Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Restless Lightning - Richard Baker

Restless Lightning is the sequel to last year’s ‘Valiant Dust’, a military sci-fi story which took the time to explore some socio-cultural issues in between blowing stuff up. The sequel takes us to whole new worlds, but keeps that attachment to broader themes which made Valiant Dust so interesting. It’s happy to talk to you about life and love in a space navy, but it also wants to talk about cultural homogeneity, stasis, and the struggle to retain identity in the face of a cultural conquest. The story also, to be fair, wants to blow some stuff up.

Sikander North is still the protagonist – the scion of a rich and powerful family, but one whose world was recently appropriated into a cross-system federation relatively recently. Egalitarian as the Aquilan Federation claims to be, its members tend to come off as confident in their own superiority, and Sikander left to prove himself as not being a second-class citizen. This exploration of the idea that even the ‘good’ guys have their blind spots – so assured of their own truths that they don’t often question them – is welcome. It also lets us see Sikander, a son of privilege in the extreme, in a more positive light. As an outsider, he struggles against social and cultural expectations even from his own position, highlighting the woes of those below.

From a character standpoint, Sikander makes for an interesting protagonist. Alongside his difficulties integrating with an imposed culture lives a man who  wants to do the right thing. A hero in the classic mould. If his relationship with his superiors is a complex, often tumultuous thing, his sense of right and wrong is not, or his sense of duty. Doing What’s Right has defined Sikander up to now, and it’s nice to see that extended here, even if there are consequences to be had, or indeed, different definitions of what’s right.

Which brings us to antagonists. I shan’t spoil it, but was immensely pleased to see time given to Sikander’s antagonist as a viewpoint. As an individual, they appear to be making difficult, painful choices, and even when some of them were awful, and others disagreeable, you could see the path taken to get there. In a different story, perhaps, the villain would become the hero. It’s a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of an individual acting within their own bounds to serve what they thing of as a necessary goal – as, after all, no-one is a villain in their own story. It’s here the text excels, giving us an antagonist wo is themselves thoughtful, idealistic and determined to do the right thing – by their own lights. The complexity is appreciated, and gives some added depth in between the compelling action sequences.

This is a story which asks questions of its readers. When is social and cultural capital a weapon? How far can you stretch soft-power? What are the ramifications of economic warfare, and can you push people far enough that they’re willing to act in their own worst interests just to make it stop? These are big questions, woven seamlessly into the narrative tapestry. There’s some answers floating around in there too, though I think as a whole the text embraces the show, not tell, philosophy.

That said, this isn’t entirely (or even mostly) a book of meetings about trade. There’s enough hull metal and big guns floating around to satisfy anybody. The space combat is there, and some of the ground action that kept the heart pumping in the previous novel. The blend of the stately dance of space warfare is tactically convincing and well realised; the infantry battles are visceral moments of violence entwined with adrenaline and blood.

It keeps you turning pages, that’s a fact. The characters definitely have the depth and complexity of real people, and they’re working against a well-drawn background to provide a masterful blend of politics, personal drama and hard-hitting military action which kept me looking at the next page, and the next, and the next. So yeah, if you need some more sci-fi military action, this continues to be a breakout series that is absolutely worthy of your attention.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

War Cry - Brian McClellan

So, War Cry. It’s a new novella from Brian McClellan, whose flintlock fantasy  ‘Powder Mage’ series has taken the world by storm.

War Cry is an introduction to a new series, a new world. It has new characters, and new secrets to discover. Is it any good though? Well, yes, actually. It really is. The short version is, this is a tautly plotted war story with enough steady characterisation to keep you reading, and enough cool bits that you’ll want to.

The long version starts here. It starts in a world devastated by war, and tired of conflict. It’s a small world, granted. Just a few kilometres across. But that’s enough for a team of military scouts, lurking in a camp in barren, rough terrain, keeping an eye on an enemy they’ve never found a reason not to hate. This is a world which lives in a war that, for its inhabitants, has no end. They’ve grown up with war, they’ve lived with war, they’re fighting a war, and they fully expect to either die in combat or later, with the conflict rumbling on in the background. The mood evoked is one of exhaustion, seeping off the page in draughts of crappy coffee and all-nighters. There’s a sense in there, too, that this is a war old enough that no-one can remember why it happened, or how to stop it. Everyone seems tiredly resigned to the conflict grinding on, and their resignation seeps through the text. This is a place where everyone is performing their duties by rote, where blood and death are a matter of procedure, rather than ideology.

