Tuesday, May 31, 2016

A City Dreaming - Daniel Polansky

A City Dreaming is a modern fantasy novel by Daniel Polansky. I’ve previously said very positive things about his epic fantasy “Empty Throne” duology, here and here. With that in mind, I went into A City Dreaming with high expectations.

Polansky writes smoothly dark prose with a kick to it, like a really good Irish coffee. That style is very much in evidence here, as we follow the life of “M.” M is a bit of a drifter, an individual who can’t seem to settle down, and, in fact, doesn’t want to. He’s a man who appreciates the finer things in life – good drinks, better drugs, comfortable beds, and a bar where they know when to talk and when to leave you alone. He’s a relentless pursuer of women, seemingly with few complaints on either side. He’s a rampant egotist. Also, and perhaps I should have mentioned this before, he can do magic. Not the kind with the card tricks and rabbits either, but the kind where if someone upsets him, that person may find themselves dropped out of existence entirely. M. is an individual allergic to responsibility. He’s happy with his lot, and really only wants to be left alone, to enjoy his life of wine, women and song in relative peace. He’s a delightfully insightful narrator – sarcastic, complex, often morally ambiguous. His self-absorption  can seem limitless, but he has a core of loyalty to friends, which seems to get him into, and out of, rather a lot of trouble.

There are hard edges poking through the seams of M.’s rather nice suit. He’s a man not looking for trouble, but willing to use guile, flim-flam and the occasional bit of magical force to finish trouble before it starts. He is not, in a lot of ways, a nice man. But being unapologetic about it, he’s an extremely entertaining, thoroughly readable, and extremely human one. I’d quite happily share a drink with him, but perhaps not trust him to watch my house. As a protagonist, he’s in the noir mould, a fast thinking, fast talking investigator, drawn to trouble, with fast friends, unreliable acquaintances, and some truly lethal enemies. Polansky shows us them all through M.’s lens – the startlingly violent, thoroughly addled Boy, Stockdale, the charming British throwback to Empire, with a darkness behind his eyes, the steely hippie Red Queen and the icy financier the White Queen. The book is scattered with these, and other members of a memorable cast – and if we don’t see enough of them, we see enough that we’d like to see more.

The text is formed in chapter long vignettes, exploring M.’s largely accidental adventures in New York. In part, this is a paean to the city, to the sheer thriving, squabbling, brawling, loving, hating, fighting, murdering, lusting, loving mass of it.  There’s a sense of place, even as we’re shifted, from penthouse apartments to dive bars, to extra-dimensional tears, to that one loft party you might have gone to under the influence before waking up a week later on a Norwegian fishing trawler. The city lives, breathes and heaves around M. , an organic gestalt, never sure of what it is or may become – and with edges that fade into the liminal. There are subway trains going into the depths of hell, to stations where any destination in time and space is available…or just to Tribeca. Goblin carnivals in old warehouse districts suggesting a cornucopia of delights – for the shopper careful enough to leave before the sun goes down. It’s a grimy, greasy, living city – and the supernatural slots so neatly amongst the rest that if you happen to visit, you may start seeing oddities out of the corner of your eye.

The vignette sized plots took a bit of adjusting to, initially, but it’s a solid stylistic decision. These snapshots of M.’s existence draw us into his world, and each has the sort of expert pacing that left me moving quickly on to the next page. In some cases, it was to see if a brawl would end well. In others, to see if there was life, love and humanity on the other side. There’s something here for everyone, I think. The dialogue is snappy, often with a sarcastic weariness which moved me swiftly to laughter. But it also feels genuine, the rhythms between M. and his friends those of practises speakers, their personalities expressed in every aside or idiom. Their mis-adventures are plausible, if definitely deeply strange, and over the course of the text, the vignettes all build into a larger gestalt, something a bit special. There are moments of danger and tension, where I sat with heart in mouth – and others, of betrayal, of mistakes, of loyalty, which moved me almost to tears.

