Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Happy Holidays!

That's the reviews finished for the year.
We'll be back on or around the third of January 2017 - enjoy the holiday!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Hanging Tree - Ben Aaronovitch

The Hanging Tree is the sixth in Ben Aaronovitch’s “PC Peter Grant” series. I’ve enjoyed the series until now; though some entries have felt better crafted than others, the appeal of a supernatural mystery, cloaked in British history, and wrapped in some wonderfully funny, clever dialogue, has kept me turning pages.

The Hanging Tree doubles down on this formula, and I think it’s the better for it – after experimenting with trips out to the ‘countryside’ in the previous book, we’re now back in the heart of dirty, thriving, vibrant London again. This time our protagonist, PC Peter Grant, is exploring the lives of the rich, famous, and, er…dead. This is a whole other London to the creaking tower blocks we saw in, for example, Broken Homes. Here the streets are calm, the gardens well manicured – and the houses are merely the tip of an iceberg – exclusive addresses squatting over cavernous basements, bastions of classic wealth with sprawling facilities below. There’s a scent or privilege in the air, a sense of expensive suits and ruthlessness.

Into this world steps PC Grant, a man with an unfortunate penchant for making enemies, a certain wry charm, and the ability to throw fireballs, as long as he’s filled out the paperwork first. That said, they’re of less utility against a high powered team of lawyers, and it’s great to see Peter being put once more out of his element; in previous instalments this was tied to his understanding of magic; with that steadily improving, he’s now finding himself in environments, social and physical, which are somewhat less than familiar. Still, it’s nice to watch his long running character arc continue here – as a man slowly rising to competence in thaumaturgy, whilst determined to inquire into how it actually works. He’s starting to feel, if not more sedate, perhaps more settled – admittedly, his steady girlfriend is a river goddess, and his boss once blew up a Tiger tank with his bare hands, but Peter is entering, if not a routine, at least a steady state, a way of thinking about himself and the world which moves it from “sprinting to stay in one place” to genuine progress of comprehension.

In this he’s ably assisted by the aforementioned girlfriend, Beverly Brook, herself a creature of winsome charm and, just possibly, a bit more of an agenda. They’re both rather good at living in the moment, but there’s a creeping sense that they both are starting to look into the future, and wor out exactly what perils that may hold.

Alongside these two is, of course, Nightingale – Grant’s mentor in the world of magic. We see a bit more of Nightingale here, the slow revelation of the shattering of magic in the 1940’s becoming ever clearer. Some of what defines Nightingale is pushed around in the narrative subtext – though he remains a man of startlingly hidden depths. On the other hand, he’s also a dab hand at driving a nice car very fast, and occasionally bringing out the Big Magic for supernatural villains.

I won’t spoil those, but suffice to say the entire book is full of plots and counterplots, schemes sliding past each other in the night, entangling, and throwing together some rather unlikely pairings. Our villains can even, to some degree, be seen as sympathetic – even when they’re equally atrocious.
Where the villainy here is extremely well masked, we do get the opportunity to see the sterling supporting cast return – Seawoll, Guleed, and a great many others. There’s a sense that the Folly, the home of British Wizardry, is slowly flexing its muscles again, adding staff to an organisation atrophied down to one man. On the other hand, as has been delicately hinted in earlier instalments, there’s also the possibility of interaction with other magical traditions = which always have the opportunity to go entertainingly sideways.

The plot – well, it’s one part murder mystery, one part action caper, with a side order of personal introspection. There’s a little bit of a slow burn at the start, as the initial investigation comes together – but after that, it paces along nicely. The twists and turns are largely well done, the rising tension in the investigation keeping you turning the pages, and the occasional displays of magic are alternately intriguing and explosively impressive. There’s a lot of questions thrown out in the course of the text – and a few of the larger ones from earlier books at least start to have been answered.

Is it worth reading? Well, if you’re coming to the series fresh, I’d recommend going back to the beginning, to Rivers of London (MidnightRiot in the US). But if you’re already a fan, then yes – this entry in the series is a barnstormer, and a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Lois McMaster Bujold - Penric and the Shaman

“Penric and the Shaman” is a fantasy novella by Lois McMaster Bujold. As longer term readers know, I enjoy Bujold’s sci-fi “Vorkosigan Saga” series immensely, so came to this novella as a means of experimenting with her sojourn into fantasy; not many writers seem to work in both genres, and fewer do so successfully.

Penric and the Shaman, fortunately, is rather good.

The world of the novella is an interesting one; there’s hints of a monarchical style system of rule, and suggestions scattered through which suggest a feudal fealty style arrangement between lords and labourers. But whilst there’s a little time spent in urban environments, the majority is out in the countryside – well, mostly, the mountainside. The focal point is a village almost buried in a mountain range, where it seems the chief industries are hunting, fishing, and getting up to inconveniently unorthodox magic. But the crisp air of the peaks pours off the page, and the sense of a close community, tied by isolation, has a warmth all of its own which shines through here.

On the point of magic – there’s a fair bit of this floating around. For those of you with a penchant for magic systems – well, it seems that this is a world where individuals are still trying to find own exactly how otherworldly effects can be generated. So there’s some systematising, but mostly, the reader is at least as much in the dark as the characters. There’s the Shaman of the title – heir to a tradition which seems to involve bonding with animals, ritual focus and astral projection – amongst other things. Then there’s the demons – which seem to be creatures with a nature of destruction, which pass from host to host, occasionally set things on fire, and also have something of a talent for sarcasm. There’s a melange of styles here, but they’ve been wrapped in cultural signifiers, and they’re separated enough to keep them clear to the reader – and the descriptions of the Shamanic magic are particularly well done, drawing the reader out into the astral alongside the practicioner.

The characters – well, I suppose the protagonist is the Penric of the title, though he shares equal time with a church investigator and a shaman. Penric is smooth, with an ineffable charm. He’s got a layer of class around him, a sense of style which the narrative slides over, letting it shine through at odd moments. He’s clever, evidenced by his investigative skills, and seems to do well at interpersonal interaction. One of the small joys is listening to the conversations he has with his demon, Desdemona – an inner dialogue which is equal parts smart-arse, intellectual debate, and mentoring. Though who exactly is teaching whom seems to vary. In any event, Penric is a vital, funny, fascinating figure – and one whom I’d like to see more of.

He’s followed by the investigator for the church – a dogged man, in search of a murder suspect. This is an individual with a nose for the truth, which also isn’t especially clogged with dogmatism. As a mid-level functionary, with some arms training and an inquiring mind, I found he worked well as a conduit for my interests – spending much of the book either trying to wok out what exactly was going on, or why he was following Penric around at all. Between moments of brusque competence, however, there are a few searing lines of discussion between them, revealing a man of dedication, unwilling to let the innocent suffer the consequences of crime, and aware fo the extremes to which terrified people may go.

The Shaman, the last of the triad, is something else entirely. I won’t get into his role now, for fear of spoilers. But this is an individual living in his own torments. There’s a personal, moral conflict here, and the depths of the soul are excavated in the narrative – to great effect, I might add.
The plot – well, it’s a murder mystery, and a chase, and a personal journey, all in one. The dialogue absolutely crackles with energy, and if there’s not much in the way of fast-paced swordfights, there’s a lot of sparring with words – and a fair bit of spectacular thaumaturgy. Watching Penric and his investigator dig into the circumstances of a murder, trying to piece together what happened and why, and then chase down the putative culprit, is compelling and tense reading – as are the revelations in what follows.

Is it worth reading? Well, I certainly enjoyed it. It’s a story about people in the main, about what drives them, what keeps them together, about what they’ll sacrifice, and about what drives people to commit small atrocities or acts of heroism. This isn’t a narrative about the grand sweep of armies – but it’s charming, and has a penetrative insight which makes it a great read, in a certain frame of mind. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Lois McMaster Bujold - Mirror Dance

Mirror Dance is next in my ongoing retrospective on Lois McMaster Bujold’s ‘Vorkosigan saga’ series. The previous entry was ‘Brothers in Arms’, which was a perfectly reasonable sci-fi thriller, but didn’t hit the high notes of ‘Barrayar’ or ‘Cetaganda’. Brothers in Arms feels like a sci-fi action movie for many parts, rather than the slower burning thriller of its predecessor. But there’s also some interesting meditations on identity – almost expected at this point - guilt, loyalty and family.

Mark, Mile’s clone-brother is one of the key viewpoints of this novel, after a brief role as a tortured antagonist in the previous book. Here he is, ironically, determined to live up to the image of Miles built up by his guardians. Mark is incredibly insecure in his feeling of uniqueness – not surprising given he was created entirely to mirror Miles. Here, Mark acts decisively in an effort to establish both difference and worth. Watching him move through the text, taking hold of assets and turning them to his own purpose is, well, reminiscent of Miles. They both have that force fo personality leaping off of the page – but what Mark does not have is a sense of restraint, of history, and of the cost of his decisions.

