Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Seven Blades in Black - Sam Sykes

Seven Blades in Black is the start of a new fantasy series from Sam Sykes, who has form in the area of smart, character focused fantasy. Well, this book takes that form, and turns it up to eleven.

Sal the Cacophany is a bounty hunter, and a killer, and a woman with quite a lot on her mind. Mostly where to get the next drink from, and who, in her personal list of targets, to hunt down next.
Sal is also a fast hand with a gun, which is just as well, because her enemies – of which there are a great, great many – are powerful, magical, fierce, and deadly. Which, given she’s a woman with a gun and a bad attitude, means she has to be at least twice as quick as they are, just to stay alive.

Sal is an absolute wonder, and a horror. She’s obviously intelligent, masking behind a quietly folksy demeanour a determination and focus that could cut through steel like warm butter. But at the same time, there’s a lot that’s human in there. Sal is seeking revenge, and she has a list of people whom she has to kill to put things right. Quite what that revenge is for? Well, it’ll come out over the course of the text. What also comes out is Sal’s humanity. Sure, as we find ourselves observing a weapon of a woman, with a gun that fires shells with some very interesting properties, and a willingness to do almost anything to get the job done – we thing we know that woman. Sal the Cacophany, who bestrides her world as a rumour, a quiet voice, a silence in your skull. A myth, and a killer. But she’s also a woman who is able to feel friendship, to feel love, to feel connection to everything around her. The story gives her room to express that pain in the present, to let us feel for a woman living with some of her choices, and maybe making new, possibly worse ones. But another strand of the narrative takes us into her past, shows us a woman shaping herself, and the choices that brought her where she is now – in a wasteland, tracking down a cabal of lunatic wizards, one by one.
This is Sal’s story, and I won’t spoil it by telling it her. But I will say this.. Sal the Cacophany is a fractured, lethal bundle of smarting-off and fragile razor edges. A person who thinks they have nothing to lose, and is willing to give up on having anything else to feel like they can make that loss end.

It’s not all doom, gloom and revenge though. Did I mention the folksy charm? Sal has a wonderful voice, which is just as well, as the framing device lets her tell her own story. It has a slow drawl to it, and an immediacy and honesty of emotion and motive which leaves her feeling unflinching and real. But in that story, Sal is also her façade – a woman with a brain, not afraid to use it, willing to take any advantage, and unwilling to apologise for being herself. Also she’s fun. The refusal to bow in the face fo fear, sure. The almost anti-nobility of purpose, sure. But In between, there are the human moments – a cracked joke, a hug, a burgeoning friendship – which kept me turning pages, and which keep Sal grounded in her world.

Sal is a lot of fun to watch, running around, casting aspersions on the baddies, and trying to kill them. She does, no doubt, kick arse. And the action, when it comes, is frenetic and kinetic. But because of the human links, because of the way that the author has made Sal come alive, along with her friends, her loves and her losses – because of those human stakes, we care about the woman spitting epithets in the face of a magical storm, we care about the woman trying to drop the hammer on those she wants to see dead. We even care about those enemies, when they get up close and personal. This is a book which will give you all the intrigue and explosions you could wish for, but it’s Sal’s book, a book about people, and about the way they feel.

I mean, also it’s about mages blowing the living crap out of each other. And about politics. And about lost love and lost innocence and lost illusions, and about the crafting of emotional armour and about the lies we tell ourselves to stay sane, to stay alive. Sure, it’s all of those things. But at its heart is Sal the Cacophany, whose humanity makes it all work, and makes us care.
Sal lives in a broken world, a world where mages were once kings of everything they saw before them. A world where their servants rose up to overthrow their masters. And where those servants aligned themselves with powers and morals which might be even worse. While Sal is the individual face of loss and the cost of struggle, and of the necessity, sometimes, that drives us forward – around her, a war is playing out. It’s a hopeless, total war, whose only result seems to be the slow, grinding destruction of everything in grudges and blood. But as a backdrop, it’s a very compelling one. There’s a universe at play here, and we only see fragments of it – the alchemists who live for knowledge and construct devices and desires of their own devising. The blind priests and their hounds looking for wizards. The bargain every mage makes for his power, and the cost they pay. The rumbling mechanisms of the revolution, and the ethical dilemmas that people who don’t make decisions have to decide if they can live with.