Not to categorise, but I suppose it’s urban fantasy, but expect subtlety, darkness, sparkles of hope and a feeling of humanity and their stakes in the world – and no glittering vampires. M. is, in many ways, not a nice man. He’s melancholy, aloof, and downright dangerous. But his escapades were an absolutely stunning read, one which asks interesting questions about people, who we are, why we do what we do – and knows when to break that up with a sharp remark or, perhaps, a fireball. This is noir fantasy, this is something you wouldn’t take home to meet your mother – and it’s compellingly, truthfully, wonderfully written stuff. Definitely give it a try, if you’re looking for something new. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

An Accident of Stars - Foz Meadows

An Accident of Stars is the first in Foz Meadows’ Manifold Worlds series.  It’s a rather clever portal fantasy, with one of the protagonists being dragged through from our world into another. That world is complex, layered and vivid. It’s a book with strong characterisation; the central cast feel like people, with all the virtues and flaws that entails. They’re wrapped up in a plot which begins puzzlingly, but takes hold of the reader as the narrative branches out – and by the end, carries a strong emotional weight alongside an intriguing narrative.

The world is one filled with imaginative diversity. There are nations sat in a state of détente, each waiting for the others to show weakness. There’s magic, spread across ethnicities and societies, from quick healing to ripping holes in the fabric of reality. There’s staff-wielders with a  penchant for witty repartee, and acolytes trying to facilitate what they perceive to be the narrative of the world. In short, there’s rather a lot going on. Though sometimes it felt easy to drown in all of the detail. Largely it works to build a consistently fascinating narrative space. There’s some wonderful cultural signifiers – whether someone has the hair cut in a particular style, the way a name indicates a social space as well as a lineage. There’s some great discussion of relationships as well – a dynamic of community, of wives and husbands sharing each other, with relationships covering a multitude of degrees. It’s cleverly, sympathetically, originally done.  The institutions of this world aren’t our own, but they feel organic, for all that.  The author has clearly put some serious thought into the way that their world is put together, and the reader is the beneficiary of that decision.

The characters – well, to be honest, there’s rather a lot of them, starting with Saffron, our teenager-turned-world-traveller. The opening was a bit tough, struggling along with Saffron as she encounters a great many people with several languages, and gets rather a lot of names thrown at her. Still, my confusion seemed to subside alongside hers .  Saffron is unhappy, confused, and trying to find a place in our world, which teeters from unpleasant to just about bearable. The author shows us this, lets us feel Saffron react to abuse and a history of unpleasantness, and then throws her and the reader in at the deep end. Watching Saffron attempt to articulate who she is, what she wants, and see her try and shape her own life as well as affect those around here – it’s thought provoking, touching, and emotionally authentic all at once. As a protagonist, Saffron is thoroughly enjoyable to read – and often more so.

Her relationships with the supporting cast absolutely sparkle, especially that with another world-walker, Gwen. Gwen is older and at least somewhat wiser than Saffron, having made what she feels are some serious mistakes before the opening of the book. She has a confident face, over a slightly more turbulent spirit, and her gentle shepherding of Saffron, and her own self-analysis, is insightful and incisive. Saffron, in her wild confusion and gradual acceptance, feels in some ways an avatar for the reader, and also a person in her own right. Gwen, as a contrast, is cooler, more convinced of the art of the possible, less an idealist – and gives us another perspective on Saffron and her situation. Their relationship is emotionally nuanced, and holds a kind of quiet depth, making their scenes very compelling.

Then there’s Zech, perhaps Saffron’s first friend in the world of Kena. Her prose is quicksilver, a sparkling maelstrom of ideas, bouncing off of Saffron for a new perspective. Zech is exhausting to read, but absolutely wonderful – a fireball of a character, and one woho builds a relationship of equals with Saffron, alongside Gwen’s mentorship. Zech is curious, clever, and incorrigible, convinced of her own immortality – and great fun, dragging Saffron into situations and then (typically) out of them. She’s got her own issues as well – and her unravelling of these alongside Saffron make for some tender, heartbreaking, beautifully  emotional moments.
They’re backed by a strong supporting cast. I wanted to see more of Zech’s guardian, and of Gwen’s old coterie. The villains don’t get as much screen time as I’d like, and it would have been interesting to explore their motivations more fully. Still, there was enough there to carry the narrative, so it’s a relatively minor complaint.

