Friday, May 29, 2015

Time Salvager - Wesley Chu

Time Salvager is a blend of sci-fi and thriller. It’s accessible, raises clever questions, wraps them through interesting characters…and then sets off an explosion. It has a lot of the DNA of the action movie running through it, but also some interesting contemplation on the goals of humanity, and the ways and means of achieving them.

The central conceit of the novel is that there are operatives in the future, the marvellously named “Chronmen”, who travel back in time to loot resources from other, better provisioned eras. The protagonist is one such Chronman. The setting of the novel thus jumps about a bit. There are digressions into the Carthaginian period, and the second World War, but also time spent in our own near and more distant future, along with the dystopia that our protagonist calls home. At each of these locations, the author makes an effort to create a vivid and believable world, and largely succeeds.

The historical time periods will feel familiar to anyone who watched Gladiator or Indiana Jones – but each of the other periods feels similarly real. In part this is due to the level of detail and multi-layered descriptions made available, and in part it’s due to the plausible nature of the times and era presented. 

The best of these is probably the one that frames the ‘now’ of the novel – the ostensible time of the main character. That our protagonist, living in a rather unpleasant , shattered version of the world considers it normal is depressing – but that normality, that grinding sense of oppression, obsolescence and decay is transmitted, with pitch perfect acuity, to the reader. In part this is due to the wider canvas, which Chu paints with a palpable sense of dead and expectation. The dead seas. The need for technology to provide clean air. But it’s also due to the small details wrapped around the descriptions of this wider canvas. In the way that characters internal monologues simply accept their appalling situation. In the way that corporate power is accepted as a species of divine right. In the way that every vehicle is laced with grime, rust and decay except for those owned by secretive corporations.  

The author provides a multiplicity of settings, and it speaks well for the quality of the prose that each of them is both unique and believable. But the broken  ‘present’ of the Chronmen is  masterful, not just because it’s drawn well, but because the characters that inhabit it seem to carry it with them, no matter what period we find them in. The world created is in perfect harmony with the miserable, angry characters which inhabit it. The setting is as welcoming to the reader as a punch in the gut, and as forceful – because it has a terrifying veneer of the real about it, and the author’s skill has made that veneer seem frighteningly possible.

Of course the world is nothing without characters to inhabit it. Here we again get a multiplicity of viewpoints. The Chronman who acts as the protagonist  is bitter, broken, wallowing in self-interest and interested in self destruction. In part this is evoked by the setting, above; but the reader can also find it in his internal monologue, and in the fraught tone of each interaction with others. There’s some emotional damage alluded to at the start of the text, which becomes clearer as the narrative evolves – and the character evolves alongside it. Personally I would have liked to have seen more of this evolution, mined the depths of a psyche scarred by tragedy and the horror of watching countless deaths in the past – but whilst the author may not mine this as deeply as they could, what is presented is wonderfully horrifying. The Chronman as a protagonist is believable because of his flaws, his unlikable, abrasive nature – a classic antihero. If we’ve seen the archetype before, this is an excellent variation on the theme; if I say anything for the Chronman, I would say he feels worryingly human.

The same level of care appears to have been expended on the supporting cast. The central antagonist of the piece gets their own space in the text, their own internal monologue. They have a set of drives and motivations which make them seem at worst ambiguous, and at best, like the protagonist, entirely human – merely tied to a different set of moral standards. The supporting cast are well rounded, and certainly have their own goals, thoughts, motivations also – and the author does a good job of portraying of portraying the difference in perspectives across different time periods.

There’s some things in the characterisation that it would have been nice to see further developed. For example, there’s an understated romance moving through the narrative, and it actually works quite well – but the overall arc feels a bit abrupt, and it would have been good to have some more exploration in this area. Similarly, there’s a degree to which the corporations of the future act as a systemic antagonist – and whilst this works in the context of this book, it would have been interesting to see a more ambiguous portrayal, rather than one actively antagonistic. In both cases, I’m hoping the next book in the series will expand on the existing context, and give it a little more oomph; what is there in the current text is sufficient to make it believable, but it would be great to see a more multi-textual exploration of both antagonistic and romantic relationships.

Finally, the plot. This starts off as a slow burn, as our protagonist infiltrates the past for various reasons. We’re given a view of several of the characters, and introduced to the status quo. And then…things change, and we’re off to the races. In between the characterisation and the setting, there’s an action-packed core.  Wes Chu writes fight scenes with dynamic enthusiasm and a kinetic energy that (almost literally) jumps off the page. The plot has other sides of course. There’s some discussion of the ethics and morality of time travel. The subtextual discussion of the role of private and public sector in the lives of citizens. The less subtextual attempts to save the broken future. It feels like there’s something for everyone. Each of these strands is woven together into a coherent whole. Where there are narrative gaps, the quickfire pacing typically manages to elide them; there are some moments where the momentum stutters a little, but typically the book is very hard to put down.

