Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Lock In - John Scalzi

Lock In is a near-future sci-fi mystery novel from John Scalzi. I’ve enjoyed Scalzi’s work for years, and he has a penchant for tightly plotted, compelling mysteries – as with this year’s excellent “The Dispatcher”.

The world of Lock In should be reasonably familiar. People are still bipeds. The political systems we’re familiar with are still holding sway. The US still has a President. People still drive from place to place. There’s still coffee, bars, and mega-corporations. Sure, the cars are now self-driving, and the coffee places have a well-targeted marketing mechanism, but the people are. In the end, still people.
But the world has also changed. A global epidemic has left a small significant proportion of the global population ‘locked in’; paralysed but cognisant, unable to communicate with the outside world. That’s where the sci-fi comes in. Scalzi gives us neural interfaces, virtual worlds, and bodies which the locked in can hop into. It’s a world where, at least in the US, there’s an awareness of a certain kind of disability, an amelioration, and a well portrayed cultural adaption to that fact. The locked in, by virtue of their numbers, have become a minority demographic – one that acts under assistance and prejudice in equal measure. There’s echoes of the civil rights struggle here, and stronger reverberations for the prejudice that the disabled face daily. This is a society which is handling seismic shift in how its population is structured – and stumbling, well meaning, toward an uncertain end goal. Quite what the status quo will be is not yet defined – and that liquidity, that lack of social definition, makes for an intriguing and compelling world.

The characters – well, our central duo are familiar in the tropes of the mystery genre – a rookie detective and his more experienced, emotionally wounded partner.

The former, Chris, is also locked-in. They’re relatively well off, earnest, and intellectually curious. There’s enough self-awareness of privilege there not to make Chris a chore to read, and their intelligence and focus means that the reader can follow along with their analysis easily enough. There’s some focus on getting through things by the book, a degree of caution at the start of the text, wrapped around a lack of confidence. What’s driving Chris, the need to be distinct from their family whilst also being a part of it, is sketches out in the emotional reactions within the text – the relationships are convincing, complicated, and occasionally startling – as with any family.

Chris’s partner is another matter. Older, a veteran of the FBI, she’s both familiar with how things work, and perhaps more than a little cynical about the fact that they work at all. She’s dry, wry, and obviously ferociously clever. That she’s also a survivor – well, that’s inherent in her attitude, from the first moment. Quite what experiences have transformed her – well, those we learn alongside Chris. But I can say that this is not a book which backs away from emotional heft for its characters. They have their issues, and those issues make sense within their own context – but they’re also raw and human.

There’s a slew of supporting cast of course, from Chris’s room-mates, to their family, from victims to suspects. What ties them together is that each gets enough depth to be convincing. We don’t see much of the room-mates say, or of the CEO of a large technology corporation – but when we do, their motives, their meanings, and their humanity are no less clear. The main cast have greater room to manoeuvre, but it’s nice to see the support given enough depth to be convincing.

The plot – well, no spoilers. It’s a techno-thriller, with additional sci-fi elements. It opens with a murder investigation, and suggests links to larger issues. The plotting is tight and convincing. If I wasn’t always a step ahead of our investigators, I was certainly looking at the evidence alongside of them. The central investigation is tense and well-paced – with sufficient evidence produced for the reader that they can work with the characters. There’s some marvellously explosive action as well, though it tends to come with undisguised consequences. Both the more explosive moments and the investigation work within the larger social tapestry of the world - with a consistent internal logic and a cracking conclusion.

If you’re in the market for an inventive, imaginative sci-fi mystery, then this is probably the book for you. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Schedule changes!

Morning all,

Due to circumstances outside this blog, we're moving to putting reviews out on a Wednesday. Mark your calendars for next week!

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Tyrant's Throne - Sebastien De Castell

Tyrant’s Throne is the fourth and final entry in Sebastien De Castell’s “Greatcoats” quartet. I’ve been a big fan of the series. It combines an energetic and adventurous buccaneering style with moments of great emotional intensity and honesty. I’m desperately sad to see the series end – but can safely say it went out in style.

