Wednesday, August 14, 2019

To Be Taught, If Fortunate - Becky Chambers

To Be Taught, If Fortunate is a sci-fi novella from Becky Chambers, whose Wanderers sequence met widespread acclaim. This novella, though, is something new. And, not to give the game away, it’s rather good. It has a lot of the elements I’ve come to associate with Chambers’ writing: complicated characters with both believable issues and an undeniable warmth. A detailed, vividly imagined world. A story that wants to explore things, to look at both what’s in the universe, and what place humanity has within it.  All of that and more help to make this novella a singular experience.

Part of that is the places the story wants to take us. In a not-overly distant future, humanity has reached out for the stars. Their instruments, volunteer search teams willing to go into cold storage, to go to the ends of space, through time, to see things that have never been seen before, and to report it all back to a world that is now nothing but a distant memory.  And what stars they’ll see. Each is something unique, and the thrill of discovery for our interlocutors is one that seeps viscerally off the page and into your bones. Each new biome is an adventure, a discovery, something truly new. That isn’t to say it’s always nice, that each instant is one of rare beauty – but each moment is definitely singular. And these worlds – well, the prose is lively, the descriptions sparkling and imaginative. Each of these worlds is somewhere entirely new, and that feeling never fades. I did appreciate that these worlds, their mystery and possibility,  are shown to us in parallel with thoughts on our own Earth, whose news remains as interminably unpleasant as ever – and for whom, as ever, hope is never entirely lost. The people exploring the edges of our known space are human enough to want to go home, and human enough to want to keep on going into the dark.

Speaking of which; the text centres around one survey team, as they move from planet to planet, dipping into and out of time like cranes on a lake. In between the descriptions of new worlds, and the surprisingly compelling scientific rigour it takes to explore them, we sit beside these people, and see them at their worst, as well as their best. They are people though. In between their professionalism are under(and over) currents of friendship, the sort of banter that evolves between four people who’ve worked together in close quarters for a long time. There’s wit and sass by the barrel-load, and I found myself chuckling more than once at a particularly clever remark. But these aren’t ciphers either 
They’re emotionally present, and if not always entirely honest with themselves about their baggage, at least trying to be. There’s a warmth and strength in the group dynamic, in a small team with a shared purpose trying to do a good job, and also be healthy, and be there for each other. There’s a transhuman element as well, exploring the changes these people have had to make in order to explore strange new worlds; but that sits alongside the human element, and accentuates it. No matter what these people look like, or sound like, or how they feel, or who they feel it for, they’re always people. 
That’s a positive message coming out of the text, and one that’s interwoven cleverly through each line of the text. These are people; in their diversity, they find strength, and humanity – and that strength, that humanity, helps keep these people feeling like people as we share their troubles and triumphs across the universe.

I won’t go into the plot, past the exploration of worlds that I’ve already alluded to. But the story is there, between the interactions of the characters, and the new places they set out to discover. It’s in each line of dialogue, each new variety of fauna. There’s stories here about people and acceptance and difficulty and crisis, and each of them feels real. There’s ethical problems and small worries and world-changing choices. There’s some dark moments and choices that have to be faced, and there’s the sort of optimism and hope that makes you want to build In short: it' a space programme all of your own for these people. It’s not a story that relies n explosions and one-liners to get your attention, but it’s a story that will keep your attention by being honest, and by  having interesting things to say. In short, it’s a damn good read.

Should you read it? I think so. It’s saying interesting things, asking interesting questions, and doing so with characters I quickly came to care about, in a world that feels very real.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Last Astronaut - David Wellington

The Last Astronaut is a lot of things. Let’s start form the top. It’s a near future sci-fi novel, in a world where, after a Mars mission ends in Challenger-esque tragedy, NASA has ceased human space exploration. Decades later, however, the commander of that doomed mission has been pressed into service, to investigate an alien object falling into our solar system. Things, as you may expect, do not go entirely to plan.

Though this is an ensemble story, I want to say up front that the standout for me was Sally Jansen, the commander whose catastrophic mission to Mars ended government-funded human spaceflight decades before the story takes place. The Jansen we have before us is someone struggling with themselves. With their own guilt, of course. But also with failure, with having come close to living a dream, of embodying her own goals, and then seeing those taken away. Not only that, but seeing that failure cascade, and strip away not only her dream of going to Mars, but everyone else’s. Jansen is outwardly still a woman at the top of her game, even if the game is over. A leader, who can make hard decisions, think fast and act fast when she has to. And all of that is true. She absolutely kicks arse, and it is a sight to see. The story isn’t afraid to let her off the leash, to let her show her expertise, to let her drive her own story.

