Thursday, April 30, 2015

Interstitial - Two of Swords (Part Two)

Read and digested the second installment of K.J. Parker's Two of Swords.

Didn't have quite as much impact as the first part, but it was still pretty good. More on that tomorrow!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The End of the Sentence - Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard

The End of the Sentence is a slightly creepy character piece.  The narrative protagonist purchases a dilapidated house in a small town, after experiencing an initially unrevealed trauma. Within the house he uncovers a small mountain of letters. All were sent from a nearby prison. All indicate that the writer is soon to leave the prison, and return to the house. At the same time, the house begins to behave in unexpected and (at least initially) unexplainable ways.

This is really a piece about both mood and character. The first person format is mixed with the protagonist reading and writing letters, which gives an interesting change in perspective. But mostly, the reader is dropped into the protagonist’s world, and slowly shown what it is that has driven him to escape to the middle of nowhere. At the same time, we’re left with the mystery of who is sending him seemingly endless letters from prison, how long they have done so, and exactly what it is that they want.

This central mystery is nicely staged – as the protagonist searches for clues and understanding, they also react much as anyone might – trying to evade, disbelieve or argue against their apparently assumed obligation. The truth behind the mysterious ‘sentence’ of the letter writer is eked out to both the central character and the reader at the same time – we as much in the dark as he, which helps evoke the atmosphere of confusion and fear that the piece is going for.

The text isn’t afraid to delve into the depths of character; how the protagonist reacts under the slowly building pressure is, simply put, marvellous. Strained, disbelieving, determined and somewhat afraid – and terribly human. The authors have managed to find a unique voice here, one which is entirely believable. At the same time, their supporting characters suffer a little – this is partially a function of viewpoint, I think; as the reader is so mired in the protagonist’s perspective, it’s hard to tease personality details from other members of the cast. Still, they serve their roles well enough, and one, at least,  manages to be highly emotive and effective foils to the central character; it’s just a shame that there wasn’t room to explore them further.

The other side of the piece is the mood, and  it’s marvellously done. The initial banality, with a slight suggestion of hidden depths is terribly Twin Peaks, and very readable. As the reader and protagonist get further into the text,  it becomes possible that something outside of the initial experience is occurring. The sense of gradual, creeping horror starts on the first page, but by the middle of the text, the frantic protagonist is matched by a reader perturbed by an unspoken mood of grinding terror. This isn’t a book full of jump scares, or a bloody demise – instead, it leaves to the imagination the potential horrors that are alluded to through the text, leaves both protagonist and reader to draw their own conclusions, and is the better for it.

Is it worth reading? Well, it felt very short – perhaps because I felt compelled to keep turning pages to find out what would happen. But, on the other hand, as a mood and character piece, it’s spot on. The plot is plausible within the confines of the world it creates, and makes for an interesting read. Given that, I’d say it’s worth picking up – assuming you’re in the mood for a book of character mixed with a slowly building horror. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Interstitial - The End of the Sentence

The End of the Sentence is a fantastical novel with some horror-ish elements by Maria Dahvana Headley and Kat Howard. It has some interesting things to say about how far people are willing to go to regain things that are important to them, and about how they're willing to satisfy obligations.

More on that tomorrow.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Passage of Stars - Kate Elliot

A Passage of Stars is, at least on the surface, a space opera. Make no mistake, there are spaceships. There are exotic societies. There are daring escapes, and the odd bit of derring do. There is even, at one stage, a pirate. However, A Passage of Stars takes the things that define a space opera, and grabs them, shapes them – it makes changes, it alters expectations. Whilst the traditional space opera is still there, it’s buried under something more interesting – in a text which also wants to talk about relationships, between men, women, non-humans, and indeed entire cultures. About the relationship between people and ideals. The relationship between affection and duty. It approaches these larger themes with sympathy and with care, and in this way becomes something new.

The protagonist of the text is a girl called Lily. She comes to the reader at the start, as a scion in a mining family; one who has no interest in mining, and not much interest in marriage either. Her family lament this – though there is a wonderfully sympathetic scene near the start with her father - and it all goes about as well as you might expect. Shortly thereafter, a person important to Lily disappears, and she takes it upon herself to find them; in this way, she starts a heroes journey which is also an escape, breaking out of the roles that tradition had already defined, and looking to become something else, something that she defines herself.

As a protagonist, Lily is quite believable; impetuous, yes. Affectionate to friends and family.  Strong willed, absolutely. Given that this text was originally written at the start of the nineties, when there was something of a dearth of strong female leads in sci-fi, and given that there still is, in many ways, this is refreshing stuff. As a protagonist, Lily is wonderfully human. She makes decisions, and, on occasion, they don’t turn out well.  She leaps to the aid of friends and family…and sometimes that doesn’t turn out exactly as expected, either. But behind all of these decisions is a logic, an understanding, and a will to act. What the author does is provide this set of decisions with an emotional authenticity which makes Lily an entirely believable protagonist, and one it’s a pleasure to read (that she also excels at unarmed combat, allowing for some excellent fight scenes, is another plus).

