Thursday, September 29, 2016

Exordium Of Tears - Andrew P. Weston

Exordium Of Tears is the second in Andrew P. Weston’s sci-fi series, “The IX”, centred around a group of people displaced through time from various epochs, to defend a world against an unrelenting and insidious foe. I rather liked the first in the series, an action filled romp with some genuinely touching moments.

Exordium picks up shortly after the first book left off. Our heroes are busy turning their swords into plowshares, spreading out from their fortified city into the surrounding countryside. There’s some discussion of the other cities scattered across the world, which will need to be reclaimed from nature and the scattered remnants of the Horde, the antagonists of the previous book . We do get to see a bit more of the world, as characters patrol and scout across it, and there are tantalising hints of the society which existed before littered through the wreckage.

That said, the larger focus of the book is on the extra-planetary colonies – worlds settled before the outbreak of the Horde, overwhelmed and silent for millennia. The plan to reclaim some of these is ambitious and plausible, especially as some of the colonies were effectively classified research laboratories. For a fledgling civilisation, concerned with the need for genetic diversity and concerned that horde remnants might surface on other worlds, the need to obtain and protect that sort of technology makes a great plot driver.

We do see some of the colonies, though they don’t feel too different from the home world – at least at a macro level. There are small differences, which the author manages to layer in subtly. The big difference is the larger focus on shipboard life – as several crews work together in an effort to retake the colony worlds. The ships are wonderfully described – elegant pieces of focused, brutal machinery, with a seemingly indomitable set of weaponry and, in at least one case, some efficient and charming AI. The tech has been well thought out, and seems plausible and consistent, and the environment of the ship is a suitable mix of camaraderie and claustrophobia. There’s all sorts of environments available, at any rate – from the aforementioned ship corridors, through to subterranean cave systems with sweeping, cathedral-like entrances. The text brings them all to life rather effectively.

The characters were a bit thin in the first novel, so it’s nice to see some of them being built up a bit here. The sprawling cast has been trimmed back a bit, and it feels like there’s a tighter narrative focus on some key people, which works well. Some of the inner monologues are especially informative – watching a pleasantly awkward romance bloom, for example, tells us a little about the captain of one of the ships – and seeing the commander of a special forces team (and his men) visit the widow of another member is a beautifully crafted emotional moment. There’s a theme running through the text about how we deal with death – with cowardice, with acceptance, with struggle – and the different approaches of the characters are quite revealing about them. I still think there’s work to do here – some of the less heroic characters seem to lack any redeeming qualities at all! – but there are layers being built on the personalities in play, and that’s great to see.

The plot – no spoilers, as ever. Weston has always been good at generating suspense, and writing some cracking action scenes, and that talent is on full display here. From the creeping stealth of a starship infiltration, somewhat reminiscent of Das Boot, to subterranean infantry combat, all blood and iron, the narrative delivers. . The pacing is absolutely spot on – slowly building tension, laced through with character building moments, and a slowly ramping up series of action set-pieces. There’s a lot going on here, and the narrative rattles along, grabbing hold and not letting go.

In the end, I think Exordium of Tears is a worthy successor to The Ix. It has some genuinely interesting world building, some plausible, likable characters in whom the reader can invest, and a narrative that absolutely crackles. If you’re looking for military sci-fi with solid credentials, then this series is definitely worth exploring – and one you’ve read The Ix, Exordium of Tears is a worthy sequel.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Bridging Infinity - Jonathan Strahan (Ed.)

Bridging Infinity is a collection of short sci-fi stories edited by Jonathan Strahan (whose rather good collections I’ve reviewed before). It’s part of a wider sequence of collections,  each with their own theme and scope.  The theme of this collection, though, is, as the name suggests, mega-engineering projects. The scope, to try and generate a sense of awe in the reader, is a subtle, clever, broad-ranging one. That it often succeeds doesn’t hurt either.

Environments are, as one might expect, a large part of the stories in this collection. There are marvels on display here that stretch the imagination to envisage, but are certainly awesome. They range from the battleship crafted using the entire output of an interstellar level civilisation, pushing its people and economy to the brink of collapse, to a form of Dyson ring, spread out across the solar system to provide power  and resources to the inhabitants. There’s time for smaller dramas as well, of course. 