The environment is interesting as well. There’s something in the biplanes, in the geography of quiet plains and mountains which recalls the Spanish civil war, and the sense of wide open spaces backed by plunging heights is one which will stick with me for a while.

Into this space march the strange and unknowable; the Changers are monsters, killers, able to turn into something more and less than human. The Shining Tom’s, a last survivor of a different, less conflict-driven world, wield illusion like a knife, hiding aircraft, supplies, armies on the march. This is a world tired of war, to be sure, but it’s also rather good at it – and that professionalism wars with a sense of fatigue, to give us something which feels real – not the ra-ra patriotism of a TV advert, but the feeling of people dragging themselves out of an uncomfortable bed every day to do what they feel they must. It’s a job, a job backed by a long tarnished ideal, and by necessity.

Into that job walks Teado. He’s a Changer. A monster. A killer. A man trying to figure out what the point of it all is, bemoaning the crappy coffee and debating whether its worth springting over the border and seeking asylum with the enemy. Teado has a sense of singular purpose about him, but that purpose is now riven with doubt, in the face of a long, grinding war where ideals have long ago given way to mud and blood. Still, he has a refreshing honesty behind the fatigue – loyal to his squad, to the friends they’ve now become. Acerbically cynical about the war and its causes, but fatalistically accepting of a rle within it. Teado carries the sense of a veteran about him, as do his team – and if he’s special for is powers, they think no less of him for that.

Make no mistake, this is a war story, an introduction to a world steeped in a long running national grudge match. But it’s not a story where force of arms and glorious charges win the day, but one where individuals are doing their very best to survive, and perhaps incidentally, to win. Teados squad are a delightful pack of individuals – a superior broken by tragedy, a hardened colleague, a flyer obsessed with his machine, an illusionist trying to work out who they could be in another, quieter life.  In their mundane concerns and their passionate responses, they help carry and convince Teado as human.

The plot – well, it rattles along at a good pace. There’s excitement, adventure and high stakes derring-do. There’s battles, for sure. There’s blood and guts and the sort of emotional punch that leaves you wanting to have a quiet drink and a think about what it means to be people. There’s thoughtful subtext about the shapes of conflict and they way it resolves. And also there’s magical war-lizards, illusionists and bombing raids.
This is a fearless, imaginative, scintillating work of fantasy, with some intriguing ideas, expressed with a sense of wonder. I’d say it’s more than recommended as a stand-alone, and also worth keeping an eye on as the start of a larger world. I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens next

Monday, September 10, 2018

Rob Boffard - Becoming a character competition!

So, Rob Boffard, whose books I have said very nice things about in the past, is having a competition.

The prize is becoming a character in one of their books.

They're really rather good books, and this is a chance for literary immortality.

With that in mind, I encourage you to pop over to their site before the 15th of October and get your entry in.

Reading about characters in Rob's work is always a joy, but reading about yourself has to be one notch up.

Anyway, get in there, enter, (maybe) become immortal! What have you got to lose?

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Tempests And Slaughter - Tamora Pierce

Tempests And Slaughter is the start of a new series from Tamora Pierce. If you’ve not read any of her other work before (and I hadn’t!), it works as a standalone series. I’m told, though, that it also ties into the prequel history of some of her other, existing series – so if you’re an existing fan, it sounds like there’s a rich vein of history and lore for you to delve into here.

On its own merits, though, this remains a book worth picking up and giving a read.
The centre of the book is Arram Draper, a child growing into adulthood. Arram is a thoughtful boy with an absence of social graces. Left in the care of a magical school by his family, Arram begins the story alone and friendless. This isn’t really too problematic a state of affairs, as Arram doesn’t come off as a natural, charismatic leader. Though he has a well defined moral sense, he seems often happy enough in his own world, trying to discover how things work. That retiring nature, however, is backed up by extremely high magical potential, which makes keeping out of the spotlight more difficult than it might otherwise be.

