Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Nine - Jonathan Strahan (Ed.)

I have to be honest – if you’re going to read one sci-fi/fantasy anthology this year, this one would be a really good choice.  In the first place, because it collects a lot of wonderfully diverse material. There’s the acidic action and wry cynicism of Abercrombie’s fantasy  here, in "Tough Times All Over".  There’s a more whimsically fantastical feel, laced with a degree of tragedy, a focus on character, on growth, in Amal El-Mohtar’s "The Truth About Owls". There’s space opera sci-fi mixed up with a coming of age tale, humour mixed with horror in Holly Black’s "Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind)", and there’s a kind of relentless courage and a broader moral question looped into the more contemporary sci-fi of Elizabeth Bear’s "Covenant". Given the sheer number of stories in this collection, I’d say that there’s something for almost everyone.

The same is true of the approaches taken across the anthology toward those topics. There are some excellent character pieces, an author diving in to explore their protagonist, what makes them tick, what drives them. The tone across these is wildly different (K.J. Parker’s dryly cynical accidental wizard wouldn’t merge well with the bare-faced grotesqueries  surrounding Caitlin Kiernan’s serial killers, for example) , but I don’t think there was a bad one in the bunch.  There’s more plot-driven pieces as well, keeping the reader turning pages to see what happens – Garth Nix, for example, produces a wonderful take on this with is cryptic Shay Corsham Worsted, which begins and ends in enigma, leaving the reader wanting to know what happened before the start, and after the end of the story.

To be fair, some of the stories worked a little better for me than others; some of the pieces seemed to tie fantasy up with magical realism, and it was at once eminently readable and entirely baffling. There were moments when what an author was trying to achieve was clear, but the prose wasn’t quite navigating where it needed to go. That said, I can’t think of a single story in this rather mammoth collection that was actively bad – just a few that didn’t work as well for me as I’d hoped. On the other hand, that may be due to the aforementioned diversity – there’s a lot of content here, something in the area of 600 pages of narrative; maybe those that didn’t quite click with me would  be someone else’s story of the year.

In any event, the collection presents a great many stories across a wide breadth of areas within the genre. And all of them are well written, and many of them are enjoyable (a few seem to have been written purposely to not be enjoyable, per se, and they succeed admirably). There’s some works here by well known authors, some more niche that I’d heard of, and a few interesting new discoveries – and all are worth your attention; the relatively short lengths of their stories belie their quality and their impact on the reader. At any rate, all of this collection may not be for you, but there’s probably quite a few pieces that will be – I had a few favourites, but the quality was uniformly good.

If you’re in the mood to sample something new, something interesting, something unique, you’ll probably find something to enjoy here. Strahan really has done an excellent job of gathering up some of the best short works of sci-fi and fantasy from the last year, and it’s absolutely worth giving it a read.

(I’ve put the table of contents – snagged from Tor -  below; there are so many authors in here, it may help to know if one you particularly want to read is present, or if you’re looking for a particular story)

“Tough Times All Over”—Joe Abercrombie
“The Scrivener”—Eleanor Arnason
“Moriabe’s Children”—Paolo Bacigalupi
“Covenant”—Elizabeth Bear
“Slipping”—Lauren Beukes
“Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind)”—Holly Black
“Shadow Flock”—Greg Egan
“The Truth About Owls”—Amal El-Mohtar
“Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology”—Theodora Goss
“Cold Wind”—Nicola Griffith
“Someday”—James Patrick Kelly
“Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No.8)”—Caitlin R Kiernan
“Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They are Terrifying”—Alice Sola Kim
“Amicae Aeternum”—Ellen Klages
“Calligo Lane”—Ellen Klages
“The Lady and the Fox”—Kelly Link
“The Long Haul From the ANNALS OF TRANSPORTATION”—The Pacific Monthly, May 2009”—Ken Liu
“The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family”—Usman T Malik
“Four Days of Christmas”—Tim Maughan
“The Fifth Dragon”—Ian McDonald
“Shay Corsham Worsted”—Garth Nix
“I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There”—K. J. Parker
“Kheldyu”—Karl Schroeder
“Tawny Petticoats”—Michael Swanwick
“Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)”—Rachel Swirsky
“The Insects of Love”—Genevieve Valentine
“Collateral”—Peter Watts
“The Devil in America”—Kai Ashante Wilson

Monday, March 30, 2015

Interstitial - The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Nine

Tomorrow we have an anthology review - the ninth volume of Strahan's excellent The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year. In quick summary - it's huge, it's full of stories across the entire swathe of genres and sub genres that define sci-fi and fantasy fiction, and they're all very good.

More tomorrow!