Overall, this is a rocket of a novel. A fast-paced sci-fi thriller. It asks a lot of interesting questions, and whilst some of the answers may be a bit in-your-face, the series has a great deal of potential. If you’re in the mood for something with a unique setting, rapid fire plot, interesting characters, and a solid science-fiction feel, this will definitely be worth a look. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Interstitial - Time Salvager

Tomorrow we have a review of Wes Chu's Time Salvager; it's something of a thriller across several time periods. Interesting, ambiguous characters and a compelling plot make for a fascinating read.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Two of Swords (Part Four) - 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.

Much like the preceding section, this fourth part of Parker’s serialised novel changes the viewpoint on the reader. This time we’re dragged up into the higher echelons of politics, there to follow an aide to an Empress, as they – alongside everyone else – go to war. The character is portrayed with Parker’s typical flourishes. We see self doubt, seeds of misgiving, a core of unshakeable loyalty. There’s less of the trademark Parker cynicism, as such, but a great deal of self-awareness in the character, which shines through in contemplation, and the prose indicates a more reflective temperament than the protagonists that we’ve followed before.

The narrative, being centred around this point of view, reflects those alterations in character. There’s less of the rapid-fire dialogue and action of the preceding section; this feels more like a meditation on and  examination of actions and consequences. The setting, as alluded to above, is different as well. There is some time spent in the insular courts of a nation trapped between sides in the war of Empires from the last there sections – but the large part is spent back out on the road, as our protagonist leads an army in search of a rather elusive enemy, with Parker’s traditionally unexpected results.

As usual, the prose is thoroughly enjoyable to read. Parker manages to create an informal, chatty tone, which makes for an extremely rapid read. At the same time, the tone wraps around the rather bleak events of the text, creating a wonderfully stark contrast between the medium and the message. Veteran Parker readers have seen this style before, most notably in his Purple and Black, which this shares themes with.  There’s a lot of focus on people trying to do their best in adverse circumstances, and the long running Parker focus on the decay of complicated systems – in this case, the potential collapse of an army, and possibly an entire country.

There’s also a bit more focus on the elusive Craftsmen mentioned in the preceding volume; hints of an even deeper game are presented, and more hidden hands are revealed behind events. Quite where Parker is going to go with this isn’t entirely clear (as ever!), but there’s a definite layering of motives and mysterious characters with more than one hidden agenda.

As a standalone, this is a perfectly readable piece of short fiction by Parker; it has a lot of the common themes of their work, believable, reasonable, logical characters, clever and accessible prose, and is a thoroughly compulsive read. As part of the larger mosaic of a serial, it seems to be hinting toward the larger stories behind the currently visible tex. The movement of armies, the shifting sands of politics, all give the reader a broader perspective on events – tying those that occurred in the first three parts to those in the current section gives the reader a bit more insight. It also leaves them craving more.

Another thoroughly enjoyable piece by Parker, both as an individual work, and as part of the larger collection. Recommended!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Interstitial - Two of Swords (Part Four)

Tomorrow has another in my ongoing series of reviews of K.J. Parker's new serialised novel, Two of Swords. This week we're on to part four. This part largely returns to the military focus of the first part - but this time from a somewhat more elevated perspective.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Tracer - Rob Boffard

Tracer is a sci-fi dystopian novel, packed with action, wrapped around some interesting characters. 

The narrative centres around a slowly decaying space station, Outer Earth. The last bastion of humanity, perpetually orbiting a world eternally marked by cataclysm, its creaking environs are one of the stars of the text. The author has created a claustrophobic world, one in which merely existing is a struggle against entropy. But it’s also a world that makes sense - there’s a focus on the control of air, on food supplies, concerns over a growing population. The station that serves as the character’s world is struggling under a lot of the same concerns as our own – environmental, economic, social. It feels lived in, and it feels real. On the other hand, it doesn’t feel like a particularly nice place to live – there’s a metaphorical grime patina across everything. Systems are slowing down, or already non-functional. Flickering internal lighting shows areas of the station run as slums, gangs controlling water points. Other areas remain under governmental control, but there’s a whiff of totalitarianism about the security forces – less-than-affectionately named the ‘Stompers’ by our cast. What Boffard has created is an environment that displays enormity and fragility at the same time, and then dropped characters into it, with events that ratchet up until the whole station is a pressure cooker. 

Speaking of the characters – the main focus is on one of the titular Tracers. Seemingly a cross between parkour enthusiasts and cage fighters, they run packages through the station after the demise of any more efficient postal service. The protagonist here is Riley, a Tracer who discovers more than she should about one of the packages she’s carrying. Riley manages to give the vibe of being the strong female lead – she carries off her work competently, can fight effectively in hand-to-hand combat, has a surprising amount of emotional depth. The first two of these traits cover a great many action heroes, in this post-Hunger Games world, but it’s delightful to find a heroine who is more than a cardboard cutout. Boffard shows us a relatively young girl carrying around rather a lot of emotional damage – which largely manifests as emotional distance, with a razors edge of paranoia wrapped around it. Our protagonist is not easy to get close to, in the physical or emotional sense. But this feeling of damage and distance is well crafted – Riley’s internal monologue reveals causes, explains and drives reactions, and drags the reader into her head. At the same time, her casual competence and wry humour makes for a pleasant read.