The slowly crumbling world of “Rager in Space” shows us a humanity devoid of technological assistance in a post-Singularity universe, where toasters are emancipated, and the only functional AI is struggling to understand what people are, and what they’re for. There’s a gentle melancholy there, mixed in between the partying and the teenage slang, a carefully constructed sense of decline, and inevitability, at odds with the peppier overall message.

Then there’s the canals of drowned New York from “Monuments”.  Here, the plan to cool the world is posited by AI systems now acting in a seeming partnership with humanity. The broken columns and skyscrapers of cities after catastrophic temperature and sea level rises serve as a physical monument to humanity – but also to the hubris of attempting to control a global system. Here, the sun shade project is one whose implementation spans the generations. Here there’s a sense of isolation, of declining hope and a feeling of humanity sleepwalking into inevitable extinction. It’s not necessarily a positive story, in many ways, but it is a very human one.

For example, Ken Liu’s “Seven Birthdays” gives us a more intimate view, of the relationship between a child and her emotionally distant mother over the course of years; whilst the latter has been driven to work on large eco-repair projects, it is the former whose efforts to move humanity forward are truly breathtaking in scope, as she works to create a kind of immortality. Her motivations, though, are entirely tied up in character: her pain at the emotional separation from her mother, the desire to break the hold of mortality in the face of that estrangement of affection, to create more time – these are gently, subtly played, and marvellously done, even as the civilisation-shanging scope of her work becomes clear to the reader.

There’s a few stories where character seems to take a backseat to science;  “Mice Among Elephants” had characters which held their place reasonably enough, but where the grandiose idea of orbiting micro-black holes, used as a gravity wave emitter, were very much the centrepiece. That said, there were some charming moments with lifeforms made of plasma, which injected, oddly, a little more humanity into the prose.

Overall, this collection achieves its goal – to astonish and awe with the idea of what is possible on a grand scale in science fiction. It evokes the memories of Heinlein and Asimov in doing so, but then blends those with a more modern context – not only do we have high concept work, showing off some wonderfully imaginative ideas – but there’s a space in there for humanity, as well, a feeling of intimacy, a sense that these grand projects are dependent on and shaped by the relationships of the people and machines orchestrating them.  This blend worked really, really well for me – I’d struggle to find a story through the collection that I didn’t enjoy, to one degree or another. If you’re in the mood for some stories which will challenge and entertain you, whilst throwing open the breadth of the universe to the interrogation of your imagination, then I’d say give this collection firm consideration.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Every Mountain Made Low - Alex White

Every Mountain Made Low is a sci-fi novel from Alex White. It takes place in a town-within-a-mountain, somewhere in a slightly alternate Alabama, following a protagonist with a somewhat unique perspective, as she attempts to avenge a murder, and, preferably, survive.

The world the reader is thrown into is a heavily stratified one, geographically and socially. The population appear to live in concentric rings within a mountain which is itself being mined for ore. Each ring closer to the floor of the workings also seems to indicate a drop in social class. The higher rings are populated by foremen, engineers and technical specialists, or, even further up, by corporate presidents. The lower rings are filled with workers, slumlords, the baffled and the dispossessed. Those working the mines are protected at shift change by armed guards – though they seem to serve the dual purpose of protecting the miners and effectively restraining them.

This towering society, delving into the pit, is a part of something larger, rising out of Alabama. There are other cities – Jacksonville, Atlanta – within reach, though all seem to be under the nominal authority of “The Con”, a sprawling corporation which effectively owns the continental United States. The Con are ruthless and exploitative,  driving their own agenda of profit without much in the way of mercy. For all that though, they’re a part of a thriving urban ecosystem, and the brief piece of their history that is mentioned is one I’d like to see explored further.

Near the bottom of the creaking machinery that drives the Hole is our protagonist, Loxley. I’ve got to give points to the author for providing us with a protagonist with a very distinct point of view, and maintaining that distinction throughout the text. Loxley is certainly different from other people. She doesn’t cope well with loud noises or crowds, and isn’t very good at reading expressions,  or decoding speech where the tone, words and meaning are in opposition. She is not, however, as she insists herself, a stupid person – understanding the world within her constraints very well.