Also this week, Midnight Crossroads, the new novel by Charlaine Harris.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Slow Bullets - Alastair Reynolds

Slow Bullets is a sci-fi novella (around 50,000 words) by Alastair Reynolds. It’s a narrative apparently written by a woman called Scur. The narrative discusses her past life, as a soldier in an apparently long running war. After being captured and interrogated, she wakes up to find herself on a ship being used to transit war criminals for trial – but, not to give anything away, something has gone ever so slightly wrong. The remainder of the narrative slowly reveals what has happened, and why.

The world, or rather, the ship on which Scur finds herself, is slowly revealed through the narrative. 
Both the ship and the society  that produced it are explored in detail through the text – the latter mostly through character dialog.  Scur serves as both the central narrative voice and the protagonist. We see some of her past through her own voice, innately unreliable as that is, but the focus of her character is on the developments aboard the ship in which she finds herself – events which define and change her. The supporting cast are more loosely defined –they’re available to advance the plot, but we don’t see much of them revealed, which is a shame – but given the length of the text, understandable.

The prose is typical Reynolds, but in a unique voice for Scur – tightly wound, terse, and sparse. But each sentence has been crafted with Reynolds typical attention, and that makes it a pleasure to read.
There are a couple of wider themes in the text, but the most central seems to be around memory, and the events that a person chooses to shape them, or allows to do so. The ‘Slow Bullets’ of the title are implanted in all of the prisoners on the ship, and carry their lives for them, their memories, everything that defines what and who they are. As the narrative progresses, the question becomes whether the bullets actually define the person in whom they sit, or whether a person deserves a clean slate, a chance to remake themselves.

Overall, this is a wonderful Reynolds short. It’s clever, it’s well written, and it doesn’t make concessions to the reader – it demands their attention, and then  wraps that attention into a vivid world and set of situations. Very much worth reading, if you’re in the mood for a hard-sci fi novella with some interesting questions to ask.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Interstitital - Slow Bullets

Tomorrow see s a relatively quick review of Alastair Reynold's latest novella, "Slow Bullets". It follows a survivor of an interstellar war, who wakes up from hibernation in a ship full of convicts, war criminals and civilians. There's a set of narrative twists to the whole thing, but as usual with Reynolds, it's more about obliquely approaching big questions - in this case, around what makes people who they are, and how we seek to define ourselves.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Knight's Shadow - Sebastien De Castell

Knights Shadow is the sequel to Sebastien De Castell’s excellent debut, The Traitor’s Blade.

For background purposes, the narrative is set in the country of Tristia, divided into several semi-autonomous Dukedoms, several years after a new king attempted to reform the laws and practices of the land, to give the common people a fair chance;  the Dukes, jealous of their power, immediately rebelled and executed the king.

The text follows fairly directly on from the end of the first book, and begins with the focus on the central character triad from the first book – three ‘Greatcoats’, travelling magistrates and duellists, empowered by the dead king to bring laws to a land determined to wallow in corruption. The world is gradually taking shape, a new piece introduced in a line of dialogue, or in a moment of character insight. Where Traitor’s Blade used the world as a platform to tell it’s story, and you could feel the bones of the background under the narrative, the world of Knight’s Shadow is more fleshed out, and feels a little more real.

If you’re picking up Knights Shadow, you’re probably aware of the central characters already. I will say that the three of them continue to remind me quite strongly of the Three Musketeers, possibly intentionally – there’s the same witty banter, a certain grim joie de vivre, a bond of lucky escapes and noble failures.  Falcio and friends  are a joy to read about. That said, their interactions in this book are perhaps a little darker than in the first. They’re not exactly older or wiser, but perhaps a bit more damaged, following the events of the first text. Each carries their own scars, and De Castell isn’t afraid to show us that their actions have consequences – both personal and political. They’re joined by some old faces, but also a few new ones – the feisty, reasonably terrifying and possibly totally amoral Dariana, for one, quickly became a firm favourite.

The dynamic between the characters is marvellous to read; they bounce between each other, and each moment of light banter raises a chuckle – but De Castell also keeps the emotional depth coming from each of them. Where it would be easy to create a light hearted fantasy, this text veers between the cheerier tone, descending into the grim, the grimy, the bloody – and uses that to showcase the personalities, the vulnerabilities, the centres of the characters. If the world is becoming more fleshed out, the characters are doing the same – we’re exposed to fears, acts of pointless bravery, cowardice, and a lot of moral grey areas – the latter being something that our heroes aren’t famously good at dealing with. This has, as mentioned above, consequences.

From a plot point of view, the tone here feels a lot grimmer. The Greatcoats are beaten down, moving from crisis to crisis, tracking murders, dealing with their interpersonal issues, trying to stop glowing red all the time…there’s always something going on, and it’s usually not good news for the heroes. The pacing is pitch perfect, at least for me – each crisis feels like it rockets to a conclusion, desperately turning pages in an effort to find out what happens next…and then it finishes. And everyone takes a breath. And then the next crisis appears, and off we go again. I really couldn’t stop reading – especially as the narrative drove to a climax. Speaking of which, I won’t go into the ending for fear of spoilers, but I will say that it absolutely delivers.

