Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Titanshade - Dan Stout

Titanshade is the debut fantasy-noir novel from Dan Stout. It certainly has a lot going for it. There’s a city in the centre of an ice-field, whose economic survival depends on slowly depleting oil reserves. There’s different species living side by side, with all the socio-cultural tension which that brings. There’s politicians who have an agenda to promote, and little care for what damage they’ll do. There’s sorcerors who can bring back the dead for a bit of a chat. There’s a police force whose members have a penchant for graft, planting evidence, and applying a swift phonebook to the side of the head of a problem when an interrogation won’t solve it. Oh, and there is, of course, a murder

So yeah, there’s a lot going on here. The first thing I have to say is that, with all of these things going on, there’s a sense of style, and a vivid sense of place. The style – well, it feels like a blend between the hard-edged noir of Hammett and Ellroy, and the blurred excesses of an extravagant Seventies. Wide collars, smart shades and smart mouths are available in equal measure. The place? The place is Titanshade. It’s a city that sits on the edge of nowhere. An urban hub nestled against a mountain, with freezing plains in every direction. A city of rings, each ring a little further out than the last, each ring a little colder than the last. It’s a city built on a desire to escape government intrusion – in the far end of nowhere – but also on wealth. This is an oil town, whose liquid gold has kept the populace in work and in ready cash for quite some time. You can feel the sense of the past in the prose – in characters in richly decorated offices, looking out on run-down drill-rigs. In the neighbourhoods in the city which still hold some of their care and class, but are just that little bit more decrepit than the year before. This is a city on the edge of a downturn, hanging on to its former glory by its fingernails. And the prose gives us that – in the sparkling white of the snow, in the rust and steel gleam of the oil rigs. In the energy of the populace, warming themselves in the city’s heart, and in the cool calculation of its leadership. This is a place which comes alive on the page, which pulls you into its streets and makes you feel the clamour, the drive, the need to be alive – and the undercurrent sin the same streets, the darker pulses of the urban heart. Titanshade lives.

Our protagonist in this town is Carter. Carter works homicide in Titanshade, a place where the dead can be revived to answer awkward questions (albeit with no guarantee that they’ll be answered), and where corruption makes sure that inconvenient answers are delicately swept under the rug, along with the people who found them. Carter hits a lot of familiar notes – he’s down on his luck, he has a mysterious past, he’s not a completely straight shooter, but has limits; for all that, they ring true. Carter’s voice is wry, thoughtful, aware of his position, but determined to do some good despite himself. The colloquial tone makes for an accessible read, and if Carter isn’t always the best person, still he’s easy to empathise with.

Watching with Carter’s eyes works especially well when compared to his partner, who, apart from having mandibles (being from one of Titanshade’s other resident species), is new to the city. He’s keen to learn, keen not to mess up, and keen to do the right thing – but far, fasr less keen to be seen anywhere near Carter. There relationship is a small joy in the text, as they circle each other, trying to reach a rapprochement through banter, the odd bite of street-food, and examining the occasional murder scene.

Both, I have to say, manage the tricky feat of feeling alive, of feeling like people. I felt their successes, their fears, their victories and defeats.  They’re ably supported by a broader cast of memorable figures – from the down-home oil baron, to the activists trying to help get sex-workers off the street, to ice-cold political operatives. There’s a lot going on here, and the people in it have their own lives and their own agenda.

The plot – well, I shan’t give anything away. It starts with a murder, which is how Carter finds himself involved. But even as the investigation is hitting its stride, there are suggestions that there are other things going on – including politics, blackmail and betrayal. It’s a story whose central post is a complex murder with many different angles, and the investigation is both convincing and compelling. You’ll want to know whodunit, but I, at least, also wanted to know why they dunnit. There’s more than enough action here to set the pulse racing, and the prose pulls absolutely no punches in that regard; but there’s a strong emotional centre as well, and a believable mystery with a strong resolution sat at the heart of the text.

This is a solid debut, giving us a fascinating new world, some fun characters who feel real, and a story which, I guarantee will keep you turning pages into the wee hours. Give it a whirl!

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The True Queen - Zen Cho

The True Queen is Zen Cho’s follow up to their utterly charming debut, Sorcerer to the Crown.
It’s a delightful blend of magic and manners, as well as wit and romance. It’s the sort of book you can happily read while drinking a cup of tea on a rainy day, letting it transport you to a world where fairies are real (and sometimes deadly), and so is magic; where a scathing word can cut deeper than a blade, where dances are utterly serious, and where everyone should know their place.

