Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Christmas Break!

Morning all!
It's been a delightful year of reading, and writing some hopefully useful critique of what I've read.
I'm now off for the Christmas period, so updates will be sporadic until the New Year.

It's been a pleasure having you as readers, and I hope everyone has a lovely Christmas period, and an excellent new year!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The House of Shattered Wings - Aliette De Bodard

Aliette De Bodard’s debut novel, House of Shattered Wings, is an urban fantasy, set in the Paris of the 1920’s. But not the 1920’s we know – the war here was just as great, but one fought between rival houses of fallen angels, whose wrath has shattered the city, and – it is implied – the world. Now, after staggering away from seemingly unending conflict, the survivors, settled in rival factions, have to deal with a darker issue – and each other.

As alluded to above, De Bodard’s Paris is not a particularly pleasant place. It’s a shattered remnant of itself. The Seine is a swamp, seething with war magic, detritus, and vicious living weapons. The grand monuments of the city are broken, and mostly uninhabitable – a few remnants being used as housing, with variable success. It’s mentioned that the city was very different before a magical war essentially smashed  it into barely functional rubble – and De Bodard precisely captures this in an atmosphere of decline. The residents of the city seem broken and tired, and even those in the confines of the Houses seem exhausted in their safety.

The Houses, incidentally, are the remains of the net of social cohesion that tied De Bodard’s Paris together. They’re inhabited by Fallen. These are literal fallen angels, whose arrival on earth allows them access to frightening levels of seemingly magical power – whilst also removing their memory of how and why they fell to earth. Here, however, they set up their bastions, come together in factions, plot, scheme, and occasionally murder each other.  There are other, non-Judeo-Christian mythos types mentioned through the text, and one, that of Vietnam, plays a central role – but the story of the Fallen is perhaps the strongest – their arrogance, certainty, charisma and raw power hammering at the reader through the page.
De Bodard’s city may not live, but it certainly dies well, seeping into the reader like the turgid waters of the Seine. It’s not a place that feels living, but remains vividly the end of something greater than itself.  It’s not a world anyone wants to live in, but it does seem real, if horribly unpleasant.

At the same time, there are sparks of humanity and divinity amongst the Fallen, their followers, and their enemies. Our central view of the narrative comes from Phillipe, a Vietnamese individual, conscripted into the war by the Fallen, and  at least initially running with a desperate gang in the dark heart of Paris, and Isabelle, a new Fallen. Both are surprisingly sympathetic. Phillipe, seemingly older and more self-contained, is a study in doubt and certainty, a man defined by his experiences and his hatreds, and also by loss. His thoughts seem to almost drown in melancholy, but he has a stark humanity, in a world filled with lethal supernatural predators, which is refreshing to read. By contrast, Isabelle is a font of naiveté, taking on faith the pronouncements of others about duty, honour and sacrifice, whilst their own thoughts reveal those to be merely realpolitik at work. Watching her descent into the cool selfishness of the other Fallen is agonising, for Phillipe and for the reader, and her desire to be better than those she is surrounded by, to become herself, is both terrifying and delightful.

There are side characters of course – for example the heads of several of the Houses are a delight to read; their venal, potentially fatal bickering is intriguing and horrifying in equal measure. Then there’s  the alchemist of one of the Houses – old, tired, and looking to take several secrets to the grave with her. De Bodard’s cast is large, but those with time on the page feel…if not human, then fully realised. The Fallen are cold, remote, dangerous creatures, predators in a world that they’ve destroyed. The people around them are drawn like moths to the metaphorical flame – used up, burned out, but unable to resist, in a world where safety and total obliteration are separated by a razor’s edge of goodwill.

From a plot standpoint…well, as ever, I shall avoid spoilers. Still, this one is a slow burn. Phillipe and Isabelle are drawn into the orbit of the House Silver Spires, which begins to suffer from a dark curse. The investigation into this, how to resolve it, and how it came about is the narrative spine of the text. It’s relentless, compelling, and intriguing – it’s also quite a slow burner, but it does reward sticking with it.

Is it worth reading? It’s a fresh take on urban fantasy, in a wonderfully drawn setting. The characters are a little remote for my taste, but that’s part of the atmosphere. The plot takes a while to get running, but grips on and doesn’t let go once it picks up a head of steam – so yes, I’d say this one is worth the read.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Interstitial - The House of Shattered Wings

Tomorrow we'll take a look at Aliette De Bodard's urban fantasy, The House of Shattered Wings. It's filled with the struggles of fallen angels, in a decreipt, broken Paris.  It's a fascinating read.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet - Becky Chambers

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is Becky Chambers’ debut novel. It’s an emotionally strong, cleverly plotted sci-fi piece, about a crew of wormhole tunnelers, trying to make it by as best they can.

