Monday, November 30, 2015

Interstitial - Los Nefilim: In Midnight's Silence

Tomorrow we're going to be looking at Teresa Frohock's 'In Midnight's Silence', the first in her Los Nefilim sequence of novellae. It's a tale of supernatural struggle and human moments, against a backdrop of Spain in the 1930's - and has been quite a bit of fun so far.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Two Of Swords (Part Ten) - K.J. Parker

Two of Swords is the new serialised novel by K.J. Parker. The first ten 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, and then review each new part in the month where it becomes available.

Part Ten brings  us  back to Oida, the composer and purportedly closest thing in this entire sequence to a neutral party. I’m not at all convinced that this is the case, and that’s becoming more obvious with each release. Nonetheless, he’s our protagonist for this part of the sequence.

From a world building perspective – well, we get to see a bit more of the countryside. Most of it is rather empty, and Parker manages to evoke a mood of hasty desolation rather well. As Oida treks through fields left to rack and ruin, and houses with meals cooling on their tables, there’s a sense of  a world on hold. It’s depopulated farmsteads and empty spaces seem to suggest a narrative hush – a sense that a storm is about to break. The fields and broken tracks are meticulously described – and if they don’t feel exactly alive, maybe that’s the point – they certainly feel  convincing.

Oida only really interacts with one individual in this segment – his carriage driver. The man is laconic, and in his own trade, seemingly an expert. The convolutions Oida goes through as he attempts to get to know the man are rather fascinating to watch – as is Oida’s ability to cloak his personality in another, in order to get the most out of his companion. It brings to mind the “layers of reasons” brought up in the previous segment. Here, Oida moves at a less complex emotional level – doing what he believes has to be done, shaping his journey, and seeming in many ways more chameleon than man. That said, he’s still great fun to read; his exchanges with the carriage driver are frequently witty, and almost always clever. Parker’s always had a gift for writing acerbic, intelligent dialogue that demands the reader’s attention, and he utilises that gift here, fully. The dialogue scintillates, even when most of it is, strictly speaking, a monologue. Still, Oida is delightfully aggravated, amusingly aggravating, startlingly intelligent, and wonderfully amoral.

On the other hand, it’s just as well that Oida’s such an intriguing read, because as far as I can tell, he’s not really up to much. Most of his time seems to be spent trekking across the empty Empire, trying to track people down. As an opener, this works rather well, and we learn quite a bit about the current geo-political situation just by tracking Oida’s musings on the subject. There’s a sense that events are happening somewhere off screen, and we, like Oida, are somewhat in the dark about exactly what’s going on, and who exactly is doing what to whom. As the segment comes to a close, the tension ratchets up – Oida has to make some hard choices, and the results of those voices were rather surprising. Still, it doesn’t have the same taut terror of his nightime operations with Telamon in earlier segments. That said, it still works reasonably well.

Is it worth reading? Well, it’s becoming harder to read each segment as a stand-alone at this point. But if you’re already invested in the sequence, then there’s some interesting material here, which appears to be opening the pathway up to a fascinating conclusion. So yes, it’s worth carrying on with this part of the sequence, if only (though I would say not only) to find out what happens next !

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Interstitial - Two Of Swords (Part Ten)

Tomorrow we're going to take a look at the next in K.J. Parker's "Two Of Swords" series of novella's. More politics, more witty banter, and the occasional death - great fun thus far.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Last War - Alex Davis

Alex Davis’ The Last War sets out to be intriguing soft sci-fi. Rather than showing off galactic rebellions, blaster bolts and soaring spacecraft, Davis uses the extra-terrestrial to look at questions of faith, matters of religion and personal understanding, and how these things impact on a new society, at both a personal and macro level.

Exploring these issues are the Noukari, a species who seem to have sprung out of the ground of their environment overnight. This, it turns out, isn’t far from the truth – the opening of the book indicates that the Noukari are a people specifically created by an advanced civilisation, for some  as yet unspecified purpose. The Noukari are baffled by their world, and their place in it, and, at least at the start of the text, busy setting up the means to sustain themselves, rather than indulging in intellectual pursuits. Davis looks at the move of the Noukari into the swampy waters  of Deism, and a parallel adoption of rationalism. Funnily enough, there’s not a lot of information about the world, here – there’s a forest, and a village which seems to be slowly turning into a town, but the details of the world outside those bounds are, to the characters and us, an unknown. Still, Davis’ world comes alive in the dialogue of the characters; the mundane nature of their locale is contrasted with the vivid nature of the intellectual worlds they inhabit.