This is fast, fantastic fun –and it has an excellent character piece wrapped inside it, with some interesting things to say about people, how far they’ll go for their goals, and what they’ll find important. What they need, what they’ll betray, and how, ultimately, they define themselves.
Also, it’s full of people getting their comeuppance (deserved or otherwise), a smidge of torture, and quite duels; overall, it’s a great read, and very much a worthy sequel.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Interstitial - Knight's Shadow

Been reading Sebastien De Castell's sequel to his excellent *Traitor's Blade*. Apart from my inability to type the apostrophe correctly, it's an excellent book. It's full of the same joy, the same gang of musketeers-turned-lawkeepers against the world as the first book, but the tone has turned darker, the stakes are higher, and the consequences for mistakes (and successes) are both severe and seemingly inevitable.

Basically, it's a great read. Proper review tomorrow!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Prince of Fools - Mark Lawrence

Prince of Fools is the start of Mark Lawrence’s latest peregrination into the world of the Broken Empire – first explored through the damaged, driven, dangerous Prince Jorg in Prince of Thorns.
The protagonist of Prince of Fools is a totally different animal. Lawrence has exercised considerable skill here to give his new protagonist, Prince Jalan, an entirely distinct voice. That voice is equal parts wit and cowardice – though there is a surprisingly deep emotional well hinted at throughout the text. 

In any event, Jalan is a minor scion of the Red March, a major nation in a shattered Empire, led by the formidable Red Queen. Jalan is quite happy to stay minor – spending his days s[ending money, mostly on wine, women and…well, more wine, really. He’s introduced whilst hitting a man from behind whilst fleeing from the bed of the man’s sister, and really, matters don’t improve from there. He’s a coward and sometimes a buffoon – but what makes him readable is his wit. The wry remarks of a man lazily comfortable in his own selfishness, prepared to lie, cheat and steal in order to look after his own interests – and if at all possible, to look good while doing so.  Whilst Jorg was, in some ways, representative of the danger and damage  that lurks in the hearts of all men, Jalan is less, and more – he feels less like a hero, or an antihero, less a literary construction than a person. Not a particularly nice person, not an altruistic person, not a good person – but a person, one acting as the reader might, in ways we can understand, empathise with, and, often, laugh at.

Brief digression: This is a very funny book, at least in parts. Jalan’s observations on the hopeless nature of heroics are especially hilarious, along with his frustration that everyone around him seems to be a violent psychopath, or otherwise determined to do him harm or rope him into their plotting.

Jalan is paired up quite quickly with Snorri, a slightly grim Viking. At first glance, Snorri acts as a grounding influence on Jalan. Where Jalan flits between entertainments, keen to be the man he is, rather than the man he’s expected to be, and is particularly good at evading consequences, Snorri is a man dedicated to his family, and to being the man he wants to be, perhaps tired of being the man that he is. Their relationship is the cornerstone of the text, and it’s wonderfully portrayed – a shift from pragmatic self-interest, through camaraderie, into a kind of deeper interaction. Snorri provides a lot of the emotional heft of the text, at least initially – Jalan is a self-interested womaniser, dragged into an adventure against his own inclination (and partially to evade debt collectors), but Snorri has a wife and children to find as part of their journey, and his revelations of his story to Jalan over the course of the novel are a strong influence on both their characters.

The supporting characters are a bit less well defined, but most of them are fairly incidental to the central interaction between Jalan and Snorri – still, at one stage the reader is given a look at a small band of Vikings, and it would have been nice to know more about them before the inevitable Dirty Dozen style mission that they go on with our heroes.

Make no mistake, this is also a journey novel. It’s reminiscent (possibly intentionally) of the movements of a Nordic saga. Jalan and Snorri move from the warm climes of what might pass for southern France, up into the permanent ice fields of what could be Norway, struggling under the crushing weight of centuries of ice. Along the way, they encounter several ambivalent wizards, an extremely disturbing sorceress, a small horde of Vikings, and the walking dead.  And that’s not the half of it.  There’s a lot of action wrapped up in this elaborate character piece – and not all of it is Jalan running away from something.

The plot starts with a nice slow burn, and ratchets up wonderfully – the action feels paired with the emotional investment of the characters. As you become more attached, so the plot draws in toward what is, frankly, an action-packed conclusion.

The prose is typical Lawrence – the environments will surround you, wrap you in their words, fill you up and leave you feeling their heat – or, more typically in this case, their frigidity. Each sentence is carefully crafted – the descriptions of places draw you in, the dialogue between characters is human, and entirely believable. Where Lawrence excels here is in the emotional impact of his words – where some scenes are lightweight, they still manage to crack a smile . Others will, without question, try and crack into your heart with their stark vulnerability, with their honesty, and with their attempt to bring out the reality of being human.

