Thursday, April 27, 2017

Back next week!

Hello all
Just a note to say that due to a long weekend, we'll be back on Thursday next week.
Thanks for reading!

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Seven - Peter Newman

The Seven is the third in Peter Newman’s “Vagrant” series. I thought the first, “The Vagrant” was a great story, told in an interesting way, and the second was a great piece of fantasy in its own right. That meant that The Seven had some pretty big narrative boots to fill, as it moved the series toward its conclusion.

Set years after the end of the previous book, the world of The Seven is equal parts familiar and strange. In the north, the sclerotic empire of the Winged Eye is now resting under the somewhat benevolent hand of Vesper. An idealist, with a penchant for trusting people and making unlikely friends, Vesper is determined to shake things up in the Empire of the Eye. As the Empire is learning to live with the disintegration of its greatest threat, the Breach which spewed otherworldly influences into the more familiar realm, it’s in something of a state of flux. Vesper closed the breach. Vesper has the sword of one of the Seven, the divine leaders of the Empire, most of whom haven’t been seen for years. Newman shows us an Empire terrified of change, one which has been in stasis alongside its leaders, perhaps for too long – and now has no idea how to cope with change. The rituals and habits that have pushed society through millennia are taking a long time to change. Still, Vesper is making a go of it, using her assumed authority. It’s interesting to see the institutions of the Empire slowly drifting apart at the seams, as it copes with no longer having an external threat to define itself against.

At the same time, there’s still the issue of the Infernals, those otherworldy essences which arrived in the world before the closure of the Breach. They, and the half-breeds, a fusion of humanity and Infernal essence, are having to redefine themselves as well. Without the Breach as a constant source of reinforcements, they’re having to consider a longer term perspective. The half –breeds have formed communities, and they’re learning to live in the twisted version of land that’s available in the south, over the sea from the Empire of the Eye. This is no longer a world of eternal war, of expansion, defeat and conquest – but a world that exists afterwards, where the survivors have to learn how to live with each other.  As one might expect after years of conflict, this is…rather difficult. As with the Eye, the fragmented domains of the Infernals are under pressure to change, to adapt to their new situation. As with the Empire, there’s always the danger that they’ll self-immolate whilst doing so.

All parts of this world are beautifully detailed and inventively realised – the straight-backed legions of the eye, led by knights with singing swords are a stark contrast to the Infernals that can inhabit multiple bodies, or graft extra limbs to themselves, or the half-breeds whose brush with Infernals has left them fearsome giants. You can believe in the Eye, its searching, wavering gaze, and in the demons, with their energy and desire to exist, and the half-breeds and their plans to build better lives. They’re all internally consistent, cohesive, and rich with meaning.

As the world teeters on the brink between the hope of change and the old certainty of war, none of them are quite prepared for the Seven.

The characters – well, there’s a great many old favourites here, but the stars of the show are, I think, Vesper and the Vagrant, along with Vesper’s daughter, Reela.  Vesper is a little taller now than she was in The Malice, a leader struggling to work out how to draw people together, to get them to build something new, and put down old grudges. She’s given her own weaknesses – a need, in particular, to do everything she can, a refusal to make time for her own emotional connections in the sea of larger things. As ever, the consequences of these flaws are explored alongside the benefits that they bring; even as Vesper is building a newer, happier world, her own relationships have a sense of fragility about them, the energy that would sustain them pushed out into the world. Watching Vesper, whom we last saw as a child, struggling to speak with her own young daughter, is heartbreaking. She’s away for too long, and disconnected from her own life to the extent that her daughter is, if not afraid of her, then hurt by her, suffering the consequences of her absence.

Into that void steps The Vagrant, a father to Vesper and a figure to emulate for Reela (which causes some complex conflicts within the heart of her own father). The Vagrant is older than we may remember, but willing to put on armour and help his daughter change the world. Still silent, and like Vesper, still stubbornly unwilling to accept injustice, he moves through the narrative like a tide of obsidian – obdurate and unstoppable, with a sharp edge. Father and daughter together are a delight – their emotional connection obvious and their conflicts believable and human.  