The characters – well, there’s some good stuff here. There’s the individual who takes up the mantle of seeing the creators of the Noukari as gods. Believing that this is the purpose of his people, he sets out to begin a process of worship, and slowly moves through  more practical matters like defining doctrine and constructing a place of worship. Then there’s his critics – a group of squabbling, sceptical, cautious, and occasionally seemingly murderous individuals,  They’re not as united as the ever increasing  number of Noukari that see their creators as gods, but they seem to have a broader base of support, and a degree of diversity. Still, as characters, there’s some missed opportunities – there’s times where characters reveal their thoughts through dialogue and descriptive action, but I would have killed for more time spent with each individual and their internal monologue – trying to get  a sense of what drove them. There’s some effort to explain this, but I do think each of the characters could have used more introspection and a bit more fleshing out.

That said, they all serve well as drivers of the plot. Oddly enough, it’s difficult to describe exactly what happens, at least without major spoilers. But it’s a relatively sedate journey of discovery, at least at the start, as the Noukari start asking questions about who they are, and how they define themselves in the universe. Almost inevitably, there’s a move toward conflict which begins to accelerate into an inevitability – as those who seek to worship their creators meet those with a more concrete world-view. It’s nice to see a degree of moral complexity here – those who act on both sides may be acting for good and bad reasons, out of rage, or a genuine desire to help their people in aggregate. The conclusion is, perhaps, a tad abrupt, but I’m hoping to see more elaboration in any later volumes of the series. It’s a fairly slow paced, thoughtful text in the main, with occasional blurs of action to break things up a little. It takes a while to digest, but is certainly a rewarding read.

On which note, we can ask the question of if it’s worth reading – and I’d say yes. It’s not a space opera, but something with a more pensive, curious narrative stream behind it.  I had to be in the right state of mind to pick it up initially, but it had a great many interesting ideas to try and put across – mostly successfully – and the attempt made for an enjoyable read.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Interstitial - The Last War

Tomorrow we'll be looking at The Last War, a sci-fi piece by Alex Davis. It's a relatively slow exploration of the start of an alien society, and wrestles with questions of faith and understanding. There's a lot to like here, and it's certainly intriguing stuff - more on that tomorrow.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Shootout Solution - Michael R. Underwood

The Shootout Solution is the first in a series of novella’s by Michael Underwood, looking at a series of inter-dimensional troubleshooters, dealing with crises in worlds that are actively constrained by what we think of as literary genre convention.

The world that  Underwood crafts is a well drawn one. It has roots in our own world, with a team of “Genre-nauts”, part of a shadowy agency with an interest in inter-dimensional stability. Our world, or “Earth Prime” as it’s known, is surrounded by other worlds, worlds where the conventions of different literary genres hold sway. So there’s a world wrapped in the mythos of the Western, a Science-Fiction world, a world constrained by the mores of Detective stories, and so on. It’s a nify conceit, and one which Underwood runs with – because the genre-nauts are aware of the constraints of the genre, they can act both inside and outside of it in order to keep things on track. If a story has managed to go off-piste, they act as troubleshooters – creating a new hero out of whole cloth, using genre conventions to nudge the world back into the standard alignment.

This first novella takes us to the Western world, and Underwood makes us feel it. There’s saloons. There’s a reluctant hero. A set of fairly feisty villains. And it all fits within the framework of a Western, with some knowing nods to the gallery from the cast. Underwood’s prose is solid and direct – it’s a clean and easy read, telling you what you need to know, and pushing things along nicely. The descriptions, of people and places, are thorough enough to give the reader a foundation for their imagination, but not too overblown.

The characters – well, they get a little less room than I’d like. That said, our protagonist is a stand-up comedian, and the reader’s time with her is well spent. There’s enough there to make her an identifiable protagonist, filled with a shocking degree of pragmatism and logic. No immediate heroics here – Underwood gives us an everywoman heroine who acts plausibly; her emotions and actions feel in-line with the everyday, non-heroic experience, and it’s great to see this played straight, as she falls into a world mapped by genre convention and tropes.

The supporting cast get less time – they have enough physical description to make them distinctive, and a sufficiency of personal traits to break them out from each other in dialogue, but really, I wanted more time to get to know them better. Still, this may be resolved in later volumes, and they fill their roles rather well, so I won’t complain too much – they’re carried, in part, by the excellent dialogue, with the kind of energetic and plausible banter which is always a joy to read.