Overall, this is a wonderful book; the plot will captivate, terrify and delight .  The world will disturb, and intrigue. The characters will amuse, entertain, then break you down in tears. Don’t hesitate – pick up a copy, read it, and see where it takes you.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Interstitial - Prince of Fools (and others coming soon).

Monday will see a review of Mark Lawrence's fantastic 'Prince of Fools', the story of what happens when a selfish, self absorbed Prince with a low tolerance for pain gets involved in an epic journey to the farthest reaches of the earth to defeat a terrible evil (it may not end well)...

Next week also has reviews for Sebastien De Castell's excellent 'Knight's Shadow', the sequel to his startling debut, 'Traitor's Blade' from last year. And I'll also be taking a look at a new Alastair Reynolds novella, 'Slow Bullets', following the survivor of an interstellar war as she attempts to get civilisation back on track.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Roboteer - Alex Lamb

Roboteer is a sci-fi adventure novel. It’s full of space battles, the occasional gunfight and corridor chase, a surprisingly sympathetic central antagonist, some incredibly unsympathetic  other antagonists, an interesting universe, and a hinted at history that I’d like to see more of. It’s also Alex Lamb’s debut novel – and given that, it’s rather well done.

The centre of the text is the protagonist, Will, the ‘Roboteer’ of the title. He has, quite literally, been bred by his society to be able to link with various semi-autonomous machines, to be able to reprogram them on the fly, and to direct their actions. The society in question is a breakaway colony from earth, where genetic engineering is the only solution to a harsh environment and a low population. When we first meet Will, he’s hip deep in a space battle, hurling drones and high explosives about the sky with high abandon; shortly afterward, he’s drafted into a secret mission which may, without giving anything away, change the world.

The world is actually one of the really interesting parts of the text. We see some of Will’s home colony, battered by extreme weather, with a low population, prone to genetic engineering. We see an Earth recovering from shattering, endless conflicts, under the grip of a militant but universal religion – now driven outwards, to reclaim lost colonies, to fight, and keep fighting, to prevent fracturing into squabbling factions again. We see something of those reclaimed colonies, crushed under a government that seems uncaringly brutal. One, which specialised in entertainment, rather than engineering, seems like a sort of psychotic amusement park, populated by a demoralised populace, and a vicious, paranoid resistance.  There’s a lot of good backstory here, it’s just a shame that we don’t get to hear much more about it over the course of the text. The references are largely subtle, dropped in dialogue or as part of a tangential thought from a character, and this isn’t a bad thing – but the history here is fascinating, and deserves further exploration.

The characters are, perhaps intentionally, largely in service to the plot. There’s the gruff space captain, the sociopathic security officer, the friendly love interest …each character is serviceably written, and they fulfil their roles, but at the end of the day it feels like they’re there to drive the plot forward for the protagonist. In part it’s this focus on Will that makes the other characters lose their lustre – they don’t really have the time and space to shine, or to get more development than they need to push things along. They work as characters, but perhaps not as people – at least not in this single narrative.

On the other hand, Will, as protagonist, is very well drawn – his thoughts and feelings are laid bare to the reader, his motivations and drives brought to the surface, his actions entirely believable within those confines. Will feels awkward, feels naïve feels, sometimes, dangerous – and feels like a person.  The only other character with a similar treatment is his main antagonist, the startlingly sympathetic head researcher for an Earth weapons project. Whilst most of the Earth forces are shown to be zealots, thugs, or a combination of both, this man is given a more nuanced portrayal – we see the arguments for stability play out in his mind, the arguments against the engineering that produces individuals like Will, the arguments for subjugation and colonial domination – and whilst the reader’s sympathies are typically elsewhere, the arguments made are, at least, good ones, and help give the conflict a slightly more morally grey feel than might otherwise have been the case. That said, some of the discussion of politics feels a bit too straightforward, too right-and-wrong to be properly believable; it would have been nice if the depth given to the central antagonist was spread a little more broadly across the Earth forces.

The narrative starts with a bang, and honestly, it never really stops – the pacing is spot on. Each crisis seems to lead to another, with the occasional moment for the reader (if not the characters) to draw a quick breath before plunging on. I won’t get into detail here, for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say that when Will launches into his secret mission, the Earth battlefleet coming for his world is, quite possibly the least of his problems. The prose is simple, but draws situations and environments well, and combines with the pace to never let the reader go. The developments over the course of the text seem a bit too large to be contained within one novel – I suspect we’d need to have had a book at least twice the size to have properly explored all the narrative threads in play. Still, the whole edifice ties together nicely, and the ending, if a tad convenient, wraps up the narrative well – if somewhat explosively.

