails that a horse-drawn covered wagon crunches down. The sweeping vista of the big sky. We know the big hats, the sheriff’s stars. The lonely, intimate majesty of a campfire shared with travelling companions new and old, airing old wounds and showing older scars. And at the same time, there’s something else. There are sweat-shop factories turning out microcircuitry for drones. There’s diesel fuel going to military convoys rumbling toward a seemingly endless war. There’s fatigue, and a sort of quietly poisonous patriotism. There’s hyper-masculinity, a sense of old horrors brought back out into the night, of women (and every other oppressed group) being dragged back into their  ancient chains, in a society which is unable and unwilling to understand the convulsions that wrack it within and without.  

It’s a world where you can feel the dust in the back of your throat, and see the hugely waving national flags under the scorching sun. Where you can taste fear, and trace the oily scent of power back to men with money, and men with guns.  

Esther is our window into this world. A stowaway. A young woman who wants to get as far away from her town as she can. A young woman who is no longer sure who she is, or what she wants to be. A young woman living in the heart of a trauma, used to the ways of a world which demands much from her, a world which is willing to make sure she conforms to it. But Esther is more than the will of a totalitarian state acting on her. She is her self. And even as the story opens, we can see that Esther has grit, has will, has the fire and energy to become something else. To live a story that isn’t the one expected.  

I have a lot of time for Esther, who doesn’t know much about the world at large, but knows how to cook. Who isn’t sure whether stories she’s heard are true or not, but is willing to learn. Who doesn’t know much about travelling backroads, or sedition, or revolution, but knows a good person, and tries hard to be one. Esther is a heroine whose discomfort, whose discoveries, we feel alongside her. We can see her struggle, see her rise up in the face of adversity, and cheer her on.  

In this she’s aided by a delightful cast of cheerful reprobates. They’re by turns hopeful, furious, conflicted, loving – and all the other complexities of the human experience. Gailey can write characters. They come to life before our eyes, with their own quiet stories, with their own hurts, their own needs, their own fierce passions and quiet tragedies. These are people; as they flow into Esther’s life, as they build something for her, with her, and as the wagon keeps rumbling down the trail, we see them as living, breathing souls, who just happen to be in a book. The prose that gets us there is concise yet rich, with a certain poetry living in the quiet spaces between the words.  

Which isn’t to say it isn’t also a bloody good story.  

I’m always saying this, but, no spoilers here. The broad strokes are there: fleeing into the night. Sudden betrayal. Gunfights. Romance that carries a white hot heat, and also the gentle affection and compassion that makes the heat bearable. More gunfights. Self realisation. Revelation. Hard riding in a good cause. People being rather sarcastic, and very funny. A fight for truth, for justice, for something better. It’ll grab hold of you and not let go until it’s done, this story. It’s bloody wonderful. If you want to try something new, something a bit special, this is the story for you.  

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Shadow Saint - Gareth Hanrahan

So. The Shadow Saint. It’s good. Like, really, really good. It’s the sequel to Gareth Hanrahan’s The Gutter Prayer, which I also thought was, er, really, really good. Before digging into it a little more, I may be able to save you some time by saying that if you read and enjoyed The Gutter Prayer, you’ll be wanting to pick up the sequel. You won’t be disappointed.  
There’s a lot going on this time, as the text examines big issues – religion, politics, identity – through a personal and fantastic lens. It does this with some top-notch characterisation, and by extending the vividly detailed worldbuilding of the previous instalment. 

There are three central characters to the story: EladoraTerevant, and The Spy. Eladora was a member of the supporting cast in the previous book, and it’s great to see her get room to grow here. She’s clever, razor-sharp, a little ambitious, and trying to do the right thing. A the story begins, she’s finding a vocation as a political operative, trying to shape the direction of the city of Guerdon, recently reshaped by magical fiat. There’s a fair amount of politics in this story, centred around an upcoming election. Eladora is the pivot, a woman trying to speak to and for the dispossessed, the disenfranchised, and those otherwise unable to have a voice of their own. Eladora is fierce. Flawed, yes. Mistaken, from time to time. But driven to succeed, and putting the best interests of people and city before her own personal needs. I might not describe her as a woman of action, but a compelling, convincing heroine nonetheless.  