Speaking of the narrative – after the early acclimatisation to new terms, phrases, characters and cultures, the text rattles along very nicely. There’s some personal things at stake , relationships and antipathies which kept me turning the pages. There’s also some impressive magic, and some unflinchingly drawn combat scenes. The stakes are high, and the risks the characters take are appropriate to those stakes; despite that, the narrative feels very reflective and insightful. Overall, it’s a deeply compelling story, and one that I’m going to be thinking about for some time.

On which note – is it worth reading? Unequivocally yes. There’s some initial hurdles, but the world is grand, detailed, complex and well crafted. The characters carry humanity, depth, and a startlingly appropriate sense of strangeness. The plot seeps into your bones. It’s  excellent stuff, and worth your time.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Coalescent - Stephen Baxter

Coalescent is the first in Stephen Baxter’s ‘Destiny’s Children’ series.

The book takes place, broadly in two temporal settings  - our modern era, and the start of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. The modern setting is instantly familiar in its depiction of a grey, tired Britain, a place of semi-detached houses, corporate double=speak and quiet desperation. Rome is shown off as well, a place steeped in its own history, and perhaps too defined by the past. Scenes there have a certain melancholy floating through them, the reader invited to consider the shattered remnants of implied glories from another era. Still, Baxter gives us a Rome thrumming with life, crowds surfacing around an embattled Colosseum, a dry heat beating down as inhabitants go about their business within the bones of an Empire.

In contrast, the sections set during the decline of the Empire feel  equally vivid, but with a pervasive feel of sliding into chaos. Baxter shows us the Roman world as it begins to fall apart, examining the stresses that collapse the system, the struggles to rebuild it, and the way that those struggles translate into success or failure. He’s clearly done his research – his Roman Britain strides confidently off the page, drawing the reader in with a detailed authenticity that makes the time period feel quite real (possibly more so than the modern segments!). There’s a breadth of knowledge on display here, used to craft a living, breathing world. I might quibble with some of the interpretations, but broadly speaking, the society as drawn feels very real – and, on the brink of systemic failure, often terribly so.

There’s some great characters on display too. Baxter has often taken the long view with his protagonists, and we see that here with Regina, a young Roman girl, who grows over the text into a focused and determined woman, her personal ascension being mirrored by societal decline. Regina is by turns spoiled, intelligent, driven, coolly analytical and authoritative. Watching her fill in her conceptual framework, decide her goal and push forward with it is a delight, even if the consequences may not be quite what she expects. Still, she feels like a person by the end of the text, though one somewhat remote from others . Her journey from early adolescence through to adulthood and beyond is carefully crafted, and the flaws in her character feel like they could be resident in any of us. If Regina isn’t entirely normal, if her trauma shapes her, then she’s no less damaged than the rest of us, and an absolutely fascinating lens into the collapse of her society.

George Poole, the protagonist of the more modern sequences, is a tired man of middle age, his mental landscape one of regret, missed opportunity, and crushing routine.  He slowly builds himself something different over the course of the text Poole’s reflective examination of the needs of youth, and the settled nature of middle age act as a solid contrast to Regina’s  more active segments. Poole is a man settled in himself, and in being so, he reaches out to others in order to change them, help them, or to allow external change to affect him. He’s a quiet, unassuming, intelligent man – and feels quietly human, too.

The plot…well, it sprawls across time and space. Regina slowly begins to construct an edifice to ensure the survival of her family, and George, an extended part of that family, comes into contact with, and begins to investigate that edifice. There’s a slow burn here, but it pays off in the end, with some tense action scenes and a sense of rising stakes. Being Baxter, there’s also opportunities to implicitly and explicitly ask big questions – what is humanity, where is it going, how can it be shaped, will there be long term effects, etc. It’s a truly grand scope, snaking through the more personal narrative and cunningly informing the reader.

