Monday, April 22, 2019

One Word Kill - Mark Lawrence


One Word Kill is the start of a new science-fiction series from Mark Lawrence, whose other series I’ve always found very enjoyable. That meant this book landed with the weight of expectation behind it. I’m bound to say that those expectations were met. This is a book about a lot of things; pain, death, growing up. The things you choose to keep, and those you leave behind. It’s about being a teenager, and the intensity of feeling that entails, and about chosen families, and those you’re born into. It’s about living in the London of the eighties, about being better, about recognising evil and stepping up to fight it.

It’s a book about a lot of things. Many of them contradictory, all of them fascinating.
The centre-point for this whirlpool is Nick. Nick is a geek before I’s cool. A smart kid, just trying to get through the day without being bullied, and doing so with the help of his friends. Nick is also, somewhat inconveniently for him, dying. The voice of the story is Nick’s, and it’s one which is both fierce and exhausted, unsure of itself and uncertain of its decisions. There’s a fragiliy there which I suspect many readers will recognise from their own youth, fronted by a black irony at the state of the world, and a determination not to appear fragile which will…also, probably be familiar. In any case, this is top-notch character work. As Nick fights against the disease slowly eating him alive, you can feel the tension in his bones, the mordant humour overlaying a rising realisation of how own mortality. The persistence in refusing to break down in front of his friends is so sharp I could almost taste it. Nick is, with all the prideful flaws of adolescence, and all its joys, a thoroughly believable, entirely human character.

In this he’s helped by being surrounded with an absolutely scintillating ensemble cast. Nick’s posse is a wonderful agglomeration of socially awkward spods with serious intellectual focus. They’re smart enough to know people don’t like them, and to have organised coping strategies for it. These are less enlightened times, as well, and there are undercurrents here of facing the sort of prejudice which would be unacceptable these days. In any event, the awkward squad are funny, naïve, charming – and the loyalty which binds them to Nick, and to each other, is strong enough you can almost see it flickering in the air as they talk.

Which they do quite a lot. They get together to play Dungeons and Dragons, and these gatherings are the social core of the story. There’s a lot of wizards, barbarians, and orc slaying going on. But it’s heartwarming in its portrayal of outsiders who just want to be together and have a good time, and behind the rush of nostalgia for those of us who spent our weekends the same way, here’s a genuine emotional depth and warmth that makes you smile as you turn the pages.
On a similar note, the villains are wonderfully repulsive, the sort of bullies and sociopaths who infest every school and every neighbourhood. As Nick and his friends confront their adversaries, it’s almost possible to feel the terror they feel, realising that the enemy has no moral compunctions, and is more than happy to give them a good kicking, and maybe something else. These antagonists are individuals radiating the kind of electrically unhinged danger or acceptance of violence that will eventually leave them in jail; but Nick and his friends need to decide if they’re willing to be the ones broken during the process. I really do want to shout out on this one – these are spot on portrayals of lost teens and people with something a little broken inside them, the one possibly blending into the other. They are Not Nice, and I felt an escalating tension and sense of danger on every page in which they appeared. Even that is nostalgic, in its way – and again, absolutely pitch perfect, a portrayal of unsullied malevolence which makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and the pages go by faster in the hope you’ll see what happens next.

Speaking of nostalgia, the world-building is top notch. London in the eighties was sitting on the cusp of something, a bright-lights city where it was possible to make a lot of money very quickly, and equally, where social equality and social cohesion were taking second place to the acquisition of cold, hard cash. The story takes place throughout London – on packed, sweltering Tube trains, along the banks of urban rivers. In decaying tower blocks, where the delicate scent of urine mixes with despair. It’s cold a lot fo the time, rains a lot of the time, and often feels like a grey morass. The text doesn’t shy away from that vision, embraces it, gives us a London which makes the bones ache and the pocket lighter – but it shows off the heart, as well. There’s the neighbours in the towers, who will look out for each other even while they turn a blind eye to the dealers on the stairwell; there’s the streets that will come out in support of their neighbours, too. There’s the mist rising off the parks and making the city into a liminal space every morning. And there’s the scalpel blade of technology, of skyscrapers and research labs pushing the city into the future.

All of it is here, between the lines or on the page, and it makes the space in which Nick walks feel dynamic and alive. Here, the idea of London in that one moment is captured on the page, and it feels real, from the tops of the towers down to the much clogging the drains. If the characterisation is top-notch, the world-building, in constructing that recognisable place, is superb.
So, it’s got some cracking characters, ones you’ll love and ones you’ll love to hate. But what about the story?