It’s a vividly broken world, sure enough. One with the dry dust feel of a western, with Sal the Cacophany, legend, mage-killer, slouching along within it, with a magical six-iron on her hip, and a rather nice hat. It’s a world which you’ll live and breathe, as Sal kicks in doors, fights for herself, fights for others. As she tosses the dice between her revenge and the connections she’s made, the love she feels. As she tries to save the world and herself, one bullet at a time.

So what is it? It’s a fast-paced, arse-kicking magical western, with bullets that spit fire, and demons that will break your soul. It’s the story of wizards and revolutions, ad the way that conflicts spiralling out of control will affect those who just want to stay alive, and those who don’t know the cost of the choices they’ll be asked to make until it’s too late. It’s Sal’s story, a human story of life and love, possible redemption and possible revenge. It’s a compelling page turner which will keep your eyes on the page wanting to know what happens next.

It’s really rather a good book, is what I’m saying. I, for one, look forward to hearing more. In the meantime, I recommend you give Seven Blades in Black a try.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

A Brightness Long Ago - Guy Gavriel Kay

I want to give you a quick reaction, which I put together a few minutes after finishing this book - hopefully that will convince you to give it your attention. If not, there's more below. But this was my first, unfiltered thoughts:

This is numinous, illuminating work. Expectations high, expectations surpassed. Very emotional. Going to be thinking about it for a while.

Not convinced? OK. Let's get into it a little more:

A Brightness Long Ago is a fantasy novel from Guy Gavriel Kay. It’s also a remarkably hard novel to talk about. That’s to its credit; the reason it’s hard to talk about is that there’s so much going on, so many layers, so many personalities, so much story, that getting a handle on it to explain why it’s so great has proven a bit difficult. So, lets start with this: This is a fantastic book, which explores life, death, sacrifice, age, the role of chance in history, and the role of people in the world. And that’s only a narrow sampling. 

This is a book with a lot to say. But it’s not just that, not just a pick-up-and-play philosophy text. It has characters whose lives feel as real as the reader’s own, whose loves and hatreds, dreams and duties, whose enmities and hopes all shape them, and the people around them. These are living, breathing people, with a rich inner life to match the political machinations and world events they find themselves entangled by. The world? The story’s set in the world of one of the parallel, almost-histories that Kay does so well, and I drew parallels with the renaissance Republic of Venice, which we’ve seen once before in another work of Kay’s.

So that’s the elevator pitch. Deep, complex, believable characterisation. Vividly realised, semi-historical setting. A story that draws you in and won’t let go, through all its tides of hope and torment. The narrative is about people, first – about the way their personalities, their ambitions their affections and enmities shape the world around them.

The world is classic Kay, in both senses. It feels like a lightly shifted version of Europe in the 1400’s, with a focus in a peninsula of warring city states with more than a passing similarity to Italy of that period. Regular Kay readers will have seen this world before – and even this small part of it, which was also heavily featured in his last novel, Children of Earth and Sky. New and old readers alike can delight in the lyrical prose, which builds a world up brick by brick, a world which feels instantly familiar, but with flashes of strangeness woven through it – a dream of sea-foam in the mortar. It’s a mark of Kay’s skill that every  tree, every leaf, every stone, every wall feels alive, a luxuriant tapestry for his characters to run through. And while the detail is there, the wider aspect doesn’t suffer. There’s feuding cities, driven toward conflict by politics negotiated on a knife’s edge. There’s mercenary armies on the march, with all the destructive potential that implies. And there’s joys, as well – horses running their hearts out, and unexpected friendships found between cups of wine.
This is a sprawling epic, engaging with difficult questions about ethics and systemic and personal morality, while also getting up close and personal – be that romance, individual crises of conscience, duels or any other of the plethora of human experience. This is such a densely packed story, and throughout, is absolutely captivating.

I normally go on about the plot and the characters a little more – here, I wanted to give impressions of the breadth and scope of the work, of the way it made me feel, of the depth and emotional integrity of it because getting into the detail quickly got a bit spoilery.
Suffice to say, if you’ve picked up a Kay novel before, this is another masterclass in fantasy from him; smart, emotionally raw, incredibly well characterised, wrapped in some truly beautiful prose. If this is your first step into this world – it’s fantastic. That simple. Pick it up and you won’t want to put it back down. It’s an ambitious, compelling story whose ambitions are realised, and which it’s a genuine pleasure to read.