While Eladora is out causing trouble in the city, we also spend some time with Terevant. He’s the scion of a noble family, from a country where the dead have a tendency to hang around after their demise and offer advice and post-generational disappointment in equal measure. More of the latter for Terevant, if I’m honest. The juniour scion of a great family, and survivor of a supernatural war, he’s not really up to much when the story begins. That said, he is both a pitch-perfect portrayal of a younger son, and a great point of view into both Guerdon (as an outsider) and into a contracting empire where the dead-but-walking-around outnumber the living. I won’t dig into his role too much, or fear of spoilers – but Terevant is keenly observed and compellingly written. I’d say his narrative strand is melancholy, investigative and intriguing – as he starts digging around in the dark corners of Guerdon society, neither he or we know what he’ll find. Though it might be explosive once dug up. 

And then there’s The Spy. Too much spoiler potential here. But The Spy puts on faces like the rest of us wear shoes. They switch personalities, they drift in and out of view. They’re never quite who you expect. And each time The Spy is someone knew, their writing changes; they become, to us as well as themselves, the person they portray. I found the multiple perspectives with an underlying agenda to be a frightfully clever piece of writing, and was gripped by the dilemma’s and struggles of The Spy’s various personae, even while trying to work out what it was they were up to.  

All three are strutting their stuff against the backdrop of Guerdon, the city rebuilt at the close of The Gutter Prayer. This is a new world. But it’s as multi-faceted and lovingly described as it was before. Each twisted alleyway. Each marble tower populated by squatters. Each ship of refugees crossing the thrashing waters to enter a neutral port in a world wracked by conflict. They all feel real. This is a world which lives and breathes, and invites you to inhabit it. Of course, there is a war on. And that is as lovingly, horrifyingly, lavishly described as the city which serves as a shelter from it. This is a war of mad gods, an epic struggle that seems likely to end only in annihilation, where worshippers are less than chaff between the toes of the gods, and the gods are less divine than they are broken, screaming monstrosities. The war will stop your heart, and Guerdon, an oasis of sanity in a world obviously insane, will take you into its own.  

The story I won’t get into, for fear of spoilers. That said, it’s good stuff. There are crosses, double crosses, betrayals and unmaskings aplenty. There’s some truly epic magic, if that’s your thing – warring divinities don’t tend to play nice, and definitely get messy. In amongst this chaos there are beautiful moments of personal tenderness, hardship, heartbreak, friendship, and hope. There are people. There are emotional stakes which will wrench at your heart, and Big Damn Explosions which will threaten to displace that same heart into another country via your ribcage. There’s wry humour and a dash of romance. What there is most though, is a sense that all of these things matter, to the world and to the people we see within it. This is a story which will get its hooks into you. This is a story which won’t let go. This is a story you’ll find yourself staying up until 4am to finish. This is a story you’ll want to read.

So why wait? Go on, get reading.  

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Sixteenth Watch - Myke Cole


Sixteenth Watch is a standalone sci-fi novel from Myke Cole, whose blend of fast-paced action, detailed world-building and compelling characterisation we’ve enjoyed before.  

The focus of Sixteenth Watch is the intra-solar Coast Guard. In the relatively near future, mankind has managed to make it to the moon. Mining teams are pulling helium-3 from the lunar landscape, using it to fuel an energy revolution on earth. But they’ve brought the same old conflicts with them as well. The US and China are both mining deposits, both depressingly near to each other. The surface is pocked with military installations, and the dark skies over the Moon are the depths in which naval boats from both sides silently swim. It’s a situation teetering on the edge of a blade. One wrong word, and someone’s going to start a war. Indeed, some are looking for an excuse to start one.

The world building here is absolutely top-notch. You can feel the razor’s edge of political events, both on earth and around the moon. The military training areas have the lived in feel one might expect, the slang is organic, plausible, vibrant. The hab units of lunar settlers, mining for their futures, believably utilitarian. The small lunar boats the Coast Guard uses are models of utility and craftsmanship. The world has an aura of authenticity about it; it feels real, and that makes you care about the consequences for the people who live in it.

The Coast Guard, while being a branch of the US military, is on the moon to save lives, not to start wars. That gives us an interesting perspective on events. As tensions ratchet up, as sabres move from rattling to being firmly grasped, the Coast Guard is there. Women and men doing a tough, demanding job, doing it professionally, and perhaps saving everyone from themselves.