Muna, the protagonist, isn’t particularly good at knowing her place. She begins her journey on a beach, with no memory of who she is, and with a sister. Muna is grounded, considerate, thoughtful, and unbending in the face of adversity. You can feel her quiet strength suffusing every line she speaks, and parse it from her quick thinking and craft in the face of danger. By contrast, her sister is imperious, sharp, sometimes thoughtless – but also fierce, witty, a being of air and fire . Their relationship is characterised by their love for each other. Though they bicker, squabble and banter as much as siblings do, there’s an undercurrent there of trust and affection, a bond which sustains each, even as it holds them to fight for each other. This familial bond is given a sympathetic rendering in the text, and it’s wonderfully drawn, as the pair of bickering siblings strive toward their mutual goals.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the friendship she has with Henrietta, one of the magieiennes of Britain, whose family issues probably deserve a novel all of their own. The two of them are kind to each other, supportive, fierce and endearing. The time they spend together, through thick and thin, was an absolute delight.

Still, Muna is our viewpoint on the world, and it’s with her we explore Regency Britain once again. Well, actually, we begin at Janda Baik, near the straits of Malacca The text brings to life the myths of the area – sometimes literally, with a vividly realised originality. The warmth and life of the island on which Muna and her sister find themselves has a constant dynamic thrum, and it’s brushed into being with care and vitality. The contrast of an island where power lives informally with its dependents, and cheek-by-jowl with its own mythology, is contrasted cleverly with the more formal, colder, more regimented world of Regency England, where Muna finds herself after something of a mishap while trying to trace her identity.

Identity is something of an issue here, actually. Muna is looking for who she is, but the English are more than happy to try and craft a role for her, layering on colonial expectations as well as gendered and social ones. Muna I thought, was expected to be a magicienne, of a strange  (to the English), far away tradition, and to be at once a divergence from the expected role of women and one of its exemplars. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t take this overly well. Still, it means we get to see Regency society once again – the parties where people are willing to talk about what dress someone’s wearing, the scandal of that one fellow who is up to his ears in debt, and of course, that cousin who ran away to join the faerie court, or, more scandalously, that daughter who now does magic. That baroque sense of style is back, and it wraps around the text, giving it a style and grandeur of the period. We do get to see more of the faerie realm as well, an odd, ineffably cruel place, where nothing is quite what you’d expect.

Muna is going into these places looking for herself. What she finds may be something else entirely.
The plot takes a while to get rolling, but don’t let the gentle tone of the characters disguise the scheming and steel which lies beneath. By the mid point I was intrigued to see what happened next, and where it was all going. By the last quarter, you would have had to pry it from my hands to stop me getting to the end.

This is a clever, thoughtful book. It explores a lot of interesting ideas around identity, gender, and empire. It draws and builds some marvellous relationships, which feel vivaciously human. And it’s a book which is hopeful, and a genuine balm for the soul. If you’re new to the series, maybe read Sorcerer to the Crown first; but I’d say if you’ve read the first book, you know what you’re getting into – this one is a delight, and worth your time.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

A Time of Blood - John Gwynne

A Time of Blood is the second book in John Gwynne’s “Of Blood & Bone” epic fantasy series. The first, A Time of Dread, was fabulous: character driven, action-packed fantasy. So it’s fair to say that my expectations had set a pretty high bar for this book to clear. And clear it, it did. If you’re looking at this now, having read the first book, trying to decide if this sequel is worth buying, let me say this: Yes. And, in more detail: it has more of the things I loved about its predecessor. Snappy, kinetic, downright bloody fight scenes. Protagonists struggling with their own choices as well as the choices of those around them. Villains who manage to come across as people, even as they descend into monstrousness. And a world where towering citadels mix with tangled forests, and where the magic of blood meets the shield-wall. It is, in summary, wonderfully epic fantasy.

The characters are the heart of this story. I’ve got an especially  soft spot for Riv, the half-breed with self-control issues. Her entire world has been ripped asunder, and this book doesn’t really let up on that. Riv is trying, so hard, to build herself up, to hold on to the potential that others see in her. Her struggle to write a new identity for herself is a fraught one, and you can feel the raw emotion bubbling away within her. The conflict between a woman who desperately wants to do the right thing, and the desire to lash out and bring down a system which seems almost designed to keep that from happening – well, it’s felt viscerally on the page. That Riv also kicks serious arse is a plus – watching her learn and fight and fall and win, having got her hands dirty and rather bloody, is inspirational reading. There’s also a well-crafted and somewhat troubled romance rearing its head here – done in such a way that it feels genuine and an organic outgrowth of events, which is a delightful rarity.

