Wednesday, October 13, 2021

An Unintended Voyage - Marshall Ryan Maresca

An Unintended Voyage is a new novel in Marshall Ryan Maresca’s Maradaine sequence, which, if I’m honest, is something I always look forward to! And, just to start here: this is a damn fine book. It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s human, it has real emotional stakes, a good heart, and you know what, it’ll make you turn the pages pretty quickly, too! It’s also a story that isn’t part of the many Maradaine subseries, but the start of something new  - so if you’ve been wanting to dip your toes into the water of this sprawling saga, this would be a great place to start.

At its heart, this is a fish out of water story (well, among other things). Corrie Welling is police. Willing and able to knock heads in order to serve the law, and, perhaps more importantly, to serve justice. She has a streak of duty a mile wide, a quick mind, and an ever so slightly quicker mouth, with a penchant for exotic insults. Corrie is young, and maybe a little idealistic, but her ideals are those that recognise the flaws in the world and want to make it a better one. She’s willing to stand up for her friends, and…well, anyone else she thinks isn’t getting a fair shake, actually. Corrie Welling is an engaging protagonist, one we can empathise and sympathise with, one with whom we can happily walk into the unknown.

Which is just as well, because Corrie Welling is having a very bad day. She’s been knocked on the head, and thrown into the belly of a ship travelling to who knows where, with a cargo of children, and nothing that suggests they’ll come to a good end.  Surprisingly, things can actually get worse from there. But Corrie has the resilience to weather it, and the mental and physical strength to refuse to back down from those looking to cause harm, and instead get right up in their faces. In a genre which can all too often Chosen Ones chasing their McGuffins, Corrie’s solid refusal to let Bad People do Bad Things is refreshing. She’s not here to save the world, but to find a place in it, to find something of herself. To learn and understand, and build communities. And, admittedly, occasionally to bust heads and yell at people. Corrie is a regular working woman, who just wants to go home already, and is very much tired of everyone else’s crap. That crap might involve deep magic, weird celestial events, indentured servitude, religious fanaticism, or (occasionally) coffee. But the weary attitude of an everywoman who is trying to make their way in the world and get things done is a tonic, an opportunity to see that heroines are made, not born. Corrie can change the world by doing the right thing, and she does that while standing square in a working class heritage of family, duty, service and friendship – and while doing that she shines.

Anyway. Yes. Corrie is a fantastic protagonist. She comes off the page at you with her energy, ferocity and kindness. And the places she goes, which, well, I shan’t spoil, have that life and crackle to them, that sense of depth and history that gives them context and reality. As Corrie wanders the strange and unknown, I was right beside her, as curious, as intrigued, as delighted and terrified as her. The Maradaine saga is known for its great worldbuilding, and if that’s your thing, you won’t be disappointed here.

The same is true of the story, which I really must not spoil. But it really did grab me and not let go. I picked the book up and didn’t put it down for hours, immersed in Corries’s world, in her story, and yes, I really couldn’t stop turning pages. This is compulsive reading right here, that you’ll pick up and not put down, and then lament when you’re finished that there isn’t any more. I, for one, am here for more adventures  like this, speaking to the dangers of fanaticism and selfishness , filled with the strength of community and friendship and trust, exploring what it means to be human with big questions behind a page turner of a tale.

So yes.  Anyway. This is a fun book, a great story, and one you should go and pick up right away – give it a try!

 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Elder Race - Adrian Tchaikovsky


Elder Race
is a sci-fi  novella from Adrian Tchaikovsky, who has recently been absolutely knocking it out of the park with high concept sci-fi which embraces the human factor. This story is, in that sense, no different. It’s smart, sometimes funny, and explores the human condition sympathetically, while asking some interesting questions. And, you know, also, it tells a heck of an adventure story, too.

The core of that story is Lynesse, and Nyr. Each is given alternating viewpoint chapters; which matters, because the social context, the way in which they see things, is so different.