Chambers’ world is one with a degree of cohesiveness. Humanity is part of a galaxy spanning alliance, filled with many different species on many different worlds. There’s the cold blooded, feathered lizards, with the elaborate, non-atomic family structures and need for social closeness. The creatures uplifted by a parasitic virus, which are able to use their bond to navigate in the sublayer of space where wormhole construction takes place. The sentient AI. The brutally direct crab-men. There’s a sense here of the cosmopolitan, of a space far larger than the hull of a ship. Whilst the tunnelling craft Wayfarer is the centre of the narrative, it never feels like the centre of the universe. It’s interesting to see that humanity is also not thought to be the centre of the universe either – rather than exceptionalism, humanity is seemingly something of a junior partner in actions on the galactic stage.

Within this broader spectrum – which is typically introduced by conversation or as part of the journey of the Wayfarer’s crew – there’s the tunnelling ship wayfarer. Built to construct wormholes between points in space, the ship serves as a home for a diverse crew, from multiple species. It feels more claustrophobic than the expansive galaxy outside, but the confines of the craft also serve to create empathy and conflict between the crew; there’s a sense of burgeoning understanding and family here – of a dynamic shifting around, as the characters interplay with each other. There are established relationships – friendships and antagonisms – and the Wayfarer holds them all, a sort of extended home for the crew. Chambers has built a vivid, believable world here, one where the beautifully prosaic is placed alongside the wonderfully strange.

The characters – well, really, this is an ensemble piece. The reader comes along with Rosemary Harper, a new member of the Wayfarer crew. As she learns about the crew, and becomes involved in their lives, so do we. It’s to the author’s credit that each of the crew feels like a real person. There’s a serious range, between the empathetic but fierce reptilian pilot, to the acerbic and misanthropic fuel engineer. But each of them feels like a real person. Critically however, the aliens do also actually feel alien. The cold-blooded pilot squabbles with the algae specialist over room temperatures. The AI discusses with one of the techs the nature of existence, and the pro and con arguments for embodiment. The humans, split into their own sub-factions, deal with their embracing pacifism, and the consequences of that. There’s some truly fantastic moments here, as the characters open themselves up to each other, and get to know each other better. As the Wayfarer cruises through the galaxy to knock a hole in it, these individuals feel like a family; dysfunctional, at times conflicted, but still, a family – and one portrayed with a startling degree of skill.

As the narrative journey progresses, our understanding of the characters grows; and each is dealing with their own conflicts, their own demons. At the same time, they feel normal – not heroes or villains, but a crew of contractors, with their own lives, hopes and dreams, living in the shadow of larger events. It’s a small scale narrative, which is sued to explore larger themes – love, pain, acceptance, family – against a cosmic backdrop.

The plot, sans spoilers, is centred around the Wayfarer’s journey to the point required to start a new wormhole tunnel. It’s a gentle pace, but one which never lets go fo the reader. There are incidents – spikes of violence, character-defining choices – and these have the ability to knock the breath out of the reader. 

The journey is fascinating, the locales visited, the supporting characters interacted with, intriguing. There’s a hefty emotional rice, and an even greater payoff from the reader, but the plot, as a vehicle for the characters, and for those larger themes, is absolutely spot on.

Is it worth reading? Absolutely. It’s enjoyable sci-fi, which also explores greater ideas inside its narrative structure, whilst peopling an alien-feeling universe with utterly brilliant characters. Go pick up a copy right now – you won’t be sorry.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Interstitial - The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet

Tomorrow we're going to take a look at Becky Chambers sci-fi tour-de-force, The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet. There's startling aliens, a vivid universe, and it hits with a very big emotional hammer - it's great stuff.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Without Light Or Guide: Los Nefilim (Part Two) - Teresa Frohock

Without Light or Guide is the second in Teresa Frohock’s “Los Nefilim” series of novella. Set in the Spain of the nineteen-thirties, it follows some members of Los Nefilim – the children of Angels – as they struggle with defining themselves, whilst working for or against schemes pushed by their angelic overlords and daemonic opponents.

Frohock’s  Spain remains as vividly detailed as ever.  The sense of a society on the brink of change remains, and is even exacerbated. There’s a feeling of hidden conflicts, quite aside from the supernatural concerns at the centre of the narrative – anarchist bombings and police brutality exist side by side, and the city at the centre of the story teeters between the expectations of the two.  This also serves as a nice corollary for the tensions between angelic and daemonic entities. Here too, there is a feeling of an approaching storm, as individuals look to either keep their heads down, or position themselves for any coming conflict. A cold war looks to be gradually warming up, and the environment reflects that, the sense of imminent catastrophe, dread, and a sort of febrile vitality, very well indeed.