But she’s also walking on thin ice. There are cracks in the façade that we can see in her narration. The need to save others. To take the weight of the shame and guilt for those she couldn’t save. The wish for redemption. And its to the text’s credit that we can root for Jansen, even as we recognise that the pressures that have shaped her may have been catastrophic; that she is, internally, treading on thin ice. To her credit though, Jansen is smart, resilient, and willing to pick herself up off the mat – both physically and mentally. The mixture here is just right – giving us a protagonist we can believe was a hero, with more than enough of the flaws that make us human.

Jansen is aided, of course, by a delightful ensemble cast, including her new crew, some of who have secrets of their own.. There’s the secretive military man, of course, but there’s also an effervescent scientist, whose discovery of the object, and dream of going into space has catapulted him into the big leagues. And the naïve researcher into xeno-bilogy with an intellect so razor sharp she might just cut herself on it. They’re an odd crew, and they definitely have their quirks, their mysteries, their moments of difficulty. But along with the ground control team, they’re our emissaries to whatever is heading toward us.

Of course, that relies on them being able to get there first.

The text has an interesting narrative style; parts are written from the viewpoints of the characters in the moment, and the visceral immediacy of those sections hit like a freight train. Smaller sections are apparently produced ex post facto, written or recorded as an after action report for an event which looks set to change humanity forever.  The contrast in tone, the implacable dry bureaucracy of the reports, blended with the intimate horrors of the larger chapters, not only kept my attention, but left me wondering what happened next – looking for the reality under the formality of the reports and recordings, looking for the indescribable in the layers beneath the  formal reality.
This works really well for the earlier portions of the text, as both we and our characters are brought up to speed. Trying to guess what happened before it does, trying to understand what the after action reports, the video transcripts, the scattered future artefacts are telling us.We, and the characters, are caught up in the challenge, in the desire and dream of space, of seeing what’s out there. Of touching down on something truly alien. Of understanding, perhaps, that we’re not alone, and what that means. It’s energetic and optimistic and an absolute pleasure to read, as everyone works together to see what they can find outside the surly bonds of earth.

I won’t spoil anything here, but I’ll say this. The world drawn here is top-notch. The sections in corporate America, and the government facilities of Nasa, will send a tremor of familiarity through anyone who’s ever been to either .The clinical construction of a mission, mixed with the spirit of adventure and attitude that makes it work. You can see the people striding forward, torch in hand, and you can see the world around them – ours. Once they reach the object, things change. Again, no spoilers. But here the strange, the unusual is what stands out, alongside the familiar. It shocks at the same time that it seems tantalisingly within our grasp. The atmosphere is electric, and the object is tantalisingly alien. Jansen and her team are somewhere strange, where the rules don’t apply – less a frontier than a different frame of reference. 

In sum, I’m saying this: the characters are very human, and the object is absolutely, vividly not. What happens when the two meet, is something else entirely.

This is a book about discovery. About heroism in dark, dark places. About doing what you have to, in order to survive, about courage, and about duty. It’s about loss, as well, and love, and the things that make us the same and different. The intimate horrors that we share with each other, and the triumphs that get us through the day. It’s a very human story, and one that, once it has you in its grip, isn’t going to let you go until it’s done.

If you’re looking for some hard sci-fi, blended with the best of humanity as well as downright, primeval horror, then this is the book for you.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Unbound Empire - Melissa Caruso

The Unbound Empire is the third in Melissa Caruso’s Swords and Fire series. The saga up to now has included more than a few swords, and a fairly hefty amount of fire, both deployed to maximum effect in making me turn pages to find out what happens next. This conclusive chapter not only continues that tradition, but ramps it up to eleven. There’s plots and politics aplenty, as well as more than a little blood, all wrapped around some well-crafted characters, whose relationships, for good or ill, are at the scintillating heart of the story.