Lynesse is the unlikely heroine of a fantasy story. She’s thetrailing daughter of the ruling house of a kingdom in the medieval mould, ruled by her mother, who has a will of iron and a thick streak of pragmatism. Lynesse is the wild daughter, the one paying out rope behind her as she prepares to leap over a cliff to see what’s at the bottom. But Lynesse is also the thoughtful one, the compassionate one. The one willing to do what needs to be done, fuelled by tales of ancestral heroism. Willing to stride out into the darkness, sword in hand, and master whatever monster is causing her kingdom grief. But she needs help And so Lynesse is going to find the last of the Elders, a powerful sorcerer, who could turn the tide, a mythical creature from a forgotten age, who promised aid to Lynesse’s family, should they ever call.

So she is going to call, and then go forth and righteously kick arse.

Nyr is, well, the last of the Elders, a powerful sorcerer, who could turn the tide, a mythical creature from a forgotten age, who promised aid to Lynesse’s family, should they ever call. Except..he isn’t. Nyr is a junior anthropologist from a space-faring earth, here to keep an eye on the development of this offshoot of humanity. But the rest of his team left centuries ago, and Nyr I s dipping in and out of stasis, spanning centuries in the blink of an eye, and getting worse and worse at the whole “non-interference” thing. Nur is fragile, depressed, living a loneliness that spans centuries, surviving on a cocktail of smart-drugs and an eroding sense of duty. He is not the hero that Lynesse wants. That said, he has access to satellite surveillance nets, orbital strikes, drones, ad a panoply of technological knowhow that would make your garden-variety sorcerer rather nervous.

I think what I like about the two is that they complement each other so well. Their different views describe the same thing in more-or less modern, more or less scientific terms. Demons of air and darkness are malfunctioning drones, cursed forests are laced with old radiation, and so on. The tale weaves wonderfully between the two, letting us have sword and sorcery and solid science fiction in the same few pages. And in both cases, the story works. Each character brings their own truth to the world, their own struggles – their self doubt, their depression are depicted with razor clarity, with empathy and understanding. They’re people, these two, as different as can be, but in holding each other up, and those they run across, they embody what makes humanity rise. They are enough alike that they too, can be heroes.

Anyway. No spoilers for the story, but it’s a journey of discovery, for both the characters in metaphor, and quite literally, as our team try to solve the mystery of what undermines Lynesse’s kingdom before it’s too late. And that story make me laugh, wrenched my heart, and damn sure kept me turning pages far too late in the night.

Which is to repeat myself; Tchaikovsky has crafted a gem here, something clever and human, a beautiful and compelling read. Give it a try!

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Bi-Weekly for a bit!

 Apologies for the slow update, but we’re going to switch to a bi-weekly schedule for a bit and see how that works out. It turns out that a pandemic is great for taking away time that would rather be spent doing this; instead we’re spending a lot of it getting covid tests, etc.


We’ll be back next week, hopefully in good health!

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Wisdom of Crowds - Joe Abercrombie

The Wisdom of Crowds is the finale of Joe Abercrombie’s Age of Madness series, set in his First Law universe. It’s probably worth mentioning a bit of history -this series works as a standalone, but its context is strongly informed by the other books in the existing universe. 


Which is to say, this is a bloody good book, but a better one if you know some of the history. I wouldn’t start this book without at least reading the first two in the Age of Madness sequence, but I will say that those two are also bloody fantastic books.


Anyway! This is a story about what happens when The People, and I capitalise intentionally, are put in charge. It’s a story full of murder, mayhem, and living in the whirlwind of a sociopolitical disaster. It’s a story about the shifting centres of power, personal and institutional, and about how society is a dream we share and agree on - until we don’t. And then it all ends in fire and blood. In a seismic change, which may or may not actually be a change. 


This is, not to give anything away, a clever book. It approaches big issues, like the idea of governance by consent, or concentration and dispersion of socio-political power, and explores them through the lens of characters operating at all levels of society. And those people, those people mean this is a book that isn’t a treatise, but at once a searing indictment of populism and more hierarchical systems of oppression and also a damn good story. 