 The plot – well, there’s some excellent setup, prior to the main event. It’s great diving into a world of grungy comedy nights, even if only briefly. The pace picks up as the cast comes together though, and thereafter the narrative – presumably deliberately – follows the form of the Western it’s describing, with a gradual build up, and an action-packed climax. That said, the move from one to the other is well done – the writing keeps the reader in the moment, and breaks up action with moments of character introspection nicely.  I won’t spoil it, except to say the plot is, above all, rather fun.

Is this worth reading? I think so. It’s got a clever, rather cool central idea. It has a plot built around that which keeps up suspense, whilst giving you a protagonist to care about, portrayed well, in a world which feels believable – perhaps by virtue of the setting for that world. I’d like to see more of all of the characters, and really, more of the setting in general, but that’s more recommendation than complaint!

Friday, November 20, 2015

Interstitial - The Shootout Solution

On Monday we're going to look at Michael R. Underwood's novella "The Shootout Solution". It's a clever adventure piece, with dimensional troubleshooters crossing into literary genre worlds to make sure stories take their preferred course. It's been good fun so far!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Builders - Daniel Polansky

The Builders is a new novella by Daniel Polansky. It looks at a world populated by anthropomorphic animals – but not the cute kind from children’s TV. These animals live in a world reminiscent of the Old West – filled with sharpshooters, gunslingers, and a certain fluid morality. But the creatures that the narrative follows aren’t exactly heroes – or if they are, it’s an especially specialised definition.

The world of The Builders is one which presents sharp features, pared down to the essentials. There’s some talk of events “South of the Border”, and the driver for the initial events is the replacing of one entrenched oligarch with another. As a whole, however, the feel is, deliberately I assume, one of a spaghetti western.  There’s a sense of emptiness about everything – the geography attuned to the characters that inhabit it. Polansky writes some wonderfully evocative prose; the bar where the characters find themselves is dingy, dangerous, and dusty – and each of those attributes becomes clear with an elegance of phrase which was delightful to read. The world is economically described, but, perhaps due to this, feels alive. Each gunshot, each floating particle of dust before a storm of gunfire, comes together in a world where violence pervades everything, and each interaction has the potential to be fatal. Polansky is a master of atmosphere, letting the world exude atmosphere onto the reader, showing, rather than telling.  The world he creates is familiar if you’ve ever seen or read a western, but skewed sufficiently to skew and subvert expectation.

Something similar may be said of the characters. They’re a motley and terrifying crew, some recognisable as derived from western archetypes, others a mix of traits or something entirely individual within a broader genre brushstroke. As an example, I was particularly fond of the infiltration specialist who spoke with a broad French accent. There’s gunslingers, schemers, and trained killers – and each of them has enough character to differentiate them.  Polansky also manages to use the different species of the characters as a shorthand for character traits, physical and mental; a mole, for example, is nearly blind, but also rather good at digging holes – which they acerbically remark on as not being the only thing they’re good for.  Each of the characters is distinguishable, and carries some personal and species-appropriate quirks – which make each member of the crew memorable for the reader. From the one-eyed mouse with the air of barely supressed rage that is the Captain, to the towering hulk trying to escape from their own affection for mass murder that is the Badger – they all feel, if not human, certainly real.

The narrative, like the world and the characters, is a marvel  of simplicity. At root, it’s a tale of revenge. The Captain gathers together the survivors of a crew that helped him win aa war - and then lose it again – and sets out to wreak vengeance on those who caused  his current situation. The others sign on for varied motives, but that’s the common driver – all were hurt, and all are looking for something between peace and bloody revenge. Mostly the latter, if I’m honest.  The text barrels toward a climax with a pace I’d describe as relentless. It never lets the reader off the hook, and the lulls between scenes seem more like pauses to reload than moments of quiet reflection. There’s some excellent character scenes here, especially in what they convey given their brevity, and they’re bookended with some first-class action, and some twists and turns in the plot which were rather shocking.

I’ve always thought Polansky was one of the more underrated authors in fantasy today, and he’s proven his quality again here. If you’re in the mood for a fantasy-western hybrid, which embraces tropes from both, but remains unrepentantly original, then this  is absolutely worth your time.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Interstitial - The Builders

Late post today! Tomorrow, we'll have a review of Daniel Polansky's thoroughly excellent "The Builders" - a fantasy-western with anthropomorphic animals and a fair amount of vengenace-fuelled gunfire. It's an interesting text, and really well done.