So that’s the world. Complicated. Multi-faceted. Political. Focused on the Coast Guard, providing a sympathetic, nuanced view of the service, embracing service and duty and loyalty, while not glorifying conflict. It’s heady stuff. Interesting, thought provoking work, in a detailed, well-drawn world.

And into that world steps Jane Oliver. With this Coast Guard Captain, a survivor of the last brushfire conflict on the Moon, Cole expertly portrays a responsible, professional woman who is struggling with her own grief. The emotions moving across the page are raw and unconfined. They’re sometimes hard to read. But, much like the world Jane inhabits, they feel real. And in so doing, they give Jane an emotional weight and depth that you can feel while turning the pages. This is a complex woman, a living, breathing person, whose struggles, whose conflicts, whose rage and courage and love all surge up off the page, with serious heft behind them. It helps, of course, that Jane is likeable in her own right. Wry, sometimes cynical, funny, driven, a woman who genuinely cares for the people under her command and wants both for them to do their best and to help them become their best. A woman who believes in the broader mission of her service, who takes it seriously, who cares. Jane is a fantastic protagonist, one we can empathise and sympathise with, one we can cheer with when she kicks arse, and cry with should things go wrong.

Of course, Jane’s ably supported by a wider cast. There’s her own boat crew, who range from quiet, almost withdrawn, to fiercely angry. There’s senior officers, who manage to run the gamut from professionally helpful through personal warmth to cold fury, but also bring us personal notes that make them feel as much people, as much part of the world, as Jane herself.. There’s training commandants and their trainees. There’s people here on the page that you’re going to love, and some you’re going to love to hate, but say this for them, they’ll have your attention.

The story. Ah, well, no spoilers. But it’s probably not a surprise that in a detailed world filled with nuanced, well-crafted characters, the story is an absolute cracker as well. It’s got heroism in spades. It has the high-wire ratchet of tension which makes turning each page an act of anticipation – what will happen next? It has action sequences that are fast and brutal and visceral  and deadly, which will grab hold of you and not let go until, again, you know what happens next. It has a story with the sort of intimate, personal stakes that seize the soul, and a story with the high-stakes, world shattering consequences that make it impossible to put the book down.

Basically, Sixteenth Watch is a brilliant book.  It’s one you’ll pick up and read late into the night rather than put down. It’s thoughtful, it’s clever, and it kicks arse. Give it a try.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Tiamat's Wrath (The Expanse #8) - James S.A. Corey


Tiamat’s Wrath is the eighth book in the The Expanse series from James S.A. Corey. Honestly, after seven previous books, and an award-winning TV series currently running on Amazon, you probably know what you’re getting, at least in broad strokes. A work of science-fiction which contains detailed, plausible science, alongside deftly drawn characters with complex relationships, in a richly imagined world. This is a series which wants to explore the universe, wants t present the reader with big ideas – and does so through both the grand sweep of events and the intimate details of its characters lives.

This latest instalment continues the trend. TO put it simply, it rocks. If you’re seven books into the series and wondering if it’s worth carrying on – yes. Stop reading this, and go pick up a copy today.
That said, before I carry on: If you’ve not read all of the previous books in the series, or especially if you’ve only watched the TV show, be aware that you could spoil things for yourself by reading the rest of this review. Get caught up first!

So here we are. Humanity has an Empire. An artificially created one sure. One imposed on Earth, on the Belt, on all of the not-yet-self-sustaining colony worlds through brute technological force and ruthless decision making by our new dictator-for-life. But an Empire nonetheless. And the scale of it is absolutely breathtaking. There’s the entire solar system whose wrangles filled earlier books – alive with commerce and tragedy and, yes, politics. There’s the outlying colonies, trying to scrape enough together so they don’t have to rely on imported food. There’s the Slow Zone, that weird gateway between worlds, now populated by human debris, an enormous transit hub, and a very heavily armed warship. And there’s Laconia. Seat of the new imperium, mostly earthlike, populated by a swiftly rising technocracy, empowered by alien technology reverse engineered through experiments that would count as crimes against humanity, except anyone who would say that has probably been imprisoned and used as a test subject.