As usual, no spoilers. But I’ll say this It works. In part it’s a coming of age, as Nick tries to deal with his own imminent mortality, and with the struggles he’s having with his friends, and even (horrors), romantically. But it’s also got a personal dimension, as Nick and the gang work to save, if not the world, at least themselves – while figuring out who exactly they are. There’s some wonderful dialogue, which made me chuckle at its teen awkwardness in one breath and wrung my heart at its genuine, raw emotion in the next. It’s a story which opens strongly, and one which won’t let you go. It’s a story about making hard choices, and about growing up. It’s a story about deciding who you are, or want to be. And it’s an absolutely cracking read, for that. I genuinely couldn’t put it down once I started, and if the characters and the world helped build that, the need to see what happened next, the way the story pulled me into the world, the way I was gripped by every page – that surely put the capstone on it.

This is, to be simple about it, a really enjoyable, clever work of science fiction, which invites you to wrestle with some big ideas alongside a compelling and personal story. Pick it up, you won’t regret it.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Poison Song - Jen Williams


The Poison Song is the finale to Jen Williams’  The Winnowing Flame’ trilogy. The previous two books were great fun to read, whilst also having a lot of heart, so the conclusion had rather a lot to live up to. Fortunately, this is a book which delivers the goods:  characters who matter, who feel real, in a backdrop of action, adventure, and saving the world.

The characters sit at the heart of the text here, and if you’re coming back to the series after some time away, they’ll feel like old friends. Tor, who I may have previously described as “a vampire elf with a drinking problem” is struggling to take responsibility in a world looking for heroes. He’s wracked by guilt, both institutional and personal. The institutional is perhaps easier – Tor is an Eboran, and they have a recent history of massacres in order to drink the blood of others, and keep themselves alive. Tor was too young to be part of that history, but as we sit beside him, it can be felt in his bones. Then there was the plague, which ravaged the Eborans who drank human blood – and the slow, tortured demise of an entire grand civilisation. Tor’s regrets evoke a certain amount of pathos; even as he claims to be a rake, a ne’er-do-well who accompanies Vintage in search of good wine and good company, the light behind his eyes is dimmed in remembrance. Tor also does rather a good line in affectionately edged banter with Vintage, and his relationship with Noon is something else. So yes, the Tor here is one on the cusp of change, an inch from either plunging over a cliff, or learning to fly. Either way, his scenes are always an affecting, albeit sometimes painful, read.

Vintage, whose friendship with Tor and Noon is the keystone of the text, is also a delight to read. She absolutely seizes any page that she’s on. Bluff, no-nonsense, and utterly unwilling to let either of the others indulge in their worse natures. But behind the façade we can catch glimpses of a compassionate woman, a romantic whose travails have left her a little vulnerable; admittedly, that vulnerability is masked by some top-marks sarcasm and a penchant for shooting things that annoy her with a crossbow. I have, it must be said, a lot of time for Vintage, who manages to show off some of the fragility inherent in humanity, while also demonstrating the benefits of emotional honesty and a quick trigger finger. Say what you will about Tor, moping around looking for excuses for things to be his fault; Vintage takes things to heart, yes, then deals with them and cracks on. She’s an absolute joy to read, a masterclass in character with heart and soul.

Then there’s Noon. If Vintage is the heart of the group, Noon is the fire in the blood. She has passion and enthusiasm and a courageous stubbornness which lets her leap off the page fully-formed. Noon is captivating – in part because of her nuanced, awkwardly growing and from time to time bloody difficult relationship with Tor. Seeing the two of them struggle to deal with the emotional connections they’ve built around each other is by turns painful, amusing and aggravating – but the feelings are recognisable and genuine. But Noon isn’t just there to keep Tor company. She has her own agenda, her own goals. Getting into it would be a bit spoilery, but suffice to say, Noon is fierce. She absolutely won’t be denied, and her ability to throw literal fire to accentuate her points is one that is likely to come in handy. As a survivor of a brutal regime, Noon is also cautious, coming out of her protective shell and looking around to work out what to do next – and determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