More in the morning!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Prophecy Con - Patrick Weekes

The Prophecy Con is the second in Patrick Weekes’ “Rogues Of the Republic” series. It picks up shortly after the first book left off, bringing us back together with Loch and most of her crew, as they struggle to prevent war and catastrophe from overtaking the Republic – and not-entirely-incidentally, save their own skins.

The world we became familiar with in the first book – filled with mysterious crystal devices, magical creatures and warring states – is still in play in this second novel. It does, however, take the opportunity to expand in scope.  We’re taken on  trains hovering over tracks powered by magic, through cities populated by entirely new peoples, and Weekes opens up his world wonderfully.  I was particularly fond of his dwarves – an industrious, socially cohesive people, who look on the more chaotic impulses of their human neighbours with bafflement. There’s also more opportunity to look at elves – mentioned quietly in the first book, here there’s talk of their lands, and a closer examination of why they act as they do. It’s internally cohesive, and provides an intriguing background to the actions of the characters. There’s a vivid universe here, and a strong sense that it’s going about its business around the characters, even as they work to make an impact on it.

The characters are largely familiar from the preceding novel, though there’s also some new additions. Notably, the main cast are all dealing with the fallout from their preceding adventure, some more successfully than others. Loch’s right-hand-man, for example, keeps up his barrage of “your mother” insults, in a manner which is delightfully crass – but also clearly struggles to adjust to the traumatic stress of events that overcame him near the end of the previous volume.  The returning characters remain a delight to read. The interplay between them is particularly fun – there’s a lot of wit on display here, and the air fairly sizzles with repartee. Some of it is perhaps a tad familiar to readers of the last story, but it’s dynamic, punchy, and often extremely funny. 

There’s some new companions and antagonists here as well – it’s perhaps less clear than previously which ones are which. There’s a sense of inhuman dread around…well, at least one of them, which Weekes paints into the text very well. The others appear to be acting for their own reasons, and the play of emotion and motivation is portrayed in such a way as to make each character feel unique, and also, if not human, perhaps fully rounded individuals.

The plot is…well, it’s a heist. Or a series of heists. There’s some wonderfully tense moments involving breaking into high security buildings, and they’re interspersed with some downright thrilling combat moments – and both of these are running alongside well developed characters in a fully-formed and fascinating world. As ever, the book starts with a bang, and the pacing thereafter is top notch – there’s moments of relative relaxation for the reader, but whilst the prose is very dense, all of it feels necessary, or at least interesting to read. The stakes…well, they start high, and they only get higher as the narrative rattles along. It’s a fast-paced, fun book, with some interesting red herrings, matched with equally intriguing revelations.

Is it worth reading? As with the first book in the sequence, there’s not that many books in the fantasy-heist genre, and this is one which has been done well, and with a sense of adventure. If you’ve read the first book, this is more of the same, but dialled up to eleven. If not…well, go and read the first one – but this book succeeds at what it sets out to do –it’s got a solid central theme of heists and trickery, within a gorgeous world, with characters you care about.  So yes, it’s worth reading.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Interstitial - The Prophecy Con

Tomorrow we've got a review of the second in Patrick Weekes' "Rogues of the Republic" sequence. It promises thievery, scheming, quite a lot of rather funny banter, and an opportunity to save the world. So far, it's delivered - more on that tomorrow!

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Silver Tide - Jen Williams

The Silver Tide is the third entry in Jen William’s “Copper Cat” sequence. It follows the adventures of female mercenary and professional troublemaker Wydrin, along with her colleagues/frenemies Sebastian the knight and the rather cranky mage, Lord Frith. In the interests of full disclosure – I’ve been a fan of William’s work since her first in this sequence, “The Copper Promise”, and the second, “The Iron Ghost” was one of the first works I reviewed on this blog. They’ve been consistently  entertaining, fast paced works with some original ideas, vivid environments and characters who –in some cases literally – leap off the page. This trend largely continues in this volume.

The world of The Silver Tide is, broadly, the same as that of the preceding books. There’s an underlying mythos which has been sustained throughout, and is continued here: of gods turned vengeful, overthrown by human mages in an event of cataclysmic proportions. What remains is a world diminished by lack of magic, with a heritage of divinity and magecraft to live up to. It’s also a world which promises adventure to the first adventurer to run across a cache of magical items – at the same time offering the opportunity to run afoul of a variety of magical traps.

