Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Girl and the Stars - Mark Lawrence

I’ve been thinking about The Girl and the Stars for weeks now.This, the first book in a new series from Mark Lawrence, is a story which asks difficult questions, and encourages the reader in their journey to find the answers. It’s also a story with excellent characterisation, with a world that is both imaginative and vividly realised, and a story whose pacing will keep you turning pages well into the night.

As I suspect everyone knows by now, I’m a big fan of Mark Lawrence’s work, and went into this one with high hopes; those hopes were fully justified. If you’re already someone enjoying Mark’s work, this is another top-tier start to a series. If you’re coming to this series not having read anything else Mark’s written, don’t worry. This is a bloody great story, and one which will reward the time you invest in it. 

Partly, that’s because of the world. Abeth is a world covered almost entirely in ice. A thin band of land around the equator is still free of the cold, though it gets closer every year. This isn’t s story in that habitable band. This is a story on the ice. Here are tribes for whom everything but snow and wind and ice and rock are but a memory. Whose have adapted to the horrendous environment in which they live to such an extent that the idea of not being cold is laughable. Where most of the mistakes you can make on the ice will kill you, and where making hard, often fatal decisions is a fact of life on the individual and social level. The ice is not your friend. The ice is relentless, and it will kill you eventually. The howling wilderness that is the surface of the world is wonderfully captured, the wind searing our faces as individuals march forward endlessly with furs and spears and precious shards of wood from older, warmer times. The cycle, the slow, seemingly eternal, unchanging nature of the ice and the people upon it, is impressive and terrifying at once. The system is in the appearance stasis, those in it having no way to exist beyond the way they always have; and yet, the ice changes, here and there, each year getting a little colder. 

And if the ice is pitiless, so are those that walk upon it. The priesthood, from a mysterious hidden enclave, judges each individual at adolescence. Those deemed safe, those whose metabolism, whose very nature, will not change, are left alone. Those who are different, however, are also treated differently, The injured, the different, those with something they won’t call magic coursing through their veins, tearing apart the adaptations to the ice  - they’re a danger. They slow the others on the ice. They can not be allowed to live in their tribes, in their families. Or at all. And so they are taken from their families, and cast into a pit, a pit which seemingly has no bottom. Certainly, no-one thrown into the pit is ever seen again.

The tribes on the ice of Abeth are wonderful and awful in equal measure. We can see the constraints placed on them by their environment, the way it shapes their thoughts into those sharply honed for survival, the way it tries to cast aside empathy and love and compassion in the name of pragmatism. Because this is a question that I saw at the heart of the story: what price are we willing to pay to simply survive. What decisions will we make under the guise of pragmatism which also serve to discard our humanity. How will we treat the vulnerable when the chips are, absolutely, down? In shaping these questions in the background, in building a society which approaches these questions with the unknowing brutality of tradition within the freezing framework of subsistence survival, the story asks us who we are, what we value, where we stand. It made me think, and I hope it does the same for you. 

The ice isn’t all there is to Abeth, of course. Because there are cracks, cracks in the ice, and things which live beneath it; not all of those things are people, or even shaped like people. Because Abeth has its own history. There are ruins here, crushed beneath the weight of the ice. Ruins of cities with tall spires and mysterious technologies. There is a history from the past of Abeth that shapes where things are today;  and that history is rich, complex, and bathed in blood. Hidden from sight under the ice, some of the history of the world is revealed as the story moves forward, and each revelation is a lantern in the darkness, as well as a question in itself. I’ve been wanting to know more about the history of Abeth ever since Mark’s other series set in that world came out, and it’s wonderful to get more context, understanding, more tantalising secret histories. Beneath the ice lurk treasures and devils innumerable, and dealing with either will have its price. 

The contrast between the harsh realities of life on the surface of the ice and the broken opulence beneath is stark and forceful; it snatches at the breath like winter wind. It’s a contrast that reveals much about both environments, and also gives them a genuine texture, a sense of place and weight, of reality.  This is a world you could get lost in - though you might want to be careful what found you.  