This is the part of the story where the wheels come off the wagon, which was already hurtling downhill at the metaphorical speed of sound. All the characters you know from the last two books are here: Rikke, now leader of a mostly unified North. King  Orso of the Union, rapidly finding that winning a battle doesn’t mean you get to rule entirely untroubled. Bayaz, that old trickster, more butcher than wizard indeed. Savine dan Glokta, wife of a rebel, now coming to terms with not being quitte as elegantly untouchable as she thought. Perhaps re-evaluating herself as well. And Vick, survivor of a camp for political prisoners, then a political enforcer, now trying to figure out whether she’s on the right side, along with Gunnar Broad, a man who keeps finding himself wading into violence, or perhaps just refraining from it despite himself. They’re a crew of hard cases, but for all that, they’re sometimes vulnerable and hurt and human., and here they find their old certainties swept away. If the previous book was one filled with quiet words in smoke filled rooms, this is what happens when the people in those rooms find out the smoke is there because the building is on fire. We’ve seen atrocities disguised as justice, and seen it be the only justice we’re going to get.


It is very hard to talk about this without spoilers, but I’ll say this: the word building, or rather, the slow motion collapse of a lot of things about the world we thought we knew, is top notch. It works. It gives us scared, angry, frightened people, with tools in their hands, and demonstrates what happens next. But it also asks how they got there, and isn’t afraid of the answers. From the dark, silent forests of the North, to the bloody, broken streets of the Union, there’s a vitality, a humanity, an energy that makes them feel alive. Not good, but alive.


And we’ve lived with the characters, eaten with them, seen people who say they’re good do terrible things. Seen terrible people do what they think are good things. They’re living and building and changing here, still. You may find sympathies shifting and loyalties changing in yourself as much as in the people you’re reading about. Everyone here is a hero in their own story, and I suspect that sometimes they’re their own villain, too. These are people - brilliant, confusing, broken, building, loving, laughing, hating and all the other things that people are. Nobody is all one thing, and from that, they come away feeling wonderfully real.


Go get this. It’s Abercrombie at his best: incisive, bloody, darkly passionate, narratively explosive, beautifully human, and, well, bloody good fun.


Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Quantum War - Derek Künsken


The Quantum War is the third in Derek Künsken’s Quantum Evolution series, focused on the escapades of Belisarius, sometime con-man, and member of an engineered offshoot of humanity, designed as strategists and analysts, but typically instead shaped as contemplative, withdrawn introverts, driven in their genes to seek out knowledge. 


This is a story of humanity, and how we define it, and what it is. Alongside Belisarius’ group, there are the Mongrels, humanity designed to live in high G conditions, unable to survive outside of environmental pods or, latterly, space-fighters. I have a soft spot for the Mongrels, coarse and bluff and with a streak of nihilism and cynical humour a mile wide. They’re willing to die whilst giving everyone a bloody nose, and they’re a grand bunch. And then of course, there’s the Puppets. The Puppets are horrifying, and creepy, and also extremely real. Engineered to worship their creators, for all the usual terrible reasons, they overthrew their creators, and now instead use the descendents of those creators to keep themselves fulfilled, genetically driven to interpret the commands of those they see as above them, and addicted to it. Nobody likes the Puppets but you can admire their tenacity and conviction, even while being repelled by where that conviction leads them, and how it is derived. Fanatics, killers, zealots, they know their truth, even as they know they were shaped into it, and that leaves them as a rather odd branch off the tree of humanity indeed. 


And alongside these transhumans stride the common order of humanity, spanning worlds, skipping from star to star via archaeotech, managed by military and economic AI, and struggling to keep their footing. And in that sprawling polity, rebellion has brewed. Now war is upon them, and the stars are alight with the glitter of beams and the splash of carmine in the dark. 


And somewhere in the weave of it all is Belisarius, trying desperately to atone for sins of his own devising. The portrayal of a man living in the throes of guilt, but desperate to atone, well, that portrayal is detailed, vivid, and really very human. He lives in and out of a fugue, a quantum state which allows objectivity, suppression of the self. And that state offers new opportunities, new threats, and helps shape that small group of offshoots of humanity into a potential threat to the equilibrium of the worlds.Belisarius argues with his very nature in order to change the world, and to live out in it. And in that struggle, in that endless fight to better himself and be who he wants to be, he is also essentially human. 


