Thursday, March 31, 2016

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

It’s time for another in our ongoing review series of K.J. Parker’s serial novel, Two of Swords. We’re up to part fourteen now. It follows on directly from part thirteen, which ended somewhat painfully for its protagonist, after an unpleasant and swift altercation with a man on a horse, with a bow. Also arrows.

In this section, we’re immediately swept up into the life of the aforesaid horseman. He’s a nice sort of lad really, pulled into a war out of cultural necessity, rather than any sort of boiling thirst for blood. It helps that he spends a fair amount of time here running away from people who’d quite like to give him a severe case of iron poisoning. Still, there’s a certain thoughtfulness in the text here which keeps it interesting. He’s a warrior, of sorts, but it feels like he’d rather be a carpenter. His initial companions are sullen, and range from the barely competent to the reasonably capable; Parker shows off a nice bit of emotional range here, with a sort of nihilistic pragmatism pervading the group. There’s a sense of low-burning grudges being brought back to flame by the high pressure situation, and the slowly rising tension is carefully, brutally portrayed.

Later, we get a more in-depth look at the Lodge, at least from our protagonist’s view. This lets us explore his views on faith; it also shows us the power of incremental change, as he transitions away from his original role, and becomes something that is, if not better, at least different. There’s some pleasantly obfuscated conversations – as ever with Parker, the dialogue scintillates, layering meaning between every word. The reader is shown a man who is given an opportunity to become something else – as well as the conflicts he runs into whilst trying to work out what, exactly, that is.

It’s great to see some more of individuals from outside of the two warring Empires. There are hints at different traditions, at a sort of clan structure, and a rich culture with a penchant for facial marking. We also get some more detail on the Lodge – particularly around the way their ideology is structured, what their broad goals may be, and why they think those goals are important. Of course, being Parker, there’s a reasonable chance that all of those things are, at best, half truths. Still, it’s an expansion of their mythology, something we’ve been interested in all the way up until now, and it makes for a strangely attractive theology. As our protagonist works through his understanding, it lets the reader examine their own faiths, preconceptions and cultural blindspots. It’s an intriguingly subtle exploration, which makes for a fascinating read.

From a plot perspective – well, no spoilers. There’s a large amount of journeying hither and yon, and this lets us see what sort of progress the seemingly eternal war is making. The pacing feels almost languid for much of the time, focused on the character journey, rather than external events.

That said, there’s a couple of serious revelations here, hammer blows at expectations and the established narrative. By the close of this part of the text, perhaps more than any other, I wasn’t sure where things were going next.

Is it worth reading? Well, I think you’d struggle with this as a standalone piece, though it might work that way, just from the compelling nature of Parker’s prose. But if you’ve already invested in the series, then yes – this one is a great character piece, and it has some serious game changers for the wider world floating around in its narrative too. Well worth picking up.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Sharp Ends - Joe Abercrombie

Sharp Ends is a collection of short stories by Joe Abercrombie, set in the world of his ‘First Law’ series. Some of the stories contained within have been published in other collections before, but some are entirely original to this collection. They’ve all got Abercrombie’s trademark wit and smart, tight plotting, though. 

There’s a wide variety of characters, time periods and geography on display here.  There’s the gutters of Sipani. The mud and grey skies of the broken North.  The glory and flames of Dagoska, a city falling under siege. The bloody, dry dust of the Near Country. Each story has its situation in Abercrombie’s world, and evokes a masterful sense of place.  The decadent urbanity of a royal visit to a brothel is just as vivid and fully realised as the stark outlines of a Northern hold. Each leaps off the page, immerses the reader in its immediacy, seizes them by the throat and takes their attention, then cuts them with some beautifully tight descriptive prose. Abercrombie’s always been great at evoking an atmosphere, and here he does his customary excellent job – Sipani seethes with industry, a mound of thousands of workers, all ripping each other off. The north remains a quieter place, perhaps not bloodier, but more straightforward with it – and you can almost taste the tang of gore mixing with fresh snow on a chill wind.  What I’m saying here is that each of these places is brought to life – messily, dirtily, tenement blocks, drug dens and all; and that they feel wonderfully, terribly real. 

In many cases, we’ve seen the places before. Several of the stories take place in and around the environs of Abercrombie’s other First Law works. The same is true of the characters – many of them will be familiar to long time First Law readers, their parts in the stories here acting as prologue or coda to those exploits. If you’re coming to this collection fresh, then the stories will still work, of course – for example the dashing, arrogant swordsman Glokta is a masterpiece of sneering, arrogant deadliness, and Shy South is entirely plausible as an exhausted and unlucky outlaw. But if you’re coming to the collection with some First Law under your belt already, these views into the past and future of familiar characters adds a whole new richly intriguing layer to the narrative. 

That said, there are some great new additions to the cast. Shevedieh and Javre are a delightful thief-warrior duo, reminiscent of Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Grey Mouser. They have several tales interspersed within the volume, a sort of central core within the dispersed narrative arcs. They’re also a lot of fun to read. Shev is a forward planner, anxious, prone to expecting the worst, whilst Javre bowls ahead into trouble, and usually pummels it into abject submission. I’d like to see more of Javre, but we get a complex portrayal of Shev, a woman who has dragged herself out of dire circumstances, and then crafted new ones to shape what she is, and what she wants to become. The relationship between the two is at once convulsively funny, and an emotional, genuine link between two individuals who need each other.  It’s a beautiful, honest read, and whilst their banter raised more than a chuckle, it also led into questions of friendship, loyalty, and humanity. 