Overall then, a solid debut – a fast paced, action adventure of a novel, with a good core protagonist/antagonist, within a universe I’m dying to hear more about. Worth picking up!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Interstitial - Roboteer

Tomorrow sees a review of Alex Lamb's hard sci-fi debut, Roboteer. There's some minor issues, but really it's a great action-adventure novel, with a world I want to see in more detail, and a plot that grips on and won't let go.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Crashing Heaven - Al Robertson

Crashing Heaven is, at heart, a fast-paced techno-thriller. It’s also a novel of ideas. Some of those are a bit more successful in their expression than others, but there’s a lot of good thoughts in here.

From a narrative point of view, our protagonist is Jack Forster. He’s returning to the rather starkly named ‘Station’  following the conclusion of a war between Station and a group AI consciousness called the Totality, which is spread across the rest of the system. During the war, Jack served as an AI killer; he had a military attack personality AI implanted into his skull, and the two of them brutally savaged several Totality minds. Then, for reasons which are at least initially unclear, Jack surrendered.

His return is not a happy one. The people of Station know that he surrendered, and regard him as a traitor. His friends and lover no longer answer his messages. And the AI in his head, the ‘puppet’, called Fist, is going to take over his body in the near future, once his licence to use it expires.

It’s a bleak introduction, and part of what makes it work is the setting. Station comes off as a semi-dystopian oligarchy. The last of humanity live under the notionally benevolent rule of a cabal of artificial intelligences, in varying levels of servitude and squalor. Each of the AI seems to represent one or more of the Station’s functional areas, and rewards its acolytes with greater privileges the more useful they become. Almost all humans have an AI ‘patron’, and almost all of those aspire to live in the area of the station labelled ‘Heaven’ – though in less salubrious areas in the meantime.

One of the more creepingly clever ideas here is that each individual is hooked into the ‘Weave’, a sort of pervasive augmented reality. When on the weave, a user can see virtual enhancements to architecture, suffer through virtual advertising  in a myriad of ways, and purchase licences to experience sensory enhancements – improvements to flavour, for example, make proto-mush seem like filet mignon. Robertson shows us the good and bad side of the Weave – that people can experience a better world, but may lose sight of what goes on around them – and takes a nice sideswipe at the ever increasing encroachment of licencing over ownership at the same time.

The other area where the text shines is the characters in this environment, especially the ongoing dialogue between the protagonist and the twisted, driven AI stuck in his head. The two distinct voices – one pained, worn down, worn away and aware of encroaching mortality – the other vicious, childlike, oddly affectionate, driven and amoral – intertwined together within the text is an excellent device, and the reader is left curiously sympathetic to both parties. I won’t go into more detail for fear of spoilers, but will say that both Forster and Fist have the opportunity to grow and evolve through the text, and this they do, very convincingly.

There’s some other themes in the text as well – the dangers of memory, the problem of living gods, the issue of being unable to move on, to let go, to change, as a few examples. These become clearer as the text proceeds, and they’re not strong arguments within it – rather, more subtle touches within the prose make points that gradually slide into the user’s consciousness, slotting together with the rest of the text to make slow but impactful suggestions.

Speaking of the prose – it’s very well done. Dense, closely packed, vivid, and occasionally quite witty. There’s a fair amount of running about in the text, and the pacing in this regard is pitch perfect ; once into an action sequence, I found myself turning pages almost involuntarily. The dialogue is solid, written in a way in which people actually speak, and very easy to read because of it. Each character has  a distinct voice, and some of them are genuinely funny or insightful.

If there’s an area for improvement, it’s in the back-end of the narrative. Some of the twists and turns are a bit telegraphed, and some of the conclusions had been rather clearly set up through the middle of the narrative – on the other hand, there were some genuine surprises, and the dénouement is both convincing and satisfying.

Overall then, this is a good sci-fi action-character piece, with some great broader ideas running through its core. Come for the running through corridors shooting things, or for the altering virtual realities to break into secured areas, and stay for the quiet conversations between a man and the AI which will eventually kill him. Very much worth the read.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Interstitial - Crashing Heaven

Been going through Al Robertson's 'Crashing Heaven' . a sci-fi thriller, filled with all manner of excitement - malevolent AI, giant space stations, augmented reality, the odd shootout...it has it all, really.

More in-depth review tomorrow, but to summarise, enjoying it!

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Emperor's Blades - Brian Staveley

Staveley has produced a highly competent debut here, which hits a lot of good notes as part of the “gritty fantasy” sub-genre.

The world, broadly speaking, is quite well realised. The geography of the areas that the protagonists inhabit is well described, and well defined. There’s a nice mix of icy crags, urban sprawl and tropical islands, and the author manages to evoke each reasonably well – though the city setting doesn’t get as much time as the other two, which is a shame, as it would have helped to bring some of the action within that environment more fully to life.