Then there's Drem. I rather like our hero-protagonist, as he struggles to articulate who he is, what his feelings are, and tries to find a way to get the rich inner world he experiences out in front of anyone else. That’ s a raw, heartfelt struggle. Drem seems to spend a fair amount of time either on the run, or caught up in blood-soaked skirmishes. Watching his confidence surface through the text is great fun, and I was happy to be cheering him on from the sidelines. He’s still quiet and struggling with parts of himself, but definitely grows over the course of the text.

The character that sticks with me, though, oh that has to be Fritha. Once the woman Drem held a torch for, now the high priestess of the Kadoshim, whose penchant for murder and torture is not at all exaggerated. Fritha’s viewpoint is some interesting emotional geography. She’s holding tight to a savage emotional wound, and that allows us to feel empathetic toward her excision of that pain, even when doing so leads to utter ruin for our heroes. Fritha is smart, driven, and focused. She also is more than capable of doing absolutely terrible things in service to her goals, and the story doesn’t flinch away from showing us that. This delving into the mind of the villain is masterfully done. Even as I recoiled from her, I could see how Fritha had started down her particularly unpleasant road, and what the price of that had been .Every time she showed up on the page was a tense mix of delight and burgeoning horror; as an antagonist, she’s complex, believable and makes compelling reading.

I talked a lot about the world of this series when reviewing the previous book. Suffice to say, there’s more here of what I loved then. The soaring fortresses of the giants are stunningly realised. The forests that our protagonists tramp through are dark, mysterious and teeming with life. The crunch of feet on the deep snows of the Desolation feels crisp, and you can almost feel the icy wind on your face as you turn the page.  The environment is rich, detailed, and comes alive in your hands.

There’s politics here, too, the world of people to go alongside the natural. And my, there’s so much scheming going on. I mean, the Kadoshim are fallen servants of the divine. They’re often monstrous, but have surprising moments of vulnerability. Their schemes tend to be a bit more focused, and the monsters that they put into play are both repellent and magnetic. The Ben-Elim, though, the eternal enemies of the Kadoshim; they’re an odd lot. Convinced of their own superiority as guardians of humanity, they have a penchant for heavy-handed arrogance which makes them unsympathetic at best. If humanity are on both sides of this war, it’s worth noting that even the ‘good’ Ben-Elim are not often nice people. They have, it seems, just as much a capacity for treachery, realpolitik and deceit as anyone else, and possibly more, having wrapped themselves up in a tale of their own effortless superiority which…may not exactly be borne out. Though the Kadoshim are definitely the baddies (oh my yes), they come by it honestly. The Ben-Elim claim to be on the side of right, but that doesn’t make them automatically possessed of virtue. Often quite the opposite. You can see in every word they speak the incalculable arrogance which suggests that the war they’ve found themselves in is of their own making.

Anyway.  You’ve come this far. You’ve read the excellent A Time of Dread, and you want to know if you should read the sequel.

Yes. Yes you should.

It’s got everything you loved about the first book – be it the bloody, close-quarter, no-holds barred fight scenes, the fast-paced, tense plotting, the detailed world building, or the complex characterisation. But more. Yes. More. This book takes everything from its predecessor and turns it up to eleven. 

I can’t wait to see where John Gwynne takes us next.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

A Memory Called Empire - Arkady Martine

I’m going to put my cards on the table here, before going any further. I think Arkady Martine’s A Memory Called Empire is an absolutely brilliant book. It has everything I want in sci-fi, wrapped up in one very imaginative package. It asks complicated, thoughtful questions about society, about culture, cultural appropriation, and what empire actually means. It even provides some answers, and not all from the same perspective. It does this by giving us complex characters, with their own hopes, drives and fears, and putting them into a rich, vividly imagined world. It’s a world with tensions between great political powers and those just outside their reach, and where politics can have swift and deadly personal consequences.

Yeah, I liked this one.