Mind you, Abercrombie has never been afraid to explore the human condition.  There’s a lot of that on display here, examining the surprising vulnerability of villains, and the smirking self-congratulation of what could, in a good light, be labelled heroes. The key though, is that they all feel fully formed, with a sort of rough veracity that makes the reader empathise with and understand the person on the page – indeed ,makes the person on the page a person.  Again, some of the relationships in play here have another layer if you’ve seen those characters in other First Law works – but they work within their individual narratives here, without further adornment. 
The plots – well, they’re all over the place, in terms of subject. There’s a retelling of one of the events from Red Country, playing on the unreliability of the narrator and the importance of external pressures (as an aside, this was a great piece, but perhaps the only one in the collection I felt only worked because I’d read another of Abercrombie’s works, which it references heavily). 

Then there’s a western, in the form of ‘Some Desperado’, Shy South desperately evading pursuit. A more character focused piece dealing with Bethod, putative unifier of the North, trying to deal with Logen, his recalcitrant champion. A young Glokta and West, duelling before the arrival of a Ghurkish  attack that changes everything. Shev and Javre falling into, and out of, trouble, usually no worse than they went in, but occasionally covered in someone else’s blood. Abercrombie’s plots are, to be blunt, pitch perfect – the tension wound tight when required, released in the byplay between characters, a dialogue at once profane and marvellously human, or in a terrible blend of steel and blood. Each, though, is worth reading. I tore through the text, could barely put it down, and would strongly commend that you do the same.

Is it worth reading? As you may have gathered – yes, absolutely. Abercrombie shows off serious range here, crafting a detailed world with a diverse series of characters, ensconced in plots that kept me turning pages until well into the night.  If you haven’t read any of his other First Law books, this can work as an introduction – though I’d suggest reading the others first. If you’re already across this part of Abercrombie’s oeuvre, then this is a rich tapestry of tales, the depths of which you owe it to yourself to fall into. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Those Above - Daniel Polansky

Those Above is the start of a new fantasy series by Daniel Polansky, who has made waves with his Low Town series – and more recently his The Builders novella.

In a world ruled by Those Above, a four-fingered species nominally superior to base humanity in every way, humanity suffers under the velvet glove of oppression. We see the world through four sets of eyes, two largely without the influence of Those Above, and two with it’s ambit, to varying degrees. Those on the outside are a general on the front of a far flung war, with swords, blood and atrocity near constant companions, and a scheming aristocrat at the heart of that general’s republic, looking to turn the political agenda to her own ends. Within the city of Those Above, we have a young street rat, with a penchant for violence and a flame of potential, and a Seneshal for one of the mysterious Above, within the very core of their power, but still not one of them.

There’s a lot of worldbuilding that goes on here; Polansky manages to put the broad strokes out efficiently and within a wrapper of tight, elegant prose. There’s the classically-inspired Republic, sitting at the edges of the influence of Those Above. Trekking through its capital, the mood evoked is that of the heyday of Rome. Senators sit within marble halls, debating the necessity of war, whilst passing bribes from hand to hand. Servants live in the houses of their betters, bodyguards, cooks, maids, all circling the whims of an aristocratic potentate. It’s a city, and a society, seething with inequality, but portrayed with an unmatched vitality. The contrast of the city with the outer borders of the republic is wonderfully done – moving from the claustrophobic alleyways  and  raucous markets to the deadly silence of the Marches, broken only by the cacophonous charge of horse, or the ring of steel. As a society it feels plausible, and sits within the wider fabric of the world that the author is creating.

Alongside this world, however, strange but familiar, sits The Roost, home of Those Above. Divided into social caste by ‘rungs’, their city bored into and above a mountaintop is a study in soaring paradise, and in the depths of despair. One of our viewpoints sits at the top of the system, well fed, acting with a degree of skill, doing a task that they believe matters, certain of the security and necessity of the structure they live within. This gives us eyes on Those Above, their duels, their occasional penchant for bloodshed, intrigue with machinery, and broad disdain for humanity, always eclipsed for a people with enormous lifespans tied to equally spectacular strength and agility.  Polansky shows us a people not quite in stasis, but sustained by their own arrogance, so sure of themselves that discovering a flaw in their superiority could crack their society wide open.

And then there’s the bottom rung, a world in miniature, of tenement slums and cheap wine. Our voice there begins as nothing much, an idler, given an opportunity to rise. But he lets us in on the broken hopelessness of people living in eternal servitude, the dispossessed,  the helpless, and the desperate, tied up with the beasts and horrors that kind fo desperation creates. It’s a stark contrast to the other end of The Roost, and it’s to Polansky’s credit that both seem entirely real – though the lowest rung, of broken souls and furious body, carries the edge in  exuding raw emotion.