It’s difficult to explain how impressed I was with this as a narrative device. It’s a tricky read, but the author provides us a set of eyes which do not see entirely as one might expect, but maintain their own consistency. As the book progressed, I found I could follow Loxley’s state of mind,  see her objections as she attempted to parse details from her environment. This is a tip-top portrayal of a complex individual, with a distinct way of seeing the world – and the text is no less compelling (and perhaps more so) for having attempted to provide this view.

Then there’s the fact that Loxley can see ghosts. These fetid, rather unpleasant creatures seem to surface from the bodies of the recently deceased, where they suffered a violent death. They don’t seem to like Loxley much, either – interacting with them seems to give great pain to her, but they seem very keen to reach out to her, in the same way that cats play with a lone mouse.

Loxley’s backed up by a supporting cast who run the gamut of what we might think of as standard points of view. Of particular note is her friend Nora, a sharp tongued pragmatist with a gift for self-examination, and a larger gift for sating the wrong thing at the wrong time. Nora is sometimes caustic, damaged, and very well aware of her position in the hierarchy of the Hole. There were a few moments where she seemed to have lapses of judgment that served the story rather than the character, but these did fit into an existing framework of decisions, and so there wasn’t much to complain about.

The antagonists – well, one of them receives rather a lot of character detail. In contrast to Loxley, who changes a little over the course of the text, becoming more accepting of others, and smoothing out the jangles surrounding her perception of the world, this individual doesn’t change much at all. But there’s a smooth coolness to each of their scenes, a calm, focused viciousness which is rather unnerving.  Still, it would have been great to see more of them, as well as thecauses and individuals they answered to. There’s enough here to build animosity, and enough complexity on display that the antagonists aren’t simply paper targets – but a few more paragraphs here and there would have been, if not useful, certainly intriguing.

The plot begins with our introduction to Loxley, but quickly becomes a rather fraught tale of murder, investigation and revenge. The first half does take a bit of getting into, it’s definitely a slow burn – but once I was on board with Loxley and her world, I found it very difficult to put down. The second act carries a raft of tension and implications, and if the dénouement was perhaps to be expected, it was nonetheless well crafted.

Is it worth reading? I think the unique perspective of the protagonist may make it a struggle in some cases, and I’d suggest reading a sample first, if you can. But if the prose works for you, then the world and characters are vivid and interesting, and perhaps a little different from anything else  available right now. It’s a good story, in a world I want to see more of, with an ambitiously portrayed main character – I enjoyed it, and I’d recommend you give it a try, to see if you do as well.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Promise of the Child - Tom Toner

The Promise of the Child is a debut sci-fi novel by Tom Toner. It’s a sprawling, multi-faceted work, taking place across a multiplicity of imaginative spaces, from multiple viewpoints. It’s a grand space opera, and if it occasionally falters under the weight of ambition, it’s certainly asking interesting questions.

The universe in which the narrative exists is a vast one, composed of interstellar kingdoms, or “Solar Satrapies”. These kingdoms are themselves the preserve of transhuman species. Genetic drift and deliberate manipulation over millennia has effectively turned humanity into different versions of itself; from the towering, multi-hued Melios , to the more averagely formed Amaranthine. In a structure more than a little reminiscent of the decaying Roman Empire, the Amaranthine rule these satrapies, from a distant Earth. They are biologically immortal, and hold control through manipulation, social expectation, and the use of mysterious powers gained through age. They’re sometimes capricious, and prone to states of fugue – but also the only individuals left who remember how to form the grander forms of technology that shape their spaces.

They’re surrounded by servants, and their kingdoms are surrounded by the Prism, a more tangled, seemingly lively area of space, filled with the energy of the dispossessed and the no-longer oppressed. Each time the Amaranthine use one of the Prism empires to fend off another, they lose a little more of their power and influence, and the narrative shows us a grand galactic society on the verge of change – perhaps for the better, perhaps as a catastrophe.

In any event, the sheer variety of environments, people and societies on display here is staggering. Toner has put together a vivid, imaginative universe, which conforms to its own rules. It seems perfectly believable, if, in many aspects, also perfectly appalling. But the surge and crash of humanity, in infinite variation, is on display here, and Toner has built a universe which not only stands up to scrutiny, but is expansive, intriguing, and one I’d rather like to see more of. It does take a little while to get used to, as the reader is drawn across worlds and characters, from dark jungles with teeming predators to artificial utopia’s within the core of worlds – but getting used to it all is an absolute delight.