The prose is some good stuff, as seems to be standard with Elliot. It’s full of snappy dialogue, wrapped around fight scenes that carry the lean impetuousness of the Matrix, but with a feeling of greater heft behind them. The story never flinches away from hard truths either, and the prose reflects that – largely straightforward, unadorned, but with a feeling of honesty that makes the pages come alive. The broader plot is revealed after Lily begins searching for a missing associate, and I won’t spoil it here, except to say that it’s done very well – there’s a sense of increasing stakes through the narrative, as Lily and her supporting cast move from one crisis to another, with the lulls between wrapped around moments of character.

Overall then, this is a fast paced, well written space opera. It’s also a raw and effective character piece. It has action scenes that seem to leap off the page and kick you in the teeth, and emotional moments that can move the reader to tears. It’s doing a lot of things, and it struggles a little with focus occasionally because of that, but it does manage to do them all well.  With that in mind, I’d say that A Passage of Stars is totally worth your time – I certainly enjoyed it immensely.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Interstitial - A Passage of Stars

Next week should see a review of Kate Elliot's sci-fi novel A Passage of Stars.

Ought to have a review up of The End of the Sentence as well, an eerie novella about obligation and consequences.

Hoping to have one for the second part of K.J. Parker's The Two of Swords as well.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Two of Swords (Part One) - K.J. Parker

Two of Swords is the new serialised novel by K.J. Parker. The first three parts are available now, and run to about eighty pages each. Further parts will be made available on a monthly basis. I’m going to try and put out a review for one of the currently available parts each week, and then review each new part in the month where it becomes available.

I’ve made no secret about being a big fan of K.J. Parker, who I think writes a lot of extremely interesting stories, with depressingly believable characters. Things tend to end badly for those characters; one of the key themes of Parker’s work is entropy; everything gradually falls apart, typically due to the actions of characters working with the best (or at least most reasonable) intentions. This tendency toward systemic collapse always makes for slightly depressing reading, but on the other hand, it’s usually tightly wound with a dry wit that exposes the essential humanity of the characters whilst eliciting the odd chuckle.

I’m happy to say that Two of Swords continues this trend. This first part introduces us to several farm boys, conscripted into a war They have a certain baffled innocence as a group which is rather charming, and the initial focus, on a lad who has some skill at archery, works as a means of drawing the reader into the world. Our viewpoint into the larger scale of things is as confused, disoriented and uninformed as we are – as he makes a bit of progress toward understanding, so do we. It’s always good to see world building done well, and Parker manages it through the little details – mentions of wider political situations in incidental dialogue; economic progress revealed through fashion...there’s all sorts of small clues to the world the characters inhabit scattered around the text, ready for readers to pick up, like ravens.

The characters are very well captured; Parker gives us a sense of confusion and drudgery most strongly, but there’s a whole gamut of emotions here. The gentle friendship of the protagonist and the village over-achiever, for example, is put into place so quickly you don’t notice, and forms the bedrock of the first half of the text, as they begin to move into the wider world together. The same is true of the sort of casual dislike f the protagonist for one of the other boys, something only becoming obvious as  they move out of their comfort zone and into...well, a war zone.

The actual narrative is very tightly written. You could read it as a standalone short story, and it would work. There’s a definite character arc here for the protagonist, which eventually ends up going in some very unexpected directions. Suffice to say, the journey builds the character up nicely, and I’m not entirely sure what the destination will be. Parker doesn’t pull any punches either, in line with their usual style. There’s a lot of plot events packed into the eighty pages or so of text, and several of them are game-changers within the narrative, taking it off the expected path and throwing it somewhere entirely unexpected. Then once the reader is used to the new situation, they’re torn back out of it again. These narrative shifts are typical of Parker’s work, but they don’t lose their impact here.

In the end then, is this worth picking up? As a standalone short story, it isn’t too bad at all; interesting characters, a fast moving plot, and a believable and not over-drawn setting. As the start of a broader narrative, it shares those virtues, with a promise to build on them in the next segment (which has an entirely different protagonist). In either case then, yes, it’s definitely worth your time and money, and absolutely worth reading.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Interstitial - Two of Swords (Part One)

I won't lie, I originally had a different review planned for tomorrow. But the first installment of K.J. Parker's new serialised novel, Two of Swords came out on the 21st. As anyone who read my review of Academic Exercises knows, I'm a massive K.J. Parker fan. I met the news of a new novel being released much in the way of a small child being presented with a large and mysterious box at Christmas.

So instead of what I originally planned, I'm reading the first section of Two of Swords, and there'll be a review up tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Spellstorm - Ed Greenwood

Spellstorm is an interesting melange of genres. On the one hand, it has all the standard fantasy tropes one might expect from the Forgotten Realms series; there’s wrathful wizards. High magic. Goddesses.  A smattering of wry humour. Weird and largely morally unambiguous antagonist. On the other hand, it’s picked up and run with all the stylings of a locked room mystery. Red herrings.  Sealed doors. Extremely awkward formal dinners. Murders every fifteen minutes. All it was lacking was a detective figure to stand up at the end and explain to the cast how all the murders were done in excruciating detail. That said, Elminster, the closest to a protagonist available in this ensemble piece, does make a valiant attempt to do so at one stage.