The characters – well, as I said above, we move between four viewpoints, one in each geography – though they do occasionally manage to intersect, however briefly.  Watching the aristocrat at the centre of a web of politics in the Republic is an absolute pleasure. There’s a Machiavellian ruthlessness on display which carries a certain charm. She’s highly intelligent, goals-oriented, driven – and with a mind like a steel trap. Every turn of the page is a revelation or at the very least, deserving of a wry chuckle.  Polansky manages to give us a terrifying and intriguing view into this personality, and adds a lovely soupcon of humanity as well.

By contrast, Bas, the general, seems purposely emotionless. He’s a man living inside a reputation, a cold force stalking across the battlefield. He seems separated from the men he commands, a curt, distant figure, emotionally scarred by the last futile struggle against Those Above, but drawn to their minimalist superiority and aesthetic of restrained violence. As a general, he feels like a man sat in a spiralling gyre of control, desperate to maintain it whilst overseeing its dissolution.  Bas has his revelatory moments in the text, but they feel subtle, undercurrents in a life borne on the back of the physical. Still, I look forward to spending more time in his company.

Then there’s our warren rat. Here the feelings of crushed despair, of having nowhere to go and nothing to do, are captured perfectly. Polansky shows us a purposeless life, and then throws out a lifeline of purpose. We can watch our man drag himself along it, into an order of gangs and dissidents, and feel a little of his own slowly burgeoning sense of self-worth. That self-worth never undercuts the validity of his hatreds, of the brutality of his actions, and the complex node of emotions, the living lust and hate and love that informs his relationship with Those Above, more a social than a personal force. This is a study of a man climbing a hierarchy, discovering himself and trying to define himself, whilst raging against the constraints of an external force. It’s tautly, viciously, wonderfully written.

The seneschal, by contrast, lives in a quieter world, one of elaborate dinners and inappropriate lovers. I was reminded of an Austen heroine, caught up in her own importance, but self-aware enough to be deprecating about it. As a window into Those Above, she’s priceless – but I wanted to see more of the character, rather than let her be defined by those around here. There’s a little of this at the end, as she starts trying to decide what she wants, who she is – but it felt like there was more, under the surface – hopefully we’ll see it in following books.

The plot – well, as it skips between viewpoints, the overarching theme seems to be societies in conflict. The Republic subdues its neighbours, with a watchful eye cast toward Those Above. They watch the Republic, determining whether they have to intervene in the squabbles of their lesser – or whether it would be simpler to go back to the party. And then there’s the struggle of class, the lower rung of the Roost struggling under the negligent hands of Those Above, the upper collaborating in the process. There’s a sense of a world rolling inevitably toward something larger, a difference somewhere between social  change and all-out war. Between the politics, the warfare, the street-level bare-knuckle, back-alley-shiv brawls and the ringing tones of Those Above – I couldn’t stop reading.

Is it worth trying out? Very much so. It has an intriguing world, which has now been well established, and some complex characters, filled with humanity – or, in some cases, with a chilling otherness which was terrifyingly effective. The story gripped me and never let go – and left me wanting more. So, thoroughly recommended.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Last Mortal Bond - Brian Staveley

The Last Mortal Bond is the third and final book in Brian Staveley’s Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne series. It brings fire, blood and iron to a series not short on any of the above. There’s some interesting discussions around morality and the nature of humanity, some truly explosive magic, and characters that are convincing in their humanity – or otherwise. 

There’s a lot of great stuff here. Adare, an Empress who had already shown her ability to make tough decisions in the previous book, is raked over the coals again in this one. She spends most of the book scheming, in one fashion or other, either to take or maintain control over the various factions of her riven Empire, whilst trying to deal with external threats as well. We’ve been watching Adare maturing into the role that she seized for herself, and her presence and ruthless skill at politics is a pleasure to watch. This hardening of character comes alongside a slow loss of certainty – she’s more cynical about acting as a prophet and religious icon, and seems to be searching for some certainty in her faith. Both of these shifts are drawn well, and she feels like a fully rounded, highly conflicted person – especially dealing with the fallout from her actions at the close of the second book. It’s to Staveley’s credit that we can feel these flaws and her struggles with them, a character given emotional resonance by conflict. 

We also spend quite a lot of time with Kaden; his time with the Shin monks having left him able to drop into and out of a state of emotionless logic, he starts off this book involved in politics and trying to protect those closest to him. But over the course of the text, he spends a lot of time exploring the idea of the gods – what makes someone a god, what their responsibilities are, or may be, and what the responsibility of a worshipper is. He also explores the role of the Csestrim, the predecessors of humanity, who lived without any emotion of their own. Kaden struggles with the question of whether life with emotions is actually better than a life without them, and struggles to define exactly what keeps him human. Kaden’s journey seems more internalised than Adare’s, more contemplative – though it’s paired with some action sequences that help shape the channel of his thoughts nicely. I’ve always enjoyed following Kaden’s travails, and this is no exception. 

There's also time with Gwenna, the leader of the survivors from Valyn’s wing of Kettral, the special forces of the Empire, experts in covert operations, launched into battle from the talons of giant birds. Gwenna was always acerbic and hard edged, with an eye for small unit tactics, a talent for sarcasm, and a firm focus on the mission. She’s an absolute joy to pick up as a character here, and really, I wanted to spend more time with her and her Wing. A leader who doubts her decisions, but is prepared to stand by them, willing to cut a few throats when necessary, with a curious kind of abrasive charm, and a strong attachment to her team – these all make Gwenna a thoroughly intriguing read, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that she kicks some serious arse over the course of the narrative. 

