Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The City of Ice - K.M. McKinley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Week Off - Holidays

Greetings, valued readers!

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

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Red Knight - Miles Cameron

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Cetaganda - Lois McMaster Bujold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Pyre - David Hair

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Invisible Planets - Ken Liu (Ed.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Ill today

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

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Falling Free - Lois McMaster Bujold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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