So, it’s a mash up of the Forgotten Realms universe and a mystery novel – but is it any good/ The answer, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, is yes.

From a setting point of view, there’s initially not much in the way of surprises. The narrative is set within the ancient and decrepit mansion of Oldspires, which is surrounded every so often by a ‘Spellstorm’, a tornado of cataclysmic magic which seals everything  magical inside the mansion.  Given that the largest part of the narrative takes place inside the mansion, it needs to be drawn well, and Ed Greenwood puts some serious effort into this. Each creaking stairway, each darkened corner is lovingly crafted, with the slightest sense of eerie menace, mixed in with a feeling of a slow, sad, but inevitable decline. It’s an aesthetic that’s drawn carefully from the Edwardian mansions of Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, and it serves the same purpose here. The house, if not actually alive, certainly feels that way; a nest of passageways, kitchens with doors that bar on the inside, and a top floor in a state of advanced disintegration all serve to generate a feeling of unease and claustrophobia.

This isn’t helped by the characters. Some, if not all, of these will be familiar to readers of the Forgotten Realms oeuvre. Sealed in the mansion and unable to work magic due to the titular Spellstorm are a selection of the most powerful wizards in the word of Faerun. Unsurprisingly, they appear unable to stand the sight of each other, as well. There’s a couple of out-and-out villains, a few slightly less awful than the rest, and Elminster, the semi-protagonist, who attempts to use the impromptu conclave to force everyone to just get along, and stop trying to murder each other and everyone else. The unpleasant mages are shown competently enough – unfortunately, we don’t see enough of a lot of them to make them worth investing in. The bodycount rises rather rapidly, and whilst there’s a lot of focus on the investigations and the doings in, there’s less on the characters. Possibly they all had quirks revealed in other books, but as a stand-alone, the majority of the mages  are ciphers, there to add to the roll of the dead, but not given room to breathe.

There are some exceptions of course. Manshoon, one of the mages, is wry, dry, and impressively unpleasant. He also appears to have a remarkable level of competence and surviviability. Another mage, a survivor of gross torture and imprisonment, shows off her pain and focus throughout the text, never understated, but never playing to grotesquery. It seems the author can give a good character piece when he has the chance, but most of the characters never really get a feeling of depth. The other for whom this isn’t the cases is, of course, Elminster – the heroic wizard-sage featured across a great many Forgotten Realms novels, in various stages of grand hyperbole. Here, without magic, he’s rather more prone to grumbling and deduction. He’s also given enough space in the text to talk about his motivations, what he’s doing at the conclave, what his end goal is, and how he’s feeling about the whole thing – and it’s a pleasure to read. He’s attended by a small cast of supporting characters, to fetch, carry, make sarcastic remarks, and point each other in the direction of the plot. Again, they don’t get enough room to themselves, and there’s obviously a history shared across other novels that the uninitiated reader is going to miss out on – but it’s serviceable enough; the characters are fleshed out sufficiently to make us care about them, certainly more than the antagonists, and given enough quirks of personality to both make them unique and make the reader chuckle at their banter.

From a plot point of view, the whole thing trots along quite nicely. It’s got a fairly solid opening, filled with explosive demolitions, before turning to the main mystery theme. The mystery of the wizard murders is interesting enough, though the reader isn’t given a lot of time to think about it – each time you think there’s time to take a breath and think it through, another character drops dead, and there’s another fast-paced set of running around and investigation. The narrative actually wraps around this quite skilfully – the question of how all the murders are being committed, and why, remains solvable but opaque until the last few pages. I’m not convinced that the denouement was entirely worth the journey to get there, but the journey itself was a lot of fun.

Overall then, a decent page turner, in an underused sub-genre; there’s very few good fantasy mysteries, and this one, if not great, certainly has excellent aspirations. If you’re a Forgotten Realms fan, it’s certainly worth reading – and if you’re looking to dip your toe in the water, it’s a pretty good introduction to the world as well.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Interstitial - Spellstorm

Finishing up Ed Greenwood's 'Spellstorm', which has taken up the Forgotten Realms setting,thrown in a couple of the more overpowered characters, and then stirred in a soupcon of murder mystery. A circle of powerful archmages, most of whom hate each other, are all locked in a mysterious and haunted mansion together...and then they all start getting killed.

It's a bit fantasy-meets-Agatha Christie, but that's not a bad thing, and in some cases, downright hilarious.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The IX - Andrew P. Weston

The IX is, basically, an entertaining military sci-fi novel, with some time travel elements. An alien race, it’s civilisation collapsing under the weight of screaming monsters known as ‘The Horde’ hits upon a desperate plan for survival, and begins transporting “suitable candidates” from Earth to fight the horde and preserve what’s left of their legacy. As a premise, it has its roots in the classic military sci-fi of the seventies and eighties, with shades of works like Pournelle’s Janissaries or King David’s Spaceship. It may not quite hit the high bar set by its antecedents, but it’s still an entertaining read.