Reela is the third of this tripod, and clearly idolises The Vagrant. Her feelings for Vesper are more complex; you can sense the anger at abandonment there in the prose, along with the yearning for acceptance and love that sits alongside it. This is a story about family, amongst other things, and this one – The Vagrant, Vesper and Reela – is under strain. That said, it’s also still clearly a family – occasionally fraught and argumentative, but tied together by bonds of affection nonetheless.
Other returning favourites include Samael – a man who became part of an Infernal knight, now struggling to determine who exactly he is, and what he’d like to be. Samael’s discussions with Vesper verge on the philosophical, and his stoic search for a sense of self is deeply compelling reading. In this search he’s matched by the mysterious First, an Infernal that holds its essence across multiple bodies, a distributed consciousness, which struggles to understand humanity and the world in which it exists. Their separate journeys toward understanding are fascinating.

Perhaps the characters who loom largest are the titular Seven, and their creator. We get some understanding of the drivers behind the creation of the Seven within flashbacks, watching a woman determined to save the world ruthlessly take the steps she feels are required to do so. The Seven are visible in both timelines – as the end product of the past, the long term wardens of the Empire of the Eye. In the present, they’re somewhat more complex. If the world is not to their liking, they have the capacity to unmake it, and hold in their hands an Empire which regards them as divinities. They’re mythical figures, as the book begins. Each becomes distinguishable from the others though, the stories of their pasts being revealed, and the decisions they make in the face of the present setting them apart from each other. The Seven are the ultimate authority for the older vision of the world, stepping into the new society which Vesper is struggling to construct. Seeing them as individuals, they seem complicated, driven, forbidding - and at least as strange as the Infernals they were meant to oppose. 

The main strand of the narrative is centred around Vesper’s efforts to create a new world in the aftermath of the old – but there’s a lot going on there. There’s some politics, as disparate factions are dragged together. There’s the social changes going on in the Empire and in the south. There’s some absolutely storming battle scenes, kinetically, gracefully, bloodily and uncompromisingly written. There’s scenes of love and affection to warm the heart, and some betrayals which threaten to break it.  This is a story of a world being brought together, and of different visions for the way that world will rebuild. It’s complicated, captivating stuff – but Newman’s liquid prose makes it a great read.

Also, and I feel I have to mention this – there’s a goat. Several goats, in fact.

If you’re new to Newman’s world, I’d suggest picking up The Vagrant and working forward from there. If, on the other hand, you were left on tenterhooks after The Malice, if you wanted to know what happened next, if you’ve wondered about The Seven, and the fates of Vesper, the Vagrant and their goats – then you owe it to yourself to pick up this absolutely excellent conclusion to the series.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Spellslinger - Sebastien De Castell

Spellslinger is the first in a new fantasy series from Sebastien De Castell, whose ongoing ‘Greatcoats’ series I’ve thoroughly enjoyed in the past.

The world of Spellslinger is something a bit different from DeCastell’s last work. In some ways, it has a high fantasy influence. There’s a society ruled by mages, those with the power to shape reality to their whim. Within that society, situated around an oasis, are others – the disenfranchised, those with no magic, the servants to those more than happy to set them on fire on a whim. This is a culture which feels both calcified and paranoid. There’s a central set of families, cloaked in magic, happy to eliminate outsiders to protect their privilege, and then stick the knife into the leaders next to them. The reader is embedded in this niche, following one of the sons of power, seeing privilege at work. That magic has the potential to bestow exceedingly long lifespans is another side-note, another ossification of existing power structures.

There are suggestions of other cultures outside of this one of course, beyond the reach of magic and paranoid insularity. There are some outspoken characters, swaggerers with their metaphorical (and sometimes literal) hat pulled over their eyes, unwilling to take any crap from wizards and their odd social expectations. If the oasis of magery can be likened to Victorian Britain – with all the inbreeding and plutocracy which that implies – its neighbours are something more of the wild west. There’s an energy there, in the small titbits we receive, an enthusiasm for grasping opportunities which the mage-lords seem to feel is beneath them. Still, the overarching society in the narrative, the one on which we focus our attention, is that of the mages – which is socially stratified, petrified and prone to responding to the potential for change with extreme thaumaturgical violence.

The protagonist is the teenage son of one of the pre-eminent mage clans, as yet unable to use his magic, and rather concerned about it. Those from the nobility who are not magic users are sent out into the servant class – no longer family, they may be trusted to serve an un-poisoned breakfast. Kellen is wry, with a burgeoning cynicism typical for his mid-teen age, and at least initially seems unconscious of the gilded had which fate has dealt him. He’s certainly clever, given to thinking (or perhaps overthinking) through his actions and their consequences. At the same time, he can be driven to impulsive moves under emotional strain. It’s interesting to watch Kellen’s journey over the course of the text – less one of maturity, and more realising the reality of the world in which he is embedded. 