Over the course of the narrative, he is acquainted with all of these things. Men die from his orders, under pretences or otherwise, and the agony of command burns into him. Where Miles has the Vor to act as his final ethical framework, , Mark has only Miles, and the examples of his less than effective handlers in earlier life. But Mark slowly learns responsibility, and becomes intimately acquainted with survivors’ guilt. Whilst determined to realise his goals, he becomes increasingly aware of the cost of his actions, in lives and materiel. He also starts to come around to the idea of Miles as family. 
There’s a wonderful contradiction here, as Mark seeks to emulate Miles for his virtues, whilst simultaneously seeking to differentiate them from each other – but without sliding into psychosis. Bujold shows us a portrayal of a personality in balance – much as with Miles himself in Brothers In Arms – and watching Msrk teeter on the knife edge of sanity feels both entirely real and deeply harrowing.

Miles feels like more of a silent partner for much of the text, in contrast to his more energetic appearances in previous books. In this case, he’s working to pick up and deal with the mess his clone is making – not yet entirely sure what Mark is doing, or for whom. Miles’ cool confidence, both in command and under fire, is a start contrast to Mark’s well-meaning but often na├»ve or ineffectual efforts – but Miles himself is out of view for what feels like a lot of the text, though his lack of presence, in itself, helps to drive the story forward.

The story mostly takes place around Jackson’s Whole. Earlier instalments have discussed this purported hive of scum and villainy at length, and we’ve even had a few visits there in other tales. But this is an opportunity to see the Whole laid bare – a society where everything, from flesh to jurisprudence, is for sale. Discussions around how much one might need to pay to ransom a captive are a delightful insight into the While’s legal system – where those with the gold quite literally make the rules. Bujold shows us the highs and lows of an economy effectively run by criminal gangs – the cutting edge research being done, the luxurious lifestyles of the corporate leaders, the shark-tank feel of the society that they’ve constructed.

The Barons of Jackson’s Whole are a motley cast of moral reprobates, moving from the charmingly unpleasant toward the actively sociopathic. They are, to coin a phrase, mad, bad, and dangerous to know. But they also steal the scenes they’re in – from the chilly Baron Fell through to his rival, the driven and devious Baron Ryoval, they’re compelling figures, recognisably human in their intimacies, but also recognisably awful.

The plot – well, there’s a lot going on. Some early action scenes step up the pace nicely, and give an almost cinematic feel. They’re followed by some more introspective scenes of investigation, with slowly ratcheting tension which explodes very satisfyingly near the close. This is a book that isn’t afraid to explore large themes – about the inevitability of death, and the changing nature of mortality, and about how an individual can define themselves as for or against both external and internal pressures. It’s a clever narrative, with interesting things to say – as well as a fair bit of fast-paced action – on which basis, I’d recommend giving it a try.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Behind Her Eyes - Sarah Pinborough

Behind Her Eyes is a standalone novel from Sarah Pinborough, whose cracking “13 Minutes” we reviewed and said rather nice things about last year. It’s a well honed psychological thriller – amongst other things.

This is, at heart, a novel about people – in particular about the loves and hatreds, and about the secrets and lies which bind people together as thoroughly, or even more so, than genuine affection. At the same time, the narrative examines the way those links are shaped by, and impact upon, the people that create them.

The core focus of the text is on the series of relationships between Louise, a single mother, struggling through her day job as an assistant at a medical practice, David, the newest doctor in that practice – and Adele, David’s wife. Louise, crucially, is given to us as a point of view character, and we share in the mundane and familiar aspects of her life – a love for her son, an effort to put on a good front before her ex-husband, a desire to be both more and less than she is. Louise is familiar, or at least comfortable to walk the narrative alongside. To be sure, she has character flaws – a tendency to impulsiveness, for example – but overall, she’s an intelligent woman, shaped by circumstances to have what feels in some ways a very claustrophobic life, stuck in a rut after a divorce, caring for her son between holidays, having the odd glass of wine after dinner, and never quite able to reach out for something more.

David, the new doctor, is the one of the triad we see least – his motivations and goals cloaked from the reader. He’s a man capable of showing both infernal coolness, and great affection. It seems like there’s something haunting the man, a past not quite spoken of. He’s the bridge between Louise and Adele, his wife – and the mystery of what ties him to Adele, what strange rites bind them together, is at the crux of the mystery. David is the third party, seen from the vantage of the others, but perhaps not wholly understood. By turns he feels humane, warm and affectionate – and a distant force of nature, a force of pent up rage and potential violence. It’s to Pinborough’s credit that she makes both sides of the man feel as plausible, as likely, as the other.

The third of the triad is Adele, David’s wife, who befriends Louise. Her segments are both revealing and obfuscated, if that’s possible. Adele is sharp eyed and sharp minded, an individual with a laser like focus, and a clear affection for her husband. That said, she’s also somewhere between terrified and damned – watching her mind race, picking up threads that tie to Louise and David, linking them together and trying to shift them to her own needs. Adele is clearly damaged, dangerous, or both but damaged by whom, or dangerous to whom is another matter.

The setting feels, perhaps intentionally, claustrophobic – and largely settled around urban environs. Still, the atmosphere is sinister, if we’re not entirely sure why. There’s scenes in Louise’s cramped, slightly decrepit flat. Here’s the scent of genteel poverty, of old furniture and luxuries put off in the name of necessity – a feeling of work and honesty, laced with regrets and perhaps, just perhaps a tinge of hope. By contrast, Adele and David have a larger home, filled with unspoken accusations and a roiling tension sat under the pleasant-seeming surface. Whatever it is that keeps them together, or has driven them apart, sits over their interactions, and their home, like an oil slick on boiling water.

The plot – well, there’s surprises in every word. If we come to the story knowing nothing, then the gradual reveals on all sides, the gentle unmasking of hard truth, and the potential for appalling consequences – are all guaranteed to leave us a little wiser when we walk away from the book. It’s a slow burner, this one, but the build up is deliciously clever, each disclosure cloaking even further mysteries – leaving the reader crouched over the text in anticipation, trying to work out where the next twist is going to take us.

This is definitely worth picking up, if you’re in the mood for an incredibly well realised psychological thriller, with the odd element suggesting all may not be quite as it appears. I tore through it quickly, and I can say that it delivers on its early promise – each turn of phrase an emotional punch to the gut, each page a revelation.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Brothers In Arms - Lois McMaster Bujold

Brothers In Arms is a novel in Lois McMaster Bujold’s extensive “Vorkosigan Saga” sci-fi series. I’ve been working my way back through the series this year, and in large part, it’s been as good as I recall.

The majority of the text takes place on Earth, which hasn’t really turned up in the series before now. Rather than Compared to the exotic allure of the Cetagandan Empire in the previous volume, Earth feels at once more prosaic, more familiar – and distinctly different to the worlds we’ve visited before. This is a world of embassies, of diplomatic overtures and quiet, dignified assasinations. Here, it seems, is the place to be if you need to do some really good shopping – from living clothes to starships. Earth is an amalgamation of cultures, drawing in influences from everywhere around it. 

Admittedly, the reader is limited, largely, to shopping centres and embassy compounds – but seeing the allies and enemies of the previous books left dealing with each other across a third party is intriguing. Both Barrayarans and Cetagandans are keen to avoid a war – but can’t resist doing a bit of back-handed blackmail, violence and occasional diplomacy at the same time. There’s the feeling of a cold war conflict coursing through the setting, reminiscent of classics like The Third Man – with a fair degree of cloak and dagger antics on display (or not, as the case may be).

Miles is conflicted, perhaps more than ever. After some time spent with his mercenary troops, he’s back under the government’s thumb, trying to explain why, amongst other things, he needs quite so much money. He’s thoroughly energetic, but still caught in the desire to make something of himself, to be something – if he can work out what that is. To live up to his famous parents, to have access to power, to change the universe – these are all things that can be done by Miles as a mercenary admiral, but perhaps not as Miles Vorkosigan, Barrayaran junior officer. On the other hand, the Vorkosigan name is at the core of Miles’ self-belief – he struggles to match up to the examples he would have to renounce in order to match. It’s taking its toll here, as he sometimes drifts toweard being subtly schizophrenic, a man not entirely sure who he is, but also not certain who it is he would like to be.