From a plot point of view, the focus is on the cross-temporal group of humanity brought to a new world. They’re a mish-mash of soldiers, warriors and their antagonists, from across human history, and into the future – from Roman legionnaires through to Eco-terrorists and the team sent to apprehend them. This mix of cultural viewpoints and mutual antagonisms has some promise, but doesn’t deliver as far as it might. Faced with the ravening alien Horde, the group largely bands together for mutual protection, and the simmering tensions are mentioned near the start of the book, and quickly forgotten. This actually works, in service to the circumstances drawn by the plot, it was just a shame to see such a great source of conflict brought up briefly, and then ignored. That said, there’s a whole host of other conflicts waiting in the wings, as the narrative gets rolling – which I won’t spoil here, but do provide several surprises.

There’s a fairly vast cast of characters as well, and they’re functionally done, though again, somewhat in service to the plot. We do get some glimpses of depth, especially from the leader of the Legionnaire’s, and from the leader of the anti-terrorist team, so the reader isn’t totally left with ciphers – however, it would have been nice to see a little more of other characters. We do get a view on another pair, as they attempt to go on a vision-quest across time and space to gain understanding of their circumstances. This, again, sounds odd, but it’s written well enough that it actually works – the mystical bent doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the text, but the descriptions are done well, they push the plot forward, and we learn more about these two characters through their shared vision experience than many of the others, It’s a bit different in tone to the rest of the text, but certainly serves a purpose, and is an interesting read.

The main focus of the text, though, is in the battle with a relentless enemy. With securing the redoubt in which the humans find themselves. In exploring the world of the aliens that summoned them there, and discovering what horrors befell that civilisation, why it happened, and what they need to do to survive. There’s a lot of warfare here, using equipment from a variety of periods, and a lot of tech-talk as characters return various pieces of technology to use. And it’s all very well written, and seems to be accurately drawn as well; the battle scenes are epic, compelling, and had me turning pages to find out what happened next. The exploration, the sense of camaraderie amidst tension, was also very well evoked, and left me wanting to read more. The description of the world is excellent – clean, descriptive prose, giving imagery that dazzles and terrifies in equal measure.

With all that in mind – The IX is a good military sci-fi novel. It has a lot of potential, and it lives up to most of it. There’s some minor flaws, but they in no way spoiled my interest or level of entertainment. If you’re going in looking for a book in this specific genre, then this is going to serve up a good portion of what you’re looking for – excitement, gunfire, tactics, heroism, villainy, mystery, wonder; it’s all here. If that sounds like what you’re looking for, this is worth the read.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Interstitital - The IX

Chewing through Andrew P. Weston's doorstop of a military sci-fi piece - with time travel elements, no less. So far it's proven to be full of potential, and certainly well written within the tropes of the genre. We shall see if it lives up to that potential.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Day Shift - Charlaine Harris

Day Shift is the second in Charlaine Harris’s “Midnight – Texas” series.  As implied in the series name, it’s a supernatural mystery serial, set in the somewhat decrepit and isolated town of Midnight. The first book, Midnight Crossroad, was an entertaining enough adventure piece with a little mystery, but, to its detriment, it seemed determined to juggle too many narratives at once. Still, it was an entertaining read, so I was somewhat hopeful on approaching the sequel.

Day Shift opens with a punch, as we follow Manfred, the slightly odd psychic from the first novel, into the ‘big city’, where he goes to do in-person readings for a client. Shortly after arriving, he discovers that another Midnight resident is also in the city, and, in fact, at the same hotel. Shortly after that, there are a spate of unfortunate deaths at the hotel, and it looks like Manfred is going to get the blame.

Where Midnight Crossroad was part adventure, part travelogue, Day Shift feels a bit more focused. The reader is immediately presented with the mystery of several deaths, and given the stakes – Manfred is very much a suspect – and there’s less of the leisurely introduction of characters throughout. Instead, the textual emphasis is on the plot, on the mystery, and on solving that mystery. On balance, I think the text benefits from this clear direction.

From a plot point of view, the central mystery is quite entertaining.  There’s a fairly persistent investigation thread running through the text, and the clues that are dropped are sensible and cohesive. There’s also a couple of red herrings to throw the reader off the scent, and they also work quite well. Less effective is the introduction of another resident to Midnight, who happens to have a supernatural power, which just happens to prove very useful during the investigation. Coincidences abound, and may serve to remove some of the reader’s stake in the story – allowing for convenient resolution of otherwise intractable issues.  That said, I wanted to see how the mystery came out, and it was quite hard to put the book down until I knew the answer, so  on balance the plot approach was quite effective at keeping me in the narrative.