The central characters are illuminating. I was particularly interested in Sotiris, an Amaranthine immortal, used to operating in longer timescales and perhaps at a slower pace than might be expected. But his thoughts on the rise of the Amaranthine provided some much needed context, and his clear love for his sister, and for old friends, added a sympathetic layer to a man embroiled in politics and treachery. Sotiris is insightful, careful, and makes for a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Lycaste is, if not his opposite, certainly somewhere else in the spectrum. When we first see him, he is living on one of the provinces of Earth, in an existence where it seems his every need is catered for. He is reclusive, nervous, and carries  a torch for one of the other inhabitants of his region. Lycaste’s portrayal is convincing, and his social anxiety feels particularly on point. As the narrative shifts, Lycaste changes with it, but at every turn, his growth – or at least his change – in character feels organic and plausible, and the man himself continues  to seem a fully formed personality.

Both men are assisted by an enormous cast of side characters, some with larger parts than others. Over the course of the text I found myself sympathising with different sides, switching allegiances, laughing with some characters, and preparing a deadly enmity with others – and if those that appeared fleetingly had less time on the stage, still they told their stories well, and felt like a real, immersive part of the elaborate universe that Toner has concocted.

As ever, I won’t go into spoilers with the plot. However, there’s rather a lot of it. The initial pacing is somewhat slow, as the universe and characters are unfolded for the reader. Things do pick up, especially in the more politically focused segments – and there is always something going on. The pacing works for the story being told, and lets the lyrical prose wash over the reader well, and give them room to get a handle on things; by the last third of the text, things have shifted up a gear, and there’s some wonderfully drawn action scenes, largely of depredation and destruction. The quieter first half of the book works as a means of comparison. There’s two large strands to the plot – one around Lycaste, as he discovers himself and the world around him, and the other around Sotiros, as he deals with the byzantine manoeuvrings of the Amaranthine. Switching between the two also moved the pacing nicely – and both journeys were compelling, for different reasons. I’d say, don’t go in expecting laser battles on every page – but the slow buildup absolutely pays off, and the overall story is at once convincing and, for sequel purposes, intriguing.

This one is absolutely worth picking up. The world is beautifully drawn, and the characters held my interest throughout, whilst feeling quite distinct. The plot really does deliver on the early build-up, and I think the series will be one to watch.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Dust - Elizabeth Bear

Dust is an absolutely intriguing novel. At heart it’s a journey tale, following our heroes as they strive to settle the many, many problems around them. But it’s also a character piece – the physical journey a transporting medium for the associated internal changes for the protagonists. Alongside these, it’s a story happening in a unique environment, and one which we see a fair amount of throughout the narrative. There’s some overtures to hard science in here too, as is typical of Bear’s other work.

The environs of Dust are medieval, creaking, and have more than a hint of a system in the grip of terminal entropy. Societies exist which depend upon technological systems, and those systems are in decline. There’s a sense of sprawling societies, but ones which are constrained. In a generation ship which has been gradually falling apart for millennia, there is no room to grow – though plenty of room to iterate. Societies have formed around functional groupings, struggling to jury rig functional patches, holding the vacuum at bay whilst human society falls apart.

Alongside this, there’s also a sense of humanity on the cusp of evolution. There are individuals with seemingly transhuman powers, with strength, speed, and associated longetivity, enforcing a caste system over those individuals left manning the broken craft – a medieval world, in the shattered remnants of a technological marvel. The logic of these talents is handled subtly, and well, and if we aren’t usually sympathetic to these scions of privilege, we can at least empathise with them.

Our protagonists are sisters, of a sort. One a creature of born privilege, maimed and thrown back out into a world which she’s determined to bend to her will. The other a surprising scion, previously one of those small common people that make up the majority of the ship’s population. Both struggle to define themselves, and one of the great facets of this text is watching them, if not clash with each other, then share experiences, and create new understandings between them – a blending of family and social caste which displays weaknesses in both, but also accentuates their strengths. Both are a delight to read, really – heroines given a firm agency, and sent out into the world.