He already has a sense for injustice, and a somewhat bewildered unwillingness to accept it in himself, his associates, or their society. Still, there’s room for argument here – how Kellen will conduct himself when the pressure is on, and what he actually believes in – well, that becomes clearer over the narrative. Watching him inch toward the person he has the potential to be – for good or ill – is delightful, and convincingly constructed.

In this he’s aided by the fantastically named Feruis Parfax, a woman from one of those far off lands. She’s a little mysterious, obviously clever, and has a tendency not to take any crap from self-entitled magelords. With a waistcoat, a hand of cards, and a penchant for drawling insults, Parfax puts me in mind of a cockier member of the Magnificent Seven. She has an energy and confidence that some of her antagonists’ lack – and also a kind of sorrowful, knowledgeable compassion, which contrasts with what the oasis society paints as necessary cruelties. Parfax is a lot of fun to watch – a sharp-eyed, sharp tongued drifter, with an intolerance for injustice, and willingness to do something about it. That she relies on wits and technology helps keep her approach fresh and interesting. That she’s often laugh-out-loud funny is a happy side-benefit.

The duo are thrown together initially, and watching the banter and cultural confusion as they acclimatise to each other – well, it’s entertaining, and often thought provoking. They do seem unable to keep out of trouble in one fashion or other, and that certainly kept me turning pages.

From a plot standpoint…well, as ever, I’ll try and avoid spoilers. It’s part coming of age story, and part magic-western. There’s some fantastic confrontations against the odds, and possibly the tensest, funniest magical duel I’ve ever read. There’s investigation of a burgeoning conspiracy, with red herrings and blind turns scattered about – at the same time as Kellen slowly comes to terms with who he wants to be, and quite what the society he is immersed in has become. . In short, it’s a compelling story, charmingly and grippingly told. It’ll make you chuckle, make you think, and quite possibly make you cry – and for that, I’d say it’s highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Dispatcher - John Scalzi

The Dispatcher is a new novella by John Scalzi. Seemingly unrelated to his other works, it sets out a mystery in a world where anyone deliberately killed will return to life.

The world that Scalzi’s built is, in some ways, familiar. There are hospitals, doctors, nurses. There are police struggling to enforce the law, and criminals working just as hard to evade it. The central conceit though, is this – that people removed from life by violence don’t, typically, die. They find themselves back in their homes, without their clothes – but definitely still alive. Nobody seems to know why this is now happening – but it’s a fact. A fact which has led to social change, and the creation of the Dispatcher – people whose job it is to eliminate people before they die naturally, in order to allow them to return to life. Dispatchers are a people approached with caution, somewhere between social pariah’s, a priesthood, and average government employees, struggling with paperwork.  It’s this change, the sense that death isn’t always forever, that defines the narrative – and it’s also an inventive core to spin that narrative around.

Our protagonist is Tony Valdez, who works as a Dispatcher. Valdez is cynical, ground down by life, and perhaps ever so slightly crooked. Having said that, he’s perceptive and clearly intelligent, and a rather keen eyed investigator. There’s a Sam Spade feel about Tony, as he reluctantly allows himself to be dragged into looking for a missing person; it’s less that his armour is no longer shiny, and more that he never had any to start with. That said, he seems to be a straightforward individual, neither hero nor monster – but projecting himself as a working man, simply trying to make enough to put food on the table. Of course he also kills people for a living.  It’s interesting to see a man work to remain reformed, to keep out of the sort of unfortunate deals which he would absolutely deny having taken part in before. It helps that he’s also a man with fairly firm ideas of friendship – where that doesn’t conflict with his understandable desire not to be killed himself.  Tony isn’t charming, but he is resourceful, smart and edgily witty – and rather interesting to follow around.

He’s backed up by a supporting cast with similarly noir undertones. There’s the Detective who strongarms him into helping with her investigation – unwilling to accept obvious explanations, always pushing and digging into vague answers. She’s a good foil for the laconic Valdez, and adds a sharp wit of her own to the story. The banter between the Dispatcher and the Detective ranges from philosophical, to dark, to laugh-out-loud funny, often over the course of a few sentences.