Speaking of which – the plot. I’ll try not to provide spoilers here. But I will say that the bright promise of the first two books in the series has been met by their conclusion. There’s betrayal and counter-betrayal here. Fraught misunderstandings leading to disasters and triumphs. There’s certainly no shortage of bloody battles, wound tight with tension and incredibly high stakes. The prose soars throughout, drawing the reader into the world, wrapping them in the conceits, deceits and convoluted scheming of the world, investing them in the lives of the characters, making us feel their trials – agonise over their defeats and celebrate their victories. The world, already crafted with care and precision over the previous two books, is epic in scope, filled with wonderful detail inside a sprawling and evocative landscape. 

Is this one worth reading? As ever, if you haven’t read the other instalments in the series, I’d suggest going back to the beginning. This might be rather impenetrable as a standalone. But as the closing segment of a trilogy, it’s a masterclass in how to do character-focused fantasy, whilst still maintaining a beautiful and complex world, and a gripping page-turner of a plot. As such, it’s thoroughly, entirely recommended. 

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Dead Man's Hand & Pieces Of Hate - Tim Lebbon

Dead Man’s Hand and Pieces of Hate are two linked novella by Tim Lebbon. They focus on Gabriel, a seemingly immortal individual, driven to seek and end a demon called Temple, whose presence in any society appears to presage calamity.

Dead Man’s Hand is set in the Deadwood of the 1800’s, filled with prospectors, ne’er-do-wells, outlaws, and the occasional shopkeeper. Lebbon manages to evoke the atmosphere he desires with pitch-perfect precision. There’s a dusty sense of tension, of coiled violence beneath a veneer of humanity. It’s a quietly lethal environment, surrounded by the raucous mutterings of the townsfolk. Alongside this unfamiliar familiarity, there’s an atmosphere, a creeping sense of dread intersecting with the scent of blood and iron already in the air. We’re given oddity in the person of Gabriel, but also the quiet, cheerfully eerie horror of Temple. His casual malevolence floods every page in which he’s mentioned, and the environment which he inhabits has traces of that all around. Deadwood is a place, granted, but it feels like one separated by liminal barriers. The throbbing heart of the town, lividly vital, is distinct from, but stands beside, the escalating horrors brought in by Temple and Gabriel. It is, however, extremely believable in both incarnations.

By contrast, Pieces of Hate gives us sea voyages in the 1600’s. Gabriel chases Temple once again, this time toward the fleet of notorious pirate Henry Morgan. There’s more environments here – a sea voyage toward an independent harbour, and another journey and time spent aboard Morgan’s flagship – but they carry the same aura. The sea is the strongest environmental factor, from digestive upsets to naval disasters, and it’s to the author’s credit that the reader can almost taste the mix of salt and rum on the wind. The ships creak and buckle alarmingly, and the world is, again, one teetering on the brooding edge of violence.

The core characters are the same in both texts – Temple, the remarkably lethal demon, who kills for some combination of pleasure and funds, and Gabriel, the scarred, brutal and brutalised man who seeks to bring about the demon’s end. They’re both skilfully crafted archetypes; Temple is almost the living spirit of casual wickedness, killing men for the joy of it, tearing into their souls and uncovering their deepest fears, before acting as a focal point of horror and destruction. There’s something compelling about his singlemindedness of purpose, something which makes it impossible to look away, even as he enacts some truly impressive acts of terror. That same quality of focus is possessed by his hunter. 

Gabriel lives for vengeance, tracking his foe through space and time, seeking any edge, any means to finally bring an end to their long standing chase. Gabriel is perhaps slightly more sympathetic, but also charmingly selfish, turning aside friendships and life aside from his own drive toward a satisfied revenge. It’s telling that between the two books, Temple remains effectively the same – but we see the beginnings of Gabriel, the origins of his scars and deadly hatred, and can see his character taking shape over the course of the narrative.

There’s some interesting side characters in both cases – usually those who interact with Gabriel. Though they may have cause to regret it, they bring an everyman view into the story, and help counteract the sheer strangeness of the protagonist and the villain. I would have liked to see more of those characters in Pieces of Hate, but what we get from them there is at least sufficient to help shape Gabriel’s character and narrative, so I shan’t complain too much!

Plot-wise, these are fairly straightforward pieces of narrative. Gabriel looks to hunt down Temple, coursing after him through the dry gulch of Deadwood and the soaring waves of the Caribbean. In both cases, however, they’re a chase. There’s rarely a dull moment, between the growing premonitions of disaster, and the constantly simmering possibility of violence. It’s certainly enough to keep you turning pages.

Are they worth reading? In both cases, I’d have to say yes. They’re stories which know what they want to say, razor-sharp on the topic of revenge and the costs thereof. There’s violence, pensive questions of morality, and a desire to understand what drives men – and their demons. Absolutely worth a look. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Stealer's War - Stephen Hunt

The Stealer's War is the third in Stephen Hunt’s “Far-Called” series.  It’s an adventure story, filled with high-stakes duels, roaring battlegrounds, betrayals, romances, and some serious twists.