At the sharp end, this is a book about empires, about magic, and about the people who will wield either to make change happen. The Serene Empire is the central geography. A sprawling entity, it has both client states and a rather hungry next door neighbour. The Empire carries traces of the Italian renaissance about it – its head of state is a Doge, whose rule is advised by a council of nine landholders. The Empire is rich, and largely happy. Its citizens seem to toil away at trade and religion and martial activities, without too much in the way of feudal oppression. There’s definitely some problems here, but they are, by and large, the good guys.

One of the problems is how they feel about magic. Because this is a world where magic is something brought about by birth. Something any child could have. Some of the things one can do with magic – crafting defensive wards, or elaborate items – are relatively harmless. Other things some mages could do – such as setting large numbers of people on fire – are less so.

This has left the state to step in, to hoard those with magic, and to seek to control the. Each is tied to another, non-magical person, who decides if and when the mage’s powers are released, or shut down. This isn’t a perfect solution, but I’d say it makes sense in the world of the Empire. It’s also a great way for the book to explore inequality, and sacrifice. While some of the mages in the story feel they’ve lost their freedom,, others are accepting of the luxury they live in – constrained, but away from the streets. Others struggle with it, but recognise that they don’t have a better way t control small children with the ability to incinerate anyone who looks at them funny.

Ther’s a lot of politics here, as our protagonist, herself bound to a mage, struggles to give them more in the way of rights. It’s a thoughtful, nuanced discussion of the power of the individual and the power of the state, and what responsibility each has to the other, and to their fellow citizens.  But it’s also a lavish backdrop for some thoroughly byzantine politics, as factions of the Empire all try to set its direction. To be fair, they’re all fairly united against a common enemy; but efforts to shape the Empire are often rather cutthroat from poisonings through political chicanery and, theoretically, up to extra-judicial assassinations. It’s a weltering whirligig of factions, and at the same time, a sprawling, thriving, heart-poundingly  alive place.

The same may not be said of its nearest neighbour, a federated autocracy run by mages. Those at the top of the heap are obscenely powerful mages. Those without magic also lack any power. Those at the top of the tree are only loosely confederated, each holding to their own slice of the pie, and always eyeing the others for a chance to seize more territory. But now they’re also looking for an excuse to get involved in the Empire, as a nice change of pace from trying to kill each other. Their demesnes feel more rural, closer to nature than the humming urbanity of the Empire, That said, the trickling streams and verdant forests are in stark contrast to the horrors of those Witch Lords who rule them, typically blending magical puissance with long-held grudges and little in the way of morality.
These are the two powers on the stage, and though they feel very different, they both feel equally alive, equally real.

The central duo for this book are the same as in those preceding: Amalia Cornaro is the noble heir to her family, linked to one of the Empire’s only fire warlocks in a magical accident, and, I think it’s fair to say, a woman who has been having a bit of a tough year so far. She’s linked to Zaira, a smart-mouthed woman from the bottom of society, whose main talent (aside from creating some great insults), is being able to generate vast amounts of fire on command – essentially making her a one-woman-army.

Full disclosure, I think they’re both great.

Amalia is a woman who has, to put it mildly, had a tough time recently. But as the text progresses, it’s possible to see the steel she has at her core, willing to pick up and run with tough decisions. Even if they’ll feel like they break her. Perhaps doubly so, then. But alongside that steel sits enough humanity to worry about what power and responsibility could turn her into; to observe the ruthless measures of the circles she’s moving into, and decide where she’ll draw the line, decide who she’ll want to be. That’s helped by the skein of compassion wrapped around the aforementioned steel core. Amalia isn’t a bad person, doesn’t want to be one, and is still willing to bear the costs that she knows are the price of action. But she feels for people. Maybe she doesn’t always understand them, maybe she’d rather be in a  book than at a party charming political opponents, but she wants the best for her Empire, for her friends, and even for herself. It’s easy to sympathise with a woman who feels out of her depth, and to cheer her on as she rises to the challenges = be they maniacal witch-lords, or her own romantic entanglements.

In her aims, she’s largely assisted by Zaira, who seems never to have met a person she actually liked. The fire warlock is working hard not to show too publically her thoughts on whether she wants to be a weapon for the Empire. She’s still hurt, still struggling to come to terms with herself, and watching her iron pragmatism clash with Amalia’s ideals is an outright joy. It helps that she is, honestly, really rather funny. There’s a person here, a conflicted, struggling person, who is willing to pitch in with Amalia to make things better, but isn’t doing so with any illusion of it all ending well.  Zaira brings a different energy, a different voice to the pairing – more jaded, but perhaps, behind the shell, more vulnerable.

