Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Straits Of Galahesh - Bradley Beaulieu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories - Ken Liu

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Wall of Storms - Ken Liu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Vor Game - Lois McMaster Bujold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Ethan Of Athos - Lois McMaster Bujold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Red Sister - Mark Lawrence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred - Greg Egan

The Four Thousand, The Eight Hundred is a sci-fi novella by Greg Egan. It’s rather dense, exploring the themes of otherness, of democracy, disenfranchisement, and the role of a moral centre. It also talks about asteroids used as building materials, and explores the social norms of societies on other worlds. Yes, that does mean rather a lot is going on.

There are two worlds on display here – one a seemingly egalitarian society, work apportioned to those who need it, and another, where, a century after settlement, there’s question of debt. The latter is intriguing. In a society where the founders wealth was measured in the tonnage they could bring into orbit, and then to the moon they were colonising, the intangible is, understandably, less visible. But there is a minority in this novella, descendants of founders who sold their intellects, who held patents on mining drills, on methods of extraction, and used that leverage to be part of the original landing team.

A century later, a minority group has pushed, and pushed, to look on the descendants of those users of intellectual property as freeloaders.  The text is looking at the way society deals with pressure – in this case, perhaps, by creating a sense of otherness, by legitimising discontent with certain aspects of that society. The question of whether those descendants of intellectual ‘pirates’ owe a debt is thrown open to the popular vote – and is approved by a slim margin. This may reflect concerns in contemporary politics, but it also allows the text to explore the concerns of the tyranny of the majority. This is a story which is exploring the strengths and weaknesses of systems, but also those of people. As a ballot measure to declare a minority of the population on one moon in debt to the others gathers pace, there’s a feeling of disbelief, then acceptance…and then a reaction, a counter reaction, and an escalating process of havoc.

Looking in through the window of contemporary politics, this is well, and neutrally done - where the characters struggle against an injustice, it seems clear to them that it is one (and indeed, is portrayed to the reader in this way). The majority of the populace, however, are not portrayed as malevolent, merely acting on opinions which impact those around them. In this space, there is also sanctuary – the other moon, the duo pushing ice and building material back and forth in a ring of trade. Here, things are different – at least in that they’re not fighting amongst themselves. Here they accept the “riders”, individuals entering a hibernation state, strapped to an asteroid, risking destruction whilst seeking sanctuary. It’s a world which, if not equal, is certainly not self-harming in an orgy of otherness, as we watch their cousins do.

The characters – well, I would have liked more space for them here. That said, given the length of the novella, they do well enough. There’s the member of a minority, gently sucked into actions that they don’t entirely agree with, feeling their way along the process of escalation before absconding. There’s the third party, not immediately impacted, but with an increasing zeal. And there’s those looking in from the outside, sorrowful, trying to put some of the pieces back together again afterward. If I didn’t see enough of the protagonists, they were present enough in the text to feel genuine, to add a sense of humanity to a piece of sci-fi which is largely driven by social issues – by focusing those issues down, and giving us a view of their impact on the individual.

The plot looks at the rise of intolerance in one of the two moons, of the way in which part of their own population is slowly disenfranchised, and then reacts. Of the way society reacts to that reaction, slowly driving both parties to extremes. But it’s also a story of people fleeing that society, of having the personal courage to strap themselves to revolving pieces of rock and throw themselves into an interstellar void, with a chance at a better life at the end. There’s also the view from the outside, as a member of the uninvolved interacts with an escapee, and draws their own moral lines, perhaps not in line with their social expectations, but in line with what they consider human – a discussion which can be opened with every reader, that. Not where you draw the line, but whether the line must, at some stage, be drawn.

In any event, this is an interesting piece of sci-fi. It uses its short length to full effect, drawing a plausible universe, one where the impact of character’s choices will hit the reader just as ahrd. It’s looking at some of the issues which affect us as societies, and exploring how those issues might play out in a future context, It’s clever work, ad rewards close reading. If you’re in the mood for a read which is challenging, and encourages reader engagement in a plausible sci-fi premise, then this is worth looking at. It’s short, but packs a serious narrative and emotional punch.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Warrior's Apprentice - Lois McMaster Bujold

The Warrior’s Apprentice is part of Lois McMaster Bujold’s extensive sci-fi series, “The Vorkosigan Saga”. Confusingly, it was the first novel published in the series, but is the third by the internal chronology. On the other hand, it’s full of wry wit, some wonderful emotional moments, and even the odd space battle, so I’m not complaining overmuch.

The main focus of the text – and indeed the majority of the series – is Miles Vorkosigan. Miles is the survivor of an attack made in the womb, a man whose bones are, if not glass, certainly friable, and leave him all of five foot tall. He makes up for it, in those first few pages, with an effervescence and a raw mental energy which seems to pour off the page. Miles is aware of what he perceives as his deficiencies – perhaps too aware of them, concerned with how he is perceived externally and a little insecure. This makes sense for a teenager caught in a society which is deeply suspicious of physical difference, of course – and Bujold weaves Miles’ search for external validation cunningly into the overarching narrative. That he comes from the social aristocracy, a space where military service is, if not a requirement, then a strong expectation, serves to accentuate this need, and also provides a socially acceptable means to attain it.

Miles has a wry, sardonic internal voice. There are tinges of bitterness there, as one might expect, and some emotional blind spots, deserved or otherwise. He seems to live in worship of his father, a famous military tactician and advisor to the Emperor (last seen living his own story in one of Bujold’s other works in the saga; the multigenerational nature of the story being told lets the reader pick up a lot of quiet background, if they’ve done the prior reading). But at his core, he’s a dervish of planning, of enthusiasm, with a coolly analytical focus, which is matched only by a sharp humour – the latter often needed as a break between moments of high tension and more gentle exposition.

Miles serves Barrayar, a planetary system gradually coming out of a period of accidental isolation (and a follow up military occupation) and being exposed to the wider galactic community. This lets Bujold play with some tropes – the Barrayarans are fish out of water, of sorts – and let loose some fascinating sociology. A world which had fallen back to the level of technology epitomised by the cavalry charge now has access to heavy duty armaments and galactic medicine. In other words, this is a breakthrough society, one which has unusual social pressures – such as a dislike of mutations, a highly formal military caste, with an active need of duty, and sense of non-egalitarian social class – wrapped in a high tech wrapper, butting heads with societies with rather different points of view.
Bujold takes us along for the ride with a military fleet, and though I’m no expert, she manages to provide the feel of the institution rather effectively. It’s not explicit, but the sense of need for uniformity, for control, and for a sense of place wafts through the prose, alongside notions of duty and a rather determined effort to get paid.

On that note, the plot is cracking stuff. Miles manages to get up to his eyeballs in trouble, mostly accidentally, and usually as a consequence of solving whatever his previous problem was. The rising tension and pressure as he works out exactly how deep into trouble he is is artfully done – each time the stakes are raised feels like a natural progression, and the final crescendo is deeply satisfying. There’s some nice scenes of space combat as well, perhaps a little abstracted – but Bujold makes up for this with the personal moments, with Miles worrying over his decisions, with the understanding of the suffering of casualties, and if not of their necessity, of their inevitability.

This is a complex character piece, in a believable and intriguing sci-fi world, with an energetic plot which is both rather clever and compulsive reading. Definitely one to pick up.