Quite the reverse is true for the villain of the piece. I won’t get into details here for fear of spoilers; however, I will say that the author has done a masterful job with his antagonist. There’s less delicacy around the motivations here, the psychology behind them made more explicit – and a little less nuanced. But at the same time, every page oozes with unpleasantness, with a kind of creeping horror and crawling sense of internal filth; it’s an absolute masterclass in unrepentant villainy, a sci-fi Othello. The sections where the antagonist features heavily aren’t a pleasant read, but they are an incredibly compelling one. 

The plot suffers a little alongside the setting and the characters. It feels like a big budget action movie dropped onto the page. This isn’t a bad thing, mind you. In particular, there’s some wonderful tension in the early sections, before the later ones turn the action up to eleven. There’s decisions within the narrative which, on closer inspection, served the plot, rather than the characters – but in the heat of the moment, they also serve the narrative flow, and so are easily forgiven. There’s a fair amount of running, jumping, and struggling against impossible odds. A smattering of betrayal and personal loss. A fair amount of well described hand-to hand fighting. And a refusal to lower the stakes at any time.

Solid characters. Tight plotting. Well realised setting. It makes for a very compelling, compulsive reading experience, and one that’s thoroughly entertaining – this one’s worth picking up, if you’re in the mood for some sci-fi action.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Interstitial - Tracer

Monday we have a review of Rob Boffard's action-packed sci-fi debut, Tracer. It really does feel a lot like an action movie filmed on a space station, and that's not a bad thing.

Should have the next part in my ongoing series of reviews for K.J. Parker's serialised Two of Swords out next week as well.

Children of Time - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Children of Time is a new stand-alone sci-fi novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky – the author famed for his sprawling fantasy series, Shadows of the Apt. This book has the same quality of prose and narrative sense as that larger work, but manages to retain the focus required of a stand-alone, whilst also attempting to cover a breathtaking narrative scope – which, with a few minor hitches, it does.

Speaking of scope, this is a text defined by it. Following what can only be described as an “incident”, a planet-sized terraforming project, designed to uplift the planetary fauna into intelligence, is left effectively unattended. In the absence of human interference, that intelligence thrives – but it comes from some rather unexpected directions. A large part of the novel deals with this gradual process of uplift. The reader is shown the first stirrings of sentience among the original creatures of the world. Each chapter feels like  a historical vignette. The learning of co-operation for hunting. The first struggles against an external environment. The struggle against biological urges in the interests of the greater good. The stirrings of religious awe. The rise of technology and urbanisation. The battle against disease. The casting down of gods. Each is crafted as a set piece, a window into the slow evolution of a species which has intelligence in common with humanity, but which comes across as almost entirely alien. It’s perhaps the author’s greatest achievement that the reader can empathise with these protagonists throughout their history. Can see their point of view, can understand their alien needs, wants, the struggles that define them as people, rather than other, even if not human. At the same time, the reader is always left with their empathy immersed in a sense of the alien – where humanity can perhaps sympathise but not entirely understand. Frankly, the crafting of this sympathetic yet thoroughly unique viewpoint an absolute masterpiece.

As we’re being dipped into the nuances of an entirely foreign psyche, the reader is also being shown the potential, one way or another, of humanity. The heirs of the terraforming project are returning, if not entirely to schedule. Rather than a sleek armada, however, we find our cast of humanity coiled in the guts of a slowly decaying Ark-ship – the crew and euphemistically termed “cargo” frozen at launch, awakened in need. At the same time as we watch the slow uplift of the planetary inhabitants, there’s another view – the struggle against the decline and decay of humanity, the increasing desperation to find a home. Here our protagonist is a historian, giving us a view on Earth’s future past, struggling to understand and document events in snatches between trips into the sleep chambers. Humanity, as ever, starts with the best of intentions, but entropy, and their own worst natures, are something more of a challenge. Watching every step, every potential catastrophe, Tchaikovsky manages to give us an understanding of the stakes, of how each person is acting as they think best – and keeps the reader aware that the stakes are incredibly high.

Eventually, of course, these two strands of narrative are set on a collision course. I won’t go into the conclusion here, but will note that Tchaikovsky really manages to turn the screws on the reader; the tension as the book draws to a close was wonderfully unbearable. The denoument promises a lot, and honestly, it pretty much manages to deliver.

The human characters that we see, scattered between cryogenic freezing, are fascinating. Dropped in and out of time, we can see members of the “Key Crew” mature, age, and react with and against their circumstances. There’s a couple of the supporting cast which seem a little underdeveloped, but the central relationships are strongly crafted, and entirely believable. At the same time, the individuals on the terraformed planet are inscrutably alien, but also feel perfectly human – a line that Tchaikovsky walks with great care, and great success.