They’re both, by turns, feisty and thoughtful people, and disruptive products of an environment which encourages conformance to the existing social order. In this, they’re aided by a sprawling supporting cast. Most of these we don’t see in too much depth – but they’re there, providing colour and a broader context for the world.

An exception is the ship AI, now a league of personalities at war with each other, each a small god in its own area, and constrained by its programming. Each of those seen is livingly portrayed, with an amount of depth and nuance which makes them as real as the ‘people’ that they spend much of their time manipulating. They’re creepy, occasionally terrifying, and splendidly alien, with an uncanny valley where they attempt to simulate humanity which actually accentuates their strangeness.

The plot is a march to save the ship from the outside world and itself, and a quest for survival. It’s also a coming of age tale. There’s some snappy action pieces in here, and some wonderfully tense moments, often achingly stretched out in dialogue which feels both natural and the slightest bit strange. There’s a certain slowness of pace to the earlier sections, counterbalanced by that time being spent learning the context of the world – by the mid point, it’s ramping up, and the period from there to the dénouement was almost impossible to put down.

Is it worth reading? I think so. It’s a clever sci-fi piece, with a lot to say about humanity, and rather more to say about people, in a wonderfully evocative setting. Give it a go,  especially if you enjoy generation ships or transhumanism!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Use of Weapons - Iain M. Banks

It’s difficult to talk about Iain M. Bank’s Use of Weapons. One of his earlier Culture novels, it’s one whose narrative grace, unapologetic darkness, and organic twists and turns to plot made into a defining piece of sci-fi literature. I can count the number of times I’ve read it on approximately four hands, with maybe the odd foot or so.

The environment skips here, but the focus is on zones of ideological – and physical – conflict. There’s the broken palaces of aristocratic privilege, pockmarked by small arms and shattered by artillery fire. There’s a volcanic caldera, devoid of everything but the simplicity of smeared black stone and the panting of life determined to survive. There’s a wonderful scene set in a nomadic grassland, as our protagonist goes into a self-maintained dreamstate, delving into onionskin layers of memory. From the freezing tundra of an airbase on the edges of conflict, through drenching rainstorms turning roads into swamps, and out the other side, into the sunbeams of a temperate climate, a summerhouse, and a feeling that all is not quite well – it’s all pitch perfect. 

You can always rely on Banks to bring out memorable environs, and here he did a superb job, giving us a variety of locales and climates, whilst lacing them through the background of the story to accentuate some of the themes of conflict, regret and loss which he was exploring. It is surely no accident that the protagonist finds himself forcing happiness in a paradise, simple white beaches and limited purpose – and that the prose shows his energy and enthusiasm, his thirst for danger and expiation in street fights, sliding down icy culverts, or outracing massive detonations.

Speaking of the protagonist – here is a man who would, it appears, like to be better. Known as Cheradenine Zakalwe, he’s presented as a veteran of more wars and brushfire conflicts than we really have time for, acting as part of the notoriously benevolent Culture’s “Special Circumstances” section – which has shown itself in other Culture novels to be a tad interventionist, always thinking three steps ahead of the society it would like to change, and with a somewhat quirky institutional sense of humour. Zakalwe is the knife end of Special Circumstances, dropped into conflicts to make sure they go the way that the Culture would prefer. Sometimes that means winning wars, and sometimes it means losing them. Occasionally, he even knows which of those is preferred going in. But Zakalwe is a man torn between poles, a warrior who thinks he would have liked to be a poet. An artist with a plasma rifle, who would like to believe that he is doing good. He’s not a particularly good poet, but he can certainly run a war.

In the background though, there hovers a cloud over Zakalwe’s psyche. In general he’s witty, occasionally broken, startlingly competent and determined. But there’s something brooding in the back of his mind which drives him to work for the Culture, and we’re gradually given insight into what this is; the tension is drawn out a tad in the narrative running in reverse. We’re shown episodes of Zakalwe’s life up until now, and his interactions with his handler, the charmingly humane DIziet Sma – and each of these vignettes shows us a little more of what shaped Zakalwe, the events that made him what he is – whilst also showing the reader a little more of what he used to be. It’s a clever narrative device, and keeps things both tense and allowing of character exploration.