Following the previous instalment, Falcio and his band of Greatcoats are getting ready to put Aline, the daughter of their murdered king, onto the throne of Tristia. It’s not an easy process. We’re shown the political factions which swarm around Tristia, most of them seemingly motivated by self-interest. None of them are particularly keen on Aline – but they’re coming around to holding their noses and accepting her, because the alternative is even more civil unrest in a country which has been tormented by uprisings and other chaos for years. Still, politics isn’t the natural battleground for Greatcoats – they have a tendency to stab and/or shoot arrows at things. The atmosphere is febrile, to say the least.
Fortunately, in between the deal-making, another threat has raised its head.  Those outside the borders of Tristia are eyeing up the real estate. There’s a whole world outside the nation we’ve spent three books in, and if we only get to see a little of it this time around, I can safely say that as a culture, it’s excellently crafted. The traditions and society of the outside world are sympathetically and plausibly drawn – they are not a thoughtless antagonist, but one where the conflict is drawn out from cultural differences, and the social changes that we’ve seen in previous books in the series. If you can’t sympathise with the potential threat, you can certainly empathise with them.

If the world is being thrown open to broader horizons, the characters are their well established selves. Brasti, who can’t stop running his mouth, even whilst putting arrows into people, and Kest, the laconic, nigh undefeatable shieldman are here, backing Falcio, our long running protagonist. The relationship between the trip remains an absolute joy. The banter is sometimes caustic, often hilarious, and occasionally exposes the raw trust which they each have in the others. The dialogue thus remains fresh, funny, but often surprisingly affecting – these are people who have known each other a long time, faced men and gods together, and, in the end, aren’t inclined to lie to each other or to themselves. There’s some final threads that get resolved here, which have vexed loyal readers for years (how *did* Falcio beat Kest and become First Cantor in the first place?); but there’s also some refreshing revelations as well. If the wit helps mask the raw intensity of the emotional payload, that make it no less real – and the prose gives it strength and surprising clarity. As Falcio and his oldest friends work out who they are and where they stand, I was wrenched between delighted laughter and utter heartbreak in every other line.

In honesty, this was a book whose dialogue and relationships gave me more than one belly laugh, and also left me in tears. I can’t give a stronger recommendation than that.

The plot – well, it starts slowly, with the aforementioned politicking. It’s interesting stuff, and the tension builds to keep you turning pages. But there’s a lot more going on here. Without spoilers, I’d suggest that the stakes have never been higher for Falcio and his band. There’s some effectively, terrifyingly drawn battles, and duels that left me with my heart in my mouth. This is a story of resilience, and of friendship, of love and trust – and the consequences of those things. There’ blood and steel, but in the end, this is about shaping the world, and perhaps more importantly, the people we care about within it.

Would I recommend it? If you’ve not read the Greatcoats before now, I’d say you need to get on that first. If you’re wondering whether to finish it though, this is an unequivocal yes. Get on that. Get the book, read the book. It’s a conclusion which relies on what came before, but uses that emotional depth and connection to provide an absolutely brilliant payoff. Read it – you won’t be disappointed.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Galileo's Dream - Kim Stanley Robinson

The original conceit of this book - Galileo interacting with indivduals from far in the future - does not seem that impressive at first blush. Indeed, a brief office poll produced a great deal of derision. However, first impressions are sometimes deceiving, as they proved in this case.

The characters are well realised, including the epynonymous Galileo. Many authors might have hesitated to personify such a huge historicla figure, but the author does so smoothly, and generates a believably flawed character whom the reader can quickly come to empathise with. The medieval settings are extremely well detailed, and clearly the result of some solid research. While some commentators may be upset at the modern linguistic turns which invest the narrative of these medieval characters, I found that it made the text more accessible, and certainly more engaging.

The plot itself is convoluted, with enough little twists and turns to keep the reader turning pages, though on occasion (particularly earlier in the book), the cryptic goings on are not given enough depth to really pull on the reader's intrigue.