The world of The Stealer's war, as with the remainder of the Far Called series, is part of a far, far larger one. The narrative’s focus is largely on the nation of Weyland and surrounding areas, but there’s a greater tapestry visible around the edges. Weyland is a country edging slowly into an industrial revolution, a hereditary aristocracy gradually being subsumed into an industrialist class. 

There’s some interesting room for conflict there, but Weyland is being torn apart by other means – divided between two feuding royals, one rather more heroic than the other, but somewhat less ably supplied. The former’s troops are now dispersed in guerrilla actions, an informal war from behind civilian cover. The author shows us the bloody reality of Weyland at war – hit and run strikes, ambushes, deaths of collaborators. Two books ago, it felt like the solid backdrop to a different story; it’s now wracked by fire, and feels far more fragile – but it’s a wonderfully realised country gradually falling into total war.

Then there’s Vandia. The superpower of the Far Called world, breaking armies of horses and crossbowmen using gunships and gauss guns, paying for their progress with a violent, competition-driven society which demands (and rewards) utter ruthlessness. We spent a good deal of time there in the previous volume – in this one, we’re following the “punishment expedition” sent to Weyland to nominally retrieve a lost Princess – and allow the settling of a few old scores out of sight. The Vandians are always a delight to read; they’re not, generally, bad people, but live within a system which causes and sustains untold misery. There’s discussion of how Vandian society remains in place, and we see a different, more human face to the Empire here – following a group of Legionnaires, along with a Weylander, as they drive forward on a rescue mission.  Vandians, it seems, are people too; they’re just distorted off the norm by the society they’ve built.
Rodal also features heavily. We’ve heard it mentioned in previous books, the mountain kingdom, the Walls of the World, and even met one of its famed pilots. Now we get a little more – clambering the claustrophobic air ducts inside the mountainous cities; sailing the river with supply barges. Breathing the thin air alongside the soaring, brutal winds. Hunt makes Rodal feel  distinct to everything we’ve seen so far – a more confined, but more pervasively spiritual world, with a martial bent.

And then, of course, there’s the nomads. Rodal’s oldest foe, breaking against the mountains. They’re familiar in a lot of ways, with a system of honour, a nomadic semi-democracy, and a tendency to settle disagreements with single combat. But there’s some lovely twists wrapped up in there – the way that the nomads are guided by a sorcerer who may be more than he seems. Or the witches that stare into the darkness of probability and guide the clans. There’s a complex society here, one it would be great to see more of. To be fair, that’s true of each of the conflicting groups the author has conjured. We largely see each society through the eyes of strangers to it, and pick up as much of the larger and smaller details as we can – there’s enough here for stories set within each of these places as well. Hunt’s world building has always been solid. After three books, he’s created a rich weave of cultures, traditions and societies which it’s a pleasure to be lost in.

As for the characters. Well, by this point in the story, we’re already familiar with most of them. There’s Pastor Carnehan, the priest-turned general, a master of total war, increasingly driven by his lust for vengeance. There’s his son Carter, who  spends most of the text in the company of the cryptic Sariel, a half-mad bard who drifts in and out of being more than he seems. Carter is defined by his love for another, Willow Landor, whose tribulations took up some of the preceding text. It’s nice to see him less conflicted here, given a clear goal and at least theoretically, the means to achieve it. Sariel, by contrast, gets a bit more time – now more coherent, he feels like a man trying to play a long game whilst also working out how the pieces move. It’s interesting to see his development from insanity to the semi-humanity of this text. He feels like a person developing a conscience – or at the least some compassion – and trying to decide whether to keep it.

Willow – well, Willow spends an irritating amount of time getting captured. She really needs to get better at escaping or fighting. Still, in between bouts of horror, she does reasonably well. There’s some room for character development here, as she deals with the strains of unwanted motherhood, and the pressures of being…well, continually abducted or otherwise tormented. There’s little of the girl from the first book left now, or even the more hardened ex-slave from the one before . She’s focused now, cool, and able to drive her agenda with a great deal of talent – when she’s not being chloroformed or held at gunpoint.

There’s more, of course. The villains are, in the main, appallingly unpleasant. I’m not entirely convinced that between them they have a thimbleful of redeeming qualities. Still. As in Othello, there’s a pleasure in watching an unredeemable villain take apart the scenery to achieve their goals. There’s some interesting conflict in perception as we watch some characters prepare to defend Rodal, and others prepare to invade it, one way or the other, all for the best of motivations. This more subtle conflict between points of view is subtly done, managing to keep us sympathetic to all sides of the equation, tearing our empathy between the different factions, who seem unable to exist together. Of course, every so often, we’re given some time with some proper black-hearts as well. Hunt manages to keep his plates spinning, all of his protagonists feeling memorable, distinct, a vivid dance of personalities at large – and his real antagonists absolute sinkholes of villainy.

The plot – well, it’s a large book, and rather a lot goes on. I won’t spoil it, but will say this: by the end of the book, absolutely everything - from the characters relationships, to the Weyland civil war, to the broader political situation, to the larger conflict hinted at in the preceding novels – everything changes. We fight wars with the Vandians , guerrilla strikes with the Weylanders. Follow Willow’s struggles with her family at the capital of the villainous king. Care for refugees in Rodal, and ride with the nomads against it. There’s a lot of conflict here, both personal and in a storm of battles that look to redefine the world we came in to at the start of the novel. It’s a sea change, one which rumbles on ominously at an unrelentingly fast pace, gripping onto the reader and not letting go.