If you need to know whether it’s worth buying? Yes. Stop reading this, and go pick it up instead. You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Kingdom Of Copper - S.A. Chakraborty

The Kingdom Of Copper is S.A. Chakraborty’s follow up to the really rather good The City of Brass, and like its predecessor, promises to be a tale of magic, djinn, high fantasy and low politics. Does it deliver? I’d say so.

The focus here is on the world of the djinn, individuals with magical powers, largely kept out of sight of humanity by magic surrounding the walls of their city of Daevabad. The djinn are themselves split into different tribes, and the history between the groups can be…fraught, to say the least. One of those tribes, the Daeva, ruled Daevabad for generations (perhaps unsurprisingly , given the name!). But relatively recently, they were overthrown in a bloody revolution by the Geziri tribe, who now rule instead. The conflict between these two tribes is tied to the personal relationships of their representatives, and the political machinations for power, for control, and even for personal agency, are at the core of the book.

The Daeva have Nahri, whom most of you probably remember from the first book. Nahri grew up on the streets of Cairo as a quick-fingered urchin, a con-artist with a penchant for medicine. Now she’s the leader of a group that sits out of power, and hasn’t forgotten about it. She can read people, and isn’t afraid to assert herself in the face of a misuse of authority. Nahri’s own qualms over being a face of that authority are perhaps less pronounced now, as she grows into the role previously thrust upon her. Still, there’s a strain of compassion, of a humanitarian nature and a desire to find a better, more co-operative way about her. Where others will seek to take and hold control through sheer ruthless will, Nahri is trying to build something different. The text uses Nahri’s struggles to look at themes of authority and moral certainty, as well as unpick toxic narratives of historical grievance. Every time she stands against those who want to start fights over old battles, or claim authority based on historic atrocities, I couldn’t help but smile. This is an intelligent story with a strong message, and it wants to engage the reader in a dialogue about the big issues – even when it’s using magical monsters to do it.

Alongside Nahri is Ali, prince of Daevabad, scion of the Geziri tribe. Ali has, in the past, been a bit of a stick in the mud. But hurled from the corridors of power after the end of the previous story, he’s out in the world, meeting new people and making new friends (and enemies). This requires a little more flexibility, sure. But Ali’s strength has always been that he’s basically a decent person, just with a moral code that makes him a pain for everyone else to be around. Still, he’s dealing with new issues of his own, and one can’t help but empathise as a man once certain of everything is left wading in  extremely uncertain waters. That he has an emotional entanglement with Nahri is almost inevitable; that they approach it like adults, emotions captured behind walls of silence and political necessity, is a delight. Not for them (obviously) but for the reader, watching their affection wax and wane in the face of the social and political moves they find their duty forces them to make. It’s a credit to the author that this intense masked affection seems to simmer on the page, just looking for an opportunity to boil over. It’s a fraught relationship, but its intensity and complexity feels genuine; it’s a lot of fun to read.

The same can be said of much of the rest of the book, really. The world-building is rock solid.  Daevabad, with its thriving neighbourhoods, social tensions and gossamer strands of amazing magic, is guaranteed to astound, whilst also keeping you grounded. It’s a playground for its people, for Nahri and Ali as they struggle with both each other, and the existing power structure of the city, which isn’t entirely accepting of young people with new ideas – to put it mildly. In particular, Ali’s family, the rulers of Daevabad, somehow manage to be astonishingly broken, often terrible people – but even as they shape the system which oppresses those around them, it’s possible to see that once they were the young people with the fresh ideas, and that the same system they now operate has ground them into new shapes – and is continuing to do so. Sure, Ali’s father is a tyrant, one who views half the city, whose heritage is mixed, as an inconvenience at best, and sure, he has a tendency to brutally execute dissenters. But he’s also terribly pragmatic, and seems to genuinely want to bring about a détente between his ruling family and the Daeva. Siimiilarly, Ali’s brother is often drunk, with a tendency to indulge a vicious temper, and perhaps a smidge of the jealous about him; and yet he loves his family, and will fight for them.

These are complicated people, living in complex times.  They’re driven by wants and needs that feel genuine, their hopes and fears, pain and love brought to life for us on the page. There’s so much more, of course – I’ve avoided going into it here for the sake of spoilers. But there’s a lot going on, and it’s presented in a precision crafted, captivating story which will capture your heart. This is a more than worthy sequel, and if you’ve been waiting like I have to return to Daevabad, let me assure you: it’s been worth the wait.

