Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Give Way To Night - Cass Morris

Give Way To Night is the second in Cass Morris’ “Aven Cycle”, the first of which I enjoyed immensely back when it came out. It combines a secondary world, alternate Roman Republic, lavishly furnished with rich detail, with some eye-popping magic and some fantastic characters. The tl;dr is that if any of those sound like something you’d enjoy, then this is a series you should already be reading. Frankly, I’d suggest you pick it up anyway, because the series is delightful, all the way from its closely observed Roman social mores, to the viscerally realised battle scenes, and back around to cut-throat politics, intermingled with warm friendships to make you smile, and romance to sear the heart, there’s something for everyone here.

Aven sits at the centre of its world. Rome, but one step to the left, Aven is a republic on the rise. Its senate believes they’re at the centre of the world. And why wouldn’t they? Aven’s gods - Juno, Mars, a familiar pantheon - clearly favour them. Aven is on the cusp of authority over much of the known world. And the city lives and breathes that truth. The question in that world, in the marble halls of the forum and the grime of the Suburra, is what that truth means. Whether the city should expand its influence, bring more of the world under its aegis, and accept change as a consequence alongside trade and wealth - or whether to shut itself away, isolate itself in the name of purity, hold fast to what it has, and let the rest of the world fend for itself. It’s an issue of identity which feels very contemporary, even embedded in the systems, institutions and personalities of an alternate Rome. From street to street, from Senate hall to darkened forest, Aven and its world are real, living, breathing places. The author really manages to capture a sense of place- -from the bustling urban metropolis of Aven, with its marble lined hallways and decrepit tenement blocks, to the isolated farms and small villages that drive an agrarian economy, to the wild lands beyond the reach of the legions, where unpleasant spirits and inimical tribes hold sway under lowering boughs. Even as the Aventine are our Roman analogues, still we see other perspectives - in both their allies and their enemies, both of whom clash not only in terms of arms, but culturally with the Aven; indeed, their unwillingness to assimilate, and the struggle of some tribes to assert their own identity (albeit with, er, unpleasant blood magic) is part of what drives the conflict for the story. This clash of ideology and identity is combined with an interest in the liminal spaces - the borders where changes can be made. Socially, yes - in the tribes that ally with the Aventine, and the Aventines that see the role of their city as part of a wider world, but also in a more concrete fashion; this is a world of gods, of magic, of mysticism and active spirits, as much as blood and iron. 

Incidentally, there’s rather a lot of that. The legions of Aven are on the march, coming to the aid of their allies in not-Spain. When the tribes and the legions meet, it’s often messy - and the battles are wonderful set pieces of tactics, magic and adrenaline. The crash of blood-fuelled berserkers again a shield wall thunders off the page. The world changes as we turn those pages, and the stakes are at once extremely high, and extremely personal. The visceral energy of combat is matched by the mystery and intrigue of investigations into a magical conspiracy at the highest levels of the Aventine seat of power. That strand is a compelling blend of mystery and magic, of betrayals, divided loyalties and stunning revelations.

The characterisation is top notch. Latona of the Vitelliae remains our central protagonist, a woman who is slowly coming out from under the shadow of her own trauma. Latona is growing more aware of her own strengths now, less willing to accept the word of others, to shrink into her own self. Instead, she’s reaching out to others, making connections and constructing a self of her own, one which is shaped by her past, perhaps, but not defined by it. Latona is clever, articulate, and above all, good - a heroine who does the right thing for the right reasons, or at least tries to. Watching her slowly unfurl, build a self confidence backed by actions, is a pure joy. That she kicks arse, holding fire and friendship in one hand, and spirit and righteousness in the other, is great too. Every time she appears on the page, Latona is a joy - and that she does so in the company of her family dynamics, likewise. We can see her speaking with her sisters, working through relationships shaped by year, and struggling with a failing marriage, as well as a father who isn’t quite sure who she really is. This is a woman who has lived a life, and her life is a thing all its own, of texture, weight, sorrow and joy. 