Alongside the thematic similarities, Frohock does some excellent environmental description – the sewers packed with a sort of squamous ooze were particularly vile. I couldn’t get away from them fast enough! There’s also the urban bustle of the city, and the gradual shifts in atmosphere – all precisely crafted, and environmentally and emotionally effective. I was pulled into the terrifying and extraordinary world of pre-revolutionary Spain, and didn’t come out until the last page.

The characters, of course, stay on the page. Several of them are familiar from the previous novella in the sequence. The central relationship, between Diago and his partner, remains an absolute delight. T
There’s a rawness here, a reaching for emotional truths which immeasurably strengthens the core of the story. Diago and his lover are both men struggling with what others think of them, and they of themselves and each other – but Diago’s emotional growth, and acquisition of the strength to commit, are key tenets of the narrative, and the author makes them seem believable and honest.
Diago’s family is a core part of the narrative; alongside his relationship with his lover, he’s also exploring feelings for his long estranged father, and newly discovered child. The latter, especially, plucks at the heartstrings and adds a degree of weight to the prose; Frohock approaches the parent-child relationship with care, and it comes off the page as plausible, as well as terrible and beautiful, providing an intangible emotional heft to the text. The relationship with his father is seen as rather more fraught, and here the sense of alienation and estrangement is captured masterfully, if brutally, in the text.

The villains…well, as usual, they’re rather scary. There’s a slowly building horror throughout, which is counterbalanced by some rather more graphic moments laced through the text, before the climax.  The antagonists feel alarmingly alien when appropriate, and a few are disturbingly human. They’re all thoroughly interesting to read, even when being truly terrible.

As ever, I’m trying to avoid spoilers, so I won’t get into the plot too much. Suffice to say that Diago is on the move again, being gradually drawn into the intrigues of the Nefilim. There’s a slow burn buildup at the start of the text, but it flows wonderfully as the tension ratchets up in the prose. The stakes are, as ever, rather high, and there’s a sense of characters living with the consequences of their decisions. It’s a creepily compulsive journey for Diago, and the reader is taken along for the ride, by turns disgusted, terrified and thrilled. There’s more of the Nefilim here than before, and Frohock’s prose packs a punch.

Is it worth reading? If you’re new to the series, I’d start with the first in the sequence. But if you’re looking for more of pre-war Spain, of a world where angels and demons fight a gradually escalating war amongst our shadows, and where family and love are nothing – and everything – then yes, this is a thoroughly enjoyable sequel. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Interstitial - Without Light Or Guide

Tomorrow we'll take a look at Teresa Frohock's second 'Los Nefilim' novella, Without Light Or Guide. It's good stuff - a creeping horror urban fantasy, with elements of mystical divinity, and rather a lot of demons, in civil war Spain.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Steal The Sky - Megan E. O'Keefe

Steal the Sky is Megan E. O’Keefe’s debut novel . It’s an imaginative, intriguing piece of work, set in a unique world, with a lot of potential.

The world O’Keefe has created has the feeling of being on the margins of something larger. It’s centred on a town nestled on the side of a volcanic mountain. The town is sat on the side of an active volcano because it contains ‘selium’, a lighter than air gas, which can be used for travel – but can also be manipulated by the small percentage of the population which are ‘sel-sensitive’. Sensitives can do all manner of things with selium, but are strongly discouraged from doing so – instead, being the only ones able to process the gas on which air transport depends, they spend their lives working at the selium mines, or, rarely, as airship captains. There’s a suggestion that those with a greater affinity for selium, or with the ability to do odd things to it, are quietly disappeared.

It’s a world with it’s own customs and expectations, which O’Keefe quietly slides into the narrative. The sense of a company town is carefully and cleverly evoked , and by the close of the narrative, it feels like a living, breathing metropolitan area. Admittedly, not one you’d want to live in – filled with rock dust, knife-edge politics and the occasional murder- but still a place with a soul, and a unique sense of place.

This rugged, dangerous, semi-magical space is occupied by several interesting characters. There’s the Watch Captain, a stolid individual with a strong sense of duty, and a surprising willingness to get into scraps with people who get in her way. There’s the sneak thief/con artist from one of the nobility, and his loyal companion. There’s the commodore from over the sea, filled with a clinical ruthlessness and a yen for power.