Is it worth reading? If you’ve not picked up the previous books in the series, I’d recommend starting there instead. High adventure and excitement abound here, but it needs context to be truly intriguing. If you’re already invested in the series, then you owe it to yourself to pick this one up – it’s an absolutely wonderful read, and I can’t wait to spend more time in the Far Called world. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Eagle In Exile - Alan Smale

Eagle In Exile is the second in Alan Smale’s “Clash of Eagles” trilogy. It posits a world in which the Roman Empire never fell, and where the legions have begun to march on North America. The first book in the sequence introduced us to Gaius Marcellinus, who gradually integrated with a group of Native American inhabitants after the disastrous defeat of his legion, and the people around him, whom he gradually came to care for as they struggled against invasion and dealt with cultural change.

Eagle In Exile is set something in the area of five years after Clash Of Eagles. Smale sets out to show us a world which is similar, but moved on. There’s a sense of growing urbanisation about the towns of the people of the Cahokia. An elaborate longhouse is built at the top of one of their sacred mounds, and their leadership seems to become more withdrawn, separating themselves from those around them, and moving into a more hierarchical structure.  At the same time, the author lets us look at some of the internal politics of the Cahokia – the disagreements in their direction are a fascinating subtext underlying much of the character dialogue. Marcellinus is desperate to bring peace to the Cahokia and their neighbours, some of whom were antagonists in the previous book, in order to prepare them for a Roman arrival that he feels is inevitable. Other factions in Cahokia are less conciliatory, determined to extract a measure of vengeance from their enemies. This non-unified front is something Smale portrays well; there’s subtle udnercurrents here alongside some larger debates.

The world has also broadened in scope. The reader is taken with Marcellinus as he explores various regions around Cahokia, and the geographic and social changes which come from that. There’s some excellent portrayals of Native American societies here – Smale has clearly done his research. The result is, overall a vivid and believable world.

The same principle applies to the characters. The core cast and the protagonist here are largely the same as the last volume. However, we do get a broadening, as ancillary characters evolve, fall away, or are replaced by others of more immediate relevance. It was, from time to time, difficult to remember which of the minor characters was which, but Smale signposts this well, so there were only a few moments of confusion.  Marcellinus is our focal point here, and Smale portrays him well – continuing to evolve from his position in Clash of Eagles. He’s torn between cultures, and between worlds and obligations. He’s a competent man, internally divided, to his detriment and that of those around him. He’s also self-aware enough to recognise this, and take steps to ameliorate it. He’s a convincingly human character, and his central relationships – including a fraught and complex emotional space with a female glider pilot, and a growing sense of adopted family – are well drawn, and believably frustrated.  We spend a lot of our time in this text in Marcellinus’s head, and fortunately, it’s written to make him feel like a complex, conflicted individual.

The supporting cast get less room in this regard. There’s a couple of more central characters who get room to grow into themselves, and we certainly see some evolution in their characters over the course of the text. Others are less fortunate – but that may be justified by their position in the narrative. Overall, I’d say the characters are well done, the more so the closer they are to the core of the narrative.

The plot rolls along from the close of the first book in the series. To avoid spoilers, I’ll say that it sets a relatively fast pace initially, then settles into something a little more languid, before crackling forward for the second half of the text. There are events here which change central assumptions in the world, and for the characters, have the capacity to change everything. There’s some wonderfully portrayed relationships and their attendant drama, and some top-class battle scenes wrapped around them.

Is it worth reading? If you’re looking for a complex, character driven alternate history, with some believable environments and visceral battle scenes – absolutely. However, the text isn’t really a stand-alone - I’d take a look at the precursor, Clash of Eagles, first.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Trident's Forge - Patrick S. Tomlinson

Trident’s Forge is the second in Patrick S. Tomlinson’s  “Children of a Dead Earth” series. The first, The Ark, was a rather clever murder mystery, with some decent characterisation and a top-notch setting, so the sequel had a fair amount to live up to. Despite, or perhaps due to, being distinct from its predecessor in many ways, Trident’s Forge does rather well.

Where The Ark was set in the tight confines of a generation ship, this sequel takes place on the planet to which that ship was heading.  The author manages to capture the sense of fear and wonder felt by the new colonists as they break ground. There’s new plants, new animals, and the feeling of a collective leap into the unknown is pervasive through those parts of the text. This is a new world, and it has the potential to be welcoming – or deadly. The highlight though, are the other inhabitants. Loose limbed, with shifting-coloured skin and headcrests, they certainly seem rather strange. There’s a degree of familiarity which grows up over the course of the text, but enough reminders of cultural distinctions are left in place to remind the reader that these are, well, aliens. They’re a well realised, unfamiliar brood, with some interesting social characteristics, which are explored sufficiently to emphasise the exotic – it would have been nice to get into the alien society a little more, but what’s there is well done in any event. It’s a cleverly crafted, plausible but alien society on a mostly familiar world with strangeness floating at the edges – all good stuff.