He’s backed up here by the long-suffering Ivan, who is determined to avoid as much of Miles’ shenanigans as possible. Ivan remains a delightful straight man in the face of Miles’ mania –and an excellent contrast for the reader. They’re joined by the eternally competent Elli Quinn (fresh from her role in Ethan of Athos). Elli remains straightforward, honest, and with a streak of ruthlessness against her enemies. Between them, she and Ivan make unlikely but effective body-men for Miles, who uses them both unapologetically and effectively – though with a degree of affection on all sides.

They’re faced by a string of antagonists – though I’ll leave exactly who they are and what their goals are out of this review, for the sake of spoilers. That said, Bujold has pulled out the stops to provide a cool, calculating antagonist with a long term view, and a willingness to use harsh and outright lethal approaches to get what they want. There are some more sympathetic characters on this side of the line as well, and a few that seem to straddle the space between allies and enemies for Miles. Quite whom to trust, and what their end goals actually are, remains somewhat shrouded, even to the last.

On that basis, the plot rockets along rather nicely. There’s a brief lull at the start, as we’re brought up to speed and introduced to the world, but quite soon there’s what feels like a myriad of plots being juggled – and a steadily ratcheting tension, as Miles tries to work out what’s going on, and why it’s happening quite so explosively. This one is largely a slow burner, an investigation into hidden secrets – and a character study, with some top notch dialogue between Miles and his foes, which reveals quite a lot about both sides in the process.

Is it worth reading? If you’re invested in the Vorkosigan saga to this point then I’d say yes, it’s worth your time. If you’re coming to it new, there’s perhaps a little too much assumed knowledge to make for a straightforward read. It’s still a decent standalone novel, but it really should be read after the works which precede it. 

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The City of Ice - K.M. McKinley

The City of Ice is the second in K.M. McKinley’s “The Gates of the World” series. We reviewed the first, “The Iron Ship” a while ago. It impressed with a sprawling and imaginative geography, as well as a social setting which was, at the very least, intriguing, whilst providing an enormous cast of well drawn characters to populate the world; it was a tour-de-force for the imagination, if a little lacking in focus. The City of Ice works hard to pare things back to a manageable level, and it succeeds – at least most of the time.

There continue to be a multitude of point-of-view characters. Several of the family Kressind are only available for key scenes, but others have an ongoing role in the narrative. There’s the heiress, determined to provide for those working in her mills, coming slowly around to unionisation as a binder for being humanitarian. There’s the speaker-to-the-dead, investigating why the recently deceased are stronger and more determined to hang around and make trouble for their descendants. Then there’s the shipwright, the man who built a craft of iron which is able to ross polar oceans, toward a purported hidden city. These  are the Kressind siblings with the clearest roles; it’s interesting to see the Speaker wrestle with his conscience, a man determined to do the right thing – though perhaps not at any cost. He’s tenacious, determined to think things through – but has a willingness to compromise growing from the pressures on his character which is interesting to watch. By contrast, there’s the efforts by his sister to act as a focal point for labour rights. Here is someone insecure in their own heritage, but determined to forge onward, to take an aggressive role and lock down what they see as the right thing to do – via direct action and politivs, when required.

Both feel overshadowed by the engineer, the Kressind who created the impossible – a self propelled craft powered by magic, driving through the arctic seas in search of a lost city. There’s a certain idealism, and an Indiana-Jones quality to his ideals, which makes these sections especially piquant.
The Kressinds are joined by a large supporting cast, from the seemingly friendly but potentially lethal fae-esque creatures (one asks their putative master not to release them, because then the fae will be free to murder them), through mages, whose strength is based on their ability to shape reality to fit their perceptions, to the alien Morfaan, a seemingly advanced species, the remnants of whom are, at the very least, damaged, and may not be as benevolent as they appear.
The result of which is, there’s a lot of fabulous character building on display here. It’s a diverse, complex cast, and the ties between friends and relatives are believably done, and just as fraught as you might expect.

The world is at least as broad as it was from the first book; but there’s a tighter focus here – the most memorable environs are those of the tundra surrounding the titular City of Ice. Its to McKinley’s credit that she can bring us a thriving urban cityscape, an urban metropolis brought together by expectation, a thronging mass of humanity, each individual part of a whole – and also the stark white of a polar region, populated by a small band of explorers, on the hard edge between life and slow starvation; both are plausible, and both feel real – the muttering heat of a city before the arrival of an expected sign, the hard deals and cut-throat politics – and the stark simplicity of the ice, driving towards and unknowable, seemingly impossible goal – in all cases, this is a world which lives and breathes, I’d love to see more of it, but as with the previous book in the series, I’m sure more will become available as the story continues.

The plot is, at least seemingly, more focused than the first book. We’re following an expedition toward a polar region on their quest, and tracking the Kressinds as they meddle in the politics of their region. Gradually, the feeling that there is more at stake becomes more concrete – though as always with the acquisition of knowledge, there’s a price to pay. This is a book with significant emotional depth, which is unafraid to explore both joy and sorrow, in the broader and the micro states – and the consequences that both can wreak on families.  There’s some interesting revelations here, chasing up hints left in the first book – and some explosive and cleverly defined magic as well. There’s duels, which I admit I sat through with heart in mouth – and compromises, and alliances and stark betrayals.

In the end, this is an excellent sequel, ne which delivers on the promise of its predecessor. It may lose some mystique by beginning to explain some of the mysteries left by the previous volume, but it’s a tighter and better crafted volume overall – and a fascinating addition to the series. You’d need to read the first volume to really keep track of what’s going on – but having done so, this second volume gives you access to rich characters, in a vivid and convincing world – and I, for one, want to know where they go next.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Week Off - Holidays

Greetings, valued readers!

I've been in at the doctor's this week, having taken a small amount out of a finger - so I'm taking the week off. I promise to be back next week, with some hopefully interesting reviews.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Red Knight - Miles Cameron

The Red Knight is Miles Cameron's debut novel, but you really couldn't tell from the quality of the work. In a sentence, it's a bloody, gritty, emotionally wrenching, clever piece of writing. It promises a fantasy world with trappings of historical accuracy, and it delivers. It promises violent,, fast paced, realistic battles - and it delivers. It promises characters you'll care about, with thoughts, feelings and motivations that make sense, and make them real - and it delivers. It promises dialogue that is snappy, smart, and spoken like real people - and it delivers. It promises the potential Next Big Thing in fantasy - and it delivers.

There are comparisons to be made between Miles Cameron and the likes of Joe Abercrombie and George R.R. Martin; the style of work, at least, is similar - characters in a hard, brutal world have been shaped by that world into individuals who are, let us say not very nice, but do make compelling protagonists. Cameron's world is one reminiscent of late medieval Europe - with bands of roving mercenary knights selling their services in conflict to the highest bidder, and with nations always poised on the verge of external or internal conflict. But against this familiar historical backdrop, Cameron gives us an external focus - "The Wild" - an area of liquidity and change, where what is and is not real becomes more fluid, where wonders and monsters are born, and regard the lands populated by humanity as their own.

The setting is interesting, and obviously well researched, and drawn with a fluid brush that moves between the broad strokes of political organisations and geography, down to the fine detail of individual households with equal clarity. The book is worth reading for the world alone. Fortunately, however, the rest of the text is equally solid.

The cast of characters is many and varied, and more than a few of them are deeply unpleasant people. Ironically, the forces of `The Wild', which stands in opposition to humanity, are often portrayed more sympathetically than the protagonists and the forces that aid and abet them. I'm fairly sure this is intentional. The protagonists are (largely ) an unruly and unpleasant bunch of mercenaries, following a mysterious leader, in search of the greatest amount of profit. Many of the supporting characters are more names and a set of traits than anything else, but others have solid motivational moments, and are developed, if not into three dimensions, then at least two and a half. The `Point of view' characters take this a step farther, and give us solid motivations, logic, raw emotions - explanations for actions which are internally consistent, plausibly done, and often surprising. After a while, the characters seem to step off the page and become people, more than marks on a page.

The plot, the events that these characters find themselves in, is a little less convincing than the world and the characters - but it is utterly relentless, action packed, and almost forces the reader to turn every page, in need of finding out what happens next; if, for example, Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series is the fantasy genre's "Great Expectations", then this is fantasy's "Die Hard" - action, adventure, the odd brutal murder, and a plot that seems a little hackneyed, but is so much fun to read that you really don't care.

Overall, this is a book with a beautifully drawn, well realised world, populated by believable (and often believably awful) characters, with a page turning plot that will leave you not wanting to put the book down, and once you do, wanting more. It's a doorstop of a novel, but every bit of it is very, very good indeed.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Cetaganda - Lois McMaster Bujold

Let’s talk about Cetaganda. It’s the name of a sprawling, multi-system empire of demi-humans in Lois McMaster Bujold’s ‘Vorkosigan’ saga. It’s also, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, the name of one of the books in the saga, which deals mostly with Miles and his interactions with the Cetagandans.