It starts with Mahit Dzmare, the new ambassador from a small, single system mining concern to the towering (and difficult to spell) Teixcalaanli Empire. Mahit has immersed herself in Teixcalaanli culture since childhood to prepare for this role, but been thrust into it not entirely prepared, due to the sudden demise of her predecessor. Teixcalaanli is the lead weight on the surrounding galatic sheet. Their ships are everywhere, heavily armed and exuding authority. But what the story shows us is more about their soft power. The way that Teixcalaanli culture wraps itself around and through the cultures surrounding it, so that the songs they sing are Imperial songs – or derived from them. So that the books they read are Imperial books – or drawn from them. So that, eventually, the habits of thought for these non-Imperial territories become conditioned into Teixcalaanli habits of thought. So that they see themselves as outsiders in their own cultures, so that they see Teixcalaanli as the Teixcalaanli do – as the centre of the universe. Mahit is a product of this strategy; she knows the culture of the empire she is being sent to treat with. Though proud of her own people, and what they’ve accomplished, she is riven by cracks of cultural confusion. In being proud of her differences, or conforming to their expectations of her differences, is she perhaps falling into the mode of the outsider that the Teixcalaan expect? Or can those be leveraged to her advantage? Similarly, in finding a lodestar in Teixcalaan, in appreciating its traditions, literature, media, politics – is she left little more than an ersatz portrayal of an outwith barbarian? Or is there the potential to craft a unique seeming from the blending of these values? Mahit is smart, pragmatic, incisive – and even as she’s thinking about who she is, and the way she portrays herself, those around her are doing the same, adjusting their expectations in light of her arrival.

So yes. This is a book that has a lot to say about identity. About what the conception of self entails, and how we shape ourselves in a given environment. At the larger level, it explores this by looking at the differences between the Teixcalaanli and Mahit’s station home – and at the casual arrogance and force, along with an undeniably rich history which allows the Teixcalaan to see themselves as the centre of the universe. At the micro level, it’s about Mahit, and the way she handles being very far from home, and how she starts asking and answering questions around what home actually is.

Which may sound frightfully esoteric, but…isn’t, really. It’s a big question wrapped in more immediate ones – in the day to day politics of the empire, in Mahit’s investigation into the demise of her predecessor. In the poems sung during marches by protestors, and at wakes. In the way that the Teixcalaanli see and question themselves. It’s everywhere, and that means you get to think about the big question of identity while also wondering whether Mahit will, for example, manage to survive her first night in the Teixcalaanli Empire without being assassinated.

We’ll come back to that in a second.

Before we do – I’ve talked about Mahit’s struggle with identity, as part of an exploration of one of the text’s larger themes. And it’s fascinating, multi-layered, and like all good questions, raises more off the back of itself. But I also want to talk about Mahit more precisely.

As our interlocutor, she’s fiercely clever, thinks fast and speaks fast as well. Having been flung into this shark-pool at short notice she, like us, is somewhat at a loss, and this allows us to be brought along for her journey while looking on her with a sympathetic eye. I felt for Mahit throughout. Her confusion, hurt, damage and determination all hit with the punch of precision-crafted steel. Not a super-powered avatar of justice, but a person trying to do their level best in difficult circumstances – something we can all, perhaps, identify with. I cheered her victories, and sorrowed in her defeats. What I really want to say here is that Mahit felt real. Lovingly, sympathetically, but honestly rendered, and entirely believable.

This extended out to the rest of the cast as well. The Teixcalaan have something of a stiff upper lip approach, cloaking emotion behind a fa├žade – but in between the cracks of those Mahit runs into, you can feel a fire absolutely blazing. They are, much like Mahit, fierce people, proud of their culture and what they do – and if their empire is an engine of expansion and slow cultural infusion and homogeneity, the people within it would perhaps argue that it has to be so, and that the propagation of their civilisation and culture to the outer reaches is a necessity. Arrogance, yes, and it leaves so many questions about colonialism, and the liminality of both physical borders and ephemeral identity – but arrogance which comes well argued, and makes both Mahit and us stop and think before challenging them, as they must be challenged.

As part of that, it’s a pure delight to see The City, the capital city of the empire, whose name underscores what its inhabitants see as its central nature to the universe. It’s beautiful, connected, and in many ways vital. It feels like a real city, with its soaring columns, utilitarian government ministries, and suburbs you might not want to visit on your own at night It contrasts wonderfully with the claustrophobic, intimate spaces of Mahit’s home station, where the sky is something which happens to other people, and where their methods of cultural retention are less orthodox than the Teixcalaanli’s worldwide network.

Anyway, that’s the big questions again. But in between those, we see a mechanical beast of a station, ticking along through the centuries, with a lively cultural scene of its own, determined to hold its independence against the far larger and viciously enticing Teixcalaanli, Again, both feel like real places. Both have completely different moods, the people who we see are, on both sides, still people, but their viewpoint is coloured by their environs and their history to make their approaches totally different. The history of the Teixcalaanli oozes off the page, and you’ll find you suddenly know a lot about it, perhaps unconsciously. What we get of the station is perhaps more direct, but no less impactful. Both feel like lived in spaces, both feel like you could wake up there tomorrow, feel the clank of your feet on the station deckplates, or breathe the scent of the flowers in a Teixcalaanli night garden.