Most of the characters are familiar from the first book in the series. Benson, the detective-and-sports-icon returns, as does his one-time  subordinate, now wife, and a host of other familiar faces. Benson spends a fair amount of time being a combination of sarcastic, clumsy and heroic. That works rather well, and is quite an entertaining read; it also masks a few quieter changes in his character. This is an ever-so-slightly more cautious Benson, with perhaps a little more humility. There’s a sense of a man shaped by the events of the last book, one who has had to grab on to a certain amount of maturity in order to continue to function. It’s subtle stuff, in between the laughter, the quick thinking and the gunfights, but it’s good to see.

Equally as intriguing is Kexx, the indigenous equivalent to, well, Benson. An analytical thinker, with a good ear for languages and a long streak of tenacity, they’re an excellent window into the indigenous social customs, expectations, and the surrounding geography. There’s also the wonderful opportunity to look at humanity from the outside, and it’s taken advantage of fully. Watching Kexx, and the rest of the indigenes, deal with the arrival of humanity is fascinating. There’s those who would worship them, those that will go along to get along, and those working with different levels of suspicion and prejudice. This parallels, of course, the reactions of humanity to the aliens themselves.  Watching the shift in attitudes between the factions on both sides over the course of the book allows for an undercurrent in the narrative about the broader issues of colonisation, invasion, cultural hegemony, and so on; it’s not trying to hit you over the head, but it gives an additional layer to an otherwise entertaining and thought-provoking conflict of societies.

The plot – well, I won’t spoil it. It kicks off with something of a bang, and slowly ratchets the tension up over the course of the book. There’s some explosive action scenes, which are excellently paced and well drawn – my heart was in my mouth more than once. There’s a fair amount of witty banter and character pieces to break things up, and add some context to the explosions. There’s quite a lot of investigative work going on here as well – it’s not the same locked room feel as The Ark, but there’s a sense of adventure and exploration in the air, alongside the scent of murder.

Anyway – is it worth reading? If you read the first in the series, I’d say yes. Benson is an entertaining protagonist, and he’s surrounded by an interesting world, with an intriguing investigation, the occasional gunfight, and a supporting cast who have enough depth to feel human. If you’ve not tried The Ark, I’d start there first – but come back to this one, it’ll reward your effort.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Guns of the Dawn - Adrian Tchaikovsky

Guns of the Dawn is a stand-alone fantasy novel from Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s got some interesting DNA, putting together one part Jane Austen, one part Sharpe, and one part steampunk-magic, to create a delicious genre fusion which really is greater than the sum of its parts.

I’ve enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s work before; his Children of Time was one of the standout sci-fi novels of 2015. In this novel, however, we’re worlds away from the soaring heavens of that book – mired instead in the steaming swamps of a gunpowder war, and the socially confining settings of the ballroom and the manor house.  As the book begins, our protagonist is a relatively privileged member of the nobility, in a nation slightly below the cusp of industrialisation. Her position of privilege is clear to the reader – and to the character herself, if to a somewhat lesser extent. As brothers and sons march away to war, her initial concerns centre on an old family enemy, blamed for the suicide of her father. There’s a lot of verbal sparring here, and the author wraps it up in the tropes and context of a novel of manners. There’s dancing, discussion of marriages, and a good deal of familial bickering. But it’s surrounded by a world which is undergoing a convulsive shift in paradigm. Tchaikovsky shows us a monarchy in conflict, entering a total war for the first time, against what it regards as an ideologically venomous enemy – in this case a Republic. The provincial area that we see through the protagonists eyes is just that – loyal, rural, with a way of doing things which has been shaped over generations.

This part of the world shifts gradually throughout the narrative, as droves of working men are sent to a war far longer than anyone anticipated, as far fewer come back injured, in body and mind, and as women begin to be drafted into the conflict. The seemingly cohesive social tapestry, held together by convention, is shown up as increasingly threadbare as the economy of the nation teeters on the edge of a precipice.  It’s all wonderfully done – the decline in the nation being viewed through the eyes of the protagonists’s family, evoking an atmosphere of gentility, adversity, and…well, occasional flat-out wrongheadedness.

Running in parallel, there’s the war – the very thing causing all the social issues. We get something of a ground view of the war, our protagonist being drafted in as a foot soldier. Over the course of the text, there’s a bit of an expansion in scope, as she works up through the ranks due to a mixture of competence (something in worryingly short supply) and attrition (of which there is a far more worrying amount). But the setting, well, it’s alive, almost literally. A swampland seething with poisonous creatures, mobile geography, shifting waterways. Water absolutely everywhere. Curious indigenes of doubtful reliability. A sense of a hazy, languid, oppressively constant heat. The prose evokes the worst kind of jungle warfare, and makes you feel the misery and desperation of Emily and her colleagues, as they wade around, trying to find and combat an enemy in a mutually hostile environment. It’s a place which is vividly awful, and utterly real.

Whilst we’re watching Emily Marshwic trudge about the place getting shot at, we do also get to spend a lot of time in her head. And there’s a sense of change there. She begins the text focused enough, fitting within a traditional role with pragmatism, duty and honour. As the world changes around her, however, Emily starts becoming something else – a career soldier, changed by the struggles of war, scarred by them, suffering from and forged by them. As she and her compatriots  bond between near-death experiences, the differences between them seem to fall away. Class and gender are shattered idols beneath the cloven hooves of war, and Emily and her colleagues are there to try and bind the remains into something new, settling who they are at the same time.