There are others of course - old friends from the previous stories are here again, making better or worse choices.But also others - an intelligence officer turned interrogator, finding out where her lines lie and where she’s willing to go to defend humanity. A biomechanical menace, deciding policy from the hot ice of cybernetics. Puppets aplenty, being childlike, horrifying and pitiable by turns. And members of the Banks, the financial institutions whose creepers stretch everywhere, tying everyone together in a web of money and superior firepower. Oh, and the petits-saints,  the moral center of the human Congregate, Down's-syndrome individuals, whose sympathetic and layered portrayal here is both in line with the origins of interstellar humanity in the author’s prequel novel, The House of Styx, and also absolutely marvellous. 


The story is, well. I won’t get into it. But it’s a marvellous blend of high concept science fiction, personal stakes, and politics, blood and fire. Questions are asked about how we define humanity. About what atrocities are justifiable, for whom, and under what circumstances - and some of them are skin-crawlingly awful, and performed under high stakes by individuals who may or may not know better. About where humanity is going, and what it will look like when it gets there. About faith, and truth, and how we look at either, or both together. And more, scattered like gems through the text and subtext. They are hard questions, and they are an exercise for the reader, which is a joy. In part, that’s because they’re wrapped around the very personal story of Belisarius and his confederates and his antagonists, who bring the stakes to a human level. That story is compelling, convincing and tightly written; I was turning pages way into the night. 


In the end, this is another fine entry in a series filled with interesting ideas, fascinating people, and intriguing stories - so go give it a read.


Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Komarr - Lois McMaster Bujold


Alright. It’s been a Vorkosigan couple of weeks here, and the trend may continue for a while. I want to apologise, but also, I don’t, because the series in general is so good, and the next book in our reread sequence,
Komarr, is absolutely one of my favourites.


The book begins with an accident. Well, with a mystery. Well, with an explosion. Well, with a mysterious explosion. Well, with a mysterious explosion which damages a solar array that helps keep a Barrayaran conquered planet fed, watered, and not-rebelling. Was it an accident? Was it rebellious dissidents? Was it something else entirely? Who the hell knows. 


Having said that, Miles Vorkosigan is going to find out.


Having been forcibly parted from the Barrayaran military in Memory, Miles is tryinng on a new hat, that of Imperial Auditor. He’s now a galactic troubleshooter, who speaks with the Emperor’s voice, and can essentially do whatever he likes, a sling as it solves the problem at hand, and as long as he can justify it in person to the emperor. We all thought intergalactic secret agent was Miles’ dream job. I think Imperial Auditor is the job he needs. It rewards out of the box thinking. It hands you virtually unlimited power. And it expects a duty-bound Vor lord to have enough sense of responsibility to be exhilarated and terrified by both of the first two things. Miles..well, he’s always wanted to find a pair of shoes big enough to fit his drive, and so, here he is, investigating an interstellar terrorist bombing-slash-accident. 


The investigation, the who did what, when, where and why is  by turns tense, byzantine and darkly comic. It certainly kept me guessing. I’ve re-read it enough times to see the twists coming now, and yet they somehow always still land their hits perfectly. You’ll see dogged determination, paperwork, interrogations, and some darn sneaky investigation at play here, in a world away from the Barrayar, beta and interstellar fleets we’ve known until now. Komarr is a rich planet, a planet driven by money, and a planet uneasy under the yoke of the Barrayarans, a people it betrayed to their previous conquerors. It’s a subtle place, a place  still stirring between identities. A place tat may know where it is three generations from now, but for now is torn between embracing the wealth and power of a Barrayaran empire, or tearing down the fragile peace and charting their own destiny. 


And here is Miles, the son of the man who conquered Komarr for Barrayar, looking to solve their problems for them.


Oops. 


The stage is a grand one then, and the story fast-paced and convincing. But it’s the characters that make this one, that make my heart ache for them, even the fools and idiots and villains. A key figure is ekaterin Vorsoisson, whose husband is the deputy administrator for a key ministry, largely staffed by Komarrans, whom he barely tolerates. Madame Vorsoisson is bound to her husband by loyalty more than love, and by their shared family, their little boy, for whom she has every hope in the world. Vorsoisson is, himself, a petty man in many ways. Misreading everything in the worst light. Struggling with prejudices and preconceptions of Barrayaran society, a man out of his time, and suffering, along with his family, because of it. Every time I read this book, I see Ekaterin’s husband, and I ask myself to be better. To do better. Because as a character, Vorsoisson is banal and prosaically awful, each one of us on one of the worst days of our lives, over and over again. And Ekaterin has turned herself so small, to fit into his vision of the world. 