They’re backed by a fantastic ensemble cast, whose relationships and actions feel organic, feel human. These aren’t faces put on a page to be devoured by a baddie, but living, breathing people who sacrifice, who wake up with a bad hair day, who love and feel as much as we do. A shout out to the villains in particular. The slithering Queen of the Jure’lia remains terrifyingly alien, with a brutal precision that invites horror, and a curiosity about humanity which hints at possibilities unspoken. Hest, Tor’s sister, and her war-beast are as conflicted and broken as ever, a pair looking to make something of or for themselves, to doom a world which didn’t want their help in saving itself. They’re complicated people, capable of kindness, of anger, of violence, and of some very poor decision making. A triumph of the text is giving us antagonists who can be loathsome and understandable by turns, whose wounds sit beneath the surface and shape their actions, even as the reader tries to talk them out of it (well, I certainly did, turning pages in the hope of redemption).

Alright, you say, the characters are fabulous, but what about the world? Well, these players are what drives the finale, as the author draws a world on the edge of destruction. From lush jungle to plains scarred by the touch of the Jure’lia, to the towers of the witches of the Winnowry, this is a world filled with small touches that make it feel alive, make it feel worth saving. The broken towers of the Eborans carry a poignant history and are the sign of a price to be paid; the fortified cities of the plains a sign of a military might that hopes to avert catastrophe, the scars on the ground a reminder of the absolute consequences of defeat

And the story? I mean, no spoilers, but it is the last book after all. This one pulls no punches. It’ll pull your heartstrings taut with tension, then emotionally gut you with no hint of an apology. Or it’ll have you turning pages trying to beat a ticking clock, trying to find out what happens next; be prepared to miss out on some sleep, is what I’m saying. It’s a story which has spend two books giving you emotional investment in the characters and their world, and I can only assure you that the investment absolutely pays off. There’s kinetically elaborate fight scenes that left me feeling every slash of a blade, and heartfelt talks that could bring you to tears. Prices are paid, costs borne, and in the end, it’s a story which you’ll both want to tear through to the finish, but also not want to be over.

As endings go, this one’s an absolute cracker. Pick it up, you won’t regret it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

A Parliament of Bodies - Marshall Ryan Maresca


A Parliament of Bodies is the latest in Marshall Ryan Maresca’s ‘Maradaine’ saga (we've got an interview with him here, giving some insight into this latest book), a shared universe populated by, among others, mages, vigilantes, coppers and villains. It’s part of the ‘Maradaine Constabulary’ sequence, which focuses on two police inspectors on the mean streets of the city of Maradaine, where government corruption is rife, back-up is often optional, and crimes have a tendency to get a bit magical. 

The sequence has a tradition of blending magic and mystery together in a compelling cocktail, and I’m delighted to report that this latest book continues that tradition.

Rainey and Welling are back, and their latest case takes us behind the scenes in the Parliament of Maradaine. This provides a great opportunity to see how the city works, officially and…otherwise. The halls of the Parliament have a thick veneer of history, and you can feel the crackle of past events as our protagonists walk through them.This is a series which has always had rich worldbuilding, and that continues here – the history of the Parliament (and thus of the city) emerges in casual conversation, in glances taking in artifacts, in the glimpses of an extraordinary institution going about the everyday business of power. If a building can feel alive, it’s this one, packed with byzantine tunnels, swathed in layers of historical tradition, creaking under the weight of age and symbolism. But it’s also a hub of current politics in a city where politics is a very dirty business. The same honoured halls are home to threats, bribery, peculation and, yes, murder. There’s fast-talking, backhanders and realpolitik in all its many forms, all buttressed by the power, influence and hard cash of the politicians who call the building home. Maradaine has an opulence we haven’t seen before, and a sense of historical idealism and grace – but has also added a hard-nosed edge to its already fraught politics. The clash between the ideals of the institution and its implementation provide narrative friction, but are also a joy to consider in themselves, adding a depth and richness to a complex, living world.

Steppimg into this seething cauldron of political plots and counter-plots are Rainey and Welling. The pair have always had an engaging professional relationship and a deepening friendship, and that continues here. Rainey is at once more pensive, aware of the consequences of their actions as representatives of the police, and less willing to conform to others expectations than previously. She’s experienced, smart, and isn’t going to let anyone talk down to or past her, which creates some delightful clashes with the less modern members of the government. Welling, by contrast, seems to be struggling to come to terms with the potential for magical power which has recently been thrust upon him. Welling’s ruminations on responsibility, and his desire to do the right thing are counterbalanced by a tendency toward near-obsession, and analysis paralysis, and all these are wonderfully evoked here. Welling is a person in crisis, and the text isn’t afraid to explore that, to give us a look at someone who may be on their breaking point, and see how (or if) they make their way back.