Emily’s journey is one that you can see in other coming-of-age military stories – but it’s one where the heroines journey is delicately crafted; her transition from pampered noblewoman to hardened soldier and survivor is pitch perfect, and entirely believable. Some of the supporting cast also get some excellent character development; her mutual antipathy with the provincial governor of her home town is particularly delightful, changing as the social ground shifts beneath the pair of them. 

Then there’s her relationship with one of the Kings Warlocks – who turns out to throw fire and be a nice guy at the same time. Emily’s struggles with how to start, maintain and end relationships in the midst of conflict is shown in excruciating, riveting detail, as she tries to define her life in the shadow of the guns.  It would have been nice to see a few more of Emily’s colleagues given more room to themselves – but the book is already pretty hefty, and his is really more of a wish for more of the same than a criticism of what’s there – the supporting cast is ably, sensitively portrayed. I’m convinced at least half of them would be heroes in another series (and the other half, if asked, would say that they were the villains of the same!).

The plot...well, in some ways it’s the story of social movement. From rural life to industrialisation, from chivalry to total warfare. From conflict to reconstruction. In other ways, it’s very much a personal story. Emily Marshwic is the reader’s eyes in these events, a groundling looking up at the stars – whilst perhaps shaping their passage ever so slightly. Her life, her loves, her fears – her struggle with trauma, combat and the aftermath – sit alongside some superbly crafted, marvellously paced battle scenes, and the shifting nature of the conflict, both at home and on the front, keeps the tension ratcheted fairly high where necessary, and the reader turning pages. Not to spoil anything, but whilst there are some lulls in the action, these are reflective, characterful and intriguing moments, and their fusion with guerrilla warfare and flat out warfare makes for a fantastic read.

Is it worth reading? Yes, I’d say so. Tchaikovsky has written some excellent characters, in a wonderfully realised world, with a plot that, at one stage, kept me up far past my bedtime to finish. So if any of that sounds like something you’d enjoy…it’s worth picking a copy up.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

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

We’re on to part thirteen of our ongoing review series for K.J. Parker’s episodic novel, Two of Swords. It’s been a pretty good ride up to this point – filled with Parker’s trademark obfuscatory but somehow illuminating dialogue, complex characters, and a sense of events hurtling towards an unstoppable collision with an undetermined outcome.

This new part continues with that existing condition. We follow the acerbic, self-aware, and occasionally deliberately unpleasant Corason, a high-up official in the secret society known as The Lodge, as he attempts to traverse the country with at least one message. Along the way, he runs into the spectacularly named Eudaemonia Frontizoriastes (‘Eufro’), an imperial intelligencer apparently sent to keep an eye on him. The text covers their journey, at least nominally, to the city of Rasch.

It’s time for another trip into the desert. As usual, Parker does a good job of describing an arid, near-deadly environment, in a sparse, factual tone. The prose seems to indicate the sort of place where absolute care is necessary to avoid becoming a set of bleached bones at the side of the road, but it does so subtly, through asides, character observations and within dialogue, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. We’ve been shifting environments swiftly over the last few parts, but this is one I’d rather like to see more of. Mind you, I wouldn’t want to live there, but it’s to the author’s credit that I ended this section of the narrative feeling the need for a glass of water.

We got a quick look at Corason in the preceding part of the text, when he surfaced as a possibly-friend of Axeo. Now we get to live in his head, and it’s…well, interesting. His narrative voice is surly, occasionally compassionate, and constantly thinking ahead. It has a lot of similarities with other characters operating at high levels in this world, but Parker manages to make Corason feel unique. Part of that is in the relationship he fosters with his antagonistic tail, Eufro. Watching the two of them bicker, and come to something of an understanding, is an absolute joy. Parker’s retained his gift for dialogue, and I’d say that here it  shines. Admittedly, it’s the shine on the edge of a sword – and has a sense of dangerous tension to go along with it – but still. Eufro comes off as resigned, angry, and pragmatic. Watching two highly intelligent characters, with a gift for dialogue, jousting with each other as they cross a hostile environment…well, it’s at the core of this block of the narrative, and it’s a great read.

At heart, this section of Two of Swords is a character piece. How Corason and Eufro deal with each other as they grow familiar with their opposite number, is revealing about both parties. And each comes away having told us something about themselves and their humanity. But whilst that’s the centrepiece of the text, there’s hints of larger events at play. These circle around the edges of the text, proving both engrossing and entertaining. By the end of this part, it’s quite clear that events have caught up with the reader, and that the status quo, defined in the previous parts, is about to change dramatically – whether for the better or worse rather depending on which side one is on.

Is it worth reading? Well, as ever, if you’re starting out with this part, I’d suggest putting it down and going and finding the first part. There’s rather a lot to catch up on. If you’re up to date, then yes, this one’s worth keeping up with. There’s crackling dialogue, in a well realised environment, with, as ever, intelligent, cunningly crafted characters, struggling with each other, and with themselves. Well worth it.