Monday, April 22, 2019

One Word Kill - Mark Lawrence

One Word Kill is the start of a new science-fiction series from Mark Lawrence, whose other series I’ve always found very enjoyable. That meant this book landed with the weight of expectation behind it. I’m bound to say that those expectations were met. This is a book about a lot of things; pain, death, growing up. The things you choose to keep, and those you leave behind. It’s about being a teenager, and the intensity of feeling that entails, and about chosen families, and those you’re born into. It’s about living in the London of the eighties, about being better, about recognising evil and stepping up to fight it.

It’s a book about a lot of things. Many of them contradictory, all of them fascinating.
The centre-point for this whirlpool is Nick. Nick is a geek before I’s cool. A smart kid, just trying to get through the day without being bullied, and doing so with the help of his friends. Nick is also, somewhat inconveniently for him, dying. The voice of the story is Nick’s, and it’s one which is both fierce and exhausted, unsure of itself and uncertain of its decisions. There’s a fragiliy there which I suspect many readers will recognise from their own youth, fronted by a black irony at the state of the world, and a determination not to appear fragile which will…also, probably be familiar. In any case, this is top-notch character work. As Nick fights against the disease slowly eating him alive, you can feel the tension in his bones, the mordant humour overlaying a rising realisation of how own mortality. The persistence in refusing to break down in front of his friends is so sharp I could almost taste it. Nick is, with all the prideful flaws of adolescence, and all its joys, a thoroughly believable, entirely human character.

In this he’s helped by being surrounded with an absolutely scintillating ensemble cast. Nick’s posse is a wonderful agglomeration of socially awkward spods with serious intellectual focus. They’re smart enough to know people don’t like them, and to have organised coping strategies for it. These are less enlightened times, as well, and there are undercurrents here of facing the sort of prejudice which would be unacceptable these days. In any event, the awkward squad are funny, naïve, charming – and the loyalty which binds them to Nick, and to each other, is strong enough you can almost see it flickering in the air as they talk.

Which they do quite a lot. They get together to play Dungeons and Dragons, and these gatherings are the social core of the story. There’s a lot of wizards, barbarians, and orc slaying going on. But it’s heartwarming in its portrayal of outsiders who just want to be together and have a good time, and behind the rush of nostalgia for those of us who spent our weekends the same way, here’s a genuine emotional depth and warmth that makes you smile as you turn the pages.
On a similar note, the villains are wonderfully repulsive, the sort of bullies and sociopaths who infest every school and every neighbourhood. As Nick and his friends confront their adversaries, it’s almost possible to feel the terror they feel, realising that the enemy has no moral compunctions, and is more than happy to give them a good kicking, and maybe something else. These antagonists are individuals radiating the kind of electrically unhinged danger or acceptance of violence that will eventually leave them in jail; but Nick and his friends need to decide if they’re willing to be the ones broken during the process. I really do want to shout out on this one – these are spot on portrayals of lost teens and people with something a little broken inside them, the one possibly blending into the other. They are Not Nice, and I felt an escalating tension and sense of danger on every page in which they appeared. Even that is nostalgic, in its way – and again, absolutely pitch perfect, a portrayal of unsullied malevolence which makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and the pages go by faster in the hope you’ll see what happens next.

Speaking of nostalgia, the world-building is top notch. London in the eighties was sitting on the cusp of something, a bright-lights city where it was possible to make a lot of money very quickly, and equally, where social equality and social cohesion were taking second place to the acquisition of cold, hard cash. The story takes place throughout London – on packed, sweltering Tube trains, along the banks of urban rivers. In decaying tower blocks, where the delicate scent of urine mixes with despair. It’s cold a lot fo the time, rains a lot of the time, and often feels like a grey morass. The text doesn’t shy away from that vision, embraces it, gives us a London which makes the bones ache and the pocket lighter – but it shows off the heart, as well. There’s the neighbours in the towers, who will look out for each other even while they turn a blind eye to the dealers on the stairwell; there’s the streets that will come out in support of their neighbours, too. There’s the mist rising off the parks and making the city into a liminal space every morning. And there’s the scalpel blade of technology, of skyscrapers and research labs pushing the city into the future.

All of it is here, between the lines or on the page, and it makes the space in which Nick walks feel dynamic and alive. Here, the idea of London in that one moment is captured on the page, and it feels real, from the tops of the towers down to the much clogging the drains. If the characterisation is top-notch, the world-building, in constructing that recognisable place, is superb.
So, it’s got some cracking characters, ones you’ll love and ones you’ll love to hate. But what about the story?