The duo are the emotional heart of the text, and watching them explore and investigate is a joy on its own. But I want to take a moment and give a shout out to the ensemble cast as well. From Welling’s extensive family, willing to drop everything to come to one another’s aid, to the complicated relationship he shares with another man, to family with two awkward children and a comatose father, they all feel absolutely real. There’s the squabbles and pettiness of long familiarity, mixed with the silvered  warmth of familial affection. These are people in their own stories, as well as the one we’re reading, but they add extra emotional heft and dimension to a tale which already had it in spades.

There’s also appearances by characters from other Maradaine novels, most notably Dayne and Jerinne from the recent The Way of the Shield. The clash between the duo’s, particularly Daine’s idealistic heroism and Rainey’s forceful and somewhat pragmatic upholding of the law, and awareness of its grubbiness, is wonderful. That they can come together and work as a team to try and solve a crisis and save lives – well, it warms the heart, and also makes for very compelling reading.

The plot? Well, as ever, I’ll try not to give any spoilers. But it begins with an elaborate clockwork deathtrap placed on the floor of the Parliament, with a dozen victims trapped inside. It’s a race against time for Rainey and Welling to negotiate the politics of the city’s most political institution, and track down the clockwork killer, in an effort to save those victims from a horrendous demise. There’s all sorts here – elaborate plots, bizarre death-machines, heroism, marvellous and terrifying magic. It’s a story where you’re turning each page to see what happens next, always aware that each page moves the countdown to crisis a little nearer zero.The tension is artfully crafted and garrotte-taut, and the stakes are high. It’s a book you’re not going to want to put down, and one I read until far too late at night because I didn’t put it down.

If you’re already reading the Maradaine novels, or even for new readers, this one is probably the best yet; clever, emotionally honest, imaginative fantasy, with characters that hold your heart in their hands as they try to save the world as well as themselves.


Friday, April 5, 2019

Interview - A Parliament Of Bodies - Marshall Ryan Maresca


Marshall Ryan Maresca has written a complex, fascinating sequence of fantasy novels in his ‘Maradaine’ universe. We’ve really enjoyed them here from day one, so we’re delighted to talk to one of our favourite authors about world-building, reading, writing, and his latest book, A Parliament of Bodies, which we’ll be reviewing next week!


1.   A Parliament of Bodies reads like fantasy blended with a hard-boiled police procedural, following two detectives as they investigate inventive and brutal slayings. What made that concept leap out at you? What inspires you while writing the Constabulary series?

I’ve always loved “buddy cop” pairings, and when I started to conceive of Maradaine as a larger epic spanning the whole city, I thought to myself, “if this is a city story, then there needs to be a police force as part of that.”  And I drew from one of my favorites of the classics of SFF, Caves of Steel, which uses the mystery/procedural format to build the two main characters and explore the setting.  That became the spark that I fanned into the flame that became Maradaine Constabulary.

2.   A Parliament of Bodies is the latest book in the larger universe of your ‘Maradaine Constabulary’ series, itself a part of a far larger sequence of novels in a common world. What would you say are the unique opportunities, and challenges, of writing within that shared geography?

One of the big opportunities—which I think I used to full effect in Parliament, is while I’m telling a story that is focused primarily on one cast, I have the freedom to grab threads and characters from other series and weave them into the larger tapestry.  Especially since I had laid the groundwork for one of Satrine’s plots in the Thorn series, I was able to put her in a situation with a fully formed cast of characters and run with it.

3.   Rainey and Welling, the Inspectors of Police who are the protagonists of this series, are a tight team but one with distinctly different personalities. I won’t ask which is your favourite, but is there an aspect of their characters and partnership which you find particularly interesting, or would highlight to readers?

The big thing is the bond of trust established between the two of them in the first book, and the respect they have for each other’s abilities.  They have very different methods, but they will always be able to read each other’s intentions and instincts.  So when one of them has a wild inspiration, the other one will always go, “All right, let’s think that through and see if it works.”

4.   Both Rainey and Welling are more mature characters than used to be the standard for fantasy;  both have families, and are working in senior roles for their careers. What made you decide to take this path, rather than having younger characters at centre-stage?

