Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Saevus Corax Captures the Castle - K.J. Parker

The new Parker trilogy is releasing at a rapid pace this year, following up Saevus Corax Deals with the Dead with this new volume. And, in case you were wondering, yes, it is rather good. I will sound a note of caution that it hits a lot of the same notes stylistically as the previous volume. Our protagonist is smart, funny, determined to just keep his head down and out of the way - and yet catastrophic, world altering events seem to always catch him in their wake. Or the other way around, I suppose. There's civilisations that look familiar if you squint and turn your head to the left a bit, some genuinely funny dialogue, and a viciously dark view of the world which also holds up the best of humanity even as it washes its hands of 'em.

Which is to say, it's a K.J. Parker book; by this point, you probably know what you're getting in terms of structure and tone. I will say though that the story remains as wonderfully byzantine as ever (in several senses), the characterisation is detailed, multi-faceted and occasionally throws out a total surprise, and the technical execution in general is top tier. If you liked the previous Corax book, you won't fond this one disappoints. 

Saevus Corax remains as charming, devious and occasionally outright brutal as ever. Or perhaps I should say ruthless, given hsi gift for playing all the angles. In this instance, those angles involve a castle. And how one might take that away from the people currently in it, and keep hold of it afterward. It's a simple conceit (and one which, to be fair, doesn't take up the entire book, which instead pinwheels out of control from there in a very satisfying fashion). But it allows us to see Corax in full flow. To live inside the monologue of someone about to make some very bloody decisions, for the very best of reasons. And later a plan inside another plan inside another. Like an onion, except with arrows and big rocks. There's further, somewhat cryptic delving into his past as well, piecing together things the man himself has tried to forget for quite a while - and which, as these things do, are likely to come back at the worst moment. Again, like an onion, we see sides to Corax we didn't find in the last book - and it's a triumph that Parker can show us these layers, show us the psychological and physical cost of being Saevus Corax, and make him both sympathetic and an unrepentant terror. In any event, Corax remains a fine fellow to share a head and an inner monologue with; just don't accept any wine he gives you.

The story rattles along nicely between reveals, crosses, double crosses and so on. It also moves geographically, including a richly wrought ersatz Byzantine empire, complete with theatres and mail coaches - and other, far stranger places I wont get into for fear of spoilers. Suffice to say, they're eerily alive as well. And the book itself remains a solid, entertaining read moment to moment - from battle debris to sieges to night rides to love and promises and betrayal, there's something for everyone. And the sheer accessibility of Corax as a narrator, his cheerful unreliability and ruthlessness, is what makes it work, and kept me turning pages on and on and on. If you're a Parker fan, it'll probably work for you, too - go give it a whirl.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

System Collapse - Martha Wells


Murderbot is back!  And it's about time. This series has been a runaway success, and I must admit that in my view it's entirely deserved. I've been champing at the bit for a new Murderbot novel since, well, since about a day after the release of the last one. And, well, here it is. Is it any good? Dear reader, the answer is an unmitigated yes. If you're a fan, and up to date with the series: Go out and pick this one up right away. If you're not: Go and read the rest of the series, then go out and pick this one up right away.

Now that that's out of the way. 

Murderbot, eh? It's a fantastic protagonist, a fish out of water that isn't entirely sure whether it wants to be in the water or invest in some sort of aquatic environmental suit. Murderbot doesn't know exactly what it is, but it knows it isn't an AI, or a robot, or a human. But it's also determined to be a person, on its own terms, with an ethical framework spun up from first principles, with the help of sci-fi space operas and rather a lot of sarcasm. And it's going well, between ups and downs, corporate takeovers, hostile alien assimilations and the odd drone-battle, Murderbot is figuring itself out. But there's a lot to unpack there - and this is a story about how Murderbot isn't alright, actually, and how that's okay. Because after everything its seen and done, Murderbot is having to handle some fairly impressive trauma...but also keep people alive, and do all kinds of heroics, when it would clearly much rather be watching its shows. 