The Silver Tide approaches both of these themes in parallel, as Wydrin and her team set out to explore a mysterious tropical island, rumoured to hold something of incredible value at it’s heart – of course, no-one who set out to find the centre of the island has ever returned. The island Williams gives us is perhaps familiar to readers of Treasure Island; it’s a fetid swamp, filled with terrors. Each mis-step is likely to be fatal. Each glance into the undergrowth as likely to reveal a razor-toothed horror as a golden idol. Williams sets out to describe a place which is at once a paradise and a hell on earth; a place vibrant with life, most of which wants to dismember the protagonists. In that regard, she succeeds.  The island is as much a character as the individuals in the narrative – a truly hostile environment, which nonetheless seems to throb with life throughout the book.  The text also explores environs outside of the island, somewhere far stranger in fact – but to explore that would involve some spoilers. Let’s just say that this other locale is both exotic and utterly fascinating.

The characters – well, by this point, the Black Feather Three, as Wydrin, Sebastian and Frith are known – will be familiar to most readers. Still, there’s room for them to fill out further here. Frith’s insecurity and damaged state of being after the last book is accentuated, and the book doesn’t flinch away from him dealing with the consequences of his actions. The same is true of Sebastian, who is handling emotional trauma of his own.  Williams doesn’t let her characters get off scot free –and by making us aware that their actions have weight, have consequences, she invests us in them all the more, and makes us care about how they will deal with what happens after the adventure, as much as the adventure itself. Wydrin, as the central pivot, isn’t entirely immune from this either – she gets a long arc through the text on family relationships, and another around familiar themes with Frith. At all junctures, however, there’s a sense that the trio is, if not learning, certainly adapting to their circumstances, their attitudes to each other and the world altering over the course of the book. This organic development is delightful, and the way the characters shift is both believable and rather compelling.

The plot…well, as ever, avoiding spoilers. It’s in the common theme of the Copper Cat books however, in that it’s a fast-paced, swashbuckling piece of prose. Wydrin and company rocket through the book, leaping from emotional crisis to...less-than-emotional crisis. The stakes are high, and the consequences for failure, if at all possible, are worse than usual. Above all, this is a text which has a serious, rapid-fire narrative behind it, one which had me turning the pages desperately to discover what happened next – but is also not afraid to leaven that narrative with humour, sparks of laughter in the darkness. Williams has written an adventure novel of the highest order here – I was literally unable to put it down. It’s clever, the dialogue is both witty and interesting, and the plot makes some demands of the reader to follow along, but is never less than accessible and intriguing.

With that in mind – is it worth the read? Absolutely. I’d recommend reading the first two novels first – but this is a heartfelt conclusion to an excellent series.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Interstitial - The Silver Tide

Tomorrow we're looking at The Silver Tide, the thrid of Jen William's "Copper Cat" sequence. It has adventure, excitement, and really wild things. It also has great emotional heft, backed up by a thoroughly entertaining story. Oh, and pirates!

More on that tomorrow

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Last Witness - K.J. Parker

The Last Witness is the latest novella length work from K.J. Parker. It begins with a man who has the capacity to take memories from other people, and transfer them into himself. Given it’s Parker, this quickly ends up being the pivot around a sea of intrigue, moral discussions and the occasional emotional punch in the face.

The world floats somewhere in the shared continuum of Parker’s other works. There’s references to other cities, and shared cultural figures from other books – though nothing more overt than that.  But there’s more to see here; the bulk of the story takes place in outcrops of a thriving metropolis – with the assorted gradations of society that this entails. Parker takes us through high society and dark warehouse interrogations with equal skill; the glitter of the jewels at a high society ball contrasting nicely with the occasional splash of blood, There’s not an exhaustive set of world development – but the spaces where the reader finds themselves are well drawn, and in some cases, absolutely ooze atmosphere. I’d say my only complaint is that the locale changes rather frequently, as the protagonist travels through the narrative – it would have helped to look at some of these locations more closely. Still, there’s enough effort here to make each location feel unique, and together they form a rich tapestry of prose which helps us understand the situation of the protagonist.