The portrayal of Arram is a sympathetic and detailed one, which lets us behind the eyes of a young person growing toward adulthood within an isolated, institutional framework. The text doesn’t flinch away from the consequences of his social awkwardness mixed with potential; in fact it wants to look at the resentment that this can generate, and the way Arram faces up to that. But at heart, it’s letting the reader into the head and heart of a boy who hasn’t yet worked out who he is, trying to shape himself against the vicissitudes of a system which takes a particularly strong interest in shaping him, possibly not for his own benefit.

I’ve  got a lot of time for Arram; that story of social confusion and awkward intelligence gives him a heartfelt humanity. This is a protagonist who may not (yet) be shaking cities or throwing lightning, but between being a magical prodigy, he’s afraid, looking for approval, looking to define himself as much as anyone at that age. A reasonable amount of the book is walking alongside Arram as he tries to figure out who he is and what he wants – through classes in history, through magical experimentation, through talking to tutors and making friends. In some ways, this is a comfortable tale about self-realisation, with bonus thunderbolts.

Arram isn’t entirely on his own of course – he makes a couple of friends, the effusive Varice, a young woman whose charm is already dazzling, and the more taciturn, conflicted Ozorne, a prince so far down the line of succession that it seems like everyone’s forgotten he was there. Varice carries an effervescent energy and weight of emotional maturity which make a nice contrast to Arram’s bafflement – she’s just as likely as the other two to get into trouble, but more likely to have a backup plan or an eye on the consequences. Ozorne is by turns a social butterfly and morose, seeking solitude; there’s a sense there of a sword waiting to be drawn, a penchant for temper and some deep rooted anxieties and prejudices which, along with his own sense that he lacks worth, may make up an interesting emotional cocktail in later books. For now, though, this tripod of friends feels fiercely loyal, each accepting the honesty and capacity for emotional truth given up by the other two. If they are on occasion beset by bullies, or have to deal with teachers with a less than stellar health-and-safety record, still they bear each other up; even as the stakes grow higher, they do, still, bear each other up. It’s a complex relationship, a deep friendship with emotional undercurrents running through each member of the group – and if it’s possible to see potential cracks in the foundation, still it’s a heartwarming thing to see so tight-knit a crew of friends.

In their day to day conflicts with each other, their discussions between themselves and with teachers, which shame them even as they looking at the world around them, in their affections and rare enmities, you can see a group of real, complicated young adults; their trials and tribulations mean they come off the page as people, even when they’re using magic for healing, or dealing with otherworldy entities – because they’re also crying over breakups, and losing their socks. This precision-crafted mixture of the fantastic and the prosaic makes for compelling reading.

They live in a fully realised, fleshed out world as well, these complicated people. Indeed, their struggles with that world are part of what makes them tick. The land in which Arram finds himself feels like it’s the centre of the known world – with great armies, advances in medicine and arcane theory, and elaborate civic buildings. But behind the façade there’s something darker:  one can see the blood and oppression of slavery, and a sense of superiority, even racism to members of certain geographical groups, born from an implied history of conflict and conquest. We (and Arram) see a lot of the glittering spires of the cognoscenti, but the underpinnings of the society are rather less pleasant. For all that, Arram’s new school, his new home, is a sprawling metropolis within an empire and his perspective lets us see that city at its best and worst, from the courts to the gutters. Pierce has crafted a rich and detailed world here, one with fearsome and imaginative depth, in which it was a pleasure to be immersed.

The plot – well, I won’t spoil it. But it’s centred on Arram finding himself, learning to deal with his powers at the same time that he tries to deal with people. There’s some other stuff happening here too, though – the gentle swell of politics occurring just out of view, and a sense of stormclouds gathering over the horizon. The title promised tempests and slaughter, and here they can be found, both metaphorically and...otherwise. But really, this is Arram’s story, a personal story about friendship and growth, and that was more than enough to keep me turning the pages.