Is it worth reading? I’d say so. It’s a cerebral piece, to be sure, and takes a little while to get going. But there’s some great ideas on display, in a marvellously drawn world, so if you don’t mind spending the time, it’ll be worth your while to pick it up. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Whisper of Southern Lights - Tim Lebbon

A Whisper of Southern Lights is the third in Tim Lebbon’s “Assassin” sequence. In previous works, we were introduced to Gabriel, a man haunted by the death of his family, and driven to seek revenge over the centuries. His quarry (and sometimes his hunter), Temple, is a creature of the unreal, a thing which can shift forms and demeanours, with a central core of violent malevolence. They’ve fought each other to a standstill over the ages, and come, at last, to this.

The setting of Whisper is the siege and collapse of Singapore during the Second World War. The area around the city is a mixture of broken urban wasteland, and the humid, claustrophobic miasma of jungle. Both are portrayed well. The jungle heat pours off the page, as does the reek of everything within it. There’s a sense of smallness about the human interactions here, of intrusion into another, uncaringly lethal world. Each step is a victory, each bitten off word a triumph. It’s an environment which seethes with life, and feels utterly alien, despite familiarity.

The city of Singapore, in the moments of its surrender, carries the same feeling. Here the structured environment has broken down under the stresses of war, and the familiar humanity of the world is in decline. There’s fat dogs stalking the streets, feasting on bloated bodies, whilst men on all sides commit atrocities or participate –a s actors or victims – in massacres. It’s a hell of our own making, and Lebbon approaches it honestly, unflinchingly, and leaves the reader in no doubt as to the boundaries that humanity will overstep when it feels it must.
Into this shattered remnant of a city steps Gabriel. He has a singular attention, a focus on hunting down and destroying the creature, Temple, that murdered his family centuries ago (and many, many others since). He’s a man on a quest, in the purest sense, unable to look away from his goal. This time, however, something has changed – and Gabriel is shown as, in some ways, less certain. He’s reaching out a hand to humanity at their worst, trying to recapture some of what he is and what he has lost.

Temple, by contrast, is a monster. Equally focused, his reason for being is chaos, murder, the scent of blood and fear. Lebbon gives us Temple as another alien figure here, one fascinated by what humanity can do to each other without his assistance. But he’s an eldritch, poisonous, deadly figure nonetheless, one whose purpose is singular, and who revels in it. There are no grey areas here – Temple is a predator, and whilst not one the reader can empathise with, he’s certainly one they can fear, even through the page – a terrifyingly charming mad dog of a monster, each word a lie, each action an act of violence.

The plot – well, it aims to disrupt the dynamic between the two. Gabriel has a human associate here, one whose slow destruction under the weight of Singapore’s fall is fascinating to watch, and whose fear and incomprehension in the face of this fantastic duo serves as a conduit for the reader’s own feelings. As Gabriel drags this hapless man along, in an effort to track down a vital piece of information, as Temple stalks them through the streets and the marshes of Singapore, they feel horribly real – dreadful, grand figures brought to life in a world where such things aren’t possible, against a backdrop of mundane atrocities.

It’s a great read – Gabriel’s race against time keeps you turning the pages, and the characters keep you invested in the beautifully realised world. On that basis –give it a try. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Half The World - Joe Abercrombie

Half the World is the second in Joe Abercrombie’s “Shattered Sea” series, following “Half a King”. It’s set several years after the first book, and focuses  on an entirely new protagonist, though in the same world.

That protagonist is Thorn. She’s a young woman, determined to break into the traditionally male profession of warrior, after the death of her father in a duel. Thorn is, as her name would indicate, prickly, and occasionally vicious. Abercrombie shows us that she’s also distant from her mother following the death of her father – an antagonistic relationship, fuelled by a failure of expectation on both sides. Thorn looking to her surviving parent to accept who she is, and her mother trying to show Thorn whom she would like her to be.  Thorn starts the text with a confidence fuelled by anger, and backed by…well, not a lot really. Her journey is one of deciding who it is that she wants to be, and putting in the work to reach that goal.