Surprisingly, I found that the main failing of this text was in the portrayal of the 'future', which was given as much, if not more depth than the historical past with which it intersected. However, despite this effort, it often seemed unreal, and the characters harder to understand or empathise with. On the other hand, this may have been intentional.

Overall, the text is an intriguing and evocative read, and one which I believe I will return to more than once, as I'm sure there are pieces of the puzzle that I missed. Well worth the wait, and well worth the read.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Darien - C.F. Iggulden

Darien is the start of a new series by C.F. Iggulden. Iggulden is perhaps better known for writing several series of well received historical fiction, but this is his first foray into fantasy.

Darien is a feudal city-state in a low-magic world. That world seems to share a certain amount of history with our own – there’s the occasional mention of Romans, for example. But there was a divergence – a grand empire, the Empire of Salt, formed and fell – and Darien is one of its successor states. Most of the world-building is focused on the contemporary, though there’s scattered mentions and inferences one can make about the history of Darien to this point. Currently, however, Darien is an unequal society. It’s ruled by twelve noble families, each with their own heritage and rivalries. They sit beneath a monarch – in this case, a relatively tractable one. The people are a swirling morass, trying to get through their day to day without notice from their social superiors. There’s evidence of a slowly burgeoning middle-class though – merchants thriving in the main streets of Darien, and those with the wages to purchase their wares.

It feels like an insular society, one which holds on to old feuds and older grudges. At the same time, it has a familiarity to it – the twisting alleys of Darien evoke those of the medieval period. Darien and its outlying environs do have some differences though – mostly in their magic. There’s old sorcery sitting with vicious quiet in ancient tombs, and powerful artifacts horded by families. Some people seem to have knacks, as well – peculiar skills and talents which may exceed or defy the norm.
I wanted to see more of Darien – of the people in it, f the customs and habits which defined them, and of the strange and familiar world in which they find themselves. What’s there is intriguing, suggestive, and builds a solid foundation, but left me hungry for more.

The characters – well, this is a narrative from multiple points of view. So we range from hunters to thieves, from martial troubleshooters to troubled duellists. The main cast get enough elbow room to differentiate themselves, though as with the world, I ended up wanting more. Standouts include Elias Post – a hunter, he begins the story as an unremarkable and pleasant man. As matters progress, though, he is offered some exceedingly difficult choices. The text doesn’t back away from this; in fact it embraces it, which is marvellous. Post grows quickly, and in different directions than we might otherwise have expected. There’s echoes of Monte Cristo there, as Post struggles to fulfil his overriding purpose, with no regard to the cost to himself – or what the struggle to reach his goals will turn him into.

I also thoroughly enjoyed following Tellius. An old soldier, and not from Darien, he has a sharp intelligence which made following his thoughts enjoyable and a wry cynicism which made me chuckle more than once. Tellius is a pragmatist, with some moral constraints. He’s learned to look out for number one, but struggles against that lesson. Tellius’ dry wit and focus made walking alongside him amusing. The hints of a complex past that were thrown out, and his own efforts to be something better, despite himself, made the journey a pleasure.

There were other points of view here for example the vulpine Vic Deeds, the ultimate guiltless problem solver, is charming and ruthless in equal measure, I won’t approach the others, for fear of spoilers – but I will say that even if I wanted more time with these characters, I still felt they had sufficient depth to encourage emotional investment, and to keep me turning pages alongside them.
The plot – well, there’s certainly a lot going on. There’s assassination attempts, some very fast-paced and visceral duels, and even a battle or two. Those are choreographed masterfully, and Iggulden brings the movements of large masses of troops, and the dangers and chaos which they face, to life brilliantly. In between the murders, the politicking and the struggles for the life of the city, there’s some touchingly genuine emotional moments as well. It’s epic fantasy at its most literal – the fate of empires settled with fire, sword and pistol shot. In this case, there’s some rather explosive magic thrown in as well.

Is it any good though? I’d say so. It approaches the form of epic fantasy with care, and constructs a story which kept me interested and unwilling to put the book down. I want to see more of the world and the people in it, but that’s less a criticism than a hope for future instalments. If you’re looking for something new to fill your next epic fantasy fix, then this will see you right. 