One of the strong points of the series has been the way it delves into emotion, into how and why we feel the way we do. Approaching the idea that it's okay not to be okay, Wells wraps it in a panacea of banter and explosive action, but the raw, emotional honesty of Murderbot remains. It's digging around to figure out what it is, and why it doesn't feel right. And as readers, we can live that struggle, empathise with that pain, cheer on that discovery and, perhaps, recovery. This is a book which talks about isolation, about depression, about identity and that sense of belonging (or not). And it hurts to read and think about and empathise over, but it also feels true. 

That said. Don't worry if the above isn't entirely your cup of tea. Because we aren't entirely here to unpick Murderbot's psyche. We're also here to save the world. Well, a world, anyway. Because Murderbot and its friends are currently far out on a limb, trying to dig a colony of hapless people out of the alien-contaminated soup they got themselves into, while fending off the ever helpful efforts of a rapacious interstellar corporation, which isn't entirely above bringing in a squad of bots of its own, to help things go the way it wants. You can always rely on this series to poke fun at corporate culture in service of painting a dystopian corporate future, and it does so with all the grace and lethality of a stiletto between the ribs. The planet itself, the claustrophobic tunnels packed with wary colonists and alien remnants that might be time-bombs, is familiar from earlier in the series, but no less well realised for that; the cramped habitats and dusty, wayward tram tracks into looming darkness remain as ominously mundane as ever. Murderbot's world is a plausible one, a lived in one, one you may see in your minds eye a year or ten from now. A warning to us, and possibly a promise. 

As for the story, well. Absolutely stellar. This is a thoughtful, action-packed story about people, and also humans. And it has a heart to it, and an emotional weight and gravitas that you can feel *searing* into you off the back of every page.

And it has the banter you're looking for, maybe. And it has the snark. But it also has points to make about corporations and how we choose to live our lives while we try and make good choices. And about the agency we have to make choices. And it explores consequences and it hurts and it'll jerk tears and pain right out of you by being a story about a sarcastic Murderbot which is also real and raw and true and painful and vulnerable in its honesty.

Another fantastic entry in the series - and thoroughly recommended.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Back next week!

 We've been at the doctors and it turns out neither of us can type much at the moment without suffering - so we'll be back next week!

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Chaos Terminal - Mur Lafferty

Lets talk about Chaos Terminal. It's the second in Mur Lafferty's Midsolar Murders series, and if you ask me, that pun alone is worth the price of admission. The first instalment introduced us to Mallory Viridian, a woman who always seems to be around when a murder takes place, and who always seems able to solve them. Getting tired of a constant cavalcade of dead bodies in her wake, she now lives on a space station, surrounded by aliens, most of whom don't drop dead around her. A few of them do eat people, or, from time to time, turn into sentient battlemechs made of rock, but that's a small price to pay, relatively speaking. Unfortunately for Mallory, the people of Earth have finally been allowed to send a proper ambassador out to talk to the different aliens in the galaxy, starting with her location. And they're on their way - which probably means someone is about to die, again.

The focus of the story remains Mallory, a protagonist whose business-like public face is backed up by vulnerability, honesty and an intense, well, humanity. After the events of the first book in the series, Mallory seems a little more settled in herself. No longer spooking at casual interactions,, not immediately assuming the worst, not living a hand to mouth existence in fear of what she might make happen next. Having said that, she's not action-girl-superhero either. Mallory Viridian is a woman who tries to think things through, figure things out as best she can, and do the right thing. If she's a little less internally conflicted about who she is and what she is now, that helps - but she's still the same thoughtful investigator she's always been, pulling on threads and connections, trying to see what's what and who's who to who. And she still has a certain emotional fragility to her, a life built on loss and murder having not really helped with that. This new Mallory is going to have to adjust though, because her past is, quite literally, going to catch up with her. A shuttle full of new people, well, new humans, form Earth is here. And, of course, a lot of them know her, and a lot of them can't stand each other.  But whether the new Mallory will sink or swim when faced with past friends and enemies thought long gone is another matter - and while I won't spoil it for you, I'll say this: if Mallory comes out at the end of this story, she'll be a very different person to the one we see on page one. And you can rely on Mur Lafferty to make us care about it. To feel the raw emotion, feel the truth of Mallory's existence, the small joys and different pains that make her life a,, well, life.