Watching both women grow over the past two books has been fantastic, and I can safely say that the apotheosis of their relationship here carries all the emotional weight it deserves.

They’re surrounded by a wonderful gaggle of other characters, including the rather delightful Marcello, the straightforward Captain who helps guard the Empire’s mages from harm, and whose affection for Amalia is obvious, heartfelt and straightforward. Marcello gets some more time on the page in this book, and watching him change, seeing where his priorities lie, is by turns wonderful and painful. In part, that’s because social standing leaves his affection for Amalia in a bit of a troubled state; she’s also courting one of the Witch Lords, Kathe,  in what both know to be a political alliance. But the man Amalia is working with by necessity is also enigmatic, powerful, handsome, intriguing, and yes, witty. Of course he’s also dangerous, and probably has a hidden agenda. But the chemistry between Kathe and Amalia is undeniable – the page crackles with energy while tey’re together, and the attraction is at least as genuine as the danger. Negotiating this rather awkward triangle is one of the ways Amalia is trying to shape herself – to decide where what she wants and needs is taken up in what her country wants and needs. It’s powerfully written, compelling work.

And of course, there’s the villain. Ruven. Oh, hats off to the author on this one. Ruven is deeply, deeply creepy. A powerful witch-lord, he can change the skin of those he’s in contact with. That can involve magically healing their wounds, or paralysing with a touch, or making someone explode from the inside out. Ruven is…not a very nice person. That he thinks of everyone without magic as less than a person isn’t a great surprise, perhaps. But he also carries an affection, of sorts, for Amalia, seeing her intelligence, and a chance to drive his goals forward. Of course, he’s also a monster, with a penchant for atrocities. Ruven slithers insidiously on and off the page, and has a certain audacious charisma that makes his every appearance into compulsive reading – if only to see what horror he’ll unleash next, and which scheme will bear terrible fruit.

There are more, of course – an entirely delightful ensemble of new and old friends. And each steps up to the reader to introduce themselves, and even if we only see the for a few moments, they are seen, they are real. They may not be nice; there’s more than a fair share of tyrants and ruthless politicians here, between the blades and the fire. But they are people, and even if their goals are appalling, we can understand them. These are characters with heart and soul, whose presence gives the story a depth and heft, the weight that makes it something true.

I won’t, having gone on this long, go into the details of the story. It is, after all, the finale of a series. I wouldn’t want to spoil it. But if you’re here, you’re probably wondering how many of your questions will be answered. You may be wondering whether the end of the series can hold up to the high bar set by the previous books. You may be wondering if the story will still pick you up and make you soar, whilst wringing out all the emotions it can manage.

My answer is this: Yes, to all those things. This is a fantastic conclusion, a high-water mark in a series which was already really very good. It has interesting things to say about freedom, about oppression, about sacrifice and power. But it does those things with a verve that keeps the pages turning, by giving us characters we care about (one way or the other!), by making their struggles feel real, making their conflicts, emotional and otherwise, have real cost and real triumphs.
So, if you’re here wondering if you want to know how the story ends, I’m here to tell you that yes, you do.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Limited Wish - Mark Lawrence

Limited Wish is the second in Mark Lawrence’s Impossible Times series. It’s a book that’s equal parts time travel physics, teenage romance, Dungeons and Dragons, and snappy, fast-paced action.
I say equal parts. At the heart of it, this is the story of Nick Hayes. When we last ran into Nick, he was escaping from a psychotic killer, and saving his own reality by (maybe) following the instructions of his future self. Nick is, it must be said, used to some weird stuff. Between the time-travel shenanigans and his own terminal cancer (now in remission), Nick’s been having a fairly hard time. Mind you, he’s also been having adventures nobody else would believe.

As we come into the new book, we find Nick at university.  Always a mathematical prodigy, he’s managed to finagle his way into a relationship with a professor researching the mechanics of time. This is, as one might expect, fraught with difficulties. The funding for this research comes from obscure and obfuscated sources, with a face which isn’t averse to turning up at the lab and asking for a demonstration, or even a change of direction. The shadowy nature fo the funding adds a certain spice to the proceedings. While Nick is working his own angles, trying to work out how to shape a future which he may already have seen glimpses of, there are other forces shifting at the boundaries of his understanding. Still, the central issues which face him feel central to the narrative, and each is delivered with a raw energy which will tear the reader inside-out.