The setting is, for the most part, Cetaganda itself – the core world of the Cetagandan Empire. After the claustrophobic stations of The VorGame, and the frontier-medieval blend of Cordelia’s Honor, Cetaganda brings us something else again. It’s a garden world, a space filled with what the inhabitants think of as high culture, the pinnacle of their civilisation. The Cetagandans are, of course, a bit odd. They have what appears to be a reasonably affluent, if heavily controlled society, initially ruled over by the Ghem, the soldier-caste. Their fleets turned up in The Vor Game, and the Ghem on display here are focused, duty oriented, and highly competent. The Ghem act as the hands of the Haut, a sub-group acting as overseers of the Ghem. The haut handle the cultural and social niceties of the Empire – producing art, drama, horticulture and so on. But they also dabble in genetics. The Empire is, essentially, a giant petri dish for the human experiment – seeing what works and what does not, what may be a useful survival trait, what may need to be cut out – but exercised across a huge social space, with a huge population. The Haut are, at the very least, somewhat sharper than they appear.

Cetaganda is a melting pot of sorts – and one with more than its fair share of scheming. Both the reader and the characters can be dazzled by the sophistication on display – which finds perfection in both social occasions and assassination attempts – but there’s internal struggles here too. If not as physically claustrophobic as the stations of The Vor Game, Cetaganda is a world bounded by social strictures, where a wrong move can end extremely badly, and where it’s a reasonable presumption that the game is rigged before you start. Still, Bujold is showing us highly cultured, in several senses, society, one carefully and cautiously controlled – without the energy of Barrayar, but with more calculation applied instead. It’s an amazingly beautiful, potentially poisonous place, and the mixture of delight and venom seeps off the page.

The characters – well, the focus here is on the central duo of Miles and his dutiful, womanising, ever-so-slightly reigned cousin Ivan. Ivan serves as Miles’s foil and body-man throughout – he’s perhaps more staid than Miles, and certainly more lazy. There’s a sense of intelligence kept under wraps there, which we may see more of in later texts, but Ivan is definitely smarter than he looks. Of course that wouldn’t be too tricky. Still, here he tends to fetch and carry for Miles, point out moments when his cousin is about to go entirely off the rails and, occasionally, suffer the consequences of some plot or other backfiring. I’m a big fan of Ivan here – the everyman, the avatar of the reader, pulled along in the wake of the small whirlwind of focus that is Miles Vorkosigan. He does a wonderful line in put-upon desperation which is rather charming, and has a clear desire to just do things in straightforward ways, to cut through Gordian knots so that he can get back to the bar.

Miles – well, Miles is the same and different here. When last we saw him, he was preventing intergalactic wars. Here he’s been sent on an ostensibly harmless diplomatic mission; but sent as a representative of Barrayar. This is a tidier, more restrained Miles – a man holding himself within the bounds of duty even more tightly than when he’s running fleets and masquerading as ‘Admiral Naismith’. His word is his bond, his honour is sacrosanct, and when trouble falls into his lap, he gratefully seizes it with both hands, shakes it, and informs Ivan that no, they won’t be going to the bar. I wouldn’t say he’s grown up – the man is still a dynamo, still keen to live up to the reputations of his parents and the older family generations. This is a Miles determined to make something of himself, but still not entirely sure who he is, or exactly what it is that he wants himself to be – apart from “something”.

The plot is a lot of fun. There’s certainly fewer space battles on show than previous instalments. It feels like a detective mystery wrapped inside a sci-fi setting, with the occasional tense moment sending chills up your spine. Miles is on fine form as an investigator, traipsing through red herrings, obfuscatory officials and the occasional bout of violence. There’s a lot of pin-sharp dialogue here, lots of musings on why people do what they do, and discussions of motivations, crosses, double crosses – and the occasional revelatory moment when everything becomes clear, everything makes sense, and the narrative delivers.

Is it a good book? I’d say so. There’s a slower, tension ratcheting pace for the start, and by the end you’re rocketing along with Miles, waiting, if nothing else, to find out what happens next. It’s a charming, clever book, with a hidden edge to it, and some very clever ideas. SO yes, this one’s worth a look.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Pyre - David Hair

The Pyre is the first in the "The Return Of Ravana" fantasy series by David Hair. It follows a group of modern Indian teenagers as they grapple with increasing occurrences of seemingly supernatural events – and looks at some of the causes of those events, centuries in the past.

The setting is provided in two narratively distinct segments. There are chapters set in a town in modern-day India, and those alternate with others, set in the same geography, but 1300 years earlier.  The modern setting is clear, a thriving, energetic place, filled with a background noise of commerce and observances of faith – a tangle of the traditional and the encroaching new – perhaps symbolic of the transition that the nation is going through. There’s iconic environmental flashes – when our trio of young protagonists sit on a roof, drinking coke under the sun, a chase scene through the thronging marketplace, moments of contemplation in temples, and in isolated caves.
This rather optimistic vision works as a clever contrast to the setting of the chapters occurring in the past. There we have a sense of darkness, of claustrophobia. There’s an atmosphere of decline, and a seeping sense of fear trickling through the lines on the page. Where the modern world is an expansive, enthusiastic one, here, people are closing their doors on each other, afraid to speak up or, in some cases, speak at all. At the same time, this past is a rich one, with a sense of the mystic, a baroque feel, and a sense of the need to struggle, to survive.  The author has built a fusion of two times and places, and in their contrasts they build upon each other, and both are synthesised into locales which felt plausible and real.

The characters – well, there’s a certain parity here, a trio of teenagers in the modern world, sat in parallel with what feel like older versions of themselves, in the past. In the ‘modern’ narrative, we spend our time with two boy and a young woman; of the former, one is somewhat bookish, an intellectual, not afraid of an argument, but perhaps not one able to finish it when it becomes physical. He conflicts with the other boy in some ways – a physically stronger, more impulsive type, with a certain level of disdain for those intellectual pursuits. Both are united in their affection for the third member of their triad, a somewhat untraditional young lady, one prepared to stand up, speak her mind ad – in some cases – tell her two associates that they’re being idiots. Each comes with their own baggage – one boy having just returned from England, trying to fit in. The other has family issues, and is trying to define himself around them as he moves into adulthood. The girl struggles with discrimination and self actualisation – in trying to become who she wants to be, and not, perhaps, what society expects.

They’re sympathetic, well drawn characters. Some of their woes feel a bit dramatic and manufactured – but others are spot on. The scenes of troubled family interactions in particular are quietly powerful, and made compelling reading.

The older characters in the ‘past’ sections have broad similarities to their matches in the modern era. There’s the captain of the palace guard –a man who acts at the behest of more unpleasant characters than himself, and struggles with complicity. There’s a poet, a man prepared to take a moral stand in a moment of strength, or toss it away in a moment of weakness. And there’s a bride, a warrior woman with one hand on the bow, and the other on a knife at her belt. The poet is ineffectual, seemingly defined by a romance that sits in his soul, at odds with the environment he survives in. The bride is a powerful force, a woman determined to survive, to take what actions she must in order to do so – a fierce and moral creature. Perhaps the keenest felt is the guard captain, a man torn by the needs of his position, and bonds of loyalty – and his own sense of personal honour, morality, and sense of what is right. Theirs is a triad perhaps more tormented, potentially more tragic than their younger selves – but one just as honest, and with bonds tied just as tightly.

The plot – well, I shan’t spoil it. Suffice to say that there’s magic here that spans eras. There’s discussion of past lives, of the nature of reincarnation. There’s chases and the occasional bit of gunfire. There’s swordfights and the plots of evil kings. There’s quiet family drama, with an emotional punch – and there’s the rise of friendships and the falls of betrayal. In the end, it’s a fast-paced adventure, and one with a clever and convincing mythology – worth a go!

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Invisible Planets - Ken Liu (Ed.)

Invisible Planets is an anthology of Chinese science fiction, translated by Ken Liu. I’ve talked rather warmly about Liu’s own works before, and his translation of The Three Body Problem is particularly well regarded. Here, then, is a sampling of other modern authors writing science fiction in China – and, perhaps unsurprisingly, on the whole the collection assembled is rather good.