She’s supported in this by Brand, her male alter ego. Brand begins with the same certainty as Thorn, if less rage. He’s determined to become a warrior. But he’s also an individual determined to do the right thing, even where this has an obvious personal cost. He is ever so slightly too perfect, a little judgmental, and doesn’t have Thorn’s focus or her confidence. Their relationship teeters between antagonism and friendship, by way of almost Shakespearean misunderstandings, and the odd duel. 

For all that, this core duo are a lot of fun to read; complex characters, with depths that they are only uncovering themselves, slowly revealed to the reader.
They’re ably backed by a strong supporting cast with startling depth; for example Thorn’s tutor in the art of fighting is deeply strange, and deliberately dysfunctional, but their relationship feels organic, genuine, and emotionally affecting. There’s also a couple of villains on display, whose motivations are typically clear, though also reasonably valid. There’s a clear determination to show both sides of the equation, and this results in villains we can empathise with, as well as those whom we can quite happily loathe.

We get to see a bit more of the Shattered Sea this time, including the lands in the South, and the much lauded First City. Where the first book built on a tone of isolation and desperation, the environments here are more social, and in some cases, more urban. There’s the heaving morass of the First City, a bustling metropolis under the eyes of an Empress, and in contrast, the claustrophobic halls of those closer to Thorn’s home – wattle, daub, thatch and smoke replacing urbanity and assassinations. There’s also more haunting glimpses of the world that came before, of the elf ruins and the artefacts which survived their appalling destruction.  Abercrombie continues to give us a vivid, fully realised world,  with shades of terror and joy mixed amongst different environments.

The plot – well, it opens strongly, and despite some lulls in the middle, continues that way throughout. It kept me turning pages throughout, waiting to see where Thorn and her associated band of misfits were going to go next. There’s some wonderfully heartfelt emotional moments, complex truths sat under a sort of raw veracity, and this is mixed with high octane battles and the terrible intimacy of life and death duels.

In short, this is a great piece of fantasy, with a fantastic lead, sat in a well-drawn world, surrounded by a plot which takes hold and doesn’t let go. If you’ve read the first part of the series, this one is well worthwhile – and if you haven’t, do that first, then read this. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Grunts - Mary Gentle

Grunts is a humorous fantasy novel by Mary Gentle. Orcs, the much maligned boogeymen of a lot of fantasy work, are the protagonists here – struggling to deal with being stuck between the unpleasantly vicious forces of Darkness, and the murderously self-righteous forces of Light. Faced with this degree of hostility, they’re left looking for a third way.

The world of Grunts, at least as the narrative begins, is one in which the struggle between good and evil is over – and good has won. There are a few recalcitrant holdouts, of course. A rather unpleasant necromancer and her orcish minions are among them, as are a pair of unscrupulous Halfling thieves. 

But there’s a familiar world out here – the towering spires of the capital of Light seem deliberately reminiscent of Tolkien’s Gondor. There’s a Dragon’s horde, mounded with magical treasure and terrifying curses. A home for wood elves, soaring treetops and smug self-righteousness. Humid, turbulent jungles, teeming with life, most of it inimical to anything else. The world sprawls, and, whilst it’s filled in well with interesting details, it feels familiar. On the other hand, that sort of familiarity is a part of the parody and humour the book sets out to provide.

It does this, in large part, by quietly detonating cliché’s of the genre. The orcs are pragmatic, violent, and in many ways unpleasant. But they’re also comrades, with some sense of loyalty, able to feel the sting of betrayal and the warmth of a fully realised purpose. Gentle takes what had been a faceless antagonist, and invited our sympathy and understanding. Their opponents in the Light are rather less sympathetically portrayed – hidebound wizards, paladins with a martyr complex and a disturbing interest in flagellation, and a cause which is less just and more stultifying, a tad repressive, and ever so slightly similar to that espoused by the armies of the Dark.