Part of Latona’s changes is her budding romance with Sempronius, the general currently leading legions into a maelstrom of blood magic and madness. Sempronius remains fun to watch, as he shuffles pieces around like they’re on a chessboard, parts of his agenda still uinclear, but his essential humanity and decency still very much visible. If he seems pale beside the pure energy of the Vitelliae women, that is not to his detriment - the Vitelliae each bring a presence to the page, and make for a wonderful read.

Which is what I’d say about this story of conspiracy, murder, epic battles and marvellous, mysterious magic. It’s a wonderful read, and you should definitely give it a try.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Ikessar Falcon - K.S. Villoso

The Ikessar Falcon
is the follow up to K.S. Villoso’s excellent The Wolf of Oren Yaro. It follows up immediately from the events of the first book, and remains centred on Queen Talyien of Oren-Yaro.Isolated from her kingdom, surrounded by foes and traitors, Tali has fought her way from one disaster, one site of carnage to the next, trying to reconcile her duty to her kingdom, her love for her son, and her own needs.Now she takes a step out onto a wider stage, setting out to return to a kingdom which may not welcome her at all. And it seems likely that things are going to get bloody along the way.

This is Tali’s story. A story of a young woman living under the crushing weight of expectation. Of someone whose family casts such a shadow, leaves such a weight, that she is defined by others before she knows herself who she is. Tali’s father ripped the kingdom apart in a war he saw as necessary, then raised a daughter to realise his ambitions. Is Tali a queen? In the ceremonial sense, perhaps. But she can also be seen as the last blade of a dead conqueror, shaped by his hand to serve his agenda beyond the grave. But Tali is also her own woman, someone who thinks of honour and duty, of service and war - but not always in the same way as her father. Tali is an unknown variable, a paper boat cast on rough seas, trying to shape a safe harbour. 

As a character study, Talis journey is a flawless gem. Unlike Tali herself, whose flaws are as manifest as her better qualities. Tali is a woman trying to break free of the rails of circumstance. Of the bounds that duty and family place on her horizons. But at the same time, she is shaped by those expectations, by those needs. She can not rip herself from the social fabric in which she has been crafted, but cannot survive the events within it as she is. And so we have a conflicted woman: one part politician, deploying a lethal wit to uncover the schemes of her enemies, one part deadly warrior, willing to cross blades for a slight, and to face down five or six men alone - and win. And if those aspects are not enough, there’s the more vulnerable, intimate part of her. The part which struggles to give the woman behind the mask, behind the armour of expectation, social nicety and history room to breathe. That last part humanises Tali, defines her with a raw honesty and searing humanity, gives her a texture and context outside of heroines and villainesses. A scorned wife, an embattled mother, trying to save home and country, see her son and untangle her feelings for, among others, her ex-husband, Tali is a bit of a mess. A genuine, conflicted, brave and struggling mess. And she wears a face like armour, and, well, also regular armour - but the bitch-queen is a woman, a person, even as the person is contorted around the needs of the roles she is wearing, has no choice but to wear.. This is a portrait of a woman under stress, meeting adversity with strength and courage, while carrying heavy weights, and it has an authenticity, a truth to its voice which will have you turning every page with heart in mouth, to see what happens next.

That it happens in a wider world than we’ve seen before now is another joy. Here is Oren Yaro, and the sprawling counties around it. Each shaped by their Warlords, by their histories of struggle and brief pauses of something like pace. This is a land unquiet and wounded, but not broken. One whose woes are not limited to the continual internecine bickering, the insurmountable pride of its purported rulers - but one where other, darker things have begun to slither in the shadows. We learn a little of the past, of the history of the war Tali’s father began, and why. We see the broken stumps that remain of the Oren Yaro dragon towers. And we find ourselves among the wondrous, the magical both fair and foul. There are so many moving parts, in a world where Tali is a critical cog. There are schemes within schemes, wizards performing diabolical acts, and warlords making power plays. And smaller, quieter, perhaps more important people, living their lives in the shadow of ruined towers and squabbling nobles - selling fish and getting by. Still, there are wonders and horrors alongside the prosaic - monsters and dragons, oh my. And it all feels deeply real.

In the end, this is a fabulous work, filled with truth and wonder, with a core of humanity which makes its voice feel powerful and honest in each breath. Go give the series a try.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Dread Nation - Justina Ireland


Justina Ireland’s “Dread Nation” is a story about identity. About truth. About the way we shape our own stories, be they personal or national. And it’s a story about kick-arse young women fighting their way out of a zombie apocalypse set a few years after the American civil war.