The social terrain is a little fuzzier, but the author has clearly put in a degree of effort here. Each of the protagonists is in a different part of the world (as above), and we’re given three different micro-societies as a result. There are the monks seeking to empty themselves of self, in the aforementioned mountains. The tropical island is populated by the equivalent of a special forces training camp. And the city segments open up the world of palace intrigue.

As with the geography, the city sections suffer in comparison to the other two. The alpine monks have a well realised set of goals and social mores (some of which are rather surprising). The military teams are driven by camaraderie and competition, and the delineation of relationships around a team dynamic is well done. The city piece, which had the potential to be the most complex, dealing with the intrigue and plotting after an Imperial demise, pushes out a functional society, which looks interesting, but really doesn’t get enough time on the page.

The characters themselves have similar issues. Following the death of an Emperor, the reader is provided with his three teen-age-ish children, two brothers and a sister, as protagonists. One brother is on retreat with the aforementioned monks in their alpine retreat. One brother is training to be part of the equivalent of the SAS. And the sister is in the city. The two male protagonists get a lot of time on the page, and are quite readable. There’s some character growth over the course of the page, but really the majority of the work is defining their characters, and showing their responses to events around them. The female lead, however, whilst interesting, is criminally underrepresented, and clearly needs more ‘screen time’ to be interesting That said, all three are believable as characters, it’s just a shame more room wasn’t available to explore them.

The plot on each front is competently executed. There’s some nice mystery on each front, and the result of at least one of those was rather surprising (to me, anyway!). It takes a while for the plot strands to really get going, but somewhere around the first third of the book, it really starts to rattle along, and becomes very hard to put down.

Overall, this was a very good read, and I’m looking forward to the sequel; it’s well written, the characters are three-dimensional, if not as fully explored as I’d like, and the world they live in is interesting and well realised. Well worth a look.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Interstitial - The Emperor's Blades

I've got Brian Staveley's latest, "The Unhewn Throne" on my to-read pile. But it's been about a year since I read his first one, so thought I'd go back and do a re-read before making a start on the latest.
I remember it being...epic, in a sense of size and breadth of field covered, with some unique characters and decent relationships. We shall see if that memory holds up tomorrow...

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Peripheral People - Reesa Herberth and Michelle Moore

Peripheral People is an interesting blend of sci-fi, murder mystery, and romance novel. I’m not sure it achieves everything that it could do in each of those areas, but it’s certainly a valiant effort. Essentially, the narrative follows a team of four investigators for an interstellar body as they dig into a series of murders. Two of the investigators are a ‘psy team’ ; one has the ability to read psychic traces, and the other serves as his ‘ground’, pulling him back out when this gets dangerous.

I have to give the authors marks for the setting; the ‘Ylendrian Empire’ in which the narrative is based isn’t really explored directly, but through character memories of worlds they’ve seen, references to other investigative branches, and other subtle cues in the environment and dialogue. There’s enough meat over the implied structure to make it work, and the minimalist descriptors leave the reader able to draw a lot of the structure in the imagination – it works surprisingly well.

The only real distinction here is in those areas of the world which the characters interact with – the ‘IEC’, a sort of interplanetary police force, and the various psy-training measures. The former is given a bit more of a gloss, but really it feels like a modern police department; the discussion of psy ethics, of the various abilities manifested, the consequences of using them…these are all approached in a nuanced way. In particular the text unflinchingly approaches ‘burnout’, the loss of power, and the possibility of being one of the unpleasantly labelled ‘pharmed out’ – psy agents who use drugs to suppress their powers, with typically unpleasant side effects, It’s a sparse world, but it’s been crafted to let you put your own layer over things, and where the detail exists, it’s unflinching and honest.

The investigative narrative is alright. It’s a by the numbers murder piece really. The inclusion of psychic imagery as an investigative tool is a nice touch, and where it’s used, the elaborate images drawn in the prose are both effective and affecting. That said, whilst everything rumbles along to a conclusion (and that conclusion is actually rather surprising and well done), the intervening stages don’t feel like they have enough in them. There’s a few leaps in logic that I wasn’t sure were entirely justified (though they were helpful from a plot point of view), and several moments where an antagonist suffered the urge to explain his diabolical plan in great detail, for…no particular reason, really.

The real core of the text, though, is the relationship between the four members of the investigative team. The effervescent psy, his more normal ‘Ground’, and the pragmatic, phlegmatic investigators they look into the murder with.  What begins awkwardly, with believable resentment on all sides, gradually evolves over the text into something more. I won’t go into detail here, as with the above, to avoid spoilers – though I will say that some of those relationships turn to romance, possibly not the ones you expect – and they do so in a fairly explicit manner. If that’s going to be a problem, this might not be the book for you. If you’re alright with that, then carry on. The relationships that build do so, perhaps, a little quickly – but that may be a side effect of being a single novel set of character arcs. But the emotions described are believable, raw, and very well written.