There’s other figures here as well – from organised criminals to decrepit millionaires. A couple are pitch perfect, their shrouded motivations wrapped in a familiar-seeming humanity. There’s a sense of ambiguity that pervades the cast, and it’s one that pays off over the course of the text.

The plot – well, no spoilers. But in a world where no-one dies of violence, Valdez is looking into the disappearance of a fellow Dispatcher, an old friend. The central mystery is rather clever – I was unwilling to stop turning pages, being dragged long on Tony’s investigation. There’s false leads, and red herrings, and some shockingly tense and emotional moments, with an ingenious central mystery under a stylistic layer of sci-fi noir. It’s rather fun, and if that sounds like your sort of thing, I’d recommend it. I’m certainly hoping to see more of Valdez and his world in the future.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Furthest Station - Ben Aaronovitch

The Furthest Station is a novella in David Aaronovitch’s “Peter Grant” series, centred around a young policeman who has to investigate supernatural crimes whilst getting a handle on his own magic.

In this instance, that means investigating the appearance of ghosts on the Tube. Aaronovitch has always had a good eye for environments, and the London he constructs is at once familiar and accented with the deeply strange. The Tube is its usual bustling space, filled with throngs of humanity, happy to overlook a line of police tape on a platform if they can get on with their commutes. There’s some lovely asides as well – such as a visit to a train depot, where the Tube trains are stored overnight. It feels dark, claustrophobic, and safety conscious – and real enough to serve as an insight into how the Tube system works.

There’s more here of course; worn suburban towns on the limits of the London network, their bucolic entropy a sharp contrast to the energy and enthusiasm coming from the nearby metropolis. But they’re familiar as well – larger houses, more space, torn between being something smaller or a “commuter barn”.  The casual asides which help identify these places – the lack of a coffee shop in the train station, for example – are both wryly humourous and devastatingly accurate.
This is all well and good, and it’s always enjoyable following Aaronovitch’s fluid prose as he exposes some interesting areas of London, but it helps that he can sell the supernatural as well. Sitting in the interstices of our reality are the strange, the troubled, and the dangerous. Previous books have given us magic-users who happen to be policemen, tasked to defend the populae and ensure the peace with little in the way of manpower or funding. They’re still there, and the fusion of the mystical with the humdrum-yet-compelling reality of modern policework is as delightful as ever. This time though, we’re exploring ghosts – what they are, how they work, and potentially, whether they can commit crimes. The supernatureal elements here felt natural, if that makes sense – they had their place in the narrative, and it seemed eminently sensible that a ghost might ride a Tube train, or that a dog might be able to track the echoes of magic that they give off.

In any event, Aaronovitch has done well here. This is a corner of London it now feels as if I’ve explored, despite never having ventured down the tracks of the Tube after dark, and his ghosts and monsters are vividly convincing.

Most of the focus here is on Peter Grant; he’s a policeman who happens to be a wizard, part of a large family originally from Sierra Leone, and his relationship with a river goddess can probably be described as ‘complicated’. Peter is pleasantly cynical, his wry, sharp observations on the small futilities and triumphs of life in the Metropolitan Police helping make the whole thing more convincing. He’s intelligent and incisive, but has an aura of the everyman, even this far into the series – and that helps draw the reader in, and get us to feel Peter’s struggles as our own.

In this instance, he’s joined by his boss, DCI Nightingale, a man who bored a hole through several inches of Tiger tank with a magical projectile. Nightingale is suave, old fashioned, and implacable. His mentoring of Peter is always enjoyable, the gentle student-teacher relationship surrounded by quips about Peter’s terrible Latin, and the occasional fireball.  I’m always happy to see Nightingale get some time on the page, and he’s still an absolutely fascinating character.

Peter’s teenage relative, Abigail, gets some time here too. She’s clearly intelligent, with a penchant for long-suffering looks when dealing with Peter’s apparent obtuseness. Their relationship almost mirrors Peter’s with Nightingale, though there’s some wonderfully entertaining banter injected as well. If Peter and Nithingale worry about letting Abigail into the magical world, she’s…well, she’s probably already there, critiquing old traditions, and trying not to get into too much trouble (or at least, trying not to end up having someone else bail her out). Abigail has turned up before now in minor scenes, but she grows on the page in this novella; there’s clearly hidden depths there, and it’s great to see her efforts, having decided what she wants to be a magic user, to grap her goal as quickly as possible. Where Peter is wiser, and occasionally more cautious, she’s likely to grasp the flaming, gravity defying nettle – which may or may not be a bad thing.