The story itself starts gently, as people start to arrive on Station Eternity, Mallory's new home. And people start to leave, too. And we're treated to some wonderful descriptions of truly alien environs, physiologies, and attitudes. That sense for the alien but familiar, and that feel for the deeply strange, have made this series one with a depth of imagination and invention in its worldbuilding that is hard to beat. As things escalate, as alarms start to go off, both mental and physical, that world seems in danger of crashing down. The rising tension and the steadily beating pace will keep you turning pages; just one more, to see how they get out of this one. Just one more, to see what happens next. Just one more, to see if this suspect is a killer. Just one more, to see who the guilty parties are. And it's three in the morning and the end was worth it but damned if you don't want the next book right now

And that, right there, that feeling was what I got when I finished this book, and why it's a book I think you all should hurry up and read.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Saevus Corax Deals With The Dead - K.J. Parker

Saevus Corax Deals With the Dead is the latest from K.J. Parker, and the start of a new series from them, to boot. Not to speak out of school, but it’s another solid entry, bringing the trademark wry wit blended with occasional violence, entwined with a story with as many twists and turns as a…twisty, turny thing. I’ll be the first to admit that I was never quite sure where the tale was going to take me next, but that I absolutely enjoyed every second of finding out. 

As is typical for Parker, we have a protagonist whom we might charitably describe as “morally grey”, or less charitably as “a bit of an arsehole”. Saevus Corax, for it is he, makes up for it with both a bounty of charm, and a voice which is razor sharp, horribly cynical, and unforgiving of his own flaws. Saevus Corax may be an arsehole, but he knows that, and makes no apologies. Well, he might make an apology, but he’s still going to steal your horse. Or possibly hit you over the head and take your boots. Hard to say, really. For all that though, Saevus Corax is a charmer. He’s someone who likes to talk, who can make the glibbest lie seem plausible. And, in fairness to him, he’s also got a shiny trap of a mind, full of gears and wheels. Because you can always see him falling from one crisis to another, but what you can’t see is whether that particular crisis is also something he’s made into an opportunity. It is, to be honest, tricky to get one around on Saevus Corax, and he’d be the first to tell you so. It helps that he has a fun supporting cast, but if I’m honest, this is largely a one person show, a man thrown into the firmament by the vagaries of chance and his own survival strategies.

As usual with Parker, that firmament may end up being rather bigger than you expect. There’s a lot of world on display here, all of it clearly precision-crafted. We can wade through mud and blood and bodies, digging for teeth, straightening arrowheads, and asking questions like “Saevus Corax, would you say battlefield salvage is a good gig?”. Or we can approach lavish courts, and regal suites with high and oddly barred windows, to learn about how one nation  survives as a counterbalance between conflicting empires. We can talk about the economics of murder, the economics of nation-states, and how those probably aren’t quite the same thing. The sense of history is always there, in the grime and the dirt and the banal humanity amongst the grandeur, and the surprising divinity of the humane amongst the grime. It’s a sprawling world, from sea battles to mud puddles and back around again, and it’s a world that makes sense to itself, both immediately and on a larger scale. Each character is taking sensible steps, and together, they’re changing the weft and warp of their world - and occasionally we may pull our vantage back and be able to see that. Or perhaps not, this time. In any case, the world is richly imagined, vividly described, and I’m rather grateful I don’t live there.