This exploration of moral relativism in fantasy is great to see now; it was oart if the vanguard when Grunts! was first published. There’s a sense that the writer is exploring the old clichés and trying to expand beyond them whilst remaining inside the tropes. At the same time, there’s a certain joy taken in exploding those tropes. The orcs quickly get out of hand, an independent force, armed with assault weapons and a bad attitude. The dialogue is cracklingly vibrant, and crackingly self-aware. It’s determined to poke fun at every sacred cow of the genre, and then explore the consequences of jettisoning convention. It’s filled with elves with a vicious turn of mind, orcs with familial loyalty, Halflings using piano-wire as garrottes, and even the occasional and unconventional love story.
From a plot standpoint – well, it’s largely following the orcs as they escape from various people hunting them down, deal with cursed treasures, and slowly become something more than a gaggle of subordinates, whilst dealing with what might be the greatest threat their world has ever faced (apart from themselves).

It’s a fast-paced ride, with rather a lot of blood and guts, and what television might call “adult themes”. It’s also absolutely hilarious, and cleverly written. It’s aged a bit, pre-dating the rise of authors like Lawrence and Abercrombie – some of the cliché’s that defined the genre when it was published have been eviscerated since then. Still, the jokes will get a chuckle, the plot’s a rollicking read, and the characters are entertaining enough. It’s a relatively quick read, but still rather fun, if you’re in the mood to mix your fantasy with black comedy.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Half a King - Joe Abercrombie

Half a King is the first in Joe Abercrombie’s “Shattered Sea” trilogy.  It follows Yarvi, the son of a king, as he deals with falling into an unexpected position, making friends and enemies, and learning about himself in a world somewhat reminiscent of that of the Vikings. There’s questions about family, about doing what the world expects or what you want, about duty and responsibility, love and loss, examined and explored. There’s also a fair few murders – this is Abercrombie we’re talking about, after all.

The world of the Shattered Sea (or at least Yarvi’s part of it) has certain similarities to that of the Norse in the late antique period. There’s a strong seafaring tradition, men setting out in boats for raiding, plunder, and general troublemaking. This is matched with a strong martial tradition, one where individual strength is prized, and battle-glory is a pathway to social standing. The other side of this coin is soft power;  this is provided by the Ministers, professional healers, politicians and advisers. Where those in the warrior professions tend to be men, the Ministers seem to largely be women. Their role, nominally at least, is the service of peace – through diplomacy and the occasional ruthless exercise of cunning. . It’s a hard-edged world that Abercrombie has drawn, one with a relatively low tolerance for mistakes. It’s also one living in the shadow of the past. Scattered through the Shattered Sea are ‘Elf’ ruins and artifacts, from towers dwarfing the efforts of humanity below, to devices of uncertain form, function and potential. Our protagonist and his society live in the shade of the broken grandeur around them, and Abercrombie masterfully ties up the melancholy this evokes with the rage and humour of the warrior life, and the quietly deadly byplay of the Ministers.

Yarvi is our window into this world; beginning as a Minsiter’s apprentice, he’s very quickly thrown into the metaphorical pool of sharks as a replacement for his father; from counsellor to monarch in a few rather fraught minutes. He’s perceptive, intelligent, and utterly unprepared to become a king. 

This is a well-drawn portrayal of an adolescent settling themselves into adulthood, defining themselves with and against their trials. Unfortunately for Yarvi, he has rather a lot of trials sneaking up on him. Watching him hammered from a more malleable youngster into something with a strain of steel running through it is both entertaining and affecting. Yarvi moves quickly to learning not to trust anyone around him, and struggles with defining himself against the expectations of others. But he also learns to trust those that have earned it, and to put his own definition of himself against the wills of others.