The plot – well, our protagonists spend a fair bit of time trying to work out why ghosts are appearing on the tube, and looking into possibly connected mundane crimes. The blend of the familiar and the bizarre works really well here; the central mystery is dark, worrying and intriguing – and would probably be so without the icing of magic. There’s some nice twists and turns here, and the investigation is tense and tightly written.  It’s a cracking mystery, one that let me brood over it for a while before an intriguing, if troubling, conclusion.

If you’re coming to this after catching up on Peter Grant novels, it’s more of what you’ve probably enjoyed up to now – magic, mystery and mayhem, with a side order of cynicism, social observation and pitch-perfect British charm. If you’ve never read one of the Peter Grant series before, this is a decent entry point, and gets across the central themes of the world very well – though I’d still advise you start back at the beginning.

Either way, I had a lot of fun reading this; it’s thoroughly enjoyable, and thoroughly recommended.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Mightier Than The Sword - K.J. Parker

Regular readers of this blog may already know that I’m a big fan of K.J. Parker. As such, I’ve been really looking forward to “Mightier ThanThe Sword”, his latest novella.

The world may be familiar to several readers – it shares a geography, if not a time period, with the currently ongoing “Two of Swords” serial, which has certain similarities to the East and Western Roman Empire(s). It’d a space where there are religious entities, which control knowledge – or at least the physical artifacts of knowledge. Books, the chains that attach them to shelves, and, seemingly, the education to go with them, all have a focus on monasteries. There’s an entire culture at work here, sketched in reader presumptions with a few high notes – so we see the protagonist speak with the Empress, and discuss the raiders coming out of the seas and targeting institutions of knowledge. It’s a small geography, but skilfully constructed, and the thematic notes are familiar if you’re aware of the wall of the Roman west.There’s a sense of decay at work here as well – or at least of entropy, as roads and institutions constructed in other times are no longer of the expected quality, slowly falling into the morass of mud amongst the deconstruction of the systems which support them. Parker has always been happy to show how governments are complex systems which allow people to survive – and equally happy to show how the disintegration of those forms is inevitable. Still, this is a space where, if the fringes of the central polity are decaying, the political core is still both active and heavily armed.  This is a world that reeks of mud, deserts and religion, one where governmental authority is centralised across a distributed system, and one where there is a defined cultural border between those inside and, well, others.

Our protagonist is the nephew of the reigning emperor. As with quite a few Parker protagonists, he has a wry self-awareness that’s a joy to read. There’s shades of Wodehouse in his abject refusal to accept responsibility or intelligence as his own qualities, striving instead for a sort of aggressive mediocrity. Still, he’s clearly both privileged and intelligent, taking the reader along on a series of investigations into raids on monasteries; his thinking is lucid and easily explicable, and makes sense when you read it – that he refuses to think of this as anything more than standard is both a compliment for and an indictment of the society he exists within. Our protagonist is an impulsive charmer, with an intelligence which is diffuse, but keen if focused. As ever, with Parker’s protagonists, he feels about as smart of the reader, at least until he’s not.  He’s also a man with a degree f laziness and, if not political conviction, a grasp of reality, enforced by his position – relative of an Emperor. I wouldn’t say his character moves toward clarity over the course of the tex, as much as it is revealed to the reader. But across it all, we have a narrator who is clever, charming, and makes logical sense in a world which, as discussed, is becoming increasingly illogical.

The plot – well, it’s part high politics, part blood-and-guts, and part personal drama. The battles are baffling, kinetic, and carry the sort of sense of risk and consequences one might expect. This is a world where everything is accepted as a business of sorts, and everything has a cost – be it in gold or blood. There’s some serious army action here, and if the blood spatter isn’t close at hand, the futility and random nature of conflict certainly is. The politics operates further beneath the surface, informing the stabbing and flights of arrows – but I requires a bit of thought to follow exactly what’s going on, and who is doing what to whom – and why The personal stories impact on both, particularly those of our protagonist, whose actions are rather likely to have geopolitical connotations. As ever though, the skill is in tying all of the threads together. Whilst I wasn’t entirely surprised by the close of the narrative, there were certain aspects I didn’t see coming.