Jane, the protagonist, is, to use an overly used descriptor, fierce. She’s a young woman at the top of her game, and that game is killing off the restless dead. Blades, unarmed combat, crossbows - she is a swift and efficient killer. But at the same time she’s a young woman, with a penchant for talking before thinking, and a disdain for compromise. There’s a fragile arrogance there, which clashes with the harsh treatment she receives at her..lets call it an educational establishment. 

Because this is an alternate America, where the dead began to rise from the battlefields of the civil war. Where the question of slavery was answered by the tearing jaws and ravening hunger of walking corpses, and where reunification and reconstruction was the only alternative to extinction. So we see a tenuously United States, where the south is heavily fortified urban centres, linked by patrolled corridors. Where plantation workers are nominally free, but the howling death waits outside the barbed wire fences for those who might complain that what was promised isn’t delivered. A society which is at war within and without. The text does a brilliant job of showing us the claustrophobia and paranoia of southern cities, the need to feel like there can be a new normal, against the backdrop of hugely disruptive social change. The glitz and glamour, the stately opulence of dances and coming-outs is ion stark contrast to the staggering moans of the unquiet dead, whose relentless march against the living is met with equal parts violence, restrictive social measures, and outright denial. The double talk, the “fake news” muttering sof politicians, the rise of populism, echo from the story into our world, and are all the more powerful thereby. This is a society which is sick, facing a plague that comes with blood already stained between its teeth.

And part of that sickness is the sort of school which educates Jane. It’s a combat school. One where young women of certain ethnicities and extractions can be sent, to gain an education, to better themselves. But their roles are set out for them - as bodyguards to the wealthy, as guardians of privilege against the hungry teeth that challenge it. They may be better off, but still aren’t able to decide their own path. Equality is still a distant star, even as the girls of the combat schools are expected to die for their patrons. 

Jane is one of the best at what she does, ready to go out into the world and kick arse. But she has other needs as well. Quieter parts of her past are simmering, soon to boil over, and the reader will be taken along with her, as she struggles against the power structures and expectations that seek to enclose her, and decide who she wants to be in the face of her own demons. It’s easy to cheer Jane as she beheads a shambling corpse, metaphorically or literally. And the shadow and tragedies living beneath the surfacer add hidden edges of complexity to her integrity and searing anger. Jane is a heroine, no doubt. Tossed in the dark sea of circumstance, we can root for her to triumph.

And the story...well, it’s a good one. Jane faces off against hordes of the undead. Against racists and murderers, liars and powerful men with a hidden agenda. She’s a young woman finding herself, and she’s finding herself with a bloody weapon in each hand, with whip-crack dialog, with a quick mind and a smart mouth. The story shows us adventure, excitement, and a rage against the machine which will keep you turning pages through the night.Check it out!

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Short Break

 Hi everyone,

Apologies, but we're holding posts for a few weeks, while one of us is in the hospital.

We intend to be back as soon as possible!

Thanks for all your support and understanding.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Vinyl Detective: Written In Dead Wax - Andrew Cartmel

 The Vinyl Detective is a mystery and a lifestyle all in one. The protagonist is a man interested in obscure jazz. And vinyl. Someone whose hobby has not consumed their life as much as become an integrated part of it. Someone for whom digging around in second hand bins at charity shops in search of that one elusive release with the limited run slip, or a B-side that nobody’s seen in thirty years.

It’s natural then to turn that hobby, that lifestyle, into a job. And Cartmel does that for us perfectly, with the eye of an expert. With affection, tinged with wry humour that shows that our interests are shaping us even as we define them. There’s a love here, a warmth for collectors and hobbyists of all kinds. In a lot of ways, the story is like a cup of hot tea on a cold winter evening. It leaves you with the same sense of contentment and satisfaction, and it fits around you like a well-fitting shoe, or washes off the page into the soul like, well, some particularly good Coltrane. There’s a mystery, and we can talk about that too, but the heart of this feels to me like a blend of domesticity and discovery. Of taking joy in the small things, in searching out that 1920’s vinyl you’ve never seen before, of finding hidden treasure between blank covers - and taking it home, and putting it on the player, just to see what it sounds like. There’s a quietly human transcendence to those moments, and so to this story, which captures them so well. 