The stories here are grouped by author, and there are often two or three stories with the same author in the volume. It doesn’t suffer from that per se – each tale has a scent of the unfamiliar about it, a frisson of the unusual. The variety of settings is impressive – from a tired, disintegrating ghost town of robots, given the souls of the departed, through a city which folds in on itself, leaving two thirds of the population in artificial sleep for periods of time. There’s a near future where the overeducated and under-utilised serve in brigades fighting off swarms of seemingly intelligent rats – and another that deals with the arrival of ancestral creators to our world in their dotage. Each, constrained by the length of their tales, is seen in microcosm – created in a few brush strokes here, or a line of dialogue there – but I confess, I found each to be delightful, terrifying, or on occasion, both.  There were stylistic differences of course – looking at the graceful form, the fairy tale smoke of Night Journey of the Dragon Horse, and comparing it with the fraught, spiked freneticism of Folding Beijing – both use their prose to layer further meaning onto their worlds, to give an impression of the space that the protagonists occupy. In the end, the worlds on display here have a sense of place, a sense of alien otherness – but also a sense of familiarity, of humanity, which ties them back to the reader.

 The characters carry a similar breadth. There’s the tired, driven, wondrous Dragon Horse – a creature setting out on a journey, looking for understanding and finding sacrifice and friendship, of sorts, in a world no longer quite what it recalls. There’s Rosamund, daughter of the last queen, living inside a giant automaton, the price of immortality – a woman determined to piece together the state of the universe. There’s tales of love here – of a man driven to make unfortunate choices in an effort to protect the woman whom he loves, unaware of him as she is – and of loss, both social and personal. The protagonist of Folding Beijing lives at the edge of a world with fewer places in it for him, and gives us the perspective to see how the system within which he operates is not only unfair, but deliberately so. There’s a parable there, a social commentary – but there’s also a man trying to make a living, so that he can send his adopted daughter to kindergarten. The fusion of the fantastical and the human is as intrinsic to the characters as to the setting, broadly speaking – even when the human is, perhaps, the transhuman instead.

There’s different types of story on display here – the muted Year of the Rat is perhaps the one with the most straightforward action, odd as battling hordes of rats may seem. But there’s a contemplative strand running through all these works, something which made me stop and thing, as a reader, consider what symbols, what meanings the text wanted to convey. It was not, perhaps, an effortless read, but each story seemed to have something special about it, something that kept me turning the pages. This is a collection which is asking questions about people, about our place in the universe, and is trying to shape a response. The differing cultural context of the works may have suggested different answers, but the questions are, perhaps, universal – and in any event, the narratives they’ve constructed in looking around for answers were spot on.

At the end of the text are a series of essays on the nature of science fiction in China, and those provided an interesting background to the works themselves. They’re perhaps a little dry to pick through in one sitting, but there’s a lot of value there, and an energy, enthusiasm and determination coming off the page which provided a sense of hope.

In the end, this is a book filled with strange tales – and tales of the strange. It’s looking at old questions with new eyes, and posing some new and interesting questions I might not have considered on my own. It does so with narratives which intrigue and excite, and offers a valuable new perspective. It’s worth looking at, and will probably reward multiple readings.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Ill today

I'm laid up ill today, so no reviews.
On the plus side, I'm tearing through some exciting new books, so expect reviews to follow in short order.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Falling Free - Lois McMaster Bujold

Falling Free is the fourth novel published in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan  series, and the next in my ongoing retrospective of her work up until now.. Confusingly, it’s also the first chronologically. The events in the book take place roughly two hundred years before the majority of the saga. Though the series has generally been possible to read as stand alone entries, this chronological separation makes the narrative stand apart from its fellows.

The setting, then, is perhaps somewhat familiar to regular Vorkosigan readers, but accessible to a fresh pair of eyes. Most of the story takes place either in an orbital habitat, sat above the gravity well of a lightly populated world – or on the surface of that same world.  Bujold manages to show us a planet with facets of the odd, where the light populationis concentrated in a company town, where there’s a sense of full employment – and out of the window is just a little hostile. There’s a sense of emptiness here, a feeling of a humanity somewhat humbled by the scale of everything around it – and what we see of activity seems futile in that grand scale, but also intimately human. It’s an odd place, which doesn’t seem desolate as much as sparse.

It’s also at least in some ways run by one company, which manufactures – amongst other things – habitats, and seems to employ rather a lot of people, both in and outside of the gravity well. There’s some interesting meditations here on the usefulness and the abuse of corporate power, and in giving people a stake in the dynamics and environment in which they exist.

The message is perhaps a little heavy handed, due to the part of the equation taking place on the orbital habitat. Here we find the first generation of ‘quaddies’, genetically engineered people with extra arms instead of legs, designed for zero-gee engineering. The quaddies are raised within a focused corporate environment, receiving education and training – and little else – from the supervisors of this rather expensive and expansive project. At the same time, they’re not allowed much in the way of autonomy; one of the corporate heads points out that they are in fact on the balance sheet as corporate assets, rather than employees.

The quaddie’s struggle for personhood and independence make up a cornerstone of the text, sitting alongside the rumblings of corporate paranoia and overreaction. Still, the quaddies, startling as they may be, are shaped by their environs. Here the author hits the spot perfectly – the habitat is confining, claustrophobic, and there’s a focus and energy crackling through the (artificial) atmosphere, compared to the more relaxed pace of life under gravity. It’s less a prison than a hothouse, a corporation determined to realise value from expensive assets, treating them with high expectations – and monitoring them accordingly. There’s a lack of privacy here, and a sense of small-group social norms which seems genuine and makes for a riveting read – especially when the small groups the reader can see run afoul of rules imposed from without, which come under faceless seals but have long term personal consequences.

 Most of the readers-eye-view is done by Graff, a non-quaddie engineer assigned to the habitat to train the quaddies for their upcoming employment. Graff fits the mould in many ways – he’s gruff, firm, but extremely competent. At the same time there’s a humanity, a centred emotional coil within the man which allows him to empathise with the quaddies, to look upon them not as monsters, but as people – and as people having monstrous acts perpetrated upon them.  Bujold has always had solid characterisation, and her everyman hero here is exactly on point – as a man with skills, intelligence, and a will to put them into practical action, he’s an excellent viewpoint for the reader – and his gruff, methodical steadiness makes an interesting contrast to the heroes of other books in the series!
Several of the quaddies have regular roles, and if we don’t see enough of them, they have an energy and an enthusiasm for life that you can feel sizzling between the lines, which certainly kept me turning the pages. They’re mired a bit behind the need for technical dialogues every so often, which help give the environment its patina of authenticity – but lead the characters into some rather clunky dialogue.

The same may be said of the antagonist (of sorts), a corporate manager left to deal with the quaddies, to prepare them for work elsewhere, and to manage the experiment. He is, de-facto, the master of the habitat – but startlingly unsympathetic. There’s a sense that he’s not a genuinely bad man, and the ride as he slowly snowballs into some seriously bad decisions is artfully crafted – but it would have been nice to see an antagonist with a few more redeeming features.

Still, it works. The narrative starts a little slowly, gradually opening the world of the quaddies and their colleagues to the reader – but it picks up fairly quickly, and then sustains a reasonable pace throughout, on its way to a denoument which carries rising tension beautifully, and left me unable to stop reading until the end. The plot itself is fairly straightforward, set around the question of the quaddies humanity, and what they need to do in order to realise that humanity – with the theme of independence tied up with family and friendship as an overall package.

This isn’t a perfect novel, but it has some interesting things to say about people, and it says them inside a well realised, realistically written environment, with some charming characters – and on that basis, it’s worth checking it out. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Straits Of Galahesh - Bradley Beaulieu

The Straits of Galahesh is the second in Bradley Beaulieu’s “The Lays of Anuskaya” trilogy. I had a look at the first book in the series some time ago, and found it to be a rather original take on epic fantasy, with inspiration from contemporary struggles and from the Russian literary tradition.

Those themes continue in the sequel. We get to see a bit more of Beaulieu’s world this time around. Alongside the renaissance urbanity of the duchies, there’s also some time spent looking in on their near neighbour, the Empire of Yrstanla. The Empire feels like a far larger polity than the Duchies, with sprawling borders that are in a state of constant flux – battling with the seemingly barbarian Haelish, and, more recently, looking covetously at the overextended Duchies, now roiling from the events of the first book, and not greatly prepared for strife with their neighbour.

This is an Empire built on blood and gold, with a firm eye for realpolitik, and a tendency to both institutions and violence. They’re an interesting social contrast to the squabbling Duchies – if seemingly less diverse, the more absolute power of their Emperor allows him to get the Empire rolling in one direction with a relative minimum of fuss.

There’s a fair amount of heavyweight politics in this volume – mostly settled around the marriage of one of the Duchie’s own to one of the more important nobility in Yrstanla. There’s a lot of half-said sentences, and more than a little scheming, especially from the Matra on the side of the Duchies – the women who can utilise a form of astral projection to act as spies and saboteurs. They are, as yet, unable to access the Empire, in part due to the storm wacked Straits of Galahesh – and they’d dearly love to have eyes on the other side. The Yrstanlan’s, on the other hand, would very much like to get their hands on a Matra of their own – information being power. Cue rather a lot of shenanigans, and an atmosphere which is more than a little redolent of the Cold War – each side trying to gain an advantage over the other, in time, resources, or information.