That said, there’s more focus on character in this book, which is a pleasant evolution from its predecessor. In particular, the reader gets a more in-depth view of Olivia, the armed and dangerous mystery woman of Midnight.  The text isn’t exactly filled with revelatory paragraphs, but it’s nice to see the character explored further, and given more of a personality outside of having a role to play. The same is true of several new Midnight residents – whilst they don’t get the same amount of screen time Olivia does, none of them feel like ciphers. There’s the usual tendency for Midnight residents not to talk about anything personal, ever, but the new characters do get their feelings and motivations fleshed out tolerably well.

That said, the supernatural population of Midnight now beggars belief. In a town widely described in the text as small and off the beaten track, pretty much the entire population appears to have some sort of supernatural power. At one point this is lampshaded by another character, who simply wants to know if anyone in the town is normal. The answer to which is…well, not really. It’s a shame, because there are some interesting tensions to be explored in that space between humanity and the supernatural, but here there’s a tendency to form the Supernatural Superfriends instead.

The prose is about on par with Midnight Crossroad – sparse, and a bit blunt, but eminently readable. It would be nice to get more in the way of character descriptions, but the environmental pieces are excellent – Midnight feels like a real town, albeit one slowly sliding into senescence, and it remains a pleasure to read about.

Overall, Day Shift is a decent sequel to Midnight Crossroad. It starts to address some of the issues with that text, giving us tighter plotting and more character depth. It’s still not perfect, but, for all it's flaws, it’s definitely getting there – and serves as a decent read in the meantime.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Interstitial - Day Shift

Finishing up Charlaine Harri's sequel to Midnight Crossroad ; it's still evocative of a middle-of-nowhere Texas town, and it's still full of supernatural shenanigans. We'll see how it pans out tomorrow.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Grace of Kings - Ken Liu

Ken Liu’s debut novel, Grace of Kings is what the author calls ‘silkpunk’, which at heart is an intriguing merger between the ‘Romance of the Three Kingdoms’-esque tradition of historical tales in ancient China, and the newer ethos of Steampunk. So we have Emperors shuttled around on airships. Battles fought for honour and territory, by men with artificial arms powered by wound sinew. We have drinking, debauchery, and individuals who can influence minds with smoke. It’s a heady mix, and Liu manages to hold it all together exceedingly well.

The start of the narrative also defines, to some extent, the path that the reader takes through it. An Emperor has forcefully united the lands of a large archipelago, striving to bring the people together, to break apart old bonds, and create something new. There are, of course, several different factions that are unhappy about this, including what passes for the remaining aristocracy of the islands, upset at losing their hereditary power and privilege, and many of the more underprivileged as well – now resentful of the harshness of Imperial rule, seeking a more equitable settlement.

From the above, Grace of Kings can be read as a story of rebellion, of grand scale politics. But it’s also a very personal set of stories. Both the above factions, along with several others, are led by strong personalities. The way that they interact with each other is at the core of the novel – one an aristocrat, consumed with duty, determined to return to a past that is seen as glorious, where everyone knew their proper place – and the other, a rogue, a man looking to the future, to make the world work better for those without a voice, without anyone to speak for them. That these two men become friends is something of a miracle – and Liu presents it to us organically, slowly, letting the reader drink in the differences in the personalities, the ways in which they clash and combine to make something great as they struggle against the entrenched forces of a new Empire. But this careful articulation of character also leaves questions about what may happen if the two men succeed – personal friends, their agenda so radically different that they can be driven into enmity. It’s a potent combination, and one which makes for an intriguing read.

Given the grand scope of the plot, wrapping it up in these personal tales is an excellent device - it gives each of the broader themes a face, a personality. It helps, however, that the prose is absolutely outstanding. In some areas – when depicting violence, for example, in grand or small scale – it’s quite dry, not reveling in events, simply depicting them. At other times – in personal conversations, in descriptions of surrounding areas – it can be languid, drawing the reader into the created world, drawing a vivid picture of somewhere that feels quite special. At others – portraying the emotions between protagonists – it can be wire-taut, pressing down on the reader with the tensions and ties between characters.

Grace of Kings is, itself, quite special. It’s carefully formed a narrative of epic scope around an emotionally strong personal story. Both these strands of thought are wrapped in a wonderfully drawn world, perfectly pitched to blend existing narrative traditions in an exciting way.

In summary – Grace of kings is very much worth your time. I went in not knowing what to expect, and was absolutely blown away. Definitely worth a look.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Interstitial - Grace of Kings

Wound up Ken Liu's excellent 'silkpunk' novel, Grace of Kings this morning. It's an interesting approach to the genre; really sprawling, epic scope, which is somehow paired with a tight focus on individuals to make something really quite special. Review on Monday, but for now - it's great, and worth your money.

Now moving on to Charlaine Harris's latest, Day Shift...