This is good stuff. Nick feels real, sure enough. His struggles feel genuine, and his own lack of confidence that things will work out help keep the tension bound within the story. Seeing events unfurl through Nick’s eyes means we see the metaphorical device tick down, unable to think of a way to contain or stop it – and we stand alongside the narrator whilst they struggle so hard to do so. Nick’s insecurities, failures, difficulties, honesty and decent-ness are all familiar; that’s in no doubt. But in their immediacy, in the closeness of their feeling, and in the raw veracity of their energy, those feelings make Nick real. He’s a living, breathing person bound between pages, an awkward adolescent under seismic pressure, trying to do the right thing while trying to understand what the right thing even is. But as part of that struggle, we have to recognise Nick’s fierce intelligence between the pages, and his own furious vulnerability and mortality. This is not someone who wants to die, and they’re willing to bend the universe to prevent it.

Happily, a lot of what stands true for the previous book is also the case here. The world is, for those of us that existed in it, instantly familiar. The scent of cigarette smoke in pubs, the slang, the less modern approach to sexuality – they all carry the fevered scent of the era. If you managed to skip it on your own, this may seem like a fever dream; if not, it’s likely to feel as familiar as a second skin. To Nick, this is modernity, to us history. But it lives and breathes for us as much as for him, a world that knows our memories and won’t let go. I guess what I’m saying is, if you weren’t there, you may feel like you were, and laugh at the oddity of it; if you were there, you may well feel the same. It’s a well-drawn memory of the period, and one which evokes the memory enough to feel real without also revelling in nostalgia. There’s old songs, sure, there’s familiar neighbourhoods; but there’s the old prejudices too, and old blood on people’s hands.

Still, Nick and his gang are a constant delight. They’re personable,  and crackling with the sort of energy that defines long-tie friends. They’re willing to walk the line for each other, to take risks – and also to murder Orcs and delve dungeons for each other. The D&D gives a certain geek cachet, but it also helps to shape the mood of the text, of a set of friends fighting against an unutterable evil and triumphing alongside, or in spite of each other. The parallels are there, but the mechanics also serve to ground the story I friendship, in personal relationships, in the emotional, human core, rather than in the snappy happenings of other sections.

Speaking of which. If everything is a compelling blend of the strange and the familiar. If the world is one which stalks the edges of nostalgia, then twists with a jagged edge. If the characters seem like old friends, but with difficult choices in front of them, then the same can be said of the plot. No spoilers, of course, but it’s talking about our relationship with time, on the one hand, and about what we’re willing to sacrifice for our goals, on the other. There’s a sense of free will and destiny, yes, but also of people trying to shape their own truths in a world determined to shape them. This is a story about people who are willing to fight back, to take the weight, to do the right thing. It’s also a story about illness, about family, about one boy’s struggle to become the person he wants to be – oh, and about a romance, perhaps. About what two people will be vulnerable enough to let themselves feel.
Is it a good book? Yes. This is whip-smart science fiction. It unapologetically asks big questions, and lets the characters and the reader work out the answers. It’s also honest, bringing a depth of understanding and emotion to all of its characters, giving them the depth they need to feel real.  The story is gripping, fast-paced and believable, with a drumbeat of tension which won’t let you put it down until you’re done.

In short, this is a cracking sequel, and a great story in its own right. Give it a try.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

This Is How You Lose The Time War - Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

This Is How You Lose The Time War is a lot of things. But if you’re just here for the topline, the first of those things is that it’s really, really good. It’s an artful blend of hard-science fiction, high-concept ideas, and emotionally fraught, honest, affecting characterisation, laced through with a complex, believable, thoughtful romance seasoning. And all of this is wrapped up in an epistolary format, as a pair of agents on different sides of a struggle that threatens to tear apart causality start leaving each other notes.

Those writing the letters are referred to only as Red and Blue. They feel almost like concepts more than names. One lives in the boundaries of a timestream dominated by technology; there are sweeping dataspheres, constant communications, constant monitoring, soaring data edifices, that sort of thing. The other comes from a timeline which feels more organic, where the organic is at the heart of philosophy and civilisation.  Both parties are utterly immersed in their conflicting realities, and in their conflict up and down the twisting ladder of time. The prose is fluid and lyrical where it needs to be, and intentionally not when it shouldn’t be – as Red and Blue try the hardest thing, to actually speak to each other. That mastery of language makes this book such a pleasure to read, it’s untrue.  