And into this world steps Yaz. Yaz is a young woman from the depths of the ice, someone whose family and friends are strong, gentle, loving people. Those same people are, of course, prepared to hurl children into a pit, to do monstrous things under the guise of necessity. And Yaz, Yaz worries that she might be a burden. That as she comes closer to the time when she will be judged, as she comes closer to the pit, so too her chances of escape from it get smaller and smaller. Yaz is bright and fierce and strong herself, a young woman with a sharp mind and the ability to weather great hardship. And she may be something else entirely, something which would let her rewrite the rules of a society which might cast her out for her abilities, or perhaps break strands of that society apart.

 And Yaz is human, too. She has a compassion and internal fortitude that let us sympathise with her readily, even as we see her react to crises and opportunities - not always to her betterment. She wants to do the right thing, not to see people hurt, and to save lives. Yaz grows into this as the story continues, slowly filling in an idea of who she is which doesn’t entirely match the social expectations of the world which raised her. But she’s smart, and loyal, competent and perceptive and isn’t going to take any crap. As a protagonist, Yaz is stellar; she’ll seize your heart; I, for one, spent her journey through the ice rooting for her, gasping at her tragedies and failures, celebrating her triumphs, and delighting in her humanity - from jealousy to rage to forgiveness, compassion, even love; all of these things we find in Yaz, and each of them etches a sharp path through our hearts, even as they do through hers. If Yaz is to be judged wanting by her society, perhaps we should look to judge that society instead.
Anyway. I have a lot of time for Yaz, a fantastic protagonist, whose journey it was a pleasure to share. 

And what a journey it is. As usual, I don’t want to give spoilers, especially this early. But this is a cracking tale. There’s parts that made me laugh out loud, and parts that don’t so much pluck at the heartstrings as wrench at them with both hands. There’s betrayal, and chaos, and wonderful, terrible magics that got me to gasp more than once. There’s friendship and murder, there’s grand revelations and small, initmate choices which will shake the foundations of the world. And through it all, you’ll be turning pages ravenously, wanting to see what happens next.

This may be the finest work Mark Lawrence has ever done. It’s thoughtful work, passionate work, truthful work. It’s a story which you will, as I said, be thinking about weeks later. Give it a try. I absolutely loved it, and I think you will as well. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Ballistic - Marko Kloos

Ballistic is the second in Marko Kloos’ Palladium Wars series. I enjoyed the first book a great deal; it deftly explored the aftermath of an interplanetary war, the morality and ethics of occupation, and the effects of the conflict on both occupiers and the occupied. And it did all of that while managing to tell an absolutely cracking story, where fast-paced, compelling action was wonderfully leavened with raw, emotional, character-driven moments of humanity. It was, in short, rather good.  

So what about the sequel?  

Well, it has all of the same facets that made the first book in the series so much fun. The world (well, worlds) are vivid, well-realised, each with their own unique mix of societies and cultures. Our protagonists are engaging, with unique voices, and seeing through their eyes always feels like it adds a unique perspective to the story as that crackles along.  And yes, there’s more than enough plot here for anyone. High politics. Low politics. Knives in the dark. Some outright heroism, and moments of emotional resonance, backed by adrenaline thumping action sequences which actually made me gap more than once. If you want the tl;dr, then this is it: this is a high quality work of science fiction which will take and hold your attention, and you won’t want to put it down until you’re done. 

The story takes place over multiple worlds; some we’ve seen before, while others are new to us. I have to admit, I have a particular liking for the scenes set on Gretia, a planet which started a war with every other planet in the system, and then had the poor grace to lose. Now occupied by forces form the other planets, the Gretin society is fascinating, as are the tensions within it. Business people from the old political classes are restricted in their dealings. Gretian police officers are paired up with non-Gretian military. Civilians are trying to adjust to a new reality, living with the guilt of starting a war, the shame of losing one, and the economic consequences of both. Gretia is a world on the edge, trying to decide which way it’ll fall. 