The plot, nominally, centres in the narrative present; interleaved between the investigations of Zakalwe’s history, we see him working with Sma to try and recover a politician from some government bunker or other, to convince him to help cut off the start of a star-cluster-wide conflict before it begins. There’s some startlingly effective action scenes here, in contrast to the broadly more contemplative past pieces, and the saturnine and wonderfully dry Sma makes a charmingly effective foil for Zakalwe’s seemingly idealistic but exhausted enthusiasm.

In the end though, this is a book about a man, and about the ways in which wars irretrievably damage and change the things that they touch. About the way families struggle with the deeper effects of their pasts, and the ways that society puts a moral face on conflicts for its own purposes – even the nominally utopian Culture.

Is it worth reading? Without question. I tend to re-read this every year or so, and it always has something new to say – a new character facet to reveal, or a wider exploration of a theme. It’s shockingly intelligent, accessible, and a delightfully complex read. If you’ve read it before, I’d encourage you to do so again – and if you haven’t, what are you doing here now? Go read it!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

No Reviews this week

No reviews this week due to a death in the family.

Normal service should resume next week.


Thursday, September 1, 2016

An Import Of Intrigue - Marshall Ryan Maresca

An Import of Intrigue is the second in Marshall Ryan Maresca’s “Maradaine Constabulary” series. The first was an entertaining investigative romp, with a hard edge of noir under the surface of the narrative - so I went into the sequel with reasonably high expectations. In short, this sequel matched my expectations, and more.

We’re back in the city of Maradaine, a thriving and at least notionally cosmopolitan metropolis. Here, people from all corners of the world can come together to sell each other overpriced trinkets, tobacco, or move large quantities of industrial goods. Maradaine has a feeling of vitality about it, as people cross behind our protagonists – moving goods, committing the occasional crime, making money and living lives. This particular instalment of the series focuses on the Eastern quarte r- itself far more of a cosmopolitan environment than we’ve seen before. Here sit the outsiders, the immigrants from different lands, huddled together in enclaves with varying degrees of power, demarcated from the citizens around them.

These divergences from the Maradaine cultural norm are intriguing. My personal favourite was the nation whom seemed culturally obsessed with paperwork and order, but they all seemed at least plausible sociocultural groupings. Looking at the world outside of Druth in a little more depth was a delight as well,

Character-wise, we’re back with our dynamic duo. Minox “Jinx” Welling is perhaps a little more tired than before, a man trying to get a handle on having access to magic, but not having any training in how to handle it. I wouldn’t say he’s thrown caution to the winds in the pursuit of magical understanding, but the drive to resolve this issue is definitely visible on the page. He’s a man driven by a sense of duty, blended with a near pathological need to solve puzzles, which can draw in all sorts of trouble.  He’s shifted into being a little more aware of others as social beings, as well, perhaps under the influence of his partner – but is still charmingly, stubbornly, entertainingly obtuse. He’s helped in a way by his family, a sprawling unit of slightly eccentric uncles, cousins and closer relatives, all of whom will club together to yell at the erros of their own, and then turn on outsiders if they also point out those errors.

By contrast, Rainey, his partner, is a woman with a firm grasp of people. Or at least their elss well represented areas. She continues to be an angry, focused individual, as driven to solve cases as Minox, but with a sharper edge to her questioning, and perhaps a greater willingness to get her knuckles bloody in pursuit of the truth. Rainey’s relationship with her husband and daughters features again here – and the reader can see a woman with a fully fledged career and a family expertly portrayed here. There’s love, there’s concern and worry, anger and disappointment, pride and joy. But it all seems like it fits together.  We get to see a little more of her mysterious past, as well, and it’s interestingly presented, and well worth the effort.

The plot is a sort of fantasy-noir, an investigation filled with charmless antagonists and multiple red herrings. There’s the occasional fast-paced action sequence to break up the flow, and these are typically fluidly kinetic and rather entertaining.  The investigation itself is a slow burner, which ratchets up the tension over the course of the narrative, before a somewhat explosive conclusion. The blend of fantasy and noir works wonderfully, a hard-boiled investigative mystery, with thrills and spills within a unique and well imagined world.

If you’re looking for a new detective series mixed with fantasy elements, this is a great choice – and if you’ve already seen the world of the Maradaine Constabulary, then this novel will only reward your attention.