As part of crafting the larger Maradaine narrative, I knew that Veranix and his main cast was going to be young, and that his story was going to be driven by a certain youthful impetuousness.  So I felt that needed to be balanced with older characters in a more mature story, focused on adult responsibilities.  And that felt like a perfect pairing with the “buddy cops” of police procedural.

5.   Speaking of maturity and families, Rainey and Welling have a lot of relationships; Rainey’s raising a family, and Welling is surrounded by a large network of extended kin. Was this a narrative choice, in contrast to the legacy of fantasy’s lone-wolf heroes? And can you describe what shaped the decision to make these relationships so important?

So, it the very first draft of A Murder of Mages, Welling was a loner, living in a boarding house and devoted to his work above all else, but at the same time there were the references to him being from a long-time constabulary family.  In the next draft, the big question of “So where is this family?” loomed over me, and I realized that of course he needed a huge, extended family, and it was far more interesting to keep him anchored to that family than making him a loner.  His tendencies still isolate him to a degree, but he still has that safety net behind him.

6.   A Parliament of Bodies involves a gruesome murder in, perhaps unsurprisingly, Maradaine’s Parliament. What made you decide to mix together the machinery of politics and the machinery of murder?

The big thing I wanted to do with this one was shove Minox and Satrine deep out of their comfort zone—in as much as “solving gruesome murders” is their comfort zone—so I put them on a case outside of their jurisdiction.  That meant the Parliament, which also was critical for the other thing I wanted to do here: pair them up with Dayne and Jerinne of The Maradaine Elite.   I also pushed them out of their comfort zone by, instead of giving them a crime to solve, giving them an crisis to resolve.   The immediacy I wanted was like a clock ticking down, so I made the clockwork aspect literal.

7.   Thinking about the Parliament, both it and the surrounding city of Maradaine feel like living, breathing places. Was there any historical (or otherwise) reference for the shaping of Maradaine and its history?

Not any one specific historical reference, but the history for Druthal (the nation that Maradaine is the capital of) is one I’ve put a lot of worldbuilding work into.  But I did make a point of detailing the formation of the current, modern version of the nation and the government, modeling it somewhat on the foundational myth of America, in the sense that there are names and people that are associated with the foundation, and there are the simplified stories we tell ourselves about it, and there are also the messier truths behind those stories.

8.   On the topic of the past. While there’s a lot going on in the foreground, both in this latest book and the others in the Maradaine sequence, there’s always a sense of history, of wars fought and lost, of context, if you like. The past underpins the city of Maradaine and helps it breathe – so how do you keep track of all that history?  I’m imagining an enormous tome filled with notes…

Yes.  The history of Druthal is a document about 30,000 words long, plus I have further timelines, less extensive histories of the other parts of the world.  And that doesn’t include the background on characters, cultures, immediate storylines of the books themselves.  It’s a big saga bible, as well as spreadsheets and timelnes.  It’s a lot.

9.   On a more personal note: as reader, what type of book do you enjoy? What are you reading right now?

I have to confess, nowadays I find it challenging to read other SFF books—get a little too “looking under the hood at what they’re doing” when I do.  I tend to read history books and memoirs the most now, as palate cleansers from writing. That said, I’ve finally gotten around to reading Ancillary Justice, and I’m enjoying that a lot.

10. On process: Some authors plan their novels in great detail before setting pen to paper; others seem to take a more seat-of-the pants approach. How would you describe yourself on that continuum?

Very much the outline-in-great-detail.  The outlining process is always a preliminary one—no outline survives contact with enemy—but I’ve got a long game planned out for all things Maradaine that is, for the most part, staying on track.

11. How did you get into writing? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do, or is it something of a new path for you?

I had started in film and theater—my degree is in film, and in college I helped found a theatre company that’s still part of campus life 25 years later.  So I had done some screenwriting and playwrighting, but I had always had a goal of doing novels.  At one point my wife said, “you keep talking about doing novels, so maybe you should stop volunteering your time running the sound board, and focus your energy on that?”

12. Have you found the rise of social media has had any impact on you as an author?

For me, the big thing is it’s helped me find a community of authors to interact with—people I wouldn’t have met or talked with otherwise.  This is a pretty solitary business, so that can have a huge impact on morale, having people all over the world I can reach out to, who are in a similar enough headspace to relate with what I’m doing.