As usual, no spoilers. But I’ll say this It works. In part it’s a coming of age, as Nick tries to deal with his own imminent mortality, and with the struggles he’s having with his friends, and even (horrors), romantically. But it’s also got a personal dimension, as Nick and the gang work to save, if not the world, at least themselves – while figuring out who exactly they are. There’s some wonderful dialogue, which made me chuckle at its teen awkwardness in one breath and wrung my heart at its genuine, raw emotion in the next. It’s a story which opens strongly, and one which won’t let you go. It’s a story about making hard choices, and about growing up. It’s a story about deciding who you are, or want to be. And it’s an absolutely cracking read, for that. I genuinely couldn’t put it down once I started, and if the characters and the world helped build that, the need to see what happened next, the way the story pulled me into the world, the way I was gripped by every page – that surely put the capstone on it.

This is, to be simple about it, a really enjoyable, clever work of science fiction, which invites you to wrestle with some big ideas alongside a compelling and personal story. Pick it up, you won’t regret it.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Poison Song - Jen Williams

The Poison Song is the finale to Jen Williams’  The Winnowing Flame’ trilogy. The previous two books were great fun to read, whilst also having a lot of heart, so the conclusion had rather a lot to live up to. Fortunately, this is a book which delivers the goods:  characters who matter, who feel real, in a backdrop of action, adventure, and saving the world.

The characters sit at the heart of the text here, and if you’re coming back to the series after some time away, they’ll feel like old friends. Tor, who I may have previously described as “a vampire elf with a drinking problem” is struggling to take responsibility in a world looking for heroes. He’s wracked by guilt, both institutional and personal. The institutional is perhaps easier – Tor is an Eboran, and they have a recent history of massacres in order to drink the blood of others, and keep themselves alive. Tor was too young to be part of that history, but as we sit beside him, it can be felt in his bones. Then there was the plague, which ravaged the Eborans who drank human blood – and the slow, tortured demise of an entire grand civilisation. Tor’s regrets evoke a certain amount of pathos; even as he claims to be a rake, a ne’er-do-well who accompanies Vintage in search of good wine and good company, the light behind his eyes is dimmed in remembrance. Tor also does rather a good line in affectionately edged banter with Vintage, and his relationship with Noon is something else. So yes, the Tor here is one on the cusp of change, an inch from either plunging over a cliff, or learning to fly. Either way, his scenes are always an affecting, albeit sometimes painful, read.

Vintage, whose friendship with Tor and Noon is the keystone of the text, is also a delight to read. She absolutely seizes any page that she’s on. Bluff, no-nonsense, and utterly unwilling to let either of the others indulge in their worse natures. But behind the façade we can catch glimpses of a compassionate woman, a romantic whose travails have left her a little vulnerable; admittedly, that vulnerability is masked by some top-marks sarcasm and a penchant for shooting things that annoy her with a crossbow. I have, it must be said, a lot of time for Vintage, who manages to show off some of the fragility inherent in humanity, while also demonstrating the benefits of emotional honesty and a quick trigger finger. Say what you will about Tor, moping around looking for excuses for things to be his fault; Vintage takes things to heart, yes, then deals with them and cracks on. She’s an absolute joy to read, a masterclass in character with heart and soul.

Then there’s Noon. If Vintage is the heart of the group, Noon is the fire in the blood. She has passion and enthusiasm and a courageous stubbornness which lets her leap off the page fully-formed. Noon is captivating – in part because of her nuanced, awkwardly growing and from time to time bloody difficult relationship with Tor. Seeing the two of them struggle to deal with the emotional connections they’ve built around each other is by turns painful, amusing and aggravating – but the feelings are recognisable and genuine. But Noon isn’t just there to keep Tor company. She has her own agenda, her own goals. Getting into it would be a bit spoilery, but suffice to say, Noon is fierce. She absolutely won’t be denied, and her ability to throw literal fire to accentuate her points is one that is likely to come in handy. As a survivor of a brutal regime, Noon is also cautious, coming out of her protective shell and looking around to work out what to do next – and determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

They’re backed by a fantastic ensemble cast, whose relationships and actions feel organic, feel human. These aren’t faces put on a page to be devoured by a baddie, but living, breathing people who sacrifice, who wake up with a bad hair day, who love and feel as much as we do. A shout out to the villains in particular. The slithering Queen of the Jure’lia remains terrifyingly alien, with a brutal precision that invites horror, and a curiosity about humanity which hints at possibilities unspoken. Hest, Tor’s sister, and her war-beast are as conflicted and broken as ever, a pair looking to make something of or for themselves, to doom a world which didn’t want their help in saving itself. They’re complicated people, capable of kindness, of anger, of violence, and of some very poor decision making. A triumph of the text is giving us antagonists who can be loathsome and understandable by turns, whose wounds sit beneath the surface and shape their actions, even as the reader tries to talk them out of it (well, I certainly did, turning pages in the hope of redemption).