With that in mind, is this worth reading? Absolutely. It’s well written – the prose has Tchaikovsky’s hallmark accessible but compulsive quality. The characters are believable, and in some instances, genuinely, astoundingly alien. The perspective, literally across space and time, is unique. The narrative arc is driven, tense, highly emotive (tears more than laughter, but definitely a bit of both), and incredibly compelling.  A highly intriguing piece of science fiction – wonderfully done.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Interstitial - The Children of Time

Tomorrow we have a review of Adrian Tchaikovsky's sci-fi opus, The Children of Time.
I'm very excited about this one - it has a compelling narrative, and a truly unique take on alien perspectives.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Gospel of Loki - Joanne M. Harris

The Gospel of Loki is an interesting twist on the traditional Norse saga’s. Where those have a broader, more heroic context, this narrative is intensely personal. The viewpoint is hardly heroic either – being a first person account, from none other than the titular Loki: Norse god, trickster, general troublemaker. Unsurprisingly, it puts a bit of a different spin on the traditional saga myth. If you’ve absorbed any of those, this will certainly tweak your preconceptions. If you’re coming to Norse mythology fresh, then it’s still a perfectly enjoyable story.

The narrative takes the reader along with Loki, through the creation of the worlds, all the way through to Ragnarok, the end of everything. Its strength is in the narrative voice. Loki narrates the events of the Norse myths entirely in the tone of someone reciting history, or a family anecdote – which is extremely thematically appropriate.  The voice that is used to speak to the reader is informal, wry, and very emotive; it contains the character that the author has drawn for Loki very well.

That character is, really, the core of the book. Given that Loki opens with a piece on the unreliability of all narrators, his own story is thrown into doubt, part of the tradition of conflicting accounts. On the other hand, his actions are consistent with his internal character. He’s an individual torn between two worlds, between the elemental chaos and disorder from which he was formed, and the fascinatingly ordered world of what we see as reality. That dichotomy gets him into quite a lot of trouble;  acting with his nature causes all sorts of problems. But there are some wonderfully complex layers present here. Loki works to be accepted amongst the inhabitants of Asgard, strives to fit in, despite his origins, distinct from their own; that he is rebuffed and, by his own account, abused, helps keep the reader sympathetic as he begins to turn against erstwhile allies.

Much like the allure of Shakespeare’s Othello, the reader is pulled into Loki’s descent into villainy. The self-justifications, the unfortunate actions, the moments of misunderstanding which cause events to fall one way or another. Loki doesn’t come off as human, particularly, but he does come off as understandable and even, at least some of the time, likable.  The reader is left wondering if their narrator is justified after all. What the author has done here is take a previously unrepentant individual, and given them more depth, more drives, made them visible and sympathetic to the reader. And it works very well.

The other characters aren’t given much of the same depth in Loki’s narration. The female goddesses of Asgard, in particular, come off as ciphers. On the other hand, this may well be intentional – they’re not  very well represented in the source material either, and Loki isn’t really the most empathetic of characters anyway. Most of the cast seem to serve as foils for, or levers on, our narrator. Then again, this is Loki’s story, and the reader is already adrift in Loki’s internal monologue, so this may be acceptable as a narrative device. Still, it would have been nice to have a little more flesh on the bones of Odin, Heimdall and the rest.

The story cleaves close to the original text of the Saga’s, and remains engaging and entertaining throughout. I won’t spoil it here, but will say that there’s quite a lot of action and adventure along the way. There’s also a fair amount of scheming – almost all of it on Loki’s part, but it heightens the dramatic tension nicely. The story trots along at a good pace, and given that the prose itself is so engaging, it’s quite difficult to put down.

Overall, a really nice character piece, on one of the more sympathetic and engaging “villains” of the last few millennia. Very easy to read, with a plot that both informs and entertains the reader. Worth looking into.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Interstitial - The Gospel of Loki

Tomorrow we have Joanne M Harris's The Gospel of Loki. A somewhat irreverent remix of Norse saga's, as retold by Loki, the trickster-god an dgeneral malcontent. It made me nod approvingly, wince, and laugh out loud in equal measure. More tomorrow!

Friday, May 15, 2015

Cities and Thrones - Carrie Patel

Cities and Thrones is the second in Carrie Patel’s Recolleta series, the first of which I reviewed earlier in the year, here.

Cities and Thrones has a lot to live up to. Its predecessor was Carrie Patel’s debut, which put together several elements – a claustrophobic underground city, several conspiracy-theory-worthy dark secrets, a string of brutal murders – and spun them in unexpected directions. The sequel strives to provide the same originality, whilst telling a different –if complementary – story. For the most part, it succeeds.

The setting was always one of the strengths of the first book – Patel crafted a city which was ruled by a fear of chaos, an almost pathological need for everything to be done within the existing system. A confined, limited environment which teetered on the edge of stagnation.

Recolleta in this second book is just as effectively drawn, but the picture is somewhat different. L iesl Malone, one of the protagonists from the first book, is now the chief of police for Recolleta. The city is now scarred by the catastrophic events near the close of the first book. Law enforcement has been decimated, and doesn’t have the manpower to maintain order across the city. Areas are going dark. Standard utilities are failing. The social order has been overturned – the rich brought low by the poorer sections of society, who are now looking to grow into their new found freedoms. Supply lines from the farming communities are stretched at best, tenuous at worst. The government, which Malone now sits in, is populated by people largely trying their best to deal with intractable systemic problems, and still keep their own heads above water. The demagogue who led the revolution is becoming increasingly paranoid and autocratic. Overall, the whole thing is a spark, just waiting for the match.