Unsurprisingly, the occupiers aren’t popular there, and simmering resentment is starting to build, even if it’s purposeless and poisonous. Gretia is a cauldron on simmer, waiting for the right demagogue to boil it over.  
On the other hand, it’s also a place with people like Solveig; heiress to one fo Gretia’s largest interplanetary businesses, thrust into the role after her unpleasantly political father has been locked out, she really wants to do the right thing. To cut deals, yes, but to make good ones, with old friends and new, to try and put Gretia’s past behind and make something.  This is the younger generation, strikign out for themselves – or, in some cases, falling back into the dry embrace of a dead past. Solveig though, is energetic, driven and perceptive. She can see the power structure of her company, and the way it still revolves around the fierce intelligence of her father, who is no less a sharp businessman for his unapologetic views on the lost war (and whose regrets over losing it are oozingly self-justifying. They make an interesting pair, fencers face to face, one trying to make something of his daughter, the other trying to get out from under the shadow of her father and become what she needs to be. It’s  a lovely dynamic, and Solveig’s efforts to turn Gretian commerce around are quietly compelling, if less explosive than others. Solveig also takes us to all sorts of exciting new places, about which I’ll say little, except thaat they’re richly imaginative, and very well drawn indeed. 

Then there’s Idina. If Solveig is the new GretiaIdina is their nightmares come to life. A member of the elite ground troops of their occupying enemies. Idina is fast with a gun, faster with a blade, and has so much technological backup inside her armoured suit that you’d need an anti-tank rifle to put a dent in her. Idina is great fun to follow, because she will take absolutely no crap. A senior NCO, she’s not just a one-hit warrior, swinging madly into crowds – but a thoughtful, analytical individual, always maintaining situational awareness, ready to leap into action (occasionally literally) at a moment’s notice. Idina humanises the Gretian’s enemies; not forgiving the cromes of their leaders, but perhaps softeninig on the populace as a whole. She’s fierce, smart, and taking absolutely no crap, which meant the pages turned very fast during her chapters. In this, she’s ably assisted by her Gretian partner; she nominally supervises the other woman’s work. Of course, Idina is military, not police, so really it’s more that the two are learning to come together, to rub along without strife, to see each other’s strengths and weaknesses, to put aside preconceptions that were shaped by years of now quiescent conflict, and make something better. ANd you know what, it works. 

This is a slowly warming friendship, opening up by degrees, and the role that the two fill, investigating weapons caches and rising terror threats against civilian targets on Gretia, is utterly fascinating.  
Solveig’s brother is another viewpoint; the black sheep, ex-military, a man with false papers, living on a courier vessel which might, sometimes, take on a cargo that’s a little bit grey market. Living on the boundaries of things, and just trying to make a life for himself as something other than his past – a past which the world just won’t let go of. Of course, being a scion of one of the most famous families on Gretia wouldn’t help that – if anyone knew, anyway. The slow growth of camraderie and loyalty that Aden has for his crew is genuinely warming, and their jaunts through space with a cargo of a somewht mysterious nature make for interesting reading; Aden’s quieter, more contemplative, and the threats his crew face tend toward the personal – the knife in the dark, the offer that’s also a threat. Another perspective on evolving, complex situations. 

Which leaves Dunstan, captain of a non-Gretian warship, trying to stave off piracy and work out exactly what's making so many ships disappear, if it’s not piracy in his spare time. Dunstan’s military approach is direct, honourable, but still has some room for wit, guile and manoeuvre. He’s someone we can trust, looking at the direct threats out of the window to the stars. I shan’t say more without spoilers, but his sections are always riveting. 

Bringing all of these characters and their myriad stories toward a conclusion without us losing the thread is quite a task, but it’s done wonderfully here. There’s always enough from any given viewpoint to advance the story, to answer a few questions, to leave us asking more, to push toward a climax, or allow for a moment of personal tragedy, or triumph. And tying the whole ball of string together is seriously impressive. The story works, it ticks along with the precision of a finely made watch. You’ll find yourself stopping to eat dinner, wondering where the time went....and then wondering how it got to be three in the morning before you put the book down. This is a story with a lot of really interesting themes to lay upon and questions to ask, but it’s also a personal story, a character driven story, and also, a story with rather a lot of snappy action and, er, explosions. 

What it is, in the end, is a really good read. So,if you wondered if this sequel was worth your time, I can only say this: yes. Give it a go, you won’t regret it.  

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Back next week

Hi everyone.

Between the news of a rising epidemic globally on the one hand, and being in the midst of moving, personally, this didn't seem like a good week to place a review.