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Age of Swords - Michael J. Sullivan

Age of Swords is the second in Michael J. Sullivan’s “The Legends of the First Empire” series. It has a historical connection to his popular Riyria series, taking place in the same world, but seemingly several thousand years before. Here are the women and men who shaped the world that the other series is embedded in – and they’re up to their own adventures.

The world of Age of Swords is one of conflict, and also one of hope. The conflict – well, that exists between the species of men, and the Fhrey. The latter are long lived, and relatively technologically advanced. They see humanity as somewhere between pets and vermin. At the centre of Fhrey society are the Mirialith, sorcerers beyond compare. They can shatter bones with a thought, rip the earth asunder, or, less often, produce a rather nice bouquet of flowers. The other Fhrey respect the Miriliath, even as they fear them. It’s great to see some intra-cultural tension, as the Mirilaith begin thinking of themselves as the natural leaders of the Fhrey, or even as gods – as far above their brethren as above the rising tide of humanity. It’s interesting to explore how this long-lived people have set out to govern themselves, to prevent violence amongst each other. Their institutions are sometimes familiar – a council hall of governing consensus, overseen by an absolute ruler whose final word is law evokes the Roman senate, for example. At other times, they’re distinct and plausible – the border posts that some of the Fhrey guard prevent humanity from entering their lands; but those manning the walls are not allowed to return to the centre of their civilisation. Predictably, this breeds mistrust and resentment.

The Fhrey now contemplate a march to war, humans having done the unthinkable and actually killed several Fhrey. Theirs is a society in turmoil, social assumptions upended. That said, they’re dealing with a human society which is less than prepared for them.
In the society of humanity, there are echoes of our own bronze age. Groupings are familial, tribal, organised by clan. Bronze weapons are rare, the height of the science of war is the warrior charge. The gods are numerous, tied to places and clans. Though humanity thrives and outnumbers the Fhrey, they know better than to act against a people who are effectively immortal, well fed, and tactically trained. Still, like the Fhrey, this is a society on the cusp of something else. There’s a potential for consolidation, for groups coming together as part of a greater whole, under pressure from externalities.

In both cases, the societies constructed are clearly constructed on a sound footing. They’re plausible, carefully constructed, and presents a rich background for the characters to act within.
The first book was something of an ensemble piece, and that hasn’t changed here. There’s some standouts though. Suri, the young seeress, whose view of reality seems to be about forty-five degrees from everyone else, is one example. She begins with a certain naivety, but it’s tied to the ability to look outside or around limitations – and occasionally to set things on fire with her mind. As the text progresses though, she grows into something more, tying into her friends, being moulded externally as the plot rumbles on, but drawing her own personality together as she reacts to the trials and tribulations she endures.

Persephone is similar in this way – beginning as a part-time leader of one clan, already preparing to face the wrath of the Fhrey, Persephone is stubborn, loyal, clever, and reluctantly willing to make hard choices. It’s the latter which change her here, or at the least help to accentuate her dominant characteristics.

Raife, the God Killer is always an interesting read. He’s often angry, with an upbringing in hardship which his copmapnions may not quite understand. This predicates him away from people – so his gradual integration into the group is fascinating to watch. He remains as prickly as ever, but seems willing, perhaps, to accept others into his life.

There’s a swathe more here, from the occasionally malevolent adolescent Fhrey prince, to the mysterious dwarf-ish types, through the collective leaders of the different human clans. Sometimes they felt like they had a basket of traits to hand to drive the plot, but typically this wasn’t the case; watching the conflicted Fhrey work through the implications of his actions, or the clan heads bicker over which of them should be in charge, the sense is of complex, flawed people in a demanding world. This is certainly true of the major actors, whose lives carry a convincing depth and a true complexity of sorrows and joys. Feeling their trials and tribulations as reality, no matter which ‘side’ of the narrative they were on, is indicative of the skilful characterisation and emotional weight that has been used here.