If you’re already a fan of Parker’s, then this is an excellent addition to your collection – incisive, erudite and vicious. If you’re looking for something new, this is a great introduction to the tone and focus of his work. In either case, I’d argue that the style and tone are spot on, the plot compelling, and the narrator convincing. Pick this one up, and give it a read.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

A Star Reckoner's Lot - Darrell Drake

A Star Reckoner’s Lot is a fantasy novel by Darrell Drake. It’s set in Sasanian Iran, imbuing it with a mythic feel. This is assisted by the use of astronomy as functional magic, and the appearance of a great many seemingly supernatural monstrosities.

The world feels like a hard-edged version of the Thousand and One Nights. The supernatural is a pervasive and accepted part of life. There’s a strong dualism at play, between servants of the Truth, and servants of the Lie. The former are typically the authorities of humanity – kings, noblemen, driven by a desire to bring peace and order. The latter are a diverse group of murderous supernatural creatures, generally referred to as “Divs”. They range from murderous snake-women, to insect-like soul feeders, and forty-armed titans, bent on the destruction of humanity. This is a world where the sword and spear have a place, and martial virtue is prized – but it runs alongside a strand of morality which prizes order against chaos. This is a world where the border between the real and the unreal is tenuous at best, where dreams and illusions are likely to carry truths and to bite back. There’s a sense of the familiar here, wrapped around the close friendships and affections that people share – but accented by the strange – marriages between siblings, or the ability to draw on the alignment of the stars to wreak devastation upon ones enemies. It’s certainly in a unique epoch, and its blend of the familiar and an unfamiliar culture makes for an intriguing read.

The protagonist is Ashtadukht (henceforth Ashta), the titular star-reckoner. Ashta isn’t a particularly good star-reckoner. She draws on the power and wisdom of the stars, and sometimes it works perfectly – she might reveal a murdered; often at the same time, it may not work as expected – the revelation may be made by a tunnel of fire which plows through a wall before incinerating the culprit. There’s power there, and she struggles with its unpredictable nature. She’s driven in her quest to defeat the div who killed her brother. The emotions that propel her down this path are seldom visible, but lurk like icebergs in the conversations and observations that she makes to her travelling companions. She’s also notably merciful; a star-reckoner’s job is to exterminate divs and half-divs, servants of the Lie. Ashta has a tendency to slap them around and send them packing, but has a capacity for forgiveness which is uncommon. Watching her try and square this circle, a desire to do right by the divs and her own quest for vengeance, wrapped in the emotions she has for her departed brother, surrounded by an unpredictable power – well, she’s certainly full of surprises. Sometimes it’s difficult to work out exactly what she’s feeling – but a lot of the time, it doesn’t seem like she’s entirely sure either.

She’s joined by her companions – her straight-laced cousin, who bears her some affection, and Waray, a half-div and general murderous lunatic. The former is led by duty, and cares for Ashta as family. He’s the foil for AShta’s slightly divergent opinions, and a brook against Waray’s excesses. The half-div, by contrast, is a mystery, of sorts. She speaks cryptically, or at least vaguely, and seems unable to provide a straight answer to most questions. She’s also given to utterly appalling (though for the reader, often hilarious) pranks. There’s a suggestion at the start of the text that something isn’t quite as it seems in the life of Waray – or indeed that many things aren’t – and this is one of the character mysteries that drive the narrative.

The plot moves across the years, blending seamlessly between chapters. It can be tricky to tell how much time has passed, but that actually fits into the mythic tone of the story. But it follows Ashta and her companions as they journey around Iran, seeking out divs causing trouble and trying to prevent it – whilst keeping an eye out for the one which ended Ashta’s brother. There’s a lot of opportunity for reflection in here, and some great bantering character sections. But there’s also some truly impressive magic, and debates around truth and morality. These are, though, mixed in with duels, the occasional siege, and a non-zero amount of derring-so. It’s a complicated story, this one, with depths that deserve to be plumbed in a second or third reading. But it’s also an adventure, a tale of heroism and villainy, battle and betrayal. It’s a fresh voice, and one which deserves to be heard. Give it a shot. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Tyranny of Queens - Foz Meadows

A Tyranny of Queens is the second in Foz Meadow’s “Manifold Worlds” series. I took a look at its predecessor, “An Accident of Stars” last year, and was quite impressed with its particular blend of portal fantasy. I’ve been looking forward to seeing where the story goes on this one.