From a character standpoint, we’re all over the place. Some of the time we’re looking in on Nischka, Prince of one of the Duchies, now looking for a cure for the spiritual disease wracking the islands – also known as the Wasting. He’s put his other responsibilities on hold for this, and in trying to discover more about the rifts which seem to cause the disease. This is a cooler Nischka, one with something less in the way of prejudice, challenged by the events of the last book to re-examine his role in society, and the way in which that society portrays those around it.

We also get some time with Soroush, leader of the insurgent force known as the Maharrat. These outcasts from their pacifistic people, who suffer somewhat from the prejudices of the Grand Duchy, make a great contrast to the rather staid Duchy-dwellers. Soroush is an intelligent, driven man with a history of personal tragedy – and his clashes with Nikandr are rooted in what both see as being on the right side of their ideals. In any event, Soroush’s energy courses through the narrative, and galvanise it on the occasions when it lulls a little.

The Al-Aqim from the previous book serve as something like antagonists.Two of the three individuals who shattered the world centuries ago, they’re now in search of the pieces of an artefact which allowed the, to do so. Mullaqad is the more energised, the more direct, with a sort of bluff honesty mixed with a disturbing knack for cruelty when masked as necessity. Sariya, on the other hand, weaves her way between the words on the page, her presence felt in influence, rather than seen, her words coming from the mouths of others. Quite what they’re looking for their artefact for is obscured, at least as the text begins – but they’re certainly willing to throw everything they have into doing so, and doing some terrible things to make sure that they succeed.

The plot, much like the Russian saga’s it seems to take a tradition from, is dense. Thick with names, and with plots and counterplots. There’s a lot of introspection here, a lot of people trying to decide what to do, and rather less of them actually doing it. The pacing for the first two thirds feels a little slow as a consequence – but it certainly picks up in the back third, and the conclusion is fast-paced, compelling, and carries with it all the emotional investment for which the slower portions laid the groundwork. It’s not a quick read, but it is one which will make you think, and feel, and ask questions.

On that basis, it’s a decent read; I’d say you’d have to come at it after reading the first book in order for it to really make sense, and if you do so, be aware that it’s laying out threads for the concluding volume to pick up and run with.  It’s heavy going at times, but is also a good read, and will replay your investment in the series.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories - Ken Liu

Paper Menagerie is a collection of short fiction by Ken Liu, whose debut novel, Grace of Kings, we reviewed (rather glowingly) last year. It’s a collection which covers a lot of ground – from identity to the nature of history, from murder investigations to the American West. It looks at the best, and worst of humanity, placing big ideas into everyday contexts. In short, it’s an impressive collection.

The worlds presented in this collection are diverse in theme and in concept. There’s the seemingly-near-future of The Regular, where lawkeepers are fitted with a device that keeps their emotions…well, regular, and where ocular implants allow for organic data storage. There’s accents of chrome and desperation. Contrast this with the All the Flavors, where a prospector in Idaho of the 1800;s tells some of the stories of folk hero Guan Yu to a young girl. This story has the red dirt of the west underfoot, in contrast to the jade hills of Guan Yu’s legend. Or consider The Literomancer, which immerses the reader in the near contemporary period of 1960’s Taiwan – but uses the setting as a springboard for discussion of cultural viewpoints, integration, and the human cost of security. And then there’s State Change, a world where everyone’s essence is tied to a physical object – be it a pack of cigarettes, a can of coffee, or an ice cube. The sheer range here is dazzling, and the environment for each story has clearly been lovingly, vividly crafted. 

A similar comment can be made about the characters. There’s the closed off, lonely, chilly protagonist of State Change, a gentle contrast to the regretful frustrated lead in The Paper Menagerie. Both are looking to be – or have become – something toher than what they are, and are dealing with their identity, and the way in which it shifts. Then there’s the wild innocence of the child lead in All the Flavors, and the stoic pride of the sole survivor of a nation in Mono No Aware. What they all have in common is the way in which they feel human. You can empathise with the accounts, laugh with them, cry with them, love with them – or in some cases, feel your heart torn from its moorings by their actions. There are, not exactly heroes and villains here – but nuanced, flawed, sometimes horrific, sometimes wonderful people. The author manages to bring them to us across time and space, through cultural divides and fusions, and make them feel like fully rounded individuals. 

The plots across the stories obviously vary considerably, from a documentary around the possibilities of time travel, to the exploration of wartime atrocities, or part of the life of a legal expert representing peasantry in the 1740’s. There’s so much versatility on show here, that there’s likely to be something you’ll enjoy. The stories do (largely, at least) share some common themes – there’s issues around identity, and humanity. There’s discussions of what separates and combines cultures and peoples, how we construct our ideas of ourselves. And there’s an unflinching inspection of these ideas through a human lens, through the lovingly crafted characters above. This examination of people, what it means to be people, and how we represent ourselves in our worlds, flows through the narrative stitching of the collection, and makes it an absolute pleasure to read.

Is it worth reading? Absolutely. Ken Liu has put together something special here – using complex, believable characters in marvellously crafted worlds to explore not only their own stories, but to approach big questions about culture, identity, and humanity. With that in mind, I’d say that it is very much worth your time, and is thoroughly recommended.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Wall of Storms - Ken Liu

Wall of Storms is the second in the Dandelion Dynasty series from Ken Liu. I quite enjoyed the first in the series when I picked it up last year, and Liu has recently put out a top-flight short story collection as well.

Wall of Storms opens in a world somewhat changed from that of Grace of Kings. One of our protagonists is now Emperor of the archipelago of Dara, and so we spend a bit more time looking over the political side of things and, at least initially, a little less in epic battles. Part of those politics, though, is changing Dara. The Emperor is in favour of a meritocracy, instituting an examinations system which will, in theory, allow the rise of a meritocracy. There’s a tension and debate around what exactly defines merit though, and that helps shape some of the discussions in the text. Alongside this another discussion is running about gender within the Empire – with the rise of women into key positions, and efforts to propagate this change further down in the institutional hierarchy.  The Empire is still in a state of flux – now that it has been spun into being, it’s trying to work out what exactly it is. These discussions around worth, the role of gender and – as an overarching theme – the cost and benefit of institutional government compared to one tied together by personal ties of loyalty – are intriguing, and the characters which one finds on all sides of the arguments are given the room to make their points plausibly and in interesting ways.

But it’s not all exciting philosophical debates – we’re also shown new parts of the world, and Liu has an eye for the intimate and the grand which make his locales feel like a lot more than words on a page. From the towering cyclones of the aforementioned Wall of Storms, to the plants flowering on the banks of a dormant volcano, we’re shown Dara in splashes of living colour. It’s interesting to note how circumscribed the world of Dara really is – as the story gets rolling, we’re shown that the way things are is, firstly, not the way it has always been, but part of a political and social process – and that there may be other things in heaven and earth than the Empire of Dara can dream of.

The characters – well, the cast is, as it was in the first novel, sprawling. There’s a lot of old favourites here, but they’re running alongside new characters. The ever enjoyable Kuni Garu is back, settling into his role as an incisive Emperor. There’s some screen time for some of his companions from the previous text as well. Jia and Risana are back as Kuni’s wives – both with children of their own, and both trying to shape those children, and in some instances the Empire around them, to reflect what they think is best for their people. Jia in particular gets time on the page – a woman determined to do what she thinks is right, and also prepared to do some fairly despicable things in order to make that happen.  She’s contrasted, in a sense, with Gin Mazoti, now Marshal of Dara – a hard-hitting general with a talent for war, an ironclad sense of honour – though she doesn’t have much in the way of talent for politics. Still, her clashes with Jia make for compelling reading, as both are determined to do what they think is best – they’re just in disagreement over what that would be.

There’s a fair bit to smile about in this book, but it does approach matters with a less comedic tone than its predecessor. This is perhaps seen best in the rise of the Imperial children. They all have their parts to play – and the novel spanning several years allows the reader to see the children grow up, to see them moulded by the pressures that they, their family and their Empire are under. It feels like women have a bit more room to grow in this sequel – and the Emperor’s daughters are a good example. Watching Thera, for example, shift from an impulsive, intelligent child into a collected, focused teenager is a complex delight. That she has a serious amount of narrative agency, and struggles to define herself to, well, herself, keeps it interesting. She’s joined by a scholar, a survivor of the Imperial examinations, having come from a less than privileged background – watching the two work through matters of class and gender, filling their previous certainties with doubt – ell, the dialogue is smart, punchy and well written, but the relationship between the characters, the burgeoning warmth, the moments of coolness, the misunderstandings and understandings – they make the relationship feel real.