I already alluded to the story, and honestly, that’s all I can do without giving something away. It begins on a battlefield, but inside the first twenty or so pages, we;re having expectations upended, and truths turned into lies (and, perhaps, back again later).  The story is at once personal, the story of Saevus Corax and how he got where he is, and epic in the sense that it’s about a world changing around a focal point, around central events - or just by chance. It’s a story that blends those two perfectly, makes you care, and is going to make you keep turning pages until you’re done. K.J. Parker at his best, and that’s saying something.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Amongst Our Weapons - Ben Aaronovitch

Amongst Our Weapons is the ninth (ninth!) full novel in the PC Peter Grant series, in which a hapless young police constable has an unexpected encounter  with a ghost, and then finds his life very rapidly going out of control. He's since dealt with eh dead, with malevolent mages, with incipient AI's, goblin markets, the London Underground system, and, most worryingly of all, the byzantine bureaucracy of the London Metropolitan Police. Along the way he's made and lost both enemies and friends, and the Peter Grant at the start of this book is starting to look a little frayed around the edges. No wonder, given how busy he's been.

That said, if the Peter Grant of this story is quieter, more contemplative perhaps, he's still going to be familiar to long-term, fans. There's the low-grade snark that anyone working a professional role exhibits, albeit given a police-centric spin. There's the digressions into London history and architecture, which are always good fun (and usually plot relevant). And there's the raw, self-aware honesty that makes Peter work as a protagonist. He approaches his own emotions and thoughts with an enthusiastic energy which makes it possible to take him seriously, while adding in enough banter and touches of humanity that he seems like a person. In this case, a person soon to be on the receiving end of fatherhood, mulling how that will affect him. But still recognisably PC Grant - older, nominally wiser, but still ticking along, alongside the longer-running supporting cast. I'm not sure I'd want a new reader to start here, but if they did, I think that Peter's internal dialogue, his way of seeing the world, would remain as powerful a unique voice as it ever was (and it's always nice to see BAME representation, too.) As noted, the gang is largely back together here, from the taciturn, old-school Nightingale, who drives a jag, wears a suit, gives off a genial uncle vibe, and once drilled a fireball through a Tiger tank, to the various rivers of London - from haughty Tyburn on down - and back to the blustery, take-no prisoners Seawoll, whose nice tidy murder investigations keep getting interrupted by "weird bollocks. There's a sprawling group by this time, and we'll all have our favourites. I think most of them are here somewhere, though it does sometimes feel like they're spread a bit thin by sheer weight of numbers. Still, an entertaining crowd, all the same.

Incidentally, some parts of this story dare to trespass outside the borders of London. They even involve going into the unknown hinterlands of The North. There, wyrd smiths ply an ancient occult trade, ghosts haunt the moors, and occasionally, someone attempts to do a rather supernaturally tinged murder. It's lovely to diverge our location a little; Aaronovitch's love of London folklore is obvious, but it's a joy to see that beam of inquiry digging around in the rest of the UK, which certainly deserves it.  But worry not, because there's also plenty of lore of London to be had, and in any event, the geography itself carries a sense of weight, of place, in both cases. That is to say, they have enough flavour and texture, personal and descriptive, to make them feel real. I will note that nine novels and a great many novellae and comic collections into the series, it sometimes feels like I'm missing contest; some relationships on the page work well enough, but feel like they'd have more resonance if I'd read a comic or two, for example. Still, the relationships work as they are, for me - though  I might not start here as a first time reader, as an old hand, they're charming and comfortable.

The story I shan't spoil, though those of you with a working knowledge of Monty Python may venture to a guess or two of the focus. It does however trot along well enough. Clues and motives are laced through the story, available to the alert reader (and occasionally, to the regular reader, like me).The story pulls at the roots of its genre here, building a murder investigation from the ground up, walking us through procedure, revelation by revelation on the search for truth. And, to be fair, it's not above the occasional swift pivot either, to keep you on your toes.

After nine books, that there are any surprises at all are a joy; and also after nine books, you know broadly what you're getting. This is a smart, funny murder book, with a splash of British history, and a soupcon of magic. If you're a series regular, this is worth reading - and if you're not, you can always give it a try.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023