The story begins back in what we think of as our world. Saffron, one of the protagonists of the previous volume, has found herself back home after her otherworldy jaunts. Unfortunately, she’s also found herself scarred, emotionally and physically, and reticent to explain exactly how these changes came about. Facing a social worker and a concerned family, she goes back to school. There’s a slow tension building up, permeating the school – at least there is for Saffron. She seems out of her element, struggling to adapt to the petty daily realities. The structured lessons, the ambivalent authorities and the skin-crawling social environment are all carefully constructed, and carry an immediacy and an honesty which make them feel genuine, if not pleasant to read about.

There are, though, other worlds than these – and their vibrant colour and energy stands in sharp contrast to the institutional drudgery to which Saffron has initially resigned herself.  We’re also visiting the world of Kenans and the Veksh, cultures firmly established in the previous book. The story takes a hard, unflinching look at borders and history. It’s interested in exploring the divergent cultures available in this alternate world, and starts laying out a little more of the history that has led to the current state of affairs. This exploration of how and why peoples have settled into their current cultural structures is absolutely fascinating. It’s also done cleanly, a gradual process of reader discovery matching others in the narrative, rather than a massive infodump, which was very much appreciated. If the world was a mystery before, it may become less of one over the course of the text. I appreciated the opportunity to share in the excitement and worry of discovery, and thought this was particularly well done.

This also feels like a more political text than its predecessor. There are intrigues aplenty, and more than a few moments where characters are trying to work out what they can say, and who they can trust. In a world which allows for the sharing of skills and memories, issues of trust are paramount – and exploring the erosion of that trust, or its restoration, is another facet of the narrative. It’s well done, and there were more than a few moments where I was more than startled.

This is an example I think of the way that the world building has clearly been done with great care. Each of the cultures presented has their own mores and expectations, and they still clash gently (or less than gently) from time to time. But everything is internally consistent within a culture, which means that although we may not get all the details, we can see enough of them to make each nation, with its different ethics and values, feel alive. Admittedly, it still feels like there’s too many linguistic terms and cultural titles thrown around, but I got used to it after a while, and the prose flows along quickly enough that I didn’t stumble over the terminology too badly.

The characters, now. I always rather liked Saffron, the quietly desperate protagonist from earth. After her experiences in the first book, she’s back, albeit somewhat feistier. This is by no means a bad thing. Watching Saffron get a firmer handle on who she is, what she wants, and how she’s going to achieve it is fantastic. There’s still doubt there, and a certain frailty, which helps keep her human – but her burgeoning confidence, and growing refusal to take ownership of other people’s crap helps make her a heroine it’s a pleasure to turn the pages with.

She’s ably assisted by the supporting cast of Kenans and Vekshi of course. A surrogate family of sorts, they’ve got an unforced enthusiasm for life, and an energy which makes them charming company. There’s enough arguments, discussions and human frailties in there as well that they feel like people, rather than constructs – and their support for Saffron and each other is unforced and a rather lovely read.

The villains though – the villains are where this shines. I won’t add spoilers here, but it’s great to see Kadeja again. She was the focused, driven, self-justifying and generally appalling antagonist of the last book, and her rather vile dynamism is guaranteed to make her steal a scene if she’s in it, one way or another. In contrast to Kadeja’s iron certitude, the conflicted Leodan is somewhat more mysterious – a man who stole a throne, paying a long game, a man wearing more than one face – he’s something of a cypher; the longer he was on the page however, the more intriguing he became. Kadeja owns a room when she walks into it; Leodan appears more sympathetic, more personable – despite his actions in the previous text. They’re both, if not charming, certainly compelling – I found it difficult to put the book down, trying to discover what scheme they’d started rolling at the conclusion of the previous book.

Speaking of which: I won’t spoil the plot, but this is a book that promises answers. There’s more than a few of those scattered through the pages, alongside red herrings, betrayals, and the occasional murder. At the end of the day though, this is a story which embraces the sense of discovery, and of looking for the best in humanity. I mean, there’s magic, and more than a few revelations which made me stop for a moment to recover, and far more that made me stop and think. It’s got well-paced prose, and some truly explosive moments running alongside a fascinating discussion of humanity, and the decisions that people make – a wider story, wrapped around the journey of Saffron and her friends and family.

Is it any good? Well, I rather enjoyed it. I’d say you can just about read this without the first volume, but I’d suggest starting there. The context provided is invaluable. If you’re coming to this after reading the first book – then this is a worthy successor, a clever and innovative piece.