The story, well, that’s something else. Our nameless protagonist is approached by a mysterious woman, on behalf of an even more mysterious patron, to find a rare record. Why someone wants that particular record, and why they’re willing to pay quite so much to find it, is at least initially unclear. Things quickly spiral out of control, as our hero discovers that other parties are also in search of this record, and are prepared to do anything, including kill, to keep hold of it. And their own patron is of dubious reliability at best. But it’s a great adventure piece, which makes digging through record bins at flea markets into high adventure, and blends that prosaic joy with the simmering tension of a noir investigation, and the occasional explosion of gunfire. Over the course of the story, the central mystery unfurls, and its all, just, rather a lot of fun. While there are revelations, and while they can knock you for six and turn your head, they never feel unfair. The reader may be one step behind the protagonist, but they have as much of an opportunity to put all the pieces together. And all the pieces of the mystery lock together into a satisfying, cathartic conclusion. 

In the end, this is a fun, cozy mystery with an innovative premise, which it uses well in service to a compelling story. If you dig this sort of thing, it’s going to be a good read.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind - Jackson Ford


The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind not only has a great title, it’s a fun sci-fi adventure, filled with banter, explosions, and a delightful found-family set of character dynamics. Oh, and a girl who can move shit with her mind. It’s a fun-filled mystery, a thriller, an adventure, and, did I mention, there’s a girl who can move shit with her mind? It’s well paced, compelling without being frantic, a page turner, but it’s the sheer ebullient fun  of it all that kept me coming back.

It helps that it’s written by an author whose stuff I’ve always enjoyed, but this is a new series, and one you can come to fresh.

Teagan Frost is the Girl of the title. And I have to say, I have time for her. Teagan is smart, and knows what she wants. Which is, basically, to live a normal life. Eat great food at nice restaurants. Maybe watch some trashy television. And learn to cook. Teagan has dreams which are at once prosaic and vast. The only known telekinetic, she doesn’t want to rule the world, or form a league of superheroes. Teagan would like to run a restaurant. And be normal. And that sheer urge to be normal, to have the life she can see on television, and in the city all around her, is heartbreaking and wonderful at once. Because Teagan’s life isn’t set up to be normal. She’s an involuntarily black bag operator for the US government, saved from being experimented on only by her willingness to go out and do whatever she’s told - stealthily bugging drug lords, for example. The juxtaposition of Teagan’s desire for a normal life with the work she actually does, and the powers at her command, is one of the most wonderful parts of the story. You can feel for a woman who would just like to go open up a place that makes really good Bahn Mi, but has to be an Operator instead, and isn’t overly happy about it.

Teagan is the everywoman we need, struggling with memories from her past that she’d rather forget, trying to make a decent future for herself, despite the situation she’s in. A reluctant heroine, to say the least, and she certainly doesn’t think of herself that way - wanting to be left alone to cook and listen to her tunes, rather than save the world.

And helping her do the latter, rather than the former, is her team. They’re all part of this black ops squad for different but similar reasons. Somewhere along the line, they made a mistake, and had their feet pulled from the fire in exchange for access to their special set of skills. Or, to be fair, they enjoy being paid large sums of money. Themselves sarcastic, opinionated, and constantly rubbing their rough edges against each other, the team is mismatched, often hostile, and struggling to work together effectively as the story begins. Still, they’re the human element, believable in their pettiness, in their struggles, in their effort to shape their own destinies. ANd there’s a pearl at the heart, a sense that the group could come together to be something really special, if they were willing to try. That energy, that dynamic, the affections and the bickering, make the group real, make you care.

I’ll say this, too. The author knows how to write a city. I’ve never wanted to go to LA, but seeing it through Teagan’s eyes made me feel, just for a little while, like I’d seen its soul. There’s bright lights and dark thoughts, but also an energy, a crackling in the soul, that you can see in the restaurateurs, in the gang members, in the police response, even. There’s love and faith and broken hearts, betrayals and moments of true hope. And the city weaves its way through it all, from traffic-clogged highway to charming public library and glistening office skyscrapers. The heat, the shade, and the search for truth are there in LA, the moral ambiguities and the need for justice. You can feel it in the city as it breathes - and that the city feels this alive is impressive, and marvellous.