This is top notch fantasy, even if it’s not full of elves, dragons and epic battles. It’s about young people growing toward adulthood, in a world which is so different from ours, but also much the same. If it lacks in talking swords and buried treasure, it more than makes up for that with prose packed with honesty and heart. As a first time reader, this absolutely did not disappoint, and I’ll be coming back for more.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Darksoul - Anna Stephens

Darksoul is the second in Anna Stephen’s ‘Godblind’ series, the first of which was very well received last year.  Darksoul, though, is something else. It’s a tightly plotted , bloody, emotionally convincing, massively affecting work of fantasy. This is a book which wants to make you feel. It mostly doesn’t want to make you feel good, but that’s how this goes. It’s got prose carrying an emotional payload which is a kick in the groin and a stab in the heart at once. It’s going to make you feel atrocities at work, feel betrayal, feel the liquid stain of blood on the floor – and then give you a contrast of hope, of people acting better than they have any right to be, of heroism and selflessness against a dark background.
This is a book which is prepared to embrace the bleak. It looks full in the face of the horror of war, and doesn’t flinch. But if that horror carries mitigation, that’s also here.

I guess what I’m saying is, know what you’re walking into. Godblind wasn’t all sunshine and daffodils, but Darksoul takes it up a notch. Conflict is damaging, to ideals, to cities, to people. This is a book that is, in some ways, about that damage, and it won’t let you look away.

Darksoul’s world is one of conflict. The central focus for this book is the siege of the city of Rilporin. The defenders are outnumbered, unable to call for reinforcements, but holding out hope for rescue anyway. The city is battered, for sure. There’s a sense that the military command is hamstrung by a civilian aristocracy whose main concern is their own necks. That said, the reader can see heroes here, people standing up for their home and their beliefs, in the face of appalling odds and the likelihood of a horrifying fate if the city falls. There’s a sense that Rilpor is the idea of its citizens, of the civilians prepared to put themselves in the line of fire for ideals of a nation. On the other side of the siege, though, the same attraction to ideals is what powers their enemies. 

Say what you will about the  Mireces and their penchant for brutal torture and blood sacrifice, (and it’s presented here in a graphic and repellent fashion) they have an iron-clad conviction that they’re performing the will of their deities. The text can use that conviction to explore interesting ideas; for example how far do you go to defend an idea, and do the words of a god define the morality of their followers. There’s  a thoughtful intellectual framework here underpinning the story. As a side effect, the reader is unable to say that the Mireces are just slavering villains; we’re forced to see them as people. People doing awful things, yes, but the idea that they’re just monsters is challenged in their ideological loyalties. They don’t feel like what they’re doing is wrong, even as the Rilporians look at their actions with horror.

There’s certainly plenty of time to examine those actions – this is, after all, a siege. The high-wire tension and pressure that comes with that is wonderfully evoked as we study the besieged. They live at a perpetual slow boil, wondering when the next attack will come, or the next, or the next. That tension runs through every interaction, as officers try to motivate soldiers slipping on the edges of despair, and commanders try to convince their officers to take troops back onto the wall one more time (and the time after that). This tension cranks up throughout the book – each page is one more turn of the screw, for the reader as well as the characters trapped behind city walls. Darksoul  a beautifully appalling and thoroughly convincing portrayal of a city under siege, and it gets there by vibrantly portraying the characters that make up that siege, on both sides of the wall. Rilporin, with its towers and tall gates, Rilporin is alive – and the Mireces camp, with its fanatics and bloodsplashed on the earth, is equally so.

Speaking of characters – there’s quite a few familiar faces here, though not always in their familiar roles. Dom, the calestar, is a study in horror.  As his connection to the liminal, to the divine, has increased, his sanity has lessened. Unable to act other than at the will of the gods, he’s washed away in submission to wills not his own. With a mind broken, and  adapting to that break, Dom is a person capable of anything. That typically doesn’t mean anything good, though. Seeing the changes wrought on his flesh  is repellent, and given his role in Godblind, downright horrifying. A good man, of sorts, trying his best, has become something other, something which sits outside our framework of meaning, and acts as  it feels it must. Dom’s madness reeks on the page, pervades every line he speaks and every action he takes – and the wreckage of the man that he was rips through the reader even as it devastates those around him.