We'll be back next week - regular service will resume then!

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The Doors Of Eden - Adrian Tchaikovsky

The Doors of Eden is a new standalone novel from Adrian Tchaikovsky, whose other books I’ve been known to talk about very highly. If I’m honest, I went into this excited, and with pretty high expectations. And you know what, it’s a great book. A sci-fi thriller, which mixes the author’s trademark grand scope and big ideas, with some gritty, kick-arse action, and some characters whose depth and heart gives the novel a strong, genuine sense of humanity.  

This is a story that looks at the strange, at the unexplained. That wonders what happens when the mists rise up in a particular place at a particular time, taking people with them when they go. That has a sense of the wonder and mystery of the unexplained, the horror and excitement of breaching the boundaries of the unknowable. Because as the story begins, we’re looking at a pair of young idiots (Lee and Mal, two young women whose romance is heartstoppingly heartfelt, and fantastically real) stepping off the metaphorical edge of the world. The consequences are there, sure enough. And the characters themselves - more on them in a minute. But they’re living that deep breath of tension as they step over a line, from one moment, one life, into another. And that’s the soul of the book, for me. Discovery, connection, understanding – the best qualities of people are here, as they delve into things people were perhaps not meant to know. Because humanity is great at doing stupid things and seeing what happens later, and Lee and Mal are, in this case, even better than most of us. 

That said, they’re definitely challenged by Julian Sabreur, MI5 desk jockey, and general management-level intelligence troublemaker. Julian and one of his colleagues have a penchant for getting dragged into the weirder aspects of some of their cases. Things that are shimmering at the edge of the map, while Lee and Mal stumble through that terra incognita. If the younger couple have their romance, Julian’s detachment, emotional repression, and self-awareness about himself, twinned with a sharp intelligence, is equally refreshing, a delight in precision character-crafting. A dry wit completes the deal, as does the gently bubbling care he shows for those whom he works with, and his genuine love and loyalty for the country he serves.  

And then there’s Dr. Khan. She’s smart, driven, compassionate, and has a tendency to attract trouble Or at least, is prone to people knocking her door down in an effort to find out what she knows about mysterious disappearances, and asking awkward questions MI5 would also rather like the answers to. A fierce individual, and it’s great to see a scientist given room to show their vigour and passion. Personally, I found her struggle to deal with bigots, alongside the broader sweep of universe-shattering events in the story  to be emotionally affecting, adding further emotional weight and gravitas to a story which already had a surfeit of wonderful characterisation.  

Anyway, this motley bunch are all driving different agendas, all looking at strange disappearances, and indeed appearances. Trying to understand what’s happening, and why. In this they’re ably assisted by fantastic superscience, by their own wits and guile, and (though in this case perhaps assisted is the wrong word) by a sinister billionaire and associated henchmen, who, of course, have a mission of their own.  
And it works. The story begins cloaked in mystery, sure. But it has a thread of tension, an edge running through it like a razor seeping through cloth. Each turn of the page opens up the characters, and us, to a little more of the truth, doses out revelation with swift assurance but slow doses, and ratchets up the stakes, the connection, the pace, just a little at the same time. This is one that will grab hold of you and refuse to let go, while you work with our protagonists to try and understand what’s going on, and what they should do about it, while they discover things about each other, and themselves, at the same time as they’re trying to put the world (or the universe?) to rights.  

Speaking of the world. There’s some beautifully imaginative world building here. Mists that sink into your bones. A London that’s strangely familiar, or perhaps, not actually that familiar at all. And there are stranger places by far on the table – though for sake of spoilers, I shan’t go into detail. But know this. As ever for Tchaikovsky, those worlds are crafted to a soaring scale, but detailed with a care and attention that makes them feel lived in, feel real – the strange and the familiar mixed together to make something new, something it’s impossible to look away from. 

So yes. This is a good story. A great one, even. It has a world that will capture your attention, and characters whose struggles will capture your heart, even as the story shoots it full of adrenaline. This is another fantastic tale from Tchaikovsky, and one I can recommend to you without reservation. Go and pick up a copy, as fast as you can. Just watch out for mists on your way to the shops....