What Patel is giving the characters (and the reader) in this changed portrayal is an understanding of consequences. The old Recolleta is dead, but the birth pains of the new one aren’t especially pretty. Still, from a setting point of view, Patel has spun together a vivid world, one which is different enough from our own to be fascinating, and similar enough that we empathise with the characters as they struggle within it.

The reader is also given a broader view of the setting this time, taken out of Recolleta and into the surrounding countryside, the largely unmentioned Outside. We’re taken here along with Jane, one of the characters from the first book, now on the run after her part in events in the first book. It’s interesting to get a view of the farming communities that feed the urban hub, to see how and why they operate as they do – and Patel manages to cast them effectively, with a broader, but paradoxically more prosaic view of things.

We’re also introduced to other cities; these were briefly alluded to in The Buried Life, but have a stronger part to play in this sequel. They’re still largely an enigma, but at least one is further fleshed out; in doing so, it’s almost in direct contrast to Recolleta, thematically – it feels ordered, spacious, but also controlled. It’s also a haven of the nest-of-vipers politicking which the Recolletans can’t now really afford; through Jane, the reader starts with a fly-on-the-wall view of the machinations of the other urban areas as they adjust to the new Recolleta – but Jane, like Malone, quickly finds herself in over her head, to say the least.

Along with Malone and Jane there are a few other returning characters, but those are the two that get star billing. They’ve both shifted somewhat since the first book, a sign of the way in which the civic upheaval has created change; Malone is still austere, but seems to have lost at least someof the cloaked spark of joy that she carried in the first book; on the other hand, she’s grasped the nettle of responsibility, and the way in which she becomes accustomed to that, and then the way in which she directs it to achieve the ends which she desires is one of the key arcs of the book – as is her search to define exactly it is she wants to do with the power that came along with that responsibility. It would have been nice to have explored this dichotomy in a bit more depth, but the way in which it was wrapped into the narrative made the character arc work as part of the whole – and it’s absolutely intriguing as it is.

Jane’s arc is different; her character shows us a view from the lower decks, as it were. Malone deals in politics, in broader sweeps, but it’s Jane whom we track as she attempts to make a name and a role for herself in a new city, as she struggles to earn the trust of a variety of new employers, and as she decides how far she is willing to go to acquire peace and security. Jane is the everyman of the story, but she’s not just that – she feels more reactive than Malone, but her determination to make her own choices, to wring herself a new reality out of the catastrophic convuslions of Recolleta – those ring true, as does her fear, her willingness to compromise to keep what she has managed to create for herself.

Patel has made a pair of intriguing protagonists, ones whom it’s a joy to follow along with. I laughed at their jokes, was emotionally wrung out by Jane’s flight from Recolleta. Understood the cold calculus of Malone’s efforts to prevent further disruption. Some of the decisions were perhaps a little weak, more in service to the plot, and some of the discoveries made seemed a little convenient, but overall, they both felt exceptionally human, which is all one can ask for.

The plot rattles along nicely as well. It’s great to see a series which doesn’t just end with a triumphal victory. Instead we spent the majority of this book looking at what happens next. Social  eruptions. Political instability. External politics. Vultures circling, and the previously weak discovering they have unexpected means of leverage. Patel explores what happens after other series ends, and does so in an uncompromising manner which carries a lot of truth along with it. It’s a grim read some of the time, but it’s unflinchingly human in the horrors and delights that are conveyed.

Overall, Cities and Thrones has taken the next steps required after The Buried Life. The setting is still gorgeously drab, but we’ve got a broader view of it now. The characters are wonderfully human, and evolving in an understandable, believable, organic fashion. The plot is interesting enough, and kept me turning the pages;  there’s enough action, scheming and mystery for anyone. If you’ve not read the first book in the series, you’d want to do that before moving to this one. If you have, I encourage you to give this sequel a try – it’s thoroughly enjoyable.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Interstitital - Cities and Thrones

Tomorrow will have a review of Carrie Patel's second book in her Recoletta series. It's a solid entry - uniformly excellent prose, interesting characters, some wonderfully tense moments, and some action sequences to leaven out the mix. More tomorrow!

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Collected Fiction - Hannu Rajaniemi

Hannu Rajaniemi is a new name to conjure with in genre circles. A mathematical physicist, his “The Quantum Thief” made serious waves in 2010; it was well observed, the characters believable, the science was accurate, and the narrative compelling.  He went on to write several more texts in the same trilogy, and has now released a collection of his short fiction.

There’s something in the area of seventeen short stories in the collection, and they cover a startling amount of conceptual ground. From the nano-enhanced pets looking to resurrect their master, to a man who is drawn into marriage with a sea-spirit, there’s something here from all ends of the spectrum.  Many of the stories have a post-human theme, looking at how people react and evolve (sometimes literally), when something occurs which changes the state of society out of recognition. Whilst some of the concepts are a little lower down the latter, or perhaps didn’t click with me as well as others, there were some works which ran with high-concept ideas (for example, the ‘God Plague’, allowing people to do, create, change whatever they wanted, including each other), fleshed them out, and provided a strong narrative around them – all in a few thousand words.