13. Finally,  I know A Parliament of Bodies has just come out, but could you let us know what’s next for you?

In the fall, the second Maradaine Elite novel will come out, called Shield of the People.  Then next year we have the third novel each of both Streets of Maradaine and Maradaine Elite, which are The Fenmere Job and People of the City, respectively.  And that will wrap up Phase I of the whole Maradaine Saga.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Atlas Alone - Emma Newman


Atlas Alone is the fourth in Emma Newman’s ‘Planetfall’ series, though (as I can attest) it also works as a standalone novel. There are some callbacks to the earlier works, but while they add additional flavour and context, you can quite happily read this book on its own.
This is a story which examines big ideas in a futuristic setting. And a story about one person, and the choices which they make, and why. And a story about the near future, and what it may look like. And a story about colonising other worlds, and what that may look like. All these facets of the narrative are wound together into a narrative which crackles with potential, and works hard to live up to that potential.

Our protagonist is Dee. Dee is clever, and driven, and very goal oriented. Dee also struggles with people, with the kind of social cues that most of us take for granted. Where people are kind to her, or affectionate, or less than selfish, Dee is always looking for their angle, trying to understand what their behaviour means, refusing to believe that everyone will not, at some point, fail or betray her. Part of this is due to events of her past, the sort of childhood trauma which could leave anyone on edge. Part is perhaps due to some more interventionist conditioning received as part of an (initially vague) corporate debt deal. The genius of the writing here is in giving us a character so wrapped up in containing their own past, and so affected by it as to be atypically non-empathetic – and getting the reader to feel empathy for that character, to understand them on their own terms.
Dee’s internal voice is an angular, precise, edged thing, which makes for sometimes difficult, but utterly believable reading. It matches perfectly with the self-contained emotional chameleon that Dee has perfected as an exterior – giving people what they expect, and hiding what remains of herself, past the façade, behind barriers of pain and emotional armour.

Given we’re in Dee’s head, I’d be hard put to describe her as a good person – but that’s one of the questions the text gives to the reader as it progresses. Whether the actions which Dee takes are the right ones is, it seems, a matter of moral perspective. Because Dee is on a spaceship, which appears to have barely escaped the ruination of Earth in a cataclysm of fire. And it appears that whoever ordered that catastrophe to unfold made sure they were also on that ship. Dee’s initial plan is to find that person, and to make sure they pay for their crime. Doing so will require intelligence, guts, quick thinking, and a mile-wide streak of ruthlessness. As the reader walks that long mile with Dee, we can see the decisions she makes in the face of moral expedience, deciding when enough is enough, shaped by her own remembered pain.

That moral journey is matched by an investigative one, as Dee delves into some rather dark corners trying to work out what happened, who did it, and how she can get to them. That investigation moves between the sterile corridors of the spaceship Dee calls home, and a variety of sweeping virtual environments. The corridors of the ship are described in a clipped, bare way which leaves them feeling cramped and utilitarian as much as their descriptions do; by contrast, the virtual environs are vividly imagined, richly detailed worlds – and they give us an opportunity to dig into our own future history – such as seeing the prelude to widespread riots in near-future London. In all cases, the world has its own feel; you can taste the smoke in the virtual air, and smell the tang of machined cleaning product in the sparse corridors of the ship around Dee’s compartment. The wider world is there in flashes, in cultural indicators in dialogue, in the studied disdain and flatly keen analysis Dee provides for most of her personal interactions.

Both edges of this world fit together seamlessly as Dee investigates what she believes is democide, and both feel real. Often bloodily, horrifyingly so. This is a world which pulls no punches, which wants both its characters and the readers to know that every action will have a consequence, and it may be swift and brutal, or it may be slow and corrosive. Dee begins as a prisoner of her past, of her past actions, the actions imposed upon her, and her reactions to them – shaped by trauma and circumstance into who she is – an open blade.

So, this is a really strong and intriguing character piece, and the world-building is plausible, tight and detailed. But is the story any good? I’d say so. The investigative threads are drawn ever tighter as the narrative progresses, until the tension is as taut as a piano-wire garrotte. There’s some snappy, visceral action scenes wrapped around that thread, and they’re not afraid to be dangerous or bloody or packed with narrative consequence. The threads were never quite going where I expected, which combined with the relentlessly paced prose to keep me turning pages to find out what happened next, and to see my questions answered.