Speaking of the protagonist – whose name I don’t think I caught throughout – he’s an interesting creature. Normal, apart from the ability to extract the memories of others and store them in his own skull. This makes him an excellent resource for people looking to avoid tax audits, court interrogators, or inconvenient social occasions. The problem here, as the protagonist admits himself, is that having a life filled with other people’s memories makes him question which parts of him are actually, well, his. Parker takes us along on a discussion of the nature of memory, and the question of self. It’s deftly done, and fits integrally into the narrative, but it makes what was a snappy read one that’s also very interesting.

We’re largely restricted to our protagonist’s viewpoint, but Parker makes him a character to remember, so to speak. He’s swathed in moral ambiguity, and relentlessly unapologetic for the things that he does. On the other hand, his narrative is charmingly straightforward and that very lack of apology makes it extremely compulsive reading, with a voice which resonates as much as it repulses. There’s a supporting cast, but with a few exceptions, they serve as adjuncts to our protagonist as he staggers through life – and, in some cases, between lives.
The plot is, even for Parker, rather obscure, or at least, obfuscated. With memory explored as an issue so strongly, the question of what happened, when, and who it happened to becomes rather more pressing than it might otherwise. A first reading gives a suggestion of the way the narrative flows overall, and it’s paced well enough that you’re not going to want to put it down. I suspect, however, that this is a book which will reward multiple readings – to uncover some of the layers that may not have been apparent originally.

Is it worth reading? I’d say so. Parker’s done a superb character study of a man who might be a monster, and wrapped that in a core of moral and social questions. That there’s an intriguing and rather clever story wrapped around that as well, is something of a bonus. It’s not an immediately easy read, but it was a rather rewarding one.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Interstitial - The Last Witness

Tomorrow we'll be talking about The Last Witness, the latest novella by K.J. Parker. It's dark, complex, and won't let go - so very much a vintage Parker effort.

More on that tomorrow!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Eden Green - Fiona Van Dahl

Eden Green is a blend of sci-fi and horror by Fiona Van Dahl. It begins with the concept of a parasite, one which will merge with and regenerate its host. Functional immortality  and heroic endurance are perks. Of course, these things come with a price. There’s also the question of where the parasite came from, and what this means to both the protagonist and to humanity as a whole.
There’s some really interesting ideas in Eden Green. The idea of a symbiont that works to regenerate its host is intriguing. It allows exploration of a couple of themes – most immediately, that of power. When an individual has seemingly superhuman strength, and can recover from repeated mortal wounds, then what does that do to the individual? How do they cope, in a world where they are something other than normal? It’s a theme that has been explored elsewhere, but Eden Green approaches these questions unflinchingly, and with a degree of nuance which was enjoyable to see on the page.

It also approaches the question of identity. As an individual is regenerated by their symbiont, the question arises of whether they are, in fact, human any longer. The role of identity is touched on, and the author isn’t afraid to examine the effects of a changing or even lost sense of self. The actions of the symbiont prove an excellent way to do this, and the interactions between characters as they attempt to resolve who they are, who they think they are, and what defines them as, well, themselves, is an interesting read. 

The first section of the book revolves around the protagonist, Eden Green, as she’s drawn into the world of the symbiont, and the creatures that inhabit that world. The author sketches Green well – a focused, rational individual, with a penchant for logic and lists, and a genuine sense of caring for her friend. Her supporting cast includes the aforesaid friend, and a mysterious individual who first provided that friend with the symbiont. Eden’s chum is also well done – a scatty trouble-magnet, with the ability to make extremely dubious decisions, usually for all the wrong reasons. I was quickly joining our protagonist in sighing in frustration at her friend when she appeared on the page and did something incredibly, but plausibly, unfortunately, wrong. The third of this band, the mysterious stranger, I didn’t enjoy as much initially. There’s a sense of power there, certainly, and something of danger, but the character doesn’t quite work in that mould – their dialogue a tad disjointed, their actions not tied together with quite enough narrative rope. On the other hand, there’s some excellent notes of genuine menace there – the character seemed like a solid base, which needed a bit more building up to have the narrative impact required.

As the book progresses, all three of this central core of characters change – the degree of change depending somewhat on the narrative. I give credit to the author for trying something ambitious, showing us the descent of individuals, and the way that they alter as their perceptions of themselves shifts. I think the sense of confusion that laces the text is a great way to convey this mood, but also that the reader could use a few more signposts, even if the characters don’t get to see them – some later segments felt a little scattershot, and I was trying to figure out what was going on as much as Eden. Maybe this is intentional, but I think a little more signposting would have helped the flow of the text.