It’s a wonderful space, a living breathing tapestry of diverse cultures, all butting heads under one  larger roof. And those cultures are on the move, impacted by Laconian control of the apparatus of every state. There’s a wonderful moment when a Belter casts sidelong glances at a Laconian station, where even the graffiti is appropriated and artificial, trying to create a cultural cloak of authenticity over some good old autocratic authoritarianism. Each of the places we see feels different, from gritty mining tunnels to the scientific sanctums and marble halls of the Laconians. That’s the thing. They’re all different, and all real. You can feel the lush alien grass, beneath a widening gyre of a sky, one that seems familiar but also strange – and walk beneath the cool shadows metaphorically cast by the alien orbital construction platforms overhead.

This is the world. The universe It rumbles along whether we want it to or not. And there are stranger things in heaven and earth, to be sure. The series has always been good at reframing its struggles into new contexts – and there are tremors here that suggest more is coming down the pipe.

Alright, you say, but what about the people?

Worry not. They’re still thee, and as complicated, fiery, awkward, monstrous, heroic, beautiful, terrible and wonderful as ever.

I’d like to take a special moment to talk about the antagonist. The dictator of Laconia is an erudite, charming, thoughtful man. He has set out to construct an interstellar empire, not out of greed or ambition (or at least so he tells himself), but out of necessity. Only a unified humanity can survive, he reasoned – and then set out to create one. In other contexts, we might see them as a hero, a figure tying together the expansion of humanity to the stars. And that’s certainly how the Laconians paint him. As a man who was willing to do what needed to be done. A man who loves his only daughter dearly, and who will shepherd humanity into a bright future. But under the surface, there are contradictions, questions. Acts of monstrous ruthlessness. Experiments. Supression of opposition Diplomacy at gunpoint. A need for control which does not react well to challenges to that control.
It would have been easy to give us a cackling villain to face. This is something else. Someone who is the hero of their own story. Someone who others might reasonably follow. No less appalling for that, but more understandable, more human, even as their humanity slips away. There’s always a frisson, a chill in their scenes, and that makes them delightfully terrifying and a compelling read.

Of course, a lot of our old favourites are back to fight the good fight. Because not everyone is thrilled about the Laconians being the authoritarian power in their lives. Naomi is trying to become someone different. Separated from Holden, she’s finding her centre in isolation andanalysis, working through pain in an attempt to survive. That’s not all she is – the fire and the passion are there, and the ability to act – and watching her grow through this story is an absolute joy.

Holden is mostly seen through others eyes this time around. A Laconian prisoner, a dangerous terrorist (again!). He’s a man on house arrest, trying to hold himself together, and do what he can to avert catastrophe. Always the idealist, his attempts not to fall into the warm but bloody bath of Laconian benevolence are fraught, and each moment of that struggle carries a tension wrapped around it, as much as it’s wrapped around the quiet core of Holden himself.

Bobby and Alex…ah, I love those two. In different spaces, they still manage to connect, to have moments of intimacy and understanding. And Bobby is still an absolute arse-kicker, and Alex is still a conflicted, complicated person, trying to make the best of himself. They’re a wonderful pair, and seeing them struggle with themselves as much as the Laconians, well, it has a raw strength and believability to it. They’re a delight to see on the page, and wonderfully well realised.

Amos…well, Amos is Amos. Enough said.

Anyway.

You’ve got your struggle on a grand scale, as the Laconians attempt to stamp out resistance to their rule – and also figure out what murdered the people who left behind all the kit they appropriated for their conquests. And you’ve got the personal impact, in characters we can empathise with, sympathise with, laugh with, cry with.

Either would probably be enough to make a decent book. Together, they make for a great one.

And then there’s the story.

I won’t spoil it. But, wow.

This one pulls out all the stops. Again.

It’s snappy. It’s fast paced. It has the sort of personal stakes that leave you with your heart in our mouth, waiting to see who lives and who dies. It has the twists, the betrayals, the heroic reversals that seize the soul and keep you turning pages until three in the morning. It has the Big Ideas to make you think, and the down and dirty heroism to take hold of you and not let go. It has blood in the streets, soaring rhetoric, and some damn cool space battles.

If you’ve come this far, you’re going to want to read this. You need to read this.

So yeah, like I said at the start, put this down, and go get yourself a copy now. You won’t regret it.


Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The Broken Heavens - Kameron Hurley


The Broken Heavens is the third and final book in Kameron Hurley’s Worldbreaker saga. The previous two books were complicated, deeply weird, incisively fierce work. I’m more than happy to report that the conclusion follows in their footsteps.