In the end, this is a story which takes excellent characterisation with an interesting world and an intriguing plot that blends mystery and personal discovery, and combines them into a sterling piece of top notch science fiction.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

A Wasteland Of My God's Own Making - Bradley P. Beaulieu


A Wasteland Of My God’s Own Making is a novella from Bradley P. Beaulieu, set in the same world as his ‘Sharakai’ stories. Regular readers will know that I’ve been a fan of Beaulieu’s for quite some time – and that I think the ‘Sharakai’ sequence is some of the most imaginative contemporary fantasy available. So expectations were set fairly high from the first page of this latest work.

It’s a prequel of sorts, seeming to occur earlier than the first ‘Sharakai’ novel. Its protagonist is Djaga, a pit fighter. Which is to say, she goes out onto the sands in front of a baying crowd, and hurts people for money. Djaga shows an impressive depth of character. Yes, she fights, braking bones and taking money for an audience. But though part of her revels in the attention, though part of her wants to fight, even to kill, and to keep fighting until she can’t fight any longer, that’s not all she is. Not just muscle and reflex, no. On the one hand, Djaga is a creature of regret. A long ago error in judgment festers at the back of her mind, its consequences visible with every red blow she lands in the pit. Djaga fights in part because she enjoys it. In part because she’s good at it. But also in part, I think, to atone, to expiate the past, or at least buy its acceptance for another night or two.

But the other pole for our protagonist is her love. A fierce affection, as much an absolute as the fighting rage. Djaga wants to leave the pits, to become something else, to share a new life with the woman she loves. And each word she speaks is an avatar for that affection, each kinetic ballet in the pits sitting in balance with the warmth and togetherness she feels in the arms of another. Djaga is built to fight, yes, and has a past that wracks her dreams – but she isn’t an avatar of destruction, but a flawed person, making their way in the world with the reader, and with a chance at a love that makes her feel complete. It’s a multi-layered, thoughtful type of affection, a comfortable certainty and fountain of hope in a world which could have spoken about blood upon the sand for a few more pages instead. The story is better for it – for giving us Djaga as a person, one whose needs and wants are complex and contradictory, whose inner life is a whirlwind of crackling thought and deeply felt, honest emotion – even as to the outside world she is a calm avatar of destruction.

What I’m saying is, Djaga is thoroughly human, and manages to balance her need for more connection with her capability to be an incredible badass. She’s a great focal point, and I’d love to see more work focusing on the character. The text is approached from her viewpoint, which serves to keep the narrative tight and focused on the world around Djaga.

And what a world it is. If you’re coming in fresh: Sharakai is a city in the desert, a thriving metropolis, ruled by immortal Kings, whose magic has kept the city alive, and whose jealousy and power keeps them in charge, if less than united. The soaring spires of Sharakai connect to everything outside the desert via ships on the sand – sailing craft driven by the desert winds. And outside the city, rebellion and  unsanctioned magic are fermenting into a dizzying, deadly brew. Here though, we, and Djaga, are centred on the fighting pits. On the sand beneath her feet, still slick with blood from that last cut. On the background roar of a crowd which wants blood, and isn’t too particular about how it gets it. On each breath taken under a blazing sun.  The pits are the centre of a close-knit world, and there’s a strange intimacy in the struggle, the sweat, the crowd, the blood. It’s mirrored in the digressions into Sharakai, in the gentler moments Djaga tries to share with Nadin. It’s a strange, richly imagined world, but one which feels very real.

I won’t get into the plot, for fear of spoilers. But I’ll say this: It’s got a lot going on. There’s a searing emotional heart, yes. And there’s dark secrets from the past, uncovered. And treachery, and blood, and tears on the sand, and friendship. Love and sorrow. And there’s some absolutely top-notch fight scenes, which will put your heart in your mouth, right before the story breaks it for you. There’s a little bit of everything here, and it’s all put together with the precision of a stiletto to the heart.
This novella serves as an excellent entry point into the wider Sharakai universe. But it also succeeds on its own terms, giving us a well-crafted work of fantasy which will keep you turning the pages until morning. If you’re a long time reader of the series, or a newcomer to the deserts of Sharakai, this is a book you ought to try.


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Light Brigade - Kameron Hurley


The Light Brigade is a multifaceted, scintillating, bloody gem of a book. It’s a masterclass in sci-fi from Kameron Hurley, whose other works have always had that perfect blend of interesting ideas and emotional impact. This latest, a sci-fi story in what may be our near future, has the same energy and a raw, visceral feel that keeps the text grounded even while exploring some high concept ideas.