Plot-wise – there’s some excellent sections here. Eden’s initial encounters with her friend, and with the creatures that seem to be involved with the symbiont, are deliberate, well paced, and explode occasionally in compulsive action sequences. As the scope of the text broadens, the narrative momentum seems to be lost a tad – there’s a middle section which has ramifications for the narrative, but seems either longer or shorter than it needs to be. The author does well at evoking the sense of the human and the alien internally – and the city our protagonist lives in is drawn with enough detail to feel real, but it, and other environments, could use a little more texture in order to make them come alive.

Is it worth reading? I’d say so. There’s some intriguing thoughts in here, ideas about humanity, about what makes us who and what we are, which are worth pursuing. I a little more polishing - and in some instances a cleaner narrative structure – would do wonders for the text, but right now, it’s an interesting, emotionally punishing read, with some interesting things to say.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Interstitial - Eden Green

On Monday we'll be looking at Fiona Van Dahl's sci-fi/horror piece, Eden Green. It's got some interesting ideas and thoughts on personality and memory, wrapped up in a sci-fi/psychological horror wrapper

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Palace Job - Patrick Weekes

The Palace Job is the first in a series by Patrick Weekes. It centres on Loch, a woman wrongfully (or at least inaccurately) imprisoned, as she escapes, forms a crew of reprobates, and sets out to perform an elaborate and improbable heist. It’s fast, it’s fun, and in places, it has a  hefty emotional impact.

The world has elements familiar to fantasy readers – unicorns, deities active in the world, wizards, that sort of thing – but fuses them together in some interesting new ways. The focus of the text is really the characters and the action, but Weekes manages to give his world enough layers that it has a feeling of depth, as well as geography. There’s the various different clerics who get together to play a poker game. There’s an Empire, waiting in the wings, which seems to be a veiled socio-political threat to the republic where we spend our time. There’s some excellent news-cast style narratives by puppeteers, keeping the population and the reader abreast with political events.

Then there’s the actual politics. Again, it’s more visible around the edges than explicitly covered, but it’s there. There’s two parties struggling for control in the Republic, and at least one has some rather odd goals. This feel of political struggle is backed by references to a war in the recent past – and the feel of being on a tipping point, of preventing or falling back into a huge conflict, is an undercurrent throughout the narrative. There’s a lot of other interesting bits as well – the suggestion that most magical artefacts were created by the “Ancients” – including one which serves as, amongst other things, a spectacular floating prison. The  internal mythologies about the end of the Ancients and the rise of the current civilisations – it’s all obviously been thought about, it’s all internally consistent, and it leaves the reader with a complex and vibrant world.

The characters…well, Loch is the protagonist, if you like. But a large portion of the narrative is her putting together a team for a heist.  Acquiring each member of the team is played as a separate narrative, and they’re all highly entertaining. She ends up with a pretty large collection of rapscallions, including a disreputable wizard, a Death priestess, a rather cranky safe-breaker, and a host of other weird and wonderful personalities.  Weekes does a good job here  of making each member of the team feel distinct, with their own quirks, and absolutely each with their own agenda.  Some get a little more time than others – the irascible, morally dubious wizard, who takes a more na├»ve member of the team under his wing absolutely steals every scene he’s in – but they’re all charming to read about, and utterly intriguing individuals. Loch, as the nominal protagonist, manages to project an image of calm competence over a slow-brewing anger which is a delight to see on the page. She also manages to wrangle her herd of dysfunctional members…in the right direction, without compromising on who she is, and what their goals actually are.

Plot-wise, well, there’s a prison break. And planning and executing a heist. The book opens strongly with Loch’s efforts to get out of prison, demonstrating the kind of intricate, double bluff plotting that carries through the rest of the text. The pacing is spot on, and the dialogue is plausible and eminently readable. There’s a bit of a lull as she begins gathering her team, but the various situations in which they’re recruited are entertaining, and there’s some solidly tense moments laced through that phase.

The heist itself, in planning and execution, feels like it’s taken a lot of lessons from films like Ocean’s Eleven – it’s fast-paced, it’s tense, and it’s absolutely relentless. It’s also an extremely compulsive read as a result – I was entirely unwilling to put the book down until I saw what happened.

Overall, it’s a solid read. We don’t see a lot of heist-type fantasy novels, and this one is particularly good, if you’re in that particular mood. I would like to see more exploration of the supporting cast, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Weekes' world in later books – but overall this is a snappy and interesting read.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Interstital - The Palace Job

Tomorrow we'll be taking a look at The Palace Job, the start of a series of fantasy heist novels by Patrick Weekes. Decent heist stories in a fantasy universe are rare, but Weekes has pretty much hit the nail on the head with this one.