Alright, you say, the characters are fabulous, but what about the world? Well, these players are what drives the finale, as the author draws a world on the edge of destruction. From lush jungle to plains scarred by the touch of the Jure’lia, to the towers of the witches of the Winnowry, this is a world filled with small touches that make it feel alive, make it feel worth saving. The broken towers of the Eborans carry a poignant history and are the sign of a price to be paid; the fortified cities of the plains a sign of a military might that hopes to avert catastrophe, the scars on the ground a reminder of the absolute consequences of defeat

And the story? I mean, no spoilers, but it is the last book after all. This one pulls no punches. It’ll pull your heartstrings taut with tension, then emotionally gut you with no hint of an apology. Or it’ll have you turning pages trying to beat a ticking clock, trying to find out what happens next; be prepared to miss out on some sleep, is what I’m saying. It’s a story which has spend two books giving you emotional investment in the characters and their world, and I can only assure you that the investment absolutely pays off. There’s kinetically elaborate fight scenes that left me feeling every slash of a blade, and heartfelt talks that could bring you to tears. Prices are paid, costs borne, and in the end, it’s a story which you’ll both want to tear through to the finish, but also not want to be over.

As endings go, this one’s an absolute cracker. Pick it up, you won’t regret it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

A Parliament of Bodies - Marshall Ryan Maresca

A Parliament of Bodies is the latest in Marshall Ryan Maresca’s ‘Maradaine’ saga (we've got an interview with him here, giving some insight into this latest book), a shared universe populated by, among others, mages, vigilantes, coppers and villains. It’s part of the ‘Maradaine Constabulary’ sequence, which focuses on two police inspectors on the mean streets of the city of Maradaine, where government corruption is rife, back-up is often optional, and crimes have a tendency to get a bit magical. 

The sequence has a tradition of blending magic and mystery together in a compelling cocktail, and I’m delighted to report that this latest book continues that tradition.

Rainey and Welling are back, and their latest case takes us behind the scenes in the Parliament of Maradaine. This provides a great opportunity to see how the city works, officially and…otherwise. The halls of the Parliament have a thick veneer of history, and you can feel the crackle of past events as our protagonists walk through them.This is a series which has always had rich worldbuilding, and that continues here – the history of the Parliament (and thus of the city) emerges in casual conversation, in glances taking in artifacts, in the glimpses of an extraordinary institution going about the everyday business of power. If a building can feel alive, it’s this one, packed with byzantine tunnels, swathed in layers of historical tradition, creaking under the weight of age and symbolism. But it’s also a hub of current politics in a city where politics is a very dirty business. The same honoured halls are home to threats, bribery, peculation and, yes, murder. There’s fast-talking, backhanders and realpolitik in all its many forms, all buttressed by the power, influence and hard cash of the politicians who call the building home. Maradaine has an opulence we haven’t seen before, and a sense of historical idealism and grace – but has also added a hard-nosed edge to its already fraught politics. The clash between the ideals of the institution and its implementation provide narrative friction, but are also a joy to consider in themselves, adding a depth and richness to a complex, living world.

Steppimg into this seething cauldron of political plots and counter-plots are Rainey and Welling. The pair have always had an engaging professional relationship and a deepening friendship, and that continues here. Rainey is at once more pensive, aware of the consequences of their actions as representatives of the police, and less willing to conform to others expectations than previously. She’s experienced, smart, and isn’t going to let anyone talk down to or past her, which creates some delightful clashes with the less modern members of the government. Welling, by contrast, seems to be struggling to come to terms with the potential for magical power which has recently been thrust upon him. Welling’s ruminations on responsibility, and his desire to do the right thing are counterbalanced by a tendency toward near-obsession, and analysis paralysis, and all these are wonderfully evoked here. Welling is a person in crisis, and the text isn’t afraid to explore that, to give us a look at someone who may be on their breaking point, and see how (or if) they make their way back.