This is a book about conflict. At one level, that conflict is a concrete one. Mega-corporations which now run the world struggle with each other for dominance. And while they engage in a cold war with each other, they also have a hot war with Mars, where a different branch of humanity does not appear to regard them kindly. Our protagonist is a front line soldier in this war, and through their eyes we get a view of guts and mud and horror.

This is also a story about more personal conflicts. About the sacrifices people make internally, the hurt they do to themselves while working within systems that limit their potential. About the self justifications that allow that to continue. About how someone makes it through the day, when they don’t know if they will, in fact, make it through the day. This is, after all, a war run by corporate entities, who are almost equally effective at dehumanising their own troops and those of their enemies. But people fight through this. The narrative lets us see people at their best, under the pressure to do anything to win, deciding who they’ll become, how far they’re willing to go, and for what cause.

I’m not sure I can fully describe how visceral, how horrifying and immediate and brutal the scenes in the active war zones are. They’re typically fast-paced, snappy, with a thread of tension running through them like a razor-edged tripwire. Nobody is safe. The connection our interlocutor feels to their squad mates has some real emotional weight, and I found myself sympathising with these grunts as they trekked through mud and ruined cities, as they were asked to do more and more appalling things for a command structure which felt so far removed as to be more alien than the individuals they were fighting against.

This is a conflict whose futility is written in the actions of the people fighting it; the increasing disaffection and rage some feel at doing sounds in parallel with those who just want it all to be over. This is a conflict of exhaustion, of atrocity, of disenfranchised rage against a slow slide into seemingly inevitable disaster. Each page is searing, an indictment of a society which isn’t more than a few steps away from our own.

So it’s a story about conflicts, personal and systemic, played out through the lens of a near-future war. Maybe that’s enough to get you to pick it up and turn some pages.

It’s also a top notch character piece. Sitting behind the eyes of our protagonist, we live through the conflict with them. We learn about their past, the matter-of-fact horrors that shaped their trajectory before the story began. We learn about their loves, and about the ideals which they hold close to their heart. We learn about their mistakes, and see them commit what might be unforgivable acts, under the aegis of war. We see them struggle to forgive themselves and others for similar acts. This is someone drowning, trying to remain human whilst the environment militates against humanity.

The characterisation is, I would suggest, top-flight. The feelings we gain from our narrator have an honesty to them, an immediacy which makes them feel real; and their inner voice is thoughtful, aware of its limitations, a regular person playing out a situation which is pretty irregular. The supporting cast are an intriguing bunch as well – by turns villainous, conflicted, complex, unfeeling, affectionate, treacherous and loyal. They are, to sum up, people, and they shape the world by being seen as people through our protagonist. Some of them aren’t very nice people, but that’s neither here nr there -w hat they are is real, one way or another.

So you’ve got a war, a conflict in a vivid and believable world that lets us explore ideas about wealth and violence, about humanity and personal and institutional power, under the hood of an adrenaline-stoked struggle. And you’ve got characters who feel real, who live and die for each other, whose passions and needs come right off the page. The story is stylistically clever too, smoothly moving between non-linear sections; the reader working alongside our protagonist to make sense of their dislocation. Plotting this out, working out which pieces g where and when, which are visible to the reader and the narrator at which time, must have been a nightmare. But as a means of getting the story across, it’s perfect; as the clouds begin to lift, as quite what’s happening becomes clearer to our protagonist, so too the lines of story begin to join up for the reader. The plotting is intricate work, which pays off admirably over the course of the story.

But there’s other ideas here, too. I won’t touch on it too much for fear of spoilers, but there’s this: In order to move soldiers around, in order to take part in an interplanetary conflict, the corporations have found a way to turn their soldiers into light. To shift them across the world (or worlds) instantly, to reconstitute them, and let them hit the ground fighting immediately. But this is a process with costs. Some come back broken, some come back dead, some come back mad. What they see in that disembodied journey is a mystery, and one which might change the course of history.

This is Hurley at her best. It’s a story about people – real people. Not always good people. Often the opposite. Sometimes beaten, broken, fighting, furious people. But always people. And it’s a story which asks big questions about society – about the way we shape it, and it shapes us. It’s also a book which plays with some big sci-fi ideas in innovative and clever ways, and will reward an in-depth read.

Hurley’s really knocked it out of the park with this one – give it a try.