Some characterisations are more successful than others ; the central pillar of the narrative is the noble con artist, whose smooth talking efforts to avoid jail time end up leading into something far worse, and at times I struggled empathise with him. There were some moments of cleverness which were both amusing and excellent indicators of character – at one point he filches a set of clothes from a public bath, and ends up with the owners wallet, as well as his rage, but there were smaller instances where it didn’t work as well, where the dialogue felt ever so slightly awkward, or where there was a bit too much exposition. Still, he was rather fun to read, and there were enough character-consistent revelations to keep things interesting. The Watch Captain, by contrast, is a perfectly serviceable character, filled with traits – but I would have liked to have seen her develop further; perhaps this will come in later books.

The antagonists are delightfully unpleasant, pragmatically vicious people. There’s not a sense of the diabolical here, but more the systematically oppressive, or the uncaring brutality of the strong to the weak. It’s an impersonal poison, which is very well portrayed, and makes for an agonising and enjoyable read. Again, it would have been great to see a little more of these characters, and shared something of their more human moments – but they work perfectly well in the text as-is.

The plot…well, as ever, I’ll try and avoid spoilers. It starts with something of a slow burn, as the reader gets acclimatised to the characters and their environment. But there’s something relentless about the pacing of the text, and it picks up ever-increasing speed from about the middle onward – and by the end, it’s an absolute juggernaut of prose, which I couldn’t stop reading. There’s something for everyone – witty banter, realpolitik, elusive and wonderful magic, the occasional stabbing. If the characters aren’t trying to save the world (or at least their piece of it), they’re definitely busy trying to save themselves. There’s red herrings, investigations, the occasional wonderfully funny moment, and some heartstopping action sequences – it’s a lot of fun, and it’s got heart.

Is it worth reading? If you’re willing to look past the occasional flaw, and have the patience for the slow start, this is a fascinating, thoroughly rewarding read. It’s definitely worth the time – I’m looking forward to seeing what adventures the enxt book may bring.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Interstitial - Steal The Sky

On Monday we're going to look at Megan O'Keefe's "Steal the Sky". It's a fantastic piece of adventure, with airships, shapeshifters, friendships, and, er, the occasional very large explosion. It's a lot of fun, and very enjoyable!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Paladin Caper - Patrick Weekes

The Paladin Caper is the third in Patrick Weekes’ “Rogues of the Republic” series, which follows a team of mismatched characters in a fantasy world as they steal their way into - and talk their way out of – riches, whilst incidentally saving the world.

This third book moves slightly further toward the heroic end of the spectrum. Where previous books had dragged us across the geography of Weekes’ world – from dwarven cities to elven wood-ships and back again – here we’re solidly in the heartland of the Republic. The shifts in this text feel more cultural than geographical. Here we see the rise of the Paladin Band, which feels analogous to a smart phone. It’s  got calendars. A means of transporting messages. It has health benefits and broadcasting capability. The Republic, already surrounded by broken technological wonders, courtesy of their previous rulers, the Ancients, takes these changes into stride. Still, it’s a society in flux, one which has staggered out of one war, narrowly avoided another, and is ripe for change via social shift, rather than conflict.

There’s some other interesting revelations here too. We get to see a bit more of the Ancients, and the discussions of what drove their civilisation initially are absolutely fascinating. There’s also a rather fun exploration of the elves, how they’re affected by crystal magic, and how their society operates.  Weekes has kept up the tradition of slipping backstory and social logic to the reader through conversation and as a backdrop to more immediate issues, and this works well; he puts some more detail into an already well defined and vivid world, without overwhelming the reader.

The characters are quite familiar by now, but Weekes still manages to change things up on us every now and then. There’s Ululenia’s struggle to decide who and what she is, after changing her self -definition in the previous book in the sequence.  We also get a deeper look at Loch’s defensiveness, and the reasons she doesn’t feel emotionally available – apart from focused rage. Kail gets a more light-hearted approach in this book, after a rather more pensive study in the preceding novel, but still has some serious emotional depth lurking beneath the surface – which becomes clear later in the text. Each of the main crew gets a decent amount of time on the page, and they certainly feel like they have more than two dimensions – the twists and turns of their burgeoning relationships are particularly enjoyable, entirely believable, and often dreadfully amusing.

The villains get, if not the same sort of emotional heft, enough time on the page that they’re not simply dastardly fiends. They’re convincing, and make convincing arguments for their actions, whilst also acting in thoroughly reprehensible ways. I won’t get into that in detail for fear of spoilers, but there’s also a variety of crosses and double crosses, all of which seem to be both character appropriate and utterly entertaining.