And here is Miles, the human tornado, physically small, but definitely a giant, there to investigate her husband’s department, and show another way through, with verve and grace and more than a little accidental humility. Oops.


Komarr is a fantastic book, one I cannot recommend highly enough. It has family drama, and raw truth and pain backing it. It has a story filled with mystery and quiet, tense-wired adventure. It has a world that will amaze and delight even as it baffles. And in the end, its a damn fine book, and one you’ll read again, and again, and again. 


So go do that. I will be.

 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Memory - Lois McMaster Bujold


So, lets talk about Memory. Memory is one of those books I have to read every so often, because it’s, well, basically it’s great. In one sense, it’s great because it’s a story about digging into a devious, complex plot from a calculating villain. But in another, perhaps more true sense, it’s a story about someone doing some very stupid things in order to keep hold of a lifeline to a life they almost kind of had, a dream of a different tomorrow, or maybe a different yesterday. And in perhaps an even truer sense, it’s a story about how we aren’t always what we define ourselves to be, and in fact how those definitions can shape us and trap us, until we accept who we are and reshape our expectations to suit. 


As long time readers will know, I am a great fan of the Vorkosigan novels, and this one is up there as a favourite. Because here we have Miles, famously the dynamo, a man who has pushed through walls, literal and figurative to have a career in intelligence, doing real work, work which matters. And we have his alter ego, Naismith, leading fleet actions, the hero of a hundred stories, including his own. And, at last, we are at the cutting edge. Because Miles has to decide who he is. Is he Miles Vorkosigan, Imperial subject and occasional troublemaker extraordinaire? Or is he going to live out the dream of being the “Little Admiral”. The story asks him this in dire circumstances, and watching Miles twist and turn on the hook is, well, at once compelling and appalling. This is a man determined to have it both ways, who can make almost anything happen by force of will, trying to overcome some intractable obstacles which make what he wants impossible


It’s a struggle not to spoil why this might be, but I will say that it’s a hard choice for him. And it’s a downward spiral too, one filled with denial and delaying tactics, and some extremely poor decisions. Of course we’ve all seen those decisions before in previous books, and they usually come off alright. But Memory isn’t playing around. It’s showing us someone coming to the end of a long rope, and not afraid to demonstrate that the intergalactic James Bond lifestyle has physical and psychological consequences. 


Miles does not have a good time for a large part of this book. 


For all that though, his personality is unbowed, a fierce, driven individual; seeing that energy misapplied is heartbreaking, but it doesn’t feel any less true. It shows us what can happen when what you want and what you can achieve are out of sync, when you have to look around at where you are at this point and decide where you want to be. There’s a couple of paths out from that catalyst, and more than a few of them lead down the spiral of distress, depression, and unpleasant decisions which Miles finds themselves in. As a portrayal of a person in trouble, it’s raw and painful and genuine, with a pain that works because ou can feel it too. Who hasn’t asked themselves what to do next, and whether what they’re doing is what they want? Fewer of us are intergalactic spies, but, you know. The pain of losing dreams is here in all of us, and you can feel it in the energy Miles puts out on the page. 


In this he’s assisted by Illyan, his boss. Illyan has always had a bit of a soft spot for Miles, but maybe not for his “Little Admiral” persona, and really isn’t here for the self-serving, self-deluding work tat Miles is doing. But Illyan has problems of his own, under attack by an unseen, uncontrollable adversary, one who might, well, also be Miles. Watching Simon Illyan, the imperturbable head of Security, slowly crumble at the edges, while in front of him Miles does the same...well, there’s no other word than searing. It’s beautifully written, a duet of sorrow of the body and soul, both breaking down, both trying to find a different path than the boxes they’ve left themselves in until now.


This is a character story, and they are both marvellous in their character.


Of course there’s a plot, and byzantine schemes. An investigation that eats its own tail, with more twists and turns than a...twisty, turny thing. And a denouement that will probably have you as delighted as I was. Because oh my does it deliver. 


As Vorkosigan novels go, this isn’t one to start with. There’s too much context to find in what came before. But once you start it, you won’t be able to stop until it’s finished. It’s brilliant.