Hannu also writes good characters. Some of the stories show this off to better advantage than others, though. Probably this is a function of the story format, rather than anything else – trying to cover plot, world and character all within such compressed form. The story of a man whose family return to life one day a year is a great example of this – the character is well drawn, understated, and feels entirely human. There are other examples, and Rajaniemi managed to make me care about each of his characters, giving them room to breathe, even in such limited narrative space.

The worlds are similarly well-crafted. The reader only has a small window onto them, and typically it isn’t one blaring about the setting. Instead, there’s a quiet whisper, dropped asides by characters, worlds constructed by inference, rather than statement. The majority of the construction is left ot the imagination – and it works well.

The prose is always well done – easily readable, and lots of scientific background is made available without feeling like a technobabble infodump. Rajaniemi gives the words a more liquid, easy-flowing flavour, and they’re largely a pleasure to read. There was the odd awkward construction, but overall, the stories always had me turning pages, and the language always seemed to flow well.

The only sticking point for me is some of the experimental constructions in the text. The stories done by Twitter have a nice introduction, and they actually work quite well, as micro-narratives. I was less sure about the story designed to be read alongside virtual reality augmentation. I suspect it needed to have that more visual medium alongside it to really work – still, a brave experiment.

Overall, each of these works, individually, ranges from perfectly good up to excellent little gems of high-concept, high delivery prose. They make the reader think, they provide a new way to do that, and they tell great stories – I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Interstitial - Collected Stories of Hannu Rajaniemi

Tomorrow sees a review of the collected short fiction of Hannu Rajaniemi. It's all very, very clever, and interesting stuff. It also has a lot of transcendental, transhuman themes tied up in it which made it (for me at least) doubly so.

Dark Run - Mike Brooks

Dark Run is a feisty space opera, with a layer of grit overlaying a much larger sense of charm. 

It’s set in what feels like a not-intolerably distant future, after the discovery of faster-than-light drive has sent humankind on a diaspora to the stars. As a result, we’re shown a rather large variety of different locations in the universe. There’s half-terraformed worlds, where air is rationed, and everyone lives under a dome, or under several thick feet of rock – a feeling of claustrophobia is evoked, characters and reader always seeming to watch their heads – and their backs. 

In a stark contrast to that setting, there’s Earth, now more of a tourist destination and government centre. There’s allusions to ongoing low level conflicts between various political blocs across human-occupied space, but all the politicking still seems to happen on Earth. The impression is one of marble halls and closeted power cliques. Outside of these, there’s a whole swathe of other locations – frozen asteroids, grimy and glitzy spaceports, and more than a few spacecraft. 

What really stands out though is that each location feels different. They’re not just one-note places, but feel like fully realised parts of a larger ecosystem implied within the prose. The locations are matched by the somewhat vague backgrounds presented by the characters within it – we learn scraps about the setting through dialogue, through casual asides, from internal monologues and reminiscences. It’s never used to beat the reader over the head, but the feeling is one of a living world, one with some of the shine knocked off, one not too unlike our own – and that feeling makes it very easy to invest in the setting, and the characters within it.

The characters are also quite well done. The narrative focus is on the wonderfully named starship captain Ichabod Drift, and his merry crew of misfits. Even as the text opens, it’s clear they’re a modestly amoral bunch of smugglers, runaways, and people with something to hide, taking on whichever job happens to pay well, without much regard for legality. The basic trope has been done before (most notably by Firefly), but the author manages to breathe new life into it with Ichabod Drift. The captain is a smooth talking charmer who would much rather talk his way out of trouble than get into a shootout – amusingly, this exact trait also seems rather likely to get him into trouble. Much like the rest of the crew, he has a past he doesn’t want to talk about, at least as the book begins, but he makes for an engaging and amusing protagonist, one whose sensibly cynical and wry look onto the world made me chuckle, and was very easy to read.

The rest of the crew are perhaps not served quite as well, though some more than others. There’s the peppy ingĂ©nue of a hacker, the grim faced stoic gun-arms, the pilot, and the engineer. One of the gun-hands is a towering Maori, and he manages to grab a fair bit of screen time, and actually provides the most in-depth explanation of his own character in a scene which is both perfectly pitched and curiously affecting. The hacker also gets some room, growing a few calluses over her moral centre through the course of the book; that said, the remainder of the crew are perfectly enjoyable on a surface level – there’s some excellent repartee, and the author manages to wrap the entire crew up in a sense of camaraderie – but it would have been nice to get to know them better On the other hand, this is a book where ones past is jealously guarded – so perhaps we’ll see that deeper exploration of the rest of the cast in following books.

From a plot point of view, the narrative starts with a bang, and, if I’m honest, doesn’t really let up thereafter. There’s a real sense of pressure, of time limits, impressed on the characters by the narrative – and as they race against time, the reader is pulled along with them. As is ever the case, what starts off as a simple delivery job quickly spirals out of control and becomes something else entirely. I do have some complaints – there’s a few coincidences in the last third or so of the book which seemed a touch implausible, and the dĂ©nouement doesn’t seem to quite gel with the rest of the text – but it’s a snappy story, and one which left me turning pages in an effort to see what was going to happen next. 