We get some more time with Crys as well; he’s still as rambunctious as ever, bonhomie hiding a cmplex character whose emotional responses are socially circumscribed, and all the more believable for that. As Crys tries to work out what he wants, and how he feels, , the raw emotion comes ofdf the page alongside a complex, believable persona. Crys is friendly, charming, and ever-so-slightly detached – but his personal struggles behind the façade of a career officer ring true, and give him a depth which made me care about what would happen to him next.

They’re not alone of course. Stephens gives us an ensemble piece this time around. Each of the characters, from the master mason determined to hold the city together, to the Rilpor captain determined to do her duty in the face of the end of everything she knows, to the Mireces themselves – they all have a heart, a breadth and emotional depth which gives them a feeling of being people, which makes you care about them, and feel with them. A word for the Mireces in particular, who manage to be vile people doing utterly unspeakable things, but don’t feel like mustachio-twirling villains. Theirs is a culture of blood, conflict and horror, and what they know is what they propagate, with the backing of their divinities. They’re unflinchingly appalling, but have a complexity and resonance which means they’re far more than caricatures.

This gives the conflict between Mireces and Rilporian more weight, and if I always knew what side I was on, the Mireces were believably consistent in their desire for blood, skulls and revenge.
Which, I have to say, there’s plenty of. The siege, as I said earlier, is the focus. If the slow burn of tension between attacks lets us into the characters world, the struggles of the conflict are brutally kinetic – hard, fast, and bloody conflicts. This is a world where wounds kill, where captivity isn’t going to end well, and where anyone can die. Arrows wing down out of the sky and pick off a friend, someone you’ve shared a chapter or two with. Or someone pushes a ladder off a wall, and the bloke you thought sounded interesting a few pages back falls screaming to their death. This is unflinching, unrelenting in its description of the horrors of war, its justifications and necessities.
It’s not all blood and fire and tears, for which I’m grateful; it contrasts those darker moments with opportunities for hope, for forgiveness, even for love – but it’s not afraid to show what people will do for those things, and what the costs are. Those costs are wonderfully portrayed, from the glint in a fire as it tears through a building, to the hot stink of blood when an arrow punches out someones eye. There’s always a price, and Darksoul wants us to accept what it is.

In the final analysis, people will want to know if this is the sequel they wanted after Godblind. That’s a wholehearted yes. It has taut, compelling plotting, and the characters will make you feel for them, for their struggles, their lives, their deaths. The story is an emotional rollercoaster, which will put your heart in your mouth and keep it there, page after page after page. I won’t tell you how the journey ends, but I promise you this – you won’t regret taking the risk, taking the ride. Godblind is powerful, evocative fantasy, and if you came out of the first book in the series wanting more, then you owe it to yourself to pick this one up.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Foundryside - Robert Jackson Bennett

Foundryside is, and I want to get this out of the way now, a great book. It’s by Robert Jackson Bennett, whose “Divine Cities” trilogy has been one of the highlights of fantasy narrative for the last few years. Foundryside is something new. It’s a heist story, yes. A tense race of exquisite planning against the clock, one which kept me turning the pages to see if, or how, anyone was going to walk away from the job. But it’s also a nuanced character piece, looking at the ways we limit ourselves, and at how we have the ability to recognise and exceed our potential. It’s a social parable, with interesting things to say about the concentration of economic power into the hands of oligarchs, and the effects this has on social cohesion. Foundryside has a lot going on. It wants to tell a good story, and it succeeds at that, in part because it wants you to care about its characters (and it succeeds at that too). But behind the fast-paced narrative, the emotional depth and the snappy one-liners are the edges of themes, surfacing implicitly in the text, inviting the reader to embrace them, or at least argue with them. This is a book which will give you a rip-roaring story, no doubt. But there’s a lot to think about, too.