It’s helped by the fact that both central characters are so very likable. That said, travelling up and down the time-stream as they do, disrupting each other’s work by, say, arranging for Lincoln not to be assassinated, or for Caesar to die a little later than we think of as correct,  has given them both a rather distinct perspective. It bleeds from the letters they send each other, the sense of the long view, of waiting for the right moment to do the right thing, and watching the results cascade outward in a multiplicity of changes. Each of their exchanges is an exercise in elegance, and the reader sits on either side of this burgeoning relationship, which mixes up that temporal vision with a more immediate, though no less strange, sense of desire.

I’d be hard put not to call this a love story. But the growth of affection between Red and Blue is a gradual thing at the same time that it’s a white-hot furnace. It’s a sense of slowly growing trust, and a willingness from each to protect the other, to try and live up to each other. They’re a strange pair, but the spaces between the words, the hidden truths they don’t dare write down, are an inferno in the minds eye. These are people. Strange, wonderful people, with a passionate intensity that is no longer restricted to the worst. Because they’re such fun to read. The letters between Red and Blue are full of wry observance, of a closeness, an affection which resonates throughout, and feels like the backbone of the text.

The worlds they explore are wonders in their own right. Though we only see snapshots, still there are flashes of the familiar and the strange, to keep us on our toes. And each is vividly, lavishly described, each jump to a new period carries the same depth and heart as the one which came before. The future, or futures, our future (or futures) are there as well, of course. And they are both as wonderful and terrible as one might expect. To read of the dance of Blue and Red is to be swept up in it, to feel their hungers and their fears, to live their careful steps between realities, to understand the craving and the energy which drives them back and forth through time, and away from and toward each other.

This is a novella that is, as you can probably tell, rather difficult to describe. What the authors, fictional and otherwise, have wrought here is an intricate tapestry, or a sparkling jewel of a narrative. Its complicated, passionate, compelling work. It’s a thoughtful, powerful work, which has interesting things to say, and interesting questions to ask – and it does so while telling a fantastic story.  You should read this. If it does nothing else, it will make you feel.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Beneath The Twisted Trees - Bradley P. Beaulieu

Beneath the Twisted Trees is the fourth in Bradley P. Beaulieu’s The Song of the Shattered Sands series. It’s filled with the intricate world-building, the emotional depth, the detailed characterisation we’ve come to expect; all of that wrapped up in a plot which has a constant roiling boil of tension, punctuated by explosive revelation, the narrative ground shifting underneath the reader’s feet. It is, in short, rather good. If you’re here after the first three books, and want to know if you should carry on – then here’s the unequivocal yes. There’s a lot going on here (it’s a rather thick book), but a strong, rewarding story is being told as a result.

So here we are, anyway with a city surrounded by a desert. The city is its own welter of political concerns, but the desert is no longer quiescent. And of course, there are third party actors. Those looking in from outside, seeing something they can exploit, a rival they can bring down, a threat that can be neutralised.  

So lets talk about the desert. It’s at the hart of the text, an environment which surrounds and swallows characters whole. This is a space filled with baking sands, and with the occasional life-giving oasis. Fleets sail across it, with tough wheels to drive the sane and trim sails to take advantage of the win. Sailing the dunes is not for the faint hearted, but here we have the potential, crackling like lightning between the grains of sand. The silence, the life, the soaring birds of the desert are all there, an ecosystem which exists as a force much like the ocean, washing people upon it. As they struggle between themselves, the sands are always there, waiting to seize upon anything abandoned.

In the centre of this unrelenting seeming-emptiness sits Sharakai. Less a city on a hill than a city between the dunes. It has high walls, and pits for fighters, and markets, and kings, so many kings, and a resistance willing to fight and die for change. The city is ruled by the king,s, a rapidly diminishing number of immortal oligarchs. Their slow removal due to infighting and enem action, and their struggles with their children, desperate to rise to the power they see as their birthright, are brutal, vicious, and entirely believable. When rulers carry divinity and the gift of immortality, still one may rise up to claim what one things they are due. The city is a heartbeat, fast and brutal and bloody, unforgiving and certain. Until it skips a beat. Then, things may struggle out of control.