Overall then, this is actually a decent read in its niche. It would be nice to see more from the investigative side, and maybe a bit more nuance to the non-romance relationships, but still, this is a surprisingly good read, if you’re looking for an unflinchingly adult sci-fi romance.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Interstitial - Peripheral People

Tomorrow we have a review of Peripheral People - an adult romance novel with a sci-fi/murder mystery gloss. I have to admit, I was curious to see whether the authors could pull off the mix of genres. Overall, it seems to work quite well - though a few narrative strands could use a bit more depth.

Anyway, more on it tomorrow!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Depth - Lev AC Rosen

Depth hits several genre niches all at once. It’s a noir mystery story, effectively written in the style of the old forties detective paperbacks or films like The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca, given a sci-fi environment for flavour.

 In this case, the environment is a partially submerged New York – it’s implied that the polar ice caps have melted, that sea levels have risen, and that the city is now only accessible above the twenty-first floor. What is now the rest of the US East coast is entirely beneath the waves, and the remainder now operates under a far more conservative government ; there are a few whiffs of McCarthy and ‘decency laws’ here, but really it just helps to provide a context. New York, far out of reach of ‘The Mainland’ acts as a meeting place, as a clearinghouse for illicit activity, for people prepared to work, make money, and not ask too many questions – reminiscent of the LA of Chinatown, or, again, Casablanca.

The protagonist is a PI with something of a mysterious past, a fast gun arm, and trouble making friends. Again, this seems to be a deliberate evocation of the 30’s noir tropes; that the protagonist is a woman is something of a break with those tropes, but it’s nice to see a strong female protagonist, one who isn’t afraid to talk when possible, investigate when required, and shoot where necessary. In that sense, she’s a classic noir hero – fast talking, not afraid of risk or violence, and a bit of a tarnished paladin on a quest for truth. The whole character is marvellously drawn, and entirely believable – there’s little human foibles, social anxiety, and a steely determination so solve whichever case has come along ; this all makes for a good character to follow, and one which, given flaws and foibles, it’s easy to empathise with and care about through the narrative.

The narrative in which the character finds themselves  is also, fortunately, an excellent one. The submerged pillars of the New York skyline give the whole text a slightly claustrophobic, brooding aura, as characters negotiate their way across the treacherous waters of the cityscape, both physically and metaphorically. As you’d expect from any good noir, there’s crosses, double crosses and triple crosses. Misunderstandings quickly spiral out of control, and may or may not be put right. The investigative portion is reasonably slow passed, allowing for reader reflection, interpolated with outbursts of action, revelations, and betrayals There’s even the usual Mysterious Blonde! I don’t want to get into specifics for the sake of spoilers, but suffice to say that the denoument was rather startling, and does well by the traditions of the genre; the whole mystery central to the narrative has obviously been carefully crafted, and in the end, it all concludes wonderfully.

At the end of the day, this is a love letter to the noir tradition, wrapped in a unique and interesting world. The mystery is involving, and will keep you guessing. The protagonist is convincing, flawed, and a pleasure to read about. The narrative left me wanting more, and as such, I can highly recommend it.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Interstitial - Depth

Going over Lev AC Rosen's 'Depth' right now. Right now I'd say it's a good homage to the forties and fifties noir novel, given a near-future sci-fi setting, a New York now almost entirely underwater after an environmental disaster. It's got a good mystery at the core, the characters are all consistent and fun to read about, and the style, derived from those old noir paperbacks, is pitch perfect.

More of that on Monday!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Tomorrow and Tomorrow - Thomas Sweterlitsch

Tomorrow and Tomorrow is a thriller, and a journey of personal discovery, with a clever conceit at its heart. After a US city is devastated by a dirty bomb, an archive of their digital footprint is created. The citizens every move is tracked and stored, as a memorial, as a place for the survivors to visit to relive time with their deceased loved ones – and more disturbingly, as a tourist attraction, and as a means of settling insurance claims.

The protagonist works in the Archive as an investigator in the latter capacity – tracking down individuals on the day that the city ended, in an effort to satisfy insurance companies. But one of the bodies he’s investigating looks like a murder – and so he begins to investigate, increasingly obsessively, perhaps as expiation for his wife’s death in the blast, and his own survival.

The personal side of the story works very well. The protagonist is immediately shown to be deeply broken, burdened with survivor’s guilt, and unable to let go of his past. Over the course of the text, this burden doesn’t lift, exactly, but the reader is shown how it may begin to be borne more easily. The author gives us a protagonist in pain, in denial, and desperate – and each of those emotions is believable, and wrenches at the reader with immediacy and passion. Blaxton’s internal psychodrama is brilliantly realised, and holds the reader’s attention across the pages of the book.