The story though. OK. It’s great. I’m not going to spoil it, but it starts with a mystery. What happened to Mahit’s predecessor? And how can she keep the charming, intelligent, beautiful, thoughtful Teixcalaanli from absorbing her station? Should she even want to? There’s…a lot going on in the answers to those questions. Some of it involves politics – the dialogue there is absolutely pitch perfect, often wry, often viciously funny. Some of it involves violence, politics by other means. There’s assassinations (as alluded to earlier!), murders, explosions and investigations. Underneath all that is a slow-boiling tension which kept me turning pages until late in to the night, because I needed to know what happened next. The story, like any good mystery, hides a lot from you, and then lets you back behind the curtain as it goes on. The pace remorselessly ratchets up, and the conclusion left me breathless.

As I said earlier: Yeah, I liked this one. There’s so much going on, and it all manages to fit together absolutely perfectly.

Short version: If you’re here for the world-building, this book has your back. If you’re here for the characterisation, this book has your back. If you’re here for a plot filled with political intrigue and occasional explosions, this book has your back. If you’re here for the big ideas, the way that this text asks them and weaves it through the narrative is incredibly impressive – reminiscent of the best of Iain M. Banks, while being startlingly original in its approach. So there, too, this book has your back.

Should you be reading this? Yes, yes you should. It’s a brilliant debut, and I’m already craving more. Go out and pick up a copy right now, read it, and thank me later.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Winter Road - Adrian Selby

The Winter Road is Adrian Selby’s second journey into the world he started with the excellent (albeit occasionally impenetrable) Snakewood. That said, this is a standalone, rather than a sequel, occurring generations before the events of the other book, and without any direct ties.

With that in mind, what is there to like about The Winter Road?  Well, there’s the world. There’s the people in it. And there’s the story that they tell together. The narrative shines, as individuals feel hope and pain and regret and love and betrayal, against a backdrop which shapes them as much as they act upon it. Each is a part of a greater whole, and together they make something with real energy, real spark, and real humanity.

So, the world, then. In some ways, it’s a tightly coupled one. Families hold to their land. Some swear loyalty to others, and there’s the sense of a slowly evolving feudal sensibility. But the numbers involved seem relatively small, each family keeping an isolated holding, each family separated by hours or days from its nearest neighbour. What binds them is a web of blood, but it’s strained at the edges. That isolation is visible further up the chain as well. Though there is a family at the head of the society shown to the reader, they have a limit to their reach – there are sections of the surrounding land, ‘The Circle’ that are outside of their reach, that haven’t been contacted for generations. And in the distance are murmurings of larger, more centralised states, with standing armies and potentially acquisitive natures.

This is a world which is connected within itself, but not outside itself. Where there’s a sense of something lost, a knowledge that once, those missing parts of the Circle could be spoken to, eventually. Selby does an excellent job of showing us the wilderness of the Circle. Its  land is vast, ans often hostile, with a penchant for semi-desolate plains, for snow, for people living in mountains and more than willing to drop a rock on your head if you might be carrying food. The prose carries a sweeping, stark, brutal grandeur, which matches the environment perfectly. You can feel the harsh crunch of the snow and the frost on your breath, or the slow thrum of verdant growth from the towering vegetation that is the mysterious stopped heart of the Circle.

And the road. It’s an actual road. Outposts flickering along it like candles in a gale, as it inches forward around the Circle, trying to reconnect everything that’s lost. This is a detailed, well thought out world, with its own history, culture and dreams, all of which help to inform the decisions of the people that live in it. It not only seems real in the instant that you read it, but has enough depth behind it to make you want to know more, as well.

Speaking of the people behind it – the protagonist of the tale is Teyr Amondsen. Teyr is a relative rarity, a woman who became a soldier. She’s also something more of a rarity, a soldier that came home alive, and came home rich. In a world where combat is typically hand-to hand, and where the ingestion of plant-based ‘brews’ provides seemingly supernatural strength and speed at the cost of a comedown and long term side-effects, actually surviving to spend your money is a novelty. But Teyr has come home.