Worldbreaker is set in a world surrounded by parallel universes. Quite literally. It’s possible to rip holes between parallel realities, leap through, and find yourself in a world where your double made different choices, or their friends did, or their politicians did. To stride from a space where someone is your lover, to one where they’re your worst enemy. But to cross those boundaries, your duplicate needs to be dead.

That drove the central concern of the previous book, as an invading army overwhelmed the pacifist Dhal nation, engaging in genocide in order to save the population of its own ruined world. Now the Dhal are intruders in their own space, occupied by a people who have become a bit more blasé about mass-murder than is good for them. The story explores that occupation, and the conflict that preceded it, with a forensic care, but also with real humanity. There are members of the surviving Dhal who want to rise up and fight. There are members that just want to run, to go somewhere else, to get away from the scene of their catastrophe. Both make excellent arguments, both feel like people trying to do their best by the people behind them. Of course, “their best” is debatable. Nobody here really has clean hands. Those few who appear to are also those with seemingly the least impact on the world. If they’re not willing to get dirty, they’re also not going to get anything done – and will bear the costs of their inaction in any event. The story explores this dichotomy between moral clarity and the personal cost of action – and it does so in an engaging way, using characters that we care about, even as we watch them stand on different sides.

This is a book that really reaches, that is grounding big ideas in its world and in its characters. The world is centred on constantly shifting parallels, but it’s also defined by its magic, itself driven by a complex, shifting pattern of celestial satellites. It’s a complex, detailed, richly imagined universe. But there are enough unanswered questions to make the reader wonder how it all hangs together, and why. The big ideas, the big questions, are the bones of this narrative. Looking at consent, at morality, at what people are willing to do, what costs they’re willing to bear, and why. Examining ideas of love and of understanding, of betrayal for the sake of power, or for the sake of advancement, or for that very love. Of seeing people stand up for what they believe in, and be beaten down over and over, and still fighting. Or acquiescing and working within a system. Or both. This is a text that peels back the human experience, flensing to the heart of the lived shared experience, showing that everyone is as much the same as they are different, that monsters are heroes of their own story – and that you can flip a coin between those seen as monsters and heroes.

So yes, this is a big ideas book.

It’s also an intimate one. While we’re tracking the characters through woods filled wit carnivorous plants, or through disturbingly organic temple-strutures teeming with magic, they’re having heartfelt, genuine discussions. There’s an openness there, a front-faing truth which makes the dialogue feel genuine and heartfelt. That the dialogue includes more than a few sharp words, and the occasional verbal assassination makes no odds – they feel equally real. There’s a sense here of real people, who love and live and hurt and die, and invite the reader to experience that alongside them. Some of these people are, incidentally, not very nice people. But they’re people nonetheless, ones you can empathise – if not sympathise – with. In a world populated by doubles, not everyone is who they seem to be, and truth isn’t always what it appears either. But the people, the people are real. And the way they speak to each other lays aside illusions, and has a sort of emotional honesty which gives the words a serious punch – even if (especially if) the words are a horror, or a lie.

So yes.

A broken, strange world, one that carries a weight of history, and is screaming from the changes imposed upon it by its own paradigm.

Characters who feel real, who you’ll care about, who will make you laugh and cry alongside them, who will make you cheer their failure and fear their success. Who are brave, or not, heroes, or not, terrified, or not, magical, or not. Who are, when it comes down to it, people – with all the behavioural spectrum that entails. But they’re real, and you’ll feel for them, and with them.

There’s the story too I mean, I’m in love with the weird world, and the horrendous, compelling, wonderful characters. But there’s the story too. And it kicks arse. I won’t spoil it. But it has all the explosive, strange, unbelievable magic you’ve been looking for. All the unexpected tragedies. All the moments of soaring triumph and sour defeat (possibly in the same paragraph). It’s complex, with tales interweaving as they build to that climatic conclusion we’ve been waiting for. And that conclusion is painful and glorious and fierce and bloody and wonderful. This one has serious emotional energy, and the kind of compelling prose that leaves you turning just one more page before bed – and then suddenly it’s five in the morning and you’re not entirely sure how that happened, but know you loved getting there. This is a story that makes no apologies, that sears the reader as much as it delights, that wants you to think, and will pull you heart and soul into its story.

This is a damn fine conclusion to a damn fine trilogy, and if you’re here trying to decide if it’s worth finishing the series – yes! If  you’re trying to decide if  the series is worth reading – also yes!