The duo are the emotional heart of the text, and watching them explore and investigate is a joy on its own. But I want to take a moment and give a shout out to the ensemble cast as well. From Welling’s extensive family, willing to drop everything to come to one another’s aid, to the complicated relationship he shares with another man, to family with two awkward children and a comatose father, they all feel absolutely real. There’s the squabbles and pettiness of long familiarity, mixed with the silvered  warmth of familial affection. These are people in their own stories, as well as the one we’re reading, but they add extra emotional heft and dimension to a tale which already had it in spades.

There’s also appearances by characters from other Maradaine novels, most notably Dayne and Jerinne from the recent The Way of the Shield. The clash between the duo’s, particularly Daine’s idealistic heroism and Rainey’s forceful and somewhat pragmatic upholding of the law, and awareness of its grubbiness, is wonderful. That they can come together and work as a team to try and solve a crisis and save lives – well, it warms the heart, and also makes for very compelling reading.

The plot? Well, as ever, I’ll try not to give any spoilers. But it begins with an elaborate clockwork deathtrap placed on the floor of the Parliament, with a dozen victims trapped inside. It’s a race against time for Rainey and Welling to negotiate the politics of the city’s most political institution, and track down the clockwork killer, in an effort to save those victims from a horrendous demise. There’s all sorts here – elaborate plots, bizarre death-machines, heroism, marvellous and terrifying magic. It’s a story where you’re turning each page to see what happens next, always aware that each page moves the countdown to crisis a little nearer zero.The tension is artfully crafted and garrotte-taut, and the stakes are high. It’s a book you’re not going to want to put down, and one I read until far too late at night because I didn’t put it down.

If you’re already reading the Maradaine novels, or even for new readers, this one is probably the best yet; clever, emotionally honest, imaginative fantasy, with characters that hold your heart in their hands as they try to save the world as well as themselves.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Interview - A Parliament Of Bodies - Marshall Ryan Maresca

Marshall Ryan Maresca has written a complex, fascinating sequence of fantasy novels in his ‘Maradaine’ universe. We’ve really enjoyed them here from day one, so we’re delighted to talk to one of our favourite authors about world-building, reading, writing, and his latest book, A Parliament of Bodies, which we’ll be reviewing next week!

1.   A Parliament of Bodies reads like fantasy blended with a hard-boiled police procedural, following two detectives as they investigate inventive and brutal slayings. What made that concept leap out at you? What inspires you while writing the Constabulary series?

I’ve always loved “buddy cop” pairings, and when I started to conceive of Maradaine as a larger epic spanning the whole city, I thought to myself, “if this is a city story, then there needs to be a police force as part of that.”  And I drew from one of my favorites of the classics of SFF, Caves of Steel, which uses the mystery/procedural format to build the two main characters and explore the setting.  That became the spark that I fanned into the flame that became Maradaine Constabulary.

2.   A Parliament of Bodies is the latest book in the larger universe of your ‘Maradaine Constabulary’ series, itself a part of a far larger sequence of novels in a common world. What would you say are the unique opportunities, and challenges, of writing within that shared geography?

One of the big opportunities—which I think I used to full effect in Parliament, is while I’m telling a story that is focused primarily on one cast, I have the freedom to grab threads and characters from other series and weave them into the larger tapestry.  Especially since I had laid the groundwork for one of Satrine’s plots in the Thorn series, I was able to put her in a situation with a fully formed cast of characters and run with it.

3.   Rainey and Welling, the Inspectors of Police who are the protagonists of this series, are a tight team but one with distinctly different personalities. I won’t ask which is your favourite, but is there an aspect of their characters and partnership which you find particularly interesting, or would highlight to readers?

The big thing is the bond of trust established between the two of them in the first book, and the respect they have for each other’s abilities.  They have very different methods, but they will always be able to read each other’s intentions and instincts.  So when one of them has a wild inspiration, the other one will always go, “All right, let’s think that through and see if it works.”

4.   Both Rainey and Welling are more mature characters than used to be the standard for fantasy;  both have families, and are working in senior roles for their careers. What made you decide to take this path, rather than having younger characters at centre-stage?

As part of crafting the larger Maradaine narrative, I knew that Veranix and his main cast was going to be young, and that his story was going to be driven by a certain youthful impetuousness.  So I felt that needed to be balanced with older characters in a more mature story, focused on adult responsibilities.  And that felt like a perfect pairing with the “buddy cops” of police procedural.