The narrative has two interleaving layers – one, Teyr’s story as she starts on an expedition to help build out her great dream, her road. And one in the aftermath of that expedition, as she deals with the conseqeunces and what happens next. The earlier of those gives us a wonderful insight into a complicated woman. Tired of picking blood out from under her nails, not content to simply sit on her hands, she’s making something happen. There’s some wonderful subtexts here about why Teyr decides to go big or go home, why she wants to bring the Circle back together. It isn’t afraid to look at her relationships, her past, her family – they all tie together into a web of connections which help her feel human. Maybe this is someone doing the right thing, but they’re doing this specific right thing for their own reason, too – a history which is largely off the page, but which is masterfully implied for the reader to pick up and run with.

Speaking of family – Teyr’s relationship with her immediate family, a spouse and child, is a joy to read throughout. There’s a complex emotional boquet about it. Teyr is unashamed of lioving her man in part for his looks, and there’s a certain sexuality running through the undertones of their dialogue. But there’s also romance, affection, and a wry practicality in her dealings with both spouse and son which will probably be recognisable to many parents. It’s to Selby’s credit that the sense of love, the familial warmth that overruns Teyr when she looks on her family, is so palpable. You can taste the way she cares for them, feel their importance in every incidental gesture.  There are silences, and arguments, and discussions, and moments of self doubt, Which makes it all feel the more alive, the more real. It’s a relationship which feels genuine, a partnership doing its best, and even on the occasions where it stumbles, the interaction in this family is always a fantastic read.
Tetr is happy, at least some of the time, but it isn’t all she is, to be sure. The darker side is there, one which is willing to take fight-brews, to break heads, to do whatever she has to do in order to meet her goals. But if she’s sometimes (literally) lethally direct, she’s never less than sympathetic. This is bold, honest characterisation, drawn with a finely detailed brush. Admittedly, to stretch the metaphor, the brush is sometimes covered in someone’s blood. But it has an emotional sharpness and intensity which mean that understanding Teyr is simultaneously very easy and a long term project. The way she is, the end-point of her pasts, leaves her raw and broken and healing and husbanding regrets and living in hope. What all that makes Teyr, is alive. I cared about her story. I wanted to see where she’d been, and who she’d become on her journey. I was drawn in to her relationships, to empathise, to sympathise, to condemn, to understand. Teyr is a pitch-perfect protagonist, a multi-faceted woman who doesn’t take any crap, lives with her demons, and keeps on moving forward from a world which scarred and still scars her – and is also a loving spouse and caregiver, and a veteran killer.
Basically, Teyr’s brilliant.

The plot? Well, I won’t get into it too much. I will say that some of the narrative complexities of Snakewood have been pared away. Though there are the interweaving narratives as the core of the story, connecting them is fairly straightforward, and it shouldn’t be too difficult to keep track of what’s happening, and to whom. The rest? Well, I’ll let it be a surprise. But there’s a lot in here, that’s for sure. Teyr is building a road, in a land which hasn’t had much use for trade and talk, and may even seem absurdly proud of its isolation. That means politics. Which in a world connected by blood, also means family. But there are other, larger problems on the horizon, and Teyr really has no idea what she’s getting into.

There’s some fantastically kinetic, dirty, bloody fight scenes which made me wince. There’s acts of casual villainy that provoked a gasp or the occasional swear. But this isn’t entirely grim. It’s not all bad people doing bad things for bad reasons. There’s hope in here, there’s people doing good because they can, trying to do the right thing, and sometimes even succeeding. There’s struggles against enforced cultural norms, on all sides, and a fair swathe of betrayal, heroism and sacrifice. It’s also Teyr’s story, the story of where she is, how she got there, and the price she paid. The narrative serves as an emotional stiletto, its emotional edge surrounded by hard words and hard fighting, making a book which it was impossible to put down.

This one is an absolutely cracking read, and I’d suggest you go pick it up right now.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Ruin Of Kings - Jenn Lyons

The Ruin of Kings is a debut fantasy novel from Jenn Lyons – and it’s really rather good. It core is the story of Kihrin, sometime orphan and occasional thief. It’s possible though that he has the capacity to be something more.

I have to say, I rather enjoyed the style of the text. The book is split into two narratives – one looking at Kihrin’s youth, and another more concerned with recent events. They come from two different narrators, each with a unique voice and prose style. This interleaving also means that explanations and context for one part of the story are provided in a drip feed fashion from the other. How did the later Kihrin get where they are? What were the choices which led them there, and what will they do next? The two stories reinforce each other, and I found I wanted to know as much about what had gone before as what was going to happen next.