The plot – well, I won’t spoil it. I will say that there are several wonderful kinetic duels, the narrative evoking heart-in-mouth tension. There’s a swathe of epic magic as well, lightning from the sky being the very least of it. Politics is at play, if you like that sort of thin g- both humanity and the Fhrey attempting to organise themselves in a tumultuous time. There’s betrayal and love, and some electric dialogue which alternately tore a hole of sorrows into my gut, and left me shaking with laughter. There’s battles, and costs, triumphs and consequences. In summary, it’s a fast-paced, compelling read. So pick it up, if you enjoyed Age of Myth, and give it a try – you won’t regret it. 

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Wrath - John Gwynne

So, lets talk about Wrath. Wrath is the last in a series of doorstop fantasy novels by John Gwynne. I’m a bit late to the party on this series, having picked the first one up relatively recently – but it’s impressed me with a combination of subtle politics, genuine and complex personal dynamics, and, well, rather a lot of blood.

Each of the books has compounded on these themes, giving us a complex world, one where the alliances always felt fragile, and where hidden agendas always set the board for later betrayal. The nations of men have had a long history of greed, cruelty and turning on each other. Thematically, there’s always been an issue of individual good versus the larger, “greater good” as well. I think broadly the narrative backs the idea that the larger good can be compromised too easily, in that the desire to achieve it leads to self-justifying evil. That said, it’s also been a theme of the series – which continues in Wrath – that nobody thinks that they are the villain of the piece. If there is an army of darkness, and an army of light, then it’s still possible for each of the participants to argue that they are the latter. There’s a certain moral ambiguity, a sense of grey areas floating around the characters, even now.

That said, as the series moves toward a conclusion, there’s a sense of imminent closure. Some of my favourite characters finally met up, and I can’t say the meetings all went the way I’d thought they would. In some cases, there was well, rather a lot of blood. Wrath certainly doesn’t pull any punches – there’s more than one unexpected or well deserved demise, and I have to admit, some of them came with an emotional weight that hit like a blacksmiths hammer. Wrath is a book unflinching in its endings, and it shows, in the terse descriptive prose, in the decisions characters make, not expecting to survive, and in the brutal, final-feeling battles.

Speaking of the battles – the series has always waded in gore, though served appropriately. That’s still the case here. The combat is grim, daunting, and explicit – and that combination is what makes it feel real. You can feel the crunch of a war hammer against armour, the thundering synchronised march of a shield wall, the screams of the dying, and the silence of the dead. There’s a raw energy to the fighting as well, our viewpoints surging around the contesting armies, the individual combats given detail and room to grow – tension in duels so thick that the swords seem to cut through it.
The fighting is tied up with the character development; our protagonists seem to be settling into themselves, becoming, if not any more or less sure of their agendas, at least accepting of their positions. We’ve watched them grow and change, scarred by events and broken by the deaths of family and friends – and now they’re familiar, but different, even as they square off to end each other’s lives.

In the end, Wrath promises a great deal, and it delivers. The writing is smooth and draws out tension, leaving you turning page after page to see what happens next. The characters are those we’ve invested so much time in over the course of the series, and seeing their endings – or new beginnings – is heart-wrenching and bloody marvellous at once. The overarching plot, the epic war, the end of all things – well, Wrath wraps all this up with a bang. I’d say if you’re looking for a new series to try, one which approaches traditional fantasy tropes, and polishes them until they shine, then going back and starting with Malice is probably a good choice. If you’ve been on this ride for a while, and are wondering if it’s worth picking the book up to see how it comes out – then I can say yes, absolutely, this one’s worth the time. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Raven Stratagem - Yoon Ha Lee

Raven Stratagem is the second in Yoon Ha Lee’s “The Machineries of Empire” series. The first, Ninefox Gambit, was a really well done character piece, with some beautifully tense moments in an inventively imagined universe – so I was quite excited to get my hands on the sequel.