The pivot of the novel is Sancia. A pragmatic young woman who lives in one of the less salubrious parts of town, Sancia has made a career out of extracting hard-to-reach property from difficult locations. That the property belongs to someone other than her client, or that the location is a vault or fortified home is incidental. Sancia is smart, and Sancia is driven. She’s determined to get out of the poverty which surrounds her, and that energy is paired with a steely resolve which gives her real bite. That said, Sancia carries her youth not in her naivety, but perhaps in her willingness to take risks. Some of that is because Sancia is also rather trauamatised. This is a convincing, detailed portrayal of a young woman who has been through a lot, who has the grit and determination to bounce back and make something of herself. Quite what that something is, that’s a different question. Still, Sancia’s pain is paired well with her fire and energy; she’s a sympathetic protagonist, with deep roots, conflicting issues, and a rich emotional life. Sancia also kicks serious arse, moving from meticulously planning a heist to being the driving force in carrying it out, to making gut decisions in milliseconds when it all goes wrong. Smart, funny, driven, with the emotional scars that help make us all human, and with so much potential – she’s an absolute force, and a delight on the page, and I always wanted to see where she would take us next.  

Though the wolrd turns on Sancia, she’s not the only person in the book. There’s down-at-hells magic engineers trying to make enough to get by. There’s the captain of a new watch force, back from a war, more than a little traumatised himself, and trying to do some good. There’s bevvies of thugs, swindlers and assorted troublemakers. There’s heads of merchant houses, as close as you can get to rulers with a vault full of money, shark-like ruthlessness and more than a little insanity. There’s old loves and hidden histories waiting to unfurl in the substrata of the story. What there is, then, is a vibrant, colourful world, with all its delights and horrors, which Sancia walks through with us.

Speaking of the world – it’s really rather interesting. There are notes of the Renaissance here, in the concentration of political power to those with money, rather than a hereditary aristocracy. The merchant houses of this world are the true powers in their city, and their city is one of the great powers in the world. Those who rule the houses live in light, with clean water and elaborate labour saving devices. Those who serve the houses live comfortably. Everyone else, those without the skills required, or too broken to be useful any longer, live in the mud and squalor between the fortified compounds of the houses. This is a society dominated by oligarchs, one where anyone can succeed, but those who start out holding all the cards have rather a lot of advantages. It’s enchantment which makes the houses so powerful – their craftsmen can convince inanimate objects to act differently. 

Carts can have their wheels run forever. Lights can burn in perpetuity. Items can be crafted to do almost anything. Of course there are risks; craftsmanship comes with the exciting opportunity to blow off a limb, or have your face melt off when a sigil you’ve carved does something you weren’t expecting. But these enchantments sit at the heart of the power of the establishment, and if much of their knowledge is pulled from the remains of an older, vanished civilisation, people are too busy getting rich or starving to death to care. This is laissez-faire capitalism with magic, and it has an eye on inequalities and injustices. The book approaches these unflinchingly, examines the reasons they exist, the systems which allow inequality to survive and thrive – and does so while giving you an absolutely storming story to go with it, as you explore the city alongside Sancia.

Speaking of the plot – well, no spoilers. But it starts out with a heist, with tension ratcheting up page-by-page-by-page. With a massive risk counterbalanced by the opportunity for a great reward. That’s not where it ends though. As the story drives forward, the stakes get higher. It’s always on the boil, and I was always waiting, on each turn of the page, for the other paradigm-shattering shoe to drop. The colloquial style makes for a compelling read, and the emotional heart of the text means that you feel each victory and defeat as your own. It’s a story whose tensions are manifold and manifest, and they’re played against each other masterfully to provide an action-packed yarn which also has the emotional resonance of a kick in the gut. I laughed, often (Sancia has rather a line in banter). I gasped, more than once. As often, I fought back tears. The prose wants to get into your head, and make you feel, and think about the way you feel – and think about why you don’t.

Is this a good book? No. It’s a great book. It delves into complex issues with eyes wide-open and no apologies, but gives you a cracking story and a kick-arse heroine to go with it. It’s not just the Divine Cities over again – this is something new, but it has the quality, the impact of those books, even as it builds something new. Pick it up. Read it. It’s worth your time.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Foundryside Blog Tour

Hi everyone!

I know we usually put a new review up on Wednesday, but this week, it'll be coming out on Thursday instead.

I'm excited to say that's because we've been asked to participate in the Foundryside blog tour!

See below for the dates of reviews which will be going out from some other brilliant bloggers this week - and we'll see you back here on Thursday for our own take on it.