The story takes place in a world with a richly imagined past of its own. There are gods, a rich tapestry of divinities which humanity pays homage to from its spired citadels. Largely they seem to stay quiet and out of the way, but their undeniable presence is a weight on the world. As is the presence of demons. They are, really, not very nice at all, with a penchant for large scale atrocity, stomping around the place, setting things on fire. 

In between the divinities and the demonic sits humanity. Much of the action takes place in a thriving metropolis, at the heart of an empire. The Emperor has the power – and indeed the duty – to banish demons when they appear. He’s surrounded by noble houses, each of which control vast mercantile interests – and magic. Oh yes, there’s magic here too, ranging from the repair of minor wounds, through speed and strength, to the sort of world ending meteor throwing which makes you sit up and take notice. We see both sides of this city over the course of the text; the flea-bitten slums, where every breath is a gift and a curse, where you’re one bad deal away from a knife in the back (or the front) are filled with a vicious energy, a richly imagined tapestry of chaos, violence, and personalised authority.
The halls of the nobility are hardly any better – albeit possibly cleaner. The houses are in a constant whirl of politics, where the price for a mis-step is being poisoned, imprisoned, or quietly murdered. Much like their counterparts in the lower echelons, the leaders of these houses are hardened, ruthless, and not at all averse to getting a little blood on their hands to get a result. The swirling tides of deals and backstabbery is marvellously realised. You can smell the blood in the water with every word these slick politicians drop – and that they can back up their words with superior firepower only makes it better.

The characterisation is top notch, especially of Kihrin, in both his past and present incarnations. Watching a cynical but eager youth grow into a more measured man is a delight. That he is convincingly careworn and scarred helps highlight the contrast with his younger self as they converge throughout the volume. The text builds Kihrin up and tears him down in equal measure – but at every step he feels conflicted, feels hurt, feels emotional, feels raw, feels…human. Some of the other characters are perhaps a little less nuanced (though in fairness to them, they may also be demons), but most of the supporting cast have  backstory which makes us feel alongside them, and makes them feel real.

The world is a lavish one and between KIhrin and his cohort, we have players enough to make it feel real. But what about the story? Well, it ticks the tension up gradually, simmering the reader in the world and the characters for a while, marinating their questions and concerns. Once it gets going though, once you’re invested, it’s near-impossible to put down. The physical stakes are high, yes – life, death, empire, the end of the world. But they’re also personal – family, love, trust, betrayal are key themes. This is a book which isn’t pulling any punches. Actually, it’s probably using brass knuckles and coming at you with an attitude.

This is smart fantasy. It’s clever. It wants you to think about what you’re reading, about character, about consequences. And it wants to show off world-shattering events, and do so with some cool magic and a world which vividly displays a wealth of imagination.
It’s good stuff, is the short version. A great debut, and a series (and an author) to watch. Give it a try.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

The Gutter Prayer - Gareth Hanrahan

The Gutter Prayer is a debut fantasy novel from Gareth Hanrahan. Hanrahan has also written more than a couple of tabletop RPG sourcebooks, some of which I’ve read and enjoyed, so this isn’t his first rodeo. That may help explain the technical excellence – the high quality of the prose, the tight plotting. It does less to explain the sheer imagination on display, the clever ideas it picks up and shows off, and the sense of high paced, high stakes adventure. Put that all together, and you’ve got a fantasy novel that you’re going to pick up and have great difficulty putting down again.

The story starts as it means to go on, with a bang. Our protagonists are thieves in a heist gone wrong, left scrambling to evade the very long arm of the law. But even as they struggle to survive the consequences, other events are preparing to make things far, far more complicated.

I need to talk about the trio that are the centrepiece of this book. They’re a wonderful found family, existing in part with affection and connection, and in part out of necessity. And they’re also a complex people in their own right. I mean, let’s talk about Carillon first. Leaving aside that she has a great name, she’s…complicated. Always edgy.  Always looking for the next angle. Always a little suspicious of when the dice let things go her way. Sneaky, intelligent, and willing to do the right thing if she has to. Carillon is a young woman with principles (although those principles may involve the acquisition of things which may not, strictly speaking, belong to her), who is more than willing to back those principles up by sticking a shiv in someone and then running away really, really quickly. I like her sense of realism, I like that she’s willing to compromise on a lot of things, but won’t let her friends down, I like the way she’s driven toward her goals, and isn’t overly willing to take crap from anyone. There’s also the sense that there’s a past to her, something which the text explores as it proceeds, giving us a flawed, determinedly human character. Short version: She kicks arse, and comes across vividly to the reader.