Overall then, Dark Run is a solid entry in the space opera field; it has a setting with a feeling of depth, which I’d love to see more of. Characters which, when given room to show themselves off, are fascinating, and are believable and entertaining otherwise; and a story which rockets from drama to drama, leaving the reader breathless. At the end of the day, it’s a lot of fun, and as such, worth reading.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Interstitial - Dark Run, and more!

Next week will see a review of Mike Brook's jaunty space opera, 'Dark Run', and a collection of short fiction by the much lauded Hannu Rajaniemi.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Two of Swords (Part Three) - 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.

The third part of Parker’s serialised novel shifts the scope a little. We’re moved away from the broad sweeps of warfare, the stumbling confusion of conscripts and lower echelon troops – instead, our perspective settles in higher society. There’s discussion of politics, of the reasons that the central conflict exists. Away from the sharp end shown in the first two parts, there’s a sense of shifting currents in a largely static event, a cold war with hot edges. On the other hand, whilst there’s less interest in large scale battles, this section has a keener focus on small scale murder.

The characters continue to be typical Parker. The protagonist in particular comes off very well, as alluded to above. There’s perhaps less strength in the supporting cast of characters than there was before, but on the other hand, they have less immediate effect, largely serving as givers or receivers of orders – they do get to keep the wry dialogue that always makes Parker a pleasure to read, but this section really is focused on the central character.

Our protagonist for this section of the serial appears to act as something of a mobile troubleshooter. Sent to key points in the conflict, to preserve lives, or to end them – really, to do whatever needs doing, in whatever way her rather opaque and obfuscated masters will allow.  Parker has always managed to craft believable female characters, and this one is no exception. The reader is given a view on an entirely pragmatic individual, aware of their own skills and competence; not driven to succeed as much as a consummate professional. At the same time, there are touches of wry humour running through the viewpoint, observations of the character of others which made me crack a smile and chuckle occasionally – they help to humanise the protagonist. Other little touches – a n interest in antiquarian books, a duel of words with a priest that is also a confession – help realise that humanity, and turn what could have been a paper thin plot device into a living, breathing person.

The setting changes a bit as well – gone are the muddy hovels and barracks of the first two instalments. Instead the reader is subjected to the airy marble halls of governance. And the muddy trellis of governance. And the dark bedrooms of governance. It’s all a touch more rarefied, though no less brutal for all of that. This section seems to play on the theme of battlefields a little, drawing comparisons between the blood spattered massacres of the first sections and the cold slice of politics in this one. At any rate, the difference in setting doesn’t detract from it – Parker’s on fine form here,  breathing life into formal buildings and large social events, as well as (and often alongside) clandestine meetings in dark corners.  The broadening of the social view after the first two sections is intriguing – the reader is getting a lot more context on the world, although a lot of it is surrounded by layers of deliberate camouflage. Parker is bringing the reader’s attention to the wider world outside the current narrative, and it makes for interesting reading.

From a narrative perspective, there’s quite a lot going on here – political manoeuvring, personal clashes, what might, at a push, be taken for a touch of romance – and the occasional murder. It’s a little slower paced than other instalments in some areas, but the pacing picks up quickly for some extremely tense action scenes.

This is perhaps the first section which doesn’t work as well as a stand alone story. It’s still readable as one, but you lose some of the valuable context from the first two sections. That said, of the three currently available sections, it’s probably the strongest as part of the ensemble. If you’ve not read the first two parts, I’d advise picking those up first –but if you’ve read those and enjoyed them, this part certainly hit (and crested) the already high bar set by its predecessors. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Interstitial - Two of Swords (Part Three)

Tomorrow has another in my ongoing series of reviews of K.J. Parker's new serialised novel, Two of Swords. This week we're on to part three, which has a bit more of a political theme than the first two sections - but is just as intriguing to read.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Iron Ship - K.M. McKinley

The Iron Ship is a startling debut. It’s full of nuanced characters and complex relationship dynamics, in a world which is made entirely believable through some very effective prose The story draws on this set of complex characters and believable world to create a very compelling narrative. I went in not knowing what to expect, and have to admit that I was absolutely blown away.

Starting from the top, then, the world. This is a previously Tolkien-esque world, filled with magic, disturbing supernatural creatures, fallen empires, gods, hereditary nobility, the living dead – all the trappings one might expect f an epic fantasy. But it’s also a world on the cusp of industrialisation. New money is shattering the old elites. Some of the more human-esque creatures operate in society as semi-indentured labour. Gods are cast down and, at least in some cases, forgotten.  The living dead are occasionally used as manpower.  It’s a world in the liminal space between the old world and the new. 

This does lead to a bit of culture shock for the reader, as they are relentlessly moved between locations, each more fantastical than the last, and introduced to a sprawling cast of characters. The world is speckled with marvellously bizarre creations – a castle built on stone that floats, situated in the middle of the sea. A fort perched on the edge of a defile, made entirely of armoured glass. A ragged necropolis used for the rites of summoning the unquiet dead. The descriptions are baroque, filled with incidental detail, building an entirely believable milieu for the reader. Everything feels like a blend of high fantasy and the Victorian era, but that’s underselling it – McKinley has created a genuinely special setting here.