5.   Speaking of maturity and families, Rainey and Welling have a lot of relationships; Rainey’s raising a family, and Welling is surrounded by a large network of extended kin. Was this a narrative choice, in contrast to the legacy of fantasy’s lone-wolf heroes? And can you describe what shaped the decision to make these relationships so important?

So, it the very first draft of A Murder of Mages, Welling was a loner, living in a boarding house and devoted to his work above all else, but at the same time there were the references to him being from a long-time constabulary family.  In the next draft, the big question of “So where is this family?” loomed over me, and I realized that of course he needed a huge, extended family, and it was far more interesting to keep him anchored to that family than making him a loner.  His tendencies still isolate him to a degree, but he still has that safety net behind him.

6.   A Parliament of Bodies involves a gruesome murder in, perhaps unsurprisingly, Maradaine’s Parliament. What made you decide to mix together the machinery of politics and the machinery of murder?

The big thing I wanted to do with this one was shove Minox and Satrine deep out of their comfort zone—in as much as “solving gruesome murders” is their comfort zone—so I put them on a case outside of their jurisdiction.  That meant the Parliament, which also was critical for the other thing I wanted to do here: pair them up with Dayne and Jerinne of The Maradaine Elite.   I also pushed them out of their comfort zone by, instead of giving them a crime to solve, giving them an crisis to resolve.   The immediacy I wanted was like a clock ticking down, so I made the clockwork aspect literal.

7.   Thinking about the Parliament, both it and the surrounding city of Maradaine feel like living, breathing places. Was there any historical (or otherwise) reference for the shaping of Maradaine and its history?

Not any one specific historical reference, but the history for Druthal (the nation that Maradaine is the capital of) is one I’ve put a lot of worldbuilding work into.  But I did make a point of detailing the formation of the current, modern version of the nation and the government, modeling it somewhat on the foundational myth of America, in the sense that there are names and people that are associated with the foundation, and there are the simplified stories we tell ourselves about it, and there are also the messier truths behind those stories.

8.   On the topic of the past. While there’s a lot going on in the foreground, both in this latest book and the others in the Maradaine sequence, there’s always a sense of history, of wars fought and lost, of context, if you like. The past underpins the city of Maradaine and helps it breathe – so how do you keep track of all that history?  I’m imagining an enormous tome filled with notes…

Yes.  The history of Druthal is a document about 30,000 words long, plus I have further timelines, less extensive histories of the other parts of the world.  And that doesn’t include the background on characters, cultures, immediate storylines of the books themselves.  It’s a big saga bible, as well as spreadsheets and timelnes.  It’s a lot.

9.   On a more personal note: as reader, what type of book do you enjoy? What are you reading right now?

I have to confess, nowadays I find it challenging to read other SFF books—get a little too “looking under the hood at what they’re doing” when I do.  I tend to read history books and memoirs the most now, as palate cleansers from writing. That said, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Ancillary Justice, and I’m enjoying that a lot.

10. On process: Some authors plan their novels in great detail before setting pen to paper; others seem to take a more seat-of-the pants approach. How would you describe yourself on that continuum?

Very much the outline-in-great-detail.  The outlining process is always a preliminary one—no outline survives contact with enemy—but I’ve got a long game planned out for all things Maradaine that is, for the most part, staying on track.

11. How did you get into writing? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do, or is it something of a new path for you?

I had started in film and theater—my degree is in film, and in college I helped found a theatre company that’s still part of campus life 25 years later.  So I had done some screenwriting and playwrighting, but I had always had a goal of doing novels.  At one point my wife said, “you keep talking about doing novels, so maybe you should stop volunteering your time running the sound board, and focus your energy on that?”

12. Have you found the rise of social media has had any impact on you as an author?

For me, the big thing is it’s helped me find a community of authors to interact with—people I wouldn’t have met or talked with otherwise.  This is a pretty solitary business, so that can have a huge impact on morale, having people all over the world I can reach out to, who are in a similar enough headspace to relate with what I’m doing.

13. Finally,  I know A Parliament of Bodies has just come out, but could you let us know what’s next for you?

In the fall, the second Maradaine Elite novel will come out, called Shield of the People.  Then next year we have the third novel each of both Streets of Maradaine and Maradaine Elite, which are The Fenmere Job and People of the City, respectively.  And that will wrap up Phase I of the whole Maradaine Saga.