The same can be said of Spar. Spar is chronically ill, a Stone Man. His disease is slowly calcifying him, from the outside in. On the plus side, this means he can be immensely strong, immensely durable. On the downside, any damage is an opportunity to see more of himself lost to the stone. Spar is perhaps more methodical than Carillon, but just as lost. The son of a famous father, trying to live up to that expectation, live out from under the shadow of another man, whilst also bearing a fatal, contagious disease – well, it’s a weight to bear. And we can see Spar struggle with it, trying to be the person he wants to be, rather than one of the ones he’s expected to become. It feels like Spar is the most introspective of the three, one willing to slow down and think things through; though sometimes you just want Carillon to give him a kick in the arse to get him moving, once he uis, he won’t stop.
I love Spar and the way he moves from placidity to obdurate action. I love that the story wants to examine fatal illness and coping mechanisms, and does so with nuance and grace. I love that Spar can act as a mobile siege platform, and break down doors with his pinkie. I also want to take a moment and say that the disease that is slowly turning Spar into a statue is as well realised as he is, a core facet of his identity, and an imaginative and repulsive one – people recoil in the street, there’s a sense of fear and wonder and anger and despair about Spar and the other Stone Men. It’s a masterful portrayal of human, visceral reactions and  really helps establish his character (even as Spar deliberately doesn’t let his illness define that character!).

Then there’s Rat. Rat’s a ghoul. Ghouls, well, they see in the dark. They run fast. Sometimes they do a bit of magic. They have trouble with surfaces, and with people. Also, sometimes they eat people. The story has more revelations about ghouls, so I won’t spoil them here, but I’ll say this: the society that is constructed for Rat to come from is dark, and potentially brutal. There’s a lot of inky darkness, sheer strangeness, and more than a little blood. The ghouls are the underbelly of the city, but they’re also people. Well, some of them. But they’re always slightly off kilter. Rat’s voice is a quietly but focused one, which carries a very distinct perspective – one of movement, scents and magic, with moments of loyalty. Ghouls are strange, hungry, deadly – but Rat’s also willing to help out his friends. There’s a common thread there, between the three, of hope and decency and trust, and that helps give us characters which we give a crap about, and which feel like they have their own experiences, and which feel alive.

If that’s a lot to take in – well, they live in a city with a lot more going on. Guerdon is a metropolis of layers, geographical as well as historical. Sometimes they intersect. There’s a sense of age here, of history, of things lost and long forgotten in the catacombs beneath the streets. There are stories of mad old gods in centuries past, and there are stories of how the religious leaders of a more enlightened time were forced to accept trade and religious liberalisation. This is a world where Saints are real, and will be more than happy to take your arm off with a flaming sword after they’ve had a stiff drink and lost at a hand of cards. Where crazed deities shift reality to suit themselves, and where everyone else tries to stay out of the way. This is a city of gold and blood, where alchemy has provided guardsmen made of wax, who run and fight faster than anything you’ve seen, but whose life is measured in the wick they’re burning down. It’s a city of hidden sorcery, and politics in both the halls and in the streets. Guerdon lives and breathes, and while doing so, it showcases some seriously impressive worldbuilding – the city is darkly scintillating, a feast for the imagination found in its blood-clogged gutters.

Which is a long way of saying, the stage on which our characters find themselves is a very well constructed one; it’s a richly imagined, precision-crafted world of its own.

The plot? Well, no spoilers, as ever. But I’ll say this. What starts out as a less than simple robbery very quickly takes a turn and becomes something more. There’s magic. There’s conspiracy. There’s eldritch forces moving underfoot, and everything. As our intrepid gang try to get out of all the trouble they accidentally fell into, they end up in very deep waters indeed. Part of this narrative is an adventure story – with chases, with explosive magic, with strange terrors and unexpected wonders on each page. Part of it is a personal, family story – how far someone will go to protect their interests, or those of their friends, or their city. And the price they’ll pay as they do so. I do the narrative a disservice in description – it’s a complex, multi-layered, living breathing thing, and the pieces come together over the course of the book like well-machined clockwork. It’s a big story, about gods and the fate of cities. But it’s also personal, about our three friends and their relationships with each other and with the world. Yes, it’s an adventure. Yes, it’s a character piece. Yes, it’s epic. Yes, it’s deeply, bitingly, a story of individuals.

What it mostly is, is an absolutely cracking story – one you’ll want to tell your friends about. So pick it up, and give it a read. It’s a heck of a journey.