The universe will be very familiar to readers of the first book in the sequence. An interstellar polity rules what appears to be a fairly large segment of humanity. Government is shared across seven factions, including the militarised Kel and the terminally sneaky Shuos. Each of the groups fulfils a role within their society, having been engineered, to one extent or another, to fill their niche. The Shuos, for example, have a tendency to think several moves ahead, and indeed to play several games at once – whilst also having a tendency to promotion-by-assasination. The Kel, by contrast, are utterly loyal to their commanding officer, whoever that might be – and governed by a hive-mind of senior generals. This is a government which systematically oppresses its people; in fact, the existence of the polity depends upon it. This is a universe which holds exotic technologies, which seemingly defy the laws of physics – ghost terrain, cast around astral fortresses, or faster-than-light drives. Quite what some of these esoteric technologies do is difficult to say – indeed may be impossibe to describe within our vernacular. But this is a calendrical government – the technologies work because the populace keeps to a particular calendar, and there are regular rituals and observances embedded in that calendar to make sure the exotic tech keeps working. Unfortunately, these tend to involve the torture, murder or outright genocide of citizens within the polity. This is an empire which thrives on misery – and would be unable to exist without it.  

This polity struggles, not only internally, but with external foes as well. There’s other coalitions out there which make one with institutionalised calendrical torture look positively benign. If we don’t empathise with the society that Lee shows us, we can certainly see the pressures that shape it, in the unknown and unknowable craft which can sweep in from borders and devour worlds. This is a society on a war footing, and on a knife edge.

Into this whirling maelstrom steps Shuos Jedao. He featured heavily in the first book, and is back again as one of the protagonists for the sequel. Jedao is saturnine, charming, and obviously ferociously intelligent. He is also rather dead. Fortunately, as a result of events in the last book, he has a body to roam around in – or perhaps less fortunately, depending on how you look at it. The Shuos are typically several moves ahead of everyone else, with their penchant for intrigue and politicking. Jedao is talented, even for a Shuos, and has something of a military mind as well. Jedao scintillates on the page, and even if you don’t know what he’s doing, or exactly why, the force of personality is likely to keep you turning pages. Jedao is something of an inscrutable snake for those around him – talented, amiable, perhaps the best hope for defeating an incursion from another government – but also dangerous, irreverent, and known for a psychotic break which ended with everyone around him dead. Where all of these parts meet is a complex character, occluded from both the reader and the external audience. Perhaps even Jedao doesn’t know who he is. But the hints we get, the visible edges in the narrative, make for a fascinating read.

Jedao is the centrepiece of the narrative, I think – but ably backed by others. There’s Genera; Khiruev, for example. A Kel, she is fiercely loyal to her commanding officer – indeed, is genetically incapable of being otherwise. She’s also clearly an intelligent woman, able to read signs and portents, to decide what she wants from the situations in which she finds herself – and decide fi she’s willing to pay the price. Khiruev, with her own fierce sense of ethics and fiery cleverness, is an excellent foil to Jedao; more brusque, but feeling at least as real.

There’s others here as well – the leaders of the Empire make an appearance, as do some entities from outside of the Empire. There’s enforcers of doctrine, and Kel deciding where to strike, and where to abandon. There’s a sense here of an Empire, of a thriving, bustling society, even where I is caught up in atrocities. The people within it are similar – constrained by their systems, but recognisable as human, even beneath their layers of cultural and social change. This is an imaginative piece, and one where every facet has been polished beautifully to keep the reader engaged.

The plot – well, no spoilers, as ever. But lets say that whatever Jedao is planning it’s likely to be big. There’s grand space battles here, wrapped in the obfuscated language of the calendar, the exotic weaponry made even more so with its less than explicit uses. But the struggle is no less affecting for that. There’s political manoeuvring at the heart of the Empire, and some genuinely crackling dialogue. There’s personal instants, characters bearing their souls in genuinely moving moments. With the Empire on a knife edge, Jedao is willing to give it a shove, one way or the other – and it makes for an absolutely cracking read.

If you’ve not read the first in the series, I’d suggest going back and starting there. If you’ve been waiting on this sequel though – it’s definitely one to pick up.