In this liminal space, between the Kigns and the desert, we find Ceda, once again. The kings are monsters, that’s undeniable. They use their immortality to suppress history, to hide atrocities behind what may be nominally considered lesser atrocities. But they keep the city safe, swathed in sorcery and ruthlessness. Though they do not accept internal opposition, still less are they willing to accept external power. But that’s changing here, in these pages. As Kings are eliminated, the populace fees their hand less on their shoulders. But external forces are poised to fill the vacuum, fleets from across the sea and beyond. The text does a good job of showing us Malasani, Qaimiri, as distinct cultures, with their own goals and loyalties, and with rulers whose decisions will make or break them. We spend more of our time amongst these powers in this book than we had previously, and by the end, they each feel like a living, complex culture with its own needs and mores.

As ever, Sharakai is alive, and the desert, perhaps more than previously, is alive; now those who step upon the sands in trepidation take their turn.

This hols true of the characters as well. Ceda remains the star, here. Her feral energy pours off the page, even when she’s lost in thought. She has to take a lot of decisions very quickly, and though some of them are difficult, still the text crackles with the choices she makes. Ceda, not to put a point on it, kicks arse She’s not afraid to get into a fight – indeed, quite the reverse. At the same time, she’s embracing the mysticism of her life, of the powers she’s having to embrace on her own course for revenge and for truth. And even more, she’s coming to terms with being a leader, not just a fighter. With having to make the hard choices which get people killed. While the kings will stand and make the argument that each sacrifice is necessary, Ceda’s evolution is in parallel. She’s not willing to sacrifice friends on the altar of power – or at least, not yet. The truth will out.

And in her search she’s supported by a fantastic interweaving of parallel tales. There are the blood mages on the run, desperate to avoid notice, but trying to break free nonetheless. And the aide to the Qaimiri queen, a man desperate to rescue his monarch from herself, and willing to take horrendous risks with body and soul to do so. And the pair of a man and a desert djinn, a warped love story whose truth has yet to be entirely realised, but lies mapped in desolation. And the fellow seeking to turn back the tide of Malasani, an old friend of Ceda’s whose compassion may be his greatest weakness.

They all live and breathe between the leaves of the book, and they each drive the plot in their own way. Fundamentally though, the people feel like people. The entities – desert ghosts, deities, immortal kings – are strange and real and terrible, but still you can eel something of their needs. Ceda is the heart, but every one else is a key to the text as well.

I won’t go too far with the plot, but if you’ve come this far, through the rich, detailed world and the convincing, heartfelt characters, you won’t be surprised by the emotional investment. The story pulls no punches here, building up and creatively detonating tension, and making you care about each of the maladjusted characters. There’s parts that are a slow boil conspiracy, parts that are a fast-paced adventure, and segments which are a sweeping, epic scene of combat. Each has emotional integrity, and will grab you until its work is done.

Its an absolute stormer of a text, given a pitch perfect fusion of characterisation, universe and plot; as such I would say that you should pick it up.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Howling Dark - Christopher Ruocchio

The Howling Dark is the second in Christopher Ruocchio’s “Sun Eater” series. The first was a thoroughly enjoyable blend of space-opera and military SF, with some thoughtful characterisation and exploration of philosophical themes. It gave us a fast-paced sci-fi adventure, the journey of a boy into a man, and a backdrop of imperialism and repression cloaked in the mantle of necessity. It gave us Hadrian, whose efforts to be a better person had a tendency to end badly for him – even as those hardships shaped him into a thoughtful man and a valiant commander, while leaving him an idealist, a believer still in himself and humanity. It was a lot of fun, too!

The Howling Dark takes the series, and its hero, to new places; it retains the narrative details and complexity that help build a compelling story, and builds on Hadrian’s experience to paint a portrait of a protagonist on the cusp of revelation – though what form that will take is open to question. This is a text that holds a darker mood than its predecessor; the prose wrapped up in a gloriously Gothic panoply.

The first book showed us a central human empire, a mixture of high-technology and semi-feudal social structures, assured of its own greatness and role at the centre of things. While that came with a certain arrogance, and while we could see the fissures running through that social contract, still, this was the centre of the light in terms of galactic civilisation. Sometimes brutal, yes, but a space where people lived and worked and suffered and were content.