Those two are by no means the only interesting members of the cast – the antagonists are given plenty of room to establish themselves as well. To keep things spoiler-free, those we see can be utterly appalling, but there’s a context which makes them possible to empathise with, and I’m hoping we’ll see more of them in future.

The plot is a jigsaw, filled with smaller sub stories. It has a rhythm to it, a lyricism. There’s parts which are perhaps gentler, where the fate of nations is decided by a word, or by force (or otherwise) of personality. There’s also moments of tension, of raw peril, of betrayal – and the sweeping strokes of burgeoning warfare. Like a lava flow, the plot begins slowly, carefully, but builds momentum, and by the close it’s unstoppable, and the world of Dara is changing dramatically.

In the end, this is a book to pick up if you enjoyed The Grace of Kings. Coming to it without that context, it works, but you’re missing out. Wall of Storms though is a worthy sequel – a detailed world, interesting characters with real depth, and a plot with something of both truth and consequences. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Vor Game - Lois McMaster Bujold

I’m working my way through Lois McMaster Bujold’s ‘Vorkosigan’ saga at the moment, not for the first time. Next on the list was The Vor Game, an adventure story mixed up with some sci-fi politics, and cleverly crafted interpersonal drama.

The first part of the novel takes place in an isolated training camp on Barrayar. Young Miles Vorkosigan is now coming to the end of his time at the military academy he tried so hard to join in the previous book. He’s done well, of course, as we might expect from a man who is also a pocket dynamo. But alongside his ingenuity, passion and willingness to do what needs to be done, Miles has something of a distrust for authority which isn’t his own – he’s not especially obedient, and takes a rather flexible ends-justify-the-means approach to orders.

In order to try and inculcate a little more discipline into their newest officer, the powers that be decide to send Miles to Kyril Island, or “Camp Permafrost”. Part of the year it’s used to train new recruits in the infantry, in arctic conditions. The rest of the year, still an icy hellscape, it’s populated by a thin herd of technicians, wastrels, political embarrassments, and, now, Miles Vorkosigan.

Camp Permafrost is grimly horrifying to read about. It sits on the far end of nowhere, an isolated space surrounded by a hostile environment. There’s a sense of claustrophobia, and an atmosphere with the febrile air of cabin fever about it. This is where careers go to die, men left writing reports no-one will read whilst outside a storm batters at the walls. Bujold evokes a sense of tension, and of hopelessness rather well – and gives us a Miles determined to endure.

The larger part of the book, though, turns around the Hegen Hub. This nexus of jump points is a natural meeting place of empires. We don’t see much of the surrounding areas, but the infrastructure of the hub, and the stations at wormhole entry and exit points, provides a sense of grandiose emptiness which stands in contrast to the claustrophobia of Kyril Island.  There’s a fair bit of time spent on ships as well, from fast couriers up through dreadnaughts – and the militaristic shine on display here and there helps keep these close environments feeling real.

In this, they are ably assisted by the characters, which has always been an area in which Bujold shines. Mile’s sense of energy, a need to run at things which don’t go his way until they’re resolved, leaks out of the page and into the reader rather quickly. Miles is on fine form here – fast talking, witty, and if occasionally out of his depth, also prone to a degree of emotional introspection which whirls him away from caricature. His need to prove himself, which came up in the previous novel, is re-emphasised here and gets him into more than one serious scrape. His anti-authoritarian streak is on display as well, along with an unfortunate need to one-up his opposition. Miles is ferociously clever, terribly driven, and very tenacious – but also prone to overestimating himself, underestimating his adversaries, or letting the situation escalate (or, in some cases, encouraging it to do so).
Miles is joined by a broad supporting cast for this outing; the most obvious of whom is Gregor, sometime boyhood friend, and now the Emperor of Barryar. Gregor is lugubrious, cautious, and shockingly incisive – a young man determined to shape something for himself alongside his role as Emperor, and also very aware of the weight and worth of his chains of duty. Gregor works as a great foil to Miles – perhaps more perceptive, less impulsive, and a social equal with an authority that even Vorkosigan isn’t willing to ignore.

On the other side there’s a range of antagonists – from Mile’s superior at Kyril Island, who doesn’t believe that the little Vor lord is showing the proper respect, to the leader of another mercenary fleet – a woman with a mind for schemes and mental flexibility that make her a rival for Miles. The latter is intriguingly, competently poisonous – a mirror of Miles, if he lacked his defining sense of duty.

The plot – well, it begins with the tale of Miles getting off of Kyril Island. This part is a bit of a slow burn, but it’s well drawn stuff – there’s some brilliant moments of situational comedy, pitched alongside high stakes, high tension standoffs. Things escalate quickly once in the Hub, with a series of crosses, double crosses, and triple crosses leaving the question of who is on which side rather…vague, for a while. There’s some cracking space action scenes as well, in between some genuinely brilliant dialogue. Battles, politics and personal development – this is a book which manages to keep everything in balance, and makes a great page-turner overall. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Ethan Of Athos - Lois McMaster Bujold

Ethan of Athos is a stand alone novel set in Lois McMaster Bujold’s ‘Vorkosigan’ universe. That said, none of the Vorkosigan clan feature. Rather, the focus is on the titular Ethan, a Doctor sent out from the planet of Athos in search of new genetic material.

Athos is the backdrop to much of the novel. Its society is explored in some depth in the opening chapters of the text, and the social mores inculcated in Ethan by his society are a key factor in much of the rest. Athos, you see, is a world first populated after artificial gestation has become practical. This has allowed some rather odd societies to construct themselves – including Athos, a world at the far, far end of the back-end of nowhere, aggressively reclusive and populated only by men. Athos is a society designed to order-one where ‘Social Duty Credits’, acquired from volunteer work and the like, are used to determine a citizen’s right to, amongst other things have and raise child. Athos is a relatively tranquil place though, and the narrative takes pains to show us several instances of domesticity, and a society with a strong strand of family and trust running through it.

At the same time, this is a society with several flaws. On a practical level, they’re dependent on a supply of genetic material to keep increasing their population. On a social one, there is a pervasive fear of women – something brought in by the original settlers. There’s a dissonance here, at the root of Athos, a quiet sub-current in the text. The same families of men that care for and love their children, that work hard and with a pleasantly straightforward honesty – those same individuals are reduced to reflexive fear and horror at the very idea of women, and have embargoed the gender from visiting the world.

Isolated as Athos is, it still needs some trade, and has a slight connection with the universe outside their space. That tenuous connection is Kline station, the other core location for the novel. Kline is a sealed environment, a thronging, claustrophobic metropolis, self sustaining, surrounded by the infinite vacuum of space. In comparison to Athos it seems to thrum with nervous energy, and has a cosmopolitan nature perhaps unfamiliar to the inhabitants of Athos. It’s a Casablanca for the stars, where different political and social systems clash, merge and generate an interesting synthesis. But Kline has issues as well – for example, it has an eco-police, a force with seemingly sweeping powers, whose role is to preserve the environment of Kline, to enable it to continue to function; from monitoring protein vats to arresting individuals suspected to have communicable diseases, they’re everywhere. Kline isn’t a paradise, it’s just somewhere different, with different priorities to, for example, backwater Athos.

To the credit of the text, it doesn’t present either of these options as necessarily better than the other – they simply exist as they are, and each is given ample room to display both virtues and vices.
In a similar vein, so is Ethan, the protagonist, a doctor from Athos. He’s pitched out into the wider universe in search of new genetic materials, to allow Athos to continue to grow. A man in a high-flying career, with a sense of determination around seeking to create a family, Ethan is calm, focused, and shockingly unprepared for the wider universe. The text lets the reader see Ethan’s inner monologue – and in most respects, he’s a good man, drawn into events he may not be ready for. But it also allows exploration of his own casual prejudices, against women, and as regards the more cosmopolitan society of Kline, where he ends up in search of his materials. There’s an unflinching honesty to it which makes for a rather enjoyable read – especially combined with the other aspects of the gentle Ethan’s character.

Ethan is counterbalanced by the acerbic, disturbingly competent, and somewhat fiery mercenary, Elli Quinn. Quinn has turned up in other Vorkosigan books as a supporting character – but given her own outing, proves thoroughly enjoyable. She’s quick on the uptake, and her blunt, no-nonsense physicality works as a foil to Ethan’s more abstract approach. Their interactions with each other explore the edges of their own prejudices – Ethan’s against, well, women, and Quinn’s own against what she feels Ethan is – a zealot, a man with no military training, family focused, physicallyweaker and hence with less value. Both have their views challenged by the other, and if neither entirely comes around, their exploration of their differences, and the gradual amalgamation of their views, makes for interesting reading.