The thriller portion is less effective, but perfectly reasonable. The structure surrounding the central mystery is familiar, but the elements are a little different. The investigation, the turning up of clues, is certainly tense enough – and the denoument is wonderfully done, tying in with the protagonists personal growth. Still, it felt more workmanlike than sublime – a means of moving the character forward, but not as immediately compelling as the character it transported.

The world that this all takes place in seems a darker mirror of our own – the growth of corporate power, an increasingly monarchical and religious US Presidency, neural interfaces with corporate sponsors, christened ‘AdWare’, televised executions, and, of course, the obliteration of a city. The overall tone is evoked nicely – there is an oppressive sense of desperate corporatism over the entire world of the text. But here and there, it seems to slip up – in an effort to emphasise the awfulness of the setting, it pushes further and further into the extreme, with some loss of plausibility – a move from the disturbing into the simply grotesque (if nothing else, the ubiquitous neural net seems to serve little purpose other than to fling salacious advertising at its owners – so why would anyone have it put in?).

In any case, this remains a solid book – it approaches, and examines unflinchingly, themes of forgiveness, of guilt, of survival – the importance of memory and the importance of letting go, all wrapped around a mystery. Though the world and the mystery aren’t as compelling as they could be, they are decent enough – and the protagonists journey is fascinating enough to forgive imperfections elsewhere. Worth the read!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Interstitial - Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Moving through Thomas Sweterlitsch's "Tomorrow and Tomorrow" right now - exploring the social aftermath of a world in which a dirty bomb has gone off in a major US city, where the world has joined up all the electronica and surveillance footage to create a remembrance archive - and where one of the curators of that archive has found evidence of a murder, hidden in the footage.

It's been a decent thriller, with some nice near-future sci-fi elements - and quite a quick, punchy read. More tomorrow!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Poseidon's Wake - Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds is known as an author with big ideas. From human modification, to techno-plagues, mega-crises to mega-structures, his writing has always contained big ideas. To get it out of the way, this book is no exception.

The narrative explores the journey of several scions of the Akinya family, who figured heavily in the previous two books in the same universe. Reynolds has done something clever here – setting each novel with protagonists from a new generation of the same family allows the reader to track societal changes, see shifts in viewpoints at the macro level as well as the personal, whilst retaining reader investment in the individual.
In this particular case, we’re given two initial strands to follow; one on Mars, the home of human ambassador’s to the human-created AI civilisation now present there, and another on Crucible – a human colony, home to the mysterious artefact ‘’The Mandala”, as well as the remnants of a tribe of uplifted, intelligent elephants. Not to give the game away, but these two locations may act as the springboard for the rest of the text, but things do quite quickly change.

The Elephants, incidentally, are another key thread running through the series – their interactions with humanity showing the way in which we interact with other living beings unlike ourselves, even as the AI on Mars act as a mirror of how we might act when faced with a machine which is also, in some (or perhaps all) senses, alive.

The characters are a key facet of this novel. I’ve criticised Reynolds before for having characters that seemed to act more like generators of interesting conversations than actual people; he’s done quite a lot to redress the balance here. The Akinya’s, their various friends, loves, and losses, have become quite believable over three books, and Reynolds has managed to avoid getting into the depths of technical exposition at the expense of character growth. Instead we get quite a lot of dialogue trying to build relationships around the characters, and more emotional reflection than might have been visible in earlier work. There’s still a few awkward flashes, emotional responses and intensities which didn’t quite ring true, but the characters do feel a great deal like people.

Worth noting that this is technically a standalone in a shared universe; honestly, I wouldn’t try and read it without having read the other two books first to provide some context. It looks like it would be possible, but a great deal of the text, especially the initial setup, draws on events from the other two books, and the universe of the narrative is much richer, and far less confusing, if you come to this as a conclusion to a multi-generational saga, rather than on its own.

The text is full to bursting with answers to interesting questions, ranging from the philosophical - how do we act in a universe where we’re not alone?  How might we interact with artefacts from a civilisation aeons older than our own? To the philosophical – how do we define humanity? If we were told the ultimate truth of the universe, how might we react? Who are we, really, as a species, as individuals? The narrative approaches all of these questions unflinchingly, and does its best to provide an answer to them.

In that respect, it’s a typical Reynolds book, and if you want  to explore these questions, and their answers, within a well realised sci-fi universe, with plausible characters and a decent narrative, then this book is worth picking up.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Interstitial - Poseidon's Wake

Working through Alastair Reynold's latest book, 'Poseidon's Wake' at the moment. It's a follow up in his 'Blue Remembered Earth' series. In theory it's a stand-alone, but I'm not sure it can really be read well as one. More on that soon.

On the other hand, it carries Reynold's usual mix of really, really big ideas (in both the conceptual and macro-sized senses!), and manages to give us a set of thoroughly human, relatable characters. It's certainly worth reading if you're into the series.

More detail (hopefully) tomorrow - it's a bit of a beast of a book, so I'm hoping I'll be done by then!