Now, however, we move to the liminal spaces. Hadrian moves across the page, hunting a way to communicate, to negotiate with the aliens that are slowly embroiling humanity in a war. That means working at the boundaries. The places where the writ of the greater part of humanity runs thin. These are strange places, dark places. Following our hero and his entourage into some very deep holes is problematic. Stealing through ships larger than cathedrals, unearthing the wonders and horrors therein, seeking an understanding cloaked beneath centuries of hidden realities and outright untruths. 

The world is larger than Hadrian knew, and here we get to see a piece of it outside of the constraints of the Empire from the previous text. And yes, there are bio-technical wonders and horrors. And yes, there are secrets unearthed and hidden from view. But it’s cloaked in a baroque strangeness which can make the skin crawl. In the crafted bio-oddities whose mental adjustments are a skin-crawling horror. In the laser-sharp attitudes of those shaping lives for their own purposes. In the stiletto-thin puncture as those in roles of ancient power change the direction of the universe without a thought.

These are strange spaces, ones which challenge the perception and mentality of the reader. The crafted horrors which inhabit them also inhabit their own conceptual space. How far is humanity stretched once the freedom to choose, outside the realm of biochemical triggers, is removed? The text explores these questions alongside the idea of transhumanism. Hadrian, one of the Imperial aristocracy, is the recipient of gene coding which will let him age slowly, in good health, with speed and stamina to match. But other changes, forbidden by Imperial society, occur on the fringes. From weight-lifting to free will, everything is for sale on the fringes. The atmosphere of creeping dread is one that is masterfully spun, and difficult to dismiss. Each page carries the quiet signs of horror, ciphered in more mundane matters. It’s still a sprawling, thriving, complicated universe – but perhaps a less simple one. Those outside the borders of the Imperium are now people, not abstracts. Though their decisions may baffle us as much as they do Hadrian, this is a delightfully weird dip into a new, unusual culture.

Hadrian, speaking of which, is changing again. This is a story which isn’t afraid to carve away at the soul of this protagonist, to see what they want and will and how they would ave it, and then flense away their choices, one at a time, until every option is the least-worst. Hadrian is a good lad. He’s willing to fight and kill and even damn himself for his beliefs  He’s a tough person not to empathise with, even when making the sort of decisions which make you prone to shouting at a book. He’s a good lad, with a good heart, running full-tilt into a more obdurate universe. That said, Had is a thoughtful lead, one willing to consider his actions before leaping feet-first into the fray. As the story rolls on, his own ideological edges are being filed off, and it’s a joy to watch (albeit somewhat depressing). He’s joined by a circle of friends, mostly from the preceding book. The bonds of friendship, trust and loyalty are described in the subtext, but clearly enough that you can almost see them, glittering gold in the recycled ships air. Though we live Had’s point of view, his friends and colleagues are not ciphers; they live and love and fight beneath his gaze, and their conflicts, if ancillary, are just as absorbing as Had’s own.

So, alright, it’s a strong character piece, with a fantastic backdrop of sci-fi conflict within a universe with a rich history. But why do you care? Why are you turning pages? Because it kicks arse. Because Had moves from page to page with increasing amounts of blood on his hands, trying to do the best that he can for everyone. Because the aliens on the march are monsters, but understandable enough that understanding can be possible. Because the ancient history of this universe, with its Mericanii and AI is actually our moderate future. It’s a story of Had’s search for meaning, in is need to shape the universe to make sense – and the refusal of the universe to oblige.

It’s a philosophical treatise sneaked in between gunfire, immortality and immortal horrors. It’s a story which isn’t afraid to ask the questions around the heroism of its protagonist – though for now it leaves the final call up to the reader. There are space battles, no doubt. Bloody and dark with the scream of vacuum There are sword fights and banter and brutality and blood. In between, as our hero inches ever closer to a war they don’t want, there are mediations on the human condition, and exposure to a complicated universe, filled with powers perhaps best-left forgotten.  This is the bottom of the lake, filled with darkness, dirt and tentacles as much as with the promised glint of silver.

So. What is it, in the end? It’s a cracking sequel, for one thing. A nuanced character study within a precision-crafted work of science fiction, one filled with passionate intensity. Once you’ve finished Empire of Silence, once you’re looking for something more, this is what you should pick up next.