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Odyssey One: Into the Black - Evan Currie

I was inspired to go back and try the first of Evan Currie's works after reading an ARC of his latest, King of Thieves

Odyssey One is a space opera. It’s also, fortunately, quite a good one. The focus is centred on the crew of the Odyssey, Earths first faster-than-light capable spacecraft. The main focus is on the ship’s captain, who is something of a reluctant warrior. There are, however, other points of view scattered through the crew and used when required – in particular, the view tends to split and follow ground troops when required.

It turns out that this degree of viewpoint shift is required quite a bit, because, well, there’s a lot of action in this text. It’s impressively written, too. There’s quite an array of space battles, and they’re well drawn, with some current-navy analogies; the Odyssey acts as a large battleship/carrier, with a wing of fighter craft, allowing the reader to get both a macro and micro view on each space conflict. The battles all take account of basic physics, so there’s not a lot of Star Wars style chaos in combat – instead, the tension ratchets up on the Odyssey as it manoeuvres to avoid being in a position where it might get hit, whilst seeking to anticipate its opponent’s moves before taking its own shots. I compared the combat in Currie’s recent King of Thieves: Star Rogue to submarine warfare, and I think that comparison is apropos here as well. The Odyssey has a bigger stick, but it still feels like a tin can locked in a hostile environment, with a crew under terrific pressure both within and without.

The fighter and ground combat sequences offer some relief from this tension, focused on smaller battlefields, more immediate answers. The fighter combat is well written, if a bit familiar –but it’s fast paced, and the combat descriptions are good enough to keep you turning pages. The ground combat has a similar effect, though it’s a bit more awkward, and seems to derive quite a lot from texts that came before in the oeuvre (one character actually lampshades this directly in the text). It’s well done though, and a good read, so it’s difficult to condemn it; it may not be terribly original, but it was certainly hard to stop reading.

Whilst the combat is a rip-roaring read, and the discussion of the sciences and technology within the text is obviously well researched, and quite compelling, it all has to work within a framing narrative. Fortunately, the one provided is decent enough. I won’t get into it for fear of spoilers, but it does provide the Odyssey’s captain with compelling reasons to get involved in all sorts of exciting battle scenes.

Where the book does suffer somewhat is in the characters. We get a bit of a view onto the Captain-as-protagonist, and each of the viewpoint characters is made a little deeper by being used as a point-of-view, but the focus isn’t really on the people here; it’s on the space battles, the ground warfare, and the odd smidge of diplomacy (though the latter is tellingly done largely offscreen). There’s enough broad character strokes provided that the reader can empathise with the captain and crew of the Odyssey, but largely left ignorant of what drives them – and in the few cases where that information is given up, it’s largely standard duty-bound heroics. Still, the cast aren’t entirely ciphers, and the result is quite readable, so I shan’t complain too strongly – it may be that the characters are given a bit more heft in later instalments.

Overall, this is highly readable military sci-fi. There’s pretty much unrelenting action throughout, and the environment is well realised, well explicated, and interesting. The narrative is compelling, and the prose done well enough to keep the reader enthralled. If you’re looking for something to read with a lot of spaceships, powered armour, aliens and explosions, with a plausible scientific wrapping and a decent story, then this is the book for you.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Interstitial - Odyssey One

A little while ago I took a look at Evan Currie's new book, King of Thieves: Star Rogue, set in the same world as his sprawling space opera, Odyssey One. It was a solid space opera, and very enjoyable. But I'd never actually read his original series, so have set out to remedy that. Should have a review of Odyssey One: Into the Black, the first book in the sequence, tomorrow.

Also made a start on Ken Liu's new novel, The Grace of Kings - it's pretty great thus far. More on that as time allows (it's a pretty big book, too).

Uprooted - Naomi Novik

Uprooted is Naomi Novik’s latest; she’s better known for the Temeraire series, an alternate history where dragons are used as a flying corps during the Napoleonic wars. But Uprooted is something else entirely; a fairy-tale for a new age. It has a narrative that absolutely pulls no punches – there’s darkness here, accentuated rather than hidden by the lyrical prose – but there’s also truth. There’s characters that felt absolutely alive, and a story that had me turning pages, wracked by highs and lows, desperate to see how it all ended, and reluctant to finish it. Put simply, Novik’s put together  something really special.

The narrative begins, as is traditional, in a village on the edge of nowhere. A happy village – the archetype of contentment. But as in all good fairytales, something is awry – every ten years, a wizard who rules the valley in which the village sits, claims one of the girls from the valley. Nobody knows what for – but they do know that they don’t see the girls for the next ten years, and when they return, they return changed, and move quickly away.

If a wizard wasn’t enough to deal with, the village also sits on the edge of The Wood (note the capitals). This brooding forest is a centre of corruption in the valley’s midst. It draws people into it, and they don’t come back. Or they do come back, horribly changed, bringing the corruption of the Wood back with them.

Into this setting, this village trapped between the Wizard and the Wood, walks the wonderfully named (and startlingly difficult to pronounce) Agnieszka. As with all fairytale heroines, she’s something of an ingĂ©nue, an innocent in her village. Prone to clumsiness and self-doubt. But she’s willing enough to face the wizard when he comes to choose a girl to take away, even though everyone knows that it’ll be her best friend who is taken instead.