As ever, I won’t talk about the plot in detail, for fear of spoilers. However, I will say this: It starts off with a bit of a bang, and hurtles at a breakneck pace from then on. There’s some wonderfully crafted emotional moments in there, which were both effective and affecting. There’s sword fights. There’s demons. There’s poignant moments of love, and horrifying moments of betrayal. There’s a few moments which didn’t quite gel for me, but they were easily forgotten in the overall mosaic of emotional honesty and rapid-fire action. In the end, The Paladin Caper delivers, for both the characters and the readers.

On that basis, is it worth reading? If you’ve not picked up the first two novels in the sequence, I’d go there first – they add context to this book.  If you’ve already read the previous two novels, then yes, this is absolutely worth your time – I’d highly recommend it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Interstitial - The Paladin Caper

Slight Christmas delay today - but tomorrow we're talking about Patrick Weekes' conclusion to the Rogues of the Republic sequence, his "The Paladin Caper".

It's clever, it's funny, it's heartwarming, and at times utterly devastating - great stuff.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

In Midnight's Silence: Los Nefilim (Part One) - Teresa Frohock

In Midnight’s Silence is the first in Teresa Frohock’s “Los Nefilim” novella sequence. It posits a world in which angels and demons are physically real, and inhabit the world alongside humanity – largely cloaked in shadows. Their children, the Nefilim of the title, are something else again – and the struggle and sacrifice of some of them is central to Frohock’s story.

The world of Los Nefilim is set in the Spain of the nineteen-thirties, several years before the civil war. In most respects, it resembles the world that we know. There’s the division between the rich and poor of the country, with subtle hints of the geo-political conflict to come. But this is an undercurrent in a richer sense of social and literal geography. This is a Spain where you can feel the turgid heat curling off the page, and where the vitality of the people is obvious in every word and gesture. 

Frohock’s prose is almost lyrically descriptive, and really helps locales come to life. There’s broken down boarding houses, stultifying parlours of the rich, and some sewers which fairly crawl off the page with a stink of tortured misery hanging in every passage. Where this world differs from our own is the titular Nefilim – the children of Angels, caught in a hidden conflict between Angels and Daimons The mythology around the Nefilim and those above them in the celestial struggle is deftly inserted into the narrative, the reader picking up information alongside the characters, the world gaining a different texture as their understanding grows. There’s not much in the way of flashy magic here – but there is a sense of corruption, and a sense of a kind of divinity,  lurking between the words on the page. I’d love to delve deeper into the world hidden behind our own – but also love that most of it remains unknown.

In part, this mystery is due to our protagonist, Diago. The offspring of an angel and a daimon, aligned to neither, he gives us a unique view on the world. But it’s one limited by status – he is deliberately kept out of the loop on all sides of the conflict, and his sense of discovery moves alongside that of the reader. But he’s not just – or perhaps not even – a special snowflake, despite being a hybrid. It’s to Frohock’s credit that Diago feels more human than supernatural – a man with a deep love for his partner, Miquel, a man with some tightly controlled rage issues, and a man trying to construct a version of himself.  He feels flawed, but not broken, and as the reader sits inside his head, we can feel the emotional depth of his commitments, and the turmoil of his struggles. There’s a sense of the iceberg about Miquel – far more present than is currently exposed – but what we see here has the intensity of a lava bath. His relationship with Miquel is one of the core sections of the text, and it feels plausible, and carries a great deal of emotional honesty and heft. There’s a certain stark vulnerability present in their interactions which makes them a pleasure to read.

There’s other characters here of course. I was a particular fan of the clinically cold angel who kickstarts the plot, and the enjoyably vile demon Moloch. The supernatural creatures have a coiled darkness about them, on both sides, and seem somehow both more and less than human – like looking into a fun-house mirror. In contrast to Diago’s tortured near-humanity, they serve as stark warnings, or precursors of narrative dread – and keep things tense enough to have you turning every page.

The plot is fairly straightforward, wrapped around the strong core of characters and setting. It’s tightly plotted and tense; there are constraints on the characters which keep them moving, and their need, and the aforementioned emotional stakes, had me invested and turning pages as fast as possible. There’s a lot at risk here, and the characters are convincing enough, and I was interested in them enough, to feel that risk, and the sacrifices they were willing to make to attain it – the plot was intriguing in it’s own right, but worked wonderfully when meshed with the characters. In any even, it sprints along, merging a kind of slowly rising horror with adrenaline and a feeling of emotional investment to create an literary elixir, greater than the sum of its parts.

Is it worth reading? Well, I’d say so. The characters are top-flight, plausible and fascinating examples of humanity and…otherwise. The setting works, and feels vividly real. The plot acts as the glue between the other two pieces of the narrative, and can be both entertainingly terrifying and emotionally convincing – so yes, give it a go.