He’s assisted in this by a strong supporting cast. If our primary view is Yarvi, his interactions with those around him still act as a barometer for how that view goes over in the world. And those he works with, and against, feel as human as Yarvi does. There’s a theme running through the text exploring the values of loyalty and friendship, and Yarvi’s friends are very well realised indeed – human, flawed, but prepared to stand up and sacrifice alongside one another.The villains, by contrast – well, they’re not moustache-twirling lunatics, that’s for sure, but considered intelligent foes, doing (as ever) what they believe to be the right thing. There’s not any evil here per se, but there is a discussion being had about right, wrong, and how those things are decided.

The plot crackles along nicely. There’s a few lulls in the mid-section, but  it still managed to keep me turning pages to find out what happened next. Watching Yarvi’s journey, devouring his world and studying his character, waiting to see what sort of person he would become – well, it weas thoroughly enjoyable. Abercrombie adds a soupcon of murder and dules to this excellent recipe, and produces a strong start to a series which I’m looking forward to continuing to read.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Dancer's Lament - Ian C. Esslemont

Dancer’s Lament is the first in a new fantasy series by Ian C. Esslemont. It’s set in the Malazan universe (which he shares with Steven Erikson), a place where gods meddle in the affairs of men, where mages throw fire and vanish into shadows, and where monstrosity and divinity keep remarkably close company.

In this case, the book begins the story of Dancer – a newly minted assassin-for-hire, with a rather high opinion of himself, and a skillset which almost marries up with that opinion. As the text opens, Dancer is shown as cold, arrogant and pragmatically selfish; though he’s also not cruel, and there’s a current of wry humour and self-awareness running beneath his internal monologue which makes it entertainingly charming. The author manages to show us Dancer as a man with a degree of practicality, looking for work and needing to gain a reputation and a client base – the mindset of a tradesman, who happens to deal in murder. In a parallel mental track, Dancer is also rather anti-authoritarian, at the start of the narrative, he hasn’t run into anyone who is really worth listening to for some time. This blends with a personal dislike of sadism and petty cruelties to make a man rather ill-suited to work in the world of crime.

As the narrative moves along, Dancer does undergo a gradual shift in character. If just as cool to humanity generally, he seems to collect a small group of people who he cares about, exposing the underpinning of his humanity. Esslemont shows us a man driven to succeed, defining who he is, and what he is (and is not) willing to do in order to achieve his goals. It’s believable, compelling and great fun to read.

Alongside Dancer is his partner, the mage Wu. A schemer, a byzantine plotter, and a man with a seemingly questionable grasp on reality. The reader doesn’t get into Wu’s head, but his presence helps define Dancer for us, as the latter reacts against several of Wu’s insanities. The relationship that builds between them is delightful – often humorous, occasionally deadly serious, and often rather odd. They make an excellent duo, and Wu’s lackadaisical attitude, matched with a laser-like mental acuity, make him a great pair with Dancer.

There’s a supporting cast here as well; I particularly enjoyed the City Mage, Silk, whose efforts to protect his city and its ruler from harm were entirely understandable; that it was laced with a subtle undercurrent of romance was unexpected, but pitch perfect. But there were others – the aloof and mysterious Protectoress, the extremely strange gang of City Mages acting alongside Silk, and an array of underworld denizens and mysterious characters. As ever with the world of Malazan, it feels like many of these may resurface, their agenda as yet obfuscated. I suppose we shall see in the enxt books in the series.

The book centres on the city of Li Heng, a city surrounded by walls and defined by its enmities. We spend a lot of time in the lower dens of the city, amongst the various bizarre and downright unpleasant characters that live and work there.. It’s a heaving place, scurrying with effort and intensity, with undertones of fear and the promise of violence on the edge of every word.  Credit to Esslemont for making the place feel very real, and also for making it seem very much like a place that I wouldn’t want to visit.

The contrast with the higher echelons of the city is, I imagine, deliberate. Here the pace ismore languid, though consequences for a mis-step probably no less acute. The city mages live in a world of marble walls and darkened catacombs,  and there’s a wonderful blend of the clean and the eerie in their world.

In the end, Esslemont has built a city that I can believe exists, an organic entity running on the hopes and fears of its denizens. It’s portrayed well enough that I cared what happened to the city as a whole, alongside the characters, and that indicates a very well drawn world.