The plot, surprisingly enough, is something of a spy thriller. Ethan quickly makes some enemies, not entirely knowing why, and spends much of the text either on the run, or trying to work out why quite so many people want to kill him. I won’t spoilt it, but suffice to say that the answer to that question is one which may change Ethan, Athos, and perhaps the universe at large. In the meantime, the action is fast-paced, and the prose makes up a tense and snappy read. There’s some emotional depth on display as well, to counterbalance all of the flash – the novel hangs together rather well.

Is it worth reading? It’s awkward in places, and some of the social commentary is a bit clunky, but it’s a novel filled with interesting ideas, broadly well put, embedded into a page-turning plot. So if you’re in the mood for something that mixes big ideas with a narrative punch, this may be one for you.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Red Sister - Mark Lawrence

Red Sister is the first in a new fantasy trilogy from Mark Lawrence. I’ve been a fan of Mark’s work for quite a while, so I must admit that I went into the new book with high expectations, and a little trepidation. Could the new book, the new world, the new characters – could they excite, horrify, depress and elate,  could they explore the human condition as well as his preceding works? Just to get it out of the way, the answer was an emphatic yes. This is a book very distinct from everything that came before; what it has in common though is a narrative that pulls no punches, and characters that are beautifully, brokenly, repellently, cleverly human.

Anyway, enough with the panegyric. On to the detail. I’m aiming to keep this spoiler-free, but proceed at your own risk.

The world of Red Sister – well, it’s two worlds really. Perhaps three. The first, the one on which we spend most of our time, is a nunnery. It’s almost a closed system, a school of values, social and martial, locked away on an isolated plateau, barely accessible. But inside the confines of that nunnery, there are wonders. Girls are brought here to learn, and to become something other than they are. There are classes on spirituality, of course, but there are also classes on poisons. On bladework. On ways to tweak the structure of the universe in a manner not always indistinguishable from magic. The world of the nunnery is somewhat claustrophobic – the same girls, the same classes, the same faces, day after d ay in somewhat splendid isolation. But it also exists to be transformative, to give opportunities, and to prepare a generation of children to be greater than they might otherwise have been.

In any event, the institutional claustrophobia is pitch perfect; the bells that toll out stretches of life are an example; from changing lessons to fires, everything is marked, everything is regular, even the irregular constrained within the system. That said, the air crackles with intensity within those bounds – the reader can see something  generations old, shaping people like hothouse flowers, in every  opened book, every prank with digestively explosive toxins, every hand=to-hand bout. The nunnery is a place, but also a system, and the reality and effectiveness of that system is visible in the characters.  The obdurate walls, the cracked desks, the smiling or spiteful teachers – they all come together to make this an institution which pervades the page, and will seep off of it into your spirit, if you let it.

The nunnery, of course, is just a smaller part of a wider spectrum. This is a world which, on its face, echoes the medieval. There’s an Emperor, there are sword-wielding goons. There are sad villages, out in the depths of nowhere, where people have to make hard choices whilst scrabbling to get by. But there’s hints, to some degree, of something more. We see much of this from the corner of the narrative eye – in discussions between characters, in things which are implied in the unsaid word. The broader world lives between belts of encircling ice – as much constrained in the larger form as the nunnery in the smaller. But there is politics out there, and murder, and other, stranger things. Unlike the Broken Empire, this is not a world defined by its ghosts – it has more vitality than that, a sense of hopefulness, a sense of the need for change, at least some of the time. This wider world doesn’t impinge too thoroughly onto the concerns of the nunnery too often, but when it does, the stakes are high. This is a world where, with sufficient forward planning, small levers can still change the course of events.

Then there’s the magic. I won’t get into details with that one, but there is definitely a sense of another reality there. A feeling of something distinctly Other. It’s a space which can only be accessed by a few, a space where danger sits alongside the cost that has to be paid for using energy to change the world a little out of true. This strangeness, this otherness, evokes a sense of caution, and of the need for exploration. Alongside the hints of an ages old history littering the world, the magic is a strange and wonderful thing; a sense of mingled wonder and terror is brought to bear, either in spite of or due to the fact that what the magic can do is fascinating and appalling in equal measure. In any event, the narrative brings it to life, this other realm of hope and danger, just as much as the sprawling band of life around the world, and as much as the intense energy and interpersonal intrigue of the nunnery.
This is a world which feels real, and one which grabbed hold and didn’t let go. It has hints of strangeness, touches of familiarity, and above all, a vivid sense of place.

Of course, the tapestry of a world isn’t terribly useful if you don’t have characters to put upon it. Fortunately, here the narrative absolutely delivers. There’s a broader plot circling throughout, and more on that later, but I’d be prepared to argue that at core, this is a book about an individual, and their character. Our protagonist, Nona is drawn into the hands of the nunnery, as a child, mortal clay to be shaped. But what is obvious from her first introduction is a sense of will, an obduracy and a fierceness which make her, if not different from her peers, certainly distinct. Each has their own strengths – the girl who can touch the fringes of seemingly magical otherness, the one with an eye for politics and the main chance, the one who is actually a people person – but our protagonist is none of these. She is a fighter.

That’s a simple word for a complex mentality, explored throughout the text. Nona fights, not for grand, sprawling reasons, but for personal ones. She fights to protect friends. She fights to settle grudges. She fights for herself. There’s a core there of frustration, of rage, of a need to do the necessary, and to enjoy it, in some ways. Nona can, at times, be the monster she wills herself to be. And it’s an impressively frightening one. But behind it all, is a fragility, a sense of fear, of misunderstanding. Nona is not good with people. She relates, if not badly, then slightly askew. Her loyalty to her friends is undeniable, a rock of solid truth running through her – an urge to repay trust and loyalty tenfold. Nona is a lost girl, not in being eternally young, but carrying the tragedies of childhood and sometimes struggle to break away from them. She is a complex creature of fear, anger and loyalty. She could, in other contexts, be the perfect weapon, the henchwoman – here, she shines, a girl slowly moving to adulthood, trying top define herself and fight against her demons, emotional and physical. In this respect, we see Nona entire. There is unvarnished truth sat across the pages, as we delve into the raw depths of Nona’s psyche. There’s an exposure here, a hurt, a vulnerability wrapped up in anger, which leaps out of the text, takes you by the throat, and won’t let go. But as Nona searches for the answer to the question of who she is, and what she wants, the reader cannot help but be drawn along as well, in sympathy, tragedy and victory. If Nona is damaged, sometimes wrong, and often confused in herself and others – she is very real.

In becoming herself, she is ably assisted by a sprawling cast of characters. Some get more time than others, of course, but they feel like an ensemble. There are Nona’s sometimes-friends and occasional enemies in her classes at the Nunnery, ranging from the seemingly perfectly aristocratic to the apparently brutal. Each sparkles on the page, regardless, their relationships with each other given room to grow. We see them through Nona’s rather perceptive eyes, and they grow up alongside her – small rivalries ending or expanding into other directions, friendships forming and mutating over time. There are adults here as well – largely the teachers at the monastery, a motley bunch, easily distinguishable – from the cheery to the starkly unpleasant, but all with an energy and focus, a sense of humanity which kept them perfectly plausibly on the page.  In the end though, this is Nona’s story – and watching her learn and grow, shaping herself and those around her, watching her core personality emerge and stand against the vagaries of the world – it all rings true.

The plot – I shan’t spoil. In broad strokes though, we’re looking at Nona’s journey through the Nunnery. Her training, her understanding of who she is, and exactly which powers she holds. That’s the closer end of the story, if you like, following Nona as she becomes herself. As part of that process, has a need for loyalty, and that loyalty creates problems, and engenders es powerful enemies. Part of the story is in her surviving their attentions, and seeking to do more than survive. There’s also a broader story at work, the shifting politics of courts and martial geographies, the intrigues of those around Nona, looking to use her in some way or another. There are layers to the narrative, to what drives the reader to keep turning the page – each has its hooks, and they all bind very effectively. If one edge of the story is off the stage, another will be walking on, keeping your heart in your mouth, light in your eyes – and keeping you turning at least one more page. It certainly did for me, at any rate – I picked it up late one afternoon, and couldn’t go to sleep until I was done, at some troubling hour of the next morning.

Is it worth reading? Very much so. This isn’t the Broken Empire, in either of its incarnations. It’s something new. But if the narrative, the world, the characters – if they are all different, then the core strengths are the same. This is an intriguing world, with a plot that will suck you in, and characters who absolutely will not let you go. If you’re coming to Red Sister from Jorg or Jalan – well, Nona is neither of them, but she is as fascinating in her own world as they were in theirs. If you’re coming to the book without reading Lawrence’s other tales – this will make a fine introduction. So yes, this one is very much worth reading.