Without getting into spoilers, it doesn’t quite work out that way. The narrative quickly expands out from the choosing of the girls, into a much wider fabric. If you’re drawn to plot heavy books, I can safely say that a lot happens over the course of the text. The stakes are very quickly raised, and each triumph from the characters seems like it’s followed by an even greater potential for defeat.  The text does start at a bit of a slow burn, but it’s doing so to gather a variety of threads to wrap you up in by the mid-point, into a second half where it was almost impossible to put the book down out of a desire to know what happened next.

So, this is a book where things happen – love, hate, murder, heartbreak, jealousy, friendship, large battles, small victories – they’re all here. They’re all also written extremely well. Novikhas clearly put her heart into the prose – it’s sparkling with wit, dazzling with a kind of iconic imagery which leaves the characters traced through your imagination on quiet words of fire. But mostly, it has a feeling of truth, a feeling that the characters on the pages are acting like people – they’re sometimes heroes, sometimes arrogant swine, mule-headed or contradictory…and absolutely real.  Again, I won’t get into details for fear of spoilers, but I will say that Agnieszka’s character arc, from village innocent to, well, something else entirely, is smoothly and wonderfully done. This is a protagonist with a strong sense of agency,  where the character’s changes are organic, believable, and thoroughly emotionally affecting. In truth, there were parts of the book where I switched from outright laughter to near-tears in the course of a couple of pages. Novik knows how to tug the heartstrings, but manages to do so without schmaltz – the characters have this effect because they’re  made real to the reader. That the prose can have this effect is a sign of how well the characters are drawn, and how well  Novik’s text presents them.

Uprooted is, at heart, a fairy tale. A story of magic, mystery and wonder. Of coming-of-age. Of Princes, castles and kings. But make no mistake, it also wants to talk about the darker side of the fairy tale narrative. Monsters. Murders. The occasional gruesome demise. The creeping terror that drives a person to heroics. This is the side of the fairy tale where every action has a consequence, where magic always has a price to be paid. Novik manages to merge these two aspects together seamlessly, and that fusion is what makes the narrative such a joy to read.  Absolutely, entirely, without reservation, recommended.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Interstitital - Uprooted

As it was a four day weekend, I threw up my review of The Very Best of Kate Elliot early. Which means I'm now working on my one for Uprooted, Naomi Novik's latest; unlike her Temeraire books, it's more of an updated Grimm's Fairytales style story - like her preceding work however, it's very well written. Absolutely loving it. Should have more on that tomorrow!

The Very Best of Kate Elliot - Kate Elliot

At the root, the Very Best of Kate Elliot is, honestly, very good indeed. It’s designed to showcase the author’s short fiction, with examples pulled from across the last twenty years.  That fiction has several defining characteristics: It has a lot of lyrical prose, wrapping the reader up into each world with every syllable. Each of those syllables rewards careful reading – there’s layers sat under each story which give the whole more depth on each read through. There’s a lot of emotional weight;  some more than others, but each of these stories feels genuine, feels raw – in some cases, so much so that it may still be bleeding, narratively speaking.

Critically, each of these stories also has a lot of female agency. I don’t say strong female characters, because some of them are not – some are broken, in one way or another, some are afraid, some confused – but all of them take their own actions, make their own choices, and feel alive, in a way that the more stereotypical weeping maiden, waiting for a prince to carry her off on a white horse, never really does. These are women-as-people, and each and every one of these stories approaches that topic. Not stridently, not unpleasantly, but in a refreshingly matter of fact way. There are a few butt-kicking protagonists – the tribal warrioress of The Gates of Joriun, for example – but at the same times there’s the gentle pair of political pragmatists in The Queen’s Garden, or the girl growing toward independence in Sunseeker. And each of those characters make choices, and whilst those choices may be right or wrong, they’re not presented as being any less valid than another.

With that in mind, twenty years on, I don’t know if the idea of protagonists who a re also women has quite the shock value it has had over the last two decades. Fortunately, the stories stand up on their own as well. I won’t get into spoilers here, but will say that there’s a nice variety of narratives on show.  There’s a nice bit of thoroughly alien sci-fi, wrapped in a production of Macbeth in My Voice is my Sword. There’s the aforementioned discussion and plottery in The Queen’s Garden. A solid bit of fantasy, ending with the acceptance of consequences in On the Dying Winds of the Old Year and the Birthing Winds of the New. A story of change, the moving into adulthood, in Making the World Live Again. There’s the odd demon, some swordfights, and some witty dialogue – but mostly, there’s a lot of very well drawn characters, their personalities and lives drawn out from dialogue, from the reactions of those around them, from the setting, from the things they say and do. Basically, Elliot can write a good character, wrap them in a tightly drawn setting in a broader implied world, and the result will knock your socks off.  Come for the interesting stories, stay for the characters.