Alongside the setting are the characters. The narrative largely centres around five sibling members of the same family, as each fills their own social role. There’s a lot of introductory detail here. Each sibling gets their own viewpoint, and each feels like they have a unique voice – the tormented playwright, the sister driven to become an industrialist, the disgraced military officer, all feel distinct from each other, each with their own agenda, their own needs. McKinley does however also introduce a common strand to their characters – each stands beside the others as family. There’s an unflinching examination of family dynamics, of the small cruelties and blazing arguments that tear families apart or bring them together, and it’s done with a keen eye for how a large family works.

Alongside this main character set are a whole pool of supporting cast members. Again, the reader is rather barraged with names and descriptions, but as the story continues, and the characters begin to fill their roles, it becomes easier to keep a handle on who’s who. McKinley really has created a vast world here, populated by individuals who, even mentioned in passing, feel like people (if not humans, per se).

The plot is scattered across all the different locations brought up in the setting; the typical focus on each of the sibling characters means that the reader has some focus, some desire to see characters succeed or fail. They’re opposed, at various points, by petty villains, institutional bureaucracy, sabotage, angry gods, and downright creepy supernatural occurrences.  Whilst the plot is interesting enough, it really feels like this book is building up toward a denoument in other books of the series. 

As a whole, it feels like an interesting, and at times even compulsive narrative, but it is slowly paced, perhaps deliberately slow,  and occasionally loses momentum. On the other hand, when firing on all cylinders, the struggle to, for example, build and launch the iron ship of the title makes for extremely compulsive reading. There’s a lot of politics and discussion heavy plot if you enjoy that sort of thing, and a fair few bloody and often deeply strange battle scenes if those are your preference. The plot feels like it’s going somewhere, but I don’t think we’re there yet. That said, the reader is effectively immersed in the world over the course of this book, and it makes for fascinating reading.

With that in mind, I’d say that The Iron Ship is one of the most interesting stories, in one of the more fascinating worlds that I’ve read so far this year. If you’re prepared to invest in a vast, in-depth world field with interesting characters, then this book will definitely reward your perseverance. Thoroughly enjoyable, and very much worth reading.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Interstitital - The Iron Ship and Two of Swords (Part Three)

Been reading the rather good debut of K.M. McKinley, 'The Iron Ship', and will have a review of that rather sprawling opus out tomorrow. Later in the week, we're on to the third part of K.J. Parker's 'Two of Swords'.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Two of Swords (Part Two) - 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.

The second part of K.J. Parker’s Two of Swords starts where the first ended; however, it mixes things up a little bit by switching the viewpoint on the reader. We move from a focus on a farmboy-turned-archer to another member of his village militia – this one a tad more suspicious, a smidge more unreliable, and infinitely more unlikable. Where the first section was a journey novel, this chapter is more static – we’re shown a protagonist looking to survive and establish themselves in a society which doesn’t care much about them, and trying to survive by any means necessary.

The prose continues to be in Parker’s characteristic wry and dry style. It’s very densely written as well – there’s almost always a layer of subtext under the initial meaning. This applies to both the dialogue and the descriptions – the protagonist for this section is a bit more observant and quite a lot more cynical than the one from the initial chapter, and this is displayed in a more focused set of descriptions, and a finer reading of individual expressions and motivations. Parker manages to make the descriptions both vivid and believable – the picture painted is one of military squalor, mud, and uncaring institutions populated by incompetents. The physical descriptions are drawn through the prose, but the characters, equally well crafted, are largely seen through the eyes of the protagonist – their personalities seeping through the lens of his perception in dialogue and interpretations of their actions.

Speaking of dialogue, Parker’s has always been a joy to read, and there’s no change here. There’s a certain understated dark humour underlying all of the character interaction, and each piece of dialogue has clearly been thought about, and pitched appropriately for the character. Sometimes it’s a bit opaque, but this seems to be part of the narrative, cloaking a wider meaning in a feeling of obscurity, forcing the reader to piece together subtext and layers of meaning – it’s a surprisingly easy read, but gives up more to the reader if considered again.

The plot takes a different turn – as is probably to be expected with a different protagonist. The reader is shown a bit more of the previously mentioned ‘craftsmen’, which gives a bit more context to some of the mysteries from the first chapter. I wouldn’t say it’s fast-paced, exactly – there’s a lot of discussion, a lot of sidelong glances and more intrigue than in the previous instalment, and perhaps a little less widespread violence. But while I wasn’t flipping desperately through pages to find out what happened, this slower paced approach was just as effective, and just as effective – I may not have torn through the pages, but I couldn’t put it down once I’d started, being absorbed into the nuances and intrigues.

Overall then, this second segment in Two of Swords is at least on a par with the first. It has Parker’s trademark characterisation, and a sense of a wider world which is slowly spinning out of control, matched with some truly excellent dialogue and narrative at a personal level which is extremely compelling. If you’ve already read the first section, I’d urge you to give this one a shot. If you haven’t, you could read this as a standalone piece, but I’d recommend starting with the first chapter.