Plot-wise – well, no spoilers, as ever. Dancer and Wu’s peregrinations through the city are entertaining, their freelancing escapades shifting from humour to cool violence and back again, in a way which makes it difficult to stop reading. Alongside this intimate portrayal of the beginnings of a partnership, there’s a broader epic sweep – battles, sieges, demons. War-magic and monstrosities. Heroism, cowardice, and the occasional bout of humanity. They’re all on show here, drawing the reader in, ratcheting up the tension, and then delivering the goods.

Is it worth reading? If you’re a Malazan fan already, yes. There’s some great shout-outs to earlier versions of familiar characters embedded in the text, and the story of Dancer and Wu is an intriguing one. As a standalone, for a new reader – again, yes. There’s no need to be familiar with the Malazan backstory to get into this, and it’s a very fine fantasy novel in its own right. It’s a streamlined piece, focused on characters and narrative, not yet embroiled in the sprawling Malazan backstory – so an ideal point to enter that world. In the end, it’s a well written fantasy novel, with epic scope, solid world building, and compelling, believable, entertaining characters – and that makes it worth a read in my book.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume Ten - Jonathan Strahan (Ed.)

This is the tenth (yes, tenth!) annual anthology of science fiction and fantasy edited by Jonathan Strahan. I talked about last year’s collection in fairly glowing terms, so this one arrived with some expectations in place. Happily enough, it met – and in the case of some stories, may have surpassed – them.

As with last year, this is a diverse collection of material. It opens strongly with a new piece set in Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” world, a blend of modernity and the mystic, the protagonist a liminal figure. The dialogue is familiar, yet quirky, acidly, vulnerably human, the characters mouthing them likewise. Well, perhaps not always human. But this can be contrasted with the fabulously alien “Little Sisters”, Vonda McIntyre’s exploration of a thoroughly alien psychology and physiology. There’s enough there to empathise with, but the core factor is the strangeness, the newly odd becoming familiar. The characters operate in a cultural paradigm entirely different from our own – and that shift is one which makes for an enjoyable read.

Then there’s the quieter fantasy of Robson’s “Water of Versailles”, drawing us back in time, lacing the slowly decaying wonder of the Bourbon courts with something a little more magical. It’s a quieter, more reflective piece on humanity, the things we do for advancement, and the decisions we make around what we find important. It sits in contrast to the tone of silence settled over Valente’s “The Lily and the Horn”, which presents a highly personal and highly lethal social engagement, whilst exploring the personal relationships sitting behind it. The subtext, as always with Valente, is entwined through the setting, through the dialogue, through the characters themselves – all making something living, breathing and complex.

It’s the same throughout the rest of the collection. There’s something for everyone here, from Alastair Reynolds thoroughly eerie ‘Murmuration’ to Ann Leckie’s “Another Word for World”, a fabulous treatise on shared goals and the role of language. Of course it exists alongside a political backdrop and an assassination attempt. There’s a mixture of tone throughout -  from the oppressive strangeness of “The Game of Smash and Recovery” to the sparklingly dark humour and raw truth behind “The Deepwater Bride”. Some of the pieces worked better than others, I thought, but as a whole, the collection has an unimpeachably strong level of quality. It delivers a startling range of science fiction and fantasy, and the stories  themselves have a great many interesting things to say – and sprawling variety of ways to say them.

On that basis, is this a collection worth reading? Yes, absolutely. There’s fast-paced action in here, enough to keep you turning pages. There’s fully formed characters, human and utterly otherwise. There’s vivid, elegantly crafted worlds, from the familiar to the thoroughly alien. Importantly, it’s also a collection of ideas, an anthology of thought, of exploration – looking at who we are, how we got here, and where we’re going. On that basis, though it does try to be all things to all people, I’d say that on the whole, it succeeds, and does so rather well. SO if you’re looking for an anthology of exciting fiction, from old favourites and different voices, then you could do a lot worse than to spend your time on this. Give it a go.