There’s also four essays in here, largely dealing with the state of the SF&F literary field. These feel more like they have an overt agenda than the narratives that precede them. But they do make interesting reading. For example, there’s discussion of the role of the male gaze in fiction, of the way in which this gives the cloak of normality to certain genre and general narrative conventions, and how this can be explored and avoided as a reader and an author. There’s also a piece on what is and is not explored when building worlds in genre fiction – that what is not explicitly written may be taken to fit within the reader’s own existing framework is an interesting idea, and one that invites a closer critical view from, again, both author and reader.

Overall then, this is an excellent collection of short stories; they serve to showcase Elliot as a real talent, and one whose work is deserving of both attention and praise. If you have an interest in well drawn characters sat in interesting worlds, with narratives that have a real eye for emotional truth, then this collection is definitely worth your time.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Interstitial - The Very Best of Kate Elliot

Been powering through the Very Best of Kate Elliot the last few days. It's very large, and fits very well into a sort of...egalitarian fantasy. I don't want to say, with strong female roles, because...they're more female roles with agency. As an anthology, it's really well done - more on that Monday now!

Decided to throw the Kate Elliot review up now, because it's a four day weekend.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Midnight Crossroad - Charlaine Harris

Midnight Crossroad is the first in a new series by Charlaine Harris – otherwise known for the now famous True Blood books. It’s set in the dilapidated town of Midnight, Texas, where, as ever, not everything is quite what it seems. Actually, almost nothing is what it seems, which becomes a bit of a problem – but more on that later.

The book ostensibly follows Manfred, an internet based psychic who may, or may not, actually be a psychic. He’s joined quite quickly by a rather extensive raft of supporting characters;  there’s a cheery pawn shop owner. There’s a semi-Wiccan witch (with appropriate cat). There’s two men running an antiques store (because, of course they do). There’s the taciturn owner of the wonderfully named ‘Gas and Go’. There’s the night shift tenant at the pawn shop, and his livr in girlfriend. And absolutely every single one of them refuses to talk about anything more personal than the weather. There’s a lot of dark glances, mutterings, and general closed-mouthedness.  Frankly I was surprised any of them managed to order breakfast at the diner (staffed by the only people in the entire town who seemed a) normal and b) able to hold a non-portentous or mysterious conversation).  What suffers here is characterisation. Whilst Manfred gets some back story, mentioned in passing, which works quite well, the only other characters to really feel like they’re being properly realised are the pawn shop owner – the marvellously named Bobo – and the mystical witch who carries a bit of a torch for him. In a sense, this is understandable, because they’re point-of-view characters alongside Manfred. On the other hand, the other characters do feel a bit like ciphers, exercising plot for reasons of their own, which are never entirely clear.

On the town of Midnight is an absolute star. Harris gives a wonderful description of a dusty, one stop, blow away town, clinging to the edge of nothingness, gradually withering into…well, nothing much, really. The sense of small town claustrophobia is evoked wonderfully, as is the feeling that the whole place is more an asylum for the terminally odd – Twin Peaks on the edge of nowhere.

The plot…the plot is a bit odd. It starts off slowly, drawing the reader into the town, introducing us to the characters, and telling us about how close-mouthed and thoroughly odd they all are. Along with the vivid description of the town itself, this bit works rather well. Then it all starts to get a bit excited – there’s a murder, there’s white supremacists, there’s kidnapping…there’s really just a lot going on. I’m not entirely convinced that it all needed to be happening in the same book, and we might have benefitted from a little more exploration of one or two threads, rather than the five or six that actually happened. On the other hand, it’s a very easy read, and the sheer bombardment of things happening kept me turning the pages. There’s some reveals that are just…dropped in, and some near the end which I don’t think you could see coming – which on one hand is good, there’s a lot of surprises here, but on the other, leaves the reader blindsided, unable to really see  what drives a character, because it might change at any moment.

Given it’s a new series, with no explicit connections to Harris’s other work, there’s also a certain unspoken reliance on the reader having read the True Blood series as well – apparently Manfred is a side character there, and the curious acceptance of the townsfolk for the supernatural (at least when convenient) may be explained by the world building in True Blood – on its own merits though,  without reference to earlier work, that acceptance just seems…odd.

Overall then, this is a good popcorn read, with some high points – I powered through ti in a couple of days, and can safely say that whilst the plot gets a bit ridiculous at times, it’s a lot of fun to read. The town is a delight, and it’s easy to imagine yourself in that world. There’s apparently a sequel in the series, so I’m hoping we’ll see a bit more character growth as the series grows, and a little less deus ex-machina around the plot. If you’re already a fan of Harris, you’ve probably already decided to give this a go. If you’re not an existing fan – it’s a good, if flawed read – snappy, fun, and worth picking up.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Interstitial - Midnight Crossroad

Midnight Crossroad is the first in a new novel series by Charlaine Harris, of True Blood fame.
It's not bad - the setting is really well written, but the plot and the characters are over-complicated and under-complicated, respectively. That said, I tore through it, so it must be doing something right...

Full review tomorrow!