More on that tomorrow!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Heirs Of Empire - Evan Currie

Heirs of Empire is a novel which blends sci-fi and fantasy, by Evan Currie; he’s gained a lot of traction recently with his Odyssey One series of sci-fi novels, and it’s great to see him turning his hand to something slightly different here.

The world that Currie posits in Heirs is an interesting one. It begins feeling like a melange of a fantasy world and a high-tech paradise. There are knights, an Emperor, and other trappings of a medieval social structure, over the top of bullet trains, laser carbines and personal flying craft. The mixture actually works very well – I was particularly impressed with eh Armati – seemingly psychically linked melee weapons, which seemed to shift shapes to take on different tactical roles, with a degree of semi-sentience.

There’s some great backstory as well. Various points of dialogue allude to unseen threats in the margins of the world as shown to the reader. There’s also hints at a deeper history – the Armati are weapons that can no longer be crafted, for example – and stories of how the ancestors of the current characters reached their location are vague, but suggest they fled a long term conflict. The nature of the world is also not exactly what it appears to be. There’s discussion of a radiation belt girdling the atmosphere, and there’s several different ‘layers’ of sky, of various levels of permeability to skilled flyers. Suffice to say that the world is not…entirely what it appears to be.

Moving from a macro scale to the more personal, Currie’s managed to give us a complex set of socio-political systems, which wrap his characters in conflict. There’s the Imperial family. There’s the senate. There’s armies of heavily armed troops. There’s the Cadre, an elite force whose training and bonding with the Armati weapons gives them a hefty edge in combat. It all swirls around the central pivots of the plot and characters, and defines them in a vibrant, living world.

Speaking of characters; when I reviewed Currie’s “Odyssey One”, I expressed some dissatisfaction at the way the characters existed to serve the plot. I’m happy to say that there’s certainly a lot less of that here. I wouldn’t say that we get to mine the depths of any individual psyche, but each character feels rounded enough to be believable. The larger slices of the book are given over to Mira Delsol, a member of the elite Cadre, and two younger members of the Imperial family. Delsol’s arc is one which I wish had a little more page space. She begins as a loyal member of the Imperial forces, before incidents at the start of the book move her onto a different path. She suffers from anger issues, and has a layer of cynicism over a core of emotional betrayal which is rather well done in the time available. It would have been great to see her given extra time to display some more emotional depth, but Delsol sizzles off of every page that she’s on anyway. 

The Imperial twins stand in Delsol’s shade a little. There’s much made of what pains in the backside they can be, but we don’t get to see much of this. Actually, they start out as fairly civilised, if somewhat entitled. The corners get knocked off of them a bit over the course of the text, and their relationship with another pair of younger characters is simultaneously amusing and heartwarming. Again, they spend a lot of time Doing Things, and we don’t see a great deal of introspection. That said, they’re not a particularly aggravating read, and carry enough personality to keep them distinct and interesting.

Plot-wise – well, as ever, I’ll avoid saying much for fear of spoilers. However, it’s safe to say that the book kicks off with a bang, and never really let’s up thereafter. Currie has always been good at writing visceral, fast-paced action, and that trend continues here. There’s a range between hand to hand combat and sprawling battles, as well as some rather speedy air combat. The plot itself is fairly straightforward, and it manages to explain the stakes quickly and efficiently, whilst also keeping up a roller coaster of action – betrayals, explosions, the occasional Moment of Awesome, it’s all there, and all compulsively written.

Overall, this is an excellent start to a new series from Currie. The world is detailed, and clearly has more to reveal. The characters could use more room to manoeuvre, but they’re sufficiently well drawn to get you to care about them, their emotions, and their fates. The plot absolutely crackles, and there’s some excellent moments of contemplation matched against sections of sheer adrenaline. As an experience, the book was a lot of fun to read, and I’m looking forward to seeing where Currie takes us next.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Interstitial - Heirs Of Empire

Tomorrow we have a review of Evan Currie's latest, a sci-fi epic with a smidge of fantasy thrown in/ It's got a bit of politics, several excellent pieces of hand-to-hand combat, and the sort of epic scope we've come to expect from Mr. Currie. It's a quick, fun read, and very enjoyable thus far.