I won’t touch the story, except to say that it’s a lot of fun. There’s explosions, fast cars and chases of all sorts. There’s villains of various degrees of sympathy. Stuff blows up real good. And in the quieter moments, in between all the things, ha, flying through the air, we can think about the people we are, the people we want to be, and how to bridge the gap between the two. But there’s a heck of a lot of thrills and spills on that journey, for sure. And this is a story that’ll keep you on the edge of your seat, keep you turning pages to see what happens next, and keep you caring about it, too. It’s a great start to a series, and one I want to read more of - and I bet you will, too.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

The House of Styx - Derek Künsken

The House of Styx  is, at its core, a tale of family. It’s about the arguments which divide us, the shared moments which bind us together. The traits that we pick up from our parents, our siblings, our children. The ideals and the flaws that we pass on, or that we absorb through osmosis. It’s a story of one family, doing extraordinary things to survive, and maybe changing the world.

It’s also, and I can’t forget this, a story about Venus. Because that’s where our protagonists are, hanging in the cloud belts of Venus. Their bedraggled, run down, on-the-edge-of-perdition craft teeters from layer to layer, resource harvesting giving the means for a subsistence living, albeit one with at least the illusion of freedom.  Family is the narrative centre of the story, but the heart of it is Venus. Every decision, every moment, is shrouded in actions which the environment makes necessary. The howling acid storms leave each individual very alone against the night, and find families hunkered together in tight knit universes of their own construction. Each craft in this Venusian society, this colonial society, is surrounded by a world which is trying to kill them, and won’t even notice if it succeeds.

Künsken’s prose is evocative, and shapes a Venus which is wonderful and terrible in equal measure. The cloud layers are all different, and the Venusian surface is a sight rarely visible. Being on that surface, rarer still. With its hostility, its searing winds, crushing pressures and generally horrifying weather, it’s still somehow a place that feels alien and new. A stark and unknown sea, with desolation yes, but also a kind of stark and lethal beauty. This is a Venus which feels like an entity in itself, brought to life by Künsken’s vivid descriptions as we walk alongside some compelling characters.

And they’re an odd bunch, that’s a fact. Colonials, descendants of Qubequois, sent out to scrabble on the scraps of the solar system nobody wanted. The settlers in turn separated from the separatists, and now Venus is their own. And beneath both these layers of stubborn independence and anti-colonialism, live our family, whose choices decades before have doomed them to the margins of a marginal society. From the adolescent struggling with their identity, to the father so stubbornly ensconced in his own skin of old grudges, around to the elder siblings, living life in the shadow of their parents tragedies and choices, and around to the eldest, whose life was the hardest choice of all - they all have something about them. An essence, a humanity. So many weaknesses, and destructive tendencies, and rages and misunderstandings, yes. But also a love that is less transcendental than bred into the bone: family first, always. The family of deep diving Venusians speaks to us, and in its loyalty, in its bonds that creak across generations and across old wounds, it says that there is truth and honesty in love and family, and in not just the family you’re born to, but the family you find and grow yourself.

The story is...well, I won’t give it away! But it’s rather clever, a story of engineering, of getting around the towering depths of Venus. Of taking up that once chance you might have to change the world. And while doing that, trying to keep out from under the nose of a government who are, themselves, trying to keep out from under the nose of the Banks, who everyone must owe. It’s a science fiction story, in that it asks big questions about colonialism, and about gender, and about family, but it does so within the bounds of an imaginatively crafted world, where crafting poetry to shape the soul of Venus lives alongside the hard engineering problems needed to survive within its body. There’s something for everyone here - the romantic and the pragmatist married in one story; those here for the characterisation will be delighted by the protagonists, while those who love their world building will struggle to find anything as convincing as Künsken’s Venusian skies. And the story, well, it left me reading at 2AM, trying not to cry and determined both to finish the book, and that it couldn’t end this way, that I wanted more.

So I can recommend it in good conscience; it’s a marvellous book, and well worth your time.